Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Album Review: WASP - Golgotha

My experience with WASP goes only so far as a single album. Over the years, I've found considerable enjoyment from "The Crimson Idol", despite its overwrought self-importance. Without the band's usual air of hedonism, it featured songs that were able to break out of the stereotype of what "Fuck Like An Animal" turned WASP into. That song in particular made me apathetic about ever checking out anything beyond that one oasis of music in their otherwise forgettable career. But not long ago, when the first single for this new record "Last Runaway" premiered, it caught my attention. It wasn't the WASP I was expecting, and it did more than any amount of fawning press attention could to make me interested in "Golgotha". So was that optimism misplaced?

The album kicks off with "Scream", which recycles the general sound of the 80s through a melodic lens that is stronger than what bands were getting away with back then. What immediately jumps out is that Blackie Lawless is in terrific form, his voice sounding every bit as good as it did at WASP's height. There's absolutely nothing new in the song, but that doesn't matter. When it's as engaging as this, you don't need to reinvent the wheel.

The aforementioned "Last Runaway" follows, and stands out as the best WASP song I've possibly ever heard. There's a far more upbeat tone to it than the usual WASP song, and Blackie's melody is sweet with a pop sheen that is infectious. It takes the same course as the opener by slowing down before the solos kick in, but again, when it's done well there's no reason to complain. This song is "Golgotha's" version of "Chainsaw Charlie (Murders In The New Morgue)", the big, fun song that will be a huge sing-along moment for the live show.

And in a continuing trend on WASP records, a little bit of editing could have done some good. Most of these tracks stretch out longer than they need to, hitting five, six, and seven minutes with ease. There are a couple of repetitions and bridges that could have been cut down for the sake of brevity.

At nearly eight minutes, "Miss You" is one of those songs that could have been cut down, although that doesn't take away from it being a strong piece of work. It's a slow, dramatic semi-ballad that shows Blackie wringing everything he can out of his voice. I love the mood, and the melody is strong, but two minutes of guitar soloing to end the song is a bit much, when there had already been a solid solo in the heart of it. Likewise, the ending of "Slaves Of The New World Order" spends several minutes with a chanted bridge that leads to nothing, which kills the payoff.

But those are minor points that don't detract from the larger picture, which is that "Golgotha" is the most enjoyable time I've ever had listening to WASP. It doesn't have the epic scope of "The Crimson Idol", but that cuts both ways. It's easier to write-off "Golgotha", but it knows its limitations. Blackie can easily get so bogged down in his concept that he makes music that drags its point out for so long it becomes tiring to sit through. "Golgotha" doesn't hit hard and get out of the way, but it's focused enough on what it does well that you don't find yourself wondering when certain parts are going to end.

I don't imagine "Golgotha" is going to get mentioned as one of WASP's best albums, but that's the truth about any band that's been around so long. What I'll say is that "Golgotha" is a damn solid album, and a really enjoyable listen. Blackie is on the right path here, and whether you agree with his inspirations or not (the chorus of "Jesus, I need you now" on the closer might be too much for some), they've led to a record that's as fun as WASP can be.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Album Review: The Winery Dogs - Hot Streak

When a band of already established musicians gets together, there's no telling if it's going to work or not. People become entrenched in their way of doing things, and it's seldom as easy to blend styles and personalities once those have been firmly established. But every so often, one of those bands manages to rise above being simply known as a collection of names we already know, to become something that exists beyond the people involved. The Winery Dogs managed to hit that mark with their debut album, one that quickly became something far more than merely Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, and Richie Kotzen playing together. They made an album that had a unique identity, one that twisted their classic rock roots around the myriad styles and influences they've encountered throughout their years in the industry. It was one of my top ten records of 2013, so the follow-up was something of great interest, to see if they can continue to build upon what was, for all three of them, the freshest bit of work they have done in ages.

The album opens with "Oblivion", which works as a bridge from the first album to this one. It has a similar sound to their first ever single, "Elevate", with an intricate riff that shows off their technical skill, and a hooky chorus layered with their beautiful three-part harmonies. It's just good ol' rock and roll, and that's exactly what makes it work so well.

But the band isn't content to make the same record over again, as they introduce a slew of new sounds and ideas over the course of "Hot Streak". "Captain Love" is the first sign of this, a slow stomper that owes a certain debt to AC/DC. It has one of those open chord riffs the Youngs trademarked, and a chorus that works more as a mantra than a melody. Usually, that's something I say as a criticism, but they pull it off here, and it's definitely fitting. The title track is a quirkier number, with a shuffle feel and drumming that pulls from jazz improv. It's certainly something I haven't heard before in rock music, but it's also something I'm not sure really works. The song built around it isn't quite up to par, so it almost feels more like a distraction than something to build off.

I really like "How Long", with it's rumbling bass groove and huge chorus, but there's an issue in the production that drags the song down. I don't know if it's in the actual bass tone, or if the mix puts it too low, but the notes all slur together and make it impossible to pick out what Billy Sheehan is actually doing. The bottom end is full, but it's a blur. I feel like the song would be stronger if it was more articulated, and the nuances of the playing were put to the fore.

When they hit the right balance, which they do on "Empire", The Winery Dogs are as good as they come. There's a perfect mix of virtuoso playing and tight songwriting, a combination that's hard to beat. Richie Kotzen comes up with some great melodies when the music allows him the space, which is the one thing the band needs to be wary of. It's easy to get so involved in their playing that the rhythms and chords make it difficult to put one of those big melodies over the top. And since this kind of rock music still lives and dies on choruses people want to sing along with, it's important to know when to restrain yourself. For the most part, the band does that with the wisdom of three guys who've been around for decades each.

A song like "Fire" is as simple as they come, and is necessary to balance out the record. "Hot Streak" is a long album, but it's not thirteen tracks of the same brand of rock and roll, which goes a long way to making sure that not only does everyone get something out of the experience, but it doesn't drag on the way that a lot of records that stretch past the hour mark do.

The overall impression I get from this record is that it's a much more percussion driven bunch of songs than the debut was. As someone who is supremely focused on melody, that makes it harder for me to say I'm in love with this album. It's certainly a more interesting collection of songs, and those great moments and great songs are still here. "War Machine" and "The Lamb" are great songs no matter what, but they deviate from what I love most about rock music. So while I still think there's a lot of great music on "Hot Streak", especially a song like "Think It Over", and it's an ambitious record that opens new doors for The Winery Dogs, I have to be honest and say that it's an album that has taken me longer to fully embrace.

Don't let that distract from the fact that "Hot Streak" is a very good record with some truly wonderful songs on it. I like this album a lot, even if it wasn't the record I was expecting.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Album Review: Clutch - "Psychic Warfare"

Let’s skip the preamble – Clutch, at this point in their career, needs little introduction.  So getting down to brass tacks – what do you need to know about “Psychic Warfare”?

The good news here is that we see Clutch return to the halcyon days of their lyric writing – catchy songs about rigged-up sports cars, unexplained phenomena of a paranoid mind and crazy alien nonsense.  It doesn’t take long to get there, either, as you need only get to “Firebirds” to hear Fallon in full throat demanding a complement of energy weapons, no matter what it takes to get them.  Now, to give this some greater context than just a man yelling at the sky, the band backs up Fallon’s urgency with a rollicking and persistently driven beat that stomps along to a properly energetic riff.

This is hardly the only song that fits the bill.  Album opener “X-Ray Visions,” which essentially serves as the title track, boils down to one man’s bizarre statement to the authorities, not so different in tone from the excellent and timeless “Escape From the Prison Planet.”  Continuing the theme, this is long where Fallon has been at his best, when the presentation allows him to inject some of his own styling into the storytelling.  “Sucker for the Witch” is in the same blueprint, a catchy ride with big choruses that stay inhabited in the ear for as long as one is willing to listen.

What helps the overall momentum of “Psychic Warfare” is that the album keeps just about all of its material under the four minute mark, which makes for appreciably quicker pacing and keeps Clutch away from the fervent temptation to jam something out, thus leading to extended measures of tangential musical rambling.  The whole album is tight in this manner, as even the second half gems like “Behold the Colossus” stick to the working formula and leave the new-age hippie Clutch fans behind in the dust.

Now, Clutch has always danced on both sides of the thin line delineating the separation between ‘rock’ and ‘metal’ and always been at their best when they’ve blurred the line to the point of being inconsequential.  As far as that’s concerned, “Psychic Warfare” is very much a ‘rock’ album, but while it may not have the bite of “Pure Rock Fury,” it does have teeth.  “Noble Savage,” nestled in the record’s back half, works like so many pieces on the record because it finds a relentless home groove and never deviates in tempo or insistence.  These songs, like many of the great Clutch tunes of old, demand to be heard, which is a nice return to form for a band who hasn’t quite sounded like that in a while.  Couple this with the throaty guitar tones and pounding thump of the kick drum, and it’s a quasi-revival of “Elephant Riders.”

