Monday, February 29, 2016

Album Review: Phil Cooper - Things I'll Never Say

You might not know it from reading the reviews that we publish here, but hard rock and heavy metal are not my first love when it comes to music. It is where I have my contacts in the 'industry', and it's where I have often felt most comfortable in recent years, but the music that I actually have the deepest connection to is the pop/rock sound of the mid 90s, when I was musically coming of age. Many of those albums, by bands like Tonic, The Wallflowers, and others are still the ones that top my list of favorites. I never gave up on that music, but what was easily available changed, to the point where I don't even know where to find such music anymore, if it indeed exists.

That brings us to Phil Cooper's new album, which might seem like an odd choice to be covering here, but really shouldn't be. In a better world, I'd have far more albums of this style to talk about.

We get started with the chiming chords of "Let It Fall", which reminds me of how infrequently clean electric guitars are used. It's probably not accurate to call the rhythm a shuffle, but it moves along at a solid pace, and lets the backing vocals play a prominent role. It's not as shimmering as power pop, but it's one of those songs that has a sunny appeal. "Sigh" takes more of a folk approach, and when Phil's vocals strain in the bridge, it has an air of "Rubber Soul" to it.

The protest song "I Don't Have a Voice" has a video making the rounds on YouTube, and hits the sweet spot. The electric chords ringing out are melancholy to match the tenor of the lyrics, while the melody hits just right. It reminds me of the good ol' days, just without as much rock volume pumped in to make it radio friendly. It's a really good song, one I can see making some impact (although I'm not up on British politics to comment on the message).

The middle of the album sees some stretching, with horns accenting "Old Wounds (Feel Like New Wounds)", and strings dotting the superior "To The Unknown Loves Of My Life". A slightly bigger production would have made the drama hit even harder, but it's a song that uses the coloring to great effect, and stirs up a tune that feels important because of the scope. There's a balance between folk and pop going on through much of the record, and that hinders the momentum. The more pop leaning tracks are able to endear themselves with suitable energy and strong melodies, but the folkier tracks don't have as much melodic focus. They aren't poor songs, but they're the kind that are written more for the songwriter than the audience.

"Things I'll Never Say" is a DIY album, and those are always commendable. It takes a lot of effort and courage to make a record and release it on your own, without having a pipeline reassuring you that you're on the right track. So yes, there are some rough edges and some songs that could have used a sharper focus, but the end result is still an album that has charm. It's an enjoyable way to pass some time, and sometimes that's really all we're looking for out of an album.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Album Review: Karma to Burn - "Mountain Czar"

Maybe it’s something in the water.  Something strange is going on, because for the third time in as many years, I am completely enamored with an album that is totally (or mostly, in this case,) instrumental.  2014 saw John 5 release the excellent “Careful With That Axe,” while last year the stick-to-your-ribs riffing of Mountain of Wizard’s “Casting Rhythms and Disturbances” nearly stole the show.

They are thusly joined now by Karma to Burn, an American rock trio who joins the phalanx of musicians that conscientiously resist the antiseptic, post-produced sound of digital tone by playing purely analog music, spiritually rooted in the concepts of rock from ages gone by.

Their new EP, “Mountain Czar” comes as a jumping off point for new fans; an accessible portion that signals the band’s future direction and attempts, by title alone, to give the band an identity tied to their mountainous home state of West Virginia.  It’s not wholly unlike that phase Marvel comics went through, releasing “.1” issues all the time in an effort to give readers a chance to catch up and acclimate to what was going to happen next.  This EP actually works better at that than those comics did (all love to Marvel, where Iron Man has been a favorite since I was ten.)

Anyway, what we really have here is five cuts, largely identified by number (Sixty through Sixty-Three, though they are not sequential on the record,) and one more cut that we’ll get to in a minute, that pound through six decades of rock history and pick and choose which elements are worthy of the amalgam of rock’s soul that makes up Karma to Burn’s artistic vision.

The EP highlights with “Sixty-One,” a rolling boil of down-home rock cooking that proves rock music can be measured and planned without needing copious digital fuckery (technical term) to align all the stars into a seamless, perfect symmetric whole.  Rather, we hear a mix of rock as we knew it in the late seventies, when Deep Purple was really making waves, all layers and rich sounds with substantive bass backing.  There’s more to it than that; the band borrows equally from classic acts like the Doobie Brothers and Mountain, weaving just a little country-rock influence into the mix, but the quorum of all these styles remains the heavy-handed proto-metal that launched a thousand careers.

The fifth cut (fourth on the record, for those playing our home game,) that we said we’d get back to is “Uccidendo Un Sogno,” which, to cut right to it, is a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Running Down a Dream” performed totally in Italian by guest vocalist Stefanie Savy.  The cover rounds out the tones of the original somewhat and eliminates all the high-end fanciful feel of the Petty version to create a cover that is both familiar (that riff is certainly recognizable in any shape,) and original – a hard feat when taking on songs that are beloved by many.  I always feel a little uncomfortable calling a cover the best cut on a record, it’s akin to telling a musician ‘I like the way you play, but not the way you compose,’ but “Uccidendo Un Sogno,” is creative and diverse and surprisingly wonderful.

Take whatever time you need to spin this EP, because it’s worth it.  There are no duds here, and a couple tracks that are pretty brilliant.  Use it to get ready for the next impending full-length release from Karma to Burn.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Album Review: Sunburst - Fragments Of Creation

Many people whose opinion I value insist that progressive metal is in a boom period. The old guard are still out there and making good records, and there has been an influx of talent that has given hope for a new generation of bands to take up the mantle. When you consider a roster as deep as prog metal has, with Dream Theater and Fates Warning still out there, and bands ranging from Redemption to Vanden Plas in their primes, along with younger bands like Native Construct, progressive metal is in a good place. That depends on what you want from the music, however, as I have listened to many of these newer bands and been left underwhelmed. So many of them are wondrously talented, but waste it by not understanding that even in the world of prog, you need to write songs first and foremost.

Sunburst is a new progressive metal band built from the core of the band Black Fate. By not being completely rooted in the world of progressive metal, the hope is that they can bring that genre back to its song-oriented roots. The opening track, "Out Of The World", starts things off very much in that vein. The riffing is brutally deep, twisting around itself like the most deranged riffs Jeff Loomis came up with during Nevermore's unhinged period. But while that doesn't sound appealing, an amazing thing happens. When the chorus comes along, that tightly-wound playing opens up, and gives the hook plenty of room to breath. Vasilis Georgiou is a tremendous singer, and his melody is stirring. In these five minutes, we get heaviness, technicality, and rousing melody. That is the very definition of what progressive metal is supposed to be.

As "Dementia" continues, there's much about the guitar playing that incorporates elements of the djent strain of prog (which I'm not sure is actually prog, but that's a separate discussion), but does so in a way that shows how insular supposed progressive musicians can be. They take these crushing rhythms, but pair them with soaring guitar harmonies, and make sure to throw in a chorus that can be sung along with. It sounds like a simple formula, but putting something in there for everyone just makes the songs better than if they were single-mindedly focused on being progressive to prove they can.

There are going to be comparisons to Kamelot that come up, because of Vasilis' vocal tone reminding people of Roy Kahn, but I don't think that's the best analogy to make. What Sunbust reminds me of is the 'classic' lineup of Firewind. Vasilis sounds to my ears like a cleaner version of Apollo Papathanasio, and the entire band is what Firewind would be if they took every element of their sound to the extreme. That's a sincere compliment, because Firewind made one of the best power metal albums of the last decade in "The Premonition", and Sunburst is the modern progressive version of that sound. They retain in their sounds something that almost all progressive metal is missing; fun. You don't have to have a music degree to understand these songs, and you don't have to count snare hits to enjoy them either. Sunburst has written a batch of really good SONGS that can be enjoyed as such, or can be analyzed for the intricacies that make prog fascinating to music nerds.

There's nothing the least bit progressive about "Lullaby", but listening to it, it's hard not to get caught up in that sweeping melody. It just grabs you, and makes me wonder why all those other progressive metal bands have such trouble understanding why this approach works so well. I'm not sure that even the most esoteric of fans can really deny the sing-along fun of "Forevermore", which is a song that begs to look stupid miming along with it.

We do get a heavier dose of prog in the twelve minute closer, "Remedy Of My Heart". Starting off like a Nightwish song played by an actual metal band, we get a track that flows through heavier sections and lighter moments, eschewing the compact songwriting of the rest of the record for something more traditionally prog, but even so the band doesn't neglect the melodic moments. The vocals are subdued compared with the hookier numbers, but the melodies are still there, and the guitar solo in the final third of the song is soaring. The only thing missing is the epic ending the song needed. Instead of building to one last crescendo of immense proportion, a few harsh vocals lead out of that solo into a softly whispered ending. It was underwhelming as a way to end the song, and even more as a way of ending the entire album. The least powerful moment of the entire album is what we end on, which is a bit of a sour aftertaste.

