Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Album Review: Shiverburn - Road To Somewhere

Let's take a trip in the ol' Wayback Machine about a decade. When we look back at that time, it was the golden age of guitar-based pop/rock. Kelly Clarkson had just set the world on fire with her "Breakaway" album, and that sound was being hardened up by bands like Flyleaf and Paramore, who were just beginning their rise. Strong women backed by rock bands were preparing to dominate the airwaves, and it couldn't have been a better time to be listening if you were a fan of the mixture of pop and rock. Then, over the following years, that sound burned out, to the point where it seems like a genre fossilized in amber, only extracted by anthropologists to be documented in textbooks.

But every once in a while a band will come along to remind us of what is possible in the world of pop, and to light a fire under us. In 2016, that band is Shiverburn.

Kelly Clarkson sold ten million copies of "Breakaway", and it's the best comparison I can come up with for "Road To Somewhere". These dozen tracks fit that mold of sweet pop melody bolstered by slick rock guitars, and they do so with the same candy-coated sheen that topped the charts. Shiverburn has created the most relentlessly catchy pop/rock album I've heard in several years. From top to bottom, this record hits you with one uppercut of addictive pop after another, but always retains enough crunch to appeal to rock fans. The blend is strikingly perfect.

Make sure you give yourself more than the first track, to experience this album properly. The opening number, "Sick Of Waiting", is the worst song on the album, which is saying something, because it's a damn solid modern rock track. The only thing I can say about it is that it doesn't really fit with the rest of the album, which pulls back on the modern rock vibe for more classic guitar pop, which just takes things to another level.

From "Mistake" to "Hear Me out" to "Fighters" to the absolutely incredible "Burned Alive", every single track here is burnished with the kind of big pop hook that the army of songwriters behind today's radio hits wish they could come up with. For forty minutes, we're taken on a ride with some of the most immediately enjoyable music you'll hear this year. The band is tight and polished, but the star of the show is without a doubt Sanne Heuyerjans. Her voice has the right amount of spark to carry her energy, and her melodies are flat-out incredible. Just with this album, she's accomplished more than many of the women in the rock scene who get all of the attention. Yes, what she does here is that impressive.

Really, there aren't enough things I can say to express just how tight the songwriting on this album is, other than to tell you that you need to track this down and give it a listen if you've ever liked what pop music used to be. You won't regret it. "Road To Somewhere" came out of nowhere, but it speaks to the part of me that originally fell in love with music, and it's going to wind up being one of my favorite records of the year. This is that good.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Album Review: Fates Warning - Theories Of Flight

Fates Warning is in an interesting, albeit confusing, place right now. The band still exists, as evidenced by the fact that we are talking about a new album just a few years after their last one, but they are also occasionally hitting the road as their former selves, with their former singer in tow. It's an extremely weird dynamic, to have the band existing in both the present and the past, and it makes me wonder about how much focus gets put into either side of the equation. But I'm not here to talk about the version of the band that only exists on stage. We are here to talk about the living, breathing, recording entity, who are back with an album that is a step in a different direction.

For pretty much the entirety of Ray Alder's tenure in the band, Fates Warning has played a version of progressive metal that is, to put it delicately, deliberate. That's a nicer way of saying that they tend to play slow, subdued music that doesn't make much of a first impression. They position themselves as an intellectual band, but music is an emotion first, which makes many of their records feel dull.

That is not the case here. For whatever reason, a fire has been lit under the band, and "Theories Of Flight" is the heaviest, angriest record they have made in a long, long time. You get lulled into this by the opening "From The Rooftops", which opens with several minutes of typical soft guitars, but when the band kicks in, the metallic rage is there unlike anything the band has done. Jim Matheos' guitar tone is impeccable, Ray Alder sounds better than ever, and the band tears through a song that alternates between chugging metal and big stabs at melody.

That is the biggest surprise here, namely that Fates Warning has a stronger focus on pumping up both the metal and the melody. Listening to these songs, there is a heightened emphasis on hooks and melodies. The choruses in "Seven Stars" and "Like Stars Out Eyes Have Seen" are among the best I've ever heard from the band, showcasing a greater attention to the details of writing songs that work on multiple levels.

Of course, we also get two songs that break the ten minute mark. "The Light And Shade Of Things" and "The Ghosts Of Home" both leave plenty of room for experimentation, but don't stay so long that they become a chore. Particularly, the lullaby melody at the beginning of the latter is beautiful, makes for a rousing reprise with the band behind it near the song's end.

Fates Warning is one of those bands that I've always respected, but never really enjoyed all that much. I've felt for a long time that Ray Alder's other band, Redemption, does this sound much better. This record borrows some of the sound and feeling from Redemption, and that results in a Fates Warning album that feels vibrant and vital at a time in their career where you might not expect it. This record is certainly a surprise, but it's a good surprise. In this most recent round of releases by the big three that put progressive metal on the map, Fates Warning wins.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016: The Mid Year Conversation

As always, we sit down periodically and discuss where music is, and whatever else comes to mind. This time, we look at the first half of 2016, and use that as a springboard to deeper discussions on the world of music.

Chris C: Time is a fluid construct, and I get reminded of that whenever it comes due for us to have one of these conversations. It doesn't feel at all like we are nearing the halfway point of 2016, but here we are. Like always, this is a good time to take a step back for a moment, and take stock of what the year has given us, before we turn our attention back to what the rest of the year has to offer.

The one thing I have noticed this year, so far, is that it has been primarily centered around the divergent paths of veterans. On the one hand, long-running institutions like Avantasia, Elton John, Zakk Wylde, and Volbeat have come back with a vengeance, putting out some of their best work in many a year. I hadn't given up on Tobias Sammet, but I was concerned that he had burned through so much of his creativity that he may have hit the wall of being able to keep two bands going at such a break-neck pace. But then he unleashes an album like "Ghostlights", which shut me up. I often say that artists become better songwriters as they get older and more experienced, though the lose the initial spark of creativity. So it's refreshing to hear someone who has so many albums under his belt continue to prime the pump.

My comment there applies to Elton John. In his late-career renaissance, he didn't do a single new thing he hadn't done before, but his melodic crafting was so strong that I wouldn't hesitate to say he was a more consistent writer than in his glory days. "Wonderful Crazy Night" is a record that is expertly made, but also safe. It's the problem that veterans have, in that they can't both stay relentlessly creative and deliver what fans expect. You have to choose one or the other, and know you will be disappointing some portion of your fanbase.

The other side of the coin is that we have also had numerous veteran bands who have continued digging their own creative graves. Megadeth is the first to come to mind, for obvious reasons. Dave Mustaine's endless revolving door is like a drill bit, spinning and spinning until it creates a gaping hole. Megadeth hasn't been good for a long time, but it's still a bit surprising each time when you hear just how bad they are. Anthrax was much better than that, but "For All Kings" was a flat, boring record that trades on the good will of "Worship Music". It only took one album for them to revert to writing boring songs that waste the vocal talents they have been lucky enough to have in the band. Oh, and for my own sake, I'll also throw in The Jayhawks here, who made an album that shows the danger in spreading your wings. They tried to reinvent a band that's been around for over twenty years, and failed pretty hard.

And in keeping with the veteran theme, this has also been a terrible year for musician deaths. But I'll let you pick up that theme if you want, because I'm liable to say something I shouldn't.

D.M: Allow me to work backwards, since in between the time you began this conversation and I'm continuing it, Muhammad Ali passed away, thus adding another onto the list of those who went beyond this year.  Now, Ali was not a musician (though he was a self-styled poet, and isn't that the root of lyricism?) but his passing caused me ponder an expansive question - why is it that we treat the passing of musicians different that other famous persons?  Certainly, the reaction to Ali's passing was immense and emotional and reverent, but it felt uniquely different than the passing of Prince or David Bowie or Lemmy, all luminaries roughly equivalent to Ali within their chosen medium (social impact perhaps notwithstanding.) 

The only difference I can come up with after much consideration of the subject relates to a point you perhaps unintentionally made in your first sentence: that time is a fluid construct.  Moreover, time is malleable in relation to the legacy of art, be it paintings or sculpture or music.  Ali's passing humbles us because we know his moments are gone forever - and if we're being honest, had been gone for some time insofar as we cannot relive them - the man himself was the tangible tie between his stature now and his accomplishments then.  Particularly for people of our generation (and in truth, for anyone under the age of perhaps fifty,) we know of Ali only as a historical event, so our personal connection to his career, regardless of how much we admire and respect the man, is tenuous at best.

