Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Album Review: Evergrey - The Storm Within

Evergrey. I almost don't need to say anything more than that. By this point, after twenty years, they've established themselves as a workhorse with a unique identity, a band that does what they do, and keeps doing it again and again. I would argue them being labeled 'progressive metal', since I can't see anything about them that I would call progressive anymore. That's not important, but I think we have a duty to be accurate, and the talk around Evergrey is not always that. Myself, I have very little history with the band. I've heard them here and there for the years, but the only album of theirs I can claim to have enjoyed is one of their black sheep, "Torn". If you hate that album, relax, because this is nothing like that.

Evergrey has a very singular sound. Between their ability to make metal sound heart-wrenchingly sad, and Ton Englund's baritone, no one else sounds anything like them. But, they take that so much to heart that they continually rehash the exact same sound, to the point where even to a casual listener like me, the albums have all blended together into one giant song.

I was worried when "Distance" was released, the first taste of this record being a slow, plodding, joyless song that is the soundtrack to a pity party. There's nothing wrong with that kind of song, but to put that out as the selling point for the album is a decision I will never understand. Perhaps they thought is was lush and emotive, but all it did was make me check to see if the sun had dropped out of the sky.

It's especially troubling, since the very next song, "Passing Through", is a phenomenal bit of melodic metal that is heavy, dramatic, and bursting with energy and melody. It's a powerhouse of a song, and is the sort of track that would actually get someone interested in hearing Evergrey. Unfortunately, it a rare exception on this album. Over these eleven tracks, we get one amazing number, one three minute interlude that is a complete waste of time, and nine more tracks that all take five minutes to repeat the same phrasings and feelings. There is nothing approaching diversity on this record, and after a few tracks, it becomes hard to sit through so much music that wallows in its own misery.

I'm not saying music has to be joyous to be good, but the catharsis in this record never comes. Unlike Katatonia's fantastic "The Fall Of Hearts", Evergrey is a painting of darkness atop darkness, without the melodic beauty to balance the pain. Tom Englund reaches for hooks here, and he has the voice to deliver them, but his writing is so bare-bones that he thinks his voice is all that's needed to make a song great. Listen to the choruses of songs like "Distance" and "Disconnect" and tell me different. He throws out two or three notes, drags them out, and relies on his charisma as a singer to do the heavy lifting. That's not enough.

Evergrey has their niche, and I'm not going to change any minds about them. I don't intend to. All I'm doing here is giving my opinion. And this one man's opinion is that Evergrey is a band that say they have a creative fire burning inside them, but it sounds like it burns cold. Evergrey can do great things, but this is not one of them. "The Storm Within" is an album that is harmless, but it's so bland it will feel even more disappointing than if it actually was bad.

That's quite a feat.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Album Review: Second Grave - Blacken The Sky

Outside of the various forms of extreme metal, which I am predisposed not to enjoy very much, the hardest sub-genre of metal to do well is probably doom. The slow tempos and foreboding atmosphere don't necessarily mix well with the aspects of songwriting that I enjoy, namely melodies. It's rare to find a doom band that is able to play dark and heavy music, while still retaining the core of songwriting that elevates the music beyond a single riff droning on for eight minutes. I don't cover much doom metal here, for that very reason. And even for the bands that have managed to do it well in the past, there is no guarantee they will ever do it again. Candlemass, I'm looking at you after this year's mess of an EP.

Second Grave is one of those rare exceptions. "Blacken The Sky" is their swan song, with the band having announced their breakup before the release. I suppose there's nothing that can be more doom than releasing a record in the grief of a band's death.

Over the course of 56 minutes, Second Grave unleashes doom in its best form. They build lenthy songs from riffs that pile on the Iommi-flavored groove, understanding that a riff needs more than simply be tuned below the limits of human hearing for a song to be heavy. These tracks have head-bobbing, toe-tapping rhythms that keep you interested as the songs stretch upwards of eleven minutes. It's easy for doom to say it's supposed to be slow and boring, but that's not an excuse Second Grave wants to use. Instead, they write songs that are actual songs, complete with a dynamic vocal performance by frontwoman Krista Van Guilder.

When it comes to doom, you can't do it any better than "17 Days". You get a big, hooky riff that wouldn't have been out of place on an early Sabbath record, which leads into a strong melodic chorus that gives the song almost a bounce to undercut the pure doom. It's one of those examples of having a little bit of something for everyone, and it makes fools of most of the doom bands who don't put forth a fraction of the effort to make their songs so engaging.

There's a definite Candlemass feeling to the riffs the band writes, which is never a bad thing. Few bands write riffs that are truly memorable anymore, but Candlemass is one that tries, so being compared to them is certainly a good thing. "Blacken The Sky", in that sense, reminds me of "King Of The Grey Islands", but with more patience to let the doom be drawn out.

Sure, there are times where the album falls into the same problems I often have with doom. "No Roam" is a bit too repetitive for my tastes, though I think it's intentionally trying to set up a trance-like state, and the chorus of "Bloodletting" exchanges harsh vocals for something more interesting, but a few issues here and there are to be expected.

But the bottom line is that for as hard as doom metal is to pull off, Second Grave does it admirably here. While we're not going to get to hear how this album could have been the launching point for something even better, they're bowing out on a high note. "Blacken The Sky" is damn solid doom metal, and it shames what Candlemass did this year. That's an accomplishment to be proud of.

You can hear the album on their Bandcamp page.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Singles Roundup: Metallica, Green Day, and more.

This summer has seen not just a slowdown in terms of the number of albums coming our way, but also the number of big singles coming out to promote the fall slate of huge releases. With September fast approaching, that is starting to change, so now is a good time to take a look at the teaser's we've been given, and look ahead to what they means for the whole albums.

Metallica - Hardwired

Let's start with the big one. Metallica is back for the first time in eight years, and the result is.... meh. Sorry, but a three minute track with one passable riff in it is not going to get me excited. James' lyrics are once again grade school level, and there isn't a groove or a hook in there that reminds me of the good ol' days. It's been said that it was a last minute song thrown together for the sake of having a short and snappy number on the record, and it sounds like it. It's under-developed, weak, and showcases a production that once again is not up to snuff. Worse, the length of this track means that the rest of the album is due to average seven minutes a track. Ugh.

Green Day - Bang Bang

Green Day's last outing, the triple album disaster, showed that they needed to back off the ambition and focus on writing one album's worth of good material, before that started plotting world domination. This track, however, is not that. It has the right punk attitude in the early riffing, calling back to "American Idiot", but while the subject matter is heady (for a mainstream band), it's the song itself that lets us down. Green Day was always able to get away with their lyrical ambitions (high and low) because they wrapped them up in punky pop songs. They've embraced the modern pop sound here, which means there isn't a hook to be found. The chorus is as flat and flaccid as can be, which makes me think they have yet to hit the bottom of the barrel.

Sum41 - War
Here's a blast from the past. Shockingly, after all the turmoil that the band has gone through, as well as the fact that few realize they still exist, they've come back with a damn solid song. In fact, the song released before this one was really good as well, which gives me pause. Is Sum41 a good band now? I don't know yet, but I know that this ballad, while an odd choice for a leadoff single, is a well-crafted bit of soft rock with a good sound, and a solid hook. It shows a band that has grown into adulthood, finally, and hopefully signals that the upcoming album is going to be the big statement they need.

In Flames - The End

Is there anything we can say about In Flames at this point? I was actually a defender of their modern sound, including thinking that "Sounds Of A Playground Fading" was a very good record. I couldn't defent their last outing, and this new song splits the difference. It's as slick and mainstream as anything they've ever done, but it lacks the bite that their best mainstream songs have always had. Anders can write and sing a good melody, but like the last album, this one isn't capturing my attention at all. They have the right idea, but the wrong execution. We all know the album is going to get savaged by the old fans anyway, so there isn't really much point in going any further than saying that even in this configuration, In Flames has done better.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Album Review: The Apocalypse Blues Revue - Self-Titled

It’s about high time that one of the basic axioms of the musical world had an axe buried in it, and allow us the privilege of being the ones to do the initial damage.  There is a lingering concept in all facets of music that any so-called ‘side-project’ band of any given musicians can’t be taken nearly as seriously as their primary moneymaker, and that the artist him- or herself can’t be as serious about their second family, to turn a phrase.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  While it is often the case that side projects aren’t as fan-friendly or critically successful as established bands, that’s as often as not a product of the central musician (or musician) trying out a fresh idea, testing a passion to see if it has wings.  Side projects, if they can even be called that appropriately, are places of experimentation and should be respected in their own right.

Enter The Apocalypse Blues Revue, founded by Shannon Larkin and Tony Rombola, themselves the respective drummer and guitar player from that household name of modern metal, Godsmack.  That name only comes into play as a marketing tool for this new band; any comparison of TABR and Godsmack, or worse yet, any judgement of TABR because of Godsmack, is foolhardy.

