Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Kyrgios Express Still Running Off the Rails

If there is anything that can take away the bad taste in the mouth of losing a Test match to Bangladesh, it is the continuing saga of both Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios in their abortive tennis campaigns of 2017.

Following Tomic's assertion after his Wimbledon fiasco that he was only doing this as a job, and that he would have to play for another ten years and then retire, he hasn't won a match. He came into the first round of the U.S. Open and was beaten by Gilles Muller - no mug to be sure, but another first round loss for Tomic all the same. His call at his press conference that he was "doing Australia a favour by not making myself available for the Davis Cup" was a ludicrous statement, given that in his current form and head space, he wouldn't be selected anyway! What is even more humorous, he has now dropped beyond the world's top 140 players, meaning he is no longer guaranteed a start in any major tournament which is where he would have gathered he would make his biggest paydays, knocked in the first round or not. It means there is a possibility he will have to rely on Tennis Australia granting him a wildcard into the 2018 Australian Open, or having to qualify. Surely TA would rather give their precious wildcard to someone who gave a rats arse about tennis and Australia in general.

Kyrgios meanwhile had a good week in reaching the final at Cincinnati last week, and then blew it all away this week by being smashed in his first round match against fellow Australian John Millman in four sets. Midway through the match he complained of shoulder soreness, which didn't seem to trouble him when he smashed his racquet  during the match. Afterwards he once again brought out the old line that he doesn't care, he doesn't want to work hard, he doesn't enjoy tennis. It is tiresome and tedious. If it is too much trouble for him to do the right thing, then just quit! That's not hard! Just announce you aren't playing anymore and go away and have a crack at basketball if you think you are any good. At least if you supposedly love that game, maybe you'll have a decent effort at trying instead of this ridiculous pouting after every loss.

Hopefully the Aussies will have a good two weeks at the U.S Open, and we can forget about these two losers and concentrate on the good stories in the game.

Twitter Moments from the 1st Test

The Lack of Surprise of Bangladesh Victory Tells the Real Story

In this day and age of Australian cricket, the loss to Bangladesh last night was less surprising than the selectors decision to choose discarded spinner Steve O’Keefe as the replacement for paceman Josh Hazlewood for the remainder of the tour. That Bangladesh has improved this much in the last three years, and that Australia is still unable to come to terms with the wickets and tactics of the sub-continent, is an undeniable fact such that the former’s first Test victory over the latter, while celebrated quite rightly by the Bangladesh team and their country, really raises barely a ripple of surprise.

Both sides knew that the key to victory or defeat lay with David Warner and Steve Smith. How much those two left the remainder of the batting line up to score was always going to be the breaking point. When both had been dismissed, it left Australia requiring 94 runs with six wickets in hand. It provided the kind of pressure situation from which we could judge the temperament and steel of Handscomb, Maxwell and Wade, the three Victorians who for varying reasons of form, ability and perceived toughness have been installed over the past nine months into this Australian team. Like Australia’s malaise on the sub-continent, each performed as they have in recent times. Handscomb looked comfortable, once again getting a start and appearing as though he could win the game on his own, before once again falling before the job had been done. Apart from his match saving innings in India, he has promised the world and produced dying sprouts. It is a learning curve for him, but he needs to convert those starts. Maxwell too looked to be calm in the storm as wickets fell around him. He went to lunch with Pat Cummins knowing it was up to them to score the remaining 66 runs to win the Test. His meek prod to be bowled in the first over after the break was once again an example of the brain fades that desecrate his batting. The lack of concentration that blocks him from being able to fulfil his ability.

In a match where it is unfair to lay the blame for defeat at one man’s feet, especially given Usman Khawaja’s terrifyingly awful match with the bat, the subject of Matthew Wade must be brought to bear once again. No one disparages the tough conditions that he has had to keep in. Indeed, in conditions such as these, you must have your best and most disciplined keeper in the team to combat that. Of course, the selectors don’t see it that way, as there are at least six or seven keepers back in Australia whose glove work is generally regarded as superior to Matthew Wade. In this match, Wade let through 30 byes. That’s a large number, even for Wade. Again, these are tough conditions and sometimes some will get through, but the best example was on the first day, when a straight delivery from Hazlewood burst through his gloves and raced away for four byes. It was awful, a terrible look with absolutely no excuse for it to happen. So consider that – 30 byes, Australia lost by 20 runs. But you see, Wade was chosen because the selectors mandated that the team needed more runs from its number seven. It is why the vastly superior gloveman in Peter Nevill was cruelly cast aside last summer. Didn’t miss a ball, but averaged in the mid-20’s with the bat. So the batsman Wade was brought in. How has he gone? Well, since Adelaide last summer, he has batted 15 times for 255 runs at an average of 21.25. Those figures suggest he is not providing more runs at number seven. In fact, it is less than Nevill averaged as a Test batsman. Wade scored 5 in the first innings when the team needed him to respond. Yesterday, he was once again pinned to his crease on the back foot, struck down LBW for the second time in the match, this time for 4. He was not the sole reason Australia lost this match. His performance however must surely once again question his place in this team beyond this tour.

Once again Pat Cummins fought to recover the situation. Nathan Lyon played as he often does in these scenarios, freeing his arms and looking to score rather than survive. These two and Hazlewood fought to the end, but eventually were dismissed with 21 runs still to score. After 25 in the first innings, Cummins finished 33 not out in the second, as well as bowling his heart out on a dead wicket for four wickets. Is it too obvious to suggest that some of our batsmen should be taking the time to watch how he bats again their bowlers, and employ it in their own game?

On the other side it would be wrong not to applaud the bowling of both Shakib and Miraz, and the fields employed by Rahim which not only plugged the scoring holes but forced the batsmen to find other ways to get runs. At times they would have been worried, but they never seemed to panic, and this is what eventually got them the victory. Shakib’s 5/85 gave him ten wickets for the match, and Miraz’s 2/80 and Taijul’s 3/60 the perfect support.

Bangladesh thoroughly deserved their victory, and can now look forward to trying to win their first series against a higher ranked opponent. And who would bet against them? Australia’s batting in these conditions is all at sea, and with no reserve batsmen on tour the only possible change in that batting line up would appear to be Cartwright coming in to either lengthen the batting line up or taking Khawaja’s place. Of course, perhaps Handscomb could keep and Cartwright could come in for Wade. No, that would be too obvious a call. What an oversight it was by the selectors not to have Travis Head in this squad. With only a few days in which to recover, the muted joy of England’s loss to the West Indies yesterday has now been replaced by the agonising possibility of an Australian series loss in Bangladesh, leading into a home annihilation in the Ashes. What a difference four days makes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lyon's Magic Gives Australia an Unlikely Chance for Victory

Cricket matches can turn on funny things. Sometimes it’s a boundary that gets stopped by a great piece of fielding, or someone not getting off strike when they should have. Or perhaps it could be a set batsman, one who looks like taking the game away from you, being run out at the non-strikers end as he backs up and fails to get back into his ground in time. Welcome to Mirni, where in a day of vital moments, Rahim’s run out in just this way off the fingers of Nathan Lyon changed the course of the Test match, and helped Australia somehow crawl off the canvas and back into the fight.

While, as an Australian, you always felt as though Australia had the capacity to come back against Bangladesh in this match simply because… well… it’s Bangladesh and we should be beating them, the figures did not look good. Worse was to come, with Josh Hazlewood breaking down with his seventh ball of the day, and leaving the field. He did not bowl again in the innings, and will be flown home immediately after the Test concludes. Not only was it a bitter pill for the team in trying to win this Test, it also bodes poorly for the upcoming home summer.

Nathan Lyon started the day the way he needed to, removing the nightwatchman and Kayes to leave the score at 3/67, but then came a lengthy and impressive partnership between Tamim and Rahim that looked like it was securing an unbeatable lead for the home team. They took the score to 3/135 and a lead of 178. Australia’s first piece of fortune arrived right in the nick of time. A rising brute of a delivery from Cummins brushed past Tamim, and Australia’s appeal was turned down by habitual nemesis Aleem Dar. On review it was seen to flick the glove on the way past and Tamim’s excellent innings of 78 was over – an excellent Test match for him. Eight runs later, first innings hard case Shakib was beautifully fooled by Lyon’s flighted ball, and skewed the ball to deep cover to be dismissed for 5, a real coup for Australia. But another steadying partnership of 42 had Bangladesh now at 5/186 and a lead of 229 when fate struck with Rahim’s run out. It was the straw that broke the innings from Bangladesh’s point of view. Seeing their captain walk back, dismissed but not of his own hand or of a bowler’s, set the tone, as both Nasir and Sabbir fell on the same total, to Agar and Lyon respectively. Apart from some slogging resistance, the Bangladesh team was rounded up for 221, and a lead of 264 overall.

