Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Album Review: The V - Now Or Never

When singers step outside of their main bands, the results can often tell you a lot about who they are as people. Every band dynamic is different, and there are plenty of them out there where, despite the appearances, the singer is more or less along for the ride. So in order to get their own musical tastes across, they have to venture out and make a solo record. At other times, solo records are just ways of making more music when a band isn't being highly productive, and sometimes they're just an excuse to work with people who wouldn't be right collaborating with the main band. There are plenty of examples of all of these, and as you would expect, they vary wildly in quality.

The V finds Benedictum singer Veronica Freeman stepping out from her band, and taking the reigns on a more hard rock oriented record that has a few special guests along for the ride. I'll preface the rest of this review by saying that I'm not very familiar with Benedictum's work, so there will be no comparing of this record to what Veronica has made her name singing.

"Again" opens the record not in a full-throated hard rock way, but with tinges of Dio-era metal seeping into the guitar lines. The chugging guitars in the verses give you something to bang your head to, and then the chorus comes along with the hard rock flavor I was waiting for. Veronica's melody is simple, but it pares perfectly with her vocal power, and draws you right in.

That feeling doesn't last long, as the next couple of tracks dig too much into the bag of cliches, coming away with songs that are a couple of riffs and not much from the vocals. For a record branded as a singer's, the approach is misguided. Veronica gets buried with tepid melodies that don't do anything to showcase her talents. It could be forgivable, I suppose, if the guitar playing was sharp enough, but the riffs are the competent variety that aren't going to last with you long after the record is over.

"Line In The Sand" puts us back on solid footing, with just enough bounce and a chorus that puts Veronica back in the spotlight. The song feels to me, as I'm listening, to be something that could have been on the excellent Revolution Saints record from earlier this year. Songs like this one show that Veronica's big voice can be great for hard rock, if she's given the right material to sing.

An example of that is "Love Should Be To Blame", which takes a more dramatic turn, and gives Veronica's voice the ability to pack an emotional heft. It could be considered a ballad, I suppose, but that term doesn't always get used properly. And after a nearly perfect song, we get treated to "Kiss My Lips", which is an unfortunate mess of double entendres and needless come-ons that sound far more desperate than they do sexy. These sorts of songs never work, and I don't really know why artists keep slumming it through such awful messages. And then the record goes and redeems itself with "Starshine", which is a beautiful little example of how to properly do pop-oriented rock. It's sweet, bright, and its sunny outlook is a perfect addition to the record.

Overall, while I'm sure that "Now Or Never" was an important record for Veronica to make, it shows that albums that are pulled together from so many sources rarely feel like complete albums. The record is inconsistent, both in terms of the quality of the songs, and with the sound they're going for. It is clearly a solo record, because it wants to do a little bit of everything. There's enough good stuff here to make it an interesting record to listen to, but there isn't enough to make it stand up as an important record. But for fans of Veronica's voice, it's worth checking out.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

My Take: Graveyard - This Generation's Greatest Band

In the last fifteen years, since the beginning of the new millennium, we have seen music spiral out in countless directions. The advancement and evolution of music has been happening at a torrid pace, taking our beloved sounds and updating them for a new, digital future. We have seen everything we once knew about music become obsolete, from the way it is written, to the way it is played, to the way it is consumed. To borrow a buzzword from the late 80s, the paradigm has indeed shifted.

And while evolution is inevitable, and it has brought about many advancements that are welcome, in terms of shaking up a stagnant music scene, there are plenty of ways in which that forward motion has also left some of us feeling like men out of time. The digitalization of the entire process, the focus on inhuman perfection, and the fact that we now can listen to any song ever recorded wherever and whenever we want, have all robbed music of what was once its defining feature; heart.

It's easy to criticize much of what we hear now as being cold and soulless, and that wouldn't be entirely unfair. There is a more obvious commercialization to the very process of writing music nowadays, and the shift in production styles has only served to highlight the worst aspects of what remains. Rather than embrace the imperfections of humanity, and marveling at the people who can come closest to reaching inherent greatness, we use computers to tweak everything until it is virtually flawless. Not only does perfection get boring after a while, but when everyone sounds perfect, no one sounds perfect.

Thankfully, there is one band that has emerged in this new wilderness that throws aside everything that the modern age has come to stand for, proudly making music the old-fashioned way, for old-fashioned listeners. That band is Graveyard.

The other side of the coin to the development of music is a movement that embraced the ethos of old, the vintage sounds that catapulted rock and roll into the mainstream. The sound is easy to replicate, but the spirit is a challenge. Few bands do it well, and the chasm between the rest of them and the undisputed leader, Graveyard, is mammoth.

Graveyard made a statement with their debut record. That self-titled effort laid down the gauntlet for what rock and roll could still be. In less than forty minutes, the Swedes captured our attention with songs that were so simple that on the surface you couldn't believe they were getting away with it, only to discover with more listens that the simplicity allowed the genius of their ideas and songwriting to shine through. By stripping everything down to the barest essentials, and capturing a gorgeous guitar tone that is the perfect mix of clean and dirty, they put the spotlight squarely on their songs.

It's impossible to listen to the riff that powers "Don't Take Us For Fools" and not be caught up in how genius those few notes are. While most bands are shredding through their songs in an effort to amaze you with their talents, Graveyard hangs back and lets the song take over. The riffs are simple enough for anyone to grasp, burrowing into your head whether you want them to or not. And with a keen ear for melody, the songs have vocal lines that are similarly ear-worm worthy.

The album would have gone down as a classic debut, if it had been more widely heard. The timing wasn't quite right for their music to break through, and so Graveyard remained an underground sensation. People in the know were treated to the beginning of something special, while the rest of us had to wait for a larger label to realize the genius unfolding before them.

That happened before the release of "Hisingen Blues", which not only eschewed the sophomore slump, it obliterated it. It is a record that did not capture my attention on first listen. My mind was somewhere else, and I completely missed the album's appeal. It wasn't until later that I was able to revisit the record and understand what I had overlooked.

