Thursday, October 19, 2017
The title track blares out of the speakers to open the album, picking up right where the last record left off, with crunchy guitars and roaring Hammond organs. I'm a bit of a sucker for those, but it's a sound that works so well in rock that it's amazing more bands don't follow suit. It's a muscular sound, but one that also has depth to it, which makes the songs more interesting than if there were simply two layers of guitars playing the same thing.
Europe continues to slay on "The Siege", which takes everything that was great about the title track, and dials is up even further. It's a weighty, heavy song that culminates in one of those great choruses that makes you want to stop your head-banging long enough to sing along. There's nothing complicated about it, but that's what makes it so good.
Over the course of these ten tracks, we get a healthy dose of high-quality hard rock. Europe are veterans, and that shows throughout the album, as song after song delivers the goods. Now, the question to ask is how this stacks up to "War Of Kings", since that album put Europe back on the map. It's a bit of a tough judgment to make, since although the sonics are the same, they are different albums. "War Of Kings" was a more laid-back and melodic album, while "Walk The Earth" is more in your face and aggressive. Which album is better might come down simply to which side of the rock equation you solve for.
What isn't up for debate is that Europe has followed up a very good record with another very good record. Myself, I find myself erring on the side of melody, so I would still say I prefer "War Of Kings" over this album, but that's splitting hairs. "Walk The Earth" is another great Europe album, and continues the momentum they established. If you haven't heard what Europe is up to these days, you need to. They're a more vital rock band than most half their age. "Walk The Earth" is good stuff indeed.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Vuur is her promising new band that sees Anneke in her most metallic element. She trades in the melancholy of the Gathering, the grandeur of Ayreon, and the heft of Devin Townsend, for a sound that is deep and heavy modern metal. The contrast between the low tunings and Anneke's soaring voice is about as stark as you can get, which certainly does give Vuur something unique to hang their hat on.
You get a good sense of what Vuur is about from the opening "My Champion". The initial riffs are heavy as all get-out, with pounding drums and a foreboding atmosphere. When the chorus comes, the chords open up, and Anneke is able to soar over the top of the music with her power and clarity. She's singing a melody that many of the bands with classical singers would write, but Anneke's tone isn't as traditional, which makes it all the more appealing.
Vuur reminds me very much of a band called Stork, who started out as an instrumental prog metal band before adding a female vocalist to try to balance out the intense heaviness of their music. Vuur's tones are similar, but work as an example of how the same sound can take on such different forms in different hands. Stork never really came together, but Vuur does.
The one thing about Vuur, however, is that their music is not what we would call sprightly. It doesn't need to be, but starting with the more restrained tempos, when the band slows down even further, it can get to be a bit much. "Time" is one of those tracks, which veers a bit too close to doom to work with Anneke's voice. That's a minority of the album. Vuur spends most of the time sitting in a comfortable pace, where Anneke has enough room to weave her voice over the riffs to create something engaging. Songs like "The Martyr And The Saint" and "The Fire" build up to powerful crescendos.
I will say this, however; "In This Moment We Are Free" might be a tough album to get through all at once. It's fairly lengthy, and the pacing of the songs doesn't help it to feel any shorter. The quality is there, but it is a lot to take in.
That being the case, I want to make it clear that Vuur's debut album is indeed plenty good. It's a strong showcase for Anneke, and it has some fantastic moments of dramatic metal. If you've ever likes Anneke's voice, it's certainly something to hear.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
The opening "Lords Of Tomorrow" does throw a curveball or two our way. It's as power metal as power metal can be, but the way the riffs speed up to Dragonforce levels for a flash of a few seconds, only to die back into the normal rhythm, is something that I don't know I've heard much of. It does give the song some ebb and flow, which can be difficult when double-bass drums carry the majority of every song.
That song gets things off to a cracking start, but it's not long after that we start to get into the problem that has pushed me further and further away from the genre that really got me into metal. Power metal has a formula, and when a band adheres so closely to it all the time, the music becomes rather stale. The thing about power metal in particular is that the music is carried often by the speed and rhythm alone, which means there aren't many memorable riffs to be found. In that case, if the vocals don't deliver the sharp hooks, there isn't anything else to save the songs.