Here is where Nathan Lyon gets his due. In the first innings I felt he was still bowling too quickly, and the batsmen played him much easier because of it. In the second innings he perhaps bowled as well as I have seen him. His average speed was below 90kph, and most of his wicket taking deliveries were in the mid-80’s. His flight, drop and bounce was wonderful, and he used the conditions of the pitch well, as well as varying his flight and speed. His final figures of 6/82 off 34.3 overs was a wonderful reward for excellent bowling. He took on the responsibility that fell to him, even moreso after Hazlewood’s injury, and he did it superbly. I have been a detractor of his at times in his career. Perhaps this will be where he really earns the plaudits that some have already given to him. The support too from both Cummins (1/38) and Agar (2/55) was enormous. Both also increased their value to the team here, and will no doubt have learned a lot from it as well.

Australia needed more from its top order in the second innings, but again was in trouble. Both Renshaw and Khawaja were out-thought, and at 2/28 and still 237 from victory it looked an unlikely task. But today was a new day, and the captain and vice-captain had other ideas. David Warner finally found a way to score, and perhaps more importantly was finally given a life early on, something he hasn’t received too often in Asia. He made them pay too, playing positive but not reckless cricket (where have I heard that before?...), and did the majority of the scoring in the evening session. By the time stumps had arrived, Australia had reached 2/109, and the game was afoot. Warner was 75 not out of those runs, while Smith played his own game at the other end, remaining not out on 25. From an impossible position in the middle of the day, Australia had found a way to requiring 156 on what will be the final day with eight wickets remaining.

And so tomorrow will be the final day of this match, and once again it will be anyone’s Test match. Bangladesh will feel confident of knocking over the young Australian middle and lower order – if they can penetrate the two who are at the crease now. For Australia’s part, they will no doubt look to get the deficit down as quickly as possible in order to keep any panic to a minimum. Once again, as on each of the first three days, it should be a fascinating day’s cricket.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Web of Spin Traps Australia in Sub-Continental Mercy

There have been some messy days from Australia in Test cricket in recent years – let’s not start to mention them as they are far too painful to recall – but Day Two in Mirni would rank highly within any list that you could form. From the moment skipper Steve Smith charged down the wicket only to have his leg stump knocked over, Australia was on the back foot and was never really able to recover. On the other hand, Bangladesh took their chances, kept the pressure on the Australian batsmen, and then finished off the day with positive batting that sees them firmly on the front foot in this 1st Test.

Australia began at 3/18, and didn’t take Einstein to realise that they needed their captain to, once again, step up and lead his team out of trouble. His unfortunate dismissal in just the third over of the day, having seamlessly added 15 runs in that time, was the boost that the home team needed, and the one Australia feared. Now it was up to the young brigade to prove their worth and try and keep Australia in the match. In this respect, Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Glenn Maxwell all showed good intentions. Despite the ball playing tricks from the spinners, each of the three handled themselves well. Renshaw never really looked as though he would break the shackles, but he kept plonking his front leg down the wicket and took care of any loose balls that came his way. Both Handscomb and Maxwell looked at ease in the cauldron, both working singles through the field and looking for the boundary to anything too short or too full. However, all three fell to mistakes. Renshaw finally edged behind to a straight ball for a well-made 45, Handscomb succumbed to a faster ball that pinned him to the stumps for 33, and Maxwell ran past a ball that spun well past his bat to be stumped by a large margin for 22. While each made the start, once again none could go on with it. At 20 years of age, Renshaw is learning a lot about playing spin bowling as an opening bat. He just needs to keep fighting. Handscomb’s technique of playing almost everything within a few centimetres off his stumps is indicative of a young man with a great eye and great reflexes, but he looks prone to being dismissed LBW a LOT with it. Maxwell again looked serene at the crease, but again fell to a shot that looks ugly and before he had contributed enough. If he can ever hold himself back from the, he could still be unstoppable as a number six.

Throughout this, Bangladesh’s two main spinners, Shakib Al Hasan and Mehidy Hasan Miraz were magnificent. Shakib finished the innings with 5/68 off 26 overs, and makes him the first to take five wicket hauls against all current Test nations (which will change shortly once Ireland and Afghanistan begin their matches). Added to his 84 in the first innings he is again proving why he is considered to be the best all-round cricketer in world cricket. His partner showed that his efforts against England 12 months ago were no fluke, finishing with 3/62 from 26 overs. It confined the rest of the attacks to very short bursts throughout such was their dominance.

Matthew Wade’s further failures as both wicket-keeper yesterday and batsman today (dismissed for 5) continues to provoke enormous pain for Australian cricket supporters. Perhaps he will redeem himself in the second innings. However, at 8/144 Australia looked like giving up a century lead. Indeed, if it had been in India with that team it would certainly have been true. But Pat Cummins and Ashton Agar are made of sterner stuff, and the 73 runs that Australia’s final two wickets produced have at least kept them in this match. Whatever the reason was that Agar was selected for this tour in front of Steve O’Keefe for, he not only repaid the faith with his bowling yesterday but proved how valuable he is to the lower order. He scored two Sheffield Shield centuries last season, but neither was more valuable than his innings today of 41 not out. Along with Cummins, whose 25 runs continued to prove his qualities, the two faced 187 deliveries against the attack that had ripped the top order apart. It is the steel Australia needs in its lower order. In reducing the eventual deficit on the first innings to just 43 runs when it could have been greater than one hundred, it has kept their team in with a chance to save this match.

Some of those good feelings will have been wiped away by Bangladesh’s start, racing away to 1/45 at stumps, and a lead of 88. Sarkar’s dismissal in the second last over of the day was fortunate and critical – Agar topping off a great day for himself. Tamim has looked at ease, and willing to take on the Australian bowling. With Kayes, Rahim. Shakib and Shabbir to come, any lead over 250 will be a tough chase in the fourth innings, and a lead of 300 pretty much a winning one. Day Three will be the Test for the Bangladesh batsmen, to see if they can dominate an Australian attack in their home conditions, and be able to pressure them into submission.

For Australia, another average day with some positives has left them on the precipice. Not only must their bowlers keep the runs down and dismiss their opponents cheaply, then their batsmen must be able to fight in conditions they are not suited to in order to chase down whatever total is set. The remainder of this Test will show us a lot about their opponents, but also of how much this team believes in itself and its individuals abilities to combat their opponents and the conditions.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Points Shared on Day One as Bangladesh Buck the Trend

After the first half hour of play in the 1st Test in Mirpir, there was a feeling that Australia may be going to prove the pundit wrong after all, and run through the Bangladesh team in quick time and assert their authority over the less experienced opposition. And then a funny thing happened. Not only did Bangladesh fight back and get themselves to a position that looked very unlikely in that first session, but they then turned the screws in the final half hour, and brought this Test match back to level pegging, and anyone’s game by stumps on the first day.

No matter what the end result of this match, Bangladesh has already proven it will not roll over when the going gets tough. In the space of seven Pat Cummins deliveries, Bangladesh crashed from 0/10 to 3/10, a scenario that must have sent shudders through their dressing room. But three things happened that made this such a watchable day of Test cricket. Firstly, two Bangladesh’s ‘big three’, opener Tamim Iqbal and all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan, knuckled down and with a bit of good fortune put together a terrific partnership of 155 to rescue the innings. Following both of their dismissals Bangladesh hovered at 5/188, still shy of anything near what they required. But the second thing Bangladesh managed here was that the final five wickets eked out 72 valuable runs, which got their total up to 260, and still left them with a nasty period in which to attack the Australian batsmen. Had they fallen over for 200, the task ahead for Australia would have been less daunting. Thirdly, through sheer pressure to see out the day’s play, the Bangladesh bowlers managed to pry out both Warner and Lyon, while in the middle of this Khawaja surrendered himself to the most ludicrous display of running between the wickets that could possibly be imagined. Losing 3/5, Australia ended the day in relative calm through Renshaw and Smith, and at 3/18 it had been an enthralling first day’s play.