By contrast, everyone who heard Prince's music or first tracked "Ziggy Stardust" or rocked out to "Ace of Spades" has a personal relationship with it, good or bad, regardless of how old the music is.  It's like how people study and revere The Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David or Starry Night - those pieces of media are still happening now, can still be observed with fresh eyes in a way that re-watching a sporting event, all while knowing the outcome in advance, can't equal.  Those of more advanced age who saw Ali fight, who gained dignity or conviction from his zeal and principle, they likely feel the sting of his passing much more than those who weren't there.  But everyone can remember the vitality of Prince, for example, as a product of having heard his music in our own times.

Confession time - I didn't listen to Anthrax's new record.  I barely listened to Megadeth's.  Mostly for the exact reasons you already pointed out - I didn't feel like it was going to do me any good.  (Though I did enjoy Megadeth's 360 video - 360 video may just be a hot new fad, but it's an AWESOME hot new fad, so as a production junkie, I'm very much on board.)  I don't mean to be especially cynical or jaded, but both of those books are pretty much closed for me - cherished, and taken off the shelf to re-read and enjoy frequently, but nevertheless closed.  Tangentially, I'm also still a little bitter at Anthrax that they refuse to play any of their John Bush material while on tour, which is a real damn shame, as "Sound of White Noise" remains, to me, their greatest record.

You and I are going to disagree about Volbeat's record as we've already discussed in pieces offline.  While the album does make significant headway in the variety and scope of the band's songwriting, it just wasn't the Volbeat sound I wanted to hear.  And I recognize that you can immediately come back and bludgeon me over the head with your astute argument that bands of a certain age and legacy tend to disappoint one or the other of their fan bases and here I am giving with one hand and taking with the other.  Fair.  I also recognize the latent hypocrisy that I'm criticizing one band for doing something new while lambasting two others of even greater historical importance to the genre for not doing anything new, but whatever.  My counter to that counter is that Megadeth and Anthrax aren't presently doing their old gimmick well, thus not making good music, and isn't that really what it's all about in the grand scheme anyway?

The one nagging truth that seems to be troubling me most thus far into 2016 is the idea that I have yet to really be taken with any single album.  There have been a bevy of very good records, and a couple that I would truly be willing to go to the mat for, but I haven't had a 'wow' moment this year, especially not from a new band.  The discovery of a personally unknown artists is often the greatest reward of what you and I put ourselves through (to be dramatic about it,) and the absence of that moment in 2016 is a point of concern.  I find myself hoping that for all the albums I have enjoyed this year (which we'll probably get into later,) I hope I have not yet heard the one that will be #1 at the end of the year.

 Chris C: You make a good point there. We feel more of an impact at the death of a sports figure or politician, because we know those days are forever gone. Artists, though, never really die away. Each successive generation has their own experiences with art, they get to experience it for the first time the way that we did, and the people before us did. In a way, because the art never dies, it makes the person behind it less important. That's a way of thinking about it that I've never quite put into words before, but it does explain the controversial thing I was fearful of saying; namely that I don't usually care about celebrity deaths. They're sad, yes, but I personally find it hard to get attached to the people behind the moments. That is especially true of people who are artists, because even when they are gone, the art is still there for me to enjoy, so in a way it's as if there wasn't actually a loss suffered.

Your comment about Anthrax brings up an issue that doesn't always get talked about; what bands do when they get new singers. You're absolutely right that it's a shame Anthrax is now pretending that a decade of their existence no longer happened. Van Halen did the same thing when Roth came back. Black Sabbath does it every time they've trotted Ozzy out for a money run. Part of me wants to say that bands are free to do whatever they want, since it's their careers we're talking about, but there's another part of me that finds it incredibly insulting to the fans of their entire careers that they're willing to almost act as if you're stupid for being a fan of the singer no longer there. They were more than happy to take our money for the records, but now that someone else is holding the mic, they act as if those are dreams we concocted after taking too much cold medicine. I suppose it shows that it is truly impossible to please everyone. Half the people are offended when you ignore part of your legacy, and the other half when you play songs from the 'lesser' period. Bands can't win. Not that any of that makes the new Anthrax album any better. It's not, and you shouldn't feel bad for skipping it. At a certain point, bringing back the nostalgic singer winds up turning into pure nostalgia.

Speaking of nostalgia, let me say right now that I am absolutely terrified of the upcoming Meat Loaf album. While the fan in me is thrilled that it will be a Meat/Steinman album, the critic in me also knows that almost all of Steinman's best material has already been recorded. The nostalgia of the pairing will help, but it can't overcome the long odds of the record actually being very good. My curiosity is as morbid as it is excited.

I'm not going to hit you over Volbeat's record, because you're absolutely correct. It doesn't have the sound or the *essence* of what you and I both originally liked Volbeat for. The only difference between us is that where Volbeat has ended up, with their newer, more pop-oriented sound, is right in the heart of the music I first fell in love with. If it didn't happen to scratch that particular itch for me, I would be right there with you. Volbeat was such a unique band that losing that original sound has left a hole in the metal scene that no one else can fill. Even though I am loving the new record, I miss that too.

If history is a trend, I think the roles will flip as the year continues on. You haven't found much that has spoken to you, while I have. I've had a great run through this first half of the year. I have a solid group of records to fill at least half of my top ten list come December, and two records that absolutely blew me away. I'm happy, even if the rest of the year is a bit disappointing. I also agree with you that finding new, exciting artists is the best part of what we do. When I come across someone I've never heard of, particularly one who is a small artist working on the outskirts of the industry, being able to use our little platform to help them, and seeing the appreciation that flows in both directions, it does make it worthwhile to suffer through Megadeth. Sorry, needed to throw a cheap shot in there. That's the one disappointment I have right now, that I haven't found one of those yet this year either, although I'm optimistic I may have just done so.

D.M: The other fun (used jokingly) trend that we sometimes encounter in music is the Guy Who Breaks Away From A Band And Won't Play That Material Anymore On Principle.  Years ago, I saw Michale Graves on tour with Mina Caputo (she was still Keith at the time,) and while Graves was happily content to play acoustic covers of his Misfits material, which a) what else did he have? and b) wasn't anything to write home about, Caputo immediately informed the crowd that there would be no recitation of "River Runs Red."  You could almost feel the air go out of the room.  As a kid, I remember reading a story about how John Fogerty swore he wouldn't play CCR tunes anymore.  Not too long after, he realized people were willing to pay money to see that and wouldn't pay to just see him, and suddenly, "Bad Moon Rising" was rising again.  John Bush (since we cited him earlier, I'll use him as an example,) doesn't seem to do many solo tours, but if he did, I'd be curious to see what he would play.  This of course twists back into the whole 'value of nostalgia' thing, but you know.

So, not to flagellate the Volbeat argument unnecessarily, but this brings up an interesting point - given that the 'metal' sound of Volbeat seems to have been tempered (intentional pun!) does this mean that Volbeat is potentially, should this path continue, a disappointing band?  Are they merely scaling two mountains?  Can you be a hero to most (like Elvis!) but invoke the frowns of others (also like Elvis, if you listen to Public Enemy,) not because of simple dislike but because you changed styles?  Volbeat has a personal history with Metallica, are they simply following the same blueprint to some degree?  More questions than answers!  (I know it's waaay too early to determine a lot of this stuff now, but I'll bring it up to make conversation, and because, as a mutual friend of ours says, 'it would be irresponsible not to speculate.')

Anyway, keep this thing going - who do you love and like and hate so far in 2016?  Who do you look forward to?  To lead off, I have my concert tickets for Prophets of Rage in hand, and if there should be a resulting album, I will be among the first in line.  I have more thoughts, but I'll let you pick up there while I try to think of a cheap shot I can take at Bruce Springsteen before we close this down.

 Chris C: Artists are always in a no-win situation. If they don't play the material fans want, they get looked at as a disappointment. If they play nothing but the material people want, they become a nostalgia act. If they continue playing new material after their best days, everyone complains that they're ignoring what the fans want. Let's boil it down to the basic truth of all of this; fans are impossible to please. We will never be happy, no matter what our favorite artists do.

Which leads back to Volbeat. Are they a disappointing band? Well, I can make the case both ways. It entirely depends on what we want to say a band's job is supposed to be. If we think a band is supposed to appeal to their fans and provide a steady stream of entertainment, then yes, I think Volbeat is a disappointment. They have clearly abandoned the identity that originally made them popular, in much the same way that Metallica did. I don't say it was for impure reasons, but they have absolutely made themselves more palatable for a wider audience. But if we want to say that a band's job is to reach and please as many people as possible, then no, I wouldn't say Volbeat is a disappointment. They might have fewer hardcore fans than they once did, but they have a bigger footprint in the rock world than they ever have before. In terms of turning their love of music into a lucrative career, Volbeat is absolutely successful. We once again reach that dichotomy; music as both art and business. The more I think about it, the harder I think it is to ever achieve both at the same time.

