Monday, May 21, 2018

Album Review: Spock's Beard - Noise Floor

The recent years of Spock's Beard have been a bit of a roller-coaster. "Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep" was a phenomenal album that nearly topped my list the year it was released, while the follow up "The Oblivion Particle" underwhelmed me greatly. In the meantime, they had questions about their ever-shifting lineup, and reunited for one epic track with Neal Morse. Consistent is one thing they are not. That brings us to this newest effort, which sees the band go back to what worked on "Brief Nocturnes", an album that is lengthy enough to allow for some exploration, but concise enough to be song-oriented above all else.

At least to my ears, the biggest issue Spock's Beard has had since their initial fracturing is the number of people who contribute to the songwriting. While it has probably helped them maintain their creative energy and put out albums regularly, the different voices that have penned their music does leave every album, and several times within albums, sounding as much like the idea of Spock's Beard as the genuine article.

The first couple of tracks on this record are an illustration of that point. "To Breathe Another Day" opens the album as we were first introduced to Ted Leonard's era of the band, with bouncy rhythms and big pop hooks, punctuated by some tricky keyboard and rhythmic diversions in the middle eight. It recalls my favorite Spock's Beard material, and gets things off to a fine start. It's followed up be a completely different track in "What Becomes Of Me", which is an almost cinematic track of prog drama that builds feeling through the instrumental, and uses Leonard more as a highlighting color than the main dye. It's not just that they mine different territory, it's that they feel cut from completely different cloth.

"Have We All Gone Crazy Yet" is the longest song on the album, and the one that most explicitly throws all of the band's influences into the pot. The one thing it doesn't really do is hold together as a great song. There are some beautiful harmonies late in the song, some of the guitar runs sound straight off a Beatles record, and the instrumental section traverses a lot of ground, but there isn't much holding all of those pieces together. Without much warning, or explanation, it shifts from rocking the chorus to a slow and jazzy build, and then through a prog guitar workout, before the 60s pop sound returns. Each piece is fine, but it's prog-by-numbers in the way that lets people say prog is just stitching together ideas with little concern for how they fit.

That Beatles influence is stronger here than on any other Spock's Beard album. "So This Is Life" is the alternate-prog-universe vision of "Rubber Soul", which I will admit sounds gorgeous, until you realize that nothing about the song sticks with you. It's the candy coating, hollow on the inside. The other thing about this album is that it is very keyboard driven. Look at the beginning of "Box Of Spiders", where multiple synths and organs are layered atop each other to set the stage for the rest of the instrumental track. The keys dominate a lot of the compositions, which may or may not be a breaking point for some people.

The album also comes with an EP of tracks that didn't make the track list (even though the combined running time is only 70 minutes). They are the shortest and most straight-forward of all the tracks, and they are highlights of the package. Replacing one or two of these songs on the regular album with these to give a bit more melodic pop to the experience might have been a good idea. I understand why they were put aside, though I do disagree with the decision.

Spock's Beard has been hard to figure in recent years, and they are on this album again. "Noise Floor" is a beautiful sounding record, and it's more engaging to those outside the die-hard prog sphere, but it doesn't have the killer instinct that "Brief Nocturnes" did. That album was able to fuse pop and prog in a way that let both shine, and could reach across the divide. "Noise Floor" uses the sound of pop, but it's entirely a prog vision of it, which leaves the album decidedly tilted towards those who want engaging instrumental work. It doesn't have the same amount of surface-level appeal the band's best material in the past could muster.

So yes, "Noise Floor" is interesting, and I enjoyed it much more than "The Oblivion Particle", but I can't call it an essential Spock's Beard album. There are pieces of their identity missing, and the absence is felt.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Double Review: Graveyard - Peace

Graveyard have "managed to come closer than anyone else has to building a time machine, so those of us too young to have been there can understand what it was like when rock and roll ruled the world." Those were the words I wrote to sum up "Lights Out", my first exposure to the band. In the years since, I have become convinced that Graveyard is the defining band of this time in rock, because they are the group that most embodies the spirit of what made classic rock... well, classic. Over the course of their four albums before the short hiatus, they proved to be the one band that could write music that not just sounded timeless, but actually was. Yes, there were signs of the split that was to come, but they never stopped being important for shining a light on the path rock and roll needs to take.

