Sunday, May 31, 2015

Album Review: The Darkness - Last Of Our Kind

The Darkness have always been a joke. Can we get the out of the way? They've never been as obvious as Steel Panther, but everything The Darkness has done in their career has been a ludicrous send-up of the rock and roll excesses of the 70s. From their image, to their lyrics, and especially Justin Hawkins' screaming falsetto, their career has been one long-running joke about how ridiculous rock is. They started out as a good joke. "Permission To Land" was straight-faced, and one heck of an album. It stands up as a pure testament to the power of good ol' rock music. But everything after that, when they had to live up to the success their joke brought them, has been an unmitigated disaster. From the breakups and lineup changes, to the progressively worse records, The Darkness is a shadow of their former selves.

Proclaiming this to be their version of Rainbow's "Rising", this is the last time I'm going to give The Darkness a fair shot.

The one place the band has always excelled is in the guitar department, and this time is no different. The Hawkins brothers have a knack for coming up with simple and catchy riffs, and the one that opens the first track, "Barbarian", is another great one. Unfortunately, every bad tendency the band has utterly ruins the track. There is meaningless narration both in the beginning, and again before the solo. Add to that a chorus that consists solely of shouting the title, then screeching like a bad King Diamond impression, and the song itself can't be considered anything but an utter failure. It is neither rocking, nor funny, and certainly isn't good.

It's not a coincidence that when the band plays it straight on the title track, it's the first time in ages that they've come close to living up to their potential. The band's trademarks are there, and Hawkins lets loose a few unnecessary shrieks, but the song is strong enough to allow for those kinds of detours. The falsettos are an accent, not the entire identity of the song, which is the only way that the band is ever going to sound good.

When "Roaring Waters" opens with a truly dirty, nasty little guitar riff, I want to bob my head and love the song. And then it gets to the chorus, which is practically non-existent, and I can't help but wonder where the song is. That's the case throughout most of the record, where really good moments and ideas are squandered by horrible decisions, and generally lazy songwriting. There are elements here that could have been turned into a good record, but The Darkness relies so much on their schtick that they don't put in the work to come up with those songs.

All jokes run their course after a while, and The Darkness have long since done so. The only thing I can say about them is that if the joke isn't funny, it needs to stop being told. If they were to buckle down and try being a serious rock band, I think they can put out a good record again. But as long as they're more interested in making videos with animated Vikings, and seeing how much they can get away with, they're always going to be derided, and rightly so.

"Last Of Our Kind" isn't a good record, and in all honesty, it wouldn't sadden me if the title turned out to be prophetic.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Album Review: Trixter - Human Era

As nostalgia has taken full hold of our collective conscience, and seemingly every bit of pop culture from the past has been resurrected, there comes a point where it's all too much.  Certain things cry out to be brought back to life, because they were seminal, while others leave you scratching your head, wondering why they were chosen to receive a second life.  No offense to Trixter, but I had that reaction upon seeing that they are back, two decades after their biggest fame.  I have nothing against the band (I really don't remember them from back then), but I fail to see why there was a pressing need for them to return.  Still, I'm not one to hold a grudge over reasons that aren't important, so let's move on to the record.

Just listening to the opening number, it surprises me that Trixter was a band that put out records in the 90s, because their sound is straight off the Sunset Strip circa 1988.  That said, "Rockin' To The Edge Of The Night" is a tasty little number, with a riff that moves the way George Lynch's old material did, and a pretty good attempt at an anthemic chorus.  It's a total throwback to the olden days, but when they're done this well, that's not a problem.

"Crash That Party" doesn't do what the title suggests, as I can't think of a party where it would be a bit hit.  The riffs are more aggressive, but the tempo feels a bit forced, and the chorus is weak for a party anthem.  Perhaps the song's title is a reference to it knowing it wasn't good enough to be invited on its own merits.  "Not Like All The Rest" still doesn't have a big enough hook, but it carries a tone more in line with a Fountains Of Wayne song, which makes it infinitely more appealing. 

As the record moves along, we get these same point reinforced over and over again.  Trixter is trying to make a highly energetic record, but they've missed out on one of the key components to making a record that bounces along with an infectious attitude; hooks.  They don't need to be sugary pop, but the best hair metal and hard rock from their time-frame still had elements that were deeply memorable.  These songs are lacking that element.  The guitars don't play that one riff that sticks out in your mind, and the percussion never hits upon a drum beat that can drive a song, which puts everything in the hands of the vocals.  There are a few songs here, like "Every Second Counts" and "Beats Me Up", where Trixter delivers, but the majority of these songs are in need of a big melody to finish them off.

The record isn't helped by putting possibly the three weakest songs right at the beginning, which tempts you to tune out before the better material hits.  The middle of the record is good, but the difference between records now and records during Trixter's heyday is that there's no room for mediocrity anymore.  There are so many more records to listen to on a daily basis that, to massacre a cliche, filler is killer.  Unfortunately for Trixter, "Human Era" has too much filler placed in the wrong place for this to be considered a great record.  Once you get past the first fifteen minutes, the rest of the album is good stuff.  I'm just not sure I can get past it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Album Review: Paradise Lost - The Plague Within

Music is a business, we often forget, and one of the keys to success is timing. That can come in the way of luck, or it can be a strategy. In either case, an album and a band don't thrive solely on their own. They have to hit at the right time, or else they will fall through the cracks like so many others. We all know the scores of great records that never made an impact, and for a lot of them, the issue was that they just came out when the public wasn't ready for them.

Timing is fickle, and I feel that way about Paradise Lost as I sit down to listen to their new album. They represent both sides of the coin to me. On the one hand, the timing couldn't be any better, because they are coming off the heels of Nick Holmes' appearance on last year's Bloodbath album, which was one of the biggest events in death metal. Releasing a new Paradise Lost album now seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, Spring is here, and Summer is fast approaching, so the weather and our collective mood isn't exactly in the right place for the band's brand of Gothic, depressive music. I have nothing against Paradise Lost, but there's is not the music I want to be listening to as I feel the sunshine hitting me through the open windows.

Still, I venture forth into the album. "No Hope In Sight" opens things with a suitably gloomy riff, and when the verses kick in, with the slow chugging guitars, there is a palpable sense of misery carrying through the music. Holmes eschews his growl at first for a more pained approach, which makes it sound all the more vicious when it does appear.  There are some beautiful guitar leads and harmonies throughout, and the song manages to be dour without succumbing to all-out misery.

