Friday, August 23, 2019

Album Review: Nemesea - White Flag

There's an old adage about perfection being boring. It sounds counter-intuitive, until you stop to give it some thought. Science allows us to create algorithms to show us the closest thing to objective perfection possible, but the things that capture our attention are always flawed. Whether that's music with a bum note in it, a movie with an obvious plot-hole, or a person with a scar or a mole or a crooked nose. Nothing that's perfect is as interesting as something that is beautiful in its imperfection. Sadly, there are a lot of bands that don't realize this, and they try like hell to make their music as beautiful as possible, which tends to strip away all of the character we would have fallen in love with.

It's not fair to pin all of that on Nemesea. They merely gave me to opportunity to say that.

Nemesea's sound is one trying to blend electronic elements and a goth-tinged alternative rock, but they do so in a way that is so polished, so perfect, it loses all of the bite it could have had. Look no further than the single, "Kids With Guns". It's supposed to be a protest song decrying the violence our society imparts on kids, but it's played with such a sterile environment, and then backed up with a choir of children singing, that it doesn't sound like it has a single ounce of anger behind it. The song is the equivalent of an academic white-paper running through the statistics of gun violence. There's no 'there' there.

The band's music is labeled 'alternative rock', and maybe that's what's throwing me off. I remember when alternative was first emerging in the 90s, and the common thread among all the bands was a gritty aesthetic (initially created by their lack of funding) that played against the mainstream sound. Nemesea has none of that. This album is sleek and polished, and is trying hard to fit in with the mainstream. That's not at all what alternative rock was ever supposed to be. This is another instance where nomenclature gets in the way of the music. My expectations were set by their own PR, and that let me down.

But how is the music, when considered for what it is? It's... ok. The electronic bits are never present enough to drive the album's identity, and the rock bits are mostly just strummed chords, so there isn't much interesting happening on the instrumental level. There aren't any beats or riffs that are going to catch your attention. That puts all of the focus on the vocals, and the melodies just aren't sharp enough to carry that load. There are a few really good tracks here, such as the title track in particular, but these songs aren't the most memorable.

And that comes back to my initial point. Nemesea is trying to make their music so beautiful that there's nothing to grasp on to. There isn't that little flaw, that beauty mark, we can point to and say THAT is what I love about them. "White Flag" is akin to the product of an algorithm, an album designed to hit all the marks of success. It may in fact do that, but I don't want to listen to what the formula tells me I should like. I want to hear a band, and I don't really get that from this record. It's trying so hard to be everything that nothing shines through. It's perfectly pleasant, but bland. It's a musical lettuce wrap.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Manowar's Immorality Degrades Us All

*Editors Note* This commentary is excerpted from Episode 1 of the Bloody Good Music Podcast.

Words meaning something, and the absence of them can also speak volumes, which is clear by paying attention to Manowar. The loincloth wearing veterans are just the latest band to renege on their promise to retire, but that isn't the issue we need to talk about. Bands being dishonest to get you to buy tickets is not a new phenomenon. No, there is something far uglier going on in the camp of the true metal warriors, and it is one that has left me utterly disgusted, not just in the band, but in the metal scene as a whole.

Last year, guitarist Karl Logan was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. While I won't make any definitive statement about his guilt or innocence, I think it's fair to say authorities usually don't charge you with that particular crime if they haven't found images or videos in your possession. This arrest put Manowar in an unattractive spotlight. There's a saying about adversity letting you see who people really are, and if that is indeed the case, we learned a lot about Manowar mastermind Joey DeMaio. The entirety of the band's statement said, quote, "Due to the fact that Karl and his attorneys are dealing with these issues, he will not perform with Manowar." Let that sink in for a moment, because, to the best of my knowledge that is the only statement that band has put out on the subject.

What Manowar said is that Logan will not be playing with them. Note what they aren't saying; that he is out of the band. Their statement leaves it an open question whether or not Logan is still an official member of Manowar. I don't know how the band is structured, so there is a very real possibility that Logan is a stakeholder in the company, and is still making money from every record and ticket sold by the band.