Having resurrected themselves, minus one member, Graveyard returns with more fire in their belly than they've had in several years. "Peace" is an album that goes for the throat, a brash exercise that pushes everything great about Graveyard right to the fore-front. You can't help but notice this in the first few seconds of "It Ain't Over Yet", which opens the album like a drag racer hooking up the tires without a hint of smoke. The song races out of the gate, and the production is quickly evident as a fuzzier, heavier take on their classic rock. They still sound like themselves, but a hungrier version.

What has always stood out to me is the band's ability to mix short and punchy rockers with slower and more emotional ballads, and be equally good at both. Few groups are able to do more than one thing well, and it has been the balance of those elements that has allowed Graveyard to make some of the best albums of this millennium. For my (objective) money, I can't say there have been many album any better than "Lights Out" since Y2K fizzled, with "Hisingen Blues" only falling behind because of Graveyard's own brilliance.

The key to Graveyard's music is simplicity. They don't throw anything into the songs that isn't needed, just for the sake of showing what they can do. But by making each song a few chords, a bit of manic drumming, and a simple vocal line, they allow the songs to overwhelm the individual parts. You won't come away from a song like the first single, "Please Don't", humming a huge riff, or remembering the way the bass bounces under the descending run of notes, but you will absolutely remember the song. Graveyard's music takes a few listens to understand the beauty of such simplicity, but when it clicks, it becomes genius.

In many ways, "Peace" is the album that should have come after "Lights Out". It has a similar sonic palate, and the balance of songs carries the same feeling, while at the same time showing enough development to make it clear Graveyard has grown as an entity. While I still question the decision to not have Joakim (a singular vocalist) handle all the singing, "Peace" quells all the questions that arose in my mind from "Innocence & Decadence". Graveyard is back to being a more focused band, knowing exactly who they are and what they do best. These ten songs are nothing more than classic Graveyard. I can't think of a higher compliment.

When the ballad "Del Manic" explodes with echoing gang vocals and a droning guitar, there's nothing else to say other than Graveyard gets it. They understand how to let songs (and albums) rise and fall, maximizing the impact every facet can bring to the whole. Songs like "Walk On" and "Cold Love" hit that fine line of being memorable without ever hinting at a pop influence, etching in your mind like a needle in vinyl because of the expert songwriting.

The day Graveyard announced their demise was a sad day for me, both because I had grown to love their music so much, and because there was no one else ready to take their place as the north star of old-school rock and roll. I was wary after "Innocence & Decadence" was the closest they had come to a disappointment, and the unknowns of a hiatus, but "Peace" brings... well, peace. All is right in the world again because Graveyard is back doing what only they can. Nostalgia is running wild throughout the world, both for things we remember for their greatness, and for things we misremember as being greater than they ever were. Graveyard is the rare case where we get to experience music we thought was long dead, but it's every bit as good as it ever was.

Chris C

******


Man, am I happy to see Graveyard again.  My blood ran a little cold when they announced their breakup last year, but thank goodness that all got worked out with the simple ouster of a drummer.  It would have been a premature burial (no pun intended) for one of the best bands working today.  Maybe that gives away how good “Peace” is as a result, but spoiler, I’m a fan.

There was a time when I referred to Graveyard as the Swedish Led Zeppelin.  For a while, that was true, but now as we gather for their fifth studio album “Peace,” the comparison is no longer fair, for it undersells all the things that make Graveyard distinct.  (Before everyone loses their mind, no, I’m not saying Graveyard is better than Zeppelin, merely that they are different.  Although there are days….)
What we see on “Peace” is actually anything but, as Graveyard, for perhaps the first time, consistently shows off their power in the album’s selection.  We’re used to the idea that the Swedes will hit us with a couple of rockers on each outing, but “Peace” turns the intensity way up, beginning right at the top with the slippery but rhythmic “It Ain’t Over Yet.”  It’s a new pace for Graveyard to set, but they seem comfortable moving up in tempo.

