Friday, December 14, 2018

The Top Ten Albums Of 2018

Each January, when I turn the calendar over to a new page, there is an excitement over having a fresh start. The next twelve months can contain anything, including the prospect of finding the next piece of music that changes my life. While that did not happen this year, this cycle around the sun did give to us a plethora of releases that made the hard times go by just a bit faster. Most years, I come to this task in the difficult position of trying to decide which albums should get the last slot or two on the list, because there aren't necessarily ten I would say will remain with me for years to come. This time, however, the script is flipped, and I had difficult choices in which albums to leave off the list. It can be argued whether the very top of the list is as strong as some years, but the depth of 2018 has been remarkable. For that reason alone, I have to say this was one of the best years, for me at least, since I started keeping track of my listening habits.

There's one piece of business to attend to first. As the ways we listen to music change, so to can our definition of what a record/album is. That reality comes to the forefront here, as I'm not entirely sure how to consider an album that was released in pieces, across several years. The way I'm choosing to handle the situation is to hand out two top awards; one for the best album released this year, and one for the best record (in sum) that came together this year. I think that's fair.

Anyway, on to the list.

Honorable Mentions: Graveyard - Peace, A Light Divided - Choose Your Own Adventure

These were the hardest to cut from the top ten. Graveyard is one of my favorite bands working right now, and they rebounded from what I felt was their weakest effort with an album that put them back on the right track (that previous record made my list, while this one doesn't, showing what a strong year this was). Greta Van Fleet got all the retro-rock attention, but Grvaeyard are still the masters of it. A Light Divided was a surprising find, but they hit a home run in a style that I am a bit of a sucker for. Their energetic pop/rock is fueled by their quite aggressive female vocals, which lets them be catchy while being heavier than many of the bands like this I have been so high on in recent years (Shiverburn, Letter From The Fire, Forever Still, etc.). They are more than worth checking out.

10. All That Remains - Victim Of The New Disease
There are bands and albums you tell yourself you shouldn't like. There is enough bad blood surrounding All That Remains that for someone like me, who never encountered them during their best period, to get into something they're doing now doesn't make much sense. This record, though, is one that has gotten under my skin. Their radio rock detours get blended into traditional metalcore, which leaves us with an album that is a bit of a hodgepodge, but chock full of great melodic hooks. I knew "Everything's Wrong" and "Wasteland" had promise, and it's nice to hear the entire record, save for the vomit-inducing "Fuck Love", is better than anything I could have expected from this group.

9. Ghost - Prequelle
Ghost continues to grow bigger, and with the exception of "Infestissumam", better with each release. This time around, they fully embrace their pop influences, delivering an album of songs that is filled with their traditional occult-tinged rock, but with a pop sheen that makes the poison go down like candy. Their most infectious songs yet litter this album, with "Dance Macabre" and "Witch Image" standing out as some of the best songs of the entire year. The only thing holding this album back is the brevity. With two long instrumentals, there simply isn't enough of Ghost doing what they do best here.

8. Myja - Myja
A few years back, my list was assaulted late in December by an album I wasn't anticipating from Steven Adler's band, of all people. That album was entirely the work of Jacob Bunton, who is one half of this project as well. Have you ever thought of combining power pop and grunge? I hadn't either, but that's essentially what this album does, and it feels so much more natural than I would have imagined. The melodies are soft and sticky, while the tones and vocals are distant and dark. There's probably a metaphor in there, but let's just leave it at saying this is one of those surprising little albums that makes the hunt for new music so rewarding.

7. The Jayhawks - Back Roads & Abandoned Motels
The one thing The Jayhawks have never been is consistent. With constantly changing lineups, and a sound that shifted multiple times, there are only a few stops along the way I have been keen on. This album is nostalgic, taking me back to those Jayhawks albums I love. There is a heavy dose of "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Rainy Day Music" in these songs, which hold together as an album far more than their genesis would imply. There is something timeless about great music, and this is timeless music.

6. W.E.T. - Earthrage
Melodic rock is often cheesy. Myself, I don't mind that. That charge can be leveled against W.E.T., but these veterans don't care. This project is an outlet for them to have fun, and play music that isn't as serious as their main gigs. You can sense that lightness in these songs, which feature big melodies, bright arrangements, and a relaxed atmosphere. Jeff Scott Soto sounds better here than he has on his other recent appearances, and he's given the best material he's had to sing perhaps ever. The only problem with this album is that its main songwriter released another melodic rock album this year that's even better, which makes this one a touch harder to talk about. We'll get to that shortly.

5. Amaranthe - Helix
I doubt it was intentional, but I find it fascinating how Amaranthe has replicated the plastic, synthetic writing of modern pop music with guitars and real drums. Musically, this is the end result if Max Martin plugged in to a cranked Marshall stack, only with even better hooks. Amaranthe has always been at the forefront of fusing pop and metal, but they go even further this time, and the results are stunning. Song after song, we get a mechanically precise assembly line of ultra-heavy pop. It is an extreme overcorrection to the idea that pop and rock don't go together anymore. They do, and Amaranthe proves it.

4. Pale Waves - My Mind Makes Noises
Speaking of pop music, this is easily the best pop album of the year. Pale Waves caught me by surprise when I first caught wind of them, and since thne they have grown on me as the logical continuation of where I left off with the genre. They have taken Taylor Swift's "1989", rocked a little harder, and given the whole thing a darker vibe. They are the purveyors of what I call 'Daria rock', and it is oh so sweet. This is pop music that plays hard to get, giving you a look from across the room, making you come to her. I don't know if it will be just a moment in time, an endorphin rush that can't last, but even if it is, we've been given a heck of a gift in this album.

3. Nordic Union - Second Coming
The first Nordic Union album was a pleasant surprise, coming in very high on my year-end list. The second album would have to live up to those expectations, and does it ever. Though very similar, this record has a slightly darker tone running through it, which only plays into what made the first record so good. Melodic rock can often by too fluffy and flowery, but Nordic Union is anything but that. This album is crunchy, heavy, and yet unforgettably catchy. Yes, there are a lot of European rock albums that sound like this, but none that are better. This is pure bliss.

2. Light The Torch - Revival
A month before the release date, when "Die Alone" finished playing for the first time, I thought to myself what I was hearing could be special. When I finally got the album, I was proven right. Howard Jones is a massive vocal talent, and his era of Killswitch Engage is the one I grew attached to, the 2009 self-titled album especially. This album is the natural extension of that one, which is just what I needed. Jones and his band play at their most melodic, giving us an album of songs that are simple, direct, crushingly heavy, and packed with the muscular melodies that defined the entire metalcore genre. Howard has never been better than this, nor has he been given as much room to showcase his melodic ear. This album is why I love heavy music.

1. Halestorm - Vicious
Why do I love this new Halestorm album? Well, I can't really put my finger on it. There are lyrics the poet in me wishes were more nuanced, a couple songs with a focus on rhythm that normally isn't my thing, and yet I keep finding myself wanting to come back again and again. Lzzy Hale is a charismatic supernova, and the greatest vocalist of her generation, but more than that it's when Halestorm writes a great modern rock track, there is no one better at selling it. In fact, this album is so good it's made me revisit my opinion of their previous record, which now makes far more sense. How about that? "Vicious" made me love two albums at the same time. Mostly, the decision to put this at the top of the list came down to the simple fact that there was nothing that came out in 2018 I spent more time listening to, or that made me pick up my guitar and try to figure out a few of the songs. That is the ultimate test of when something has taken over my brain. So yeah, this album, and the fact that Halestorm is now only the second artist to ever top my list twice, has cemented my opinion that Halestorm is clearly the best modern rock band in the world now. I said it.

Now for the special award. While this record wasn't released in its entirety this year, the final piece was, and in total it is the record that most defines the year for me. Therefore...