Old fans of Clutch will note that there’s still something ever so slightly amiss here, a hunger that permeated every pore of the band’s work from 1995-2005 and hasn’t quite been on the radar since.  “Psychic Warfare” recovers from that epidemic somewhat, as there is some of the anticipated power of those great, lost days.  Even with that though, this still feels a little bit like the following of a blueprint, akin to one of those high-end paint-by-number paintings that Robin Williams references in “Good Will Hunting.”  That doesn’t make “Psychic Warfare” a bad listen, but it does ding the authenticity ever so slightly.  As with any album, there are also a couple real duds.  “Decapitation Blues” has a nice riff, but something is just off about this song; the hook chorus fails to sell, and the song’s pacing can’t really decide what it wants to be.

Now, is this the best Clutch record since “Robot Hive: Exodus”?  Yeah, okay, I’ll buy that.  There’s an awful lot of things that “Psychic Warfare” does right, including the return to Clutch’s proper thematic material, if it can be called such.  This new effort is a genuinely enjoyable ride, even if it does seem that the out-and-out wanton chaos of the band’s past efforts has been replaced by a sort of gritty professionalism.  So if you’re fan of Clutch in the past ten years, pick this up without hesitation.  If you go back a little father, rent before you buy, but so do optimistically.  There’s a lot of good here, and it grows on you with time and repeated listens.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Voltage behind Overkill: A Conversation with Bobby Blitz

When a man becomes completely synonymous with with his own work, it's a sure sign of a career well-heeled in both quality and legacy.  Such is the case with Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth, energetic frontman and part and parcel leader of Overkill, the New Jersey thrash veterans who refuse to recognize that the game has rules beyond their own.  It's been a whirlwind career of high success and scary battles for Blitz, but always he has been a perfect showman at the front of the band, thrilling crowd nation and world wide over the course of nearly thirty-five years.  We sat down with the iconic thrash singer before a recent show and talked a lot about dichotomies - the man and his band, the man and his image, the passion and the business, even East vs West.  Read on:

D.M: Out of all the Overkill records there’s ever been, two of your five most successful records have been the last two.  Did you ever imagine that thirty years ago, that three decades later you’d have that kind of success?

BOBBY BLITZ: You know something, I try not to figure the shit out, because I think I’ll ruin it if I do.  I really moreso just enjoy it.  I do know when people say to me, that have been around, following this band or this type of a scene for a thirty year period, they say ‘it’s not like the good old days.’  I say ‘you’re just not paying attention.’  These days are pretty good right now, too.  And I think the success of those last couple records really proved that for us.  I suppose with age can come good things.  This was supposed to be a young man’s game, but experience is obviously trumping the young angst.

D.M: Not that long ago I spoke with Steve Souza, who said that if he’s gained anything, it’s a sense of perspective and the ability to step outside himself and enjoy his success for the first time.  Does 
that resonate with you?  Is it less work than it used to be?

BB: I can’t necessarily say that, but I suppose with experience you know where you can take your shortcuts, where you can’t take your shortcuts.  D.D [Verni] and I manage the band, too, so we’re involved with this on a daily basis whether we’re touring or not touring.  It’s a multi-faceted thing, where it’s not just our careers, it’s our life.  I’ve never not enjoyed it, though.  If there was something for me that I thought of as stressful – I mean, I still get nervous before I play, I suppose that’s a good sign because it means something for me, those nerves are not because I’m afraid, those nerves are because I want to win.  I think that as time has passed, I’m not going to say I enjoy it more because I always have, but for sure I look at it a little differently as time has passed.

D.M: Is there a point at which you had to separate the music as your career versus the music as your passion?  Or have they always been one and the same?

BB: Boy, that’s a good question, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that.  I think it’s always been one and the same for me.  Doing this, we came from a different era, we were pre-Internet.  You physically wore out your sneakers promoting yourself.  You would knock on doors, you would shake hands.  So, there was a passion in that, too.  But the music was the catalyst for all it.  So I can say for sure that I can separate the two because I love playing, that’s really my drug.  I really think of myself as selfish when I’m playing because I know that on some level, I’m doing it for myself, not doing it for anybody else.  So yeah, I can separate the passion from the business side of music.

D.M: After everything you personally have been through, what makes that passion continue?  Has there ever been a point when you said ‘I can’t do this anymore’ or ‘I don’t know if I should?’

BB: I was knocked down a few times, and it’s not good things, but everybody’s got a cross to bear.  If those things didn’t happen on the road, I would never have made them public.  When I got cancer, we had to cancel tours afterwards.  When I had a stroke it happened on stage.  When I got pneumonia, it happened while I was going to a show.  Otherwise I would keep those as my private life.  But I think that probably the testimony to that answer is that we’re in the process of releasing something called “Historikill,” it’s from the ‘90s, up until about 2007 and it’s really from the darker days of metal.  It’s never been an issue to D.D and I about stopping doing it.  It was ‘how could we do it now?’ and that’s when we decided to manage ourselves and start cutting our own deals and cutting down expenses and we still knew there was a market for us out there where we could exploit our passions.  So I think “Historikill” is a good statement to the fact that sure, it was hard but it was never undoable, and we never had a conversation with regard to stopping.

D.M: Speaking of “Historikill,” do you divide Overkill into different eras of its existence?  For example, ’81 to say ’91, then ’91 to ’07, and then ’07 to now?  You’re sort of recently revitalized, are there phases to Overkill to you?

BB: That’s a good point there, sure there are.  Because I kind of categorize them with regard to lineups.  That first lineup, minus Rat Skates did four records together, and that’s the first chapter of our existence.  Then in came [Rob] Cannavino and [Merritt] Gant, and that was the second.  Then two more guys, [Sebastian] Marino and [Joe] Comeau, and now Derek [Tailer] and Dave [Linsk].  These are all different chapters.  But probably, as time goes on, one of the things I enjoy about touring is the people I tour with.  When you get together with these guys it’s not heavy, so this chapter, or this segment of the band is really kind of fun to be on the road with.  Not that the others didn’t have great points to them, and there’s always something charming about the startup, but there’s also something charming about today.  And I say that probably because I like being known for the moment or for the day as opposed to the past.  If you’re relative in 2015, it’s testimony to doing the right thing all the way through for yourself and for your career.  So sure, there are chapters, but this most current one is probably one of faves.

D.M: You and D.D have been the only two constants in this band since 1981.  How is your relationship, just you and he, as two people?  It’s rare in music as a whole but in this genre in particular that two people can coexist peacefully for that long.

BB: You know something, his wife brought it up once, she’s very insightful.  I’ve known her as long
as I’ve known him.  She was his girlfriend in 1981.  So maybe that says the kind of people we are, you know what I mean?  She says it’s amazing but it’s not un-understandable because you come from the same background, you come from the same type of families, you both come from brothers and sisters and doing the right thing for them.  And I think that’s why this relationship works with D.D and I.  You put the guy before the band, the band takes care of itself, it’s really simple.  It’s great to have that relationship.  I’ve known him longer than I’ve been married.  I mean, the only people I’ve known longer than him are my brothers and sisters and my mother [laughs].

D.M: After so long, what keeps Overkill passionate for this kind of music?  Plenty of your contemporaries have faded away or changed their style, but you’ve always been Overkill, it’s always been thrash, what keeps it fresh for you, what’s your inspiration these days?

BB: Well, you know, we never had an identity crisis, we’re Jersey guys, we keep our secrets to yourselves, we like playing.  This is my drug, this is where I get high, so I think that’s where that passion is always reignited.  And you’re in it to win.  I like the competition of my contemporaries, I like the young guys who come along.  I like the older bands.  I love competing against Exodus, for instance.  Sharing a stage with Exodus for me is like the perfect thing, because I want to bury them [laughs].  But If I’m going out there with that attitude, I obviously have passion for it, and I think that’s my point, I’m just trying to highlight your question with attitude.

D.M: A few years back, there was a big to-do about the ‘Big 4’ playing shows together [Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax].  Was there any sense of resentment on your part, like a ‘where’s my invite?’ because you guys were there, so was Testament and Exodus and Nuclear Assault.

BB: Yeah, fuck those guys! [laughs]  Didn’t expect that one, did you?  You know, not really.  I mean, we know what we are, and relating to the previous answer of not having an identity crisis, I think that that goes beyond thrash, we know what we are when it comes to business, too.  We like our business.  There’s not a resentment factor.  Would I have liked the opportunity?  Abso-fucking-lutely I would have liked the opportunity, but that’s the business side of me talking.  It has nothing to do with the passion, it doesn’t change a thing with regard to how you look at your day.  It’s not anything I’ve ever pined over, you know?  When somebody asks me something like that, I always go ‘who?’ Am I not paying attention, the big what? [laughs].

D.M: Going way back, when people think of the origin of thrash, I think they always think of the Bay Area, or just down the coast in Los Angeles.  But you and Anthrax and a couple others came from the New York area, what separated East Coast thrash from West back in then?  Was the world just bigger and it was harder to get stuff coast to coast?  Did that make space for two scenes?

