I must confess I bought Lightning Prevails (2014), Arno Carstens’ latest album, mostly because the back sleeve indicated that he was doing versions of “Highway to Hell” (AC/DC) and “Hold On. I’m Coming” (egregiously erroneously credited to Sam & Dave who sang the tune that was written by Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter), as well as acoustic versions of “Bubblegum On My Boots” and “Another Universe” and I was intrigued to hear these renditions.
The album cover painting is by Carstens who has a website dedicated to his fine art. Perhaps he is aiming to follow in the footsteps of Captain Beefheart one day when his career in music has run its course.
This is only the third Carstens album I own, having bought the first tow and then skipping the rest. Carstens has one of the best voices in South African rock and his role in Springbok Nude Girls was to be that rock god front man who could really sing and this must have been a major factor in their success and pre-eminent status in their lifetime as the best SA rock band, possibly ever. They were strutting on the big stage when just about everyone else was still a tad provincial. Carstens’ debut solo album is allegedly the best selling local rock album ever and I can believe it. Back in October 2004 I was in Wellington ad some kind of cultural festival where a number of the then big Afrikaans rock acts were playing and Carstens and his New Porn collective were the headliners. They almost quite literally blew the opening acts away with an awesomely loud, monolithic big rock sound that was hugely impressive and made the point that Carstens was big league indeed.
The next time I caught his act was when het played the last of the De Waal Park summer concert series in January 2013. Carstens attracted a very large audience, easily the larges of the series and was backed by a crack band. He played acoustic guitar and did a number of songs as solo performer. The music was anthemic rock and not entirely my cup of tea but it went down a treat with the audience. The rock band show was a big and powerful but nothing like the roaring performance in 2004, partly because the sound could not quite carry as well in the park and partly because the sound was no longer designed like that.
Arno Carstens is a senior statesman of South African rock who has played all over the world, has had a media celebrity lifestyle and now seems to have settle down in his role as serious, sensitive rock guy. He still has one of the coolest voices in local music.
Lightning Prevails does sound like a serious piece of work by a mature artist whose audience probably grew up with him and, though they do not mind rocking, also understand a mellower, but nonetheless intense approach. Supposedly the album celebrates the “unstoppable power of love and creation.”
The essence of the sound on the album is that of amplified acoustic music with big arrangements. The cover of “Highway to Hell” is kind of Carstens homage, I guess, to Johnny Cash doing an acoustic, solo version of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.”
This seems to be the approach to “Bubblegum on my Boots,” the first Springbok Nude Girls hit, which sounds nothing like the sprightly, insouciant rock version of the song, now done as resigned, weary acoustic ballad with brooding strings. You would never say it’s the same song.
Ditto for “Highway to Hell.” I don’t know the AC/DC version well but I would bet it doesn’t have this kind of introspective air to it. It is doubly disturbing given the recent news of founder member Malcolm Young’s retirement form the band, at age 60, because of dementia. This deeply bathetic interpretation could be his epitaph.
Perhaps Carstens is trying to do a neo-soul take on “Hold On, (I’m Coming)” with trumpet and all but it does not work nearly as well as the other reinterpretations. This just sounds like a failed experiment.
The new songs do not suffer by comparison to previous versions and are the more enjoyable for it. The arrangements and the tunes compliment each other perfectly and all the bits of business one puts into this kind of adult record add to a rewarding listening experience. It is not heavy rock, it is not dance pop, it is not EDM; it is a good record full of worthy good music that bears repeat listening. The musicians who play on the album are obviously among the best this country has to offer and with this kind of record the proficiency and technical chops are an enhancement because each note is as it should be and the high production values lift sometimes ordinary songs into a higher plane simply because they sound so good. The other important factor is that Arno Carstens can write a decent tune. Arrangements can disguise the lack of tune to a point, until you start listening carefully and realise that there is merely a showroom dummy underneath the finery and not a living, breathing voluptuous body. On this album the arrangements complement and enhance the strong hooks. It is an extremely engaging, pleasurable album to listen to.
There is quite a bit of solo trumpet by Marcus Wyatt, which is an echo of the SNG sound too.
The album closes with a remake of “Another Universe” a big solo hit for Carstens and it charms even in this version because it is such a damn fine tune. Johnny Clegg plays mouth bow to give it that African vibe; it is not completely another universe. It is our continent.
Arno Carstens continues to make albums that are very satisfactory indeed amidst the simplistic dross so many other local acts offer us. I hate to use the cliché “class act” but it is a very appropriate description. If Carstens is rock royalty, Lightning Prevails is a commanding performance