The Record Of The Year:

The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles

Each of the three EPs released by The Spider Accomplice has been a different thread in the web they have been constructing. Now that we are able to put them together, step back and see the delicate patterns glistening in the sun, we are confronted with a record that challenges our interpretation of what modern rock can be. As sprawling as its namesake city, "Los Angeles" is the soundtrack to a million lost souls trying to find their way together, a city that hangs together because everyone is in the same boat, searching for themselves. VK and Arno constantly amaze me with the way they are able to blend the light and dark, maintaining their identity while experimenting, all the while writing songs that speak to our collective truth. If you press me, there is no other record that sums up 2018 more than "Los Angeles", even if it is a reality I have constructed for myself. How de rigueur, eh?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Conversation: Wrapping Up 2018

Chris C: Physicists say gravity is a constant, but it's getting hard to believe that when the sands in the hourglass seem to be falling faster with each passing year. Here we are again, getting ready to pass judgment on the music to come from another trip 'round the sun. We can be thankful to still have our health and youthful vigor, but as we mentioned in a separate conversation, not everyone we know is so lucky. In that way, whether the year in music was good or bad, it would be hard to walk away from 2018 all that disappointed.

This was another eventful year for music, with plenty of good, bad, and even heart-breaking twists and turns. We got records that were amazing, we finally get to be rid of KISS, and we lost some important members of the metal community. Believe me, we will get to Jill Janus, and a discussion surrounding mental health later. But I want to start things off on a different note, with perhaps the biggest development of the year in rock; Greta Van Fleet. They sold more records than perennial chart-toppers Disturbed, and generated a massive amount of press (including a laughable review from Pitchfork that created a lot of press about the press about the record - meta!), while seeming to make no one happy.

We've both come to the conclusion that bands are damned if they do, damned if they don't. New rock bands get compared to the past, and told they can't measure up, because rock and roll was better back then. When a band tries to recapture that sound, they get called rip-offs. Greta Van Fleet is the biggest poster child yet for that. Accused of ripping off a band that ripped off countless blues musicians, I was not at all surprised to see the mixed-at-best reaction to their debut album, most of which mentioned almost nothing about the music itself. We laugh about when rock in the 80s was all about image, but it's the same thing now, isn't it? Greta Van Fleet is being punished for their guitar tone and vocal timbre (not to mention wardrobe and hair choices), which is the antithesis of rock, right?

I prefer to focus on the music that gets made, since that's the only thing that actually matters. My thoughts on their album are posted here. I find them to be an update throwback, of similar spirit but different sound, like Graveyard. What say you? And where else do you want to begin?

D.M: Briefly addressing your opening statement, a friend once opined that the passage of time may appear to abbreviate in our perception because each passing year represents a lesser and lesser percentage of the total time we've been on earth.  I had never thought about it that way, but I bet there's some mileage to be gotten out of that if you spent enough time on it.

Anyway.

Did we really get rid of KISS?  I personally doubt it.  We've heard this song and dance before, and at the very least, even if they're not making music or touring anymore, we all know Gene won't be satisfied until he's sold the KISS logo and name to every product on earth.  I don't know if there are KISS dish towels yet (there probably are,) but let's assume they're coming, along with KISS thumbtacks, KISS home insulation and KISS printer paper.

I'm going to try to tackle Greta Van Fleet in two parts.

First, the music itself.  I've listened to the album a few times now, both while sitting and concentrating on it, and on a few road trips with my wife, who is a fan.  The album is fine...but it's just fine.  There's nothing there that makes me jump out of my seat in appreciation, or have any desire to go out and defend the music with GVF on my shield.  There's also nothing absolutely terrible about it.  You and I are both mature enough as people and as music critics to recognize that the comparisons to Led Zeppelin are appropriate to some degree, but also editorially a little lazy.  There's both more and less going on in the record than a simple copy of Zep, as I can hear some Grand Funk Railroad and maybe a little Neil Young and a dash of sixties folk rock.  That said, I find it to be a synthesis of those things rather than a recreation of them, which I'll address more in the second part.  I think my main detraction from the album as a whole is that I feel like Josh Kiszka is yelling at me all the time, and I'm not sure he knows why.  It's funny you mentioned Disturbed - Josh's vocals are akin to Dave Draiman, in that he seems to have one single intonation.  Now, I'm fine with being shouted at by a vocalist for an extended period (Brian Johnson comes to mind,) but only if I believe the conviction behind it, and I don't get the sense of that purpose from Josh's vocals.  He's yelling either because he can, or because he's not even grown into his voice yet, which are both forgivable offenses in the short term, but are a point of concern moving forward.

Here's the second part, which will combine both my larger concerns and address some of the more global criticisms of the band.  This comes with the caveat that I will use Led Zeppelin as a comparison because it is the most common frame of reference for GVF, more than because I believe them to be the only parallel.  And my thoughts go like this: to emulate is one thing.  To be is another thing entirely.  Yes, the band has captured the essence of something that has come before, but I disagree that they're created something new.  No one is suggesting it's easy to become successful as a precise recitation of the past, but at some point, you become an also-ran of that same past unless you can transcend.  And what's getting lost in the endless "next Led Zeppelin" press is that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and John Bonham (and fine, Robert Plant, too,) were a cosmically-ordained, planet-aligning mix of incredibly talented musicians, and the jury is still very much out on whether these kids from Michigan have that same knack for creation and genre definition.  In the present, there's nothing on this album that tells me they do.  I don't see these kids writing "In My Time of Dying" just yet (which is a sneaky great Zeppelin tune, btw.)

When you and I were strictly (or more strictly) covering metal records, we were inundated with bands who sounded like Black Sabbath.  People made a whole career of being a Black Sabbath copy (looking at you, Church of Misery,) but nobody was putting away their copy of "Master of Reality" in favor of one of these clones.  If they're not careful, the same fate will befall GVF, because it is categorically impossible to out-Zeppelin Zeppelin.  They are the definition of Led Zeppelin.  They've done it.  Same goes for Black Sabbath and Kyuss and Iron Maiden and the Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine and all those headline acts who defined or re-defined their genre.  Perhaps "re-define" is the key word.  Graveyard, to your point, has done this (and I'm sure we'll discuss "Peace" later.)  Yes, they have a lot of the past in the their sound, but their arrangement is unique - they don't sound exactly like anyone, and you know a Graveyard song when you hear one.  If GVF can't find that same level of separation, people are just going to go back to listening to "Led Zeppelin II" because it's the prime, unimpeachable example of that sound.  And it'll happen, because right now, everyone says GVF sounds like Led Zeppelin - no one is saying they're an improvement on Led Zeppelin.  (And I know this rings a little flat to you, as a non-Zep fan.)

As for the other criticisms, the Pitchfork review was entirely too glib and click-baity for its own good, but there was one interesting kernel in there - the idea that we might, for the first time, have a band that comes to the height of popularity because an algorithm is feeding them to a captive audience.  Are they a product of Spotify or YouTube or whatever?  Greta Van Fleet is on tour right now - I am deeply curious to know what the median age of the paying customers is.  There are only three choices, really - young people who are experiencing rock for the first time, young people who love classic rock and want the chance to get a glimpse of what it was like back in the day, and old farts who are reliving the glory of their youth for a limited time.  I'm inclined to think group three has a heavy hand here.  Did this band come to fame because of a career spent toiling in the underground with misfit kids latching on and spreading the word, or are they prominent because dudes like Eddie Trunk (and all respect to Eddie Trunk, he's a legend,) got hold of the record and touted it as a resurrection of the past?  That doesn't diminish their authenticity or even come as a criticism, but it does bring me back to the concerns in the above paragraph about their staying power, and it does tread into interesting territory about the future distribution and promotion of music.

This might be petty of me, but I can't totally dismiss the haircuts and throwback clothing of Greta Van Fleet.  I know it's the smallest one percent of everything they have going on, but as they say, 'dress for the job you want.'  It would be one thing if these guys were out there in street clothes and had a retro sound, but there's a level of conscious decision that's gone into the band's image and appearance that can't be dismissed in the final analysis.  Maybe I'm cynical, but whoever is driving Greta Van Fleet's bus (van, I suppose,) whether it's the kids themselves or somebody else, wants them to appear as a revival act, as a rolling piece of living nostalgia.  Which means they'll inevitably be judged against that standard.