BB: Well, that’s a good point, there was no instant information then.  You had to go by snail mail to get somebody’s tapes and trade them, but I think the Bay Area, as an example, they created a style, maybe Metallica, and somebody’s who’s a historian would tell me somebody else did it before them, but I think all the Bay Area bands used that as a blue print.  Where you see different approaches to Overkill, Anthrax, Carnivore, Type O Negative came out of Carnivore, Biohazard was kind of a thrash band.  All those bands are very different from each other.  I think the main difference is that in California, they were exposed to New Wave of British Heavy Metal and California punk, while in New York we were exposed to New Wave of British Heavy Metal and East Coast punk.  I was at Max’s Kansas City.  I’m nineteen years old, I’m in college and I saw the New York Dolls play.  I’d see the Ramones on the street, or I’d go to the Mudd Club and see the Heartbreakers when the Dolls broke up.  I think we were exposed to that, and they were exposed more to the Dead Kennedys.  To some degree, I think there’s that punky attitude and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and you mix that with a bag of methamphetamines, and you get thrash [laughs].  That’s probably the only different element, is that punk scene.  We were huge Dead Boys fans.  When the Dead Boys moved from Cleveland to New York, it was like they were ours now.  You’d go see them, and they’d do gigs without all the band members!  ‘Hey, we don’t have our bass player tonight, but we need the money.’ It was like ‘how fucking great is this?’ [laughs]   I think that was our difference between east and west and it gave us a lot more individuality as opposed to the West Coast blueprint.

D.M: It’s been much publicized that Black Sabbath is heading out for “The End” and Judas Priest kinda-sorta retired and other bands seem like they’re heading that way.  Do you see an eventual end of the line for Overkill?

BB: Well, we’re realists.  I certainly don’t want to die out here.  I’ve had three bumps in the road over thirty years, which is really not a lot when you think about it.  But it’s thirty fucking years, everybody’s gonna have something.  We all have crosses to bear.  But I really don’t want to die out here, that’s not my thing.  I’ve always enjoyed it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is because in my head it’s bigger, you know what I’m saying?  ‘Honey, I’m not gonna answer you unless you call me Bobby Blitz!’ [laughs]  You can picture an old man sitting around tattooed, right?  Watching old fucking videos, banging his fucking bald head and everything.  I got to be realistic about it, and being realistic says I just might not be able to anymore, and that’s okay with me, because I was able to do it.

D.M: After so long, what’s separates Bobby Blitz from Robert Ellsworth?

BB: You know, a kid said to me once, he goes – he was eastern European, we’re doing this interview, and they’re so fucking stiff, these people.  They don’t understand our sense of humor.  I mean, I can tell you’re from the East Coast, you know, just because we’re getting each other.  And he goes ‘oh, finally I have my phone call with a legend,’ and I tell him ‘you got to see a legend on Saturday mowing his fucking lawn.’ [laughs]  Just blows the whole thing right out.  In reality, one of the reasons this band’s been able to continue, and we’ve been able to keep our secrets to ourselves and not air our dirty laundry because there’s not that much of it, is that we’re pretty down-to-Earth dudes.  We like doing this shit.  We’re family guys who love our families.  The only reason a guy can do this for thirty years is because he’s got a great fucking wife who says ‘do whatever you want, whatever makes you happy.’  So if you have that as the basis of your life or existence, it’s not hard to separate.  Bobby Blitz is on the stage, you’re talking to Robert Ellsworth, it’s totally different.  I could be having this conversation on my deck with a beer grilling burgers.  When I look at it in hindsight, that’s always been one of our assets, is that we don’t really care about all of that other shit.  If we have a problem, we face the problem, we go through the problem.  If we have problems with each other, we face them, obviously with kid gloves sometimes because D.D and I are managers, but if you’re grounded you can have that separation easily.

D.M: Switching topics – how do you protect your voice?

BB: I gave up tobacco, but I smoked like a fucking chimney for probably thirty-five years, about three years ago I gave it up.  I warm up a little bit.  I take two anti-inflammatorys right before I go on.  That’s probably the biggest secret.  And they’re just Aleves. The idea is that if you go out there with an anti-inflammatory in your system – it’s like if you take a couple before you work out, the muscles stay loose and don’t swell up or anything.  It’s the same idea here with vocal chords that if I take them before I go out there, even though I’m abusing them for ninety minutes, they’ll stay loose and be okay.

D.M: My wife and I are both big fans of The Cursed.  Is that done?  Was that a one-and-done project, or will we ever see that again?

BB: You know, Dan [Lorenzo] is a great guy to play with, he’s not like anyone else I’ve ever worked with in that he’s the only person I know who can just dream up a riff and then play it perfectly.  I’m in contact with Dan all the time, I hang out with him a lot, me and him and his wife and my wife go out to dinner as couples.  I talk to him all the time.  We had a ton of fun doing that record.  But will it ever come around again?  Maybe not.  But I had a great time doing it, and I would like to do it again.  It was fun, all that saxophone and me singing like a fucking crooner [laughs].  When I first played that for my wife, I played her “Evil in the Bag,” and she said ‘that is the sexiest music I have ever heard from you,’ I said hey, that’s great, I better keep this one around! [laughs]

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating 100 Posts

Today marks a grand occasion for us here at Bloody Good Music. This post is the one hundredth entry here, and I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to everyone who has been a part of getting this site off the ground.

So my thanks go out to my colleague D:M, who is responsible for getting me into this journalistic field to begin with. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have written the hundreds of thousands of words about music that I have in the last four years. Ok, I would have written many of them, but they wouldn't have had any gravitas behind them.

My thanks go out to our partners at the labels and PR firms we work with. This job wouldn't be nearly as rewarding without your help, and we never take for granted the trust you have placed in us to help bring attention to the music you represent. No matter how long we've been at it, we appreciate the respect you have shown us. To know that we have contributed, in our small way, is more rewarding than you can know.

My thanks go to the bands we have covered, both those we have talked to directly, and those we hear through our partners. It goes without saying that without you, there would be no music, and there would be nothing for us to talk about. In the years that I have been writing semi-professionally, it has amazed me at how much great music I have come across. Every year, the pile seems to get deeper and deeper, and this year is no exception. As a fan of music, I have been extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to hear so much quality music.

And my thanks go out to everyone who has read our work here. Leaving our former home and starting our own venture was not something we had planned, and the process of getting this up and running was not without its headaches, but sometimes things work out for the best. Here at Bloody Good Music, we have the freedom to take risks, to cover things that we otherwise might not have, and to connect with both you and the music in new ways.

This site is by no means a finished product, but it's a good start to what we hope will be a place music is always discussed in an intelligent manner. We take pride in being a place of reason in an often unreasonable music scene. We hope you continue to take this journey with us.

And with that out of the way, let's get back to the music.

Album Review: Graveyard - "Innocence and Decadence"

*Editorial note - we both wanted to review this album because we had strong thoughts about it and the band in general, so rather than fight over who would, we simply both did, as we are sometimes inclined to do.  D.M's review is after the break.

Chris C: When I survey the landscape of rock and metal, there is a worrying trend that I notice. Of all the bands that have debuted in the last decade or so, there are merely a handful that have made more than one album that I love. My tastes are odd, sure, but the fact that so few have hit the mark for more more than once is deeply troubling, and doesn't bode well for the sustained future of the scene. The main exception to that observation is Graveyard, the group who I wrote in a column is the best band of this new millennium. I didn't hear it at first, but over the last couple of years they have grown to be a legitimately great band, and all three of their albums are in regular rotation. Simply put; they are the type of band that not only do I want to hear, but that we all NEED to hear.

With that being said, I approached "Innocence & Decadence" with the highest of expectations. "Lights Out" was my co-album of the year in 2012, and had I not been foolish, "Hisingen Blues" would have had a shot at that title in 2011. Can Graveyard make it three masterpieces in a row?

That's actually a very tricky question, because I'm of two minds about this album.

Let's start with the good news: Graveyard still writes some of the best songs in the business today. They have a unique ability to take simple ideas, and turn them into something unforgettable. There's not a moment of flash in their music, nor do they ever pander to what could be called pop, but they're able to make their music damn near unforgettable. While other bands continue twisting their fingers to make the most arcane riffs imaginable, Graveyard takes three or four chords, and a simple lick, and runs circles around them.

Just listen to lead single "The Apple And The Tree" for an example of this. The main guitar part is a simple blues lick, and the rest of the song is built from strummed chords, but the songwriting is so deft that you don't notice how simple the message is. That's the mark of a great artist; being able to amaze without doing anything amazing. Graveyard has that ability, and they showcase it here. Songs like the gospel-tinged "Too Much Is Not Enough", the Cream-inspired "Cause & Defect", and the stunningly gorgeous closing ballad "Stay For A Song" are as good as Graveyard has ever been. They're songs Graveyard writes that every other band playing this kind of vintage feeling music simply can't muster.

