Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Album Review: West Bound - Volume I

The music business is tough these days. It's very easy for even good musicians to get lost in the fray, to get swallowed up by the never-ending churn of releases. And with seemingly everyone needing to be in multiple bands to make a go of it, even names you remember... you can't really remember. West Bound, the band we're here to talk about, is the new collaboration between Roy Z (who produced a lot of great records a decade ago), and Chas West. I don't say this to be insensitive, but I knew I had heard Chas' name before, but I had to do some searching to remember who Resurrection Kings (his other band) are. That was him playing with the re-animated corpse of "Dream Evil" era Dio, so the hope is a more lively combination can have better results.

"Never Surrender" was the first song we got to hear, and it immediately told me two things; 1) This band has potential, and 2) It's the worst sounding Roy Z album I can remember. When Roy was making albums with Bruce Dickinson and Halford, they were tight and sharp, with dry but crunchy guitars. The guitar on "Never Surrender" sounds like an 80s record played through an extra delay pedal. The sound is so watery and soft there's no bite to it whatsoever. It has a feel to it I sometimes describe as sounding underwater. It's awful, which is a shame, because the song is good.

That production also doesn't make much sense, because this isn't an 80s rock record. The songwriting is far more in tune with the hard rock of the 70s, with hints of blues groove powering the riffs. This is far more Jimmy Page than Eddie Van Halen. The songs are simple, and designed to deliver the only two things good rock needs; a riff and a strong vocal. It mostly achieves those things, though there are often too many effects on Chas' voice that limit how much credit I can give him.

Both "Beautiful Dream" and "Nothing" are solid songs with balladic tendencies, like the nice addition of piano in the background of the latter, but they can't sound sincere when the emotion of Chas' voice is buried under echo and delay. We need to hear him feel the music, and instead we get the producer thinking they're clever by putting their choices at the forefront the recording. Let the damn music be.

If we focus on the songwriting, West Bound delivers a good record. It's not as good as the similar record Inglorious released in January, but it does find the right approach to classic hard rock. And if you compare it to Resurrection Kings, it's world's better. Songs like "On My Own" have a Whitesnake feel, but without the sleaziness David Coverdale grew to embrace. When the band is delivering material like this, I quite like what they're doing.

The problem is that no matter how good the record is, I have trouble looking past the production. The issue isn't that it isn't polished and perfect, it's that the choices made are distracting. You can make gritty and raw records that still sound good, but all the echo, reverb, and delay slathered all over this record are too much. At a certain point, my ears hurt from hearing sounds that are so unnatural. A good record is ruined by not letting the music speak for itself.

Geoff Tate's version of Queensryche put out a terrible sounding record in "Frequency Unknown", and then they realized their mistake and put out a version that sounded great (and then another that was bad again, but let's forget that). West Bound needs to do the same thing. "Volume I" is a good record that I want to like, but I just can't, because I hear the production instead of the music. With a few different choices, I would be happily recommending West Bound as a welcome addition to the ranks of new classic hard rock bands. But that's not the world we live in, and I don't see me subjecting myself to the uncomfortable experience of listening to these tones very often. What a shame.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Album Review: Spirits Of Fire - Spirits Of Fire

As a critic, one of the hardest things I have to deal with is the question of fairness. I try my best to go into every record I listen to with open ears, optimistic the music will be good, and ready to look for the positive side. I have to write negative reviews, but I don't want to. I would love it if every record was at least good, but that is impossible, and I also get accused of having standards that are too high. Fairness is even harder when a band like Spirits Of Fire comes along. How does one be fair to a record when you know without hearing a note it won't be good?

The combination of Ripper Owens and Chris Caffery is one that told me everything I needed to know before I listened to the music. Ripper has been in a string of bands, and has never shown any ability to write a memorable song. Caffery is known from his time playing Jon Oliva's songs in Savatage as they were taking on water, and then has spent most of the time since then playing Christmas music on stage, while making records no one knows exists. Combined, this band has no one who has ever written a song I truly enjoy, so the odds of them doing it now was next to zero.

And they haven't beaten them.