Right now, Greta Van Fleet is where Airbourne was after their first record.  No more and no less.  Airbourne's made a living as an AC/DC copy (and a good one, for the record,) but they never supplanted the root band, and a lot of people moved on.

That's probably a thousand words from me to digest, so before we get into other stuff, I'll let you deal with my initial ramblings.



CHRIS C: I know I have made that point before, though I can't for the life of me remember if I said it to you at any time.

Ah yes, clone bands. I would say we have encountered at least one of them for every big name that has ever existed. Sabbath is the most common, which my hatred of Ozzy's voice (fun fact; Ozzy is not on my top three, or four, Sabbath albums - discuss) means I will be forever tortured by it, but they are all represented. The thing about clone bands is that they say out loud what is supposed to be whispered. Music is a business, sure, but we like to pretend most of the people involved are still at it because of artistic drive. But when you are in a clone band, there isn't a way to claim you're doing it for noble intentions. Nothing you have to say is important, since the band you're cloning has already said it. What's weird, though, is that there is one of them that made a big name for themselves. Primal Fear is absolutely a Judas Priest clone, featuring a guy who auditioned for Halford's spot, recreating the two or three 'good' Priest albums for those kinds of metal fans.

Greta Van Fleet are absolutely a clone of Zeppelin. I don't deny that. The band is pretty obviously playing on the hunger that is still out there for Page and Plant, but I suppose that might be the reason why I give them more of a pass. They are cloning a band that is never coming back, whereas all the Maiden and Sabbath clones were running concurrently with the originals. I wasn't so much saying Greta Van Fleet has done something original with their sound as I was saying they write songs in a slightly different way than Zeppelin, which at least to my ears makes them sound a hair bit less of a rip-off. I might be hearing things.

Don't get me started on vocalists. The feeling of being screamed at is the biggest reason why large swaths of metal are unlistenable to me. I ascribe to a theory that if the band wasn't there, would I put up with the person performing that way in my ear? The answer for all of the intelligible screamers and growlers is NO. I would never sit through more than twenty seconds of Messhugah's vocalist screaming at me, so I can't see why I would allow it just because the band is playing some sludgy riffs behind it. I get a bit high-minded here, but I think of music as a way for humans to connect, to share bits of their minds and feelings that have no other form of expression. But when you then decide to scream, you suck the humanity out of the performance, which waters down the pull of the music. Voices are all individual, and we're never going to hear them the same way and like the same ones, but I would like to think we can at least agree on what the point of having a vocalist is supposed to be. But maybe not.

That brings us to "Peace", as you mentioned. Since vocalists are so unique, it often leaves me shaking my head at bands that employ more than one singing lead. I don't know if there has ever been a band other than The Beatles where I haven't easily preferred one over the other(s). Graveyard is one of them, and the fact that they have been giving tracks to the other members to sing is a major reason why I haven't found myself returning to these most recent albums as much as "Hisingen Blues" and "Lights Out". "Peace" is great, and it's their most rocking record, but only Joakim sounds like he was singing directly into the grooves of a vinyl record. But to return to our original point, Graveyard works exponentially better than Greta Van Fleet, because they are the ultimate example of inspiration existing with originality. No one can possibly deny Graveyard is pure classic rock, but I have never heard anyone tell me who they sound like. They synthesized an entire genre, without letting too much of any one band bleed through. That is not as good a business move, but it is the artistic choice.

Here's what I mean by us being rid of KISS. Sure, the tour might never end, but they see the light waiting for them to walk into it, and they seem firmly committed to never trying to make music again. If all they ever do is tour under the guise of being done, they will fade into obscurity in time. Not that anyone ever should have, but no one will take them seriously again. They are now as relevant as Herman's Hermits (who still play the state fair, or similar events around here, most years).

Perhaps what ties a lot of these stories together is that musicians need to have an unhealthy mental bent to make it to the top. They either need to be greedy (like Gene Simmons), delusional (take your pick), or fine with taking credit for the accomplishments of others (here's your Greta Van Fleet types). Artistry and mental illness have long had connections, but music right now is a form where it isn't just that a mental condition can spark creativity, but a healthy disposition can force people to rightly say the business isn't worth the effort. I wouldn't dare try to explain what was going on in Jill Janus' mind, but I have thought about her often when these sorts of points come up. Clearly, our musical communities don't have enough understanding for the people who live behind the music we listen to.

I've given you a few things to chew on, so I will hand you the baton.

D.M: Fundamentally, the issue with clone bands is that the players involved may not be as talented as the pinnacle musicians they're trying to emulate.  As so many of my metaphors do, this one will turn to sports - the triangle offense looked great with Jordan, Pippen and Grant/Rodman/Harper/etc, and it looked great with O'Neal and Bryant...and then it didn't look so great with Carmelo, Tim Hardaway Jr and Iman Shumpert.  Mike Martz created the Greatest Show on Turf, and now is a head coach in something called the Alliance of American Football because lo and behold, he couldn't recreate his success without five hall of fame caliber players (Warner, Bruce, Holt, Faulk, Pace.)  Really, 'clone' may not be the accurate nomenclature for what we're trying to describe, since clone implies an equal level of ability. 

What makes the clone band so disappointing is that they have the opportunity to extend the creativity of something that came before when that thing has faded.  To use your example, Judas Priest is probably coming to the end of their run as innovative songwriters (and that be being kind,) but Primal Fear, who is a talented band for what it's worth, hasn't taken the reins and shifted the paradigm at all.  Essentially, we've just gotten another decade of the same things we loved about "Painkiller," and as we all know, to simply repeat yourself over the course of decades and never offer something of substance makes you....Bruce Springsteen.

Back up a second - let me see if I can guess your four favorite Sabbath albums based on your quip.  Okay, I know you love "Mob Rules" and "Heaven & Hell," so that's two.  I'm gonna say "Dehumanizer" and...."Headless Cross"?  I know a few people who are mysteriously big on the Tony Martin era, are you among them?

This is the point of the show where I make a complete ass of myself and broadcast for the masses that I am not someone who hears the vocals of a song in the forefront.  That sounds insane, I know, and it's hard to describe, but it's true.  I hear the rhythm section first, and that's what collects my attention, especially if the melody and the rhythm are in sync.  To that end, I hear the vocals more as an additional instrument in the overall mix than a do a prime driving factor in the song.  My point is this - I think I have a high tolerance for screamed vocals because to me, it's a part of the arrangement, more than a direct message to the listener.  Subsequently, I think this is why I don't have the same dilemma with Graveyard passing out the vocals duties - there's no question that the different gentlemen all sound different, which lends a different color to the proceedings.  And for me, they're not like Soundgarden or Alice in Chains or the Screaming Trees, where Cornell/Staley & Cantrell/Lanegan are so idiomatic of the band's sound.  Joakim Nilsson is a fine vocalist, but I don't need him in every song.  This is where you're really going to take a swing at me, but "From a Hole in the Hall" was my favorite song on "Innocence and Decadence." 

Let's be clear though - we may disagree about facets of them, and I don't want to go out on a limb and speak for you, but if we were to independently list our top five favorite active bands, we would both have Graveyard in the top ten.  Maybe we'd both have them in the top five.  It probably sounds pedantic, but they're simply amazing.  One of the few bands who never disappoints with their creativity and expression (Turisas, you're on that list.  Get off your ass and release another album already!  It's been five years!)