There's a definite shift in tone, with more death metal influences than the band's recent work, one that I think works in their favor. That aggression works well with the mood they're trying to set, giving the songs enough edge and energy to avoid becoming a long slog through droning boredom. A song like "Terminal" is low key for death metal, but it props itself up just enough until the chorus section hits, and that's when it really hits hard.

"An Eternity Of Lies" is more of a continuation of the band's recent work, with heavy Gothic overtones, a piano used to great effect, and some truly depressive melodies. I say that in a good way. It's one of those songs that when you hear it the first time, you know it has the potential to far outlive the album it appears on. Every record has a couple of songs like that, ones that are going to find their way on to compilations. That is what this song is.

The middle of the album gets a bit flabby, with a couple songs carrying on for six minutes that don't need quite that much time, but even those have quality moments in them. A band that's been around this long rarely writes songs that aren't at least well put together. I actually like the use of black metal riffs in the very much not black metal "Victim Of The Past". That kind of subversion is usually interesting. Likewise, I love the rollicking rock and roll riff that carries "Cry Out". It's the only moment of the record that feels 'fun', and it comes at just the right time.

Ultimately, I don't know if I can assess this album. Listening to it, I can tell it's a good album that has well-written songs on it, but I struggle to judge exactly how good it is. The album exists in such a different place than my mind is right now that I feel like we are those proverbial ships passing in the night. I'm headed in one direction, Paradise Lost in the other, and this album is going to get lost in the crossing. Maybe I'll feel differently come the fall, but for now, my recommendation comes with a caveat.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Controversial Opinion: Bruce Dickinson > Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is on the Mount Rushmore of heavy metal. Their influence as one of the most important bands to ever eixst in unquestionable. In addition to their greatness, they are responsible for almost everything that exists in melodic metal. Their career is one you have to stand back and look at in wonder. They came out of the gates firing, putting out a string of classic records that defined what heavy metal was all about. They hit a rough patch, and then bounced back with a second act that is every bit as good as their glory days. That kind of sustained success is incredibly rare, and certainly ears them the honor of the most graceful aging of any elder statesman metal band.

That being said, I will not say something that is unpopular: Iron Maiden is not only not the greatest metal band in history, they are not even better than one of their own members' side project.

When Bruce Dickinson left Iron Maiden, it took both sides a considerable amount of time to find their footing. The band went through their dark patch with Blaze Bayley, who through no fault of his own was completely incapable of filling the role of Iron Maiden's singer. Those two albums were bitter disappointments (although "The X Factor" is far better than it gets credit for), and it was only when Dickinson returned that Iron Maiden regained their stature as metal elites.

On his own, Dickinson was also struggling. His first solo album was a hair metal inspired record that was a confusing mess, given his reputation as metal's biggest voice. He followed that with more albums that tried a little bit of everything, and rarely hit the mark. Apart, Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson were proving they were nothing without the other.

But then Dickinson established a relationship with producer Roy Z, who brought Adrian Smith into the fold, and together they began the process of making a trilogy of the greatest metal albums of all time.

"Accident Of Birth" was not just a return to form for Dickinson, it was the beginning of something new. It was as melodically inventive as the best Iron Maiden tracks, but had a dose of modern heaviness that Maiden had never encountered, anchoring the huge melodies with churning bursts of down-tuned riffing. The sound was fresh, original, and has never really been duplicated by anyone else.

What followed was not just another great record, but perhaps the defining metal album of the decade. "The Chemical Wedding" is, simply put, the best record anyone even remotely associated with Iron Maiden has ever been a part of. In it's sweeping songs is something that only Bruce Dickinson could have delivered. The songs are unflinchingly heavy when they need to be, beautiful at other times; filled with massive choruses, Dickinson's passionate vocals, and and lyrics that pull from the poetry of William Blake. The album is more epic than any twenty minute progressive workout I've ever heard, and the songs bring an intellectual edge that is the perfect answer for when people claim metal is cro-magnon music.

"The Chemical Wedding" is, depending on the day you ask me, either the second or third greatest metal record I've ever heard. It is a truly stunning masterpiece, and far eclipses even "The Number Of The Beast". Following that kind of monument would be impossible, which is why it took years for "Tyranny Of Souls" to arrive. That record had the same sound, and the same elements, but played things differently. Rather than expand out into grandeur, it moved inward, turning up the melody. It is heavy and epic in the same style, but is a more energetic, dare I say more fun record. It is also a genius bit of work.

And here is where I get back to my thesis, that Dickinson's trilogy is better than anything Iron Maiden did.

If you ask me, those three albums are practically flawless. In fact, the only complaint I have about the sum total is that "Return Of The King" was somehow left off "The Chemical Wedding". It's mind-boggling to imagine that the album was so strong that a killer track like that could have been left as a bonus track.

I cannot say the same thing about any Iron Maiden records. They never, even in their classic period, made records that were without fault. Every album back then, possibly due to the speed at which they were coming out, featured a few tracks that everyone knew weren't up to par. Songs like "Flash Of The Blade" and "A Quest For Fire" were obviously weak, and dragged down what were actually uneven records.  Even "The Number Of The Beast" has weak moments, with "Gangland" and "Invaders" not even coming close to approaching the greatness of the hits. They are still great records, but they are not the front-to-back classics that time and nostalgia has made them out to be.

I love Iron Maiden as much as the next person, but if I'm looking at things with open eyes, I have to say that Dickinson's godly trilogy is a step above even the very best Iron Maiden albums. For three albums, for thirty songs, Bruce Dickinson achieved heavy metal perfection. Very few people have been able to say that for an entire album, and no others for three, let alone three in a row.

The trilogy may just be one of the greatest feats in all of metal history, and controversial though it may be to say, Iron Maiden would kill to have made those records.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Album Review: Exxiles - Oblivion

A growing trend has been the increasing number of what can be dubbed "all star" metal albums, where a single songwriter gathers up as many big name guest stars as possible, and creates an event album. The trend probably started with Avantasia, but has seen more and more jumping on, because the bigger the roster of known names, the easier it is for a project to garner some attention. There will always be fans who hear that they're favorite singer is on an album, who then have to go out and get it, just for the one song. The problem with these kinds of records is that they rarely feel cohesive, because a singer is so integral to the overall sound of the music. With the vocals changing from song to song, the very identity of the album changes, and the whole thing has trouble establishing an identity.

