Monday, August 31, 2015

Album Review: Riverside - Love, Fear And The Time Machine

Over the course of their career, Riverside has staked a claim as one of the most important bands in the modern prog scene. They receive rapturous reviews, push their own boundaries, and I've even heard it said that they've been on the best run in the world of prog since the glory days of Rush. Myself, I'm not willing to go quite that far. They are a band I enjoy, but one that has often failed to deliver on the promise they embody. While I quite like "Anno Domini High Definition", it is the only record in their discography that has any energy to it, any sort of rock edge. Mostly, they border so often on the softest material possible, that they become a white noise machine.

This time out, Riverside abandons the gimmick of making album names that are acronyms, but not much else has changed. This is still the same Riverside you know and (maybe) love, with their atmospheric take on prog, and heavy doses of emotional vocals.

"Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By A Hat)" opens the album in a way that epitomizes what Riverside is all about. A single plaintive guitar winds through a simple riff for several minutes while the vocals tell a somber tale, with some gorgeous harmonies laid over the top. There's a hint of an electronic beat underneath a few moments, before the song finally segues into a full band arrangement. Even then, the energy is decidedly laid-back, and the band is more focused on making something beautiful than rocking out. I'm not sure it's the most engaging way to open a record, but the melodies are beautiful, and pure Riverside.

Even when the band turns up the volume, which they do on the following "Under The Pillow", their harder-edge sound is still soft and soothing. The focus shifts a bit here, with more emphasis put on the guitars, which introduce a dark, descending riff, and then segue into a beautiful, extended solo. Combined with the hints of organ that pop out of the background, Riverside is excellent at setting a tone with their music. There's a very specific vibe that they evoke, one that comes out in every one of their records, but I sometimes wonder if it is the reason I struggle to relate to their music.

Riverside's music is beautiful, but it is also somber. There's a string of melancholy that runs through everything they do, and as someone who tries to use music to life myself up, that sense of sadness does make the music harder to enjoy. While it's expertly crafted, it explores an emotional range I seldom want to investigate in my listening. It's difficult to feel good while listening to Riverside, no matter how good they are at making the music they do.

Take for instance the opening minutes of "Saturate Me", which play with time signatures through a riff that ebbs and flows, with a flurry of muted notes that don't appear at first glance to fit a pattern. It's a wonderful bit of music, because you hear something interesting if you're paying close attention, and something entirely different, but equally worthwhile, if you are listening to the surface level. But from there, the song turns back into a typical Riverside track, and all of the buildup seems to have been for naught.

The best track here is easily "Discard Your Fear", the first single, which is the only song that has any sense of urgency to it. The usual Riverside trademarks are here, but the song moves just a touch faster, and that makes all the difference. Instead of sounding like a soundtrack for a rainy day, the song has a hint of bounce to it, and the melody is able to hook me. It's a gorgeous song, and only makes me wish the band could have explored this road a bit more often.

I'm not saying this is a bad record, but it's not one for me. People who love music that mirrors their darker feelings will absolutely love this. It's a beautiful record, and certainly a well written one, but it isn't what I want out of music. That's not a criticism of Riverside, or of myself. We are the proverbial ships passing in the night. They do what they do, I want what I want, and though we probably won't be able to come together, I can still respect them and their music.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Album Review: Pentagram - "Curious Volume"

Pentagram stands as one of the all-time heavyweights in American metal.  Working now in their fifth doom-laden decade, the band has not only been the continual standard bearer for American doom, but frontman Bobby Liebling has been idolized and celebrated more than most singers in the genre as a whole.  In all of metal’s menacing history, perhaps only Diamondhead stands ahead of Pentagram for the title of band that has influenced the most musicians while still having mainstream acceptance elude them.  Nevertheless, what’s old is new again, particularly in the digital age when history is easy to research, and Pentagram continues to thrive as they approach the age when most normal mortals would contemplate retirement and the rocking chair.

Whenever a band with as much experience as Pentagram releases new material, there is always the threat that it’s simply a cash-in, that the gears turn only just enough to cough out another excuse to shell out fifteen bucks for the album and more to have people come see the walking museum that the live show has become.  Rest easy fans, Pentagram is giving you a genuine effort on their new album “Curious Volume.”  If there is a silver lining in having widespread fame elude a band for forty years, it’s that the band remains hungry and Liebling and company still approach their music with wild eyes and calculated misery, rolling their ravenous appetite for metal into an effort that contains riffs of authentic malice and rumbling thunder.

There is an amusing scene in the Christopher Guest vehicle “A Mighty Wind” where The Folksmen’s bassist Mark Shubb (Principal Skinner, for “Simpsons” fans) quips “To do then now would be retro.  To do then then was very now-tro, if you will.”  That’s sort of the feel of Pentagram’s latest work, as the band provides us with a resurgent take on yesterday’s emergent sound, cut and packaged in an era where very few bands seem to recall the lessons of yesteryear.

Skipping to the end first, the slow churn of “The Devil’s Playground” bristles with magnificence, one of those great tunes that strikes the proper balance between foreboding storm clouds and head-nodding listenability (which isn’t a word, but whatever.)  These are the hallmarks of the genre – the ability to be infectious while at the same time narrating a dire story of trial and tribulation.

Not to be outdone, the vast bulk of the album is cut from the same cloth, as the sparse but churning riff of “Lay Down and Die” crackles with analog hum, standing in contrast to the burst of percussion beneath.  It is in these moments when Pentagram proves their mettle, channeling the experience of a long career into true, atmosphere-altering songcraft.

One of the base touchstones of doom has always been the ability to transition into different strengths and musical bridges, giving the listener a wide arsenal of sounds to enjoy, each section debuting just when it seems the previous cadence might run out of gas.  Here, too, we see Pentagram succeed where so many show their inexperience; the pummeling of “Walk Alone” shifts into a different gear for the outro, moving from a slogging dirge to a springy and memorable second life.

It is difficult to find fault with “Curious Volume” except to have the obligatory conversation that this album is ‘old skool.’  If listeners prefer their doom solely in morose, downtrodden tones, with mumbled, growling lyrics and at a rate of one note per ten seconds, well, tough luck.  Nor will fans looking for the deepest thematic depravity find much satiation, as the album never stoops to out and out visceral descriptions of surgery performed without consent or some other purely corporeal dreck.  Rather, this is an album composed out of the boiling cauldron of the genre’s auspicious beginnings, far more apt to examine the inner turmoil of an unquiet mind.  The lowest common denominator has little place here.

What Pentagram really proves by the slowly boiling conclusion of “Curious Volume” is that doom is not now, nor has it ever been, simply a matter of selecting three blues minor chords and playing slow.  The music must have character and color and tone and this new record broods with slumbering anger and the kind of intellectual understanding of doom that genre fans demand.  “Curious Volume” is a great record, Pentagram’s best effort in years and a worthy addition to anybody who thinks metal was at its best when Black Sabbath and Cirith Ungol and, well, Pentagram ruled the roost.

Album Review: Jasmine Cain - White Noise

As a critic, it's easy to get hyped up for the next major release from one of the big-name bands that you know you have to write about. The PR machine swings into gear early, and there's no way to avoid hearing every little detail up until the release. The problem is that, while the music can be great, you know that the corporate till is thick enough that those artists will never see your words, and even if they do, they will fly out of their heads without a second thought. That's why the most rewarding experiences I've had as a writer involve independent artists, where a relationship can form where we have mutual respect for one another. Finding a great independent record is always one of the highlights of my year.

Jasmine Cain comes to us as one of those independent artists, a singer and songwriter bringing us an album of heavily melodic rock that fills a very important void in my ears. But we'll get to that specific comment later.

The album opens with "Coming In Hot", where you can immediately hear the thick guitars as they play a simple but easy to latch onto riff, and Jasmine's vocals come in with a killer tone. Her voice is a touch deeper, with just a hint of roughness around the edges. It's perfect for giving the music a rock edge, even when the songs are more polished. It's a catchy little opener, but I'll admit that it might be my least favorite song on the record. That's not because it isn't good, but rather because the rest of the album kicks it up into another gear.

The title track is an aggressive cut, with a ton of energy carrying through the bouncing chorus. The emphasis of the composition puts the focus on Jasmine, which is a smart decision, both because she delivers on the melody, and because her voice is the standout feature of the sound. Great singers should never play second-fiddle to a band, and Jasmine is out front and center dominating this album.

With those two tracks out of the way, we hit the stretch of the album that I absolutely love. Starting with "Break Even", the songs tone down the rock aggression just a bit, and bring the melodies to the fore. That makes them a touch more inviting, but more than anything, it gives Jasmine more room for her melodies to stick. All these songs have big, catchy hooks that remind me of growing up listening to the radio in the mid and late 90s, when big guitars and big hooks were the formula for success. She remembers this too, as evident by the song "1995", which pines for those exact days.