Manowar released the first of the three new EPs that will make up their new album this year, and in addition to it being a front-runner for the worst quote-unquote 'music' of the year, it answered no questions. The release came with no indication who was in fact playing on the songs. My own theory is that, given the awful quality, Joey DeMaio played the guitars, but the band has never publicly made it clear. Let me reiterate here; Manowar released music and asked fans to give them money for it, without saying whether or not an alleged pedophile was playing on the songs, or if he was profiting from them. I find this utterly unconscionable.

What's worse is the reaction this has garnered. David Shankle, the former Manowar guitarist no one knows or cares about, did an interview where he said, "Unfortunately, that's a sad thing... that Karl was arrested with some B.S. about child pornography. I hope... if there is any truth to any of it that he'll get the help he needs because he's a great guitar player." I'm sorry, but that statement is downright evil. Logan's proficiency with a guitar has absolutely nothing to do with this situation. Whether he's the most beloved musician on the planet or not, his actions stand alone from his talents, or lack thereof. What's worse is Shankle outright calling the charges B.S., despite knowing nothing about the evidence authorities have against him. In Shankle's mind, Logan is a good musician, so he can't be guilty of the charges. And in Shankle's mind, even if Logan is guilty, all he needs is help. Notice he never says Logan should be put in jail and held accountable if he indeed was in possession of images of sexually exploited children.

Sharing a hometown with Manowar, I have always been embarrassed by them. But I have also given them some slack, including Shankle, as I might be the only person with a critical outlet who has actually heard all three of his DSG band's records. Today, I feel dirty for being able to say that. Shankle, along with DeMaio's cowardice, are disgusting sacks of flesh containing no souls. They have put their friendships, and their wallets, ahead of protecting the innocent. They believe if they ignore the charges against Logan, fans will forget, and they can keep exploiting their fans for everything they're worth. I don't use that word lightly, either. Make no mistake, Manowar is exploiting their fans by leaving them in a position of possibly putting money in Logan's pockets, and potentially funding the next round of child abuse he encourages.

But the worst part of this whole ordeal isn't even Manowar themselves. There are always wretched people when you look hard enough. I can live with Manowar being contemptible people who don't deserve another second of my attention, but what I can't believe is the complete apathy shown by the rest of the metal universe. In the time since Logan was arrested, there has been no shunning of Manowar. There was no resuscitation of the controversy when the EP was released. There hasn't been a push by the metal media to get answers out of the band. They have seemingly succeeded in ignoring the problem until it went away. And we have let them.

Every now and again I note that I've never considered myself a metalhead, even though I listen to a fair amount of the music. This is why. If metal, as a community, can't push back against this kind of depravity, I want no part of it. As in politics, music now seems to have lowered the bar so much there isn't anything that will earn our scorn sufficiently to end a career. I am even ashamed to be a metal journalist if we are going to whitewash an incident as ugly as this, simply because something else will garner more clicks. We have a responsibility to speak out for what's right, to hold people accountable when they screw up. If we aren't going to do that, we should quit now.

But maybe I'm the only one left with a conscience.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Singles Roundup: Flying Colors, Lacuna Coil, Michael Monroe, Year Of The Goat, & Tool

The fall rush of albums is about to begin (seriously, I'm already getting inundated with September releases - whether good or bad, there will be a lot of interesting stuff to talk about coming up), so let's sneak in one more look at some single tracks before we get there.

Flying Colors - More

Oh, what could have been. The first album was a great experiment, with virtuoso players making pop music. Then they decided to ditch the man whose idea the whole thing was, and become another mildly prog band like all their other projects. The second album was not nearly as good, and this new song hints that the third won't be either. This song is just dull; sonically and compositionally. There isn't much of a melody to be found, which is it's biggest downfall, but the mix and tones are also drab. They seem to be trying to sound like Muse, but that's not what any fan of this bunch of 50-somethings want to hear. This record might be a hard pass now.