Exxiles is one of these projects, although they wisely eschew the biggest of big names, in favor of singers and players who don't often get their due. While that is good for those of us tired of hearing Michael Kiske guesting on yet another record, it also means that there isn't a big name draw for those of us who aren't inclined to try out every album we hear about.

Exxiles' take is one of modern progressive power metal, the kind that does away with all the hokey qualities that lead people to call it 'flower metal', instead focusing on heavy guitars and chunky riffs. The music here isn't as technical as Nevermore was, but it's in the same spirit. In fact, the instrumentals are the best part of this album. The brain-trust that put this together known how to play, and they have a good ear for writing power metal that is at the heavier end of the spectrum. It has that typical modern sound, but it's one that is rarely well-utilized in power metal, so it's good to hear it done properly.

Unfortunately, that brings us to the problem with the record; the guest vocalists.

I don't know what the creative process behind the album was, so I can't say whether it's a case of a single writer who wasn't well versed in how to write for different voices, or if each singer came up with their own parts and didn't put in the effort, but the vocal parts throughout the record are simply lacking. From one track to the next, regardless of who is singing, there aren't the hooks necessary to sell this music. The singers themselves put in fine performances, but the material is weak.

This starts with the first song, as Zak Stevens winds up singing what might be the flattest track I've ever heard him on. Normally, he can turn anything into a memorable track, but even he can't save the melody here. Through the rest of the album, this trend continues. Singer after singer comes along, and all of them leave the same way; without delivering the big chorus the music needs. Coupled with the shift in vocal tone with each singer, and the album really struggles to define itself.

The bottom line with "Oblivion" is that it's one of those albums that has potential, but doesn't live up to it. What I hear is a record that should have been the basis for a solid band, not a revolving door project. If Exxiles can find a single great singer, one who can write strong melodies for this kind of heavy power metal (it's not as easy as it sounds), they have a chance to be a great band. The foundation is there, they just need to find the right coat of paint.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Album Review: House Of Lords - Indestructible

It's a sad truth, but even for people who consider themselves music nerds, who are plugged in to the music scene and love finding new music, there are simply too many bands and albums every year to keep up with everything you might want to.  House Of Lords caught my attention a few years back, releasing the great "Come To My Kingdom".  That album was a perfect example of what is dubbed AOR, but what I generally call melodic rock.  I loved that record, and rated it highly at the time, but I will admit that I would not have realized that the band was moving on to their fourth album since then.  Somewhere along the way, despite liking what they did, I lost track of the band.

After some chanted vocals to set the stage, "Go To Hell" opens the album with a fiery little riff.  James Chirstian's vocals sound off through the verses, as though the producer has put to much echo on them.  Even when the chorus hits, with it's saccharine melody, something is a bit off with the mix.  Aside from the title, it's hard to discern what James is singing, which is a pet peeve of mine that I have to say distracts me from what I'm hearing.  A singer's job is to convey the lyrics, so if they're incomprehensible, it strikes me that he or she has not lived up to their end of the bargain.

That being said, the song itself is a sweet little piece of melodic rock, the kind of song that is able to fit rocking riffs, a nifty guitar solo, and huge harmonies together.  Call it 'sunny day' rock if you want to, but there's something glorious about using rock and roll for the power of positivity.

The title track is a bit more raw, which emphasizes the natural guitar tone.  It's sure to be a point of contention, but I love tones that sound like someone plugged into an amp and did nothing else.  Over-processed guitars might sound huge, but they also sound unreal, and they fool us into believing music that isn't real.  The guitars here might be thinner, but you can hear the amps behaving as they would on stage, giving you a picture of what the band really sounds like.  I appreciate that.

"Pillar Of Salt" is as sweet a rock song as you can find, with a chorus that stretches Christian's higher range, and a melody that is familiar, although I can't quite place it.  "100mph" is a more aggressive song, but it mostly serves as a counterweight, a song that emphasized that what House Of Lords does best is not rock hard, it's play hugely melodic music.  The chorus of the song fits right in that pocket, but doesn't quite mesh with the riffs that try to make the band sound edgier and more dangerous than they are.  That song, along with the closer "Stand & Deliver" are the obvious weak links on the record, but even they are inoffensive.

When they stick to their strengths, House Of Lords deliver the goods.  They're masters of delivering big, arena-ready choruses, and these songs don't disappoint.  From top to bottom, "Indestructible" is full of great songs that are sweet, melodic, and catchy in the best ways.  There are more than a few nods to the 80s, and Christian's vocals at times recall Sebastian Bach (before his voice gave out), but it's all for a good cause.

Listening to this album, and remembering how much I enjoyed their past work, I find it hard to understand how I've gone so long not giving House Of Lords their due.  "Indestructible" shows that they are still out there making great melodic rock, and even if I think I hear Christian's voice showing signs of wear and tear, House Of Lords is still a top-notch band making music that's worth hearing if you enjoy lush, melodic rock like we used to get in the old days.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remembering Dio - Five Years Later

Our lives are filled with watershed moments, but we don't always recognize them as they are happening.  Events unfold, and only later, when the details are fuzzy, do we realize that we have experienced something truly remarkable.  It's a sad fact of life, one that does us no favors as time marches on, and our memories begin to fail us.  The most important moments of our lives can be lost to us, forgotten gems that get buried under the sands of time.

I don't remember the first time I heard Ronnie James Dio's monumental voice, though I'm sure it must have come when Pop Up Video played "Rainbow In The Dark".  Even then, when I was too young to know better, I realized that the song was unbearably cheesy, and yet it still managed to stick with me.  Even though I would not remember the moment clearly, I would remember what I heard.

Sadly, Ronnie James Dio is not able to make new memories for us.  It has now been five years since we lost the greatest singer in the history of heavy metal, which is as good a time as any to take a step back and remember what Dio has meant not just to ourselves, but to the very fiber of the music we love.  Without Dio, there's no telling where metal would be, where we would be as fans, and we would have been robbed of one of the greatest careers in all of recorded music.

Ronnie James Dio remains a vital part of metal for two reasons; 1) He is perhaps the greatest voice metal has ever produced, and 2) He is the focal point of the greatest run of albums in the history of heavy music.

The first point can be debated, because voices are so subjective that there is no way to quantify one as being better than another.  Tones hit our ears in such unusual ways that a singer's voice is almost like pulling a suit of the rack; it may fit well enough, but it's the luck of the draw to find one that is perfect.