But there is some bad news: This album brings in new influences that I'm not sure completely work. There's a heavier dose of psychedelic tones than in the past, which definitely keeps the music fresh, but it downplays the crisp attack of Graveyard's guitars. There are fewer of those memorable riffs on this album, with those brain-drilling guitar parts replaced by more atmosphere in the slower numbers, and almost punk fury in the heavier ones. I'm not sure either plays to Graveyard's strengths.

That misjudgment of who they are is my biggest issue with the record. The vocals on two tracks here are given to other members of the band, which is a decision I cannot understand. When you have a singer with the tone and expression Joakim Nilsson possesses, letting anyone else replace him is ill-advised. The others aren't bad singers, but they aren't Joakim, and I can't help but have my mind wonder what those songs would have sounded like if he had sung them.

Let's be honest here, the bad news doesn't amount to very much. This is still a Graveyard album, which means it's written at such a high level that even a few blemishes aren't going to make much of a mark. "Innocence & Decadence" is a great album by any standard, except maybe their own. Judging it solely on its own merits, there's no doubt that "Innocence & Decadence" is one of the five or ten best albums of the year. But judged against what Graveyard has already accomplished, I think it might be a slightly weaker album than their last two outings.

But, in fairness, this album is far more subtle than those records, and I'm thinking that it's the kind of album that is going to improve and open up the more that it's listened to. "Innocence & Decadence" is a very, very good album right now, but it may become a great one a month or two down the line.

D.M:  I am incredibly tempted to commit the ultimate in editorial sins: just simply say “I love this album,” drop my figurative pen, and let that stand as testament to how everyone should feel about Graveyard’s “Innocence and Decadence.”  I probably just killed all the suspense of my portion of this review.  Oh well.  Read on for more:

Let’s get one quick thing out of the way first – I totally understand why it has to be this way, but I remain aggravated that Graveyard is marketed almost exclusively as a metal band.  They’re not.  They’re just plain not.  They have much more in common with The Jimi Hendrix Experience than with even Black Sabbath and there are so many people (my dad, for one,) who would love this record but won’t ever know that because the ‘metal’ label disinterests them.  There are tons of old burnouts (and, well, new burnouts,) who will find kinship with the free-wheeling spirit of Graveyard’s latest opus.

Listen, not to get all Joe Friday about this record, but “Innocence and Decadence” doesn’t need poetic language to embellish the sale of its traits.  This is, beyond doubt, the most authentic pure rock album made in at least the last fifteen years, made by the band who is in competition only with themselves for that title.

It’s rare to find an album that does everything right, but this album certainly can lay claim to be in that discussion.  Exhibit A: there are forgotten piles of bands throughout the blues family tree (rock, metal, blues, grunge, etc,) that were given to write ballads because they thought they should, or because the album needed a break from the relentless savagery that in theory would tire out the listener.  But Graveyard doesn’t write slow tunes for slow’s sake – they think it through, and compose a disciplined and impactful piece of music that gives the listener a change of pace, while at the same time utilizing a different arsenal of aural weapons.  Case in point, “Exit 97.”  Moreover, Chris alluded to it above, but the way this album ends with “Stay For a Song” is both heartbreakingly emotional and brilliant in execution.  The song is woven almost entirely out of the combination of love lost and deep longing, and rather than end, just gently fades out into oblivion.  It’s a daring decision to end the record that way, but for the character of “Innocence and Decadence” it’s the right one.

I will cede that I agree with Chris that the employment of another person’s vocals was an unnecessary gamble.  It doesn’t turn out badly per se, but it certainly doesn’t turn out better than it would have with Nilsson still at the helm.  In addition, the added live chorus of “Too Much is Not Enough” might be a bit much (ironic for a song of that title.)

Enough about that.  Graveyard’s bend toward the flowing psychedelic works, even if only for the profile of this one record.  It seems to be a product of the live recording model, and while the eroded edges of the new guitar cadences might have dulled the experience of “Lights Out” or “Hisingen Blues” in particular, the free-form feel lends a certain flair-without-flair which is difficult to describe but works remarkably well, allowing for the unexpected fuzzy power of “The Apple and the Tree,” which just happens to be the album’s best song.  Graveyard took their classic rock accomplishments and rolled them back ten years to the swingin’ sixties, making the incredibly subtle but seemingly effortless transition between Led Zeppelin and Cream in just one record.  The fact that they tried it is one thing, the fact that they had the talent to do it another.  But the fact that they nailed it perfectly is worthy of a different level of admiration.

But we’re getting away from solid facts again.  Two things remain irrefutably clear and beyond argument about “Innocence and Decadence.”  First off, that no one has made an album of this particular style, in this high a caliber, in roughly forty years.  Second, that Graveyard is, without question, one of the best four or five bands working today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Album Review: Casablanca - Miskatonic Graffiti

Often going unnoticed, one of the biggest influences on the entire genre of sci-fi, specifically when it comes to alien overlords ruling the earth, is HP Lovecraft. He wrote stories about the Old Ones, and Chthulu, which have not only endured, but also gained a foothold of influence. It's hard to absorb much in the genre without seeing strains of Lovecraft running through them. He is also, indirectly, responsible for some of the thinking that runs through the tv show "Ancient Aliens", so we do need to dock him a lot of points for giving crazy people a reason to believe their crazy garbage.

I mention this because with "Miskatonic Graffiti", Casablanca gives us a concept album that tells a story of Lovecraftian lore, telling us about what happened even before the imagined reign of Chthulu. That is certainly a hefty concept for a record to live up to.

The album opens with the ten-plus minute "Enter The Mountains", which takes a long time to get going. After a creepy swell of organ, the first three minutes of the song is taken up by a doom-heavy section that stretches on for longer than I would have liked. After a briefly humorous harpsichord segue, the song kicks up into a roaring proto-metal number that still drops back into narrative exposition a few times. There's a decent idea to be found in there, but the song is just too long and overloaded with needless ideas for it to come together.

"Closer" is a step in the right direction. It's a short little rocker that actually reminds me a bit of the band Ghost, even though it doesn't really sound much like them. The organs are a standout, both in giving the song some depth, and for the short solo. I've always thought that organ was a great sound for rock, and this song is a good example of why. As is "This Is Tomorrow", which brings to mind the most prominent of all organ-using bands; Deep Purple (spare me The Doors; they were terrible). It's exactly the kind of song this sound can work for, with rock attitude and a solid solo to go along with a chorus that sounds huge.

"RE: Old Money" continues the train rolling, with more catchy melodies, and a solo that both in tone and notes feels like it could have come off Meat Loaf's underrated 80s album "Bad Attitude". It's a stunning turnaround that after the messy opening track, Casablanca fires on all cylinders and presents a string of excellent vintage-sounding rock.

And that brings us to the album's flaw; the concept does nothing for the music. For the most part, it is totally disconnected, as none of the songs sound remotely like the soundtrack of a story involving an alien entity taking over the planet. But more than that, when the band did try to indulge the story at the beginning, it was to the detriment of the music. Once that was over, they started playing great songs that I enjoyed the heck out of. Just listen to the sweet melody in the chorus of the title track and tell me Casablanca isn't doing something right here.

So on one level, I don't think "Miskatonic Graffiti" works very well as a concept album. It doesn't work as a soundtrack, and it doesn't expand well beyond traditional rock and roll. But if you forget about the concept, and embrace the good moments of the opener, what you're left with is a very fine example of modern vintage rock. I've heard several releases in this style this year, and this is among the best. For most of its running time, "Miskatonic Graffiti" is a blast to listen to, and well worth your time.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Concert Review: Overkill, Symphony X

A combination of Overkill and Symphony X means a number of things for the fans gathered in front of the stage prepared to display their reverence for the acts to follow.  It means gold ole’ American thrash still lives, it means power metal and the theatrics of the metal keyboard still have a foothold on the audience and it means New Jersey is solidly ‘in the house’ as the kids say (do kids still say that?)  Most of all though, it means that two titans of their respective genres maintain relevancy and drawing power with the addendum that no one, repeat no one, is going to tell them that they’re done.

The night began with Within the Fire, a rowdy quartet of veteran players who exhibit the fundamental grit of metal in the classic sense.  No frills, no pageantry, no costumes, just jeans and boots and gritty dirt riffs styled no so different from recent releases from Attika 7.  Notable in the band’s performance is the vocal styling of Scott Featherstone, who carries a tune capably but without the pomp and circumstance of post-production smoothness.  His voice is authentic and loud, brazen enough to be heard in the back of the club and clear enough to be understood.  For songs like “Still Burning,” his voice is buffeted by a wall of powerful chords, presenting a single, solid chunk of music that the assembled patrons reacted well to.

A heavy testing of a considerable array of bright green lights between sets could only portend one thing – Overkill was coming.  The New Jersey thrash veterans, coming off the impressive chart performance of “White Devil Armory” and literally hours removed from the release of “Historikill,” their new retrospective box set, the quintet had two clear missions in mind; first, prove to all present that thrash never died and furthermore, cannot die and second, do their damndest in friendly competition with the other bands to put on the most impactful set of the night.

