Thursday, April 30, 2015

Album Review: Forever Still - Save Me [EP]

I've mentioned this before, but I think it's worth repeating; rock music needs more female vocalists.  I don't mean bands like Nightwish or Epica, where the singers are classically trained sopranos who sound like angels splashed across a metal backdrop.  I'm talking about straight-up rock singers, the kind who have heart and passion, who make you feel with their voices.  They are few and far between in good bands, which is a shame, because many of the good ones are far more effective than the majority of bland men who get to front these groups.

Forever Still is a band I came across on Twitter, and they have one of these singers.  Maja Schønning is the centerpiece of Forever Still's appeal, sounding not unlike an unknown version of Lzzy Hale.  And yes, that is high praise.

"Save Me" is the band's newest EP, which offers up three tracks of modern hard rock that follows the template laid down by their previous self-released efforts.

We open with "Awake The Fire", which starts with a jumping guitar figure before the rest of the band propels the song with a bouncing energy.  Maja's voice takes control through the short verse, which is biding time before the chorus comes along.  Here, she opens up a bit, and the melody lands a few punches.  It's clear that she's still holding back a bit, which is smart, because it leaves us wanting to hear the rest of what she's capable of, and because this music can be killed by oversinging.  At a taught three minutes, it's a short burst of heavy energy and catchy melodies.  I would have liked another thirty seconds to flesh things out, but it's hard to complain too much about a band that edits themselves so well.

"Breathe In" kicks off with an even heavier riff, tuned down to give the song a darker feeling.  Maja again dominates the song with her vocals, as the deeper guitars give her even more room in the chorus for her voice to shine.  It's a slightly less poppy melody, but still an effective that stands toe to toe with anything I would be hearing on mainstream rock radio right now.  And to top it off, Maja unleashes a harsh vocal to introduce the bridge, which is startlingly good.  If the band decided to move in a dual vocal approach, even though it's not my favorite style, she clearly has the pipes to do it.

The title track closes things out, as the sound of falling rain plays against a clean guitar arpeggio.  The melody is perhaps the most commercial of the bunch, but with the heavy strummed chords underneath the vocals, there's a reason the formula has worked for as long as it has.  The band changes things up with a bit of an unusual drum pattern in the second verse, while Maja's vocals play with her upper register in the bridge.  As the longest song of the three, it feels a bit more fully developed than the others, and uses its extra time to build on its atmosphere.

It's tough to judge music in short doses, but an EP like this can give an insight into whether a band has the skills to make it to the next level.  Listening to "Save Me", it's amazing to realize that this is an unsigned band.  They can write damn good songs, Maja is an amazing singer, and the production bests many of the big name releases I cover.  If this is the appetizer, when they finally get around to releasing a full album, count me among their fans.  Forever Still is a band with unlimited potential.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Album Review: The Dreaming Tree - Silverfade

Alternative rock has, for most of the time my memory spans, been a wasteland of dour attitudes and terrible music.  After the grunge movement rewrote the expectations of what rock was supposed to be in the mainstream, we were treated to band after band, now generation after generation, of what was labeled "post grunge", but what was really a facsimile of something that wasn't all that exciting to begin with.  And like any carbon copy (if you remember that process, congratulations), the results could only get worse with time.

But what the solution to our problem is can't be said to be clear.  We've seen increased heaviness, the acceptance of harsh vocals, and we've seen more than one attempt to right the ship by going back in time.  None of them have really worked, because they didn't strike at the core of what makes alternative rock as we know it so boring.  The Dreaming Tree tries a different approach, by stretching out and taking it in a more progressive direction.

"Silverfade" bounces from style to style, never staying put in a single sound, which allows the record to not become one long, dingy slog, which is a problem that permeates a lot of alternative rock.  "Yesterdays Tomorrow" opens the record, unexpectedly, with a piano figure, and when the guitars do come in, they are not the thick and low slurry you would expect.  They are still fuzzy, but they sit in the mix with a sharper bite, and they flick out washes of chords to give heft to the composition, which is clearly not written solely for the guitar to dominate.

"Heart Shaped Bruises" is a more traditional alternative song, with a bouncy beat and a synth line that pops up and recalls the short-lived video game fad that popped up during Ozma's brief foray into popularity.  The song's title also recalls an obscure song from a late-era Elvis Costello album, which is always a winner in my book.

After a bout of organ-washed poppiness, things get interesting with the eight minute "Forever Not Forever".  The song digs a bit deeper, giving the guitars more heft as they chug through the verses before lifting into an ethereal chorus.  This song shows the decided influence of prog, with riffs that twist and build like something you would hear in a Dream Theater song.  What that does is twist the normal alternative playbook around, giving us something that we probably didn't see coming.  Needless to say, it's the most engaging of the songs in the album's opening half.

There's a lot to like about "Silverfade".  The diversity of the album goes a long way towards justifying its sixty-five minute running time.  That's a lot of music, but the fourteen songs here all offer up something slightly different.  "Cherry Winters" does a great job of blending 60s vocal harmonies to a jazz chord progression, while "Higgs" has the dark atmosphere and Tool-like drumming patterns to slide into a radio playlist without a problem. 

But there are things about the record that could use improvement as well.  First of all, over an hour of music is just too much.  The record could have been two songs shorter, and better for the editing.  More than that, everything is just lacking a bit of focus.  The guitar tones are too soft and fuzzy for their own good, needing a bit more clarity to the attack to really make them feel as though they are a true rock band.  The biggest issue is in the songwriting, which while solid, lacks the true hooks that the music is begging for.  There's a lot of nice melody, but it's so soft that it never digs in.  There isn't a hook here that you know as soon as you hear it is going to get stuck in your brain.

