Saturday, October 31, 2015

Album Review: With the Dead - "With the Dead"

Time for a tired, clich̩d axiom Рgames are not played on paper.

“With the Dead” is the title of the debut full-length album from the band of the same name, a newly formed consortium born out of the residue of Electric Wizard (Tim Bagshaw, Mark Greening) and the ashes of Cathedral (Lee Dorrian).  With those named collected and performing together, the table was set for a gleefully drudge-laden stew that would bubble and smoke and absorb the listener in its palpable, inky blackness.

The pedigree is perfect; the legacy of these musicians in this style is beyond reproach.  The presentation, with the band pictured as pale-faced zombie priests, is spot-on.  Even the album’s length, six songs with no filler and all roughly between six and eight minutes, is proper.  With the Dead does everything right in the run up to hitting play on their eponymous debut.  On paper, this was set up to be brilliant.

So then, what happened?  This may sound like anathema, particularly to doom metal purists, but the bottom line is that With the Dead didn’t have anything happen in these songs.  There’s melody and rhythm and all those requisite parts of music, but there’s little suspense, no hooks, and no surprises.

The band does do some things very well – the vocal execution of Dorrian is well within his idiom, and he speaks the album’s emotions plainly.  One of the album’s better strengths is in allowing the listener to feel the song’s atmosphere.  “With the Dead” is very much like an Autopsy album in that regard, using plain language and plodding cadences to create a thick feeling of dread and the sensation of being lost, though this band is not to steeped in blood-spattered viscera or literal damnation.

Still, by the time you’ve hacked through “Living With the Dead,” you’re two-thirds of the way through the record and aren’t especially interested in the rest.  There’s a unavoidable feeling like the album contains no more secrets, and the pained wailing of Dorrian with the slow, churning
accompaniment of the duo behind him starts to become a slog.

What makes it more disappointing is that there are good ideas encased in this quagmire of doom.  The riffs of “Crown of Burning Stars” are well-crafted and fit the music’s idiom, but the pace never entices or excites.  It’s the same old down and dirty tar fire that won’t do anything but smolder.

The album is curiously absent of the characteristics of the bands that are Frankensteined together to make up With the Dead.  The drug-induced shambling of Electric Wizard always had a certain silver lining of enjoyable psychedelia infused into the edges and corners, while Cathedral was weaved with an attractive strain of black magic that made the songs pop from the their baseline foundations.  None of that makes it way to this record.

All the musicians involved in With the Dead have done greater things than this, with more spirit and accomplishment that this album shows.  All three are talented in their own right, so there is hope that future endeavors may producer greater results.  With that said, the paper blueprint for this one looked better than the finished product, so stay away for now.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Discography: Meat Loaf

Few artists who have endured as long as Meat Loaf still exist in a world where they are usually perceived as guilty pleasures. For nearly forty years now, the big man has been playing his own brand of music, and despite the sales and longevity, few people don't still give a nod and wink when mentioning their affection for his  over-the-top presentation.

I am one of those few who feel no compulsion to qualify my appreciation of Meat Loaf, and all his music (in equal measure with Jim Steinman) has meant to me over the years. "Bat Out Of Hell II" was the first album I ever owned, and for over twenty years now Meat Loaf has been an integral part of who I am as a music fan. As the wait for the promised new album continues on, I hereby embark on running through Meat Loaf's discography, to once again let the cream separate from the milk.

And lest you think my aforementioned fanhood will preclude this from being entirely honest, I assure you I pull no punches. Let's begin:

Bat out Of Hell (1977)

Nearly four decades after its release, there still isn't anything, aside from Meat Loaf's own career, that sounds like "Bat Out Of Hell". Jim Steinman's vision and voice is one of a kind, and it resulted in an album that is going to be timeless. There's not much that can be said about the album that hasn't been already, but what amazes me about the record is how, with hindsight guiding us, the transition of these songs from the theater to rock and roll was nearly seamless. I can complain about "All Revved Up (With No Place To Go)" being a bit pedantic, and with "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" dragging on too long in the middle, before getting to the truly classic duet section, but for the first effort of two men who didn't know how to make a record, "Bat Out Of Hell" is still a masterpiece. Being rough around the edges just enhances the 'us against the world' mentality of the music. It's an essential album for a reason.

Dead Ringer (1981)

Four years later, and with voice issues along the way, "Dead Ringer" arrived as the disappointing follow-up to an instant classic. There are certainly good songs on the record ("Read 'Em And Weep" especially), and it shares the spirit of its predecessor, but the problems with it are too great to ignore. First of all, Meat's vocal issues are readily apparent, as his rich voice is reduced to a shrill imitation of himself. But the real problem is with the songs, which aren't as developed as what we heard before, and half of the batch was used for Jim Steinman's superior solo album. As half of that bigger picture, "Dead Ringer" is good. On it's own, it's nothing worth listening to very often.

Midnight At The Lost And Found (1983), Blind Before I Stop (1986)

Making his first album without Steinman, it became clear that Meat Loaf needed a certain style of song to fit his voice and his persona. These albums are ill-fated records that don't play at all to Meat's strengths. The songwriting doesn't know what to do, and reduces Meat Loaf to a standard pop/rock singer. That was a terrible approach, and neither of the albums rises above the fact that they exist. That are, without doubt, the nadir of Meat Loaf's entire career. Avoid them at all costs.

Bad Attitude (1984)

Sandwiched between those records was "Bad Attitude", which is a surprisingly strong album. With two borrowed Jim Steinman songs, the stage was set for a record better than those that preceded and followed. But as good as those songs are, they alone wouldn't be able to carry an entire album. The songs that come from other sources are just as good. The title track is a strong rocker that features Roger Daltry in a duet, while others like "Cheating In Your Dreams" capture Steinman's feeling without being direct rip-offs. There's no competition; this is by a mile the best Meat Loaf album between the original "Bat" and....

Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1994)

The album that started my love affair with music. With twenty years of consistent listening, I can say with no qualifications that this is better than the original. While that record is the one that will never be forgotten, this is the stronger set of material. Yes, much of the record is recycled from Steinman's other projects, but it's mostly his best material. And considering that no one has ever been able to sell his material like Meat Loaf, it stands to reason that this would be the best thing either of them had been associated with in ages. There's drama, comedy, and every in between here. Not everything works, like the Three Stooges jokes in "Everything Louder Than Everything Else", but the record is so massive and engrossing, that it's easy to forgive the slight missteps on the way to something genius. It's not spoiling anything to say right now that this is the best record of Meat Loaf's career.

Welcome To The Neighborhood (1995)

Introduced with a Diane Warren penned Steinman clone, this album had the good fortune to live up to the hype. That song is an obvious rip-off, but it's so good that the lack of originality doesn't matter. Add in two more of Steinman's recycled gems, and the rest of the album didn't need to do much to make the whole work stand on its own. The back half gets a bit slow and sentimental, but there's a core of singles here that are fantastic work, so this was by no means the disappointment that "Dead Ringer" was following such massive success.

Couldn't Have Said It Better (2003)

Now we get to the odd part of Meat's career. Working without any Steinman songs again, Meat and his team finally found the answer for how to make a record for him. They hired people who understood Meat's sound, recreated it, and did so in the guise of really good songs. The title track is one of the highlights of Meat's entire career, and despite how creepy it is to sing a love song with his own daughter, everything except for the ridiculous pseudo-rap "Do It" is top-notch rock music in the Meat Loaf style. It's an album I still give regular listens to, because it's his most fun record ever. This looked like the beginning of a new era in Meat's career, but capitalism got in the way of that with....

Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose (2006)

Continuing the trilogy, but with questionable involvement from Jim Steinman, this is a strange beast. Half of the record is Steinman's material, and half was contributed by Nikki Sixx, James Michael, and Desmond Child. Where things get truly weird is that Steinman's half is clearly the weaker one. This album resurrects "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" and "Bad For Good", but turns in lesser versions than other artists had done previously, while scraping the bottom of the barrel for songs like "If It Ain't Broke, Break It", which don't deserve to have been recorded. The others' songs fare far better, producing half of the perfect sequel to "Couldn't Have Said It Better". "Blind As A Bat" and "What About Love" are more career highlights, which makes this album tough to grade. It's a good, complicated mess.

Hang Cool Teddy Bear (2010)

And now we get to the truly weird part of Meat's career. This album is, for an unknown reason, a concept album pieced together by myriad songwriters. It doesn't work in that respect at all, so I won't bother judging it as such. The songs are all over the place, with more attitude than ever before, and a duet with Jack Black of all people. That song, and a couple of others, are still fun to listen to, but the album as a whole is underwhelming, and insulting. A song whose hook is supposed to sound like 'lesbian love' is cringe-worthy, and a sixty year old singing the line "I can barely fit my dick in my pants" made me turn off the record. I haven't listened to it in years, and don't plan to return anytime soon. You can easily avoid this one.

Hell In A Handbasket (2012)

The most recent album, and another that was hastily put together to capitalize on whatever attention Meat was getting. Unlike the previous album, Meat got better songs to sing, even if they don't exactly fit the typical Meat Loaf style. "All Of Me", "The Giving Tree", and "Live Or Die" are all great songs, which then get balanced out with a needless cover of the mediocre "California Dreaming", and a closing half-sketch that is barely a song. You can hear how rushed the album was, which is disappointing. With more time, and a better song selection, it had real potential.

