Friday, April 29, 2016

Album Review: Red Tide Rising - "Voices"

Red Tide Rising, under the auspices of wishful thinking, sounds like it might be the title of some 1960s proto-Cold War propaganda documentary about how Americans have to keep a vigilant eye out for Bolsheviks.  In truth, Red Tide Rising is an upstart band from Colorado who yearns to make the collective listening audience remember when mainstream metal was cool.  Their new EP “Voices” is a tour-de-force in the modern metal of the turn of the millennium, a chronicle of that which we had forgotten in the labelling of bands.

It’s rare in modern music to encounter a band who defies the conventions of subgenre qualifiers, rarer still in metal.  Yet here we see a band who, much like Rob Zombie in the late ‘90s is simply playing ‘metal,’ which is refreshing when every other new band has to be labelled ‘death-‘ or ‘black-‘ or ‘doom-‘ or some equally empty epithet.

And yet here we are, the strains of “Voices” reminding us of a simpler time in metal, when a band could be heavy without needing a gimmick or a particular visual accompaniment.  In the wake of Disturbed, Korn and Staind (who were entangled in the machinations of the popular radio gears) coloring people’s opinions of baseline metal, occasionally for better but often for worse, it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of currency in this brand of music.

So we begin with the first of the five songs, “Writing on the Wall” which characterizes much of the experience of Red Tide Rising as a whole.  This is a band comfortable in their skin, playing within themselves and demonstrating an understanding of what they want to accomplish.  “Writing…” pounds with dedicated fury, but intelligently does not reach beyond its grasp; the song may not wow with technical proficiency, but it doesn’t really need to, either.  That’s not that this is about.  These are pieces that are meant to impart energy to the listener through the use of big riffs and powerful chords, and the band presents that idea extremely well.

While that musical idea continues through the five cuts, the other striking impression that Red Tide Rising imparts is the idea of righteous, uncompromising anger.  The transition of rock and metal toward songs exclusively about partying and women and drugs, all performed with a sardonic smile, was so subtle that most accepted it as fact without question, but “Voices” reminds us that this was not always the case.  “You’re Nothing (But Shit)” is an honestly angry song, both in the razor’s-edge music and the disaffected vocals, burning with conviction and free of bullshit posturing.

Total tangent – bonus points to “Voices” for having cool cover art.  That kind of thing seems to matter less and less in the stupid digital era, but I’m personally still a sucker for good cover art and good line art to boot, of which “Voices” has both.

The only real drawback of this effort is that it’s too short.  Five songs does not an adequate sample size make, and both as a potential fan and actual critic there is a desire for more, and quickly.  “Voices” illustrates a simple, charismatic premise of metal and executes in a way that is both groovy and infectious.   With that said, Red Tide Rising’s new compendium is well worth the time and effort, a solid promise of more greatness to come.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Album Review: Purson - Desire's Magic Theatre

The passage of time is a funny thing. Sometimes, a moment can seem to last forever, and other time we blink and a lifetime has passed us by. When it comes to the occult rock renaissance of recent times, the latter is definitely the case. I remember reviewing Purson's debut album, which doesn't feel that long ago, and yet here we are with their second effort, as that particular sound seems to have run its course. Occult rock is still out there, but is no longer in touch with the cultural zeitgeist. Though that might sound like a bad thing, that might actually do Purson a world of favors, because now they can explore their music without the expectations of popularity that come along with being in the 'it crowd' of the moment.

That attitude makes "Desire's Magic Theatre" a more interesting album that what came before, exploring this, that, and everything else they can think of. The title track illustrates this, using its six minutes to throw dirty bass-lines, horn sections, and chirping birds into one big stew. All it's missing is eye of newt, and we'd have a recipe for a sinister potion. Perhaps it would be a time travel concoction, because the analog production of the record takes us straight back to the late 60s, with everything that brings with it. Personally, that's not an era of production I'm fond of.

"Electric Ladyland" is another weird mashup, taking a too much on-the-nose Hendrix riff, and using that as a way of branching off into a purely Beatles baroque pop song. It's so weird that it's compelling, and I think if the band decided to focus on that route, they could carve out an identity for themselves that no one else is even close to.

They don't do that, preferring to indulge their inner artists at every turn. From song to song, and even within them, you never know what you're going to get. Moods and tones change from minute to minute, as the record embodies the attention span of a psychedelic trip. While that means things never get old, it also means that the band is often too engaged in setting up a new sound to put them to good use. The sounds are interesting, but the songs seldom are. With the exception of when they channel the spirit of vintage Paul McCartney, the material simply isn't as compelling as the vision.

Rosalie Cunningham still has one of those voices that could entrance you, but a voice alone is rarely enough to sell an album. That's the case here. The songs give her so little room to put her voice to good use, reducing her to clunky melodies that are sung with little energy or charisma. It almost feels as though there's a concerted effort to not make her the star of the show, when she's the entire reason anyone has shown up at all. It's a mistake, and it hampers this record from ever taking off.

If that all sounds like I'm disappointed in the record, that's because I am. What I remember taking away from Purson's last record was a sense that there was a foundation there for immense growth, the potential for the band to become something both unique and extraordinary. "Desire's Magic Theatre" may be unique, but it's decidedly ordinary. It's a decent record, but in this crowded day, decent isn't good enough anymore.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Album Review: Good Tiger - "A Head Full of Moonlight"

In an era when nostalgia runs rampant around every corner, it’s refreshing to find a new band with a new idea and a new direction.  Formed in 2015, Good Tiger assembled a collection of musicians from lesser-known but highly professional bands and started walking down a path of dynamic hard rock that incorporated a lot of different elements from all across the spectrum.  With some word of mouth and a crowd-sourced recording budget, the culmination of all these efforts is “A Head Full of Moonlight,” as ambitious a debut album as one can imagine.

Good Tiger has a lot going on.  Jumping a head a little bit, the star of the show is drummer Alex RĂ¼dinger, who in each and every track shows the capacity to clap out thunder, instantly change pace and tone and alter his signature seamlessly.  He provides the meaty backbone of each track, providing a stable bass for tunes like “Snake Oil,” and weaving a percussive tapestry for “I Paint What I see.”  Everything builds off of his success.

Which then brings to the borderline progressive nature of the melodies.  Single “Where Are The Birds” begins with an airy, echoed staccato guitar picking, which is ultimately accompanied by a throaty but clean bass riff, each element separate and distinguishable in its own right but still obviously working in concert with each other.  This dynamic continues for the entire record, and while the experiment doesn’t always gel, “A Head Full of Moonlight” never fails to be at least academically interesting.  It’s a testament to the band’s skill that musicians who are learning to compose with each other for the first time can be so compelling and varied.

The garnish on this record is the vocals of Elliot Coleman, once a member of TesseracT and now an integral piece of the Good Tiger puzzle…

This is where the sky darkens considerably for this promising debut album.

Coleman’s vocals are ill-suited for the music beneath him, as he demonstrates little versatility or adaptability in his performance.  There is a single moment where the music rises to meet him, for the single “Aspirations” right in the middle of the record, but beyond that, what’s going on beneath Coleman is always more interesting than what he’s doing himself.

His voice isn’t shrill, but it is thin and surprisingly child-like in performance, sailing carelessly through the upper ranges but never quite sounding on point with the desired effect.  The end result is entirely off-putting; durational tolerance for Coleman’s vocals will vary depending on disposition and inclination, but the maximum seems to be about twenty minutes in a single sitting before there needs to be a break.

Which is all the more disappointing because so much of “A Head Full of Moonlight” carries so much promise.  In the end though, the idea of Good Tiger’s debut is superior to the debut itself.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Megadeth "Poisonous Shadows" in 360!

Regardless of your opinion of Dave Mustaine and Megadeth (and my own views are varied and complex on the subject,) their release yesterday of a 360 video taken from the Virtual Reality  for "Dystopia" is a fun watch and academically intriguing from a production standpoint.  The ability to control your own camera and move it in real time as you see fit, essentially making your own music video, is a new concept, and the vaguely surreal movement of the camera overall brings to mind shadowed memories of the "Virtual Insanity" video by Jamiroquai.

Anyway, take this for a spin.  Cool concept.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Album Review: The 69 Eyes - Universal Monsters

The world is a small place, we notice, as our degree of connectivity has made reaching every corner of the globe as easy as ordering a pizza. We can get music from countries we didn't even know existed, and see and hear from musicians who we would have otherwise lived our entire lives never knowing. So yes, the world is smaller than is used to be, but it's still a massive place, and we cannot possibly know everything there is to know. Case in point; The 69 Eyes are here to release their eleventh studio album, and despite a career lasting more than twenty years, this is the first encounter I've ever had with them.

So what do we get from this album by the heroes of 'goth 'n roll'? Sadly, for the geek in me, the title is not a reference to an album written about the classic monsters of the early Universal Studios movies.

