Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Album Review: First Signal - One Step Over The Line

There are certain bands that, even if you're a fan of a particular style of music, you just haven't had the time or the opportunity to go back and listen to. Sadly, that is all too common these days, as the number of bands that I'm 'supposed' to know grows each and every year, and likely numbers somewhere in the thousands. One of those bands is Harem Scarem, who released some of the best received melodic hard rock albums of their time. If I'm being honest, I have never heard them. But I recognize the name enough that when this new album featuring their singer Harry Hess came along, I figured it would be good place to start righting that wrong.

First Signal is not so much a band as it is a project that allows Hess to sing a collection of songs he has acquired from various songwriters. That idea is one that can be taken in two ways. It's either something that allows for greater diversity in the songs, or it makes it harder to unify them into an album, since no two people write in quite the same way.

The first song, "Love Run Free", takes us back to the 80s with some incredibly cheesy keyboard parts, and vocals that could have been mistaken for Richard Marx, when he still tried to rock. The synth solo might be a bit much for my taste, but the song is a solid melodic rock/AOR number that establishes the tone of what to expect from the album. Big hooks, strong vocals, and plenty of elements that will embarrass anyone who wasn't a rock fan in 1988.

"Still Pretending" is exactly the kind of song that Steel Panther parodies, but vocal similarities aside, it perfectly encapsulates why that band is the joke they are. Music requires a degree of sincerity, either in the writing or the performance, that they can't deliver. Hess can, because it's clear he is devoted to this music, so even if it does sound out of step with the modern world, it does so in a way that is endearing.

For the most part, you know what you're getting with every song. The album delivers rather consistently, with few exceptions. The one place I would say it stumbles in when it tries to push a touch too far into heavier territory. "Kharma" lacks the hooks and uplifting energy of the album's best songs. It does serve a purpose to give some balance to the record, but it's just now quite as sharp a song as it needed to be.

Compare that to a song like "She Is Getting Away", and the difference is clear. The latter song is everything melodic rock should be. After the moody verses, the hook explodes with energy and drips with catchiness. That's what we come to AOR for, and that's why almost every track here delivers wih aplomb. The album's selling point is definitely Hess' vocals, though. Even when the songs veer off into being a bit too generic and 'on the nose', he has the vocal charisma to pull them back. Not every singer does.

The conclusion to draw is that "One Step Over The Line" is a fine melodic rock album featuring a heck of a singer. That alone should be reason enough to listen to it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Concert Review: Lacuna Coil

Anticipation was running high as the crowd filtered in, everyone well aware of the impending midnight release of Lacuna Coil’s new album “Delirium.”  In the meantime, everyone would have to make due with a full evening’s performance punctuated by new moments couched within old favorites.  Lacuna Coil gleefully took the stage, combining their confidence in their performance with their own personal excitement over their new album.  With that, the fans focused in and the lights went low and the show was on.

Located literally in the middle of the Casino of the Earth at Mohegan Sun, the Wolf’s Den is a uniquely presented venue, part club and part open-air stage, slot machines in easy view as patrons who did not arrive early enough to get inside the gate instead hung out leaning on it.  The sound is good and the sight lines very good, but it does present an odd stage for a metal show – as Cristina Scabbia herself joked, being in the middle of the casino made it feel like she should be singing Celine Dion covers.

The attention of the casino patrons was snapped to the stage as the band began the evening with the head-banging rhythm of “Nothing Stands In Our Way” as the assembled devotees cheering loudly and in full throat.  It was impossible to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the Casino of the Wind and not be overwhelmed with the power of the band’s sound; it permeated all through the area, attracting many to the rail and pushing the woefully uninitiated away from their slots.

Decked-out entirely in a straitjacket motif, the band continued the hits of “Broken Crown Halo” by rolling into “Die & Rise,” thus assuring all present that this would be more a night to celebrate new classics than past histories.

The album “Dark Adrenaline,” which some critics panned as ‘too pop’ at the time of its release, was vindicated through the band’s recitation of multiple excellent selections over the course of the evening.  “Fire,” a song built to tap toes and possess crowds to sing along, may have been the evening’s best selection, Scabbia smiling through the uplifting chorus, further exhorting the crowd to participate.  Those gathered in the inner circle of the casino club gladly took part in the show, repeatedly showing their love for the band in an infectious, friendly atmosphere.

“Cybersleep,” a beautiful tune that sounds more like a James Bond theme song than anything else, thrilled the crowd, even if meant Andrea Ferro had to momentarily take a back seat.  What astonishes the most is the way Scabbia can sing this piece album-perfect, making the life performance live and breathe every bit as much as the one listeners are used to.

Naturally, there were a few teasers of “Delirium” sprinkled throughout, in the form of the title track for starters.  The first single, “House of Shame” changed the mood of the show into a deeper hue, much the way this new record stands as a darker exhibition of the songwriting prowess of Lacuna Coil.  The band, new members injecting a sense of fresh enthusiasm into the proceedings, was all business for this cut, pounding out the sinister bass rhythm while Ferro and Scabbia erected the harmonies, bringing the song to life.

Of course, even as much as this was a celebration of Lacuna Coil in the new decade, there were some throwbacks to the heady days more than a decade ago when the band was first becoming known on these shores.  It’s hard to envision a Lacuna Coil show where the band doesn’t indulge the crowd with “Heaven’s a Lie,” but an energetic run-through of “Swamped” came as a pleasant surprise.

Close to the end, after playing one crowd favorite after another, the band kicked off the show’s closing act with their cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” demanding that the audience help them through the chorus.  A two-song joyous and lionized performance of “Zombies” and “Our Truth” encouraged the crowd to embrace their individualism, and then with fans chanting and cheering, the band soaking in their adulation and reciprocating graciousness, the show was over, the bright lights of the slot machines weirdly accentuating the ongoing reverie of the fans.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Album Review: Volbeat - "Seal the Deal & Let's Boogie"

Following the success of “Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies,” Volbeat stood on the precipice of singular greatness, a band poised to seize the reins of both rock and metal, unifying them under one banner and carrying the devoted throngs of fans into a great arc of a career.  Everything is set, the world awaits another album, so the band has responded with “Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie.”

What strikes first is that Volbeat has developed as a group of songwriters.  Where their previous efforts told stories one at a time, laying down a thick beat and then changing it only when the song changed, we see here that the band has added some variety into their stew, giving us the elegant change of pace that marks the two halves of “For Evigt” (or in English, “The Bliss,”) the shift in tones and pitches from rock song to strummed ballad smooth enough that you only notice it after the fact.  This kind of addition to the arsenal adds a new dimension for Volbeat, giving the album some depth and a much richer and intellectually interesting listening experience.

