Monday, October 31, 2016

Album Review: Neal Morse Band - The Similitude Of A Dream

Over the last twenty years, I can't think of anyone who has made more, and better, music than Neal Morse. Between Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, and his solo work, Neal has made more albums than I can count, and all of them are in their own way excellent. On his last album, there was a subtle shift, as it moved from being Neal Morse, to being The Neal Morse Band. It wasn't just a semantic difference, as the inclusion of the rest of the band in the writing and singing did make for a very different record. With the band gelling through the process of writing/recording/touring that album, the question would arise for how they would move forward.

The answer is that they have moved in two directions simultaneously. "The Similitude Of A Dream" is prog at its most bombastic. The band has pulled out all the stops by writing a one-hundred minute double concept album based on the book "A Pilgrim's Promise". Over more than twenty tracks, the band throws all the prog staples into the mix. There are lengthy instrumental breaks, intricate playing, reprisals of themes from earlier tracks, and a story that tries to tie all this together. It's a sprawling prog epic that demands your attention.

At the same time, however, it's also a more immediate album than "The Grand Experiment" was. Along the way of these two albums, we get a collection of songs that are punchier, catchier, and more inclined to join the canon of Morse classics than anything from the previous album. That's not a knock on that album, but more a reflection that it was clearly the product of a band that was figuring out how to integrate new writers and voices.

That isn't a problem on this album, which feels like a more fully fleshed-out project, as you would expect from an album with a precise focus. "City Of Destruction", which you might have already heard, showcases the best of what the album has to offer. It's a heavy, swinging prog rock song buoyed by big hooks and swirling harmonies. It works on its own as a fantastic song, but it also fits in as a piece of the larger whole. The strongest tracks on the album, including "So Far Gone" and "Breath Of Angels", serve that dual purpose to perfection.

Of course, any album of this length is going to invite the question of whether it needed to extend so long. There are a few moments here and there where the instrumental breaks feel a tad overlong, since they can't communicate the story being told. And then there's the case of "Freedom Song", which borrows heavily from a track off Neal's "Songs From November" solo pop album. I love the original track, and the derivative is also excellent, but I'm distracted by hearing what sounds to my ears to be something he's already done.

But let's get back to the main point. There is a lot of music to digest on this album, and once you do, you'll realize that there is also a lot of great music here. There is more, and stronger, material than "The Grand Experiment" had to offer. The only problem is that by virtue of its length, it's a difficult album to sit down and listen to. I know I struggled to focus on it for the entire running time. Broken down into smaller segments, I can't find anything to complain about. It's a heck of a good record. I just feel bad doing that, because the concept doesn't hold together if the entire work isn't absorbed at once.

Basically, the conclusion is that if you've ever liked anything Neal Morse has been involved in, there will be plenty for you to enjoy about this album. I don't agree with Mike Portnoy that this is "the album of [his] career", but it's another excellent album from a group of musicians who can't seem to make anything that isn't.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Album Review: Hammerfall - Built To Last

Years ago, when I was first getting into metal, and power metal specifically, Hammerfall was one of the bands that helped me along. I had a compilation of songs from their first few albums, and it was the cheesy appeal of that brand of 'true' power metal that won me over, and started me down a long rabbit-hole of music. So in that regard, I have to respect Hammerfall, no matter what has happened in the years since. And there has been a lot. Starting with their veer into modern metal territory, and continuing through their abrupt return to swords and dragons, it's been a rough stretch for the band, I have for one have not been along for the ride. I don't remember the last Hammerfall album I liked in full, but I'm always willing to give them another chance, in the hope that they recapture what I remember about them.

In one respect, a band like Hammerfall can't continue on forever without changing. At a certain point, singing songs about heavy metal, swords, and dragons becomes painful. It's certainly a young man's game, and Hammerfall has been around long enough that they have reached the point where it's odd to hear men of their age still talking about the same subjects. "Bring It!" is a ridiculous song, as ten albums into their career, they are still writing songs trying to say how much they're defending heavy metal. If they haven't proven it yet, it's probably not true.

It doesn't help that the song is question is also a mediocre composition without a hook worth writing about. Hammerfall used to be about giant hooks to go along with the copious cheese, but those have dulled over the years. The music is drawing from the same playbook, but there's an element of fun that's missing. Hammerfall used to be the kind of band you knew was just tongue-in-cheek enough to laugh with, not at, all the while raising your fist and singing along. Maybe it's attrition from years of hearing the same thing over and over, but the music is more clinical and soulless.