Instead, what The 69 Eyes deliver is an album of hard-charging, old-school rock and roll with tinges of Gothic flavor to give them a distinct flavor. Take the opening song, "Dolce Vita". The song opens up with a riff that is pure rock and roll, but as soon as the vocals start, you know you're getting something different. With a deep tone and a spoken cadence that is straight out of the Goth scene of yesteryear, the song rumbles along into a chorus that wonderfully blends dark attitude with catchy rock hooks.

The first single, "Jet Fighter Plane", takes things in a different direction, with some extra punk attitude thrown into the proceedings, mixed in with a piano line that completely undercuts the snarling vocal. It's actually a great bit of misdirection, because it keeps the song from rigidly adhering to expectations. Even if you thought you knew where the song was going, the little details like that are just enough to keep you guessing. That is the feeling I get from "Blackbird Pie", which twists and distorts the old nursery rhyme into a heavy, dramatic burst of Gothic flare. I'm not sure I've ever heard the story told with such a sinister voice, but it definitely fits the theme.

There's something unique about virtually every song here. "Lady Darkness" has a swinging rhythm that bounces along and reminds me of the pre-Ghost band Subvision, while in "Miss Pastis" we get what sounds like an accordion and a surf-rock riff. They're little details, but giving each song its own identity goes a long way to making sure that they are all memorable outside the context of the album. You can listen to the oddly familiar "Shallow Graves", followed by the Dio-esque drama of "Jerusalem" and know they're the same band, but they don't sound anything alike.

Of course, all of these little details wouldn't matter if the songs they color weren't good. Uniformly, the songs on "Universal Monsters" are damn solid. The energy and the hooks are both more subdued than I would usually go for in rock and roll, but that works with the tone the band maintains, and these songs are written in a way where they don't feel like they should be played and faster or heavier. If I could mangle a phrase, this is chilled-our rock music. You wouldn't use it as the soundtrack to a raging party, but it would be perfect for when the obnoxious guests have left, and you're having a late-night conversation that takes an unexpectedly deep turn.

So what we get with "Universal Monsters" is a record that understands how an album is supposed to be built, and offers us forty-six minutes of dark 'goth 'n roll' that does the moniker proud. Sure, I think the title was a missed opportunity for some blatant nostalgic storytelling, but The 69 Eyes don't need that to make a compelling album. "Universal Monsters" isn't my usual style, but it won me over.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Album Review: The Jayhawks - Paging Mr. Proust

Whether they like it or not, it will always be 1992 for The Jayhawks. No matter how much time has passed, or how much water has flowed under the bridge, they will always be remembered for the unique combination of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, and how they helped to write the playbook for alt-country, or Americana, or whatever you want to call the music they were making. The fact that the band kept going when Olson left has become a footnote, especially in light of his return for the band's last album, "Mockingbird Time". But Olson is gone once again, and we are faced with a different reality: The Jayhawks are a far different, and in many ways more interesting band when he's not around.

Interesting is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this new album, because Gary Louris and the rest of the band have made an album that is hard to pin down, hard to define, and also a bit hard to embrace. At their best, whether they were being experimental or not, the band's best songs were rooted in strong harmony and sweet melody. That is not always the case here.

The first single, "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" opens the album exactly how you would expect it to, feeling like nothing has changed since "Rainy Day Music". Louris' vocals have that familiar tinge of melancholy, the guitars shimmer as they pluck out arpeggios, and the chorus has that laid-back 60 AM radio feeling that they do so well. It's a perfect track to remind us of where this iteration of the band left off, and why "Rainy Day Music" is one of those albums that should have garnered much more attention.

Things take a detour right after that. "Lost The Summer" has heavy guitars that are swamped under so much echo they sound wretched, and the song then wanders through spacey verses, before hitting on a weak chorus. I think it was supposed to be a song that sets an atmosphere, but none of that comes through, and instead, it stunts the album before it can build up any momentum. That actually is a common theme here. The Jayhawks are too good a band to not write some great songs, but here those songs are surrounded by material that tries new things, and all of them fall flat.

The songs that play to the strengths of The Jayhawks are lovely additions to the band's canon. "Lovers Of The Sun" is tender beauty, "Isabel's Daughter" is stacked with gorgeous harmony vocals, while "The Devil Is In Her Eyes" could be a lost Louris/Olson collaboration, it's that good.

But we also get songs that belie the band's tendencies for songcraft. A song like "Ace" is five and a half minutes of a single groove being beaten into the ground, which might be excusable, if it was a good groove, or if there was a melody over the top of it. Neither is the case, and it sits in the middle of the record like a giant, rusted anchor.

I'm not one of those people who thinks The Jayhawks live and die based on Olson's presence. They made bad records with him, and frankly, I've always seen them as being driven by Louris anyway. "Rainy Day Music" is a favorite of mine, so I have no dog in the fight. But I get the impression on this album that, after the reported acrimony of the last album cycle, they wanted to be different and do new things. That's all well and good, except they didn't do things they are good at. The songs that sound like The Jayhawks are good, and the experimental material, to be charitable, is there too.

The Jayhawks can make good records in this incarnation. This isn't one of them. Whatever the band's feelings were, "Mockingbird Time" was a better record. I wasn't disappointed by the one.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Album Review: Texas Hippie Coalition - "Dark Side of Black"

Most times when at artist returns to their roots in order to find inspiration, it is a lion in winter, a veteran act with much more road in the rearview than the windshield, trying to peel back the veil of years and discover a musical fountain of youth.  By contrast, the Texas Hippie Coalition, still a young band by band standards, have circled the wagons on both their sound and their production, a conscious effort to inject some new but familiar dark blood into the band’s life.  The resulting product is “The Dark Side of Black,” a raw and brutally efficient ten-cut record that promises a heaping helping of dry-rubbed, red (black?) dirt mayhem, that sounds more like a companion to the debut album “Pride of Texas” than it does any of their work in the last five years.

Now metal fans, I know what you’re thinking.  Whenever any band, new or old, starts talking about being ‘heavier’ or ‘darker’ you have to suppress an involuntary shudder.  Those are the predominately meaningless buzzwords that have become ubiquitous in the very heart of our chosen genre – it is the music equivalent of a TV show being ‘edgy.’

But wait a minute!  Skip by album opener “Come Get It” for a second and fixate your attention on the album’s single “Angel Fall.”  You ever see the old movie “Sneakers?”  There’s that scene where Whistler suddenly and accidentally discovers what Janek’s little black box can actually be used for, and he looks up and just says ‘holy…cow.’  That’s sort of the feeling of “Angel Fall.”  This is new.  This is a marriage of southern metal swagger and chorus paired with double-timed thrash beat-downs.  THC hasn’t ever written a song like this, a powerhouse of machine-gunned rage coupled with the band’s penchant for deliberately paced sing-along choruses.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

(Sidebar apropos of nothing – the first pass through, I heard the lyric “dead, red rose” as “Derrick Rose” which I thought was funny because I could only picture Derrick Rose looking up suspiciously from eating a sandwich somewhere, sure he just heard his name on the wind.)

“Dark Side of Black,” as we discussed briefly at the top, starts to synergize with “Pride of Texas” at multiple points, beginning with “Knee Deep,” which sounds nearly like a redux of the earlier album’s “Leavin’” both in tone and pacing.  It’s another reminder that that THC has hit upon a fairly workable formula for slower (dare I suggest ‘romantic’) songs that still have some teeth and a sinister sneer.

And then we’re back on pace, continuing with the new look Texas Hippie Coalition as guitarist Cord Pool and bassist John Exall thunder through “Villain,” setting a deeply rhythmic stage for vocalist Big Dad Ritch to lay down his idiomatic, bravado-laden vitriol, all creating a new version of the same THC bombast that we’ve come to expect over the last decade.
Speaking of Cord Pool, the man is just barely that, easily the youngest member of THC and yet his playing on this album, through some combination of his own maturity and the producing of Pantera veteran Sterling Winfield, belies just how young he really is.  Pool’s winding, artful lead for “Dark Side” is a sort of coming-of-age for him as a guitar player, demonstrating his ability to not just slam out infectious rhythms, but actually compose a multi-faceted aural visage that could play in both high and low metal circles.  This is juxtaposed against his shred for “Rise” (because doesn’t every metal band write a song called “Rise?”) which in combination gives listeners a look of a guitar player who is coming into his own as a shining talent.

And we don’t even have time to talk about “Into the Wall,” which bears a lot of fun, romping punk hallmarks and might be the most fun song on the record.