So, what do we have here?  This self-titled debut is practically everything the name suggests – dark blues that borrow only a little from rock and sound more akin to the origin of the genre down in the delta.  This is blues rock that hinges on that first descriptor more than any other, the kind of music we’ve all heard a million times in an action movie’s saloon fight scene, particularly if it involves Kurt Russell.  Bass players the world over dream about playing in a band like this, just to be able to lay down some solid blues riffs with little fanfare or frills.

Now, I get it.  You’re saying ‘D, so far you’ve successfully described Monster Truck.’  Not at all.  TABR is a straight-up, no-chaser blues record, calling to mind the halcyon days of Lead Belly and John Lee Hooker, though there’s a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn in there too, which is a solid credit o Rombola’s playing style.

More on that in a minute.  A major piece of the puzzle here is the vocal stylings of Rafer John, who mixes in the vocal personality of Jim Morrison, Neil Fallon, Jack Bruce and just a little David Allan Coe.  His voice is ideally suited for this kind of music, fleshing out the corners and turning what began as just a jam session into a full-bodied album.

Anyway, Rombola.  His sense of the natural oscillation of blues riffing, as we hear both in the excellent “Devil Plays a Strat” and “The Tower.”  Riffs and proper exhibition in the blues are not based on speed or precision so much as they are on placement and feel, both of which Rombola has an excellent feel for.  We see this again and again in the album, perhaps coming to a head for the rollicking solo that bridges the halves of “Crossed Over.”  This kind of guitar artistry is worth hearing, and this is why side projects have merit, as Rombola deserves a chance to show the world this skill set.

Worth noting – TABR seems equally well equipped to be listened to either as the background music for your home poker game, or in single snippets for your blues fix.  Either way, you’re getting value out of the product, but it may not be an album where you have to hear certain cuts or sections as certain times.

The Apocalypse Blues Revue is much better constructed and executed than their goofball blues contemporaries like Honky.  That doesn’t mean that this band has no goofball DNA, just that it keeps its goofball contained and dosed out appropriately.  Now we’ll stop saying ‘goofball.’  This is a strong debut record that even if there is never a follow up, will leave a mark both on the new millenniums blues rock repertoire and on side projects around the globe.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Album Review: Palace - Master Of The Universe

In today's digital age, time truly stands still. We never move on from the past, because it's there at our fingertips whenever we want it. Instead of only having access to new music, and whatever used albums might be in the record store, we can get anything that's ever been recorded at any moment. That creates interesting turns of events. For one thing, new music now is not only in competition with every other new album, but every other album that's ever been recorded. It's no wonder that new music is struggling to sell. But it also means that we can have a band like Palace, who are dedicated to the cause of 80s melodic rock, despite the fact that singer/guitarist/songwriting Michael Palace wasn't alive when that music was being made.

From the very first notes of the title track, we are transported back to the decadent decade. It may not be possible to define an entire sound in words, but Palace has captured it. From the riffing style, to the keyboard tones and the backing vocals, it's ripped straight from the playbook. That tells you much of what you need to know about the album. If you weren't a fan of that kind of music, Palace will never win you over.

But copying a sound is not the same as making a great record. It's not hard to pull out the right instruments, and dial in the right settings, to make a record that sound like a certain period of time. What's hard is to write a record that stands up to the best of that time, because if you don't do that, the album will always look like a weak forgery, rather than a real piece of art.

The opening title track doesn't do much to move the record into the latter category. The sound is right, but there isn't much of a riff, and even less of a chorus. It's a pleasant sound with nothing to back it up. Things improve from there, fortunately. The next few tracks are solid numbers, and I'm quite fond of the cheesy-as-hell ballad "Part Of Me". It hits all the right notes, embracing the lasting legacy of the 80s with tongue firmly in cheek.

What disappoints me about Palace, is that I went into this ready to love the album for its dedication to cheesy 80s music, but the songwriting can't live up to the promise. That is doubly disappointing, since Michael Palace was initially signed to be a songwriter for the label. I was expecting something far more, given that pedigree. What we end up with here is an album that lacks spark. It has the right sound, but the wrong songs. We get a couple of strong numbers, like "Matter In Hand" and "Path To Light", but the rest of the songs lack the big melodic hooks that dominated the 80s. Palace has the voice for it, but his songs aren't melodically rich enough to last more than one listen. Combine that with the number of songs that are either ballads, or soft rock, and we get an album that doesn't have bite either.

I'lll make a comparison here. The overall tone of the record is similar to House Of Lords' effort from last year. They are both very 80s records, but House Of Lords was able to be cheesier, heavier, and hookier. That's Palace's problem. There are multiple ways retro worship can be done, but they walked down the middle of those roads, and never went far enough in any direction. There's the talent in the band to have made something fun and interesting, but this record isn't it. It's a reminder that in these days, I can pull up 80s music whenever I want, and I don't need a second-rate copy anymore.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Album Review: King Company - One For The Road

So much of the music business these days is about relationships. With as often as members come and go, it's never a bad thing to have a network of relationships to call on when that time arises. Or, when you decide to start a new project. That's what King Company is all about, as a former member of Thunderstone called on some friends, including the once again singer of Thunderstone, to try something new. Rather than play on their power metal past, they go back further into their roots, and give us an old-school hard rock band. King Company is about pulling back, letting loose, and having a good time making the kind of music almost all of us started with.

The title track opens the record, and in short order we're in the midst of a song that is a pure throwback to Deep Purple's heaviest days. The guitars have the right amount of crunch, Pasi Rantanen's voice fits this kind of music like a glove, and the organ and keyboard sounds are the best part of the 70s. Unfortunately, while they get the sound right, the song itself is rather flat and lifeless. It fits into that trend of hard rock that assumes melody is for wimps, so instead the chorus is a simple recitation of the title, which isn't interesting in the least.

But that's clearly not the attitude the band has, because the next song is completely different. "Shining" has less of an attachment to the past, and when the chorus hits, it's Pasi at his best. It's still simple hard rock, but it's delivered with a focus on both crunch and melody, so it works on more levels. It's such a better song that it almost makes me mad that the first impression the record gives you is of it at its cliched worst. Even when "In Wheels Of No Return" reverts back to the former approach, there's a pronounced use of backing vocals which give the appearance of more melody than there really is. For all the greatness that Ronnie James Dio gave us, his example that melodies aren't always necessary is the one blight on his legend.

There's a heavy Dio feeling to "No Man's Land", which is always a nice bit of nostalgia. But after that opening number, the hard rock that King Company gives us doesn't have so much in common with the music I was expecting. It's hard rock, for sure, but the sound has more modern touches to the writing than I was led to believe, which doesn't make the record any better or worse, but it does make it feel far more relevant than if they had stuck with the retro approach. It worked for Europe last year, but they pulled it off because they started out when that was what hard rock sounded like. It was the music in their souls. I wouldn't believe that about a brand new band, and thankfully King Company doesn't try to make me do that.

Though it's not truly a ballad, "Farewell" serves that role, and does so with the best hook on the album. It's the kind of towering rock song that makes these kinds of albums something to look forward to. There isn't a metal band around that pulls off that kind of sweet and sticky song to any degree (with the exception of Tobias Sammet - that man can write a ballad). That's the advantage to being a rock band. You can be heavy, but there's so much more you can do with your sound.

So what we can say about "One For The Road" is that it's an album that doesn't pave any new ground, if you pardon the pun, but it give us the satisfaction that comes from good, solid hard rock. Don't let my tempered language make it sound like I'm not endorsing the record. No, it's not going to be one of my absolute favorites of the year, but it doesn't need to be. There is more than enough room for more good records, and King Company has delivered one here. "One For The Road" is definitely worth giving a shot.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Albums Fans Hate, But I Don't

Anyone who is a fan of a band and has spent any amount of time in forums online, or reading the comments on YouTube videos, will know all too well that there hardens a collective thinking regarding that band's career. It starts small, with a few people arguing, but once one side grabs control of the discussion, time weeds out the dissenters to the point where there is a common consensus regarding which albums are the best, and which ones need to be run over on a dirt road.

I've encountered my share of these instances over the years. Usually, I'm the person dissenting from the consensus pick of the best album (a list I'll make sometime), but there are other times when a band has an album that the group-think considers either their worst, or doesn't bother considering at all, that I enjoy far more than the more revered releases. Here, then, are five of those cases:

Scorpions - Humanity: Hour 1

While recent years have found Scorpions retiring, un-retiring, and pulling out songs that weren't good enough in the 80s, there was a bright spot not that long ago. While the band did not earn much good will for bringing in outside songwriters who have written a fair number of pop tracks, I am not one of those bandwagon haters. This album is different than anything else Scoprions have ever made, and that's precisely why I love it. Instead of being the usual one riff song, these are melodic pop/rock gems that could have eased them into the final act of their career with maturity and grace. Instead, everyone but me has forgotten this album exists, even though it is the best written album of the band's career.