Worse, we get "The Sacred Vow". It's a song that would be a legitimately great Hammerfall song.... if not for the fact that the chorus is a rip-off of one of their own early classics. I know certain keys are hard to avoid when you write hundreds of songs, but this was so jarring a similarity that Joacim hadn't finished singing the first line of the chorus before I was smacking myself in the forehead. It's embarrassing.

Ultimately, I think "Built To Last" is a fine album, if you've never been a Hammerfall fan. If you were, and you remember how good they once were, then I have to say this is a disappointing album, because it reaffirms my belief that they have nothing left to say. I'm not writing them off for good, but this album doesn't help.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Album Review: Serpentine Dominion - S/T

Stop me if you've heard this joke before; Killswitch Engage and Cannibal Corpse walk into a bar....

But seriously, it sounds like an odd combination to hear that Adam D of Killswitch Engage has written and recorded an album alongside George 'Corpsegrinder' Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. On the other hand, when you give it a little thought, it does start to make sense. Metalcore does borrow liberally from the death metal playbook, so it's not entirely out of line to see what would happen if you removed the clean sung choruses, and focused solely on the crushing heavy death metal parts. That's what we get here.

This is a rare case where the short introductory track is not the least bit superfluous. Segueing from acoustic guitars to a steady buildup of electrics and heavy metal, the stage is set to remind us that we're about to hear music aimed to rip our faces off. The first track, "Vengeance In Me" does exactly that. Over a little more than two minutes, there is such a flurry of riffs and drums that it's almost hard to comprehend exactly what's going on. There's still a sense of groove amid the shredding, which keeps the music from getting too chaotic.

"Vanquished Unto Thee" actually backtracks on the album's promise a bit. There's still a lot of pure death metal, but the clean background vocals that carry the chorus bring the song much closer to Killswitch territory than I would have ever expected. Perhaps for that reason, I think it's the best track on the album. Although, to be fair, Adam D's writing comes from a place removed enough from death metal that he's able to sprinkle some groove into the otherwise impenetrable mass of guitars that rip through track after track.

I'm not sure what I was expecting this album to sound like, but it wasn't exactly this. This is a ferocious album, one that I have to imagine death metal fans are going to eat up. I'm not one, but I was curious about this union, and now that I've heard it, I have to admit that I find it more interesting than what both of their main bands have been doing lately. Adam D brings a different perspective to death metal, and Fisher gives a completely different reading on Killswitch's heavier moments. It's something that might not have been supposed to work, but it does.

And thankfully, this album knows not to overstay its welcome. It's a short record, but really, as blistering as it is, I don't think asking us to absorb more of this at once would have been a good idea.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Album Review: Theocracy - Ghost Ship

Theocracy is one of those bands that brings a certain word to mind; consistency. No, I don't mean that in the sense that Theocracy is one of the most consistent bands out there, delivering time and again. I mean it in the sense that I wish so much that they would develop some of that. They have released one of my favorite power metal albums ever in the form of "Mirror Of Souls", which is as heavy and melodic and stunning as they come, but it was sandwiched between two albums that left me rather cold. Combine that with the fact that they've put out several Christmas songs that would be some of my favorite metal songs, period, and it becomes frustrating that they've only batted one for three so far in their career. That dampened my expectations for "Ghost Ship", but I went into it hoping for the best. So what did they deliver this time?

"Ghost Ship" is a more focused, more streamlined effort than the previous outing. Only one track here extends beyond seven minutes, which is a decision that hones the material down to a sharper point. Leading into the ten minute closer, we get nine tracks of deep, heavy, melodic power metal that recalls the best of what Theocracy can do. Matt Smith has shown that in addition to his powerful voice, he can write some immensely sticky melodies, and he provides plenty of those through these tracks.

When you hear melodic metal that's as heavy as parts of this album can be, you don't expect to get soaring melodies over the top, but that mixtures of mdoern heaviness and traditional melody is what makes Theocracy potentially special. They mastered the form on their defining "Laying The Demon To Rest", and while they haven't reached that height again, they come fairly close on several occasions. It's hard to hear the hook of "Wishing Well" and not find yourself starting to nod your head along with it. It has that catchy quality to it that digs in to the point you're starting to sing along by the end of the track.