Lacuna Coil - Layers Of Time

This is one of those bands I like, but never listen to. I've thought from the very first time I heard them they would be great if they only had one singer. Every album since has been mostly the same, where I want more of Cristina Scabbia, and far less of the gruff male vocals. This song doesn't break the mold. His barked verses are mediocre, which leaves Cristina to save things in the chorus. Unfortunately, this isn't one of her best melodies. They say the new album is supposed to be heavier, and if this is an indication of what that means, I'm worried.

Michael Monroe - One Man Gang

"Blackout States" was my #2 album in 2015, and "One Foot Outta The Grave" was my #1 song in 2017, so my expectations for Michael Monroe's new album are sky high. This first taste of the record is pretty much what I was hoping for. It's a short, punk-ish number that has the same sound and energy as the previous record, but I would have liked for something a bit more melodic to be the first single. I found the most punk numbers on that record to be the weakest tracks, and I'm hoping this new record will have more of the melodic songs like "Old King's Road" and "Six Feet In The Ground". This one isn't disappointing at all, but I still have even higher hopes.

Year Of The Goat - Susperia

The first single from the upcoming album was an immediate hit. This one was not. I was disappointed the first time I heard it, finding it lacking the hooks I was expecting. But the more I listened to it, the more the subtlety started to show through. It's still a bit weaker, but it has legs. It helped to have it pointed out to me there are some similarities to early Graveyard, which is something I didn't hear at first, but I obviously love. My initial impression that the album might be a clone of "The Unspeakable" might not be true. That could be a good thing.

Tool - Fear Inoculum

The first taste of new Tool music in thirteen years is.... disappointing. When Tool is good, they do something incredibly unique, and there's an energy to what they do that it notable, even when I don't like it. When Tool is bad, they drag on without much of a point, being 'prog' in the sense of spending ten minutes on three minutes worth of ideas. That's what this track is. Despite being over ten minutes long, there is barely a single guitar riff to be found in the song, with much of the running time spend on atmospheric build-ups and droning passages. There just isn't enough in here to justify the song being so long, and what ideas are here aren't all that great. This is a far cry from "The Grudge".

Friday, August 16, 2019

Album Review: Hammerfall - Dominion

Years ago, when I was first getting into metal, it was through power metal, and Hammerfall was one of my introductions. They were leading the charge of power metal's renaissance, and those first four albums are tremendously fun, cheesy power metal. I haven't gone back and spent much time listening to them in recent years, but I've got a soft spot for those songs. But over the years, Hammerfall has been failing to live up to anything approaching their standards. It started when they went to make a modern sounding record, which I hated, and their return to their old sound has been accompanied by a lack of the same songwriting from before. So when I see a new Hammerfall album in my inbox, the feeling isn't excitement so much as it is anxiety; will Hammerfall once again make me question why I liked them in the first place?

Things didn't get off to a good start when the first track released was "(We Make) Sweden Rock", which is one of those lazy songs that thinks it's clever by name-checking a dozen other bands and songs. All it tells me is the band didn't have anything they wanted to say, nor the energy to even put together some meaningless lyrics that had some interesting language in them. Listing bands you used to like isn't an interesting topic for a song, no matter who's doing it. I expect better.

The rest of the album settles into familiar ground, with the topics firmly lodged in the world of knights and battle. So you've got the same topics, the same basic sound, and the same voice, but there's something missing in modern Hammerfall that doesn't spark the same way they used to. I would describe it as a lack of swagger. These songs don't have the same confidence behind them, they aren't battle hymns (sorry for the Manowar pun), but rather songs that sound like they want to be them. Hammerfall, at this point, sounds like a Hammerfall tribute band.

Since I already mentioned them, let's be clear; mediocre Hammerfall is still worlds better than Manowar. Manowar is capable of truly gut-wrenching bad music, while Hammerfall is not. This record is perfectly solid power metal that will scratch the itch for devoted fans. I'm in the boat where I'm no longer satisfied with hitting the building blocks on the instruction sheet. I need something a bit more from my power metal, and Hammerfall isn't capable of that anymore. They do fine, but I've heard enough music both in my life, and this year, that fine gets forgotten pretty easily.