To couple with this, part of what works for “Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie” is that it’s avoided a trap that Volbeat often falls into, which is that for all they’re a great band, Volbeat tends to find one tone and way to write songs for a given album, and then mercilessly hammers that anvil into dust for the duration of the record.  There’s a good deal more diversity here, between the swagger of “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” and the pop guitar of “Let it Burn.”  Even the most cynical critic would say that Volbeat has certainly found a new gimmick for this record, different from those before.  So not only are we writing songs that are sweeping and varied from beginning to end, but the entire album orbits the central theme at different rates.

On an additional production point, Volbeat had along been an unwitting victim of the loudness war, but since that conflict has simmered down into a quiet series of border skirmishes, the band finds themselves free of the trap this time around, the unnecessary deep thump of their sound replaced in favor of a much more even-handed production.

With all that said, those who fell in love with Volbeat during the heady days of “Beyond Hell/Above Heaven” are going to regard large sections of this record with great, narrow-eyed scrutiny.  There are more than a couple songs on this record that sound very much like pop punk, which isn’t  a bad thing in itself, but does signal a shift for Volbeat that fans have to prepare themselves for.  “Black Rose” is going to come as a shock to more than a few devotees, coupled with the simple rockabilly chord structure and two-beat of “Rebound.”

It does bear nothing that regardless of the position of the listener toward these leanings, “Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie,” does commit the offense of having no bite whatsoever.  More than stylistic change, this is an idiomatic one, the vocals of Michael Poulsen and the guitars of Rob Caggiano both muted into demure roles.  Volbeat has always excelled at expressing a sinister edge within a cushion of highly accessible and beat-driven music, and this album lacks that signature quality. “The Gates of Babylon” could have easily been a big cannon, a full-on sixty-pounder of a song, but instead dances around the conflict rather than striking head-on.

So to reiterate, there’s nothing empirically wrong with this record.  Volbeat does a lot to show their versatility and develop themselves as songwriters, which is all great, but the scales are balanced against their metal chops to this point.  What listeners take away from “Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie” will largely depend on why they listened to Volbeat in the first place.  Worth a rental before purchase.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Album Review: Lacuna Coil - "Delirium"

Now wait just a minute, where did this come from?  It’s a pretty fair bet that every music journalist in the land, including those at this esteemed site (if we dare call ourselves such,) had the skeleton of this review written weeks ago, waiting only for the meat in the middle of the essay to fill in the details.  For three or four albums now, the overriding theme of every Lacuna Coil editorial orbited around the idea that the band was slowly but surely turning themselves into the spearhead of mainstream metal, filling their plate and the public’s with accessible, clean melodies and a veneer of overdriven attitude that cynics believed was only an attempted appeasement to the hardcore.  Whether or not that move was a good idea was the subject of great debate in the metalosphere (in the interest of full disclosure, both of us here though it was a good decision, or at least not a bad one,) but regardless of individual position, that was the only germane question when it came to the career of Lacuna Coil.

Now though, “Delirium.”  This is very much a different experience that any album dating all the way back to 2009’s “Shallow Life,” and while it strays from the mainstream path, also stands different that the band’s critically acclaimed early works.  “Delirium” is a new Lacuna Coil, forged in experience and tested with new membership, taking the learned lessons of the old and applying them wholesale into a new, darker dynamic.

Using the word ‘darker’ causes an automatic cringe, as it is the single most underused word in all of pop culture, but it’s necessary here as that is the only word that seems appropriate when addressing this new album.  Simply hearing the album’s opener “The House of Shame” is to recognize, though the dim lighting of fire and smoke that this is Lacuna Coil as we haven’t seen them before.  The undercurrent of this and nearly every song on the record is one of well-cultivated foreboding, befitting the album’s title and stark cover art.  The bass lines are deep, the chug lacking in bright harmonies, the vocals of Andrea Ferro raw and primal.

Speaking of Andrea, he makes a distinct return to prominence here, much to the delight of fans who has shirked at the perception of his backup role.  Yes, there’s plenty of Cristina Scabbia still to be had on this album, but she uses her angelic tones to accent the desperation of the songs like “Broken Things,” leaving Ferro to fill in the crevasses with his earthy howling.  It’s a new dynamic for the vocal duo, no longer trading parts or allowing Scabbia’s pristine tones to dominate the color of the music, but rather the two working in separate lines, almost as if they’re singing two different songs.

One of the underlying truths of every Lacuna Coil album is that they had always been a singles band – yes, “Karmacode” was a great complete album, as were some others, but the reason you tuned in was always the big, richly produced singles, “Heaven’s a Lie,” “Survive,” “Victims.”  In the wake of these magnetic moments, much of the rest of the album would be lost over the side.  “Delirium,” by contrast, trades in the radio-ready for the gritty and macabre, and there are no especially poignant single moments that overshadow the rest.  “Take Me Home” (not a cover of the Phil Collins song,) is probably the closest thing on this album to the old formula, but even this comparatively up-tempo treat heading up the album’s back half is laced with just a touch of either longing or sarcasm or both.  This plays into the big hook chorus of “You Love Me ‘Cause I Hate You,” which again, contains many familiar elements of Lacuna Coil singles (and a little Halestorm too, if we’re being honest,) but arrays them in such a fashion that the sharp edge of the knife is decidedly pointed at the listener.

Lest we give the idea that nothing here will be familiar to longtime Coil fans, there are some hallmarks that remain untouched.  Scabbia and Ferro, as mentioned, remain the focal point of the album, although their dynamic is different but not necessarily better or worse.  Even with that, there’s still a great deal of musicianship to be heard here, and while Lacuna Coil will rarely thrill with individual instrumental virtuosity, the rhythm section, including several prominent guests, make their mark by picking the right notes at the right time, rather than simply blasting them out full bore.  Their artistry is paired with the same rubbery bass tone that the band fell in love with a few albums ago which sounded borrowed at its debut but now is firmly couched as part of the anticipated Coil idiom and identity.

If “Delirium” needs a tweak here or there, it would only be in the new dynamic between Scabbia and Ferro.  Allowing Andrea to take on a greater role is a welcome new twist, but the two vocalists’ new power-sharing dynamic may take some time to grow into.  As we talked about above, the weaving of Scabbia and Ferro, working apart and attacking from different angles is effective when it works, but if they had crossed each other path’s a little more often some of the feeling of distance between them might have been diminished in favor of more real harmony.

Whether or not “Delirium” is the product of new membership in the band or a reaction to the undue criticism of those who think being accessible is a bad thing or any other number of contributing factors is unknowable but ultimately moot.  What “Delirium” is, is the beginning of the third act of Lacuna Coil’s successful career, a commanding statement that speaks to the band’s resolve and confidence as they carry forward.  It is, for lack of more precise adjectives, excellent.