But then we get a track like "The Wonder Of It All", which confuses me. It has some of the heaviest instrumental parts on the entire album, but the chorus is such a light, fluffy wash of vocals that it sounds incompatible. It's pretty, and melodic, but it lacks any sort of hook. It's just.... nice, which isn't enough.

That's the only track that disappoints, though. The rest of the album hits on all the right notes, and delivers what I want to hear from a Theocracy album. There aren't any moments that match the most inspired from "Mirror Of Souls", but there's a decided lack of the more wandering approach "As The World Bleeds" featured, which is what soured me on that record. The increased focus here pays off, as these songs are more narrowly aimed at hitting hard.

Power metal has been in a state of decline for a while now, and a big reason for that is the staleness that can come from following the same blueprint for too long. Theocracy plays by the rules they have already established, but they have enough different about their sound that it still sounds fresh among the flurry of bands that play what we've already heard hundreds of times before. You know a Theocracy song when you hear it, which one of the keys for any band.

So what do I think about "Ghost Ship"? Listening to this album, I feel like Theocracy has taken the right lessons from the last album cycle, and has found the formula that suits them. Most bands only get to make one masterpiece, and they have already done that, so I was never expecting them to match "Mirror Of Souls". "Ghost Ship" is its own album, it's a step up from the previous effort, and it's a heck of a good modern power metal album. There aren't many bands in power metal with more potential than Theocracy, and "Ghost Ship" proves why enough times for it to be a clear winner.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Album Review: Red Fang - "Only Ghosts"

Hmmm.  Indeed.  There are some bands who do one thing well, and some bands who do many things well, but rarest of all is the band that does many things well while convincing you they’re only doing one thing.  Red Fang is in this last group, and their new album “Only Ghosts” is the perfect testament to the very idea that musical ideologies need not be locked into a single idiomatic style.

So what the hell does that mean?  I’m glad I asked.  What that means is that you can be a metal band who incorporates some punk or some pop or some blues or whatever and still sound more like a straight-up metal band than you do any of those other influences.  Red Fang’s new record borrows from all of those, and rather than bend their sound to those paradigms, they bend the paradigms to their sound.  It’s a subtle synthesis of musical ideas, not easily achieved, but oh, how it makes “Only Ghosts” a tempting onion to peel.

Reading that back, it still sounds like pompous high-handed journalistic crap, so let’s try to hammer this out from the baseline, beginning with examples.  The elephant in the room comes first, which is the obvious influence of grunge.  Red Fang has always had some of that in their blood, it’s probably inevitable given their geographical upbringing, but there are large sections of this new album that seem to borrow heavily from the darkly boiling cauldron that is Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger.”  Jumping to the album’s back half, “The Smell of the Sound” carries all the hallmarks of “Slaves and Bulldozers,” from the plodding repetition of slow, deep chords and the long stretches of vocal silence allowing for the melody, if it can be called such, to blossom and carry.

You can go down the list.  “Shadows” and “Not For You” (not a cover of the Pearl Jam song,) both repeat their choruses like the punk classics of old, complete with short, staccato riffs, easily replicated and timed out for easy listening.  The construction is devilishly simple – a few chords, a sing along chorus and enough energy to keep the music’s threat level up without sounding cartoonish.

There’s also, lest we leave anything out, a distinct flavor of desert rock mixed in here, most visible in the tenor twang and minimalistic riff repetition of “Cut it Short.”  Red Fang at no point really delves deeply into the stereotypical drone of desert rock, but they lay their music down on the border, casually getting close to the line.

As we said at the top though, what makes this record unique is that Red Fang can do all of these things and still sound intrinsically like Red Fang, rather than sounding like Soundgarden or Kyuss or The Ramones or whoever.  That shows a level of mastery that is altogether uncommon in the modern age of copycat bands and digital production.  There’s still a lot of the hallmarks of Red Fang here, from the off-kilter, almost disinterested clean vocals to the brash drum work and crashing guitar tone.  So it all works, in short.

There’s only one note to make – the conscious emphasis on short, accessible riffs for “Only Ghosts” does mean that there’s a lot of similar-sounding songs, which at a first glance can appear to blend into one another.  While there are a lot of subtle shifts in sound, there’s not the automatically detectable variation that spanned “Murder the Mountains.”  Therefore it’s recommended that for the first couple listens, fans should take in “Only Ghosts” when they’re not otherwise distracted.