The problem is that when I think about Hammerfall, I remember the two CDs I had compiling the best tracks from those early albums. There hasn't been a song from them in a decade that could crack that top twenty-five or so, and nothing here can either. Their ballads aren't as stirring, their rockers aren't as melodic, and their chants aren't as grand. Everything is just a beat slower and off the mark, compared to when they really nailed it.

So sure, "Dominion" is fine for Hammerfall fans, but I'm not going to give a lot of praise to a band's middle-of-the-road work. This is no "Legacy Of Kings", not by a long shot.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Album Review: Hanna Barakat - Siren

Sometimes we get music that doesn't mesh with our expectations. What we had been led to believe is in contrast to the truth that will be revealed, and that leaves us in a state of cognitive dissonance that can be hard to reconcile. Even good music that is outside our vision can be taken the wrong way, simply because we can't quickly enough wrap our minds around why the discrepancy exists. Such things shouldn't matter, but they do. Every piece of the experience colors how we hear a record, so everything from the cover art to the choice of single will make a difference in our final judgment.

That is what has happened with this record. The first single I was pointed to, "Leave Your Light On" is a piece of piano-driven pop that was quite lovely, but didn't mesh at all with the claim that Hanna Barakat is a rock artist. By hearing that song in advance, my mind was already leaning towards a sound that was softer, more piano-driven, and not at all rock.

So when "Wildfire" opened up with textural guitars that edged close enough to be called rock, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I felt a bit as if I had been led astray, set up for a swerve when none was necessary. I get that singles can't capture the full scope of a diverse album, but they can give a solid starting point if they are chosen properly. Putting out a piano ballad to introduce a rock album was probably not the best idea. If things were busier at the moment, I might have passed this record over, simply because I wasn't expecting it.

What do we get, then? Hanna's sound is one that is moody, creeping around the shadows of the spotlight. The songs aren't pumped full of aggression or energy, instead using the guitars to punctuate the emotional delivery. They add a bit of edge to provide the power needed for the tracks to drive home the point. Between Hanna's jazz-club vocal tone, and the structure of the compositions, it would have been easy for this album to become too soft, too subdued. Even with the guitars, it is still an album that requires some patience to appreciate.

As the album plays, I feel it's too subtle for what it needs to be. Everything is built around Hanna's voice, but I'm not sure she has the right voice to make the record this is aiming for. Her best singing is in the quieter, more reflective moments, and there's enough rock here to pull her away from that longer than is probably best. Her voice doesn't have the bottom end to project rock attitude, nor is it quite piercing enough to cut through a full band. This isn't quite the right material for her, as I hear it.

"Siren" is a nice album, and there's some solid songs here, but I don't feel they've quite hit on the sound that will let Hanna get the most out of her talents. There's something here, for sure, it just needs to be further honed.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Album Review: Killswitch Engage - Atonement

Killswitch Engage is an outlier band in that they have two albums that are foundational to their genre. Very few bands can say that, but they are one of them. "Alive Or Just Breathing" established the rules of what metalcore was going to be when it clawed into the mainstream, while "The End Of Heartache" is the defining statement of the genre. There is no album that completely encompasses everything metalcore is, or does it as well, as that record. So when I say nothing Killswitch has done since then has cut through and felt as important, don't count that as a slight. There is no way for a band to rewrite a genre once they have defined it themselves. If Killswitch Engage is able to remind us they are the bar by which all is judged, that's more than enough.

That brings us to "Atonement", album number three in Jesse Leach's second stint fronting the band. I consider this an important record for them, because they are coming off what I consider their worst album yet. I am firmly in the camp that says Howard is the band's better voice, but "Disarm The Descent" was a very good record I was absolutely happy with. I can't say that about "Incarnate", which felt tired, miserable, and bored with trying to be Killswitch Engage. Another record like that would be a severe warning that the band's best days might firmly be behind us. And considering that Jesse talked openly about how hard making this record was, both physically and mentally, I worry what a negative reaction could cause.

