Monday, December 11, 2017

Album Review: Asking Alexandria - Asking Alexandria

It wasn't that long ago there was a form of music known as 'stadium rock'. Despite the fact that the music hasn't changed one bit, that label is now a relic of the past. That's an odd thing to say, since words are supposed to be more enduring than that, but the facts on the ground have changed. Outside of bands who were big twenty years ago (and the Foo Fighters), the idea of rock music filling a stadium is hard to imagine anymore. I can lament that as a fan of a healthy rock scene, but I also can't get worked up enough to be truly bothered by the size of crowds at live shows I will never attend.

Why do I say all of this? Because today we deal with the newest album from Asking Alexandria, a band that is one of the bigger names in mainstream rock, yet is one that is easy enough to slip under the radar that I can't remember if I had ever heard a single song of theirs before sitting down to write this review.

Perhaps it's a disservice that the press release that comes along with the album reminds us that they have shared stages and tours with Guns N Roses, Green Day, Slipknot, and more. By throwing those names into my head before I listened, it did subconsciously set the bar higher than it might have otherwise been. Like them or not, those bands have all produced songs that have endured through the public consciousness, and have become staples of their genres, if not even crossing over into the general pool of known music. Let's be bluntly honest here; Asking Alexandria has never done that, and they aren't going to do it here either.

That's not saying that this album is bad. It's an acknowledgment that they have never transcended rock and roll's limitations. That's nothing to be ashamed of, as very few bands have ever been able to do that, and even fewer in the last two decades. To do so might require taking different turns than we might expect. Let's look at "Where Did It Go?" as an example. It's the song here that likely has the best chance of gaining traction, but for all the wrong reasons. The verses adopt an almost rapping cadence, and then the chorus gives us the lyric, "You're all so fucking outrageous.... mother fuckers running a little complacent." I'm sorry, but that is pandering to the lowest common denominator, and isn't any different than the poser rappers who 'flex' despite sounding as intimidating as a chihuahua.

The rest of the album is better than that, but it seldom rises to a level that warrants praise. The piped-in fake crowd cheers in "When The Lights Come On" is probably a good indication of where Asking Alexandria are; a mindset that they deserve applause, and they'll give it to themselves if we don't. The fact of the matter is that regardless of how often they throw out a stomping mosh pit riff, or scream for emphasis, few of the melodies in these songs connect, and that's how you gain stature. It's certainly not because of fluttering electronic bullshit like we get in "Under Denver", which sounds like an audio version of a strobe light. It won't cause a seizure, but it's nearly as unpleasant.

I said earlier that not crossing over didn't make this album bad. That lack of causation is true, but the correlation is still there. "Asking Alexandria" is not a good record. It's not truly bad in the same way that Quiet Riot's latest is, but it's certainly not good. Instead of taking lessons from the bands name-checked by the PR department, Asking Alexandria is throwing modern influences from non-rock music into the mix, and the result is a muddled mess that isn't going to please anyone. It's too jittery for rock fans, and too rock for anyone else. They've hit an uncomfortable middle ground, and as we all know, it's only the extremes that are remembered.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Album Review: Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pacifisticuffs

As metal continues to spiral and expand, something we've talked a bit about is the lack of new areas and sounds left to be explored. In the basic configurations of guitars/bass/drums/keyboards, it feels as though so much has already been done that not much remains. That doesn't mean that bands can't find a unique way of approaching things, but it does mean that at some point, the only way to break out of an existing mold is to do things that are weird, simply for the sake of being weird. We've heard some of these bands alreay, the ones who eschew traditional songwriting norms by throwing together riffs and motifs that don't have any logical connection, but instead pinball back and forth just because its unexpected. Being weird is interesting on first glance, but I'm not sure if it works as a career arc. At a certain point, it becomes a gimmick, and every gimmick needs something tangible behind it, lest it turn into a cheap Halloween costume.

Diablo Swing Orchestra is not the weirdest band out there, but they fall into that category of musicians who throw caution to the wind in their songwriting. There isn't always a narrative through-line in their songs, let alone their albums. The moods can fluctuate so wildly from minute to minute that you certainly can't have your mind drift off, but it also makes you scratch your head at times.