And it will take more than one listen to really hear this whole album, if that makes sense.  The reward for that patience, however, is a record that fully blooms with creativity and catchiness, which too often can’t live in the same space.  “Only Ghosts” is a distinct improvement from “Whales and Leeches,” putting the band back at the fore in their genre and among their contemporaries.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Album Review: Scattered Hamlet - Swamp Rebel Machine

There was a record quite a while ago that, despite my not being interested in it, seemed like it was going to be the impetus for a new brand of metal. That was the record Dimebag Darrell made with David Allen Coe, which was a fusion of metal and outlaw country, two very different sounds that came from the same rebellious attitude. Why it never caught on is something that I can't quite understand, but all these years later, we're seeing a few bands that are bringing that country attitude into metal. Scattered Hamlet are one of them, as you can tell by the title "Swamp Rebel Machine". They aim to make music that has the heavy groove of metal, but also pull the swamp attitude of old-school country. Is that mixture the interesting intellectual excercise it could be, or is it an uncontrollable clash of styles?

The answer to that question is the former. The styles fit together well, with the metallic guitars giving even more heft and power to the swinging Southern attitude. The sound works. There are a few places where I think the actual tones selected by the band and producers could have been better, but the general tenor of the metal country fits the music exceptionally well. It sounds natural enough that I'm quite shocked more bands haven't done this more often.

But while the sound of the album is both interesting and fitting, that doesn't cover up the songwriting, which is not nearly as well considered. I don't know if it has to do with trying to have one foot in two different worlds, but the writing on the album just isn't sharp enough. The songs don't have catchy country riffs, or choruses that can carry them along. Both aspects are rather bland, which is something I feel bad saying, since I think they have a good idea going here.

What the band could be is encapsulated in "Stonewall Jackson", which is the one place where the band hits on the possibility they hold. It's got the back-roads attitude you're looking for, but it tempers that with the kind of hook that the best of metal bands would be proud of. If the entire album was able to live up to that standard, we'd have something we could look at as the start of a new and growing genre. But, that's not what this is.

"Swamp Rebel Machine" is a good idea that needs some more work. There's the beginnings of something interesting here, but right now the band isn't able to bring it to fruition.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

EP Review: Ghost - "Popestar"

Okay, so after three albums, Ghost has a certain legacy that’s already prominent in the minds of their fans and the music journalism community.  There’s an implied irreverence in everything the band does, a glint in the shady eye of the band’s image that aims to keep people off balance and do the unexpected.

And that’s where the band injects their new EP “Popestar” into the mix, following quickly on the heels of their critically acclaimed record “Meliora.”  The EP is a five song cut-up, composed largely of covers of pop songs (hence the title, no doubt.)  Yeah, sure, there’s a new song on there, too, and we’ll get to that.  First and centermost in the talking points about this album is the band’s unusual rendition of the Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man.”  This is where the rubber genius of Ghost meets the road rule of cover songs – that to be great, a cover song must remake the song in the new band’s image.

This cover takes the original dark pop song and rolls it up inside a heavy cloak of modern rock and metal personality.  The end result is a song that maintains the catchiness of a pop song from the era, but rolls on with a hook-laden thud and a punchy bass personality that offsets the melodic incantations of vocalist Papa Emeritus.

There are other covers on “Popestar” as well, all of which contain the same strain of Ghost’s quirkiness that famously characterizes their covers dating back to “Here Comes the Sun,” but “Missionary Man” is easily the best of the bunch.

Now, to address what people came to hear, the new track.  “Square Hammer” fits well in the same motif as the rest of “Meliora,” a melodic but deadly keyboard-backed piece of church hymn turned on its rock and roll ear.  It more or less sells itself based on that sentence alone, since Ghost fans know what they’re looking for.  As reinforcement, the track is not a throwaway added to entice listeners who aren’t interested in cover songs; this is a legit composition, exhibiting every bit of the professional standard we know Ghost is capable of.

And that’s really the size of the whole thing.  In about twenty-five minutes, Ghost provides more intriguing and well-executed material than most bands can provide in a full album.  Not to forget, this comes after they’d already emptied the barrel on a full album.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Album Review: Red Sun Rising - Polyester Zeal

Over the last few years, one of the trends I've enjoyed is the revival of classic rock, if not in spirit, than at least in sound. I've long been a proponent of the organic sound that vintage rock carried, but I have to admit to being utterly disappointed with how bands have squandered such an easy target. There have only been a small handful of bands that did it the right way, and even they have faltered. Blues Pills made a record that I didn't like in the slightest earlier this year, and Graveyard, the shining light of this entire genre, just announced their end. So, hearing about another band that is trying to revive the spirit of classic rock is welcoming, but carries with them the expectations of a string of failures.