The second point, however, I would claim as being as close to a fact as you can have in a subjective forum.  From Rainbow's debut album, all the way through to the first four albums with his eponymous band, Dio barely moved the gauge off of perfection.  People can point to Metallica's first four records (a topic I will address at some point), or Iron Maiden's 80s output, but for my money, Ronnie James Dio had the greatest run, with the greatest albums, that metal will ever see.

The reason for this is that Ronnie James Dio had the ability, as sports fans would say, the ability to play to his competitor's level.  When he was matched with Ritchie Blackmore at the height of his powers, or a Tony Iommi with everything to prove, Dio was untouchable.  It was only when he was paired with a guitarist who lacked the fire or the skill that he stepped down from the top of the mountain.


Ronnie James Dio's career started long before he met Ritchie Blackmore, but that was the genesis of the Dio we know.  Dio met Blackmore while his band Elf opened for Deep Purple, and after the fracture that led to Blackmore leaving Deep Purple, Dio was recruited as the singer for Blackmore's new band, Rainbow.  In the course of three albums, Dio and Blackmore elevated hard rock to a new place, they may have written the greatest hard rock song of all time, and Dio began the greatest run in the history of heavy music.

Ritchie Blackmore was always eccentric, and without the rest of Deep Purple to reign him in, there was no telling what his new band would sound like.  Coupled with a singer most of the world was hearing for the first time, Rainbow's first album was met with a fair amount of skepticism.  The record was not great, but it showed a band with enormous potential.  Dio was one of the few singers who could match the power of Blackmore's guitar, and on songs like "Man On The Silver Mountain", the combination was impossible to deny.  Blackmore's later retreat into the world of Renaissance music is now apparent on that record, which comes through on "Temple Of The King", a song that showed Dio was more than a giant voice.
The potential for greatness existed in that record, and was fully revealed on "Rising".  In the short span of time separating the records, Rainbow had blossomed into one of the greatest hard rock bands of all time.  "Rising" was a short record, one that wore you out in the span of half an hour.  Though concise, everything about "Rising" was epic in scope.  Blackmore's playing became more fiery, Dio's voice bigger, the hooks stronger, and the songs became larger than life.  By the time "A Light In The Black" fades out, and the silence of an empty room returns, Rainbow has taken you on a journey to placed music had never gone.
"Stargazer" is often called one of the greatest rock songs ever written, and for good reason.  Everything about the song goes over the top, but in a way that makes excess feel like a good thing.  The band was at their absolute peak at that moment, and Dio's vocal was as towering and impassioned as any that came before or since.  His vocal performance is a staggering work, and remains his defining moment.  The song was something special, and "Rising" was the first in a string of classic albums Dio would be a part of.
Rainbow's final album with Dio could not match "Rising" in terms of elevating hard rock to a new level.  What the album was able to do, however, was show that Rainbow could operate on all levels of rock music, this time turning out a set of songs that was more focused on Dio's vocals than before.  His melodies carry songs like "Lady Of The Lake" and "L.A. Connection", and his soulful delivery made "Rainbow Eyes".  The only drawback to the record was "Gates Of Babylon", an amazing epic in its own right, but one that drew comparisons because of its similarity to the legendary "Stargazer".  Rainbow was done innovating, which made the splintering of Dio and Blackmore easier to handle.  They had done all they could together, and the time was right for them to move on to new projects.
For Dio, that project was Black Sabbath.  No one could have known at the time that the marriage of Dio and Black Sabbath would work.  Nothing about what either of them had accomplished to that point indicated they would work well together.  Dio had yet to make a metal record, and Sabbath's style had been typified by Ozzy singing Tony Iommi's riffs, a status Dio would surely not continue.
"Heaven & Hell" was a monumental record for everyone involved.  If it failed, there was no telling where their careers would go.  Black Sabbath would have been all but dead, and Dio would have been looking for his third band in three albums, granting him journeyman status.  They might not have known it at the time, but they were making the album that would come to define the rest of their lives.
"Heaven & Hell" was more than just an album that showed Black Sabbath was still alive, it was an album that ushered in an entire new era of heavy metal.  Just as their first four albums created metal as we know it, "Heaven & Hell" created the metal that came to define the 80s.  Each side changed the other, Dio giving Iommi the freedom to write more than simple block riffs, and Iommi giving Dio the platform to unleash his imagination.  Together, they rebuilt what was expected of heavy metal at the time.  Instead of being slow, lumbering music that was full of gloom, Black Sabbath had shown a new light, one in which heavy metal could be musical, could be positive, and could escape the stereotypes it had become chained to.
For the first time, metal had a band that was still heavy, but was playing melodic music that took as much influence from rock as it did Black Sabbath themselves.  By reinventing who they were, Black Sabbath reinvented the entirety of metal.  Dio's melodic edge, along with his fantasy-inspired lyrics, opened up a whole new world that would soon be populated by the success of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, along with the hair and glam bands on the Sunset Strip.  Countless bands would call "Heaven & Hell" one of their greatest inspirations, a fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest heavy metal album ever made.
"The Mob Rules" followed, and as was the case with Rainbow, the next album was rooted in growth.  Though it was not far removed from the sound of "Heaven & Hell", "The Mob Rules" expanded the compositions, juxtaposing moods and textures to a greater degree.  "The Sign Of The Southern Cross" had not yet been contemplated as they made their first record together, but now it was at the very core of who this version of Black Sabbath was.  They were the light and dark, the yin and yang of metal.  The album proved they were a band that could do anything they wanted, but greatness always comes at a cost, and for Black Sabbath it meant moving on to yet another new singer.
Having been a part of four classic albums in a row, Dio's next venture was likely to fail.  The odds of making yet another classic album were against him, but Dio proved his legend.  With an unheralded new guitarist in tow, Dio's first album under his own name became the landmark of his career.  "Holy Diver" was not just an album as good as any of his previous works, it provided him with his most lasting image, "Rainbow In The Dark".  The song, powered by one of the most memorable keyboard lines in history, became an unlikely hit on MTV.  Dio was not just a great singer making albums metal fans loved, he was now a star.
Where the streak ends is a question up for debate.  "The Last In Line" is a classic metal album that deserves to be included, but for me the run ends with "Sacred Heart".  Though it isn't any different than the other Dio albums, it is where the inspiration begins to fade away.  Without that spark, it's a tough album to love, and where I think Dio finally became mortal.  Still, releasing six consecutive albums that stand the test of time as classics is a feat no one else in rock and metal history can match. 