And now we turn our attention to the future, where a new, primarily Steinman penned album is on the horizon. At this point, my hopes aren't getting outsized. I'm not sure how much Steinman material is left in the vault that is worth hearing. I'm afraid we're getting to the point of recycling anything that can be found, just to say it's on the record. We shall have to wait and see...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Album Review: Ram - Svbversvm

Sometimes there are bands that you listen to, and then you completely forget about until the next time you hear their name mentioned. Ram is one of those bands for me. I remember listening to one of their earlier albums, and reviewing it on an early incarnation of my own personal blog, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you anything else about it. Ram fits into the mold of traditional metal so well that there wasn't anything that stood out about them, which makes it hard for me to differentiate them from all the other bands who do the same thing. That doesn't mean they can't make good music, or that they didn't, but it does put them at a disadvantage. Hopefully, this album will make more of an impression, one way or the other.

"Return Of The Iron Tyrant" kicks the album off with more than a dash of classic Mercyful Fate in their sound. The guitars have that same thick, mid-range tone that bites far more than the countless bands that scoop their sound into brittle oblivion, while the vocals are as high-pitched as range will allow. There's some nice riffing, but the song itself doesn't have a lot holding it together. The vocals especially shriek their way through, not offering anything to support the guitars.

"The Usurper" is where we kick things up a notch, with a stomping Dio groove, this song finds Ram hitting their stride. It has a more epic sound, and it's the first time that the music manages to hit a hook. It's still subtle, but the chorus of this song, despite creating a sense of deja-vu, is the best moment yet on the record.

As we move deeper into the track listing, it becomes clear that Ram's mission statement, to be a true metal band, is what holds them back. Listening to a track like "Enslaver", it hits all the bullet points on the blueprint, but that's the problem. So much of what Ram is doing is by the book that they don't give themselves a chance to ever make any impact with their music. By doing what we've already heard a thousand times, they put themselves in the position of having to sharpen their ideas to fine points before they can ever pierce our jaded ears. Simply put, if you're doing the same old thing the same old way, it's going to blend in and become background noise.

I don't like saying that, because I go into every album wanting it to be great. When I hear songs like "The Usurper" or "Holy Death", I can hear that Ram has a chance to do something good. But when the rest of the album follows the tropes without giving me a real hook, either in the vocals or with the riffs, I begin to wonder what the point of the whole thing is. The world surely has enough traditional metal albums in it already, so if you aren't writing songs that bring massive hooks to make them unforgettable, I don't know what a band like Ram is expecting to happen. These songs aren't going to light the world on fire, and they aren't going to make them a big name on the scene.

"Svbversvm" isn't bad, but it's completely faceless. The songs here aren't sharp enough to endure, and there isn't anything here to make me know that it's Ram, and not some other band doing the same thing. On that level, the album is a failure. But if you can't get enough traditional metal, it's really not so bad. It's perfectly fine for what it is. I'm just not sure I know why it exists.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Album Review: Caligula's Horse - Bloom

Caligula's Horse made quite the name for themselves with their last album, "The Tide, The Thief And River's End". That record was able to, through its use of progressive metal and folk passages, breathe actual life into the flaccid world of djent music. That's not saying that Caligula's Horse is a djent band, because they share far more in common with progressive music, as illustrated by their move to InsideOut Records, but there were elements of that style in that album, and they were one of the few times when I could actually stomach that sound. So now that they have returned for the follow-up to their breakthrough, and are on a new label, the expectations for "Bloom" are lofty indeed.

We get off to a far more grounded start with the title track, which spends its three minutes introducing us to the record with tender acoustic guitars, crooner melodies, and a guitar solo that could have been on Opeth's "Burden". The pace picks up towards the end, and does a fine enough job of showing us what's to come, but it feels like it needed more time to fully flesh out the idea and make the two parts of the song feel more like a cohesive whole.

You may have already heard "Marigold", the first single from the album. Those Opeth comparisons register again, as the main riff has the angular composition of something from the "Blackwater Park" era. The song tries to build from its soft verses into a clattering crash of melody in the chorus, but it just doesn't come together the way the band is wanting it to. The melody is so bland that it hands in the air, like the grains of pollen hoping to find a (pardon the pun) bloom before gravity crashes it into the ground.

The band gets back to sounding like themselves after that, but even those songs seek like they're missing something. There's nothing wrong with "Firelight" or the nine minute "Dragonfly", which mix the rhythmic riffing with moments of acoustic beauty, but the melodies float over the top too much. There's nothing about them that is particularly engaging, and the frequent forays into falsetto range seem more to showcase the range than integral parts of the melodies.

Moving along, there's solid tracks in the form of "Rust" and "Turntail", but solid isn't enough. With as much great music as there is out there, I need to hear something more than that to get excited, so while I'm not going to say that Caligula's Horse is doing anything wrong, they aren't doing anything that stands out to me either. Their blend of influences might be different than what other progressive bands are pulling from, but the end result needs a bit more, for lack of a better term, 'oomph' in the songwriting.

"Bloom" is one of those albums that I can tell is painstakingly crafted, and is clearly the work of talented musicians, but it just doesn't speak to me. The melodic composition lacks the hooks that I look for, even in progressive music. It's good, and it's pleasant to listen to, but it doesn't leave much of an imprint. And when there are so many other choices out there, that's a mortal sin.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Album Review: Skindred - "Volume"

Taken in a vacuum, the phrase ‘Welsh reggae metal band’ sounds like the incoherent rantings of a certifiable lunatic, but metal has forever been a safe harbor for that kind of unexplainable mishmash, and so we could only be making reference to Skindred.  Since their debut record in 2002, the band has been bringing a unique blend of reggae riddims and over-charged metal beats to masses on both sides of the Atlantic, accompanying their characteristic sound with a bombastic live performance.

Nothing about that basic formula has changed for “Volume,” the band’s sixth and latest studio record that again pairs the disparate worlds of their musical inspiration.  Naturally, comparisons to the Bad Brains come easily, but don’t tell the whole story, as Skindred is more apt to let their metal overrule their rhyming flow and also use no real punk framework to speak of.  There are similarities between the two bands however, in that they both embrace the historically political streak of reggae music to address societal issues either directly or in metaphor.  Skindred has no problem deviating from this serious material and breaking down into a party, but usually only as a chance to take a break before the next Rubicon is crossed.

What makes Skindred’s presentation work is that the music is really a symbiotic blend when one form helps accent the other.  Reggae has forever been a bastion of deep beats and recurring measures, which can only be enhanced by the power and fury of metal’s distortion.  So it is from the jump with the shambling hammer of “Under Attack” followed by the seam-bursting title track.  Both are threaded through with enough digestible melody to provide some contrast to the deep bass beat which helps make these tunes more than just adapted reggae songs.

“Volume” is a remarkably consistent experience, with the same general musical principles floating the album’s duration.  The performance of each track, even the cuts at the bottom like “No Justice” is professional and measured; nothing on this album is mailed in and every song is played with equal fury and resolve, lending the album a slick but authentic flavor.

Skindred is possessed of a skill that few other bands can boast, which is that they have a nearly fool-proof backup plan.  An unintended benefit of combining two traditionally separate styles of music is that the band is likely skilled in both, so when push to comes to shove, Skindred can always fall back on being a capable reggae band, rather than push out sub-par metal.  We see this a couple times on “Volume,” notably for “Shut Ya Mouth” as the band seems content to tilt their sound one way rather than push a heavier envelope that doesn’t want to move.  Make no mistake, this is a compliment.

There’s nothing aesthetically wrong with “Volume” from a critical point of view.  It’s true that the record is probably a couple cuts longer than it really needed to be, but that’s a minor gripe when unwanted songs can be skipped with an effortless button press.  The other issue with “Volume” is the one that has likely plagued Skindred since the band’s inception – there are those who won’t get it, or refuse to embrace it, or regard the blending of such musics as anathema.  Skindred, while they are capable of walking and playing in both worlds, is really only concerned with those two, and thus cannot provide a different look for anyone who isn’t interested in the primary sample.

Skindred may not be new to the scene but they remain as ever a refreshing change of pace from the norm.  In a year when it seems like there’s become an abundance of sameness, a grueling homogenization from all areas within the metal sphere, Skindred serves as a ray of something vital and different, well-versed in their craft and talented in executing it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Single Review: Adele - Hello

We don't talk about pop music as often as I would like to around here, mostly because the current pop charts don't offer me much music that I find interesting enough to discuss. I have my opinions on pop music, and I'm sure they aren't popular, but even now I have an affection for good pop music. And so, with Adele breaking the internet with the release of her first single after years away from the spotlight, I feel the need to talk a little bit about it.

But first, a quick announcement. If you notice, over on the right-hand side of the page, there is now a link to the new Bloody Good Music page on Facebook. It will not likely have any new or exclusive content, but it can be another way of keeping up to date on everything we post here. Feel free to head over there if you're so inclined.

Now on to the music:

Adele is the only artist who can rival Taylor Swift in terms of her success, and "Hello" shows us exactly why.