Things don't start off well. "Light Speed Marching" wants to be "Painkiller", but it clearly isn't. The production is absolutely awful. Ripper alternates between being buried in the mix and being so high his track clips. The guitars are sort of heavy, but the main harmony sounds like the Casio keyboard I had in 1989. Considering Roy Z had a hand in this record, I'm shocked. He produced unbelievable albums with Bruce Dickinson, and now he's turning out something like this that sounds as if it was recorded in a bedroom studio.

The big problem, though, is exactly what I knew it would be; the songwriting isn't very good. Caffery comes up with a riff or two that are decent, but Ripper doesn't offer up a single melody on this entire record I would want to remember, even if I could. As time has gone by, and his time in Judas Priest has been all but erased, he seems hell-bent on reclaiming it. That means he forgoes actually singing, which he can do well, and instead apes Halford at every turn. Most of his lines here are barked staccato rhythms, or high-pitched wailing. His time with Iced Earth proved he's a good vocalist when he's given the right material, and the rest of his career proves he doesn't have the ability to give it to himself, or pick the right people to provide it for him.

The only appeal of this record is if you are such a die-hard Judas Priest fan that you miss the days of "Jugulator". Like that record, this one is a miscalculation that doesn't play to anyone's strengths, and thinks being heavy is a substitute for knowing what you're doing. Yes, this record is heavy, but it's heavy in the sense it sounds like someone cranked the volume too loud, and you're suffering from mild hearing loss. I don't want to be harsh, but the sound of the record is simply unacceptable. I have heard far, far, far better productions that have come from a laptop.

Even if the sonics were better, Spirits Of Fire don't have anything to say. They are recycling a sound that plenty of others already do, and do much better. This might sound mean, but there's a reason why both Ripper and Caffery had the time available to put this group together.

The most interesting thing about this record is the competition it creates. Ripper has already been part of The Three Tremors, which was an awful and unlistenable album this year. Now, in just two months, he has probably landed two records on the eventual list of the worst of the year. That's actually rather impressive. And it will likely be the only reason I remember this record exists. Seriously, please do yourself a favor and avoid this.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Album Review: Dream Theater - Distance Over Time

When you've essentially defined a genre for twenty-five years, there is a tug of war that happens between carrying on as you have established the genre, or trying to continually push the boundaries of it, and yourself. Dream Theater has been caught in the middle, trying out new things, but returning to their roots when they venture a step too far. Myself, I am one of those who like when they stick with their identity. "A Dramatic Turn Of Events" was my #1 album in 2011, while their foray into conceptual musicals, "The Astonishing", was a massive disappointment. So seeing the track listing of this new record, and hearing them saying they wanted to make a traditional Dream Theater album, was music to my ears.

That is exactly what we got from the lead-off track, and first single, "Untethered Angel". It very much recalls "A Dramatic Turn Of Events". The intro has the same feeling "On The Backs Of Angels" did, while the first verse borrows the rhythm from "Outcry". The heavier riffs that pop in and out give the song a hint of groove, and bring in elements of "Train Of Thought" we haven't heard since then. Even though their self-titled album was supposed to be the encapsulation of everything Dream Theater is, that phrasing might better describe this record.

This is the first record of theirs in ages that doesn't have moments where they let being a progressive band overtake their songwriting. With no tracks stretching past ten minutes, they reign themselves in to a degree that maintains the integrity of the songs, while still giving everyone room to showcase their virtuoso abilities. There are no moments here like "Outcry", where even though I love the song, the instrumental section sounded as if it had been airlifted in from somewhere else, and replacing it with a similar section from another song wouldn't have made it any different. The limitations of time have focused their songwriting, which is a definite plus.

The solo in "Fall Into The Light" is a great example of this. It takes up a sizeable part of the second half of the song, but it is a richly melodic and deeply emotional piece of music that is essential to making the song work as a whole. Petrucci does what a solo is supposed to, and elevates the song with his playing. It's his best playing since the stunning solo from "Breaking All Illusions".

"Barstool Warrior" is a cringe-worthy title, but a thoroughly interesting song. We get some evocative playing from Petrucci in the first minute, with some searing lead work, and the body of the song is the best mixture of heavy guitar and sweet melody that the band has perhaps ever done. It's genuinely new territory for them, and is something I would love to hear more of. They so often go for their traditional soaring choruses that hearing something warmer like this is refreshing.