Now listen, Big Dad Ritch said that he wanted the seams of this album to show, that the production should be raw and fast and borderline crude, to match the band’s fastest writing period for an album ever.  Well, that was achieved, as the grit on this album again takes us back to “Pride of Texas,” Winfield leaving a lot of production magic safely untouched in his closet.  Which is fine for the album as a complete, authentic experience, but does mean that there are some parts which don’t work, as the puzzle pieces don’t always fit cleanly.  In particular, “Hit it Again” didn’t really need to be seven and a half minutes long, as THC is not the band who’s going to use that time to explore different directions.  Accordantly, Ritch’s lyrics are passable but not especially novel or different from what we’ve come to know as THC, bearing the telltale signs of a flurry of inspiration that had to be gotten down before the ideas escaped into the ether.  Of course, the attraction to Big Dad’s bellow has always been the swagger and bravado above all else, which remains perfectly and enjoyably intact for this record.

In the end, “Dark Side of Black” is easily the band’s best record since “Rollin’” and is in contention to be their best album to date, sure to move bodies and develop a sentimental connection with fans.  Big Dad Ritch and John Exall, the originals, have put a lineup around them they can have faith in, as this foursome has found a way to reinvent the band’s sound while not forsaking the hallmarks that got them here.  At the top we talked about rarities in music, and this last is perhaps the rarest and most laudable of all.  “Dark Side of Black” is excellent by any standard.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Album Review: Haken - Affinity

Over the last few years, possibly no band has done more to elevate their stature than Haken. Their previous records have been nearly unanimously praised by both critics and progressive musicians, to the point where it's hard to find a dissenting opinion. They are considered one of the shining lights of prog at the moment, which makes it all the more curious that I don't think I've given them a fair shake yet. I've heard bits and pieces of their music, but nothing, not even the rapturous talk, has been enough to convince me I'm missing out on anything. As this new album arrives, I'm willing to consider the error of my ways, and so I dive headlong into the abyss.

After the obligatory minute of noise that supposedly sets the stage, "Initiate" follows literally from the title. What we get is four minutes of shifting tones and sounds, with jangly Smiths-style chords, a heavy breakdown, pianos, and plenty of crooning. It's a lot to fit into four minutes, and frankly, it's probably too much to try, since none of the parts are especially strong. It's one of those songs that's pleasant enough to listen to, but you can tell as you're hearing it that you won't be able to remember a lick of it when the album is done.

The literal theme continues on "1985", which is a time capsule unearthed from prog's past. Between the synth tones and the faker than fake drumming, the sound is pulled so hard from the 80s that it feels like a relic, and makes the song come across as a gimmick. It's hard to take it seriously in the present, since it was consciously made to feel like it was from another time, minus the bass drop, of course. The shame of that is that not only are the sounds they borrow from the darkest days of prog, they are also horrible when compared to what the band can do when they play things straight. It was an unnecessary trick that drags down what is otherwise a very good song. The pieces are more well-integrated, and the main hook of the song is more than solid.

"The Architect" delivers the heaviest dose of prog on the album, stretching to nearly sixteen minutes, and packed to the brim with spastic riffing and ramshackle songwriting that bounces from here to there like Daffy Duck before his personality was changed from insane to paranoid. It's in here that I hear the problem I've always had with my experiences listening to Haken; they don't carry on the through-line of their songwriting well enough. They come up with a nifty riff or a solid melody, and then it's gone thirty seconds later, because they have something else they want to try. While that might excite the people who condemn songs for following an A-B-A-B structure, it also means that these songs take detours when they don't need to, and needlessly dilute their own power. "The Architect" has great ideas in it, but there's also a good five minutes or more of padding that doesn't add anything to the crux of the song. If that was trimmed out, we would have a sharper, leaner, more powerful song.

The only through-line Haken hits on repeatedly is the recurring theme of digitization, which rears its head in the form of stilted, distorted vocals bits that are supposed to sound like the voice of a computer. They are not interesting in the least as musical bits, nor do they add anything of note to the songs, other than to propagate the conceit. We'd be better off without them, to be honest.

The shorter tracks here tell the story. Songs like "Earthrise" still have some of the tricky instrumentation Haken likes to employ, but there it's used in a way that doesn't distract from the song. We don't turn into a brick wall, but instead just get a solidly written and executed song. That shouldn't feel refreshing, but it is. Hearing that, or "The Enless Knot", it makes me wonder why the 'epic' was put together in such a disjointed fashion. It's not as though Haken can't write a good song, they just let prog overtake them.

I can hear in "Affinity" what it is people love about Haken. They're seriously talented, and can take prog in a direction that not many others can. That said, they are also a band that is frustrating to listen to, because they insist on being weird for the sake of being weird too often, often at their own expense. There's a lot to like in "The Affinity", but not enough for me to say it makes a great album.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Album Review: Universal Mind Project - The Jaguar Priest

It feels like every month we get a power or progressive metal album that features an all-star cast. I'm not exactly complaining, but I do wonder why so many of these projects pop up, when the core members could be building their own bands instead. It's a trend that started with Avantasia, but that was a side project that eventually grew into something far bigger. These smaller projects that are done on the side of bands that aren't that big to begin with, they confuse me. If the takeaway is that the songwriters need the names of established acts to get any attention, I'm not sure that's much of a selling point. Still, there have been many of these get-togethers that have been very good, so I try to give as many of them as possible a chance.

The core of Universal Mind Project's sound lies in the dueling male and female vocals, which is actually something that isn't done on an album length scale very often. And when "Anthem For Freedom" opens the record with a big, sugary hook sung by both singers, it's apparent that the approach works. The song has a big, cheezy synth line that could have come from an 80s pop song, which gets balanced out by a few growled vocals. You get the standard progressive guitar and keyboard solos, and it all gets wrapped up into an appealing package.

Likewise, "The Bargain Of Lost Souls" is a beautifully dramatic song, lush with string embellishments, and sung by Nils K. Rue of Pagan's Mind. He puts in a great performance, and the song is exactly what good progressive power metal should be; heavy, hooky, and interesting. But like a lot of these sort of projects, the songwriting isn't as consistent as I would like to hear. While the tracks I mentioned are fantastic, they're alternated with tracks like "Truth", which has a bland melody, and "Awakened By The Light", which embraces the prog side too much, and doesn't settle on a single idea long enough to develop it.

The simpler songs, like the piano ballad "A World That Burns" work better, because they're more focused. It's easy for anything that touches in prog to get so engrossed in the playing that the songs suffer, and that happens on this album when the songs try to stretch out a bit. Even those numbers aren't without charm, but they don't pack the same punch. Neither does the appearance by prog trivia answer Charlie Dominici, whose vocals get so buried under layers of echo that he might as well have phoned in his performance. The last time he released a record, he could still sing, so I don't understand making him sound like the mic was malfunctioning while he recorded his parts.

And really, I don't see the necessity of the roster assembled for the album. While it's interesting to hear a couple of these people, by and large I think the album would have been more effective had they limited the vocalists to the two actual project members, so they could develop chemistry together, and give the project a more unified sound. If you ask me what Universal Mind Project sounds like, it's a hard question to answer, because of that fact.

But let's not be too hard on this. While I would have made different choices, this is still a good record. There are a couple of fantastic tracks, and several more good ones here. I would like for it to lean more in the power and less in the prog direction, for the sake of the songwriting, but "The Jaguar Priest" remains a well-executed example of what they're going for. There is certainly plenty of potential for the next outing to improve on the shortcomings on display here, but this is a solid debut. No, it's not Avantasia, but it's better than Timo Tolkki's awful attempts to recreate it. Better by far.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Album Review: Gypsy Chief Goliath - "Citizens of Nowhere"

One of the fundamental problems with genre labels is that they leave very little room for interpretation and flexibility.  By this point, the metalverse has more or less worked out what each of its three hundred thousand or so subgenres should sound like, and anytime somebody doesn’t fit the mold, they’re simply assigned a new genre label.  The manic scramble to label that which we haven’t heard before could probably be classified as an obsessive compulsive disorder, if you really look at it objectively.  Which brings us to Gypsy Chief Goliath, the Canadian stoner metal band that is more than just typical stoner metal fare.  The band and their new release “Citizens of Nowhere” blends and weaves Type O Negative, Clutch, and Kyuss with maybe, just maybe, a little Candlemass sprinkled in there for atmosphere.  It’s an expansive journey that stays on point without holding back.

There’s a certain vein of malice running through the circulatory system of “Citizens of Nowhere,” one that is capably real and ably portrayed by the musicians.  We’ve seen bands like Midnight Ghost Train or Black Wizard take on dour tones in the past, but they have difficulty holding and selling it within their natural blues structure.  Gypsy Chief Goliath, by contrast, wallows in the entangling mud of deep tones and vocals growls to lend an air of malice into a genre that is too often placated with wisps and flights of hallucinogen-induced fancy.  Sure, “Holding Grace” has some light-hearted tones, but the stark main riff helps create a little bit of ominous discord, while the vocal delivery combines the most enthusiastic parts of Viking Skull and Orange Goblin.