A quick aside – Overkill spent much of the night fighting an uphill battle against a crowd who was appreciative and cheerful, but reluctant to get physically involved in the concert experience.  There were scads of perfectly capable young men and women in the offing, but a real mosh pit never broke out, which speaks to a disturbing observational trend of late: is it me, or are mosh pits starting to fade away?  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a convincing launching of bodies against one another, which bodes poorly for the practice as a whole.  C’mon metal fans, don’t stop doing what we do, keep this thing moving!

Back to it.  As if to drive the point of their continued and recent dominance over the genre home, the incomparable Bobby Blitz ran out and rolled into his idiomatic rasp for “Armorist,” pushing the band through the top track from the band’s top-selling record.  Overkill remains more than just Blitz though, as the venerable co-founder D.D. Verni stands always next to him on the stage, thumping out bass rhythms as though 1985 were just yesterday.

To that end, the set was a mix of new and old material, with the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s cardinal “Feel the Fire” release heavily represented, beginning with the classic “Hammerhead.”  The old guard of Overkill’s catalog sounded just as fresh and powerful as ever from a live perspective, which is a credit to the dedication and conviction of those playing the songs.  There was no favoritism from the band here; each piece was treated with the necessary respect and then pumped through hundreds of watts of amps to wash over the rejoicing crowd.

For all the joy of going through the new and old of Overkill, it was two albums in between those points which stole the show.  2010’s “Ironbound” contributed two fan favorites which have always provided the masses with instant, neck-breaking thrash rejuvenated in the new millennium.  “Bring Me the Night” has been a staple of the band’s repertoire since its release and this night’s recitation was of a heavier caliber than most, accented by the strong drum cadences of Ron Lipnicki.  “Ironbound,” with its cacophonous but intrinsically rhythmic breakdown, pushed the crowd into a nearly involuntary paroxysm of head-banging.  It couldn’t be helped, your body simply demanded that you do it.

Yet for all that, Overkill impressed most with an all double-neck version of the timeless nail driver “Skullkrusher” from 1989’s “The Years of Decay,” and as the churning waves of irresistible force eroded the fans’ resistance, heads moved in unison and throats rang in cheer as the shambling, threatening cadence rumbled into the set’s eventual conclusion.  Ever the professionals, Overkill wrapped up with “Elimination” and “Fuck You” and left the masses wanting more.

Symphony X began their set with a statement of continued support for their newest album.  The first seven tracks that Russell Allen and company cranked out for fans thirsty to hear their heroes were played in order from 2015’s “Underworld,” each one played with the appropriate amount of power and grace.

Allen himself is a bone fide showman, relishing his role as the central figure and face of the band’s performance, and his talent lives up to the billing.  No less an authority than Bobby Blitz says Allen has the best pipes in the business, and when encountering the sheer power and sustaining impression of the man’s voice live, it’s difficult to argue against the point.  Whether carrying a longing tune for “Without You” or raising the rafters with “Nevermore,” Allen’s consistency pairs with his versatility to add dynamic layers to Symphony X’s live profile on the whole.

He is not alone, however.  On this night, as it likely is on many nights, guitarist Michael Romeo was due equal billing alongside his lead singer.  With each passing song, Romeo’s solos got stronger, particularly as the band started delving into their back catalog.

In truth, the finest part of Symphony X’s set was the back half of it, beginning with a melodic and galloping “Of Sins and Shadows,” and the progression only got better as the set went on, flying through an excellent “Serpent’s Kiss” and an energetic “Eve of Seduction.”

Part of the secret of Symphony X at this point in their career is that this band has more or less been unchanged since the late nineties, and the band employs that rare chemistry that can only be seen when members trust each other and have a complete understanding of their music.  This was evident in throughout the entirety of the band’s performance, but never more than in the closers “Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)” and “Iconoclast,” both high-flying songs and fan favorites that might well go very badly if a lesser band played them.

Leaving the venue, the irrefutable lesson gleaned from the remarkably adept performances of the two headline acts was this; there is no replacement for experience.

Album Review: Raspberry Park - At Second Glance

There's a joke in an episode of The Simpsons where Grandpa goes to renew his driver's license, and asks if he can just use a picture from the paper that ran under the headline "Old Man Yells At Clouds". In some respects, I feel that way about certain aspects of the music scene, that there are some artists out there who are yelling at the clouds by making music that seems stuck in the past. What that doesn't say is that the fault lies not with the musicians, but with the audience for abandoning certain styles in favor of something 'new' and 'exciting', and leaving behind good ol' fashioned rock and roll.

Raspberry Park is one of those bands, a group that is trying to bring back the AOR/melodic rock sound of yesteryear. The odds of that capturing a wide audience again seem depressingly small, but for those of us who find ourselves fondly remembering when catchy music was allowed to use guitars, it's a welcome development.

"Take It Back" opens things off with some thick guitars that wind through a verse, leading up to a chorus of big vocals that wants you to love it. It's clearly a song that doesn't take itself too seriously, and exists for the communal experience of having fun while listening to music. It's in and out in a short three minutes and change, which give it an energy that's refreshing. By the time the chorus comes around the third time, after the tasteful solo, it already feels like an old friend.

"Alive" opens with a lyric referencing 'Ace Of Spades on the 45', which isn't a totally absurd comparison for this record. While it is nowhere near the frantic rush of dirty energy Motorhead established, "At Second Glance" is a lean and mean record, running through its ten songs in a sprite thirty-four minutes. It knows its limits, and never threatens to overstay its welcome. Feeling like you want an extra song is always better than wishing the record was over before it's done.

But even in that time, the band is able to avoid being a one-trick pony. "Spinning Wheel" uses some rhythmic deviations from the standard 4/4 in its open, and "Sleep With The Lights On" opens with some acoustic guitar playing. Raspberry Park isn't just about playing straight rock all the time, which is not only good from a diversity standpoint, but makes the times when they do stand out from the rest of the songs.

My favorite tracks are "Depending On A Miracle" and "Getaway" which introduce a few balladic details into songs that don't go fully down that road, but do boast the biggest choruses on the record. It's exactly the kind of melodic rock I love. It's at this point that I finally identify something I was hearing, and that's the fact that vocalist Mikkel Bryde's tone bears a strong similarity to House Of Lords' James Christian. Since their record from earlier this year is one of my favorites so far in 2015, that is certainly not a complaint.

The bottom line with "At Second Glance" is that Raspberry Park has made a tight record of melodic rock that will appeal to anyone who likes to yell at clouds and curse the evolution of music. It's a throwback to the old days, and it does what it does very well. It probably isn't going to reinvigorate a scene that has sadly become underground, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend half an hour. "At Second Glace" is surely worthy of what its title implies. Give it a look or two, and I'm sure you'll find something to smile about.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

My Take: Cover Art - More Than Meets The Eye

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. Well, what about albums?

I like to think of myself as a rational person, and even though music is a largely subjective experience, there are certain things that go a step beyond in terms of how ridiculous they are. But there are certain things that even I cannot escape, and one of those is letting my opinion of albums get colored by their cover art. It is a stupid phenomenon, I realize, but I think it's one that is far more common than it should be.

I was just recently placing an order for a few albums to celebrate an occasion, and as I was doing this, there was one album in particular that was causing me great pain. Without naming it, and thereby shaming the band, it is a recent album that is currently very high on my list of favorites, but it is also one that features some of the worst album art (cover and booklet) that I can remember recently from a band on a real label. The art doesn't fit the music, or the title, and much of it looks like it was made using the first iteration of Photoshop on an early 90s Tandy computer. (That reference is for anyone who feels old, despite not being so)

But why should the cover art affect the way that I think about the album, and make me hesitate about hitting the purchase button? The idiom that started this column is indeed true (which I know both as a reader and author), and it should carry over to music. There is nothing about the album art that makes the music any worse, nor does it make me enjoy listening to it any less. The only manner in which it is an issue is when it is sitting in my collection, on my shelf. And therein lies the rub.

For those of us who still enjoy collecting physical albums (my collection is small - I only grab my few absolute favorites each year), there is a degree to which our thinking is skewed by that little urge that lives inside us to be proud of our collections. Showing off a collection used to be a thing, and probably still is, and that is where lousy art becomes a real issue. Albums like the one that sparked this discussion are difficult to embrace with open arms, because I would almost cringe if I had to pull it off the shelf and put it in someone else's hands. An ugly album immediately conjures negative thoughts, and given my particular tastes in music, I need all the help I can get.

But what makes good album art?