"Knucklehugs" opens the album with all of that wrapped up in less than three minutes. There's an operatic type opening vocal line that segues into a stomping metal riff, and then later we get a bluegrass breakdown. Why? Honestly, I can't tell you. I don't see anything in the lyrical content that would drive such a shift in genre, but it happens anyway. I find the whole thing to be underdeveloped, as not only are the connective tissues missing, but each half of the song isn't given the time or attention to reach its conclusion. It thinks that pasting two mediocre ideas together will result in one good one, but that's not how musical math works.

"The Age Of Vulture Culture" is far better. It also doesn't like to stay in one place for too long, but the tonal shifts are consistent within a sonic universe, and the main melody the band returns to is far stronger. This is how such songwriting is able to work; with a strong anchor point for the tentacles to radiate from. Without that core, it's more akin to eating soup with a fork. It slips through your grasp, unsatisfying.

Really, your enjoyment of "Pacifisticuffs" will come down to how much leeway you're willing to give a band. I am a straight-forward listener. I like my music to have a point, and to not detour away from it without good reason. Throwing in doo-dads and how-do-you-dos is fine, so long as they are serving the song, and not the other way around. Diablo Swing Orchestra rides the line of good taste, as far as that goes. Most of the tracks on this album have good ideas at their core, but the wanderings distract me. When you have a great idea, it doesn't make any sense to me to distract from it by introducing something completely different. If they had chosen to make this album a kaleidoscope, with each song taking a completely different approach and sound, I think they could have done something both unique and interesting. But by throwing everything into every song, it's asking the listener to have too wide a musical appetite to enjoy them as a whole.

So this is where I tell you that I'm not really sure how to judge this album. Diablo Swing Orchestra is doing something that clashes with my understanding of music, but they also have some very good ideas. For more adventurous listeners, there's plenty here to enjoy. For me, I was left wanting an explanation for why the songs went the directions they did. For some, the journey is its own reward. For others, the destination is all that matters. In that analogy, I'm not sure I'm qualified to judge "Pacifisticuffs", since I'm on the other side of the ledger.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Album Review: The Black Marbles - Moving Mountains

Here's the thing about classic rock; it isn't classic because of the old amps, vinyl records, and recording on tape. Those were limitations of the time, which gave the music that particular sound. What really made classic rock stand the test of time are the songs. Whether we're talking about Led Zeppelin, Cream, or any of the others, we only remember the best of the best, and not the countless other bands that used the same gear and studios, but whose music was mediocre at best. Today, we hear tons of bands that go for that vintage aesthetic, but so few of them understand that it's songwriting above all else that fuels the music. Copying amp settings isn't any good if your music is boring. 'Vintage' is a description, not praise in an of itself.

This is a lesson well heeded by The Black Marbles on this new album. They are indeed a throwback to the old days of rock and roll, but they are not devoted to recreating something they don't truly understand. The sonics are rooted in the past, but there's enough modern heft to the production to make it clear this is not a nostalgia trip. They are seriously focused on making new classic rock, if that isn't a contradiction.

"Little Sun" opens the record, and illustrates this point. The guitars have that classic distortion, but the recording is as clear and punchy as anything modern. The guitar playing centers on a solid groove, but there are runs flowing off of that which give texture to the song in a way many bands wouldn't appreciate. Cap it off with a wailing vocal performance, and what you get is a product that hits all the right marks.

As you might expect, there are hints of other bands hiding in The Black Marbles sound. "Starlight" opens with a guitar line that sounds like it could have come straight off Graveyard's "Hisingen Blues", while Marica Svensson's vocals are evocative of Blues Pills' Elin Larsson. In both of those cases, the comparisons are high praise, as they are among the very best at what they do. This is a far cry from those other throwback rock bands that have squealing, high-pitched men who sound incredibly weak scraping the height of their range. The Black Marbles stay in the middle of the power band, which is why they can kick ass.

I also appreciate that they aren't afraid to throw a few curves at us. "Stain My Eyes" is a great example of this, as the song turns on its head when the chorus comes along, shifting from a blistering rocker into a searing slow blues. Those little details of not following the conventional rules make this sound like true classic rock, because it hearkens back to the time when those rules hadn't been firmly etched in stone. This record sounds like a band writing where the song takes them, rather than where they want the song to go, which is exactly what you're supposed to do as a writer.