That's sort of where we find ourselves here. Everything on the album is well-executed, but it's so by the book that it's tedious to listen to, since I have a pretty darn good idea what's coming before we get there. The actual musical ideas, both in the guitars and vocals, aren't good enough to overcome the predictability we get again and again. As far as power metal goes, sure, it's not bad. I haven't heard a lot of traditional power metal that's been released recently, but Power Quest isn't far off the mark of the good stuff. The problem is that missing the mark at all, when perfection is still directly competing with the entire history of the genre, means each mistake is magnified.
"Sixth Dimension" isn't bad at all, but it's not exciting or memorable. It's power metal in the power metal mold, which is great for serious power metal fans. For everyone else, it's an album that will confirm whatever it is you already think about power metal.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
This has been an odd year for music. Along the way, there have been more truly awful records than I can ever remember, and the good stuff has been evenly distributed among the various genres and sub-genres that I listen to. The one thing that has been lacking is a good ol' fashioned hard rock record. There have been great melodic rock records, but the meat-and-potatoes stuff has been lacking. It's not entirely surprising that there aren't a load of players right now who are masters of the riff, but it does leave a hole for a band like Bigfoot, who are that kind of no frills rock band.
The thing about lacking bells and whistles is that it puts even more emphasis on the elements that are there, which can expose a band's shortcomings. Let's take the first two songs from this record as an example. "Karma" is a deliberate rock song that lacks personality, with vocals that are trying to sing more powerfully than Anthony Ellis is capable of. It's rather bland, and rather mediocre. But then there's "The Fear", which has a far more melodic hook that is very good, but the song spends large portions of the verses with weak sounding guitars and absolutely no drumming. There's nothing pushing the song forward, which makes the whole package seem half-cocked.
After that give and take, the album settles into a groove when the band dips their toe a bit harder into Southern rock. That decision sets them up for better results, as a bluesier and grittier take is where they sound most comfortable. The string of songs from "Forever Alone" to "Prisoner Of War" find the band hitting their stride, and it's a convincing enough group of tracks. If they had delivered an entire album in that mold, it would be something truly interesting.
However, Bigfoot hasn't quite figured out who they are as a band. At times, they're a Southern rock powerhouse, while at other times they try to be a 70's style melodic rock band. It's not just that they're obviously better at one sound than the other, it's that the two don't allow for the album to sound cohesive. There's a big difference between the shorter and longer tracks, both in style and substance, and that's exactly the sort of thing that kills an album.
If Bigfoot had delivered an entire album of their better side, I would be telling you to go check it out. However, they didn't do that, and while half of the album is solid old-school Southern hard rock, there's too much material here that doesn't have that same impact or quality. Look, Bigfoot definitely has the potential to be very good at a particular style. They don't stick with it quite enough on this album, but they do offer up hope that in the future they will deliver on that promise. As it is, this record is a decent starting point.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
That's where Sorcerer comes in. They have picked up the slack, and are showing the rest of the world that doom can be dark and heavy, sure, but also beautiful and melodic. If you want to use the description 'epic doom', it wouldn't be wrong. This music is big, burly, and gorgeous as well. Trying to pull that off is not an easy feat, and Sorcerer has done it with aplomb on this album.
I never heard any of Sorcerer's previous material, but I can't imagine being able to do doom any better than this. Everything about "The Crowning Of The Fire King" is nearly flawless, from the deeply emotional vocals, to guitar solos that serve as additional melodies, to riffs that find the perfect balance between heaviness, groove, and melody. There are lengthy tracks, but everything in the songs is essential, so they never feel their length. Much of doom metal can drag along on one or two repeated riffs, but these are real compositions that ebb and flow, build and deconstruct, until they reach a conclusion that makes sense.
The comparison that comes to mind is While Heaven Wept's "Vast Oceans Lachrymose". That's the only other doom album I can ever recall hearing that had as much attention paid to the details as the crux. That album stunned me at the time with the depth of the layered music setting a beautiful stage for the songs. The problem was the album only had three songs that lived up to atmosphere. Sorcerer is able to achieve a similar feeling, but carry it through with a full album of great songs.