For Australia, their bowling was mostly good. Pat Cummins bowled with fire early on, and though he only finished with those three early wickets in his 3/63 he deserved more. Josh Hazlewood was incredibly unfortunate, catches falling just wide of fielders, balls bouncing over the stumps, inside edges saving LBW’s and also into pads instead of stumps. His 0/39 from 15 overs tells nothing of his effort. Nathan Lyon was a metronome for his 3/79 off 30 overs, but once again the feeling was that he was just bowling a bit too fast, averaging 91kph for the day. Perhaps it is the advice he has been given, but honestly with the bounce he gets, just slowing it down a little and getting more flight on the ball would surely be a benefit. He still bowled well today, as did his new partner Ashton Agar, back after four years. He beat both Rahim and Nasir to have them plumb LBW, and beat number eleven the way a spinner should, beat the slog in flight so that it went straight down deep mid-off’s throat. Perfect. His return of 3/46 off almost 13 overs was the best sidekick figures one could hope for in support of Lyon. He should also score more runs than Steve O’Keefe would, which may well come in very handy. Also one of the best parts of Australia’s day was Glenn Maxwell’s five overs, which produced 1/15 and the excellent wicket of Tamim. He bowled at a good off-spinners pace, swerved and spun the ball, and looked dangerous. As the latest in a long line of potential “great all-rounders”, he proved good with the ball. If he can score runs at number six (and by that he must surely average 40 to fulfil that role) and bowl half a dozen overs when needed to give the front line bowlers a break, then he has the chance to nail down his Test position for the foreseeable future. But it’s the runs that count.

Dave Warner again fell to indecisiveness at the crease. Having been triggered LBW he reviewed and was reprieved by DRS. The very next ball he was triggered again, and this time walked away, where DRS would have saved him. Again. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, he needs to find his mojo. In Sri Lanka he was overly aggressive, and fell too often having made a start in the 30’s and 40’s. In India he tried to reign that in, and was too often meekly beaten anchored to the crease. The answer is somewhere in the middle of those two tactics, being positive without being reckless. He needs to find that soon if Australia is to succeed in these conditions.
What the hell was Khawaja thinking with his run out? At least Renshaw had the wherewithal to refuse to respond to his suicide call. Uzzy is in a funk and is in the same boat as Warner when it comes to finding a way to score on these wickets against these bowlers. He too has some tough thinking to do, or else the selectors boom will be lowered once again.

Day Two should provide not only interesting cricket, but tell a lot about the two sides competing in this match. One is looking for redemption in Asia, the other is looking to prove they are no longer the meek on the lower rung. I for one can’t wait.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

1025. Masterplan / PumpKings. 2017. 4/5

The past can be a tough thing to break away from. The good memories are there, but so are the bad. In a music sense, this can be exactly the same path. The good memories of bands that you have been a part of in the past will always stay with you, but the ones that leave a bitter taste in your mouth will often also resurface. In deciding to revisit the majority of the songs that he either wrote outright or co-wrote when he was in Helloween, Roland Grapow has taken the plunge that he can convince everyone that these songs deserve a second outing, perhaps completely as he wanted them to be heard than as the band had done so originally. The fact that it comes at a time that Helloween are going out on a world tour with former members Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske, and he didn’t get an invite to join in, perhaps gives this more presence in that regard.

Roland was a member of Helloween for over a decade, and played on some of their better albums, and some of their most divisive. At least half of the songs here comes from albums that many fans have trouble even listening to any more, such as Pink Bubbles Go Ape and Chameleon. That in itself makes this album a brave move, because so many of the songs are not high profile Helloween songs. That in itself doesn’t mean they are bad songs or poor songs, and to be honest in trying to give them a second chance, a new lease of life away from the glaring drudgery of a couple of those original albums, perhaps there was a chance that they could find their own place without that anchor weighing them down. On the other hand, there is a greater danger of doing songs that are well liked and thought of in their original Helloween form, because then these versions are directly competing with those versions, and it would be a very difficult thing to compare the two.
So how does the album go? It is important to put out there from the start that Masterplan the band sounds fantastic once again. New drummer Kevin Kott does a great job, and is well supported by bass guitarist Jari Kainulainen in the rhythm section. Their groundwork is wonderfully solid. All of these songs have a heavier keyboard element in them that the Helloween versions do, which isn’t surprising given the masterplan sound does revolve heavily around founding band member Axel Mackenrott. Roland’s guitaring is as superb as ever, and he really brings it home in the songs off The Dark Ride, as it is where he is at his best both playing and writing. The toughest job falls to vocalist Rick Altzi who not only has to hold together his vocals in these songs, he will inevitably find himself compared against the two original vocalists on these songs, Michael Kiske and Andi Deris. No favours there at all.
The three songs that are drawn from Pink Bubbles Go Ape – “The Chance”, “Someone’s Crying” and “Mankind” – are different in nature. “The Chance” and “Mankind” are two of the better songs on that album, while I never really enjoyed “Someone’s Crying”. Masterplan’s version of “The Chance” here is a good one, and just as jaunty as the original. “Someone’s Crying” still lacks some heart, while “mankind” here suffers a little in the vocals compared to the original. It’s a similar story to the two songs that come from Chameleon – “Step Out of Hell” and “Music”. The version of “Music” actually works better here than the original, but that is perhaps because you couldn’t get much worse than the original version. It is still far too slow and drawn out to gather any momentum. “Step Out of Hell” here equals the original, with Rick getting the right amount of energy into the vocals that the songs deserves.
Into the power songs of the album, and we have three songs from Master of the Rings – “Mr. Ego (Take Me Down)”, “Still We Go” and “Take Me Home” – the title track from The Time of the Oath – “The Time of the Oath” – and two tracks from The Dark Ride – “Escalation 666” and “The Dark Ride”. Each of these versions are wonderful musically, but they all lack what Andi Deris brought to the vocals. There’s no shame in that, as he is fantastic, and Rick actually suits the music that Masterplan writes, but you can notice especially in songs such as “Mr. Ego (Take Me Down)”, “The Time of the Oath” and “The Dark Ride” that they just aren’t the same. Good versions, but just lacking slightly in detail.

So was the motivation for this album purely that Helloween are touring shortly without Roland and he wanted to show that he was also once part of the group, or was it an easy solution to cover the fact that Masterplan has not released a studio album in four years, or was it just a chance to try and put these songs that Roland was a part of in a new light? Whatever the reason was, this album is more than worth the effort for fans of either Masterplan or Helloween to grab and have a listen to. There is still a lot to like about this band, and most of the songs here are still great to listen to, and hearing them in a modern light is not a bad thing at all.

Rating:   “Take a spin on the dark ride, may too far from the other side”.  4/5

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Opportunities Abound in Bangladesh Test Series

In a few days, weather notwithstanding, Australia will take part in its first Test series against Bangladesh in over a decade, replacing the one that was boycotted by Australia two years ago over security concerns in the country. Despite this short delay, it is an arrogant oversight by Cricket Australia. Bangladesh became a full member of the ICC in June 2000, and in the 17 years that have passed since, only four Tests have been played between the two nations, a two Test tour in Australia in 2003 and a two Test tour in Bangladesh in 2006. This is the least amount of Tests played against Bangladesh of all Test playing nations. The question remains as to how the ICC and the member nations expect countries to improve their cricket if they are not exposed to Test cricket against the best nations. Perhaps labelling Australia as a ‘best’ nation may be pushing the boundaries. Let’s put it another way. Given the enormous trouble Australia has had over the past decade (if not longer) in playing in sub-continental conditions, wouldn’t touring and playing against Bangladesh have been a benefit in this area? Or are we just so scared that we might get beaten by the minnows that it is easier to just cry off and not play at all because ‘the schedule is too busy’ or ‘we need to play series that bring in money’. Whatever the excuse may be, it isn’t good enough.

Without Australia’s ‘help’, the Bangladesh cricket team has made great strides in recent times. Victories over England and Sri Lanka and a strong showing in New Zealand has meant that they are no easy beats, and indeed given Australia’s ordinary form on the sub-continent they would be confident of perhaps winning a Test or even the series. Led from the front by Mushfiqur Rahim and Shakib Al Hasan the Bangladeshi’s have other prominent players in Tamim Iqbal, Mominul Haque, Mustafizur Rahman and Anamul Haque to name but a few. In their home conditions they will be a handful, and if Australia are unprepared they could face some difficult times ahead.

