Monday, November 30, 2015

Album Review: Born of Osiris - "Soul Sphere"

Not that along ago, as their reputation was beginning to take shape, Chicago based Born of Osiris was the singular talk of Mayhem Festival.  Every musician you talked to wanted to mention the band, with commentary ranging from their diversity of sound to the gripping rhythms of their anthems.  Born of Osiris, by comment of their own established peers, was the band to watch.

So now we see the band, fully come of age after more than a decade in existence, releasing their fourth record, “Soul Sphere,” a story of existential crisis in three parts, told with the band’s proprietary mix of metal elements and customary power.

“Soul Sphere,” at first blush, comes across as a more well-read cousin of Unearth’s “The March,” a pounding effort that uses heavy rhythms and soulful melodies to tell dramatic stories, albeit with less guitar theatrics than the Boston metalcore veterans bring to bear.  That said, where Born of Osiris separates themselves from that template is in the unique layering of sounds that are often heard together in modern metal records, but seldom arranged so differently.

Different even from their European contemporaries who tend to use keyboards as an accent to the overall melody (see: Arch Enemy, for one,) Born of Osiris tends to engage the electronic ivories in strict harmony, adding another layer to their composition.  Notice that in the final third of “Goddess of the Dawn” the keys are used to juxtapose the clean guitar tones, which makes Born of Osiris more three-dimensional than most similar albums this year.  It’s chaotic for those expecting more of the norm, but as Marco Ramius told us: “a little revolution now and then is a healthy thing.”

There is beauty in the chaos, however.  “Throw Me in the Jungle” in trumpeted as the album’s signature single for its anthemic approach, but “Tidebender,” which follows it, is actually the better song.  Sure, it relies more heavily on Born of Osiris’ metalcore leanings, but it’s also the album’s most cogent track, bridging pieces together without effort and accenting their natural fury with incredible use of open space.  The bare-bones, unaccompanied vocal chanting in the middle bridge is stark and powerful, a clean contrast to the layered pounding the rest of “Soul Sphere” offers.

As you may sense, that plays into the one weakness of “Soul Sphere.”  Despite the band’s clearly meticulous efforts to keep this thing moving with direction, the album gets a little noisy.  Many of the tracks struggle with consistency – not in the talent or arrangement, but in the chaining together of rhythm, melody and harmony.  The listening of “Soul Sphere” can become disjointed and uneasy, making it hard to follow whole sections of the record.  No one is advocating that Born of Osiris needs to back away from the technical edge of their talent, but some discretion in the application, or a little more polish to make the joints flexible would have made “Resilience” or “The Sleeping and the Dead” an easier listen.

There’s a lot to like going on during “Soul Sphere” and it’s easy to see how many other musicians think of Born of Osiris as a novel and intriguing group of artists.  But while the record is academically interesting, it can be a challenging, or at worst, grating listen and isn’t for the casual fan.

Album Review: Khymera - The Grand Design

Dennis Ward is a name that you probably don't know, but he's been involved in countless records coming out of the European melodic rock scene. He's best known as a member of Pink Cream 69, but he's produced a slew of records, including Bob Catley's "Immortal", which is one of my absolute favorites. Khymera has evolved into his own project, as he is now the lead singer and songwriter on this new album. Left to his own devices, what can he come up with?

The first thing to note is that if you don't like 80s melodic rock, with the plentiful keyboards and sugary backing vocals, you'd might as well stop reading right now. This album is 80s through and through, enough that it has a bit of the feeling of being a time capsule. That also says something about the current state of music, as it doesn't make sense that rock and melody have been so divorced that the pairing can only be described as nostalgic. But now I'm getting off topic.

Opening with "Never Give Up On You", the album eases us into the sound with a heck of an enjoyable song. There's a healthy dose of cheese in the sound, but when the big hook hits, it's hard to not crack a smile and imagine what it would have been like to sing along with a crowd full of people as the smell of spandex filled the air. Dennis Ward's voice is a surprise. This being the first time I've heard him take the lead, I wouldn't have known he does it so infrequently.

Ward has been around the game long enough to know what works and what doesn't, so it's no surprise that his songs sparkle with the shine of someone who can push the right buttons at the right time. People complain a lot about veteran artists who lose the spark of creativity, and turn out material that is too 'samey', but that misses the point. What those veterans have done is cut out the fat, removing the experiments that are interesting diversions, but ultimately become footnotes in a catalog of far better music. Everyone has their strengths, and being able to play into them means you're going to make much more consistent music. Consistency, even when it's greatness, can make it psychologically harder to embrace, since you can't pick out the one or two obvious highlights. But if you enjoy albums as a whole, it's the best thing you can say.

That's what we have here. No, there aren't obvious songs that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The sticky, rollicking hook on "Say What You Want" makes it my favorite song on the record, but it's not dramatically better than anything else here. The quality is always there, delivering song after song that are simply a good time.

My only complaint here would be that the production is too similar to all the rest of the albums that Ward and his genre-mates put out. There's a particular sheen and guitar tone that all these melodic rock albums share, so there is a slight degree of familiarity that is a bit taxing, but that's a minor gripe. Production is only an issue when it stands in the way of the music, and that is certainly not the case here.

December is often seen as a wasteland for new releases, since many assume that everyone has switched over to non-stop Christmas music, and the dollars that usually go to music have been shifted to other gifts. I won't say there isn't some truth to that, but there are exceptions, and "The Grand Design" is one of them. Khymera has delivered a great end of the year treat for those of us who are still paying attention. While it's not going to quite crack my Top Ten, it's yet another strong album to add to a remarkably deep pile of releases that have made this a great year for music.

Anyone who likes melodic rock, or heck, anyone who likes music you can smile and sing along to, should check out "The Grand Design". It's the perfect antidote to the impending bleakness of winter. I highly recommend this platter of fun.

Friday, November 27, 2015

DVD Review: Richie Kotzen Live

If you're like me, or a lot of people, coming off the heels of the success of The Winery Dogs, you might not be very familiar with Richie Kotzen's solo career. He's flown under the radar for so long, and made plenty of records on his own, that knowing where to start is a complicated task. Thankfully, Richie is helping us out. Last year, he released a compilation of some of his best work, and now he is releasing a DVD showcasing a night of him playing his solo material, giving us the best window into these songs.

The trio enter the stage one by one, layering their way into "War Paint", has all the hallmarks of Richie's best work. There's groove, a few runs that shame normal musicians, and Richie soulful vocals putting out a memorable melody. Being a live performance, there's back and forth interaction where you can see why musicians enjoy playing live. There's enough of a question about exactly what comes next that you're never playing the same song exactly the same way twice.

Since I'm not familiar with these songs, every track is an opportunity to discover something new. The opening three songs show the diversity that a solo career can offer, going from the driving rock of the opener, to a bluesy rendition of "Love Is Blind", to the almost dance beat of "Bad Situation". I knew that Richie wasn't one to be pigeon-holed into a single sound, but I was impressed with how well he integrates those different approaches into music that never fails to sound like him.