The album closes with "Fall To Rise", which features a guest vocal from Steel Panther's Michael Starr. This is the best song he's ever sung, and the first time I'm convinced of his talent. Without the sophomoric comedy to hide behind, he has to use his voice, and the grit in both his and Jasmine's voice give poignancy to the track, and bolster the emotional heft. It's a great song, and a masterful use of getting the most out of a guest star. But as great as that is, my favorite song on the album is "Fool's Gold", which has a massive, massive hook that is nearly impossible to ignore.

And that brings us to my initial observation. "White Noise" is a really good album that bridges hard rock and pop, but it's even better when you factor in how well it fills the hole for exactly that kind of music that Halestorm left this year. There are similarities between Jasmine and Lzzy's voices, and "White Noise" feels like a record that could easily sit next to former Album Of The Year "The Strange Case Of..." in a discography. Jasmine has made a record I was waiting to hear this year, and it definitely hits the spot. If you like pop-laced hard rock, "White Noise" will be music to your ears.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Album Review: Motörhead - Bad Magic

Some bands have the negative reputation of making the same album over and over again. When you think about it, however, it's a remarkably stupid criticism to have. If a band has their own style, and they're good at what they do, why should they change everything about who they are and do something completely different? That kind of radical change may sound 'artistic', but it also is a recipe for disaster, if it isn't something the band themselves desperately want to do. And then there's the fact that there are some bands that are so identifiable by a sound that you wouldn't want them to be anything else. Seriously, who wants Motörhead to be anything but Motörhead ?

Now on album number twenty-two, Motörhead are still playing the same music they were back when they formed. Over the years, little has changed, and honestly, that's for the best. Motörhead is not one of those bands that needs to tackle new territory. They are a pure, dirty rock and roll band, and that never goes out of style.

"Bad Magic" continues the run that the Lemmy/Phil Campbell/Mikkey Dee lineup has been on, establishing them as the best (although not the classic) roster the band has ever had. Since they've been together, they haven't had a misstep, and have occasionally made records that are as vital as "Ace Of Spades", even though they can never get that level of acclaim.

This time out, Motörhead is hitting short and sweet, heavy and hard, with only one of the twelve original tracks exceeding three and a half minutes by more than five seconds. Whereas some of the modern Motörhead records have tried to be heavier, or tried to branch out a bit, "Bad Magic" is raw rock and roll with little concern for anything but coming in with a riff and a chorus. It's a catchier record than the previous one, which may owe much to the fact that Lemmy sounds recovered from his health issues, his vocals stronger, although double-tracked in places.

The opening run of "Victory Or Die", "Thunder & Lightning" and "Fire Storm Hotel" are pure Motörhead , with bluesy swagger, a hint of boogie, and manic rock and roll energy. They're all catchy tracks, and well worth a Motörhead fan's time. It may be only my opinion, but I feel like Lemmy has gotten better at crafting his melodies as he has aged, which gives recent Motörhead records a better anchor for the songs to swing around.

"The Devil" is a song that should be a live favorite, with low-hanging guitars and a chorus that starts and stops in perfect head-banging time. If old Motörhead was all about speed, this is what new Motörhead is all about. And frankly speaking, I like this a whole lot more.

There is the curious case of "Evil Eye", a song I can't figure out. Instead of the usual Motörhead chorus, there's a section where Lemmy's vocal is an echoed growl placed oddly in the mix. It doesn't sound right, and the lyric gets garbled under the effect. It's easily the worst song here. But that is more than made up for by the album's curve-ball, the ballad "Till The End". This song finds the band playing an almost power ballad, with Lemmy stripping the grit from his voice as he sings about mortality. The chorus swells with beautiful aplomb, and it's hard not to think that this is what "Bad Magic" is going to be remembered for. It's one of the best Motörhead tracks in ages.

Going into a Motörhead album, you know what you're going to get. That's both the good thing and the bad thing about it. What you hope for is that the band is going to deliver a set of songs that play to their better tendencies. "Bad Magic" definitely does that. I can't say where it belongs in the hierarchy of their career, but I say it's a better album than their previous one, and it's another example of what Motörhead does best.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Album Review: Tad Morose - St Demonius

It's been a long time since Tad Morose was a name that meant anything in the world of traditional and power metal. For years, they were building a name as an intriguing force that was moving the sound in a heavier direction. Their album "Matters Of The Dark" is still a favorite of mine, and "Modus Vivendi" is the album that most people consider their crowning achievement. They had everything going for them, but then the band began to crumble. It took them eight years to replace Urban breed and put out a new record, and when they finally did, it was a shadow of what they used to be. What I heard from that album was utterly forgettable, and didn't give me any hope for the resurrection of the band.

Now back for their second album in this incarnation, Tad Morose needs to make a statement that they were just finding their sea legs on the previous album, and that they haven't forgotten how to make good music. That can be a tall order when it's been so long, so are they able to do it?

"Bow To The Reaper's Blade" opens the album off solidly, with a thrashy riff that leads into a chorus that slows the song down, but emphasizes the heaviness. I'm not one of those people who thinks everything needs to be complicated to be good, but I can see where some will say the riffing is too simplistic. The 80s synth line is a nice touch, but I'm not sure the tempo shifting is well-integrated enough for the song to quite hold together. The parts are there, but maybe not the whole.

"Forlorn", which follows, is a better track. Everything fits together well, and the subtle backing vocals in the chorus make a huge difference. It stands out and sounds huge, which only helps to emphasize the hook. It's meat and potatoes songwriting, but that's where this version of the band is best suited, and the decision to not try to expand into more progressive territory is smart. Listening to these songs, and specifically the way the riffs and melodies are constructed, I think anything more adventurous would have exposed the band as not being ready.

As the record moves forward, we get a string of songs that all follow the band's blueprint; heavy, chugging riffs that lead into simple choruses. When they do it well, the songs are quite enjoyable. The downside is that, because of how the songs are written, much of the immediate appeal is placed solely on the vocals, and that's the one area the band isn't quite consistent enough. Ronny Hemlin has a tone that I don't particularly enjoy, where he sounds like he's oversinging quite often, and his writing isn't hooky enough to match what I expect of Tad Morose. There are a few choruses where his melodies sweep appropriately, like in "Darkness Prevail", but when you hit songs like "Black Fire", I couldn't even tell where the chorus was.

What I can say about Tad Morose is that all these years later, and despite the lineup shifts they've been through, they haven't forgotten what the band sounds like. They may not be quite as adventurous or energetic as they once were, but there's no mistaking this for anything but a Tad Morose record. There's something to those riffs that reeks of Tad Morose, and from that perspective this is a success.

Like the previous album, my conclusion when listening to "St Demonius" is that Tad Morose is missing the key ingredient to making a comeback to where they once were. I'm not saying that is necessarily Urban breed, since he has been involved in projects that fell short as well. But "St Demonius" is lacking the huge melodies and massive hooks that the best Tad Morose material used to have. Putting this on right after "Matters Of The Dark" is like night and day. It's clearly the same band, and the guitars are riffing as well as they used to, but the songs themselves don't make the same impact. "St Demonius" isn't a bad record, but it is one where you can obviously hear the band still trying to find their way.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Album Review: Dead Lord - Heads Held High

A band's image is a crucial part of their appeal. It shouldn't be, and I try hard not to ever think about what a band looks like (since music can't be seen), but it's an inevitable factor in how we perceive the artists we listen to. We want our music to be cool, and we want the people who make it to similarly be cool. When their look doesn't fit our perceptions of what the music should appear like, there is a degree to which the music will suffer, in our eyes.

So when a band like Dead Lord comes around, I'm not sure what to think. The cover of "Heads Held High" is straight out of the stoner rock school, with a big fuzzy skull and throwback horror movie lettering. But then when you see the band on stage, they look like a band that would be in a porn parody of what rock and roll is all about. Then throw in the fact that what they are is neither of those things, but instead a throwback rock band playing an updated form of classic rock, and none of it makes the least bit of sense.

As to the music itself, Dead Lord comes across like a modern day reincarnation of Thin Lizzy, but with a lot more grit than Black Star Riders have been able to inject into their music. There's a purveying sense of dirt and grime that washes over these songs, which gives them more personality than a lot of the bands playing this kind of music. The mix of dingy tones and hooky songs is a combination that works well for the band.

"Farewell" is about as simple an opening number as you can get, with a hook that almost entirely centers around the title, but the Phil Lynott meets Paul Stanley vocals are endearing in their rough edges, the chorus is solidly catchy, and the guitar playing has just enough to it for the song to bounce along. Not every song is as short and sweet. "Ruins" extends out over nearly six minutes, packing multiple solo breaks in between a proto-thrash riff and another solid chorus. The modern music fan in me is supposed to be bothered by the not quite perfect vocals, and the lead guitar that at times bends out of key, but those moments are what actually make me like the song even more. It's unflinching in its honesty.