Ronnie James Dio isn't just the greatest singer in the history of metal because of his giant voice, or the string of classic albums he created.  He is the epitome of a metal singer because his greatness endured until his final recording, and he coaxed the best out of everyone he played with.  Blackmore may have been more popular with Deep Purple, but he was never better than he was in Rainbow.  Tony Iommi's best work was done with Dio in Black Sabbath.  Vivian Campbell never matched his work on those first albums with Dio.  Whoever was standing next to him on stage, Dio made them better, and they made him better.  Dio was at his best when he was working with a great guitar player, and his inability to find one who could live up to his standards is the only reason Dio stopped making classic records after "Dream Evil".
For Dio, everything was about inspiration.  He was a musical vagabond because he was always in search of what was going to spark his creative fire next.  He never lasted more than three albums with the same guitar player, which is what allowed him to continue being great.  Being comfortable can be a good thing, but it doesn't always lead to the best work.  By moving from guitarist to guitarist, Dio never pigeon-holed himself into one identity.  He was able to do anything he wanted, and the audience trusted him enough to go along for the ride with him.
Dio wasn't perfect, and not every record he made was great.  His voice would always prevent them from being terrible, and his worst were still better than every other legendary band's.  At the end of his life, Dio was finding his spark once again.  "Master Of The Moon" was the best Dio album in a decade, and teaming with Black Sabbath one more time for "The Devil You Know" produced one of the greatest songs Dio ever sang, "Bible Black".  I can only believe that if Dio had gotten the chance to make one more record, it would have been one more classic to cap his career with.  Even without it, Dio's voice and career make him the greatest there ever was.


And to cap off this remembrance of Ronnie James Dio, here are my picks for the ten greatest songs of his career:

1. Stargazer

Along with Stairway To Heaven, Stargazer might be the ultimate rock song.  It’s gargantuan, epic, moving, and seemingly superhuman.  From Ritchie Blackmore’s extended soloing, to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, every part of the song is super sized.  And yet, the highlight of the song is still Dio, whose turns in the greatest performance of his career, belting out his vocal with the kind of power that makes you think he ingrained his voice straight onto the record, no recording needed. 

2. Bible Black

The Devil You Know found its fair share of criticism, but even the detractors admitted the project was worthwhile because it gave the world Bible Black, the last stone-cold classic Dio song.  From his weathered voice capturing the desperation of the soft intro, to the focused roar he could still muster at will, Dio and Tony Iommi crafted a song worthy of their legacies, another example of why they were one of the finest pairings of musicians in history.

3. Don’t Talk To Strangers

Holy Diver and Rainbow In the Dark got all the attention, but Don’t Talk To Strangers was the unsung highlight of Dio’s debut album with his solo band.  Another song building from soft verses into a furious metal wail, Dio does everything he can to show why he was the greatest metal singer of all time, spitting out the line “don’t dream of women because they’ll only bring you down” with the kind of venom that can’t be replicated. 

4. Heaven And Hell

The song became Dio’s calling card, and for good reason.  The ultimate epic singer turning out another epic song, this one the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession with the battle between good and evil.  Captured by one of Tony Iommi’s greatest riffs, Dio’s voice rises and falls with the music to form another in a long line of songs no one else could have written or sung.  Heaven And Hell was the centerpiece of Black Sabbath’s comeback, both the album and the song cemented as among the best ever.

5. I

Dehumanizer gets lost in the shuffle of Dio’s career, and while not among the best of his work, there are still tracks that stand up among his best.   I is the shining example, a fabulous piece of work that finds Dio at his most vicious.  His delivery is impassioned, his voice rougher than ever before, finding malice in the slashing riff.  When he pulls back to deliver the chorus in typical Dio fashion, the result is magical.

6. Gates Of Babylon

The little brother of Stargazer, Gates Of Babylon is by itself a fantastic song.  The structure and sound are very similar, but the latter finds Dio able to pump an additional dose of melody into the song.  His descending vocal line over the staccato riff in the chorus is the kind of thing he could do at will that no one else was able to do.  It was pure Dio, and purely beautiful.

7. Shadow Of The Wind

When Dio regrouped with the members of Sabbath to write new songs for a greatest hits compilation, no one could have known they would be able to come up with anything this good.  Shadow Of The Wind found Tony Iommi going back to his roots as a player, bringing back the elements of doom he stripped away when Dio joined the band the first time.  The riff is a sludgy dirge, the kind of sound that was reflective of the deeper tone of Dio’s aged voice.  Dio’s performance is more subdued, but sharp as ever, caught in the couplet “I’m alive, I belong, I’ll be back.  It’s a half truth, still a whole lie.”

8. All The Fools Sailed Away

Dio’s popularity waned by the time Dream Evil came out, but that did nothing to change the music he was making.  All The Fools Sailed Away didn’t turn out to be a classic mentioned in the same breath as his others, a fate that was shared by many great Dio songs.  Another slow burner stretching out to seven minutes, the song was the best Dio would record for several albums, one that deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated for the greatness is represents.

9. Children Of The Sea

The very first song Dio wrote with Tony Iommi, one that cemented in their minds that the pairing of rock’s darkest band with its best singer could be something special.  Like the album as a whole, Children Of The Sea was something new for both Black Sabbath and Dio.  Iommi gave Dio more room to sing than he had experienced before, while Dio let Iommi develop nuance to his playing.  Together, they formed a perfect partnership, evident right from the start.

10. Temple Of The King

Ritchie Blackmore’s medieval leads and decidedly non-rock chords could have been a disaster on a rock record, but not in Dio’s hands.  The song, which incorporated influences Dio had but seldom showed, turned out to be one of the best songs Dio would ever sing, even if it would be overshadowed by Man On The Silver Mountain.  That takes nothing away from this song, one of the best examples of Dio’s softer vocals, the soulful crooning so many who would follow Dio failed to possess.  The range of voices Dio could muster was his rarest gift, the reason he will forever by the voice of heavy metal.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Album Review: Leprous - The Congregation

Over the last few years, Leprous has made an astounding leap into the upper tier of progressive metal bands, both through their own work, and by being the band standing behind Ihsahn's abstract offerings.  Leprous has established an identity that is fully ingrained in metamorphosis, changing their sound with every record, and taking to heart what progressive music was once all about.  "Bilateral" sounded nothing like "Coal", even if both of them were critically acclaimed.  Myself, I found both records to be interesting, but not cohesive enough to really love.  "Coal", in particularly, was an album centered around a particular atmosphere that felt too cold, too empty, and so the album was one that disappointed me mightily after all the praise I had heard being lavished on it.