Album Review: Jorn - Heavy Rock Radio

There are two things I consider the absolute truth about Jorn: 1) He is without question one of the greatest singers to ever grace hard rock and heavy metal. 2) He is almost always better when he is not involved in the creative process. Over the course of his career, Jorn has been a part of countless bands and projects, lending his massive voice to some great music, and some not so great music. Most of that latter category would encompass his solo career, which has been a steady stream of mediocre releases. Jorn has not been a gifted songwriter, and when given the chance to show that over the course on an album, it becomes very clear. But last year, something funny happened. He and his band's guitarist released the "Dracula: Swing Of Death" album, that was without a doubt the best album Jorn has ever had a creative stake in. It was so extraordinary, that I'm anxious to see if it was a fluke, or if Jorn has finally found his creative spark.

Until then, we get this album, a collection of covers that have been re-arranged to fit the Jorn mold. I'm not usually a fan of cover albums, but when the singer is as exceptional as Jorn, I'm certainly willing to give them some leeway.

The track selections for this album is mixed, with the expected Deep Purple and Ronnie James Dio songs anchoring the back half. We've heard Jorn cover Dio enough times before that there really isn't any novelty in it, but it's always nice to hear the one man in metal who can match Dio's delivery let loose. And the fact that he picks "Die Young" instead of "Heaven & Hell" from that album, is something I certainly appreciate. It's one of the forgotten gems off the greatest metal album ever made, and Jorn is one of very few people in the world who can do it justice.

What's much more interesting are the unexpected songs that Jorn picks. We get a couple of pop songs that are revved up with big guitar riffs in "I Know There's Something Going On" and "Running Up That Hill", which work beautifully as heavy yet catchy numbers that allow Jorn to show that he's more than menacing vocal power. I was pleasantly surprised to see "Live To Win" make the cut, a song from the forgotten second Paul Stanley solo album. That's one that I've always liked, and to not only see someone else who knows it exists, but give a heavier take to what is absolutely a pop song in disguise, was amazing.

There is one moment on this album that is weirder than any other. Jorn covers "Hotel California". Yes, you read that right.

The weirdest thing isn't even that he covers it, but that it works so well as a heavy rock song. Hearing it in a slightly different context allows it to be considered again on its own merits, without the decades of being played to death creeping in. That said, there's a reason songs like this one have become classics. It's a great song, and Jorn's take ups the ante on the sinister undercurrent that has always been present in the lyrics. If it really is a song about 'checking out', it sounds more appropriate coming from Jorn than it ever did coming from Don Henley.

Look, every covers album is a mixed bag, since there's always going to be songs you wish weren't on the record, and other you wish were instead. I would say that about this album as well. But, for being a covers album, which is something I naturally am loathe to embrace, "Heavy Rock Radio" is good. You get what you would expect; Jorn singing some songs and turning them into Jorn songs. It's hard to complain about getting to hear him do his thing. I'm not complaining about this one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Album Review: Scythia - "Lineage"

Canada is rarely thought of as a haven for power metal, but the west coast of the Great White North is the home of Scythia, a full-throated power metal band that flies below many radars, but it quickly ascending into the clouds above.  Their new album “Lineage” sees the band practicing their combinative art of story-telling and orchestrated metal that captures the attention and shows the versatility of the genre.

Like many concept albums featuring an array of colorful characters, “Lineage” is at its best when introducing its villains.  As Scythia bounds into “Laugh of the Tsar,” we see a depiction of a patrician, decadent ruler who scoffs at those beneath him, content to flex his iron will and exert control.  The music here is not filled with particular malice, but instead portrays a carousing recital, making it easy to picture a crowded hall of sycophants chanting in chorus with their liege lord.

Which reflects the best strength of “Lineage,” Scythia easily and comfortably changing color to fit the mood of the various phases of their concept.  “Soldier’s Lament,” in contrast to what we spoke about above, is a much more dour and emotional piece, with thinner melodies and more open space for the on-point vocals to glimmer through.  This same versatility applies when looking at nearly every song on the record, whether the raging thump of “Barbarian,” or the dire tones of “The Sacrifice.”

“Barbarian,” so long as we’re talking about it, might be the album’s best singular experience, a rousing good time that combines the bright colors of Scythia’s preferred tones with the deceptive power that this brand of metal can use in spots.  The song rumbles and rattles but never loses its melody, an excellent brand of brandished muscle and well-constructed scaling.

The only thing that “Lineage” is missing is some threatening edge.  All the pieces of “Lineage” are fine, but for an album that’s creating characters and telling a story, it could use a little more bite.  This isn’t a problem exclusive to Scythia, it’s endemic to power metal as a whole, so we’re not talking about a new problem here.  Nevertheless, a little variance in the attitude or tone, in addition to the musical separation of the songs, would go a long way.

Scythia’s new record is, by and large, a fine example of all the things that this genre can do well, particularly in relation to storytelling and scene setting.  The atmosphere of “Lineage” is spot-on, and the presentation is a good lesson to contemporary bands about how to craft power metal songs that don’t sound stamped out or cliché.  There’s a lot to like here.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Album Review: Spell - For None And All

We've seen over the years plenty of up-and-coming bands that have latched on to their influences a bit too hard, sounding like a carbon copy that never needed to exist. It can be easy to do, to get so absorbed in the music you loved growing up that it begins to recycle itself in your mind, and pour out through your instrument. It's not even a bad thing, on its own, since there have been plenty of bands that have found success after starting out a little too similar to someone else. But there are some bands, and some influences, that just can't be replicated. For all the times Mercyful Fate's name is thrown around, no one has ever sounded like them, including all the projects Sherman and Denner have put together in the meantime.

I say this because Spell is one of those bands that has drawn comparisons to Mercyful Fate, which the press release that announced the record was more than happy to point out. Stylistically, I can see it. Like Mercyful Fate, Spell plays a riff-heavy style of metal, focused on darker subjects, coupled with some 'colorful' vocals, let's say. But the comparisons are extremely rough, because what Spell is doing is much bigger than any one band.

The opening song, "Madame Psychosis", does have moments that recall King Diamond, and Graham McVie packs the songs full of riffs upon riffs, but there is a melodic core to the song that their predecessors never mastered. Instead of using darkness and the occult as the driving force of a mediocre song, they use those elements to enhance a stronger composition. It's a great song in every way, with the exception of the fact that it raises the expectations for the rest of the album to a level it probably can't match.

And that is exactly the case. After hitting the bulls-eye on their first shot, the remaining tracks struggle to live up to that standard. "Whipping Sails" is harmless, but it's a bland track that doesn't really offer much. "River Of Sleep" has more doom influences, and sets an effective atmosphere, but the vocals don't do enough to make the song more than a series of good riffs.

What the album does do well is deliver on the promise of pumping out some quality old-school, mystical, heavy metal. If you're looking for something in the vain of Mercyful Fate, Spell is hitting most of the right marks here. There's nothing wrong with anything here, but it's also not as compelling as I would like it to be. Cam Mesmer's voice will be a point of contention, for sure. He has one of those voices that you will either love or hate, but unlike King Diamond, he's not so unique that you have to listen to him just because you can't believe what you're hearing.