"No Regrets" is the kind of half-ballad that I love, with plenty of room for melody, and the twin-guitar harmonies that recall Thin Lizzy. The no-frills approach works on this kind of song, and Dead Lord takes full advantage. Not every song works as well, but even the songs that don't hit as hard, like "Mindless" are still enjoyable. They just lack the killer instinct that is powering the better tracks on display here.

The more energetic tracks, like "Strained Fools" and "When History Repeats Itself" are where the band seems most comfortable. Those tracks utilize their strengths, and are hard not to like. But when they get to a more extended number like "The Bold Move", they seem to be a bit outside their wheelhouse. That track in particular drags on for too long before it gets going, and even then, it's lacking the snap and crackle of the shorter tracks.

But leaving those criticisms aside, "Heads Held High" is a solid album that has a lot of throwback personality, and is a completely enjoyable way of spending some time. No, it's not one of the best albums of vintage rock I've heard, but there's nothing wrong with being a good band making good records. That's what we have here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Album Review: Lamb of God - "VII: Sturm Und Drang"

To this point, Lamb of God has essentially produced the same record multiple times.  Now, we see the Richmond, Virginia screamers return to the fore with a record that does little to change their reputation or their immense popularity, but does see them take a step toward accessibility and craftsmanship.  “VII: Sturm Und Drang” isn’t a game changer for Lamb of God in the sense that it will seem unrecognizable to their doggedly loyal army of fanatics, but it will seem like a fresh face for those who thought that Lamb of God had since shown all their playable cards on their previous efforts.

What strikes most about “Sturm Und Drang” is that for the first time, Lamb of God is really embracing the idea of differing tempos and adjustments to the throttle.  Critics of the band have long contended that the largest part of their issue with the band is that these Atlantic coasters have never seen a double kick and buzzsaw riff they didn’t like.  Every song sounded like an anvil being hit with a different, larger anvil, thus creating a continual tidal wave of metal noise that left little space for distinguishing notes or chords or any semblance of a complete idea.  That no longer rings true for this record as we see the usual panoply of overdriven, steroidal riffs, but there’s a moderating maturity here that makes them more than just piles of scrap metal.

This album represents the first studio material from Lamb of God since Randy Blythe was imprisoned and subsequently exonerated.  Rather than compose a so-called ‘prison album’ Blythe and company instead have used the experience to write an album detailing with the struggle of the judicial process and one man’s solitary journey through it.

Bringing together everything we’ve discussed so far, “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress, for those not up on their German – also, the title of a pretty good KMFDM song,) begins with “Still Echoes,” a rolling grind of turgid riffs that remains powerful and threatening without spilling over the edge into a miasma of chaos.  The song is measured but potent, stalking rather than charging, a churning burn that stamps out pugilistic beat-centric metal without opening the flood gates of continual cacophony that has plagued Lamb of God from time to time.

Right on the heels of that success is “Erase This,” another strong song which ties together the ambulatory principles of a lumbering giant with the well struck sensibilities of basic thrash.  That’s not to say that Lamb of God is encroaching on that subgenre's territory or anything, but the threads of that cloth are woven into the fabric of the song, lending it a cadence that moves along in a nice pocket to the rhythm and melody.

Where the album loses some steam is in the meaty middle section, where many of the songs follow the same rough pattern and fail to distinguish themselves from the robust beginning.  Starting with “512,” each cut starts to increasingly adopt a sort of head-down, shoulders-hunched approach to songwriting, the brutality of the band overshadowing their earlier success at real craftsmanship.  There’s the usual spate of mushy, swampy overdriven guitar, but the spirit that effectively renders “Escape This” and forces it to evolve is absent.  As such, the middle section of the record feels uninspired and listless, lying roughly flat until the listener is rejuvenated by the gallop of “Anthropoid,”

No one can diminish the harrowing journey that Blythe found himself on not so long ago and the incorporation of his experience into the theme of “Sturm Und Drang” is poignant and done with some care.  Nevertheless, there are isolated moments on the record where some hardcore-style exhortations show through, and the general sense of “You are responsible for you and fuck everyone else RAHHH!” seems a little tired.  Again, we’re not making light of Blythe’s experience, merely suggesting that some metaphor or greater concentration on presentation would have better served the concept.

“Sturm Und Drang” is a stark improvement for Lamb of God and just might be their best record to date.  For some that’s a low bar to set, but it remains significant for a band that remains one of the most popular modern metal bands, which in itself is impressive considering the band’s lack of mainstream marketing potential.  Ardent fans will hardly need justification for their interesting in this record, but if you’ve never been a fan of Lamb of God before, try this on for size at least once to see what you think.  It probably won’t change everything you believe about the band, but it may show a glimmer of something new.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Album Review: Battlecross - "Rise to Power"

On their last album “War of Wills,” Battlecross composed “Flesh and Bone,” one of the all-time great metal songs regardless of genre.  That’s right, I said ‘all-time.’  (If you disagree, I will treat you like Marvin the Paranoid Android treats the living mattresses.)  It was a song that could play in perpetuity on repeat without tiring the listener out, one of the sublime bites of music that combined unparalleled savagery with rhythmic discipline and powerful hooks.   The issue is, how does the band follow up on such a supreme accomplishment?

Their answer is the new album “Rise to Power” and the self-described ‘blue collar thrashers’ continue on the warpath of twenty-first century thrash with another effort that sounds a little like Overkill on steroids (which is itself a lofty claim, since Overkill was fairly steroidal in comparison to their contemporaries.)

Now this begs the question – does “Rise to Power” have a song on it that is the equal or dare we even suggest superior, of “Flesh and Bone?”  The short answer is no, but that alone doesn’t mean that “Rise to Power” is diminished as a whole.

If you crack a small smile at the over-the-top feel of “Rise to Power,” that’s okay.  Battlecross seems to demonstrate an implicit understand that thrash is an over-the-top genre, long steeped in intentional ridiculousness and perfectly apt for trying to inject nine pounds of personality into a two-pound bag.

Like all Battlecross efforts, there are singles on this new stack of songs that rise above the common din of their brethren.  Once or twice an album, the Michiganders (finally got to use that in context, yes!) put together the pieces in just the right order and really show the fans the full arsenal of their talent.  For this album, it’s “Scars” and “Despised.”  The former leads the album with a surge of electric fury, the customary Battlecross hook riffs displayed prominently over the percussive gunfire that punctuates the pulse of every track from beginning to end.  The later shows the more artistic side of Battlecross’ thrash sensibilities, as we are subjected to a mix of cadences ranging from full throttle mayhem to headbanging cannon fodder.  It’s a song that probably doesn’t sound like much to the casual observer, but thrash aficionados will come to dissect the layers and see the orchestration of the sections come to life.

The other edge of that sword is that while the band can transcend in multiple moments, the remaining moments are simply average.  Many of the cuts on “Rise to Power” contain all the requisite elements of modern thrash, but are left wanting for personality or flair.  The split audio during the opening of “Spoiled” is a great gimmick that’s easy to fall for, but a song can’t be carried solely by a gimmick and the early promise of the song’s throwback riff is ultimately unfilled.  Same goes for “Blood and Lies” which feeds us a great build-up conjuring images of the high-concept thrash classics of yesteryear, but then sort of fizzles out into just another Battlecross song.

The good parts of “Rise to Power” outnumber the bad and average on the whole, though perhaps only by a narrow margin.  Thrashers who just can’t consume enough will appreciate the excellent pacing and to-the-hilt noisy arrangements, which have become the hallmark of the band’s best material.  Whether or not this record is an unmitigated success is a different question and will really only be resolved by the predilections of reach individual listener.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Album Review: Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle

Changing singers is such a tough predicament for bands that most of them are failures. There are even fewer examples of a band being able to go through three singers without losing anything. Spock's Beard tempted fate with their last album, introducing Ted Leonard as their third frontman. The amazing thing is that not only did he fit in well, but they managed to strike gold and make what I consider the best album of their career. "Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep" was a phenomenal record that earned the distinction of placing #3 on my best-of list that year, and is a record I still go back to and enjoy just as much.

That means my expectations for this album were even higher.

It also means that a first impression should be thoroughly discounted. In this case, that's a good thing, because my first impression of "The Oblivion Particle" mostly surrounded the fact that is it a very different record than the last one, and if you were expecting a continuation of that sound, you're going to be disappointed.

"The Oblivion Particle" is a far deeper, more progressive set of songs. This is set up from the opening track, as "Tides Of Time" segues through multiple sections, with upbeat rock moments thrown in with organs and a breakdown of acoustic guitar that is both jarring, and a throwback to what Neal Morse often did with the band. The song is a whirlwind, but it does feel like it lacks a bit of focus.

"Minion" introduces the album's core sound, with more atmospheric instrumentation, including jazzy guitar voicings, and a heavy focus on bass groove. The chorus kicks up some rock attitude, but the song always maintains a laid-back non-nonchalance that makes it different than the usual Spock's Beard material. The inclusion of real pianos in place of synths everywhere is also welcome, and emphasized the depth the band is going for.