There is little doubt Australia will not be in the best of positions. The long running saga over the Memorandum of Understanding with Cricket Australia, which cost the Australia A team a tour of South Africa and valuable practice for some of the fringe players, will likely not be used as an excuse for poor performance but it can only have been a burden on the players. It was not the best way to prepare for a tour. With a week in Darwin to prepare, and now their only warm up game in Bangladesh having been abandoned due to the poor state of the ground, it means none of the squad has had any meaningful red ball cricket since the Indian tour. It is something that is likely to be a problem, especially for those players that struggled throughout that period. Given that only 14 players are touring, it means two bowlers and an all-rounder will miss selection for each Test. It leaves the cupboard bare if looking for back-up should an injury occur, or in the search of form.

Australia’s batting will be fragile and open for intrusion. If not for Steve Smith’s imperious form in India – and in most places in the past four years – Australia would likely have suffered a much stronger defeat on that tour. He is the team’s best players of spin and will again be looked to lead from the front. The opening combination of Dave Warner and Matt Renshaw is still developing, and will need to give the side a good start in the short series. Warner has still not been able to unlock the secret to scoring runs on slow turning wickets, and every plan he has utilised has fallen short on results. While he probably needs to curb his aggression to a degree, it is positive cricket that serves him best, and perhaps he needs to research this further. That doesn’t mean slashing at the first ball outside off stump or slogging it across the line to the boundary, rather being positive at balls in his stump line and being willing to leave better outside the line of his stumps. Positive, not all out aggression. It’s easy to analyse and put down in words, but much more difficult to take that mindset onto the pitch. Renshaw played wonderfully well in India, only really failing in the deciding 4th Test. His batting showed the patience that he has become renown for in his short career, but on more than one occasion he was then dismissed playing aggressive shots after having been so disciplined for so long. In three Indian innings he was dismissed playing big shots having faced over 170 deliveries in the innings. Is it that he had reached his limit and he felt that he needed to try and break free, or was it just a break of concentration. Either way it is something he will be looking to address. If you make 60 off 180 balls and you are doing your job, then 100 off 275 balls is still a win. Whatever comes of this series, the selectors must stick with him. He has earned that.

Usman Khawaja, having been ignored in India despite great numbers in 2016/17 at home because of his failures in Sri Lanka and the belief that Shaun Marsh would be the saviour on sub-continental pitches, is an almost certainty to return to the pivotal number three position, and will once again be under the hammer. The Bangladesh spinners will be probing, hoping to keep him quiet and break through early, while there will be some deal of pressure on Khawaja himself to prove himself in these conditions. It is not an ideal position for the team’s number three to be in, and his history against spin isn’t great. But he will never have a better chance to show he can succeed in these conditions and nail down his spot for the long term. Peter Handscomb’s Indian tour is the best example of statistics that do lie. He made a start in all but one innings in that series, and it was only his inability to go on with it that makes it look only average. Apart from the captain he handled the spinners better than all other batsmen and he looked at ease. No doubt he will be very keen to expand on that form in this series. It would be a surprise if he did not.

The fragility of the top order is only exacerbated by that of the nominal numbers six and seven in the team. Glenn Maxwell scored a wonderful century in the 3rd Test in India that showed that (for the most part) he can bat with patience and calm. Unfortunately that was not followed up in his other three innings, and the question marks as to his suitability to the Test team are still to be answered. If he can nail down the number six position, and get his bowling back on track so that he can at least push out half a dozen over to give the front liners a rest, then he will be a valuable asset in the Test ranks. If he cannot get his run scoring boots on, then he will continue to be spoken in the same breath as Shane Watson when it comes to all-round disappointments. So too is the story with incumbent wicket-keeper Matthew Wade, whose continued selection seems to be a mystery to all except those close to the team. His batting was not convincing in India, and his glovework even less so. Having discarded Peter Nevill after the debacle of Hobart last year in the chase for more runs from the number seven, Wade has failed to produce more than Nevill was doing, and he has botched many more chances than Nevill ever did in that position. While it would be nice to see him score runs in this series, it will be more beneficial and pleasing if he doesn’t miss a chance behind the wickets.

With Mitchell Starc still injured and the selectors desperate to have him 100% fit for the Ashes, the fast bowling stocks will again fall to Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, with Jackson Bird in back up if required. Hazlewood has been the leader in recent times, and Cummins’ return to Test cricket for the final two Tests in India was superb. There will be no hiding from those two, and Bird if he gets a chance won’t let the team down.

The spinners will be an interesting variety. It is disappointing that Steve O’Keefe has been left out in such ordinary circumstances. After his fabulous effort in the 1st Test in India, the Indian batsmen treated him with far more respect than they had in that Test, and as a result he was tidy but unable to break through as often. He then returned home, and again transgressed at an official function while obviously inebriated, and said the wrong thing in the wrong company. Quite a few times apparently. He was handed a suspension by the NSWCA. Yet when the touring squad was initially announce for this tour, the selectors suggested that O’Keefe had not been selected because of his performance and figures in the last three Tests of the Indian tour. No mention of his transgressions, but that he had been dropped for poor performance. Uuuhhhh, what?!? There is a serious problem when you bring that to light, because it allows you to compare the figures of players and then ask “why have you dropped one guy but not the other?”

The case in point.
  • After the 1st Test, in which O’Keefe took 6/35 and 6/35, he bowled in five innings taking 7 wickets at 53.14. Less effective. Nathan Lyon took 8/50 in the first innings of the 2nd Test (but 0/82 in the second innings as India pushed for victory). He also took 5/92 in the first innings of the 4th Test. If you take those two efforts out, as has been done with O’Keefe’s best two innings, Lyon took 6 wickets at 56.33. O’Keefe leads on those figures.
  • For the series, both O’Keefe and Lyon finished with 19 wickets, leading the Australian charge. O’Keefe averaged 23.26 (1st) and Lyon averaged 25.26 (2nd). O’Keefe leads on those figures.
  • O’Keefe (179.1) bowled more overs than Lyon (166.2) in the series.
  • O’Keefe (36) bowled almost twice as many maidens as Lyon (19) in the series.
  • And although neither contributed much to the batting, O’Keefe (168) faced almost three times as many deliveries in seven innings as Lyon (68) did in eight innings.
If the selectors had just come out honestly, and said that O’Keefe had been dropped as a disciplinary measure, then we all could have accepted that explanation and moved on, knowing that he would have to work extremely hard to ever get another chance again. In suggesting that it was a form issue with no other reasons behind his exclusion, all the selectors have done is open themselves up to ridicule and comparisons such as the above.

With Lyon still the number one seed in Australia’s spinning ranks, the other two contenders chosen for the tour will be fighting for the second spinners berth. Mitchell Swepson is the unknown, the X factor, the leg-spinner with all of the tricks of the trade, but with such little first class experience it would be a risk to take him in. As much as having a leg-spinner back in the Australian Test team would be a wonderful thing, one suspects that Ashton Agar will fulfil the prophecy of return to the Test team as a bowling all-rounder. While his bowling figures in first class cricket are still on the part-time scale, his past 12 months have been profitable with both bat and ball, and as a second spin option with potential to score runs down the order he could be the valuable asset the team needs, at least on this tour.

If the monsoon season can hold off for just another couple of weeks, this series has the potential to be an interesting and well-fought battle. The likelihood of rain does dampen (no pun intended) the possibility of a result, but the cricket has much to offer. Bangladesh has the opportunity to test themselves against an Australian team that is still finding its way back to the top, while the Australians chosen have the chance to ensure that they not only do well here, but have their names front and centre for the upcoming Ashes series back home. As a cricket tragic I don’t expect to see another Jason Gillespie double century moment, but I am looking forward to watching the series unfold.

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Ashton Agar, Jackson Bird, Hilton Cartwright, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Matthew Renshaw, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade.

Bangladesh squad: Mushfiqur Rahim (c), Tamim Iqbal, Soumya Sarkar, Imrul Kayes, Shakib Al Hasan, Mehidy Hasan Miraz, Sabbir Rahman, Nasir Hossain, Liton Das, Taskin Ahmed, Shafiul Islam, Mustafizur Rahman, Taijul Islam, Mominul Haque.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Is Chris Lynn Money Hungry or Money Magnanimous?