I didn't care much for "Cannibals" when it was released prior to his most recent solo album, but the live version is more enjoyable than I remember the song. It's a technical exercise, and the ease with with Richie rips through the solo is both impressive and depressing, to someone who plays guitar himself.

The selection of songs for this show may or may not be Richie's best, I don't know enough to say, but they do make for a pleasurable show. Throughout the concert, these songs show just how much of The Winery Dogs' sound is actually Richie, as these sound like a less busy version of that band. There's more extended soloing here, and the feeling has more soul in it, but the sound is unmistakable.

One of the things that amazes me about a show like this is how exactly Richie manages to achieve a guitar tone that is so sharp and articulate while playing with his fingers. It's a little detail you would never guess if you were listening to just the audio, but watching him coax those sounds out of his Telecaster with just his fingers demonstrates a mastery of his instrument that is enviable. It's not easy. I'll give all of the credit to Richie himself, not just for his playing, but because guitar nerds will notice his own signature pedal at his feet, which is supplying those tones.

Also worth noting is the editing, which does a good job of keeping the focus on the most important parts of the songs, and doesn't jump cut every two seconds, assuming you have ADHD. The camera is allowed to linger long enough to give you a more immersive experience, almost as if you were in the theater and were trying to take it all in yourself. Restraint is difficult, and it works to make this much more enjoyable than a hyperactive presentation would.

"Richie Kotzen Live" is a show that I know fans of his will enjoy, but it's one that non-fans can get into as well. Whether you are already a fan of The Winery Dogs or not, this DVD showcases Richie's ability as a songwriter, which has sadly been unable to break through in many places. A few of the jams go on a bit long for my taste, and I could do without the bass and drum solo entirely, but "Richie Kotzen Live" is a good show, a better DVD package, and a nice way of digging into Richie's expansive catalog for some gems.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Album Review: Alien Vampires - "Drag You to Hell"

In the interest of full disclosure, I am very much outside my depth on this one, as my knowledge of this style of music pretty much begins and ends with KMFDM, that collected family of bands and random Youtube videos of some techno goth kids (hilariously) dancing in public places during broad daylight.  Even those bands aren’t quite in the same vein as Alien Vampires, though, so we’re in uncharted territory.  But a man who has no curiosity about what lay beyond the horizon is a man of little ambition and less creativity, so forward we boldly go!

Alien Vampires is part of the vanguard of techno-industrial’s resurrection (which sounds like an epithet for some vague political scare tactic, but isn’t,) and they’ve collaborated far and wide with well-known names to create “Drag You to Hell,” a massive two disc experience that is part cathartic dance hall ritual and part horror-chic revival.  The list of friendly helpers that put their touch on the record is along, but luminaries like Ministry, Mayhem and Sunn O))) are on there, so name-brand musicians think I should give this a shot.  Who am I to say no?

Now, I may be in over my head here, but I think I thought that this would be…more?  The stereotype of music in this vein is that the beat is incessant and uninterrupted, a relentless, meaningfully artificial pounding that is intended to re-pace the heart and numb the senses until only the aural environment is perceptible.  Yet, Alien Vampires hits us with a few changes of pace, beginning with the surprisingly tuneful “You Wish Me Dead Get In Line.”  Now before we get carried away, the ubiquitous thump of techno is forefront in the mix for this and every other song, but it’s not as all-encompassing in some of these early tracks as one might think.  The song has a defined structure with what might amount to breakdowns on other albums with guitar outros and an almost singable chorus.  There’s space here for some real melody to break through on “Drag You to Hell,” even if it is solely characterized by a thin line of additional synth over the manufactured rhythms, as is the case with “She Owns the Nite.”

And then, Bam!  “All the Fakes Must Die.”  Break out the buckled, leather pants, gas masks and colored dreadlock extenders, we’re going dancing!  (Side note: pitched this basic outfit, minus the constricting pants, for my work-league flag football team’s uniforms this year.  Turns out, we don’t own enough gas masks.  Next year!)  This is what I thought I was getting into – a measured cacophony of techno noise, a flurry of digitized distortion slamming along somewhere around the hundred or hundred and fifty beats-per-minute mark.  “All the Fakes Must Die” is a thoroughly mechanical beast, trading heavily in sensory overload.

Yet again though, in continuing the theme, Alien Vampires shows more than one card.  The title track and “Psycho Bitch” immediately follow “All the Fakes…” and now we see not the melodic dimension from the early part of the record, but instead a deeply metal one, steeped in the atmosphere of the halcyon days when the industrial metal had a real face.  The songs are more Combichrist than Fear Factory, more Godhead than Nine Inch Nails, for those looking for an easy reference.  It’s the darkest corner of industrial that we’re hearing, but the music is still well-developed and presented.

And that’s pretty much the story.  The rest of the record fits fairly neatly into that plan, and the second disc is remixes of varying quality depending on personal taste.  There are certainly some silly moments (“Touch,”) but that’s forgivable in the grand scheme and in any event, isn’t totally out of place for an album like this.  I took the challenge and dove headlong into a world I don’t quite get.  For my effort, I came away with a better understanding of what the hell is going on in that world, and I feel pretty good about the experience as a whole.  So, while Alien Vampires may not have jumped to the forefront of my personal library, I admit that I enjoyed what I heard, which I suppose stands to reason that fans of the genre most certainly would as well.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Album Review: Adele - 25

It might be hyperbole, but only slightly, to say that Adele is one of two people keeping the entire music industry afloat. Much like Taylor Swift last year, Adele's return to music has the unmistakable air of an event, and not just another album release. She has the power to capture the attention of every facet of the media, and score adulation from communities that would otherwise have nothing to tie them together. Adele is, in a way, a musical evangelist, spreading the message that popular music can be great music, and that talent can win out over image. "21" proved that point, scoring massive sales and huge hits, all on the back of Adele's massive voice, and her sharp songwriting. If she was inescapable before, she is omnipresent now, as that success has only gathered more momentum as we approach her first new album in four years. A break like that is often the death of a pop star, but that only proves how disposable those who hide behind their image are. True talent can wait, and the people will be there when they return.

Our first exposure to this new material opens the album. "Hello" is Adele at her undeniable best. The dramatic swells rise and fall with her vocals, which sound fresh after the years away. Few singers have that much raw power, but Adele has on top of that the ability to throw her personality into her voice, which gives her a leg up on even the most impressive talent-show belter. "Hello" is a masterful song, the kind of composition and performance that I had thought was extinct on the charts.

Proving we aren't in for a formulaic affair, what follows is "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)", a mash-up of plucked nylon guitar notes and fluttering percussion. It's a song that springs from the mind of a noted pop producer, and for that very reason it sounds like everything else he's had his hands on. That fact alone makes it the lowest point on the album. The song is a rehash of the charts, and the composition sounds like it was written for those manufactured stars, with a melody that doesn't allow Adele to ever get out of first gear. It's a remedial song from someone capable of masterworks, and is completely out of place here. It's going to be released as a single, and it's going to be a smash, but that doesn't make it a great song. "Water Under The Bridge" is a better stab at a modern pop sound, with less focus on the rhythm, and a melody that would work even without Adele's voice on it.