"Hell's Not Enough" has many layers of sound going on, and veers off into tricky playing in the instrumental section. "Bennett Built A Time Machine" is one, in a way, with a composition that evokes Yes, and vocals that sound plucked from the Nick D'Virgilio era of Spock's history. It's a song that easily could have fit on the "X" album without sounding at all out of place, with it's smooth melody and tinkling pianos.

The nadir of the record is "Get Out While You Can", a song that has a couple of interesting, sinister guitar riffs, but has nothing for a vocal line but a simple repetition of the chorus that doesn't work at all. "A Better Way To Fly" is the dramatic beast of the record, with huge swells of strings and massive choral vocals, but it again fails to connect with a memorable melody.

I love the use of acoustic guitar to introduce the galloping feel in "The Center Line", both because it's an interesting sound, and because it's a unique way of inverting the expectation. The song is also the most energetic on the album, which works well against the horns that color the background.

When the record is over, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I fully see what the band is going for, and there is remarkable composition skill involved in the layered sound they have created. The songs are deep from a compositional standpoint, and have plenty of details to keep you interested as you listen repeatedly. On the other hand, the album completely lacks the pop charm that the previous album had, and drills down so hard into progressive territory that it never has the sense of unbridled fun that they established last time out. So my verdict is that "The Oblivion Particle" is a beautifully put together album that showcases everything this version of the band is capable of, but it's one that isn't going to have the visceral impact "Brief Nocturnes" did, and for that reason I have to call it a bit of a disappointment, despite its obvious quality.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Double Take: Ghost - Meliora

Chris C - Gimmicks in music can be tough. On the one hand, every band needs an identity they can point to, something that makes them stand out from the pack of bands that are doing the same sort of thing they are. Gimmicks are important, because they're an easy way to identify a band, and to make an impact on the listening public. On the other hand, a gimmick can be problematic, because if you aren't careful, that is the only thing that people will remember you for. It's a thin line between the two, and many bands have found themselves on the wrong side of history.

Ghost is one of those bands that teeters right on the edge. Their first album was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheeck take on occult rock that was both light and dark at the same time. They were occult, but sunny enough that their satanic image went down easy. Their second record was something far different, a bit of a mess that dug so deep into the gimmick that the songs were short-changed by the image.

"Meliora" is, thankfully, a step back in the right direction. The most noticeable difference is that Ghost is back to being a guitar-based band, with these songs all being built from big, vintage riffs. The guitar tones are once again spectacular, bringing just the right amount of grit to the sound, chugging away with a perfect blend of vintage warmth and modern crunch. It is seriously one of the best guitar tones I've heard on record.

But what is important are the songs, and Ghost delivers far better this time around. "Cirice" was the first track released, and remains the best song on the album. It's creepy intro is highly reminiscent of Slayer's "South Of Heaven", but once the song gets going, the riff is a crushing groove, and it pans out to a sweeping chorus that is as good as anything Ghost has written yet. It's a pure distillation of dark rock, sunny melody, and tight songwriting.

Ghost brings more hooks to the table this time, with "From The Pinnacle To The Pit", "Majesty", and "Absolution" all offering sticky choruses that will long be remembered. The fun experiment of the album is "He Is", which is a gorgeous acoustic based song that brings to mind a satanic version of Crosby, Still, and Nash. The last album found Ghost experimenting in ways that didn't play to their strengths, but this is how it's done right. It's the kind of subversive pop nugget that Ghost is capable of.

There is one glaring problem, and that is "Mummy Dust". That song is pointless, and nothing more than a single riff. The vocals are virtually non-existent, and there isn't a hint of melody. How it made the record is a bit of a mystery to me, and only further reminds me that Ghost still has a ways to go in refining their identity.

That being said, "Meliora" is by far the best Ghost record yet. From top to bottom, it's their strongest collection of songs, and shows me that Ghost is moving in the right direction. Falling victim to a gimmick is easy, and Ghost comes very close at times to buying in too much to their satanic schtick, but "Meliora" is strong enough to overcome that. This is the best Ghost has yet been, and sets up a strong future.

D:M - So here's the deal - Ghost has done such a good job of promoting their stage image and theatrics that they've become a prisoner of it. It's easy for dedicated journalists and, you know, us, to judge Ghost on the merits of their music because we understand that the stage gimmick is just that, and that the music is a separate product altogether.  It's actually surprisingly akin to the idea behind Alice Cooper, that stage and sound were two different things and that if you ponied up the cash to go see Alice live, he was going to give you something more than just the record you knew. 

Ghost, unfortunately for them (and this is before I actually talk about the music at all,) has been cast into the same pit as GWAR, where the grandiose performance is virtually inseparable from the music.  Which is fine if you're GWAR and one merely exists as a conveyance for the other and vice-versa, but Ghost find themselves dominated by their own successful marketing, which has led to the band being largely misunderstood.

Ghost's fundamental disconnect with casual fans, and apparently Kerry King (and if I'm being honest, me a little bit,) is that the music and the image aren't supposed to match.  For all that Ghost looks like the most evil band this side of the Ural mountains, the music is actually full of tropes that filled the back corners of touchy-feely singaling psychedelic rock in the late sixties.  Don't misunderstand, that's in no way a bad thing; in fact, "Meliora" is the band's best album to date, and it's not particularly close.  The hook of "Circle" is wonderful, and it's one of overflowing handfuls of catchy moments on the album.  "Meliora" runs the gamut through all kind of rock genres, some working better than others, but in total it's a pretty good project.  As we talked about though, the difficulty is that it's not what the casual observer thinks they're going to hear when they pick up the album.

Ghost would be equally at home sharing a tour bill with Orchid, Monster Magnet, Graveyard, Rob Zombie or Amon Amarth, that's the kind of versatility we're talking about.  The band's rock chops on "Meliora" are actually better than their metal chops, which are solid but not as well constructed as the rousing singalong choruses and swinging melodies of their jaunty, borderline arena rock tunes.  Yet, with all the paint and satanic mockup, it's hard to meet them on that level.

Cooper faced a lot of this image typecasting, too, and it probably held him back from being on the same strata as some of the real heavyweights of his era.  Of course, he did it in an era when 1) you didn't have to be super aggressive with your presentation across social media to be noticed, and 2) in the absence of social media, it was easier to control your image.  So Ghost is sort of stuck in a Catch-22, but all those things aside, "Meliora" is still a pretty good record and also, I bet, a pretty good live show.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sound the Cavalry Charge - An Interview with Nature Ganganbaigal

The recently released "Mongol Metal" album is a compilation of material from three different folk metal artists hailing from Inner Mongolia, China, a compendium designed to introduce this new and radically unique take on the genre to Western audiences.  To that end, the record provides strong mental imagery of majestic, wide-open landscapes, towering mountains with azure blue skies and legions of powerful nomadic horsemen charging across the Steppe to expand their horizons.  We had the good fortune to sit down with Nature Ganganbaigal, frontman for Tengger Cavalry and ideaman behind the entire "Mongol Metal" experience.

D.M: What made the ‘Mongol Metal’ project something you felt so passionate about?

Nature Ganganbaigal: I am always fascinated by the amazing sound of European folk metal and I keep thinking, why not make something that has our own sound in it? And I am friend with the other two Mongolian folk metal bands, so I want their music to get out there and let people know them, knowing that Asian folk metal is here now!

D.M: Why these three bands?  What makes Ego Fall, Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures the three bands that you wanted to represent Mongolian metal?

NG: They all incorporate traditional Mongolian folk music into heavy metal, in their own way. Morin Khuur, throat singing, and Yatga, all traditional elements could be found in each song

D.M: The songs on ‘Mongol Metal’ are taken from all different albums across your and their careers – what made you decide to use a collection of material, rather than just new material?

NG: ‘Cause these three bands have been in scene for many years yet few Western audience know them. I think they deserve to be known for their uniqueness, so a compilation is a good start to give people an idea what this new genre is all about.

D.M: ‘Mongol Metal’ was released on your own, without the backing of a record label.  What made you decide to release this material on your own?

NG: It is easy to promote, manage and negotiate with the bands. I am friend with the bands and they trust me, that’s the most important thing.

D.M: What’s the goal for ‘Mongol Metal’?  Did you hope to bring this music to a wider audience, or something more?

NG: We hope to let people recognize this new genre and maybe get more attention for its very unique sound. So far people are really blow away by the new idea and they enjoy it.

D.M: How big is the metal scene in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and China?  Are there huge crowds?  Is it an underground scene?

NG: In China it is pretty big, but not in Mongolia. It is still more underground I would say, but look at the band list that have come to China before, Metallica, Testament, Kreator, Arch Enemy, CoB, Dream Theatre, etc.

D.M: Inner Mongolia has a certain amount of autonomy from China, but do you ever come up against government censorship?  If so, how do you get around that to release your music?