In the end, what I would say about "For None And All" is that it's one of those albums that aims for something it can't quite achieve. At times, Spell shows that they have the talent to be a really good band, but they don't yet have the consistency to deliver song after song, album after album. Hopefully that will come in the future, but for now, this record is more of a harbinger than an event.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Album Review: DevilDriver - "Trust No One"

DevilDriver, among prominent American metal bands, has reached that point where they can capitalize on name recognition.  ‘DevilDriver’ represents not just the band but a veritable brand, an assurance to the audience of the kind of chugging, angry percussive rhythms that no doubt permeate the content within.  DevilDriver the band has gone through some wholesale lineup changes in recent months, but nevertheless, the promise of the brand remains intact as they ship “Trust No One” to the world.  The continued presence of Dez Fafara insures that the product within is what has always been known from DevilDriver.

Which, sadly, is the failing of “Trust No One.”  This ten track rampage of songs sounds like more of the same from DevilDriver, with little variety and less variation.  Certainly, some of that can probably be attributed to feeling out new band members, but in their best moments, DevilDriver still found the time for guitarist Mike Spreitzer (or the departed Jeff Kendrick,) to give the audience a little flair, some bright riffing to hold on to.

“Trust No One,” in contrast, doubles down on the heavy rhythms and applies thorough pressure by making sure that every song from first to last is punchy and thick with grit.  What’s missing is a real sense of melody, replaced instead with just another layer of inky, black rhythms.  It’s hard to find an access point to the super dense construction of the record, because it all pretty much sounds the same.  Trying to single out a particular track is a rather hollow affair, as each one bears the same hallmarks and shortcomings.

What may come as a shock is the concept that “Trust No One” sounds dated and out of place in the modern metal landscape.  The past three or four years have seen a real melodic revolution overtake much of metal, even its darkest, dingiest corners, with every band out there trying to find the next accessible hook that breaks up the monotony of heaviness.  In ignoring this and instead doubling down on rhythm over melody, DevilDriver’s newest album now sounds a bit like an anachronism.

Apologies to the readers, at this site we usually prefer to go into much greater depth and detail about an album’s strengths and weaknesses, but there’s frankly not much to analyze here.  “Trust No One” is ten impenetrable cuts of thumping metal, no more and no less.  Which is even more frown-inducing in light of a pretty decent Coal Chamber album not so long ago.  Ah well.  Moving on.

Friday, May 20, 2016

News: Jasmine Cain's "White Noise" Picked Up By EOne

If you were paying attention in August of last year, I reviewed the album "White Noise" by Jasmine Cain (Read it here). In that review, I said ""White Noise" is a really good album that bridges hard rock and pop, but it's even better when you factor in how well it fills the hole for exactly that kind of music that Halestorm left this year. There are similarities between Jasmine and Lzzy's voices, and "White Noise" feels like a record that could easily sit next to former Album Of The Year "The Strange Case Of..." in a discography."

As is befitting a quality artist, Jasmine's album has been picked up by EOne/Sony, and is being re-released today on all digital platforms. If you enjoy quality pop/rock, you should definitely check out the record, and help support an artist who deserves it.

We here at Bloody Good Music extend our congratulations to this deserved good news.

Here is the official video for "Nightingale", off the album "White Noise"

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Album Review: Combichrist - "This is Where Death Begins"

While industrial music enjoys a small renaissance as we barrel through this century’s teen years, there remain a number of bands who can stand with pride and say ‘I’ve been here for a minute already.’  From stocked European tours to flashy live shows to over the top energy and even videogame soundtracks, Combichrist is positively veteran in the ranks of the resurgence.  Striking while the iron is hot, they stand ready to drop a new full-length, “This is Where Death Begins” on the world and capitalize on their genre’s popularity.

Cutting to the highlight first, “Skullcrusher” is the reason to invest in this record (not a cover of Overkill’s “Skullkrusher, for those curious.)  Not only is it a prime example of Combichrist’s ability to put the pedal down and keep the tempo up, but it features one of the great, no-nonsense singalong choruses in recent memory, full of the appropriate piss and vinegar and profanity that makes for a great singalong.  For all that Combichrist does right on this record, and there’s a good bit of that, this is the shining jewel.

Critics of the band have long talked about the band being inconsistent, not being able to hold an accessible sound or channel their explosive energy into a consistently accessible and deliverable product.  With years come experience, and for this new record Combichrist has refined their production into a baseline model that fans of both pure metal and industrial will recognize.  “This is Where Death Begins” finds a groove and successfully maintains it, while still utilizing some of vocalist Andy LaPlegua’s versatility,

What likely comes as a surprise for many is that the artist who comes to mind most when discussing this album is actually Rob Zombie, surprisingly only because his name rarely comes up in these kind of discussions.  Nevertheless, Zombie’s particular brand of fun, groove-heavy metal that was so pervasive toward the end of the last millennium is the major hallmark that we’re reminded of here.  There is a solid thump to nearly every track, whether the charging run of “My Life My Rules” or the slow, chorus-based burn of “Glitchteeth”.  In any event, the end result remains much the same – an album full of cuts that reminds of the sinister smile-inducing atmosphere of when metal was fun.

The only disappointment with “This is Where Death Begins” is that it’s perfectly by the numbers in terms of industrial metal.  For a band that has spent their career making the grade by tearing off faces with aggressive, intense, super-produced live performances, this album fits nicely into an aggressive pocket but doesn’t overstep the bounds.  Combichrist seems content to live in the space between the craft of early Nine Inch Nails and the undisciplined fury of Marilyn Manson, and while there’s no question that a market exists there and the band can properly fill that niche, it just seems like this record could have been more a little more.

So what we come away with is a record that doesn’t break new ground, but nevertheless holds its own in contrast against the recent industrial styling of Emigrate or Surgical Meth Machine.  As ever, Combichrist remains their own band settled into their own idiom, and “This is Where Death Begins” does little to alter that.  This is a good record, and a pleasant throwback to a more raw time in the genre.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Album Review: Sunstorm - Edge Of Tomorrow

Joe Lynn Turner is someone who's legacy in rock and roll, if you want to say he has one, is completely predicated on one man; Ritchie Blackmore. If Turner had not been chosen to front Rainbow before it's long-overdue death, I scarcely think we would have ever heard his name. That exposure has allowed him to maintain a career, without ever releasing anything outside of Rainbow that has had any lasting impact. He is one of those people who is talented, but not in a way that captivates an audience. And coupled with his public spat about a Rainbow reunion, where he seemed to negotiate himself right out of the job in front of our eyes, makes it a bit hard to understand why I should care about a new record featuring him.

But I am fair, so I'm more than willing to give his Sunstorm project's new album a chance to impress me. This is billed as being a return to heavier fare for Turner, which is a good move, because his voice is not shaded with the tenderness I would associate with AOR. With his range, and his particular slight strain, he's fully geared to fronting a rock band.