"Hisingen Blues" upped the ante. With the same gorgeous sound pushing the music, it wasn't at first noticeable how much growth the band had shown. Their heavier numbers became more propulsive, their softer numbers more heart-breaking. Joakim Nilsson, now the sole vocalist for the band, went through a metamorphosis, emerging a full-fledged master of his craft. He could show through his voice every facet of emotion, and anchored the songs with a deft hand that began pushing the band's songs further out to the reaches of their abilities. Looking back, I can't fathom how I missed that record's greatness until their next album opened my eyes. Missing out on a year of the music is a terrible regret.

"Lights Out" was the album that converted me. After being assigned to review the record, one listen was all it took for me to see what all the hype was about. That record is, as near as I can see, the closest thing to a perfect rock record that anyone has produced for more than a decade. The band had honed their skills even further, their riffs sharper than ever, their melodies smoother. Coupled with this, the sequencing of the record was brilliant, interspersing the shorter, punchier numbers with the slower, more emotional numbers. The ebb and flow of the album allowed each song to breathe, giving them enough space from anything similar to stand out immediately upon first listen. 

That record is a flawless example of how rock and roll should be played. As I said at the time, "each and every song brings something different, something essential, to the table. The whole would be incomplete without all of the parts, each of which stands on its own as a perfectly honed weapon of vintage rock."

I went on to say that "Lights Out",  before declaring it the Album Of The Year, "is the kind of album I wish I was hearing with regularity, a collection of brilliantly written new songs that carry in them the kind of lived-in spirit that makes them feel like they've been around forever. “Hard Time Lovin'” can't possibly be exist today, but yet I'm listening to it, and it single-handedly wrings more from me than any dozen albums I've listened to this year have. And that is Graveyard's mastery. They have, through this set of songs, managed to come closer than anyone else has to building a time machine, so those of us too young to have been there can understand what it was like when rock and roll ruled the world."

In the time since that record's release, I have only grown more sure of that opinion. Listening to any of Graveyard's albums is like stepping back in time and hearing rock and roll with fresh ears. They are, to me, how I can understand the excitement that fans felt when the earliest rock bands were defining the genre. Graveyard is this generation's Led Zeppelin, this generation's Deep Purple. They carry in them the possibility of becoming part of the timeless canon of music that is simply too good to ever be forgotten. So far, through their first three records, Graveyard is practically flawless, so much so that the only peer they have for the title of Band Of The Millennium is a supergroup of some of the most talented musicians in the world.

And while that band, who I won't name at the moment, may be on Graveyard's level, they are nowhere near as important to the scene.

Graveyard is this millennium's shining light. They are the hope that music will remain forever great. I have immense faith that they will continue living up to that responsibility.

I can't wait for September, to hear and talk about the new record.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Album Review: Spearfish - In the Meantime

Sometimes, through no intention of their own, a band happens to be an uncanny ringer of a more famous group. That can have its negatives; people will assume it was done for the sake of riding coattails, and they will forever be compared to the bigger group, much to their detriment. But there are also positives that come from such a situation. A band like that can also fill the gap, keeping a very particular sound alive when the original band either has abandoned it for something new, or just doesn't make records with enough regularity for their fans. In that case, having someone around to fill the void, even if they aren't quite as good as the original, is something absolutely worth the effort.

Spearfish is one of those bands that fits that bill, a power trio whose sound is remarkably reminiscent of mid-to-late era Rush. The guitar tone is the same, and the vocals are almost a dead ringer for Geddy Lee. It's enough that if I wasn't listening intently at first, it would have been very easy to believe this record came from Rush sometime just before "Snakes & Arrows".

The chord construction of the opener, "Quicksilver Linings", keeps that comparison right at the forefront. Those ringing notes feel like something Alex Liefson would play, but what makes the song work is that when the chorus comes along, there's enough melody there to elevate it from being a pastiche to being a good song on its own. There's a difference between being inspired by a band abd being a copycat, and Spearfish is able to stay on the right side of that, using a familiar sound to anchor their own well-written songs.

"Put Me Down, Diamond" has a bit more rock energy, including a recurring guitar melody that could have come off a Thin Lizzy record. The core of Spearfish's sound is still there, but you can hear that they aren't going to be a one-trick pony. "South" continues the string of solid tracks with huge chords, the first appearance of acoustic guitar for texture, and layered vocals in the chorus that help sell the hook. "Gazing At The Moon" ups the drama, with a piano figure that gives it a darker feeling, and then the best hook so far on the album. It shows that Spearfish is more than capable of writing those kinds of melodies that don't veer off into pop territory, but are able to stick with you even after you hear them once.

Smack dab in the middle of the record is an instrumental, "Ursus Polaris", which has some interesting bits of playing and new sounds, but doesn't do much for the record. It's nice to hear the bursts of keyboards, tribal drumming, and especially the heartfelt soloing, but the song does what most instrumentals do and forgets to have an anchor riff that is hooky and memorable. It's nearly eight minutes of very nice playing that doesn't feel like a complete song.

Thankfully, it's the only time I have to say that, as the second half of the record follows the intermission with another batch of songs that balance the shimmering chords and hooky choruses. Some of them lean a bit more towards the 80s with pronounces keyboards, like "Hawks Of War", but they never stray far from the core of Spearfish's sound.

By the time the record is over, I'm thinking that Spearfish has done something that is awfully hard to do; they've made a record that I can't help but constantly compare to Rush at every turn, and yet it's a record that I don't feel is hampered by that fact. It's obvious who the band's influence is, and the sound comes through in all aspects, but the core of Spearfish's songwriting is strong enough that I can overlook what might be considered a bit too much of a lack of originality. Rush doesn't release records very often anymore, so it's nice to have a band like Spearfish around to scratch that itch, especially if they're going to do it with albums that are as enjoyable as this. I don't know if it's going to grow and endure the way great records do, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Album Review: Between The Buried And Me - Coma Ecliptic

There are always bands that, for whatever reason, I have trouble getting into. We can't all be fans of everything, but when I hear the near universal praise and can barely muster a 'meh', it leads me to wonder what I'm missing out on. One of the problems with being a bit obsessive as a music fan is wanting to hear everything great, which means that I've given bands I don't like more chances than I should have, just because everyone else says they're great. Between The buried And Me is one of those bands, a progressive metal outfit that writes the most stilted, structureless songs that mix the worst of prog with boring death metal. And yet, here I sit reviewing yet another of their albums. Why?