We also get "Fallen", an acoustic blues number that slowly builds fire, while also being one of the rare tracks of that style to feature a grand melody. Marica is the band's best asset, as she anchors these songs with solid melody lines on every track, turning these songs into the kind of tracks that can easily be sung along with, making them memorable. I went back and listened to some of what the band did on their first album, and her presence makes all the difference in the world. The band has always had the swagger of the 70s and plenty of guitar chops, but she is what has allowed the songs to fall into place. Some people know how to sell a hook, and she's one of them.

There's only one real complaint I can lodge against the record, and that's the fact it only runs thirty-two minutes. Short records are fine when they're of high quality, and this one certainly is, but I can't help but have the selfish desire for one more track thrown in for good measure.

That's but a minor point. The main takeaway here is that The Black Marbles have done something really good with "Moving Mountains". They have embraced the best parts of classic rock, and turned out a record that succeeds on every level. Some music is timeless, and given the way The Black Marbles straddle the past and the present, this could very well fall into that category. "Moving Mountains" is a late-in-the-year gem of a record, and one any fan of classic or vintage rock needs to check out. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Discography: The Wallflowers

Like almost everyone, I first heard The Wallflowers when "One Headlight" was omnipresent. I was still developing as a music fan, so that song was a footnote in my memory when their following record was released. It was reading a review of it in Time magazine that made me seek out these new songs, and ultimately led me to become a fan of the band. Over the years, my thoughts on the band have ebbed and flowed, but no matter what was happening I might not have agreed with, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of their best records, which sit comfortably in my collection. One of these recent revisitings sparked my thoughts on them, so I thought the time was right to look back at all of their releases.

The Wallflowers (1992)

Like many bands, this was a rough beginning. The elements of a rootsy style of rock and roll were there, but JAkob Dylan was still finding his feet as a songwriter, and because of that, the album is not focused enough. The songs wander a bit, are often too long, and lack the sharp-edged songwriting he would later develop. This is an embryonic version of the band, and its one that is a footnote not worthy of spending more time on than that. Skip.

Bringing Down The Horse (1996)

The multi-platinum classic, the album everyone knows, and for once I'm not going to try to discount that success. This album had the hit(s), and for good reason. In the span on just one album, Dylan was able to grow by decades as a songwriter, honing his craft into a melodic version of American poetry even his father was never able to. Every song here is deftly written, well-executed, and a time capsule of what Americana rock and roll was. In fact, the only criticism I have of the record is that the sound is too titled towards this acoustic instruments, so much so that the moments when the band is trying to kick into gear don't have the punch they need, with the exception of "One Headlight", which remains one of the best songs of the 90s. Essential.

(Breach) (2000)

This is the album that caught my attention before ever hearing a note of it. If "Bringing Down The Horse" was the band developing their craft, this is where they mastered it. "(Breach)" is not a record dissimilar to its predecessor, but it takes everything The Wallflowers were to the next level. The push and pull is accentuated here, with the rock songs given more muscle and interplay, while the softer tracks mine the depths of the human condition. Dylan's poetry goes deeper than ever, culminating in one of my favorite lines, "I can't fix something this complex any more than I can build a rose". That is the maturity on display, which is then wrapped up in an ever stronger melodic foundation. It's absolutely brilliant stuff, that sadly is rarely recognized. The magnum opus.

Red Letter Days (2002)

After hitting their peak, the band needed to find a new wrinkle to carry on. For this album, the band highlighted their pop sensibilities, which had been slowly showing themselves. They commit to that on this album, which is their most mainstream, and is a slickly recorded set of songs that was designed for radio airplay. In large part, it works. "When You're On Top", "How Good It Can Get", and "Everybody Out Of The Water" are as close to arena rock as the band ever got, while the deeper cuts maintained that melodic engagement. Dylan's poetry waned here, but that was (I think) intentional. This was a more immediate album, and it works exceedingly well in the context of early 2000s pop/rock. Very Good.