As for the rest of the year, I have to say either I'm falling behind in keeping up with the news, or there isn't much that has been announced I'm looking forward to. The one I know for sure is the sophomore Blues Pills album. An effort as good as the first one will vault them onto the same tier (though still below) of modern day awesomeness as Graveyard. Other than that, the only other thing is the Meat Loaf album I already mentioned, which I'm looking forward to in the same way that your cat looks forward to a vet appointment. You know it's going to be for your benefit, but it's going to hurt.

As for what I loved and hated, the love list is easy. Zakk Wylde, Avantasia, and Nordic Union are all albums that are special, and I'll throw Volbeat in there too. The hate list is pretty much the entirety of the metal world. Whether I liked it or not, there hasn't really been a metal album that has stood up and made everyone take notice. It feels like metal is rather aimless right now, and I'm not sure what is going to rectify that.

So now I'll turn it back to you. What albums have been naughty, and what albums have been nice? And do you know of anything on the horizon that is going to make our mouths water?

D.M: So far, the best part of musical year has been occupied by bands I'm already familiar with, which as we discussed, is a slight disappointment (although I may have discovered something this week that I am very excited about.  I don't want to give it away because, for one, what kind of tease would that be? and two, I need to really digest it further before I go out on a limb for it.)  I will say though, a couple of the bands in questions saw fit to make adjustments and as such reinvent their sound, which is almost like hearing something new.  In particular, The Texas Hippie Coalition and Lacuna Coil both hyped up their new records by calling them 'darker' and 'heavier' which as you and I and everyone reading this knows, are the most overused terms in the history of heavy music.  But!  In this case the labels apply, and damn it, that's worth something.  These are veterans artists who are clearly still willing to challenge themselves and make tweaks, which is a fresh change to the bevy of artists who choose not to challenge themselves and make the same record over and Bruce Springsteen.  (BOOM!  There it is.  Happy with that.)

I've enjoyed Red Eleven and Prong and Blood Ceremony a great deal, plus a smattering of others, but at the risk of sounding pompous, I sort of expected to enjoy those, so that was more a question of living up to expectation rather than exceeding it.  I will say I was pleasantly surprised by large sections of Surgical Meth Machine.  Not that I'm putting that on my shield or anything, but it was much better than I originally anticipated.

It's hard to say what's disappointed me specifically, although it does merit mention that when I read up on Droids Attack before listening to their record, I had hoped for much more than what I got. Maybe Volbeat?  A laudable effort in many ways, but not what I wanted from them.  With that said, this may be too general, but it is fair to say I'm disappointed in metal as a whole?  Of all the records I'm spinning right now from 2016, with the exception of Lacuna Coil, all of them have at least some straight up-and-down rock blood, and Lacuna Coil is famously poppy, so even that doesn't necessarily carry the banner for the genre.  In particular, the heavier forms of the genre haven't come up with anything in particular worth talking about.  Groove metal, death metal (melodic or otherwise), thrash - all disappointments so far this year, either unable or unwilling to contend in the face of the rock-styled revival and industrial resurrection of the past couple years.

I sometimes wonder if some of it is me - as much as we try to stay neutral and block out external factors, 2016 has been, in short, a ridiculous whirlwind of a year for me personally, and I'm perturbed by the notion that it's affecting how I'm absorbing the music, whether my exhaustion is adding to my musical cynicism.  I tell myself it isn't, but it seems impossible that my environment would have no impact on me whatsoever, no matter how resolved I may be to ignore it.  It's possible I've really dismissed some bands that I otherwise would have either taken more time with or given benefit of the doubt in order to unearth a gem.  So my opinions this year may be unavoidably muddied no matter what.

Not too far on the horizon there's some releases I either haven't listened to yet or haven't had a chance to review - Death Angel and Scorpion Child are both pretty good (Death Angel is very good,) though for different reasons, and I'm looking forward to Deadlock and Whitechapel, both of which we recently received.  My allegiance to Whitechapel is a strange thing - I don't know that I've ever really loved any of their records, but their live show is super energetic and very good, so I think I always listen to them in the hopes that 'this'll be the one!'  As for Deadlock, I'm basically expecting more of the same, but I like their same, and that seems to be par for the course this year anyway.  Those things really only get us through July, but hey, one month at a time.  Naturally, because I mention it every six months, it feels normal to bring it up again - I anxiously wait Blackguard's "Storm," which Paul Zinay promised would happen this year.  I will continue to mention it until it happens.

Final thoughts?

 Chris C: As much as we might want to think it is, music is not completely divorced from the circumstances in which we listen to it. What's going on in our lives makes an impact in how we hear music, as does such simple things as the weather. I commented a couple of times when writing about records that the season in which they are released has quite a bit to do with how I take them in. Frankly, I don't understand why a band that plays any sort of dark, depressing music would ever release a record in the Spring or Summer. When they do, and I go to listen to them, I can't find a way of getting myself invested in the music when I look out the window and see bright sunshine. The issue of neutrality comes up in the sense that when that happens to me, I try to make a note of it, so anyone reading can see that I might be particularly biased for or against something.

As for a final thought, I'm going to agree with you that metal has had a tough first half of the year. I'm hoping that there will be a few things popping up on the radar to change that, because I'd rather not have to say that this is the worst year for metal that I can remember. I'm not counting on that rumored Metallica album to reverse the tides though.

Otherwise, it's been a good year so far, and if the second half matches the quality we've already seen, I'm going to be quite happy.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Album Review: The Browning - "Isolation"

Yes.  Yes.  Yesyesyes.  This is the kind of album that I, not to make it about me, but I have been hoping for in the last couple years.  The virile surge in popularity of electronic dance music meant that a combination of that music and metal seemed an almost inevitable experiment – too much influence, too many musicians willing to take a chance, too many groups not of my generation coming of age in an electronic era for this not to happen eventually.

There are those who would suggest that industrial already had this anticipated concoction covered and while that particular subgenre admittedly utilizes many electronic elements, it is distinctly different from EDM in color and tone.  The closest attempt in recent memory to create a true synthesis of the styles came from Exotype’s record a couple years back, which proved to be an important proof-of-concept, but lacked the consistency and discipline to really establish a beachhead.

From the American Midwest, perhaps the least likely of all origin points, comes The Browning with another record.  The band originally formed as a one-man army in 2005, became a ‘band’ in 2009 and since then has released three records, including this new effort, “Isolation,” the first under the Spinefarm Records label.  In the intervening years, the band has seemingly changed a hundred members a hundred times, but through it all they continue to produce new music.

What pops first about “Isolation” is that there’s real harmony here between the metal(core) and the edm, which likely comes to most listeners as a surprise.  One aspect does not work in support of another, they blend and entwine in musically appropriate ways that give the record a full sound.  “Dragon” is the best early example of what we’re talking about; an arcing electronic line played in companion step with a deep, thunderous metal chug.

The Browning makes their album work but not trying to do too much – they keep their rhythms simple and let the novel juxtaposition of sounds speak for itself, which is a workable formula.  The blending of styles within the simple melodies is practically seamless, “Pure Evil” just one example of the nearly flawless synthesis that The Browning is capable of.  There’s no ‘metal side’ or ‘edm side’ to the best moments of “Isolation,” the music simply is and asks you only to take it on face.

Now, before we get carried away, “Isolation” is not a perfect record, far from it.  It has real, tangible problems with pacing, and the vocal performance is dry in that it is one growled scream all day, all the time.  Also, the simplification  that occurs in order to make the synthesis of elements work means that by the end of the record, there’s a feeling of hearing the same thing over and over again, which loops back into the pacing problem – a lot of these songs slow down for long stretches and wallow rather than engage.  “Fallout” and “Vortex” and “Spineless” are all listenable as individual pieces, but taken together the distinction of each piece fades away dramatically.