Here is where I have to be honest; despite not being much of a fan of Turner, and despite the pre-release singles failing to capture my attention, "Edge Of Tomorrow" is a far better album that I was expecting. The initial songs coming out of the gate are exactly what they're sold as, moderately heavy melodic rock that have subtle but catchy choruses that do the most with Turner's voice. In particular, I love the deep, layered background vocals on "Nothing Left To Say", which are not only a different take on the usual sound, but give the hook extra 'oomph'. It's the kind of song that satisfies the primal hunger for simple, catchy rock music.

The success of the album lies mostly in Turner's decision not to take up the mantle of songwriting himself. Using Frontiers' in-house songwriters, and a few outsiders, Turner has been given the kind of material I doubt he would have come up with on his own. I don't mean that to sound insulting, but not every singer is a good writer. There's a strain of thought in rock and metal circles that people who don't write their songs aren't deserving the same respect, and that's just wrong. Being able to spot the right songs for you is a talent in its own right. Turner does that here.

These songs hit all the right marks, balancing some heavier guitars with melodic solos and strong hooks for Turner. The title track, and the ballad "Angel Eyes", both excel. There's a slight lull here and there, mostly where the album tries to get a bit heavier, but by and large "Edge Of Tomorrow" is an enjoyable set of songs. Joe Lynn Turner's time in the spotlight has since passed, but this album shows that he still has something to offer, if he understands his role. This was a pleasant surprise.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Album Review: Katatonia - The Fall Of Hearts

“Despair has its own calms.” - Bram Stoker, Dracula.

Katatonia's career has become defined by that idea. What was once a sound of doom and death evolved into something softer, but no less tethered to the darkness. For the last twenty years, Katatonia has carved out a sound all their own, a melodic darkness that can be both beautiful and heart-breaking at the same time. While some will say that they have stagnated, and haven't changed for too long, the argument could just as easily be made that there is no reason to change, because they have perfected what they are trying to do. When you hear Katatonia, they cannot be mistaken for anyone else. Their identity, like that of Dracula, is indelible.

Perhaps no band, no matter how heavy they proclaim themselves to be, has captured the pure sound of despair better than Katatonia. There is something to Jonas Renske's voice, married to the way the band layers guitar parts, that is a black hole sucking the happiness out of any song. You don't need to have synesthesia to know that Kataonia's music is gray.

What is different this time around is that the band stretches their legs a bit more. Over the course of this hour of music, the songs more regularly hit the five, six, and seven minute marks. They are in no hurry to get from Point A to Point B, and because of that, this album does actually feel different than the last few. The opening song here, "Takeover", is one I would not have expected to fit on any recent album. Over the course of seven minutes, it builds upon a few tricky riffs, throws in a solo piano moment, and culminates in a refrain with layers of Renske's voice echoing as if off the cold stone walls of an emotional prison. It's one of those cases where the journey is more important then the destination.

The following track, "Serein", proves Katatonia's genius. It's a simple song, one that I honestly would struggle to recall in great detail, but when listening to it, there is something utterly captivating about the sound. The Katatonia sound, as defined as it is, makes every musical idea sound more important than they often are.

With an album of this length, it's easy to look at a song like "Sanction", and think the record might be better off without it. While it does give a heavier tilt that the record can put to good use, it pales compared to the softer, more melodic fare lik "Residual". Katatonia is at their best when they can be heavy emotionally more than sonically, and that holds true on these tracks. The best moments are the ones where Anders Nystrom gives Renske ample space to place his forlorn melodies. The exception to that rule is in "Serac", which might be the heaviest number here, and borrows the feeling of Opeth's "Bleak" in some of the riffing, which elevates the song into a progressive twist of music with a strong anchor.

At a certain point, all you can say about a new Katatonia record is that it is another Katatonia record. They are singular, like Motorhead was, and trying to parse the differences misses the big picture. "The Fall Of Hearts" is an album that delivers exactly what you would expect from Katatonia. It's dark, beautiful, and sounds like nothing else. I do think this record is a tad on the long side, but that doesn't take away from the quality. Katatonia knows what they're doing, and they continue to do it well. "The Fall Of Hearts" is another strong entry that will absolutely please their eager fans.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Album Review: Long Distance Calling - "TRIPS"

It’s likely no secret that we here at BGM often gape in awe at sublime displays of versatility.  One of the tenets of truly great musicianship by any definition is the ability to expand borders and give multiple looks and listens within one experience.

So let’s cut to the chase here; Long Distance Calling’s new full-length “TRIPS” covers an awful lot of bases within its nine cuts, ranging from ‘80s police chase complete with clean synth to emotional prog balladeer to forceful metal cruncher.

Now, those likely sound like incredibly disparate ideas, and they certainly are, so that’s part of the genius of “TRIPS,” is the ability to contain all of that in one journey, with an end result more like a soundtrack than an album in the traditional sense.  This becomes doubly true as the music bends through multiple phases within one song, Long Distance Calling falling back on their purely instrumental roots to craft dynamic, layered experiences.

Diving in, the album begins with “Getaway,” and suddenly it’s “Simon and Simon” all over again, mixed in with themes from “Scarface,” “Robocop,” and maybe “Sledge Hammer?”  The song feels like watching an “A-Team” montage, just waiting for a third world dictator’s jeep to flip over.  The press releases surrounding “TRIPS” talk a great deal about music’s ability to time travel, and this is certainly an exhibition of that, right down to the distorted vocals and clean guitar tones.

“Trauma” brings us closer to the present, as the band concocts a riff that would sound right at home on most modern metal records, a sinister brew of accessible riffing and deliberate pacing that pounds the pavement with confidence, eventually weaving in some higher melodies and playing with the cadence.  This transitions cleanly into “Lines,” and we’ve back in time again to the ‘80s, now aping the great speed riffs of Jake E. Lee in creating a righteous sing-along that sounds somewhat movie-inspirational without sounding contrived.

By the time we wander through “Momentum” and the symphonic second half of “Plans,” we’ve known thrown Soundgarden into the mix, along with that brief period in the late ‘90s when every band wanted to do an album with a full orchestra behind them.  The versatility of “TRIPS” is really staggering in this regard, the band using the protective aegis of ‘prog’ to incorporate any and all musical ideas into one cauldron.

Some of this is going to come to personal taste, but there is a sense here that the envelope could have been pushed a little farther within each idiom – that there could be more conviction behind the metal, more depth behind the grunge, more tone amidst the melody.  Additionally, there is a slight air of replication on “TRIPS,” like the band is re-producing these fond musical memories more than intrinsically crafting their own.

In the long view, these are comparatively minor quibbles on an album that never fails to capture attention or wow with its ability to change gears and wind together past and present into one tapestry.  “TRIPS” is not a singles album, not the kind of experience that will generate a hit or two and have the rest be left behind – it is a complete experience, best listened to with consideration of all the other tracks in mind, and a generally great achievement.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Concert Review: Texas Hippie Coalition

The release of “Dark Side of Black” marked an important pivot for Texas Hippie Coalition, as the band demonstrated the ability to shift between musical gears while still keeping the engine running without a hitch.  The resultant tour promised to be a celebration of this new found array of possibilities, a chance for fans old and new to relive favorite memories and connect with new ones.