Dave Matthews Band - Everyday

I can still remember the furor when Dave Matthews announced this album, written with pop producer Glen Ballard. While it produced hits, the fans hated the slick, electric production, and I can't recall a single conversation about this album in the last ten years that wasn't about how terrible it was, and how we were robbed of "The Lillywhite Sessions" because of it. While that is indeed a shame ("Busted Stuff" is a pale imitation of the real thing), the fact remains that "Everyday" isn't a bad record, it just isn't a Dave Matthews Band record. Ballard's pop sheen helps tighten Dave's songwriting, and for the first two thirds of the album, this is the most focused and effective he's ever been as a songwriter. It's by no means my favorite album from the band, but I still spin it, and I seem to be the only person left who likes it.

Edguy - Tinnitus Sanctus

Edguy fans have seemed to be down on most everything that Tobi has done since "Hellfire Club", only to come around after the fact. The one exception is "Tinnitus Sanctus", which routinely is considered the band's worst album, sans their debut that was hardly professional. While I get why people don't like the darker, heavier, less fun and bouncy style that this album took, I find it amazing that I am not one of them. I usually hate when bands strip the fun out of their music, but there is something about "Tinnitus Sanctus" that succeeds, probably because Edguy is often too far in the happy direction. This is a better balance of light and dark, comedy and tragedy. It doesn't hurt that Tobi wrote some great songs, and this might be the only Edguy record without any tracks I would consider throw-away filler. It's easily my favorite Edguy record, and the only I reach for almost every time I want to hear Tobi.

Green Day - Warning

There are two Green Day camps. There's the one that dismisses everything that wasn't pure punk, and the one that only cares about "American Idiot". What they both leave out is "Warning", which is a fantastic little record that had no audience when it came out, and none today either. It was the segue between the band's two phases, a record that borrowed more from 60s pop than from their punk roots, and as such, no one knew what to make of it. That's a shame, since it's as catchy an album as anything they've ever done, but with a sense of maturity that neither their previous or later incarnations mastered.

Weezer - Make Believe

And now we get to the album that prompted this discussion. In my younger days, I spent a lot of time on a forum dedicated to Weezer, who were a vitally important band to me. One of the things that hasn't changed since then is that while there are fans who will forgive the truly wretched heaps of musical excriment Rivers has put out ("Raditude" anyone?), no one ever seems to forgive "Make Believe". People had heightened expectations after "Maladroit", but I'm not sure why. They thought a bit more guitar distortion was going to change who Rivers was, or how he wrote. It never was. Instead, we got "Make Believe", which ranks at the bottom for nearly every Weezer fan I've ever known. For myself, however, "Make Believe" is *gasp* my second favorite Weezer album. Yes, "Beverly Hills" is godawful, but that's my only gripe. "We Are All On Drugs" is punchy and catchy enough to forgive the lyrics, and the rest of the album is some of Rivers' best melodic writing. It's "The Green Album" with its wings spread open. There's diversity, a few interesting twists, and Rivers' sounding more energized than he had in ages. I get that people wanted something different, but "Make Believe" was a showcase of Rivers' pop sensibilities. It's certainly better than just about everything that's come since, so let's cut it some slack, ok?

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Continuing Evolution of a Devil - Steve Janiak of Devil to Pay

Fresh off the release of their new album, "A Bend Through Space and Time," we sat down with Indianapolis' own Steve Janiak, ideaman, vocalist and all around decent dude from Devil to Pay, one of the greatest independent metal bands going.  We talk his album, his band, his outlook, and a few other wildcards.

D.M: Let's talk about "A Bend Through Space and Time" - what's new for this album?  What part of it do you enjoy most?

STEVE JANIAK: A number of things, namely, we went to a different studio for the first time, Russian Recording in Bloomington, Indiana. Mike Bridavsky was at the helm and he is an immensely talented guy.  The other difference was the timeframe, we normally stretch out our recordings and take a month or more, cutting some here and some there after basic tracks are done. This time around we did everything in one week, finishing the weekend with mixing.

I have always enjoyed the creative parts of making music, writing, jamming, listening and reacting. Like tuning in a signal from outer space, it's part discovery and part following your gut instincts.

D.M: All the DtP records sound a little different, and this one is no exception - is there a conscious effort to shift sounds ever so slightly?

SJ: Not at all. We are merely doing what we always do and evolving along the way. You start at point A and end up at point B and dream about point C. Maybe unconsciously there is a desire to not repeat yourself, but it's never anything planned.

D.M: Do you think the albums are influences by what you're listening to at the time of conception?  If so, what are you listening to now?

SJ: Great question. I think it is possible to be directly influenced but unless someone else can point it out to me, I am too close to the material to hear any influences, beyond something obvious. Lately I've been listening to the onslaught of killer releases from Ripple Music, but I tend to go back to old favorites when I drive or clean the house.

D.M: When you're sitting around brainstorming riffs, when do you know you've hit upon a really good one?

SJ: Mostly you don't. Many times you have a buzz on and it all sounds spectacular in the moment. Later you listen to the recordings and the cream definitely rises to the top. We have hundreds of improvisations and rough ideas recorded. I go back and catalog them and each rehearsal becomes its own album, so to speak, with titles. The majority of these songs came from jams right after the last record came out. We have an insane glut of material, but our process is very slow.

D.M: How do you know when a record is 'done'?  Is it ever done?

SJ: [Laughs] The album is done when your time expires and the studio kicks you out.

D.M: Following the optimism of "Fate Is Your Muse," is there a different message on this new record?

SJ: Yes and no. Quite a few of the songs are about the choices we make. "Kobold in the Breadbasket" is a fantasy romp that is a disguised parable for our relationship with nature. "The Demons Come Home to Roost" is a warning from your own vice when you spiral out of control. "Recommended Daily Dosage" is a lament about our attitudes about health and the health care insurance industry. "Don't Give Away the World" being another cautionary tale of letting someone else dictate what you believe.

Beneath all of the songs is the basic idea that there is responsibility for what happens in life, even "Your Inner Lemmy" has teachable moments.

D.M: It's been roughly five years since your epiphany that preceded your previous album - mentally, where are you now?

SJ: I am still in the same space, without a doubt. I'm less in the 'study' mode these days and more in the 'apply what you learned' phase. I believe intention and expectation and belief are the cornerstones of turning your life around. All of these things have been slowly progressing since that initial event.

D.M: The last time we spoke, you were doing a lot of research into quantum theory and paranormal/metaphysical 'stuff.'  Where did that take you?  

SJ: Well, to be clear, the quantum theory stuff is pretty interesting but tough to relate to everyday events, not to mention difficult to wrap your head around. The metaphysical stuff I would almost consider a state of mind. It definitely influences how I perceive things, people, and events. At the time, it was as if a veil was lifted, and it can never be replaced. It doesn't matter how hokey it sounds, I found my comfort zone. Things have only gotten better in my life and most importantly of all, my attitude about the future is not the pessimistic, overly-critical, negative mind warp that it was in the distant past.

D.M: Your band has had a fairly solid lineup for a while now, which many independent bands struggle with - how do you keep the circle close knit?

SJ: We laugh about it now, because we've had our share of turmoil and disagreements, but our main focus for a long time has been 'let's write some music and stop worrying about the rest'. We're going on our 15th year as a band, it sounds so crazy to say it out loud. We all have other interests and other projects, and I suppose it fills some need to keep striving musically and song-wise, but if I had any advice for bands wanting the longevity thing, I'd have to say "don't sweat the small stuff", or "don't sweat at all", or maybe just "enjoy the ride?" Life is short, why you mad, bro?

D.M: What inspired you to write a song for Lemmy?

SJ: It was an accident. In 2013 Rob came in between some jams and started playing the main riff, and I asked him what it was. He had no idea at the time. So my synapses all fired off and I said, "we should make that a Motörhead type of jam", thinking it would make a fun B-side for another seven inch. I named it that same night. It became one of the ideas we went over and over. Eventually he thinks it's an Overkill riff, but by that time we already had the rest of the parts and some vocals. Months go by and we start looking at recording the album, the song is fully fleshed out and I have the base melodies worked out in my head. And of course we all loved it, now we have to put it on the record! I went through a ton of Lemmy quotes and tried to do Lemmy justice with my paraphrasing. After we recorded it, it sounded really huge. In my head I kept thinking he would someday get to hear it, then a few months later, he just died. I couldn't believe it. We shot a video and released it early as a tribute, in January of 2016.

D.M: Your cover art is usually more abstract or subtle than the one for this record - how did it come to be?  Are you the caveman?

