JONNY COLA & THE A GRADES - SPITFIRE
Sometimes it seems that an album was destined to be made.
For, with the recording of this their second album well under way, leader singer Jonny received the shocking news that routine medical tests had diagnosed him with end-stage kidney failure. Obviously musical matters were put on the back burner as his priorities switched to the day to day management of his condition. However, a kind act of benevolence when his fiancée volunteered to be a donor and a subsequent successful operation, meant that recording resumed anew, but with an understandable palpable lust for life.
As Jonny says, the realisation of his own mortality had heightened his appreciation of all life's pleasures. Consequently, he describes "Spitfire" as "pretty filthy". Whilst this might indeed be true, the word that for me describes the album is diverse.
First track, "In the Woods" commences with a hard rocking intro and fuzzy vocals. I can just see the flash bombs exploding as the band emerge onstage at Wembley Stadium, with legions of fans head banging in unison. Lets rawk!!!!! But then just when I thought I was in for a Motley Crue style rockfest, "Tropical Beach" arrives with Vaccines guitar intro and a chorus that Pulp would have killed for. Perhaps its an indie album then? But hang on....
When reviewing single "Straight To Video" a couple of months ago, I said it sounded like Suede would have done if David Bowie had been on vocals. A brooding six minute epic that builds from a piano driven intro, through an initially slow tempo, into a fully blown bombastic rock song. With several distinct parts to their opus, each punctuated and defined by a moments silence to heighten the suspense. The track has more than a passing feel of Queens little known song Bohemian Rhapsody. I see no reason to change my opinion now! Prog rock anyone?
But no! Next track "Rain Stopped Play" is punk. Hammering along at Ramones amphetamine fuelled speed the song arrives, punches you in the face and leaves all in the space of 2 minutes and 21 seconds. Ah! I've got it now punk rock, right? Er...No!
All gutter-mouthed and grazed knees the dirty rock and roll of "Blow Up" features the pounding bass of Simon Drowner and ear shattering drums of Marco Testa-Ryan. They lay down a back beat of cacophonous noise for guitar heroes Mauro Venegas and Jez Leather to strut their stuff, no doubt having their guitars round their knees like penis extensions. Bad boys!
I was fully expecting the next track to be reggae or rap, however, it seems that in the second half of the album calls a halt to the experimentation. "Going Over" is a Queen/Bowiesque slice of pomp rock with more than a feel of "Life on Mars" (the song, not television series). "Semaphore" is slow and melodic, with a metronomic beat building to a crashing crescendo.
However, next track "Sunset/Sunrise" is the band's major opus to date. Clocking in at just under six and a half minutes, it is all but a rock opera in name. Opening lines "Wedding Bells, Can burn in hell, Dismembered roses smell much sweeter" sets the dark backdrop over which spoken word, wurlitzers, feedback, drums, pianos and all manner of sound effects combine to give a unique feel, but with a soupcon of the Beatles "Being for the benefit of Mr Kite". Not many bands nowadays would have the balls to record a track like this!
"Wronghead" has a return to the quasi Suede sound, but with a synthesiser bridge giving it a rather retro feel. Final track "Out of the Woods" seemingly sets out the bands mantra. Given the health problems suffered by Jonny this initially vocal/piano number highlights that for them the storm was darkest just before he dawn -"We burn the brightest when the darkness wraps round tight".
Given the literally life threatening situation that befell them, I think its great credit to the whole group that they have came up with this album. Whilst for me not all the tracks work, certainly "Straight to Video" and "Sunset/Sunrise" are stellar pieces of rock music and worth the cover price alone. The overall feel is emotive, celebratory and even cathartic at times. For many reasons therefore these tracks are more mature than the debut offering.
Whilst Jonny remains under medical supervision, and will continue to be so indefinitely, Jonny Cola & The A Grades have produce a refreshing and diverse records into which they have thrown a maelstrom of poignant feelings. For that reason alone it deserves to be heard by a wide audience.