I don't need to break this down track by track, because this is an album that is a cohesive whole, where every song is as good as the one before and after it. "The Crowning Of The Fire King" could just as easily be the crowning of the doom kings, because after this effort, I can't think of a finer doom band working today.
Monday, October 9, 2017
Some of them are easy. Graveyard sounds like Led Zeppelin. Midnight Ghost Train is similar to Clutch. Turisas sounds like Andrew Lloyd Weber has an angry, metal-obsessed son.
Then comes Nachtblut. It’s taken a while to come up with a proper analogy, but here it is – Nachtblut, and their new album “Apostasie,” lies halfway between Rammstein and Finntroll…both in musical sensibility, and in general silliness.
Before rumors start to swirl, let’s put this in its proper context. That is a compliment. Pure and simple. In a year when it seems like the calendar is overly saturated with bands coming back out of the woodwork after multiple decade hiatuses, here’s a German band virtually unknown to American audiences that are putting fresh, personalized spins on sounds we thought we knew.
Addressing the other elephant in the room, as far as the silliness goes, maybe we’re reading this wrong and “Apostasie” is supposed to be as serious as a heart attack, but that seems unlikely. If the Upstate New York public education system’s German curriculum is worth anything, some of these song titles translate to “Your Death is my Hooker,” and “Women De-boning,” so it’s hard to envision that the tongue isn’t firmly buried in the cheek here.
To top it off, if you skip to the end, there’s a truly excellent and highly enjoyable cover of the German rapper Kollegah’s hit “Wat is’ denn los mit dir,” which caps the album perfectly. It’s a fantastic change of pace with some really bright keyboard work that stays within the envelope of Nachtblut while still showing an ability for musical interpretation.
Anyway, the meat of the album is an adrenaline-fueled, riff-heavy ride that will find a niche with fans across the spectrum of metal, as evidenced by the bands cited at the head of this thing. There’s a lot of great design elements here in the construction, even if you can’t understand the German lyrics. “Amok” rumbles with purpose and direction, but is flanked on either side by some clear piano and punctuated by a clean-toned guitar solo in the song’s second half. The juxtaposition of the clean tones with the over-driven, screaming punch of the song’s basic riff creates a dichotomy that is simple, but adds a lot of depth.
As ever in this kind of effort, the keyboards can make or break an album by either accenting it or driving it over the cliff into contrivance. Nachtblut employs the alarmingly bright tones of keyboardist Lymania’s harmonies to create real depth and help move the songs along. “Scheinfromm” by itself is a powerhouse, but the electronic elements turn it into a more memorable, and thus more effective, song.
Not to be outdone, Nachtblut also gives us “Geboren um zu leben,” which for all its metal underpinnings, can safely be recognized as crossing the border into industrial, with its mechanized beats and heavy electronic influence. The breakdowns and bridges are deceptively danceable, showing just another facet of what “Apostasie” brings to the table.
Listen, we’ve now spent three paragraphs distinguishing what some might call minor differences in affect or musical idiom, but being able to separate those pages and provide the listener with a handful of different styles while staying on message is what makes “Apostasie” so much more accomplished than many of its contemporaries.
A couple odd notes that have to be addressed. If it were not for the soft piano section of “Frauenausbeiner,” an attentive listener may think that the song is a Germanized version of AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me.” The basic riff, the structure, even the cadence is remarkably similar to that song from “Back in Black.”
Also, the piano ballad “Einsam,” while executed well enough and highlighted by the emotive and earnest performance of guest vocalist Aeva Maurelle, feels a little out of place on the record, both because it’s sandwiched between a rousing arena-rock clone (as mentioned above,) and the beer-stein swinging celebration of the title track, and because as we’ve already talked about, there’s a question of seriousness amidst the bravado here.
Let’s not lose the forest for a couple of trees, though. “Apostasie” is great. One of the most purely enjoyable, catchy and consistently well-constructed albums of 2017. It doesn’t require a lot of dissection to be able to understand what’s going on here; it’s a straight-ahead, rolling gothic metal record that knows how to be fun and punchy at the same time. Especially as we hurtle inexorably toward year-end award season, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not spend some time with Nachtblut.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
This was made evident with the title track, which not only leads off the album, but was the first single released. The video blew up online, racking up a massive amount of plays. It's the perfect embodiment of who Fozzy are. Ward provides simple guitars that establish a groove, and Jericho gives a melodic sheen to the chorus, which uses repetition to become annoyingly catchy. It's one of the better songs Fozzy has ever written.