Nevetheless, one hopes that “Isolation” is the prototype from which more of this kind of experimentation can occur.  The Browning is showing that the concept has life and can be eminently well crafted and enjoyable, even with the record’s unabashed flaws in tow.  In the metallosphere there’s often an outcry for something innovative and different – “Isolation” is both of these.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Album Review: Anderson/Stolt - Invention Of Knowledge

Roine Stolt can be one of the most prolific artists out there, regularly putting out an album of complex progressive rock every year, when he's interested. And between Transatlantic and The Flower Kings, he was on a roll just a couple of years ago. So where has he been the last three years? The answer to that is this album, a collaboration between Roine and legendary Yes singer Jon Anderson. This is the sort of project that, in prog circles, more than justifies putting his own bands on the sideline. It's one of those ideas that you would think required a time machine, to go back and see how two bands of different generations could combine. But this is real, and with Yes sputtering to its inevitable end, it's also something that fans of classic progressive rock need.

Divided into just four tracks that run over an hour, "Invention Of Knowledge" is progressive excess to its core. Opening with the twenty minute epic title track, we get thrown back into a sound that is ripped from the mid 70s. Chiming bells open a track that winds itself up into a whir of synths and deliberately placed guitar parts, while Anderson dominates the mix. His voice is pushed to the fore, which is good in that his melodies are the driving force that you will remember from the songs, but not so good in that his voice is also one that can easily drift into being intolerable. He is singing so high, and in stilted rhythms, that he at times gives the impression he is singing a children's album.

The other issue with the album is that while Anderson is doing that, Stolt doesn't give him a musical backdrop to counteract the sugar overdose. The music on the album is frustratingly soft, without any of the crunch I would expect from Stolt. His lead lines that drift in and out are classically his, but he never lets the guitar build up and give the music any power. It's an entire album, a lengthy album, of stubbornly subdued music. Perhaps Anderson's voice can't sing over anything heavier at this point, but it's hard to build up and drama, let alone a crescendo, when the music is flat in volume and energy.

Anderson is clearly the star of the proceedings, and he does spin out some good melodies. His presence is more engaging, and frankly more immediately melodic than I was expecting. Progressive singers are often the most boring of all, since they can explain away a lack of interesting lines by pointing to the involved music. But some of the melodies he sings in "Knowing" are beautifully medieval. Yes, it does draw close to sounding like something that should be playing at a Renaissance Fair, but when hasn't progressive rock had a degree of that?

So there are good aspects to this album, but they get bogged down in the long, slow morass that is the whole of it. Simply put, an hour of this soft, slow brand of prog grows too tiresome to take. There isn't enough energy in the music to drive the songs for as long as they require, and Anderson's voice is best in small doses. Legendary though he may be, he is absolutely an acquired taste. While I would say that hardcore fans of classic prog will find a lot to enjoy in here, I am not one of them. This is exactly the kind of album that commits the ultimate crime of overstaying its welcome. I found myself constantly checking to see when it was over, and if I'm doing that, I can't be enjoying myself.

I understand that the collaboration is something dear to these two, but the results prove a point; not every good idea works out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Early (Sad) Impression: Meat Loaf - Braver Than We Are

My musical history begins with Meat Loaf. The first single I ever bought was "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)", and the first album I ever bought was "Bat Out Of Hell II". Suffice it to say, I have been in many ways shaped by the songs of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. They are a part of who I am, for better or worse, and while it isn't fair to judge a complete album off of 90 second samples of each track, I heard enough in the first tastes of the upcoming "Braver Than We Are" to speak up.

I'm afraid that this album is going to be a sad, sorry ending to a truly legendary collaboration.

That thought was running through my mind before any information about the album had been made public. Meat Loaf had already recorded nearly every Steinman song of note, which didn't leave me with optimism that an entire album of material could be found that lived up to expectations. And since Steinman has not been actively writing for years, we were bound to do one of Steinman's favorite tricks; cannibalizing his own catalog.

The ten tracks on the album are mostly songs pulled from musicals Steinman has written, and a rehashing of "Loving You Is A Dirty Job". That is a frightening thought. Musicals are an entirely different world than Wagnerian rock and roll, and as expected, the two do not mesh here at all. Despite having heard these songs before, performed in different guises by different singers, these are uniformly slower, flatter versions that suck the life and energy out of them. "More" wasn't the greatest song when it was written and demoed for a Batman musical, but in this form it's even less engaging, for a reason I'll get to soon.

We also get a song written for the defunct project The Dream Engine, "Speaking In Tongues", which is utterly embarrassing for everyone involved. The entire song is built around images of trees, just so we can get the pun, "you've got a spark, I've got wood." Yes, because we need to men in their mid sixties making jokes about erections. I thought it was the lowest moment of Meat's career when he sang the line "I can barely fit my dick in my pants", but at least that was in the guise of an overblown, bragging song. This pun comes in a tender, reflective ballad. It's too juvenile even for Steinman's love of teenage angst.

And I'm not sure how I can ever listen to "Skull Of Your Country" without being reminded that it was turned into something so much better in "Total Eclipse Of The Heart". I understand Steinman recycles, but leaving in the "turn around bright eyes" motif, when it's already world famous in another song, is a decision that begs me to compare this album to ones that are worlds better.

But the worst part of all is the sad fact that Meat Loaf can no longer do this music justice. His voice has been declining in recent years, and from what I have heard here, he is beyond repair. His voice is not just rough, but it's small. The larger than life character of Meat Loaf has been reduced to a singer who can't keep up with any of the women guesting on these tracks. He is flat out out-sung not only by them, but in places by his own backup singers. It's shocking how old he sounds, missing notes and lacking any of the power or passion we've come to know from him. The time for retirement sounds like it's already passed.

If Meat Loaf wanted to finish his career with one more tribute to Steinman, I can think of a better way to do it. My advice would have been to take every great Steinman track he never recorded, and the ones he recorded without the man's input, and redo them one more time under his care. Not only would it have capped off a fitting relationship, it would have removed the need to have a string of albums that neither man wants to remember. I can imagine an album with Steinman-helmed versions of "Bad For Good", "Original Sin", "Left In The Dark", "Nowhere Fast", "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", "Surf's Up" and "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young".

That would be something truly special. What we're getting instead is a reheated plate of leftovers that we didn't want the first time.

I will give the full album a chance when it comes out, but I think this will be my lone statement about it. I'm too depressed right now to consider writing a more formal review.

Album Review: Be'lakor - Vessels

I readily admit that I am not a fan of death metal. What I listen to music for has little to do with the realities of extreme metal, in any form, but that doesn't mean that there aren't occasions where a band manages to do something I enjoy. I recall a few years back coming across an odd name, and listening to the first record by a band named Be'lakor. That record was something unique, a melodic death metal record that was actually melodic, and one I found myself becoming a fan of. That didn't carry through to their next albums, but there was for a brief moment a time when I was quite enamored with Be'lakor's brand of death metal.

That brings us to "Vessels", the newest offering from the progressive, melodic death metal purveyors. The formula is now established in what they will deliver; an album of lengthy songs that follow a pattern of chunky vocals and guitar harmonies. The accusation that they are a bit monotonous would not be out of place at all.

"An Ember's Arc" shows the band's best and worst qualities, with a soft acoustic introduction that leads into some of the most composed death metal out there, but also a song that taken three minutes to really get to the point, and then stretches it out for another five. Editing has never been the band's strong suit, and it is the key factor in making their records less enjoyable than they should be. Sitting through a lengthy death metal album is tough enough, but when the breaks only coming in eight minute intervals, the writing has to be patently exceptional to not become tedious.

And while Be'lakor are good writers, they also operate in a safe zone. You can take any song from any album, and you wouldn't know from whence it came. They have a very particular sound, and they don't deviate from it. From the way the guitars swell, to the vocal patterns, to even the pace they move along at, every song is rather similar to the one that came before, and the one that comes after. It's not exactly a recipe for excitement.

The other thing is that their style is not predicated on riffs, so there isn't much in the songs to grab onto. The vocals are like most death metal, lacking interesting rhythms that you could 'sing' along with, so the lack of riffs as well means that the songs float by on perceived melody. That's fine for a track, but an entire album of that material is not engaging enough to make any sort of impact.

That said, Be'lakor's sound is still one that I enjoy, and "Vessels" is as high-quality as any of their other albums. They are, objectively, one of the best death metal bands going today. Subjectively, however, they're in that phase where they are comfort food. You know what you're getting, and it will satisfy you, but it's more of a routine than anything you really want. "Vessels" is a perfectly beautiful example of melodic death metal. It's just that after "A Frail Tide", every other record has practically been a clone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Album Review: Death Angel - "The Evil Divide"

On this site we speak fairly frequently about the concept of nostalgia; what it is, what it means and whether it’s good or bad for music and culture as a whole.  This decade in metal has seen a surge in nostalgia like we’ve never seen before – a genre that was always so proud to break ground and embrace the punk ideal of leaving the past behind is suddenly turning back on itself as the first generations of fans come into their mid-life and want to embrace their youth again.  Whether or not this has been a good turn (and there are arguments to be made on both sides,) it is irrefutable that no band has benefitted more from the desire for yesteryear than Death Angel, who are more popular now than they’ve ever been.