Let's get the first thing out of the way, when I say classic rock, in this case I mean the ethos, not the sound. This is an album with a fully modern sheen to the production, with big, punchy guitars that come through with power. This is not an album trying to sound like the old days.

But like most bands, there's a struggle to find the right approach to the music. "Amnesia" is a beautiful song, with a nice bluesy riff and a melody that is warm and inviting. There's some Stone Temple Pilots to the sound, but there's also something timeless about it. It would fit in on classic rock stations as well as 90s rock radio. It's great, but it comes after "Push", which opens the album with an irritating presence that is a very poor way to welcome me to the experience. "The Otherside" is even better, hitting all the right marks. It's exactly the type of rock music I love, and that should play well with a wider audience. It's got swagger and heart, but warmth and melody as well. It's something that would sound good in a smoky bar, but also would invite the fans to sing along in an arena.

An interesting question comes to mind here: if you're a band in your 20s, is 'classic rock' to you the bands that came about in the 90s? That's the interpretation I get from listening to this record, and it's one that I don't mind at all. That was an underrated time for mainstream rock music. The bands from then might not have had the lasting fame that the 70s bands did, but they created a time when rock music could flourish, and perhaps only now are we seeing the generation that grew up worshiping them. The last ten years could have been the product of people growing up in the wasteland of the 80s, and we're due for a rock revival.

That's my hope, and Red Sun Rising gives me hope. Once we get through that opening track, the remainder of the album is fantastic rock that takes me back to my younger days. They've found a sound that flat-out works, and hearing these songs one after the next is incredibly impressive for a young band. By the time the minor-key chorus of "Unnatural" hits, I'm almost left wondering why I haven't been hearing more hype for this band and album.

I'm not going to say this record is perfect, because there are two tracks here that don't seem to fit in with the rest of the record ("Push" and "Awake"), but the majority of the album is excellent. I complain a lot about the state of modern rock, but if more of it sounded like Red Sun Rising, I wouldn't have much to complain about.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Album Review - Amaranthe - Maximalism

Amaranthe is a band that does something that few others dare; make pop metal. Yes, it sounds a bit squishy to hear the words put together like that, but Amaranthe is one of the few bands out there that makes metal that is unabashed about wanting pop-like success. They do their damndest to make their music into the huge, hook-laden music that the rest of the world spends all their time listening to, just with giant guitars backing it up. It's an approach I often lament is not taken more often, because metal's stubborn refusal to embrace elements that speak to people who aren't interested in nothing but screaming and guitars tuned to low-infinity would be a boon for the genre. Sadly, aside from one album here and there every two years, there isn't much music that fits the mold.

WIth album number four, Amaranthe is clearly the leader of this very small movement. With three vocalists running the gamut from crystalline beauty to harsh screaming, Amaranthe shows that you can do a bit of everything and still maintain an identity. There is a core sound that Amaranthe goes for, and when they get the ingredients right, their sound is one that can be massively addictive. What metal fans tend to ignore is that there's a reason why pop music continues to endure; it's memorable, and that's a good thing if you're an artist.

Amaranthe embraces that whole-heartedly. They are making music that wants to spread its wings and bring in as many people as possible. They want to bring in people who might not be metal fans at all, and there is definitely something in here that would appeal to those people. Elize Ryd is always the star of the show, with her soaring voice pumping out choruses designed to fill both stadiums and your head. The aim is to be ridiculously catchy at the same time as being a heavy metal band, and they hit that mark on several occasions. Songs like the title track and "Boomerang" are big, heavy pop tracks in the best way.

There is, however, a limit to whether or not you're going to like this album. That is entirely dependent on how much you like modern pop music. Amaranth's melodic sensibility would fit right in with the material currently on the radio, but that's a world away from what pop music was a decade ago. For people currently invested in what's hot, Amaranthe has made the absolute perfect record. For people who never outgrew the pop music of the late 90s, the effect isn't quite the same. I said the same thing when reviewing the new Sonic Syndicate album that tried much the same balance, and it holds here as well. Modern pop is not my cup of tea, so the appeal of Amaranthe to me is limited. That being said, what I can tell you is that Amaranthe is excellent at what they do, and if I was a few years younger than I am, I would be eating this up.