SJ: I had seen some of W. Ralph Walter's art online and I was blown away. He was a friend of friends and I hit him up and asked if he'd be interested. I came up with this basic concept of a trans-dimensional alien goddess who exists beyond space and time coming down to breathe living knowledge into this caveman. Which is kind of how I feel about humanity and civilization in general. We are all stuck here waiting for something more, yearning in every direction, but can't quite see it... and I think it’s right under our noses.

The caveman in the picture is actually W. Ralph Walters himself, he painted himself in there. I have heard a couple interesting takes on the cover, one from a German reviewer, saying something about 'an alien stripper and some hippies', but the funny ones are the people who think it's Pepper Keenan from Corrosion of Conformity.  That is pretty entertaining.

D.M: Give me a preview - what's gonna happen with the Colts this year?

SJ: Well I am an optimist, generally speaking. I think if the coaches and the players can learn to stop worrying, and love the football, they could march right to the Super Bowl. But if I had to guess, I would say they're probably going to do fairly well this year and go pretty deep in the playoffs, but it's hard to gauge after all the injuries last year. I'll do a meditation now and picture Andrew Luck hoisting the Lombardi trophy after a year of ups and downs, then, when they do win, you can point to this interview and people might think I'm the next Edgar Cayce!

For more on Devil to Pay and to keep up on the latest news, check out their website and stay up to date with their Facebook page.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Album Review: DGM - The Passage

Where does the time go? I ask that as I sit here and consider the newest album by Italian prog-metal veterans DGM. I remember hearing about them years ago, and quite liking their album "Different Shapes". I tuned out when they went through a singer change, but now that I'm looking back, that was almost a decade ago. Can it be so long? Regardless, this feels like the right time to jump back in and see what the band is doing, since prog metal has been having a tough go of it. The records that have been good have been only decently so, and the biggest name of them all delivered a flaming disaster. That's a lot of pressure to put on DGM, but prog metal could seriously use someone to pump it up right now.

The best thing DGM has going for them is that while they are excellent musicians, there has never been any doubt that they place the songs over their skills. Even in the extended numbers, you aren't going to find five-to-ten minute long stretches of solos that don't serve any purpose to moving the song forward. Take the opening epic track, "The Secret", which is divided into two parts that combine to stretch over fifteen or so minutes. There's some wonderful technical playing in both the guitars and keyboards, and plenty of room for multiple solos from both, but the songs don't spend an inordinate amount of time ever wandering away from the core of the song. That's a great decision, not just because I have little patience for extended prog wankery, but because the best thing DGM has going for them is the ability to combine that technical playing with big, sweet melodies that pop and contrast.

It might sound like an odd way of putting this, but DGM is the mainstream fan's best bet when it comes to prog metal. Marco Basile has a strong mid-range tone, unlike many of the shriekers who populate the genre, and he and the band are able to come up with rousing melodies that ensure every song has a memorable hook. They make the music work on both the intellectual and visceral level. There's something in there for music snobs, and people who just like to sing along to a good tune. That's the art of prog that is often lost.

And that is the beauty of what DGM does. Over time, they have managed to bolster both sides of the equation. They are playing an even more involved, technical style of metal that borrows heavily from Symphony X, but they accentuate it with even bigger melodies that ever before, and far better than their influences are able to. I was intensely disappointed with the last few Symphony X albums for the nearly total lack of real melody from Russell Allen, and DGM justifies my feelings. "The Passage" is the album that Symphony X has been trying to make for the last decade, but can't see past their own 'metal cred' to follow through on. It's hard not to hear that in "Animal", but DGM does that sound better in ever way imaginable, from the vocal hook, to the riffing, to the flawless production.

We get guest appearances from Evergrey's Tom Englung, and Michael Romeo of that band I've just mentioned a few times. Englund always has a commanding voice, and whether it was coincidence or not, he makes "Ghost Of Insanity" sound more like Evergrey than any other song on the album. He's an incredibly unique presence. Romeo, on the other hand, is completely redundant here. I couldn't tell his playing from anyone else's. And honestly, the solos in many of the other songs are better anyway.

The downside of the album is that, because of the density of the music, it begins to blend together by the end of the hour. There isn't enough in the way of dynamics between, or within, the songs from my perspective. The progressive approach to metal is great, but it works best in short doses. There's a difference between 'prog' and 'Prog', and the album could have used a better balance of the two. We do get a one minute piano interlude, but that could have been better served being integrated into a longer song.

But don't let that detract from the overwhelming success that "The Passage" is. When it comes to prog metal, it's incredibly difficult to strike the balance between technical playing and melody. DGM has done that beautifully here. "the Passage" is a great example of how progressive metal can be more than the jokes about Dream Theater give it credit for. "The Passage" redeems a lot of the terrible prog metal that has been put out this year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Album Review: PAIN - "Coming Home"

Peter Tägtgren has had a long and storied career under the banner of a pile of different musical epithets, so his journey is best thought of as one continuous track, rather than a series of parallel adventures.  So, Hypocrisy and PAIN and Lindemann are all part of the same fabric for Tägtgren, each project feeding into the others for inspiration and creativity.

Still, there are certain distinct separations, especially as it relates to the dynamic of Hypocrisy, his main band, and PAIN, his…well, ‘fun’ band would be my words and not his, but you get the idea.  Hypocrisy albums are crafted and articulated, pillars of modern Swedish death metal in the pristine sense, where PAIN, in the vernacular of the youngsters, is just Tägtgren balling out (cross-genre reference! ‘Get Tägtgren on the court and he’s trouble / last week fucked around and got a triple double.)

Five years since the release of the excellent “You Only Live Twice,” and coming on the heels of the success with Lindemann, PAIN returns with “Coming Home,” which follows all of the usual PAIN blueprints, except that it incorporates some of Tägtgren’s usual experimentation with Hypocrisy.

First things first – Tägtgren, when writing for PAIN, excels specifically in one element, which colors all of the band’s records, which is that he knows how to write BIG.  Not just musical bombast big, like the full sound of Rob Zombie’s early work, or operatic big like the recent works of Turisas, but the kind of big that’s normally reserved for sporting events and award shows on American television.  Yeah sure, the album’s opener “Designed to Piss You Off,” starts simply enough, almost like KMFDM’s “WWIII,” but then absolutely explodes with a huge riff and an easy to follow vocal cadence.  It undulates through this pattern a few more times, knowing when to back off the gas and then to put the pedal back down for choruses.  This is the kind of thing that PAIN specializes in; mastery of pace and timing for maximum impact.

In early press, Tägtgren talked about “Coming Home” mixing in some elements that he hadn’t used much on PAIN records previous.  The album’s second cut “Call Me,” begins similarly to the some of the best work from countrymen Soilwork, but uses a little electronic manipulation and an orchestral backing to create a fast-paced and cinematic feel.  The liberal use of the dramatic backdrop certainly feels new.  At the risk of overselling the point, this is a ‘big’ song, equal to anything from “You Only Live Twice,” and showing just a hint of something new in the PAIN arsenal.

Of course, what makes “Call Me” intriguing on top of the music is the juxtaposition of this mammoth piece of dynamic songwriting with the utterly ridiculous lyrics, which center around booty calls and phone sex.  (This might be my only change to bring it up in context ever – speaking of songs about phone sex, if you’ve never seen the video for the Village People’s “Sex Over the Phone, go watch it now.  I’ll wait….)

Anyway, PAIN has always had a knack for writing a few lyrics that would make AC/DC proud, but “Coming Home” pushes that envelope even farther, between “Natural Born Idiot,” “Call Me” and “Pain in the Ass,” which concerns itself with…ahem…playing the back nine, shall we say?  By contrast, the album also mixes in some no-nonsense political dialog, and speaks very plainly about the nature of candidates (certain ones I’m sure you can think of) to posture and preen and speak well past their welcome.

But we’re getting off topic.  “Coming Home” sounds like a PAIN record, but turned up to eleven, if that seems possible.  “Final Crusade” would have been a fine song as it was, but the addition of the orchestral backing and the extra fuzz added to the guitar helps the riff sound like a real march, powerful and direct even if entirely misguided.

The title track though, is where this album will make its money.  “Coming Home” the song is an incredible journey of soft guitar, mood-setting atmosphere and lyrics, and an addictively anthemic chorus that ties the entire piece together.  That chorus, against the album, gets by without a big, metal riff and reminds greatly of the rallying theme from the “Avengers” films.  It’s one of the jewels of the record, and actually speaks to part of Tägtgren’s success with PAIN – he knows how to sneak pop constructions into his songs and make them sound aggressive, which is a fine line, especially when dealing with a pop-suspicious audience, but Tägtgren nails it on every part of “Coming Home.”