Where GCG excels is in patience.  “Citizens of Nowhere” is a premier exhibition in craft, taking its time and never rushing to a conclusion too early.  The album lets the tension build, whether in the grime-soaked halls of “Odyssey” or the otherworldly deep construction of “Elephant in the Room”.  Harmonica or no harmonica, “Black Samurai” is a thick plodder that absolutely refuses to budge more than it has to, but instead uses every part of its six minutes to its advantage, sewing in a blues-y guitar solo and some tidal rocking.  For a band that is capable of showing as much bite as this band is, the ability to let the songs either breathe or brood is a huge advantage over many of their contemporaries.

The one thing worth mentioning is concerning Gypsy Chief Goliath is that stoner metal purists may find themselves wishing that the band would use their melodic aptitude more to their advantage.  To call the band ‘stoner metal’ is accurate only to a point (not that the labels matter a whole heck of a lot,) because the band insists on using a more violent edge within their analog sound.  Academically that’s very interesting, but from a listening standpoint it sounds occasionally disconcerting.  GCG teeters precariously on the line between threatening and soulful which can make for a challenging listen if the goal is to simply space out and let the warm tones flow through you.

Overall, more good than bad here.  Substantially more.  Gypsy Chief Goliath does a lot of things right, even if their concoction is occasionally confusing in direction and intent.  “Citizens of Nowhere” is an enjoyable and dynamic listen, particularly for fans who are inclined into this style of music.  It’s not just your father’s stoner metal anymore.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Mea Culpa - Time Crunch & Opinion Solidification

As a critic, my job is to relay my opinion of a record to you in a way that is hopefully informative enough to give you an impression of what that record is like, and whether it's worth your time to check it out. What never gets said, but is an underlying premise of this whole enterprise, is that opinions are nto static. You don't hear a record once, understand everything about it, and never need to reflect on how your views have changed with time and more experience.

I take great pride in my ability to judge how the arc of history is going to bend, at least as it pertains to my taste. Writing as many reviews as I have these last few years, I have found the ability to fairly consistently peg my first impression along the lines of how my opinion will ultimately settle out. The degree of my feelings might change slightly, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, I stand by nearly every word of the review I have written. But that's not to project an image of infallibility. I do make mistakes, and when that happens, I feel like it's my responsibility to own up to it.

That is why I am issuing a 'mea culpa' right now.

The review I wrote recently for Zakk Wylde's new album, "Book Of Shadows II", was indeed a positive one. I shared my affection for the record, and gave it due praise. Unfortunately, the circumstances of that review did not let me write a review that looks accurate, even just a week or so later. I received the album a week before the release date, and wanting to be timely, I got the review done in short order, as I often have to. But in the week that has followed, as I have listened through the album nearly a dozen more times, it pains me how wrong I was.

I should not have written that review.

I should have written something far more glowing, because the added element of time has let the album grow, to the point that I have to call it a heavy contender for the crown of Album Of The Year. You would not have gotten that impression from the review posted here, and I feel that going back and editing it after the fact to change the tenor of it would be dishonest. Instead, I am saying here that I was wrong in my initial judgment, and that if I could go back and do it again, I would tell everyone reading this that they owe it to themselves to go to iTunes or their favorite distributor, and listen to the samples of this album. I'm convinced that should be enough to illustrate just how good it is.

It has made an indelible mark on this year.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Readying for the Next Round-Up: A Conversation with The Texas Hippie Coalition

It seemed an impossible dream as little as seven years ago, but The Texas Hippie Coalition has worked and toiled to build their momentum into a surging longhorn stampede that is giving the people what they want and knocking on the door of metal's elite.  As the red dawn of their new album "Dark Side of Black" approaches, Big Dad Ritch sat down with us to talk his band, his direction, the group's chemistry, and barbecue.

D.M: Let’s talk your new record – what’s new and different on this one?

BIG DAD RITCH: I think it’s just a darker approach than previous albums.  We always stay true to ourselves and where we come from, from a Texas attitude and red dirt ways.  But we have really turned up the heavy a notch, you know what I mean?  Try to make this album a little bit heavier than previous albums.

D.M: New producer for this record, too, now working with a guy who used to produce Pantera, what’s that like?

BDR: Oh, it’s freaking awesome.  You know, me and Sterling [Whitfield] have known each other a few years, know each other from a few places, having mutual friends, somebody we can reach out to whenever we need something.  I always wanted to work with Sterling, just in the previous albums, with the label, I wasn’t privy to picking my own producer, they always picked up two or three and sent me down that path.  ‘Pick one of these guys.’  This time around, I just looked straight up and down and said ‘this is who I want to work with,’ and they made it happen for me.

D.M: When people hear Texas Hippie Coalition, their automatic name association is with Pantera – do you resent that connection?  Is it a bad thing that your bands are so closely associated and people might overlook you?

BDR: If it could be a relationship like Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson], that would be awesome.  I think that the fact that I am most definitely influenced by Phil [Anselmo] and by all things Pantera – I really do think that many of the songs that we write Pantera wouldn’t venture to write.  It’s the attitude that we bring, and also my lyrical styling is a little bit different than Phil’s.  I think the things we do have in common is the true realness of Texas and that real power groove that you can’t escape.  If you listen to the albums in their entirety, people will say ‘oh, I heard a little ZZ Top in there,’ or ‘I heard Pantera there.’  It’s always good to hear those things because those are people you aspire to be like.  But it’s also good when you hear people say ‘I heard some black, dark, kinda Johnny Cash stuff in there.’  That’s when you know that everybody’s getting everything you’re putting into the chili, you know what I mean?

D.M: To that end, your love of Johnny and Hank and Waylon and Willie and all of them is very public, but on the heavy side, who are you looking to for inspiration?

BDR: Inspiration really can come from everywhere.  I can be inspired by a country song, a hip-hop song or really most anything, but mostly lyrics come from life.  When it comes to writing lyrics, I draw from a lot of people, Bob Marlette, Michael Hayes, Cord Pool, you never know what I’m going to pull out of my hat.  That’s how you get stuff like “Knee Deep” which represents the southern red dirt country feel that we have.  Then you get songs like “Hit it Again” which are definitely representative of the southern rock vibe, rock and roll, southern rock.  You get into the heavy stuff, the power groove, you can tell where some of our influences come from.  You listen to me lyrically, you can definitely tell that my influences come from some of the greats, and some of the best out there today.  Like Clutch.  I love Clutch.  I’ve seen Pantera probably thirty-five times I know for sure.  I’ve seen Clutch about twenty times as well.  Anytime somebody says ‘hey, Clutch has got a show, you guys wanna open for them?’ I never even try to find out what I’m getting paid, I just say yes.  I will do that show for the price of the ticket.  Being out on Mayhem [Festival,] there were a lot of great bands the year we were out, we got to see a lot of the heavier side of the music field.  I think all of them, Mushroomhead, Ice T, all of them had a little bit of impact on us, there’s something to this movement, and we don’t have to confine ourselves.  We can become free-roaming.  That’s the great thing about being in this band, we can lend ourselves to a country tone, a red dirt tone, a rock and roll, let’s get out and party Motley Crue-type vibe, and then also get out there and throw the heavy stuff on you that may have been from Black Label Society, Danzig or Korn.  A lot of people try to get on one channel, we’re trying to tune it all in.

D.M: You mentioned Mayhem – you guys were out there, it increased your exposure, there were a lot of people who may have been there for other bands but got tuned in to you – were you disappointed to hear about the death of Mayhem?  How did it help your band?

BDR: When I left [Mayhem] I went to speak with John Reese.  People often say that we’re hard to work with.  Man, if you go to a club and speak with them and the people in the front of the house, they’re gonna let you know that we’re one of the easiest people to work with.  In the moment, we are easy.  The one thing that’s hard is that we don’t pay to play.  And we won’t go on your tour and get paid nothing just to go on your tour.  We’re not young kids with parents taking care of everything.  Every bill that’s being paid, we’re paying that bill.  And that was one thing John Reese said, we kept pushing and pushing and pushing and he did purchase us.  He said one of the reason people may perceive us as being difficult or hard to work with is because we’re no pushovers.  And we’re really not pushovers.  We stand strong for what we believe in, and what we believe in is the almighty dollar [laughs].  John Reese came out to a bunch of the shows, and a lot of the bands on the tour would be surrounding our stage, on our stage and be there with us during our set.  All coming out and even getting in our prayer circle, our positive energy circle, just loving what we do.  John Reese told me ‘I’m so glad I got you guys, because these Mayhem fans are loving you guys, and I’m so glad I got to introduce you to larger crowds.’  At the end of everything, I went to his office and his people and I told him that up until this tour, everything we are to this point, we’d done it on our own.  But everything we do from this point forward, John Reese and Mayhem definitely played a role in what Texas Hippie Coalition is becoming and will become.  They definitely deserve our respect and our gratitude.