Adele shines on the songs that give her ample room to showcase her voice. Her writing is what puts her over the top, but that voice is what defines her music. No one else can match her power, control, and tone, and when she allows the songs to serve her voice, rather than take the lead, the results are every bit as amazing as you would expect. "When We Were Young" proves that simple is sometimes better, as the tempered arrangement not only puts Adele's voice at the forefront, but gives every note of the melody room to cut through. It's a powerhouse of a song.

"Remedy" is a lovely torch song, and one that is built around a piano figure that reminds me of a little known Neal Morse song called "The Change". That's a nice little nugget for me, but I'm well aware it's a coincidence. "River Lea" is also strong, but the best of the second half of the record is clearly "Million Years Ago", another simple song that is just Adele and a lone guitar. Her melody writing seems strongest when given the most room to explore, and these kinds of simple arrangements fit her like a glove. It's not easy to make simple music that can stand up to scrutiny, but a song like this absolutely can.

"25" is a more adventurous record than might seem apparent at first glance. There are hints of enough styles in here to keep it from playing things too safe, and it deviates from what "21" did in a few important ways, which makes it clear this is its own record, and not just a second dose of what Adele already knows works. Since this is her music, it's going to still sound like her, but "25" is a softer, more subdued record. She doesn't use her power as often this time around, which does show she has total control over her voice, but it also leaves the record feeling a bit wanting for big moments.

But the biggest issue is that there isn't anything here that can replicate the passion of "Rolling In The Deep" or "Set Fire to The Rain". "Hello" is fantastic, but that's as much tempo and fire as the album ever dips into. For a song or two, the more introspective approach works wonders, but over the course of an entire album, the attitude begins to grate. "25" is still a very good record, and it shows important growth for Adele as both a person and an artist, but it doesn't have as many highlights as "21", nor the consistency. I like "25", and Adele is still the best thing on the pop charts, but the time between records has allowed "21" to build a reputation that not even Adele could overcome.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Voice of the Dragon - Marc Hudson of DragonForce

The fastest band in the land needs very little introduction.  In keeping with their tempo and that ideal, we sat down with vocalist Marc Hudson of the powerhouse DragonForce.  And....go!

D.M: For “Maximum Overload, for the first time ever on a DragonForce record, we saw some thrash themes and a few other elements that were integrated into your sound.  What made now the time to try that?

MARC HUDSON: I think there were a few reasons, really.  One of things was that Fred [Frédéric Leclercq] our bass player has been more involved in the writing process, and he’s got more influences that come from thrash and black and death metal.  Sam [Totman] has some of that too, but hasn’t necessarily used it too much.  Also I think it felt like a kind of cool thing to throw in here just to change things up a bit because we like to play that stuff and fans of ours can relate to it, too.  We went with a thrash metal approach on a couple of songs and kept it traditional power metal on the other ones.

D.M: When you guys meet as a band to talk about what the album is going to sound like and what influences will be included, is there anything that’s off the table?  Has anything ever been suggested that was too crazy to include?

MH: [laughs] I don’t really think so.  At one point Vadim [Pruzhanov] came up with some interesting dub step thing that we talked about for about five seconds, but apart from that it’s pretty much fair game for any suggestion.

D.M: Since you brought it up, EDM is popular around the world, is that anything that DragonForce toys around with?  Not that you would be an EDM band, but do you consider pushing your keyboard profile higher in the mix or using computer-generated effects?

MH: I think we like to keep pretty true to ourselves.  Keep things mainly guitar and stuff, I don’t think we’d ever go that way but you never know, maybe we’ll have a breakdown section in one song that does that.

D.M: For the first time, you guys worked with a producer outside your home studio.  How did it feel to do that, was it a change in thought process to give some of that power away?

MH: We were still happy with how the previous albums sounded and everything, I think we just decided it was time to get a fresh set o eyes to look at what we’re doing and get a bit of external help.  We knew Jens Bogren and the production on all the albums he’s been working on is second to none, so we knew we had to choose him.  Working with him was really cool, and that may have also brought out some of the thrashier elements, that’s kind of his bag as well.  We got on quite well and would bounce ideas off each other.  I think that’s partially responsible for the fresh sound that “Maximum Overload” has.

D.M: You may be biased as I ask you this, but do you think your fans are concentrating too heavily on the guitar portion of DragonForce, do you think people are missing out on the whole picture?

MH: Um, I don’t think so.  There’s certainly a cross-section of fans who are just listening to it because they play guitar and like to see people playing guitar, there are obviously going to be a few people who are just there for that.  But I think to be honest, as much as Herman [Li] and Sam [Totman] might disagree, the music is mainly about the catchy melodies and stuff that the vocals deliver as well as the guitar playing.  I think most people appreciate both things at the same time, but yeah, there are fans out there who completely ignore what I’m doing [laughs].

D.M: With everyone in the band being technically skilled and showing their talent, do you run the risk of losing the melody you want people to hear amidst the virtuosity?

MH: I don’t think so.  As far as the live show goes, we try to stick pretty much to what we put on the record.  For the album’s recording, we carefully choose what goes into each song.  If there is too much guitar or too much keyboard stuff or too many virtuoso opportunities going on, we often have to regrettably delete them from the album so that the song still sounds good.  As long as we follow what we do on the album, we never really have that problem live.  We like to keep the melodies as
the main thing and that’s what we try to push the most.  We take a backseat when we need to.

D.M: I had the privilege to see DragonForce some years ago, and the performance is part metal show and part expressive personalities – is that something you consciously display as a band, or is that just the natural outcome of everyone being themselves?

MH: Honestly, that’s just everyone being themselves.  That’s a natural thing that seems to come out with every show.  We enjoy doing what we do and I think there’s quite good chemistry on stage between the band members, so that just seems to happen.  Unless we’re too hung over or too tired [laughs].

D.M: What does it take to get ready for a DragonForce show, what kind of preparation do you go through daily to bring those personalities out on stage?

MH: That’s very much different for each member, everyone has their own pre-show ritual.  For me, being the singer, which is probably the most annoying job, I warm up my voice a lot and try to take care of myself so we can do as many shows as we do, because we don’t really every stop, we’re always on tour.  This tour we’re doing twenty-two shows, and from the release of “Maximum Overload” I think we’re looking at nearly two hundred shows now.  So my stuff is all about taking care of myself and going through songs before we play them.  Herman and Sam are much the same, they have their guitars on the tour bus and they go off and play through stuff.  We like to make sure that we’re warmed up and ready to go.  We have a little meeting before we go on stage to make sure we get the atmosphere right as well.  Everyone has a little laugh before we go on stage because it’s not all serious after all.

D.M: Does anyone have any particular superstitions about playing on stage?

MH: Good question, I don’t know, actually.  I’m one of those people that when I’m getting ready to go on, I have to do all my different things before I go on, I’m OCD about that.

D.M: DragonForce, for better or worse, got a healthy bump in recognition in North America to being part of a “Guitar Hero” video game.  Is that something you embrace, or something you try and distance yourself from?

