Tuesday, December 29, 2015

My Take: Guns N Roses Reuniting

The rumors have been swirling around for years, but have been picking up steam lately. Guns N Roses is on the verge of reuniting.

I haven't said anything on the subject because 1) it was always nothing but rumor mongering, and 2) I'm not sure I really had anything to say.

Guns N Roses was arguably the biggest band in the world, and they've arguably made the most important hard rock album in American history. I don't deny any of their greatness or influence, but is there actually any reason to be excited about them in 2016?

I was still on board when "Chinese Democracy" finally saw the light of day. While much of the music world wasn't going to give it a fair shake, because of its history, I found myself being in the minority that enjoyed the album. It wasn't in the same league as "Appetite For Destruction", and the more obviously Buckethead moments were laughable, but there was a core of about six songs that stood tall against Guns' previous work. Even today, I can put on "Better", "Street Of Dreams", or "There Was A Time", and forget that Guns has been a joke for longer than they were relevant.

But that brings us to today, where the band's latest lineup has imploded, and the rumors of a reunion have never been stronger. I get the instant appeal of hearing that an old favorite is going to come back to life, but when I take a moment to think about what it really means, I can't get excited.

First of all, I don't live in a major city, nor do I enjoy the live show experience, so I am never going to see the reunion. The one thing that seems clear to me is that while the band may get back together to make a fortune on the touring circuit, they aren't going to be making a new record anytime soon. And without new music coming our way, what are we really getting? All the reunion is going to amount to is a group of older guys rehashing music we've heard for most of our lives, and probably not nearly as well.

Axl's voice is spotty, to say the least. He is going to be terrible for much of the tour, and no amount of seeing Slash standing next to him is going to make them sound better. Guns will be a mediocre replica of what they once were. That's not to mention a fact we often forget; Guns was never as good as we think. "Appetite" was brilliant, but the "Use Your Illusion" albums have, between them, less than an album's worth of top quality material. They have to stretch into some mediocre songs just to fill a two hour set. So in addition to them not sounding good enough, they also don't have the material to justify the scale of the tour.

And if by some chance they decided to try to make a new record, we already know what we're going to get. The only way they could put one out in a reasonable amount of time would be for Axl to put lyrics to Slash's songs. Slash already has a band going with Myles Kennedy, so that's exactly what a new Guns album would wind up being. In all honesty, Myles is a better singer at this point than Axl, so Guns probably wouldn't be able to match his work anyway.

The whole idea of this reunion is to sell a fiction to people who want to relive their youths. The Guns N Roses they remember is long since dead and buried, and putting Axl and Slash on the same stage isn't going to change that fact. The only thing we're going to get from a reunion is an overpriced disappointment.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Worst/Most Disappointing Albums Of 2015

We spend a lot of time talking about the music we love, the music that was so great we couldn't help but shut up. That's why we listen, we write, and we share. We make lists because we love music, and we want others to be able to share in the joy we get from our favorites. Unfortunately, not everything is going to be as great as we want it to be. While I may go into every album with open ears and the hope of greatness, some albums just aren't good, and some let us down. These are those albums.

Let's begin with The Biggest Disappointments Of 2015:

3. Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

This is an actual band album, not just a Neal Morse solo album.  There are contributions from everyone involved in both writing and vocals, which makes this sound a fair bit different from Neal's usual work.  That can be good and bad, as while it sounds fresh, there's also less of what makes Neal's music so great.  This is certainly another very good Neal Morse album, but it's less immediately gratifying than most of his music, and I'm just not as keen on the idea of everyone sharing vocals as the band is.  When you have a singer as good and distinct as Neal, giving so much time to the other guys is a curious decision.

2. Halestorm - Into The Wild Life

Halestorm's previous album tied for album of the year, so I had high expectations for this one. This is a decent record, but it doesn't come anywhere close to their last one. Here, they opt to try to prove they're a big loud rock band, but that takes away the pop sheen that made their rock 'n' roll attitude go down so easy. Without those awesome hooks, they're a run of the mill band, and the songs just aren't that interesting. There are a couple of great ones, but there's too much that falls into the slog of being heavy for the sake of being heavy, and that's no fun.

1. Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle

I adored the band's last album, and this one is a complete departure. Whereas they had been making prog with heavy pop leanings, this is prog with heavy prog leanings. In other words, while it's still beautifully put together, it's missing all of the catchy elements that made the last album work on both the surface level, as well as deeper introspection. This one is so prog it can't be used as light listening.

And now, The Worst Albums Of 2015:

5. Blind Guardian - Beyond The Red Mirror

These guys might be legends of power metal, but they have moved on to bigger things, with less than massive results.  They have three different orchestras on this record, and if that sounds like too much, that's because it is.  The two longer tracks are both really good examples of how to write progressive, symphonic power metal.  The problem is that there's another 50 minutes or so of mediocre material, and it's all wrapped up in a flimsy production that makes the whole thing sound wimpy.  Their last album hinted at this direction, but that one was a whole lot better.

4. Slayer - Repentless

Let's be fair, this isn't Slayer's worst album, but it's an album that has no reason for being. With the band's best songwriter having passed away, there was no need for a new Slayer album, unless it was going to be a powerful parting statement to their fallen comrade. Instead, this is just another in the long line of albums where Slayer is Slayer. And if I can be honest, if these lyrics are the best Kerry King can come up with to pay tribute to his band mate, he deserves to be haunted from the great beyond. His writing is so, so bad.

3. The Darkness - Last Of Our Kind

The Darkness have always been a joke, but it's not funny anymore. They were always absurd, and “Permission To Land” is a ridiculous album, but it's also a ton of fun. With each passing album, they get less and less interesting, and the joke gets more worn out. By now, they sound exactly like what they used to be parodying, except that they think it's still clever. This is just an awful, horrible, tuneless batch of boring rock and roll. It would be sad, if it wasn't so expected.

2. Cattle Decapitation - The Anthropocene Extinction

To be fair, I only listened to this so I could rant about how much I hate this sort of 'music'. The whole point is that I'm not even sure it is music. It has a couple bits of song structure, but it's mostly pounding rhythms and grinding noise for its entire running time. There isn't a hint of a melody to be found, and that makes me wonder what the point is. I compared it to a kid banging on pots on the kitchen floor, and I'd like someone to point out how I'm wrong.

1. DSG - Still A Warrior

An offshoot band brought to you by the least known guitarist in Manowar's history, DSG actually managed to make two records that were better than anything Manowar has done in the last twenty years.  This, however, is a steaming heap that doesn't deserve being talked about, unless you're ripping it to shreds.  Everything about the album is a failure, from the horrible guitar tones and sub-bedroom recording quality, to the obsession with shredding that goes so far as to put two minutes of atonal screeching on the album, to the songwriting that might as well not have a singer for how boring he is. Dear lord, this is awful.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Top Twelve Songs Of 2015

Not every great song is on a great album, and not every great album has that one song that stands out. They have a strong correlation, but not an exact one, so I decided that in addition to counting down my favorite albums of the year, I would also count down my favorite songs. They largely follow my album list, but there are a few surprises thrown in for good measure. And since there are so many deserving songs, I'm expanding the list to an even dozen. These are the songs that I have endlessly repeated this year, the very best moments of another good year in music.

12. Revolution Saints - You're Not Alone

It's hard to think fondly of the band now, with what has been in the news, but that doesn't stop this from being a heck of a song. I love ballads, and this is dripping with dramatic flair.

11. Blues Traveler - Matador

Blues Traveler's collaborative album didn't always work, but there were a few remarkable moments. This is chief among them, a dusty country song that I still think would have been a hit on country radio if it had been released as a single.

10. Coheed & Cambria - Here To Mars

For being a quasi-progressive rock band, Coheed & Cambria isn't afraid to dip their toe into anthemic pop, which they do here. The chorus of this song is so big, and so memorable, that it stands head and shoulders above the rest of what is a good record.

9. Lunden Reign - Mary

This is classic rock done the right way. It sounds like the love child of Heart and Led Zeppelin, and rocks just as much. The way the vocal strains just enough in the chorus drives home the emotion of the song, while the hook has a way of sticking with you more than you'd expect.

8. UFO - Sugar Cane

I'm not usually a big bluesy rock fan, but this song is phenomenal. The riff is just gritty enough, the organ swells are a fantastic touch, and Phil Mogg proves that he's underrated at any age. UFO has rarely, if ever, done better than this.

7. Iron Maiden - Tears Of A Clown

The best thing about Iron Maiden is that they do the unexpected, like with this song. It's the most traditional rock song they've written in ages, and it's also a tribute to Robin Williams. And yet, it's also the best song on a critically acclaimed album. The way the melody locks in with the band makes it impossible to forget.

6. Adele - Hello

There's a reason Adele has broken every sales record. "Hello" told everyone that the years of waiting were not going to be for naught. This song is everything that is lacking in pop music, taking five minutes to absolutely deconstruct and eviscerate everything else on the radio.