This is a great record.  There are no more superlatives to lavish on it without fawning.  It’s simply excellent, and deserves attention.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Album Review: Delain - Moonbathers

It seems that in the world of dramatic, symphonic metal, there is an endless amount of drama going on behind the scenes. Nightwish seems to live in a state of perpetual drama, and now we've had an uproar over the changes in Leaves Eyes. I'm not going to be that person and say, "why can't we all just get along?", but there does seem to be a lack of professionalism leaking in. And since we live in a world now where we have access to the thoughts of everyone at all times, that means that we have a better picture of the inner workings of tumultuous bands, which is something that depresses the hell out of me. I really wish I didn't know about their dirty laundry, which makes me glad that Delain is still around, operating like a professional band should. They release solid records, go on tour, and you never hear anything else about them. That's how it should be.

"Moonbathers" is the band's fifth album, and in light of what's going on in the scene, it's a good chance to elevate their stature even more. There's a movement going on where all of these bands keep going bigger and bigger, to the point where some of them are hardly metal bands at all anymore, and even when they are they write songs that are so obtuse that you would never want to repeatedly expose yourself to them. Delain is not one of them. They have faithfully maintained themselves as a metal band that writes catchy songs that just happen to be symphonic, rather than the other way around.

"Hands Of Gold" proves that in the first songs. There's a deep, heavy riffing rhythm, and Charlotte Wessels sings a sweet melody, all the while symphonic parts elevate the background music to something more than just a simple metal song. That's the right way to build these songs. The focus needs to be on the song itself first and foremost. You may have already heard that approach in "The Glory And The Scum", one of the videos that was released to promote the album. It's a solid track that shows exactly what Delain is all about. Heavy, dramatic, but still melodic and catchy.

"Suckerpunch" is an interesting track. There are elements of electronic percussion that bubble up, while the chorus is more sweeping with its use of backing vocals. But what I find intriguing is that the instrumental part of the track brings to mind the band Hollenthon. That's not a sound you hear all that often, so it certainly piques my interest.

I really enjoy the balance of elements that Delain presents, but there is one thing that keeps me from falling head over heels for this album. While they are playing symphonic metal that wants to be heavy and catchy at the same time, the melodies just don't hit me as hard as I would like. It's almost as if the band is holding back from fully embracing the pop elements that would make the music even that much sharper. Everything else is in place, all they need to do is hone the choruses a touch more, and this album would work on every level. Charlotte can deliver, that I'm sure of. "Hurricane" does this, and it's easily my favorite song on the record. A few more like that would make this one heck of a record.

As it stands, "Moonbathers" is a record that adds another solid entry to Delain's career. It isn't the leap forward I was hoping for, but it's not a step backward either. Delain is growing by being steady, and that's exactly what they do here. They're a good band, and "Moonbathers" is a good album. The question for you is whether that's enough to give them a chance.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Top Opeth Songs

With the recent release of Opeth's new single starting the hype machine for the upcoming "Sorceress" album, I went back and revisited the majority of the Opeth discography. Rather than run through each and every album, I'm going to present my picks for my half dozen favorite Opeth tracks. Some albums get ignored completely, while some get multiple tracks included. While I will eventually do a discography as the new album approaches, this should give a clue as to what you can expect. So, without further ago, here are my favorite Opeth songs:

Ghost Of Perdition (Ghost Reveries)

The epic opener from the album that seems to get overlooked fairly often, Opeth presents us perhaps their most fully formed epic. Over these ten minutes, we get a range of varied sounds that include Opeth at their most brutal, and at their most beautiful. This album marked the pinnacle of Mikael's abilities as a dual vocalist, which he puts to get use throughout this track. It essentially serves as a ten minute illustration that can be shown to anyone who wants to know what Opeth is all about. It is the purest distillation of their sound.

Reverie/Harlequin Forest (Ghost Reveries)

The song that marked the transition to the future. The mixture of heavy metal guitars with Mikael's clean singing hinted that Opeth was moving in a different direction, and they signaled it with one of their best songs. Even at its heaviest, the guitars remain more melodic than the typical Opeth song (even hinting at the direction of the next song on this list), and Mikael pulls out some fantastic melodies. This was the progressive spirit of Opeth, doing some new and unexpected things, which was far more interesting than their later rehashing of progressive tropes.

Burden (Watershed)

Opeth's softer side is not always appreciated, but it includes some of their very best material. "Burden" is the best song that Opeth has written over the course of the last three albums. It's a pure soft-rock ballad, but Mikael's vocals and melodies are nothing short of gorgeous, and the lengthy guitar melodies played by him and Frederick are mesmerizing. It's old-school prog worship in the same vain as their most recent albums, but done far better. Opeth has never sounded more beautiful than on this song. It single-handedly made it possible to see how they could leave metal behind and still be successful, even if they have fumbled that ball.

Godhead's Lament (Still Life)

Opeth's career was defined by the balance between crushing death metal and soft acoustic passages, and never was the balance better than on "Still Life", and this track in particular. The first half of the song gives us Opeth the death metal band, but it's the melodic second half that elevates this into something special. We hear that melody in the guitar playing, and then it unfolds through the vocals, as Mikael lets out one of his most captivating lines. You'll know what I mean as soon as you hear it. Opeth's genius was found here, taking complex music and giving it a simple and memorable hook. It's fantastic, and something even they struggled to replicate with regularity.

Face Of Melinda (Still Life)

The softer side of Opeth was always based in traditional folk music, but on this song it shifted into jazz territory. The shuffling rhythm and cut-off chords are pure jazz, and among the most interesting pieces of music Opeth has ever played. It's a ballad that is completely unique to the world of metal, an intricate song that could be enjoyed both deeply and on the surface. But it gets better when the guitars turn on the distortion. Mikael's riff there is probably the best he's ever written, using the ringing accent notes of non-standard chords to show an unsettled atmosphere, and to keep us a bit off-balance as we listen. It's a one-off in their career, and probable for good reason. I doubt Mikael could ever write anything in that style any better.

And without question, the single greatest song in the Opeth catalog:

Bleak (Blackwater Park)

If there is one song that defines Opeth to me, it is "Bleak". These nine minutes are the most flawlessly written and executed in all of their career, and are high up on the list of the best even tangential death metal ever recorded. The first half of the song is death metal as only Mikael and a few others can do, building heavy riffs into a song that has a real melodic flair in the growled vocals. That part of the song is catchy and singable on it's own. Then, the song unfolds into the chorus to end all Opeth choruses. With Steven Wilson's help, the song's clean vocal melodies and guitar soloing cascade melody atop melody, hook upon hook. It's almost unfathomable that the same peope who were just playing brutal death metal could turn around and within the same song unleash a truly phenomenal song, full stop. It is easily Opeth's apex, and in some ways I think it set the bar so high that they were always cursed to fall short of expectations from there on, no matter what they did.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Album Review: Mos Generator - "Abyssinia"

Riffs.  Riffs riffs.  Riffsriffsriffs.  That’s what Mos Generator, based out of the scenic state of Washington, brings to the table.  And not just any riffs, but blues-soaked, throwback classic rock riffs, piled on top of each other one after the other, like an all you can eat buffet of big, major key guitar lines.  That’s really the meal being served by Mos Generator, without release or relent, for their new album “Abyssinia”.

Not entirely different from their genre cohorts like Monster Truck or Mountains of Wizard, Mos Generator is seeking to reclaim those halcyon days when rock and metal were closer in alignment, the days when Deep Purple was one of the heaviest bands alive, crafting deep riffs out of the galactic ether and pressing them to vinyl.  The result as far as “Abyssinia” is concerned is a product that sings loudly of a different era of rock music, when the prototypes were still new.

Amidst all that though, there is some other color.  The album’s opening tune, “Strangest Times,” feels a lot like a late-era Foo Fighters song, with solid percussion backing up the basic melody, and a liberal employment of the loud-as-we-want-all-systems-go Dave Grohl philosophy.  That’s not a cheap comparison; there’s merit in taking that approach, as too many artists feel they have to contain themselves within an image or a style rather than simply lay what feels good.

There are also some welcome changes in pace (more on this below,) where Mos Generator tries out a few different cadences in an attempt to round out their sound.  “As Above So Below” sounds very different from what we discussed above, taking on a more muted but harmonious tone, where by contrast “Time & Other Thieves” ups and tempo and pairs it with dual vocals and some offbeat percussion to give a different look.  There’s a veneer on the latter song that plays out almost like one of those synth-driven prog classics of the late seventies and early eighties, though without the synth.  That’s probably a weak description, and it starts to fall apart as the band winds into an old school Deep Purple breakdown with a cushy solo, but it’s the closest available analogy.