"Silverfade" is a record that tries to do a little bit of everything, and I think suffers for the effort.  If the scope had been narrowed just a bit, there's a lot of potential here for something to have been really good.  As it stands, "Silverfade" is a fine record to put on and enjoy, but I don't see it as essential listening.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Take: Star Ratings (And Why I Don't Use Them)

Not to make myself sound old, but I've been writing about music on various blogs and websites for at least a decade now.  In that time, I've tried my hand at virtually every format under the sun.  I've written long-form, short-form, detailed, big-picture, and everything in between.  I have also, as astute readers will note, not been using any sort of rating system here.  That is a carry-over from the way we did things at my previous online home, but it is also a choice that serves a specific purpose.

If I'm being honest, I too appreciate the shorthand that appears at the bottom of a review, saving me from having to spend the time reading an entire piece before realizing the author disagrees with everything I believe about music.  There is value in being able to take a quick look, see the end result, and then go back and decipher the manner in which it was arrived at.

However, that can be used as a particularly nasty strain of self-reinforcement, where a rating can enable a reader to avoid any hint of a dissenting opinion, no matter how well-reasoned it may be.  We learn from hearing other people make arguments we wouldn't have thought about, when our beliefs are challenged in ways that make us think about why we hold them, and whether they have become mere reflexes.  Without that outside push, it's easy to fall into a cycle of delusion, where our opinions slowly change like a children's game of telephone, and we never are able to see how far we've drifted from what we actually believe.

As a writer, I want my words to mean something.  Putting either a number, or some stars, at the bottom of a review negates the power of the written word, because it reduces complex thought into an simple numeral.  I can give two albums the same score on a numerical basis, when my opinion of them is radically different.  A record that should have been great but misses the mark, and one that should have been terrible but overcomes its shortcomings, will settle in the same area of the grading curve.  But they will not be the same thing, and I will not remember them in the same way.  Any ratings system has the unfortunate, and irreparable, problem of trying to simplify something that cannot be.

Our thoughts are not simple equations.  They are complex maps of battling impulses, trains of logic that run down a dizzying map of tracks.  Just like there are myriad ways of traveling from one side of the country to the other, there are different ways of arriving at the same rating for an album.  It would be a disservice to anyone reading to not explain how I actually feel about a record, and why I came to that conclusion.  That can't be done with a simple rating.

Maybe I'm just long-winded, and like the sound of my own words, but I genuinely believe that there is more to be gleaned from a well-written review than a rating can tell me.  That information is what will pique someone's interest, that information is what will make them decide they need to hear a record for themselves.  Seeing five little stars at the bottom isn't enough to do that, not when there are thousands of other choices.  It's the description, the reasoning, the writing that goes beyond simply saying "this is good" that can reach out and change someone's mind.

And yes, there is also the practical matter, that putting ratings on albums as they come along carves that opinion in stone.  That goes without mentioning that a ratings system can be as confusing as a muddled opinion.  If I rate an album with four stars out of five, I would consider than a ringing endorsement, a statement that an album is a great piece of work.  Someone else will look at that, do the math, and conclude that I have given that album the elementary school equivalent of a B.  Giving out five stars should not be taken lightly.  That score should be reserved for albums that go above and beyond, albums that strike at your very core, the ones you know will live with you for the rest of your life.

Every person writing reviews would have to explain their own version of a ratings system, which would take as much time and patience as simply reading a better review in the first place.  My version of a four star record is probably different than most other people's, so what would we be gaining if I put the stars at the bottom?  You would still be lacking clarity, because you wouldn't know what they mean.

I say all of this to explain why I am taking the path that requires more investment from the readers.  In the end, I think that all involved, you the reader, me the writer, and the artists, benefit from this arrangement.

But for the sake of illustrating the point, here are the star ratings for the albums I have covered here:

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love: ****

UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars: ****1/4

DSG - Still A Warrior: *1/2

Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful: **1/4

Halestorm - Into The Wild Life: ***

Europe - War Of Kings: ****

Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels: ****1/4

The Pinder Brothers - Melancholy Sea: ***

Exovex - Radio Silence: ***1/2

Vola - Inmazes: ***

Tribulation - The Children Of The Night: ***

And for good measure, two albums from earlier in the year:

Nightingale - Retribution: ****1/2

Jorn Lande & Trond Hotter - Dracula: Swing Of Death: ****1/2

Tell me; do those help at all?

    Thursday, April 23, 2015

    Album Review: Tribulation - The Children Of The Night

    From what I've been sensing, the occult rock wave that was sweeping over us has crested, and is starting to wane.  Ghost is gearing up for a new album, but I don't feel nearly as much anticipation in the air this time around, and many of the other bands that followed in their wake have either already disbanded, or are lingering in the background.  Like all fads, the window-dressing that was occult rock can only run its course for as long as the bands are putting out great music, and let's be honest, most of them weren't.  Sure, there were a handful of records that I heard (and even reviewed) that I thought were promising and very good.  But with a bit of time now separating me from them, the only one that I can remember at all is the first Ghost record, which might just be because it was what started this whole cavalcade.

    A new wrinkle can extend the life of the fad, and that's what is happening here.  Tribulation is taking the occult rock sensibility, and mixing it with a death metal basis, to create something that is unlike everything else I've heard with that tag attached to it.

    The album opens with the weeping sound of an organ, joined by a slight piano figure, before the song turns into something quite unusual. The guitars come in and swell with a riff that I know is death metal, but has a neo-classical, Victorian feeling.  In a way, it sounds like what the soundtrack to F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" would have been, had death metal been around in the 1920s.  The vocals are what take the music in a new territory, moving this from normal occult rock into death metal, with the cavernous, reverb-drenched growl of the late 80s.