5. Orden Ogan - A Reason To Give

Orden Ogan is an excellent power metal band, but they're even better when they go beyond those confines. This song is a medieval drinking song that you can easily imagine a horde of warriors singing as they conquer new lands in the name of their king. It's rip-roaring fun.

4. Karnataka - Fairytale Lies

I declare this the best hook of the entire year. The chorus of this song is so sticky, and so irresistible that you almost forget just how good the rest of the song is. Hayley Griffiths sells the living hell out of this, and makes this song flawless.

3. Ghost - Cirice

If there is one song that sums up Ghost, it is "Cirice". The drama, the heavy riffing, the glorious vocals, it's all here. This is their magnum opus, their defining moment. Ghost transcended their gimmick with this song.

2. Jorn Lande & Trond Holter - Save Me

It's hard to pick a song from this concept album, but ultimately "Save Me" is the one song that keeps ringing in my head. This unholy duet is grand, epic, and a number that should be gracing the stage for as long as it wants to. This is theater at its rocking best, and one of those songs that makes you stand back and simply say, "wow".

1. Nightingale - Forevermore

But the best song of the year is "Forevermore". Nightingale has given us a song that covers every base. It has beautiful pianos, rocking guitars, a strong hook, and a mighty vocal performance from Dan Swano. The non-traditional structure works, because you don't even notice that it hasn't gone from Point A to Point B. This song is everything I like about music, and it earns the honor of being the best song of 2015.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Top Ten Albums Of 2015

This year continued the trend of great years for music. Since I have been a semi-professional reviewer, every year has been getting better and better in terms of the sheer number of records that I'm enjoying. Last year was the best year I've ever had, with a Top Ten that I thought would be impossible to beat. This year was different, with a plethora of releases I like, but maybe spread out a bit more, with less at the absolute top of the spectrum. This year's Top Ten may be slightly weaker than last year, but the number of albums that were good enough to compete for spots was even higher, which speaks to the depth of the field.

The other note about this year was how much it was the year of surprises. If you had asked me at this time last year, I wouldn't have expected most of this music to have been so good, or hit me so hard. Several albums I had penciled in for the list didn't come close to making it (like Halestorm and The Neal Morse Band), while bands I either had never heard of, or had long since written off, came back with a vengeance. Overall, while this was another great year for music, it was one that definitely caught me off-guard, much like the circumstances that led to the need and the creation of this site. It was a year for surprise, and a year for change.

With that being said, let's start with an Honorable Mention:

Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

I proudly wave the flag for the reunion era of Iron Maiden. It's my favorite incarnation of the band, and “The Book Of Souls” continues their run of strong releases. There's some truly glorious work here, from the epic “Shadows Of The Valley”, to the more rocking “Tears Of A Clown”, and more traditional material like “The Man Of Sorrows”. The only thing holding this back from a spot in the Top Ten is the length. At over an hour and a half, it's simply too much music, and the two longest tracks both stay well past their welcome. I consider this a slight step down from “The Final Frontier”, but Iron Maiden is always quality.

Favorite Song: “Tears Of A Clown”

And now, we move on to the Top Ten:

10 (Tie). Baroness - Purple

Baroness has been one of those bands that gets widespread critical acclaim, but I've never been able to grasp. There was always too much sludge in their sound for me, so it was only with tempered expectations that I went into "Purple". What I heard is an album that has changed my entire outlook on the band. Through the dirty sound, I can now hear that they have become a classic rock band that is as interested in crafting beautiful songs as they are crushing you with their heavy riffs. The production of the album is truly awful, but the music is so strong that I'm willing to overlook that and keep listening to it again and again. This, to me, is what Mastodon has been trying to do, but done so, so much better. If it had come out earlier, and sounded better, it might have climbed considerably on this list.

Favorite song: “Morningstar”

10 (Tie). W.A.S.P. - Golgotha

For as long as WASP has been around, I have never been a fan. Outside of their aberration “The Crimson Idol”, I never found anything in their sound or style to enjoy. That leads to a massive surprise with “Golgotha” making it onto this list, a record that I repeatedly had to remind myself was made by the same band. This album removes all the ham-fisted stupidity of the band's early days, and replaces it with a mature sense of songwriting that heaps on heavy doses of melody. Blackie Lawless sounds as good as he did in the 80s, and the songs deliver strong hooks and fantastic lead guitars all around. It's a bit bloated, and I can see why people could get annoyed by the religious bent of the closing track, but this is a record that rewrites my perceptions of WASP.

Favorite Song: “Golgotha”

9. Lunden Reign – American Stranger

Not many bands begin their career with a concept album, but that's what Lunden Reign did here, and the result is an album that brings the classic Heart sound to a new generation. This is a tightly-wound album of classic rock that features some glorious guitar tones, and well-crafted songs all around. Concept album can also get bogged down in the gimmick, but that doesn't happen here, as the album can be taken on face value as a bunch of top-notch rock songs that feel both fresh and timeless. It's the kind of record that's easy to overlook, but well worth the effort to give it a try. The only thing I can't speak to is the story of the record, as I was only sent a download without any of the lyrics or liner notes.

Favorite Song: “Mary”

8. Ghost - Meliora

Ghost is a band that I've always wanted to like, but never could fully commit to, because their material wasn't consistent enough. After two highly uneven records, Ghost found their groove this time, putting out a fantastic album that showcases everything there is to like about the band. There's still the requisite mix of spooky Blue Oyster Cult proto-metal and shimmering pop melodies, but they're better constructed, and the set of songs rarely loses focus. Ghost is heavier than ever here, which plays right into their image. The thundering guitars of “Cirice”, mixed with the ethereal chorus, is near perfection. This is the record that proves Ghost is worth all the hype.

Favorite Song: “Cirice”

7. Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels

There are countless ways to hear about new bands. With Karnataka, I saw a mention of their name on a forum I frequent, which led me to a sampler of their then upcoming album. Those sounds were enough for me to get in touch with the band, who sent me an album that shocked me. I am seldom a fan of highly symphonic bands with classically trained singers, but this album does it better than I've ever heard. The orchestrated elements are integral to the compositions, rather than being slapped on top of a boring rock song, and Hayley Griffiths brings every melody to life. The closing twenty-minute epic does drag a bit, but before that you get nearly forty minutes of absolutely perfect music. Karnataka made quite an impression with this album.

Favorite Song: “Fairytale Lies”

6. Year Of The Goat - The Unspeakable

Sitting in my queue, I wasn't going to listen to this album, because the cover art led and the name led me to believe it was another black metal record I had no interest in. But I decided to give it a chance anyway, and to my utter shock, what I heard was an incredible record that did Ghost better than Ghost. “The Unspeakable” is yet another album in the growing line of occult-tinged retro rock, but the songwriting is so sharp that it leaves any gimmick in the dust. The old-school vibe is handled with a deft touch, so as not to take it too far, but the key here are the songs, which bring hooks on top of hooks. There's a dark charm to these songs that elevates them above what are already great melodic rock songs. Several of these choruses are irresistible, and made me question what took me so long to listen to the album.

Favorite Song: “The Wind”

5. Graveyard - Innocence & Decadence

Coming into the year, this was my most anticipated album that was likely to be released. Don't let the position fool you; despite being in fifth place, “Innocence & Decadence” is a great record. It shows that Graveyard continues to be the only band that rehashes the 70s who know how to properly do it. They're able to take the simplest of ideas and turn them into songs that pound into your head without you even realizing it. Graveyard doesn't amaze you with their playing, or their singing, or even the production of their records, until you realize you can't forget what you've heard. The only reason this record doesn't sit higher is because while I love this album, I can't help but think they've already done even better.

Favorite Song: “Too Much Is Not Enough”

4. UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars

Here is another shocking case. While I appreciate UFO, and I think Phil Mogg has one of the more under-appreciated voices in rock, their last few albums have been entirely forgettable. I had more or less written them off entirely, until I happened to find myself intrigued enough to give their new one a listen. I couldn't have anticipated being utterly floored by what I heard. This is not only a great album, full stop, but it's easily the best album of UFO's career. Yes, that includes the vaunted years with Michael Schenker. There's a definite maturity to these songs, and they tend towards the bluesier side of their sound, but it so fits where they are at their ages. Phil Mogg's voice is weary in a beautiful way, and he spins the best set of hooks of his career. The album art is horrible, but the music is remarkable.

Favorite Song: “Sugar Cane”

3. Nightingale - Retribution

“White Darkness” is an album I've loved for years, and I was content thinking it would be the last Nightingale album. So when this album came along, I didn't know how it could live up to that record. It didn't; it utterly crushed it. “Retribution” is a record I described as a masterpiece when I reviewed it, and those are words I stand by. If you like melodic rock, there's nothing better that came out this year. Every song is a winner, with “Forevermore” standing out as my single favorite song of the year. Dan Swano has a voice that's completely original, and if you enjoy him, he's at his best. These songs are relatively diverse, the sound is breathtaking on the dynamic mix, and the melodies are so strong that the album can be played again and again without ever getting stale.