The typical arc for a band resurrected by wistful memories of days gone by is that they can only continue for so long until people realize that there was a reason that band has been lost in the sands of time and they sink back into relative obscurity (AnvilAnvilAnvilAnvil.)  Death Angel is the rare exception that bucks the trend, reunited and releasing powerful new material that’s making the adoring masses regret ever forgetting the band’s impact in the first place.  With that as the backdrop, the band has released a new record, “The Evil Divide.”

Where many bands try to recreate their past magic through a modern lens, reinventing themselves for a new generation, Death Angel for this record has instead doubled down on what got them here.  The entire record is almost like a time capsule of the late eighties in thrash, when the genre ruled through a distinct combination of creativity and common sense.  “The Evil Divide” trades in chug riffs and highly artistic solos, using the junction of those roads to create the multiple phases of “Father of Lies,” one of the album’s no-nonsense thrash pounders.

For all of that though, the album’s best and most memorable track is “Lost,” an old-school thrash lighter-raiser that surges with power but is tempered by something resembling introspection.  What makes the cut work so well is the memorable riff – it’s the kind of thing that you may not actively notice at the time, but upon reflecting on the record later, it’s the first sound you can remember, and that usually coupled with a subconscious nod of approval.

As has long been the case with Death Angel, their music functions as an examination of the interplay between Rob Cavestany and Ted Aguilar on guitar.  The duo shines in this outing, able to craft variances in pace from mid-tempo to up-tempo without losing any sense of direction or purpose.  “It Can’t Be This” and “Hell to Pay” stand as opposite hallmarks of Death Angel’s deep understanding of the music they’re trying to make.

Mark Osegueda’s vocal performance, in the midst of all these other marvelous exhibitions, is going to be largely overlooked, which is a real shame, as he drives whole sections of this record in the same way that Tom Araya did for the best days of Slayer.  Osegueda is measured but sharp, crafting his voice in such a way to carry the narrative and tempo of the album with some menace, but not overpowering or distracting.  It’s true that he utilizes a very limited range, but Death Angel doesn’t require more than he can offer, nor does he attempt to step outside his capable role.

There’s really nothing bad to say about “The Evil Divide,” except perhaps that it doesn’t evolve the genre.  In some cases that’s a real detriment, but when a record is this well-crafted, and stands as perhaps the best pure thrash record in the last five or six years, it doesn’t need to be more than it is.  If you’re a thrash guy or girl and have been wandering through the quagmire wondering when your rescue ship will come, “The Evil Divide” is that record.  Worth an immediate acquisition….and then get your friends in on it, too.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

DVD Review: Dilana - Live In Africa

I already told the horror story of getting this DVD, but let's turn now to the more important part, the DVD itself. This is going to be a review in two parts. Let's start with the good news.

Dilana's performance on this show is extraordinary. The acoustic setting strips the songs back so much that there is little to get in the way of her vocals, which are even more raw and searing than on record. "Beautiful Monster" sits at #4 on my most recent list of favorite albums, and the versions of the songs that she performs here use the energy from the audience to pry that little bit of extra emotion from her already flawless voice. Dilana has always been one of the most expressive vocalists I've ever encountered, and listening to her blaze her way through these songs makes that fact all the more obvious. From the hushed tones that usher in "Falling Apart", to the immense power she throws behind the ending of "Ice", Dilana is a tour-de-force who can convey emotion through her voice like few others. Not all songs are about something meaningful, and not all meaningful songs sound like it in the hands of lesser singers, but Dilana makes every word cut with the power of a freshly sharpened blade.

When she sings "Dirty Little Secret", even though it isn't about my own family, the music is so powerful it feels as though it is. There's nothing like the simplicity of acoustic music to reveal a song's heart, and the bare-bones arrangements here only work to shine a spotlight on the emotional core of the songs, producing a concert that uses emotion for its heaviness, and couldn't possibly work on the same level with a full band. While a rock show would be more energetic, and more of a celebration of music as a religion, this approach is better for this particular project, because it is so much more consequential. It's an experience.

But now for the bad news. As I feared from the circuitous route the DVD took in coming to fruition, the end product is not produced up to the standards of Dilana's performance. The picture is slightly pixilated throughout, which isn't a problem, but is disappointing. Throughout the songs, the producers use editing tricks out of 70s music videos, with soft cuts and super-imposed images on top of one another. The music and the performance are raw and visceral, and then the editing takes me right out of it with a needless trick. I don't know why editors can't let the performance speak for itself. All they need to do is pick the most important angle at each moment, and show me that.

And just for a bit of insult on top, each song is accompanied by a title graphic, of which "Velvet Covered Stone" is spelled wrong. Delivered eight months late, and they didn't spend time proofreading the few words that appear on screen. Sigh.

Those issues are irksome, but they don't affect the outcome. "Live In Africa" is a gift for all of us who love Dilana, but will likely never be close enough to attend a show in person. She is a special artist, and I for one am glad to be able to have this to document her in her natural element. I heartily give my highest recommendation to her and her performance, but maybe not the product itself.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bundurock & Dilana's DVD: A Horror Story

*Note: A review of this DVD should be forthcoming. Before I can get to that, this needed to be said.

The first rule of business is "the customer is always right". That isn't meant to be taken literally, but rather as an instruction that customers should be shown respect, because their money is what makes any business work. Without customers, there is no business. So even when they are wrong, or crazy, or demanding beyond reason, they must be humored enough to feel like staying with your business. Unfortunately, Bundurock either never got that memo, or they completely ignored it.

Pissing off your customers does not just reflect poorly on the business, it reflects poorly on the people running it.

When it was announced that Dilana was going to be filming a DVD, I was ecstatic. Since the likelihood of me ever being able to attend a show was remote, this would be my chance to be able to experience a concert. When it was announced it would be a crowd-funded effort, I was slightly less enthused. For every success story that has come from that avenue, there are also horror stories. I decided to hedge my bets and wait.

As the announced release date was approaching, I jumped in and made my purchase. The DVDs, we were told, would be shipped out at the beginning on November 2015. November arrived, and there was no word on shipments. Communication was sparse, and only when the month was nearly over was it announced that an 'unforeseen' delay in finalizing the product meant that shipping would commence in early December 2015. They would arrive in time for the holiday season.

Christmas came and went without a word. Over the course of the following five plus months, Bundurock has been an abject failure in every respect. First, they missed the deadline in getting the DVDs edited and produced. They appear to have lacked any experience in that area, so they did not actually know how long it would take to make the DVDs. The right thing to do would have been to announce from the start that they were new, and they could not make any guarantees, rather than promise us something they had to know they couldn't deliver.

Second, they are one of the most unresponsive businesses I have ever had to communicate with. Over the course of months, I have lost count of how many emails and messages I sent them, the vast majority of which were never replied to. I am a customer, whose money they had for more than six months by this point, and they didn't believe I deserved a response when I politely asked when I could expect my DVD to be shipped.

They made numerous promises that the DVDs were going to ship 'next week', and that we would be getting updates 'at the end of the week'. All of those were lies designed to placate us into throwing in the towel, as we did not receive any information until a large enough number of us badgered them into doing their jobs. Lie after lie piled up, as their reputation disintegrated.

Worst of all is the attitude taken. The implication was that they were so busy getting the DVDs done, printed, and ready for shipping that they didn't have the time to give us updates. Aside from the fact that posting an update on a Facebook page takes all of five minutes, they gave us the finger each and every day, when their page was filled with stories they had been reading and decided to share. They had time to make sure I saw they liked a story about some petty garbage, but they didn't have time to talk to someone who had given them money. They were bordering on being intentionally disgraceful.

Even as the DVDs began shipping, they could not resist insulting us. Pictures were posted of the lucky packages on their way to the post office. But they either didn't have the resources or the good sense to send them all out at once. Instead, we had to sit and wait, watching as a slow trickle of DVDs made their way to other, luckier people, while the photographic evidence was posted, just to rub it in our faces even more. If it had been anyone other than Dilana I was waiting for, I would have demanded my money back.