That is a question that once again comes down to subjectivity. For me, I go in the direction of preferring album art that resembles actual art. I love covers that are either old works of art that have been re-purposed, or are created to give that effect. A cover like Slayer's classic "Reign In Blood" is an example of what I'm looking for, or Celtic Frost's "To Mega Therion". It could be said that I'm a bit of an art snob, but I get no pleasure from much of the traditional rock and metal art, with tacky band photos and drawings of shirtless warriors and giant dragons. Metal, in particular, bothers me, since I am in no way connected to the traditional image of what a metal fan should be, or should love.

So when an album comes along that matches great music with great art, as Ghost just did with "Meliora", it reminds me of just how much of the package is missing when the art isn't given enough care. There's no going back in time, and digital music is going to continue expanding its market share, which is just going to make album art even less important. That's a shame, because those of us who truly love music are in it for more than a quick file to throw on a phone. We love the entire experience, and we still buy albums for more than just those digital reproductions of the songs.

We love album art, because it gives us a deeper insight into the music, and the people behind it. Great album art can make a record even better, by pointing us in the right direction. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to do that nearly as often as I would like.

And to circle back to the start, no, the lousy art did not stop me from buying and loving that album.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Concert Review: GWAR 30th Anniversary Tour

There are two competing impossibilities walking into a GWAR show on this tour.  First, that the band has really been around for thirty years and where-does-the-time-go, while the second, and perhaps more impossible impossibility, is that such a band could survive, and indeed thrive, for thirty years in the first place.

The battle, such as it was, began appropriately enough with Battlecross, the raucous band of thrash upstarts who specialize in the abstract concepts of ‘loud’ and ‘fun.’  As we discussed not so long ago with the release of their recent album, Battlecross works best as a singles band who can produce electric moments.  So it stands to reason that seeing them live is essentially a gleeful highlight showcase, and such was the case on this evening.  Battlecross, when they slam into “Force Fed Lies” to lead their set, marks an important pace car for the rest of the evening.  The fury of their sound, the resounding ring of their guitar tone and the eminent pleasure they get from playing sets the bar awfully high for everyone who follows.  This trend continued whether new or old material, while singer Kyle Gunther plays his humorous hand to the crowd, extolling the virtues of purchasing a t-shirt in order to prevent your car from being destroyed by GWAR’s ‘spew.’  Within all that though, the band fired off two of their classics, one of which is an all-timer.  “Flesh and Bone” remains the most potent song in the band’s arsenal, sounding every bit as powerful and neck-ruining as it does on disc, while “Push Pull Destroy” is ever the thundering clarion of the band.  The crowd, while seemingly not wholly familiar with the band, ended up both appreciative and enthralled.

Which takes us to Butcher Babies.  There is no ambiguity to the presentation of this band and what our eyes are supposed to be attracted to.  The energetic gyrations and machinations of Heidi Shepherd and Carla Harvey is both enticing and alluring.  There is a certain unavoidable charisma not only in the obvious physical embellishment of the pair, but in the overflowing attitude of chaotic encouragement that permeates all that they do.  The other two band members wear nothing but common stage black, almost as though they are not allowed to have personality that might rival the dynamic duo at the front of the stage.  For all that, the pounding that characterizes all of the band’s singles and doesn’t always translate on a recorded medium works reasonably well at stirring the crowd into comparative madness.  Fan favorites like “Blonde Girls All Look the Same” and “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” were equally adept at selling the band’s wares, both songs a flurry of flowing, dyed hair and stomping Chuck Taylors on the stage, with the accordant milling and smashing of the mosh pit below.  The set continued much in this fashion, never relenting all the way through the final note of the set’s closer “Magnolia Blvd.”

The final act of course was the thirtieth anniversary tour of GWAR, their second sojourn since the untimely passing of Oderus Urungus.  It would have been perfectly reasonable to expect that an anniversary tour would be chock full of nostalgia and random, gleefully sordid memories of yesteryear.  Say what you will about GWAR, but they have never been a band that looks backward, and so this tour would be no different. Where the last outing left us with the forlorn and failing mission to save Oderus from the perils of a time vortex he had been lost in, this new adventure picks up in a more corporeal setting.  The band, still trying to find their way in the wake of their loss, comes to find out that the internet at large is trolling them, and thus in typical somewhat-well-intentioned GWAR fashion they take steps to kill the internet.  Along the way is the usual spate of blood and gore and genuinely funny banter centered on otherwise outrageously offensive subject matter.  GWAR, as ever, is so adept at engaging in the absurd that what would be scandalously inappropriate in any other social conversation seems perfectly at home here.

The only indication that GWAR was willing to acknowledge the passing of thirty years was that they unearthed a lot of old material that fans had likely stashed away in their memory as songs that ‘GWAR doesn’t play anymore.’  Chief among these selections, to the surprise of the gathered throng, was “Jack the World” known to GWAR fans mostly as ‘that song on “This Toilet Earth” that ISN’T “Saddam A Go-Go.”  Not content to stop the memory train there, GWAR soldiered through a goodly chunk of their back musical forty, including going all the way back to heartfelt recitations of “I’m in Love (With a Dead Dog)” and “Captain Crunch” from 1988’s “Hell-O.” 

What’s important to note is that GWAR approached both new and old material (of which the balance was about an even split,) with equal fervor and dedication.  Continuing in the new GWAR workflow, the band lets different members take their assorted turns at the lead vocals, which does lend for a rangy performance.  That said, Blothar carries the bulk of the material himself, leading the collective way through “Madness at the Core of Time,” and other popular new material including the seminal “Metal Metal Land.”  In this regard, the band has lost no steam at all, each individual musician remains just as talented as ever, which has been an increasingly important trait of GWAR in the last ten years.

That said, the show still isn’t the same without Oderus.  It’s still enjoyable and highly entertaining, and watching the band tear the skin off of and defeat ‘The Internet Troll’ at the show’s climax still gives a sense of reward to the viewer; none of that has been altered.  Nevertheless, the boots of Oderus remain difficult to fill.  Not impossible, as this tour already shows the band at a greater level of cohesion than the previous, but it will take time.

In the here and now, GWAR as ever remains GWAR.  There will always be “Sick of You,” there will always be colored fluid, and it will always be a show worth seeing.  That’s really the bottom line.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Album Review: Horisont - Odyssey

My previous experience with Horisont's music was not one that made a lasting impact. I reviewed "Time Warriors", and walked away feeling like Horisont was one of those bands that was capturing the sound of the 70s, but was missing the spirit of the classic music. It's easy enough to replicate the studio sounds, but it always comes down to whether or not you have the songs, and I just wasn't feeling it from them. That's a complaint I have about many of the bands that so heavily recall those days, as very few have been able to merge the sound and the spirit. There are only a small handful I would say have done that.

With this album, Horisont has gone a step further, writing what they have called a 'space saga', which is in essence a space-rock concept album. That proposition is dangerous, as it can go wrong in oh so many ways.

The album opens with the ten minute title track, which gives the band plenty of time to spread their wings and try a little bit of everything. There's a spacey (naturally) intro, a run of notes that sounds fairly technical, and a shifting dynamic that never keep the song in the same place for long. The first verse is all atmosphere, with a melody I know I've heard before somewhere, and well-accented backing vocals in the chorus. From there, that exact sound is absent for several minutes, as instead the song shifts through multiple sections, before finally returning once before the outro. While that makes for a break from the traditional verse/chorus structure, it also makes it a bit harder to enjoy the song, since the returning melodies of the traditional song form became the standard for a reason. The parts are interesting, but it sounds as if they included too much just to make a long song, and I'm not sure it adds up to a whole.

As we move deeper into the record, I begin encountering the same issue I had the last time I listened to Horisont's music. While they sound like an authentic 70s band, their songwriting isn't sharp enough to rise above the inevitable comparisons to the bands of that time. The songs that follow the opener simply don't have the kinds of melodies that they need. Neither the riffs nor the vocals deliver hooks that are going to stay with you. There's nothing here that stands out and makes you say 'now THIS is what I want to hear'. Part of that, I'm sure, is due to the heavy dose of space rock influences, but that doesn't excuse the lack of punchy songs.

I understand that Horisont's influences are different from those of bands like Graveyard and Year Of The Goat, the fact of the matter is that the comparison of just these modern bands shows how great the divide is. They all sound appropriately vintage, but the two bands I just mentioned are able to inject their music with undeniable moments, and make you forget that you're listening to a throwback. Horisont can't quite do that. The music is always trapped in its 70s kabuki makeup, and never feels as natural as it should.

There are moments here that work. "Light My Way" is a truly great song, and shows me that Horisont can make all of this work. "Flying" and "Back On The Streets" are good too, but there aren't enough songs of this quality to anchor the record.

"Odyssey" might be a slightly better record than "Time Warriors" was, but it's still an example of a band that is searching for their own sound. They are borrowing from the 70s so heavily that they haven't found a voice to cut through the vintage production. Until they refine their songwriting and make their songs daggers that pierce you, I'm afraid they are going to continue to get caught up in the retro hysteria.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Album Review: Leaves' Eyes - King Of Kings

There's an odd trend in metal right now for bands to take up history as a subject, writing albums that aim to serve as much as textbooks as they do entertainment. You have bands like Sabaton and Hail Of Bullets telling the history of war, while others have taken up the cause of various kings and queens. The former I can understand, since war and metal do share inclinations that would bring them together. I'm not sure I understand the appeal of writing about royalty, since I can't see why any of us would be so interested in giving credence to such a painful system of rule. It's very much like how I can't believe the American media spends so much time fawning over the movements of the British royals, when we fought a war a couple centuries ago precisely so we would be free of them.