    That first song stands out as one of the weirdest pieces of music I've heard in a long time, which I say in an affectionate way.  It doesn't sound like anything else that comes to mind, which already makes this album stand out.  "Malancholia" keeps this up, opening with a guitar harmony that is equal parts blistering rocker and the theme from The Munsters.  As if that wasn't enough, there's a ringing, echoing guitar part in the middle of the song that is nearly hypnotic.

    "In The Dreams Of The Dead" shifts the tone a bit, taking on more of a death-and-roll aesthetic, which gives the record a jolt of energy at just the right time.  The last thing an album that has a bit of a gimmick to the sound can do is let it overstay its welcome, so the bit of diversity is key to making sure the listener isn't being beaten over the head with a dead horse.  As the record progresses, it establishes itself as a thrillingly unique listening experience, with Gothic overtones, a death metal heart, and all manner of weird asides.  Simply put, this is one of those records that it's hard to drift away from, because you're never quite sure what it is you're hearing. 

    The problem the record faces is simple; it's long-winded.  At nearly an hour, and with every song clocking in at more than five minutes, there's just too much of this here.  It's such a peculiar sound that I'm not used to hearing that the record begins to overwhelm me near the halfway point.  The songs don't dip in quality, but they begin to get tiring well before the record is done.  Even though this isn't death metal the normal way, the lack of melody in the vocals makes the album feel longer than it is, because that entire element of the music is lacking, in comparison to the depth the instrumentals provide.  If you chopped out the two instrumental tracks, and tightened the remaining songs so the record came in at forty-five minutes, it would do a world of good.

    That being said, don't take that criticism as anything harsh.  "The Children Of The Night" is a record that is definitely worth being heard.  Anyone who has ever been a fan of old-school death metal, or just enjoys hearing something unusual, will find a lot to like about this record.  As someone who has been vocal about my issues with extreme metal of all forms, it takes something special to make me stand up and applaud a death metal record.  I don't foresee "The Children Of The Night" making my list of favorites at the end of the year, but I have to commend Tribulation for doing something unique with death metal, and making a record that intrigues me a good deal.  I can honestly say I did not see this record coming at all, and I think that surprise factor is part of the charm. 

    Even if it's just for the curiosity factor, check out a song or two.  You won't regret it.

    Monday, April 20, 2015

    Album Review: Vola - Inmazes

    Modern metal has evolved in a way I hadn't seen coming, with robotic rhythms being played at almost inaudible tunings becoming the standard.  We can assign blame wherever we want, but regardless of the cause, modern metal has become almost detached from the traditional means and methods of songwriting.  Everything now relies on a tolerance of tunings that exist outside the comfort zone of both our ears and the instruments technology, enough mathematical sense to comprehend what a 6/4 riff being played over a 5/8 drum pattern means, and the constitution to listen to music devoid of strong melodies.

    That is especially true in progressive metal, where the abilities of the playeers to do amazing things with their instruments has reached its nadir, with few bands offering much to the casual listener.  Vola is undoubtedly a progressive metal band in the modern sense, but they are not beholden to the curses of time.

    It doesn't take long into "The Same War" to hear all the hallmarks of metal in the post-Meshuggah world.  The guitars are ridiculously low-tuned, the riffs bounce like pogo-sticks all around a traditional 4/4 beat, with plenty of that slurred tone that I never feel makes a lot of sense in a song.  But what makes it all the more interesting is that when the chorus hits, there's a real melody and well-executed clean vocals, which give the song a commercial pull to balance the heavier aspects.  It is precisely what most of this kind of music is missing, and exactly what I was hoping for.

    "Stray The Skies" takes things in an even more interesting direction, adding plenty of cold 80s synths to the mix, turning the song into a bizarre amalgamation of Devin Townsend and Soft Cell.  The weirdest part about it is that while it would seem to be too much being thrown into the same pot, it really does work.  The verses are there to pound you with the thundering riffing, and the chorus sweeps it away in a sugary rush.  That is the essence of how to write crushing metal.

    As the album continues, there are subtle shifts to the sound, where a song like "Owls" uses a blistering riff to set the stage for a softer, more somber number.  Despite this, the drawback to a record like this is that it begins to wear as it moves along.  Individually, there's nothing wrong with any of the tracks here, but the style stays so consistent that there aren't enough dynamics to make the entire record feel vibrant.  Every riff is in the same register, with the same tone, so they blend together by the time you reach the midpoint of the album.  The vocals, likewise, trade in the same type of melody in every chorus, which makes them a bit interchangeable.

    That being said, "Inmazes" is a really good record for this style.  Modern metal of this ilk has a tendency to be completely faceless and alienating, but that is not what I would say about Vola.  Their music has enough ties to a more melodic brand of metal that there are elements of this record that will appeal to the lovers of modern heaviness, but also those of us who wonder where metal went wrong along the way.  No, this isn't my kind of metal, but I can't deny that Vola has made a good record here.