When Killswitch Engage are at their best is not when they are at their fastest, or their heaviest. That's not the kind of band they are. What they do better than anyone else is play grooving heavy metal with an emotional resonance most bands aren't capable of. Jesse and Howard are both deep thinkers, and when that comes across in their delivery, it's the spark that sets this band apart. We hear some of that on "I Am Broken Too", which continues their history of writing slower songs that wring everything they can out of the notes. That vulnerability is a welcome change of pace from the screaming that carries most of the verses on the record. However, I would note that when Howard Jones pops up for a brief cameo in "The Signal Fire", his voice nearly swallows Jesse's as they sing together. Just saying.

The good news about "Atonement" is that it is a far better record than "Incarnate" was, and is largely absent of the dour, downbeat feeling that record gave me. This is a more aggressive album than "Disarm The Descent" was, but retaining the same ethos. The band clearly has more energy and fire this time around, which makes for a much more engaging listening experience.

The bad news about "Atonement" is the same thing I've thought about most of Jesse's time in the band, including the seminal "Alive Or Just Breathing"; he's not a great melodic writer. His strengths lie as a lyricist, not writing the hooks and melodies that these songs are crying out for. That's where I've always felt Howard was better. The band sounded bigger, more dramatic, and more emotional with him. I know Jesse is pouring his heart and soul into these songs, but his voice doesn't resonate the same way. If anything, his clean singing might be... too clean.

He deals with that on "Know Your Enemy" by simply barking through the entire track, which makes that one of the least interesting on the whole album. The point of metalcore is balancing the heaviness with melody, and without having both elements in there, they're essentially a death metal band. That's not what I listen to Killswitch Engage for.

"Atonement" is a record that continues on with the status quo. Nothing about this record is going to turn fans off, but it also isn't the kind of record that will get attention and give the band a second wind. I don't hear any of these tracks becoming classics the way "My Last Serenade" or "A Bid Farewell" have. This is a veteran record from a veteran band. It plays the hits, but without the spark from when we first heard them. It happens to everyone, if they decide to stay true to their roots. I'm not going to fault Killswitch Engage for sounding like Killswith Engage.

What I would say is while this is a good record, and it's going to please the people on Jesse's side of the ledger, the band hasn't really spoken to those of us on the other side very well since his return. A few more songs like "Ravenous", and a few less like "Unleashed", and they would have the perfect mix of their past and present. "Atonement" makes up for "Incarnate", but I still find myself longing for the old days a bit.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Top Ten Dilana Songs

When an artist reaches a certain level of esteem, and they are among your favorites out of everyone who has ever attempted to make music, trying to pick favorite moments is a task akin to finding which gold bar in Fort Knox is the most perfectly gold. It can be done, but it requires time, patience, and a trained eye at the limits of human possibility. Ok, that's a bit dramatic, but trying to pick ten songs to highlight as the best of Dilana's oeurve was not easy. My mind can easily change tomorrow, but for today, these are what I determine are the essential Dilana songs.

From "Wonderfool"

When You're Around
Do You Now

Two very different songs come from this album. "Do You Now" is a pop/rock song that fit in with the edginess of the scene as we moved into the 2000s, with bright guitars, sassy attitude, and a sticky hook. It is a song of its time, when we were watching Britney and Christina re-sexualizing pop music, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Plus, it shows us that the style could be done well, and without having to play to the hearts (and groins) of teenage boys. "When You're Around" is the better of the two songs, easily. It is a beautiful acoustic song with country tinges of slide guitar that nails the balance between somber and energetic. The arrangement also allows Dilana's voice to ring through with clarity, and the purity of her tone is stunning. As many times as I've heard it, my breath is still taken away.

From "InsideOut"

Somebody Else
Dirty Little Secret
Falling Apart
Still Wanting

My first encounter with Dilana on record, this album had a little something for everyone. These highlights shine as brightly as spotlights trained right in our eyes. "Somebody Else" is simply a beautifully written and performed pop/rock song, while "Ice" and "Dirty Little Secret" are painfully beautiful tracks with searing vocals that etch melodies in our hearts and minds. Or at least mine. "Still Wanting" is the dramatic song where Dilana stretches her voice, hitting some of the most powerful notes I've ever heart. And then there's "Falling Apart", which I've written about before as my favorite song ever. The guitars allow a build-and-release catharsis, and the organ that sits in the background is a detail reminding us there's beauty even in the darkest moments. That's never changed.