The one failing of Mos Generator is that there’s not a ton of depth to the experience.  The riffs are warm and organic and infectious, but the riffs are all there really is.  The songs are enjoyable as single entities, but once you’ve heard one or two, you pretty much have a solid idea of the entire story of the record.  The change in pacing from above doesn’t similarly engender a change in overall feel or timbre.  It’s mostly the same sound at new speeds.  That doesn’t mean that the songs lose their value, that’s not what we’re saying.  But the total experience of “Abyssinia” pretty much thins down to one or two ideas.  So, there’s great potential for progress here, but for right now, it’s not as fulfilling as it could be.

So more good than bad for “Abyssinia,” there’s no doubt of that, but the one bad is worth considering before a purchase.  In the meantime, Mos Generator is a talented band with a great instinct for writing songs people would want to hear both in music and in spirit.  Most definitely worth a rental before you buy.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Album Review: Devil to Pay - "A Bend Through Space and Time"

Based in the heart of this great nation, Indianapolis’ Devil to Pay have been churning the distorted, fuzzed-out deep end of metal for quite a while now, building an impressive local following and a respected cadre of albums that amounts to a portfolio that equals or betters many of their contemporaries.

Part of the excitement of any new Devil to Pay record is the curious examination of what the chosen sound will be.  Prior to this new effort “A Bend Through Space and Time,” DtP has released four other works, all of which reach the same ballpark destination, but get there through different means.  Beginning in 2004, “Thirty Pieces of Silver” was an edgy ride, filled with slash-and-burn riffs and the vitriol of youth.  “Cash is King’ was more patient and much more dry, a slow burn that roiled and bubbled without exploding.  “Heavily Ever After,” by contrast, was a deeply impactful punch in the mouth, studded with the thump of metal’s power.  Then again, another shift for the most recent record, 2013’s “Fate is Your Muse,” bending back toward the roller coaster that started the whole journey, but this time reflected with a greater sense of optimism and enjoyment.

“A Bend Through Space and Time” is similar but different to all of those listed above, much in the same way as they all are siblings to each other.  This album carries the same fuzz and much of the same depth, albeit with more insistence and a greater influx of tension.  Additionally, the tone of this album is one of, well, paranoia is too strong a word, but caution isn’t, urging the listener both in music and vocal to be wary of surroundings and careful about who trust is placed in.  It’s not a complete reversal from the message of “Fate is Your Muse,” but it is an adjustment to it.

Anyway, let’s work backwards. “The Demons Come Home to Roost” is the album’s final cut, and it paints a fairly clear picture of all the album’s themes in one eight-minute shot.  Beginning with a pushy, stuttering riff that reminds of the chunky guitar work of the early nineties, the song settles uneasily into a pallor of doom metal tropes that play well together in melody and separately as harmony.  The song’s last two-thirds are akin to the Sword of Damocles, holding the listener in waiting with a tense riff that conjures mental images of the song’s title.

Just prior to the end, we’re faced with “Your Inner Lemmy,” a loving tribute to that icon most recently departed.  The pacing of the album picks up here, imitating the swaggering rock of Motörhead while lyrically telling a story Lemmy himself would be proud of.  For those hearing the song and thinking to themselves ‘where have I heard this before?’ the lead riff does bear some resemblance to Motörhead’s “Iron Fist,” but upon further review, is actually shockingly similar to Overkill’s “Bring Me the Night.”

The real character of “A Bend Through Space and Time” though, comes from the album’s middle, beginning with “Kobold in the Breadbasket,” and running through the deadpan of “Recommended Daily Dose.”  “Kobold…” is a seminal plodder, the kind of infectious, doom-y atmosphere injector that Devil to Pay has excelled at in different colors for a long time.  “Heavily Ever After” had “When All is Said and Done,” and “Fate is Your Muse” boasted “Wearin You Down,” which ranged in style from Clutch to Orange Goblin, and “Kobold…” fulfills that same obligation, but much more in the style of Kyuss.  (Quick Aside – in no way are we suggesting that Devil to Pay is simply copying those around them, these are just easy analogies used to paint accurate pictures from an editorial standpoint, and thus prevent this review from running into the thousands of words.)

As the album progresses through the middle, a single comparison jumps to mind, which is made all too often in metal circles but in this case has some traction – there’s a solid dose of Black Sabbath in these riffs, both in the sense of impending calamity (or some such,) and in the deeply layered blues groove that serves as a more than capable engine.

The screaming tones of “The Meaning of Life,” would have sounded perfectly at home on the same concert bill as Deep Purple, a minor-key but poignant reminder of what blues metal used to be like, all highlighted with an ever-present John Bonham hi-hat accompaniment.  These are the moments when Devil to Pay really shows off both their ability to write songs in their own idiom and their clear reverence for the halcyon days of the marriage between blues and metal, before the genre became sodden with the word ‘doom.’

Gauging “A Bend Through Space and Time” relative to the band’s other albums is difficult because it comes down to what you want to hear.  Personal taste is going to have a lot of input on which of their records you think is best.  For what it’s worth, all of them are of high quality, and this one is no exception.  An album that at its few fallow moments is still ‘very good,’ and often crosses the threshold into ‘excellent,’ Devil to Pay remains a top shelf metal band, flown too long under the radar of too many.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Album Review: Lacrimas Profundere - Hope Is Here

I will admit to being a novice when it comes to Gothic rock. I know a few of the big names, but I have rarely thrown myself into anything that calls itself Gothic. I'm not sure exactly why that is, since there isn't anything about the music that would inherently deter me, but I've been trying to rectify that this year. Lacrimas Profundere is the third Gothic album I have covered on this site in 2016, and with this being their first concept album, I think it's safe to say that raises the stakes a bit. Gothic concepts can bring to mind any number of visions of horror and darkness, but that is going to be hard to translate through music. Concept albums are never as successful as the artists want them to be, because there is simply no way of conveying an entire story in the limited number of lyrics on a record.

Lacrimas Profundere's recipe doesn't exactly lend itself to the scope of a concept album. They play a perfectly fine brand of melancholy rock, but their range of sounds is limited, so there isn't anything about the music itself that would lead you to think this is more than an average record. Every song has the same ringing minor chords and dramatic half-sung vocals, all of which blends together by the middle of the album. For being a story, the 'chapters' aren't at all apparent through the uniform sound of the songs.

But that's a question of structure. What about the actual music?

Well, that's not exactly something that fares all that much better. The band is good at getting across the sound of despair, but that's about all they do well. I understand that not every guitar-based band is going to play big, hooky riffs, but the musical backdrops on these tracks are wholly anonymous. There is little to anything about these instrumentals that will ever be memorable. The chords are strummed, but never in any rhythms that deviate in a way that's interesting. It's faceless music that could be interchangeable with any other song on the record, or with plenty of other bands trying the same thing.

That could be salvaged with a vocal performance that hooks the listener, but that's not the case here either. The vocals are that stereotypical sound for Gothic rock that sounds like someone trying to be cool, who doesn't realize that he sounds like the creepy guy in his 30s hanging out at a high school. There's no energy to the performance, and the melodies are too flat to grip me. It's that kind of melodic where it's assumed that anything that is smooth must be good, and that certainly is not the case. Here's a tip: try singing along with any of these songs. The experience is completely boring. If the melody is boring, the song is usually going to be below par.

Take all of that, and add in the fact that without the lyric sheet in front of me, I can't tell you the first detail of the story, and you get an album that is a horrible disappointment. It's not grand, it's not memorable, and it's not even all that Gothic. This year's album from The 69 Eyes is a far better example of how to do Gothic rock the right way. This album might be striving, but it's reaching up from the bottom of a deep hole. I'm sorry to say it, but this is, to apologize for the pun, profoundly disappointing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Album Review: Michael Sweet - One Sided War

Michael Sweet continues to be one of the hardest working musicians in the rock and metal scene. Just last year, I reviewed the albums he released with Sweet & Lynch and Stryper, and now he's back once again with a new solo album. It's amazing how much music he's been releasing this far into his career, at a time when most artists with his experience are happy to coast on their past accomplishments. What's more amazing is that he's been garnering some of the best reviews of that career, especially with Stryper's recent turn towards their heaviest material yet. That spirit must be infectious, because this solo album is also being heralded as his heaviest one yet.

This for sure is not going to be a fluffy solo project from the very first seconds, as "Bizarre" opens the album up with a brief flurry of shredding guitar solos. The pace is quick enough to be palpable, and Sweet's vocals are powerful and in your face. There's something to be said about that, but I'll get to that later. Sweet's phrasing in the chorus, and the way the vocals are layered, feels like it could have been a song Dio sang in the mid 80s. There's a definite throwback feel to the track, which is a strong way to open the record.