Rebel, Sweetheart (2005)

With the hits drying up, the band needed to pivot once more. This time, they went back to their rootsy, Americana feeling, but did so with their years of experience and growth to show for it. That made this album what their debut had tried and failed to be. The songwriting fuses the muscular guitar work of "(Breach)" to the melodies of "Red Letter Days", leaving the best fusion of the band's various identities. This is an album that works on multiple levels of engagement, from the surface level pop to the deeper craft of songwriting. Perhaps for that reason, it's the album I come back to most often. If the world had not begun to shift under the feet of the rock industry, this is an album that should have started a second act for the band. Excellent.

Glad All Over (2012)

A hiatus ensued after "Rebel, Sweetheart" that saw Dylan release two solo records. I had assumed The Wallflowers were defunct, but then news came they were coming back from the dead. The world of rock and roll had changed so much since their last record that it was not clear they had a place anymore. This album showed they were aware of that, which is why it was so painful to listen to. Instead of doubling down on themselves, and targeting the fans they already had, they instead tried to co-opt the sound of the time, in search of a new audience. That meant Dylan, a classic American songwriter, was trying to write around heavier rhythms and less guitars. This wasn't the band anyone remembered, and it didn't work with their strengths either. It sounded like an old band trying to stay relevant, and aside from one or two tracks that snuck through hints of their olden days, it was an album that made me think staying in hibernation might not have been such a bad idea. Disheartening.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Album Review: Eisley/Goldy - Blood, Guts, and Games

Here's one of those controversial opinions I sometimes hold; Craig Goldy is my favorite Dio guitarist. I know that Vivian Campbell was on the classic albums, and a lot of people have a soft spot in their heart for Doug Aldrich for some reason, but Goldy is the one I listen to the most. "Dream Evil" is what I consider the best top-to-bottom Dio album, and I consider "Master Of The Moon" to be the most underrated of them all. Goldy is no genius, though, as his recent attempt to reclaim that legacy was just as bad as Campbell's. But I did get a bit intrigued to see his name attached to this new project, which sees him team up with fellow Giuffra alum Glen Eisley, even though I have no particular relationship to that band.

What we get through this project is a throwback to the big rock of the 80s, which these guys were there to take part in the first time. Not long after hitting the play button, this much is clear, as the sound is pure 80s nostalgia. I've said before I'm not exactly sure why so many people pine for the return of that decade, but I suppose I'm too young to understand the appeal of hair spray and spandex. Thankfully.

Making an album sound like the 80s is easy, so what's disappointing is that these guys have decided to copy that sound without admitting that thirty years have passed by since then. The over-saturated guitar sound is out of style now, and sounds muffled to modern ears, but mostly it's the idea that Eisley should be fronting a band at this point. I don't know what his voice used to be, but it's not strong enough now to do this. Aside from the short sections where he gets to sing softly, he's strained and rough, and not in a pleasant way. It's not as bad as, say, Danzig's voice today, but it's not pretty to listen to.

The other problem is that the songwriting hearkens back to the 80s, when this kind of rock was still fresh enough that image made hits more than the actual music did. What I'm saying is that these are the kinds of songs that are completely forgettable when you hear them, but might have stood a chance if there was a great video being played twenty times a day on MTV. Those days are long gone, so this kind of music just isn't good enough anymore.

The other thing this album does is point out that Ronnie James Dio has never been given the credit he deserves as a songwriter and band leader. No matter who he worked with as a guitar player, none of them ever played better than when they were with him. Goldy is absolutely on that list, as he sounds like a completely different player on his own. He doesn't deliver any riffs on this record that stand out, nothing that would justify the talk of him as one of the lost greats of his time. He's ok, but that's about it.

I don't want to know two guys who decided they want to stay in the game and make music. There are too many who stop entirely, and then complain about nothing but as good as it was. Being an artist means staying active, staying creative. I applaud Eisley and Goldy for trying, but respect only goes so far. The effort they made is commendable, but the music isn't.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Album Review: Jono - Life

Here's an interesting thing to think about; we always appreciate and praise musicians who have massive amounts of talent, as though we assume skill is something on its own worth acclaim. There are countless guitarists out there who can shred hundreds of notes per minute, or singers who can wail at ear-piercing octaves, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves why we're impressed by these feats? When people can perform these nearly super-human feats, we applaud them, but very seldom are they in the course of doing something musically relevant, nor do those musicians put their skills to good use later on. Instead, they often gravitate towards artistic identities that are completely dependent on their virtuosity, leaving us with nothing else to be entertained by but for their daunting talent. Frankly, that's not much to hand your hat on if you're trying to sell records and concert tickets.