The answer to that lies in the first single to the record, which was intriguing enough to make me give the album a shot. It looked as though the band was going to be toning down the death metal and playing more with traditional prog metal, and that was something I wanted to hear for myself.

"Node" is a strange opening for a Between The Buried And Me record, three minutes of pianos and swirling vocals. The song is setting up the remainder of the concept, but beginning with a ballad that erupts in a pure Dream Theater guitar run is not what most people would be expecting. Nor is the bouncy piano that sits in the back of the mix of "The Coma Machine", another example of how the band is embracing more of the traditional sound of prog metal. It's well over five minutes into the record before the growled vocals come in, and even then they're only around for a few lines before the song moves on to something else.

My greatest complaint about Between The Buried And Me persists on this record, a form of songwriting that doesn't bother trying to logically move from one place to another. Often, these songs sound like various ideas thrown together because there was nowhere else to put them. While that can occasionally result in compelling music, the scatter-shot nature of everything the band does gets annoying after a while. Their music is like a sketch comedy show that didn't bother finishing one scene before characters from the next come on stage.

I do get the impression, though, that the band is at least trying to more fully integrate their pieces together. The curve-balls aren't as wild as they have been before, and the album has a central sound that everything works off of, something to tether the fleeting tangents.

I get the impression that a lot of fans will be unhappy with this turn of events, because the core of this record is not death metal. At its heart, "Coma Ecliptic" is a prog record, bringing out heavy doses of Dream Theater and Rush. Tommy sings clean for a large portion of the record, which is a move I think plays well. The vocal lines he's able to come up with when not growling are far more interesting to the compositions than anything his harsh voice would be able to do.

With my complaint noted, let's get to the crux of the album; the music. While it is still a bit scatter-shot for my tastes, this is easily the best I've heard from the band. The slight streamlining of the sound has allowed them to focus on making every moment more memorable, and there are plenty of them here that are truly great bits of music. "Memory Palace" remains the highlight, for me, the best song I've yet heard from the band. But there are plenty of other times, from "The Coma Machine" and "Famine Wolf" that follow suit, sticking out immediately.

I still don't know just how much staying power an album like this can have, but Between The buried And Me is certainly moving in the right direction here. "Coma Ecliptic" is a more traditional album, it is true, but it's also one that shows the band growing into themselves as songwriters. By toning down their more extreme elements, they may be angering some of their fans, but they have given themselves a wider palate of sounds and feelings to work with. There's nothing more progressive than shattering the expectations of your listeners, and the band has done that here.

I may not be spinning this regularly for the foreseeable future, but Between The Buried And Me has made a good record here, and they've earned a lot more respect from me.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

2015: Mid Year Recap

As we approach the halfway mark in 2015, these six months have been incredibly memorable. Before I get to the music itself, there is the issue of where we are, or more specifically, where I am. The beginning of this year marked my departure, after three years, from Bloody Good Horror. That has led to this site, which has continued the same work, but with more freedom to follow my creative wanderlust wherever it might end up. It has been an interesting turn of events, and one that I didn't see coming. While I may not have the audience I once did, what I have now is the ability to do exactly what I want as a music journalist. That level of freedom has been welcome, and has already led to some finds I would not have otherwise been able to cover. So there is much to appreciate about this situation, and more still to figure out as I develop the vision for this site.

Musically, this year has also been interesting. Coming off of what I considered the best year since I became a music fan, 2015 had a high bar to reach, and it has done an admirable job of continuing the trend towards there being more and more great music to listen to. Already, in these six months, I have encountered a plethora of records that have impressed me with their ambition and execution, that have made an impact on me by staying fresh long after I first hit the play button. For the sake of brevity, I won't write about all of them, but the list of quality albums includes the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Orden Ogan, Revolution Saints, Ascendia, Dendera, Vermillion Road, and more.

It's too early to compare the strengths of this year's top albums to those from last year, but if the second half of the year continues at this pace, there is plenty of reason to believe that we are looking at another fantastic year, and a year-end list filled with plenty of agonizing choices.

Let's get on with it.

The Disappointments:

Halestorm - Into The Wild Life

Halestorm's previous album shared the crown for Album Of The Year in 2012, so my expectations were quite high for this one. It's not that "Into The Wild Life" is a bad record, but what it does is highlight the weakest aspects of Halestorm, at the expense of what made them special. The pop overtones that let them cross over is gone, replaced with harder rocking songs that highlight how dull their instrumental play is. With less hooks, and more times where Lzzy's vocals are buried, Halestorm is playing the part of a generic rock band, when they were previously a band that could fuse rock and pop to perfection.

Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase

This album is being roundly hailed as a masterpiece, but I can't agree with the sentiment. It is an ambitious piece of work, and the package is meticulously put together. But what the album is lacking is heart. The story is one of human disconnection, and that comes through too strongly in the music, to the point where it seems to lack any humanity at all. It's too perfect, too mechanical, and ultimately feels too much like a piece of art.

Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

I am a huge Neal Morse fan, including giving him the top two spots on last year's year-end list. This new album, however, is not hitting me the same way. It's a good record, for sure, but the band approach has taken away large chunks of Neal's personality, which is why I listen to his music. No offense to the other members of the band, who are talented, but every time their voices take over the lead vocals (and the copious amounts of effects try to make them sound better), I can't stop thinking it would have been better had Neal done it all himself, like usual. This album just doesn't stick with me, which is something I haven't said about a Neal Morse album before.

The Oddballs:

Blues Traveler - Blow Up The Moon

I never know quite what to expect from a Blues Traveler album, and they surprised me again. This time, they have made a pure modern pop album, in concert with a group of collaborators who appear on every track. It's an interesting concept, and there are songs where the pairings work incredibly well, giving the tracks dimensions that Blues Traveler would not have achieved on their own. On the other hand, the more guest singers there are, the greater the chances that you won't like one of several of them, not to mention that the album is incapable of cohesion. It's interesting, and has a couple fantastic singles, but I'm not sure what to think of it as an album.

Art Of Anarchy - S/T

An album with Scott Weiland at this point in his career, and the guitarist who replaced Buckethead in Guns N' Roses, has no right being any good. And yet, listening to Art Or Anarchy's debut album, I can't help but get sucked in. Weiland's charisma comes through more here than anytime since his Stone Temple Pilots days, and the music itself has just enough simple groove to drill down into your head. It's not great art, but it's a far better record than I ever would have expected from names that I don't look to for entertainment. And if I didn't think it fit this category, it would easily be placed in the following one.