Even in just the first few tracks, there's a strong sense of diversity that comes through. The title track is a much more modern composition, while "Can't Take This Life" borrows some riffing tendencies from Black Sabbath, which gives the song a deeper and more sinister vibe than I'm used to hearing from Sweet. There are hints of that attitude running through several of these tracks, which helps to give it an identity different from even the heavier Stryper albums of recent years. It's important to differentiate these solo albums from the main band, and that is surely done here. The basics of Sweet's writing are the same, but there's no mistaking this for the yellow and black attack.

"Radio", even without the title, would make a perfect single. It's got the right deliberate pace, with gives the riff heft, and it segues into a strong hook that would be perfect radio fodder, if I can indulge the pun. I also love the use of harmonies and backing vocals, especially in "You Make Me Wanna", as they make the chorus stand out, and sound huge.

There are a couple of issues I take with the record. The chorus of "Golden Age" is annoying, since it relies on vocal effects, which Sweet does not need in the slightest. I don't understand why you would intentionally cover up a strong voice and make it sound worse. The other issue is actually far less apparent here than it has been on some of the other albums of his I've had the opportunity to review recently. Sweet does have a tendency to sing at full power and volume far too often, which doesn't give the songs anywhere to elevate to. He modulates his voice much better here, which is hopefully something he can continue to utilize. His softer tones are just as good, so when a song like "Only You" builds from those tones to his full voice, you can feel the song's intensity growing, which is one of the hallmarks of a great track.

I'm not going to compare this record to either of his releases from last year, because that wouldn't be fair. This is supposed to be something different, and it is. "One Sided War" shows a slightly darker side of Michael Sweet's writing, and while it bears the hallmarks of his style (some of his phrasing, vocally and riff-wise are unmistakable), there's something here that sounds fresh. It might be a bit too metal for rock fans, and a bit too rock for metal fans, but that's its best selling point. This is a record that does a little bit of everything, and defines who Michael Sweet is. In that respect, you have to call it a rousing success.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Meshiaak Premiere New Song, "At the Edge of the World"

Meshiaak, the brand new metal supergroup founded by Danny Camilleri (4ARM,) Dean Wells (Teramaze) and rounded out by Jon Dette (every thrash band ever) and bassist Nick Walker, are releasing another single from their upcoming debut album "Alliance of Thieves," due to hit shelves and downloads on August 19th, released via Mascot Label Group.

The band, operating from a home base in Australia, is on a singular mission to make metal that is both thoughtful and accessible, and to that end has teamed up with us humble servants at BGM to bring you their newest cut, "At the Edge of the World."  

Camilleri says of this particular track:
“It’s the kind of song that would speak to people on a lot of different levels, something that most people would be able to connect with fairly easily. It’s a song that is very close to me personally, especially when it came to the lyrics. It’s where I’ve found myself in the last three years and my moments of doubt, trials and frustrations concerning experiences I’ve had to go through over that time.”

If you're counting down the days, you can keep up with the building hype on the band's Facebook page.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Thought Experiment: Picking My Ultimate Band

There are a few thought experiments that are staple in conversations among music fans. One of them is the list of 'desert island' albums you would take. It's a fun experiment, since you not only have to account for what music you love too much to ever be without, but you also have to weigh the rainbow of moods and feelings you will have to account for. It's far more difficult than just picking your ten favorite records. I've already compiled and posted that list, so let's instead focus on the second of these thought experiments; the all-star band.

For this experiment, we are tasked with filling out a band roster with our favorite musicians at each instrument. I'm going to go a step further, and try to make sure that the band I create would also be making the kind of music I would want to be listening to. It's not enough to just list my favorite instrumentalists, the band has to be cohesive enough to be something that would work. So, let's get on with this.

Rhythm Guitar/Vocals - Emerson Hart

It is no secret around these parts that Tonic is my favorite band. As such, it is natural that Emerson Hart would be the cornerstone of my band. As a singer and songwriter, Emerson is at or near the top of my personal lists. He would anchor the band with his solid acoustic and electric rhythm guitar work, while providing stirring vocals and massive songwriting talents. His style is also unobtrusive enough that the band put around him can take his songs and give them a unique spin, and not always recreate the success he has achieved already. My #1 draft pick, in this case, it the perfect choice to get the band off to a flying start.

Lead Guitar/Keyboards/Vocals - Neal Morse

Neal Morse will be the glue that allows the band to flourish. As a multi-instrumentalist, Neal will be the perfect weapon to ensure a diverse musical approach. He can play melodically rich lead guitar, he can form a guitar duo to bring the heavy rock, and he can use his world of musical knowledge to throw pianos, organs, and orchestrations into the music. His progressive chops can take the band into deeper waters, and his songwriting is unparalleled. Between he and Emerson, my band would have a nearly bottomless well of melodic creativity, as well as the voices to pull them off.

Bass - Bruce Thomas

Elvis Costello is a legend, and for good reason. But while Elvis' lyrics and melodies are what made him so, the unsung hero of those early Attractions records was Bruce Thomas. His bass playing was lyrical in its own right, bouncing up and down the neck to its own rhythm. Countless songs were driven by Bruce's bass playing, and he stands out to my mind as one of the most uniquely identifiable bassists in pop and rock. He would be able to provide ample melodic counterpoint to the guitars, and is the perfect choice to make dense, rich music.

Drums/Backing Vocals - Mike Portnoy

Perhaps an odd choice for a band that will be rooted in pop/rock, but Mike Portnoy cannot help himself but play busy. In this case, that is exactly what I want. I am not a rhythm-oriented listener, but when the time calls for it, Mike Portnoy has provided a career of fantastic patterns and fills that show he can play anything, and still sound like himself. Transatlantic is one of my favorite bands, and his intricate work in that group would work well to continue the trend of making music that is simple on formula, but complex on execution.

So that is my band. Would it ever work? There's no way of knowing that, but in my head, I can hear these players coming together well. Their individual talents seem like they would mesh, and create music that would be as close to my definition of perfection as possible. I was able to build a tenable band that includes my favorite drummer, bassist, as well as two of my favorite singers and songwriters. That's a pretty darn good achievement.

How can I go wrong?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Album Review: Meshiaak - "Alliance of Thieves"

Meshiaak, based way down under in the barrens of Sydney, Australia, is the new straight up heavy metal four piece captained by Jon Dette, notable for, among many other projects, being drummer for about half of the classic thrash bands of the eighties, headlined by his time with Slayer.  (No insult to Dette, Slayer is officially at the age now where you can say that and then have to clarify by saying ‘no, not that drummer.  And no, not the other drummer.  The OTHER other drummer.’)

Dette and his musical compatriots have set out to toe the often tenuous line between accessible, downbeat-driven heavy metal and the subtle progressive overtones that shadow some of the genre’s best works.  The end result is “Alliance of Thieves,” as ambitious a debut as we’ve seen this calendar year, doubly benefitted by seamless production and a slick, clean sound that displays the necessary power of the record without perverting it into some sort of bizarre pop-metal anathema.

The album hits many of the right notes, beginning with the blistering chug of the record’s opener “Chronicles of the Dead,” which thunders along for just over six minutes without really stopping to pause.  Listen, we talk a lot around here about how bands can drone on too long without changing direction, but Meshiaak seems to have found the proper balance of making a musical point versus drilling it unnecessarily into the ground.  A good chunk of that comes from variations within the lead riffs, which don’t break new ground, but provide a great deal of energy and just enough variety to float the song’s general direction.

That likely comes off as a lot of double-talking drivel, so let’s streamline the argument.  Meshiaak’s album works because it borrows a great deal from the lessons of pure grain metal success like Soilwork’s “Figure Number Five” and Megadeth’s “Rust in Peace.”  This is metal that gives the impression of being simple and open while simultaneously working in rich, complex overlays.  Listen to “Drowning, Fading, Falling,” the album’s first single, and sure, you’ll hear big percussion and overdriven riffs, but there’s also some hidden harmony in there as well that helps add some depth to the proceedings, coupled with a well-articulated solo.

It’s a working formula that sounds devilishly simple, but eludes the great majority of bands who try to execute it.  So “Alliance of Thieves” gets full credit for being able to understand how the formula works.

Here’s the rub (and there’s a saving grace at the end, promise.)

However many months ago it was, the first-person action movie “Hardcore Henry” was released.  As a production junkie, and lifelong action movie fan, I was instantly intrigued.  While certainly gimmicky at best, there was real potential in the shooting technique, or at least, space to see where ground could someday be broken.  I consulted a coworker who’s opinion I trust on these matters in his assessment of the movie.  His straight-faced, unemotional answer was “it’s fine.”