Going through the early minutes with nothing but Adele's vocal and a few melancholy piano chords, all the focus is put on her voice, which is exactly where it should be. She's able to wring emotion out her voice in both the quieter moments and when she opens up her power. This is a far slower burn than "Rolling In The Deep" or "Set Fire To The Rain". Instead of using raw power to hit hard, this song is all about the subtle drama that lurks in the shadows, ready to rip lives apart.

And when it comes, it comes. After the bridge, when the instrumental kicks up just enough, the song becomes a hulking monolith that few singers besides Adele would be able to overpower. She has that rare quality, and it is what makes "Hello" work. With a less skilled vocalist, the song would either be too simple, or too much for them to handle. Adele is a master, and owns this material like few can. She has a knack for writing to her strengths, which is a rare skill. Everything that is good about Adele is spotlighted here, and the end result is a fantastic single that has me excited to hear what else she's come up with.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Concert Review: Soilwork, Soulfly

Fall has a unique place in New York City’s culture and climate, as the concrete jungle bears no color-changing leaves, but the change in the air portends the coming of winter and the residents embrace the challenge, their usual resolve keeping them warm as the winds howl colder and the air gets hollow.  Knowing that their time to comfortably partake of the outside air is limited, the city bustles on, all eyes glued to one unfettered tradition that the fall also brings; playoff baseball.  Even the world of metal music, forever the dominion of outcasts and generally secular to organized sport, was abuzz not only with the excitement of seeing two metal heavyweights together, but the blitzing fall campaign of the New York Mets.

As Soilwork took to the stage, it was immediately clear that this was a night for professional metal musicians to showcase their talent.  The Swedish veterans opened with the title track of their new album “The Ride Majestic,” and the race was on to pack as much metal fury as possible into the shortest amount of time.  Even on the comparatively small stage Soilwork seemed larger than life, thundering through old favorites like “Bastard Chain” and celebrating the tenth anniversary of “Stabbing the Drama” with classics like “Nerve.”  Dirk Verbeuren, for all the talent that surrounds him, remains the most hypnotic figure on the stage when Soilwork is playing.  He never fails is making his flurry of complicated arm motions and coordinated kicking look easy, which belies just how talented the backbone of the backbone of the band’s rhythm section is.

More than that though, Soilwork impresses with their ability to create palpable force with their volume and precision.  A song like “Late for the Kill, Early for the Slaughter” is difficult to replicate without falling into the abyss of distortion and chaos, but on this night it was sharp and effective, the powerful voice of Bjorn Strid cutting through the melody to keep the song on track.  The set’s most impressive moments came near the end, again combining both new and old favorites.  “Petrichor in Sulphur” rang into the rafters and swayed the gathered masses, while “Stabbing the Drama” then hammered everyone back into the ground, each measure another reminder of what well-crafted, experienced metal sounds like.

Eyes were focused TVs showing the Mets game between sets as they pushed toward clinching the NL pennant.  A gentleman near rooted heartily, telling a friend "I don't really care about baseball, but they've got the whole city excited, so I'm getting into it." But when the time came for Soulfly, the crowd was ready.  Speaking of, the crowd on this particular night was great by any standard, but particularly excellent for a crowd in the middle of the week.  They moved, they danced, they moshed, they jumped on command and continued until told to stop.  Just when it seemed like metal crowds had begun to lose their steam on the whole, this collection of people would reaffirm the belief that metal fans are game anytime, anywhere.

Soulfly, in simple terms, rocked.  They crushed necks with opener “We Sold Our Souls to Metal,” and really never let off the gas, careening hastily into “Archangel” and “Blood Fire War Hate,” which stirred the masses into a frenzy.  Just when it seemed that the temperature in the theater was at full tilt, along came a rendition of Sepultura classic “Refuse/Resist,” which tore the top off the place and had bodies flying in all directions to the throwback rhythms of Brazilians thrash from a few decades back.

What strikes when watching Soulfly is just how comfortable Zyon Cavalera looks being in the band.  One would expect him to appear like a nervous twenty-two year old kid, especially sharing the stage with a famous father, but Zyon looks like an old veteran, pounding out beats with confidence and metronomic precision.  Max Calavera, to his credit, clearly plays the part of prideful father on stage, never really drawing attention to the relationship between vocalist and drummer, but it remains evident in his manner.

There was no relenting as the band smashed through “Sodomites” and “Tribe,” continuing their assault with heavy-handed South American rhythms and thick, crunchy guitars.  The encore was a who’s-who of crowd favorites, both from Soulfly and Sepultura.  It’s easy to forget that “Back to the Primitive” was written fifteen years ago because on this night as in many others, it still sounds so virile and moves bodies with a throaty rumble.  After that, the crowd’s meter was stuck on adulation, begging for more from Max before the night ended.  He obliged them by reaching into the back catalogue for “Roots Bloody Roots” which stood as one of the band’s best performances of the night, the crowd singing and thrashing along in full chorus.

Metal is often guilty of hanging onto the past too closely, worshipping those who have come before regardless of their changes or manner.  By contrast, these two bands are both worthy of that praise and keep the genre rooted by providing an example of how cathartic and energizing metal can be.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Discography: Elvis Costello

Welcome to the first installment of Discography, wherein I will venture all the way through an artist's career, giving my take on the entire ebb and flow of a lifetime of work. First up on the docket is Elvis Costello. In honor of his just released memoir, I figured now would be a good time to take a look back at the prolific career of one of my favorite songwriters. For the sake of this exercise, I will not be including his collaborative efforts. This will stick with his albums of original material.

My Aim Is True (1977)

Hearing this now, it's hard to see what the fuss is about. It sounds like a late 70s bar band, because that's sort of what it is. But if you can strip away the decades of musical evolution, what this record turns into is a fascinating look at the early development of Elvis as a songwriter. To come out of the gates with songs as strong as "Alison" or "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is amazing. And while the record lacks the propulsive force The Attractions would give later works, this stands up as one of the best written debuts I've ever heard. Purely from a songwriting perspective, I'd say it's better than its more lauded follow up:

This Year's Model (1978)

Another great record, and the first time we got to hear the thunderous power of The Attractions. Elvis is a great songwriter, but the band brought his songs to life. Their energy, and their nuance, were able to shade and highlight in all the right places. This record ups the bitter anger of the debut, churning out some hard-hitting numbers to go along with Elvis' pop tendencies. My issue is that this record was defined by "Pump It Up", which is one of my least favorite of his songs. A great record, but this is sandwiched by two classics.

Armed Forces (1979)

The best pure Elvis Costello album. This record is the pop playbook chopped up and put back together a dozen times. Elvis never did a better job of fusing his lyrical dexterity and his pop melodicism than he did here. "Oliver's Army" is legendary for it's sugary hook hiding a sinister message, but "Accidents Will Happen" and "Party Girl" are every bit as good. The Attractions showed their versatility throughout the record, and it was here that you could begin to see the makings of Elvis' career.

Get Happy (1980)

The first forgettable Elvis record. It's by no means a bad record, and "New Amsterdam" and "High Fidelity" are long-running standards, but there was simply too much material being produced at too rapid a pace for the record to work. Twenty tracks buzzing by in two minute bursts didn't work, and even the good songs were somewhat under-developed. But this was not a harbinger of doom, merely a correction that lowered the expectations so Elvis could get back to making more daring records.

Trust (1981)

This is where Elvis became divorced from his image. This was no angry punk record, it was a pop record that had as much debt owed to the 50s as to the New Wave. The Attractions were no longer needed for their power, but rather their skill at impersonating whatever feeling Elvis was co-opting. This is a radically mature record, one that requires a more subtle listen than anything that came before. It's a great record, if taken in the proper context.

Imperial Bedroom (1982)

A continuation of the previous album, this one found Elvis stretching himself to his pop limits. From the horn arangements in one song, to the spartan instrumentation of another, there was nothing holding the record together except Elvis. The second half drifted a bit too far, but there are a half dozen standouts, including what might just be Elvis' best ever song, the incredible "Man Out Of Time".

Punch The Clock (1983)
Goodbye Cruel World (1984)

I will lump these together, because they fit the same mold. After "Imperial Bedroom", there was nowhere left to go. Elvis had reached the end of what he could do with pop songwriting, so a turn back towards the conventional was underwhelming. It comes through in the songs, which lack the bite of anything from the previous records. These are regarded as his lowest point, and not without good reason.

King Of America (1986)

The beginning of an unimaginably great year. This is Elvis' best record, although it is certainly not for everyone. Stripping away everything about his persona, Elvis created a somber album of acoustic ballads that would be flawless, if not for the unnecessary inclusion of a couple up-tempo country songs that ruin the mood. This is Elvis' darkest album, his most raw, and a perfect illustration of what it means to be a songwriter. There's no adornments, only the meat on the bone.

Blood & Chocolate (1986)

Bringing back The Attractions, they managed to put aside their differences to pound out this record, a messy affair that bristles with energy. It has its flaws, but there's no denying the greatness of songs like "I Want You". They show Elvis recapturing his songwriting powers, and making the best purely Elvis record since "Armed Forces". 1986 looked like the beginning of a new gilded age, but that's not how it worked out.

Spike (1989)

This album is a mess. It goes in every direction, and never hits any of the marks. There is good material here, but Elvis' fascination with this, that, and everything once again rears its head, as the lack of focus keeps the record from ever coming together as a single piece of work. It remains frustrating to listen to.