Oh man, the mental imbalance required to be successful in music may not be all that different from the one required to be successful in sports (here I go again.)  Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Tom Brady are, from a strictly psychological point of view, borderline sociopaths.  They are guilty of having an all-consuming obsession with winning, at the least.  To be a success in the music business is no doubt similar, with a notable exception - athletes don't have to provide the source material.  The sport already existed, they just have to live within the rules and structure of it (or push the boundaries of it.)  As we've seen, to really have an impact in music, your message needs to be on point, and that usually requires the kind of passion or heartache (or both,) that can only come with strange circumstances and unusual mindsets.  The struggle has to be relevant, but also very real.  That's a potent and toxic combination in many cases.

And thus, Jill Janus.  I don't have a ton to say here except that I was extraordinarily sad when I heard the news.  She was one of my favorite people I ever interviewed - charming and kind and funny and quick-witted, accepting and patient and candid in a way that few others were.  You got the impression that she was uniquely aware of her fans and not only knew how to connect with them on a human level, but felt the need to do so.  For me, the real story of her passing is that we all need to be in touch with our friends.  See how they're doing.  You can't always see the signs, but for the person suffering, knowing that someone cares enough to hang around and ask can make a difference.

No easy transition off of that, but aside from the expectations surrounding Greta Van Fleet, the other major story of the year was Ghost.  I'm a fan of "Prequelle," I think it comes down to a band having fun doing what they want to do (which was a theme for a lot of bands this year,) but the purists weren't fans.  You're more pop-oriented than me, how did it strike you?


CHRIS C: You're mostly right about the clone bands, but there is a detail in Primal Fear's history that shows they both did try something new, and failed to modify what a clone is. There was a period a decade or so back when they released "The Seventh Seal", wherein they tried to expand their songwriting. They had a few longer tracks, and they introduced more symphonic bits.... and the fans complained they didn't sound enough like Judas Priest anymore. The ultimate problem with clones isn't that they get compared unfavorably to the originals, it's that they can never escape the comparisons. Unless you branch off very early, you will forever be a clone. For an example, see the band Soen. Their first album is a 100% Tool clone. In the old Limewire days, it would have spread like wildfire AS the new Tool album. But as soon as their second album, they moved on to a more Opeth vibe, so now they aren't looked at in that manner. You can use a similarity to get your name out there, but you don't have long before you have to prove yourself.

Speaking of clones; I've always been hoping for more bands to try cloning the sound Bruce Dickinson had going on "Accident Of Birth" and "The Chemical Wedding". There was one band that did it very well, but they disappeared after one album. And yet we get new Priest clones each and every year....

You absolutely nailed it. I am not a big Tony Martin guy, and I can do without his other albums, but "Headless Cross" is indeed awesome. It sounds horribly 80s, but it's good stuff.

You're not weird. I've had several people over the years tell me I'm wrong, not weird - wrong, for listening the way I do. But it makes sense to me. I am a writer/lyricist, and I would be a singer if I had a better voice, so it's natural for me to focus on the part of a song that I would be most intent on creating myself. Given the popularity of hip-hop, modern pop, and the various forms of extreme metal, I'm clearly in what is now the minority. Maybe I just picked up my instrument too late in life, and I had already baked in my opinions. I'm the weirdo who didn't learn how to play guitar because I wanted to play guitar, but with the sole purpose of having a tool to write songs with. I think if I was a more dedicated guitar player, I would have a tighter focus on the instrumental parts when I'm listening to new stuff. But nothing is absolute, and an album like Trouble's awesome self-titled is a guitar album first and foremost, even for me.

Top five active bands, eh? You had your confession, so here's mine. I'm not really a fan of bands. I'm fickle enough to please that even bands I like disappoint me a good portion of the time, so there aren't many I would so outright I am a fan of, with no reservations. That said, as short as my list of options would be, Graveyard is absolutely on there. Given that I can't truly say my favorite band is 'active', Graveyard is probably in a dogfight with Halestorm for the title of my favorite going at the moment. That name brings up something I want to talk about, but that's for when we get to what surprised us this year.

Too much of society is focused on lauding the sociopath. Music, sports, politics (oh man); they're all filled with terrible people doing terrible things in the name of advancing themselves. We all get twisted up when those behaviors become normalized. What's always given me a face-palm moment is when the 'analysts' complain about an athlete who doesn't scream in his teammates face and act like a belligerent douche-nozzle, because it proves he's not a leader. Being quiet and doing your job well isn't good enough. So why do we demonize the failed leader, but not the people who need someone screaming in their face in order to do their job? That sounds like the issue to me, and you never hear any of the supposed experts calling out the people who are actually showing weakness. As long as you aren't the highest paid, you apparently have no responsibility to give a damn.

Ghost went full pop, that's for sure. I thought it was great, and the logical extension for them if they really do want to take over the rock world, but I get why a lot of more hardcore rock and metal fans weren't into it. I know Eddie Trunk did several shows trying to figure out why so many metal musicians love Ghost. I give him no credence, though, since the band he can't stop talking about just put out a Queen-aping record that features them doing a version of their single with Kesha, in a blatant play for mainstream pop appeal. For Ghost, going pop works with the gimmick. They are supposedly trying to spread the word of Satan, and how better to do that than with bubblegum songs that can sneak into the heads of average people? By no means am I saying they're perfect. I can't defend the idea of this kind of band putting two five-minute instrumentals on a record. Ghost is about the gimmick and the character, so leaving ten of the forty minutes without either was inexplicable. Watch, you're going to say you loved those parts. We've talked before about how a rock band is going to grow into something that will push into the mainstream, it's going to take moves that make the original fans uncomfortable. Ghost is trying, and we still have to wait to see if it works.

I mentioned it earlier, so let's get to it. What about this year was a surprise, either for good or bad? You know who my surprise is about, but maybe not how.

D.M: You know, so long as we're going down the rabbit hole, who's the best clone band ever?  Is it even possible to rate such a thing?  I'm not sure what the metric would be - is it the most enjoyable, or would it be the one who accomplished the most, or the one who advanced the genre the most?  And if the latter, is it a clone band anymore?  For my money, I might stick with Airbourne.  Their first album is great, and the more AC/DC turns into nothing but a traveling museum made out of mercenary parts, the more Airbourne's authenticity helps their case.  I could also go with the Texas Hippie Coalition, but I hold them in too high esteem to denigrate them by calling them strictly a clone band.

Because you asked (wait, it was me who asked,) my top five active bands, in no order, looks like this: Turisas, Destrage, Red Fang, Red Eleven, Graveyard.  Cancer Bats on the outside looking in.

It's funny you mention lauding the sociopath - a mutual friend of ours and I were recently having a conversation of much this same stripe, and he encapsulated it better than I think I could have - we, as a society, equate success with virtue.  Which is not only frighteningly true, but it works hand in hand with something we've been dancing around for years - that in America, we struggle mightily with the concept that a person can be two things concurrently.  Ronnie Radke can be a successful musician AND a questionable (to be gentle about it,) human being.  Phil Spector can be a visionary AND a lunatic.  Aaron Rodgers can be an all-time great quarterback talent AND a prickly, cold person.  These things aren't mutually exclusive.  I think what makes the scenarios I just talked about so unique is that when it comes to public life and accolades, it is often difficult to be one WITHOUT being the other.  (As an aside, here's my favorite one - Michael Jordan can be the best basketball player AND a brutal, tyrannical teammate and self-absorbed asshole.  The man could be the greatest ambassador for his game in history, greater even than Magic Johnson, but he never speaks, doesn't make appearances, doesn't do interviews.  Granted, he doesn't owe those things to anybody, but knowing what we know, doesn't it feel like there's some spite there?)

Speaking of people who may be some degree of sociopathic (is that a word?) I'm going to stray from music for a moment.  I meant to ask you think offline, but what the hell, we're here - this whole Phil and Tiger match for a bazillion dollars, this is a crock of shit, right?  (And for those reading, I am writing this about two days prior to the event,) Like, this feels ten years too late, and it also feels like it wouldn't have happened ten years ago, if that makes sense.  This, for me, has all the hallmarks of two dudes cashing in while they're past their prime but still game enough to draw.  But you're my golf guy - you tell me.  (Things only I would notice that drive me nuts - on their media tour the other day, when they appeared on "Pardon the Interruption," Phil sat screen left and Tiger screen right, then on "SportsCenter" at 6pm, they were reversed for no reason I could tell.)