I say that because as each pre-release track from this no JONO album was unveiled, it was the only thing I could think of. JONO is a band (rightly) focused on Johan Norby's vocals, which have the kind of dramatic tone a musical theater pro would kill for. He is a heck of a talent as a singer. His voice is rich, striking, and suitably operatic for the more emotional parts of rock music. What he is not, however, is a very good songwriter, and apparently the other members of the band aren't either.

While Johan's voice is stellar, the tracks he has given himself to sing are anything but. It gives us an album that lives on a precarious perch; is Johan's talent enough to overcome lackluster songs? In other words, we revert back to my opening question about whether talent alone is enough to truly be praiseworthy. After listening through "Life", I am inclined to come down on the side of saying that no, it is not. That's not to say that "Life" is a bad album, because that is a different argument. You can't compare this album to the releases put out by bands like Quiet Riot or Pain Of Salvation, which were nearly unlistenable. This album but contrast, is just boring.

The problem is that Johan is a singer with a voice that should be singing sky-scraping melodies that embrace the drama of the musical backdrop his band gives him. They are, in a way, kindred rock and roll spirits to Meat Loaf, in that they both have theater running through their delivery. But whereas Meat Loaf had Jim Steinman to give him songs that were clever, original, and always memorable, Johan has music that sounds like a watered-down version of "Gutter Ballet" era Savatage. Jon Oliva was able to pull it off well, because he and Paul O'Neil played into that side of the music, and Jon's deliver was always fiery enough to sell the material.

Johan, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have the passion for the music he's singing that I would expect. He's not phoning it in, but he's disconnected from his own material. The emotion never comes through, which considering how the melodies themselves are often non-existent, means there isn't anything to listen to but for the bare tone of his voice. I'm sorry, but I need more than just a voice if I'm going to be able to enjoy an entire album.

JONO has a good sound, but they do nothing with it. This album is a huge missed opportunity, and I'm sorry to say it's not worth finding time during this busy holiday season to give it a chance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Album Review: Operation:Mindcrime - The New Reality

The last few years have been tough for Geoff Tate. Leaving aside all the drama surrounding Queensryche, and how the fans seem to have had no problem moving on without him, his own career has been taking some very weird turns. He started this Operation: Mindcrime project with the ambition to make a trilogy of concept albums. I don't think that's ever a good idea, but recording them all at once, and trying to write three good albums at the same time, was begging for a disaster. And that's largely what the first two records were. Neither one was good at all, with each being unfocused, messy, and devoid of more than one or two songs that could ever work outside the context of the concept album. That spells failure, but we haven't finished dotting the i's and crossing the t's yet, because we now have the third and final part of the trilogy. How much worse can it get?

That's difficult to answer. We start with "A Head Long Jump", which is a better choice to open the album than when he started one of these with three straight instrumental intros, but that's about all I can say. It takes several minutes to get past the washes of noise, and when we do, the fragment of a song is truly confusing. Tate is singing, but I can't tell what kind of melody he's trying for. Behind that, we get some poor sounding guitars, and drums that are pounding away sloppily and out of time. It sounds like a drunken jam session at the end of a long day that was accidentally put on the record without getting reworked into something usable.

The most frustrating thing about this album isn't the time that is needlessly wasted through segues and intros, nor the infusion of sounds and paths that pull us away from the core of the songs, it's Tate himself. As the creative director and producer of this material, everything comes down to him. I know that Tate is still capable of singing, as he showed during his guest appearance on Avantasia's "Ghostlights" album. But left to his own devices, he falls back into every bad and lazy habit, and he sounds terrible here, compared to what he should be. His voice is so thin and nasal, and his 'melodies' don't work within his limitations whatsoever.