NG: We don’t want to get involved with politics. We just do own our thing and enjoy our own music. We only release this compilation for Western audience. The bands already released their album in China separately.

D.M: Speaking specifically of Tengger Cavalry, much of your music focuses on the legendary Mongol horsemen – what makes that a subject that moves you so deeply?

NG: I worship the Mongol horsemen spirit, bravery, nature, and wildness. Part of my heritage and I just connect to it.

D.M: As somebody on the outside listening in, throat singing sounds remarkably difficult – what’s the secret, and how long did it take you to learn?

NG: It is a really difficult singing method. Very hard to teach too, more feeling. You press your chest and generate an overtone sound in your mouth. So you basically generate a drone in throat and another in mouth.

D.M: When you first introduced to Mongolian musicians and were learning the craft, where did you come up with the idea to pair those themes with metal?

NG: It just sounds epic! Mongolian spirit is very epic, all about horses, warriors, wolves and expeditions. Metal is the perfect genre for it.

D.M: What metal musicians inspired that side of your music?

NG: Many European folk metal bands, such as Eluveitie, Turisas, Korpiklaani, etc. Love how natural it is for them to blend their folk tradition into metal

D.M: You also have an accomplished career composing world music, as well as writing for TV, film and video games.  How does your creative process change with each of those, and how are they different than writing for Tengger Cavalry?

NG: I just finished my Masters degree in film music composition and to me it is rather similar. They are all musical language to me and I can speak differently when I feel like it. I like to blend them together sometimes.

D.M: Will we see these three bands, either together or separately, tour the US in the near future?

NG: Can’t say much about it. We will see.

Singles Roundup: Iron Maiden & W.A.S.P.

If you're paying attention, it seems like there is a stream of new singles and pre-release tracks coming out on a daily basis, to the point where it's hard to keep track of just who is releasing what. Normally, these songs go in one ear and out the other, unless they come from bands that I am already keeping an eye on. It's simply impossible to listen to that much new music, without taking a break to retreat back to your favorites.

This week saw the release of two new tracks, one of which is the eagerly anticipated first peek into Iron Maiden's upcoming double album, "The Book Of Souls", and the other is the out-of-the-blue new track from veteran underachievers W.A.S.P.  Let's take a look at these tracks in a bit more detail:

Iron Maiden - Speed Of Light

I am one of those people who is a staunch defender of the reunion era Iron Maiden albums. Their last four records have been my favorites, and this is the era of the band that I listen to 95% of the time. Needless to say, I am quite excited for this new record, despite my fears about it being a double album. "Speed Of Light" is the first track we get to hear, and it fits right in with where Iron Maiden has been for the last fifteen years. It's the short and snappy number to remind people of the past, but played without the frantic energy of those days.

The main riff here is more rock than metal, and Bruce's voice is showing some signs of age. He still sounds fine, but there's a roughness to his delivery that didn't used to be there. The triple guitar attack isn't always noticeable, but they deliver the trademark Iron Maiden harmonies. The only place the song comes up a bit short is with the chorus. I'm not sure if it isn't hooky enough, or if it just needed some backing vocals to beef it up, but it could have been a touch stronger. Still, it's a rock solid Iron Maiden track that should anchor the more adventurous material "The Book Of Souls" will contain.

W.A.S.P. - Last Runaway

This has always been one of those bands that has eluded me, with one exception. Blackie Lawless and company have always been a group whose music didn't seem to fit in anywhere, and didn't have much to say. Maybe I was predetermined not to like them from their controversial 80s days. I don't know.

The one time I did like them was on their concept opus, "The Crimson Idol". That is a record that goes so far above and beyond what I thought the band to be, and it remains a thoroughly enjoyable album, even if it is a bit bloated. "The Last Runaway" reminds me a lot of that record. Blackie sounds shockingly good here, much younger than you would assume. The band behind him cranks out some classic rock/metal hybrid riffs, letting the whole of the song rest on Blackie's performance. That might not always be the best decision, but it works here, because Blackie delivers a heck of a strong melody. This goes back to the days when he was writing "Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Morgue)", and brings W.A.S.P. right back to their glory. I don't know if it will hold up throughout the record, but this is a huge shock, and has me legitimately interested in listening to the new album for the first time.

Bring 'em on!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Concert Review: Coal Chamber, Fear Factory

The “Rivals” tour, in many ways, was a tour that shouldn’t have been.  The two headliners, Fear Factory and Coal Chamber, both had been through a lifetime of musical acrimony, an almost stage-worthy amount of triumphs and battles and reconciliation to rise again.  Nobody would have blamed either band if they had decided to call it a day years ago, but the furnace of metal’s molten heart churns with fervor, so each band has continued on the path.  Now, some twenty years after Fear Factory’s Dino Cazares first started peddling Coal Chamber’s demo tape, the two bands share the stage.

Fresh off the road from an extensive tour of Europe with Hatebreed, Jamey Jasta wasn’t content to sit around and wait for another opportunity.  As he explained to the crowd, when you get the call from Dez Fafara asking to go on the road and play in support of this particular twin bill, you have no choice but to accept.  With that in mind, Jasta pulled together his solo metal project of the same name and immediately turned around to hit the highway again, this time with thirty more minutes of heavily rhythmic, crowd-exciting material.  Jasta wasn’t content to stick just to their catalogue, even as the headbanging excitement of “Nothing They Say” washed over the crowd at large and the mosh pit in particular.  Jasta reached back into the catalogue of music they love, pulling out a fiery cover of Running Wild’s “Soldiers of Hell,” to the delight of the older fans in attendance.  Jasta the man, over and above the other band members onstage, was a smiling dynamo, happy to be anywhere playing music where people were gathered to hear it.  With a flourish and a promise of more Hatebreed to come, the set was over, leaving the crowd primed for the industrial evening of metal to come.

Fear Factory’s set could have gone a lot of different ways.  With their new album “Genexus” less than a week old, one might have expected that the band would lean heavily on new material for their set.  To accompany this, it would have fallen right in line for FF to concentrate their efforts on songs that have been written since the re-unification with Cazares.

Ever the crowd pleaser, Fear Factory instead decided to start as they always start – with “Shock,” a song from 1998, arguably one of the greatest crowd inciters ever, as the bass drops and a whole new generation of moshers take to slamming into one another.  Not inclined to let the momentum subside, “Shock” naturally had to transition into “Edgecrusher,” cascading over the frenzied masses in a tidal wave of beat-driven industrial.  The past would continue to hold court throughout the set, as “Powershifter” gave way to “What Will Become” and “Damaged,” two memorable cuts from the often forgotten and overlooked “Digimortal.”

Naturally, the new songs, when the band displayed them, stood up just as well as the old, the pounding of “Soul Hacker” and the charged current of “Dialectric” exciting the newer fans who were just coming to the band for the first time.

Yet the show to this point felt incomplete.  There was a giant gap in the programming schedule that felt conspicuously empty.  2015 marks the 20th anniversary of Fear Factory’s greatest song writing triumph, “Demanufacture.”  Bell and company made the crowd wait patiently until the very end, smiling from ear to ear while ripping into the title track of that seminal album, and closing the show, as they always do, with a stunningly powerful “Replica.”

Which brought the proceedings lastly to Coal Chamber.  There was palpable anticipation surrounding the band’s set swirling in eddies around the club, but very little sense of what the show would actually look like.  Thirteen years removed from their last album, Coal Chamber took the stage with more questions than answers floating above their heads.

Dez Fafara immediately dispelled some of the unworded queries by plunging himself headlong into the performance, channeling all the piss and vinegar that made his delivery so unique when the band debuted.  The gauntlet he had worn so long to cover his Coal Chamber tattoo during the DevilDriver tours had been summarily discarded, a silent pledge of his solidarity to whatever form this tour took.
Similar to the band on the stage before them, Coal Chamber focused their efforts on the songs that longtime fans wanted to see.  As seemed fitting, “Loco” opened the proceedings, establishing the crushing, beat-driven pace that would dictate the color and attitude of their set.  For all the long absence, the band surrounding Fafara seemed both relaxed and intent, striving to provide the paying customers with a show they’d be proud to say they witnessed.  “Big Truck” followed the opener, another punishing reminder of the days that were in the band’s halcyon era.

The new material from “Rivals” fared just as well in comparison to the old, with “I.O.U Nothing,” and “Another Nail in the Coffin” reflecting well against the dingy sheen of the pieces surrounding.  That was really a central theme of the entire set – that Coal Chamber may have left, but they remain the band upon their return, possessed of the same sensibilities and musical acumen as they utilized on their first run.

Now, does that mean that the new songs sounded just as good as timeless fan favorites like the steamroller or “I” or the infectious, singalong repetition of “Sway,” which capped off the evening?  If we’re being honest, probably not, but that’s not a fault of the band or the music – classics are so partly because they’ve had time to settle in, and those last two pieces were coupled with the catharsis of hearing them again for the first time in a while.