I don't want to blame Dilana, because I understand the avenues for independent artists are difficult. However, the decision to utilize Bundurock to make and distribute her product has left a pronounced stain on her good name. Now, I will have to question the decision to buy any of her future albums, on the chance that these people could have a hand in the process. It only seems right to me that they never receive another dollar for their miserable service and pathological incompetence.

It didn't have to be like this. Problems happen, and I can understand that. But when someone actively ignores their customers, and refuses to take any responsibility for the equivalent of pissing on them, they don't deserve the respect that not publishing this piece would be. Simple communication could have tempered these ill-feelings, but they refused to do the right thing. They clearly had no idea how to do the job, and when that became clear to those of us unfortunate enough to have done business with them, there was no apology, there was no effort to make good on their failure. They continued to obfuscate, delay, and show the business ethics of a snake-oil salesman. They even went so far as to tell me my frustration and anger isn't warranted, and is a minor price to pay, because I'll have the DVD to enjoy for years to come. That is utter bullshit. They have stolen half a year of my life by making me chase them down and badger them into doing the job they promised. My anger is more than warranted.

I may finally have my DVD, but I can never truly enjoy it. Every time I put it on, I will remember the cesspool I had to crawl through to pry it out of their hands. They have ruined something that was supposed to bring me joy, and they have for the first time made me think less of Dilana.

That might be their greatest sin of all.

And of course, it arrived with the case shattered in three places. Because of course it did.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Album Review: Monsterworks - Black Swan Annihilation

In the grand scheme of things, I haven't been a critic for all that much time. A few years is really nothing, but it is enough time to have cycled through several bands, where you get to cover multiple albums, which shows the evolution of both time and music. And then there is a band like Monsterworks, who puts out records at a steady and rapid clip, to the point where I'm honestly not sure how many times I've come across them now. What I can say is that they release music often enough that the vivid freshness I felt the first time I heard them is a thing of the past, and the uniqueness they possess has blended together. Each record has been less thrilling than the last, precisely because I know I'm going to be hearing it again not too long from now. But still, I soldier on.

The theme of this record is destruction, and the fall of mankind, which should tell you about how uplifting the music is going to be. "Immortalist" kicks the record off with all the usual Monsterworks tropes. There's a few classic metal riffs, plenty of growled and shrieked vocals, and a structure that wanders off the straight and narrow. It's expectedly schizophrenic, which is a sentence that I think says everything there is to say about Monsterworks at this point. If you know going in that the songs will not always make sense, and will be a bit crazy, the effect is completely dulled.

Much of that could be overcome, however, if the songs were as sharp and as focused as they were on "Album Of Man", but that has not been the case since then. Each album since then has stripped away the elements of fun and catchiness, in favor of an approach that is more serious, but more boring. By becoming so singularly death metal focused in the vocals, the songs rarely, if ever, have any hooks that would make this enjoyable to sit through. Even in comics, The Joker is usually trying to have a good time.

The problem Monsterworks has always had is that their approach to 'supermetal' is so diverse that you have to be a fan of every influence they draw from to truly enjoy the records they make. That's a recipe for failure, and this record doesn't do much to persuade me they know the right direction to go anymore. As a death metal band, they aren't particularly ferocious, and as a regular metal band, they aren't particularly melodic. Instead of juxtaposing the light and dark, they've muddled everything into a muddy grayish brown. This record is sort of like looking at a mud puddle after a soaking rain, rather than looking up to the rainbow in the sky.

That's the poetic way of saying that there isn't anything about "Black Swan Annihilation" I would recommend. It's a record that only serves to remind me of the power of first impressions, and that if you want to hear what Monsterworks sound should be, "Album Of Man" is the only record you need to bother with.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Album Review: Cyborg Octopus - "Learning to Breathe"

Okay, when you name your band Cyborg Octopus, that’s an easy way to get attention, especially among a crowd that’s looking for something that stands out amidst the masses.  Let’s face it, if we here at this site are being honest, the mere name of the band is probably fifty percent of the reason we’re here talking about them in the first place.  The other fifty percent has to do with the band’s ambitious press, which roughly calls the outfit a progressive thrash-funk sextet.  The combination of those words feels all but impossible, but hey, this is 2016 and let’s all keep an open mind.  With that, the band has recently released their new record “Learning to Breathe.”

But that happy boasting about the band and their capacity for creation ultimately becomes a drawback, because while Cyborg Octopus is a decent band, and their new record isn’t a terrible listen, the immediate issue if that they’re not the band they want you to believe they are.  Too often the sides of their personality give way to each other rather than mix, creating an album that possesses different faces, but not the ones advertised.  Even within the opening track “Data_M1nefield,” there are really catchy thrash parts and a nicely juxtaposed old school rock harmonic solo, but the only funk within is momentary and separate from the material around it.

Now, that particular drawback can be overcome if the content contained within is good enough to stand on its own merits, in its own image.  Does “Learn to Breathe” measure up?  There are great moments on this record, “DiscoBrain!” for one, when Cyborg Octopus manages to truly take hold of one of their parts and turn it into something that moves the body appreciably.  “DiscoBrain!” is really the only track that gives us a full flavor of what the press wanted us to believe was possible for this album.

Other than that, the best moments seem to happen when the band embraces the thrash half of their personality, injecting their record with real groove reminiscent of the halcyon days of thrash riffing.  “Shark Pit,” minus some connecting tissue that doesn’t necessarily fit, is a really nice thrash song in the traditional sense, with an intelligible but fast-paced riff, the classic snare gallop and some open space to the make the riff breathe.

Too often Cyborg Octopus gets caught up in trying to reach beyond the margins, which is admirable, but only if it fits.  There are multiple sections of either piano or feigned (real?) harpsichord and while those are somewhat interesting for their placement, the rhythm beneath tends to immediately devolve into a handful of simple chugs.

So, what we end up with is a record that isn’t a disappointment, but also doesn’t live up to the hype.  In their best moments, Cyborg Octopus can be a very good, catchy metal band, but there aren’t quite enough of these to offer unilateral commendation of “Learning to Breathe.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Album Review: Widow - Carved In Stone

One of the things that annoys me about the metal scene is that when you hear a band describe themselves as playing traditional/classic metal, you can interpret that as code for playing loud without knowing how to write a song. There are countless bands out there that think a riff is all you need to have a metal song. They forget that the great metal bands of yesteryear were influenced by rock bands that were all about songwriting, and that Priest and Maiden live on because they wrong great songs. Metal used to be all about that, but not so much anymore.

But then we get bands like Widow, who actually play classic metal in the classic form, the kind of metal that could have gotten radio attention on rock stations back in 1986. I don't remember how I came across their previous album, "Life's Blood", but it's one that has stuck with me these last few years as a prime example of what classic heavy metal can still be in today's world.

After the old-school acoustic introduction, "Burning Star" introduces us to the classic Widow sound; slightly raw production, vocals that remind me of a more restrained Urban Breed, and hooks for days. The verses on this song are as catchy as many band's choruses, and the main hook has the kind of infectious energy that you can easily imagine a crowd of fans singing along with in a crowded club. There's a sense of fun that comes through that reminds me of what metal was always supposed to be.

The one downside to Widow's sound is that, with the exception of the more acoustic "Time On Your Side", there is very little to differentiate the songs from one another. They begin to blend into each other to create one solid block of music. The melodic writing hits many of the same notes from song to song, so even the hooks begin to sound the same as the album progresses. They're all good songs, but after a while you start wondering if you've already heard that song. And if you were around for the last album, this one will almost give you a sense of deja vu.

That said, if you like old-school heavy metal that won't make you want to put on corpse paint and mourn the loss of your favorite genre, Widow is a good choice. They consistently put out catchy heavy metal that hearkens back to the best attributes of the olden days. Sure, they have their issues, like everyone else does, but they deliver an enjoyable product. I would rate "Life's Blood" as a better record, but "Carved In Stone" is still an enjoyable record that does the job it's expected to. I'm not complaining in the slightest.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Top Albums Of 2016... So Far

As we approach the midpoint of the year, it's time to organize our thoughts and get ready for what the second half of the year has to offer. So far in 2016, there have been albums that have amazed, albums that have confused, and albums that have bitterly disappointed. I don't want to be negative, so let's not dwell on the albums that have made reservations to be included on my worst albums of the year list com December. Let's instead focus on what has been good so far.