Where this really comes to play is in “Please Don’t,” probably the heaviest Graveyard song to date, and the first track that really lends some credence to the long-mistaken comparisons between Graveyard and Black Sabbath.  This song is the thunder that we haven’t heard from the band before, right down to the bass-heavy production and the minimalist riff that crashes against the shore over and over again.  The underlying influence of the keyboard track in this and several other songs is understated, but adds just that minuscule touch of depth to highlight the difference between the high guitar melody and the deep rhythm.

One point of oddity – “Cold Love” is a good song, although it is not the album’s best.  What’s odd is that it is an earwig of carnivorous proportions, the single song from the album that you’ll find yourself humming when you wake up in the morning for a week solid.  There’s something in the big vocal chorus and return that bores in and won’t let go.

Worth noting is the shift in musical paradigm from Graveyard for “Peace.”  Previous albums, dating all the way back to the beginning, were as much blues revival albums as they were rock records.  “Peace,” by contrast is a rock album through and through, and while no one would accuse it of abandoning the blues, it doesn’t take the time to showcase them in the same manner.  “Peace” doesn’t have a “No Good, Mr. Holden” or a “Slow Motion Countdown” to represent that side of the band.  “Del Manic” gives it a shot, but doesn’t have the emotional grip of those songs that came prior.
That said, the album doesn’t need that to succeed, as it does display the band’s blues roots in other ways.  “Bird of Paradise,” if you shut your eyes and listen closely, could have been performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the rolling drums of album closer “Low (I Wouldn’t Mind)” suggest just a hint of old time rockabilly that adds another dimension.

There are two problems for Graveyard and “Peace.”  Both linger on the horizon, and both are good problems to have.  The first is that their last three records, “Hisingen Blues,” “Lights Out” and “Innocence & Decadence,” all placed in my top three albums at the end of the year, but none took the crown.  “Peace” is currently in the running, but time will tell.

The second problem is more subtle and difficult to explain properly, but here goes – four of this band’s five records (all but their first, which is fine, but that’s all it is,) have been stunning efforts of power, grace and blues craftsmanship.  How long can this go on?  How many top-shelf albums can a band produce?  Now, I’m willing to put Graveyard in that rarefied air with Iron Maiden and Metallica and whoever else has released scads of memorable, must-own records, but that’s a dice-roll, and history suggests very few bands can reach that level.  To wit, Graveyard has already produced more compelling albums in eleven years than most artists do in a lifetime.

With all that, here’s fingers crossed that it can keep going.  Graveyard has made their album releases mark-the-calendar dates for serious fans of rock on multiple continents.  And if you consider yourself one and that’s not true for you, you are behind the times.  Get caught up.  “Peace” is a compelling place to start.

D:M

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Album Review: Big Kizz - Music Is Magic

As I have said many times, probably at too much length, and will again with the symmetry we're about to get, Graveyard is perhaps the best band to arise in the last ___ years. They have done something no one else has been able to, transforming the cliche of vintage recording into making actual classic rock records. They stand on their own, but they are not a perfect band. The cracks were starting to show when they announced their short-lived hiatus, which brings us here, as Big Kizz is the new project featuring their former drummer. This gives me the opportunity to answer a coupel of questions; is Graveyard more than the sum of their parts, and is this a hint that Graveyard has solved their issues?

The influences behind Big Kizz are different than those of Graveyard. Rather than fusing classic rock and blues, this group has more proto-punk and power-pop tinges to their music, but maintaining the vintage vibe and scuzzy production. Lead single "I Want My Girl" doubles down on the philosophy of simplicity, with basically one riff and one vocal line carrying the entire song. It tries to be a bouncy single like you would get in the late 60s, but even at two and a half minutes, there isn't enough material in it to last so long.

It becomes a common construction to have songs cycle through verses without having a chorus or a hook included to give the song its anchor. That has worked in folk music, where the song was simply a vehicle for telling a story, but it feels weird in a rock band that isn't writing narrative songs. If anything, it makes this group feel like a garage band that hasn't graduated to playing with the doors open.

What's weird about Big Kizz's music is that it isn't very melodic, and yet there aren't any riffs to latch onto either. The songs are simply there, like a cloud of breath on a cold day, evaporating before your very eyes. If you were to reach out and try to grab one, it would slip through your fingers without so much as being felt.