MH: “Guitar Hero” didn’t actually make that much of an impact on us, personally.  “Inhuman Rampage” was already selling really well, and “Guitar Hero” didn’t produce much of a spike in our sales, nothing really changed.  I’m guessing it opened us up to people who didn’t really ever listen to metal music, so there were certainly kids playing it and hearing it and knowing the name DragonForce.  We certainly not ashamed of that at all, anything that can help is cool.  And also, we like video games.

D.M: What are you playing right now?

MH: I played “Fallout 4” for about six hours and then I left to go on tour [laughs].  I’m pretty devastated about that.  Waiting for “Star Wars: Battlefront,” too.  I think that comes out while I’m away, so that’ll have to wait until I get back.

D.M: DragonForce has topped two hundred forty beats per minute in a song.  The tenets of music theory notwithstanding, can that go up any more?  Is there room to go faster?

MH: The only thing limiting us is the amount of notes per minute that the drummers can play and the guitar players can play.  Even if we’re playing at two-forty, I’m still singing whatever, so I don’t have to worry about it [laughs].  I don’t know if we’ll go faster, we’re not going faster and faster to prove a point, we just happened to write a song that sounds good at that speed.

D.M: I think most of DragonForce’s influences, yours and the rest of the bands, are fairly well publicized, but give me one most people don’t expect.  What’s a band you just love that people reading this wouldn’t think of?

MH: I don’t know often I’ve mentioned this in interviews, but I really like the band Yes.  They’re a seventies prog-rock band.  I’m a real prog rock fan, I like Yes and Genesis and Rush and King Crimson and all that stuff, which is quite weird because it’s nothing like what I play.  But I like the freedom they had in music back then.  Some of that translates into what we do, progressive stuff is often kind of virtuoso in the same way.  Composition-wise it’s very complicated and has a lot of layers to it, and that’s what I like in music.  We do a bit of that here and there, but they’re my influences.

D.M: One last thing – DragonForce has hit the point where you can pull some weight in the metal media as a whole, your opinions have merit and you can help other bands come up.  Herman and Sam were helping out Babymetal for a time.  Who are the bands that you see and say ‘yep, we’ve got to help them, people need to know who they are’?

MH: Good question.  Personally for me, there’s a band we toured with a couple years ago from California, a really unusual band, but something about them makes me keep listening to them when I get back home.  A band called Huntress, are you familiar?

D.M: Sure, I interviewed Jill Janus a couple years back, great woman.

MH: Cool, cool, she’s amazing!  All of the guys in that band are great, they’re great musicians.  It’s quite unusual music but it’s something I quite enjoy, and I don’t usually like that genre of music all that much.  They’re a band people should be looking out for.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Album Review: The ReAktion - "SELKNAM"

Electronic music has become such a large part of the music-listening consciousness that new attempts to synthesize the burgeoning genre with the tenets of more established genres are inevitable.  Despite the protestations of rock’s most ardent defenders that the genre must maintain its purity (although there is hilariously little agreement on what that purity entails,) the roll clouds that act as harbingers of electronic’s coming storm proceed on unhindered.  To that end, electronic music has already seeped into other picket genres like rap and metal, thus opening the gates for a clear assault on the rock flagship in the center.

The ReAktion, an upstart band from Chile may well be the vanguard of the two genre’s eventual mixing, but negotiates the tenets of rock through the designs of a tertiary party, incorporating some of the base elements of hardcore into the music as a catalyst for their new album “SELKNAM.”

Following a brief introduction, the album’s opener “10 Steps to Success” uses the components of hardcore’s thundering choruses as a backbone to incorporate their electronic influences, slipping in the computerized tones set against the overdriven blackness of the stomping guitar.  We’ve seen this not so long ago as bands like Exotype used the same basic offense, but ReAktion takes the proceedings a step further.  As the song wends along, it eventually gives way to a committed if perhaps unexpected full EDM breakdown, likely complete with glow sticks and furry boots.

The album transitions quickly to “Teach Me How to Stop the World,” which bends more toward the traditional rock side in its underpinnings, but the ever-present EDM underpinning gives the listener a new dimension that makes the song pop.

Speaking of, “SELKNAM” gets poppier as it goes along, which isn’t necessarily bad depending on your taste, but is worth noting.  The Gavin Rosdale-meets-emocore vocal delivery of Simon Rojas gets a little long in the tooth by the record’s conclusion, but to his credit he doesn’t try to do anything he’s not capable of.  It’s an even performance, whether he’s gutting out screaming choruses or trying to fit in the pocket of the soft alt-rock ballad of “Thousands of Memories.”

“SELKNAM” is strongest at beginning and end, which means the middle third is a slog.  There’s a lot of the same song over and over again in the album’s meaty center, admirable for songs that play their stories out over nearly five minutes, but dragging in the repetition of the same basic hardcore breakdowns and dramatic rock choruses for six or seven tunes in a row.  “SELKNAM” suffers from a slight addiction to melodrama, the album being unable to really maintain the promising opening gallop of “The Network.”

The ReAktion leaves on a couple of high notes though, the first of which is an up-tempo and academically interesting cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” which seems far afield for the album’s musical theme, but that only serves to make the cover more interesting.  The album’s final kicker is “Enter the Fourth Dimension,” a song that sounds like the juxtaposition of Red Eleven and Destrage, which means there’s a lot right going on here, including the artful incorporation of an EDM bridge that sounds perfectly placed.

It’s in these moments that “SELKNAM” is worthy of comment and inspection in the first place.  The ReAktion has crafted an album that is not nearly perfect, but shows the promise of the eventual cross-breed of rock, hardcore and EDM.  By going outside the boundaries of those genres in order to combine them all, “SELKNAM,” in isolated moments, has its cake and eats it, too.  The album is a clear statement at a time when the waters of genre have been muddied.  Now, The ReAktion has a fair amount of fat to cut and work to do, but there’s a lot of promise in their take on cross-genre pollination on the whole.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Album Review: Solution .45 - Nightmares In The Waking State: Part 1

We don't always remember and appreciate that there's a distinct difference between being talented as a musician, and being talented as a songwriter. The two are linked tightly enough that it's easy to forget that there are countless people out there who are supremely talented with their instrument of choice, but couldn't write a memorable song if their life depended on it. Christian Älvestam brings that thought to mind, because he is clearly one of the most talented dual vocalists I've heard in metal, and yet almost none of the music he's been a part of has made much of an impression on me. Scar Symmetry's "Holographic Universe" is fun in small doses, but by and large I'm struck by a case of a massive talent who hasn't found a way to give himself the songs that would best showcase that.

Enter Solution .45, which carries on Älvestam's dual role as a harsh and clean singer, throwing a little bit of everything into the pot, stirring it around until you're not quite sure what all the ingredients were. I remember listening to their first album when it came out, and to be honest, that's precisely all I remember about it.

The opener "Wanderer From The Fold" kicks off in full death metal mode, with Älvestam growling his way through the whole track. There are a couple of abrupt transitions that are jarring, but the band is solid, and Älvestam's hook is about as good as a growled one can be. There's a bit too much modern death metal in it for my taste, but they don't forget about melody, so it's an enjoyable enough song. "Perfecting The Void" brings back the signature sound, switching from deep bouncing metal riffs to a slick chorus that showcases Älvestam's clean tones. Unfortunately, that chorus just doesn't have the impact it needs to. It's nice, but it's easy to let slip past.