From "Beautiful Monster"

Beautiful Monster
Silver Ashes

This is a record that needs to be taken in full, but that would have been too much cheating for a list. These two songs achieve the same results as the rest, dripping with emotion that reverberates in every note Dilana sings. When people say music has soul, I say this is music that has a soul. It is laid bare to us, and it shimmers as the light catches the creases and curves.

From "Dilana"

Maybe Just A Little

This collection of songs used in the movie "Angel Camouflaged" contains a few absolute gems. "Airplane" is Dilana at her rocking best, with big guitars, big vocals, and a big hook. It's feel-good rock music, the kind that invites listeners in rather than pushing them away, the kind an audience will be shouting back to the stage. "Maybe Just A Little" goes in the other direction, a song that balances introspection with gloss. It's a laid-back, restrained song that keeps itself at a distance, while reeling you in with a bouncy, irresistible melody. I love the contradiction it represents.

That's a damn good set of songs, isn't it?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Ten Years With Dilana's "InsideOut"

The passage of time is a funny thing. As we age, some memories become fuzzy, fading like our breath as it rises into a cold night's air, while some remain etched in our minds, deeper as the sands of time build up around the edges. Music is a memory that works like this, with certain songs and certain records becoming a part of us, the ink the notes are written in staining our blood, until we feel we could draw the art with our veins.

The year was 2005, and I was a smart-alec college student who thought himself above watching reality tv. Ok, that part hasn't changed much. I had known of a show the previous summer where INXS searched for a new lead singer, although since I cared little for their music, I hadn't seen a second of it. It seemed hokey, and beneath the intellect of a philosophy major such as myself.

But for reasons I never understood, when a second season of the show premiered, I found myself turning it on. I did this despite not being interested in the three men who would make up the winning band; Tommy Lee, Jayson Newstead, and Gilby Clarke. If you told me today this show existed, there isn't a chance I would watch. But times were different back then.

It only took one episode for me to fall under the spell of a certain contestant, who would go on to finish second in the competition, but first in many of our hearts. Dilana's voice immediately caught my attention, and spoke to me even when the songs she sang were someone else's. I have never been able to explain the appeal a voice contains, why we love some and hate others, while everyone else might disagree with us. Regardless of the limitations of language to allow me to say what I felt, I knew I was hearing a voice that spoke to me like few ever had, and soon none ever could.

Hearing cover songs is one thing, but to be sure I needed to hear what Dilana the artist could do. I wasn't going to be content to have only those performances to remember. I was a fan, but to become devoted would require music of her own. That process would take time, and test both my patience and hers.

It took a few years, but rumors of her album finally reached me. Label issues led to it being shelved, then sold, then put into a holding pattern, until one day I saw it pop up in the Amazon MP3 store. I rushed to make the purchase as quickly as I could, lest fate make it disappear once again. In fact, I got my copy so early that the files are marked "Darklight" rather than "InsideOut". They would suffice until I could track down a copy on CD, which would take yet more time, but the waiting was worth the anxiety.

"InsideOut" is not a perfect album, and that's what makes it so great. It is the story of Dilana stretching herself in all directions, finding her voice as an artist. It is far different from "Wonderfool", an album I didn't yet know existed, and is yet more different from "Beautiful Monster", the record that would show Dilana's artistic soul fully developed. "InsideOut" is the metamorphosis, wherein Dilana emerged a tattooed butterfly, her songs a dazzling rainbow like the multi-colored ink adorning her skin. It is also the metamorphoses wherein I went from being a fan of her voice, to a devoted follower of an artist.

I have written before about my love for "Falling Apart", which is my favorite song of all time, so I won't rehash that story yet again. Suffice it to say, I get the same tingle down my spine listening to Dilana's power rising atop the crunchy guitars and roaring organ that I did when I first saw a video of her playing it live, in terrible quality, when finding live footage on YouTube was still a big deal.