There has been a bit of a hoo-haa over Chris Lynn’s decision to forfeit a contract with Queensland cricket for the 2017-18 season. In essence, some reporting circles have suggested it is the first move into the future of cricket, where able bodied young cricketers decide to renounce contracts with state or national teams in order to ply their trade unhindered in the various lucrative T20 leagues that are popping up all over the world. While it has been seen in recent times that international cricketers have retired, but continue to do exactly this, these players are generally in the mid-thirties, and are looking to make a few extra bucks in their twilight years in order to boost their superannuation. Brad Hodge has done this, and so too Brad Hogg. Shane Watson seems to be unable to break down like he used to and is playing all over the world. Brendan McCullum has taken this path as well, and no doubt Luke Ronchi is about to join them. But the fact that Lynn, aged 27, has done this seems to have outraged the pundits, and made some nay-sayers sceptical of the future of long form and Test cricket.

Well. What a load of rubbish. It heralds no such thing.

I have no facts or information as to the reasons behind Lynn’s decision. It could well be that it is exactly as the decriers of doom have said. But let’s look at this just a little more logically, and see if we can sort it out.
Chris Lynn is currently injured – again. He has undergone surgery on his left shoulder, and forecasts are that he could be out of cricket for up to seven months. If it does happen to be that long, then Lynn will not be returning to a cricket field as anything but a spectator until February 2018. Of course, it may be sooner, but let’s use February 2018 as the yard stick.
If he isn’t going to be able to play until February, then he will not take part in any of the newly labelled JRT Cup, which is the latest naming rights for the domestic one day tournament that is held throughout October each season. It also means that he will be unavailable for the first five Sheffield Shield matches of the season, which all take place before Christmas. As a result, as a contracted player for Queensland, he would in theory be unavailable for at least two-thirds of the season. So Queensland would be signing him up only as a show of good faith, paying him while he rehabilitating on the sidelines. While that would be magnanimous of the QCA, it would mean they would be essentially throwing money down a well.

Given this is the case, could it not be possible that either the QCA approached Lynn, and suggested that they would like to be able to use his spot for another up-and-coming youngster, and give a kid the chance to train and be contracted so that he could spent the next twelve months developing, and hopefully be able to make the next step? Or that Lynn himself suggested this, knowing that if he wanted he could still play the final third of the season if selected, or that he could use the time to prepare himself for the IPL or the PCL, or other such tournaments, secure in the knowledge that in twelve months’ time he could once again take up his contract with the QCA, and make a claim on further national honours when fully fit? Doesn’t this scenario make more sense than a young man who is on the long-term injured list not taking up a state contract so he could be free to play whatever tournaments he wanted to… if he was ever fit again? Surely it does.

The fact that it is very likely that he will almost completely miss the Big Bash League season surely tends to support that argument. Of course I could be wrong, because I have no information one way or the other, but given how long Lynn is likely to be out of the game, surely common sense has prevailed for both himself and the QCA, and both have agreed on a course that is in the best interests of Queensland cricket.

1024. AC/DC / Let There Be Rock. 1977. 4/5

In a constant method throughout the mid-to-late 1970’s AC/DC managed to keep pumping out albums that grabbed the attention of music lovers all over the world. They might appear simple in rhythm and based as they are in the blues rock that preceded them, but they are undeniably catchy, and as a basis to launch their live act under these directions they were an amazing catchphrase.

The growing success of both albums and singles releases helped to propel the recording and releasing of Let There Be Rock. While there was a steady prevailing popularity of the previous material, apparently it hadn’t caught on in the United States, and the recording of this album was meant to help rescind that. The songs here are generally longer than usual, drawn out by the extended guitar solos and pieces that Angus and Malcolm came up with. In places it still feels even today that the songs go out beyond what is necessary. Still , this is the style of songs that the band had decided on in their efforts to crash the international market even harder 
than they had already achieved.  There is definitely a harder blues based rock in the rolling rhythm throughout most of the songs, highlighted immediately by the opening track “Go Down”, where the blues beat holds together the basis of the song, and allows Bon Scott initially to hold the reins on vocals, before Angus Young comes in to perpetuate his solo piece in the middle of the track. Bon and Angus trading vocals and guitar tweets through the second half of the song draws in the blues roots as well. It does get repetitive towards the end, and though it is a terrific opening track it always feels as though it could have ended a good minute earlier. “Dog Eat Dog” settles into that hard rocking rhythm that Malcolm, Phil Rudd and Mark Evans play so well on these early albums, and again let Bon and Angus do their thing. Both it and “Bad Boy Boogie” again insert the lengthy and stretched out solo sections for the guitars to make their mark, much like the band would do in a live setting, but here in the studio. An interesting change.
Depending on what version of the album you have, on the second side of the album you will either be enjoying a shortened version of “Problem Child” on the International version, which initially was released on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, or the song “Crabsody in Blue” which came on the initial and Australian release of the album. I personally like “Problem Child” better, despite its original place on Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. “Crabsody in Blue” seems to stifle the momentum of the album at its entry point, and is also drowning in the blues which may also be a bone of contention with me. The exchange of these two songs does make the international version of the album a better listen.
“Overdose” and “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” also run along similar lines and patterns. “Overdose” has a similar pattern to “Live Wire” early on, but builds with its own momentum to reach its crescendo. “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” has always been one of those underrated AC/DC songs, one that those that only listen to the singles never get to know. It again builds from a slowish start to find its own pace and strength, and it does all the right things for the fans.
The two star attractions of the album are the title track and the closing track. “Let There Be Rock” has been a classic since the album’s release, with Bon’s lyrics espousing the discovery of rock as in a biblical creation. The faster and immediate crash into the song by the band is also a change from most of the other songs on the album, and its effect is immediate. It is still a great song today. So too is “Whole Lotta Rosie” which is still a live favourite today. Focusing on Bon’s meeting with a female acquaintance back in the day, this is a rollicking track that is ecstatically explained by Bon, before Angus takes over and gives an extended solo piece to hold the middle of the song together. It is still one of the great AC/DC songs and it closes the album on a high note.

Many experts consider this the first ‘great’ AC/DC album. It did seems to single a change in the band’s intent, to be more a harder guitar sounding band than they had been too this point. While I appreciate that notion and believe it is a fair enough point, and as much as I think this is a terrific album, one that there is never a bad feeling about when I put it on to listen to, I think that there is better to come.

Rating:  “Wanna tell you story about woman I know, when it comes to lovin' she steals the show”.   4/5

Friday, August 18, 2017

1023. Alice Cooper / Paranormal. 2017. 3/5

The time between albums may be beginning to stretch outwardly, but there’s little doubt that it still gives you a warm feeling when you hear Alice Cooper is bringing out some new material. And that’s not because you may think it is going to be amazingly groundbreaking or magnificently catchy, but because with Alice you now know what you are getting, and that is fun songs with enough of a kick to keep you entertained throughout. And once again that is what Alice has provided for us with Paranormal.

In recent years – what feels like forever – Alice and his co-writers have concentrated on concepts for his albums, where each song contributes to the story being told, and sometime that can be a bit restrictive. Here on Paranormal they have steered clear of this and just gone out and written songs, of varying genres it must be said, but effectively. How much you enjoy the switch between styles of music in the songs here is probably going to determine exactly how you feel about the album.
“Paranormal” combines the reflective and the faster paced, and I have found is a grower, in that it gets better each time you listen to it. Once you know the nuance of the song it is much more enjoyable. This is followed by “Dead Flies” that seems to reach right back into the past, with the stomping drums and Alice’s chanting vocals bringing back memories of past great moments. “Fireball” has a similar theme where the backbeat drives the song while Alice sings over the top. “Paranoiac Personality” is okay, but to me it’s a bit repetitive and doesn’t really break out of its mould at any time. From here we fall back in to some other realm of music, as though we had moved back in time, with a very ‘rock n’ roll’ feel to the songs. “Fallen in Love’ is the first of this genre, and is followed by “Dynamite Road” which has a very southern sound about it, highlighted by the drum beat throughout. It’s a beauty, but is another one that takes some time to let it grow on you.
The second half of the album doesn’t quite measure up to the first half. “Private Public Breakdown” plods along without any great energy or motivation, perhaps in essence like the title of the song. “Holy Water” is at least more upbeat in style but just seems to lack that real Alice Cooper twist to make it more likeable. “Rats” is okay, but again probably not up to the enjoyable level of earlier songs. “The Sound of A” is far too much in the genre of a Pink Floyd song, and given my reticence of that band it makes it a difficult song to get through. Oh well.
There is some fun on the second disc, where the first two songs are written and composed and played by the remains of the original Alice Cooper band. Both “Genuine American Girl” and “You and All Your Friends” are interesting for the fact that they sound like they are from the era immediately following the group’s break up. For nostalgia they serve their purpose.
The real kicker is the six live songs that are tacked on to the end of the release. Why so? Because for perhaps the first time on the whole album, you feel rejuvenated, you feel up and you feel excited about the music. Because these are the great tracks, the ones from different eras that are the best that Alice can produce. And even after all these years, these are the songs I love to sing – “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “Under My Wheels”, “Billion Dollar Babies”, “Feed My Frankenstein”, “Only Women Bleed” and “School’s Out”.