I like "Bleed Heavens Dry" more, as the balance shifts towards the lighter side. It still has growls and some deeply heavy riffing, but the majority of the vocals are on the clean side, although once again the melody lacks a bit of bite. That is the running theme throughout the record. Whenever Älvestam goes for what is supposed to be a soaring clean chorus, the melodies are streamlined so much that they aren't engaging. He's relying as much on the sound of his voice as on what he's singing, and it doesn't make for songs as good as they should be.

"In Moments Of Despair" stands out for being a near ballad that's as clean and soft as the band has ever been, but other than that, the songs blend together because neither Älvestam's vocals, nor the pummeling metal behind him, break free from the standard-issue long enough to do anything memorable. Chugging a low tuned guitar while double bass drums pound away is heavy, sure, but those kinds of riffs aren't the kind of thing you're ever going to find yourself humming the next day.

And with roughly an hour's worth of music here, this is a long album to get through in one sitting. It would be no matter the quality, but when there aren't highlights every so often to perk your ears up, the length becomes a source of bitterness. This wouldn't be a bad record if it was forty minutes of solid, if unspectacular metal. But at an hour, without a single song that stands out, it stretches out well into the realm of disappointment. Opinions will vary, of course, but for me this is an album that I can say I heard, and that's all I need to say. These guys are talented, but they're lacking the songs to live up to it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Album Review: Au Pair - One Armed Candy Bear

One of the important names in music, if you're a fan of honest and melodic pop/rock music, that often gets overlooked is that of Gary Louris. As one of the dual frontmen of The Jayhawks, he was responsible for helping create the incontrovertibly masterful "Hollywood Town Hall". But what gets lost is that when the band lost their other frontman, and the one who made bigger waves in the country and folk scenes, Gary continued forward, making music that was more interesting, even if it wasn't getting the same attention. The trials and tribulations of that relationship might have made the idea of once again forming a collaborative creative enterprise a risky proposition, but here we find Gary teamed up with Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony, putting together an album that bears the familiar hallmarks.

The singers' blended voices open up "In Every Window", which is the kind of simple song that I often wonder about. It's a subtle little pop nugget, but the melody is so sweet that it amazes me how more people aren't trying to make this kind of music, and that it isn't the least bit popular. The Zappa-esque guitar freakout might play a part in that, but power-pop done well is a rare commodity, one that gets mined from the ground by only those who know where to look, brought to market at an exorbitant price to be paid by those of us who cherish the beauty of melody.

The sparse arrangements are a wise decision, as a bare-bones song like "One Eyed Crier" uses that space to let the tandem vocals hang in the air, lingering after each note like a ghost. For being so simple, the song is deceptive in that you have to pay close attention to pry the melody out of the backdrop. This isn't the kind of music you can absorb while texting emojis to your friends. To fully embrace the songs, you need to hear them, and to hear them, you need to focus.

But if you think you know what you're getting from this record, you don't. The title track is playful, with lyrics about how the "one-armed candy bear is going to take what he wants to, he says possession is nineteen tenths of the law", but its sung over scuzzy guitars that buzz like dust in the grooves of a 1970s Krautrock record.

What impresses me is that they're able to turn from a bleak ballad in "Night Falls Down", and go right into a Beatles-esque number like "Middle Distance", and not only do the songs feel like they go together, but they're both equally adept.

That's not to say the record is perfect. It does lose steam in the middle, before picking up again at the end, because the sonic palate is a bit too drab. The echoing percussion lends itself to a dark sound, but the issue is that the acoustic guitars are recorded in such a way that they sound flat, almost as if they strings on them were long dead. There's very little high-end bite, and even when a few electric guitars add texture, they do so without much punch. There needs to be a bit more life to the actual sound, because a record that's under forty minutes shouldn't feel like it's long, but that happens a bit here.

But production issues don't detract from the songs themselves, and what we have here is an oddly named collection of songs that are perfect for waiting out a cold, damp Autumn day. I don't know if these are the kinds of songs that are going to hit hard enough to etch themselves onto me, but I do know that "One Armed Candy Bear" is a record that's eminently enjoyable to put on. Sure, it's not as close to The Jayhawk's "Rainy Day Music" as I was hoping for, but there's a new Jayhawks album in the pipeline, so this is a welcome diversion until then.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Album Review: Tiebreaker - We Come From The Mountains

We've seen a bit of everything this year from the purveyors of vintage rock. Graveyard has been their usual selves, putting out the great "Innocence & Decadence", which is sure to reside near the top of many best of lists. Casablanca made a very good concept album that bridged the old and new, and then there were Kadavar and Horisont, who continued to baffle me with how they manage to continue signing record contracts. There is much to like about music that looks to a simpler time, but that has its own set of difficulties. By resorting to familiar tropes, it removes any veneer of invention that can mask deficiencies. The music has to stand on its own, and often that is the worst thing that can happen, given that consistently writing great songs is incredibly difficult.

"Early Morning Love Affair" starts things off with a bluesy riff that could also bring to mind a spaghetti western, an equal mix of Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Wayne, if you will. It's a nifty little riff, and the song rolls along with solid energy. The main melody is strong, and the whole thing comes together into an interesting sound I haven't quite heard before. But one song can be deceiving, and we have to go deeper before I'm ready to make any declarations.

"Nicotine" follows, and makes skepticism justified. Like the opener, it has a solid bluesy riff to build from, but the song itself never finds anything beyond that riff. It's one of those songs that you nod your head to when it plays, and then you find yourself wondering if you've zoned out, because you can't remember the last four minutes of your life. The same can be said about "The Homecoming Pt 1", which is a lovely ballad, full of clear guitar tones and heartfelt vocals. The problem is that none of it sticks at all. There isn't a part that makes you stop and remember it for later.

Like a lot of bands, Tiebreaker is able to put together some nice instrumental parts, but they come up short on the vocal melodies. They have a singer with a good voice, but the melodies are either ripped straight off the blues/rock assembly lines, or they flail away in search of a hooky chorus. That's what is most disappointing, that the band can't find their footing and turn their ideas into what they could be.

"We Come From The Mountains" was released in their home country last year, and is now seeing worldwide release. Hopefully, in the intervening year the band has upped their game after hearing the results of their work, because their next record needs to live up to the potential of their sound. This album is enjoyable, but utterly forgettable, and the old line about never getting a second chance to make a first impression has some truth to it. For their own sake, they need to do better next time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Album Review: Mountain of Wizard - "Casting Rhythms and Disturbances"

New Orleans’ own Mountain of Wizard is an exercise in rock revival with metal embellishments.  The instrumental band is solely focused on bringing listeners great and memorable riffs, which should not be read simply as ‘crushing’ or ‘big’ or ‘shredding’ or all the other over-used qualifiers that get put in front of the word riff.  Mountain of Wizard is concerned with great riffs, riffs that work, riffs that carry a melody and create rhythm, riffs that are comfortable but novel and entertain the listener both now and hours later when they’re humming the same riffs at work.  This is the character of their new release “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances.”