You could say "Distance Over Time" is another Dream Theater album, and you wouldn't be wrong. It certainly is Dream Theater going back to the basics of who they are, but that's what makes it work. They aren't putting on a veneer of being something other than Dream Theater, which has cropped up as an issue from time to time. This is the kind of album you should enjoy if you've ever liked Dream Theater. There are hints of every incarnation of the band's history in here, balanced against their core. "Distance Over Time" is a spiritual successor to "A Dramatic Turn Of Events", and it's easily their best record since then. Dream Theater has more than redeemed themselves. "Distance Over Time" is excellent.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Album Review: Last In Line - II

I have been hard on every one of the groups put together from different combinations of the ashes left after Dio's passing. None of them have come close to matching even the worst records Ronnie put out, and they all seem to me to exist for no reason other than to use his popularity to reinvigorate careers that would otherwise be over. Before these bands started popping up, no one was clamoring for new Vivian Campbell and Craig Goldy records. Certainly, no one wanted to hear them putting out records they tried to tie to Dio's legacy. Given the acrimony between them, Last In Line with Vivian Campbell was the least welcome of them all. Their first record was a crashing disappointment to me, and the fact they have come back with the ultra-clever title of "II" is not inspiring any new confidence.

Things get off to an uninspiring start with "Blackout The Sun", which is four minutes of two note blues that fails to establish any kind of groove, hook, or melody. Andrew Freeman is a good singer, but he offers up nothing on the song. It's the kind of songwriting that relies entirely on charisma to get over, and these guys don't have that kind of presence. Ronnie did, and perhaps he would have been able to salvage it, but I doubt it. The same thing is true of "Year Of The Gun", one of the pre-release singles. The band goes through the motions, and then throws out a chorus that has no melody to it at all. They shout the title a few times, which is lazy songwriting.

The other single, "Landslide", was actually pretty good. It had more of an identity, and more of a melody to it. I found myself enjoying it, but then I was left scratching my head when the aforementioned second single came out and was so different. We do get a few more tracks in this mold, though. "Gods And Tyrants" is another good one that tells me the band could be much better than they currently are, if they applied themselves a bit more.

What baffles me most, though, is what the purpose of Last In Line is. The group was put together for the original Dio lineup to play together again, which I didn't like, but I understood. Now, with only Vivian and Vinny Apice left, the group sounds nothing like Dio at all. They are far closer to Vivian's other band, Riverdogs. This record is bluesy rock, and not the metallic thunder he played alongside the legend. If anything, hearing this as the kind of music Vivian comes up with on his own makes it clear his leaving Dio was not one of the great 'what ifs' of rock history. Dio never sang anything like this, so their separation now seems natural, even without the business disagreements.

I'm not sure whether or not that approach is better than Goldy finding a singer who can appropriately imitate Ronnie, and putting out an album that sounded just like a later Dio record. They both are questionable in their own way. But I can leave that behind for the sake of talking about these songs on their own, because they don't do anything to make me question my doubts. This record is rather dull (from a production standpoint), and I'm just not buying into the heavy blues lean in most of the songs.

It's not as bad a record as I was fearing. In addition to the songs I've already mentioned, "Give Up The Ghost" and "Love And War" are also solid tracks that could be part of a good record. There's enough here to lift the record up above things that are truly terrible, like The Three Tremors record from January. That said, there's also stuff like "Electrified", which sounds like a middle aged person trying to recapture the energy of their youth. It doesn't work at all.

So what Last In Line leaves us with is another frustrating album that hints as good things, and then buries them under the weight of disappointment. Maybe I would be a bit more open to this if it wasn't tied to Dio's legacy, but even then I doubt I would be able to say this is a record worth searching out. At this stage of the game, half-and-half records aren't enough to keep my interest.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Album Review: Candlemass - The Door To Doom

Here we sit with a new Candlemass album, the first one with singer Johan Langqvist since their ground-breaking debut, and there's only one thing floating around in my mind; this shouldn't be happening. I remember quite vividly sitting down to write my review of "Psalms For The Dead", which was promised to be the end of their recording career. Here we sit seven years later, and Candlemass joins the long line of bands over the years who have outright lied to my face. Here's the thing about that; I'm sick and tired of it. We know bands never retire until they physically can't perform anymore, and even then they still try everything they can to keep the machine rolling. All Candlemass had to do was say they were stepping away, that they didn't know if anything would ever happen again. Instead, they lied to garner sympathy and good reviews, and now they want me to embrace this record with open arms. I'm not that forgiving.