For being a project led by a singer, what is most amazing to me is how little this album is built around him and the narrative he has supposedly written. Most of the record is centered around the weak and sloppy drumming, and keyboards that are always mixed far too loud. Tate takes a back seat to his own ambition, which he no longer knows how to bring to life. The original "Operation: Mindcrime" was a daring narrative that worked (for most people - I've always hated it) because the story could be followed, and the songs could exist on their own. These namesake albums fail for those exact reasons. Three albums in, you could hold a gun to my head and I wouldn't even be able to tell you the first thing about this story, and the songs surely would never be listened to on shuffle. There isn't a single song on this record to match the quality even of "Frequency Unknown", one of the most panned albums of the last decade (although I admit to liking it more than most).

This project was a bad idea, written as a bad idea, recorded as a bad idea. It should be no surprise, then, to discover that the results are, well.... bad.

Hopefully, "The New Reality" will mark the end of this project, because over the course of three albums, Geoff Tate has continued to prove the adage "you can't dig your way out of a hole." He's in one, he's still digging, and at this point all he can hope for is a flood to lift him back to the surface. When you're praying for disaster to save you, it might be time to give up on your current course. Operation: Mindcrime has done nothing but make some of the worst music of recent years.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Album Review: Shakra - Snakes & Ladders

There's a degree to which rock and roll is about arrested development, and the refusal to grow up. At least that's the stereotype about the music, which has often played straight into it, with a mentality exhibited that is perpetually caught in adolescence, if even that developed. Plenty of rock and roll is childish, which makes it interesting that Shakra has named their new album after a game. It was sanitized over the years, but "Snakes & Ladders" is surely a more intriguing name than what many of us know it as. It also is a more matured version, which hopefully bodes well when we peek under the hood, because the last thing my fraying patience needs is another album mired in the first stage of brain development.

Thankfully, Shakra is not scraping songs off the bottom of the barrel, but as the record unfolds, I'm struck by the feeling that the title and imagery are the most interesting part of the whole thing. I don't mean that as an indictment of the record, because it's actually pretty good at what it wants to achieve. Their brand of rock is heavy enough, melodic enough, and definitely solid. The issue is one that I have with any number of albums during the course of a year, where there isn't anything that stands out about the record to make it unique. Shakra can blend into a lineup of melodic hard rock bands very easily, which does hamper the album to a degree.

When we listen to music, perhaps even more important than the album being good is that it's memorable. That can come in the form of being great, but it can also come in the form of being terrible. There are plenty of records that we all have heard, that we all remember, and we all still talk about, that no one wants to ever listen to again. But they exist in a way that makes them completely unique to themselves, and we can't forget the music or the band, even if we want to.

Shakra's music, on the other hand, is comfortably familiar. In both style and substance, this isn't far removed from every other band playing in the same genre. The only ways to fully differentiate yourself are to exist on a higher plane of songwriting, have a guitar hero in your ranks, or have a singer who transcends the band. Shakra doesn't have any of those things. THe songwriting is good, but compare them to albums from Harem Scarem or Eclipse this year, and they don't quite hold up. The guitar playing is fine, but there aren't many riffs that will make people pick up their instruments because they want to learn, and singer Mark Fox has the nasally rough voice that is not out of line with all the people who have tried to ape Axl Rose or Brian Johnson over the years. It's not a tone that I particularly enjoy listening to for long stretches of time, but he's certainly capable.

And that's what I wind up thinking about Shakra. They're fairly good at what they're doing, and there are some very good songs on this album. I enjoyed listening to it while it was playing, but there isn't anything about it that pulls me to return to these songs again and again. I was trying not to use the word 'generic', but it might be the easiest way of getting my point across. "Snakes & Ladders" is a fine album, but fine is only worth so much.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Album Review: Lady Beast - Vicious Breed

The end of the year is a tough time for records to come out, especially for newer bands that don't have much of a profile yet. Most of us have already heard about as much music as we can handle, and many of us have already turned out attention to sorting through our thoughts for the end of the year. That makes it difficult for anything else to penetrate our bubbles, and to get the attention we would be able to pay it at an earlier time. Between sorting what I've already heard, and preparing to block out the holidays for as long as I can, I don't have as much energy to carefully consider new albums as I would like to.

Lady Beast enters that fray with their sophomore album, a true metal record that aims to throw a little bit of everything classic into the pot. There will be twin-guitar harmonies, bits of thrash, and some heavy Sabbath-styled moments. Basically, Lady Beast is trying to take us through a brief history of where heavy metal was through the early 80s.