Mighty Like A Rose (1991)

Another forgettable record, but without even the pretense of taking risks. This is an album that fades into the dust of time.

Brutal Youth (1994)

Once again with The Attractions in tow, Elvis got back to basics. That meant an improved record, but one that was still lacking. "Sulky Girl" and "This Is Hell" are fantastic, but at nearly an hour long, there's too much material here for its own good. The best songs are washed out with lesser material, and even The Attractions can't keep their interest all the way through.

When I Was Cruel (2002)

Back on his own, Elvis returned to his rock roots for the first time in nearly a decade, but with a twist. This record was built from drum loops and hints of electronic music, making it another one-off experiment. However, this was a far stronger set of songs than anything in fifteen years, so it was also a most welcome comeback. "Dust" and "Dust 2" are two takes on the same great melody, "Episode Of Blonde" is a powerful dip into hip-hop waters, while "Tart" is the most underrated song in his entire catalog. It is genuinely a brilliant song that never gets brought up when talking about his best work.

North (2003)

And now for something completely different, as they say. This album is a classically inspired, piano based album of ballads cycling through the end and beginning of love. It's a record that is too subtle for its own good, but even so, Elvis finds some great melodies to show he can write in the style. "Still" is a captivating bit of music.

The Delivery Man (2004)

Taking a trip to the American South, this album is a semi-conceptual piece that really can't pay off that idea. However, there are pieces of songs here that are truly great. "Country Darkness" is stirring, while "Either Side Of The Same Town" is one of the best songs Elvis wrote after 1986. This is another album that requires a certain mood to listen to properly, but it's the best of his genre-hopping. There is a very good record in here, if you're in the right frame of mind.

Momofuku (2008)

Once again back to basics, and Elvis makes us believe once again. This is a raw and raucous record, and it totally works. There's nothing in either the songs or the production that tries to do anything out of the ordinary, so Elvis is able to write his songs without worrying about needing a net to catch him. "Stella Hurt" is a glorious return to the "Blood & Chocolate" days, while "Go Away" is a pop delight. All these years later, Elvis proved he could still be the Elvis people remember.

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)
National Ransom (2010)

And to finish our journey, we get a pair of records that find Elvis taking on the mantle of an early 20th century American folk and Vaudeville performer. These records are interesting to hear, but feel out of place. There is good songwriting, but the sound is so antiquated that it's hard to listen to these as current songs, and not as artifacts of a time we've left behind. Their charms are difficult to find, and I seldom think of these as being strong records.

And with that, we have reached the end. Elvis' discography is long, and it takes a lot of turns. It may not be the highest compliment, but this exercise reaffirms that Elvis Costello is more of a singles artist than one for complete albums. Cherry-picking the best songs, he has built a body of incredible work. But album by album, there are only a handful I would single out and say are essential. But the fun is that you get to listen and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Album Review: Flying Colors - "Second Flight: Live at the Z7"

Rarely are we here at BGM stirred by the possibility of a live album, but upon inspection of Flying Colors’ new two-disc album “Second Flight: Live at the Z7,” we felt compelled to comment.  Not only because the work is the product of laudable musicians like Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy (though that helps,) but because “Second Flight” hits so many of the right notes for a live album, capturing the subtleties of a concert that can normally only be observed, well, live.

What makes this live compendium work so well relative to many of their contemporaries and live albums in general is that it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is.  That’s a fairly good-sized accomplishment for any band that partakes in the occasional musical embellishment, but especially unexpected from a double album of progressive music, where the natural assumption is that very little has been left on the cutting room floor.  Flying Colors, by contrast, keeps their wanderings to a minimum; each individual musician is allowed to show his technical acuity in bursts just long enough to prove the point and not a measure longer.  This keeps the listening experience of “Second Flight” appropriately brisk, but still imparts the feeling of experiencing the unique talent of each person on stage.

By way of example, the unparalleled Mike Portnoy (who hardly needs an opportunity to prove himself,) is allowed to blossom during the outro of “Shoulda Woulda Coulda,” immediately snapping up the attention of the crowd and drawing their appreciation.  Bassist Dave LaRue does a similar exhibition for “Forever in a Daze” with much the same result.  Flying Colors shows off just enough to be compelling through their performance, without crossing the line into unnecessary attention seeking.

With respect to the crowd, one of the subtle successes of “Second Flight” is that there’s just enough crowd allowed to seep through to remind the listener that they’re sharing in a celebratory live experience.  They clap, their cheer, they whistle vigorously and call out when they recognize songs.  This is paired with the robust production of the album in general, excellently mastered as to render the sound full but not overflowing.

For the sake of due diligence, there are also plenty of highlights in the songs themselves and the performance that brings them to life.  The second disc, like the first mentioned above, is equally abound with enjoyable listening, including a fulfilling and light rendition of “One Love Forever,” where the keyboards come alive and the song floats along without worry for about seven minutes.  The same goes for the sanguine “Peaceful Harbor,” which bounds with measured enthusiasm.

“Second Flight: Live at the Z7” is a fine example of what a live album should be.  The joy of the musicians is evident in the proceedings, evident in the tone of their music and evident in the supportive cheering of the crowd.  The production is loud but crisp, a smooth and easy listen that belies the depth of its running time.  Flying Colors has done this right, and other bands considering a live production should take examples from what they hear here.

Album Review: Kari Rueslatten - To The North

Last year, I reviewed Kari Rueslatten's return to the music scene, which was a record that I had no idea what to expect from. That album was a somber acoustic record,one with just enough pop tinge to make it an odd fit for any particular scene. It wasn't pop, it wasn't rock, and it didn't feel like a singer-songwriter record either. Whatever problems there might have been in classifying the music, it was an album that I found myself enjoying more than I would have thought. It wasn't like anything else I listened to last year, which is actually a point in its favor.

Since then, I will admit that I haven't listened to the record in quite a while. As more and more new things have come out, it just didn't grab me enough to stand out amidst the flurry of releases. But now, a year later, Kari is back with another new album, one that promises to be a bit darker.

"To The North" is inspired by the landscapes of her native land, which is something that I will have to reserve judgment on to those who have experienced them. I can only comment on the music itself. Opening with "Battle Forevermore", the atmosphere is set early on. With soft sounds, and a lilting pace, Kari's music is a reflection of the darker, more somber side of the coin. The song takes a while to get going, but the second half picks up the energy just enough to feel alive, and the harmonized vocals buttress the melody beautifully. It's a song that you can't say is peppy, or engaging, but it's beauty shines through.

"Mary's Song" has more of a jazz feeling, in the way that Norah Jones early records were classified as such. It reminds me a great deal of that style, as Kari uses her voice to inflect every note of the song. The hook is subtle, but it's there if you're paying attention. It's a slow-burn of a song that could have used a bit more of a payoff at the end, but there is something calm about the track that makes it satisfying nonetheless.

Kari's classical training shines through on "What We Have Lost", the judgment of which will depend on your love of that style of singing. The song itself has a stronger melody than the first two, and has a more electric edge. But the vocals are what define the song, and I will admit that the couple of strongest classical flourishes are not my preferred style. The song is good, and Kari is clearly a talented singer, but I would have enjoyed a more straight-forward vocal myself.

Being so subdued, these songs have to be exceedingly sharp to pay off, and the writing isn't always up to the task. "Dance With The King" is fabulous, but "Three Roses In My Hands" is a folk song that just doesn't have enough of a melody to it. It's hard to pick out anything memorable in the song that is going to stay with you afterwards.

"To The North" is the kind of album that is perfect for putting on when you want to turn off the lights and relax. The atmosphere of the record is calm, warm, and will whisk you away to soft and inviting place. Like her previous album, however, it's a record that is more memorable for the sound and tone than the actual songs. That's not saying that there aren't good songs here, or that the record isn't enjoyable. For its purpose, "To The North" hits the mark far more often than it misses. I'm just not sure how often I'm going to want to pull this particular arrow out of my quiver.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Album Review: Stryper - Fallen

When you think of the hardest working people in rock and metal, a name that might not come to mind is Michael Sweet. But in the last couple of years, he's put out a good late-career record with Stryper, a solo album, a collaborative effort with George Lynch, and now yet another Stryper album. That's a lot of music for someone to be putting out, let alone at this stage of his career. Sweet has been around long enough that he doesn't have to work this hard, since I'm sure most of the fans at Stryper shows don't care a lick if they ever write a new song. It proves that he's in it because he loves what he does, and there's not much more you can ask of a musician.

"Fallen" has been talked up as being the best Stryper album in many a year, and also among their heaviest. Naturally, that makes me a bit curious to see what path they're on, so here we go again.

The album opens with "Yahweh", one of the tracks that was previewed before the release. I thought it the first time I heard it, and I still hold the same opinion; everything about the song is really good except for the chorus, which is what I've heard many people say is one of the best Stryper has ever penned. For me, while the choir-work is beautifully executed, and certainly has the angelic sound they're hoping for, it's just not catchy. The entirety of the chorus is the single name repeated over and over, and there's not much there without the layers and layers of vocals. Production doesn't stand in for songwriting, so I can't say I'm loving it. But the riffs, solos, and the buildup are all quality. It's a good song in need of a better chorus.