Moutain of Wizard combines many of the rock genre’s great signatures into a delicious stew of overdriven guitar goodness.  There’s a fair amount of Cream and Clutch in these winding melodies, with sprinklings of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC, plus a generous helping of Motörhead.  The whole thing is tied together by just enough New Orleans blues sensibility to make it distinguished from its predecessors.  It’s a combination of influences that has worked for Mountain of Wizard but also for many of their contemporaries like Devil to Pay, Crowned by Fire, The Sword and even this year’s Midnight Ghost Train record.

What stands out about this record in particular is that it’s, well, really fun.  If that sounds overly simplistic, there’s no explanation other than that’s how the record sounds.  “Steve the Grouper” is a three-minute bite that bursts with that particular flavor of rock that automatically makes toes tap and smiles break out.  It could be about a deranged fan or bar sleaze or, you know, a fish, but that hardly matters.  What’s important is that the song is a churning and sludgy but ebullient rock anthem.

The simple and easy enjoyment of the album belies the subtle theories that make up the record.  Rock and metal musicians often invoke Thin Lizzy when talking about utilizing twin guitar, but there have been hundreds of other bands who have forwarded that musical theory.  Mountain of Wizard uses their dual axe-men to both emphasize a point and create some divergence.  For “Circling the Walls,” the two are nearly in lock-step, reinforcing the concrete riff that burns and toils through the piece, but the harmony of “Runeshadow’s” second half shows some depth and a little space between the lines to create a different feeling together.

Most instrumental albums are inextricably linked to a feeling of meticulous calculation, a sense that in trying to tell stories without vocal narration, each note must be singled out and accented for its own value.  This isn’t a failing of the style, just an accompanying fact.  By contrast, Mountain of Wizard’s record feels much looser, as though the details aren’t as important and the music itself just simply has to be an expression of the friends playing it.  Throw a dart at the board and you’ll encounter the same thing – even all the way at the bottom “Dead Bandana” feels like some like-minded musicians sitting in a hall feeling out a rhythm.  Don’t misunderstand; while it remains certain that “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances” was the product of thorough planning (for how could such enjoyable music not be,) the feeling of the music remains relaxed and care-free.  It’s a refreshing change from the usual instrumental hallmark of antiseptic guitar tones and long, winding interludes.

Perhaps the only flaw in the armor of “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances” is that by remaining so concerned with enunciating the greatness of a particular style, Mountain of Wizard has pigeonholed themselves into that style.  The twelve compositions of the record are all well-executed and are even styled ever so differently, but they also do come from the same essential mold.  Where John 5 was able to create different moods and stories in his excellent “Careful With That Axe,” Mountain of Wizard never really deviates from the gameplan, throwing high-octane fuel into the fire again and again.  Some variance of color or tempo might have made “Casting Rhythms” a more well-rounded experience.

Still, don’t let that distract you from the main thrust here.  This album, in simple terms, is great.  It’s exuberant and powerful and celebratory just for being what it is.  Mountain of Wizard have accomplished a great feat with this album, and it is well worth your time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Album Review: Ghost Machinery - Evil Undertow

This has been a great year for melodic rock and metal. There have been tons of good to great albums that embrace the lighter, more fun side of this kind of music. It's been refreshing to find music that doesn't make me miserable, that doesn't wallow in the attitude that all that is metal must be dour, disgusting, and only for the dedicated misanthropes of the world. Ghost Machinery wants to add themselves to that list, bringing us the third album from this side project of members of Burning Point and Stargazery. I'll be honest and say that I can't tell you exactly what differentiates this band from those others that share multiple important members, as I'm not familiar with those outfits. We'll stick to discussing the music Ghost Machinery is busy making.

"Arms Of The Stranger" kicks things off with some hugely cheesy 80s style synths, before the song kicks it up into a full-on mix of traditional and hair metal. I don't say that to insult the music, but rather to pinpoint the feeling I get from it. Hair metal had its selling points, and Ghost Machinery taps into some of them. It's a short and snappy song that puts a smile on your face, then gets out of the way before you can get tired of it.

That can actually work to a disadvantage at times, like on "Kingdom Of Decay", which uses organs to try to create an atmosphere, but doing so is difficult in three and a half minutes. The song sounds like it needed to be slowed down a bit, and stretched closer to five minutes. At its current length and tempo, it's incomplete in some way. Songs that go for something beyond the norm need time to establish themselves, and Ghost Machinery didn't give it to themselves with this one.

The comparison that comes to mind as I'm listening to the album is one you might not expect; Circle II Circle. Frontman Pete Ahonen's voice has some similarities to Zak Stevens's throaty tone, and the music is sitting in the same realm of chugging riffs and melodic choruses. That is both a blessing and a curse, because while I am a fan of some of Circle II Circle's albums, hearing the connection raises my expectations, as I begin comparing the two bands.

The title track of the album lives up to those comparisons. It's the shortest song on the record, but it's got a killer hook, and the layered vocals just make it sound even bigger. There's a hint of AOR to it, which might explain why it works so well. Ghost Machinery is by no means a super heavy band, but even at their level, backing off just a bit gives the melodies more of an opportunity to latch on. When they do, as that track demonstrates, they've got a lot going for them.

Mid-tempo tracks like "No Easy Way Out" are right in their comfort zone, and "Tools Of The Trade" is where it all comes together. It's heavy enough to be satisfying, but the chorus is massive, and it's hard not to find yourself chanting along with it. Really, there's no misstep anywhere on the record. Every song is a solid illustration of Ghost Machinery's sound, with none of them making me want to skip ahead.

But what I will say is that while this is a perfectly good record, and it's enjoyable to listen to, it also doesn't have anything about it that demands I come back to it. That's not necessarily a criticism, because there aren't very many records each year that do, but it's hard to say my enthusiasm is as high as it might be otherwise. "Evil Undertow" is a good record, and I enjoyed my time listening to it, but I can't tell you it's something that I'm still going to be listening to a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now. But for now, it's a good record, and it's one I'm not going to complain about when it pops up in my queue.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Album Review: Pressure Points - False Lights

For me, it's interesting to sit back and look at which wildly acclaimed bands and albums become templates for others to copy, and which ones end up getting more or less ignored as an influence in future generations of bands. You would think that any album that leaves a heavy mark on a particular genre would become the blueprint for countless bands, but it doesn't always work like that. Maybe the sound is too difficult to pull off, or maybe the followers don't think they can do justice to the classic, but there are plenty of monumental records that haven't lived on through the people who grew up listening to them. Opeth's "Blackwater Park" is one of those records. Sure, tons of bands have cited Opeth as a big influence on them, but you can rarely hear that specific point in time in their sound. Usually, what you hear is the violent back and forth of Opeth's earlier works, and not the smooth, more nuanced approach that "Blackwater Park" signaled.

Pressure Points is one of the few bands where I can say that "Blackwater Park" is the best comparison I can think of. From the guitar tones, to the construction of the songs, everything about this record calls back to that album. Don't think I'm calling it a clone, because it definitely takes the music in its own direction, but it brings back the feeling of that record in a way few others have tried.