The one curious turn of the night was that Coal Chambers set blasted by in a brisk forty-five minutes or so, which was enough time to give the crowd what they wanted, but perhaps not quite enough to truly satiate long-dry thirst.  Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable effort, one that Dez punctuated by essentially telling the crowd that they were thrilled for the support, because there is currently no idea how, when or in what form Coal Chamber will continue, if at all.  With that last thank you, the lights came up, the house music started and the satisfied crowd made its way into a muggy summer night.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Album Review: Praying Mantis - Legacy

Praying Mantis is one of those bands that has been around nearly forever, but has never really garnered much attention. They've been releasing records for the better part of three decades, but few outside of the hardcore melodic rock/metal fans will have had much experience with their music. Myself, I don't come into this album blind, as I have heard some of their music before. Specifically, their one outing with former Michael Schenker Group singer Gary Barden, who appeared on one album, and did a great job of helping Praying Mantis make some really good melodic rock/metal. I will admit that I often forget about that record, and rediscover it every so often, but I do know that Praying Mantis is one of those bands that I should spend more time enjoying.

So for this new album, we're dealing with the latest incarnation of the band, which features yet another new singer (it's a bit of a Spinal Tap situation). This time around it's Jayce Cuijpers behind the mic, and he continues the band's tradition of being able to recruit solid singers to fill out their ranks, even if they can't manage to keep any of them long enough to gel an identity. Cuijpers has a more metallic tone to his voice, and gives it his all through the album, even when a bit more restraint might be useful.

"Fight For Your Honor" opens things off with a bombastic keyboard riff, and the song itself is an 80s style beast, with plenty of cheesy keyboard lines running in the background, and a chorus that has an ample hook. In many ways, it reminds me a lot of a song that could have been on the first three Dio records, which is always a good way to start off an album. "The One" completely shifts gears, going from Dio to Bon Jovi. It's amazing how well Cuijpers is able to channel the tone of Jon Bon Jovi's voice here, which definitely makes the song more enjoyable. That being said, like most of what Bon Jovi has written in the last twenty years, it's a song that's too laid-back to really be gripping.

The band's bread and butter is in writing energetic rock songs, which they do often enough here to afford them the occasional experiment. Songs like "Believable" are what you expect from Praying Mantis, and even though it does absolutely nothing new, it's just as satisfying. A great song is a great song, whether you can see it coming or not.

Speaking of those experiments, "Tokyo" would qualify as one, with some Eastern feeling being integrated into the instrumentation. It is a bit of a gimmick, using stereotypical Japanese sounds in a song about Tokyo, but I can forgive it when the core of the song is strong enough. When you get to the hook, it's the kind of huge chorus that I imagine an arena filled with fans would be singing with the band when they tour Japan.

Now we get to the crux of the problem for a band like Praying Mantis. I thoroughly enjoyed my previous experience with them, and this album is also a solid collection of songs, but it's also a forgettable album. While the songs are good, there isn't a unique hook about anything the album offers up. The riffing builds songs without standing out, the melodies are solid but never remarkable, and even the guitar and keyboard tones have been done dozens of times. None of that is the band's fault, but it does make it harder for this kind of record to stand out among the huge quantities of music that are constantly coming out. "Legacy" is a good album, for sure, and I enjoy it quite a bit, but I just don't see Praying Mantis having a strong enough personality to cut through and make me remember them.

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that they are always breaking in new singers, and can't spend multiple albums honing a specific sound, but I would just be speculating. What I will say is that "Legacy" shows that Praying Mantis is still making good records, even if they do get lost in the shuffle sometimes.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Album Review: Soulfly - "Archangel"

Max Cavalera is a tireless creator who never seems content to rest on his laurels.  Amidst writing music for World Cup coverage, touring in support of Soulfly’s last album “Savages” and finding time to release a third Cavalera Conspiracy record last fall, Max somehow found a few minutes to put together more Soulfly material for this new album “Archangel,” the band’s tenth studio album and fourth in the last five years.

“Archangel” makes the most of limited runtime, being the band’s shortest record to date at a fast thirty-six minutes.  Where some might conceive that this means the band is cutting corners or taking the lazy road out, the opposite is true – there was careful consideration and meticulous planning for the music of “Archangel,” which is evident from the album’s opening salvo.  Much of the fat has been cut out, turning this new record into a virile, unconstrained fighting machine that is brutal both in its timbre and in its strength-to-strength execution.

Cavalera’s musical mission over the course of his winding career, now fully engaged in its fourth decade, has been to sonically punch everyone in the mouth, and “Archangel” is no different from his other projects in that regard.  Sure, the band has tuned back many of the flairs and frills that caused confusion as to Soulfly’s true genre (as though that mattered in the first place,) but the solid grooves of “Archangel” carry more visceral weight than the noisiest or fastest guitar lick from another band,

It’s a family affair for Soulfy now more than ever, with not only Zyon Cavalera on drums, but now Igor Jr joins, taking the place of Tony Campos on bass (who, for those who missed it, is now part of Fear Factory.)  All metal aside, the recent trend in bands incorporating multiple generations of the same family into one act is kinda weird but strangely heartwarming – I’m not a father myself, but I imagine there’s a lot of pride in having a son or daughter who wants to be their parents, and the opportunity to have them be part of the same project is likely once in a lifetime.

For all its back-to-basics premise, “Archangel” is actually a relatively dense production, trading frequently in ‘big’ moments.  Naturally, the album opens with the boiling iron cauldron of “We Sold Our Souls to Metal,” but the chain-rustling and brain-busting of that lead track seems to get out of the way pretty quickly, in favor of the higher-concept title track.  “Archangel,” as a single isn’t rewriting the rules of groove, nor does it need to, but the cut is comprised of layers of metal discipline that seem, on face anyway, to be carefully plotted, like a sailing ship navigating a dark path by astrolabe and compass.  Continuing the metaphor, the song undulates with groove like the cycling waves of a churning sea, each measured crescendo fading into the next.

The record’s slow-motion crush continues on into “Sodomites,” but if the listener is only paying attention to the surface rhythms, the diverse and academically interesting undercurrent will be missed entirely, which is to the listener’s detriment.  What’s tucked away in the background of “Archangel” but should not be lost under any circumstances, is the familiar but novel guitar tone concocted by Marc Rizzo.  The color of his work for this album is warm but edgy, calling to mind a combination of the heady classic rock days of fuzzy analog and the crispy, broken-glass crunch of early thrash.

The drawback with “Archangel” is that there are some nice guest appearances (Matt Young of King Parrot is particularly good) and a couple different looks that add a little depth, but by and large, the songs on the album have a hard time separating themselves from one another.  Apart from the cuts mentioned above, the songs on this record blend together only too well; even after repeated listens a lot of the meat remains anonymous.  That doesn’t necessarily condemn “Archangel” to the bottom of the bin or anything, as even the album’s lesser cuts are a significantly more palatable listen than much of the similar material out there from other bands, but it does signify that this record may have finite value.

“Archangel” represents another solid entry into the greater Soulfly catalogue.  It’s got some new flairs and a larger presentation within its runtime which are both nice touches, but still maintains the standard that Soulfly fans have come to expect.  A little more variety might have added some spice, but as it is the album is a perfectly worthwhile listen.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Album Review: Royal Hunt - XIII: Devil's Dozen

As a band like Royal Hunt continues to put out new records, it makes me wonder how veterans are able to cope with the reality of the music business. For a band that's been around as long as Royal Hunt has, and has put out a dozen albums, releasing new material is an effort in futility. The creative spark is still there, the desire to make new music and feel vital, but the reality is that there are going to be very few people interested in hearing what they have to offer. Bands that have been around so long get locked into playing the same songs they always have, and fans have no problem demanding the 'hits' year after year, tour after tour. It's enough to make you wonder why bands like this bother with the hassle.

My assumption is that they have too much pride to become touring jukeboxes, regurgitating the same flaccid songs for decades at a time. Musicians should make music, or so I would think. With album number thirteen, Royal Hunt continues playing moderately progressive melodic rock, defying both their age and the state of the world.

"So Right So Wrong" opens the album with an orchestral flourish, one that makes me do a double-take, because it sounds remarkably similar to the SportsCenter jingle. That it's the main riff of the song makes the whole thing a bit hard to listen to without thinking about my favorite mascot-related commercials. The song itself is an unusual number, with verses that are (if you pardon the absurdity of the phrase) akin to acoustic industrial music. Singer DC Cooper is the biggest draw to the current incarnation of the band, and through this first track, I can't see why. His vocals through the verses are slurred, and delivered with a garbled tone that recalls the worst of Axl Rose. He's better in the chorus, when they try to inject a big melody, but even then he lacks a personality.