That is a clear-cut, no frills, unadorned, textbook case of damning with faint praise.  As a result, did I ever go see “Hardcore Henry”?  No, I didn’t.  But I tell you that story to tell you this one: Meshiaak’s album is “fine.”  I have no qualms about saying it’s good.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s a professional album by professional musicians in a form of the genre that too often goes overlooked for lack of both those things.  All of that makes “Alliance of Thieves” laudable in every respect.  Still, it’s hard to go out on a limb for this record, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, even to me.  There’s an unidentifiable something that holds this album back from being a unilateral success, a nagging feeling like most of the songs are reminiscent of songs you’ve heard before, which tempers the album’s novelty.

Okay, the promised saving grace.  Each time I spin “Alliance of Thieves,” I like it a little more than I did the previous time.  As you listen to it with a critical ear, it unfolds and shows you a thing you missed here or there.  If there's a pitfall to reviewing music, it's that editorial decisions are made early in the listening process, when sometimes albums would be better served to be reviewed months after their release.  So there’s that to think about.

Also, let’s keep in mind that this is a debut record that is so tight at the corners and well assembled that it’s easy to forget the band’s youth and judge the album by the standard metric for a band’s third or fourth record.  The sky is clearly the limit for Meshiaak, and to that end, “Alliance of Thieves” is a very solid start.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Album Review: One Less Reason - The Memories Uninvited

Mainstream rock bands get chewed up and spit out by the corporate system at an alarming rate. It seems like every few weeks, I'm hearing about another new band trying to break through the bubblegum ceiling that radio has on rock bands. They get signed, fail to hit it big right away, then fade into oblivion with enough regularity that it's hard to ever give them much attention. When you know they have no chance, putting that kind of effort into a band is stupid. One Less Reason is different. They had a record deal, but went out on their own, so they could control their own path. That's something that takes a lot of courage to do, and it definitely deserves respect. This is their sixth album, although it's my first time hearing about them. What do they have to offer?

The first thing to say is that "The Memories Uninvited" is a big, polished rock record. That might scare off people who believe that rock needs to be slightly raw and dirty to be any good, but I am not one of them. This album was mixed by Randy Staub, who has countless more impressive credits but is best known to me for mixing Tonic's "Head On Straight", which guarantees that the sound is going to be flawless. And indeed, the record sounds amazing from a production standpoint. Everything fits right into the levels they should, and there's enough depth in the mix to keep the record from sounding too loud for its own good. That's a solid start.

But what about the songs, you ask? Well, that is going to depend on how you feel about accessibility. The one thing I can say for sure about these songs is that, despite the hints of screams that pop up to give the songs color here and there, One Less Reason is driving right down the express lane towards the mainstream. That means there aren't huge riffs, or loads of attitude to make you want to cover yourself in flaming skull tattoos. But, that means that these songs have another quality that rock music needs; mass appeal.

It's hard to listen to this record and not find yourself tapping your foot along to the songs as the choruses keep coming. There's something that happens with well-written mainstream music that I can't quite explain, other than to say I know it when I hear it. These songs might be lacking just a hair in the ferocity of the attack, when it comes to what the stereotypical rock fan would want, but as the record plays there's no denying that this is better music than anything Nickelback and their copycats have put out in the last decade. The back to back numbers "Sometimes" and "Where Were You" are both hits in the making, with the kind of choruses that make me smile.

We're offered some diversity in these songs, to varying degrees of success. I quite enjoy "One Day", which is a Southern ballad that plays well into the band's strengths. I did not, however, enjoy "Time" nearly as much, which goes too far into the modern trend of building everything around drums and a rhythm track. Without the guitars, or any real rock elements to the song, it's the one that falls a bit flat. Honestly, it seems like a bit of a pander for radio play, which is ironic, since it's the last song I think would be successful in that format. It's still a good song, and it grew on me as I listened to the record more and more, but it doesn't match the ultra-high quality of the rest of the album.

But let's not dwell on that. One mediocre song on an eleven track album is about as good as you can hope for. The fact of the matter is that sandwiching that song are ten more tracks that set a strong standard for today's mainstream rock. If you turn on the radio and hear Five Finger Death Punch, Buckcherry, and the like, I don't know how you can't listen to One Less Reason and not think they're better in every way than the bands who are on top of the rock charts. As far as mainstream rock goes this year, "The Memories Uninvited" is as good as it gets.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Album Review: Skillet - Unleashed

It's impossible to know of every band and every album that we should, and there's a bit of a head smacking the forehead moment when you come across something that you know should have been on your radar before. That's the scenario I found myself in when I was reading the description of Skillet's newest album, which documents their history of success, all of which was foreign to me. While I do not pay an overwhelming amount of attention to what is going on in the mainstream anymore, I feel bad that I hadn't heard anything from a band that is obviously doing quite well for themselves. Well, that changes now, with "Unleashed".

The idea behind this album was to make an album that could be a party, something that would be fun to get together and sing along with. That approach is certainly paid off by the opening track, "Feel Invincible". The electronic elements that open the song are pure party anthem material, and then the song burst open with some massive guitars and a chorus that would make the crowd go crazy at a show. I've heard this sort of thing many times before, but when it's done well, it's always effective. And it is here too as well.

Skillet has a formula for how they're writing songs this time around, and there isn't much deviation on the record. There's certainly something to be said for continuing to do what you do well, but there's also strength in making sure the record doesn't feel like a dozen repetitions of the same track. I wouldn't go that far in describing "Unleashed", but there is a very similar melodic construction that pops up more than a few times, which does make some of these tracks start to blend together. The differences are more in terms of which tracks have a bit more electronic influence, and which have dramatic string arrangements, rather than using the main riffs and melodies to draw the distinctions.

But the core concern of this album was in making a record that was fun, and Skillet has certainly done that. Whether or not it's a bit homogeneous, there is absolutely an energy to the record that propels it along. These songs will certainly go over well in concert, where the live experience will make every anthemic moment feel even larger when a chorus of thousands can amplify them. That doesn't show up on record, but you can tell when it will be there.

Overall, "Unleashed" fits the modern business model of rock music. Bands make their living now on the touring circuit, and "Unleashed" is a record that will go over extremely well in that context. As a record, it's good, but I have to imagine it will come alive when played live.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Album Review: Hammers of Misfortune - "Dead Revolution"

For all the constant evolution with the various genres of heavy metal, there are always bands who act as a stabilizing force, consistently producing high-level product that achieves all the appropriate benchmarks of a professional production.  Hammers of Misfortune is one of those bands who fans can rely on for an honest, thoughtful production that doesn’t disappoint.

“Dead Revolution” the new album from the American metal artists sees the band going in much the same direction that they’ve always been, but there are enough new twists to interest perhaps even the most fatigued fan.  That’s not to say that Hammers of Misfortune isn’t doing the same things they’ve always done so well – harmonies that are well thought out, songs sculpted with meticulous planning and riffs written to catch and inspire.  Hammers of Misfortune additionally continues their trend of writing songs that are as long as they need to be (and in some cases perhaps longer,) composing a full album that features only seven cuts.

There’s plenty crammed into those seven cuts, though.  “Dead Revolution” is a musical journey of a sizeable scale, living at the intersection of Judas Priest, King Crimson and the Police.  Addressing the last two of those first, Hammers of Misfortune has always possessed an old-school progressive bend, in the sense that they’re not afraid to change pace and bridge wholly different sections and styles into one cohesive whole.  That’s really the linchpin of everything this album stands for – that the band can write an eight-minute sojourn like “The Precipice” and end up with a selection that experiments with color and pace while still remaining artistically cohesive.

There’s a maturity that the band infuses into nearly all of their songs, which helps temper the entire experience with a sense of well-measured articulation.  Even as guitars chop their way into the comparatively up tempo opening riffs of “The Velvet Inquisition” to start the album, there’s a pervasive sense that all the musicians involved are under control and pointed in the same direction.

Moreover, those same speed riffs, which we see again in the title cut lend not only some versatility into the mix for “Dead Revolution,” but also remind everyone that Hammers of Misfortune is fully capable of showing their teeth when the occasion merits.  One of the strengths of this new record is that it displays a full recognition of the atmosphere it wants to craft and then employs effective solutions to make that happen.  When the album needs to bite, it does, and when it needs to take the listeners on an expansive journey, it can do that, too, all within one track.

Now, longtime fans of Hammers know what’s coming next, but it bears repeating for those who might be new – listening to this full record requires a certain amount of patience, because these are long songs that aren’t, by nature, instantly accessible.  It’s also worth noting that for all the metal chops the record brings to bear, this is not a party album, or even an album fit for moshing.  “Dead Revolution” works best as a record taken in quiet contemplation, sort of metal-as-art, and is not the type of experience where you can jump in and out and get the full experience.  So listeners may need to be in a specific mindset or of a certain taste to really enjoy the record.

In the end, “Dead Revolution” is at least an equal record to “17th Street” and in many ways may be superior.  It took a long while between records to get here, but the wait has been very much worth it.  This is a refreshingly professional album that is crisp and clean in a genre where those things cannot be taken for granted.