"Wreckage" opens the album, and is perhaps the strongest song on the entire album. A throbbing bass line opens things up, with a jazzy guitar adding on top for a gentle introduction. After a minute and a half or so, the song reveals its death metal teeth. Wisely, the band explores this territory mostly in the riffs, both the simple to latch on to, and the more intricate runs of notes. The vocals are kept to a minimum, despite the growls being well done. This music wants to be melodic, which the guitars convey until we get to the clean vocals, which show passion, fire, and a strong sense of melody. Rather than being death metal and folk music bolted together in random fashion, this song moves between heavy and light sections with more focus. It's a very good example of how this kind of music can work, using death metal to color the strong melody, rather than throwing in a random melodic phrase to temper the death metal.

That's not to say the album doesn't get heavy. "Between The Lies" follows with a more death metal approach, roaring through its verses for several minutes before the softer approach takes control. That leads to the best part, as a shimmering piano sits underneath the death metal, balancing beauty and brutality, and giving us a sound that we don't hear very often. Little touches like that are what elevate bands above those that merely copy what they've already heard. And when it occurs several more times through the end of the record, it shows me that there's plenty of good decision making going on here.

"False Lights" is one of those rare albums where I don't mind the lengthy forays into instrumental territory. The band shows great skill in using their instruments to set moods, and convey textures that keep the songs far more interesting than merely playing a solo for minutes on end. These songs are always shifting, always moving on to something new, which is essential when all but one of the songs exceeds nine minutes. There is plenty of great playing all around to compliment the immediate hooks the vocals provide, making this a well-balanced album that can stand up to repeated listens without getting old.

There's also great consistency here. Nothing on the album stands out as being either exceptionally better or worse than the rest. While I prefer "Wreckage" and the immediately gratifying "Sleepwalk", the other songs aren't far behind. Everything here has plenty of charm, and sounds far more polished than this band's experience would indicate.

I've heard plenty of bands that try to do what Opeth used to, since that's the only kind of death metal I truly enjoy, and I can't recall any that have done it better than Pressure Points does it here. "False Lights" is an album that sounds like the natural continuation of "Blackwater Park", which I consider to be a form of high praise. I'm sure it will make a stronger impact on me once the snow begins flying and I'm looking for something to fit a more somber mood, but even now I can tell you that "False Lights" is a testament to a band on the rise, and is by far the best even tangentially related to death metal album I've heard all year.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Album Review: Marius Danielsen's Legend of Valley Doom

Ten years spent toiling.  Ten years in the oven, basting, turning, cooking.  Ten years a labor of love and music.  That’s the background of Marius Danielsen’s “Legend of Valley Doom,” a metal opera project that goes way beyond such clichéd terms as ‘supergroup’ or ‘all-star lineup’ and transcends as a Who’s Who of the power metal universe.

Begun as an idea of Marius himself, “Legend of Valley Doom” sought to expand beyond the comparatively simple confines of modern power metal and create an all-encompassing, immersive metal experience, something that would ring through the ages and drip with the centuries-crafted artistic melodrama of opera.

Starting from a base camp of his own band Darkest Sins, Marius and his brother Peter started to climb the summit of this massive production by reaching out to friends and musicians willing to lend a hand.  It would take too much space here to list all the names, but just know that if there’s a band you can think of from the power metal sphere, there’s a more than fair chance that someone from that band is featured on this album in some capacity.  Like gathering heroes from the far corners of Europe and North America, musicians came from all walks to help make this record possible.

So what does ten years of preparation sound like?  Somewhere at the intersection of Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody and Turisas sits the general thrust of “Legend of Valley Doom.”  It has the clean power metal feel of the former while taking presentation cues from the latter.  Much like the Finnish would-be Varangians, “Legend of Valley Doom” specializes in rafter-raising singalong choruses, gleeful chunks that are easily imagined in mead halls or theaters with vaulted ceilings.  The addition of spoken narration by several characters helps add context and depth, making this more than just a concept album, but a true story-telling experience.

And it doesn’t take long to get there.  The album truly begins with “The Battle of Bargor Zun,” which sounds about as fantastical and imaginative as the title would suggest.  This is power metal fury as it always should be, bent around huge orchestration and musicians behind the curtain who are clearly enjoying their craft.  Vocalists are playing their parts, whether faithful prince or evil lord, battling each other with alternating verses and letting the music create foundation representing the tumult underneath.

The actual title track is a fourteen minute epic that sees the heroes in different phases, as the song expertly gallops from vocal opus to blistering guitar exhibition to pounding, horse-riding outro.  The album shines here not only in its presentation, but in having absolutely no pretense and simply being delightfully corny.  Make no mistake, that’s meant as a compliment.  Too many albums of this nature get drowned in the pomp and circumstance of fantasy subject matter, but “Legend of Valley Doom” supersedes that by simply giving in and going for full theatrics.  A chorus of warriors singing in tune about riding to their certain death and taking on the tenets of fate is naught but good drama, and
Marius and company leave that enjoyable facet unadorned with airs of arrogance.

The perhaps predictable weakness of “Legend of Valley Doom” lies in the very collection of musicians that make up its countenance.  By recruiting nearly exclusively from the power metal sphere, the album never creates something wholly new.  For all of its prowess and exhibition, the album never expands beyond the sphere of its creation, thus leading to a record that is beautifully produced but doesn’t make one forget about the rest of the genre.

The Dark Lord, by way of example, is portrayed well by Mark Boals, but he’s another in the line of power metal vocalists, and the Dark Lord is similarly backed by different but still clean power metal tones.  One can’t help but wonder – what would this project sound like if the Dark Lord were voiced by Peter Tagtgren or Dave Wyndorf?  How well could he stand out if Tom Morello or John Christ created an atmosphere for his arrival?  This is something Rush captured well for “2112,” where the protagonist and the Priests are given separate presentation.  Even in high end theatre, nobody really confuses Jean Valjean with Inspector Javert – they are accompanied and shown differently.   These are the nagging questions which haunt the corners of “Legend of Valley Doom.”

The record ends with the heroes suffering a climactic defeat, but their spokesman quickly swoops in and proclaims that not all is lost.  They still have the hope of joining forces with another distant kingdom to drive out the evil interlopers.  This is when the listener’s eye happens to catch that part of the record’s title is ‘Part 1,’ which means the sequel is coming!

“Legend of Valley Doom” may not be the most captivating album of the year, but it is quite well done and clearly a labor of intense love by the Danielsens.  At the very least, Listeners will want to hear to Part 2 to see how the epic unfolds and ultimately concludes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

News: Forever Still Announces Debut Album

If you were paying attention earlier in the year, I reviewed the latest in a series of EPs from the upcoming band Forever Still. That release was praised for its strong take on female-fronted modern rock, delivering tracks that were heavy and hooky, and showed tremendous potential. After listening to those tracks, I went back and delved into their earlier material, which reinforced my belief that this is a band that had the ability to make an impact in what is often a stale scene.