D.M: A quick aside – ten, fifteen years ago, did you ever say to yourself ‘someday I’m going to hang out with Ice T?

BDR: [Laughs] Never!  I never did.  I love Body Count.  I have this thing about one-man empires, which is something I aspire to one day be, the likes of Rob Zombie, the likes of Ice T, the likes of Ozzy Osbourne.  Those are my idols and the people I look up to.  Quite often when people talk about me and the people I look up to, it’s Nikki Sixx, bass player, not a frontman.  Pepper Keenan, guitar player, not a frontman.  The people that inspire me to be better like Vinnie Paul.  He’s a drummer, but he has his hands in so many different things and he’s just growing his brand, expanding his name.  When I met Ice T, the day that I first met him at the first [Mayhem] show in California, I stepped off stage and at the bottom of the stairs is Ice T and his son, and he looks up at me and he says ‘man, I just wanted to tell you, you are one bad ass mutha fucker.’  And I said, ‘damn it, Ice T, if we could take the stage and I could give you this mic and you could announce that to all these people, ‘cause I have been telling them for many years now that I am a badass.’ [laughs]  ‘And I believe that a lot of them believe me, but if you go up there and back my claim, I know damn sure they’re gonna believe me.’

D.M: Bending back to your new record – what’s your writing process for an album and was it different this time?

BDR: You know, I am constantly writing lyrics in my head.  I never write anything down on paper until I go into the room to sing.  And then I really only use it for reference, so I know the difference between when I’m saying ‘yes, we will’ and ‘you know we will.’ [laughs]  Just to make sure I’m not tripping over words.  I always keep all that gathered up, and when I officially started putting songs together for this album, I wanted a darker approach.  The process with each and every song writer I work with, we either go to their place or I bring them to my lake house, we work on songs.  This album was all written and produced very quickly.  Fastest I’ve ever done an album.  I wanted to make sure this album was not seamless, that this album wasn’t perfect.  I wanted the seams to show, I wanted there to be imperfection, I wanted there to be a feeling of rawness.

D.M: Cord Pool – when he first joined the band he was super young.  Now that he’s had a few years to settle in, as you watch him, how has he progressed?

BDR: When he first got in the band, my bass player, John Exall, said ‘this guy is not the guy.’  I told that this was the guy who was going to get us down to one guitar player.  This guy is that good, he will one day be revered the same way [Eddie] Van Halen is revered.  He said you’re crazy, it’s never gonna happen, we need to find somebody already in the business, already knows the business, is mature.  Now, my bass player’s like ‘dude, if ever in my life I was wrong and you were right, this is the time, because Cord Pool is the man!’  I said ‘damn it, John, he’s a dang guitar hero and he just doesn’t know it yet.’ And that’s the best kind.  Most of these guys think they’re guitar heroes and they’re just average guitar players.  That’s one of the main reasons I went after Sterling Winfield, was to have someone who was used to working with a great guitar player, but could still pull something immaculate out of someone who already thought they were the best.  We all know Dime[bag Darrell] not only thought he was the best, but he was the best.  Cord is starting to come into his own, he started helping me write some of the songs on this album.  Up to this point he’d only written one song in the past, and on this album he’s a contributing factor on three or four and the complete contributing factor on two.  His mechanical styling throughout the album is on point, with the rhythms, but where he steps above on this album is in his leads.  They are immaculate.  I can honestly say on almost every album I’ve ever made, I am the high point.  I just say that because I’m cocky, I’m arrogant, I’m a dickhead.  On this album, there are times I say Cord shines above all, and when there’s someone in the band who can do that, especially when I think so highly of myself, that’s a mountainous thing.  Cord is a bad boy, and he’s going to be a bad man very soon.

D.M: Is he old enough to drink yet?

BDR: He is!  [Laughs] He is, but he don’t like us to say anything about his drinking in case his mama finds out.

D.M: You and John Exall are the last remaining originals in the band, what’s your relationship with him and are you two the heart and soul of the Texas Hippie Coaltion?

BDR: From the very beginning when I wanted to start this band, I was a fishing guy and I had a company called Five Time Productions where we put on UFC-like fights, we had cages.  I used to say if it starts with an ‘F’, I do it, I fuck, I fight, I fish.  When I wanted to start a band, John was the first guy I talked to.  He said let’s do it.  Ever since the beginning, if there’s fixing to be a gunfight, John is the guy that he’s not waiting for you to ask him to join you in the street to fight these guys, he’s already got his guns on and is handing you your belt with your guns in it and is saying ‘let’s go shoot ‘em.’  [Laughs]  He is ready to go to war, anytime, it doesn’t matter.  When it comes to this cause, which is Texas Hippie Coalition, I am always about it, but in the same breath, John fights for this cause every bit as hard as I do, every minute of every day.

D.M: Getting to the important stuff – who makes the best barbecue in Texas?

BDR: Probably me.  Right now, I’ll tell you, I don’t eat steaks anywhere but at my house, because nobody can cook a steak better than me.  And I don’t very often eat barbecue abroad unless somebody says there’s a great joint.  I do have a little barbecue joint in my hometown called Randy’s, used to be Lou’s, I go down there and I get me some brisket every now and then.  But I never take his barbecue sauce, and I think he gets offended, but you know me, I don’t care.  That’s because my barbecue sauce, Red River Red, is the best sauce in the nation.  You can’t keep it bottled, we sell five hundred gallon vats.

D.M: You’ve been all over the country, have you found anyplace that compares to Texas barbecue?

BDR: Yeah.  Kansas barbecue is a little too sweet for me, Tennessee is just getting something wrong in their barbecue.  Down in Georgia though, every now and then I can get a good dry rub down in Georgia, once in a while I can get some good sauces in Georgia.  They’re very competitive in that market, but I would have to say that Texas is the home of the best bbq.

D.M: I recently was down in Texas and had the whole boot culture explained to me. So, who is your boot ‘guy’?

BDR:  Whatever’s on sale.  You know, I ain’t like those girls out there, I can handle just taking whatever’s on sale.  As long as it’s got real cowhide.

D.M: Does that go for your hats as well?

BDR: Actually, Jason Aldean gives me all my hats.

D.M: Other important stuff – should the Cowboys go get Johnny Manziel?

BDR: [Laughs] Man, I like Johnny Football.  I really do.  I even like his cockiness at A&M.  He kinda reminds me of, well, not every highway patrolman, because there are a lot of good highway patrolman, but he’s kinda like that one highway patrolman who’s just a little too proud to be behind that badge.  Even if that’s kinda conflicting with what I like or dislike, if we only had to go to him three or four games a year, since it seems apparent that if Romo’s in he’s not gonna play a full sixteen games, why not have somebody with the fire of Manziel?  Or hell, if we can pay him very little money, I’ll take Tim Tebow back there, because I think if Romo was out for four-game skid, I think they could at least get us two of those four.  [Laughs]  I’d rather spend the money on defense, definitely defense.  We’ve got one of the greatest offensive lines in the NFL, so we just need to find that running back who can take it to the next level with the running back, because you could see without Murray it hurt us.

D.M: A lot of people’s first exposure to the Texas Hippie Coalition was years ago when you appeared, of all places, on the Jerry Springer show.  How did that happen?

BDR: Man, it was just weird.  Jerry Springer’s bodyguards are all Chicago police.  If you know anything about Chicago, you know Chicago police have one of the hardest jobs on the planet.  Those guys gave us a holler about doing some stuff with them, we were all about it.  Across the United States, it seems like the alpha male types really like to work out to Texas Hippie Coalition.  In New York we get police escorts, in Philadelphia we get police escorts, in Florida the police pull us over [laughs].  Out in Arizona, the SWAT team always sends us messages from out there, all those guys send us stuff about how much they love THC.  I always tell people that if we’re playing in Tulsa, you should rob a bank that night, because every police officer will be at that show [laughs].  Whenever, Pete is his name, he gave us a holler, said hey, why don’t you come do the ‘Jerry Springer’ show, Jerry would love to have you.  So we did the show and did one pay-per-view as well.  It was hilarious fun.  As you know I was a bodyguard in the TV one, and I dang near got thrown down to the ground by a big ole’ girl.  It was one of the funniest things in my life.  Springer, when he was talking about how the guy couldn’t keep his pants up, the guy said ‘well, I’m a big guy, I can’t keep my pants up,’ and Jerry asked me to stand up and said ‘he’s a big guy and his pants are up and you can’t see his underwear,’ so I told him that’s because I don’t wear any.  The crowd started chanting ‘show us!’ so, it’s not on the TV show, but right to Jerry’s face, I said ‘it’s my goal in life that more people see my ass than see your face, Jerry, so here we go’ and I dropped trou and let everybody see my ass!  [Laughs]

D.M: We’ll get you out of here on this – as you said, you’re not kids, you have some perspective and experience.  Dating back to the beginning of your band, what’s something you could do differently if you could, and what’s your advice to young bands out there?