The press materials are, for once, right. This is Stryper being as heavy as they've ever been. These songs all live off thick, chugging riffs that make the most of the guitar's range. They're the best part of almost all these songs, playing the kind of riffs that are heavy enough to appeal to metal fans, while still being simple enough to have that Sabbath-esque catchiness to them. Being able to remember riffs after hearing songs is something that I'm sad to say a lot of bands don't seem to take into consideration anymore.

Oddly, where the album doesn't quite hit the mark for me is with Sweet's vocals and melodies. I've heard him say in interviews that this album was written extremely quickly, and while I don't want to dip into the cynical, it sort of sounds like it. His melodies are under-developed, and not often up to the standard they should be. Just look at the opening one-two punch. "Yahweh" and "Fallen" both feature choruses made up almost exclusively of the repetition of one word. That's awfully hard to pull off.

"Pride" is the first official single, and it makes an even more baffling decision, replacing the expected soaring chorus with a screamed approach that doesn't sound very appealing to my ears. "Big Screen Lies" is more appealing, even if you realize the entire hook is only three notes.

I'm not sure if it was a decision to come out of the gates with the heaviest songs first, but stacked in a row are my least favorites. Once we get to "Heaven", things make a turn for the better. That song is the turning point, and the first great track is "Love You Like I Do", which is a bit softer, but not at all a ballad. Sweet's hook is the strongest yet, and the solos are an excellent addition. This strides the line between heavy and melodic perfectly.

The ballad of the record is "All Over Again", which like most ballads, is among my favorite tracks on the record. I'm a sucker for them, mostly because they're the songs where the bands focus their melodic attention. Sweet finally lowers his intensity and sings with some feeling here, and even though this sounds incredibly 80s, I can't help but get swept up in it. Honestly, I'd rather have an entire album of this kind of stuff, but I'm weird like that.

Let me break down the album like this; the back half of the record is as good as anything I can recall hearing from Stryper. There's some really nice songs, culminating in the fantastic closer "King Of Kings". The album is also indeed heavy, and the guitar work throughout is tight, chunky, and laden with groove. Instrumentally, this is all highly enjoyable stuff. My only real issue is that the opening songs have choruses that are too underdeveloped. They aren't unenjoyable, but they give the wrong impression. The fact that those are the songs that have been chosen to represent the album is a source of confusion. It seems to be working, however, so maybe I'm the crazy one. Anyway, two thirds of "Fallen" is Stryper at their best. That's not so bad.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album Review: Michael Monroe - Blackout States

I am not ashamed to admit that, as a rock and metal fan, there are still countless bands from the classic days that I have no familiarity with. It's simply impossible for me to have heard everything, and especially since I have never dropped my more pop and melodic roots, the breadth of music out there available to me has never lent itself to an encyclopedic knowledge on my part. Hanoi Rocks is one of those bands whose name I know, and whom I'm aware had a strong impact in the 80s, but that's all I can tell you about them. I can't recall ever intentionally hearing one of their songs, nor can I tell you anything else about them. I'm just being honest about that, because I'm coming into the new album from their frontman Michael Monroe with absolutely zero preconceived notions about what it should sound like, and no already formed opinion about him or his career.

After listening to Blackout States, there is a very particular comparison I want to make, but I'm going to save that for later.

The album kicks off with "This Ain't No Love Song", which establishes a punk feeling with the steady beat and gang vocals in the chorus. It's a fun little number that doesn't waste any time, hits hard, and gets things going with plenty of energy. That carries over on "Old King's Road", which uses its big chords to drive the chorus home. These are songs that capture the side of punk that I enjoy, which is the bit where certain bands use the sugary bliss of a hook to subvert the listener and drive a more deviant point across. Monroe isn't doing the latter part of that, but the songs are upbeat, catchy, and oh yeah, fun.

I love "Goin' Down With The Ship", which swaggers a bit more, and settles into a glorious hook that I could imagine a bar full of half-drunk rockers singing together as a message of camaraderie. It's just a great, simple song that doesn't try to be anything but three minutes of good-time music. Wisely, Monroe sticks to that blueprint, and doesn't push the music outside his comfort zone, either tonally or vocally. It's not hard to hear that while his voice is still strong, there are definite limits to what he's able to do these days. He doesn't try to do anything he can't, so these songs work beautifully for him.

The one place the album fails is when it tries to be artificially heavy. "The Bastard's Bash" is still pretty good, but it's not as hooky as it thinks it is. "R.L.F." is the nadir, however, two minutes of juvenile heaviness that replaces both hooks and intelligence with rampant overuse of the word 'fuck', to the point where it comes across as cheesy and desperate, not tough and rebellious. A man in his fifties singing about how he wants to 'fuck shit up' isn't cool, it's sad.

Thankfully, it's the only such misstep on the album. Aside from that song, everything here fits a certain sound and mood that is quite a bit more enjoyable than I had been expecting. And that brings us to that comparison I mentioned earlier.

This record reminds me intensely of Bad Religion's one-off experiment "The Dissent Of Man". Like that record, this is a hybrid of classic rock and punk, with heavy doses of Big Star's brand of power-pop thrown in for good measure. There are several similarities, but most of all is the feeling. This comes across as punk music for the mature soul, a type of music that wants to show how the music of our youth can gracefully age along with us.

That album was a revelation for me, and is one of my favorites of the last five years. "Blackout States" isn't the same masterpiece that was, but it is the first album since then that evoked the same feeling. I'm by no means a punk rocker, but if it sounded like this, I'd be more inclined to get behind the movement. "Blackout States" shows that Michael Monroe has plenty of tricks up his sleeve yet. If you want to have fun listening to a record this Autumn, you can't do much better than this.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Album Review: Downtread - "The War Behind the Wolf"

Decades come and go, trends and fads wax and wane, but the monolith that is rock and roll truly seems to be forever.  The basic tenets of rock music have become so nominally assimilated into popular music as to be indistinguishable on their own; they now compose the framework of all that is not electronically generated (though tendrils of rock often find their way in there, too.)  Nonetheless, there are cynics who are only capable of examining the present to find the justification for their dismissal of rock as old and passé.  They lose the forest for the trees and automatically discard as old fashioned that which does not attempt to rend the pillars of rock asunder.

Enter into this mix Downtread, a raucous Minneapolis outfit that seeks to remind us all of the timelessness of rock, that the genre was momentarily shaken but not ultimately diminished by the bastardization of the genre by broadcast radio in the first decade of the young millennium.  Thus, their third full-length record “The War Behind the Wolf” descends unto the masses.

Glancing at the band’s website, part of their biography is that the band is “modern rock with a mean twist.”  This is not mere bloviating by a band trying to show themselves; Downtread is no more or less than that de facto mission statement.  “The War Behind the Wolf” is ten well-composed tracks that see a band present the timelessness of rock and roll with talent and aplomb.

Listeners need not get far to experience the band’s central theme – “Next Victim” kicks off the experience with a fat, chewy riff that rebounds into each measure, maintaining momentum through a hook chorus and a breakdown worthy of the title ‘rock and roll.’  Rock and roll has always had this kind of rollicking power-fest in its secret heart and over six decades our understanding of the genre has distilled this pure form out of it.

Speaking of distilled, one of the refreshing points of Downtread’s performance is that it remains largely free of the unnecessary garnishments, bombastic bullshit and ghastly crude innuendo that seem to come and go in generational waves of rock.  Sure, “Rise Up” has a stereotypical big, dramatic chorus and the song’s bridge puts the brakes on the compulsive chug of the opening verse, but that’s the price you sometimes pay in rock and doesn’t mean the outcome is made worse.  The point is this: okay, maybe the addition of a slow, tenor guitar solo wasn’t the best for that particular song, but as an artistic decision by the band it’s well done, fits in their idiom without consequence, feels appropriately genuine and is still several leagues short of Slash being videoed from a helicopter while he wails away in the desert outside Axl Rose’s ill-fated wedding.  But we digress.

Downtread shows a lot of punch throughout the ten tracks and highlights all the common forms of rock we’ve come to accept and anticipate, all enhanced by a borderline heavy metal guitar tone and subtle but sharp bite.  “Broken Man” is a highly melodic and singable anthem that falls somewhere at the crossroads of pre-rehab Aerosmith and good Collective Soul, but with an added rhythmic churn bottled up in the foundation.  “Perfect Day” is a good slow burner, a crowd-pleasing head-nodder in the middle of the album that functions both as a moment to catch your breath and also to reaffirm the central theme of Downtread’s statement on societal ills and individual redemption (the werewolf theme that pops up here and again isn’t on that track, but you can’t have everything…)

On the downside, it does bear noting that “The War Behind the Wolf” falls into the practically inevitable rock and roll trap of feeling a little checklist-y.  The first sentence of the previous paragraph is both a blessing of versatility and a curse of predictability.  In performing all the common tropes of rock anthems and rousing crowd inciters, Downtread forfeits an ability to hold the listener in suspense – there is little that is surprising or unanticipated, with few ‘wow’ moments, except for the little bit of production magic at the end of “Minds Erased” which was unnecessary.