I'm not exactly wure what the intent behind this album was. There was a similar album a little while ago from Painted Doll that has some of the same influences, and another from Spiders. Both of those albums had songs that plied from the vintage playbook, but had several songs with riffs and melodies that stood out from the crowd. They were flawed, but good albums that brought back a sliver of yesteryear. Big Kizz doesn't do that at all. This dabbles a bit in a variety of sounds from 1695-1975, but like a collage it has no message of its own.

I like my music to be organic, so I always want these bands that make very natural sounding records to succeed. What has become very clear to me in my years spent as a reviewer is that very few of these bands think beyond the gear they need. Big Kizz has made a record that sounds like it came out before the 8-Track was invented, but that's easy. This album sounds like more time was spent figuring out how it should sound than was spent on writing the songs. I knew this record wasn't going to be a Graveyard album, but to hear the chasm between them is enlightening.

Music might be magic, but these illusionists can't make this album look good.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Album Review: Amorphis - Queen Of Time

In every genre, there are a few bands whose names are used as shorthand for everything that came after their inception. Those bands have the struggle of living up to their own legacy, and trying to overcome the nostalgia for their early work as they develop and grow through the years. Amorphis has managed to do just this, as they have evolved into a more sophisticated purveyor of melodic death metal punctuated with somber clean vocals. They set a standard years ago, and have continued to build upon that, with their last album being a deep and fantastic effort that was remarkable in how they were able to fuse brutality and beauty. "Under The Red Cloud" was well-received at the time, and has only become more loved (at least in my eyes) ever since. So when Amorphis returns, not to mention with a release they call one of their most challenging, it's a big occasion.

That promise was proven true early on, as the release of the album opening "The Bee" was a signal that Amorphis was going to be challenging listeners this time around. That track winds through riffs that could have come off one of the recent Avantasia albums, with a structure that moves through bridges and hooks without a pattern. It's a deep track that requires your attention, but every facet is remarkable. The guitars have heft and flair, the keys add delightful texture, and the vocals are plaintive cleans and bellowing harshes that both stick like honey. It's a fantastic song that ony heightened the hype for the rest of the record.

Moving on from there, "Message In The Amber" is a folk-influenced song that not only relies mostly on Tomi Jousten's growls, but even features an ethereal choir for the softer, clean bridge. There's a lot packed into each song, which certainly needs time to reveal itself and be digested. That continues to be true, for example when "Daughter Of Hate" punctuates the first verse/chorus cycle with a saxophone solo. It brings a touch of jazz influence into the proceedings, and catches you off-guard. Progressive music, in its most honest form, is supposed to challenge the preconceptions of genre. That is absolutely what Amorphis is doing here. This is not rote material whatsoever.

"The Elk" is closer to being 'standard' Amorphis fare, until the song switches gear and spends a few moments on a contemporary classical piece. The use of a real orchestra for those parts is heard, as there is a beautiful depth to the sound that feels weightier and more important than if it was a thin reproduction.

"Queen Of Time" is an album that goes deep into Amorphis' sound to pull out songs that push them further than ever before. While that takes these songs in many interesting directions, there is one thing I find missing from this album; melodies. What made "Under The Red Cloud" such a great record was that their death metal and prog all centered around a mournful melody in nearly every song. There are a few of them on this record, but not nearly enough of them. These songs dig deeper into prog, which leaves a bit less room for Tomi to showcase his melodic singing. I can see how and why it happened, but I can't help but feel it holds things back a bit.

The work the band put into this album is evident. It's a beautifully crafted nd executed album, and it's take on progressive death metal is engaging. If it was being judged solely on its own, I would think this is a great record. But when I think about where Amorphis has been recently, and hear what they removed from their recipe to get here, I will admit to being slightly disappointed. "Queen Of Time" is high-quality, but it's not what I was hoping it would be.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Album Review: Praying Mantis - Gravity

This marks Praying Mantis' eleventh studio album, and over the years, they have had nearly as many singer changes as records. That makes it hard to be a fan of this band. Every time there is a singer or a record that gets you excited, it isn't long before they get replaced, and the tone of the writing changes a little bit again. That makes it a bit of a surprise that this album finds the same lineup from the previous record return, giving a bit of continuity to a band that sometimes feels they don't know the meaning of it. My favorite period of the band is the record they made with Gary Barden (despite his vocal limitations, he has great tone), but it's nice to see they're still making records.