What's always kept me from fully embracing Fozzy is their occasional forays out of their comfort zone. They have not always been the most consistent of bands, but to their credit, they have gotten better in that regard with each album. "Judas" sees them finally hitting their stride, where I can't say there's a lull when the album drags along for me. Ward and Jericho deliver across the board here, with the most solid set of songs Fozzy has yet committed to tape.
The opening run of songs sets the agenda clearly. "Judas", "Drinking With Jesus", and "Painless" are prime Fozzy cuts, balancing the band's modern and classic sides. There's a lot to like about what Fozzy is doing here, and clear that the band has been constantly evolving into a machine intent on becoming one of the bigger names in the modern rock/metal style. Their sound is thoroughly modern, once in a while to their own detriment. While I said there aren't prolonged lulls, there is "Three Days In Jail", which borrows a bit too much from modern schlock to really be good. The beginning to the song is good, but when it turns to rapping, it loses me. That's not what Fozzy is, and I don't understand why they would even think about adding in an element that is totally anathema to their identity. That's a huge mistake.
Otherwise, Fozzy has done well for themselves here. Not knowing exactly which bands to compare them to, I can't say they're on the top tier, but they are still evolving and improving. Fozzy has come a long way from when they started out, and they're becoming more focused with each passing album. "Judas" is their best album yet.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
Iris Divine is a band that does, however. Their debut album was one that had plenty of intricate playing, and was certainly heavy, but it was all centered around great melodic songwriting. "Karma Sown" was one of the best prog release of that year, so I was excited to see them return with a new record that doesn't change up the winning formula.
Let's take the opening track, "Catalyst", for example. The song opens with a super heavy riff, then the drums start pounding out a pattern that isn't a straight 4/4 beat. Some unique chords ring in the background, and then the chorus comes in with a strong melodic focus. There's also a few technical riffs in the middle-eight, capping off a jam-packed five minutes of music. As you can see, there's a bit of everything thrown in, but it's done with skill. This isn't like some bands, where the various sections get glued together with no thought behind it. This is well-conceived, and logical. It's also very good.
One of the things I appreciate about Iris Divine's writing is that they use dynamics to their advantage. "Taking Back The Fall" starts out with a crushing riff, but the band doesn't feel the need to keep the song at that intensity throughout. Their let things pull back for a while, which is not only smart because that kind of heaviness gets tiring, but it lets those moments sound heavier by virtue of having a comparison to be made.
Another point to note is that this is a phenomenally produced record. While the sound is still modern and loud, the clarity and balance of the recording is great. The guitars have just the right amount of bite on them, the vocals come through clear, and the mix has everything sitting just right. And unlike a lot of metal, the bass is even easily audible. Plenty of bands on major labels can't match the pure sound of this album.
"The Static And The Noise" is a very fine modern prog metal album. While the genre's leaders are getting lost, Iris Divine is stepping right past them. I'll admit that I'm not as keen on the closing track, "We All Dissolve", because of the overuse of spoken word elements, but otherwise the album is as good as you can ask for from a young band like this. Iris Divine has made an album that is heavy, challenging, yet accessible. That's the perfect balance, and "The Static And The Noise" fits right in with "Karma Sown" as great examples of how to do it right.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Like any prog band would, Sons Of Apollo open their album with an eleven minute mini-eipc, this one borrowing the themes and feelings of eastern music. What we get are heavy, low-tuned riffs, Portnoy pounding away at his drums like only he can, and plenty of melodic sensibility that is more derived from hard rock than normal progressive metal.
In fact, the label of progressive metal is where Sons Of Apollo might have done themselves a disservice. Yes, there are lengthy songs and plenty of intricate playing, but the focus of their music isn't intently on those aspects. There are plenty of occasions where its clear the band is just as inclined to be a modern heavy metal band, just with virtuoso players at every position. The singles "Coming Home" and "Signs Of The Time" gave us that indication before the album's release, and a couple of other tracks are in that same style. There's a clear bifurcation of the band's prog and melodic sides.