The Great Albums:

Nightingale - Retribution

Coming out of the gate, the first record I heard this year was a great one. Nightingale is about as uncool as a rock band can be, but they make some of the most addictive melodic rock around. Just when I thought they had hit their peak with their previous record, they come back from a long hiatus with one that blows everything they've ever done out of the water. This record is practically flawless, and features some of the best vocals in the business. Bonus; the special edition of the record comes with a dynamic mix, which is absolutely INCREDIBLE. It changes how you hear music, it's that good.

Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels

Coming out of nowhere, Karnataka was a band whose name I heard in passing. After checking out the samples for the album, I got in touch with the band, and they sent me a giant shock of an album. "Secrets Of Angels" is the kind of orchestral, theatrical rock music that normally gets swept up as derivative of Nightwish. But having heard this right after that band's newest work, it's clear who is following and who is leading. "Secrets Of Angels" is a phenomenal record, and Hayley Griffiths sells the living hell out of these songs. There are giant hooks and melodies everywhere, giving these dramatic songs heart.

UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars

UFO is often called the most underrated rock band of all time, which is a lie, because most of their career is nowhere near as good as people imagine it to be. They're a good band, but that's about it. This album, coming off a string of mediocre outings, changes that. There's more depth to the musical backdrop, and Phil Mogg sounds more inspired than he has since making his fantastic solo album. I didn't think UFO was capable of making great rock music anymore, but they proved me wrong by making what I would consider the best album of their career.

House Of Lords - Indestructible

One thing I have discovered this year is that I am still a sucker for softer rock, the kind that doesn't stand a chance of ever being popular again. House Of Lords is one of those bands, playing 80s style rock, but with far more passion than anything Journey has done since 1985. This album is my first exposure to the band in several cycles, but they just keep getting better. From top to bottom, they crank out a set of slick, catchy rock songs that will stick in your head after a single listen.

Europe - War Of Kings

Of all the unexpected things, how about a Europe album that sounds like a long lost Deep Purple record? That's what this is, and I have to say that it is incredibly awesome. Europe strips their sound down to their influences, slathers on a huge amount of Hammond organs, and cranks out a set of memorable songs. If all you know is "The Final Countdown", this album will shock you. If Deep Purple were to put this out tomorrow, it would be hailed as their best record since the last time Blackmore left them. Talk about a surprise.

Lunden Reign - American Stranger

This was an album I took a chance on after reading the press release, and boy am I glad I did. Coming straight out of the Heart school, the two women driving Lunden Reign know how to rock. This is a concept album, but it never gets bogged down by that fact. For a debut record, this is a refreshingly polished songwriting effort, with plenty of great guitar moments, an old-school rock spirit, and vocals you'll find yourself singing along to. It's a corker of a record.

The Leader In The Clubhouse:

Jorn Lande & Trond Holter - Dracula: Swing Of Death

At the halfway mark, the gap between this and every other record keeps growing wider. Jorn has always been a singular talent as a singer, but he has finally managed to give himself material worthy of his voice. The concept of the record is a bit ridiculous, telling the story of Dracula, and the execution is cheesier than hell, but this record is by far the most fun I've had listening to music in ages. There is something about the gusto Jorn brings to the roll, even in its most absurd moments, that is endearing. And cap that off with songs that are theatrical, dramatic, and damn near unforgettable, and you have the best album so far this year.

Don't take that as a foregone conclusion that it will reign as Album Of The Year come December. There are still records on tap for the second half of this year that have the potential to make a run at the crown. That list would include:

Meat Loaf

One of my favorite artists of all time is supposed to be back with a new album that is due to feature a selection of Jim Steinman tracks for the first time in many years. Knowing that his career is winding down, I'm hoping that Meat has it in him to craft one last classic.


One of the biggest surprises last year was Incura's debut, which was a theatrical rock album that caught me off-guard with its unique fusion of pop, rock, and Broadway. The band is due to release a new record in the fall, and I for one can't wait to see what tricks they have up their sleeves this time.

Bad Salad

The most promising young band in progressive metal has hinted that a new full-length is coming by the end of the year. Their debut was a favorite of mine, and their EP was even better. I said when I reviewed it that if it had been a full-length, it would have likely claimed one of the top two spots on my list. That's what I'm expecting from this new record when it comes out. No one has more potential than Bad Salad.

Iron Maiden

Just announced is that Iron Maiden will be returning with a brand new album in September. I am one of those people who is an unabashed fan of the style they have taken up since the reunion, and I'm excited to hear what they come up with now. It promises to be their most epic album yet, with their longest ever track, and being their first double album. I'm a bit worried about the sheer volume of music it will be offering up, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.


But the record I'm most looking forward to in the second half of the year is the just announced release from Graveyard. "Lights Out" shared the Album Of The Year title, and there's no reason to think that Graveyard can't do it again. They have been getting better with every record, and with three years to write and cull material, I'm expecting nothing short of another modern classic. If Graveyard isn't fighting for a high spot at the end of the year, I would be shocked.

And with that, let's get back to uncovering new music.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Album Review: Damnation Angels - The Valiant Fire

You might not realize it, but while power metal is in a state of decline, power metal is also doing just fine for itself.  How can that be?  The answer is that power metal has not died, it has merely transformed itself.  The days of dozens of bands aping the Helloween formula and riding it to success are currently behind us, but power metal still exists by way of what is not being described as 'symphonic metal'.  The bands that a decade ago would have been pure power metal bands have found life and success by adding heavy doses of orchestration to their sound, hyping the drama of the music above the sugary hooks that were once the main attraction.  Kamelot is the leader of this pack, but there are countless others who have followed suit, one of them being Damnation Angels.

The band's debut album made a splash in the world of power metal, setting them up as one of the rising stars on the scene.  After releasing an album that critics and fans both heaped praise upon, the band is back with their second album, trying to build upon that success.