This record gets off to an odd start. The first two tracks each tally more than six minutes, with lengthy intros that take their time in getting to the hearts of the songs. There isn't a formula for making a record, but it might be a bit of a slow start to have them back-to-back, even though they are both good songs. Praying Mantis has been making melodic hard rock for a long time, so they know what they're doing by now. Through all the singers, they haven't changed their identity, which is evident in both the sound and message of "Mantis Anthem", which is a horrible title for an otherwise strong piano-tinged ballad.

The other thing that's a bit odd is that singer John Cuijpers often sings much heavier than the band itself is. He adds some rasp and sinister tones into his voice on some of these songs, when the band's music is fairly light melodic rock, which makes him sound a tad bit out of place.

However, those are minor complaints. I talked about them first because, while "Gravity" is a good Praying Mantis record, it's also difficult to find much to single out and talk about without repeating myself endlessly. This record sound like the last Praying Mantis record, and it also sounds like dozens of other light melodic rock albums. That is no complaint at all, but it does mean I don't have much to say that hasn't been said before.

What can be said is that two-thirds of "Gravity" is high quality melodic rock that delivers the big hooks and crunchy-enough guitars that make this music work so well. There are spots where the record could use a bit more energy, but by and large it does what it needs to. This lacks the sizzle that W.E.T. brings to the table, but Praying Mantis is in a slightly different position. Being an older band, they are aimed more at the fans who had been with them all along. If I were in that age bracket, I would probably be quite happy with "Gravity". At my age, though, and having heard what melodic rock has already offered this year, I would have appreciated a bit more bite from this record. "Gravity" is good, but there's a reason why Praying Mantis never took off. That reason is still there.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Album Review: Doomsday Outlaw - Hard Times

The history of rock and metal begin with the blues. Whether it's Zeppelin or Sabbath, Purple or the Stones, the origins are rooted in the old blues. That makes it a bit weird for me to say this, but I don't really like the blues. Since I grew up so long after those roots had sprouted in so many different directions, I could get into the various strains of rock and metal without ever really hearing any blues in it. That leaves me in an odd position when a band like Doomsday Outlaw comes along, where I have a bit of trouble wrapping my head around the sound of a band that epitomizes what rock and roll once was. Still, I always go into these things with an open mind, hoping that the next one will open my mind to what I've been missing.

My biggest issue tends to be that the blues are not a melodic style of music, and melody is my main interest. Think about it; when you recall any Zeppelin song, how often do you think of Plant's melody instead of Page's riff? I think the answer will be 'not very often'. Doomsday Outlaw is appealing, because they tend to approach the music from both directions.

"Over And Over" has a swaggering blues riff anchoring the song, but the chorus delivers a hooky chorus that wouldn't be out of place on an AOR record. That's exactly what's missing in so much of this style of rock, and why it's refreshing to hear a band that's able to bring something more to the music than a simple 12-bar jam. We have a ready made comparison with their label-mates Inglorious. They are both bands with a modern blues-rock approach, but they tackle things differently enough that there is plenty of room between them. Inglorious has a virtuoso singer, and relies heavily on his voice to carry the weight of their songs. Doomsday Outlaw isn't far behind, but they write for the melody to be the star, rather than the singer. It can be a nuanced difference, but it tilts the playing field the longer you listen.

When the band hits the right balance, the results are striking. "Over And Over", "Bring It On Home", and "Days Since I Saw The Sun" are all tracks that have grit, heaviness, and liberal doses of big melody. They stand out against what rock and roll has become, reminding us that the emotion that really powers the best music isn't anger, its sorrow. There's beauty to be found in darkness, but not in rage. Doomsday Outlaw is able to use the shadows to highlight this truth.

The don't always find the target. "Into The Light" is a bit listless as a ballad, while "Will You Wait" stretches out to over seven minutes, but never sounds as vibrant or vital as their more focused numbers. It probably is fitting that a band based on the old basics are at their best when they stick to the basics. Those songs are all highly enjoyable, while the detours are harder to embrace as much.