But we shouldn't get lost is that Sunburst has made an excellent debut record here. They've taken what modern progressive metal is good at, and brought in elements of what it needs to be good at, to create a sound that will resonate with fans across the metal spectrum. This is what modern progressive metal should sound like.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Album Review: Headspace - All That You Fear Is Gone

Headspace made a name for themselves with their debut album, "I Am Anonymous", which seemed to garner more attention than singer Damian Wilson's main band, Threshold. While I have enjoyed some Threshold now and again, and consider "Dead Reckoning" (which Wilson was not on) one of my favorite progressive metal albums, I was not enthralled by what I heard of Headspace. I gave the 'singles' a chance, but the sound was not something that grabbed me enough to dive deeper into the album. But as I saw the accolades piling up, I felt I owed it to myself to give this new album a shot. So what do we get here?

We start off with "Road To Supremecy", which opens the album in a way that always frustrates me. There's a single guitar line sitting in the background, but then comes a pointless narrator to set up an element of a story that will soon be forgotten. The voice itself is hard to understand, and that's before dealing with the issue that I don't consider talking to be an acceptable for of music, except under rare circumstances. Once the song gets going, it still doesn't do much for me. There's a single melody that repeats too much, Wilson talks through the bridge and outro, and the tempo shift is abrupt and jarring. It's just not a well-written song, but rather prog cliches strung together.

That feeling never really leaves, as the album feels a bit like a television show, with the songs feeling more like the artificial delineations of commercial breaks, and not natural beginnings and endings to the musical ideas. Riffs and melodies appear to blend together, which is the point, but doesn't do much to make the songs feel like they can stand on their own.

We also get some odd detours, like "Polluted Alcohol", which spends six minutes running through a ballad of acoustic slide guitars, and bears absolutely no resemblance to anything else on the record. It feels completely out of place, disconnected, and doesn't have a strong melody to justify the foray into such oddness. It's a wondering song that doesn't go anywhere, and only gives Wilson some room for his voice to breathe without having to compete with the volume of a full band. Frankly, that isn't a problem, so I'm struggling to see why such a song would ever be written and put on this album.

I like the foreboding doom of "Kill You With Kindness", where the slow riff is colored with pianos underneath. Those elements are interesting, but then the song makes no use of Wilson's melodic abilities, slogging through eight minutes of rather tuneless music. Even the shift to acoustics, and then to an almost Latin rhythm make no difference to the ultimate conclusion.

These feelings never change, as every song builds up one thing, only to shift to another with no rhyme or reason. Prog often gets criticized for sloppy songwriting, and here that is absolutely an apt observation. These aren't songs that are shifting the instrumentation to give us the theme of a song in different ways, nor are they crafted to tell a story through the shifting music. Instead, what we get are songs that jump from piece to piece like a radio scanning for a signal strong enough to hold onto. We get this, then that, and without the connective tissue holding it together, it becomes a befuddling mess of music that is harder and harder to listen to. When so many shifts go by without making sense, you slowly start to realize that there is no payoff coming. That renders the entire album rather hopeless.

And that's mostly my takeaway from listening to this. Headspace has the personnel and the talent to make good music, but this album is nearly a blueprint in how not to write progressive metal. If you take every bad stereotype and throw them together, you get "All That You Fear Is Gone".

Album Review: Beseech - "My Darkness, Darkness"

After a nearly ten-year absence, long-running Swedish goth metal band Beseech has reformed with three all new members and turned the machine back on, presenting the world with “My Darkness, Darkness,” their sixth studio record overall.  Having trampled a long and winding road through associations with different high profile metal record labels, Beseech is starting over only figuratively, continuing to produce goth metal in their same idiomatic style.

Now, goth metal takes on a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people, but in this case, we are speaking of the well-heeled roots of the genre, beginning with the romantic and theatrical tones of Bauhaus, before the genre even had a name.  Beseech, much like Finnish genre darling HIM, are concerned much more with creating the proper image and setting and atmosphere than simply using the label goth to shock or repulse.

So it comes as a refreshing change of pace when we are greeted with the solid downbeat and melancholy guitars of album starter “Beating Pulse,” a song that is concentrated around proper songwriting and craft in the goth paradigm, rather than dark clothing and brooding tones.  The song is bright without being chipper, like seeing a rainbow through a dirty window.  It’s properly laid out and executed with confidence.

The title track is a whirlwind of different influences and tones, incorporating some mock-country guitar for the opening, a piano riff that fits well in the pocket of the music and a pristine flow that leads to a hook-laden and memorable sing-along chorus.  It’s the album’s best track by leaps and bounds, the clear signal that Beseech both knows how to write songs and still has power and authority in their genre despite their long absence.  This kind of professionalism and expertise is dotted through the experience of “My Darkness, Darkness,” making for an album that is not bold, per se, but striking in how it creates plenty of feelings without needing a ton of bells and whistles.

There’s really only glaring drawback with Beseech’s record.  Which is, WHY THE FUCK ARE WE WHISPERING?!  All the time!  The whole album!  It’s enough to drive a man bananas!  Like, okay, I get it: plenty of artists have used whispered tones with great success in their careers.  Blue Oyster Cult did it.  Clutch and Monster Magnet have both done it.  Danzig does it.  Marilyn Monroe famously did it for John F. Kennedy (first time Danzig and Marilyn Monroe have been in consecutive sentences.)  69 Eyes does it.  Rage Against the Machine.  Peter Steele frequently used his whisper as a contrasting agent, to make his harrowing bellow all the more profound.  The list goes on.  The issue with “My Darkness, Darkness” is that Angelina Sahlgren Söder and Klas Bohlin never emerge out of that fog.  In the end, it causes two distinct problem for the record, the first is that it never really feels like the wheels up and we’re off the ground – there’s an energy sap that’s persistent, particularly in spots like the repeated drone outro of “Darksome.”  The second is that a song like the title cut that we spoke about earlier, which is wonderful in pitch and color and cadence, lacks urgency and comes across like The Birds doing metal covers.

This is the kind of record that can make you want to bite your fingernails in consternation, because so there’s so much good here, but it’s marred by a single critical flaw.  Now, there’s an argument to be made that Beseech is simply sticking to their idiom, that goth metal should maintain a muted countenance, and sure, there’s merit in that.  Far be it from me to judge a band who’s been pounding pavement (off and on) for roughly twenty-five years.  But there’s also something to be said for innovation and flexibility and in this case, Beseech might just be holding themselves back from their best music.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Album Review: Mondo Drag - "The Occultation of Light"

Mondo Drag felt the need to relocate.  Following their release last year, the band left the endless, undulating sea of corn fields in Iowa for the dramatically different culture of Oakland, all in an effort to expose themselves (not like that) to a greater variety of musical attenuation.  The result of this holy pilgrimage is “The Occultation of Light,” a perfectly retro rendering of progressive rock as it existed in the heady days of King Crimson and Yes.

And that DNA roots down to the marrow of Mondo Drag, high flying synths and meandering guitars abound, all layered over and over again in rich harmony to weave an ornate web of aural opulence, washing the listener in an oceanic ebb and flow of carefully planned musical themes.  The band isn’t so obsessed with fooling or impressing the listener with obscure time signatures or production trickery, but instead wants to create an immersive experience.  “In Your Head (Part I & II)” begins its life with a flourish of feathering, each instrument working in concert with those around it, eventually pacing out into a clean recitation of more dull (by comparison) tones, the song wending its way to conclusion.

That’s where the patterns between traditional prog and Mondo Drag diverge; Mondo Drag is more concerned with setting a mood than the typical synth-heavy prog affair.  If there is such a thing as doom-prog, then Mondo Drag would fit that epithet perfectly, preferring to let the muted colors of their musical flower bloom slowly over the course of a dewey morning than in a blinding flash of radiant iridescence.  The opening trill of album starter “Dying Light” belies the slow burn that resides within.  The song settles into a slow jam and only occasionally emerges out of it for effect, as this piece rises up into a throwback jam outro that reminds ever so subtly of the soundtrack of a b-grade cop movie in the middle 1970s.

The result of the band taking their time to allow the music its due course is occasionally a double-edged sword.  There are spans of time on the record where nothing notable is really happening, a trait that unfortunately mars the last act somewhat.  “Rising Omen” is an ambient piece that the average fan may likely skip, as it doesn’t really capture the attention of imagination, and even in listening to the full length of “The Occultation of Light” doesn’t really tell an important part of the story.  This trend continues into the opening half of the album’s closer “The Eye” which improves dramatically in pace and impact by its conclusion, but does stumble some in that it lacks a certain urgency that would have sewn up the album’s journey with a satisfying end.  (Now, there is an argument to be made that the end of “The Eye” tails nicely into the open of “Dying Light,” thus turning the album into a fulfilling round if listening to the tracks on repeat, but that seems a very specific set of circumstances.)