BDR: I probably wouldn’t do anything differently.  One thing I might do is realize a little bit earlier is that every guy you take the stage with the first time is not going to be there the hundredth time.  And that every guy you take the stage with the hundredth time is not going to be there the three hundredth time.  In this band, we’ve seen guys – Wes Wallace left and came back, Timmy Braun has left and come back, The Kid [Ryan Bennett] left and came back.  We’ve got a lot of good friends we’ve made along the way, but everybody’s gotta follow their own career path.  Some guys just couldn’t ride the bull for the full eight seconds, so they left for that reason.  Other guys just couldn’t keep their nose to the grindstone and pay attention to what’s important in the task at hand.  If you go out there every night thinking you gotta do drugs with everyone that offers, of if you gotta go drink with everyone that offers to buy you a drink, the next day when you go to take the stage, you won’t be a hundred percent.  And those people in the audience are paying for the hundred percent show, they’re not paying for the eighty-five percent show.  So, in life, I wish that at an early age I would have understood that I am gonna hurt relationships and I am gonna lose friends.  I wish I would have realized at an early point that I don’t have to drag all this on until the point that it becomes painful for everyone.  My advice to anyone out there with music is that listen, you’ve got a band.  There’s four of ya.  One of you quits, that’s doesn’t mean the other three have to quit.  There’s another guy out there.  That drummer quits, believe me, there’s another drummer out there who wants that spot, who wants to be in that band.  Go get him.  Get him in there and keep on going.  If you don’t think a band can go on going through endless amounts of people, Fleetwood Mac’s one of the biggest bands ever in the history of music, and they’ve had over sixteen band members. [Laughs]

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Album Review: Thunderstone - Apocalypse Again

During the height of the power metal boom about a decade ago, Thunderstone was one of the bands that looked poised to ride that wave to a long and fruitful career. They wrote pretty good songs, they had a good sound, and they possessed a singer who was a step above many of the inferior bands on the scene. Everything should have been working out for them, but things didn't go according to plan. Their popularity waned, and when Pasi Rantanen left the band, they changed course and made an album that made many wonder if the band had lost their minds in addition to their way. Six years later, Pasi is back with the band, and with him comes hope that Thunderstone might be able to recapture a bit of the glory days.

We kick things off with "Veterans Of The Apocalypse", which finds itself in a time warm, going back to that period when power metal was seemingly everywhere. Pasi sounds as good as ever, and the chorus hits with the necessary hook. I would nitpick a bit and say that the transitions from verse to chorus and back are rougher than they should be, but as long as the song is strong, it's not a big issue. I understand why it was picked to open the album, with the lyrics fitting the theme, but "The Path" would have been a better choice. It's a far superior song, with both a heavier atmosphere, and a bigger hook that recalls the very best songs Thunderstone wrote back when. It's an excellent track, and it raises expectations for what this album can be.

That heavier, modern edge continues to run through the tracks. "Fire And Ice" is about as heavy as Thunderstone should be, while "Through The Pain" takes things a bit too far. The main riff of the song is a slightly grinding, bending series of notes that is heavy, yes, but it isn't really pleasant to listen to at all. Worse, it leads into a fantastic chorus that doesn't play on that darker, heavier vibe at all. They're two very distinct ideas that probably should have been turned into two songs, letting each part serve a more cohesive whole. But you could put anything around that chorus and it would be a good song.

We also get an odd bit of sequencing, where several songs in a row have structures where we get a verse of just bass and drums after the initial guitar riff. It's a common enough way of injecting some dynamics into a metal song, but to put several of those songs one after the next draws attention to it. I would have preferred spreading them out a bit more.

The second half of the album is different, and takes a few chances. There's "Higher", with it's roaring Hammond organ, which feel like the entire song was quickly written around. It sounds lovely, but the song itself is easily the weakest on the album. Then we get "Days Of Our Lives", which tacks on over a minute of dramatic keyboards as an intro to a standard metal song for some reason. It's good, don't get me wrong, but it harkens back to the first track, and how it isn't the smoothest of compositions. And then we close the album with the nearly eight minute "Barren Land", which throws everything we've heard so far into the blender, coming up with a mix that doesn't really satisfy. It doesn't sound epic enough to be epic, and the band uses that trope as an excuse to skimp on the hooks. It's an underwhelming was to finish the record.

What "Apocalypse Again" does well is remind people that Thunderstone isn't dead and gone. With Pasi back in the fold, they're a much better band. There are a few tracks here that are phenomenal, and the album does a fine job of serving as their comeback. Hopefully, it will be used as a way of getting the kinks out, and the band can hit their home run next time around.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Album Review - Surgical Meth Machine - "Surgical Meth Machine"

What to make of Surgical Meth Machine, the new project of longtime Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, which he describes as both ‘free of the legacy of Ministry’ and ‘the most Ministry of all.’  We’ve been talking about solo projects a lot lately, and Surgical Meth Machine doesn’t change that narrative, though as one might expect, Journgensen’s enlistment in the trend comes with his particular brand of musical and thematic flair.

To begin with, the self-titled album is fast.  The first half of the album blisters by at a screaming pace, displaying beats-per-minute well into the hundreds, dancing precariously on the line between intelligible and single-tone mess.  It is a testament to Journgensen’s understanding of his own music that he effectively keeps Surgical Meth Machine on the right side of that balance, even with his radical experimentation further down the rabbit hole of industrial.

The tone of the record is pretty easy to detect off the jump.  There’s an awful lot of S.O.D-style sensibility here, a general veneer of ‘fast as possible, offend everyone, fuck the universe,’ that lends the record a certain...humor?  Seems hard to believe, but it’s true.  Jourgensen’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, but there’s also a consistent condemnation of cheap, empty criticism and musical elitism, so there is some substance amongst the joyful noise.

It takes two listens to really be able to parse out and dissect the record, but it’s worth taking the time.  For better or worse, the first experience will be a blur, as the first four or six songs all windup into ludicrous speed.  Listening to the album’s opener “I’m Sensitive” is a lot like watching a helicopter rotor start up – the blades start out as individual entities, but eventually reach a rotation that makes them indistinguishable from each other.  Surgical Meth Machine crams a lot into a small space, becoming essentially the next evolutionary step in industrial, taking on the question of just how many beats can be heard and how acute can the production really be?

It’s on the second pass that listeners will start to hear elements that stand out.  “I Want More,” comes across like a category five hurricane of broken glass, the kind of song that thrash junkies will put on repeat until they determine the best possible way to break their neck trying to keep up.  The not-Slayer intro portends what’s to come in the song, although it throws frequent curve balls with every day lexicon in the lyrics, big gang sing-alongs and a surprisingly melodic guitar solo.  Really, the guitar work for “I Want More” is the most incredible takeaway, as it seems a Herculean feat to be both that clean and that fast for the duration of the piece.

The pattern repeats for “I Don’t Wanna,” though the song is double overlaid with the usual industrial distortion and blurring that makes for a crunchier experience.  Pleasant surprise, there’re capable and fitting guest vocals from Jello Biafra, who resonates with his perfectly nasal righteous bitchiness, which I mean as a complement.

Further down is another track of critical of music critiques and elites, as we travel into “Unlistenable,” which mostly descends into non-musical madness, but is notable because I’m pretty sure Jourgensen samples the dialog from the swearing in of Curly during The Three Stooges’ “Disorder in the Court.”

Anyway, following this is when the album shines brightest, though it comes at the expense of the heavy industrial motif and gives way instead to a speed-injected homage to pop metal and Judas Priest.  “Gates of Steel” is a genuinely good time and surprisingly easy listen despite its speed, featuring more of the laser-precise guitar work that we heard so gleefully on “I Want More.”  The song transitions seamlessly into “Spudnik,” which is pretty much the same song just with a different title and different lyrics, like a play in two acts.  This is where the variety of Jourgensen shows through the most, as these two songs sound almost like classic rock or old speed metal songs, but attentive listeners will hear a hint of Gabber in the framework, making up the beat.  It’s a clever mix and an unusual pairing, but works very well here.

From there the record tries a few EDM tricks and ends with an off-kilter piece where Jourgensen croons his lines to a willing audience, but to listen to the whole record in one sitting can be physically tiring, so this part might be best saved for later.