This time out, Leprous turns the tables yet again, by creating an album that was written on computers, and only afterwards translated to the real world through instruments.  What that does is detatch the artist from the music, rewriting the very neural patterns that create the songs.  In other words, it lets a songwriter be someone other than themselves.

Some of this nature comes out in the first song on the record, "The Price", which was also the first single.  The song opens with a series of guitar stabs over a drum beat that pounds away in a jerking, completely abnormal time signature.  A normal human mind, sitting down with a guitar in hand, would never have thought that part up.  And then when the riff abruptly shifts into a muted chugging, it does so with no transition at all, a nod to the cut-and-paste nature of digital work.  But those aren't criticisms, because the song also features an engaging chorus, and might be the most agreeable Leprous song I've heard.

"Third Law" follows, and is similar in construction, but lacks the fire to make much of an impression.  It is likewise based around a pulsing guitar riff, but there isn't a strong hook buried in there, which leaves the song sounding exactly like the worst fears of a computer-generated record.  The seven minute "Rewind" spends its first two minutes with little accompanying a drum workout, but even when the bands comes in to flesh out the sound, the song goes nowhere.

Like the two albums before this, Leprous is a band that obviously has a world of talent, but fails to put together songs that are truly memorable.  Breaking down the instrumental pieces of "The Congregation", there are moments that are spectacular bits of progressive metal, but they're contained in songs that flounder without momentum, build to nothing, and are devoid of strong vocal melodies.  Without those things, it is the kind of hollow, soulless music that brings out the worst of prog.

It would be easy to blame these things on the method of composition, to write this off as an experiment that didn't quite pay off.  But this album is not as wildly different from "Coal" as you might be expecting.  The basic tones and feeling are very much the same, as are the results.  The conclusion to be drawn is that Leprous has a very pronounced way of writing songs that isn't going to change, no matter the method or inspiration they are following.  What that means is that fans of "Bilateral" or "Coal" will still find everything they like about Leprous on display here.  It also means that people who struggle to connect to Leprous' music will continue to do so.

There's a divide between the critical mindset and that of a music fan.  As a critic, I can hear what Leprous was going for here, I can hear the intricacies of the composition, and how they are challenging themselves to play music that otherwise would not come to mind.  I appreciate all of that on a philosophical level.  But there is still a part of me that is simply a fan of music, and that part of my brain can't be as generous, because while Leprous is doing some interesting things with this record, they simply don't write songs that I find compelling.  "The Congregation" continues my ambivalence towards Leprous, and makes me believe my feelings are never going to change.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Album Review: This Good Robot - The Light Is Taking Me To Pieces

I've written before about the democratization of the music industry, and how the internet has made it possible for bands who are worthy to make a name for themselves, regardless of having the backing of a label. I've been able to find and champion a few bands and artists over the course of my time writing about music who were finding their way on their own, but who were every bit as deserving of attention as the names we're all more familiar with. A few of them have even been picked up by labels since that time, just proving the point that a self-released record is no longer a scarlet letter that needs to be apologized for.

This Good Robot is one of those unsigned bands that makes a strong case for the beauty of taking music directly to the people. Opening with the title track, the band makes a statement with those first four minutes. Setting the scene with a far-away country ballad, the song bursts forth with tinkling pianos, swirling guitars, and a melody that blends punk and theater. Even the instrumental break is unexpected, with a sound that is anything but a distorted guitar wailing away on high notes. There's a fluid musicality to what is going on that makes the song sound like something fresh, something bigger than a little song sung by a little band.

“Bleed 'Em Dry” follows with a more standard punk aesthetic, strongly bringing AFI's glory years to mind. The guitar parts are deceptive with little bursts of syncopation, and the chorus explodes with energy. The experimentation and genre-hopping continues with “Super Spy”, which opens with stabbing strings that bring to mind the inevitable comparison to “Eleanor Rigby” (has a single sound ever been so identified by and with only one song?). The second verse has a swinging feel to it, and the chorus is pure, pompous melodic bliss. As far as opening salvos go, this trio is a strong shot.

From there, the album continues to spin in varying directions, never staying too long in one place. Some songs veer off into heavy punk energy, while others relax and bring the sensation of being a ballad without actually being one. Then you get to “Call The Police”, which twists the very way the band plays their instruments, shifting into a more intricate collection of guitar figures that feel unlike anything else on the record.

As odd as the album sounds like, on paper, there is a perfect comparison to be made here. This album sounds remarkably similar in spirit to last year's phenomenal debut from Incura. Like that album, this one is a mix of punk, hard rock, and theatrical sensibilities that come together in a weird, sticky blend of songwriting that is more multi-faceted than you would ever expect from a rock band. The refusal to adhere to the standard tropes is a smart move, because not only do the overblown moments stand out because of their cheesy awesomeness, they also make sure you're never going to confuse This Good Robot with another band. Like it or not, they have an identity that is unique to themselves, which is as important a fact as any band can establish, especially when they don't have the power of a label working to promote them.

And like the Incura album that I mentioned, my opinion of “The Light Is Taking Me To Pieces” is that it's an endearing, fun record that puts a smile on my face. The world already has more than enough music that is designed to make you feel terrible. Sometimes you want music to make you feel good, and This Good Robot can definitely do that.     

Sunday, May 10, 2015

My Take: Vinyl's Resurgence

Over the last five years, vinyl has encountered a renaissance, with sales spiking, and legions of fans and artists professing their love for the arcane format.  While I am a fan of physical products, and appreciate the renewed emphasis on owning a collection of music, there are elements of the vinyl philosophy that I cannot get behind; mostly the rampant confusion that leads people to incorrectly believe that vinyl is a superior audio format.

Every format we use to listen to music has limitations.  It is simply impossible for anything to accurately reproduce the entire spectrum of sounds that a band of instruments can create.  That much is not a debate.  What we are actually talking about, when we compare the formats available, is how they reproduce the sound, and which elements get left on the cutting room floor.  We are, therefore, talking about our preferences for how we like our music to be flawed.

What is not up for debate is that CDs are theoretically a superior format than vinyl when it comes to accurately reproducing as much of the sound as possible.  This might seem counter-intuitive, given how often vinyl is held up as the standard, but that urban legend comes bother from a misunderstanding of the science of sound, but more importantly from the fact that CDs have rarely been used to their full potential.