So while I'm admitting I hate the very existence of this record, let's try to be fair to the music. Frankly, Candlemass left us on a rather weak note. "Psalms For The Dead" was the worst record of that last era, and "Death Magic Doom" had been frustratingly inconsistent. Leif Edling is capable of writing some great stuff, but he seldom delivers entire records without filling them with boring doom that lacks spark.

The big difference with "The Door To Doom" is that, intentional or not, the return to their beginnings includes a production that is raw and not far off the retro occult-rock bands that are all over the place now. The guitars don't have their usual big, fuzzy doom sound. That choice does leave the record not sounding as big or as heavy as what doom has become known for. It's in line with where the band started, but I find that rather cynical. They have their original singer, so they also reverted to their original production sound. This album almost pretends the last twenty-plus years of evolution didn't happen.

The good news is that Johan sounds great. He's able to hit the same qualities Rob Lowe did, but with extra old-school grit. His voice is capable of doing everything Candlemass could ask, which is why it's sad he is saddled with music that doesn't give him anything interesting to sing. Over the years, Leif had been adding more and more melody to the songs, to the point where the last two records were at points hybrids of doom and sing-alongs. That's why I loved "The Bleeding Baroness", and there isn't anything on this record that holds a candle to that one.

Maybe we could excuse the reversion in approach if the riffs were delivering in epic fashion, but that's not happening either. There's no "Of Stars And Smoke" here. The riffs are standard Candlemass, but without the snap and hook they're capable of. The cruel way of putting it is to say the guitar work on this record is like if the producer challenged Tony Iommi to throw out all of his good riffs, and replace them live as they were recording. Speaking of Tony, he contributes a solo to "Astorolus - The Great Octopus", one of the dumbest titled songs I can recall in recent memory.

The main problem with this record is that there isn't anything memorable about it. After seven years, and with the reunion as a catalyst, I expected far better than this. Avatarium's albums have been far more interesting, perhaps because they forced Leif out of his comfort zone. "The Door Of Doom" is Candlemass by-the-numbers, which might be what some people want to hear, but it walks back the interesting developments over the years. They strip things back so far all we have is the stone in the middle of the fruit. It might be able to sprout in time, but it doesn't nourish right now.

My issues with the band aside, "The Door To Doom" just isn't very good. It certainly wasn't worth resurrecting the band for.

Friday, February 8, 2019

EP Review: Marlene Oak - Silver Moon

We often lose perspective when we talk about music. For those of us who listen to a lot of rock and metal, the mythos of a band begins to take over, and somehow we get lost in the weeds talking about amps and riffs, solos and technique. At the heart of music is songwriting, and the building block of everything we listen to are singer/songwriters. Sometimes we look down at them for how simple the music can be, how it lacks the big sounds and layers of ornaments that we get from ensembles. But when you really think about it, there's the old adage that any good song can be played on just an acoustic guitar, or piano, and a vocal; that if you need anything else for the song to work, it's not actually a good song.

Marlene Oak is an up and coming singer/songwriter who brings to mind Norah Jones. "Come Home" kicks off the EP with softly distorted guitars strumming a few chords, while her voice is given the spotlight. Her instrument has a breathy quality to it that makes her music sound melancholy, no matter the subject. It's a tone I happen to be quite fond of. And whereas Norah Jones seldom rises to crescendo, this song builds to a stronger hook where Marlene uses the power in her voice to drive the message home. It's still laid-back and relaxed, but it's also engaging, and a very lovely way to introduce herself.

"Silver Moon" follows, and is more of a blues song, mixed with some horns out of a spaghetti western soundtrack. It's an interesting addition to the track, and it does give some needed color to what would otherwise be a very somber ballad. That is contrasted with "Everyone", which is the most upbeat and 'pop' song here. Trade the guitar for a piano, and it wouldn't have been out of place when artists like Cobie Callait were popular. It's a lovely sunny day type of song, but there is an issue where the vocal recording is slightly distorted, which makes her delivery a bit difficult to understand. I'm a bit of a stickler on enunciating.