Favorite Song: “Forevermore”

2. Michael Monroe - Blackout States

Music is supposed to be fun, at least in my opinion, and that's why this album edges into the second slot. “Blackout States” takes up the blueprint of Bad Religion's “The Dissent Of Man”, mixing punk rhythms with classic rock guitars and power-pop choruses. It's a sound I've rarely heard, and one that didn't make any waves, despite it's greatness. Here, we get thirteen songs that deliver one heck of a good time, while imploring you to sing along. Yes, there's one unforgivably insipid song, but even without it, this is an album that puts a smile on my face every time I listen to it. It doesn't do anything special, but it reminds me of why I love music. But like that Bad Religion album, it finds itself one spot short of being the year's best.

Favorite Song: “Goin' Down With The Ship”

1. Jorn Lande & Trond Holter - Dracula: Swing Of Death

Here's the shock of the year. While I have always loved Jorn as a singer, hearing that he was working on a concept album telling the story of Count Dracula was news that made me laugh. It was a recipe for disaster, an album that was supposed to fight “Nostradamus” as one of the worst in the history of metal. But then I got a chance to hear the album, and it's impossible for me to have been more wrong. This album is everything I feared; it's a horrifically cheesy retelling of the story that goes so far as to have sound effects of blood sucking. But it is also a brilliant bit of work. Jorn's love for the story shines through, as not only are his vocals as good as ever, but his songwriting has never been better. These songs are ridiculously catchy, and riotously fun. It is the musical equivalent of Adam West's version of Batman. If you can appreciate the (I assume intentional) tongue-in-cheek approach, this is the musical event of the year, because you're never going to hear anything else like it. If years are defined by what you're never going to forget, 2015 is defined by “Dracula: Swing Of Death”, because I'm never going to forget this album.

Favorite Song: “Save Me”

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Top 11 Albums of 2015!

I think by this point we’ve covered everything that needs to be said by way of introductions, so here we go with a recap on the rules of this game: To merit consideration, all records must be composed of entirely new studio material – no re-releases, live albums, re-masters or compilations.  Also, we do a top eleven here, because as we all know, 'it goes to eleven.'  Got it?  Here we go:

Other Receiving Votes) Clutch – “Psychic Warfare,” Iron Maiden – “The Book of Souls”, Mongol Metal – “Mongol Metal” (disqualified only because it was made up of previously released material.)

Honorable Mention) Niche – “Heading East”

A late comer to the party!  Niche blends classic rock and with folk and just drop a psychedelia in a way that harkens back to the storytelling rock heavyweights of yesteryear.  Three part vocal harmony and intricately layered melodies make “Heading East” an absorbing and yet relaxing listen.

11) The Great Game – “The Great Game”

This record doubles as my Little Record That Could for 2015, as it stuck in my memory for most of the year.  For those following, 2015 was the Year I Tried to Hear Something Different, and really, each time someone would ask me what I had heard this year that fit the bill, “The Great Game” jumped back in my head.  Infectious in its liberal deployment of genres and tropes, The Great Game, a band of the world if ever there was one, can tie together a melody with everything from a guitar to an accordion and back again.  This is an expansive effort that can be a challenging listen, but its heart is a passion for experimental music that just plan works.

10) Annihilator – “Suicide Society”

Because very year there’s a record that’s worthy of the cut solely because it’s fun to listen to, more than that it actually possesses novel artistic merit.  Jeff Waters’ guitar tone remains one of the all-time greats, and becomes his de facto signature on every track of this album.  You can say what you want about Annihilator; that they’ve put out some very average records (true) and that they’ve never really tried to change their game plan (also probably true,) but that steadfast dedication to what got them here also means that they can drop a great record at any time.  “Suicide Society certainly isn’t going to qualify for the ‘Something Different’ title like The Great Game does, but it’s a blast to listen to, and damn it, that counts for something.

9) Pentagram – “Curious Volume”

And yet, amidst all the upstarts, we see a second legacy act join the fray and produce their best record in years.  Every metal fan keeps in his or her heart a small, burning love of doom metal, and Pentagram fills that niche will not getting bogged down in the idea that doom must be slow or plain.  Rich melodies, hook-y blues riffs and veteran craftsmanship show those damn kids how we did it back in the day!  (Note: back in the day for me was like, 1992, so I can’t really lay legitimate claim to the ‘we’ there.)  Anyway, Pentagram.

8) Children of Bodom – “I Worship Chaos”

After the shoulder-shrug of “Halo of Blood,” CoB comes back re-engineered as a quartet, which oddly ends up expanding their repertoire rather than collapsing it.  Alexi Laiho ends up writing a couple emotional pieces that no one would have ever expected from the alcohol celebrating, Finnish, metal champions and perhaps most surprising of all, they work!  This is a more mature sound from Children of Bodom while at the same time really bringing their keyboard work back into the fore.  The style is a work in progress for these guys still, but this record shows a ton of promise.

7) 6:33 – “Deadly Scenes”

Am I cheating here?  I think I might be cheating a little.  If memory serves, there were parts of the globe that got this album in the latter half of 2014, but Kaotoxin Records lists the official release date at January 15th, 2015, so I’m going with them.  Anyway, 6:33 is in that same vein as The Great Game, music designed to go way beyond the borders, except that 6:33’s production is both more compelling and well, this might sound simple, but more fun.  The best moments on “Deadly Scenes” have a jaunty swing in an inverse relationship with how much sense the songs make, which is weirdly all the album’s benefit.  Five dudes in masks with no live drummer playing music that wanders in a hundred directions?  Sold!

6) Cancer Bats – “Searching for Zero”

Following up the singular greatness that was “Dead Set on Living” was a tall order, but Cancer Bats delivered with “Searching for Zero,” an album that eschewed some of the rock overtones of its predecessor to deliver crunchy, ugly riffs circled around personal torment and rebellion.  There’s depth here in the bass tones alone, never mind the slow, churning drudgery that the band mated with it to create an authentic feeling of dread.  It’s rare that a band with hardcore roots can show this much discipline and growth, but Cancer Bats fit the bill.

5) Midnight Ghost Train – “Cold Was the Ground”

I’m starting to sense a theme within my own list, which is that everything I really connected to this year largely fell into one of two categories – different and complex, or ugly and fun.  Midnight Ghost Train swings the needle the farthest in the latter direction, slopping out fuzzy riffs and channeling immense amounts of distortion to create a romp that sounds, well, like I imagine a midnight ghost train would.  What sets this album apart and finishes its showcase is two-fold; first, that if you can sift through the grime, there’s a really accessible metal album underneath and second, there’s a sense of humor here that makes the proceedings lighter than the music would seem at first blush.  An enjoyable ride, and hey, they made a tour poster with a vintage-style nude woman hiding in the shadows on it.  Bonus!

4) Mountain of Wizard – “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances”

Apparently, it’s becoming a trend that I put an instrumental album in my top ten.  Well, here’s this year’s entry, an avalanche of inspired, monster riffs that nod heads and demand notice.  It’s a curious thing when an album can capture attention without speaking a single syllable, and that makes Mountain of Wizard all the more notable for what they’ve accomplished here.  Each of these songs feels like an organic, handcrafted creation, a thoughtful plan executed by musicians who had an idea and then jammed it out a bunch of times until it sounded right.  There’s a lot to like here.

3) Powerwolf – “Blessed and Possessed”

Okay, if Midnight Ghost Train was the ugliest of these albums, then by comparison in the ‘ugly and fun’ category, “Blessed and Possessed” is the most fun.  Don’t get me wrong, every Powerwolf is fun just because of what it is and what the band does, but this album in particular screams ‘road-trip sing-a-long.’  The Christian werewolves have outdone themselves this time, creating a tome of epic anthem after epic anthem, running the gamut from thumping arena rock to heart-pounding chase.  Attila Dorn’s vocals are as resonant as ever, but the brothers Greywolf outdid themselves this time with sharp, poignant riffs and excellent articulation.  Just look at that video!  I mean, doesn’t that look like fun?

2) Graveyard – “Innocence and Decadence”

Okay, at this point, Chris C and I have salivated over this album enough that everyone knows why it’s on here.  “Innocence and Decadence” is the most complete, best composed record of 2015, assembled and executed by talented musicians who display not only a complete mastery of their sound, but a healthy respect for the heritage of it.  So, what’s holding it back from being #1?