So to that end, where the album succeeds best is actually in the shorter selections in the middle, where the band can crank through one idea and continues their album-long smart decision to not force lyrics where they aren’t needed.  There’s nothing wrong with John Gamino’s voice, it’s just that this type of music doesn’t necessarily need a lot of direction for the listener – each individual should be able to conjure his or her own mental image of what’s going on.  Anyway, “Out of Sight” and “Ride the Sky” are where the album shows the most spark, completing one great cycle and concluding the piece, all wrapped up in excellent execution and expressive playing.

“The Occultation of Light” is a well done retro prog record from a band who has often dabbled in heavily psychedelic music, so it’s fair to conclude that Mondo Drag has found an effective niche for themselves.  Prog purists will appreciate the slant in their favor and the incorporation of many hallmarks of their chosen genre, while psych fans will still find value in the album’s deliberate (occasionally too deliberate) pacing.  Laid out, this is a fine effort for Mondo Drag, and perhaps the start of great things to come for them.

Album Review: Sacred Blood 'Divine' Lies

At this point, what more can be said about Magnum? They've been around for so long, and released so many albums, that you know exactly what you're going to get when you put the new one in for a spin. Tony Clarkin is going to write melodic hard rock songs, Bob Catley is going to sounds as great as ever, and the odds are that you're going to hear roughly ten tracks that are worthy additions to the Magnum catalog, but won't overtake whatever your favorite record is. That's the scenario most veteran bands face, unless they have undergone major shifts in their sound. Magnum are still Magnum, which could almost be a review unto itself.

I first got into the band through the album "Princess Alice And The Broken Mirror", which I still give semi-regular attention. The albums that have come since then, despite being of no lesser quality, have never captured my attention the same way. I can't explain why that is.

The oddly punctuated title track opens things off with a very classic rock styled guitar arpeggio, with Catley providing some of his most aggressive vocals over the sparse arrangement. He actually pulls back when the rest of the band joins, before pushing even harder, and out of his range, if we're being honest. The chorus is trademark Clarkin, matching a solid melody to a few pounding chords. It's Magnum at the heavier end of their spectrum, and it sounds fantastic.

That description holds true, as this feels like one of Magnum's heavier albums. "Crazy Old Mothers", despite the ridiculous title, has some massive guitar work, as does "Gypsy Queen". Clarkin sprinkles in the pianos and softer moments, but he's not afraid to crank his amps and give the songs more heft than I'm used to hearing from the band. Catley has proven before that he can sing heavier music (both in Avantasia and on his should-be-a-classic solo album "Immortal"), so this doesn't feel like a ploy. The band feels like they're hitting on all cylinders, which comes across through the energy in the music.

This set of songs sounds to me to have more spark than the last couple of albums. Songs like "Your Dreams Won't Die" are everything that Magnum is supposed to be; classy, and emphatically melodic. When Clarkin is able to generate those kinds of hooks, and Catley puts his magical voice to them, you can see why Magnum has been going strong for thirty years. That's not to say everything here is magical. "A Forgotten Conversation" is a song that will easily be forgotten, and most of the second half of the record is noticibly less engaging than the first half, until you get to the fantastic closer "Don't Cry Baby".

Wo what we end up with is an album that continues Magnum's legacy, and does what all Magnum albums have done for decades now; provide a batch of songs that are a good way to spend some time. Like I said at the beginning, Magnum is Magnum. If you like them, this album is a sure-fire winner.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Album Review: Red Eleven - "Collect Your Scars"

Red Eleven’s “Round II,” released in 2014, was a powerhouse effort, the kind of coming out party that vaults a band from local favorite to national spotlight.  The Finns are churning out more content, with this new effort “Collect Your Scars” representing the band’s third full-length album in four years.  The band centers their efforts on rock with metal influence, a multi-dimensional experience that speaks to the songwriting versatility of the membership.

What remains inimitably intact for this new record is the cinematic sense of place that permeates the entire energetic experience.  Red Eleven have a knack for showing off their dramatic side, a willful penchant that shapes the music and demands attention like a jilted only child.  Just listen to the open of the record, as the layers of “I Follow” progressively stack into a decadent sheetcake of aural enjoyment.  The larger-than-life presentation of “Yarn of Life” serves only to further the point, as the rafters shake with righteous rock/metal hybrid fury, the band pumping out high voltage into straining capacitors.

Which is part of the fun and mastery of Red Eleven – the band knows how to present a moment, and remains stubbornly unafraid to either bend or totally ignore the limitations of genre to attain the sound they want.  Hence, the piano intro of “Last Grain of Sand,” a song that song that is beautifully rendered regardless of what idiom it’s supposed to sardine-canned into.  Same goes for the soft piano outro of “Know Yourself” which seems maybe a little tacked on at the end of the track, but works in the sense that it presents a juxtaposition of sounds.

There’s a malleability on “Collect Your Scars” that’s rare in any genre, but especially rare here, and it’s not limited to the difference in sound between tracks.  Observe “Just a Game” a steam engine of a song that paces itself with three distinct phases of the journey – there’s the fast part, the big part and the rock part, all coming together into a tapestry of different threads creating a more dynamic whole.  I’m badly mixing my metaphors here, but that’s sort of the point – Red Eleven is throwing whatever kitchen sink parts they can find into the mix, provided that it sounds appropriate.

We see this most in the dire but oddly enchanting “And Then I Took His Life,” a song that is diverse enough to almost justify having different voices for different characters.  There are huge, open choruses, filled with pomp and heartfelt, sing-along goodness, a sinister breakdown that drips with sneering malevolence and ill will, and then a return to form for a redeeming outro.

One point of caution and it’s important.  “Collect Your Scars” is an involved listen that is heavily layered and not exactly a take-and-go for the initial listens.  So for those playing along at home, this record requires either a handful of listens to absorb its full potency, or one listen without distraction.  That doesn’t mean ‘without distraction’ like it’s-on-and-I’m-checking-Reddit, that means undivided attention.  A rarity in this modern age.

“Collect Your Scars” is another great album from Red Eleven.  It’s hard to definitively say that the album is better than the colossal “Round II,” but I look forward to listening to both a dozen more times trying to find out.  Perhaps more importantly, here’s the bottom line, regardless of the opinions of Stone Cold: In recent years there has arisen a short list of bands with the musical talent and general appeal to take over the rock universe.  Graveyard, The Sword (depending on your opinion of “High Country,”) and Red Eleven is that list.

My Take: Grammy Critics Getting It Wrong

As another edition of the Grammy awards have come and gone, we have been greeted with the same strain of second-guessing that has long infuriated me, due to its intellectual dishonesty. There is certainly legitimate criticism to be had, but rarely do critics of awards understand the logical failures of their own words, which render whatever point they were trying to make worthless. But before I get to that, allow me to say something positive about the show:

Ghost won a Grammy for "Cirice", and absolutely deserved it.

I quite enjoyed Ghost's album last year, with it making my Top Ten, and "Cirice" was one of my favorite songs of the year as well. It was only fitting that it capped off a great year for Ghost by winning a Grammy. Looking at the state of metal, even within the mainstream that the Grammys are willing to consider, it's a positive sign that Ghost was chosen as the winner. It shows that while I have been standing off to the side shaking my head at what metal is becoming, there is still a place for a band that is dark and heavy while retaining the musicality that makes music enjoyable to listen to. Kudos, Ghost. And kudos, Grammys.

That leads us to the critics of the show, who as always, have complaints about who won and who lost. It's just fine to have an opinion, but it has to be expressed in a way that doesn't reveal it to be petty griping. This year's biggest bone of contention is Taylor Swift's victory in the Album Of The Year category, beating out the hip pick of Kendrick Lamar. I haven't heard his album, so I will make no effort to take sides in the matter.

Where my troubles begin is that in much of the day-after criticism, there was a certain important point that was missing; the critics rarely said that Lamar's album was better.

That should seem like the first point that should come up if you're advocating that he was the more deserving winner. And yet, it was not. Instead, the commentary I was reading preferred to make the case that Lamar's album was more important because of the social commentary it provided, that his album captured the times in a way that Swift was unable to do. Those may very well be fair points, but they have nothing to do with picking what is supposed to be a better album.

The award is supposed to be for the best album of the year, and if the argument is about which one had a more pointed take on the social politics of the day, we're no longer arguing about music. While music can be powerfully political, that doesn't make it better than music that is written about unicorns and rainbows. Lamar's album is probably more significant in a cultural sense, I will grant you, but when did we start judging art by how it conformed to our politics, and not whether it was enjoyable?