The sensory overload of Surgical Meth Machine is total, which means listeners must exhibit some patience in trying out the album.  It works best as a sort of cosine wave, beginning with the ferocity of pure industrial at the limits of perception, but gradually giving way to cleaner sounds and some esoteric electronic experimentation.  Jourgensen pulls no punches here and tries whatever seems to suit his fancy, while still staying within his experience.  This is by no means a perfect album and it’s unlikely that any individual will love all that it contains.  That’s hardly the point though, and in the meantime, I feel safe saying that anyone who is inclined to give it a spin will find at least a couple things they do like.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Album Review: Dynazty - Titanic Mass

There are two main strands of power metal these days. You have the traditionalists, who faithfully adhere to the formula that Helloween created way back when, continuing to write endless repetitions of the old songs. It's a sound that is successful, but also stagnant. Then there is a strain of power metal that was once again created by Helloween, but on their red-headed stepchild of an album, "The Dark Ride". That album ushered in the age of modern power metal, where some bands tried to mesh the heavy, mechanical riffing of melodic death metal with the sugary choruses we're addicted to. It's a formula that Bloodbound nailed to perfection on "Tabula Rasa", and James Labrie's recent solo albums have utilized to great effect. But, it can also be a disaster in the waiting. Just ask Human Fortress and Hammerfall.

Dynazty is now firmly in the camp of bands who are modernizing power metal. Their previous album was well-received for it's tight take on the form, and this new album is proposing to take things even further in that direction. Over the course of these eleven tracks, Dynazty polishes their sound until it gleams in the sunlight.

"The Human Paradox" opens the album with galloping guitars that cut with the signature tone you would hear on a Soilwork album. The verses are almost perfunctory, a way to segue from that riff to the chorus. That's where we get to hear what this album is all about; big, hooky choruses that might cross the line too far into pop for a lot of metal fans. The one thing you can't deny is that these are catchy songs that do exactly what they set out to achieve.

Unlike the colossal mistake Hammerfall made, Dynazty never sounds like a band trying to cling to a trend. Their heavy, thrashy guitars are an integral part of who they are now. You can't fake that kind of identity for an entire album, not without letting on that you have to push yourself to write and play that kind of music. If you're familiar with the albums I mentioned earlier, they will give you an insight into what this album sounds like more than any words I can write. It's a very particular sound, one that I absolutely love when it's done well. I've often written that this is what the future of metal should sound like, as opposed to the myriad ways metal has started to become synonymous with growled, shrieked vocals.

The downside to "Titanic Mass" is that for as good as these songs are, and believe me they're good, there is a degree of sameness that creeps in. It doesn't take very long into the album before the non-stop rhythms of the guitars start to fold in on themselves like a black hole, making it a feat of attention to remember which song you're still listening to. That doesn't take anything away from how enjoyable the record is when you're listening, but it does start to creep in when you go back to think about which your favorite songs were.

The two exceptions are the title track, which is memorable for it's lack of a chorus befitting the rest of the album, and "I Want To Live Forever", which uses a slower pace to break up the album and serve as a focal point. It's not a ballad, but by taking a foot off the gas, it gives the album a needed change of pace, because the stretches of songs on either side of it are cut from the same cloth. It's an attractive cloth, however. I'm not sure how you can listen to "Roar Of The Underdog" and not want to bang your head and sing along. Dynazty has the singer and the melodic chops to pull this off, and they do it well. The writing in almost uniformly on point, and those choruses are the kind of stuff plenty of bands would rip off, if they had the talent to do so.

Overall, there's not much to be said critically of "Titanic Mass". It's a sharp, focused album that doesn't waste any of its time, and delivers songs that are both heavy and hooky, which is hard to pull off. While I wouldn't put it up with "Tabula Rasa" and "Impermanent Resonance" to form a holy trinity of modern power metal, it's not too far behind. "Titanic Mass" is a thoroughly enjoyable record, and one that even people who hate power metal should give a chance. If all power metal sounded like this, it wouldn't have such a bad reputation.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Album Review: Ihsahn - "Arktis"

Listening to Ihsahn’s new record “Arktis” is in many ways the stereotype experience of listening to any record of any solo project, with all the benefits and trappings that implies.  Ihsahn is the long-running epithet for Vegard Tveitan, founding member of Emperor and accomplished multi-instrumentalist in his own right.  His diverse musical musings make up the bulk of the new album from his solo project, which means that first and foremost, a listener must divorce him or herself from the conception that Ihsahn will sound just like Emperor.  Solo records tend to travel one of three paths, which are a) that the artist wishes to leave their musical home to experiment with some other ideas, b) the artist wants to perform in a genre they are not commonly associated with, or most often c) which is both, and that’s where we find “Arktis.”

The album begins much in the usual Ihsahn mold, with some airy keys and a heavily atmospheric black metal sensibility, coupled with the usual growled vocals.  We get this for a small smattering of songs in the open, and while they’re fine for what they are, only “Disassembled” shows us the true potential of this record, with a thumping riff juxtaposed against a surprisingly earnest and soft outro.

The middle of “Arktis” is where the value really lies, as we see Ihsahn step outside the death-black metal box and open up into new possibilities heretofore undiscovered.  “South Winds” is both weirdly beautiful and incredibly haunting, a deep and nearly subliminal keyboard line that bores into the ear and sets the stage for the soft but unquiet melody of the song.  This is all decorated with a mix of rasped and sinisterly whispered vocals, all of which combines to create a unique and catchy experience.

By comparison, and this is where the versatility of a solo project can show through - particularly as Ihsahn takes the place of Emperor and makes its own impression – we are shortly thereafter asked to partake in “Until I Too Dissolve,” which begins with a wonderful but contextually out of place Van Halen riff.  But this is where we’ve seen other acts like Richard Kruspe’s Emigrate and Peter Tagtgren’s PAIN really shine, right?  In showing their devotion and respect for trends that worked in the past, but still turning those elements into something new and enjoyable.  “Until I Too Dissolve” is no different, combining the easy hook of a proto-metal riff with the modern pounding of death metal to conjure a song that is both dangerous and easily enjoyable.

The disappointment of “Arktis” lies in the fact that there isn’t more of this kind of experimentation on the record.  Much of the second half of the record starts to blend together or shifts too easily back into the usual black metal patterns.  That isn’t to say that those songs are poorly constructed or anything less than professional caliber, but it does put a damper on the expansive promise of the two moments mentioned above.  The rest of the tracks sway between the metal harshness of Ihsahn’s legacy and a few attempts to deliver more emotional content, but there’s not as much pure enjoyment there.

So “Arktis” has some brilliance between beginning and end, but doesn’t consistently resonate with it.  Ihsahn as a musical project is in the transitional period between solo project and full-time fixture, so it’s understandable that the man and band would try to establish a base, but there’s a richer vein that could well be explored in the future.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Concert Review - The Demanufacture Tour - Fear Factory & Soilwork

Coming into the evening, it was plainly clear that the Demanufacture Tour was Fear Factory’s night.  That’s why people were there, that’s who the paying customers wanted to see.  There was to be a celebration of one of the great, truly shaping albums in metal’s history, and all other concerns were secondary.

And yet, as Soilwork took the stage on a sold out night deep in the heart of Manhattan and faced up to a waving sea of industrial-hungry appetites, the winds shifted.  The Swedish metal band, veteran of a thousand shows and no stranger to the headline stage, were not inclined to acquiesce the evening quietly.  Led by the battle-tested confidence of vocalist Bjorn Strid and buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm of guitarist Sylvain Coudret and bassist Markus Wilbom, the band smashed forcefully through some of their best work.

Led by the title single of their new album, the band launched into one crowd favorite after another, using their limited time to blast a firehose worth of power-driven heavy metal into the ear canal of every participant.  Soilwork continued their celebration of the ten (now eleven) year anniversary of “Stabbing the Drama,” by again drawing heavily on that record, beginning with the measured march of “Nerve.”

Where the set really took off is in the middle, beginning with a tight but appropriately heavy “The Crestfallen,” forever a people pleaser with its immediate blast of rhythmic power, a surefire guarantee when the bodies in the mosh pit need proper motivation.  This continued, band members slamming along with the energetic crowd, through “Follow the Hollow” and culminated with one of Soilwork’s many masterpieces, “The Living Infinite I.”  Suddenly, the temperature in the venue had increased as bodies slammed wholly into one another, arms flailed and voices raised in riotous celebration.  Soilwork may not be the headline of this tour, but their performance is both professional and engaging, some of their best work in years.

Still, the biggest reception of the evening was reserved for the reason we all had gathered – Fear Factory promised to play their seminal album “Demanufacture” in its entirety.

Worth mentioning – the first and only real non-sequitur of the evening was seeing Fear Factory introduced in person by Dennis Haskins, most commonly recognized as Mr. Belding from “Saved By the Bell.”  Evidently, he is a friend of Fear Factory and longtime fan.  Turns out, he’s also familiar with profanity and how to use it.  Moving on.