"Finding Requiem" opens the album with a minute of swelling orchestrations and churning strings, before the song gallops into focus.  There are shifting tones and rhythms, with a main riff that is pure speed, verses that chug along on a groove, and a chorus that slows down to a sweet crooning.  I'm not sure it's the most cohesive of songs, but the individual elements are all strong, particularly the use of the strings to take the place of much of the space the guitar solo would be expected to fill.

"Icarus Syndrome" dials back on the drama a bit, with a main riff that swings with a heavy groove, and a more concise structure.  With the type of metallic chassis Damnation Angels trades in, brevity is a virtue.  The songs that stretch the times out a little further struggle to justify the extra minutes, because while they may have some interesting orchestral flourishes, the crux of the song isn't strong enough to hold attention quite that long.

But those complaints are rather minor, in context.  The songs throughout "The Valiant Fire" are a strong mix of heavy thunder and sticky hooks.  The band plays a similar style to Kamelot, but PelleK's vocals never drift so far into the melancholy.  His voice keeps things moving along with enough upbeat energy to make the record enjoyable, not a chore.  Darkness becomes insufferable when every element of every song is built solely upon it.  Thankfully, that doesn't happen here, and the songs are allowed to embrace their catchy nature.

"The Passing" features the album's most epic melody, with a mournful tone that sits perfectly in the mix with the weightier orchestral parts, as opposed to the more than nine minute "The Frontiersman", which gets bogged down in its attempt to be bigger than a typical metal song.  Between the obvious attempt at scope, and the lengthy orchestral portions, that song stands out as the worst number on the album, simply because it feels like it's trying to hard.  The basic verse and chorus are good, but the song got stretched too far for those pieces to stand up to the task.

What's more, the tone of the album changes around the time of that track.  The opening numbers are more direct, more focused on delivering a sharp hook, while the second half of the record gives more attention to the dramatic effects of the music.  Both approaches have their merit, but I would have preferred the record to focus on one or the other, or at least not so obviously separate them into two halves.

That being said, "The Valiant Fire" is a record that will win over fans of this brand of power metal without fail.  I won't make the direct comparison to Kamelot, other than to say that Damnation Angels holds up well to the leaders of the genre.  There's a lot to like about "The Valiant Fire", you just need to be a bit patient to unlock it all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Album Review: Dendera - Pillars Of Creation

One of the things I'm prone to doing is searching through the wonderful world of music for an explanation as to how certain sounds that amaze me have never been replicated outside of their origins.  There are certain bands or albums that I love dearly, that existed only for a moment in time, without followers taking up the cause.  I can gripe about that for more words than I need to, but the point is that one of the sounds that I dearly wish had become a bigger part of our metal world is the tenor and tone Bruce Dickinson struck with his trilogy of phenomenal solo albums, "Accident Of Birth", "The Chemical Wedding", and "Tyrrany Of Souls".  Those albums should have ushered in a new wave of melodic metal for this millennium, but instead they are curious outliers that prove Bruce's undeniable genius.

Dendera comes into this discussion, because they are a band I came across when searching for that elusive sound.  Their previous album, "The Killing Floor", was described in the same terms, and since I was not going to pass up the opportunity to find what I had been looking for, I took a chance on them.  That album was close to what I was looking for, but it was also a promising album that showed Dendera was a band that knew how to make proper heavy metal that still burnished sharp hooks.

With their new album, Dendera is forging more of their own identity, growing into something more than a band that can be described as being 'similar to _____'.  "Pillars Of Creation" is an album that reaches for much more than their previous record, and stretches out with new influences.

"Claim Out Throne" opens the album in dramatic fashion, with a slow building guitar harmony and faint crashing cymbals, before the song rips open with a furious riff.  The guitars are suitably heavy, with a thick tone and low tuning, while the vocals sit in the mid-range and retain just a hint of operatic flair.  The melody lines are simple, but when the chorus hits, it has that head-banging quality to it that is the very reason we listen to metal.

"Bloodlust", as the title would suggest, is more aggressive, showing the band at their heaviest and most visceral.  But even as they attack the verses, the chorus of the song opens up into another grand melodic moment, which is a perfect way of maintaining balance in the songwriting, and not wearing out the pace. 

After that, the songs stretch their wings a bit, with "In High Tide" carrying the same epic sweep that "The Chemical Wedding" used as a stock-in-trade, and to the same effect.  The riffs are dark and chunky, and the vocal hooks are perfectly framed, with a melody that is both catchy and a bit grand at the same time.  It is by no means a copycat, but it has the same feeling that Dickinson's best work evoked.  It's a brilliant song.

That feeling keeps up through "Disillusioned", while "The Daylight Ending" has a bit more of an old-school thrash attitude, but still with a focus on anchoring the song with a strong hook.  Throughout the album, and perhaps in spite of the tastes of many metal fans, the band's best moments are when they slow the tempos.  The chorus in "The Chosen One" is a highlight, and when the slower riff enters before the bridge, with its crushing heaviness bouyed by the empty space between the notes, it's all the stronger for its relaxed pace.

What Dendera has done with "Pillars Of Creation" is make a record that improves upon their previous one in every way.  The album is heavier, hookier, and more mature at the same time.  "The Killing Floor" was a pretty good record, and this one is a clear step up.  When I look at the landscape of what 'modern metal' has turned into, I can't understand how the type of music Dendera is playing didn't become the blueprint.  This is a great bridge between the ultra-heavy world we live in, and the glorious heyday of the 80s.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

My Take: An Album's Timing

As a reviewer, I have records regularly streaming into my inbox, and it's my job to listen to them, figure out which are interesting enough to talk about, and then give you an honest opinion of how I feel about what I heard. It seems simple enough, and it usually is, but there are times when little questions creep into my mind that make me wonder if it's possible to do the job with the degree of objectivity (as though judging art can be objective) that I would like to think I bring to the table.

Recently, I reviewed the newest album from Gothic death/doom masters Paradise Lost. Listening to that album triggered in me a doubt that I mentioned in my review, but want to expand on a bit more here.

Does the time when an album comes out affect how we hear it?

Over the course of time it will make no difference, as years down the line no one will remember when exactly an album came out, and it will be discovered in all manner of situations. But when we're talking about new music, and trying to help the artists by talking about their new efforts, are our opinions colored by the circumstances in which we happen to hear the music? I worry, at times, that I am doing the artists a disservice by trying to review an album when I am not prepared for that kind of music.