With "Hard Times" being a fairly lengthy record, that means even if you don't come around on those outliers, there's still plenty of material here to make it an enjoyable listen. I imagine that for people who are more dedicated to the blues than I am, this album will have more appeal. For me, it doesn't quite convert me to the cause, but it does make a strong enough case that I'll keep digging. One of these days I'll find gold.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Album Review: Lunden Reign - Confessions

There are bands and records that come along which make me look forward to the future. They are new artists who stir something in me, and make me excited about the future of music. Now, the truth of the matter is most of these bands wind up disappointing me in the long run, because I am rather persnickety, and because consistently writing great music is hard. It just is. So when you come across a band that can deliver more than once releases that you love, keep in mind just how rarely that can happen.

A couple of years ago, Lunden Reign was one of those bands for me. Their record, "American Stranger", was one of my favorite albums of 2015. They were on the edge of the movement making classic rock relevant again, and they updated it to the modern age better than nearly anyone. Their sound, their songs, and their message all stuck with me. So I was holding out hope that when they returned, they would be one of those bands that could strike lightning twice.

They are.

"Confessions" is a bold step forward, and is anything but a sequel to "American Stranger". That is an artistic choice that is daring, and also one that pays off in spades. Rather than writing another classic rock record that pays homage to the 70s, they have moved forward a decade, making an album that looks fondly to the 80s, pulling in synths to create a layered sound that even more fully embraces melody.

We heard this first in the single that was released last year, "Red Wagon", which was a natural progression from the first record to this new one, and hit the mark as one of their best songs. What these new songs all have in common is an ear for melody, and a sense of care and craft in constructing this record. You can hear how important these words and these songs are to the band, which is refreshing when you come across so many albums that appear to be written for no other purpose than having new songs to play. "Confessions" means the world to Lunden Reign, and you can hear that authenticity and truth come through.

The record has a strong diversity to it, from the dreamy pop hooks of "Stardust Daze", to the soaring "Red Wagon", and the gritty heaviness of "Dead Man Walking". Throughout the album, the songs meld Laura's skillful guitar playing, which layers textures in a way that builds rich songs (a deceptively difficult skill that gets far less attention than flashy solos) with Nikki's passionate vocals. Nikki continues to be the band's trademark, with her Sheryl Crow meets Stevie Nicks voice sounding like nothing else in this genre. These songs were smartly written to play to her voice's best qualities, and she nails her performances.

Classic rock influenced bands are often copycats, bands that act as if having the right guitar tone and production are all it takes. Lunden Reign are not that. They use their influences to speak their truth, and that message is what makes them important. They aren't a band writing songs about rocking and partying, filling albums with songs that are ultimately meaningless. They are, to borrow their own term, confessing to the audience. That takes strength, and it's admirable.

"American Stranger" was one of my favorite records of 2015, and "Confessions" is every bit as good an album. It has a different appeal, but I find myself wanting to come back to it, which is the hallmark of a great album. I said then that Lunden Reign was a band with a bright future, and now that we're living in it, I was right.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Album Review: Lords Of Black - Icons Of The New Days

I find myself concerned when the hive mind of the metal world settles on a truth before it is ever established as undeniable. We sit here with the collective mentality telling us that Ronnie Romero is one of the handful of best metal singers on the planet. He certainly has a voice, and he has the cache of being the man hand-picked to front the current incarnation of Rainbow, but I struggle to understand what the rest of the world is hearing. Romero can sing, but being great is about more than having a voice. You need to leave a legacy of music as well, and so far nothing in his career has stood out as a great album. Even as disappointing as Jorn Lande's career can seem, he has more memorable outings under his belt.

Last year's album with The Ferrymen was a step forward, and a good album, but his main gig with Lords Of Black has always been a band that slides out of the consciousness if you aren't holding tight. This time could be different, though, as Ronnie has more experience to his credit, and the band is going all-in towards a more involved style of almost melodic-prog metal.

"Icons Of The New Days" is a long album, the twelve tracks stretching on for more than an hour, with multiple six, seven, and even eleven minute tracks. That makes this their most daring statement yet. We got a first taste of this when "World Gone Mad" was previewed, as the nearly seven minute track stood out as a more advanced form of their usual style. The song was heavier, more involved, and the busier framework somehow focused Ronnie's melodies. It was probably the best I had ever heard from the band, at that point.