Getting back to it, I think the one thing that really surprised me this year was the number of bands who seemed to just want to have fun.  That sound vague and stupid even as I type it, but allow me to elaborate.  Ghost just went for it and made the pop record they've been leaning toward for a while now (and no, I'm with you - I didn't need two instrumentals.)  The Cancer Bats were clearing going for a particular mood on their previous album "Searching for Zero," but dumped it and went back to making rock-core (I invented a new genre!) for this year's "The Spark That Moves."  Clutch continued the bouncy momentum of "Psychic Warfare" with "Book of Bad Decisions," and Orange Goblin...well, they just made another Orange Goblin record.  But I can't help but feel like this is a good thing - maybe, optimistically, we've gotten to the point with easy digital distribution and audience intelligence where bands don't need to fit a 'scene' anymore.  They can just be, and people will find them.  Maybe.

This name will come up for me again, but I was also surprised by the band Alien Weaponry.  As soon as I read "teenagers" in the band bio, horrible memories of the flood (no pun intended) or expectation that surrounded Black Tide came back to me.  And listen, AW's album "Tu" is as raw as can be, and they've got a lot they can tighten up, but their sound is unique and they're on to something.

You?


CHRIS C: The best clone band? Wow, that's actually a far harder question than I thought it was going to be, mainly because the vast majority of them are cloning someone I was never a super big fan of to begin with. I can appreciate AC/DC, Priest, and Sabbath, but I don't listen to enough of any of them to give much credence to bands that sound like them. I suppose I have to say my answer is none, and I have mostly avoided becoming invested in any clones. You could make the argument that Edguy and Avantasia both started as Helloween clones, but they have shifted far away from that as they moved along, and it's the later stuff I'm more a fan of. As for a slightly different question; Avenged Sevenfold is probably the most successful of them, what with that album they made that was pretty much lightly rewritten rock/metal standards. I didn't even listen to it, but I still hate them for that.

You're absolutely right about our inability to hold two thoughts in our heads about a single person. Before diving into sports, I'll throw another one out there. Everyone talks about Ellen as this loving, generous, kind spirit. And yet she tortures her employees and friends by deliberately scaring them or making them do things she knows they hate, all for a laugh. If there wasn't a camera on the whole time, it would be disturbing.

Success really is the cure-all. I need to point no further than to the current occupant of a certain residence. Half of the country is willing to justify anything, so long as their side is picking out the curtains. Aaron Rodgers is absolutely a cold person. As one myself, I don't mean that as a criticism, but it's pretty clear to me he's not the kind of guy who should be in commercials, and yet....  Or look at Eli Manning. When the Giants were good, people thought he was 'charming' in a doofus kind of way. Now that they suck, not so much. But those Super Bowls do keep people from reminding everyone Eli engaged in outright fraud that sucked money out of the pockets of people who actually thought his signature was worth something. The joys of fame.

We're also seeing it with the recently deceased rapper with the horrible name I'm not going to bother googling to spell correctly. He was, by all estimations, a shitty human being. Yet because someone thought his mumbling flows were good, there was mourning upon his death. I won't be so callous as to say he deserved it, but he certainly didn't deserve tributes, or to have his stuff go to the top of the charts. There's something bred into the American idea wherein we think success is a limited entity, and since we all make it there on our own (a lie, but widely believed), people have to be screwed in order to get there. Success is far more than having the most money, or being on tv the most. People say we lose sight that music and sports are a business. No, I think we lose sight that music is supposed to be an art.

Tiger and Phil, oh boy. Tiger fits into that sociopath category as well. He can flash a smile, and he was taught how to fool people by his father, but you don't set up a system with your agent to cheat on your wife in every city you travel to without having a degree of sociopath in you. And just to be clear, while the rest of the world was creaming themselves as Tiger finally won a tournament again, I haven't forgiven him (and don't plan to) for lying to our faces for so long while being a lousy person. As to the matchup, of course it's two guys cashing in while they still can. Phil knows he only has a year or two left before he's on the first tee of the US Senior Open, and Tiger's body is going to fail him entirely at some point. The whole thing is a manufactured mess that proves neither one of them actually cares about their fans, despite what they say (and Phil's reputation for majorly tipping - which is probably more PR than anything). You have to multi-millionaires getting together to play for someone else's money they they don't need, and then want the fans to pay for the privilege of watching the rich get richer. Holy Roman debauchery, Batman! Could you imagine Michael Jordan making people pay to come watch him light cigars with $100 bills? Actually, I can, so scratch that. This match is everything that's wrong with modern sports. It is greed masking as entertainment. They could have done a great thing and put the match on regular tv while playing for their own money, which would have been something original and unique, and maybe revealed a bit about who they really are when the stress got to them. Instead, how is anyone supposed to give a damn about someone obscenely rich winning or not winning more money that they don't need?

Back to the point, now. My surprise of the year was Halestorm, but not in the way you might think. I'm not surprised that "Vicious" was a good album, if that's what you were thinking. While I was quite vocal about not liking the one before this, I know they're a good band, and I adore Lzzy, so I hadn't dared write them off yet. No, what surprised me is how this record has changed my perception. "Into The Wild Life" was a departure, both in terms of how it was written, and how it sounded. "Vicious" goes in that same direction, so you would think I would be similarly wary. I was at first, but it's a better written album. They have shifted focus to being more riff and rhythm focused, but because they have better songs behind them, I can clearly hear what they are going for. And now that I see where the path leads, I can see where the previous album was trying to go. So with that better understanding, I can appreciate what they were trying to do last time far more than I did before. What I thought were mistakes are now more evidently growing pains on the way to something new that is just as good as what I regretted them leaving behind. I can't think of another time when a record changed my opinion of a different record. I thought that was rather interesting.

I suppose we have talked long enough to start wrapping things up. So I will pose to you the usual array of questions; the good, the bad, and what is waiting on the other side of the horizon?

D.M: Take this for what it's worth - I cannot personally attest to this, I have only heard it twenty-fifth hand.  Rumor has it Ellen is so tough to work for that the show at one point had burned through six directors in seven years, or some similarly ridiculous proportion.  Yikes.

I can't say I shed a tear when I read that Turner was going to issue refunds on the Tiger/Phil fiasco, and make absolutely no money on the proceedings at all.  As you said, served them right.  As an aside, I'm not much for MMA, but why on God's green earth was Chuck Lidell fighting the other night?  Good lord, he's starting to get Ric Flair's body.  Never a positive sign, at least not during my adult life.  Dude, hang it up.

My best thing for this year may be repetitive, but I am increasingly thankful for it - my top ten albums haven't been narrowed down into a solid list yet, but I am thankful that eleven of the contenders are bands I wasn't familiar with before.  They say by our age that people stop discovering new music and new media and recess into their favorites of old.  I am happy that I am vital enough to keep wanting to hear new and better and most of all, more.

Also good, more crossover between the electronic and the rock and metal.  I might be getting suckered in a little here because I am an easy target for a heavy downbeat, which electronic music specializes in almost exclusively, but besides the Browning, Lord of the Lost and Fear of Domination both turned in excellent records that integrated two previously disparate styles.  As a musical society, we toyed with this in the '90s, between Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy and Godhead and a hundred others, but these new albums seem to be built on an established foundation.  Curious to see where it goes next.

The bad was that a bunch of bands I already loved failed to live up to expectation.  I was amped for new records from Red Dragon Cartel and Emigrate, and both were lukewarm affairs that totally lost the keen edge which made their previous efforts so laudable.  And the beat goes on - heavyweights like Monster Magnet and Skindred failed to impress, and even bands further under the radar like Halcyon Way and Spiders couldn't deliver for me.  So make no mistake, Clutch and a few others rose to the occasion, but it was a bad year for established names on the whole.