    Saturday, April 18, 2015

    Singles Round Up: Slayer, Anthrax, and More

    Slayer - When The Stillness Comes

    Slayer gave fans their first taste of the post-Hanneman era last year when they released "Implode", which was a solid late-era Slayer song.  Now they're back with another new track, as they begin to ramp up towards the release of a new album.  "When The Stillness Comes" confuses me on two levels.  First, there's my opinion of the song.  Listening to this track, there's very little to it.  Kerry King provides the same basic clean intro that Slayer has done many times, but dragged on even longer than usual.  Tom speaks the verses, with a decided lack of guitar, and even when the chorus kicks in, the riffing is so generic and boring that it isn't the least bit exciting.  The song is, above all else, boring.  Which brings me to the second point; how did Slayer and Nuclear Blast think this was the track to open the promotional storm that will surround the album?  Slayer needs to prove they have any reason to exist anymore, and they put out what is essentially a ballad.  Huh?  Slayer needed to come out swinging with a heavy track that shows they can still do what they do best, and now we're going to be filled with more and more doubt until the record drops.  I, for one, am not holding out hope.

    Anthrax - Soror Irrumator

    Of the Big Four, Anthrax is surprisingly the one on the most solid footing right now, creatively.  "Worship Music" was their best record in a long time, and this song picks up right where that one left off.  The riffs are the same patterns of chugging notes that really aren't all that exciting, but Joey Belladonna has found the fountain of youth, because he sounds fantastic here.  His vocals, and that chorus, are what make this song.  It was easy to write off his return to the band as being nostalgia, but Anthrax has definitely proven that they have some creative fire left unstoked.  This song has me quite excited for the new album.

    Armored Saint - Win Hands Down

    Speaking of Anthrax, their former singer John Bush and his original band Armored Saint are back for their first album in five years, after the mildly disappointing "La Raza".  Like that album, this first track is a mixture of traditional metal and a whole lot of 90s alternative rock, the very sound that made people turn against Anthrax while Bush was the singer.  Bush's vocals are still strong, and the solos are interesting, but the core of the song itself just isn't that great.  Bush has never been a great melody writer, and this is another one that is quite basic, and needed more help from the guitars.  I imagine the album will follow suit, and not make much of an impact with me.

    Helloween - Battle's Won

    Despite the band being down on it, my favorite Helloween album has always been "The Dark Ride".  Helloween has tried to modernize their sound with every album since Andi Deris joined them, but that was the only time is actually felt like something other than cookie-cutter Helloween.  This track follows the same formula as the last few records, and doesn't offer anything in the way of a surprise.  If anything, the similarity breeds contempt, because this is nowhere near as good as some of the tracks off the previous records.  The chorus here doesn't feel uplifting and inspiring, the way it's supposed to, but rather tacked on from a more upbeat song from the band's past.  It's disjointed, and the trite lyrics are poorly written, and drag a mediocre song even further down.  I'm skipping this album.

    Leprous - The Price

    Despite Leprous' reputation as being one of the best new prog bands of the last few years, I have yet to get into anything they've done.  Their last album, in particular, left me feeling cold and bored.  They struck me as falling into that category of bands that are obviously talented, but can't write great songs.  With this first taste of their new album, I might have to change my tune a bit.  The basic template is the same here, but the song is much stronger than anything I've heard from them before.  There are some truly odd time signatures on display, which are interesting, but the reason this song is better is due to the fact that they have finally written a vocal melody for the chorus that has some meat to it.  If the rest of the album sounds like this, it has real possibilities.

    Thursday, April 16, 2015

    Album Review: Exovex - Radio Silence

    By and large, when you're dealing with bands that fall under the category of progressive rock, there are two camps; the bands that are influenced by Yes/Genesis, and the bands that are influenced by Pink Floyd. In fact, the majority of the music that falls under the category of neoprog is derived from the works of Pink Floyd, to the point where it's become maddeningly dull for people who were never the biggest fans of that spacey sound to begin with. I lump myself into that category, so when a new progressive rock band comes along that bears the hallmarks of Pink Floyd, but who manages to make something effectively different, it's worth taking note of.

    The core of Exovex's sound is Pink Floyd, but they branch off in more modern directions, so they are not falling into that common trap of mimicking the past too closely. The guitar tones as the solos soar are reminiscent of David Gilmour, but they fill songs that are more lively and energetic than any of the other bands that have tried to fill that niche.

    “Stolen Wings” slowly opens the cover on the story, with swelling sounds, and gorgeously recorded acoustic guitars. As a big fan of the natural sound of acoustic guitars, it's a pet peeve of mine when they sound unnatural, but the recording here is pristine. In fact, the entire production is stunningly beautiful, with lush, clear sounds and a balance that strikes the right mix of loudness and dynamics. Being able to accurately hear the vocal inflections that are put into the performance is a necessity, and as the song unfolds, it's easy to hear that despite being progressive rock, there is great care being paid to the songs themselves. There are plenty of searing solos to go around, but the emphasis is never taken away from the vocals, which carry beautiful melodies to balance the compositions in an accessible manner.

    “Metamorph” is a smoky, slow-burning track that relies on beautifully tracked harmonies, before the meter changes through the instrumental second half. The progressive touches are subtle, and well-integrated, never beating you over the head with their indulgences. That's the way progressive music should be; challenging, but still song-oriented enough to be appreciated on a surface level. That's what Exovex gets so right about “Radio Silence”. If you dig deep into the layers of sound, there is plenty of details to be heard, but you can also listen to it on the glossy surface and come away with a highly melodic bit of modern prog.

    “Seeker's Prayer” is the record's centerpiece, nine minutes that encapsulate everything Exovex is about. There are tender harmonies, layers of instrumentation, and the heaviest riff on the album, which almost brings them into metal territory. What's best about it is that while there are so many different pieces to the song, they get put together in a way that makes sense, and they're all memorable in their own way. Nothing is put into the mix just for the sake of it. And the last two minutes, with harmonies and solos sitting atop the acoustic guitars might just be the best section of the whole record.