If nothing else, "InsideOut" is a diverse record. Across the dozen songs, Dilana gives us her versions of pop, gritty rock, Zeppelin-esque epics, and soul-bearing ballads. The only common theme is her voice, and how she uses it to paint her masterpieces in vivid color.

I  am not someone who feels things deeply, let alone from art, but I don't know how to listen to "Dirty Little Secret" without feeling every ounce of pain Dilana puts into her performance. When I say that a singer's job is to convey the song's meaning, this is what I mean. Even if I have never been in that position, and I can't relate on a human level to the situation she's singing about, her soul flows through her voice in a way no vocal coach could teach. Meat Loaf often said he viewed his role as that of an actor bringing the characters in the songs to life. Dilana is the complete opposite, using her every breath to give the songs life, her life.

Dilana amazes in other ways. When we reach the ends of "Solid Gold" and "Still Wanting", she reached into the deep and belts out notes hard to believe, such is the power and ease with which she sings. And unlike most singers, even when she sings loud enough to consume the space the entire band would occupy, her tone is pure. She is a mystery to this day.

Listening to "InsideOut" today, it feels as fresh to my ears as that first day, as my hands shook hitting the play button. The fear of being disappointed is gone, but it has been replaced by the worn-in love that comes with time. There still aren't any records that sound like this, and there sure as hell aren't any voices that come close. If my finding Dilana was an inexplicable moment in time, "InsideOut" is the hourglass on a humid summer day, the sands glued together and refusing to let another second pass. I am still in that moment, all these years later, and that is never going to change.

Over the last decade, I have changed, and so to has the world. I don't see things the way I used to, and I don't think the way I used to, but I still hear "InsideOut" the way I did back then. Each time I pull it off the shelf, I'm freshening the ink Dilana has tattooed on my soul, because that's where this music lives.

Sheryl Crow once sang, "the first cut is the deepest." I loved records before this, but I never loved an artist the way I did after hearing "InsideOut". This is my first cut, and I wear the scar with pride.

I always will.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Album Review: John 5 & The Creatures - "Invasion"

John 5 is single-handedly adjusting the expectations in the guitar virtuoso genre, and he’s doing it not by excelling at the conventional standard for what that label implies, but by widening the horizon of what can be included within it.

For decades now, we’ve struggled under the yoke of irrepressible and persnickety guitar players, who bridle at anything less than complete adulation and attempt to prove their mettle only through a dazzling display of six-string histrionics.  The entire virtuoso genre, if it can be called such, has grown stale with unceasing displays of…well, virtuosity.

Enter into this staid mix John 5, a man in makeup who has built his reputation playing with first Marilyn Manson and then Rob Zombie, and while both are beloved, neither demands the full exertion of John’s musical acumen.

Yet here we are, as John 5 & The Creatures release another album “Invasion” unto the teeming mass of expectation.  And what makes the album work, and by extension what makes John 5 and his band work, is that this is not just another display of self-important pomposity.

First off, a moment dedicated to The Creatures.  More than mere session musicians who can provide some simple background rhythm for John to play over, The Creatures are an inimitable part of the experience.  Much in the way that Larry LaLonde and Tim Alexander are the secret ingredients that make Primus work, so too are the Creatures to John 5.  Drummer Logan Miles Nix whips back and forth between cadences and off-kilter beats for “Zoinks!” and in some ways his transitions are so abrupt but so perfect as to break one song down into a series of collected vignettes.

Ian Ross on bass…makes me never want to play my bass again, for I know I can never achieve his level.  He is such a capable backbone to everything going on in the lead that he can fill both the rhythm and bass roles, thus allowing John’s theatrics to blossom.

Part of the formula here that I think many people miss when evaluating John 5 is that the secret to his solo project’s success is that John is first and foremost a songwriter, having penned tunes for everyone from Rod Stewart to Garbage to Ricky Martin.  This, when coupled with his own personal background in country music, lends him the versatility to be able to write not just compelling solos, but compelling songs.