In the case of Paradise Lost, this feeling struck me much harder than usual. As I was listening to the dreary music, the sun was shining, and Spring was just beginning to bloom. My mood was optimistic, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and listen to an album that reveled in the art of misery. It seemed to me to be a mistake to release the album on the cusp of the bright, sunny days that fuel our summer dreams. Such an album, I think, would be much better served coming out in the early days of fall, as darkness creeps ever closer over the line of the days, drawing down upon us earlier with each rotation of the clock's hands. Next year, of course, none of this will matter, because the album will just be another record waiting to be discovered at the right time.

But the record industry right now is heavily focused on the initial buzz, and the first week sales. In that respect, I struggle to understand why an album would be released at a time that seems to be the very antithesis of the band's identity. I consider it to be a form of self-sabotage, although when I voiced this opinion, I was roundly ridiculed. Perhaps I am in the vast minority by being affected by my surroundings, but I notice it happen to me every time I turn the page on the calendar.

Last year, around this time, I received an album that dovetailed with the moment absolutely perfectly. I was sent the sophomore album from power-pop songwriter Edward O'Connell, titled "Vanishing Act". As I hit play that first time, there was a synthesis of the sunshine, the sweetness of the music, and of my mood, that worked together to create a moment in time that was far bigger than merely listening to a record. It was one of those rare occasions where you can see as it is happening that power that music has to dig inside of us and pry out our feelings, to take us to places we didn't know we needed to go.

So as another summer begins, I find myself right now spinning "Vanishing Act", and feeling that rush of summer warmth come over me again. A year later, the album is still able to evoke that feeling in me. It was still a great record when I listened to it during the winter, but it wasn't quite the same. But now that the sun is shining, that missing piece of the puzzle has been found. This summer, like last summer, I will be trying to fill my listening time with as much music as I can that amplifies my mood, and not the kind that fights to bring the darkness into moments it can only ruin.

So while bands like Paradise Lost are certainly free to release their records whenever they like, I wonder if by the end of the year they will regret their decision, because fewer people would have had the chance to have that kind of transcendental moment with their record. I'm going to have to wait until fall to see if it happens for me.

Until then, I can't recommend you go listen to Edward O'Connell and "Vanishing Act" enough. You're welcome, in advance, for making your summer great.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Album Review: Tremonti - Cauterize

Mark Tremonti is one busy guy. Between Creed, Alter Bridge, and now his own solo band, he has written an incredible amount of songs in a short amount of time. That is great for fans of his, as too many artists are content to push the envelope and see how long they can get away without being productive, but it also carries with it the risk of both he and the audience getting burned out. Frankly, that's about where I am with him. While I think he's a great guitarist, and a more than capable songwriter, he's put out enough records now that they're beginning to blend together too much for my taste.

This solo band was supposed to be his vehicle for his more speed metal influences, but between the radio ready choruses that define the songs, and the increased metal focus of the last Alter Bridge album, it's harder to discern the need for this project, other than the fact that Myles Kennedy spends half his time working with Slash.

For this, his second outing with the solo band, not much has changed. Wolfgang Van Halen is now on board playing bass, but the music is a continuation of where we left off with the previous record. What that means, to me, is that there's a bit of a 'been there, done that' vibe that comes across, because there isn't anything new on display here. All of the riffs, whether the speedy picking of "Radical Change", or the slow chunk of "Flying Monkeys", are things you've heard before. That doesn't make them any less fun, but it does strip the album of the novelty factor.

The other factor to consider is Tremonti's voice. While he earned plenty of praise for his singing on the last album, as it has aged, I've found myself growing less enthusiastic about his vocals. His singing is capable, sure, but there's something about his strident delivery that sounds like he's trying too hard. He lacks the emotional nuance of a great singer, and while I realize that this kind of metal doesn't necessitate a world-class vocalist, his tone and approach are something I would consider an obvious step down from what Myles Kennedy would have brought to these songs.

As for the songs themselves, there is plenty of good to be said on that front. One thing that has always been true of Mark Tremonti is that he can write a song. These ten tracks feature a group of big choruses that I can easily see an audience singing back at the top of their lungs. He has a knack for melody that is impressive, and provides the songs with the most important element they can have. But there is one thing about them that bothers me. These songs are supposed to be heavy, fast, aggressive metal, and the choruses just don't quite fit in with the rest of the compositions. Riffs are played with all the metal fury Tremonti can muster, and then every chorus comes in and pulls back to modern rock standards. There's such a thing as ebb and flow in music, but these songs take that idea to the extreme, often feeling like Frankensteined monsters, with pieces thrown together simply because they were all that was left.

I always try to be honest in my assessments of records, and that leads me to a conclusion that I would rather not have had to say; "Cauterize" sounds like a collection of demos that would be sent to a producer before entering the studio. There just isn't enough cohesion in these songs that make me feel like I'm listening to an album that had so much work put into it. For all Tremonti's skill as a songwriter, and the ample displays of his melodic writing on the record, he hasn't quite figured out how to put together his metal side and his melodic side. Right now, they're fighting each other, and that makes this record hard to enjoy as anything more than a batch of ideas.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Album Review: Vermillion Road - Palaces

You have to be a bit masochistic to be making radio friendly rock music these days. For one thing, the amount of competition out there is truly staggering. As is the case in every genre, there are simply so many bands out there that breaking through becomes increasingly difficult with every passing day. And for another thing, it is increasingly becoming an exercise in futility. The entire concept of radio friendly music is becoming an anachronism, as the medium withers on the vine. In many ways, the most important thing you can have going for you is a gimmick, and not a relatable sound. But if that kind of rock is where your heart is (and it's where mine started), then the tough slog will ultimately be worth it.

Vermillion Road is a new entrant into the field, a young band from Colorado that wants to restore some of the luster of the tarnished reputation of radio friendly rock. After a decade of the likes of Nickelback and Godsmack running it into the ground, I'll applaud any band that can make people remember that catchy hard rock doesn't have to be so disgusting.

Does Vermillion Road do that?