It's actually refreshing that Sons Of Apollo aren't committed to making progressive metal that needs to be progressive at all times. They have their moments where they stretch things out and showcase their skill, but there is a focus on writing more memorable songs than you often get from this kind of music. As far as prog metal goes, the band's guitar sound is heavier and more modern than the traditionalists, and Soto's voice matches the lower tones, which gives the entire album a heft that really works. They often find a groove and let that carry through large portions of the songs, a move I find both smart and effective.
The band is best summed up by "Alive". That song has the dark guitar tones, moments of softer reflection, and a killer hook. It's just the right blend of what Sons Of Apollo are, and it also makes clear what they aren't (which is a copy of what the members have done before).
In fact, my only real complaint with the album is the curious decision to finish with a ten minute instrumental. I'm not a fan of instrumental music to begin with, especially from a band that has a singer in the ranks, but to end the album with it doesn't make much sense to me. You want to end an album with a statement, and it's hard to see the message in finishing with a song that omits one member of the band for the entire running time. If I was the producer, I would have shortened the track, and switched it out with the similarly proggy "Labyrinth", but what do I know?
Other than that one nit I picked, I'm coming away from "Psychotic Symphony" rather pleased. There were worries that the band was going to try to compete too directly with Portnoy and Sherinian's past, but those turned out to be for naught. Sons Of Apollo are indeed an entity unto themselves, and whether they're strictly prog metal or not can be debated, but it doesn't matter. What it all comes down to is whether or not the music is good, and I can say that "Psychotic Symphony" is. In the pantheon of Portnoy, this isn't up there with his very best work (mostly his Transatlantic and Neal Morse - solo, not Band - albums), but it's far above Adrenaline Mob or Metal Allegiance.
Sons Of Apollo has a bit of buzz, and "Psychotic Symphony" lives up to most of it. I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but the result is pretty darn good.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Skarlett Riot is the next band on that list.
I was aware of Skarlett Riot before "Regenerate" was announced, but I had heard their music only in passing. I knew that they had talent and potential, but I wasn't ready for what they are putting forward with "Regenerate".
Simply put, Skarlett Riot has stepped up to the big time. "Regenerate" is a ten track, forty minute album that is packed with heavy riffs, great vocals, and massive hooks. I dip into this well too often, but do you remember when Halestorm tried to go heavy, but all they did was write boring riffs and lousy songs? Well, Skarlett Riot pulls off what Halestorm was trying to do, and does it nearly perfectly.
Take opener and first single "Break" for example. After the scene is set, the riffs charge ahead like an Arch Enemy song, and the chorus reaches for the sky. It's a remarkable blend of metallic heaviness and shimmering, arena-sized hooks, and it carries throughout the album. Every track here has the heaviness a rock or metal fan craves, and a chorus the crowd will be singing back to the band when they're on stage. That kind of consistency is difficult to pull off, believe me, which makes it all the more noteworthy that Skarlett Riot doesn't misfire a single time here. As an opening statement, this is a heck of a record.
Not to discount the rest of the band, who do a great job of providing a heavy, chunky sound that straddles the line between rock and metal, but at the epicenter of the band's sound is lead singer Skarlett. She has the ability to shift her voice from youthful innocence to powerful passion, and it's her selling of the hooks that makes the band stand out from the crowd. "Regenerate" is the band's coming out party, but it's Skarlett who will be blowing out the candles on the cake.
Picking out highlights isn't necessary here. Every song on the album is just as good as the last. "Regenerate" is one of those albums where the line "all killer, no filler" is fitting. There's no wasted time on this album, which is a tight assault wisely kept from getting to the point of diminishing returns. Would an extra song or two have been nice? Sure, more great music is almost always welcome, but keeping the record finely honed and leaving us wanting more is an equally admirable thing to achieve. And that they did.
With "Regenerate", Skarlett Riot has sounded an alarm. They are coming, and you had better take note. "Regenerate" is one of the best records of the year, and Skarlett Riot is a band poised to become one of the next big things. Welcome to the big leagues, Skarlett Riot. Your first swing is a home run.