Sunday, March 29, 2015

Album Review: DSG - Still A Warrior

Manowar has always been a joke in heavy metal circles, but in recent years, they've gone from cheesy fun to ridiculously awful. Their last album, "The Lord Of Steel", might be the worst sounding metal record I've ever heard from a band that should know better. It was the worst of a string of bad decisions that has rendered the band a joke to everyone who knows anything about good taste. Lost in that haze is that former members of the band, once they escape the clutches, have managed to do some good work. Ross the Boss has put out a few decent records on his own, while David Shankle has flown so far under the radar that I'm not even sure how I've kept tabs on his career. DSG produced two solid metal albums, with entirely different bands, and was easily the best Manowar related material of the last fifteen years or so. Take that with a grain of salt, because the bar wasn't set all that high.

DSG is back for their first album in eight years, yet again with a new band backing Shankle. This time around, he continues in the spirit of "Hellborn", with plenty of raging seven-string guitar action, and an obsession on making the music as heavy as humanly possible. To a degree, this works, as "Still A Warrior" is filled with punishingly heavy guitars. On the other hand, those guitars are so over-saturated in distortion that the moments that are supposed to be heaviest are washed out because the speakers don't have time to recover from the air being pushed out. Yes, it's possible to have too much gain on a guitar sound, and Shankle does that here. He also, as he has on all three DSG albums now, covers his solos in a wet sound that not only makes it sound like he's playing underwater, but doesn't at all fit the mix with the rest of the album.

So from a production standpoint, this album comes out of the gate weak. But songs are what matter the most, and on that level the album is a bit more successful. Shankle does have a knack, when not indulging his shred tendencies, for kicking out some catchy riffs. His playing is busy, for sure, but the songs pound along with enough force that they're interesting. New winger Warren Halvarson does what he can, but his voice isn't charismatic, and his writing chops aren't up to snuff. The melodies on this album are simplistic, but more than that they're boring. The entire emphasis of the record is on guitars, which I'm sure is exactly how Shankle wants it. The problem is that he doesn't provide enough to make that decision pay off.

The record includes the "Demonic Solo" he contributed to a little-seen horror movie, and while it does sound demonic, it also has no redeeming musical value. The notes fly by in a blur, but there isn't a single melodic figure to be found, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to listen to it. Later in the record, "The Hitman" spends nearly nine minutes indulging Shankle's love of shred, an instrumental piece that is all solos, and yet didn't impress me in the slightest. Sure, Shankle can play faster than I can dream of, but his playing lacks any sort of melodic phrasing to grasp on to. He plays long strings of notes that are utterly incomprehensible, and comes out looking the worse for it.

I find that amusing, because the songs where Shankle restrains himself are actually pretty good. No, they don't do the job as well as anything on "Hellborn" did, and don't even come close to approaching something like "A Raven At Midnight" from the debut, but they're enjoyable. Unfortunately, over the course of three records, Shankle hasn't learned the lessons to put himself and his band in the best light possible. There is a way that DSG could be a solid metal band, but "Still A Warrior" isn't a step in the right direction. It's a pedestrian record that doesn't even sound professional enough for this day and age. It might still be better than Manowar, but it's easily the least compelling of the three DSG records. After eight years, I was expecting a heck of a lot more.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Album Review: UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars

Forty years into their career, UFO has hit a renaissance of popularity, mostly by virtue of being considered one of the most underrated bands in the history of rock. Yes, most of the attention they get these days has to do with the fact that they never got attention during their heyday, when Michael Schenker was redefining what lead guitar in a rock band was supposed to sound like. Of course, those records that get pointed to nowadays aren't really what they're claimed to be, but UFO was surely an underrated band at the time. The market has over-corrected, and now they are actually overrated, if that can be believed. Despite not making a classic record since Schenker's last cup of coffee with the band nearly twenty years ago, and despite those classics being good more than great, UFO continues to pound out records with regularity.

“A Conspiracy Of Stars” finds the band once again playing old-school bluesy hard rock, with Vinnie Moore doing a bang-up job of filling the guitar slot, and Phil Mogg is still Phil Mogg. UFO might be known more for Schenker than anything else, but it's Mogg's vocals that made the band special for those brief moments when they were firing on all cylinders. All these years later, even though his range has withered, Mogg's weathered vocals are unmistakeable, and damn near perfect. His voice is one of a kind, smooth and rough in all the right places, with all the attitude needed to sell his melodies.

How much you enjoy this album will come down to what variety of rock you enjoy. If your preference is for hard rock that is just a softer variety of metal, UFO isn't going to be your band. But if you prefer your guitar playing with a heavy dose of blues, they've got you covered. Vinnie Moore is not Michael Schenker, and for as long as he's been in the band they have done the smart thing in not trying to make him anything but who he is.

As they have spent more time together, the songwriting engine has been getting more comfortable, and that results in “A Conspiracy Of Stars” being the strongest album this incarnation of the band has put out. While the last couple of records have been good, they have felt like an awkward marriage that isn't quite on the level. There were always some great songs, but also some that were obviously shoehorned from different tastes. This time, however, the band's sound is more uniform, and that allows them to hammer home ten songs that plays to their strengths.

Moore is at his bluesy best on songs like the Western-tinged “Ballad Of The Left Hand Gun”, while Mogg is busy stamping “Sugar Cane” with some delightful melodies. When they meet each other halfway, like on the heavier than usual “Devils In The Detail”, it's a welcome reminder of UFO's best years. No, the band doesn't have the same burning fire as when they were young and hungry, but they have a sense of songcraft that was lacking from those old days. The performances are more polished than before, but the material is uniformly stronger, which is what I would expect from a veteran band.

A new UFO album is always welcome, if for nothing else than the opportunity to hear Phil Mogg's voice one more time, but “A Conspiracy Of Stars” is not one of those albums being turned out by old bands simply for the sake of keeping their name in the headlines. It may not go down as one of UFO's classics, but “A Conspiracy Of Stars” is the best UFO album since “Walk On Water”, which is saying something, since I think that's the best album they ever made.