For all that though, “The War Behind the Wolf” stands as one of the better pure hard rock albums to come across the desk in a while, probably since Monster Truck’s “Furiosity.”  For all the musicianship of Downtread (which we did not discuss in minute detail but is very solid,) the album’s greatest success is in properly appreciating the intelligence of the listener; the record never stoops to the lowest common denominator, nor does it attempt to bamboozle and awe by speaking artificially over the audience’s head.  This is an enjoyable common sense rock album by a common sense rock band, capitalizing on a genre that could use more of both.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Album Review: Coheed and Cambria - The Color Before The Sun

There are lots of reasons, both good and bad, to either get into or avoid a band. They aren't always the most logical of reasons, but music isn't always a logical enterprise. Over the years, I've heard the singles that Coheed and Cambria have put out, and I've enjoyed several of them. But given the fact that everything they've recorded so far has fallen under the singular banner of 'The Amory Wars', a multi-album conceptual piece I have no interest at all in unfurling, I never bothered to dig deeper and give any of their albums a listen. I have my limits, and deciphering multiple albums of a sci-fi story is not high on my list of priorities. But when it was announced that this new album was going to be their first non-conceptual piece, I was intrigued. And when I heard "Here To Mars", I was definitely hooked into giving this album a try.

We start off with "Island", which is going to lead me to say something that will get me in trouble. After the semi-prog opening chords, the core of the song actually reminds me a lot of late 90s pop/punk. Let me stop for a second to say that I don't at all mean that as a pejorative insult. It's actually supposed to be a compliment, in that the song reminds me of when rock music could be both propulsive and poppy, which is contrary to everything that exists these days. The melodies are catchy, the guitars sound appropriately big, and the bridge with the ethereal backing vocals works as a beautiful pause to break it all up. It's a great opening number.

"Eraser" is a heavier number, with guitars that try to bring back the darkness of the grunge era, but the whole song is a bit of a tease, because not only does the melody stay firmly in Coheed's wheelhouse, but the falsetto bursts that lead into each verse are, at least to me, a blistering takedown of the soft dance aesthetic that guitar music in the pop mainstream has developed.

"Here To Mars" was the first track from the album I heard, and it remains my favorite. It's such a perfectly executed pop/rock song that it actually makes me sad, since I'm old enough to remember when that song not only would have been a massive hit, but when songs of that kind were all over the radio. Claudio's hook is incessant, and I can't resist singing along in my head to it. I can't imagine that it won't become a live favorite.

On the complete other end of the spectrum is "Ghost", which is largely comprised of nothing but Claudio's vocals and an acoustic guitar. It's a gentle, tender song, one that manages to keep its melodic sense despite being slower and softer. It serves as a needed bridge between "Here To Mars" and "Atlas", two of the biggest, hookiest rockers on the album. As good as they are, and they're pretty darn great, I'd almost say an entire album in that mold would be too much of a good thing.

We get a couple more really good tracks in "Young Love" and "You Got Spirit, Kid", before reaching the one song that doesn't do much for me, "The Audience". That song leans a bit heavier, with some prog sensibility, but it falls flat because the melody gets tempered down and matched to the rhythm of the song. It loses the flair the band usually has, and while there is a chorus section with a solid melody, it takes too long to arrive, and I'm not sure the song fully recovers from the wait.

But that's a minor gripe. Putting aside those two minutes of music, what we have here is an album that does almost everything right. "The Color Before The Sun" is one of those warm albums that revels in feel-good melodies. Maybe it won't be looked at in the same light without a bigger concept holding it together, but I don't care about such things. All I know is that Coheed and Cambria write richly melodic rock music, and "The Color Before The Sun" is a great record for people who just want to sit back and listen to some pop-tinged rock. I'm one of them, so "The Color Before The Sun" is a strong contender to be one of the ten best records of the year.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Album Review: Joel Hoekstra's 13 - Dying To Live

Just because someone is in a band, that doesn't mean we actually know anything about them. Often, they are players who get recruited, and spend large chunks of their careers playing other people's music, often wrongfully being thought to be synonymous with music they had nothing to do with. Depending on the band in question, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. For Joel Hoekstra, this is the scenario we're confronted with. Known for his time in Night Ranger, and now the newest member of Whitesnake, we really don't know anything about who he is as a musician. Until now, that is. He's stepping out with an album of his own, propelled by songs that are entirely his. So what do we end up with?

First thing to note is that we have a murderer's row of talent on display. In addition to Hoekstra, we get the rhythm section of Tony Franklin and Vinny Appice, and the vocal talents of Jeff Scott Soto and Russell Allen. That's a heck of a roster, even before getting to the guest stars.

"Say Gooodbye To The Sun" kicks things off with a heavy groove, a modern metal song that rides the right edge of Allen's clean and gritty voice, far better than he can muster on his own in Adrenaline Mob. It's a solid song to start things off, giving everyone involved just enough room to showcase their skills without it sounding like an exhibition. "Anymore" changes things up, sounding like a Symphony X song through the verses, before the chorus turns it around into a poppier sound. This approach is right in my wheelhouse, so the song is a real winner.

One of the things I appreciate about the record is that for being the project of a guitar player, there is restraint shown through these songs, with layers of acoustic guitars popping up, and little playing that stands out as being flashy for the sake of it. In fact, the only thing that holds this back from sounding like a real band effort is the dual vocalists. If one had been chosen over the other, this could easily avoid the 'project' label that will inevitably arise.

We get songs that range from the very 80s sounding "Long For The Days" to the more modern and heavy "Scream", but Hoekstra doesn't fall for the belief that heavy songs don't need to have hooks. He does his best to give every song a strong chorus, and usually comes through. There are the songs that don't work quite as well, specifically the title track, but that's to be expected.

What's clear is that Hoekstra loves 80s rock in all forms, which is on abundant display. There are moments that bring Journey to mind, and then there's a song like "Never Say Never" which is straight out of the Dio playbook. Russell Allen does a convincing job of recalling Dio's snarl, and it's one of those songs that reminds me that we make music so much more complicated than it needs to be. A riff, a melody, and a bit of fun. That's all we need.

Overall, "Dying To Live" is a solid album of melodic rock/metal, and gives us a glimpse into who Joel Hoekstra is as a musician. It's an enjoyable listen, and shows that Hoekstra can definitely be more than a hired gun if he finds the right situation.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Album Review: Annihilator - "Suicide Society"

Canadian entertainers have always had a foothold in America’s social lexicon, and as much Americans try to ignore it and simply absorb our brothers and sisters of the Great White North into our own patchwork cloth and claim them as our own, the artists themselves often remain true to their home country.  So, while American thrash came and went and came again, there persisted Jeff Waters’ Annihilator, the highest-selling Canadian metal act of all time, fiercely active all over the world since inception in 1984.  The release of “Suicide Society” marks the band’s (which is essentially just an epithet for Waters himself,) fifteenth studio record, and this one sees the central ideaman on every instrument except the percussion.

Contrary to their contemporaries, Annihilator has always done two things markedly different than their peers.  The first is that while all the great American thrash bands were content to either take on issues of nuclear war and social plague, Annihilator has always been more on the street-level view of societal analysis.  Second, Annihilator has endured a thousand lineup changes and a hundred different paradigm shifts in public taste but through fifteen studio records remains firmly rooted in the genre they started in.  To pick up “Suicide Society” in 2015 isn’t really worlds apart from listening to 1994’s standout “King of the Kill.”  Waters remains completely committed to being a professional musician in his chosen genre, and there’s a lot of worse things than that.

Also, Annihilator has always had the best guitar tone of any thrash band going.  Waters has mastered a sound that is both deep and sharp, an inherent thick hum that still makes each note stand out of its own volition.  For over thirty years this tone has persisted and has always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of Annihilator as a whole.  A good guitar tone cannot go underrated – Eddie Van Halen is as much synonymous with ‘the brown sound’ as he with his actual artistry and Boston sold an awful lot of their first record in part because of the clarion allure of Tom Scholz’s sound.  So to it is with Waters and Annihilator.

“My Revenge” is the second song on the album, but the first that really stands up and impresses.  This is thrash as it was always meant to be: fast with a buzzsaw churn, but still intelligent and highly accessible.  The song gallops along without reservation, blazing along with staccato riffs and bitten-off lyrics.  A cynic would suggest that part of the song’s strength is that the primary riff is nearly a copy of Metallica’s “Damage, Inc,” but since they’re both good songs, is there a problem here?  We already live in a world where “Four Horsemen” and Megadeth’s “Mechanix” are admitted copies, so give this a pass.

Another staple of Annihilator has always been Waters’ versatility within his own genre, finding the wiggle room to do different things within the same basic framework.  As such, we have the big bass shamble of “Snap” quickly turned around by the frenetic verses and dramatic chorus of the excellent “Creepin’ Again.” So immediately the listener is presented with a veritable buffet of selections, and allowed to choose whatever style suits his or her personal taste best.

That’s pretty much the theme of “Suicide Society” all the way through, highlighted in the second half by the jumpy and pounding “Break, Enter,” reportedly a song written by Waters chasing down some people who broke into his home (hence the street-level view.)  Okay, does this record sound so different from the other fourteen Annihilator records?  Probably not, but as we’ve discussed before, that’s not necessarily bad if you’re the best or only person doing what you’re doing, and in terms of traditional thrash in the original sense, Annihilator might just be the last man standing.