Are there truly any bad Alice Cooper albums? Well, I guess the answer is yes, but certainly since the mid-1980’s I think that while the quality overall may be different from album to album, overall all of them are eminently listenable. This may well never become a classic album and it will never be as highly regarded as those albums from other eras of his career, but it comes down to how much do you like to sit down and listen to an Alice Cooper album. I enjoy it, quite a bit, and thus can find enough here to like and listen to.

Rating:   “And your phone knows more about you than your daddy or your mother”.  3/5

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

1022. Unisonic / Live in Wacken. 2017. 5/5

It was a busy little schedule at Wacken 2016 for Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen. Both were involved in the Hansen & Friends project, Kai as the instigator and Miki as guest on a number of songs, which played at the festival and released a live album of their own entitled Thank You Wacken: Live just a couple of weeks before this album was released. As well as that, then there was Unisonic, the band that Miki sings for and Kai guitars for, who also played on that weekend and which was recorded and packaged for this release, Live in Wacken.

It has been quite the journey, most notably for Kiske himself, who had so publicly slagged off heavy metal in the years after his departure from Helloween, and has now come (almost) full circle through the support of his part to play in the Avantasia project and through other friends in Roland Grapow (Masterplan) and Kai Hansen (Gamma Ray). The Unisonic band has progressed from an initial side project for all of the artists to one that has now released two albums and now this live recording, which ultimately goes to prove that the talents of the collective are quite high, and that they can do justice to their material in the live setting.
This is a cracking set list. I could not have chosen better if I had been given the job of choosing it. Every one of the best songs from their two albums makes an appearance here, along with the usual mix of older material from the number one vocalist. Opening up with “For the Kingdom” and “Exceptional” from the Light of Dawn album, the band exudes the energy you would expect from such an experienced and talented group. This is followed by “My Sanctuary” and “King For a Day” from the debut album, and both also have that energy you would expect. The joy that is “Your Time Has Come”, where Michi’s amazing vocals soar as well as they ever have, along with the twin guitar solos throughout the middle of the song between Kai and Mandy, and the double time rhythm from both Ward and Zafiriou makes for a terrific live version of this song.
Even the slower, less emphatic songs such as “When the Deed is Done” and “Star Rider” still have their moments here, even in their more melodic and less aggressive or fast arrangements. “Throne of the Dawn” is also an improvement on the studio version, and allows Kiske in particular to find a groove for the song that improves it in the live setting.
If you ever had any doubts about Miki’s vocal range… well, no… why would you… but my goodness, if you did, then listening to the two Helloween covers here would right that ship immediately. His own “A Little Time” is just perfect here, but it is possibly the interlude in the middle of this song will erase any doubt from your head forever. By incorporating a piece of Judas Priest’s classic “Victim of Changes” in the middle of this song, not only does it fit perfectly musically, but Kiske’s vocals are just magnificent, hitting every note in the lower scale and the upper echelons, as living proof he still has everything in his corner. Then the cover of Kai’s “March of Time”, which still ranks as one of my favourite Helloween songs ever, is just a piercing and harmonic and beautiful throughout. It is a masterpiece. Then album then concludes with “Unisonic” on overdrive, providing the perfect end to what is a sensational live gig and album.

It’s a fine line to tread when you have a project like Unisonic, where all the members have obligations in other projects, in order to make it work. Despite the range in music genres between the members of this band, it is terrific to hear it working so well in the live medium, which after all is where it all matters in the long run.

Rating:  “Chuggin like a monster, buzzing like a hive, everything is set to overdrive”.  5/5

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

1021. Hansen & Friends / Thank You Wacken: Live. 2017. 5/5

When Kai Hansen announced he was doing this project, obsequiously to memorialise over thirty years in the metal music business, as a fan I was as always interested in what it would produce. The album XXX: Three Decades in Metal I felt was excellent, and allowed him to explore other avenues that he couldn’t do in his other bands. With so much going on in his music life it was not surprising that he wanted to play this new material live, even if it could not be in a long form tour. Performing at Wacken in 2016, this album is the result of recording that gig.

Now, the one major problem this gig faced was this. The album was not released until September of 2016. The Wacken festival took place, as always, in early August, which meant that all of the material off the new album that was played at this gig had never been heard by the fans. In retrospect, as an Australian fan, it hasn’t been a problem for me, as I have had that album since its release, and I have had this recording since its release just a few weeks ago. But is there anything worse than turning up at a concert and not knowing half the songs? As a fan, it is the most difficult thing imaginable. You can’t throw yourself full belt into the gig, because you don’t know half the material. It could be rubbish, and you are left there with your arms folded. Waiting for the good stuff to come on. As I said, that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this album because I know all the songs, but I wonder just how the reaction really went over on the day (it looked positive on the DVD of the gig, don’t get me wrong).
It all sounds fantastic. Kai’s band that recorded the studio album is all here, except for drummer Dan Wilding who was off touring with Carcass, and so Gamma Ray’s custodian Michael Ehre fills in here with aplomb. Eike Freese on guitar and Alex Deitz on bass and backing vocals both show off their excellent skills and confirm why Kai was happy to collaborate with them in the first place. While all of the special guests who were a part of the original recording do not make an appearance here, there are a few who return to make their contributions to the “Hansen & Friends” concept.
If you haven’t listened to the album, then you will no doubt be just as confused as I imagine the crowd at Wacken were with all of the new material, but those who do know it will be happy and impressed with the live versions presented here. As on that album, the starring roles go to “Born Free”, “Contract Song” and “Follow the Sun”, where the rage that they have in the studio is replicated and enhanced here in the live setting. ”Burning Bridges” also sounds great live here. “All or Nothing” and “Fire and Ice” both sound terrific as well, with ClĂ©mentine Delauney enjoying her chance to sing these duets with Kai on stage. She has quite the presence.
Of the older Helloween material here, none of it can be faulted. It is kick started by what is still one of the greatest songs ever in “Ride the Sky”, through both the vocals and the duelling guitar solos in the middle. I still get chills listening to the song. Frank Beck, supporting vocalist here and now a member of Gamma Ray, produces a stunning version of “Victim of Fate”. It is always a pleasure to hear this song with full power and aggression. Michael Kiske comes out for his starring role in the Helloween staples “I Want Out” and “Future World”, while the set closer is the very underrated “Save Us”, where the ensemble gives the gig the finish it deserves, with both Frank and ClĂ©mentine lending serious support to this terrific song.

As live albums go, you won’t be disappointed with this offering. Even if you don’t know the newer material, the Helloween songs alone are worth the price of the album. Give the newer material a chance and you might be surprised as well. Once again, Kai Hansen seals his destiny as one of the finest and most influential musicians in the history of heavy metal.

Rating:  “In permanent madness we live, no time for life and for love”.  5/5

Monday, August 14, 2017

1020. Europe / The Final Countdown 30th Anniversary Show - Live at the Roundhouse [Live]. 2017. 3.5/5

A live album can only ever be as good as the band who plays on it, and the material they play. There are lots of good reasons why you would record a live album. Generally it is to celebrate a particularly successful tour by having it recorded for posterity, and allowing fans all over the world the opportunity to be a part of it if they haven’t been able to attend, or remember it fondly if they were able to see it. There is also the opportunity to make more money from something that hasn’t required a lot of creative effort. It is quite possible that this album was produced with both of these mindsets in place.