1) Shawn James and the Shapeshifters – “The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters”

This would be the answer.  Sometimes, there is an album so raw, echoing with the vibrations of sheet power, that it overwhelms even the best-laid blueprint of its competitors.  “The Gospel According…” may not be a match for “I&D” when it comes to precision or craft, but the pulpit-shaking bellow of Shawn James stirs the listener on a different level altogether.  This is vigorous, commanding music that’s tempered with enough sense of humor to prevent it from being melodramatic.  The fury and bluster of opener “No Gods” is balanced only too perfectly by the stark, cold grip of “Lost.”  Each track has a different character, a different feel, as the down-home riffs and bluegrass instrumentation create a dynamic sound from the album’s beginning to end.  If you are someone who appreciates being moved by music, or if you simply enjoy being absorbed by the album you’re listening to, there’s something for everyone on this record.  It’s the clear choice for Album of the Year.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Conversation: 2015 In Review - Part 2

D.M: You know, the inverted Shaq point is an interesting point. It's been a long debate among NBA types of just how good Shaq COULD have been, versus how good he was. It's the same argument that takes place about Wilt Chamberlain - two guys who were so physically gifted that they never had to really try that hard, so the reflexive question is always: imagine what would have happened if they'd really given a shit? But anyway, that's not why we're here....

You're likely right in that Maiden probably still sits on the throne until they choose not to (or at least, they share it with Metallica and maybe Motorhead and a couple others.) Which is sort of a shame in its own right because it means that there are some very deserving artists who will never quite rise to the level of acceptance and influence that they're do, largely as a product of simply being born at the wrong time. Children of Bodom, Soilwork, Soulfly, maybe even Lacuna Coil and a handful of others - they'll carry the torch for the genre, but they'll do it in comparative obscurity, which just isn't fair. I mean, who's left in the metal paradigm that can sell an arena and hasn't been around for thirty years? Disturbed? Five Finger Death Punch? All respect to those bands, they've done some good work, but I think we've seen their glass ceiling. Even if they can (and do) sell out major arenas in large metropolitan areas, I don't see either of them carrying an entire European or South American festival, or selling out a football stadium or whatever.

It's hardly an issue limited to metal, that's simply home base for me. Any genre is currently facing the same issue, absent possibly top-40 pop (ahem, Adele, who seems to be usurping our conversation much like Taylor Swift last year.) Many bands can be the next Led Zeppelin or Who or Muse or White Stripes or whatever from a purely musical standpoint, but who's really the next LED ZEPPELIN, if you take the meaning of my capital letters? Is it possible to ascend that ladder to that great height anymore? Who is the next Public Enemy or Daft Punk or Garth Brooks? You get the idea.

Going backwards, I want to address your point about the passing of musicians, which is especially poignant in these recent days. In between you asking me the question and me answering it, Scott Weiland passed away at the too-young age of 48. When I heard the news my initial reaction, and maybe this makes me a terrible human being, was that I was surprised it had taken so long to happen. And that, to me, is really the saddest part of the whole damn affair, that I think we all knew this was going to be the end for Scott. The mortality rate of the grunge era is revoltingly high as a whole, and given Scott's fairly evident demons, it just always seemed like a question of time. It was the same when Layne Staley passed. Outside of grunge, it was the same when Amy Winehouse passed.

Which I think is important to the nature of your question about the people behind the music and how connected we are or aren't to them. Particularly in the alternative genres there's been a long history of early deaths and unfortunate life choices with dire consequences, so, speaking only for myself, it's hard to get too attached to any single person as an artist because there's always a fear that they may not be around that long. Now certainly, there are musicians I've been lucky enough to call friend or at least acquaintance, but those are few and far between, and those people seem, for lack of a better word, stable relative to the people I mentioned above.

Tantamount to that, it's hard, for me anyway, to really forge an emotional connection with someone I don't truly know. I've read some of Henry Rollins books and seen his spoken word performances and listened to his records and I believe in the man's credibility, conviction and intelligence. I think that in many ways he's a talented man with a literal world of experience who has an admirable work ethic, but I don't know him. We met once, briefly, as he signed memorabilia outside his show and talked for an instant, but we weren't introduced, and it's not like we had dinner conversation or anything. I only know the side of Henry he wants me to know, the public face that he presents, so how could I forge a life-affirming connection to the man?

I think of it like this - musicians have a great passion for music, that's beyond doubt no matter how poor the musician might be. That's actually something I learned from our old pal Wizard, he had a belief in the idea that no matter how bad an album is, no matter how little value we perceive it to have, that album is somebody's labor of love, and it clearly has value to them. So, the takeaway for me is thus: artists who make music aren't really doing it for me. They're may hope the fans love it and want to give back, but they're really doing it for themselves, because it fulfills their desire to make art that makes them happy. At worst, a musician who makes music is doing his/her job, doing what it takes to keep food on his/her plate. So, to answer your question about yourself in a roundabout way, no, I don't think you're too divorced from the humanity of music, because rarely do we really know the humans involved.

As to what you closed with last time, again we are in agreement. Boring! I, too, have tried to steer myself towards stuff that makes me enjoy what I'm listening to, or at the very least is innovative and academically interesting. As mentioned, I stuck to my resolution this year to avoid bodily function music, and I did pretty good! I'm not a 'life is short'-mantra kinda guy, but I am someone who doesn't have a ton of discretionary time on his hands, so when I'm settling into a music listening mode, I would much prefer to enjoy the experience. If you're asking the larger metaphysical question of why there's so much music designed to make us feel crappy and who's possibly listening to that, I don't really have an answer except to refer to my argument about musicians doing their job and their passion above. The Dalai Lama says that no person intentionally makes themselves feel worse - that even those who complain take pleasure in the complaining and thus engage their desires at least a little, so I can only assume that the persons who partake in depressing music must enjoy the melancholy to some degree. But, I am officially talking out of my ass and don't have a better answer than that.

Speaking of enjoyable listening experiences, is this the part were we spent another five hundred or so words gushing about how great Graveyard is? What else did you love this year?

Chris C: My sport, golf, has a similar conversation that pops up. The greatest players of all time (My top three would be, in order, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods) are the ones who spent the most time grinding on their games. The ones who had the most natural talent, whether a ligitimate great like Sam Snead, or a cautionary tale like John Daly, didn't always measure up. The argument can easily be made that they didn't reach the very top of the mountain, because they believed too much in their own talent.

I think that happens to bands sometimes as well. When you have the kind of musical skill that a player like Yngwie has (he's an egomaniac, but a talented one), or like Jeff Loomis has, it's easy to stop working on your craft. If you can dazzle people and make their jaws drop by playing your sweep arpeggios at 210bpm, and can get your face on every guitar magazine in the world as one of the best players out there, where's the incentive to work harder on writing great songs? I'm not singling them out for any reason other than they came to mind first, but most music that involves technicality falls into that same category. I often wonder what makes musicians who aim to spend their careers playing their own music work their whole life to amass the skill to play impossible runs of notes, and not put that effort into honing their creativity. It strikes me as being a backwards way of approaching music, like a football team that drafts a quarterback who can throw a ball 80 yards, then says "we can teach them to play football" later. It seldom works like that.

To get back to the point, the only 'modern' metal bands that has the potential to fill seats like the old guard is Avenged Sevenfold... and maybe Slipknot. They've been able to do it, while the Stupid Named Death Punches of the world are big for the American rock scene, but are nothing compared to what we're talking about. At least on this side of the pond, no one is going to reach that level for the simple fact that there isn't much of an appetite for rock and metal right now. But even if there was, the bands coming from over here aren't of a high enough quality to grow to that size.

Worldwide, most of those bands you mentioned don't have much of a chance either. While I don't mind Children Of Bodom or Soilwork, their growled vocals are going to keep them from ever being truly huge. Yes, Emperor might have headlined the Wacken festival, but that was a once in a lifetime event where practically every fan with sufficient funds and interest was there. They wouldn't be able to replicate that on a regular basis. Carcass surely can't, and they touched on accessibility with "Heartwork" more than any of them. As far as who could take a leap, we would both love to say Graveyard, but we also realize that it isn't likely to happen. The honest answer is that I really don't know who could do it. There were hopes for Volbeat, but they seem to be running out of gas. I hear a lot of buzz for Gojira, but I don't hear a sound with mass appeal. While I don't think they can ever get arena big, nor would their schtick work in such a setting, Ghost is actually a band with the right sound and songs for the task. If they got a slot opening for a Maiden or Metallica for a while, I think they have more potential for growth than most metal bands do.

To answer your other question, no, I don't think it's possible to be the next LED ZEPPELIN, but not for the reason you might think. There are plenty of bands doing great things out there *cough*Graveyard*cough*, but you can't become the next Zeppelin when Zeppelin won't go away. It's a fact of life now that unlike when the bands of the 80s and 90s came up, today's bands have to compete with every record ever made for attention. When Iron Maiden was selling "Powerslave", they weren't concerned with the older bands anymore, since their music was off the radio by then, and finding copies of the albums meant digging in second-hand bins. But now, with everything available all the time, you not only have to be better than all the bands who are current, but even those who are long since gone, in order to get attention. There is no longer a natural sunset for a band, which doesn't leave room for the next wave to rise up. I don't know if it would boost the touring attendence if all these bands in their 50s and 60s were retired, but it would certainly help younger bands sell records.