So that’s it, then.  “Suicide Society” might not be revolutionary, but it is damn fun to listen to, and, this is important, doesn’t feel stuck in the past like so many other veteran metal bands do.  Waters acquits himself with aplomb, and the album is better for it.  Fans will love it, and if you haven’t picked up one of their albums in a while, re-acquaint yourself using this one.  It’s a good ride.

Quick Take: Circle II Circle - Reign Of Darkness

Circle II Circle is a band that I like, but one that has been beyond frustrating to listen to over the years. I'm a big fan of Zak Stevens' voice (how many other people heard the Machines Of Grace album?), but his main outlet is not a bastion of consistency. Their first few records were slow off the blocks, sounding way too much like Savatage rehashed, which was for good reason. It wasn't until "Burden Of Truth" that they got rolling, putting out back to back albums that were great, with the one I mentioned being one of the better traditional/power metal albums of recent times. But then they fell off the map with the limp and boring "Consequence Of Power", before somehow righting the ship with the excellent "Seasons Will Fall", which I still spin frequently.

This album sees their see-saw history return, as it wipes away all of the progress, and puts them firmly back into the morass. Zak is Zak, and his voice still sounds great. But the songs around him are dull, lifeless, and lacking the hooks he usually brings to the table. There are a couple of good songs here, but too much of the album streamlines the band's sound into four minute metal mashers, which is entirely the wrong approach for Circle II Circle. They're at their best when they open up a bit, when they're trying to be more than a head-banging metal band. That doesn't happen often enough here for my liking.

It's not as though this is a terrible record, but I just don't have much to say about it, because it made absolutely no impression on me at all. I'm still going to take note and listen when the next album rolls along, because I still have hope they can produce another "Burden Of Truth" or "Seasons Will Fall". Until then, those albums will have to suffice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Album Review: The Sword - "High Country"

What…the…hell?  The Sword’s “High Country” was one of the most anticipated records of 2015, with all manner of exaggerated expectations being flown in a hundred directions to and fro; strong references to the band’s previous catalog predicted unprecedented greatness.

Yet for all that, it’s hard to imagine anyone expected this.

For “High Country,” The Sword has completely shifted gears, taking an abrupt turn away from their groovy metal roots and accomplishments to try their hand at a highly experimental record that dabbles in seven or eight heretofore untouched genres.  As soon as the electro-boogie of instrumental opener “Unicorn Farm” begins, the fog of expectation evaporates and gives way almost to a feeling of disbelief – was this a joke open?  The answer to that ends up mixed.

“Empty Temples” gets the listener back on more familiar footing, as The Sword puts beats to pavement in a style that is perceptibly classic rock.  The undulations of rhythm and timing make the song feel out of time; a pleasantly performed anachronism from a previous musical age.  Vocalist and ideaman J.D Cronise leaves his usual metal wail behind and composes for himself a vocal palette that is more relaxed and easy-going in an attempt to fit the band’s new sound better.  The general thrust of this revolutionary idiomatic upheaval continues through the title track and into “Tears Like Diamonds,” the last of which sounds most like a Sword song.  It’s here that Cronise reprises his usual vocals and gives us a listenable song that would have sounded at home on 2012’s “Apocryphon” with a little more depth in the bass department.

This is where “High Country” picks up a little – “Mist & Shadow” is the album’s first track that offers us a glimpse into the possibilities of The Sword’s experiment; a heady combination of deep, throaty bass and meticulous but simple melodies that combine to generate a naturally powerful and punchy tune.

There again though, the album changes, and we go back to heavy electronic influence for “Seriously Mysterious,” a song that bounces along with artificial beats and no particular melody.  Cronise teams up with fellow Texan and Austin scene darling Jazz Mills to sing in that flat monotone that never quite worked for the early 90s alternative scene and combines it with a bopping cadence that’s reminiscent of the time before electronic music matured and it was safe to admit you liked it.  For all that though, there’s something about this cut that works, whether it’s the oddball inflection of the pure oddity of it all in contrast to what we know of The Sword.

The album’s back half hits and misses (more on this in a minute,) but undoubtedly the jewel of the B-side is “Ghost Eye,” a variably thudding and articulate song with a huge singalong chorus that similar to “Mist & Shadow” captures the imagination of what The Sword was, is and can be.

Nevertheless, “High Country” feels unfulfilling.  And before somebody says it, it has nothing to do with the new style.  No one here is going to fault as accomplished an artist as The Sword for branching out and doing everything in their power to not be stagnant – there are plenty of bands who could learn a lot from the confidence it takes to make “High Country.”

Rather, the album is unfulfilling because it lacks in bite.  Comparisons have abounded declaring that The Sword has made the move from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin, but the key to Led Zeppelin’s music was the unbridled vitality that permeated all of their best compositions.  Sure, Zep had some slow tunes, but they were always juxtaposed by the sheer power of Page, Jones and Bonham.  The Sword in this instance is more like Thin Lizzy or similar bands of that second-tier ilk – talented yes, but lacking in conviction and edge.  There’s little punch here, just a lot of songs that are fine for what they are, but can’t or don’t turn heads and demand rapt attention.

Additionally, when you purchase “High Country,” there’s a big ol’ sticker on the front that openly boasts “15 new songs!” and that’s only sort of true.  The record has four instrumental tunes on it, all under three minutes, which seem like unexplored ideas.  “Suffer No Fools” in particular is like listening to J Dilla’s “Donuts”: there’s a worthy idea here, but it’s never extrapolated to its conclusion, leaving the listener to wonder what could have been.  Continuing the point, “Turned to Dust” ends almost in mid-thought, the abrupt ending coming as a jarring juxtaposition with the song that follows.

“High Country” is one of those rare instances where the name on the front of the record grants some measure of benefit of the doubt.  It took a long time for “Apocryphon” to really open up for me, so maybe it’s the same for this album.

That said, it’s hard to really go to bat for “High Country” when the album has some obvious and glaring flaws that can’t be covered up with greatness from the surrounding tracks.  The Sword makes a laudable effort to do something new and it’s not a failure, but it’s not a rousing success, either.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Album Review: Voodoo Hill - Waterfall

I'm going to say something now that might be mildly controversial; Glenn Hughes is overrated. Yes, he's got a good voice, but how much music has he actually been a part of that has endured? Simply put, he's one of those people who is a great singer, but an average songwriter, so he's never found a situation where he was able to project himself as being something more than that. Even with Black Country Communion in recent years, he was always playing second fiddle to Joe Bonamassa, and hardly anyone has noticed that said band has folded.

Voodoo Hill finds Glenn teamed up with songwriter and producer Dario Mollo, who I know best for his multiple albums done with former Black Sabbath singer Tony Martin. Like Glenn, I found those albums to be good, but ultimately forgettable. What I'm hoping is that they balance each other, and this is the partnership that allows them both to flourish.

"All That Remains" kicks things off in an unusual way. The main riff is constructed of some open chords played with a beautifully ringing tone, but when the chorus comes along, the delivery is so much more rhythmic instead of melodic that it's unexpected. It's still a good song, but maybe not the way I would have started a record. "The Well" follows with a heavier riff, one of Dario's interpretations of an 80's Sabbath riff, as Glenn is given a chance to stretch his vocal range. Oddly, again the chorus pulls back into a rhythmic delivery, and Glenn's voice isn't put to its full use.

Melody is altogether eschewed on "Rattle Shake Bone", a swaggering bluesy number that doesn't have a hook of any kind. It's a riff in search of a song, one it never finds. Things finally come together on the beautiful ballad title track. The softer sounds let Glenn's voice shine through, with his clear tones sounding fantastic over Dario's guitar parts. The chorus here is the best moment on the whole record, a fantastic bit of melody that locks in with the strings behind it into a dramatic moment of beauty.

As the rest of the record unfolds, they're never able to recapture the spark of that song. Glenn's voice doesn't have the depth for the heavier tracks, and the writing doesn't play to what Glenn is best at. There's absolutely nothing about tracks like "Karma Go" and "Evil Thing" that would tell you Glenn Hughes was involved if not for his vocals. I understand how these kinds of projects work, but I'm still disappointed that the songs weren't crafted to fit the talents of the singer chosen.

Ultimately, "Waterfall" is one of those albums that I think proved a point. There's enough on display to hear that with Glenn Hughes and Dario Mollo have plenty of talent to make great rock music. It also proves that neither one of them is a particularly adept songwriter, which makes the album come off flat and uninspired. There just isn't much here that will make the case for either man. The title track is amazing, but that's the only thing here that I'd say is worth seeking out. Otherwise, Voodoo Hill is the sound of talent being under-utilized.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Album Review: Intelligent Music Project III - Touching The Divine

It doesn't feel like very long ago that I was reviewing the second album from the Intelligent Music Project, a studio collective that puts out old fashioned melodic rock with an uplifting message, throwing all common sense to the wind and embracing the very definition of cheesy rock music. There's a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons where Marge finds free Air Supply cassettes in a car wash's giveaway bin, to which Bart implies they were 'wuss rock'. He would, I'd imagine, say the same thing about this album.