For many people who grew up in the 1980’s, Europe started and finished with the album The Final Countdown. To be honest, those that moved beyond it to the next release, Out of This World sometimes wished they’d stopped at the previous album. It was a perfect moment in time, with not only the title track of the album charting worldwide, but also a couple of the other singles managed to work their way into the psyche. The band of course had released albums before it, and has done so since they reformed after a long break back in 2003. For many though, they only know the one album, and not all of that album either. So when the 30th anniversary of the release of that album came around, no doubt it was in everyone’s best interests to go down that track of bringing it back to the present and performing it in its entirety in a live setting. I get that. And when you perform a concert, you need to have other songs in around this so that it lasts for more than an hour. So what does the band do? Well, as well as performing The Final Countdown in its entirety from start to finish, Europe decide to play their current album, War of Kings also in its entirety. Not quite in order, but the whole album nonetheless.
Is this a good move? That comes back to the original premise behind alive album. Do the punters want to see that whole album played? In reality, do they love that album enough to want to see it all done live? I can’t speak for those that went to the gig itself, but I would have had a few problems with it. First, I’d like to day that War of Kings is a terrific, entertaining album. I’d like to say that, but I’d be lying. There are some fair moments on this album, but overall it is quite drab. For a band that was so outrageous in 80’s fashion and music in their heyday, it just doesn’t feel right that most of the music on that album feels so washed out and lacking in energy. Having said that, you would like to think that this would be different in a live setting. Unfortunately, no. You only have to notice the lack of crowd involvement throughout the live set to understand that there just isn’t the same emotion in the new album as there could be. They band sounds great, of that there is no doubt. But the material just isn’t there.
The mood changes significantly once they move into The Final Countdown. The response from the crowd is immediate, and the music automatically livens up as well. That’s where the change is, and perhaps something Europe should be looking at. That also could be seen to be unfair, as I can freely admit that at this time I haven’t listened to anything they have recorded beyond 1988 apart from their latest album, so perhaps there is more there than I know. But once you hear the band and the crowd in songs such as “The Final Countdown”, ‘Rock the Night”, “Carrie”, “Danger on the Track”, “Ninja” and “On the Loose”, you know where the gold lies. Sure, Joey Tempest doesn’t hit those freakish higher notes anymore, and John Norum doesn’t quite rip it up the same way as he used to, but you can still hear the band circa 1986 trying to rip its way out of its 2016 bodies.

In the end we are left with that age old question, love of material over love of performance. This doesn’t provide you with anything new. It’s a nostalgia trip, one you can probably go on without the live album. It also probably won’t take you long to only play the second disc of the album. And then it probably won’t take you long to put this back in the rack and go back to the studio album itself.

Rating:  “Tell me the story, tell me the legend, tell me the tales of war”.  3.5/5

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Albion Park JSC Under 10 White vs Figtree Gold

After what has been a wholly satisfying and enjoyable season, the Albion Park Junior Soccer Club Under 10 Whites played their final game for 2017 this morning in taking on Figtree Gold at Terry Reserve.

The first half was a tough affair. The Figtree team was fast and enthusiastic, keen to get to the ball and to take the ball off the Albion Park team. On the other hand, while the Whites looked to be the better team, they were not going hard at the ball, standing off and waiting for things to happen without making them happen themselves. Perhaps it was the ‘last game’ syndrome, or just the phenomenon that happened most of the season, where the team just didn’t click together in the first half of matches. The match was being pressed into the corridor, and the Albion Park team plays much better when they are able to spread the ball wide and open the game up. Ky Van Helden and Claire Kadwell were doing well up front, and Zoe Middleton narrowly missed adding to her goal tally when she wasn’t quite able to get a foot on a ball that crossed their opponents goal with no one there to stop it.
The only goal of the first half ended up as an own goal, as Josh Peters’ curling corner found an opponent who bunted it into his own goal. All of Josh’s corner kicks were dangerous, and this was a reward for that. At the break it was Albion Park 1, Figtree 0.

From the outset of the second half the Albion Park team forced its dominance home. The first few minutes were hard fought, until a superb long ball from Ky in the backs through to Noah Black up forward gave Noah the chance he was looking for, and he took it by banging the ball into the back of the net, and the score was 2-0. This moment was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Figtree showed they were tired, and the amazing fitness levels of the Albion Park team came to the fore again as they mounted wave after wave of attack. Momentum is a wonderful thing, and the second goal had provided this.
A few moments later, Josh dispossessed his opponent in the middle of the field and sent a perfect pass to Noah who again found himself with no one in front of him, and this time he caressed the ball past the keeper for a 3-0 lead. The team was now on top, and it was still the defense that started each raid. Jack-Ryan Eberwein was playing his role perfectly, stopping any attacks and getting the ball well down field with terrific clearances. Belle Kadwell made three terrific runs to dispossess her opponent and stop their attacking raids, one where she got all ball with her tackle but it rocked the spectators such was its impact. Fantastic stuff. Another excellent tackle in mid-field by Belle was followed by a pass to Indy Middleton who made a lovely cross field run and then the perfect forward pass to Ky up front, whose first booming shot was blocked by the keeper, but he jumped on the rebound to get the ball in the back of the net, for Albion Park to take a 4-0 lead.
It was party time by now for the Whites, and with positional changes being wrung every minute, all the players were getting a chance to shine. From mid field Noah got the ball from Josh, and made a great pass up the right to Brock Young. Brock has had a great season, and once he got his bionic eyes halfway through the year he has been pushing for his chance up forward. Today he received the ball from Noah, beat one opponent, and then lined up with his right leg pulled back to its maximum. The spring was sprung, his leg crashed down on the ball and he crushed it into the back of the net, leaving the goalkeeper clueless. It was Brock’s first and only goal for the season, but it was well worth the wait. Albion Park led 5-0.
With time running out the Park team was relentless and continued their assault. With moments left in the match, Ky was standing just on his opponents side of half way, but when Ky lets fly with that left foot it doesn’t matter. Most of the spectators have been waiting all season for Ky to score a goal from half way, and though it wasn’t quite that far out, he still lashed out and sent the ball careering past every opponent and into the back of the net for a 6-0 victory.

It has been another wonderfully enjoyable season watching these kids do their thing. Every single one of the ten players in the team has improved immeasurably since the start of the season.

Belle and Claire Kadwell, new with the team this season, have been a revelation, with their determination and fearless play. Not only did they make the team’s defense a stronghold and also helped to lead the attack, they inspired a huge transformation in the team’s other female star Zoe Middleton. Zoe took no backwards steps this season, and harassed her opponents no matter how big they were, and I think having other girls in the team helped her enormously. All three should be especially proud of their seasons.
Jack-Ryan Eberwein and Jack Tate have made vast improvements. Jack-Ryan may have been a bit stand-offish last season, but this season he never failed to rush at his opponents to get the ball off them. He fought hard in defense and played well in attack, and his kicking especially was terrific, booming out of defense when needed and long into attck when in mid field. Jack Tate spent most of the season embarrassing opponents by beating four or five at a time before slotting the ball into the goal. His five goals at Lakelands in the team’s first win for the season was a highlight. Indy Middleton was the same, tenacious and unstoppable. He wanted to be around the ball at all times, and he too this season became more determined in chasing the ball and hounding his opponents. Without trying to repeat myself, all of these things also apply to Brock Young. He might look small and wiry, but he has a big heart and no fear, and his work in defense this season saved a lot of situation that could have been dire for his team. Once his bionic eyes came in, you could also see (no pun intended) his confidence grow in all situations. He was Mr Reliability.
Noah Black and Ky Van Helden again had great seasons, taking on more responsibility with having lost Nicky Newell. Both were terrific in defense and sweeping roles, always shutting down attacking plays and clearing the ball. Up front they were always dangerous, and every time they got the ball you sensed they could score. They both would have scored even more goals this season if they had realised how much time they had sometimes. Both have a wonderful sense of the game.
I don’t like to overplay about Josh, as the obvious bias will always apply. I am immensely proud of the way he played this season. He wants to learn, he wants to be in the centre of the action, and while everyone wants to be a goalscorer, I thought it was his ‘assists’ this season that spoke more for his play than anything else. If he can learn not to score the best own goal of the season when he forgot which way his team were going (2016) and not to pick up the ball in the middle of the box when he isn’t goal keeper (two weeks ago) I’m sure he’ll do even better in 2018.

These teams don’t run without the help of the parents, and their support on game day. The Whites were very fortunate to have such a great presence from parents, siblings and grandparents through the season, and I’m sure the kids all appreciated it.
Massive thanks to Matt and Hannah Middleton who took on the role of coaching and organising the team. There is nothing easy about organising training and canteen duty and setting up goals and all of the other things that go hand in hand with junior soccer, and given their enormous tribe and Matt’s uncanny ability to injure himself in a hundred different ways, their efforts can never be thanked enough. Also to Shane Black as Manager who sorted out the game day issues and was also important to helping to organise the team, often with a ragamuffin attached to his head for most of the time. On top of that, Andy Middleton’s knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm on match day was so important for these kids, he makes every game day a joy to attend. Dan Kadwell was a constant at training and at the games, and his knowledge of the game and easy going handling of the kids was a much added bonus this season.