Leaves' Eyes steps in with their new album, telling the story of Norway's first king. Since I don't know his story, I'm not going to be judging the album's historical accuracy. Let's just see how it stacks up as a piece of symphonic metal, shall we?

All albums of this sort apparently must have a symphonic introduction, which we get here in the form of "Sweven". It's a harmless two minutes of violins and folk atmosphere, but it's also useless time that doesn't do anything to ramp up the first real song, since it starts with it's own form of an introduction. That track is the title track, and it sets the statement of how Leaves' Eyes is out to make an album that is massive and epic. Unfortunately, trying to be epic and actually being so are very different, and this song proves that point. There are big guitars, big choirs, and big strings, but the composition itself is stock-in-trade metal. The extra layers of sound don't change the fact that it's a very conservative song, one that doesn't have much of a riff or a melody beyond a few drawn out notes, so the whole of the composition doesn't add up to much that's interesting.

"Halvdan The Black" tries to improve on things, built from a sturdier metal riff, but there's a disjointed nature to the writing that doesn't work. The verses drop down into drum-and-bass emptiness for no real reason, and the chorus strips away Liv's melodic voice for a staccato shout that's backed up with poorly done rough vocals.

"The Waking Eye" follows the same basic formula, but has more of a melody to follow in the chorus. Letting Liv sing is obviously the band's best bet, so why they don't write material to highlight her voice is a mystery to me. I suppose that's why the guitars drop out in nearly every verse, but that's a writing cliche that is just as annoying, since the songs can never maintain any sense of urgency if they have to always slow and soften to accommodate her.

"Vengence Venom" is more fun, with it's Celtic influences, and it's slightly more spritely pacing. By the time we reach the mid-point of the album, we've already heard everything there is to hear, and a verdict can be rendered. "King Of Kings" is one of those albums that tries so hard that it can't possibly hit its mark. Writing epic metal takes a songwriting perspective that is different from slapping extra layers of sound onto a regular metal song.

That latter approach is what I hear with this record. It's standard metal that gets dressed up with extra fancy bits, but they don't change the core of the sound. Leaves' Eyes is writing regular power/traditional metal songs, and they aren't doing it especially well. There are a few good tracks here, but the album comes across mostly sluggish and bloated. Liv is clearly a good enough singer to build a sound around, but she is never given the space and melodies to shine. It's a shame, because I'd like to hear her really let loose and see what she could do here. As it stands, "King Of Kings" is more interesting in theory than it is in sound.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Album Review: Huntress - "Static"

In speaking with Huntress’ leading dynamo Jill Janus a couple years back, she explained in detail how the band had crafted an idea for a sort of neopagan or Wiccan trilogy, centered around the concept of the Triple Goddess – the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.  Going in order, that makes the band’s new release “Static” the Crone, being their third full studio album to date, and Janus and company live up to the promise of a record that rails and howls against the dying light of the waning moon.

From the jump, Janus puts her impressive vocal range to the fore, belting out surprisingly high and virile measures from her slight frame for opener “Sorrow” and “Flesh.”  The musical accompaniment beneath her vocal panoply is appropriately rugged, turning up the distortion just so much as to be threatening under the veneer of even Janus’ flighty vocals.

But what makes “Static” stand apart from the band’s previous albums “Spell Eater” and “Starbound Beast” is the infused sense of urgency.  There’s a desperate anger branded into the very flesh of these songs, the kind of semi-blind striking out that not only fits perfectly into the greater theme of the Crone, but also would have made Dylan Thomas proud.  There is a palpable sense of fury and regret and Janus slashes her way through “Brian,” a song almost certainly about somebody but representative of a greater sense of loss and pain at the end of a relationship or a life.

Produced at least in part by James A. Rota of Fireball Ministry, his musical influence meshes well into the established goal of the Huntress trilogy’s endgame; to represent an anguished soul striving for a little more time and exacting retribution on those who wronged her.  “Mania” is a long, twisting diatribe of hurt that weaves in many different influences and colors, but the middle third is where it’s not so difficult to detect the burning, thick guitar tones and cadences of Rota’s primary band in the lining.  The addition lends the experience of “Static” a certain authenticity as the last, vengeful gasp of a fading goddess.

We experience the same kind of churning rhythm for much of the album’s back half, be it the quasi-thrash of “Harsh Times on Planet Stoked” or the slugging punch of “Noble Savage.”  Huntress’ consistency is thorough and well-orchestrated.  There are no outliers on “Static” and each individual track, even the ‘happy’ ones, stick to the overall tone of the album.

The only thing “Static” is really missing in terms of execution is a unified, killer single.  There’s not one of the ten tracks (twelve depending on which version you buy,) that stands solidly above the rest to command attention, which isn’t fatal by any means, but does mean that the whole experience melds together into one long piece perhaps a shade too easily.

In addition, while “Static” commits to its presentation and executes with style and aplomb, the emotional toll of the album isn’t especially exacting.  Janus’ performance is uniformly good and there’s nothing wrong with the music that accompanies it (and sometimes outshines it!) but if the listener is seeking an album that truly evokes the clawing pain of a life lashing out, “Static,” while painting a convincing picture, doesn’t quite hit that button in same way that say, Alice In Chains’ “Dirt” does.

With all that, though, let’s not sound too down – “Static” is Huntress’ finest record to date, and is enjoyable in that same way that many believe “The Empire Strikes Back” to be the best “Star Wars” movie.  The writhing and vitriol of Janus’ Crone takes the band in a direction that is similar to their traditional heavy metal roots of years past, but adds depth and dimension to the performance.  Fans of THM in particular will enjoy the record, but most everyone will find a little something to like.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Album Review: Slayer - Repentless

Slayer is at a crossroads, that much cannot be denied. When Jeff Hanneman passed away, there was an existential crisis to endure, questions about whether Slayer would still be Slayer without half of the their creative team. Going out on the touring circuit and pounding out the classics is easy, but to create vital new material without the engine running on full power is something else entirely. I'm not going to beat around the bush here. I'm still not sure if Slayer should have gone on as a recording unit. I'm never going to question whether they [can], but I'm not fully comfortable with the fact that they have. Hanneman was simply too important to be replaced by more of Kerry King. Suffice it to say, my excitement and expectations for this new album were not very high.

The album gets one thing right from the very start. If you complained about the thin guitars on "world Painted Blood" (I didn't - I like natural recordings), that problem is gone. Terry Date's production is huge here, with the guitars still retaining Kerry King's less distorted tone, but sounding as massive as ever. Sonically, despite being brick-walled, the album sounds fantastic.

After a slow, creepy bit of an instrumental, we kick things off with the title track, which we have all heard by now. It's Slayer by-the-numbers, which means it should please Slayer fans. My opinion hasn't changed from when it was released prior to the album, namely that it's a perfectly serviceable song, except for Kerry's awful lyrics. That has been a problem going back for several albums, one that makes me curious how someone can spend thirty years as a songwriter and get worse as a lyricist. His nadir will forever be the god-awful "Payback" (despite it being an amazing, catchy song), but he hasn't bounced back far enough for me to not still shake my head at many of these words.

"Take Control" is a far better track, mainly by virtue of it's relative diversity. The main riff is another of those chugging as fast as possible bits that doesn't really feel like a riff, but then the song drops down into a much heavier muted riff that actually hints back at 'that riff' from "Angel Of Death". The vocal lines still aren't the strongest, but the guitars on this one are more than enough to make me forget about that.

The slower numbers are hit-and-miss. "When The Stillness Comes" is a bland, forgettable number, but "Vices" is a surprisingly solid effort. The slightly slower tempo not only allows the song to sound heavier, but it fits Tom Araya's voice so much better than the frenetic numbers. Without struggling to keep up with the music, Tom's voice actually sounds comfortable, and the whole of the song comes together in a nice package.

It's when we finally get to the first song released from the album, "Implode", that it hits me that this has been a much slower album than I was expecting. The whole of the middle of the record was on the slower (for Slayer) side. What that does is allow the band to find some groove for the first time in ages, which helps the songs differentiate themselves from one another. It also gives Kerry a different foundation to write from, so his vocal lines don't dip into self-plagiarism as much as a few of his recent efforts have.

The highlight of the record for many people will be "Piano Wire", the lone song written by Hanneman. It just feels a bit more like Slayer, and offers up one of those little bits that reminds you of what's missing in the form of a ringing chord in the verse that has the perfect amount of unintentional atonality.