First though, the Sons of Texas.  Formed in 2013 and signed to Razor & Tie (who are quietly putting together a rather interesting roster,) the band just by their mere appearance promised the gathered faithful another set of down-and-dirty southern groove metal.

The band did not disappoint, blasting through a collection of singles from their debut full length “Baptized in the Rio Grande.”  That title track woke the crowd up, flanked by powerful anthems like “Blameshift” and “Pull It and Fire.”  Sons of Texas was essentially given forty minutes to do as much damage as they could, and the band ripped through one end of their setlist and cleanly out the other, leaving behind an audience who may not have been familiar, but flocked to the merch table when it was over.

Here’s the key to their success – nobody likes Sons of Texas more than Sons of Texas does, and when you’re a new band in an unfamiliar part of the country, selling the sizzle, making the fans believe that yours is a show worth investing in, is a huge step in the right direction.  Vocalist Mark Morales reminds of a Texas version of Dani Filth (in appearance only,) and he pairs with bassist Nick Villarreal (who is secretly the heart of this operation,) to lead the band through a pile of good-natured, enjoyable self-aggrandizement.  This is all meant as a compliment.  Sons of Texas knows how to sell Sons of Texas.

And then it was time for the feature performance.  The front of the pit, previously sparsely populated, filled in.  Fans filed down for a better view of the headline show, an act that promised thunder and crushing Texas groove, covering all who had gathered in scads of red dirt.

The set began with “Hands Up,” not a new song to the surprise of many, but one that effectively communicates what the evening’s agenda will be like.  The bass of John Exall thuds like dense rubber as Big Dad Ritch bellows through his choruses and threatening verses, all the while singing into a giant shotgun-shaped mic stand.  This continued through the first new song of the evening “Come Get It,” and then into another crowd favorite, “El Diablo Rojo.”

The moment of greatest anticipation came in the middle though, as the band rolled into “Angel Fall,” the new single from their surprisingly expansive new album.  The song is unlike any other in the Texas Hippie’s catalogue, a pairing of thrash breakdowns and groove verses unlike any they’ve written, so there was a natural curiosity to see it played live.  The Texans (and one Oklahoman,) obliged, crushing out a song equally as dense as its recorded counterpart, guitarist Cord Pool sharp with his riffs and Ritch equally sharp with his verses.

Something was off, though.  The band’s music was as tight and explosive as it had always been, but the set felt workmanlike; the sense of fun was off, the attitude, such a critical piece of the band’s presentation, was wrong.  Eventually, Big Dad Ritch came sullenly to the stage, and, in an emotional display, explained how the band had lost a dear friend unexpectedly just the day before.  It was a vulnerable moment from an artist, and group of artists, who certainly didn’t need to defend themselves, but it turned the rest of the evening, beginning with a sing along of “Hit it Again,” into a different kind of special experience; a sharing of burden between performer and fan alike.  The crowd, enthused before, added empathy now, helping to urge the band on through their pain, showing their appreciation loudly and frequently.

We finished with the requisite “Pissed Off and Mad About It,” one of the rare times in the evening that THC dipped into their back catalogue.  It was an excellent, gritty performance through difficult circumstances, put on by a group of consummate professionals.  Their effort is appreciated.  Godspeed, gentlemen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Album Review: D.A.M - "Premonitions..."

D.A.M is an experimental death metal act hailing from Brazil, a band attempting to bridge the gap between straight-ahead melodic death metal and music from a higher plane.  They recently released an EP, “Premonitions…” which promises to pool many sources in order to create a new sound and depth of musical character.

What we have here with “Premonitions…” is a tale of two halves.  In the first, beginning with the leading title track, we see D.A.M taking on as many different sounds and trying together as much as they conceivably can in a ten-minute run that barrels back and forth from progressive to death to thrash and back across the blasted landscape just as quickly.  It’s a disparate listening experience because the bride material does not create smooth seams – the musicianship of D.A.M isn’t in question, but their composition isn’t seamless, with jagged edges slammed together.

Yet, the other half of “Premonitions…” is where D.A.M throws in and becomes simply a melodic death metal band in the vein of early of Children of Bodom, and this side of their gimmick works with substantially greater success.  Their riffs are crisp and memorable, their beats on points and consistent, and the connecting tissue of the songs is strong and holds fast, event through the seven-minute duration of a song like “The Cage.”

So what we’re left with here is a six-song EP teaser of a potentially great idea, but that potential is almost entirely based on whichever path D.A.M decides to pursue.  It’s a strange phenomenon when a band is actually better when they try to do a little less, but that’s irrefutably the case with “Premonitions…” Go into this knowing that there is good material here, but perhaps not uniform material.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Album Review: Grand Magus - Sword Songs

Deja vu. You know that feeling you get when you swear you've done something before, but you just can't remember it. That's sort of the feeling I'm having right now, as I sit down to review Grand Magus' latest album. It feels as though every time I turn around, I'm finding myself staring at a new Grand Magus record. This would be the third album of theirs I've had the chance to review, which makes them the most frequent big-name band of them all. Don't get me wrong; I'm never going to complain about a band being prolific. I respect the work ethic to continually be creative, and to not take five years milking a single album, just because you can. The problem is that, despite having reviewed two of their albums before, I just can't remember them. I liked them, I enjoyed them, and I have since forgotten them.

This time out, Grand Magus has said they wanted to make an album with a bit more speed and energy than their last few records. That is indeed the case, but there's something else that I find the defining feature of this album; the production. I'm not going to fault a record for not being polished to here and back (as much as I laud Graveyard, that should be clear), but there is something in the sound of "Sword Songs" that isn't quite right. The guitar tone is fuzzier than it should be, where he muted riffs lack the power and chunk to sound as heavy as they should, but worse is the drum sound. The kit is tuned in an odd way, reverberating with a loose sound that makes the whole come across sloppy, even when it isn't.

But that is all forgivable if the songs are good enough. Grand Magus is certainly capable of that. JB has a voice that is perfect for their brand of rough and tumble heavy metal, and he puts in another performance that oozes with charm. His voice has that quality to it where, even when he doesn't do anything especially interesting with it, you would be hard pressed not to enjoy it.

Take a song like "Varangian", for example. There's a nice guitar run that has a hint of neo-classical flair to it, heavy chords, and a chorus that takes its keys from the few moments of glory Manowar had before they turned into a colossal joke. Actually, it's hard to listen to "Forged In Iron - Crowned In Steel" and not think of the loin-clothed metal 'warriors'. The chorus JB comes up with is so stark, and blunt with it's message of "Viking metal", that I have a hard time taking it seriously.