That feeling carries over, as this is easily the best Lords Of Black album, to my ears. They sound more confident, more refined, and like they finally know how to make the most of their talents. The press release compares Lords Of Black to Sons Of Apollo, and I think that's actually a fair assessment. They are both bands that straddle the line between accessible melody and mildly progressive metal. Unlike that other group, Lords Of Black are able to meld the two sides into a singular sound, which gives them a leg up in making an album that sounds like a cohesive whole from a band with an identity of their own.

There are moments here where I can hear what Ritchie Blackmore is thinking. On a song like "Forevermore", Ronnie's vocals, and his phrasing, come across very much like Dio. In fact, with the prominent synth line, the song is almost a modern prog take on "Rainbow In The Dark". It's that Dio connection that continues to linger in the back of my mind. With taking on the Rainbow gig, and all deeper metal singers being compared to him anyway, I can't help but think about the original Ronnie, and how this current one lines up. Ronnie Romero is a good singer, for sure, but if I'm being honest he doesn't have the charisma of the original, nor does he yet have mastery over his voice to give shades and colors depending on the track's need. He spends most of the time in a slightly raspy tone that I don't think is his strongest range, nor is it as convincing as when Jorn does the same thing.

But let's focus on the positive here, because that is the main takeaway. Lords Of Black have, for the first time, made an album that deserves the attention they are going to get. This is their best work to date, without question. I said last year that The Ferrymen's album was the best thing I had heard Ronnie on, but that isn't true anymore. "Icons Of The New Days" is a more original album than that one, and it's one I think will have more staying power. Sure, I think it would have benefited from being a song or two shorter (it can be hard to find more than an hour at a time to listen to a single record), but everything here is among the best Lords Of Black has done, so I understand why they didn't want to leave any of it behind.

"Icons Of The New Days" makes a case for Lords Of Black being the next evolutionary step from Heaven & Hell. They share the same roots, but Lords Of Black are moving that sound forward, filling a gap we didn't even know existed. I've always been luke-warm on them, but no more. "Icons Of The New Days" is the real deal, and Lords Of Black have finally hit their stride. Well done.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

EP Review: The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles: The Dichotomy

Over the last three years, the fabric of music has revealed plenty of amazing artistry, as well as snarled weaves that are destined to fray and break. The thread that has proven most interesting to me is that of The Spider Accomplice. A band that I was turned on to the way such things always happen, by an earlier collaboration with a member of a band who I had a slight infatuation with at the time, the odd way of arriving with the band's first EP was rewarded as fate when the results were heard. On the first two installments of the "Los Angeles" trilogy, The Spider Accomplice made music that resonated with me, stuck with me, and established themselves as one of the most exciting new bands in quite a while. If they were already scaling such heights, what can the next step bring?

The Spider Accomplice gives us more with this closing chapter of their trilogy. More what, you ask? More of everything. "The Dichotomy" is bigger, bolder, more dramatic, and more beautiful. To borrow an image from the first EP of the cycle, if The Spider Accomplice started out as a brightly colored caterpillar, they wound themselves into a cocoon of stunning silk in the middle, and now have emerged as a butterfly too vibrant to possibly be real. The colors look like a fiction created by artists working on a vivid canvas. Bands grow, they evolve, but the process is usually slow and subtle. The Spider Accomplice says to hell with that, and before our eyes has transformed themselves into a band that has fused the visceral and the artistic.

We got our first taste of this (pardon the pun), when they released "Swallow" on Christmas. One of the best songs of the year (#3 on my list), it showed the band's sound getting tighter, brighter, and more textured. That feeling carries over to this EP, which site as a fitting crescendo to the "Los Angeles" story.

Everything we loved about the band before is still here, Arno's inventive guitar work and VK's passionate vocals and lingering melodies, but there is more added to the mix. They trade in some of the Offspring-style punk influence that had been felt for something more grand, and you could say more mature. "The Dichotomy" features strings, pianos, more guitar solos, and a weight that feels bigger than anything they have done so far. From the opening call-to-arms that introduces "The Fall Of The Copper Queen", straight through to the wrap-up of "Epilogue", we get sounds that rival anything Muse has done to become as big as any band on the planet.