And the ugly - just the crossover effort between Gridfailure and Megalophobe.  This isn't even necessarily their fault - they're totally allowed to make whatever music they want to make.  But with names like that, it sounds like any collaboration should represent the soundtrack to a category five hurricane.  Instead, it sounds like forty-five minutes of windy farts.  Not very editorially insightful on my fart, but there it is.

Next year?  New Children of Bodom record, curious to see what they evolve into this time.  Also, new John 5 & the Creatures, and at this point, I daresay that John 5 is a more vital and creative artist than Rob Zombie himself (with no disrespect to the Rob, he'll always be a legend to me,) so I'm looking forward to that.  Nothing else screams out at me, unless, as I put in here every year, Blackguard finally releases "Storm."

Take us home!


CHRIS C: I am not versed in the MMA world, so I can't comment too much about Chuck Liddell. What I know is old guys who haven't been deemed good in ages shouldn't be headlining a major card. Although, being Ric Flair wouldn't be a bad thing. Sure, he was never the most cosmetically amazing wrestler out there, but that body wrestled more matches for more years than just about anybody. As an aside, have you ever seen the pictures of him from before the plane crash? Holy hell, he was thick. He became an entirely different person after that.

That statistic is depressing. I love all my old favorite records, but I can't yet imagine having only them to listen to for the rest of my life. Even when we hit December, and the flow of new stuff slows down, I find myself getting antsy for something new to come along. While I can get worn down by the grind at various points during the year, I also know that new music is what keeps me interested in the art. I would say that if you are a real music lover, you can't shut yourself off. Not kowing when the next great thing is going to come along would be criminal for a fan. But I suppose it comes down to the simple fact most people aren't fans in the same way they we are. They have 'families'. Bah! Albums are better, right?

For me, the best thing this year wasn't even music. Sure, there was a lot of good stuff, but my favorite experiences of the year were interactions I had with musicians. I've already recounted them to you, but being able to have that kind of connection with people I like and admire is one of those things that still makes me shake my head. I'm not sure how it happened, or why I can't seem to replicate it when it would be helpful, but it's hard to find anything better than making an impact with someone who has done the same for you. Highlight of my year, definitely.

The bad is the number of older artists who keep trying to chase youth, looking pathetic in the process. It happened to Machine Head and Ministry (not that they were ever good) this year, and it's already been made clear Weezer has another epic faceplant on the schedule for 2019. I continually get annoyed when artists in their 40s and 50s try to prove they're still hip and current. You aren't. Your actual fans don't care, because they aren't either. No one wants to watch a guy with a gray beard playing songs about Bronies.

Normally, I don't know of much to get excited about as the new year approaches. This time, though, there's a host of stuff to (perhaps dangerously) pique my interest. In the first few months, we're going to have new records from The Neal Morse Band, Dream Theater (AOTY winner in 2011), Avantasia (a long-time favorite), Michael Monroe (#2 in 2015), and the one I might be most interested in, a new Soen record (AOTY winner this time last year). That's quite a few albums with a lot of potential already on my radar. Perhaps it will be another great year.

And as we wind this up for another year, I just want to make note of the realization we came to, that sums up a lot of this. We can be two very different people, who come to music from different approaches, and who use music for different reasons, but we still come together because we love music. It is important to us, despite those differences. And as long as it remains important, this is still a practice worth pursuing. Cheers.

Monday, December 10, 2018

EP Review: Browsing Collection - Don't Want To Dance

Sometimes I can't help but feel old. I know I'm not, but when it's hard not to have the thought in my mind when I come across an EP like this from Browsing Collective, who are all significantly younger than me, but playing a style of pop-influenced punk rock and roll that I was around to see take flight. Their influences have been around longer than some of them have, and since I can remember hearing albums like "Smash" back in the day, that makes me feel a bit like a fossil. I saw punk's edge erode into the mess Blink 182 left behind, and now that an entire generation has come up who cite that era as their influence, I don't know what to say.

The EP kicks off with "One Time A Year", which shows a more progressive side to the group than we often hear. While the song is still propelled by a punk ethos, there are hints of other styles that pop in, notably in the buildup to the chorus. In a way, they sound like a less pop-influenced version of Fall Out Boy, circa "Folie A Deux". The sound is big and polished, but still has a rough energy behind it that does a lot of good.

"Something To Hold On To" is even faster and more ragged, but the production does wonders to make sure the song has a brightness and sheen to it that doesn't require a trained punk ear to appreciate. Clean recordings can sometimes be too sterile, but for a group that is trying to showcase their attitude, it works to their benefit, letting them straddle the line between accessible and stand-offish.

"Hi But No" is the best track on the EP, with a hook that retains its punk DNA, but has a solid dose of pop to it. Not pop in the way that The All American Rejects started out as, but pop in the Ramones way, where the song is memorable without sounding like they're trying too hard to make it happen. That fault is far more prevalent than it should be, and it has ruined many bands *cough*Opeth*cough*.

Then we get "Oh, Sweet Sire", which changes things drastically. It is a Sabbath inspired doom track, with guitars that recall the evil flat-fifth, and a pace that crawls along for maximum darkness. It really does sound like a punk take on one of the slower Dio-era Sabbath tunes. That's not a bad thing, but it does sound a bit out of place between two pop-leaning tracks, as "Thank God It's Friday" follows with another energetic sing-along. I'm all for having some diversity on a record, but sometimes the experiments don't quite sound like they belong where they do. Perhaps it's as simple as putting it as the last track instead.

"The Story That Never Ends" is also a bit slower, but it has a hook that lets the pacing build into, so there is a cathartic moment when it comes. It shows the difference between pace and tone. You can drop one, the other, or both, and get different results. So after we finish these six tracks, the verdict is pretty simple. Browsing Collection bears some resemblance to The Warning, but as everything I've heard from their upcoming effort has been an indication of a band lost in the wilderness of the creative process, "Don't Want To Dance" is the right alternative. They've got something here, that's for sure.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Album Review: Palace - Binary Music

A couple of years ago, Palace put out their debut album. It was a decent record, and there was certainly nothing wrong with it, but there was also nothing special about it. They were another melodic rock band playing melodic rock exactly how melodic rock is played, with a few good songs, and a bunch that were just ok. What I find odd is that after one album that didn't make a huge statement about his talents, Michael Palace was put on the assembly line, cranking out songs for a host of other melodic rock projects. I don't understand how that happened, or why he would start giving away songs when his own band had yet to get off the ground.... unless he was saving his best stuff for himself.

The record starts off with the title track, an ode for the old days of rock and roll. It falls pretty flat since 1) Palace is younger than I am, and never experienced the analog days, and 2) This record is dotted with digital synths, and was almost assuredly recorded on computers. It is binary music, even as he uses that term as a pejorative. If you studied logic, that means he just argued his own record is inferior. Not a good start.

"Binary Music" is another one of those records that exists to recreate what it was like to turn on the radio in 1988. I've said before, and I'll say again here, I don't know why anyone would want to do that. I was a little too young to have been paying attention at the time, but as I recall real rock fans hated this stuff back then. '80s rock' was an insult, and the names Hall and Oates might as well be aliases of Satan himself. And yet Palace is intent on trying to be the rock soundtrack to a weak Miami Vice spin-off.

He does a good job of conjuring up the sound he's aiming for. This record absolutely sounds like 80s soft rock. There are supposed to be a couple of heavier guitars to make this stand out, but the keyboards and synths do a lot of the heavy lifting. We get that cold, reverb-y sound that I hated then, and haven't grown that much more fond of over the years. It sounds dated, and not dated in the way that makes you say you've missed it, like a certain other band does with Led Zeppelin.

Moving past that issue, the songwriting here is again a mixed bag. There are songs like the title track and "Tears Of Gaia" that are rather flat, but then we get "Love Songs", which is a real gem. As was the case last time, Palace has potential, but he doesn't have the consistency to make a great record yet. I don't know what effect it has, but I can't imagine cranking out songs for others is helping him to put together records for himself. "Binary Music" has some of the pieces to be very good, but it also sounds like it needed more time spent on the writing. Time I don't think he has.