Ultimately, by the time the short 34 minutes are up, I'm left in the same position that I always am with Grand Magus. The record is thoroughly enjoyable to sit down and listen to, but there is something deeper missing in their songwriting that would keep me coming back. I'll never turn off a Grand Magus record, because they are a good enough band to always deliver a record that is worth the time you invest in it, but I can't see myself going back to them very often. After you've heard "Master Of The Land" once, you've heard it enough. The melodies have been so sanded down into chants that I'm convinced there's nothing to discover on a second listen, fifth, tenth, and so on.

"Sword Songs" is a Grand Magus album, so it's quality heavy metal. Even when they aren't at their best, they do it better than most of the 'true metal' bands that have no idea how to write a song. This isn't my favorite Grand Magus record, but it's still a good listen.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Album Review: Royal Tusk - DealBreaker

One of the things that most annoys me about being a fan of guitar-based music is that so few of the people who listen to or make it care as much as I do about melody. So often, when you hear a band that has a big guitar sound, you can know within five seconds that they use that as an excuse for not putting in the effort of writing interesting and catchy vocal hooks. So it was interesting when I heard about Royal Tusk, to read that they believe in both heavy guitars and pop songwriting. Those are two things that I love, and that I do believe go together well, so I was excited about being able to hear the result.

"Dynamo" opens the album with plenty of swagger, riding a solid groove and stabbing organs, recalling the spirit of the 70s while maintaining a modern sheen that makes it clear this isn't a nostalgia trip (not that there's anything wrong with that). The best part of the song, though, is the chorus that comes in and pumps up the energy. It is, to borrow the pun, a dynamo. In those first three minutes of the record, there's a very clear indication that Royal Tusk has found the right balance of how to make accessible rock music that retains the core power of the form.

"Curse The Weather" is even better. It's a more modern sounding song, and it uses the heaviness of power chords played with a nearly perfect guitar tone to anchor a swinging pop chorus that is destined to get caught in heads everywhere. The mix of tribal, pounding tom drums and big hooks is the sort of thing that should be the future of rock music, rather than the dark sludge and screaming that populates much of the rock chart these days. In fact, one of the best things I can say about "DealBreaker" is that the production is not murky, and the guitars retain the brightness and bite you can only get when there are ample high frequencies. The record sounds big and lively, which is essential to rock and roll.

"Don't Get Me Wrong" is a huge throwback to late 60s pop music. The bridge with layered backing vocals is right out of the early fore-runners to power pop, while the guitar solo has the trademark honk that could have poured from George Harrison's guitars in an Abbey Road studio. It brings a smile to my face to hear those kinds of influences come forward on a guitar-driven song.

There's a slight difference between the songs that are more pop-oriented, and those that are more straight-ahead rock and roll. I tend to think that the band's songwriting is better hewed to their pop direction, so songs like "I'll Wait", with it's "Jessie's Girl" vibe, strike me as being their best material. Their less pop material isn't quite as sharp, especially the two six minute tracks, which both spend their extended time on lengthy guitar solos that don't really fit the tenor of the record. Royal Tusk is at their best when the songwriting is sharp, tight, and to the point.

That encompasses the majority of the record, which makes the ultimate judgment of "DealBreaker" an easy one. Debut albums are supposed to show us not just where a band is, but where they can go in the future. In both cases, Royal Tusk has nailed it. "DealBreaker" is a really good pop-leaning rock and roll record, and also sets up a future where they can use their ability to write hooks to either to to bring rock music back to the mainstream, or to allow them the freedom to experiment without fear of going so far that they lose the ability to write a good song. "DealBreaker" shows us that 'pop' doesn't have to be a dirty word in the rock world. Sometimes, a good hook goes down oh so sweet.

Friday, May 6, 2016

My Favorite Songs Of 2016: So Far

As the initial run of big releases that starts every year has ended, and the summer season is just beginning to ramp up the promotional machine, I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and reflect on what we've heard so far this year. We're a third of the way through the year, and there has been more music to hear than anyone could possibly get to, including me. While you will have to wait for the midpoint of the year to get a recap from me of my favorite albums, this is as good a time as any to remind you of some of my favorite songs, in case you've missed out on them. So without any further ado, here are a few of the songs I've been listening to the most (in alphabetical order):

Avantasia - The Haunting

Tobias Sammet invites Dee Snider to help him on this theatrical, dramatic song.

Dilana - Maybe Just A Little

Dilana shows that pop music can have a string of melancholy, and be beautiful for it.

Elton John - I've Got 2 Wings

Aggravating spelling aside, Elton John shows mature pop/rock can still be exciting.

Forever Still - Alone

These newcomers have the vocal and songwriting chops, which this song proves amply.

Myrath - Duat

The only thing better than the Eastern atmosphere is that massive hook.

Nordic Union - Hypocrisy

Rock/metal doesn't get much more pop-friendly than this gem.

Zakk Wylde - Lay Me Down

Interchangeable with almost anything from the album, this song is a late night hymn of rock and roll.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Album Review: Sixx:AM - Prayers For The Damned: Vol 1

Over the last few years, Sixx:AM has become one of the more consistent charting bands in modern rock. They may not be a name that rolls off the tongue, but they now have an established string of singles that have garnered tons of airplay, and give them the basis to claim a more relevant place in rock music that either of the bands their members have been playing in. While both Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses are purely nostalgia acts now, Sixx:AM is a living, breathing band that is continuing to grow. If you had asked me when the band was announced, I would have found that hard to believe.

The heart of the band is the combination of Nikki Sixx and singer James Michael, who I first encountered when the two contributed a few songs to a Meat Loaf album. Yes, you read that right. These people selling you a rock band once wrote songs for Meat Loaf. Good ones, too.

Given that, I have checked in each time the band has released a record, and a similar theme emerges each time. Like anyone who is a professional songwriter for hire, they are capable of writing some great material, but they are not very good at making entire albums that live up to that standard. So for every "Accidents Will Happen" they come up with, there are two songs that are a chore to get through.

This time out, the band is more focused then ever on their future, and it shows. The first five tracks on this record are right there with the best stuff they've yet done. "Rise" gets the album off to a fine start with a dramatic flourish and strong contributions from everyone. "You Have Come To The Right Place" has an irresistible hook, and hits the sweet spot of being catchy as all hell, but still keeping a rock attitude. The title track is the best of the bunch, with a darker atmosphere and one heck of a chorus. It's one of the band's best songs, and it single-handedly made me think that the band had finally put everything together.

But then the album takes a turn. The middle batch of songs completely falls apart, and offers up the ultra-simple, beat-based, no melodies anywhere kind of rock music that is so obviously filler. They sound like the tracks that were written because the record wasn't long enough, and they drag things down pretty hard. There's a rebound at the end, but it's not enough to rescue the record. The worst part of saying all that is that this is the first half of a double record. I can already see what is going to happen. Part II will be exactly the same, half good and half disappointing. And when I have both records to put together, there will be one fantastic record's worth of songs, and another album's worth that shouldn't have seen the light of day.