For anyone who has any particular interest in the team’s year, who may have missed a report (and there are three games I did not do a report on due to other issues) you can find them all posted on my blog at this location.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

1019. Kiss / Kiss. 1974. 4/5

There are some things in life that really make you feel your age. The fact that this album is now 43 years old, only five years younger than myself, really does remind myself of my age. It’s a long time to be out there on stage wearing makeup, that’s for sure. And it is on stage that Kiss make the magic happen, not just with the stage show, but with the energy of their performance. This is where their drive is at its best, and for the most part this is what is missing from their debut album. Yes, it was a different age in regards to recording, but first impressions of the songs here should make this a monster. That it wasn’t on its initial release is part of that mystery.

Perhaps the ‘no energy’ phrase is not completely fair, but I think it stands to reason. Listening to this album today, and then listening to the frenzied madness that comes from the same songs on the Alive! album (just 18 months later and after another two studio albums – wow!) and you can hear what they are missing from the recorded studio versions here. Where’s that bottom end? Where’s the blazing guitars? Where’s the high energy vocals? For the most part, that isn’t here. That doesn’t mean that, in retrospect, this isn’t a good album. It just means that it feels like the songs here have had their legs cut off at the knees compared to the live versions as they are played. You could use the same argument with other albums of the era of course, and you would be correct. It just seems a bit more noticeable here because of what Kiss became.
If you are a Kiss fan, you already know where the strength lies. If you aren’t a big fan, you still know the important songs off this album. There’s still the strange moments. I know that the band was brought back into the studio to record the cover version of “Kissin’ Time” after the album was initially released and not doing as well as they all hoped. But seriously, a Bobby Rydell cover? Did they really think this was going to lift their sales? Did they just record it because of the title? I don’t know. I do know that it is a bit of a misnomer on the album. Add to that the instrumental piece “Love Theme From Kiss” which just seems out of place and unnecessary to the whole scheme of the album.
The rest of the album speaks for itself. “Nothin’ to Lose” has that 60’s rockabilly about it that can get a bit annoying depending on your mood and how often you are listening to it. Did Kiss really need piano in a song in the direction they were heading? Anyway. “Firehouse” is a good song that just doesn’t have the energy and fire it should have. The plodding style of this studio recorded version, both musically and vocally from Gene, just holds back its potential. It rarely fails to disappoint me when I hear this version. The same can be said for “Let Me Know”, though there is no live version to compare it to. It sounds better when Paul is singing rather than Gene. These are small and not significant criticisms. Again it comes to the age of the recording rather than the quality. I’d just like to hear more grunt in them. You can’t change time though.
In many ways you could argue the same about the remainder of the songs here too, but they are the classics and it is hard to go past them. The awesome opening song “Strutter” that still holds its brilliance to this day. Also “Deuce”, which could be considered to be the twin of “Strutter” such is their importance to the Kiss lineage of greatness. “Cold Gin” which has become a staple of live cover bands all over the world. Along with “100,000 Years” and the album closer “Black Diamond”, these were the songs that built the palace that Kiss became in a short space of time, and these for me still hold the foundations for my love of the band.

Kiss has not always managed to make great albums. They have had their ups and downs, and in many ways a lot depends on how you take the band as to whether you enjoy their music or not. Some swear by the first four albums as the only ones you need, whereas others, myself included, can find just as much joy in some of the work from the 1980’s as their early material. One thing that is for certain is that if you haven’t heard this album, then you have missed out on something, because here is where it began, and in particular the five ‘foundation’ songs here are the basis of what became the monster.

Rating:  “I know a thing or two about her”.  4/5

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

1018. Sonata Arctica / Reckoning Night. 2004. 4.5/5

My goodness I have tried hard to love Sonata Arctica unconditionally. From the first time I discovered them, I really wanted this to be a love affairs. Their obvious talents were too great for them to be considered an average band with average albums. With their three previous albums, I had always found great songs and wonderful pieces to take away from each, without ever being completely sold on the album as a whole. Much of that comes with the territory of the power ballad that tend to find their way on such bands’ albums. So I was always searching for more, for that perfect mix of power metal with just a bit of a heavier edge, while being able to combine each members instrument to the highest quality. And then along came Reckoning Night.

From the outset, the band is on fire, and the writing is strong and purposeful. New keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg comes up trumps, and absolutely gives a different flavour on the keys than had been prevalent on the earlier albums. Drummer Tommy Portimo has another cracking album, perfectly synchronised and smack bang on in every way, speed and proficiency. So too Marko Paasikoski on bass guitar, dialling right in to Portimo’s drums and locking in perfectly. Guitarist Jani Liimatainen again showcases the best he has to offer, and his duels throughout with Klingernberg’s keyboard is fantastic. Out the front Tony Kakko again inspires with his vocals, and given he again wrote almost the entire album (Jani wrote “My Selene”) shows he has some major ticker in regards to his music.

“Misplaced” is without a doubt my favourite Sonata Arctica song ever. It has the perfect balance between energy, fast tempo, guitar and keyboard riffs, double kick drum and superb vocals. It is the song that should be this band’s template, simply because it contains everything that is magnificent about this band at the top of their form. This is the killer song of their genre, and it rarely fails to send shivers down my spine whenever I listen to it. “Blinded No More” has those great Tony Kakko vocals and a chugging guitar riff throughout, and while the tempo may have dropped from the opening song once it settles into its groove you can’t help but like what has been produced, and singing along in some semblance of tune (not easy in the slightest). “Ain’t Your Fairytale” kicks straight back in to that up tempo theme with flailing guitar and keys and double kick. What comes through best in this song is that while the power metal theme holds its course, the guitar comes in with a heavier sound, dragging this into a more formidable music ground. The hard core rhythm still keeps the song in motion while all of the parts meld together brilliantly. THIS is what I’ve been waiting for from this band. Power by name but also strength and bottom end in the music.
The gentleness of the instrumental “Reckoning Day, Reckoning Night…” only serves as an interlude to “Don’t Say a Word” which begins in a similar way to “Blinded No More” where the tempo doesn’t start quite so fast but is offset by the strength and power of Tony’ vocals which drive the song to the heights it deserves. Before long the pace of the music itself builds back into that pleasing middle ground. The heavier edge to the guitar and drums through the second half of the song again echoes “Ain’t Your Fairytale”, and it ends on a superior note . Top shelf stuff.
“The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet” settles back into the mid-tempo range and is much of a power metal song, slower and softer than what has come before it, with the keyboards dominating more thoroughly than had been the case earlier in the album. There are touches of Symphony X along the way, before finishing with a hard guitar riff. Pleasing. “My Selene” returns to the upmarket uptempo highs of the best on the album, mixing the keys and guitars superbly into the jaws of Tony’s vocals and his supports on backups, combining into the best aspects of the power metal genre, with the fast paced drums being drawn along by the dominant keyboards in a merry music melody.
“Wildfire” cracks out of the starting gates like its name, and rages along in fine style. There is some real extreme vocals that come through on this track as well, giving it a real intensity that, frankly, is so out of character for this band that it is tremendously exhilarating. “White Pearl, Black Oceans...” could best be summed up here as the epic power metal song of the album, combining chorus and choirs along with the quieter periods of keyboards and acoustically driven guitar, building to a that epic that bands look for. At almost nine minutes it is the longest song on the album. Finally, to close out the album we have “Shamandalie”, which, somewhat regrettably, is probably the least enjoyable song on the album. After everything that has come before it, the album deserved a real killer of a finishing track, and to be honest this isn’t it. It’s okay, it’s fine, but it isn’t up to the standard of everything else on this album, and that is a shame.

This is the album I had been waiting for from Sonata Arctica. It is a power metal album with that added grunt that gives it that heavier sound that not only helps to bring out the best in all of the band members’ chosen instrument, but drives each song to those heights that their talent deserved. The one small problem that followed it was that the band then had to write and record a follow up album that could get somewhere near as good as this is. So far, many years on, they haven’t been able to do that.

Rating:   “Taken for granted again, too weak a man to say it is over”.  4.5/5