So Palace has once again delivered a record that is decent, but not more. People who miss the 80s more than I do will like it much more than me, but the main takeaway is that being a songwriter for hire and being a band that makes great records are two different tasks. Palace might have figured out the former, but he's still working on the latter.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Album Review: Johnny Gioeli - One Voice

With the ways the music industry has changed, and artists need to do what they need to do if they're going to make a living, one thing I've noticed is I'm coming across more and more examples where I hear an artist multiple times in a given year. Sometimes that can be good, but often I find myself getting burned out on a particular sound. There is only so much of any one person or voice you can hear before it all blends together. Johnny Gioeli is a great singer, and an underrated one at that, but this solo album marks the third record he has appeared on this year. The first two were both good, but I am not finding myself hungry to hear his voice on yet more new music. Not yet, at least.

"Drive" starts things off, and makes a quick case that this is going to be a different record than what we usually hear from Johnny. He has spent his career singing melodic metal with Axel Rudi Pell, and AOR with several groups, but this record is much more of a modern pop/rock approach. It was pointed out to me that what he sounds like here is Bon Jovi in the post "It's My Life" era, where he was writing directly for radio. It's not altogether wrong. There are definitely times on this record where you can hear hints of that.

What makes this record interesting is hearing Johnny on this kind of pop material, as most of the time the style is populated by singers with voices so clean they lack any edge whatsoever. The grit in Johnny's voice gives us a slightly different sound than we would be used to from this style. This isn't that far removed from the first two Daughtry albums, but it sounds it because of his voice. It's something I actually like quite a bit.

"Drive", "It", and "One Voice" start the record with a trio of songs that hit the pop/rock formula perfectly. There's snap, energy, and a real hookiness to the tracks that makes them what would be great summer tracks. That momentum slows down in the middle of the record, though. "Running" and "Deeper" pull back quite a bit on the energy, and because of that the hooks become much more subdued, and the tracks don't have the same appeal to them. Coming back-to-back doesn't help mollify their effect either.

The majority of the album keeps things pepped up, and all of that material works well. If the record Johnny made with Deen Castronovo earlier in the year was too adult contemporary for you, this one might win you back over. This one is a more contemporary record, and in fact appears to me to be more engaging than some of the AOR stuff he has put out in recent years. Many of those efforts are so polished and sanded down they aren't exciting, whereas this one sounds like Johnny is more engaged with the music. That should be, since it's his name on the cover this time.

I've always thought Johnny Gioeli is a hugely talented singer. Most of the time, though, he's been on records that aren't quite my thing. This album is the closest to the music I grew up loving, which might explain why I like it more than some of the more notable albums he's been on. "One Voice" is a good statement to make as a solo album. I'm sure there will be some people who think it's too mainstream, but that's sort of the point. Melodic rock is supposed to be available to the masses. Johnny is reminding us of that.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Album Review: Callout - Thief

Social media, like all things, is a mixed blessing. We all know the pitfalls, and the endless stream of negativity out there, but there is also a positive side. Through it, I have been able to find (and sometimes establish relationships) with bands I would have never known about otherwise. Callout is one of them. They are a group I encountered in the world of social media who would have otherwise flown under my radar. And even though there is more music out there than I could ever listen to, it's nice to know that the odds of finding the next great thing are just a little bit higher because of the sometimes soul-sucking technology.

Callout fits into that category of bands I keep finding more of; female-fronted modern rock with a mainstream/pop appeal. I don't like using the gendered description, but I know there are people out there who stupidly won't give the band a chance if they see it, and because I think it's important to support the inclusion of more women in the scene.

Their sound is on the darker edge of the style, mostly due to the vocals, which aren't the bright and sharp tone that so many similar bands utilize. Becky has a voice that is a bit lower and duskier, which wards off any criticism of the band sounding too youthful. If anything, they sound more mature than their years, with their songs relying on more nuanced melodies than I would have expected. A lot of bands hit you over the head with an onslaught of aggression and hooks, whereas Callout is restrained and waits for the songs to grow. It's a different approach, one I can see being a blessing and a curse.

"Thief" isn't the kind of album you're going to fall in love with, and have stuck in your head, after just one listen. They don't pump up the pop sensibilities to a degree that makes the album musical velcro like that. These songs need to be heard a couple of times before they start to unravel. That process of discovery is good for the long-term prospects of the album with its fans, but in this age of immediate grtification, I can also see people not being captured immediately and moving on. It's a tough time to figure out exactly how to approach music. Callout is taking the more artistic bent, which as an artist myself, I admire.

On this album, we get some straight-ahead melodic rock, and a few detours. "Jane Doe" is an interesting case, as the pianos under the guitars, and the slight swing rhythm, make the song sound like whatever it was Panic At The Disco was trying with their cinematic records, only not annoying and lousy. The first time I heard the song, I thought it was an odd duck, but the next time it started to make sense. And when you couple it with "Mad Love", that sense is how Callout isn't strictly a four-four rock band. You can hear hints of classical dance rhythms to a few songs here, which is something I don't know if I've heard much of before.

Yes, there are a couple of rough edges still present, but that doesn't distract from "Thief" being a good record. It isn't a candy-coated pop album dressed up in a rocker's garb the way some of my favorites are, but that's ok. They've made a good, honest record that's a bit off-kilter, sort of the way the debut Incura album was. I loved that record, and while Callout doesn't hit the same level of ridiculous hooks, they have made a record that makes you stop and think about what you're listening to. "Thief" is a good step forward for them.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Singles Roundup: Inglorious, In Flames, Last In Line, and Evergrey

Inglorious - Ride To Nowhere

I'll have more to say when I eventually review the album, but this new single gives me a different feeling than what I got from them before. Inglorious has always been a bluesy classic rock type of band, but there is something in the vocals now that more strongly resembles Myles Kennedy, which has this song sounding like a weaker track from Slash's new solo album. The thrust of the song is solid, but the verses getting to that are so slow that it sucks out a lot of the energy. They always have potential, but the songwriting has yet to click with me.

In Flames - I Am Above

Oh, In Flames, it seems like no one likes you anymore. I would throw myself in that boat, but I was never a big fan of theirs. In fact, the only album that I was ever big on was "Sounds Of A Playground Fading", which isn't exactly a fan favorite. They have fallen even further, with their most recent album being the nadir of their career. I say that because this new track trends back up in the right direction, slightly. The riffs have gotten more generic, and the hooks aren't as sharp as they once were, but this is one of the most solid late-era songs. Anders puts more into the harsh vocals this time, and overall it strikes me as something that can at least earn them a little goodwill.

Last In Line - Landslide

For once, a group of Dio alums have put out something that doesn't sound a lot like Dio. That is refreshing. Of course, I have never found Vivian Campbell to be nearly as interesting as most Dio fans do, which means I don't have any reason to claim Last In Line to be better than they really are. The first album was boring, but this song is better. It's not great, but it's solid stuff that is less insulting than the album Craig Goldy just put out. Just on that front, Viv's got a win under his belt. I wouldn't say I'm excited to hear the record, but I'm not dreading it now either.

Evergrey - A Silent Arc

Confession: I've already heard the entire record. Still, let's talk about the first taste of this new Evergrey offering. What I like about it is the aggression in that almost death metal riffing that opens the song. It's intensely heavy, and it fits the band's overall darkness. Everything through the end of the first verse is great. And then comes the chorus, where the music becomes numb and limp, and Tom Englund croons two notes for the entirety. It's a weak hook, and is exactly the kind of writing that keeps me from getting more heavily into prog metal. Thankfully, I can also say it's the weakest track on the album. So there's that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Album Review: Marius Danielson - Legend Of Valley Doom Pt II

I think I've made this point often enough, but I'll say it once again; I'm tired of these 'jukebox albums', as I call them. A songwriter gets together a host of singers to play the parts in a concept album that no one will ever care about the story of, and the names of the guests are used to sell what would be music from a band that would largely go ignored. Avantasia is about the only one of these projects that has ever been great, which is why it has endured, and that's because Tobias Sammet is able to serve as the fulcrum around which everything orbits. Albums like the first "Legend Of Valley Doom" didn't have that luxury, and instead sounded like a collection of different metal bands all on the same album. It was a decent record, but I find it hard to get excited to listen to that many different voices one after the next.