    The only complaint I have about the record is the same one that befalls much of prog; the instrumental sections can sometimes drag on too long for my tastes. When the entire second half of songs are filled with guitar playing (and this is good guitar playing, let me say), it's easy to have my mind drift off. I like knowing there's something that will return to anchor the song. That being said, “Radio Silence” is the freshest take on the modern prog sound I've heard in a while. It is recognizable in its influences, but original enough to not be derivative. Exovex is the right answer to the accusations that modern prog is all about musicians indulging their propensity of showing off.

    Tuesday, April 14, 2015

    Album Review: The Pinder Brothers - Melancholy Sea

    It saddens me, both as a listener and critic, that the kind of music I grew up listening to is almost an endangered species in the mainstream. Yes, the internet has made it possible for that sort of music to find a small niche, and for me to be able to get my fix once or twice a year through a new release, but by and large there is no longer a place for well-written pop music that relies and guitars and harmonies. Perhaps it's old-fashioned to think that music played by musicians on musical instruments should be normal, but it isn't, and pop music has followed the cheapening of the craft into a black hole of inanity.

    But every so often, a record comes along that remembers what pop music used to be, and can life your spirits. The Pinder Brothers are biologically destined to write smooth, beautiful pop music, being the scions of one of the members of The Moody Blues. That legacy, not necessarily in sound but in craft, wafts over this record.

    “Same Mistake” opens the record with some subtle strings, and a melody that feels familiar right from the start. The rolling piano line similarly brings to mind something I can't quite place, but more importantly it makes the song feel like home, if you allow me to be a bit clichéd. There are some beautiful harmonies scattered in the background, and by the end of the first four minutes of the record, you have a pretty good idea that “Melancholy Sea” is going to be a warm and inviting record.

    “Pale December” switches the mood, building atop a finger-picked acoustic guitar melody, leading up to a chorus that is understated, but uses the movements of the notes effectively to build a melody that captures your attention. The bridge sees electric guitars come in, and while the extra power is a nice way of establishing the building power of the song, they aren't necessary to the composition. It's a simple song that works exactly because it's a simple song.

    “Talk To You” has a very early millennium, Fountains Of Wayne” vibe, riding a crest of smooth melodies and glistening guitars. “Trust Being You” goes for a chunky, blues feeling, complete with a grittier guitar tone and what sounds like slide playing in the solo. It's refreshing to hear a group trying their hand at songs that don't all follow the same boiler-plate pattern, while still retaining a core sound that ties them together. The last thing you usually want to hear is an album where all the songs could easily be interchanged. That is not the case here, as there is some real diversity among these tracks.

    By the time you get to the end of “Melancholy Sea”, there's not a lot to complain about. The hooks could be a little bit sharper, and the whole album does lack a little bit in the energy department, but those aren't cardinal sins. Being laid-back works for these songs, although they do toe the line a bit more than I might want them to. Still, the important thing to make note of is that it's hard not to find this an endearing little record.

    “Melancholy Sea” isn't a great album, but it's a charming collection of honest songs that are written with a more deft hand than most of the pop fluff you're going to find in the mainstream. Even if you only put it and smile while listening, and it doesn't carve its name in your memory, that's still a pretty good achievement. If you miss the old days of pop, it's worth checking out.

    Sunday, April 12, 2015

    Album Review: Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels

    There are a select group of musicians in rock and metal bands who don't see themselves merely as songwriters, but instead envision themselves as composers on a grander stage, the kind of musicians who write epic strokes of genius, not just little songs. These are the albums that are slathered with massive choirs and armies of classical instruments, turning rock into an electric symphony. What they seldom realize is that they are not true composers, and their insistence on going beyond the normal scope of their genre is a self-inflicted wound, because they are marketing their grand visions to an audience that still wants plenty of conventional thinking. The best of these rock composers understands this, and manages to walk the fine line between rock and classical so that both sides feel happy with the result. It's difficult to pull off, but Karnataka has tried to do it with their massive new album, "Secrets Of Angels".

    The album opens with the dramatic strings of "Road To Cairo", where the non-metal instrumentation is used to startling effect. Those notes bend the melody in a way guitars can't, and invoke a feeling rock bands can't otherwise get. The guitars bring some Egyptian feel into the riffs, but it's the strings that carry the weight of the instrumentation, slashing across the rock motifs in a way that shows they are more than mere window-dressing tacked on to a rock song, they are integral parts of the composition. As interesting as that is, what makes the song are the lush, warm melodies sung by Hayley Griffiths, who turns the song into a melodic monster. Just when you think a solid chorus has come and gone, the song builds even further into the true chorus. It's a melodic masterclass in songwriting, and a phenomenal opening statement.

    "Because Of You" follows that formula, stabbing the composition with bursts of menacing strings, which heighten the tension with the smooth melodies that power the chorus. Two songs in, and the album feels like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night, with melodies that wrap around you and make you forget about everything else going on. Listening to the soft, cooing, multi-tracked harmonies in "Poison Ivy" is a thing of beauty. It's difficult to wrap dramatic rock and stirring orchestrations around such lively melodies, but Karnataka shows a deft skill in being able to balance all facets of their music.

    "Forbidden Dreams" feels a bit like a play for a single, with a more driving beat, but that doesn't mean it's any less impressive. When the hook hits, it hits hard. It doesn't take long for the song to work its way into your head. And when the bridge slows things up, there's a hint of Broadway that comes through that I find endearing, because it plays right into the dramatic swell of the music.

    Karnataka does a great job of maintaining the diversity of the album, without stepping away from their core sound. There are the songs that are more metallic, and moments even within them that are pure 80s pop, like the chorus in "Borderline". These little shifts in the tone are essential to making sure the record doesn't get bogged down in an hour's worth of identical music. Every song here has something different to offer, and that makes it a well-rounded listen. And even if it wasn't, the chorus of "Fairytale Lies" is so sticky and stunning that it makes any flaws inconsequential.