Fear Factory fans for years have come to anticipate “Demanufacture” having a certain presence in a live setting.  “Replica” is a prerequisite of any Fear Factory performance.  This show would be different – the album would not just have a presence, it would BE the presence.   While “Obsolete” sold more copies, it is this cardinal effort from the band’s early days that has always captured the imagination of the fans and critics alike.  Normally, the ‘play a full album’ concert gimmick can be a dicey scenario, as it’s often fair to say that the crowd would rather see pieces of the entire catalogue when balanced against a single effort.  “Demanufacture,” by contrast has many deep cuts on it that have been secret favorites of fans, but rarely see the light of day.    Eleven songs over fifty-five minutes.  The stage was set.  The introductions were made.

Emerging in a stark blue light, Burton C Bell, Dino Cazares and company wasted no time, churning out the title track before the audience was done cheering with anticipation.  The pulse of the concert was set – this was to be no mere recitation of an album.  This was a celebration breathing fiery life into a classic.  Each band member, even those who weren’t present when the album was originally recorded, threw their whole being into the experience, selling each measure with intent and aplomb.

The classics of “Demanufacture” are known commodities, so it was truly the album cuts that were revered most by the fans.  “Zero Signal” was a thunderous blast of industrial impatience, each measure crisp, each rifled riff timed perfectly.  Fans near and far could be heard exclaiming to their friends “When will we ever see this song again?” as Fear Factory pounded out the infectious snare of “New Breed,” and later the sinister menace of an excellent “H-K (Hunter-Killer).”

And then it happened.  “Body Hammer.”  One of the great industrial riffs of all time, taken off the shelf and given back to the masses, a series of punctuated industrial explosions that caused smiles on some, furious head-banging by others, and both for many.  The only disappointment in hearing this and the other cuts was the crushing realization that some of these may be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

There was a break in the action following the conclusion of the album, but the night wasn’t nearly over.  There was a second, albeit understandably shorter, set to get to.

As ever, the crowd reached deep for the first song in the second set, “Shock,” complete with arms pumping, bodies flying and pulses racing.  “Shock” has become of the one of the great live songs of all time, fully indoctrinated in the hall of fame along with “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “For Those About to Rock.”  It is the only song I can recall seeing that each time it is played, the most pit looks like staged mosh pit, fit for the big screen.  Naturally, with no interest in allowing the momentum to recede, Bell simply asked “Can you feel it?” before the timeless crunch of “Edgecrusher” started punching fans in the mouth.

There was more after.  “Archetype” made an appearance, “Dielectric” and a handful of other new songs were played, but the crowd, roused into a ninety minute frenzy and stuffed into an overheated sold-out venue, was beginning to tire.  The band played on, never showing any sign of exhaustion, singularly interested in delivering the best live experience.

There was one more moment of kinesis, as the crowd chanted along with the final song of the evening, “Maryr.” It was a celebration not just of the band and of a great show, but of the experience we all realized we had just had together.  Cheers went up.  Horns went up.  Hands were clapped.  Tired thanks, both directed at and from the stage, were said.  We walked out into a cold Manhattan night, appreciative.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Album Review: iamthemorning - "Lighthouse"

Russian songwriting duo iamthemorning is remarkably creative in their diversity, as the duo takes on many different faces across their new album “Lighthouse”.  Running a complete and thorough gamut between crystalline fragility and jaunty confidence, the beauty of the album lies in that very versatility.  Most albums can be diagnosed by the strengths of their great individual tracks, but “Lighthouse” is better served by addressing the album’s flow as a whole.

Which functionally begins with “Too Many Years” and it wonderfully displays all the open possibilities that iamthemorning brings to the table.  The entire piece is paced by the sanguine but pained vocals of Marjana Semkina, who sings with an elegant, effortless aplomb that shows her character.  The song as a whole is mellow but dotted with the promise of a threatening drum beat, ever-present below Semkina’s swan song.

The duo’s album is a concept, a journey that takes us through the deteriorating psyche of a woman as she struggles against mental demons both real and imagined.  Where the album really shines is in the disjointed, off-kilter pieces that fit the story while concurrently standing out from the baseline idiom of the record.  “Libretto Horror” has a certain devilish smirk in its undercurrent, the piano of Gleb Kolyadin taking on a personality somewhere between Grieg and Joplin.

We see much of the same for “Matches” a similar tune that twists and contorts as the pivotal character spirals deliriously out of control, bending rhythm and melody into a bright but tormented spiral of beautifully composed and artistic progressive music.

The one sour note of “Lighthouse” is that iamthemorning probably returns to the placid well a little too easily, returning there as a home base.  It’s not that the heavy dose of emotionally heavy music is unpleasant, it’s just that it doesn’t speak to the great variety that iamthemorning is clearly capable of.  For all that “Libretto Horror” shines, there are many more “Harmony” or “Clear Clearer” which tell much the same musical story.

Sidebar: there’s a small sticking point in the defining of iamthemorning as a ‘progressive’ act.  Not that the labels really matter, but something about the labelling of this band, based on their presentation and frequent associations with artists from Porcupine Tree and other modern prog luminaries, feels a little too easy.  Iamthemorning is both more and less than what we traditionally think of as prog, a piano duo that creates easy melodies but doesn’t necessarily create the immersive atmosphere that a full prog band is capable of.  It’s neither here nor there, but if you’re picking up this album based solely on its genre label, be warned that the experience within may not quite be what you think it is.

Iamthemorning has nevertheless produced a record that is worthy of praise because of its versatility, even if that versatility isn’t displayed as frequently as it could be.  It’s doubly rare to encounter a record that can be both a pleasant listen and haunting at the same time.  Artists of all genres could take a lesson from the artistic integrity of iamthemorning, and their new record is worth a listen just for that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Album Review: Treat - Ghost Of Graceland

Hyperbole can be used to great effect, but it can also start a project in such a deep hole that it can never climb out. I understand that with as much music as is being made these days, you have to do whatever you can to try to get attention for yourself, but there are limits to how far I'm willing to let things slide. Treat is pushing the limit a bit with this new album, as the press materials describe this as the new album from the 'hard rock legends'. I'm sorry, but there is no way that Treat are legends. Legends are either the bands that even people who don't follow music would know the names and songs of, or are the bands that modern bands still draw their inspiration from. In either case, Treat are not legends. That being said, I know how this works, so I'm not going to hold it against them. After hearing the singles that were released, I was actually quite excited to hear this record, putting aside my brief disgruntlement.

"Ghost Of Graceland" kicks things off in fine fashion. The main riff is heavy, bluesy, and a touch sinister, while the chorus is pure AOR melody. It's a great song, and definitely sets expectations high for the rest of the album. "I Don't Miss The Misery" follows with an even heavier, modern riff that grinds along into the verses, while the chorus once again soars up into a huge melody. These two tracks are not just great music, they show a band that understands that rock and roll needs to be about more than tuning down a guitar and stringing riffs together. There's a real sense of songwriting here, and a focus on making sure that everything in the songs is memorable.

I'm a sucker for ballads, and we get one in "Do Your own Stunts" that hits the right notes. The pianos carrying the beginning of the song are lovely, but it's the keyboard parts and orchestrations once the band kicks in that really hammer the song home. It's a little dramatic touch that makes the song feel more emotional than if it was a more stripped-down arrangement.

For a band that's been around thirty years, Treat is still learning some new tricks. The guitar arpeggios that open "Endangered" feel completely modern, and give a nice counterpoint to the more unabashedly pop chorus the song is packing. It's one of those songs that could have easily gone off the rails, but it manages to keep from stepping over that line, and it works as a bit of bright, shiny ear candy. By the time this song and "Inferno" pass by, I'm reminded strongly of the Nordic Union album that was put out on the same label, Frontiers, earlier in the year. Like that album, Treat is hitting on melodic rock with a heavy bent towards modern pop choruses. And like that album, Treat is doing it exceptionally well.

On the whole, the second half of the album isn't as strong as the first, but it's a minor distinction. Songs like "Alien Earthlings" and "Too Late To Die Young" may not compete for the best on the record, they're still charming songs that go down easy. And while the second ballad, "Alone Together" is similar to the prior ballad, it lacks the rocking punch to push it to a higher level, so it feels like a missed opportunity.

That being said, let's not mince words. "Ghost Of Graceland" is a really good record that's a heck of a lot of fun. It's big, catchy hard rock that has a lot to offer. Sure, it feels a bit tame in comparison to Nordic Union's record, but considering how that record is a strong contender for the best album of the year, that isn't an indictment. Treat has done well for themselves here, and "Ghost Of Graceland" is a record that should appeal to anyone who's a fan of AOR, or anyone who listened to guitar pop on the radio in the mid to late 90s. It takes me back there, and that's always a good thing.