"Tread On Me" makes a good first impression, with plenty of jerking rhythms, a more biting guitar tone than usual, and a chorus that plays the melody as more than window dressing. It's not quite a throwback to what I consider the glory days of the mid 90s, when guitar-pop was all over the charts, but it's already a drastic improvement over the dark blandness that modern radio rock has become. It's an energetic little number that opens things on the right foot.

Things get even better on "Revival", which shows the band's versatility by using some softer tones through the verses, a hint of acoustic guitar (mixing acoustic and electric has always been one of the surest ways into my heart), and culminating in a chorus that pushes and pulls beautifully. It's the kind of melody that absolutely brings me back to the days when I was falling in love with the rock music I heard on Top 40 radio.

The rest of the album mixes up heavier tracks with the softer, more introspective compositions, and what is great about the record is that despite the two approaches, they are able to give every song a strong hook. I don't remember the last time I heard an American rock band that paid attention and made sure all their choruses were memorable and the highlight of their tracks. (Actually, I do. It was Halestorm on "The Strange Case Of..." - a modern classic, and an album I dearly love. But let's be honest; it was cobbled together by a dozen pop songwriters, in addition to the band. There's something endearing about a band that can do it all themselves.) That is certainly the case here, where all of the instrumental parts and layered in a way that best serves the melody, which is the heart of the composition.

A lot of rock bands, not to mention almost every band that is even heavier, gets confused about what makes a great song. Blistering riffs and solos are great, but without a vocal tying it all together, there's a limit to how much appeal a song can generate. You never hear "Iron Man" at a karaoke bar, do you?

My only criticisms of the record are minor. For one, at 36 minutes, the record could stand to be a touch longer. While I do appreciate the fact that it's not an album that tries to cram fifteen songs onto a single disc, which are more than someone can digest at a time, an extra song to push things to 40 minutes would have been welcome. The other is that when the band digs deep and gets heavy, the production is, if anything, a bit too clean. I would have liked to hear a bit more grit to the guitars to make this feel a bit more raw.

But neither of those things distracts from the fact that Vermillion Road has made a very nice record that reminds me that radio friendly rock used to be a genre that I really appreciated. It takes me back a bit to those days, and is a nice bridge between what radio rock used to be, and what it is today. It's modern, but has enough ties to the past to make it stand out from the clones. If you just want to have some fun listening to a rock record, check Vermillion Road out. "Palaces" is a highly promising debut.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Album Review: Art Of Anarchy - Art Of Anarchy

There are many reasons why musicians will make records.  For some, the songs are the end result of a passion for playing, their statement to the world about who they are as artists.  For others, an album can be a way of stepping out of a bad situation and maintaining their identity as creative beings.  And for others still, an album can be a job they use to keep themselves relevant.  I'm not going to denigrate any of those approaches, first of all because it's often impossible to tell what category the artist falls into, but also because that decision has no bearing on the end product.  An album can be looked at as a contractual obligation and still be amazing, so why would I fault the means that created the end?

Art Of Anarchy is the new band that somehow manages to meld all of those things together.  The core of the band are making their name for themselves, while collaborators Bumblefoot and Scott Weiland are trying to escape their own recent pasts.  Bumblefoot is stepping away from his role in Guns N' Roses to show that he is indeed capable of playing in a band that releases music, and Scott Weiland is the singer who took this on as a mercenary.

After an obligatory introduction piece, "Small Batch Whiskey" opens the album with post-grunge grooves, a guitar sound that will beg further discussion, and Weiland singing a lyric that seems ill-advised, in light of his history with substance abuse.  However, you can also hear why the band hired Weiland, because for all his faults, he has a charisma as a singer that always comes through on record.  There isn't a single thing about the song that will make you turn your head in amazement,but when it's over, you realize just how much fun it was.  That sly ability to worm into your head is the album's best selling point.

A song like "Get On Down" should have been the first single, with it's layered guitar parts and a chorus from Weiland that recalls bright 60s pop, but with a hint of weary darkness creeping around the edges.  It's the kind of subversive little song that shows the band firing on all cylinders, and is easily my pick for the best song on the album.

Like a lot of rock bands, Art Of Anarchy is least interesting when they're being heavy.  The hardest rock songs on the record don't have the same energy, with riffs that are just a bit to simple and predictable, and less room for melodies to be laid over the top.  It's the softer, more atmospheric songs that put the band in a better light, because the nuance of their playing and songwriting are allowed to come to the fore.

Perhaps part of this reason has to do with the tones chosen for the electric guitars.  In the pursuit of heaviness, the tones chosen sound like they have too much distortion put on them, with a scratchy quality that makes them sound thinner and more brittle than they should.  Instead of sounding massive, the chords slice through the mix as though the speaker wasn't quite projecting properly.  It's not distracting enough to take away from the songs, but it's a choice that doesn't let the music quite live up to its possibilities.

I don't think "Time Everytime" or "Superstar" show the band in the best light, but the record still has a group of great songs to build around.  In addition to the one I mentioned before, "Til The Dust Is Gone", "Death Of It", and "Aqualung" are all clever little bits of melodic modern rock, with choruses that you'll find yourself humming before long.  "Aqualung" in particular is a sly, yet gorgeous, bit of melody. It's surprising, somewhat, that Weiland sounds so invested in elevating these songs with his melodic work, given that he has already tried to distance himself from the project.  His vocals are the strongest part of the experience, and this is easily his best work in many a year.  He is doing himself a disservice by focusing on his own less interesting solo work.

Not many albums are flawless, and "Art Of Anarchy" is no different.  There are a few moments where the record drags, but that's to be expected.  The remainder of the album is some of the best modern rock I've heard that stands a real chance of garnering airplay in quite a while. I laughed a bit to myself when I heard about this album, with this lineup, but the music shut me up. Art Of Anarchy may have some turmoil behind the scenes, but if anything, that drama has bled into these songs and made them that much better. I don't know if they will be able to put this version of the band back together for another record, but I hope they do, because "Art Of Anarchy" sounds like the opening salvo in what could be a phenomenal second (or third) act for these guys.