But I don't mean that as a criticism. I enjoyed the last Intelligent Music Project album (it's sitting on the shelf beside me as I write this), and I genuinely like this kind of AOR. My commentary was more about how the music is perceived by outsiders, not so much myself.

This time around, the group enlists John Payne (ex-Asia) and Toto's Joseph Williams to handle the vocal duties, splitting the songs up in a manner that, as someone unfamiliar with the singers, I can't accurately peg without the liner notes. But let's move on to the music, shall we?

The opening track is the nail-on-the-head "Opening", which isn't the short bit of pleasant noise its title might suggest. There's a short folky introduction, and then the song turns into a fully Trans-Siberian Orchestra meats Jim Steinman blend of crunching guitars and tinkling pianos. The song shifts between the two feelings a couple more times, without much in the way of segues to have it all make sense. I'd say that the songwriting could have been a bit more logical, but the individual pieces are all very good, so the song winds up working.

The project's flaws come through right after this, as they place the piano ballad "Escape" second in the track listing. I like the song, and the closing moments have a beautiful melodic build-up of harmonies, but putting it so early in the order is a bit of a misstep. The album is just trying to get going, and the pace is dropped so much that it's a bit of a harbinger of trouble ahead. Compare that song to "Stay Up" two numbers later, which would have made an excellent one-two punch with the opener. It shares the dramatic piano chords, but has a few more guitars, and the hook has more meat on the bone, so to speak. It's the kind of song that makes me a sucker for great AOR.

This album has a more pronounced dramatic flair than the previous record, injecting more soap opera soundtrack feelings into the songs. The string arrangements on a song like "A Smile Away" are pushed to the fore, and are used to give the songs their identities almost equally as often as the guitars this time around. It's a decision I like, except for the lack of total commitment. If the album didn't let up on the drama, it would work as something you don't hear very often, but there are still a handful of straight-ahead rockers that get included which don't fit the new motif.

By the time we reach the end of the album, there's two things I can say. Number one, there's a lot of good music on "Touching The Divine" that reminds me that I haven't heard much AOR this year that has hit me hard. The songs here with the big hooks are a welcome change of pace. Number two, the album is a bit unfocused. At over an hour long, it feels like too much music for this style, and the songs that are included don't fit a unified theme. Since the titular phrase pops up more than once, I'm assuming that's what the project is aiming for, and it doesn't quite hit the mark.

I like "Touching The Divine", just like I liked the previous album. My issue is that they're coming out in quick enough succession that I'm not sure enough time is being taken to make sure they are putting their best face forward. There's a better album found in these fourteen tracks if you trim away the excess. It's good as it is, but it could have been better with a bit more focus.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Reissue Review: Fates Warning - A Pleasant Shade Of Gray

After a string of albums that established their legacy as one of the titans of progressive metal, Fates Warning found themselves at a crossroads. They had established a sound that was entirely their own, one that blended challenging music with accessibility, delicately making intelligent music that could still cater to fans who preferred not to delve into the intricacies of the compositions. It would have been easy to continue down this path, turning out albums that satisfied their fans and maintained their standing as a leader of the progressive scene. But Fates Warning took a different turn, having taken that sound as far as it could go, using their album as the jumping off point for another reinvention of their sound. The spirit of progressiveness compelled them to explore new territory.

The result was "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray", Fates Warning's first concept album, an hour-long composition traversing new textural and emotional levels. The unnamed segments serve as movements, directing the larger piece as it shifts and swings around the narrative being woven. Nothing on the album approached the commercial appeal of their previous works, a deliberate step utilized to ensure the album would work as a single entity. Now, a generation removed, Metal Blade is reissuing the album as a three disc experience.

"A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" begins in the darkness, immediately a different beast than anything Fates Warning had done before. As the opening sounds give way to the metal gambit that is "Part II", the shift is readily apparent. A mix of industrial percussion sounds and striking keyboard, the movement is a reconfigured, uglier take on the traditional Fates Warning sound, sounding like the band in a nightmare. Likewise, the copious harmonics scattered throughout "Part III" are disconcerting, keeping the sound alien enough to be at arm's reach.

"Part IV" is a brooding movement, a slow burn with no desire for instant gratification. Ray Alder croons his way through the song, with gorgeous harmonies layered atop his voice, before Jim Matheos finally relents and introduces the first standard prog metal riff. The sensation is jarring, having been held-off for so long. The sensation continues through "Part V", whose chorus shifts time just enough to be unsettling, sounding misplaces although still befitting the song. "Part VI" may be the most satisfying, an extended movement that builds from a lone bass-line to a sweeping sense of grandeur with Alder's most impassioned delivery. As throughout the album, former Dream Theater keyboardist Kevin Moore is integral to establishing the cold sound of the album, taking the music to places guitars cannot travel.

The emotional centerpiece sits in "Part IX", the most accessible movement of the piece. Layered with acoustic guitars, it is a tender ballad that allows Alder's vocal to carry the weight, coupled with a melody that allows him to stretch his voice for effect, not to rise above the clamor of the band.

Not every aspect works as well. "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" is a single piece of music, but aside from a reprise of the chorus from "Part V" in "Part VII", little ties the movements together as a whole. The album could just as easily be considered twelve separate parts with little of the impact being lost. It makes no impact on the music, but makes the experience slightly hollow, as though the result of false advertising.

Above all else, "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" is a masterclass in establishing a mood. Rarely does a metal album sound as utterly detached from the world without also distancing itself from the melody that makes it music instead of noise. It is not an easy piece to listen to, nor is it always enjoyable, but it is rewarding. Matheos shows a deft songwriting touch, showing a commitment to minimalism that few progressive metal bands could approach. The music is not always complicated, but it carries with it depth that more notes would not be able to convey. "A Pleasant Shade Of Gray" may not be Fates Warning's most loved album, but it is their most accomplished. 

And now we can all relive the experience again.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Album Review: Children of Bodom - "I Worship Chaos"

Children of Bodom has long since passed the point of necessary introductions, so the instant question for their new album “I Worship Chaos” becomes ‘what do we need to know?’  Well, here’s the rundown.  There’s one fundamental change to the band this time around, which is that rhythm man Roope Latvala is gone and was not replaced, which leaves leading idea man and axe magician Alexi Laiho alone in lifting the band’s heavy guitar weight.  So for the first time ever, we now see the Finnish metal masters as a four-piece, which means an altered workload for bassist Henkka Seppala and keyboardist Janne Wirman.

The record begins with the nominal helping of CoB’s powerful and characteristic flair.  “I Hurt” is both a certified earwig of a song with a big chorus and a great hook and also a thudding maul that relentlessly strikes the anvil time and again.  This kind of single has become part and parcel for the band, the kind of tunefully punishing anthem that has long served to distance CoB from the rest of the pack.

Not to be outdone, the album continues into “My Bodom (I am the Only One)” which is essentially a variation on the same song and also a stylistic throwback to the heady days of “Follow the Reaper.”  The song builds to a major crescendo on multiple points and accents Laiho’s underlying rhythm with a welcome heavy dose of Wirman’s keyboards, which is a tactic the band hasn’t utilized as much of in recent years.

Yet, what strikes most about “I Worship Chaos” is the way that long sections of the record…well, aren’t chaotic at all.  There’s a lot of new look from CoB this time around, a cadence that shifts slower and channels that speed into low-gear power.  Not necessarily in the headbanging capacity, but in the infectious simplicity of rock rhythms that allow these songs to be more than bite-sized chunks of accelerated death.  The band’s hand is steadier for this record, which not only shows some diversity in the band’s landscape, but also the confidence to take the risk.

Sure, it’s a more mature sound with greater deliberation and less purely virile frenzy, but that’s hardly something to note in the loss column.  “I Worship Chaos” wants you to hear and feel it beyond just letting it breeze by and pick you up in swirling winds.  It’s a new face for CoB, but not a bad one.  “Prayer  for the Afflicted” is a totally new face of the band, injecting something bordering on sentimentality into the usual metal proceedings.  In the intervening space, Laiho uses his talents to craft an artfully executed solo, which sacrifices his usual biting speed for a soulful, borderline inspiring presence.  It’s a change of pace and paradigm that requires a little getting used to, but the end product is one of the album’s better selections.

“I Worship Chaos” essentially works like a cosine wave, starting with the ferocity of “I Hurt” and dipping into the drama of “Prayer for the Afflicted” before coming back again.  There are fluctuations of both idioms on the album’s second half, as the title track pounds cement with galvanized fists, but then “All for Nothing” immediately takes us back to a more introspective place.  Nevertheless, the album concludes high on tempo and excitement with “Widdershins,” (which means essentially to go counterclockwise, but also sounds like the name of a Welsh rugby club.)  The finale’s outro is interestingly marked by a chain of punchy guitar chords played in repetition, sounding curiously like a hardcore anthem, but it still fits the overall picture of the album.

So for the first time we see Children of Bodom as a four piece, and the result is a record that is in many ways superior to the previous album “Halo of Blood.”  The measured pacing and deliberate delivery are both nice additions to the general deck of CoB and make for a more versatile experience that can adapt to different listening situations.  The band is no long simply a straight-ahead bullet train, and while they were great then (“Relentless, Reckless, Forever” is one of the all-time great records,) this new affect gives extra dimension and a greater array of possibilities down the line.