The opener, "Seal The Hex", throws much of that together just in the first two minutes. There's a soft guitar opening, a melodic lead, and a thrashing riff all before the vocals ever begin. And that moment is where the album comes into focus. There are two sides to Lady Beast's sound, which come with very different judgments. On the instrumental side, the band does a very nice job of sounding like a hard and heavy metal band from the 80s, with plenty of simple and catchy riffs, and plenty of attitude to power through the songs. The guitar tone is a bit fuzzier than I would like for something that's aiming to be old-school, but there's a warmth to the sound that is appealing. Musically, they do a good job of making a throwback record.

The problem is that the vocals don't do anything to help the songs out. Deborah Levine is a decent singer, and she has enough of a voice to pull off the kind of music Lady Beast is trying to make, but the writing isn't strong enough. That's true about a lot of the traditional metal I hear, and it consistently drags down what could be pretty good albums. Listening to these eight tracks, there isn't a single vocal line that you can remember after the record is over. I'm not saying that you have to have pop melodies on a record like this, but Dio and Iron Maiden showed us for decades that classic heavy metal can still have memorable melodies that crowds will want to sing along with in concert. I don't hear any of that on this record.

I'm not going to be harsh on Lady Beast, because there's no need to. They aren't making music that is truly bad, or is a chore to listen to. There's been a lot of that this year, but that isn't what this is. Instead, Lady Beast is making music that pays too much attention to being traditional in sound, and not enough attention to writing the songs that started those traditions. This is one of those bland records that will be covered in dust not too long from now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Album Review: Electric Wizard - Wizard Bloody Wizard

There are such things as trigger words, which upon hearing them, incite a certain reaction from us. They aren't the same for all of us, as mine will obviously differ from yours, but the concept remains. When we hear those words, we either start to salivate at the thought of how great a record is going to be, or we reflexively start to plug our ears, knowing that we aren't going to enjoy the trip we're about to take. For me, there were several that came with this new Electric Wizard album. The press materials promised "cranium crushing bludgeon rock", "relentless aural brain rape", and "43 brain damaging minutes" of music. Any one of those would have made me nervous, but the combination had all but sealed my verdict before I even hit play.

Ever the good soldier, I carried on and listened, trying my best to give the music a fair shake. Thankfully, I don't have to file charges against Electric Wizard, as their music did not do any of the promised assault against my senses they intended. Sure, their music is abrasive, but not so much so that it needs to be promoted with obviously untrue bombast. There were plenty of ways of hyping the music that didn't need to make it sound like a sexual predator. I assume they would have been more effective, to boot.

So what do we get with "Wizard Bloody Wizard"? Well, as the title suggests, we get an album that is highly in debt to the slower doom tracks that early Black Sabbath established, roughed up with enough stoner fuzz to turn someone's lungs black. The songwriting isn't anything out of the ordinary, but the sound itself is so filthy that I feel you would need to be in an altered state of mind to think it sounds good. I don't know why stoner bands ever established a tone that sounds like a broken speaker from a 1972 Oldsmobile station wagon, but that's what we get here. Everything about the record is fuzzy enough to sound out of focus, like getting up and looking out the window without putting your glasses on.

And the worst part of that is the songs drag out, anywhere from five to eleven minutes. That much of the wretched guitar tone at once, without much development building riffs into something more than a droning hum, is hard to sit through. There simply aren't enough riffs here to justify the song lengths, and even the riffs that are present aren't of the Iommi quality where you don't need anything else. Plus, there's the fact that "Necromania" has a main riff that sounds quite a bit like Kiss' "War Machine". Add that all up, and we get a record that is highly derivative of the past, without making a case for why you should listen to this instead of any of those classic Sabbath records.

I knew before I even listened to "Wizard Bloody Wizard" that it wasn't going to be for me. I gave it a chance to surprise me, but we ended up right where I expected all along. Electric Wizard might have pulled themselves closer to the Black Sabbath playbook this time around, but what's the point of that? There already was a Sabbath, and even on their way out the door, those guys were able to make a record that had sharper riffs and better written songs. "Wizard Bloody Wizard" is a record made to justify a pun, and not much else.