"In The Evening" could be an old torch ballad, both because of the timeless sense of the composition, but also in the recording, which bristles like an old vinyl record. It almost sounds like Marlene's voice is too much for the groove to hold, which isn't something we're used to hearing anymore from music that isn't a wall of noise. There's more than one way to be a throwback, we must remember. The EP then finishes with "Gone", once again keeping the pace a gentle trot. We leave as we came.

When all is said and done, here's where I stand with this EP; it's good music, and a promising start from an appealing new voice, but it also has a few flaws. I would like to hear her voice more clearly through the production, because it's a shame to do anything to cover it up. I would also like the music to be a hair more vibrant. These are all good songs, but I fear an entire album that is mostly her balladic side would be too easily construed as boring. Mixing in a few more upbeat moments could go a long way. That said, there is a lot of promise here. Marlene Oak is a name to keep an eye on.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Album Review: Beast In Black - From Hell With Love

A few years ago, Battle Beast splintered, as bands sometimes do. Most of the band carried on, putting out a good record without their former main songwriter, while he started Beast In Black to continue his vision of slightly cheesy, 80s heavy melodic metal. Both albums had their merits, and I'm not here to compare them. What was most notable to me, about the two bands, was the singer chosen to front Beast In Black. He single-handedly dragged down a record that could have been even better than it was. There were moments I didn't realize there wasn't a female guest singer, and others where he sang like fondue. I grew up with Meat Loaf being my first musical love, so believe me, I don't mind some cheese. Beast In Black was a bit much, even for me.

That brings us to album number two, where we hope the band finds their voice and lays down the marker of who they are going to be. That voice is still dependent on Yannis Papadopoulos, who is a polarizing singer. From the very first notes he belts in "Cry Out For A Hero", his high-pitched wailing is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Myself, I never have been able to get into those kinds of vocals, and I can't say I am this time either. When he does reign in the volume and sing softer parts, like through the verses of the title track, I like the guy, but the siren impression is too much for me. Thankfully, it is used sparingly once we get through this opener.

Speaking of that title track, it continues the trend I keep seeing of bands paying massive homage to the 80s. I don't get the appeal, to be honest. The synths are that super-fake sound we remember, and there's even a short drum roll leading into the choruses that is a pure electronic kit, and wants to be a new version of "In The Air Tonight". It's a moment that sounds out of place, and draws my focus away from the hook. That shouldn't happen, because it's actually a great song. The band knows how to write cheesy pop metal, and when they focus on doing that without the glitter and smoke machines, they're a less lycanthropic spin on what Powerwolf has been doing. "Sweet True Lies" could easily be a song from that band, which is a big compliment.

The sense I get from the album, though, is the same one I got from the debut; namely that Beast In Black haven't figured out who they are. Yannis tries on at least three or four different voices through the track list, while the songs veer from 80s pop to pure power metal. There's diversity, and then there's wandering. I'm afraid the band is doing a bit more of the latter than they should. That diversion, "Repentless", is too stock-in-trade to be as interesting as the bulk of the record, and because of that it stands out like a sore thumb among the better material.

So let's focus on the good here for a minute. Beast In Black writes great pop metal, which is what they do for almost all of this record. If you remember the early Lordi records, it's that kind of silly fun, but without the gimmick of being monsters. I hear so much music that is a drag, something that is purely fun is always welcome. That's what Beast In Black is; fun. From "Sweet True Lies" to "Unlimited Sin", Beast In Black has stepped up their game on their second album. Look, I would rather forget the 80s ever existed, but it doesn't seem I'm going to be allowed to. Of all the bands that are doing 80s worship, Beast In Black has the right attitude about it. They use in tongue-in-cheek to make something we can laugh and smile at (ok, the laughter might not be intentional). I appreciate that.