    The centerpiece of the album is the twenty minute title track, an epic slice of progressive metal that manages to utilize its running time to put all of the band's influences into a single song. As you'll find in almost any song of this length, there are lengthy instrumental passages, but rather than feel indulgent, they are used to break the song up into smaller sections, with each one retaining the band's core commitment to making irresistibly melodic music. Sure, it could easily be a few minutes shorter, but the song is always engaging enough to not overstay its welcome.

    Of course, there is an inevitable comparison I don't want to make, but with the proximity of the releases, it's hard not to think about "Secrets Of Angels" in the same breath as Nightwish's latest opus. Both are highly dramatic, orchestrated pieces of metal that feature female singers and end with twenty minute epics. That, however, is where the comparisons end. The only reason I'm letting myself indulge this line of thought is because Karnataka absolutely blows Nightwish out of the water. They won't get nearly the attention or acclaim as the bullies on the block, but in every respect Karnataka has made the better record. It's warmer, more detailed, and the songwriting is flat-out better all around. Judging just by these records, Karnataka is the band that should be headlining festivals.

    It should go without saying, at this point, that my opinion of "Secrets Of Angels" is reverent. It takes something special to get me to love this kind of music, because I've never been a big fan of massive orchestrations being applied to my metal, nor female singers with a heavy dose of classical training. What Karnataka has done here is flip my own conceptions upside-down, because this is an album I shouldn't love nearly as much as I do. "Secrets Of Angels" is not just a great album, it's as perfect an example of dramatic, orchestrated metal as I can ever imagine. I was floored by this record.

    Thursday, April 9, 2015

    Album Review: Europe - War Of Kings

    Like most people, when I hear the name Europe, I think of “The Final Countdown”. It's a song that has become so ubiquitous that it's hard for any band to escape that kind of legacy. Some will try, most will fail, and the public consciousness will never be altered. “The Final Countdown” would not be a bad legacy; having a hit rarely is. The problem comes that if you are a certain age, which I am, the sitcom “Arrested Development” has ruined that song forever. It became such an integral part to the running joke that hearing the song now brings back more memories of the show and the comedy than anything Europe ever did.

    Europe has always soldiered on, however, and they return this time with “War Of Kings”, an album that will completely overturn everything you think you know about the band. The days of being a cheesy, synth-driven, unbelievably dated 80s band are long since gone. “War Of Kings”, if you didn't see the name on the cover, would easily be confused for a Deep Purple album. I say that with the highest of compliments.

    Europe has abandoned any pretense of their past here, digging deeper into the bands that inspired them to play in the first place. There is more than a heavy dose of Deep Purple in these songs, both in the way the riffs recall Ritchie Blackmore's signature style, and in the lush sound of the Hammond organ that dominates these songs. If you're going to have keyboards in hard rock, this is how you do it. The Hammond is such a powerful instrument that it instantly makes these songs sound both heavier and more timeless than they could on their own.

    Speaking of the songs, Europe delivers in spades. The title track kicks things off with a slinky riff, a wash of organs, and Joey Tempest's gravelly vocals delivering a hard rock chorus straight out of the late 70s. You just don't hear this kind of music being made anymore, and when bands try it, they can't pull it off. Europe can, and that is what makes this album something special.

    There are a handful of songs here that are extraordinary, including the title track, “Rainbow Bridge”, and “California 405”, which does a striking job of mirroring the feeling of a summer-time drive down the coastline with the top down. They are songs that could get laughed off for being too simple, until you realize an hour later that it's been buried in your head and playing on repeat the whole time. True power lays in simplicity, and Europe doesn't throw more into the mix than necessary.

    Sure, there are a few songs here that don't work quite as well, but even they still bristle with the power of classic rock. The band says that they have finally made the Europe album they have always wanted to, and if that is indeed true, I want to know what took them so long?

    Europe has had a nice career, that's for sure, but they've never made an album that sounds like this. It was hard in the 80s to escape the reverb-drenched tones that guaranteed hits, but in the years since there must have been opportunities to reinvent themselves like this. All I know is that if Europe had been making records like this all along, people wouldn't still be flocking to see Deep Purple play the same hits for the umpteenth time (no disrespect intended), and people certainly wouldn't treat Europe with a bit of comedic derision.

    An album like “War Of Kings” is classic rock through and through, and it's a damn good one. Forget about whatever bands are on the radio now and listen to Europe. Seriously. This is the future of hard rock.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2015

    Album Review: Halestorm - Into The Wild Life

    Here's the beauty of the digital age: back in 2012, I saw an article that made mention of a band I had never heard of that included a player with a stream of their new album. I was bored that day, and didn't have anything else I was planning to listen to, so I sat down and spent the next 45 minutes being shocked by what I was hearing. With no warning, I was listening to exactly what it is I say I always want; a band that found the perfect marriage of sleek pop hooks and gritty rock attitude.

    As you can guess by the title of this review, that band was Halestorm, and that record was "The Strange Case Of..." which was not only a record that blew me away as I listened to it that first time, but it is one that has continued to grow on me, to the point where it shared my award for Album Of The Year then, and has not faded in the slightest since.  It is a collection of songs that has help up over the course of two and a half years as being nearly flawless.  Needless to say, that raises the stakes for this new effort.

    I knew from everything the band has been saying in interviews, and from the singles released before the record, that this was going to be a very different album.  And it certainly is.  What Halestorm has done this time around is strip down their sound, sanding away the polished gleam that made "The Strange Case Of..." a pop record, going all-in on being a raucous live rock and roll band.