You can never figure just where the band's sound is going, which makes them exciting to follow. There's plenty of alternative rock propelling them, but there are drips of modern pop/rock, symphonic rock, and even 60s psychedelic pop that twist and turn, often within the same song. So often we hear bands get complacent once they find a sound that works for them, never deviating from giving their fans what they already expect. The Spider Accomplice challenges themselves, always seeing what else is possible. That's how they get from "Calico Concrete" in 2015, to "Bromelaid" in 2016, to "End My Life" now. With each release, they dig deeper into themselves, and we get to go along for the ride to learn what lies under each layer.

It's not often that I don't find myself saying, "but", yet that's where we are, because the only gripe I could find isn't even a gripe about this EP. My lone disappointment listening to these tracks is that one song they introduced as an acoustic performance last year isn't included. A more minor complaint might not even register on my mind.

I feel like I've been saying this with each release, but this EP feels like a shot across the bow of modern rock by a band more deserving of airplay and acclaim than any household name. I can't listen to the swell of strings and VK's voice wring the drama of "End My Life" without imagining the song filling a massive venue. Perhaps the irony of the title, "The Dichotomy", is the comparison of how many people will hear this music versus how many should and need to.

I have been cheerleading for The Spider Accomplice from the start, because I have believed in them and the music they have made. "The Dichotomy" doesn't just pay me back for the faith I have placed in them, it makes a statement that The Spider Accomplice is the biggest little band in the world. This is absolutely stunning.

*Editor's Note: The three EPs in the "Los Angeles" trilogy, if compiled into a single album, would be a favorite to be album of the year.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Album Review: Ihsahn - 'Amr

One thing you can't deny is that Ihsahn has been eclectic. In the years since Emperor folded, he has traversed a wide swath of musical ground, peddling everything from black metal to free-form jazz. He has never rested on his laurels, and while I can't say I have enjoyed much of the music he has made (since we share radically different musical roots), I do respect his dedication to moving forward. Whether you like what he's doing or not, every album is an interesting experience, because you never know exactly what you're going to get.

For this album, we get his spin on the metal of the 80s, as his streamlined approach has integrated the synths that ruled that decade. Rather than an album relying on the scope of orchestration, or the rule-bending of jazz, "'Amr" focuses on the coldness that comes from artificiality. A synth is more than a sonic tone, it is a nod to technology replacing humanity in music. And since Ihsahn's roots are in black metal, where humanity can be hard to find anyway, that is a combination that makes a lot of sense.

Putting it bluntly, this is a difficult album. Ihsahn throws enough blistering drums and progressive riffs into the mix to constantly challenge the listener, but it's not as simple as that. There is also the fact that these songs, despite their structure being simplified, spend much of their time screeching without melody, flattening  out where sharp edges need to be. Without massive orchestrations to give the songs character, Ihsahn's songwriting simply isn't interesting enough to carry the day.

It's a fundamental truth about music that the hardest thing to do is write simple songs. Think about it; if you write a twenty minute progressive epic, you can take needless detours, indulge every thought you've ever had, and claim the whole thing is about a 'journey'. To write a good, simple song, you have to focus on every idea you have and use only the best of them. Simplicity shines a spotlight on your ideas, stripping away the coats of varnish lesser songwriters use to polish the proverbial turd.

I don't intend to use that word with regards to "'Amr", but the point remains. This album is one that falters because of its focus. The pacing is often too slow, the actual musical ideas aren't particularly interesting, and Ihsahn's vocals rarely add elements that elevate the compositions. The entire album feels like it was written for no other reason than to use certain synth sounds. The songs themselves are turgid, lacking either the visceral bite or the intellectual sprawl of Ihsahn's best work. This is a condensed version of Ihsahn as a solo artist, and like an abridged version of a novel, a lot is lost in the missing details.

I understand that Ihsahn is considered a legend, and I will likely be one of the few voices saying this, but he is not particularly well-suited to writing conventional music. "'Amr" is likely the most straight-forward album he has released yet, and it is the one that most exposes his shortcomings.