Your reaction to Scott Weiland's death is the same one every other person had. I'll take on your 'horrible person' hat for a second. I get annoyed, if not angry, when people describe the deaths of well-known addicts as 'tragic'. They're sad, yes, even avoidable. But there's nothing tragic about someone dying when they voluntarily put a toxic substance in their body. Tragedy is being struck by a stray bullet while getting groceries, not falling victim to your own hand.

But I largely agree with you when it comes to this discussion of how much we really 'know' the people we're talking about. Although we're in the age of social media, we only know the image that they want to project. And even if we get a retweet from someone once, that isn't the kind of connection that SHOULD mean anything to us. It's a reflexive gesture that doesn't hold much, if any, meaning. You know that a couple years ago, I received an incredibly sweet email from my favorite singer in regards to the review I had written. I'm thinking of that right now, and here's what's going through my mind. I have a relationship with her only as it pertains to her music. It means quite a bit to me, but if something we to happen to her, what would have changed? I would still have the music, and I would still feel the same things. If nothing changes, what am I supposed to mourn?

Wizard's advice is usually true, and I stress the word usually. It's the best-case scenario, the one we want to believe in, but let's not be naive here. While most bands are our there making music because they love to, and they feel a need to be creative, we both know that there are also bands out there who go through the motions and continue making records because they know it's a way to maintaining a career. It's not apparent who is in which category, so I try to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their artistic intentions. But when a band is writing every song about patrying and getting in fights, I feel pretty comfortable calling them out for having no artistic merit.

My query was more for us than for the artists. I do understand that channeling your negative feelings into your art can be beneficial. Taking that pain and turning it into something constructive can do a world of good for them, it's a form of therapy. What I don't understand is how listeners can get the same benefit from listening to said music. I hear people say that listening to 'depressive suicidal black metal' (charming, eh?) makes them feel better, and it runs so contrary to every thought I have in my head about how the human minds works, that I struggle to find the words. It can't be a perverse form of schaudenfraude, where we get pleasure from the intense misery poured into those records. It has to be a genuine feeling of relief that there are other people out there who are tormented, but I fail to see how that is comforting. Knowing you aren't along feeling hopeless is not empowering, it does nothing to alleviate your pain. All it does is show just how much misery and sadness exists, which in and of itself is a depressing thing to wrap your head around. I simply don't get it.

Sure, we can talk about what we love about this year. Last year, I noted that much of my favorite music was either strictly pop, or had heavy pop influences. This year, it was much more about good ol' rock. We haven't talked about Graveyard since we reviewed "Innocence & Decadence", but while I do have the CD waiting for me to complete my up-to-date collection, it's actually going to be a bit further down my list than either of us might have expected. It's Graveyard, so it's still great, but I can't help but think I still like the last two records more.

To shuffle the order from what they will appear in on my list, let's start with UFO's shocking return to form with "A Conspiracy Of Stars". They haven't made an interesting record in at least 20 years, and here's one that stands up with anything Michael Schenker touched, and I say it's their best ever. Lunden Reign made a damn good Heart/Zeppelin style record that I've replayed many times. Michael Monroe managed to make a record that reminds me so much of Bad Religion's "The Dissent Of Man", which is this odd fusion of punk, classic rock, and power-pop. I loved that record a lot, and Michael Monroe's is very close. And Nightingale released their best ever record, and one that should be an example of how to properly make a record. I'm not saying the regular mix is bad by any means, but there's a dynamic mix that was available on some versions that is absolutely INCREDIBLE. It's so deep and clear that it's like hearing a completely different record. That is how music is supposed to sound, and finally hearing it again makes it so obvious just how bad the production on almost everything these days really is. "Retribution" in the dynamic mix is the most pleasurable album to listen to I've heard in I don't know how long.

But it's no secret that the album I love the most this year is the same one I've been gushing about since January. Jorn Lande did something I didn't think possible; he not only made the best record he's ever been a part of, but he turned the story of Count Dracula into a cheesy rock opera that just so happens to be f'n amazing. It's still, and stupid, and all year long I haven't been able to shake just how much fun it is. I compared it to Adam West's version of Batman, where you keep telling yourself you shouldn't enjoy it, but you keep coming back for more. I didn't love anything as much as that ridiculous album this year. Not even close.

So I'll turn the tables on you; what did you love about this year? And, looking forward, what are you expecting from 2016?

D.M: You can totally teach them to play football later! Just look at the success of JaMarcus Rus.....nevermind.

Also, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down for a second - if your putting bands down for songs about partying, I'm going to take a brief stand. Because Andrew W.K will forever be one of my go-tos for when I need music that's uptempo and cheers me up. How could it not? Now, you can question how seriously you're supposed to take him, but he's my guy. There's value there.

I do have one small disagreement with you. I don't (and didn't) know the case of Scott Weiland all that closely, but I felt some sadness after the death of Layne Staley, because that was a guy who was clearly fighting against his addiction and couldn't win. I personally haven't had to take on that struggle, but people I know have, and recovery is a life long quest with too many easy pitfalls waiting for you. I can agree that if someone flagrantly and knowingly disregards their own health, it changes the sorrow from a sorrow over their passing to a disappointment concerning them throwing their lives away without thought of the consequence. But there are cases, Trent Reznor being one side of the coin and Josh Hamilton the other, where you see someone trying like hell to free themselves of the demon, and they, to me, are worthy of compassion over scorn. Layne was in that group - he wanted to be healthy but the addiction was too great, it couldn't be overcome.

I think what we mourn when our favorite artists pass is the idea that there won't be any more creation by that person. That's particular true in the careers of luminaries like Jimi Hendrix (despite the best efforts of Al Hendrix,) where what Jimi could have done remains one of the great unknowns in all of music history. He was a brilliant guitar player, an innovator at least ten years ahead of his time, and the world will never know what would have come next. Yet, you don't have to be Jimi Hendrix for that to be true - this year saw the unfortunate passing of Ryan Shutler, the drummer for Lazarus A.D. I'd met him, seemed like a decent guy. What he was, was a killer drummer. Downright excellent, fun to watch live. The sadness I have over his death comes in two parts. One, that he was so young, which is always sad, and two, that I will never see him drum again, and there won't be any more new recordings of his drumming.

The Volbeat thought is an interesting one. They certainly have the talent and presentation to be the Next Rock Superstar, and the songs are crisp and clean and catchy. This was a quiet year for them, but they have the backing (Metallica) and the chops to maybe burst through. I wouldn't give up just yet.

That's an interesting point about bands going up against old bands for sales. It's true, no matter how good an album you write, "Led Zeppelin II" is still out there. And while recording technology has advanced to make new recordings clearer, it's not like the difference between silent movies and the 'talkies.' It actually ties into a conversation we've had before about expectation and longevity. It seems odd to us when a band can't produce the same caliber of content, or when a musician's voice changes as they age, because it's so easy for us to simply call up the music of their heyday, which remains preserved forever. We talked about this when Judas Priest 'retired.' Rob Halford is still just twenty-nine years old if you listen to "British Steel" and he'll always ben twenty-nine on that record.

Switching topics again, Graveyard. Now, it's here that I have to admit a little bit of hypocrisy. I have spent a lot of time this year talking about trying to hear something new, and yet I so openly praise Graveyard, a band who keeps everything within the tried-and-true tenets of rock dating back some sixty years. So if people want to call me out on that, I accept that that window is open.

Anyway! What I love about Graveyard as a whole, and "Innocence & Decadence" in extension, is that this isn't a band willing to sit on their laurels. They're clearly challenging themselves to some stylistic adjustments, trying out some more psychedelic elements in their music rather than turn out a fourth straight up and down rock album (though those are all great, too.) There are way too many bands who find a formula that worked for them once and then just regurgitate the same non-challenging, lowest-common-denominator albums one after the other, like (wait, here it comes, I can feel it!) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (boom! Annual Springsteen dig! Got it in there!) What amazes about Graveyard beyond their ability to test their own boundaries, is that they're fucking great at this new style, too. Everything is organic but practiced, fun but taken seriously, just a wonderful listening experience. (But is it number 1 on my top 11? Tune in later to find out!)

Which I think, not give a short answer, pretty much wraps up what I loved about 2015 in general. Not just Graveyard specifically, but the concept that I heard a lot of bands this year who were willing to examine the boilerplate of their chosen genre and say "well, what if we did this?" It was a year of experimentation within stability, fresh faces on old but good tropes, which was nice to see when metal at large seemed to be spreading thin in bad directions over the last while.

I actually have few expectations for next year. I find that the things I think will happen rarely do, so for next year I'm making it an aim to simply go in without preconception or a mold I'm trying to fit music into and simply see what I take away. There are also no albums that come to mind that I'm waiting on next year, so at the risk of being pithy, I'm feeling very zen about it.