If you thought "To Pimp A Butterfly" was the better record, that's perfectly fine. I'm just disappointed that the members of the media I read failed to make that argument in criticizing Swift's victory, despite the fact that she had made an album that was both critically acclaimed and the biggest of the year. That's no small feat, and the tone of the criticism brushed all of that aside without putting any logical weight behind the toss.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Album Review: Ricky Warwick - When Patsy Cline Was Crazy/Hearts On Trees

Over the course of two albums with Black Star Riders, Ricky Warwick was established himself as a potent frontman. Leading the group that was the last incarnation of Thin Lizzy, he has been the voice of two albums that have given classic rock a shot in the arm, with "All Hell Breaks Loose" being an album that would have been a classic back in the day. Warwick's bravado and storytelling make him a particularly individual singer and songwriter, which makes this foray into solo material a bit of a surprise. Since he had such a hand in crafting the Black Star Riders material, and he is the centerpiece of that band's sound, what could he have in store that would warrant an album all of his own?

We find out in the form of a double album, "When Patsy Cline Was Crazy/Hearts On Trees". For now, let's focus on the first half of the equation.

"The Road To Damascus Street" opens the album off with a riff that almost grinds, as opposed to the bluesy swagger his main band lives on. Warwick's vocals are right in his wheelhouse, never trying to do something he knows he can't. He has a way of writing melodies that are subtle but get the job done, and that's what happens here. It doesn't jump out at you at first, but soon you find yourself humming along, and you realize you've been sucked in. That's the common denominator in Warwick's best material; they're songs that slowly ingratiate themselves.

When that song gets followed up by the smooth melody of "Celebrating Sinking", and the irresistibly catchy title track, it sets the record up for something great. Warwick's ode to the power of the golden age of music is powerful, and a far better way of expressing that sentiment than the myriad songs written by bands to convince us of how hard they themselves rock.

That song is also where we start to understand the genesis of this album. Through the lyrics, we can hear Warwick's affection for outlaw country. That sound, filtered through the beginnings of punk, is a decent approximation of the attitude this album is shooting for, and explains why these songs weren't saved for the next Black Star Riders album. And when you hear the hints of rockabilly rhythm in "Toffee Town", that point is driven home.

We get to hear some spaghetti-western horns in "That's Where The Story Ends", but none of the diversions take away from the core of Warwick's songwriting, which gives these songs a common core to piece them together. And as the album progresses towards the end, we get more songs that keep shifting the tones and tempos, but retain solid melodic identities. It's hard not to nod your head along to a song like "Johnny Ringo's Last Ride", which is simply fun.

So that takes care of the first half of the double record, but what about the other half?

"Hearts On Trees" is a far different beast. An acoustic record, it veers from campfire singalong to introspective brooding, and lacks almost all of the charm from the first disc. The songs on this record are slower, duller, and are devoid of the melodies that Warwick is known for. There are a few forced attempts to generate audience participation, but it doesn't work. These songs are not anywhere near the quality I was expecting, nor do they seem to play to Warwick's strengths. It was tough to get through "Hearts On Trees" without feeling bored, which is saying something, considering that neither disc of this album hits forty minutes.

Overall, my opinion is split. "Hearts On Trees" is a record I find superfluous, and one that adds nothing to the package. "When Patsy Cline Was Crazy", on the other hand, is a very nice album. It lacks the punch that Black Star Riders hit with at their best, but Warwick is a charming enough vocalist to mostly make me forget that. This isn't as good as "All Hell Breaks Loose", but it's a record that's as good as "The Killer Instinct", which is plenty good enough for me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Album Review: Aunt Mary - "New Dawn"

Way, way back, there was a Norwegian progressive rock band that headlined shows in their native country and toed the line with heavyweights like Deep Purple and King Crimson on the Scandinavian shores.  That band was Aunt Mary and over the course of thirty some years the magic started to wear off.

Then as the calendar turned past 2010, the occasional reunion show turned into something much more, as the band decided that the time for a new era had begun.  Reunited, the band set out to record new material for the first time in this new millennium….

When disaster struck.  Vocalist Jan Groth was diagnosed with cancer and passed away not long after, urging the band to continue in his stead.  They soldiered on, recordings came together, things were starting to look complete….and again heartbreak darkened the band’s doorway.  Five months after being diagnosed, drummer Ketil Stensvik passed from cancer as well, leaving guitarist Bjorn Kristiansen as the only original member standing in the band.  His conscience heavy, Kristiansen consulted with those around him and decided to continue.

Among his new recruits in the effort to release what would become this album “New Dawn,” Kristiansen brought into the fold Glenn Lyse, 2007 winner of “Norwegian Idol,” a singer who sounds almost like a well-groomed Dave Wyndorf, and “New Dawn,” with a new lineup and a brave face, confronts the masses.

In some of their best moments, this new age of Aunt Mary sound almost like a recall of a very young Aerosmith, as they pounded out the sauntering swagger of “Last Child” in 1976.  The second cut, “Unconditional Love” sounds eerily similar to the “Rocks” single, but there’s a different mood – the wandering bravado of Steven Tyler is summarily replaced by a plain but insightful wondering, which lends some nice depth to the selection.

But stay with me, because this is where the progressive nature sets in.  “Hopelessly Lost” changes pace into a lowdown blues romp, much in the same style as we just witnessed the other day with Supersonic Blues Machine.  It’s got a fun chorus, a breakdown, a two-beat riff, the whole bit.

And then we change again, and the progression really ramps up for “G Flat Road,” an oddly echoed and utterly catchy hum of a song that’s half video game track from the early nineties and half experimental rock tune.  There’s a consistency in the bass line that ties the product together, but on its face this can be pretty abstract.

Not done yet!  We then move onto “I Was Born to Ride on the Wrong Side,” which sharply pivots and we suddenly have a cross of Soundgarden’s “Drawing Flies” and Union Underground’s “The Friend Song,” but with a rock chorus wedged in the middle.  Does it sound out of place?  Sort of.  But does it work?  Sure does.  It might be the best offering on the whole of “New Dawn.”

No, I take that back.  That honor belongs to “Don’t Keep Me Waiting,” the album’s closer, which is a quick ditty that hits with elements of doo-wop and the Andrews Sisters woven into a swing template that is difficult to describe but incredibly fun.  Suddenly there’s a song about waiting on a train platform for ‘my baby?’  Sure.  Makes sense.  Again, hard to describe, but it somehow makes the album work.  Brilliant stuff.

Listen, now isn’t really the time to gripe on Aunt Mary too bad, but it does merit mentioning that several cuts on the back half of the record sort of drop the progressive streak and boil down to songs slightly reminiscent of the E Street Band.  If that’s your thing, there’s added value here.  If not, you may hit ‘next track’ a few times.

So what we end up with here is an album that is vital in the face of loss, which is remarkable in and of itself.  To write convincing emotional content in this form is difficult enough to pull off, but to then make the songs sound optimistic when all is said and done is another feat altogether.  Aunt Mary, through the hardest road and the least likely of all circumstances, is back.

Album Review: Redemption - The Art Of Loss

Despite going through a period where I was investing a lot of time in prog, and considering Neal Morse one of my favorite musicians out there, I have a cold relationship with prog metal. There is something about the sterile playing and focus on technique that has made it hard for me to enjoy it on a regular basis. There are a few exceptions, like when I handed my Album Of The Year award to Dream Theater in 2011, and the case of Redemption. Redemption makes the kind of prog metal that I want to hear; a style that emphasizes songs over technique, melodies over sweep picking. While everything they've done is solid, "The Origins Of Ruin" is to me their clear career highlight, a record that perfectly balances being just outside the mainstream with strong, resonant hooks. And with the melancholy guitar tones, and Ray Alder's emotional vocals, it's music you can never write off as being soulless.

"The Art Of Loss" finds the band returning after a longer wait than usual, and the pressure of making good on the flawed "This Mortal Coil". While that record has some fantastic songs, it was mired with a production that was too dirty, and a vocal performance that made it seem Alder was at the end of his career.

The short answer to whether that was achieved is yes. The long answer is slightly more complicated.

The good news is that Redemption has corrected the flaws of the previous record. The sound of "The Art Of Loss" is beautifully clear and dynamic, and Alder puts in a performance that, to borrow the old quip, makes reports of his demise greatly exaggerated. This does bring up a question about why "This Mortal Coil" wound up sounding the way it did, but that's a topic for a different time.

Redemption takes two tracts on this record, writing some of their best straight-ahead songs yet, while flexing their progressive muscles on the album's two hulking epics. The shorter songs display what makes Redemption better than almost all progressive metal bands, the ability to take the intricate playing and place it atop a sturdy song that has the melodic heart to hold up the indulgences. Songs like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Damaged" have stirring melodies that work with the lyrics to make profound statements through music. Couple that with the almost pop chorus on "That Golden Light", an you get a chunk of this album that is right in line with the kind of massively melodic metal that made "Blind My Eyes" such a revelation.

The other tract Redemption takes is among its most progressive, as "Hope Dies Last" clocks in at more than ten minutes, while the closing "At Days End" is a mammoth twenty-two minutes long. They allow the band to indulge themselves, to take tangents away from the straight line of song construction. That can sometimes lead to amazing results, as it did on "Sapphire" years ago, but it can also be a crutch. "At Days End", in particular, suffers a bit from this fate. There are moments in the song that are beyond gorgeous, namely the closing section where the title arises, but the entirety of the composition feels too loosely constructed. There aren't enough threads tying the sections together. There are several spots where the music stops, a few guitar notes serve as a segue, and the song moves on. I'm taken out of the moment when that happens, because it no longer feels like a single song.

But what bothers me more is what will be a huge draw for many. Marty Friedman and Chris Poland provide much of the lead guitar on the album, and that is a decision that does not sit well with me. Marty, for all his legend, plays solos that seem to lack meaning, scales that are unusual for the sake of being weird. And Poland, through his equipment choices, plays solos that sound out of tune, even though I know they aren't. Combined, the soloing on this record make me theoretically impressive, but it doesn't appeal to me at all.

The good news is that Nick Van Dyk is a good enough songwriter to overcome these flaws. While it's clear where he draws his influences from, he has one of the better ears for melody in prog metal, and that has always allowed Redemption to be more than just a prog band. His melodies, along with his intelligent lyrical approach, is a better definition of what 'thinking man's metal' should be than merely playing wild combinations of notes in odd time signatures. Redemption has never made a bad record for good reason. They're too good for that. I'll be honest here; "The Art Of Loss" is not as good as "The Origins Of Ruin", but that's not a knock on it, since I consider that album to be one of the true underrated classics of modern metal. I do, however, think this is easily better than both "Snowfall On Judgement Day" and "This Mortal Coil", which are records I enjoy. "The Art Of Loss" is a great prog metal album, and with it Redemption has taken back the throne as my favorite prog metal band out there.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

EP Review: Creeper - The Stranger

It seems as though these days the vast majority of rock and metal music can be described as 'dark'. What that means, however, is entirely up for debate, since there are myriad ways of conveying darkness. While most of the time it has turned into another way of saying a band has a vocalist that can't sing to save their life, there is an old strain of darkness that comes through in Gothic flavor, feeling familiar in the way the old monster movies used to. There's some camp in it, but it tries to pull at something deeper than merely being angry.

Creeper is one of those bands playing on the old Gothic sensibilities, making music that is obviously dark, but not so wrapped up in misery as to be off-putting. They play darker music that still wants to bring you in, to get the message across as a shared pain we all feel.

"The Secret Society" starts things off with a slow swell of guitar sounds, biding time until the track kicks into gear. There's a solid dose of older AFI in their sound, but there isn't much to the track to make a judgment on. It is an introduction that is setting the stage, and not a track to focus on by itself. "Valentine" is the first true song, and this is where we get a better idea of what Creeper is up to. That mention of AFI holds steady, as the pulsing guitar chords, and sudden shifts from energetic punk to melodic crooning are textbook of the more unusual moments of that time. I think there could have been a better transition from one to the other, but the hook Creeper gives us is deliciously melodic, and a sure phones in the air moment at future concerts.

"Black Mass" is the single you may have heard already, and brings to mind several comparisons. The verses have the literary flair of Nightmare Of Your on their one good record, while the chorus combines My Chemical Romance's sound with a melody that borrows some of Jim Steinman's compositional tricks. As if that wasn't enough weirdness, the song then heads into a bridge that could have been played at a 1950s slow dance. It's a bizarre song, but all the parts work really well, so I can't call it anything but a hit.

"Misery" starts out as just a guitar and vocal song, which puts the emphasis on the melody. It's a pleasant song that gets the point across, and just when you think you have it figured out, the band kicks in the finish it off with some extra energy. It's a trope that's been done to death, but it almost always works. We finish things off with "Astral Projection", which comes the closest to touching on 90s pop punk, but doesn't get as grating as that genre became. Like the others, this song does a good job of sounding authentic while retaining a melodic core that hooks you in.

Overall, "The Stranger" is a great little EP. I had never heard of Creeper before this, but these songs not only make for a highly enjoyable quick listen, they have me quite interested to hear what they can come up with for a full length record. Creeper may have started out as a stranger, but "The Stranger" has made them a welcome guest. Definitely give this a listen if you're of a certain age. It brings back great memories.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Album Review: Supersonic Blues Machine - "West of Flushing South of Frisco"

Rock band Supersonic Blues Machine functions under the basic principle that when the Devil taught Robert Johnson how to play the blues in exchange for his immortal soul, the medium was already fairly well developed, and by the time we were introduced as a population to John Lee Hooker, no more evolution was necessary.  Through this lens, Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top sort of become the final prophets, the last Testament of blues rock who kept the root genre pure, even differentiating it from the very minor tweaks embedded by either rockabilly or the British or both.

It makes sense then, that Billy Gibbons appears  as one of many guests on the band’s debut record “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” not in a torch passing (because no one believes ZZ Top to be done,) but in a show of solidarity with the very idea that blues rock needn’t have ever made any adjustments.  Gibbons’ endorsement of Supersonic Blues Machine proves the band’s proper chops to handle this aging but revered and weighty genre with proper care and admiration.

Nowhere is this craftsmanship more apparent than in the smile-inducing, easy singalong of “Remedy,” (featuring Warren Haynes!) an old-school swinging rock anthem backed by a big chorus and a simple hook that both embraces the listener and reminds them of yesteryear.  There’s some Doobie Brothers in the mix here, but Supersonic Blues Machine still manages to sound fresh, creating a sound that is inimitably their own.

Not to be outdone, we’re then treated to the two song set of “Bone Bucket Blues” and “Let It Be,” both the kind of up-tempo, finger-snapping singalongs that have floated this particular musical idiom for roughly sixty years.  The former even contains a brief throwback to Hooker’s timeless classic “Boom Boom,” sewn into the seams of a song that moves and bounces.  The latter is a slow burn; a deep groove that relies heavily on the soulful tones of traditional blues to make to an impacting statement.  It’s two different interpretations of the lessons of blues rock, both equally vital to the greater story of How We Got Here.

The bothersome detail of Supersonic Blues Machine lies partly in a fault of the name of the band.  That is to say, the music experienced on “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” is a lot of things, but ‘Supersonic’ isn’t among them.  It’s similar to when hearing of the band Megaton Leviathan and then discovering that it’s an atmospheric band that doesn’t really play notes (sorry, that’s a cheap dig at a band not here to defend themselves.)  Anyway, the music here doesn’t necessarily need to be blistering for it to be successful or achieve its goal, but a little more urgency might have roughed up the edges just a smidge (technical term.)  The lead-up of “Running Whiskey” is soulful and great, but the chorus comes across flat.  For an album that boasts so many guests who have this principle in their wheelhouse, it comes as some disappointment that Supersonic Blues Machine missed the lesson on payoff.  Only for a short instrumental cut toward the end, “Whiskey Time,” do we really see the kind of pedal-pushing oomph that so characterizes so many of the Blues Machine’s idols.

I want to love “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” because I love all the ideas behind it and all the ideals that it stands for.  All of that is perfect.  The composition is really good, and the performance of the band is both consistent and tight.  But as it stands, I can only bring myself to like this record, not love it.  There’s some adrenaline missing in the margins that would have gone a long way.

Nevertheless, let’s not get too down.  Still way more good than bad here.  “West of Flushing, South of Frisco” is a really good record, and an excellent example of the undying marriage of blues and rock and roll.  If you’re in the northeast and frozen solid into your home by the cold snap this weekend, warm up your beverage of choice and you could well relax the day away with this.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Joyous Night of Rock Revival - Graveyard Concert Review

The Brooklyn Bowl is, to say the least, a unique place to see a show.  Naturally, when a common concert attendee sees the name ‘Bowl,’ the natural assumption is that we’re talking about a place shaped like an amphitheater, indoors or out, capable of pristine audio and a thoroughly dignified concert experience.  The Brooklyn Bowl by contrast, while certainly dignified and in possession of pretty good aural reproduction, nevertheless asserts its name in a different fashion, as a fully functional bowling alley, in companionship with the normal amenities of a concert venue.  While a pleasant surprise, the sensation of walking in for the first time is not unlike Otto Mann’s reaction on “The Simpsons” upon leaving a store called ‘Stoner’s Pot Emporium.”

The night began with Spiders, the four-piece retro rock act that is bravely trying to change the common musical word association with “The Gothenburg Scene.”  To lead the evening was the power and circumstance of “Mad Dog,” the band’s best riff and most infectious song, which immediately sent the crowd into a head-nodding paroxysm of appreciation.  The focal point of Spiders is vocalist Ann-Sofie Hoyles, who channels the music into her being and allows the power of the groove to bodily move her about the stage.  She dances, stomps, twists and gyrates, kneeling to feel the power of the beat and swinging into the microphone for a performance that’s surprisingly consistent, given all the kinetic energy being expended.  Hoyles’ presence is uniquely her own, but for the sake of argument is somewhere between Janis Joplin and Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes.  While Spiders performed a tight set behind her, Hoyles was the full story (despite the delightfully over-the-top feathered lapels of bassist Olle Griphammar,) capturing the audience’s attention and making fans out of many.

Graveyard.  As if they needed to prove it on this night, in the argument for best active rock band on Earth.  The four piece led by Joakim Nilsson comes out to the stage without assuming any particular air; they are there simply to perform for the gathered masses, which had filled in by this time, anxious with anticipation.  Many bands set the tone for their set by projecting an image, but Graveyard stands apart in that the band members allow the tone of the songs to set the attitude of the performance.  It seems like an elementary notion, and it’s difficult to explain in words, but Graveyard manages to almost take a back seat to their own songs.

While the energy of some of Graveyard’s pieces are a talking point, the real star of their set on this night were the slow, measured, heavily blues-laden pieces that so successfully dot their albums.  Beginning the set was “No Good, Mr. Holden,” a gem from “Hisingen Blues,” that swayed and undulated with deep, throwback groove.

It is rare in music to discover an album that sounds like an old friend from the first few listens.  It is rarer still to discover that that album takes on entirely new and virile dimensions when it is exhibited live.  Such is the case with Graveyard’s “Innocence and Decadence,” which is quickly coming up on six months old.  “From a Hole in the Wall,” featuring the smoother vocals of new(ish) bassist Truls Mörck exploded forth from the stage, rousing the gathered throng and giving perhaps just a small window of what it might have been like to see Cream perform in their heyday.  The psychedelic influence on “I&D,” though subtle, helped differentiate and diversify the set, as the paced swing of “Cause and Defect” shifted into the leaping drive of “The Suits, The Law and the Uniforms,” keeping the set moving and the crowd interested.

The standouts of Graveyard’s performance, almost unilaterally, were the love songs, or perhaps more appropriately, the songs concerning love and relationships.  “Too Much is Not Enough,” a song that sounds slightly overdone on the album, comes alive in this setting, the other band members taking the place of the recorded chorus and the tones of Jonatan Larocca-Ramm’s guitar finding depth in reverb.  By the time the set wound down to a thunderous “Uncomfortably Numb,” sweat dripped freely from Nilsson as he crooned the verses of a song that has always sounded like an inverted “Free Bird.”

Yet for all that, the set’s most emotional moment came in the encore, as Nilsson emerged alone and lit only on one side by a single stage light, strummed and sang through “Stay For a Song,” the powerful ballad which had the crowd mouthing the lyrics and the fashionable ladies of Brooklyn swaying in appreciation.  The performance was perfectly dotted by the subtle ovation the rest of the Graveyard received from the crowd as they took their places to continue the evening.  Ultimately, the band said goodnight following the bigger-than-life organized blues chaos of “The Siren,” and the crowd was left smiling, knowing they had just seen professionals put on. a. show.

Graveyard stands poised to take on the world.  And they just might win.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Album Review: Dilana - Songs From The Motion Picture "Angel Camouflaged"

Time passes faster than we realize. It seems that every time we turn around, we're further down the path of life than we should be. It's an inescapable phenomenon, a reality that we have to cope with. When we're told to seize the day, and to live in the moment, that is why. Not because there's something beautiful about being fully in the present, but because it will slip through our fingers faster than we can clutch to save it. I say this, realizing that it has been three years since we last got new music from Dilana. That was the album "Beautiful Monster", which leads me to a confession. In the name of honesty, I should mention that not only was that my Album Of The Year, but it has climbed in my most recent rankings into my five favorite records ever, because of the emotional gut-punch I get every time I listen to it. Now that I've established I'm probably incapable of being truly objective when it comes to Dilana, given what she has meant to me, we come to why we're here.

This new record isn't actually a new record, but a collection of the songs that were written and recorded for the movie "Angel Camouflaged", which Dilana starred in. As such, I wouldn't feel right grading this as a proper album. A collection is a better term for it.

"Airplane" kicks things off, and is Dilana at her pop best. The guitars have some punk snarl to them, and this is on the heavier end of her music, but it's anchored by a chorus that is a pure melodic gem, and Dilana's vocals are as always phenomenal. There's the perfect blend of pop and rock in there, strong enough to band your head to, but sweet enough to sing along with. That's a hard balance to strike, and this song hits it so well that I found myself playing it on repeat, unable to get it out of my head.

"Double Headed Man" showcases a different side of Dilana, with a blues chord progression, and slide guitar that takes the song into Deep South country. The way Dilana flattens out her voice to get across the attitude is a perfect touch, a deft way of playing to the song's strength, which helps in selling it. "Slaves" keeps the softer tone going, but takes us into the more stark territory that "Beautiful Monster" tackled. There's something about hearing Dilana's voice in a softer setting that speaks louder than any band rocking as hard as they can. There's a vulnerability in her softer tone that makes her sound as though she's pouring her soul into a glass, a double, and sharing her soul with the audience. "Slaves" would have fit perfectly on that album, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay. It's a phenomenal song, the kind she writes that is unforgettably melodic, without needing the veneer of a pop song to subvert the message. It's simply beautiful music that hits me like nothing else.

But lest you think I'm denigrating pop music, "Maybe Just A Little" is purely that, a pop song, and it shows that Dilana can do that better than anyone on the charts as well. There are the stilted guitars of 90s guitar pop bands, and a beat as driving as can be for a song that is so restrained, but the highlight is Dilana's droning melody through the chorus, which turns the song into melancholy pop, which is a startlingly effective sound. "Everywhere" is a more traditional rock-oriented pop song, but that doesn't make it any less. It might lack the emotional heft of the previous tracks, but Dilana's ear for melody continues to hit the mark, crafting songs that feel familiar at first blush.

We round out the record with three songs that have been available before. "Ice" was on her album "Inside Out", but this version is a stripped-down affair that largely puts the focus on just her voice and a lone acoustic guitar. The song has always been beautiful, but it's never sounded as heart-breaking as it does here. And to cap things off, we get the grungy "Supersoul" and the edgy "Sexaholic". They're still good songs that I've listened to many times, but by virtue of their approach, they can't make the same impact as the more raw, emotional songs here.

As I said, I don't think it's fair to judge this as an album. With several songs that have been available before, and just under half an hour of music here, it's better to look at this as a way of rounding out a collection of Dilana's music. In that regard, this is a triumphant release that provides us the opportunity to hear songs that deserve to have a life beyond that movie. I consider myself a devoted fan of Dilana, and now that I've heard songs like "Slaves" and "Maybe Just A Little", I feel bad that we've missed out on these tracks until now.

Dilana has yet to disappoint, and this collection of songs continues that trend. I can only wait with baited breath for what comes next.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Album Review: Holy Grail - Times Of Pride And Peril

It was only a few years ago that there was a group of bands that hit the scene at just about the same time, all promising to restore the glory of 80s metal to a jaded audience. They tried to make records that were as fist-pumping and fun as the classics, modern heavy metal that didn't skimp on the reasons why metal became a phenomenon way back when. The problem was that, while those bands had good intentions, they weren't well-versed in how to write a good song, and they couldn't stay together. Most of those bands have either closed up shop already, or gone through enough changes that they are mere bit players on the stage. Holy Grail might be the biggest survivor of the bunch, as they hit us with their new album.

"Crystal King" kicks things off with shredding guitars, a frantic Maiden styled gallop, and vocals that try to shatter glass. It's an aggressive opening, but the band displays admirable restraint by pulling back and slowing the chorus down. The verses sound better for being the fastest parts, the chorus heavier for its more deliberate pacing, and the vocals can ratchet down to a place where the rest of us could consider singing along. It's good stuff.

The next track, "Waste Them All Away" has a main riff that sounds like a thrashy palm-muted neoclassical composition, which is utterly captivating. It's a really interesting spin on the format, and instantly makes the song more interesting than chugging out a low-string gallop. And when the song settles into a mid-tempo crunch, it has a nice hard rock swagger that simply works. Holy Grail has found a great balance here between being a raging metal monster, and writing catchy songs. Just listen to "Sudden Death", and you can hear this. The song is a pure thrash number through the verses, and then the chorus is a big hooky melody that spins the music right back into mass appeal. It's easy to say metal doesn't need to worry about songwriting, but when you hear it working, that becomes such an excuse for people who either can't or won't do it right.

What the record might lack in diversity, it makes up for in consistency. What you get at the start is what you get throughout; metal that marries melody and thrashy aggression. Normally, I would say that a record could use a bit more variation to keep things interesting, but "Times Of Pride And Peril" doesn't overstay its welcome, and I'm not sure how you would write anything softer that fits with the guitar approach on the album. There are some tempo changes, like the slower "Psychomanchia", which gives enough of a change of pace for this record.

One of the things I appreciate about this album is that it doesn't have highlights. That might sound like an odd compliment, but what I mean is that you can take any of these ten tracks, and they all exude a quality that makes them a kick to listen to. From front to back, this album keeps turning out songs that are rock solid examples of what Holy Grail is all about. Everything here is pure heavy metal, with great guitar tones, very good vocals, and a melody that should stick with you.

Overall, you can't go wrong listening to "Times Of Pride And Peril". Traditional melodic heavy metal might not be the hip thing anymore, but this is a good example of why it used to be, and why I think metal has in large part lost its way. While I wouldn't call this any sort of modern classic, it's a damn fine record that gives an old-school metal fan everything they could want. Holy Grail has done themselves proud with this one.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Death Angel Reissues!


As thrash was resurrected and reinvented over the past five or six years, no band has been the beneficiary of this resurgence more than Death Angel, a band who was marginalized during the halcyon days of thrash but has reunited and come back with a considerable vengeance in the last ten years.

To help new listeners get acclimated to what has come before, Metal Blade records has taken it upon themselves to re-issue two of the band’s first iteration recordings, 1988’s “Frolic Through the Park” and 1990’s live album “Fall From Grace.”  Both are restored with presented with roughly the original packaging and imagery which more or less authenticates the entire experience.

The production here is re-crafted but artfully done, so that all the thin crunch of the original recording, limited by both the technology of the time and the resources available, remains intact as an edifice to the Way Things Used To Be.  “Frolic Through the Park,” to that end, does not disappoint – the album still pulses with the youth of a band yet untamed; the writing is bursting with vitriol and righteous inquisition of the world, while the choruses are repeated and simple, perfect for banging a fist or a skull.

The inclusion of “Fall From Grace” is a more curious examination, as the live record was released more or less without the band’s permission way back in 1990 (thus the conspicuous absence of Death Angel’s customary artwork.)  To see it restored and re-presented is a strange sensation, as the album generated buzz at the time, but was the source of much consternation in the same stroke.  As far as the music is concerned however, the album boasts a more full experience and thicker sound than “Frolic,” both as an extension of the band’s more mature playing and the underpinnings of technology.  From a purely aural standpoint, “Fall From Grace” is the superior of these two releases.

If your introduction to Death Angel has only come since the band’s new millennium reconstitution, then be forewarned that these two releases from a bygone era are extremely rough around the edges by comparison.  However, they are, for different reasons, important parts of the band’s history, and if you’re a completist, an avid fan and historian, or someone who thought they outgrew these albums but wants to hear them again, you’re in luck.  Metal Blade has done these albums a fine service by bringing them out of the vault and back into the light.

Album Review: Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night

One of the things I respect as much as can be is when a veteran artist, who has no need to make new music anymore, continues to produce records because of an inner need to be creative. Maybe they aren't always great, and they will surely never capture the public's attention the way their earlier work did, but I love the idea of someone staying creative and writing songs because it's what they love to do. Despite not having a hit on the radio in ages, Elton John has never stopped making new albums. He had a down period on the 90s, but he came roaring back to life in the new millennium, stripping down his sound to find his muse again. Together, he and Bernie Taupin made a very good record in "Peachtree Road", and then topped it with what I consider the best Elton John record of them all; "The Captain And The Kid".

That record is one that I have listened to countless times, one that sits in my list of favorite albums. It'sa pure distillation of how when you strip away the facade of Elton John, there is massive talent underneath. The more mature approach Elton has taken was a welcome development, one that let his songs breathe on their own. Unfortunately, he took that approach to the extreme with "The Diving Board", a record that was so slow and turgid that it was rightly ignored.

"Wonderful Crazy Night" is a step back in the right direction, a celebration of the joy you can have playing music. It's a record that's intended to be upbeat, lively, and a good time. If that's the aim, it surely hits the mark.

The title track gets things off to a rollicking start, with a bouncing beat carried by the bass, and Elton's piano's and organs serving as support to the ruckus the band has kicked up. It's the most energetic number Elton has penned in several album cycles, and sounds remarkably fresh coming from a man who is nearly seventy. You can hear how much he's enjoying the process as "In The Name Of You" plays, with the kind of swagger you can't help but nod your head along with. The organ swells are lovely, and then the short guitar solo sounds exactly like it was played in 1975. But it's not nostalgic music, it's people from the old guard doing what they do best.

"Wonderful Crazy Night" is the warmest, most upbeat album Elton has made in God knows how long, and that shift in tone makes all the difference. While there are scatterings of horns and accordions, and even a bit of sinister country that pop up, there's nothing radical or new going on here. These songs are in line with the best of what Elton has been doing since dropping off of pop radio, but for the first time he sounds content to be making music that would have been hits back in the day. While he's spent the last few records making music that was always aimed at fulfilling some other creative need, this is a purely pop record that could rightly be called the mature evolution of his Rocket Man persona. Even if the songs aren't going to be recognized as hits anymore, he's still writing them, and sounding as confident in the material as ever.

"Blue Wonderful" is one of those songs that should be heralded as a modern classic. It has Elton's trademark melodies, wrapping around Bernie Taupin's words to form a perfect nugget of what pop music used to be. Not to disparage the past, but there's no reason to deny that this is as good, if not better, than a lot of the concert staples.

That feeling keeps creeping into my thoughts throughout the record. As songs like "I've Got 2 Wings", "A Good Heart", and "Guilty Pleasure" pass by, they're all beautifully melodic songs that I can't help but find myself swaying to in my chair. No, this isn't flamboyant in the way the backward-looking among us can't see past, but it can't be. That kind of music can't come from someone who isn't in the throws of raging youth, but this record is what that songwriter would have turned into with a few decades of life experience to draw from. These aren't songs based on and performed by characters and cliches, these are songs that cut closer to the bone.

When "Wonderful Crazy Night" is over, I find myself wanting to hit play again, to revisit these songs, because they do something I think is immensely important in music; they endear themselves. I get inundated with so much music that is made by miserable people, for miserable people, that sounds miserable, that hearing a record that reflects the unabashed joy music can create is cathartic beyond words. I'm not going to sit here and try to say that "Wonderful Crazy Night" is the second coming of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", but I will say that it's a record that deserves far better than it will get. Elton isn't going to score any hits with this, but that only underscores the fickleness of the pop audience. This is a great record that can speak to a wide audience, if only their ears were open. "Wonderful Crazy Night" is indeed wonderful.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Album Review: Prong - "X - No Absolutes"

Over nearly thirty years, Tommy Victor and Prong have dictated the pace and evolution of groove metal from raw experiment to raw art.  The innovator that seemingly launched a thousand bands, Prong has always suffered the fate of having their disciples attain more fame than the originator, the living shadow of headline acts like Korn and Nine Inch Nails.  Never to be slowed though, Prong returns in 2016 with “X – No Absolutes,” the band’s third full-length record in as many years and fourth since 2012.

So what to expect from “X”?  Well, in base terms, more of the same, but in a good way.  Victor and company are still writhing deep in the traditional muck of groove metal, fuzzing out their amps and carving cavernous swaths with full, thumping tones.  To hear Prong is to hear the birth of groove metal over and over again – the genre in its unadulterated, original form.

There is, then, a certain familiarity when listening to “X,” regardless of the fact that these are entirely new compositions.  “X” echoes with many of the same tones that have followed the genre through a hundred different permutations, whether the blues-based thunder of Clutch, the distorted wail of Corrosion of Conformity or the hammering downbeat of White Zombie.  Even just the opener, “Ultimate Authority” brings back gleeful memories of the late 90s, when it was still possible for a band to be incredibly heavy and also rhythmic and melodic at the same time.

What separates “X – No Absolutes” from other albums in the genre, and even from other Prong albums, is the maturity and emotional context of the content.  Victor plays a diverse hand for this record, whether he’s crushing out ripping grooves for “Without Words” or plaintively reaching out for the surprisingly powerful “Do Nothing.”

It is the latter of these pieces which requires greater inspection, as it is one of a handful of songs on “X” that really pushes the Prong formula more toward a melodic appeal and adds a new dimension that the youthful virility of “Beg to Differ” didn’t offer.  That doesn’t make “Beg to Differ” a worse album in retrospect, but it does make “X” a more versatile and intelligent animal, as Victor succeeds in making the listener take stock of his words and not just his tone.  “With Dignity” is in much the same vein, using a heavy but marginally less dense guitar tone to accentuate the feeling that This Song Is About Something.  It’s a side of Prong we don’t get to see all that often, but is an excellent complement to the band’s tried-and-true formula of head-nodding rampages.

Speaking of, there’s plenty of those, too.  “Cut and Dry” slams out measures upon measures of drop-tuned sludge, the art of which was seemingly lost in time except to a privileged few.  There is a similarly punctuated affect for “Worth Pursuing” and the title cut, which are no less great a listening experience for the fact that we’ve discussed them less here.  What strikes is the vein of quasi-punk chanting vocal delivery and giant sing-along choruses that runs through much of the album and while not entirely unexpected is a welcome addition into the fold.

The only nit worth even thinking about picking here is that amidst the affirmations and encouragements and doubts of Victor’s messages, he occasionally crosses a wire, as “In Spite of Hindrances” tells us to ‘walk right through the door / with dignity,’ while “With Dignity” tells us to ‘walk away / with dignity.’  Just an observation.

“X – No Absolutes” is a lot of things; a groove metal record with giant punk choruses and a wonderfully uncomprised old-school feel.   This kind of metal has sadly all but left for dead, and yet here stands Prong, single-handedly injecting life into the method by the simple action of creating a kick-ass album with remarkable conviction.  For a real long time Prong has both talked the talk and walked the walk.  Nothing about that has changed.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

An Angel Uncamouflaged: Talking With Dilana

Despite getting her greatest exposure on the reality show "Rockstar: Supernova", Dilana has proven herself to be an artist's artist, following her instincts to carve our a career that is entirely her own. She has traveled the world, played countless shows, and left an indelible impact on the lives of her fans. That is a fact I can attest to, as both a fan and a critic. Since the first time I heard her voice, she has been my favorite singer. And as a critic, her last album, "Beautiful Monster", was named my Album Of The Year in 2013, memorialized in this review I wrote.

Dilana is now gearing up for the release of a new album (a review of which should be upcoming), a collection of the songs she wrote and recorded for the movie "Angel Camouflaged", which she starred in. Leading up to the release, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with her.

Your new album is made up of the songs you wrote and performed for the movie "Angel Camouflaged".  How did you get involved in acting, and is it something you're looking to doing more of in the future?

The director for the film first saw me on CBS when I was performing a song on a TV show called Rockstar Supernova. He met with me right after the series ended and offered me the lead role for his' film. At first, I was just interested in writing the music for the film and didn't even take the acting part seriously because I never thought it would really happen. To my surprise it did!  I loved it, and yes, I would love to be in more acting roles.

Was it difficult to create songs that had to fit the content and intent of the movie, instead of reflecting your own experiences?

Partially yes but for the most part I still wrote the lyrics based on personal feelings and experience. The hard part was making it happy LOL.  The song, Slaves was and is very, very true and real to me.

Sexaholic definitely reflects my sex addiction which seems to have disappeared since I've become a mother LOL. SuperSoul was already written, the producers picked it because they liked it for a specific scene. We re-recorded it to update the production a little.  Ice, which is the theme song for the film, was also pre-written by myself and a good friend in Holland, Jeff Zwart in the late 90s.  We also re-recorded this track and on this album it is a much shorter version, as it is the actual film version.  The title for the film, Angel Camouflaged is taken from lyrics in this song.  The lyrics for Airplane, Everywhere and Maybe just a little, were written straight from my broken heart at that time. They definitely reflect a moment in time for me. I was going through a very hard time with my personal relationship and these lyrics just flowed out of me like a river.

I know many artists are their own worst critics, myself included.  Are you someone who can sit down and listen to your own songs, or do you find it hard to listen to your own voice?

Most of the time yes. But there are certain recordings of my voice, that I really dig. You will never catch me sitting and listening to my own CDs, ever… LOL. I do however have the ability to listen to recordings objectively for the best possible release.

You made a record before "Rockstar: Supernova" called "Wonderfool".  It's not what someone who is just now hearing you would expect, but how do you look back at that record, both the music and the experience?

I totally agree with that one! The experience in itself was bittersweet. It was my first solo deal with a major record label in Europe. I was young and I was very excited and inexperienced. So all I wanted, was to record my first solo album. At the same time, I felt trapped because I had no real say in how I wanted to deliver anything, both musically and vocally. I was also really insecure and felt that if I were to speak up, I would be laughed at. So I shut up, I sucked it up and just sang the way the producer wanted me to.  About the songs, I think many of those songs are great songs. If I could do it over, I would record them completely differently.

It took a long time for your next record, "InsideOut", to come to fruition.  Were there ever any times during that process where you were discouraged enough to think about scrapping the idea?

The recording process lasted almost 2 months. It was a great working environment and process and we were in the studio six out of seven days a week. I loved and enjoyed every note and every beat. The sad part was, the label in the UK went down before the record even was released. So it set on the shelf in London collecting dust for close to two years. A private investor eventually bought the Masters from the label and released it on iTunes. During that time I was very discouraged and depressed. It is such a great album, it deserved so much more attention. Songs like Holiday, Somebody Else, Loud Silence,Falling Apart and Solid Gold are hits, plain and simple. But the cd never got the exposure, no super marketing or promotion campaigns etc...What a shame… This still really makes my heart hurt when I think about it. That was when I decided never to sign a major label deal again.

How do you avoid letting the setbacks become overwhelming?

Oh they're overwhelming alright. I cannot avoid my feelings. In fact, my feelings are my inspiration. But I feel them, I grieve and breathe them, and then I do my best to let them go and move on. 

"InsideOut" covers a lot of ground musically.  Is that reflective of your own tastes and personality?  Do you think it's important for you to avoid being categorized for a singular sound?

Yes for sure, on both points. Inside out is a reflection of a lot of various tastes and for sure, my up-and-down, crazy personality. But it still doesn't cover everything.I would probably need at least five new albums to reflect all of me. There is no way I could be categorized for a singular sound. I have so many different loves of music and sound. Hopefully I will live long enough to explore all these genres.

"Beautiful Monster" was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.  How much does it mean to you that your fans care enough about you and your music to contribute money to make it possible?

I say it over and over, I have the best and most loyal and loving fans on the planet. There's not a day that passes by, when I don't think about how fortunate and how loved I am. To know that there are all these people around the world, who love my music, Who are moved and connected to my lyrics, and who believe in me, is priceless! 

Why do you think your fans are so dedicated to you, not just as an artist, but as a person?

I think in part because of the lyrics that I write. They are words that come from a deep and true place. A place of pain and salvation, a place of knowing and experience. I know that many of my songs have helped people with so many real life issues. Also, I know that people appreciate it when artists like myself, give them love and attention. I get such a warmth inside, when I give a fan a heartfelt hug and see the joy and surprise in their eyes. Or when I take a moment to ask how they are doing and I call them by their name. I truly believe that we are all equal. My gift is just that, a gift, to share with others, to make others feel emotion and feel relief, to help them find answers. I also realize that I would never have my life and career without the love and support from my beautiful fans. And I will never take this for granted.

I love learning about the creative process.  How did you go about the songwriting process, and choosing the songs that made the final cut?

Each song is different. Sometimes it's a small idea which starts in a dream. Other times it's a melody that pops into my head while I'm driving. Sometimes it's seeing the actions of others, war, pain, fear, love… That sparks an idea. Usually, for me, I start with the lyrics but that's not always the case. My favorite way of writing is to sit in a room with a cowriter. There is nothing more fun than collaborating on ideas. To see the seed growing and finally picking that flower, is so exciting and so fulfilling as a writer. The best reward is playing it live and seeing the audience and the fans reacting!

"Falling Apart" is possibly my favorite song ever.  Is there a story behind it, and how did you come to record two different versions of it?

Thank you! I too, I love that song.  This was a cowrite at 4am in New York City with a perfect stranger & amazing co writing partner in a studio.  I was in another (lol) very broken and painful, long distance relationship with another artist who lives in Iceland. These lyrics also just poured out of me. It was kind of easy writing this one…

All of your music is incredibly emotional.  Is making records, and performing these songs live, as cathartic an experience for you as it is for the audience?

Without a doubt. There are many moments on stage, when I can't even do a song which is on the set list because I'm too emotional. There've also been many times when I just immerse myself into the song so deeply that I can barely make it through the song without crying. I used to care about that, I used to think it made me look weak. Nowadays, I don't give a sh*t what I look like or what people think. I've learned over the past years that showing emotion and showing fear and pain is in fact a very powerful thing to do.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up? Is there anything else you want to tell the readers?

There are so many exciting things going on I don't even know where to begin. I'm about to embark on a five week tour with my all-girls band (SHÍ is DILANA) from Europe. It'll be their first time in the USA so I am beyond excited for them. This band really rocks and is extremely musical and very inspiring for me to perform with. Another exciting thing is the Rock Against Trafficking project!  I was chosen as the only "unknown" artist to record a song by Sting or Police, for this album and live show in LA. Other artists also involved are Stevie wonder, Anne Wilson, Alanis Morissette, Slash, Fergie, Nickelback, Rob Thomas and MANY more!!

2016 looks to be very promising. I'm also heading back to Europe again for a bunch of awesome festivals and cool shows.

For more information on Dilana, including how to purchase a copy of her new album of songs from "Angel Camouflaged", visit her Facebook page, or