"From Hell With Love" is a good time.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Album Review: Avantasia - Moonglow

At this stage, every Avantasia album is an event. With them, we get the best collection of talent in the melodic metal world assembled under the care of one of its best songwriters. Between Edguy and Avantasia, Tobias Sammet has a lengthy catalog of music that has rarely let me down. I find it hard to believe that with as many albums as he has put out, there have been so few I don't regularly go back to. And considering that "Ghostlights" was one of his absolute best as a songwriter, the expectations for "Moonglow" are as high as they can be. Tobi wasted no time getting us ready, teasing us with the eleven-minute "The Raven Child" as the lead single. Was that a signal that Avantasia was doubling-down on being the epic force they are capable of? Or was it just a way of compensating for the more hard-core metal fans not enjoying the Meat Loaf worshiping "Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose" the way I did? That is what the album answers.

That flower once again opens this album, as does Tobi's shared love of Jim Steinman. This time, though, it's in the form of a ten-minute mini-epic that more fully integrates the angelic choirs into the melodic metal attack, rather than sounding like someone else's song turned into an Avantasia track. And Tobi takes a lesson to this song I remember hearing from Dave Grohl when "Wasting Light" was being released. "Ghost In The Moon" builds to a great hook, but then Tobi says he can do better, and throws in an even bigger one, just because he can. By the time we get to the true apex of the track, it is absolutely massive. Think "The Seven Angels", but with even more power. What's interesting is how this song, like "The Raven Child", don't feel the need to return to some of the great hooks when you would expect, they are that confidently written. This album takes no prisoners, right from the start.

Things don't let up with "Book Of Shallows", which is one of the heaviest songs Tobi has ever written. It thrashes along relentlessly, and somehow these five minutes are able to fit Hansi Kursch, Mille Petrozza, Ronnie Atkins, and Jorn Lande all alongside Tobi. And we get a nod and wink, with the bridge evoking the same feelings as Blind Guardian. If the opener upped the ante from the previous album, this song is an amped up brother to "Master Of The Pendulum".

I don't know what got into Tobi, but the whole album is heavier and more snarling than ever before. Even the title track, which would be an assumed ballad between Tobi and Candice Night, features some nasty, down-tuned riffing come the bridge. It sounds to me like Tobi breaking free of what Avantasia has become. While the project has evolved as it has moved along, certain tropes had become almost expected, and the name is big enough now to take whatever chances Tobi can conjure up. That's an attitude you have to respect.

But "Moonglow" is about so much more than that. It's one thing to take chances, it's another to make them count. Tobi is shifting Avantasia to new territory yet again, and it has revitalized him. The music sounds more energetic and lively than before, with the heavy attitude reflected in the songwriting. Tobi is punching like a heavyweight in a slug-fest, not holding anything back, as though he's fighting for his life. Avantasia has always been big, bold, and colorful. This album is darker and more single-minded, which in a way makes it sound even bigger. If some of the previous records were prisms reflecting the entire spectrum, "Moonglow" is a laser you can feel burning against your skin.

There's a line in "Lavender" where it's sung, "I see a magical world in sepia," which is rather fitting. There is something gritty about this album that eschews the technicolor we got from "The Scarecrow". As much of an achievement as "Ghostlights" was, "Moonglow" makes an even stronger statement. I don't know if it's the beginning of a new chapter, or an experiment that will be a one-off, but right now it stands alone in the Avantasia canon. "Moonglow" is another epic statement that no one does this better than Tobias Sammet, and he is still at the top of his game. "Moonglow" exceeds all expectations, and will surely be one of the best records of 2019.

Let's just forget that cover of the 80s song "Maniac" is even here, ok?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Singles Roundup: Kim Jennette, Forever Still, Yours Truly, & Madame Mayhem

February is going to be a crazy month, so before I get saddled with a ton of albums to fill my every waking moment, I want to take the opportunity to talk about a few singles that have caught my ear lately, all of which share a particular theme.

Kim Jennette - Love Like Suicide

This was the best song of January, for me. I found it through a recommendation from a recommendation, and it's bits of luck like that which reaffirm the fun of the chase. This song captured my attention from the first seconds I heard it. Kim's voice transitions from soft to loud, with the perfect amount of grit to wring the emotion from the song. When she belts those notes in the chorus, it's absolutely perfect. As the first taste of a solo career, I can't think of anything better. An awesome track.

Forever Still - Rewind

The first single from the band's sophomore album treats us to more of what's great about Forever Still. They are able to play that dark style of modern rock, but do so with melodies that offer hope to play against the guitars. Maja's vocals are powerful, clear, and the catalyst that makes the sound spark. I was a big fan of their debut, and they haven't missed a beat with this song. They will be providing one of the highlights of March.