There have been a lot of good albums. Bands such as Sunstorm, Sunburst, Redemption, The New Roses, and Myrath have all released albums that deserve a mention. Some of them will sadly get passed by in the coming months, but that doesn't mean they aren't still well worth your time. They are not, however, my absolute favorites so far. That honor would go to the following albums, presented in alphabetical order, so as not to spoil the fun down the road:

Avantasia - Ghostlights
Coming off a disappointing record, Tobi bounced back with one of the best pieces of work in his career. "Ghostlights" is an adventurous record that expands the Avantasia world while retaining the heart of the band, and providing some truly remarkable songs. Tobi is one of the best writers of melody in metal, and he proves that time and time again here. Songs like "The Haunting" and "Master Of The Pendulum" are unforgettable, and the majority of the guest stars add to the album's success. After all these years, Avantasia may have made their masterpiece.

Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night
Elton John had a career renaissance that resulted in two albums that went criminally overlooked, "Peachtree Road" and "The Captain And The Kid". Those records are hallmarks of expert songwriting, and sadly relics of a bygone time. After a few years in the weeds, Elton returned to form, and put out a remarkably strong album. This might be a mature form of rocking, but Elton is so skilled at wringing a melody until it works that the album melds together into a beautiful whole. It takes courage for an artist of his vintage to keep making records, but when they turn out like this, we have to pay our thanks.

Forever Still - Tied Down
Modern rock is a tricky genre for me, given its penchant for dark sonics. Forever Still is the perfect antidote for the plagues of the genre, as they have made a record that I can say should be garnering massive radio airplay, without meaning it as an insult. Maja Shining is an exceptional vocalist, and she imbues these songs with power, grace, and an ear for a captivating melody. This isn't easy to pull off, as Halestorm proved with their failure last year, but Forever Still has it come naturally to them. "Tied Down" is a harbinger of an ocean of promise. In fact, the only problem with the album is that I don't have a copy of the CD sitting on my shelf yet.

Nordic Union - Nordic Union
It's no secret that I am still, at heart, a fan of pop music with a strong guitar presence. That is what Nordic Union delivers. The combination of Erik Martenssen of Eclipse and Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids, "Nordic Union" is an album of some of the slickest, catchiest rock/metal you will ever hear. Every song is an earworm in waiting, and there's enough metallic crunch to scratch the itch. This is not an album that reaches for artistic brilliance, nor is it one that will generate buzz, but it is an album that is an immense pleasure to listen to. It puts a smile on your face.

Volbeat - Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie
When Volbeat came on the scene, I loved their mix of metal and old-school rock and roll. It was unique, interesting, and addictive. But over the course of their career, they have gotten less so, to the point where I can't recall their last two albums. This is no longer the same Volbeat that made "Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood", but they have found their footing. Now a strictly radio rock band, Volbeat has honed their songwriting chops and hit upon a winning formula. These songs are not what you might expect to be hearing from Volbeat, but they deliver huge hooks song after song. If Volbeat has been looking to break through the glass ceiling rock bands face in the mainstream, this album could very well do it.

Zakk Wylde - Book Of Shadows II
I initially wrote a positive, but cautious, review of this album. As I listened to it more and more, it kept growing, to the point where I had to write an apology for being wrong in my initial judgment. I have never been a fan of anything Zakk has done before, but this album has struck a chord with me. It is mellow, but it still rocks. It is beautiful, but it has enough grit to still resonate with rock fans. It has ripping solos, but stirring melodies. For a moment in time, Zakk has found a well of inspiration, and written the best songs of his life. All the limitations he has as a singer work to his advantage here, and he delivers songs that find the perfect balance of cold autumn regret and sunny summer hope. It really is a stunning album.

And now that I've separated the wheat from the chaff, let's continue onward and see what else contends for year-end honors.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Album Review: Airbag - Disconnected

In recent years, there's been a steady uptick in the number of bands, and the attention they get, playing a style of progressive rock that I suppose could redundantly be called neo-neo-prog. They are bands that take their cues from the neo-prog bands of the 80s, like Marillion, and who have been thankfully keep prog from becoming about nothing but instrumental excess. Bands like Anathema have turned this style into something that is not only critically acclaimed, but something that can also attract a sizeable audience. Airbag isn't yet at that level, but this, their fourth album, is the time when they need to be taking that big step forward.

"Killer" is the first of the six songs that stretch out and make up the album. What it does is show us the Airbag sound, atmospheric, relaxed, and focused on building something bigger than a riff that will make a good instructional video. That comes through strongest on the solo, which is only a few notes that get bent into a melody. Speaking of melody, Airbag does a much better job than most prog bands of making sure they provide their vocalist strong enough melodies to justify his inclusion. The hook isn't the sticky bit I would like, but it's a pleasant and soothing melody that certainly fits the tone. What I don't like so much is that the song ends with a roughly four minute instrumental section that doesn't provide much resolution to the song. It doesn't feel like it builds to a satisfying ending. Coming back to the melody once more would have been much more effective.

The opening minutes of "Broken", with the strummed acoustic guitars and nearly broken vocals, sounds like it could have come straight off a Steven Wilson record. And like a Wilson record, everything that Airbag does takes a long time to get going, to get to the point. I realize this is prog, and lengthy songs are expected, but these are longer than the number and quality of the ideas can sustain. What we have here are mostly nice songs that would be solid four minute atmospheric rock, then stuffed with extra minutes of meandering instrumentals to bump them up to more epic proportions. There just isn't enough material in each song to keep them interesting for six, eight, or even more minutes.

The actual music on the album is by no means bad. Everything here is actually quite good. The vocals have the disaffected air that fits the lyrical themes, the melodies are solid, and the guitar soloing is especially good. The problem is that, as I said, this is a forty minute record that gets stretched ten to fifteen minutes too far. Even when they're going something good, which is often, it feels like a labor to get there. It's hard to enjoy the good moments when you just had to get through three minutes of needless music to get there.

I can see why people like Airbag, and there are things about "Disconnected" that make me want to like them quite a bit. They have a good sound, and they have good musical ideas. But like a lot of prog, they don't quite have a grasp of why being concise is a good thing as a songwriter, and that if you want to write a ten minute song, you need to have ten minutes worth of ideas. There is some promise on "Disconnected", but it's not an album that showcases what Airbag is probably capable of.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Album Review: The Jelly Jam - "Profit"

As a rash youth, the phrase “progressive super group” would have just about tested the limits of my musical tolerance, two out of the three words being catalyzed trigger words that would have sent me on a tirade railing against my friends who held things like time signature and poly-rhythm over the heads of ‘normal, shallow, pedantic’ music listeners.

Thankfully, we’ve all grown some and learned that musical definitions are malleable in ways that most other definitions, even artistic ones, are not, so therefore, the idea that King’s X, Winger and Dream Theater could get together and produce material worthy of accolade is much more inviting.  Thus, The Jelly Jam releases their fourth album unto the world and first since 2011, “Profit.”

“Profit” is a concept album meant to not subtly react to the conditions of our times.  It follows the path of ‘The Prophet’ a luminous but weighty harbinger of truth who corrals his Followers (the capital ‘F’ is theirs, not mine,) in an effort to save the world from the aptly named ‘Those Who Will Not See’ and ‘Profiteers.’  The album’s message is one of a dying world subject to destruction due to both environmental and sociological factors, unless The Prophet and his Followers can utilize truth to change the world in short order.

Cynics might make an argument here that “Profit” contains a certain amount of philosophical determinism – that those who value wholesome truth are followers anyway, just followers of a different singular identity who still lack the power to determine their own destiny.  While the Prophet is more likely a convenient way of more easily crafting a narrative around a single entity, there is some weight there, as The Prophet’s followers are called, well, The Followers.

But none of that has anything to do with the music contained herein, which, to some surprise, sounds vaguely reminiscent of the later works of Alice In Chains, and not especially like any of the bands that make up The Jelly Jam.  This is not AiC in that there are long lamentations of wrought and wretched emotion crawling through the muck, but in the sense that the music is very much played out in low tones with quiet power.

The connection occurs most notably twice – first for “Stain on the Sun” which uses a low key, melancholy delivery in much the same fashion as we experienced with Alice In Chains’ “No excuses,” or “Heaven Beside You,”  though without the jangle of acoustic guitar.  Nevertheless, it is the tone of Ty Tabor’s voice that sells a similar story.

The second such similarity comes later for The Jelly Jam’s “Mr. Man,” which thuds heavily with the kind of recurring, infectious thump that Jerry Cantrell infused into classics like “Again” and “Get Born Again.”  “Mr. Man” strikes as the album’s most memorable song, in good part because it stands in heavier contrast to the other tracks.