Chris C: I'm not necessarily putting bands down if they write about nothing but partying and fighting, but more often than not I won't be giving them the artistic benefit of the doubt. I have a hard time believing that Limp Bizkit actually had artistic motives for writing "Break Stuff".

I didn't mean to suggest I was callous towards people like Scott Weiland, or that their deaths don't matter. I just don't see how the word 'tragedy' is the right one to apply, in those cases. Tragedies are more than something sad, they are cruel twists of fate that rip people away from their lives at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Regardless of the hardship that addiction entails, the first steps down that path were taken voluntarily, which negates the tragic implications. So while it is sad when we lose anyone too soon, and particularly to something as ugly as addiction, I prefer to save tragedy for cases where it truly applies.

I said that about Volbeat because it seems that they've stalled out. They've had the backing of Metallica, and many others for several years now, but they took all that exposure and have been putting out records that aren't getting any better. If you ask me, and since I have the floor I'm going to assume you are, they peaked with "Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood", and have been slowly going downhill ever since. I don't even remember their last album, to be honest. They stripped away everything that was unique about their blend of thrash meets Elvis, and all that's left now are the unmistakable vocals. Unless they come roaring back to life with a masterpiece, I feel like they've reaches as high as they ever will.

When you mention age, it drives me in a different direction. Halford may forever be 29 on "British Steel", but I'm actually one of those people who thinks that many, many singers get better as they move past the years when their supposed best records are made. There's something about the aging process that smooths out the rough edges of a voice, that gives character in place of raw power. Ronnie James Dio was great when he was fronting Rainbow, but I feel like his voice was even better later in life, when it was deeper, and more capable of expressing the sinister characters he wrote about. Guys like Bruce Dickinson have lost some of their range at the top end, but that comes with a more rounded tone that isn't as shrill. Not to mention, I'm not too keen on ear-piercing screams anyway. Maybe the best example of Ray Alder of Fates Warning and Redemption. His voice now is a shadow of what it used to be, to the point he doesn't sound like the same person, but his new voice has so much more depth and emotion to it that his physical limitations have actually improved him. Sadly, however, it seems that creative peak doesn't often match with the physical one, which means we wind up idolizing a version of someone that might not actually be the complete package of what they could have been.

We've talked enough about Graveyard over the years to know that we agree almost entirely. My very slight qualms with the new album have nothing to do with the new things they try, because like you said, they pull them off. My only issue is that they became too democratic, and didn't realize how much Joakim's voice is an integral part of their sound. As good as the record is, and it's really good, it would have been even better if he didn't hand over the mic for two tracks.

Now why do you put me in the position of having to defend Bruce Springsteen? I'm not much of a fan of his (I loathe and detest "Born In The USA"), but that's not a fair assessment of his career. He's in a bit of a rut right now, but over the years he has put out albums of everything from orchestrated rock, to barren folk, and even a record of sunny 60s pop (which is my favorite album of his, by far). Ok, that's enough defending him.

As for 2016, I'm with you that there isn't that much I can say right now I'm excited about. I've already heard one album from next year, and it's a clear contender to be a favorite at the end. Past that, I'm always game for whatever Tobias Sammet is up to, and the upcoming Avantasia album will be a nice January treat. I'm morbidly curious about the possible Meat Loaf album that has been supposed to come out each of the last two years. I don't think there are any scraps of good Jim Steinman material left for him to record, but he's trying, and I'll be there to listen. Perhaps more than any of that, though, I'm excited about the fact that my favorite album is going to be turning twenty. Aside from that meaning I will be writing an essay about it, I've heard rumblings that the occasion will be marked with some sort of activity from the band. Considering they haven't released a song in what will by then be six years, the possibilities there have me excited.

So, with all we've said, is there anything left to cover? Anything to say to wrap all this up?

D.M: San Demis high school football rules!

Joking aside, that's all I got, the barrels are empty. At the risk of sounding like I'm writing in the back pages of your high school yearbook, have a great holiday and we'll talk next semester!

Chris C: And so ends another year filled with more music than we know what to do with. Stay tuned, because 2016 is sure to be more of the same.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Conversation: 2015 In Review - Part 1

Chris C: Every year, when we sit down to recap the year in music, there's a through-line that helps us define what it is we've just experienced. It might not always be clear, but by the time we're done, I feel that we've managed to sort through our thoughts and figure out how to put everything in context.

For me, this year's main theme couldn't be more clear; surprises.

This year was full of them, and in more ways than one. First, there was the obvious surprise that led us to leaving our former home, and starting up this venture. After years of what I had assumed was success, having to scrap that and start from (not quite) scratch was certainly an unexpected development. I hate the cliche that 'everything happens for a reason', but it does ring true this time. I can't compare our reach to where we were, but it was a positive move, in my eyes, since we are now unencumbered by anything but our own imaginations. I have enjoyed the freedom to be able to pursue all of my musical tastes, as well as being able to talk about subjects beyond simply reviewing albums. The move was a shock, but it was a good one.

Likewise, the music itself this year was full of surprises. Looking through the list of my favorite and least favorite albums, hardly any are where I would have expected them. A few records that I had penciled in as contenders for Album Of The Year, namely the albums from Halestorm and The Neal Morse Band, fizzled and didn't even sniff list consideration, while bands I had long since written off surged towards the top, and some things I laughed at turned out to be among the year's highlights. Those will be revealed when I list my top albums. And then on top of that, we got Adele coming up and surprising everyone by breaking a sales record that I had assumed was going to be an unassailable relic of the past.

But that's not to say everything was unpredictable. Nothing is more clockwork these days than Slayer, which might be the most insulting thing that's ever been said about them. Slayer has gone from being the most extreme band to ever make it out of the underground, to now being a corporate entity that churns out the expected so they can continue turning the gears of the machine. Even if you haven't heard "Repentless", you've heard "Repentless". That's quite sad.

So I begin with two questions for you. 1) What surprised you about this year? and 2) How amazing is it that Iron Maiden is still the most vital band in metal?

D.M: Whoa, whoa, first of all, let’s deal with your last point first. First of all, I think you’re purposefully baiting me by saying that. Second, I am totally taking the bait, and that’s entirely my own fault. Third, you, sir, are a master baiter (sorry, the temptation was too great and it was sitting right there.)

Now before we begin, let's get the mandatory disclaimer out of the way, lest the reactionary internet brand me a heretic: I love Iron Maiden. I own many Iron Maiden albums and have attended Iron Maiden concerts. I own Iron Maiden merchandise. I have defended Iron Maiden in public and attempted to turn others into Iron Maiden fans. God, why do I feel like I'm making the compulsory apology that an A-lister makes when he/she utters a racial slur?

I think you largely have to qualify your use of the word “vital.” Most energetic? Most creative? Most important? Around the longest? Given that the members of Black Sabbath appear to be collectively ambulatory (at least long enough for ‘The End,’) I’m not sure Maiden can lay definitive claim to any of those qualifiers. And I liked "Book of Souls!" A lot! But, it's no "Number of the Beast." And no, I am not trying to be one of those Iron Maiden fans, but I mean that from an experiential level. "Number of the Beast" changed the way metal was looked at, listened to, marketed: it irrevocably altered the standard for metal, pulling it into the light as a (passably) mature form of musical art. "Book of Souls" won't do that. Because it's already been done. Before. By Iron Maiden. Now, if you want to have a separate conversation about whether it's even possible for an album in this new age to have that kind of genre-defining impact, let's have that conversation. Because I would have said no, until, as you mentioned, Adele's sales numbers were posted.

I am perfectly willing to grant that many of the bands I trumpeted four or five years ago as the new vanguard of metal have fizzled or experienced some hardships (Warbringer, Lazarus A.D, Blackguard,) but there are plenty of up-and-comers who still deserve high praise and can be trusted with carrying the banner for the genre into the future. The Sword, this year’s…interesting…album notwithstanding, still have a complete grip on what makes metal great and can blow away hundreds of also-rans with nary a thought.
Not to mention Turisas (woot!), who was quiet this year, but from a musical standpoint, might be the foremost standard-bearer for metal in Maiden’s style, with a perfect understanding of instrumentation, arrangement, drama and atmosphere. Red Eleven, A Pale Horse Named Death, Destrage, Powerwolf, the list goes on!
Now, let’s go a nerdier level. If you play enough video game RPGs, you know that the ‘vitality’ stat is most often a measure of hit points – your ability to absorb/withstand/reflect damages. But here’s the rub – who’s still throwing punches at Iron Maiden? Yeah, sure, they have their fans who think they never should have changed styles, but those people still identify as fans, as Maiden has the clout and resources to completely ignore those people if they so choose. Their rabid following easily trumps their detractors, so Maiden is living high on the hog with very little in the way of tribulation to overcome (physical health at this age notwithstanding.) So what it Maiden's true vitality now that they've ascended the throne and are 'made men' in a manner of speaking? Am I asking how many hit points Maiden has? I think I might be.
So what exactly are we talking about here?
In the meantime, so long as I’m on the soapbox, might as well take full advantage and bloviate until I run out of column inches! Things that surprised me in 2015 were many and mostly minor (more on this in a moment,) but the thing I keep coming back to is: can someone please explain to me why the hell Sunn O))) is such a big damn deal? What am I missing here? Is this something I should give a damn about? It’s barely music! It’s a weird, tuneless droning with no melody! I’m getting (musically) older and I don’t understand these damn kids and their rap music and their make-out parties! Yelling at clouds!