When it's over, there's something I can say about "Repentless" that I didn't expect going in; it's a pretty good modern Slayer record. I had my concerns about Slayer at this point in their career, but I have to admit that "Repentless" is a better record than I would have predicted. You can't compare this to their 80s era, since everything is so different now. But compared to their recent material, it stacks up well. "Christ Illusion" is easily my favorite modern Slayer record, and "Repentless" slots in admirably behind it. I'd say it's a slightly better record than "World Painted Blood", and guarantees that the Slayer train isn't going to be stopping just yet.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Album Review: Ramon Ortiz - "Portal"

When composing a virtuoso guitar album, it stands to reason that the individual involved had better be damn well prepared to articulate a story without the use of lyrics to move the narration.  Unless one wants a fanbase entirely composed of technical guitar nuts, who certainly exist but perhaps not in substantial numbers to move a lot of product, composing living, breathing songs in favor of simple guitar theatrics is the crux of success in this particular splinter showcase.  It’s a fickle reality, one that has alternatively embraced, forgotten and embraced again by such luminary talents as Eric Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen and Buckethead, with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John 5 also in the mix.  The internet is positively festooned with technically excellent would-be session players, men and women who regard as foreign the idea that truly otherworldly guitar composition is as much about character and tone and presentation as it is pace and ability.

Enter into this world Puerto Rican guitar sensation Ramon Ortiz who came to initial prominence as a founding member of Puya and later of Ankla, who presents us with his second solo guitar effort, “Portal.”  The album finds Ortiz about halfway down the line between the extremes of excellent instrumental storytelling and just-another-wanking-guitar-album.

What separates Ortiz from his peers in the genre is his abundant use of Latin influence in his music, carried over no doubt from both his band experience and his own deeply personal music history.  Indeed the most interesting part of “Portal” are when Ortiz drops his exclusive rock and metal sheen and fully gives in to his heritage.  We see tastes of this during “Jamakeo,” a song of traditional Latin percussive cadences overlaid and perhaps slightly overpowered by the characteristic drive of Ortiz’ personal tone.  This song though, shows the promise of what can be when Ortiz applies his composition talent to two generally separate musical devices.

A little ways down the line, this gives way to “Valse Criollo Natalia,” which is a song of straight Spanish guitar and played beautifully.  It’s a fine contrast to the solid, thumping rock of the rest of the record, a gentle respite amidst a sea of turgid electric waves.  Even this song doesn’t blend the two worlds that Ortiz is trying to tie together, it doesn’t really need to in order to be effective.

However, that song serves as the gateway for “Portal’s” masterwork; “Selvatica” is the single place on the album where the full implication of combining metal and salsa come to a head.  Wonderfully buoyed by Latin percussion, the song’s edgy but catchy riff cadence sinks in and finds a home amidst the unlikely pairing of dance and electric rock.  Ortiz uses a simple staccato riff to simulate the hip-shaking rhythm while his drums accent and color the tone of his undulating guitar in a cyclical partnership that creates the presentation of something akin to a metal Latin rain dance.

The unfortunate side of “Portal” is that outside those moments mentioned above, the album is well-executed but no so different from any number of other guitar virtuoso records.  Many of the remaining tracks are artistically interesting but not especially innovative or captivating, resulting in a sort of shoulder-shrug reaction from the listener.  If that sounds particularly damning it may well be, but keep in mind that the bulk of what we’ve been talking about are the highlight moments, which are good enough to warrant the praise we’ve heaped so far.  As singles, those are fantastic and worthy of high regard, but as a total package “Portal” may be only average, balanced out by material that is technically fine but does not snare the ear.  As discussed at the top, the remaining songs do not effectively pain an immersive picture.

So, by all means, give “Portal” a shot for the brilliance of “Selvatica” and the selected beauty and artistry of some other isolated moments, but be aware that you may be paying full price for an album that gives you reduced mileage.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Album Review: The Aaron Clift Experiment - Outer Light, Inner Darkness

This year, so far, has been a down year for progressive music. While the last couple of years have found me diving deeper into those waters, and walking away with some of my favorite albums of those years, I have not had the same luck this time around. For whatever reason, this has been a year defined by simplicity, and not even some of my favorite artists of the kind have been able to bring me back into the fold. The Aaron Clift Experiment has a better chance than many of those, because their take on progressive rock is not as mind-numbingly expansive as many, as the majority of the songs on display here are of manageable length, with only one headed past the ten minute barrier. It seems odd to say, but that's how I like my prog.

The album opens with "Kissed By The Sun", which introduces us to the band's sound with a riff of open guitar chords, and a striking bit of violin over the top. It catches you a bit off-guard to be introduced to those elements so early, but I like the choice very much. The violin work that weaves throughout the background is one of the best elements of the song, the sort of embellishment that can provide a lot of depth in just a few notes. There's also a surprising heaviness to the chorus sections, as the band locks together in a solid rock groove. Aaron's vocals don't have the personality that someone like Roine Stolt has, but he's a solid enough vocalist, and the melodies are lively.

A few jazz influences pop up during the instrumental section of that song, and those follow in the bass and electric piano groove of "Locked". The song is a highly melodic number that balances feelings of hope and melancholy. It's very pleasant, and its subdued nature showcases the searing lead guitar work that is prominent on the album.

Things get a little unfocused from there. "Fragments Of Sleep" lives up to the title, feeling a bit like a pastiche, a bit of song written solely to get to the counterpoint vocal section that closes it out. Neither half of the song works especially well, and together they just don't seem to fit. The following "Your Arms Hold Them To The Dark" is a thankfully short song that borrows the pace from doom, but doesn't have anything resembling a groove or melody to balance it out. It's a drag, and one of those songs that I'm not sure why musicians love to write.

"Aoide, Goddess Of Song" rights the ship, although it does sound a bit too much like the cloying stereotype of Christian rock. It's a pleasant song, but I can see why it could be considered too saccharine for most people. Much of this is proven by the nearly entirely instrumental "The Last Oasis", which uses the mix of guitars and strings to great effect, and has more heart in it than most of the songs with vocals.

We finish out the album with two more lengthy tracks, both of which move far too slowly, testing my patience. I've never much understood the appeal of atmospheric music, and these songs veer hard in that direction, not offering up riffs to glean onto. The appeal is very limited, given just how subdued the songs are for the entirety of the closing twenty minutes of the record.

I don't want to be too harsh on this album, but there are seriously glaring flaws that I feel I need to point out. The entire back half of the record is lacking any life at all, and once the first two tracks are over, Aaron barely has a melody to sing that's worthwhile. The band clearly has talent, and there are some nice instrumental ideas here, but the songs just don't have enough here for me to recommend the album. It's pleasant progressive rock, but that's about it.

Album Review: Quor - Human Paradigm

I'm starting to think that maybe I'm too hard on the 'mainstream rock' scene. While there is still the disgusting success of bands like Five Finger Death Punch that make me weep, there is actually some hope out there. This year has seen a very solid album from the new 'supergroup' Saint Asonia make a decent impact, and now Ghost has managed a top ten album. That alone tells me that the mainstream of rock doesn't have to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to succeed. While the scene isn't going to revert back to the old days, the ones I remember, where bands didn't have to have a sense of absurd macho roid-rage in order to be taken seriously, but there is some hope.

QUOR is introducing themselves with this, a debut album that collects tracks from their earlier EP. Having missed out on that, this is also my first exposure to the band. What do they have to offer?

"The Silence And The Spark" starts us off with a big, heavy riff played with a guitar tone that heaps on plenty of distortion. They're definitely going for something huge, although I often think that the opposite is how to actually make guitars sound beefier. The song reminds me of a song from Metallica's "Load", but played with the production of their 80s records. The vocal tone alternates between screaming and a Hetfield-esque shouted singing. The riffs are ok, and the chorus tries to be melodic, but the hook isn't polished enough to really stand out.

"When The Gods Speak" changes things up in the vocal department, as the bouncy riff segues into a verse that sounds like it could have come off a Volbeat album. And if you know what I'm saying, that's not exactly a good thing, since it's inexplicable how Volbeat is able to get away with it. The chorus, though, is solid, which really glues the whole thing together. It's a bit odd, but it's a pretty good song.

Through the rest of the tracks here, we get much of the same. The riffing is the standard modern rock tropes, and the vocals add a hint of strain to cleaner tones. The problem with all of these songs is that they simply aren't sharp enough. There's nothing egregiously bad about them, but there is also little that's memorable. There's a reason why modern rock gets called faceless, and it's because the chugging guitars never play anything that can be easily recalled by a listener. That's the case here, since while the songs are fine to listen to, I can't recall a riff from the record. That might be ok if the melodies were strong enough, but like a lot of bands finding their way, they need to be more finely honed before they turn these songs into killing machines.

A lot of young bands fall into this category, and Quor is no different. There are signs of optimism on this record, but it's a raw, embryonic document of who Quor are. Experience will help them develop their songwriting and their identity, but for now, "Human Paradigm" is merely a rough sketch of the future.