The Jelly Jam, for all that “Profit” reminds of days gone by more than it is given to flights of progressive fancy, does occasionally find itself in the trap that consumes any number of otherwise talented prog acts, which is that they can get caught in a loop with no exit.  Some of the later cuts on “Profit” like “Permanent Hold” or “Fallen” give way to long musical diatribes that are intricate yes, but repeatable and not wholly exploratory, which makes the pieces drag on unnecessarily.

“Profit” is a fine concept album and a solid lesson in why the tags of genre should not be feared, as the ‘progressiveness’ here is not the high-end flights of fancy that are so often associated with King Crimson or Yes.  That said, the music of The Jelly Jam in this particular instance is interesting but not satiating.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Second Opinion: Volbeat - Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie

* Note: My colleague D.M gave his opinion on this newest Volbeat record, but since this is one of the few times we agree on a record, but not quite an opinion, I am throwing in my own two cents.

I wasn't there at the very beginning with Volbeat, but not long thereafter. I found them just after the released their second album, and wasn't sure what to make of their Metallica meets Johnny Cash sound. It was so unique, and so captivating, that I could sense immediately that they were going to be one of the few rock/metal bands that could break through and garner real mainstream attention. They had a hook that few other bands did. When "Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood" came out, it reaffirmed all of this, and turned Volbeat into one of the best bands in the world (yes, really). Unfortunately, that proved to be their undoing, as the following albums saw them shedding their identity in an effort to keep getting bigger and bigger. Those albums are a blur to me, and I was all but ready to write Volbeat off as a case of what was, and what could have been.

But with an open mind, I went into this album hoping for a return to form. That wasn't the case, but the album was as great as I was hoping, just in a different way.

"Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie" marks Volbeat finally finding the sound they have been searching for. While they don't sound like the band that caught everyone's attention, they have just enough of their former selves in here to remember who we're listening to, but Michael Poulsen and company have mastered the art of radio rock. It's unfortunate that their growing pains had to play out in public, but now that they've arrived, it was all worth it.

There are those moments that still hearken back to the old days. "The Devil's Bleeding" crown has the groovy swagger of Volbeat's past, and "The Loa's Crossroad" is full of pumped-up metal riffing, but those are the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, this is an album that embraces and super-sizes the melodies, with sing-alongs that last for days. If a metal audience can sing along with "Master Of Puppets", imagine what they can do with these songs.

It might sound like heresy, but at it's heart this is a pop record. You can't listen to "Black Rose" without hearing 50s doo-wop in that sticky chorus, nor can you deny that "Goodbye Forever" would be a modern classic if Dave Grohl attached his name to it. By shutting out the expectations of what a Volbeat record is supposed to be, Poulsen has figured out what a Volbeat record is supposed to be. Years pass by, we all age, and with that comes a different perspective. Volbeat is no longer the band that made those early records, and asking them to stay in that form forever misses the point. Songwriters evolve, and sometimes we have to trust that they will find a new golden age. That is what has happened here.

In fact, I would say that the only thing holding this record back from being perfect is the inclusion of the two cover songs. Neither is bad, but Volbeat's identity is so singular that you can easily tell they came from someone else.

Otherwise, and I can't believe I'm saying this, "Seal The Deal & Let's Boogie" has already proven itself to me as Volbeat's best album yet. I didn't think they had it in them, but this album has made me a believer again. Volbeat is back, and they've made what will wind up as one of the best records of the year.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Album Review: Jaded Heart - Guilty By Design

Jaded Heart falls into that category of bands that I feel a bit sorry for. They had a fair amount of success during their early years, but when unmistakable singer Michael Bormann exited the group, a large part of their identity followed with him. The band kept going, and they kept making solid records, but there was something about 'that sound' that was missing. And in keeping with that, I had completely lost track of the band, and cannot for the life of me remember hearing their last few efforts. But I remember liking them, and the first single released was a strong track, so I was curious to see if time has made this version of Jaded Heart feel more like the real thing.

"No Reason" kicks the album off far heavier than I was expecting, with a stomping riff that is much more metallic than the melodic hard rock I thought was going to greet me. It might not be the best approach, since the song comes across a bit bland, like they might be trying just a bit too hard. It doesn't help that Johan Fahlberg's vocals don't stand out. Oh, he can sing, but he has one of those voices that doesn't stand out. He lacks the personality to make him instantly recognizable, which in turn makes the songs feel that way as well.

The material is better when it veers more towards rock than metal. A song like "Remembering" fits the guitar and vocal tone better, which just aren't as metallic as the harder numbers would require. Let's take "Rescue Me" as an example. The opening riffs are pure metal, and the guitar tone is fuzzy enough that the muted chords lack the defined punch they need. But then the chorus dips into melodic rock territory, and it's the best moment on the entire record. It's the one melody that really has a sticky appeal.

And that, ultimately, is what makes "Guilty By Design" a record that will ultimately fade from my mind. It's perfectly fine melodic rock/metal, and it never feels like a chore to listen to, but aside from that one track, there isn't anything on here that I want to hear again. The early years featured plenty of forgettable songs too (Bormann is terribly inconsistent as a writer), but there were always three or four absolute gems to make you keep coming back. Those aren't here, and the record suffers for it. For whatever reason, the melodic writing on these songs isn't up to snuff. The choruses are all too flat and simple to be of interest. They don't stick in your mind, and without that, the chord progressions and riffs aren't enough to make this a must-hear album.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Spider Accomplice: A Deserving Band Needing Your Help

When we're talking about the music industry, we often think about a giant, soulless machine churning out faceless acts designed for nothing more than separating us from our money. While there is some of that out there, particularly with the major pop labels, the music world is so much deeper and richer than just that. Over the time I've been writing about music, I've had the opportunity to find and help several very deserving independent artists, the people who remind us that music is supposed to be about passion.

Today, there's a band like that who needs your help. The Spider Accomplice is the newest project from singer/songwriter/artist VK Lynn. They are in the process of making their new record, and without the machine behind them, they need an assist from us to get their new music out to the world. They have an IndieGoGo campaign set up for generous patrons.

The Spider Accomplice on IndieGoGo

The Spider Accomplice brings mainstream rock music back to where it's supposed to be, with rich melodic songs that have the eye of an artist, as opposed to the dark slog that much modern rock can be. VK's crystalline vocals are the star of the show, but the band backs her up with texutred songs that more than carry their weight. This is the next evolution of female-fronted modern rock, and you can get in on the ground floor. The Spider Accomplice needs your help, and you owe it to yourself to check them out.

You can listen to their 2015 EP "Los Angeles: The Trap" on bandcamp right now.

The Spider Accomplice on Bandcamp

You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

EP Review: Candlemass - Death Thy Lover

Before getting to a discussion of the four songs Candlemass is serving up in honor of their 30th anniversary, I have to comment on the fact that this EP is being released at all. A few years ago, when Candlemass released "Pslams For The Dead", it was promoted as their farewell album. They were going to continue playing festivals, because no band ever truly retires, but they were supposedly done as a studio entity. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like it when people go back on their word. If Candlemass didn't intend on retiring from the studio, they could have easily said they were taking a break, or were going to go through changes, or anything. But when they promote a record as the end, I expect it to be the end. Otherwise, I feel like I was lied to. It happened with the Scorpions, and it's happening here. I don't much appreciate it.

But I can put my feelings aside, and judge the music on its own.

The title track leads things off, and is one of the most melodic songs they've ever written. 'New' singer Mats Levens sounds good, and has the proper morose delivery for the material. The big appeal to the song is the chorus, which brings to mind a song like "The Bleeding Baroness". I don't know if the song needs to have a slow, ballad section thrown into the middle, but the rest of the track is solid late-era Candlemass, and is much better than anything off the last album, which was a disappointing way of capping a career.

In "Sleeping Giant", Levens gets even closer to sounding like previous singer Robert Lowe, which I have to say does add in making this not feel like a new era of the band at all. This song fits the mold of all the 'creepy' Candlemass songs, where the main hook of the song mirrors the sinister, minor key guitar riff. It's my least favorite way of writing a song, because it always feels too easy to have the singer follow the riff. If that's all he's doing, why even have a singer?

After that, we get another track that puts the heavy focus on the riffs, and then an instrumental track. That is a confusing choice to make, since every release now could be the last, and going out on a boring instrumental track would be a terrible way to end a career.

I'm assuming there was a reason why Candlemass decided to call it quite when they said they were going to, and despite the title track being a heck of an effort, the rest of this EP doesn't do much of anything to dispel the notion that they were right the first time. This is completely inessential, and mostly just gives them one more good song to fill up the set list on their continued concert presence.