"May You Never (Walk Alone)" better infuses the orchestral swells, switching into a massive-scope rocker after a soft piano opening. Here, the band finds themselves hitting their comfort zone, pumping out some purely melodic rock that doesn't try to do anything they aren't well-equipped to handle. The song might be a touch long at more than seven minutes, but it's an engaging enough listen to make up for the disappointing start to the record.

After a while, the orchestral elements begin to lose their power. The band often layers them right atop the big guitars, which is a poor use of classical instruments. Their more delicate tones necessitate a calmer environment to get the most out of them. Instead, they often feel buried a bit behind the hard rock the core of the band is playing. When there are big electric instruments pounding away, it's hard for the softer tones to cut through.

The songs are obviously trying to be big, and even bigger, but that reach is actually a deterrent. In trying to be larger than life, the choruses are definitely huge and melodic, but they come through with such bombast that they lack the subtle hooks that are most memorable. DC Cooper is singing so hard to rise over the music that his effort is almost too much.

Look, I'm not saying this record is littered with fatal flaws. The core of the songs are still well-written melodic rock, it's just that I can hear ways that the band's choices didn't work to the benefit of the music. Everything is so epic, including the running times that could have been trimmed, that it loses focus. If everything is huge, then nothing really is, because there isn't any contrast.

Consider it like having an antique clock in your house. Anyone who walks in is going to hear the ticking, and probably be driven nuts by it. But once you live with it for a while, you can tune it out and not even realize it's there. That's the problem Royal Hunt has created here. By packing every moment of the record with oversized arrangements, the big moments don't sound any more grandiose than the smaller ones. That's the reason that, even though the songs themselves deliver some really good moments (I love the hook on "Until The Day"), the album as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. More is not always more, and Royal Hunt proves that here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Conversation: Perfect Scores - Rare, If They Exist

*Note: Every so often, D:M and I like to pool our collective experience, and discuss issues in the world of music from our differing perspectives. We enjoy hearing how the other sees the world. We hope you do as well*

Chris C - As a reviewer, I have explained in an essay why I don't use any sort of numerical rating system. That being said, I can't stop the rest of the world from using some sort of grading scale for albums, nor can I seem to avoid being sucked into such discussions. Recently, I was engaged in a conversation about album ratings, and the very idea of what a five star album is came up. There was massive disagreement over whether a five star rating means an album is truly flawless, or whether it means a record is just fantastic above the norm.

My own feelings on the subject are simple; a five star album should be one that does more than merely rise above the rest. It should be reserved for records that stand out and hit you hard, the ones that you know with certainty will endure with you as some of your absolute favorites. To me, if you give out more than a handful of these ratings in a single year, your standards are too low.

This got me to thinking about which records I would actually give the full five stars to. Back when I was grading albums with stars, I can't recall actually giving a perfect score to a single album. Since I considered anything over four stars to be fantastic, that last remaining quarter of a star was reserved for those albums that weren't just great, but were special. Over the course of the many years I've been writing about music in various places, I only have two records that I would feel comfortable bestowing the full five stars on.

Dilana - Beautiful Monster

This may be a biased pick, because Dilana is my favorite singer in the world, but this album hit me like little else ever has. It was, and still is, a devastating gut-punch of emotional heft. It is a raw, honest reflection of who Dilana is, and feels like she is literally baring her soul through her voice. The songs are great, but there's something more than just music on display here, and that is the reason I can award it a perfect score. There is something indescribable about the album that can only be captured in five little stars when I'm done thinking about the record.

Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

This is one of those records that was able to transport me to another place. When I think of prog, and all the complaints I have with how it doesn't live up to its potential, this album is the reason I can have those complaints. In these seventy-five minutes, I'm able to hear the masterful playing, and the musical odysseys that prog is known for, but it's anchored with a brilliant set of pop melodies. It's challenging music that can be appreciated on multiple levels, depending on how you want to enjoy it. It takes a lot for an album to make me shut off my mind and forget that I'm supposed to be listening critically. This album did that.

And there are countless others that I love dearly, but that I think are missing a tiny element that would keep them from that level. I can go on and on with examples, but the main point remains that giving out a perfect grade should be something special. It shouldn't be handed out to just any record that you love, but should be the final piece of the puzzle that separates the best of the best. It's all an opinion anyway, but what does praise really mean if we lavish it on anything and everything?

In order for five stars to be an honor, it has to be used sparingly. Perhaps I use it too sparingly, but I would rather err on the side of giving my favorites too much respect.

That being said, I'm not about to start using stars again, so this is merely an academic exercise.

D:M - You know me, I’ve always hated the idea of a numeric or symbolic rating system anyway, for a variety of reasons.  Art is the most subjective medium of all, so to attempt to quantify it with a rigid Arabic numeral seems like a fool’s errand.  I’ve always detested the idea that two albums can reach the same arbitrary score for completely different reasons, or be completely inequivalent experiences.

That’s not solely what we’re talking about though, is it?  The concept of perfection is an interesting one for an album, because like most music interpretations, perfect can mean different things to different individuals.  It’s probably fair to say that the common definition of album perfection involves a record excellent tracks from beginning to end, but that may not be universal.  There are plenty of records where I enjoy every track, Led Zeppelin II just to name an example, that aren’t in my, I don’t know, top fifteen or whatever the arbitrary listing of the day is (side note: let me take that back – I really don’t like “Whole Lotta Love.”  There, I said it.  Robert Plants orgasms, real or imagined, aren’t something I need to know about.  (double side note – I’m really tired of those feaux-shocked internet articles: “33 foods you should stop eating!  Number 7 will blow you away!” I bet it won’t.  Shut up.))  At the same time, I have described “Astrocreep 2000” as a perfect album for years and that record has some real tangible holes in it.  No one is listening to “Grease Paint and Monkey Brains,” I promise.  Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” is a perfect record, but contrary to public opinion, “Dead Skin Mask” is an awful song.  To me, an album doesn’t need to have all great songs to be perfect, particularly in the digital age when a bad spot can be skipped with nary a concern.

Of course, this only makes the perfection conversation more complicated – from a philosophical standpoint, is it preferable to have an album full of good songs with no filler, or an album of three or four incredible singles but not as much consistency?  Naturally, the smartasses among us will say they want a full album of incredible singles, but I challenge you to find that album.

We’re not even addressing the concept that albums can be perfect for certain situations.  I’m not someone who typically engages in a lot of situational listening, but even I know that Barry White works when you’re trying to make love to your lady by the fire, but works less well (for the most part,) when driving to the tractor pull.

Lastly, from just a pragmatic standpoint, let’s say you give an album ten out of ten, or five stars or skulls or umbrellas or whatever the symbol is.  What happens when somebody makes a better album six months later?  Where do you go up from there?  Does this become one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he beats Yosemite Sam in five-card stud with six aces?

So to sum up – numbered rating systems are bad (I can even see a situation where an album that I would rate a 6.5 is actually better than an album that’s a 7,) and perfection is too subjective to be constrained to single definitions.

I probably haven’t helped this conversation at all.  I’m sure I’ve just made it more confusing.  But the subject, for me, is sort of metaphysical.

Chris C - There is certainly some insight in what you're saying. The word 'perfect' brings in connotations that are not necessary. A 'perfect' album does not exist. There is not a single record in existence where they is not something I would change. Even my favorite record of all time has places where, if I was the artist, I would have made different decisions. But that doesn't stop the record from being a perfect listening experience.

For the sake of our own sanity, we have to allow for slight digressions from absolute perfection. As in all things dealing with art, if we spend our lives searching for objective perfection, we will have wasted what little time we have. What we need to do is understand that when we use words like 'perfect', we are merely using a shorthand to indicate that something has achieved a level of greatness that our usual praise doesn't quite cover.

To sum it up, the discussion about perfection is itself imperfect, because there is no consensus on what it entails, if such a goal was even possible. Ultimately, the perfect record is one that speaks to you in a way that few others do, one that imprints itself on you and establishes memories that you'll never forget. Those are perfect records, and putting five little stars after the review says far less than a well-reasoned piece of writing can convey.

Oh, and you're absolutely right. "Dead Skin Mask" is probably the worst song Slayer wrote through through the end of "Seasons In the Abyss". That's a good note to end on.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Album Review: Ego Fall/Tengger Cavalry/Nine Treaures - "Mongol Metal"

Occasionally in life, you encounter something that in the moment of revelation seems so obvious you can’t believe no one thought of it before.  To wit, “Mongol Metal,” a collection of twelve folk metal songs from three different bands assembled and put to print by a group operating from within Inner Mongolia, China.  Of course there’s Mongolian folk metal, it’s so clear now.  For all the genre loves to talk about Vikings and pirates and centurions, how have we overlooked the most powerful cavalry force of its time?

So what’s different here?  Well, for starters, the three bands, Ego Fall, Tengger Cavalry and Nine Treasures are taking their heritage to heart and there’s a distinct influx of traditional Far East music elements, ranging from the magical allure of old-world strings to the mystery and alien-like qualities of throat singing.  All of these elements in conjunction make “Mongol Metal” more than just a split record of artists who are trying their hand at imitating a genre.  No, “Mongol Metal” is something more than just another power metal record from an exotic locale – it is an immersive experience into the talent and cultural convictions of the musicians involved.