The best example of this is “Howdy,” which ignorant fans will overlook because they are seeking another heavy metal track, but is the album’s best single offering.  In the fashion of the great Jerry Reed riffs of old, this song has a little bit of everything.  There’s a time-stamped beat, a richly layered melody, a banjo, and some good-old-fashioned-staccato-picking that feels like a lost art.  You can’t help but smile when you hear this song, even as it experiments with small pieces of electronic sampling and harmonic interludes.  It flies by at just over three minutes and serves as a break between the two metal halves of the album. 

Toward the end, we see John experiment again, this time with some funk overlays for the aptly named “I Like the Funk” like we haven’t seen him use before, and ends up giving the song just a touch of Bruno Mars vibe in the breakdowns.  The fact that John and company can fold this so seamlessly into a more traditional rock framework speaks only to their ability as musicians.

Not everything here is as unilaterally awesome as it was for “Season of the Witch,” though.  John and The Creatures try to move on into a few offshoots that, while ambitious, don’t yield a ton of results.  In particular, the album is dotted by vocal sampling that feels disjointed and superfluous.  Even “Howdy,” the album’s best cut, didn’t need a track of a woman yelling “Howdy,” and “I Like The Funk” suffers from a similar malady.  The worst offender in this case is “I Am John 5,” which repeats that sentiment over and over, and actually distracts from the music, which is the reason we’re here.  With all respect, we already know you’re John 5.

But!  Don’t let that dissuade you.  This album has highlights from one end to the other, and is the third straight home run hit by John 5 & The Creatures.  One of the rare albums this year that is borne and best enjoyed through a pure love for music.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Album Review: Pyrotechnica - Through The Looking Glass

Frequent readers of this site might have noticed, but as time has gone on, I have gotten more philosophical with my commentary, spending less time breaking down the minutiae of albums, preferring to focus on the larger picture. It makes my life easier, sure, but at a certain point I decided that the amount of music I listen to makes it impossible to keep the details of every release straight. What became important is how a record fits in with the times, with my taste, and with the competition. Especially when writing about new or upcoming bands, I find this approach allows me to better synthesize my thoughts, and determine which bands are worth following.

Pyrotechnica is another new-ish band I am just hearing for the first time, who fit into the style that has seemed omnipresent and dominant. If hooky rock bands with female singers and female perspective is going to be the trend that comes out of the current malaise, I'm down with that.

The angle Pyrotechnica plays, as the name implies, is that they have electronic beats spliced in with their heavy rock, which gives them a thoroughly modern sound. They are probably on the cutting edge of where the scene is going, which is boon to them if things indeed keep going that way, and in the meantime it reduces the competition. Almost none of the bands I would compare them to are doing it quite like this, so just on that basis, being considered rather unique is a good starting point. There is one album that also came out this year I can directly compare this to, but I'll get to that at the end.

The first track I heard, and the one that captured my attention, was "Act This Way". That song is a banger, throwing together the modern style of guitar playing, some unexpected and unusual sounds, and a huge chorus that drives everything home. It's a perfect single, and it's the reason I'm talking about this album. That's what a single is supposed to do, capture your attention, but you'd be amazed how often the wrong songs get picked.

What I appreciate is that Pyrotechnica throws a host of influences into the mix. "Ghost" has some vocal cadences that have hints of hip-hop, while "Play For Keeps" almost has a hint of Babymetal in the vocal timbre. This is certainly not an album with the same song played ten times over. I give them a lot of credit for avoiding that. They also deserve credit for consistently delivering the hooks and melodies the music demands. Scarlett Chang does a great job of using her voice to balance the rhythmic music with a melodic base. It would have been easy for a lesser singer to let the songs get away from them, to fall into the trap of trying to match the heaviness with their voice. She doesn't, and it's all the better for that.

As I mentioned, there is a record that takes the same approach I've heard recently. That would be the New Years Day record, "Unbreakable". They both are filled with of-the-moment guitar playing, and a strong pop sensibility. Pyrotechnica doesn't quite have the killer songs New Years Day did, but they also don't have a host of songwriters helping them achieve radio domination. They're doing just fine on their own. Sure, I would say this isn't quite the best album of the style I've heard this year, but it's still good. And Pyrotechnica has plenty of room to grow into something even greater.