"Art Of Anarchy" is easily the best mainstream record so far this year, and it's also one of the best records of the year, full stop. I'm serious. Check this out.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Album Review: Armored Saint - Win Hands Down

They often get called one of the underground's legendary bands, but I have to say that I've never been enamored by Armored Saint. Their early work was fine traditional metal, but that's all it was. Maybe it was the fact that America wasn't pumping out tons of bands that played that kind of style well, but those records were good without coming close to great, and it seems their reputation has grown over the years more for being the 'true metal' home of John Bush, which gives a lot of fans the opportunity to praise his vocals without having to admit that Anthrax wasn't all that bad when he was in the band. Their last album, "La Raza", bridged the gap between their metal roots and Bush's more alternative rock days with Anthrax, but it was a record that failed on both levels. It wasn't heavy enough for the metallic moments, and wasn't melodic enough for the rock moments. It seemed like an album made by a band that didn't know where they were going.

This time around, with another five years of experience behind them, Armored Saint is a much more focused beast. "Win Hands Down" is the record that "La Raza" was trying to be, a more effective hybrid of traditional metal and hooky rock.

Kicking off with the title track, we get to hear that mixture right away. The main riff has a metallic bite to it, but the groove of the song is more rock oriented, with a chorus that is both hooky and traditionally metal chanted at the same time. It's actually interesting to hear the two approaches come together so easily. And when the song breaks down into an almost jazzy instrumental interlude, it shows that Armored Saint isn't backing down; this is the record where they're doing whatever they damn well please.

"Mess" is a bit of an appropriate title for a song that manages to have a slinky metallic riff, pounding drums, and then a section of what sounds like Indian music placed in the middle for seemingly no reason. I'm not saying it doesn't work, but there isn't much of a logical progression into or out of that section of the song.

"An Exercise In Debauchery" is the most metallic song, with plenty of energy running through the track. The title makes a bit of a difficult hook, but more problematic are the lyrics, which include lines like "your addiction to smut". I'm sorry, but there has to be a more elegant way of calling someone a sexual freak. But there's a very nice bridge after the solo that tilts the song back into the win column. I'm equally puzzled by the line "a perfect chair to put my derriere" in "Dive". It's highly questionable songwriting.

The problem with the record, and this will be odd to say about a band featuring John Bush, is the vocals. His actual performance is great; his voice sounds as strong as it ever has, but listening to an entire record where he is responsible for the vocal lines exposes his shortcomings as a songwriter. The hooks on these songs just aren't sharp enough to do the job he's shooting for. Too many of them are simple repetitions of the title, without much in the way of a lasting melody. That approach works from time to time, when there's either a remarkable title, or the energy of the song demands nothing less, but these songs are built to have strong melodies, and they just don't show up often enough. On their own, each song is fine, but that deficit begins to nag and eat away at the record by the time you get through all nine tracks.

Overall, "Win Hands Down" is both a better record, and a more interesting one, than "La Raza" was. I can see exactly what the band was trying to achieve, and even if I don't feel they quite hit the mark all the time, there's enough here to make for an enjoyable record. While I don't think this proves Armored Saint is criminally underrated, it's a solid record that at the very least shows they should be known for more than housing a former Anthrax singer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Album Review: Magic Pie - King For A Day

One of the things that has kept me from diving full-fledged into progressive rock is that, to be frank, so much of it doesn't rock in the slightest. Without delving into progressive metal, a large number of the bands that fall under the umbrella dial up the progressiveness, doing everything to say how out of the mainstream they are, but they forget that progressive rock was founded on the principles of rock and roll. Seldom do these bands really tear into a heavy groove, or introduce a guitar riff that wouldn't be out of place on a Michael Buble record. It's a bit sad, since there is so obviously a place for music that manages to be both interesting on a compositional level, and punchy on a gut level.

Magic Pie is one of those bands that does try to play the kind of music I'm describing. They are absolutely rooted in the hallmarks of prog, but they also take inspiration from Deep Purple and the early hard rock bands, which not only makes their music sound unique, but provides it with an energy that is often lacking in prog.

"Trick Of The Trade", the first single, leads the album off with all the baroque abstraction you would want. Synth lines swirl, the bass pulses, and then the song segues into layered vocals that could have been pulled straight off "Rubber Soul". Between verses, the guitars riff away with some crunch, throwing some 80s rock flavor into the mix. There's a lot going on during the six minutes, but those sugar-sweet vocal harmonies tie it all together with some truly beautiful sounds. It is certainly a prog song, but it has moments that rock, and a glorious bunch of melody. Not much prog can say all of that, and Magic Pie did it in the span of one track.

"Introversion" doubles the running time, which gives the band time to stretch out their ideas and relax the pace a bit. There's plenty of inventive interplay between the vintage crunch of the guitars and the prominent roar of the organs, and it all leads up to more sections with those massive layers of vocals. They are seriously beautiful, and make every section where they appear sound larger than life. They, and the particular kind of melodies I'm hearing, are a pure throwback to the late 60s and early 70s, and it's all done so well that it can't help but put a smile on my face. There's something about that particular style that is timeless.

That pattern repeats over the next four songs, alternating shorter, more energetic songs with the longer, more progressive ones. It's a simple trick to make sure we aren't being given too much to digest at any one time, and it works. There's enough push and pull in the sequencing to keep the record's flow where it needs to be.

That middle section of songs lack a bit of the fire of the opening two, but they lead into the massive, twenty-seven minute title track, which closes the album in epic fashion. Opening with five minutes of jazzy instrumental work, the song segues into one that sounds remarkably like it could be one of Transatlantic's many epics. The melodic construction in the first vocal section, as well as the keyboard tones used, are highly reminiscent of Neal Morse's contributions. Don't take any of this as a criticism. Transatlantic is one of the best bands on the planet, so sounding like them is not at all a bad thing.

My only complaint about the track would be that the balance between the proggy instrumental sections, and the vocal passages, is skewed. For as long as the track is, I wanted more vocal hooks to keep me invested. The playing goes off for minutes at a time on intricate runs, and it's easy for me to lose focus and drift away. The playing is highly impressive, but it's asking a lot of the listener. When those vocal sections do come in, they're killer, so my displeasure is slight.

Overall, "King For A Day" is a tremendous example of how modern prog can indeed rock. There's a lot to like about this record, and even if there are some flaws, they're the kind that are easy to live with. If you're looking for something to fill the void between Transatlantic albums, and Neal Morse's new album isn't doing it for you (you're not alone, trust me), Magic Pie might be just what you're looking for.