So now we're back with the second installment in the series(?), which will continue telling a story I cannot claim to know the first thing about. From the song titles, it is clearly about knights and battle, but here's the thing; telling a narrative in lyrics is much harder than most songwriters ever expect. Moving a plot along and developing characters simply doesn't work very often in the confines of the limited number of words a song contains. And when you do try to put the plot first, the words become stilted and awkward. That's why concept records tend to exist only in the mind of the people who write them.

In a strange turn, the album opens with a hymn, a slow ballad that does anything but get the blood pumping. Starting out with the death of a character is an interesting way of jumping into the story, but it doesn't help the album out. That is still the point, making an album, right?

After one up-tempo power metal number, we get sent straight into another slow piano dirge. The pacing of this record is abysmal. Perhaps it would work in the context of putting the two records together, serving as a bit of an intermission, but judging this record on its own, those tracks, and how those interludes are followed with yet another ballad, makes it a chore to stay interested enough to make it to the meat of the album.

Once we get to that portion, we are treated to more of the same well done but extremely generic power metal that the first record gave us. If you like the stereotype of power metal, you'll be happy with these songs. They follow the old Helloween school of power metal like a child traces a drawing to learn their motor skills. It doesn't help that much of the vocal cast resides in the same timbre, so telling them apart and trying to figure out what is going on is exceptionally difficult. Blaze Bayley stands out, but he's the only one. Records like this show how a genre establishes a certain template, and it either attracts singers who already sound that way, or vocalists alter their voices to fit the standard. It's a phenomenon I've long wondered about.

Really, the album is something that will depend entirely on how you feel about the cliches it relies on. If you like power metal (I do) and fantasy literature (I don't), you might find this enjoyable. Since I don't care in the slightest about whether the mead-drinkers of Valley Doom get stepped on by a dragon or not, I'm probably missing out on a large part of the appeal. I can judge the record only as a piece of music, and on that level it doesn't work for me. The metal here is recycled power metal, but there isn't even much of it to listen to. This record is dragged down with copious narration and balladry, which is just too much. And I say that as a sucker for ballads.

The first "Valley Doom" record was a decent attempt to jump in on one of the big trends. This second chapter, though, is not the follow-up I was looking for. It's a swing and a miss.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Album Review: Flight - A Leap Through Matter

This has been a big year for retro/vintage rock. The best band of the lot (Graveyard) released a new album earlier this year, and the biggest name among them (Greta Van Fleet) just recently released their debut. There has been a lot of attention paid to music that draws heavily from the past, which is a good thing for the other bands, in the sense that people might be searching out more of the same, but it's negative in the sense that they all have to be compared to those other two, who are probably better than anyone else is going to be. It's yet another double-edged sword when it comes to how to present yourself.

I'm not sure the best way of introducing your record is with a three minute instrumental cut. "Arrival" has a snaking main riff that is very cool, and some Iron Maiden styled guitar harmonies, but I find instrumental music to be largely tedious, and this song wasn't how I wanted the record to start. It's almost begging to be skipped, which with any impatience at all might mean some listeners would move on without sampling any of the remaining songs.

I do like their vintage production, which leaves the guitars sounding raw, and perhaps a bit grainy. It's a natural sound that is from the 70s, one where you can hear the music sounding like it's being played by actual humans, rather than the massively over-saturated and clinical sound that permeates modern recordings. There's breathing room to this music, and that is much appreciated.

The vocals aren't the greatest, but they fit with the retro vibe, and don't distract from what's going on. The issue is that the band is providing a good deal of interesting riffs and guitar parts, while the vocal lines are never as engaging. While this is clearly a guitar album, a little more spark from the vocals would have brought this to another level. As good as Jimmy Page, Downing/Tipton, and Murray/Smith were, they didn't make it by guitar alone. Flight's instrumental talents are there, but for the songwriting to be where they need to be for the band to grow, the vocal writing needs to improve. Many listeners, myself included, identify there first and foremost.

But for guitar fans, Flight has quite a bit to offer. The tones are charming, and the riffs are lively and memorable in the simple way the best classic rock was. There are layers of guitars to dig into, but the playing is focused on delivering riffs that are more about hooking you than they are showing off their chops.

This record is claimed to be a step forward, and it is certainly a step in the right direction. There is work to be done to tighten everything up, but Flight does who they have a lot of potential. They have the right sound, and the right vibe. If they can find the elusive songwriting magic that makes certain music special, they could turn into something really good. As they stand now, "A Leap Through Matter" is a fine little record that is a nice diversion when modern times get to be a bit too much.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Singles Roundup: Soen, Slipknot, and ugh... Weezer

For this Thanksgiving (long) weekend, I thought I would take a moment to point out a couple of recent single releases, and explain why I am, and am not, thankful for what they are telling me about the future. Let's start with the good news first.

Soen - Ritual

"Lykaia" was my #1 album of 2017, and I still find myself going back to it. That record was Soen finding their identity, taking a huge step forward, and also delivering a record that I have been waiting for ever since Opeth decided to leave death metal behind. The first taste of their follow-up has been unveiled, and I am thankful to hear that they have learned the same lessons from "Lykaia" that I did. "Ritual" sounds like a natural continuation, perhaps because it is strikingly similar. The riffs in the instrumental passage are a near clone of how "Sectarian" did the same thing, while the ending borrows a hint of the outro from "God's Acre". They are good moments, so using them again is not unwelcome, although hearing two callbacks in the first song is slightly odd. Soen is one of the metal bands doing something unique and interesting, and given that they had changed radically between each of their first three records, I am thankful to hear the band I was hoping for on this song. I'm eagerly awaiting my opportunity to hear the whole album.

Slipknot - All Out Life

I have seen several opinions on this song that all rave about how this is Slipknot again at their most brutal, and how fantastic it is to hear them letting loose.... and I wonder how we are listening to the same thing. Is it brutal? Yes, it is indeed tough to sit through. Corey Taylor screams his head off while the band charges through two or three of the most basic nu-metal riffs imaginable. All of the musical development that Slipknot had gone through, whether you liked it or not, is gone. Whereas once you had to admit they were a talented group, this song makes it easy to say they aren't. This song is almost what you would expect from a bunch of 20 year-olds who wanted to make their own Slipknot band. It has no great riff, no interesting vocal pattern. It is angry noise for the sake of angry noise. And when I know they can do better, that's insulting. So I'm thankful to know I can skip any new Slipknot music without feeling like I'm missing something.

Weezer - Zombie Bastards

So Weezer has finally confirmed "The Black Album" will be coming out in 2019, and given the first two songs we have heard, it is already the front-runner to be the worst album of the year. Weezer has long been stuck in Rivers Cuomo's arrested development, but never before has his mid-life crisis sounded so hollow. Now he is trying to jump on drum-machine pop/rock, and populating his songs with slang that was dated even ten years ago, and a song about f'n zombies. Yes, I am that one person who didn't mind when he wrote a song about a spider ("Freak Me Out" - the lyrics are stupid, but the song was a chill pop vibe that an older Rivers should have leaned into), but this is too much. There is even a line where he says, "blah blah blah". And this is coming from a man well into his forties. Rivers has never reconciled making an old man's album when he was so young, so he has been chasing youth ever since. The problem is that youth cannot be caught, so all he does is sound increasingly more pathetic as his detachment from the audience he wants grows ever larger. This song is truly awful. I'm not thankful for it, but I am thankful to know having even a shred of hope for Weezer again is a mistake.