Yours Truly - Circles

With my favorite band of this style quietly broken up, Yours Truly can take over that mantle if their upcoming EP is as good as their previous one. This song says it damn sure will be. They fill the gap that now exists, since Paramore and those bands have turned to 80s synth-pop. This is ultra melodic pop/punk or alt/rock, whichever you want to call it, and it's a musical sugar rush. The band has a knack for writing songs that burrow in your head and rewire your brain to demand a smile. Crunchy guitars, massive hooks, and feisty vocals. What isn't there to like?

Madame Mayhem - Broken

I remember listening to Madame Mayhem's last album and coming away from it unsure. The record had the right modern rock sound, and her vocals were great, but none of the songs stood out to me. This single changes that perception in three minutes. The guitar work is more interesting, and the melody is stickier than what I remember from their previous work. It does a good job of straddling the line between having attitude and being accessible. If this is a harbinger of something to come, I'm down for that.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Album Review: The Sonic Dawn - Eclipse

Time continues its never-ending march forward, and yet it seems that society has never spent more time looking backwards. Whether we're talking about the constant stream of old movies and tv shows that are being brought back to life, or styles of music that were once left behind, the past never truly dies anymore. We might choose to focus on different periods, but the punctuation now leaves the story open to continue at any time. The Sonic Dawn are one of the bands that shuns the present, and doesn't care about the future. They came with a recommendation for fans of Graveyard, which was enough to get me to give them a listen. I haven't found them yet, but if there's another vintage sounding rock band out there with that kind of potential, I want to be there to find them.

That recommendation turns out to not be the most accurate. While "Eclipse" is certainly mired firmly in the past, right down to being recorded to tape and vinyl, The Sonic Dawn is drawing from the psychedelic rock of the 60s, whereas Graveyard spins on the hard rock of the early 70s. It might not sound like the biggest chasm, but there is a big and audible difference between the two approaches.

The record opens with "Forever 1969", which sums up the band's attitude, and follows in a pattern. There is another album I recently reviewed that contained a song titled "1974", which waxed nostalgic for that time, and there was a song on a record I dearly loved a while back called "1985", which did the same thing. I feel like the conceit is too easy, and too blunt, to be effective. And when the band obviously wasn't alive at the time they're singing about, it also rings hollow, like throwing a penny into an empty dumpster.

I'll say this, though. The Sonic Dawn are able to capture the sound of late 60s psych rock very well. From the tones of the instruments, to the slight haze that permeates the production like a layer of dust on the recording tape, you could easily be fooled into thinking this record was recorded back in the day. There's a whole industry now centered on bands that are doing this, which I don't quite get. Vinyl is a terrible format that requires a recording to be abused in order to keep the needle in the groove. Why would we want to sound like that, when we can have perfect reproduction of the sound a band can create? Obviously, a lot of people have gotten confused, and associate the sonics of records from the past with the quality of the music they contained. The records were great in spite of the production limitations, not because of them.

And like many of these vintage style bands, The Sonic Dawn fall into that category where they pour so much of themselves into getting the sound just right that they don't give the same attention to the songs. These are compositions that set feelings and moods, and give us little in the way of guitar licks or vocal lines to grab hold of. Everything here is rather ethereal, floating by and leaving no mark. You know how you can spray perfume in the air and walk through it, getting only the slightest hint of the scent? That's what this record feels like. You get the impression of music, but not the satisfaction.

As I'm writing this, The Zombies were just voted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Listening to this record, I was thinking about "Odyssey & Oracle". That record had a similar sonic palate, but was full of songs that had interesting motifs and ideas, songs you would remember even if you didn't like them. "Eclipse", on the other hand, is like the styrofoam that better record would be packed in to be shipped to the stores. It has no identity of its own, and makes no statement about the talents of the band. As I said this sounds like a record that could have been released in 1969, I would also believe it was a record that has spent that long being ignored.

By now I should know that making vintage rock and roll is among the hardest things a band can try to do. Very few have ever done it well once, let alone repeatedly. Maybe The Sonic Dawn can do it sometime in the future, but they haven't done it here.