Ego Fall comes up first on the buffet of artists, which is convenient, because no insult to the other two bands who are also very good, Ego Fall offers the most varied and diverse listening experience.  From the very beginning of “Wind the Horn,” we see the band’s full arsenal on display, the placid plucking of native strings standing in distinction from the surprisingly catchy melodic riffs and the insistent but not overbearing drums.  The vocal presentation is a workable mix or throat singing and more common metal screaming, each working in its own section through being paired with music that fits the timbre.  Just within this one leading track, we see the pulse of power metal woven through with measures of traditional rhythm, each balancing against the other to create to a unique sound, followed closely by an electronic, practically danceable outro.  It’s a dizzying mix that works because the musicians of Ego Fall have done the necessarily calculations to make it work; these elements don’t come together into a proper stew by happy accident.  That same study and care is provided in earnest again from the very launch point of “Back to the East,” another electronically draped piece built upon a steady latticework of conventional metal.  Through four tracks, Ego Fall comes off sounding not all that different from a power metal version of Children of Bodom, utilizing a lot of similar cadences and structures to the Finnish powerhouse.  Naturally, what separates Ego Fall into a distinct experience is their ability to tie the musical mores of their homeland so seamlessly into the concoction.  A true marvel.

Next up on the hit parade is Tengger Cavalry, who may have the most pure energy of anyone on the split, commonly weaving tales concerning the vaunted history of Mongolian, well, cavalry.  Of all the aspects of Mongolian history during their imperial age, the most romanticized is the steadfast hardiness and riding ability of their horsemen, a nomadic tradition whose blood still runs in the veins of the modern day culture.  It is in this idiom that Tengger Cavalry focuses exclusively, as their four songs on the album are entitled “War Horse,” “Expedition,” “Horseman” and “Legend on Horseback.”  Now, if you’re going to commit, commit all the way, and Tengger Cavalry does that by incorporating the feeling of a galloping charger into each measure of their four works.  Not so different from the lofty orchestrations of Turisas’ epic “We Ride Together,” “Expedition” in particular lays down a thumping drum to simulate the hooves while the bursts of riff conjure images of the noble animal’s beating heart.  Traditional strings fill in the gaps, coloring in the rushing wind and majestic, powerful mountains of the Steppe.

That leaves Nine Treasures, who perform the most boilerplate version of this music.  That’s not to say that they’re subpar or not worthy of being on the record, just to say that they play with the fewest frills.  “Tes River’s Hymn” actually has some hallmarks of classic riffs like “Seek and Destroy” which makes for an interesting twist.  “Fable of Mangas” is another song in the same vein that plays more into the stereotype of early thrash than it does into power or folk metal.  The song’s second half plays out like some of the great metal classics of yesteryear, with an easy double kick and some six-string artistry that compliments the refreshing addition of traditional instruments.

What all these bands have in common and what’s most important to the collection of songs as a whole is the concept of ‘folk’ in ‘folk metal.’  Prior to its assimilation in popular music by the often politically-conscious counter-culture songwriters of the 1960s, folk music was primarily a showcase for just that; the music of the folk who played it.  The genre began as an extension of the music of a single cultural group, their endemic identity stamped onto the notes and measures and structures.  ‘Folk metal’ has been co-opted to the point where we identify the genre as power metal that’s had some non-guitar stringed instruments added and is even more steeped than its parent genre in magic and fanciful lore.  What works so well for “Mongol Metal” is that each of these three bands are playing folk music, in its original form, that happens to be metal.  We’ve talked about the impression that the throat singing and idiomatic instruments make, but they are moreover important to the identity of the production.  This isn’t just folk metal by Mongolians, it is truly Mongolian metal.

In music it’s sometimes easy to fall for an album that simply sounds different than the albums surrounding it, succored by an easy gimmick that wears out over time.  For “Mongol Metal,” it doesn’t feel like that’s the case, as the gimmick isn’t so much that as it is an influx of a cultural expression.  While the three bands have variances in quality, all of them are entertaining and Ego Fall in particular brings an entirely new palette to the conversation.  “Mongol Metal” is worth a spin for their tracks alone, and oh, there’s two other pretty good bands on there, too.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Album Review: Fear Factory - "Genexus"

After twenty-six years of life in various incarnations, Fear Factory might be the least likely survivor of the Los Angeles music scene.  Since the bands’ formation in 1989, generations of musicians have come and gone, from the lingering decay of Motley Crue to the candle burned at both ends that was Rage Against the Machine.  Through the death throes of hair metal, the excesses of 90s rock and the quagmire of hard- and grindcore, Fear Factory seems to be winning, or at least surviving, the battle of Los Angeles, utilizing a style that has rarely found a scene in one particular destination.  The industrial legends reappear in 2015 with their new album, “Genexus.”

Let’s get the smallest and most insignificant detail out of the way first.  “Genexus” feels like there’s more electronic instrumentation in the mix overall (though not in the percussion, more on that in a minute,) which lends the album an even greater industrial texture than the last couple of efforts.  The keyboards are particularly critical to “Regenerate” and the album’s surprisingly emotional closer “Expiration Date,” the latter of which is really the one to focus on.  It’s probably imagined, but one can listen to the last song and wonder if Fear Factory perhaps feels slightly more liberated in their use of electronic influences with the rise of EDM in popular music as a whole.  As stated, probably more imagined than real, but it does pique the curiosity.

As with most Fear Factory albums, the real star here is the drums and Mike Heller does not disappoint in his first studio appearance with the band.  It feels like there’s been more written about the band returning to live drums than there were letters to Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street,” but that doesn’t mean the hype is unwarranted.  Particularly in light of the public flak taken for turning to machinery for the recording of “The Industrialist,” the decision to return to a live drummer was the correct, if perhaps obvious one.  Heller’s thundering lead-ins to the title track or “Protomech” signify all that Fear Factory has ever represented, recalling the best days of Raymond Herrera while still injecting a fresh face into the proceedings.  Heller’s snares in particular are tight and snap in the same manner as some of the jazz greats, with each percussive moment a distinctive piece of a roll, rather than one long river of sludge.

For all that though, the magic of any great Fear Factory album has always been in the riffs, though they’re not solely contained in the guitar work.  Fear Factory might still be the only band in existence where the drum lines are the hummable parts you remember most, thinking back specifically to singles like “Replica” or “Slave Labor.”  The secret to this concoction that so many bands miss when putting together albums built around percussive dominance is that not only should the double kick rhythms incorporate open space, but the guitars must line up in accordance, with the same number of beats.  It’s the hallmark of Fear Factory for over a quarter-century that when the drums stop, so does everything else, and then they will start in tandem again, with such impeccable timing that the listener can hardly recall one without the other.  This is what makes the opening of “Church of Execution” work so well once the main riff breaks – the harmony and melody can be carried by the keyboards, while Dino Cazares’ riff and Heller’s track mirror one another seamlessly.  That’s really the case for every song that’s discussed in this review, and it’s what separates Fear Factory from so many of their smash-bang-speed-rules-all-else brethren in this genre and several tangential sub-genres.

Lastly, the addition of Tony Campos on bass was an informed and intelligent decision.  Campos has long been a capable player and his career with Static-X lends him to this kind of staccato, beat-driven industrial metal.  He sounds right at home keeping pace through the electric hammering of “Anodized,” slamming out a fuzzy rumble in the middle of the mix that stands in compliment to the percussion and contrast to the thin electric line that floats above.  Bass has rarely dominated the mix in a Fear Factory song (the erratic heartbeat of “Default Judgement” a delicious exception,) but the presence of Campos asserts a confidence into the backbone of “Genexus” that helps keep the album on-rails and tight.

We haven’t talked much about Burton C. Bell, Fear Factory’s frontman who was listed waaay back in “Demanufacture” as the band’s “Dry Lung Vocal Martyr.”  Bell remains the songwriting engine and ideaman for the band, this time comprising an album that focuses on its face on the concept of The Singularity, but really asks questions about the nature of human individuality and the definition of self.  It’s slightly heady subject matter, but well within the always-technically minded wheelhouse of Fear Factory and handled with much better introspection and care than most similar artists can manage to give it.  As for Bell’s actual vocal performance, well, there’s not a ton to say.  Bell’s vocals have always been one aspect of the band that people love or hate and “Genexus” does nothing to change minds in either direction.

As if it needed to be said at this point, “Genexus” is no joke, and is pretty clearly Fear Factory’s best record since at least “Archetype.”  While the album cover barely hints at the band’s now commonplace back-to-back double F logo, “Genexus” might be the most ‘Fear Factory’ of any FF album this century.  Not to be missed for longtime fans and also a great starting point for new fans who then want to work backwards.