Now, we can find out for sure, as Forever Still has announced that their debut album, "Tied Down", will be released on January 15. Here's what the band says about the record:

"In 2013, Forever Still released their debut EP "Breaking Free" to extensive critical acclaim and widely toured the record throughout Scandinavia. The following year the band returned to the studio to record the first of three EPs that now make up their full-length concept album ‘Tied Down’. The record grapples with a glut of personal issues stemming from depression, anxiety, and worthlessness, through to perseverance and recovery. The first EP ‘Scars’ picked up glowing reviews, as did the second record entitled ‘Save Me’. The sophomore EP was released in April 2015 and Forever Still undertook a hugely successful European tour, which saw the rocksters headline their first run of UK dates.

Having returned from their latest tour, the band hit the studio again to lay down tracks for their third and final chapter in the EP trilogy. Forever Still now unleash their eagerly awaited debut full length album "Tied Down", which is set to drop in January, followed by extensive European touring."

If you enjoy modern rock, this is an album to keep your eyes on.

And right around the beginning of the new year, we here at Bloody Good Music will be bringing you a review of the record. It guarantees 2016 is going to get off to a rocking start.

For more, check out the following links:

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Album Review: Vanden Plas - Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II

Vanden Plas has, through their string of theatrical concept albums, made quite the name for themselves in the progressive metal scene. I first heard their name in conjunction with their album "Christ 0", and ever since, they have been talked about regularly in places where I hear of new music. While they have that degree of popularity, I will admit that I have never been able to get into the band as much as it seems everyone else has. I don't discount their talent, nor do I necessarily dislike what they're doing, but something hasn't connected with me. And as someone who's formative musical memories involve the music of Jim Steinman, it is clearly not an issue of me being put off by the more Broadway-esque moments.

This album finds the band telling the second half of the story that their previous album began, which is much too long and convoluted to recount here. It's a story of gods and wars, but I have to say it doesn't exactly come through with much detail through the lyrics. That happens to a large number of concept albums, and I rarely know the stories anyway, so I'm not holding that against the music.

Vanden Plas gets labelled a progressive metal band, but that's not an accurate description. They don't play in dizzying time signatures, nor do they write lengthy songs with incomprehensible structures. They're a melodic metal band that writes in epic scope, which they have used the concept album format to embrace and develop. That decision can be a blessing, as it can mask issues that arise in the songwriting. That rears its head on the opening number, "In My Universe", which is a song that doesn't really hold a lot of appeal to me. I'm not hearing in it either the grandeur that I'm expecting from a concept record like this, nor the strong melody from a regular melodic metal album.

But "Godmaker's Temptation" follows to rectify that. This song embraces the theatrical elements, swelling with emotion, and culminating in a chorus that has the kind of killer melody that I was hoping for. In that moment, I can hear what everyone else does in Vanden Plas, and I understand why they're spoken so highly of.

"Stone Roses Edge" is a more metallic track, which is both positive and negative. The added energy is refreshing after two tracks that weren't exactly setting the world on fire, but the added heft isn't balanced with as strong a melody. Instead of letting the notes rise and fall, the chorus is largely focused on a few notes that ring out, which isn't much of a composition.

The centerpiece of the album is the thirteen minute epic, "Blood Of Eden". Starting off as a loving ballad, complete with female vocals lingering in the background, it's the kind of striking song that makes people hate power metal. That's a compliment, by the way. Those first four minutes are beautiful music, which makes it disappointing when the remainder of the song can't hold up to that quality. That's not to say it's bad, but the alternating sections of metallic instrumentals and heartfelt vocals don't offer up a solid enough hook to justify the nine minute excursion.

The songs that follow all fit the same mold; dramatic, melodic, and solid. There's nothing bad to say about any of these tracks. Vanden Plas has been doing this long enough that they know how to put together their music. The problem is that I can't help but feel like there's something missing here. The songs are good, but they rarely grab me. The music is suitably dramatic, but it never changes to fit the narrative of the story. The whole package is just not quite sharp enough.

And that's my ultimate takeaway from the album. Vanden Plas is good at what they do, but what they do isn't something that particularly excites me. People who love melodic metal, and overly dramatic music, will enjoy this greatly. For me, I hear an album that is working hard to be grand and melodic, but does so at the expense of being truly memorable.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Album Review: Magnus Karlsson's Free Fall - Kingdom Of Rock

Magnus Karlsson might be known to you as the mastermind of the first three Allan/Lande albums, or maybe as a current member of power metal mainstay Primal Fear. While I love those Allen/Lande records like the next fan, what he should be best known for is the album he wrote for Magnum singer Bob Catley, the exquisite "Immortal". That album is not just what I consider Magnus' finest outing as a songwriter yet, but one of my favorite metal albums ever. It's the best distillation yet of how Magnus is able to fuse his abilities as a guitar player with a sense of melody that is nigh undeniable.

"Kingdom Of Rock" is the second album under his own name, although I will admit I never actually got around to listening to the first one. I'm usually not a fan of what I consider 'jukebox' albums, with different singers on every track. So even though I am a fan of Magnus as a songwriter, that album slipped by me.

This album kicks off with the title track, voiced by the one and only Jorn Lande. I can't think of a better singer in all of metal right now, and he turns in his typically excellent performance. The song has a hint of that epic flair, and plenty of bombast in the chorus. It's a rollicking time, but there's one issue I can't completely ignore. Magnus has written so many songs in the last decade for all of the projects he's been behind that some of his work is starting to recycle itself. This opening track's chorus harkens back a bit too strongly to the song "Hunter's Night" from the Allen/Lande project.

The songs here were written with these singers in mind, which you can definitely hear in the compositions. Jorn's track has a heavy Dio feel, while Joy Lynn Turner's "No Control" could have come off a radio-rock Rainbow record. This helps keep each singer in their comfort zone, but it also means that Magnus is trying to write in the voice of some singers who simply aren't as melodic as he is. That drags a few of these songs down, because it sounds like the melodies are being tempered down, because the singers aren't used to singing anything that slick.

You could make a case that such is a good thing, but considering how good Magnus is at writing melodies, I have to disagree. When he indulges himself, like on Tony Martin's "When The Sky Falls", not only is the song a thing of beauty, but it pulls something out of the singer too. Martin hasn't sounded this good since "The Headless Cross". Also of note is the dramatic, stunning ballad "The Right Moment", sung by Rebecca De La Motte". The singer should always service the song, and not the other way around. This record loses sight of that once or twice.

But everything Magnus touches has an air of class to it, and this is no different. If you like melodic metal, "Kingdom Of Rock" will have plenty that you're going to enjoy. He's simply too good a songwriter not to have a certain level of quality. This is a darn good record, although I will admit that it's not one of the strongest that he's put together. This doesn't stand up to "Immortal", or those Allen/Lande records. That's not necessarily criticism, because those are truly fantastic records, but it should be said. Still, "Kingdom Of Rock" continues to showcase that Magnus is as good a metal songwriter as there is right now, even if I wish he would focus his talents on a single outlet. These kinds of albums are always tricky, and even though he pulls it off well, I think he would have been better served by limiting the variables, so to speak.