But wait, there's more! Slayer. Can I admit something horrible as a 'journalist?' I have not yet listened to most of "Repentless." Again, repeat my disclaimer above, but with "Slayer," in place of "Iron Maiden." "Seasons in the Abyss" is a top-five album for me all-time. Yet, "Repentless" sits on my computer, unloved and still in the figurative packaging. Why? I'm not really sure, but I think it comes down to me subconsiously trying to avoid a Hobson's Choice. Either "Replentless" is the album that I think it is, an album of material that's a pale imitation of what Slayer used to be, or it's worse than that. I will listen to it at some point as the year winds down and the releases slow to a trickle. But I'm in no rush.

And yes! Here we are in our new home. The furniture may be a little less cushy, but it's home. And I'm glad to be here, again. And if there's a surprise in that (besides our unceremonious departure from our previous home,) it's that I am both surprised and incredibly humbled at the continued support we've been offered by promoters, record labels and bands of all stripes. People like us, Chris, they really do. Not to overuse the word, but that's enormously humbling.

I have more surprises (including a commentary on electronic influence and the power of last year,) but I've ranted enough for now and I need to get my blood pressure down. Go!

Chris C: Like you, I will start with your last point. It has indeed been incredibly humbling to see that the people we work with have stuck by us through our time of transition, in such a way that I firmly believe many of those relationships are stronger now than they were before. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. While I was writing down my opinion of albums even before being brought on board the legitimacy train by you, the most rewarding part of this endeavor has been in seeing that there are people out there who genuinely appreciate and respect a thoughtful opinion. Not to make light of the YouTube critics, because there are some I watch and consider truly good at what they do, but there's an elegance to a well-written thought that transcends videotape. We might not hit that level all the time, but it is the aim.

You took that Iron Maiden discussion in several directions, but none necessarily the one I was pointing towards. You are right that Iron Maiden is no longer defining the very nature of heavy metal, nor are they as hungry as a young band that hasn't had their voice heard yet. What I was trying to say is that Iron Maiden is still the most important band at this moment in metal, because they are the biggest name that is still pounding the pavement and making people excited about metal. Black Sabbath is (rightfully) saying good-bye, Metallica is practically metal's version of a touring art exhibit at this point, and Judas Priest is only relevant in that they aren't embarrassing themselves anymore. There isn't another band on the scene right now that is as big as Iron Maiden, who is still making music that has an impact on the scene. Sabbath is Kobe Bryant, who is limping towards his rocking chair, Priest is Bartolo Colon, and Iron Maiden is Tim Duncan; a superstar who is every bit as good as they ever were, but does something just a bit different now.

For all the talk of the bands that have come up as the next big thing, none of them can move the needle a faction as much as Iron Maiden still can. They are all either in niche genres that will never matter to metal as a whole (Meshuggah, hello), or they're so bland that they will never last as being important (Lamb Of God, anyone?). I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that not only is Iron Maiden possibly the biggest metal band in the world, they're still the bar most are being judged by. Just look at "Book Of Souls". It was covered everywhere, by everyone, and was nearly universally praised. Having that kind of power is important, and I can't think of anyone else who wields it like they do.

I can't help you when it comes to Sun O))). They are one of the many bands that I can't wrap my head around either. The only time I have appreciated them at all was in their collaboration with Scott Walker, and that was only because they were reduced to background music. Keep in mind, that record is terrible for its own reasons, but it hit on a troubling point. That kind of music is background music. It's the metal equivalent of muzak, and belongs in an elevator, not my speakers.

You have no reason to feel bad about not listening to "Repentless". If I'm being honest, had I not felt an obligation for us to say something about the record, I doubt I would have listened to the entire thing either. All bands we have grown tired of fall into this category to a degree, but Slayer is even a special case, what with the existential issue of whether they are even still Slayer.

That actually segues into a point I wanted to write about, but never got around to. As the old guard of metal ages, and members inevitably pass away, exactly how much am I supposed to be saddened by the losses? On one level, it's always sad when someone passes, and especially when that means the end of a career you have enjoyed. But on another level, I don't understand the emotional attachment people have with their favorite musicians and/or celebrities. I fail to, except in rare circumstances, connect with the people behind the music I listen to. I may be odd, it's certainly not out of the question, but it strikes me as being foolish to equate the person and the music. Even in the age of social media, we don't have real relationships with these artists, so when one does pass away, I struggle to figure out exactly how I should feel. The outpourings of wet-eyed sorrow make me uneasy. Am I too divorced from the humanity of music?

I will reserve my comments on the strength of 2014 until you make your case, but I have a feeling we will come to a similar conclusion.

D.M: Okay, I think I see what you're getting at about Iron Maiden. Then, let's have a separate discussion, one where Maiden just happens to be the classic band at the center, rather than the sole subject of the question. Switch Maiden with a present-day band of similar ilk. Now, not just any slacker can be Maiden, so take someone with real talent. We've already talked about Turisas, so let's just use them again, rather than introduce another party. If Turisas releases "Stand Up and Fight" in 1982 and Maiden releases "Number of the Beast" in 2011, are we talking about those bands in reverse? I agree that Maiden moves the needle more than most (Metallica still probably being top dog, particularly with rumors of another record on the way,) but do they move the needle now because of what they did then? That's not an insult to Iron Maiden, it's a larger question about segmentation of audience and popular radio and digital, direct-to-consumer distribution and all of that stuff. If Maiden were new and Turisas veteran, would their roles be switched? I'm not phrasing the question well, but I think you see what I'm getting at. And it's not an argumentative point, mostly because I believe that a) Iron Maiden is a great band in any context and b) there isn't really a knowable answer since the past is the past. I guess I'm trying to quantify the value of 'back then' to Maiden's Q rating now. This works for a thousand other hypotheticals as well - Transatlantic and King Crimson, Lamb of God and Pantera, Clutch and Black Sabbath, whatever.

I am so incredibly glad that you (unknowingly) played into my wheelhouse with Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. While we're here:

*deep breath* Tim Duncan is a better basketball player and has had a better career than Kobe Bryant, absent whatever happens from here on out, and even ignoring whatever caliber of human being you believe Kobe Bryant to be. (Sidebar: I know you agree with this argument, so this isn't directed at you.) They have the same number of rings, and Duncan has more regular season MVP awards (2 to 1) and Finals MVP awards (3 to 2.) Their All-star appearances are roughly equal, All-NBA nods roughly equal, and Duncan is killing it in the All-NBA defensive team nods. Kobe's sole award advantage lies in his two Olympic gold medals, to Duncan't none, but Duncan comes back with a nod as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Let me continue - I despise the argument 'but Duncan only had to deal with one coach and one system.' How much of the acrimony surrounding Kobe's coaching situation, never mind his teammates, was a product of Kobe himself? It wasn't Mitch Kupchak that wanted to get rid of Shaq. Nor was it Mitch who made Phil Jackson want to retire (again.) Duncan, by contrast, was The Man on three of his five championship teams, and you could easily argue that he was in 2007 as well, where Kobe was only The Man on two, and perhaps a third (the last one with Shaq.) Duncan! All day. And I reason I bring this up is because I am frustrated that Tim Duncan's eventual retirement will not move the needle like Kobe's. But we all know who was the best player of that generation.

Which dovetails nicely into a discussion of surprises! You also mentioned Bartolo Colon, so let me chuck the Mets out there first. Holy crap the Mets! I know they lost in the Series (and didn't play especially well...) but still, I'm pretty happy. They've ranged between bad and wretched for most of my life, so it was nice to see a change.

Anyway, back to music. I remain surprised at EDM. Not in its popularity, which I'm certain is cyclical as so many things in music are, but at the limits of its invasion. I expected there to be a grand revival of industrial in 2015, and I think it's fair to say that happened; but I thought there would be more. Not that I had the foggiest clue what shape it would take - techno-thrash? techno doom? - but I thought we would see a lot of electronics in the main for metal as a whole, and that didn't happen. Pop has been so overcome with the influence of computerized music (some would say they've been in bed together for more than thirty years,) that I expected that barrier to eventually fall. Are alternative musicians simply digging in their heels against it, taking some kind of principled stand against the musical robot revolution? We do seem to be experiencing a turn back toward live recording, which we both like, but seems a reaction to current trends more than a new trend.