    That approach makes comparing this record to the previous ones pointless.  This is a very different beast, so it should be judged on its own terms.  As an out-and-out rock record, I have to say that I'm underwhelmed by what I'm hearing.  There are moments that are just as good as anything from the first two records, but they aren't as common as I would like them to be.  The decision to record as a live unit, and leave the sound more raw, is one that I think does the band a disservice.  With fewer layers of guitars, the booming power the songs need isn't quite there.

    Moreover, the problem lies in the songwriting.  Lzzy has tempered down the pop hooks, but that only shows how valuable they were to begin with.  Yes, songs like "Apocalyptic" and "Sick Individual" get caught in your head, but it takes many more listens before that happens, and even when it does, the hooks aren't quite as sharply embedded.  The songs that are most focused on rocking, namely "Mayhem" and "I Like It Heavy", are so aggressive there is little melody at all, which makes them sound like loud excuses to get drunk, not actual songs.

    The softer numbers are actually where the band excels.  "Dear Daughter" shows that a piano might be Lzzy's most effective instrument, while "What Sober Couldn't Say" might be the best pure song they've ever written.  When Halestorm focuses on writing a captivating hook, they are an amazing band.  But when they decide they want to rock, and the pull back on their pop tendencies, we're reminded that their instrumental side is seldom very interesting.  They don't write the kinds of riffs that demand your attention, so Lzzy's melodies need to carry the day.  There just aren't enough great ones here.

    I had high hopes for "Into The Wild Life", and I think that's a big factor to my disappointment.  It's not that this is a bad record, because it isn't.  It is good, but coming off what was one of the best records of the last five years, this one can't hold its own.  I was expecting Halestorm to make a solid showing for Album Of The Year again, and even though it's April, "Into The Wild Life" is a back end of the Top Ten type of record.  It's still worth listening to, but it won't change your life the way "The Strange Case Of..." could have.

    Album Review: Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful

    I imagine it must be endlessly frustrating to be the mastermind of a band, only to have the public treat you as a sideshow to the main attraction; the lead singer. Nightwish has gone through the roller-coaster that comes with revolving front-women, and while I'm not going to ascribe motives to the changes, I can't help but think it has taken a toll on the music that band has offered up. Their last two albums, with Anette Olzon at the helm, were treated as signs of a decaying band by large portions of the fan-base. That was largely attributed to Olzon being a reactionary and intentionally odd pick to lead the band, much as Blaze Bayley once was with Iron Maiden. Of course, her solo album after leaving the band proved she was more than capable as a singer.

    That puts the onus squarely on Tuomas Holopainen, the erstwhile mastermind of Nightwish. It was his songwriting, and inability to put Olzen in the best light, that doomed the previous two albums, and it is his songwriting alone that can redeem “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”. Floor Jansen steps in to front the band, and while she is a remarkable singer, she follows two who the same could be said of.

    After indulging himself in his passion project writing a score for a graphic novel featuring Scrooge McDuck, Tuomas has more than a little to prove as a songwriter. He gets off to a slow start, opening the album with a three song stretch that offers little to claim the band is back with a vengeance. The spoken word trope as the beginning is an unnecessary delay, and then the songs themselves lack the flair and power one would expect. The hooks on the first two tracks are flat, and the orchestrations never feel integral to the songs. The metal riffs are, as usual, incredibly simple canvases for Tuomas to paint upon, but his color palate is dulled this time around.

    “Elan” is the best of these tracks, the first single that received a less than enthusiastic response. To my ears, the song is a beautiful piece of melancholic metal that uses the woodwinds to great effect, and gives Floor a solid melody to shine with. Compared to a turgid mess like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, it sounds utterly genius.

    The faults with “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” are certainly not Floor's, as she provides a vocal performance that straddles to previous singers, and should make everyone happy. I might consider her a bit too polished to ring any emotional heft from the songs, but you can't fault her technique. Rather, the reason this album feels inconsequential is in the songwriting, which seldom has any spark of life to it. These tracks come and go with such a formulaic bent that they never feel special in the way that the best Nightwish material always has. Nothing sounds larger than life, nothing feels like it could have only come from this band.

    While “Dark Passion Play” and “Imaginarium” may have been disappointing albums, they were records that dared to try new things. They took some risks, and even when they didn't quite hit the mark, they were interesting experiments to listen to. “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” doesn't dare to try anything Nightwish hasn't done before, so the dull songwriting can't be tempered by the risk being taken. These are inferior versions of the songs Nightwish has always written, which might make this the most disappointing Nightwish album of them all.

    I'm sure long-time fans will be happy that Nightwish is back to making the kind of music they made their name on, but it's hard not to look at this album as a regression. The comparisons to Nightwish's classic albums are now inevitable, and I'm afraid they will only make “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” look even smaller.

    Wednesday, April 1, 2015

    Desert Island Discs

    The classic thought experiment; trapped on an island with nothing but a box of records to keep you company, which ones would you choose?  It's a simple question, but one that requires complex thinking.  The choice is more involved than merely picking your ten favorite albums.  You need to examine all your tastes and moods, and try to bring a package of music that can best serve all of them.  Sometimes this requires the sacrifice of a dearly loved album that is too similar to another you've already chosen, and sometimes it means denying yourself of an element of music you love because you can't bear to part with any other albums to make room.

    In deciding on my desert island list, I tried as best I could to make it as inclusive of all the music I love.  The goal was to give myself the widest range of sounds and emotions, while taking as many of my absolute favorite albums as was possible.  If I didn't love everything I picked, this would have been a miserable failure.

    I hope to never be stranded on a desert island, but if I am, these are the ten albums I want to have with me.

    Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell
    Nothing else sounds like the music of Jim Steinman.  His music is not for everyone, but if it speaks to you, there is nothing else like it.  His mix of Wagnerian drama and soaring theatrical bombast is one-of-a-kind, and something I couldn't imagine being without.  “Bat Out Of Hell II” was the first album I ever owned, and remains a mainstay of my collection.  Every time I listen to it, I get lost in the grandeur of the music, and am transported back to my youth.  It's one of the few albums that can move me in such a way, and aside from simply being great music, it's a trait that would be most useful on a desert island.

    Tonic – Lemon Parade
    “Lemon Parade” is my favorite album of all time, and would appear to be an easy pick to include.  It wasn't, however, as it's follow-up “Sugar” may be the more appropriate album for this dilemma.  “Sugar” is the more balanced, diverse effort, the one that would pay dividends after long stretches of repeated listening.  Ultimately, I chose “Lemon Parade” because of what “Sugar” isn't; gritty and real.  “Lemon Parade” isn't a polished jewel of pop music, it's a raw rock and roll record.  That honesty makes all the difference.

    Dilana – Beautiful Monster
    How could I not include an album by my favorite singer on the planet?  I couldn't, in good conscience, and “Beautiful Monster” made any doubts I had disappear.  Dilana's voice is a thing of wonder, and it was impossible for me to imagine never hearing it again.  While I loved “InsideOut”, that record was spotty enough to make me nervous about including it, but “Beautiful Monster” has no holes.  It is, simply put, one of the most beautiful collection of viscerally emotional songs I've ever heard, sung by a voice that makes me weak.

    Black Sabbath – Heaven & Hell
    My love of the heavier side of music must be addressed, and there is no better way to do it than with “Heaven & Hell”.  The seminal Black Sabbath album is everything a metal record should be; at times heavy, majestic, driving, soaring, and a testament to songwriting.  I commonly refer to it as the blueprint upon which metal should be drawn, which makes it a perfect choice for inclusion.  That it also happens to feature the immortal Ronnie James Dio, perhaps the greatest voice to ever grace a metal record, is icing on the cake.

    Elvis Costello – King Of America
    Picking an album from Elvis Costello's vast catalog is not an easy task.  His diversity is remarkable, and his best songs run the gamut of styles.  What “King Of America” did better than any other album he has made is capture a mood.  The somber, dusty sound that comes through these songs is a special blend.  Though sparse in arrangement, there is a wealth of beauty to be found in these compositions.  I have learned so much from this album about songwriting, and it remains my favorite choice as the soundtrack to a dark mood.

    Dan Swanö – Moontower
    For those moments when you feel defeated, and need an outlet for your frustration, we tend to turn the dial towards the more extreme.  What that means for each of us is different, and for me it means turning to “Moontower”.  There are times when you want to be run over by music, and nothing can do that better than death metal.  But while most of that music would be unbearable after long, “Moontower” is a unique beast.  Every time I listen to it, I find something else to love about it.  It's ugly enough for the times it's needed, but is still beautiful enough to never been unwelcome.

    Elton John – The Captain & The Kid
    For the sake of diversity, I need to include something that isn't guitar-centric.  I love the sound of a thundering piano as well, and “The Captain & The Kid” is my go-to piano album.  Elton John's string of hits is rightly revered, but never before did he have such a sense of relaxed freedom about his music.  His writing isn't concerned with pleasing anyone but himself, and telling the story of his career was a masterstroke of inspiration.  You can hear in every song how much they mean to him, and that makes it a joy to listen.

    Wallflowers – Rebel, Sweetheart
    Every time you ask me, I will tell you “(Breach)” is the Wallflowers' greatest work.  I was floored by it the first time I heard it, and remain convinced of its genius.  But for the purposes of this exercise, it is not the right choice.  “(Breach)” is many things, but fun is never one of them.  Those brooding songs are beautiful in their own way, but would become weary if they were all you knew.  “Rebel, Sweetheart” is a close second in quality, but provides a vastly different outlook.  It is sunny where “(Breach)” is gray, wrapping the band's best qualities in a record that is a slow sugar-fix.  Sometimes you want to sit back and smile, which “Rebel, Sweetheart” will allow you to do.

    Matchbox Twenty – Mad Season
    I often recount the pearl of wisdom, “there's nothing better than a three minute pop song.”  I believe it to be true, and this album is my finest evidence.  I grew up on pop music, and maintain a soft spot in my heart for when it manages to meet my expectations.  “Mad Season” is a brilliant album that encompasses the various forms and sounds of the pop music I grew up with.  It's a perfect distillation of all the best days of the radio had to offer a wide-eyed kid such as myself.  I couldn't make a list that avoided pop music altogether, and “Mad Season” is the easiest gem to fit in the setting.

    Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope
    Progressive music seems like a natural fit for this scenario, with its layers upon layers of weaving sounds and meandering structures a perfect way of breaking up the routine of four minute musical bites.  “Kaleidoscope” is more than my favorite progressive album, it's the natural choice for this list.  The dueling epics are filled with the requisite musicianship to amaze me for as long as I listen, but it's the diversity that wins out.  They music is epic in every sense of the word, but throws in a touching ballad, and one of the most riotously catchy songs I've ever heard.  It has a little bit of just about everything imaginable.

    With these ten albums, I believe I have touched upon every base I would want covered.  They could never provide me with all the music I could ever want to hear, but they do the best job any small collection could.  If they were all I could listen to for the rest of my life, I can't say I'd be entirely disappointed.