The fallacy began when CDs were first entering the market in the early 80s.  At that time, being new, the albums we were listening to were dropped straight onto the new discs, without making any adjustment for the realities of the delivery mechanism.  Vinyl did not allow for bass to be pronounced in the mix, to prevent the needle from jumping out of the groove.  While that was fine on a turntable, and because vinyl naturally enhanced those frequencies, it was murder on CDs.  Digital audio got a bad reputation because a mix that was intended for vinyl was put on the CDs, with the low bass levels required for the old format never compensated for.  What CDs did was show how much a mix had to be skewed from what it was supposed to be for vinyl to sound good.  But because producers did not yet know how to make music for the digital format, the thin sound that was first offered up became tautological proof that CDs weren't as good.  That is wrong.

Decades later, as the loudness war has been in full force, the same type of situation is occurring.  As volumes have been pushed past the point of no return, CDs have been offering people music that sounds sub-optimal.  The vinyl copies of many of these albums sound superior, but not because of anything the vinyl is doing, but instead because the producers have to make better versions of the album to avoid the record not being playable.  Because those issues do not arise with digital formats, producers have become lazy, sloppy, and no longer care about the quality of the product they are putting out.

When you listen to a record like Metallica's "Death Magnetic", the audible clipping and disturbingly poor sound quality has nothing to do with the digital sound, but instead lies in the production choices.  It's hard for people who don't have insight into the recording process to make these distinctions, which the vinyl crowd has jumped upon.  When new albums come out, and people clamor to say the vinyl sounds better, they rarely if ever make note of if it's even the same mix being put on both formats.  If the sound is not being optimized for both, there is no fair comparison to be made.

What is more frustrating is the fact that vinyl is being hailed as the 'true' way to listen to music, as being more natural, when the vast majority of albums being pressed were recorded digitally in the studio.  They are not truly analog recordings, so they are no more authentic than the CDs that have fallen out of favor.

But more than anything, what frustrates me is that great sounding music is not something we appreciate and demand.  We have become so willing to tolerate sub-par sound quality that a vinyl copy of a digital album somehow sounds like a revelation.  CDs are capable of some of the most astounding audio you will ever hear, but we seldom get that, because neither we nor the record companies think anyone wants it.  I use this as an example: Nightingale released their new album earlier this year, "Retribution".  It's a very good sounding album that is one of the best of the year.  But if you seek it out, there is a special edition of the album with a mix intended for the vinyl, where more of the natural nuances and dynamics are left in tact.  It is properly produced music, and listening to that mix, even as a download, is a thing of wonder.  That is what music should sound like, that is what music can sound like, and as long as people are buying vinyl because they have been deceived into thinking that anything pressed on wax sounds better, we're never going to get the music we deserve.

As consumers, we need to know what we are consuming.  We seldom do, and that has led to the destruction of music.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Album Review: Kamelot - Haven

Kamelot has managed to do two things that should not coincide; they have become possibly the biggest name in power metal, while at the same time disappoint people at every turn.  It started with the last couple of albums with Roy Kahn falling into too similar a pattern, then continued when Tommy Karevik replaced Kahn, but sounded too much like he was trying to mimic his predecessor.  When fans are always grousing about what you're doing, it stands to reason that the band would be receeding into the shadows, but that's nto what has happened here.  Somehow, Kamelot has managed to expand their profile, despite the criticism, which illustrates a skill that I can't quite put my finger on.  Now with their second album since Kahn has left, I have to imagine the grace period is over, and they have to deliver on their promise.

"Haven" doesn't stray far from the Kamelot playbook, with another dozen or so songs of dark power metal that chug through simple riffs and Gothic atmospheres.  If you think you've heard it all before, you're not exactly wrong.  Kamelot isn't reinventing the wheel, because there isn't a need to do so.  They still have mileage to get out of this sound, and to be fair, asking them to abandon a sound that they pioneered isn't rational.

Musically, Kamelot has never offered up a mix of tantalizing and interesting ideas.  The guitars usually chug out simple note sequences, or strum chords through choruses.  This isn't a band you listen to for the great guitar playing.  It's all well-executed, but there is rarely a riff in a Kamelot song that you're going to have playing through your mind on an endless loop.  What makes Kamelot great are the songs, the sweeping melodies that you can sing along to and always feel uplifted, despite the somber tones.

And that is why Tommy was the perfect choice to be Kamelot's singer.  As we've all heard in his other band, Seventh Wonder, he is capable of writing earworm melodies in the most complex of metal, which is much harder than it sounds.  Kamelot's music is such that it depends entirely on the vocalist to breathe life into the songs, to carry them with charisma and melody.  To that end, Tommy does a fine job, bouying the songs with melodies that are warm and inviting, throwing more of his personality into the mix.  If "Silverthorn" was disappointing for any particular reason, it was that Tommy had been relegated to playing the role of Roy Kahn.  Here, he is given more room to be himself, and it makes a huge difference.

"Citizen Zero" is a highlight, with a modern, heavy edge to the guitars that could have been written by Zakk Wylde, if he knew how not to overdo every trick he knows.  It's interesting, but can easily go downhill, except that Tommy uses that to set up a chorus that completely turns the song inside out.  It's a beautiful bit of songwriting, and is what Kamelot does best.

In fact, from top to bottom, "Haven" is as melodic and catchy an album as I've ever heard from Kamelot.  Part of that lies in the fact that I never succumbed to Roy Kahn's charms the way so many other people did, but most of it has to do with the fact that the band has put together a rock solid album here.  Every song has a chorus that reaches for the brass ring, even if they don't all quite get there.  "Liar Liar" is a bit weak, but songs like "Under Grey Skies" and "Beautiful Apocalypse" can't be denied.

The only issue I have with the album is that, like all Kamelot albums, the darkness of tone makes it hard for me to really embrace what's going on here.  I don't need, or want, the music to be fluffy pop, but there's only so much enjoyment that can be wrung from the darkness.  I would like a bit more brightness to the mix, just to make it sound more fully fleshed out.  If it's supposed to be a punch, the production takes the sharpness out of the jab.  But other than that, "Haven" is a definite improvement over "Silverthorn", and makes the case for Kamelot's popularity.