Which tangentially brings be back to Sunn O))). (God, I hate just typing that.) I agree with your assessment completely - this is elevator music for metal, which itself should be a contradiction in terms. I mean, for Chrissake, did you see that promo we got for the album of atmospheric black metal that you were supposed to practice yoga to? For lack of a more eloquent argument, what the fuck? Stealing a line from a guy who used to write about sports; this is the kind of thing that never would have happened if Lemmy were alive. I'm all for expanding musical boundaries, and I have espoused many times that sometimes not being 'metal' is the most 'metal' thing of all, but there is a bar, people. If I'm going to meditate and open my chakras, I don't need a bunch of yahoos in cloaks groaning their anti-music to help me out. Vince Lombardi said it best: "what the hell is going on around here?" Fans I'm sure will roll their eyes at me and say 'you just don't get it,' but that's not an insult to me! You're right! I don't get it! I don't think there's anything to get!

Now, you brought up some bands which you expect to fade into irrelevancy, and I don't disagree with you on any of them, which begs a larger question - what of the current trends in metal (or music as a whole,) that you see fading into oblivion? Sometimes, every now and again, you can discern a feeling from a trend you're hearing and know it won't last. We seem to be emerging from the 'no more solos' era quicker than I thought, and metalcore seems to be coming back, which I didn't anticipate. But, I think we all knew that rap metal had a shelf life (more on that in a minute) and it wasn't that long ago that you and I were in college and auto-tune was all the rage, which seems like a dim, bad memory now.

Looping back to rap metal, I spent a good chunk of the calendar this year with some Rage Against the Machine records, mostly because I desperately wanted to hear something different, and Rage can be accused of many things, but their status as a new sound is somewhat unassailable. I think I had this urge because while there many great records in 2015, there were few that sounded 'new' or 'novel.' The Great Game's record might not crack my top ten, but it stands as the poster child for 'different' for me in 2015, which was a refreshing change-of-pace relative to usual regurgitation of sounds. Now, I will say this in defense of 2015 - it continued 2014's trend of having less utter crap in it (though I admit, I made a New Year's resolution to avoid bands with bodily functions in the title, which may have spared me some of the worst,) and I suppose that as a benchmark of music's overall climate, 'meh' is still better than 'shit.' Regardless, I don't think a lot of musicians told bold chances this year (The Sword being a notable exception.)

Which finally brings me to my argument about the staying power of 2014. There are probably eight records from last year that I still listen to with regularity. Red Eleven, Destrage, Anti-Mortem, John 5, Emigrate, Nim Vind, Red Dragon Cartel and Kontrust. And while I like the list of my top ten for 2015, I find that there are only three or four records that I would truly go to the mat for. I think it all ties together for me - because this year didn't do a ton that was new, I find myself reverting to the stuff that was new, or at least fresh, last year. There's a little bit of leeway in that 2014 seems to have been an outlier in terms of high quality records, but I don't think the whole thing can be attributed to one influx of new music. At the end of 2015, it's still albums from 2014 that really come to mind for me. You?

I will address your question about musical losses next time, but I'm out of steam for right now. Take it!

Chris C: We have touched on this subject before, but suffice it to say, I do think that we would look very differently at these bands if they had come out at a different time. I've long been of the belief that most of the so-called classic records aren't anywhere nearly as good as they're made out to be, but have become self-fulfilling products of momentum and nostalgia. I'm not as bullish on saying that Turisas would have been more popular back in the day, since they are a quirky band, but there's absolutely no doubt that Iron Maiden would only be a fraction as popular if they were to arrive on the scene today. I don't see how that can even be debated. Most of that is just the simple fact that music is so much more fractured than it used to be, and even a mainstream band has trouble finding a large audience. Back in the 80s, you didn't have the option of being a fan of nothing but extreme metal. So when I said that Iron Maiden is the most vital band in metal still, it was largely an admission that there is no logistical chance of anyone else usurping them until their retirement.

I'll take the sports detour for a second here. We have always been in agreement that Duncan is better than Kobe, and is the best player of his generation. The one place where I give Kobe more credit than most is when it comes to Shaq. The argument is always made that Kobe didn't win as much without Shaq to carry the load. So why doesn't anyone ever hold it against Shaq that he could only win titles when he had another Hall Of Famer to do a lot of the heavy lifting? Only seems fair to hold them to the same standard. Then again, I find it frustrating how people have shut down any conversation that Michael Jordan might not be head and shoulders the greatest player ever (Bill Russell deserves to be in that conversation, no matter what the Jordan worshipers say), so what do I know about basketball? I probably should have used a golf analogy.

Electronics have taken a prominent role in metal, just not in the way you were expecting. If you were waiting for industrial to make a comeback, I'm not sure if that's ever going to happen, both because metal isn't as drum-based as we sometimes think, and because it does veer too close to the contemporary pop sound. But there's plenty of computerization going on, mostly in the recording process. These days, it's almost impossible to figure out when we're listening to a record whether or not anything we hear is actually real. Producers have been programming drums and replacing the sounds with pre-recordings forever, but now a large percentage of the guitars we hear are created not with amps, but with computers. I've done it myself, so I know how easy it is. When you're listening to anything wearing the tag 'modern', it's massively electronic and computerized. Metal right now just isn't quite ready to be unashamed of it.

I have my issues with anything that doesn't seem to have a point. Yes, I come from a background where I love big poppy choruses, but I don't need to have that in my music. But when the albums I listen to don't seem to have any point, when there isn't something about the music that aims to be memorable, I wonder what the point of it all is. Why would a band waste the time writing, recording, and releasing an album if the songs aren't supposed to be enjoyable, and aren't supposed to stick with you? You can't even compare it to the modern artists who would hang a blank canvas, or put a toilet in the middle of a gallery. Like it or not, at least those things were unforgettable. A band like Sun O))) is a white noise machine with a better PR agent.

First and foremost, djent will die off. It's such a bland and lifeless style of music that it has no other choice. People will get sick of hearing music that may as well have been composed on a computer (actually, the newest Leprous album was). That kind of sterile delivery reminds me of when The Twilight Zone shot a season on videotape instead of film. Sure, it was good enough, but it was just wrong. I also think we'll stop seeing such a blatant attempt at recreating 1974, or at least I hoep so. What we need to see is a realization that it wasn't a particular sound we're missing, but instead it's bands being natural. I would love it if every band would record live on the floor of the studio, simply sounding like themselves. We're seeing more of it, but many of those bands are still trying to borrow the actual sound of an early Zeppelin record. When they let themselves be themselves, we'll be in better shape. And the one thing I don't think is going anywhere is the proliferation of technical music. Since the rise of YouTube, when every song by every band could get videos, technical music got the best gift it ever could. Instead of hearing a lot of notes, and only realizing that it sounds terrible, we can now watch the players dexterity as they flaunt their talent. It's music that only works in video form, which sadly I don't see us regressing from.

I had been doing similar thinking to you, and I agree with your assessment of 2014, even though we had nearly nothing in common. This year has had more depth when it comes to releases that are wholly enjoyable to listen to, but last year had the kind of depth at the top of the list that I've never seen before. I recently updated my personal list of my fifty favorite albums, and it dawned on me that four from last year made their way onto that list, and there were another three I felt nearly as strongly about. Even the tenth album on last year's list would have found its way near the top three this year. I haven't listened to Transatlantic's "Kaleidoscope" all that often this year, but it still floors me when I do. Likewise, Neal Morse's pop album, and Emerson Hart's solo albums are still fantastic. And nothing in power metal has made me as happy as Allen/Lande did last year. But the biggest shock is the staying power I've seen from Edward O'Connell and his album, "Vanishing Act". It was #4 on my list last year, which I would bump up if I redid that, but I've found myself still listening to it at least once a fortnight (pretentious, but a word I wanted to use). I'm a big Elvis Costello fan, and it is not just the best Elvis album he never made, I enjoy listening to it more than even my favorites of his. That kind of repeat strength is what makes a truly remarkable record, and I have yet to get even the slightest bit tired with it.

You might be right about there being less innovation, or new sounding records this year. I'm not the right person to make that judgment, since I don't really give much thought to that. Getting more of the same has never bothered me, as long as it's still high quality. But I do find myself asking to what degree those feelings are defined by two things; 1) the lack of room to innovate, and 2) the amount of music we've heard. By this point, someone out there has tried mixing nearly every combination of sounds, so there isn't much left that will sound original. And couple that with the amount of music we've heard, and it could simply be that we've become numb to the most orthodox albums. I worry about being burnt out quite often, but every year I've been finding as many, if not more, albums to love, so I've been able to put those thoughts aside. I would find it much more dire if I was concerned with how off-center my music was.

I have absolutely shifted my thinking to emphasize the fun and enjoyment of listening above all else. I am sick and tired of listening to music that tries to put me in a bad mood, and since I've consciously cut back on how much of that I even sample, I've seen improvements across the board. I'd like to hear your thoughts on that.

 Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation.