Thursday, March 31, 2016

Album Review: Artillery - "Penalty By Perception"

Not to make this about me, but it’s going to be about me for a minute.  For roughly a hundred years now, I have tried to be a fan of the band Artillery.  On paper, I should like everything that the band offers – no frills classic speed metal with solid riffing and tight musicianship.  It all should add up.  Yet, for all my efforts, for all the singles heard and albums listened to time and again, for whatever reason, Artillery doesn’t click for me.  It’s not a unique occurrence; I’ve had the same experience with Bolt Thrower and the Black Keys (though for different reasons, as one might surmise.)

Here I stand, faced again with another Artillery record, this time under the title “Penalty By Perception.”  Rather than sigh the sigh of the resigned and plod on through, my hope was high going into this record – maybe, just maybe this would be The One.

The answer to my prayer was both yes and no.  “Penalty By Perception” is both old in its approach and new in its execution.  The idiomatic style of Artillery remains largely unchanged, characterized by the winding machinations of the brothers Stutzer on guitar (Michael and Morten, who laid the groundwork for brother guitar tandems like the Arnotts,) and punctuated by snappy drumming that never falters in maintaining a streamlined beat.  Artillery has always prided themselves on the cleanliness of their music and production, and this album does nothing to muddy those waters – the overall sound, stereotypical crunch of thrash aside, is pure and intelligible, carefully but successfully recognizing the divide between clean and antiseptic.  The production here is top-notch, but the soul of the riffs as the brothers sling through “Welcome to the Mindfactory” remains gratefully whole.

Now, in pre-album press, the band gave the usual stock diatribe about wanting this record to be ‘heavier’ and whether or not they achieved that goal is a matter of debate.  Does “Penalty By Perception” sound more fuller and vicious than “Fear of Tomorrow?”  Sure it does, but how much of that is advancements in production technique and technology?

Regardless, the question of ‘heavy’ for this record is largely irrelevant, as the focus instead should be centered on the artistry of the songs themselves.  Artillery continues in the grand tradition of European speed metal, riding their well-paced verses into and out of the undulation of stomping choruses like skateboarders in a halfpipe.  All of these tunes have a certain formulaic rhythm to them, especially the opening track “In Defiance of Conformity,” which isn’t a bad thing.  Too many thrash acts now are content to simply blast along without thought to pacing or pattern, which makes them descend into the muck and noise.  Artillery, by contrast, weaves in and out of cadence with deliberateness, making for a more complete and worthwhile listen.

The riffs are really where the band shines, from the easy head-nodding of “Live By the Scythe” to the plodding power of “Mercy of Ignorance.”  Artillery isn’t really revolutionizing the way we think about metal guitar here, but what they are doing is an excellent job of recreating the craftsmanship and pace that has always marked the genre’s best work.

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, here it is, and there’s a fair bet you know what this is going to say.  Eventually, all of the songs on “Penalty By Perception” really start to sound the same, and once you’ve hit that point, usually on the second play-through, interest in the album diminishes somewhat. “Sin of Innocence” has a really great, almost hollow intro reminiscent of Judas Priest’s “Night Crawler,” but then….turns into another Artillery song.

Which is disappointing, but “Penalty By Perception,” in small doses, might just be Artillery’s best album to date.  It has the proper balance of pomp and circumstance and burning metal slag to be convincing, and the band stands out among their still-active contemporaries because they DON’T sound like death warmed over.  The band is still tight and talented and they’ve written some good stuff here.  But in the end, you might find yourself asking “didn’t I listen to this song already?”

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Album Review: Human Fortress - Thieves Of The Night

There was a time in the early part of the 2000s when Human Fortress was positioned to be one of the rising stars in the world of power metal. They had put out a couple of albums that earned them a sterling reputation, and a healthy following. Power metal was still in the midst of that boom period, and they hit the formula so well that it seemed as though everyone loved them. But then a funny thing happened, and the band threw away all their good will. They released an album called "Eternal Empire", which shifted their sound so dramatically it was hard to tell they were the same band. And unlike Bloodbound, who similarly went through a creative shift on their masterpiece "Tabula Rasa", I don't recall anyone who thought Human Fortress' effort was good.

That brings us to today, with the second album in the resurrected career of the band, who are once again delivering power metal in the tried-and-true way. I won't get into the questions about their sincerity, since I don't think that has any bearing on whether the music is good or not. I'll stick with talking about the songs.

"Amberstow" opens the album with a nice medieval acoustic guitar part, which segues into a track that gives us throat-shredding vocals, plenty of double bass drumming, and a thankfully limited amount of cliche power metal riffing. It's one of those songs that is perfectly solid and well-executed, but just doesn't leave a deep impression on me. To put it another way, I like it but I don't love it. That feeling encapsulates quite a bit of the album. A song like "Last Prayer To The Lord" has the right elements, but the chorus feels a bit foreign to the rest of the song, which keeps the whole thing from hitting the mark.

Part of the problem lies with the vocals. Gus Monsanto has a good voice, but he pushes himself into the range where his voice is 'gritty' so often that I think it works against the entire point of power metal, which is to be melodic. His approach doesn't give the melodies room to breath, and instead gives off the air that Human Fortress is heavier than they actually are. Heaviness is not the band's strength, as evidenced by "Thrice Blessed", which tries to take up the spirit of later-day Dio, but is more boring than sinister.

Over nearly an hour, Human Fortress delivers plenty of material for us to sink our teeth into. Unfortunately, that length also means there's plenty of time for us to grow tired of what they're offering. I don't mean to make this sound harsh, because "Thieves Of The Night" isn't a bad record by any means. It's a safe, solid power metal record that just happens to overstay its welcome a bit. At forty-five minutes, it would be a fun little romp through nostalgic power metal, but the additional ten minutes pushes it to where I'm ready for it to be over before the album is done. Power metal is a tough genre for long albums, because the bands that rigidly adhere to following the formula keep giving us the same thing time and time again. By the time you get to the tenth or twelfth track, you've already heard everything you're going to.

Human Fortress is making amends for their past failure, and they're doing an ok job of it. "Thieves Of The Night" is a solid record, and I enjoyed listening to it, but I think they played it too safe. It's so on-the-nose that it doesn't sound fresh. It's good, but it's old hat at this point.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Album Review: Novembre - Ursa

Spring is the season of rebirth, the season of hope. It's the time when flowers bloom, the weather warms, and life takes a more optimistic turn. It is, therefore, an odd time for a band like Novembre to release a new record. Their blend of death and doom does not appear to be a fit for the season, which does make me wonder about whether I should be reviewing the album at the moment. I had similar questions last year regarding Paradise Lost's latest record, and my quandary has yet to be resolved. Mood can effect the listening experience, so can an album incongruous with the season be properly judged outside of its more natural context? I'm not sure, but we will give it a try.

"Australis" is the first track, which ushers in the album with soft ambience before the guitars kick in, washing over with slow melancholy. It's a very relaxing sound, but even with the band playing in restrained fashion, the clean vocals are buried in the mix and nearly inaudible. That ruins whatever mood was being set, and is only righted when the growls come in and dominate the mix for those few lines. Yes, they should sound more powerful than a laid-back clean vocal, but the balance is completely off the mark, and does a disservice to what sound like a good track.

Unfortunately, that criticism endures for the very lengthy run of the album. Every passage of clean vocals is smothered to the point of sounding like they were recorded from the next room over, unintelligible and weak. And with the Novembre sound predicated on atmosphere above crushing riffs, the lack of discernible vocals is that much more glaring. There isn't much to grab onto in these songs except the vocals, and they are as slippery as a floating oil slick.

That's a rotten shame, since the songs themselves are much stronger than the production would indicate. Novembre can certainly capture the melancholy feelings of despair you would expect, and they conjure some beautiful guitar melodies to show the beauty that can exist in the darkness. Even the growls are used expertly, and never overdone. The compositions show a deft touch and plenty of skill, but the execution lets them down. A song like "Annoluce" should be fantastic, with it's slightly more upbeat tempo, and melodic chorus that reminds me of the best of Katatonia, for more reasons than Jonas Renske's guest appearance. It's a song that hits all the right beats, but is again hindered by the production. With a stronger singer, it could be remarkable, but as it stands I have trouble understanding what I just heard.

Though the timing for "Ursa" may not be right, I really found myself wanting to like this album. It is full of forlorn longing, but done in a beautiful way that doesn't feel like you're falling into the depths of an inky abyss. There's a lot to like in "Ursa", and I think I would find myself a fan of the record, if only I could properly hear it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Album Review: The New Roses - Dead Man's Voice

The biggest news in the rock world right now is the yet to combust reunion of the key pieces of Guns N' Roses. For the first time in ages, it seems that rock and roll has a mainstream moment, although it's one that I am not in the slightest excited about. I don't see the value in watching a group of people try to act like it's twenty-five years ago, especially when they're going to sound terrible. That's what records are for. I would much rather focus on the here and now, which brings me to The New Roses. With a name that invites comparisons to the legendary Guns, they are a more intriguing prospect for the year 2016 than the original, and if this album is a harbinger of the future, there's no need to ever worry about Axl Rose again.

Before we get any further, let me make one thing clear; The New Roses bear resemblance to the past, but they are in no ways copying anyone. When writing, we need to make comparisons, and the obvious one is also the best in this case.

"Heads Or Tails" kicks off the record with one of those purely 80s Sunset Strip riffs. It's jangly, dirty, and dripping with just the right amount of debauched blues. There's a pumping energy in the song, and when Timmy Rough's gravelly vocals hit the chorus, it feels like 1988 has found a hole in the space-time continuum. In case that isn't clear, it's a heck of a fun, catchy song. Those are the two words that best describe the album; fun and catchy. The one thing that era of rock music had going for it was that the bands back then played rock and roll because it was fun, and they wanted everyone to have a good time. Sure, it was a disease-riddled time that in hindsight ruined countless lives, but the music it created had the right spirit. That's what The New Roses take from the past.

It's hard not to listen to "Thirsty" and not find yourself tapping your foot and shouting along with the chorus. That right there is what rock and roll should be, and what it needs to be. If anyone ever complains about a song with a simple but cool riff, and a sticky chorus, they're idiots. That's all you need, and that's what The New Roses deliver time and again on this record. They don't waste time on filler, or on 'artistic' expressions that try to convince you there needs to be something more than good ol' rock and roll. There doesn't, and they know it.

The guitar work channels Slash's swagger, churning out riffs that bristle with the gritty, dirty sound that makes you feel like you're listening to a band that should be playing in a dimly lit bar for a hundred rabid fans. The production fits it to a tee, clear enough to sound great, but leaving the performances raw enough to sound like a live rock band trying to rip your face off. They find the perfect balance, and as a result this is a pure sounding rock and roll record, just the way I wish more of them would be.

The band even throws a few curve-balls in. The title track soaks up some Western attitude to become an outlaw anthem, while "I Believe" reverses the norm by raging through the verses into a soft chorus. Both songs tweak the formula just enough, and they're clear hits. But I could say that last bit about just about everything on the album. These eleven songs are not a couple of standouts surrounded by competent filler, but are a tight package of equally stellar numbers. The New Roses use these forty-two minutes to pack the record with killer songs, and leave anything less on the cutting room floor.

To circle back to the beginning, The New Roses are aptly named, because they've given us an album that would have worked well as the follow-up to "Appetite For Destruction"; hookier to appeal to a wider audience, but still a gritty rock album that reeks of authenticity. While Axl Rose has spent the last two decades destroying his own legacy, as well as giving all of rock a bad name, The New Roses have taken up the challenge of restoring rock and roll to what it used to be. "Dead Man's Voice" is a great record, and one that I'm penciling in as one of the Top Ten of the year.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Album Review: Spiritual Beggars - Sunrise To Sundown

There was a time not too long ago that it seemed you couldn't go more than a few months without hearing a new album featuring the vocals of Apollo Papathanasio. He was everywhere, and while Firewind was at their best, he was unfortunately wasted in many bands that seemed to be wasting his talents. Circumstances changed, and he has all but disappeared. Now, the only place I know to find him is here with Spiritual Beggars, the band led by the workaholic Michael Amott, who only takes a break from the relentless touring schedule of Arch Enemy so he can work with his other project.

Spiritual Beggars is supposed to be a fun time, a group of musicians getting together to blow off some steam and play the kind of dirty rock and roll they grew up listening to. Over the years, what I've heard from them has been exactly that, but with the caveat that it sounded like something done as a lark, and not as a main creative focus. Take the title track that opens the album, for example. It finds a simple groove, and then rides it for three minutes. Similarly, "Diamond Under Pressure" finds an organ riff it likes, and then churns through it without letting Apollo find much in the way of a melody. It's enjoyable, but it does give the impression that the album was put together from the first idea everyone had.

That's what I find disappointing about this album. While the band does come up with some nice riffs and grooves, they don't use them as the cornerstone for interesting songs. They're all one riff affairs, where everything follows the main line too closely, and the talent of the players is wasted on parts that aren't allowed to do what they're best at. I think I can pinpoint the problem, which is that outside of Amott, who has spent twenty years playing death metal, the other members of the band aren't talented songwriters. Apollo, in particular, has never impressed me when he didn't have an entire band of songwriters there to help him. He's a great voice, but nto a great writer.

So what happens is that "Sunrise To Sundown" begins to feel like a bluesy death metal album that has had the death metal sanitized out of it. The song constructions, particularly in the vocals, is right out of the playbook of simple rhythms that a growler would have to follow. It simply isn't interesting enough to work in a band that isn't focused on pure throat-ripping brutality. The songs sound flat in the writing, and in the soupy, dirty production. Instead of sounding raw, the guitars sound broken, and never heavy.

I was hoping that this time would be when Spiritual Beggars finally hit the mark for me. They've had songs before that I've enjoyed, but they never carry it out to full records. They're one of those bands that sounds like a side project, and if you know what I mean, I don't need to say any more.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Album Review: Amon Amarth - Jomsviking

Amon Amarth is to death metal what AC/DC is to hard rock, and what Motorhead was to... well, whatever genre it is you want to lump them into. The point being that Amon Amarth is one of those bands that delivers the same thing time after time, never deviating more than a shade from their established formula. For many people, that's a devastating statement to make, because it speaks to a hollowness at the core of what it means to be an artist. I don't buy that for a second. If you're good at what you do, and you continue writing quality songs, there's nothing wrong with giving the people exactly what they've already grown to love. We rhapsodize about it, but there's no more nobility in taking detours than there is in driving the point straight home.

"Jomsviking" is slightly different than any other Amon Amarth album, however. This time, the stage for their tales of Viking lore is bigger than ever, using the canvas of a concept album to tell one larger story.

"First Kill" draws the curtain with a slow intro sitting under Johan Hegg's growled spoken words. Honestly, growls can be hard enough to swallow in the midst of metal anyway, but they sound utterly ridiculous when taken out of that context. That intro is horrid, but it is mercifully short. The song itself does what you would expect, cycling through pounding drumming, melodic guitar leads, and Hegg's anthemic roar. It's at the beginning of the second track, "Wanderer", that I discover the difficulty in reviewing an Amon Amarth album. Since they adhere so strictly to their sound, there isn't much to say from track to track to give any impression of what the album is about.

I can say that "Wanderer" is a very good track, one that packs exactly the punch it should, but it also sounds exactly like Amon Amarth. That's not a bad thing, and it certainly will please their fans, but it doesn't leave much room for discussion. "On A Sea Of Blood" has a chorus that has a slightly more sung feeling to it, but that's not exactly a huge difference to point out. Nor is the slightly slower tempo and heavier feel of "Raise Your Horns".

Amon Amarth has mastered the art of making death metal that doesn't necessarily feel like death metal. They write songs that would stand up even if they took away the heaviest elements. Dial back the amps, clean up Hegg's voice, and they would still have solid songs that would stand out. That is what makes Amon Amarth, even if you don't like their dedication to a particular approach, so impressive. Writing death metal that can appeal to people who aren't devotees of the genre is incredibly difficult, and that's what they can do. I am by no means a fan of death metal 95% of the time, but "Jomsviking" does it in a way that even I enjoy. I often say that my problem with death metal isn't the death metal, it's the laziness. Amon Amarth is exactly what I'm talking about. They have all the hallmarks of death metal, but I like them, because they don't skimp out on trying to write memorable songs. Hegg doesn't use his vocal approach as an excuse for not doing anything interesting with his lines. I appreciate that.

Amon Amarth isn't going to win over any new fans with "Jomsviking". If you like what they do, this album is a heck of a good one. If you don't like them, you already knew what to expect. Myself, as someone who came in ambivalent, I'll say that I like "Jomsviking" as much as I could be expected to like a death metal record. While it probably won't stand a chance of enduring as one of my favorites from the year, it's a damn fine death metal album.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Turning the Gears, Stoking the Machinery - A Conversation With Fear Factory

 Innumerable trials, tribulations and years in the game have proven unable to stop the industrial juggernaut of Fear Factory.  Still going strong after more than twenty-five years, the band has been forged and tempered several times over.  At the tip of the spear is vocalist Burton C. Bell, as iconic a voice in industrial as there has ever been.  He took some time out to answer some of our questions - 

D.M: Fear Factory is going out on the road, continuing the 20th anniversary “Demanufacture” tour.  That album stands as Fear Factory’s coming out party, what makes that album such a classic in your mind?

BURTON C. BELL: When that album came out in 1995, we were writing it in late ’93-’94, sonically it just stood out from all the bands that were popular at the time, especially on Roadrunner [Records].  It was a hybrid of different thoughts and genre elements, especially industrial and metal.  Some forms of hardcore, thrash, whatever.  It was mostly industrial metal.  Sonically, it stood out [because] it wasn’t muddy, it was crisp, it was clean, it was highly aggressive between the style to the beats to the vocals.  It was something that was different at the time, and it touched upon the energy that I believe most people were feeling at the time in Los Angeles, where we wrote the album, where we’re from, we captured that angst in that sound and in that record.

D.M: As that album came out, it was released in the power vacuum following the demise of grunge.  Fear Factory lived through this one scene, and then in the aftermath of all that, it turned out people wanted to listen to Limp Bizkit for a while.  Did you ever feel like ‘isn’t it our turn?’

BCB: Not to self-aggrandize or anything like that, it’s an album that influenced a lot of bands, but unfortunately the nature of the album was too aggressive, too in-your-face, too powerful for what people could take at that time.  That’s all I can think.  It was more than people could get a grasp of.  Limp Bizkit had their moment, they catered to a certain audience, and our audience was not that audience.  Sure, there were some gaps that were filled between the two genres, but on the whole, not many people crossed over.

D.M: Not that Fear Factory will ever be confused as an electronic band, but as electronic music rises in popularity worldwide, do you feel like that gives you a broader audience?  Are people more accepting of your sound now?

BCB: I don’t know.  It’s still not pure electronic, you know?  And people who love electronic music are almost purists.  There are some people that will cross over and appreciate that this is that and metal.  We really have a niche in the industrial area, hardcore industrial fans understand what we do, they appreciate it and come over and check it out.  It’s definitely full-on, and other people appreciate the industrial aspect of it.

D.M: You’re sort of promoting two albums at the same time right now, as you’re celebrating “Demanufacture” and at the same time still promoting “Genexus.”  How do you strike that balance?

BCB: For me, “Demanufacture” and “Genexus” can stand as albums together really well, they complement each other really well.  They have a similar feel, “Genexus” has a similar feel without repeating the things we did on “Demanufacture.”  It’s like an extension of that album, “Demanufacture” in our young, angst-ridden days, and here’s our album in our mature angst-ridden days [laughs].  I think the songs, they all fit well together.  When we play the full album and mix in the tracks from “Genexus,” there will be a sense of unity.  Makes perfect sense.

D.M: Totally putting you on the spot, which album do you prefer?

BCB: Right now, I prefer “Genexus.”  That’s the album I’m promoting.  Sure, “Demanufacture” is the record that put Fear Factory on the map and made people appreciate it, but been there, done that.  People love nostalgia.  “Genexus” is not nostalgia, it’s the new thing, it’s our new album and for me, I want to push “Genexus.”

D.M: Is “Genexus” your favorite of the album’s you’ve done so far?

BCB: No, it’s like…a strange analogy, but deciding who’s your favorite child.  Each album represents a different chapter in our lives, my life.  I appreciate and look fondly upon each album as its own entity.  So I love each one for different reasons.

D.M: Pivoting to “Genexus,” you mentioned that it’s new but not totally new, what’s changed for this album?

BCB: I think the approach, the way we went into producing it.  We definitely went in beforehand, and we researched our old albums, “Demanufacture,” “Obsolete,” “Digimortal,” and researching what were the best songs on those albums, how those songs were received live, how they performed live and physically used those ideas in how can we write and formulate those type of writing skills into this album.  We wanted to focus on groove, we wanted to focus on melody and for the first time we brought in an outsider, Drew Fulk, to come in and help produce vocal ideas.  I keep coming up with the same ideas, it’s my voice, and I have the same melodies.  But I had someone come in to give a little bit of flavor, and that’s what we did.

D.M: Speaking of your vocals, you’re largely credited as one of the first ‘mainstream’ vocalists who mixed your harsh vocals and clean vocals.  In your early days, what made you decide to take that role?

BCB: I’m a fan of all types of music, mostly.  Industrial, alternative, I was a big fan of grunge.  When I started singing, I was trying to emulate my favorite vocalists, from Justin Broadrick to Jaz Coleman to Andrew Eldritch, to [David] Bowie to Wayne Hussey to Tad [Doyle] to Kurt Cobain to Chris Cornell, the list goes on.  I just tried to emulate my favorite vocalists, like Michael Gira for instance, and by doing that I created my own voice by trying to emulate others.  And the clean vocal things, I started doing it just because in rehearsal one day I was playing around with this harmonic.  I use my voice as an instrument.  I put it through delay and chorus.  I was adjusting the delay and just doing this monotone Gregorian chant kind of thing through this one song, and Dino [Cazares] is like ‘what the fuck are you doing?’  I said I’ll stop, and he said ‘no, no, that’s great, keep doing it!  You’re on to something!’ [laughs]  We worked with it.  It happened by accident, like penicillin!

D.M: Rhys Fulber has been the man behind the curtain for Fear Factory for years – what’s he actually like, and what does he mean to Fear Factory?

BCB: Rhys is a really good guy.  He’s basically been working with us since “Fear is the Mindkiller,” we brought him in to help with the electronics sections.  He likes metal, so he really understands what we want to achieve with our music.  When he came in, he didn’t want to be in the band, just wanted to help produce that part of it in the production.  He’s got great ideas for music, he’s a highly talented musician and producer.  He’s been working with Dino and myself for so long that he understands the personalities, what we’re capable of and what we can do, so he really works well with us, helping us decide what sounds best and what Fear Factory needs without over-producing.

D.M: To that end, Fear Factory has outlasted a lot of its contemporaries in industrial music.  Plenty of bands have come and gone, yet you guys remain.  What makes Fear Factory so stable in that genre?

BCB: That’s a good question, I think about that often.  I think it’s the fact that we continue to strive forward in music and I think the fact that this is our life, how we chose to survive, our career path, which followed our passion.  And it’s still our passion.  We constantly move forward to do what we love to do, which is continue writing music, continue touring.

D.M: Speaking of touring, each time I’ve been privileged enough to see Fear Factory perform over the past dozen or so years, no matter what album it is, no matter what tour it is, the set always starts with “Shock.”  What is it about that song?

BCB: Man, it’s a good opener.  When you’ve been playing in a band for twenty years plus, you learn what works, you learn what’s the best live song.  And you have a set playlist that goes over well live, and “Shock” is just one of those great openers.  It’s the first hit off our biggest album, “Obsolete,” so pretty much everyone knows that.  It’s a good ‘bam!’  Nice explosion to start off with.

D.M: Much of Fear Factory’s material deals with the relationship between man and machine.  What turned you on to that?  Are you a big William Gibson or Neal Stephenson fan?  Were there authors or other media you encountered that took you down that road?

BCB: Once we came up with the concept of Fear Factory, it all started to develop.  The philosophy started to develop from there forward.  For me, I’ve always been a science-fiction fan.  I’ve also been fascinated with the idea of an apocalypse, the idea of technology taking over.  I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a kid, with “Robocop,” “Terminator,” “Blade Runner,” even cheesy movies from the seventies.  That philosophy of what’s going to happen.  Also, as a writer, my personal feelings are very anti-establishment.  To me, in the beginning, fighting the machine was fighting the established governing systems that try to control people.  To turn that metaphor into a physical machine really made for a story that was beyond punk rock, beyond hard core, put into a venue where I could explore my creative passions of what science fiction was and push my writing further.  That’s where it started.  We’d use samples from various movies, not just dialogue samples but various sounds, we’d lift them and take them.  We knew we’d never get caught because [laughs] we’re not a huge band like Soundgarden or Ministry or Rammstein.  We’re not gonna get caught.

D.M: So, as a writer, do you almost storyboard an album before you start to write the songs for it?

BCB: No, we don’t do that.  I storyboard the album after it’s written.  All the lyrics have a common theme, a common thread and once written, it’s like ‘give us the picture we’ve created.’  I create a story from that.

D.M: Fear Factory has been through a lot.  People have come and gone, the band itself has come and gone, record labels come and gone, litigations, all kinds of things.  To sum it all up, what the hell happened?  More importantly, is your band stronger for surviving it?

BCB: You know, once money comes into the equation it changes everything.  It’s a reality that all young bands will have to realize, that once you make your first dollar, it’s not for fun anymore, you can have fun, but the business takes over.  Also, people change, friendships come and go just like in real life – marriages come and go, it’s part of life.  A band is no different, it’s a relationship between three or four different people and you can get along [until] an extent that nothing is getting done, and that’s a problem.  Something has to change.  You have to continue moving forward.  There are some relationships, you can make a decision that this is what it is and we can keep working like this, or you can continue to move forward.  We struggled through it, we fight through it, and we put all that negative energy that’s happened; from litigation to people leaving to whatever, you put it into your passion and you make it fuel for your fire.  It’s cliché, but that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and nothing’s been able to stop us, we continue to go forward and continue writing music.  It’s survival.

D.M: How confident are you in the future of Fear Factory right now?  Are you comfortable with this lineup, does it feel like things are solid?

BCB: I feel like it’s a good lineup.  It’s a small lineup, we’re a tight band.  Mike [Heller] is an incredible drummer, really good friend, good kid.  Kid, he’s like thirty-three [laughs].  Tony [Campos] is a great bass player, great friend.  Dino and I have been together for twenty-five, coming up on twenty-six years now.  For me, I feel it’s a really strong lineup, and I feel good about it.

D.M: Tying up a few loose ends – who’s the musician that’s on your collaboration bucket list?

BCB: It’s gonna be weird, but Willie Nelson.

D.M: Perfect!  He’d do it, too.

BCB: I know he would!  That’s what makes it awesome.  I wrote a song that I think he’d be perfect for, to play it his way.  Somehow I need to get that to him.

D.M: What makes him the choice?

BCB: I’m from Texas, grew up with Willie Nelson.  I’m a huge fan.  The song I’m thinking of, it’s just perfect for him.

D.M: Your other band, Ascension of the Watchers – is that done, or will we see more from them?

BCB: Yes, you will!  Thanks for asking about that.  We’re currently writing new songs, we have new material we’re recording and writing at the same time and I’m getting it all together, trying to record it and make it sound decent.  You’ll definitely see some more of that, we’ve got like, ten new songs.

D.M: We see rock and metal stars retire all the time, and the unretired.  Years ago, you worked with Geezer Butler, you know the man, been in the same room with him, made music with him.  Based on your insight, is this tour really the end of Black Sabbath?

BCB: Well, I mean, for touring and albums, yeah.  Not trying to be the harbinger of ill will or bad news, but the reality of Tony Iommi’s sickness is a big factor, I believe.  And Tony Iommi, he’s as much Black Sabbath as Geezer Butler of Ozzy Osbourne or Bill Ward, if not more.  I would be sad, but the reality is that they’ve been around since the sixties.

D.M: Parting shots?

BCB: I still have a few copies of the graphic novel “The Industrialist” left, I will be selling them on the road, but if you can’t make it to the show, you can pick it up online!

For more on Fear Factory and their upcoming tour, check them out on their website.
For more on Burton C. Bell, check him out on his website.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Album Review: Lee Aaron - Fire And Gasoline

I am a critic who fully admits his biases. There are certain elements that make me prone to liking certain artists and albums, and that's nothing to be ashamed of. One of those things you could say I'm a sucker for is a women with a breathy, raspy voice. My favorite singer of all fits the bill, but that alone does not make an album a sure thing. For instance, while I praised an album last year by such an artist, I have also never managed to find a Norah Jones album I enjoy, despite finding her voice intoxicating. When I came across the first single for Lee Aaron's new album, I knew it was something I needed to listen to. Solid guitar-driven pop with that kind of singer sounded like exactly what I needed, so does "Fire And Gasoline" deliver?

That single, "Tom Boy", leads off the album. Listening to it, it's easy to see the appeal of this album. Like most pop music, the verses are left to the vocals and the drums, and then a punk energy kicks in for the chorus, when the guitars give the song some surprising heft. The more I listen, though, the more the song fades. The bridge has solid melodies, but the main chorus is too simple for my taste, and the lyrics bring more questions up, but we'll get to that in a little while.

If that song is slightly disappointing, let's be clear about something; there are plenty of great songs on this album. When the songs pull back just a bit, the melodic focus is honed, and Lee delivers some fantastic performances. A song like "Bitter Sweet" is a great example of what mature pop/rock should sound like. It's restrained, but plays right into the strength of Lee's voice. She sounds perfect singing slightly ragged and weary songs about regret. An entire album of songs in that mold would be absolutely amazing, but that's not what we get here.

What bothers me most about the album is the belief that this kind of rock needs to come from a certain perspective, which if I'm being honest, doesn't sound right coming from someone who isn't in her early 20s. "Wanna Be" has an infectious bounce to it, but hearing lyrics about wanting to be a metaphorical steering wheel, or candy bar, or lemon to squeeze, all capped off with the desire to be a "forever girl" comes across as too shallow for someone who has lived beyond such teenage pandering. A more aware set of lyrics would have made for a song that works on every level, instead of being surface-level ear candy like it is now. That problem pops up a few times, like in "Tom Boy" and the silly titled "Bad Boyfriend", and each time I can't help but thing Lee is better than this.

She proves she is many times throughout the record. The slinking, sultry "50 Miles" uses its blues basis to build a searing song. It has real weight behind it, and its dramatic flair stands out as an easy highlight. "Heart Fix" is equally strong, but in a different way, building to a smooth hook that could have been lifted from one of Matchbox Twenty's better efforts. In fact, the whole closing stretch of songs ends the album on a high note. They're beautiful songs that capture what mature pop/rock should be, with strong melodies expertly delivered by a singer more than capable of making them feel important.

If we're scoring this on points, it's an overwhelming victory. While a few lyrical choices are less than optimal, the songs themselves are still enjoyable even when that happens, and there are enough songs that are out-and-out winners to more than make up for those moments. Sure, there's a couple of missed opportunities to embrace that rock music can be made both by and for people out of their angst years, but this is still an album that has a lot going for it. If, like me, Lee's voice is right up your alley, then you'll find plenty about "Fire And Gasoline" to like.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Engaging in Ritual - A Conversation with Blood Ceremony

Blood Ceremony, perhaps more than any doom-based band working today, combines more elements and integrates more distinctive tastes than any of their contemporaries on the market.  As their new album "Lord of Misrule" stands poised to transfix listeners the world over, we sat down with vocalist Alia O'Brien to talk music, gender bias and a few others odds and ends.

D.M: Tell me about “Lord of Misrule.”  Where does this find your band, and what do you want people to take away from it?

ALIA O’BRIEN: I feel like it continues where “The Eldritch Dark” left off, first of all.  We again wanted to record analog, we wanted to record to tape.  This has some cohesive songwriting, I think.  Like “The Eldritch Dark,” I feel like our song length has diminished a little bit [laughs].  There is a degree of continuity between “The Eldritch Dark” and “Lord of Misrule,” but I do think this one is a little bit of a departure because we took more risks stylistically.  It’s also our first time working with producer Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios in London, who’s known for his, well people call it the ‘Liam Watson Wall of Sound,’ but he records to eight track tape and really has his own very specific process that he uses.  I think this album does sound different than our last album because it has that Liam Watson sound.  Our vocal sounds are different on this album, for instance.  I think sound-wise, that’s where “Lord of Misrule” sits.
Thematically, it’s not a concept album, I think if anything we imagined it like a musical Feast of Fools, I guess the title implies that a little bit.  Just because everything is so incredibly varied, you know, a mysterious, buffet-style offering of musical tidbits or something [laughs].

D.M: You mentioned that there were a few places where you made adjustments to your sound for this album.  What kind of adjustments did you make and what made now the time?

AO: I think we made adjustments to, not the sound of the band, but the styles that we’re going to tackle.  Our lineup has been pretty solid for the last four years, which means I think we’ve developed a pretty consistent sound between the four of us.  There’s the musical dynamic that’s gelled into something that’s solid, basically.  I think perhaps because of that we feel confident tackling something like a northern soul style song like “Flower Phantoms” or a stark folk track like “The Weird of Finistere.”  I think probably because the band has become an entity unto itself, we can branch out in these directions and, I hope, still sound like ourselves.

D.M: This is a layman’s opinion, I’m not all that well-schooled in music theory, but it sounds like this album isn’t quite as dire as “The Eldritch Dark,” like you branched into some brighter musical directions.  Was that something you wanted to do, or did that just happen?

AO: I think that’s a product of some songs we had written trying a few things.  We wanted the production to stay pretty low key, so like, “Flower Phantoms” is an upbeat song, but it’s in a minor key and Liam Watson stripped a lot of things away to make it sound pretty stark, which I love.  Even in our happier numbers there’s an air of melancholy or unrest lurking beneath them.  In some cases, I think it’s a product of really crafty production on Liam’s part.

D.M: What was it about the Festival of Fools as a historical event that drew you to it?

AO: That was Sean [Kennedy,] that was Sean’s concept.  Initially I think what he imagined for the album once upon a time ages ago is that we would have between the songs a sort of Lord of Misrule figure introducing them or something like that.  Kind of in a “Sgt. Pepper’s” kind of way, like between the first and second song on “Sgt. Pepper’s” you have ‘one and only Billy Shears’ being introduced.  We were thinking we could be playful and do something like that, but then we decided that wasn’t really us.  But, the idea still influenced the order of the tracks, and we have a title track called “The Lord of Misrule.”  I think the thing that’s so compelling and tragic about the Lord of Misrule is that you have this temporary, in some tellings of saturnine practices, the appointment of someone to lord of saturnalia, and at the end of the festivities when the social order is reversed or inverted of muddled, the lord is sacrificed in Saturn’s name.  And this idea of a sacrificial lord being placed in a position of power and then killed is so heavy [laughs].  Our album ends with the song “Things Present, Things Past,” which is about death, basically.  We have these moments of strange festivity and this bit of revelry on the album, but it ends with quite a downer track.  That could be the arc of the lord’s trajectory.

D.M: There’s a common conception when people first hear Blood Ceremony that they listen for a few minutes and say ‘well, this is Black Sabbath with a flute,” but it’s not, really, is it?  What else is in there, who else inspires you?

AO: At this point, it’s funny, I think we listen to each other a lot.  I think in the early days, we were really looking to Italian prog for sure, some other places where that was common.  You know, some heavy rock.  For this album, I think our other influences may have bled in a little.  I was going through a pretty heavy Harry Nilsson phase, not that it’s my first time going through a Harry Nilsson phase, just revisiting it around the time of the album.  I think that’s seen on a couple of tracks.  I listen to a lot of soul, so when I wrote “Flower Phantoms” that was in there.  These things happen, I guess [laughs].  We all listen to so much stuff it all bubbles up in the music we write.  I think you write songs that you want to listen to.

D.M: Maybe this is a loaded question.  The identifier of Blood Ceremony, above everything else, is the flute.  What’s the deal with the flute?  How did you decide you were going to include that into the mix?

AO: For me, it was no decision because it’s my instrument [laughs].  It wasn’t something I picked up, I’ve played it for twenty years.  It’s my instrument of choice, although I did not initially choose it, it was forced upon me in a school band.  I quickly learned to do what I wanted with it.  I played a lot of jazz and I would transcribe guitar solos and stuff on flute.  It became my entry point into understanding all different types of music.  When Sean started Blood Ceremony in the early days and brought me on, I think he wanted flute on like, one song.  And it’s not unprecedented, Sabbath had, I think it’s “Solitude” they had flute on, Witchcraft had a song with flute on it, and we can name plenty of others, the Mamas and the Papas and so on.  He wanted to do something like that with a flute solo.  Soon as I showed up for practice, I think maybe he had never heard me play flute before, maybe he just knew I played flute, and I started playing along with the riff, getting into the song material and it just worked.  It was a little bit of a coincidence that it worked out that way.  I came in to play one song and ended up joining the band [laughs].

D.M: Now, most kids who have an instrument forced on them in a school band grow up to resent that instrument.  How long did it take you to enjoy playing the flute?

AO: It didn’t take me too long.  I was very disappointed, I wanted to play saxophone, but there weren’t enough to go around.  I came home and my dad asked me if I’d ever listened to Jethro Tull and I said ‘no.’  So he said I should go out and get some Jethro Tull, so I went out and bought “Thick as a Brick,” and I was like ‘oh, cool!’  There are many possibilities of flute playing, I don’t know what I had in my head, but it wasn’t Ian Anderson’s playing.  I started getting into Jethro Tull and I just learned flute alongside learning in band, I learned by listening to those records and playing along with them.  Then I started to enjoy it.

D.M: A few years ago when I was first listening to “The Eldritch Dark,” I critiqued it to a friend of mine, and I said it sounds almost like if Jethro Tull had deserved to beat Metallica for the Grammy in the ‘80s.  Is that fair?

AO: [Laughs].  That was really weird.  Genre’s a weird thing, right?  I think people in those decision-making positions can be out of touch at times.  I don’t want to say Jethro Tull didn’t deserve it just because I love them so much, but I think it’s a very interesting and confused moment in music history where there’s obviously a severe misunderstanding about what the genre of metal was, which is really funny.  I think the coolest thing was following that, Jethro Tull published an ad in a magazine or paper that said ‘the flute is a heavy metal instrument.’

D.M: As a woman growing up in heavier music, both in metal and rock, who were your role models?  Who did you look to?

AO: I have a smattering – I did look up to a lot of men, I wasn’t super limited to female role models, though I certainly had them along the way.  Any human who inspired me was helpful in guiding me along the way, I suppose, regardless of gender.  Ian Anderson, obviously.  I used to love the Beatles, I was quite obsessed.  I say ‘I used to,’ I love the Beatles [laughs] but at a young age I grew quite obsessed with them.  I love Bobby Liebling a lot, I think he’s a great performer, and I think I find him fun and frightening, which is a very difficult thing to be.  Another performer who is an absolute inspiration to me on many levels is Tina Turner, I think she’s incredible.  [Going back] from the Ike and Tina days, I love music from that era.  Also, she’s my multi-tasking hero because she’s paying a lot of attention to performance, she’s delivering these incredibly persuasive vocals and dance and choreography.  On stage I play the flute, keyboard and sing.  I look to her in those moments of transitions when she’s moving between vocals and dance just to see how she navigated that and I studied that a bit to see how to make my performance and my transitions between instruments look as smooth as possible and effortless.  Which it’s not, but there’s a way to make it look that way [laughs].

D.M: As a quick sidebar, you mentioned Bobby Liebling and I know you guys toured with Pentagram somewhat recently, how cool was that?

AO: It was great!  It was really great.  There was one night, I think it was when we were playing Burlington, and Bobby was taking a rest or gathering his energy before the show, and we were sound checking.  And he was standing right in front of us, watching.  I think we were all probably a little nervous, because he has amazing taste in music and he’d be able to exact where we pulled different ideas from or drew inspiration from.  I don’t know, it was Bobby Liebling, watching us!  That was a really great experience, and they were a really nice band and we only played a couple shows with them but they were really good.

D.M: Circling back for just a moment, as a woman in metal, do you find you are held to a different standard than your male contemporaries?  Either in how you appear or sound or present yourself?

AO: I’m sure, but that’s just being a woman in life, right?  Metal aside, definitely, there’s the notion of the male gaze and women are scrutinized.  I have been critiqued for not having a virtuoso voice, whereas I haven’t heard the same critique leveled at men who are just singing in various styles.  So, these sorts of things happen, but this is something that happens day to day on such a small scale that you stop noticing.  But I do generally feel that I’ve received a lot of support and been welcomed into the fold.  I’ve heard of other stories of individuals and women in metal having harder times, or encountering difficulties that I’ve never encountered.  My friend Laina Dawes, she wrote a book called “What Are You Doing Here?” about being a black woman in metal.  She talks about acts of targeted violence against people that she interviewed [for the book.]  She also included some of her own personal story.  None of that has happened to me, for example, but it happens.  So perhaps I’ve been lucky, I haven’t heard a lot of super sexist slurs, nobody has said ‘you’re good for a woman,’ or any of that kind of stuff.  I also step up on stage and I’m a classically trained flutist, so to some degree, I don’t think people are going to critique my skills as a flute player, for example.  I have this barrage of instruments that I can hit people over the head with [laughs] and maybe avoid some of the critiques that would otherwise be leveled at me.

D.M: Last thing – in reading other interviews that you’ve done previously, I picked up on something and I want you to know you’re not alone; among the various records that my dad played at the house when I was growing up, there was a lot of Boston and Doobie Brothers and The Who and all those wonderful things, but he also had a couple of Arthur Brown records.  What is it about Arthur Brown that so appeals, what is it about his particular brand of insanity that draws people to him?

AO: Man, I don’t know, but he’s just awesome.  It’s quite theatrical and melodramatic.  I think he has that voice, I can think of a few people – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown – that voice that sort of haunts you in your dreams.  And his monkey dancing!  You know what I’m talking about, with his waving arms, the moves are quite magnetic, you can’t forget him.  Once you see him dance, you’ll never forget the wonder that is Arthur Brown.

D.M: It always struck me that his were the rantings of a crazy person, but that whatever he was ranting about, he felt great conviction about.

AO: And maybe you should, too, yeah.  The doomsday prophesize-r who you don’t want to believe but maybe you should, because they’re so convincing.  There’s something about someone being so compelling and convincing that’s really attractive.

Find more about Blood Ceremony here

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Album Review: The Last Vegas - Eat Me

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, and that's true, sometimes. It's foolish to say that the picture drawn on the front somehow has a magical bind to the content within, but that's not to say that they're completely divorced. When you see a cover, it does reveal something about the artistic sensibilities of the people responsible for what you're about to consume. A cover that is ridiculous, or stupid, starts things off with curiosity or skepticism, which I feel is warranted. If a band like The Last Vegas has an album cover that is a rainbow birthday cake with a sexual innuendo written on it, that's the kind of thing that, right or wrong, puts me on the defensive before ever hitting the play button.

But that doesn't mean I won't give the music a chance to redeem itself. We open the album with "Bloodthirsty", which rides a simple guitar groove through a bland verse, into an even more bland chorus. There is barely a hint of effort put into constructing anything interesting either in the riff progressions or the melodies. It is absolutely a band going through the motions, but with wonderful production behind them. The band's guitar tone is that clean yet dirty sound that should more often be borrowed from AC/DC, and it's the best thing about this record.

The rocking numbers here try to ape the AC/DC formula, but they miss out on what made that band legendary. Yes, simplicity can be a boon, but those parts have to still be sharp, focused, and catchier than hell. AC/DC understood this, and made a career out of taking one bluesy riff and turning it into a stadium-filling call to arms. The Last Vegas, either through a lack of interest or ability, can't match a fraction of that skill. The simplicity of the songs isn't the problem, it's the fact that they never hit upon either a riff or a chant that sticks in your head. They're what you would expect a local band playing that style to sound like, not a band with a label backing them.

They're more interesting when they take a few acoustic detours, but only because there's the hope of something better coming along. "Along For The Ride" has a Zeppelin-esque mood, but even there, the song just lacks the ability to punch up to its weight. There's a ton of possibility brimming up, but the songwriting burns out before the song can ever approach a hook. It's disappointing to hear, because in the first minute of that song, I can hear what The Last Vegas could do well and make a name doing. The fact that they didn't, or couldn't, is a mistake.

As the press release accompanying the album states, the album was written and recorded in a three week stretch the band had free between other engagements. That is not something that should have been stated publicly, because it makes it clear how little thought and effort was put into these songs. They might be using that to hedge their bets if the record isn't well-received, but all it says to me is that they didn't want to wait until they had material strong enough to put out. That, more than anything else about this record, is the worst part.

So, "Eat Me", like the message in "Alice In Wonderland", is a pretty strong indicator that we need to get far, far away.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Collecting Scars Along the Road - A Conversation With Red Eleven

The Finnish powerhouse rock/metal hybrid Red Eleven is one of the planet's most versatile bands, and with three albums in four years of existence, also one of its busiest.  Fresh off the release of the blockbuster "Collect Your Scars," drummer Pasi Pasanen sat down with us to talk progress, sound and breaking from stereotypes.

D.M: Let’s start at the top – Describe “Collect Your Scars” to me.  What do you think of it, what does it mean to you?

PASI PASANEN - I think it is an even more versatile album than "Idiot Factory" or "Round II." There’s probably our heaviest song so far on the album, but then again, there’s one acoustic song. And for my part, this is the album I’m most proud of, including anything I’ve ever done in music. It’s an album full of epic metallic rock, with emotion, groove and songs that will make you go ”Whoa!”

D.M: What do you want the album to be?  What do you hope fans take away?

PP: I hope this will be the album that will bring Red Eleven closer to the front line, get us touring abroad and get us lots of new fans. As for the fans, I think they can find lots of different vibes there, the familiar R-11 melodies, hooks and everything, taken even further than on our previous albums.

D.M: Take me through the progression of your albums – what’s changed from “Idiot Factory” through “Round II” and now for “Collect Your Scars?”

PP: "Idiot Factory" was recorded after the band had existed for only two months. So even though we rehearsed a lot for those two months and did a good job with it, we didn’t actually get to focus on arranging the details of the songs that much, as just getting them rehearsed structurally. So there’s much improvisation on that album, which always seems to be the case with this band. And I must say I like working that way with this band, it gives a certain freshness to the music and the recording process. We recorded the album at Laukaa at a local rehearsal room. Teemu [Liekkala, guitar] recorded and mixed the album himself, and it still sounds fucking great in my own ears. The album is what gave us the final musical direction, and we knew instantly we’re on the right path while recording it. I think I.F is a great album, with quality rock/metal songs with versatility. I still love playing those songs live. While we were hoping to get the album released somehow and rehearsing new songs that Teemu had already wrote, Secret Entertainment offered to release "Idiot Factory" as a CD.

For "Round II" we booked a professional studio, SN Audio Productions, but still Teemu did the recording and mixing with the studio owner Sami Niittykoski. The songs were more ready when we hit the studio than with I.F. And when we had the album already mixed, Lifeforce Records offered us a record deal. So now we had a better distribution and promotion. This album is a natural continuum for I.F I would say, and while it sounds a bit heavier, you can still hear it’s the same dudes behind it.

"Collect Your Scars" was recorded in the same studio again, with Teemu and Sami. The recordings started less than a year after "Round II" was released. We had a new guitarist Tom [Gardiner] now, after J-V left the band in late 2015 to work solely with his own music. Also there was a lot of space left in the songs to improvise again; me and Teemu spent three days tracking the drums. We had two to three songs, which had already been performed live, that were pretty much ready with the drum arrangements, but there was again a lot of arranging going on while recording. I basically spent seven hours per day in the drum booth, throwing ideas back and forth with Teemu, and just playing. I think you can still very clearly recognize the familiar band here, even though this time the sound is more natural. And on C.Y.S we have some cool piano parts by Tom, which is something new, too. All of our albums were mastered at Chartmakers, the same mastering studio used by Rammstein, Amorphis, Volbeat and Apocalyptica to name a few.

D.M: How has Red Eleven changed over the years – has your songwriting process developed?  Have the themes you concentrate on changed?

PP: Not really that much, apart from the line-up change. The crew has gotten a bit bigger though. Teemu is still the main songwriter for C.Y.S with Tony [Kaikkonen, vocals], and there’s one song from J-V, which he wrote before he decided to concentrate on his own music. Now that Tom is aboard, who knows, maybe he has something in his sleeve too, we’ll see. The themes are pretty much the same, too. We’ve only been a band for four years now, with three albums out already, so not much has changed in that time.

D.M: Is there a message within “Collect Your Scars?”  What’s the central emotional theme of the album?

PP: There’s a line in the lyrics of "Yarn Of Life" that goes; ”Leave you mark and collect your scars” that pretty much sums the theme, according to Tony.

D.M: Three albums in four years, how do you keep up that writing pace?  What caused such frequent inspiration?

PP: Actually "Idiot Factory" was ready for a year before its release. We didn’t have any record label back then, so we 'sat on it' until someone wanted to release it. So when it was finally released, we were already rehearsing songs for "Round II". And when we started touring Finland after the second album, Teemu already had a couple of the C.Y.S songs written, and we even played two songs at a few last shows of that tour.

D.M: Looking around the musical landscape, there’s not a lot of other bands that are like Red Eleven – who do you think of as your contemporaries?

PP: Well, we’ve heard comparisons to Finnish bands like Kyyria or Suburban Tribe. Both have quit long ago. I’ve never listened to either of them much, but I’ve known about them and heard some songs. I can’t really say any direct contemporaries.

D.M: What influences your songwriting?  There’s such a dynamic mix of sounds and styles, what artists or styles do you draw from most?

PP: We listen to a big bunch of different styles of music, so all kinds of influences are welcome with Red Eleven. I can only speak for myself, so lately I’ve been listening to artists like Monuments, SikTh, Mary Komasa, Hacktivist, Tribulation, Carpenter Brut and Vildhjarta to name a few. And I know that Teemu, Tony and Petteri [Vaalimaa, bass] have Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers in common with their likes. Other than that I really can’t say what everyone else in the band listens to.

D.M: When people think of Finnish rock and metal, invariably there’s thoughts of Children of Bodom or Turisas or the 69 Eyes.  Red Eleven doesn’t walk in the footsteps of any of those bands, is it difficult to stand out against those stereotypes?

PP: It seems to be so. The kind of music we make is not very popular at the moment anyway, I guess. But there’s no point doing what every other band does.

D.M: Describe your songwriting process – how do the elements come together?

PP: Teemu writes the music; guitar riffs, keyboards etc, Tony the vocal melodies and lyrics. Then Teemu makes a demo of a song and sends it to us to figure out, guitar solos, drum beats and different hooks and so on. After that, we hit the studio, that’s about all there is to it.

D.M: After “Round II,” many reviewers, myself sheepishly included, compared Red Eleven to Faith No More.  How do you feel about that comparison?

PP: I don’t mind at all, though I’ve never been a big fan of Faith No More. And I know, being huge Faith No More fans Teemu and Tony especially don’t mind! I think all the other guys are bigger fans than I am. But I feel our sound is way more heavier than Faith No More. It’s always a compliment to be compared to a unique band like Faith No More.

D.M: Part of Red Eleven’s distinctiveness is your guitar tone – how did you arrive at that sound, and what did you do to engineer it?

PP: It all comes down to Teemu’s touch in playing, and the down tuned (A) guitars. He uses Mesa Dual Rectifier and Bugera 333XL Infinium -heads, custom fuzz and other effects, different set ups for different situations, like studio and live. He just knows what he’s doing with the sound.

D.M: Throw me a bone here – will there be a US tour?

PP: I certainly hope so! At the moment we don’t have management, so that’d help us a lot. As well as a booking agency outside Finland. But we’re still a relatively small band even in Finland, so we need some outside contacts to get things rolling. Hope to spread our music all around the globe of course!

Do yourself a favor - find this band and spend some time with their music.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Album Review: Mob Rules - Tales From Beyond

When I was first getting into power metal during my college days, Mob Rules was one of the first bands I stumbled across. Back then, I couldn't tell the difference between what was good and what wasn't, but what is interesting to me is that the first impression they left didn't keep them in my consciousness very long. Over the course of time, I've lost track of what they've been up to, and I'm not sure when the last time I heard an album of theirs was. That changes now, with "Tales From Beyond" reminding me that Mob Rules has been an important name in the prog/power game for twenty years now. That deserves another look.

"Dykemaster's Tale" gets things started in a way I appreciate, sounding remarkably like the opening of a modern Iron Maiden song. Since I am one of the staunchest defenders of the progressive version of Iron Maiden, this approach is one that I wholly endorse, and now wonder why it hasn't been copied more often. That feeling continues throughout the song, as everything about the guitar work feels completely from the Iron Maiden school, with the clean guitar part right before the chorus using note choices that I would have sworn came from Steve Harris. Sure, it would be easy to call the song a bit of a rip-off, but that would be missing the point. Mob Rules is copying a sound, but it's a great sound, and they're doing it excellently. There's no reason that song couldn't have fit right in on "The Book Of Souls".

They return to their traditional power metal sound on "Somerled", which is more predictable, but still hits with plenty of power and a big, hooky chorus. Mob Rules can write this style just as well, as they show. "Signs" is the obvious connecting point, where they blend choruses of their usual sound with verses and riffs that adhere more to the Iron Maiden school. That brings up a small point of contention here. The riff they use to anchor the song contains what sounds like variations on suspended chords, but the guitar tone is too distorted for the minor changes to be heard clearly. A slightly cleaner sound, yes like Iron Maiden uses, would make it stand out even more.

I don't intend to keep harping on the similarities between this album and late-era Iron Maiden, but with each passing song I keep hearing more and more little bits that remind me of those albums, which I say with the utmost appreciation. Despite Mob Rules being a good band, this album would be far less interesting if it was adhering strictly to the traditional power metal playbook. Plenty of bands ape Maiden's 80s output, but few have the prowess to tackle the more cerebral, more progressive band they have become. The fact that Mob Rules does such a good job of recreating that feeling, all the while writing really good songs, is a testament to their talent as a band.

And like Iron Maiden's recent work, the least interesting track on the entire album is the short, traditional "Healer", which glides by with one of those power metal choruses that uses long notes to replace interesting melodies. That is precisely what makes the approach of the rest of the album so interesting; the contrast with what we're all expecting.

Included in that would be the three part title track, which is based on the same source material as the hit movie "The Martian". Over the course of fifteen minutes, the band takes the music on a storytelling journey, running the gamut of their sounds, including Part II, where Klaus Dirks has never sounded more like Bruce Dickinson. Like a lot of massive attempts at grandeur, there are sections that could have been condensed for the sake of brevity, but it's a valiant attempt at stretching their creative wings and proving themselves capable of more than we might assume. It's a less immediate group of songs than the rest of the album, but they work in context.

Overall, "Tales From Beyond" is an album that will hinge on what you think of modern Iron Maiden. That sounds weird to say, but I think it's the best way of summing this up. Mob Rules has made an album that fits that style so well that I'm not sure you can like one and not the other. If you are someone who thinks Iron Maiden has lost their way, you are likely to think Mob Rules has done the same. But if you're someone who appreciates that progressive take on what traditional heavy metal can be, "Tales From Beyond" is the best example of it that Iron Maiden themselves didn't make.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Critical Rewind: Recent Albums Of The Year

As a critic, I am always trapped in the moment. I am constantly thinking about what I'm listening to, what I still need to listen to, and what is soon to come. There isn't much time for reflection after the fact, which means it is often difficult to assess how my opinions have changed as time wears on. It's only natural that time and experiences are going to alter what records wind up as my favorites, and which ones fade away because they became progressively less interesting. Each year, as I look back at the previous year's list of favorite to remember exactly what I was lauding, I see what by then look like obvious mistakes in my taste. What interests me is that while the order of the albums is up for discussion, the ones that top my list, my absolute favorites, have not been among them. I've done, for myself, a remarkably good job of selecting my favorite record each year.

To illustrate this, let's look back at the last few years.

2010: Tonic - Tonic

At the time, I was concerned that my choice was a byproduct of Tonic being my favorite band. While I thought the record was great, it was not what I had been expecting, and there was a hint of disappointment. That doesn't sound like the recipe for an Album Of The Year, but I went with it anyway. I was right. In the years that have followed, as both the album and I have grown, I have uncovered much more to love in it that I had at the time. It has grown in stature, and has shaken off any hints of disappointment that I had. I was not old enough to see what the record is, and appreciate it thusly. It is clearly my favorite album from 2010, and is still one I listen to regularly.

2011: Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events

Dream Theater isn't a band that I had any history with at the time this record came out. I wasn't in the scene when their classics came out, nor had I gone back and listened to them. I listened to this record because of the drama that surrounded it, and when I did, I heard something that even Dream Theater themselves has never replicated. There is jaw-dropping playing and musicianship all over the record, as there always is, but what amazes me here is that in trying to prove that they were going to be ok moving forward, they wrote the more powerful and melodic songs of their career. I can still put this on and wonder why they are such mediocre songwriters at all other times. This is, to me, their defining album, and clearly my favorite of 2011.

2012: Graveyard - Lights Out/Halestorm - The Strange Case Of...

Here we reach the one mistake I made. I allowed these albums to share the title, because I couldn't separate the two sides of my personality. I can now, and I should have then. While Halestorm's record is still a sweet bite of pop/rock, Graveyard made an album that has come to define an entire genre of music. If rock has taken a page from yesteryear, it is being written by Graveyard, and "Lights Out" is their shining moment. It is an album that bobs and weaves, that ebbs and flows, that balances power and beauty in a way that no other rock record in recent years is able to. I listen to Graveyard regularly, as I feel they are the best band of the last decade, and more often than not I find myself reaching for "Lights Out". Time has shown me the light, and Graveyard should have unquestionably won the award in 2012.

2013: Dilana - Beautiful Monster

This was the easiest choice of all, and not because Dilana is my favorite singer of all time. That would have been enough to win the crown, but "Beautiful Monster" is so much more than an album made by someone I like. It is a raw, visceral experience, the kind of record that comes along so rarely. I don't consider myself an emotional person, but this record moves me. It makes me feel something that music almost never does. Even now, nearing three years since its release, I still find myself being hit the same way by the honesty and vulnerability of these songs. It is not just a great album, it's one that left a deep impact on me and in some ways changed how I view music. It has also ascended into my current Top Five Favorite Albums list, which means there is no doubt it was the best record of 2013.

2014: Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

This year saw a competition between Neal Morse and himself, although time has changed my feelings. The actual battle should have been between Transatlantic and Edward O'Connell, who finished #3 that year. The latter is a record that I have spun nearly once a fortnight for two solid years now, and have yet to become slightly weary of. "Kaleidoscope", on the other hand, is not a record that allows for such replays. But while I would be tempted to change my vote on that basis, the listening experience "Kaleidoscope" gives is so massive, and so intense, that it is clearly the better album. It takes effort to find the time to play it in full, but the songs are able to sweep me away in a way that is not common. It's a transcendent album, and is still my favorite of 2014.

2015: Jorn Land & Trond Holter - Dracula: Swing Of Death

Just two months ago I named this the Album Of The Year. Although two months isn't much time to pass, little has happened to change my opinion. If anything, what has happened is that the other records from my list have faded somewhat, leaving this as an even more formidable front-runner. There was no record that was as enjoyable to listen to as this one, which I tested by playing this album mercilessly. As the plays piled on, the songs never got old, they never got dull. It is a brilliantly sharp album, one that embraces the camp and fun that make music easy to love. No, it makes no profound statement about life, and it doesn't attempt to plug into our emotional core, but it does something more; it entertains, and nothing did it better.

The question now is; what will join these as the best album of 2016? Have I already heard it? Or is the best yet to come?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Album Review: Lody Kong - "Dreams and Visions"

In the strange, wonderful and strangely wonderful novel “Snow Crash,” author Neal Stephenson describes the sound of made-up band Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns as, pardon some paraphrasing, being launched headlong through a wall of fishhooks.  Lody Kong, raised out of the burnt sand of the Phoenix desert, brings that phrase rushing back to mind.  As if to accentuate the point, a quick glance at the band’s official Facebook page lists their musical genre simply as ‘fuck,’ which may be a joke but probably isn’t.

There’s a universe of hype swirling around Lody Kong, as the band is fronted by the brothers Cavalera.  No, not Max and Igor, but Zyon and Igor Jr, two of Max’s sons taking up the mantle of their forebears.  Naturally, the metallosphere is abuzz with the concept of another band fronted by two Cavaleras, Lody Kong needing only a coming-out party in the style of “Beneath the Remains” to complete their coronation.

To that end, the band has offered up their debut full-length record, “Dreams and Visions,” a furious mash of distortion and reverb that thuds along like a primal juggernaut emerging from a dark, abysmal cave.  There is a threshold at which distortion as a signature becomes overbearing, but Lody Kong has plumbed the depths of that well and gone so far past the barrier that the effect has circled back on itself – there’s a certain ground-teeth enjoyment in the coiled mess of Lody Kong’s sound that seems paradoxical but is nevertheless inescapable.

Part of Lody Kong’s secret is that while it’s metal fans who are drooling in anticipation, the act is actually in many ways a punk band.  The fuzzy blankets of down-tuning that run through the whole record may distract from the core, but there’s little denying the basic punk roots (no pun intended) of the title track – in many ways, “Dreams and Visions” is like listening to Black Flag’s “Damaged” on steroids, up to and including the raw, rough edges that gave that iconic record some personality.

If we’re bring honest, that includes the vocals of Igor, which are the low point of the record.  His profile is sort of middling and lacks in a specific tone, which to go back a little was also true of Henry Rollins for “Damaged.”  Now, that’s not necessarily an awful thing, but Igor’s dry-lung delivery may turn off some listeners who can’t get past his particular brand of speak-singing.  There’s certainly hope here if you’re looking for a more well-rounded performance.  Igor is, after all, exceptionally young, and many vocalists take a record or two to find their voice, including genre luminaries like Rollins, Phil Anselmo, Chris Cornell and James Hetfield.

Where we do see the metal threads gets woven into the fabric of Lody Kong (or at least the hardcore ones,) are more on the second half, where there’s a well-patterned thud to tracks like “Smashed and Blasted.”  These are the kinds of songs where the lyrics are in no way important, not even a little.  These pieces are designed solely to move bodies in a mosh pit at an alarming rate, and “Dreams and Visions” hits that spot pretty dead-on.

“Dreams and Visions” pretty much has two speeds, which doesn’t leave for a ton of versatility, but that’s hardly the point.  For those who would anticipate that a record with this pedigree would sparkle with high production values and solid financial backing, boy, are you in for a shock.  This is a professionally-mixed pile of space junk careening through a burning atmosphere, and for the most part, Lody Kong is really good at being just that.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Album Review: Circus Maximus - Havoc

With the new wave of extreme and djent progressive metal bands that have been flooding our ears, it's easy to forget where we were just a few short years ago. Our memories don't need to be long to remember a wave of more traditional progressive metal that was supposed to carry us into the future; bands like Cloudscape and Circus Maximus. They were going to be the next step in progressive metal, but something happened along the way, and that style got usurped, which leaves Circus Maximus in an odd situation. Without the conceptual tie-ins of Vanden Plas, or the rub from a 'legend' like Leprous, what do we make of power leaning progressive metal these days?

We open with "The Weight", which bears no resemblance to the legendary song by The Band, but does tell us what we need to know about Circus Maximus. Over the course of six minutes, we get simple riffs piled into a structure that takes a few detours, we get instrumental bits that sound reminiscent of everyone from Dream Theater to Deep Purple, and the vocals are a softly beautiful melodic sort that bring some levity to the proceedings. It's a very nice track, but it also feels a bit too familiar - not in the sense of being a rip-off, but because it too perfectly does exactly what we would expect.

That feeling doesn't hold on "Highest Bitter", but perhaps it should have. This song takes a different course, with an Eastern motif running through the riffs, but the song itself plods along for too long without an interesting melody, and when the chorus does come, it isn't powerful enough to make the wait worthwhile. It's the same case with the title track, which tries to be heavier with down-tuned guitars playing a riff that Muse would be happy to take. It's a short track, but it isn't snappy. The melody is barely there, and the arrangement gives us little else to latch onto. The momentum the opener tried to establish disappeared very quickly.

That is the most disappointing aspect of "Havoc"; the utter lack of hooks. The band has taken a turn more towards modern rock on this record, and in doing so they have stripped away the elements of progressive metal that make it most appealing. Progressive metal is one of the few places left where a heavy band can still play and sing beautiful melodies, but those aren't what drives this album. This is a cold, modern, rhythmic album that appeals to the people who listen to drum and bass music, but leaves me feeling empty and hollow. They have the talent, and the singer, to be doing something fantastic, but this record isn't it.

When they try to do that, like on the eight minute "Loved Ones", they come close, and at the very least they make music that is exciting and interesting to listen to. The majority of the album isn't, which I'm sorry to say. Call it confirmation bias if you want, but it's an approach I rarely like, and I don't like it here either.

I'm not going to say more on the negative side here, because it wouldn't be fair. Circus Maximus has tried something different here, and they've taken a road that I don't want to do down. It's not at all surprising that I don't enjoy a record that is built on a foundation I think is wrong-headed. That's fine, and more power to anyone who enjoys it. I just won't be one of them.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Album Review: Blood Ceremony - "Lord of Misrule"

Okay, so whenever someone who’s uninitiated first encounters Blood Ceremony, there’s a general predilection to say ‘oh, it’s Black Sabbath with a flute.’  The brain connects those pathways easily, and then without further inspection, the die is cast and the listener thinks they know Blood Ceremony inside and out.

But lo, we know there’s more to the story, don’t we?  The Canadian doom-y quartet hits all those hallmarks, yes, but they also expand into further and more indirect influences, gathering a throng of musical ideas ranging from devilish to celebratory and stirring them into a cavernous cauldron of rhythm, emotion…and yes, flute.

The band that first impressed with their self-titled debut in 2008 and floored us with the apex of “The Eldritch Dark” in 2013 returns this year with “Lord of Misrule,” an album that promises both more of the same and something inimitably more.

This record takes inspiration from the old Feast of Fools, which up until roughly the Enlightenment was celebrated in England in the saturnine custom of pagans.  The celebration was always roughly concurrent with Christmas and involved, among other revelry, the naming of a Lord of Misrule, who wielded authority during the festival, but was often sacrificed to Saturn at the end of it.  The band has said that there’s no single concept running through this new record, but that the central idea was in their minds during composition.

So what does the album sound like?  Let’s hit the highlights (spoiler, there’s a bunch.)

What one notices first and foremost is that Blood Ceremony is folding in many more aspects of rock and metal than they did even in their most recent works.  To hear “Half Moon Street” is to hear an opening that swaggers like a gunfighter sauntering confidently into an old west saloon…but if the saloon were full of suspicious-looking elves and owned by dryads.  There’s an earthiness that underwrites the entire song, including into the second half when the powder keg explodes and we’re thrust headlong into a shoot-out at the Tolkien corral.  The name Ian Anderson gets dropped a lot (too often) when talking about Blood Ceremony, but Alia O’Brien unleashes the most righteous flute solo (words I didn’t think I’d type today,) since Anderson was in his heyday.  If you hadn’t gathered, “Half Moon Street” is the album’s best cut.

But wait, there’s more!  While the Black Sabbath comparisons in this genre are overused and over-simplified, they’re not always without merit.  While those boys would never have penned the flighty outro to “Loreley,” Iommi and company could have absolutely crafted the rusted, grinding edge of “The Rogue’s Lot,” a slow burning dirge that throws shadows in its wake.

We’re not done!  Tune in a few songs later and you’ll walk unheeding into “Flower Phantoms,” and now we’re hearing….sixties folk pop?  Short a tambourine, that’s exactly where we are, and the riff of Sean Kennedy is the perfect tone to replicate that feeling of go-go gone by, Michael Carrillo’s drum beat a spot-on replica of rolls and fills from nearly fifty years ago.  It’s a song that shouldn’t work but mysteriously does, part of O’Brien’s continued spell on the listener and the capable craftsmanship of the band as a whole.

“The Eldritch Dark” was a top ten album in 2013, and at the risk of making a rash judgment, “Lord of Misrule” might well be better than that record, which tells you its prospects as we forge ahead.  Blood Ceremony has dropped a nearly flawless album of retro-metal and classic rock, and it is not to be missed.