"Haven" is a strong record, and Kamelot fans should be quite happy with it.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2015

    Album Review: Impellitteri - Venom

    One of the things I've never been able to wrap my head around are the neoclassical shredders that came to prominence in the 80s and 90s.  On the one hand, I can see why guitar players would be drawn to those players who can rip up their fretboards with riffs and solos of blinding speed.  It's certainly an impressive skill to have, but a skill is about all it is.  Most of those players, aside from the sheer speed, were not very good as actual musicians.  They could play the hell out of their guitars, but they couldn't write songs, and they couldn't make albums.  Need I point to Yngwie Malmsteen here?

    Chris Impellitteri is different than a lot of those players, because he's worked most of his career in a band setting, and with one of the more talented vocalists his brand of power metal has known.  Rob Rock is not just a superior vocalist, but he has grown into a formidable songwriter as he has gotten older.  His solo work with Roy Z stands out as some excellent material.  With the two together again for a new Impellitteri record, the stars have aligned for them to finally reach their potential.

    The title tracks leads off the assault with blistering riffs, and Rock's vocals soaring atop the metallic fury.  But the song isn't two disperate elements fighting to work together.  They integrate into a cohesive song, as Rock balances the guitar flourishes with a simple and sticky melody, while Impellitteri's guitar gives chunky heft to Rock's lighter touch.  They strike a balance that is important for any band.

    "Venom" is an album that goes for the throat, with ten short bursts of energy, only one of which hits the four minute mark.  That can sometimes make an album feel a bit underdeveloped, but in this case, I would consider it a strength.  The guitar playing is of a style that I would find tiring if it stretched on for nearly an hour.  By keeping the flurries of notes shorter, each song is crafted for maximum punch.

    I particularly like the more 80s hard rock style of "We Own The Night", which dials back the aggression just a bit, and gives Rock plenty of room to put a big hook atop the chorus.  From top to bottom, this is the best set of songs I've ever heard from Impellitteri.  Of the ten tracks, the only misstep is "Rise", which pounds away without much of a melody.  "Nightmare" is as chunky through the verses, but it stops and opens up into a gorgeous chorus, which is what the former song should have done as well.

    That being said, "Venom" is an album that deserves its praise.  Impellitteri has never impressed me much before, but this album is a tight and focused bunch of songs that knows exactly what it wants to do, and makes no excuses for it.  Impellitteri's guitar work is as fiery and quick as ever, but that's not what makes this work.  He uses his skills to still play songs that have simple enough riffs and grooves, and then Rob Rock makes it all work with his voice and melodies.  If these songs didn't work as simple sing-alongs, it wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable.

    Sure, "Venom" is a bit of a short album, and "Time Machine" too blatantly copies some moments of "The Trooper", but it's an album that does shredding guitar proud.  Compared to an album from a similar player like the recent DSG album, "Venom" is a reminder that great players can still make really good albums.

    Sunday, May 3, 2015

    Album Review: The Tangent - A Spark In The Aether Volume Two

    For all the talk about what progressive rock is or isn't, one thing is very clear; the majority of progressive rock bands stick fairly close to the original Yes/Genesis mold.  There's a very good reason fro this, since that is the sound that initially became popular, and it's the one that still leads to the greatest amount of success.  Unless you up the heaviness quotient enough to become a metal band, the retro prog sound is the one that will most readily get you noticed.  The Tangent are one of the many prog bands that was assembled form the parts of other prog bands, centered around Andy Tillison.  Originally carrying much of The Flower Kings in their personnel, the band has evolved as the albums have rolled along, although still retaining the upper-echelon players you would expect.

    "A Spark In The Aether" is a conscious callback to the band's first album, which is a bit of a meta-reference, since that album itself was rather grounded in the prog of the 70s.  This time, we get an album that recalls an album that recalls the past.  If that's not enough to make your head hurt, it's also a bit of a concept record that runs over an hour, and contains a twenty minute epic.  Ah yes, the joys of prog.

    The album kicks off with the title track, and a fuzzy synth line that instantly tells you what this album is going to be all about.  The main gist of the song is a bouncy bass-line, leading to an upbeat chorus, all of which is a great way to introduce the weightier pieces that will come later on.  Opening with a short burst of strong songwriting is a smart decision. 

    The oddly titled "Codpieces & Capes" is the first of the extended compositions, one that directly addresses the excesses, and ridiculous nature, of much of the progressive rock bands of the 70s.  I can't quite decide if the song is nostalgic for those good ol' days, or if it's taking those bands to task for going so far over the top that they killed prog for everyone who came afterwards.  I think both arguments can be made.  As for the song, Tillison's synths dominate the mix, leaving no mistaking whose band The Tangent is.  But listening to the quieter moments of the song, it makes me wonder a bit about the production choices, because the synths distort in an unpleasant way as the volume increases.  It's a bit f unnecessary distraction in what is otherwise a fine multi-part epic. The second section, in particular, is a wonderful reflection of the sound The Flower Kings have been mining on their recent albums, and stands out as a highlight of the entire record.

    Especially when contrasted with a song like "Aftereugene", an instrumental that's half acoustic guitar exercise, and half smokey jazz lounge interplay.  How the two connect isn't quite made clear.

    "The Celluloid Road" is the album's centerpiece, a twenty minute rumination on the influence of American pop culture on the world.  I take it as unintentional irony that the message is being delivered through a style of music that was conceived in Europe, and for the most part only exists there anymore.  The song bobs and weaves as it moves through its sections, with a large amount of Neal Morse's instrumental feeling popping up in the seques.  It's a deft composition, and there's a lot to like, but the lyrics are too ham-fisted for their own good.  This kind of prog needs a more refined, more metaphoric message.  These words are so blunt that it takes away from the sophisticated playing going on underneath them.

    But the real shame of the album is not just the lyrics, but how they're delivered.  Simply put, Andy Tilliman isn't a good enough vocalist to pull off what he's trying to do here.  His voice is fine in the quiet, soft moments, but he takes on a tone of a congested Morrissey when he pushes himself.  He never comports himself with the feeling of confident aplomb that the instrumentals carry.  If he recruited a better singer, or even someone like former member Roine Stolt, whose voice is fascinating in place of fantastic, this album had a world of potential.

    "A Spark In The Aether" does indeed have a spark to it.  The songs that are written are some very good, engaging progressive rock in the vein of the classics.  Unfortunately, those really good songs are not presented to us in the best possible light.  From the vocals, to the slightly dour production, there are places where this could have been a far better album.  That being said, "A Spark In The Aether" is still a fine example of how to make modern progressive rock.  After all, it's not like those classics are perfect anyway (that's a debate for another time).