In judging "Prayers For The Damned - Vol I", I suppose the best way of stating my opinion would be to say that it serves as a good starting point for the inevitable compilation I will be making when the second half arrives, because as a record it quickly wears out the welcome I gave it with open arms.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Album Review: Tremonti - Dust

Mark Tremonti has done something that many would have thought impossible; he has made us forget he was ever in Creed. While that band was the laughing stock of rock music until Nickelback took over the throne, he has used the time since that band's collapse to carve out a career with Alter Bridge that has redefined his legacy. That band has established themselves as far superior to anything its members had done before, and sells out arenas around Europe. On top of that, Tremonti has added this solo project, which is supposed to be the more 'metal' version of his core sound. I put that in quotes, because it's a bit dubious to say. These are the mostly the same hard rock songs he's always written, just with a heavier riff at the beginning.

This is the second of two albums that were written and recorded together last year. The first album, "Cauterize", was a disappointing effort that didn't match the project's debut, and felt completely unnecessary, given Alter Bridge continuing to move in heavier directions.

My criticism of this project is on full display in the first song, "My Last Mistake", which opens with a speed metal riff, and then quickly drops down into a verse and chorus that could have appeared on any Alter Bridge of Creed album. I don't say that to say it's bad, because I like Alter Bridge, but merely shifting a riff here and there doesn't seem like enough of a difference to create a third outlet for his music. It feels to me that making Alter Bridge records with a touch more frequency, or amassing material so only the very best can be used, would be a better use of his time and talent.

Part of the trouble is that Tremonti is trying to build these songs from the hallmarks of 80s thrash metal, but his guitar tone is the over-saturated darkness only a modern amp can create, which completely works against this approach. His tone has no bite, and no power, so his frantic riffing sounds weak and flabby, instead of ripping at your face with raw power. But, that tone does lay back int he choruses so his melodies can take center stage, which is the right call, but again makes me wonder why this project exists.

The best parts of this album are the melodies, which are much better than the last album. The choruses on this album hit a bit harder, and have enough hook to them to sink in. The problem is that they are radio rock choruses, and they sit in songs that want to be pure heavy metal. There's a disconnect between the main riffs of these songs, and the melodies Tremonti is writing. It's clear that he loves old-school heavy metal, but it's similarly clear that he's not good at writing it. None of these songs are able to commit to that approach, always falling back into familiar territory.

Look, Tremonti is good at writing radio rock. The man has an ear for melody, and has written plenty of fantastic songs. I like his work a fair bit. But, at the same time, he has one very particular style he writes in, and the shift to this more metallic sound simply doesn't work for him. There are lots of great ideas on this album, but they don't make for great complete songs. I know Tremonti needs something to keep him busy while Myles Kennedy is busy with Slash, but this record feels like Alter Bridge dumbed down, and it makes me wonder why I wouldn't just listen to them instead. This is a decent album, and it's much better than "Cauterize" was, but it doesn't justify the need.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Album Review: Bonehawk - "Albino Rhino"

Okay, raise your hand and repeat the compulsory oath: ‘I am a metal fan, therefore I revere Black Sabbath as the proper and true fathers of the genre.  Subsequently, I have an eternal soft spot for all blues-based metal, regardless of what other subgenres I enjoy.’  There.  Done.  Every metal fan has had this thought a thousand times, every metal fan is a sucker for this whether they like it not, never mind admit it or not.

There’s one subconsciously annoying truth of blues metal, that original breed of the genre that stays focused on groove and depth of tone over all other characteristics, which is that blues metal is secretly the horror movie of metal.  Allow an explanation – in cinema, horror movies (zombie movies in particular) are considered the easiest to make, because they don’t cost that much and it’s a palpable scare that people are used to, an easily achieved thrill on a shoestring budget.  So too it is with metal; nearly any asshole who’s bothered to learn the blues scale and invested in a pedal or two can cobble together some garage-rate blues groove.

So, why the long diatribe, when the name of the band being reviewed hasn’t even been mentioned yet?

Because while horror movies and blues metal are the easiest to make, they’re among the hardest to make well.  The audience has seen the tricks and gimmicks, and to truly make a memorable horror film, you need to capture the imagination of the mind, less than the reaction of the eye.  This is why “Jaws” and “Suspiria” and “Rosemary’s Baby” work so well.  In metal, that means either absolutely killing it in the riff writing department (Mountain of Wizard,) or incorporating an interesting mix of other elements (The Sword.)

“Albino Rhino,” the debut album from Michigan blues metal band Bonehawk, does a little of both.

The album introduces itself plainly enough, but is one of those rare experiences where the more it’s heard, the more it’s enjoyed.  Sure, you can hear “Argenia” and get a pretty fair idea of the music that’s to come, but the classic rock-inspired artistry of a later tune such as “Ulysses” may not totally unfold until the second pass.  What’s important to note here is that first impressions of “Albino Rhino,” particularly in light of the way the album is stacked with a comparative plodder like “Sexy Beast” in the second slot, may belie the real takeaways from the record.

By and large though, Bonehawk has created a riff-based atmosphere that speaks more to the soul of their musical style than to the actual mathematics of it.  The long, twin-guitar solo of “Nomad” isn’t about technical acuity or shredding speed, but instead appeals to the very root of the blues, played with emotion and a since of longing that has been a hallmark of the genre since it bubbled up from the delta and was captured by Robert Johnson.  The addition of a twin guitar into the solo is a nice touch, easily pinched from luminaries like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden and applied here.

The atmosphere of “Albino Rhino” is varied but generally spot on, borrowing generously from metal, classic rock and even the heyday of grunge, as we see in the gleeful distortion and deliberate pacing of “Going Over the High Side.”  Bonehawk readily displays a learned, fanatical understanding of their inspirations, folding genre tropes into their sound that in a fashion that is more street smart than academic, but better for it.  The album concludes with the title track, a wandering romp which is at different points reflective of artists ranging from Black Sabbath to Thin Lizzy to the Sword to Priestess, all alloyed together in a single eight-minute ride.

Okay, the garden here is mostly roses, but not entirely.  “Albino Rhino” will disappoint those looking for sharp edges and genre-defining creativity.  The warm analog sound here rounds out every impact, which means the record doesn’t have a particular crunch, nor does it demand attention on the first listen.  Additionally, Bonehawk is content to weave their inspirations together in interesting ways, but there is no extrapolation here, no curious foray into what the next evolutionary step might be.  The frequent use of twin guitars here is a novel addition, but feels more like ‘what if we did this AND this?’ than ‘what if we USED this to DO this?’ which is similar but not the same thing.

Nevertheless, these are very minor hang ups in what overall is a rewarding and full listening experience.  “Albino Rhino” is a case study in dedication to both craft and fandom, well worth the time and energy.  Throw in the fact that this is only Bonehawk’s debut record, and the future for the band would appear to be limitless.