"Maximalism" is a fun record that is an alternate universe theory of what pop music could have been if it shifted towards guitars rather than computers.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Quick Hits: Green Day, Sum 41, Wovenwar

Green Day - Revolution Radio

After the monumental success of "American Idiot", it's been all downhill for Green Day. "21st Century Breakdown" was a desperate copy of their defining work, and then they put out three unfocused, worthless albums that watered down their name to the point where their absence hasn't even been noticed. But now they're back with an album that's back to basics, and the results are what you would expect from a band that hasn't made a simple album in a decade. There are a few good moments here, but ultimately Green Day doesn't have the pop hooks they once did. Whereas Green Day used to mix punk attitude and pop melodies, they're now more of a generic rock band, which doesn't wear well on them. Songs like "Bang Bang" do by without a catchy hook, and by the time the album gets to the end, there's a lack of real energy to carry us through. It's clear Green Day is trying to turn back time, but that's a fruitless process.

Sum 41 - 13 Voices

After nearly dying from alcoholism related issues, Derrick Whibley put the band back together for another go-round. I've never been much of a fan, but the singles being put out were interesting enough to get me to check out the album. The verdict is mixed. There is half of this album that is really fantastic. "Fake My Own Death" and "War" are great songs that are able to be catchy, heavy, and even emotionally resonant. They show a lot of growth in their songwriting from the old days, but it's short-lived. "There Will be Blood" is as annaying and banal a song as I've heard all year, and there are others here that feel like tracks written in haste because the deadline for the record was approaching and they didn't have enough material. It's annoying that there is so much promise in this comeback, both musical and person, but it's wasted on an album that can't carry it across the finish line.

Wovenwar - Honor Is Dead

Despite never hearing a note from As I Lay Dying, I liked the first Wovenwar album. It was a very good collection of modern rock/metal that balanced heaviness and melody well, and featured songwriting that was obviously inspired by the tumult that led to the band's creation. With album number two, they've taken a different turn. The album is darker, and more of the vocals are screamed. While it might be cathartic, ad could very well be what the fans want, it leaves me cold. The appeal of the music is lessened by having the lyrics yelled straight into my ears. The band's songwriting is obscured by the focus on being heavy and angry, which aren't appealing emotions to hear, unless you yourself are mired in them. What was good about Wovenwar is lost here, and this album is a big swing-and-miss.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Concert Review: Airbourne

A crisp New England evening, just down the street from Harvard, gave way to a steady night of rock and roll, centered in the basement of the iconic Cambridge hangout The Middle East, as authentic a rock club as one can imagine.

We began with Bad Marriage, a locally based act of no small following, with dozens in the crowd cheering on their covers and originals alike.  Led by frontman JonnyP, who himself is one part Robert Plant and one part David Lee Roth, the band rocks along like the calendar still says 1979, and they’re frankly pretty good at it.  Between the swaying and swaggering and ohbytheway pretty decent music, this band represents the good of the devil-may-care attitude of classic rock.

Then we moved on to The Wild! (exclamation point is theirs, not mine.)  The throwback rockabilly blend issuing forth from these four rough-hewn Canadian musicians is both infectious and effective.  The band comes out swinging from the jump at about a hundred miles an hour (and with the band’s name and stylization, what other choice do they have?) and the boys seem intent on working with the audience until they win it over.  Their enthusiasm makes that task surprisingly simple, and within about three tunes the gathered throngs were all but enraptured, ready to sing along, clap, dance, jump or whatever else the band required of them.  Companion to that, the band entices participation by participating themselves – all the stage antics, from the spins to the kicks to the jumps – are choreographed, thus showcasing all those little things that enhance the set and ensnare the crowd’s attention.  Now that’s not to say that The Wild! are some kind of sham act, much the opposite – it’s an acknowledgment that these gents know what they’re doing and know how to win.  Never mind that the songs themselves are energetic and churning, even the comparatively slow blues ballad “What About You?”

Finally, the showpiece.  Airbourne, now roughly ten years into the game, knows how to do all those things that The Wild! did, but do them at an even more professional, streamlined level.  As much as the act may seem spontaneous and the personality of Joel O’Keefe certainly is, the true moments of showmanship have been honed over many years of practice.  O’Keefe’s patented bar walk, where he rides the shoulders of the nearest roadie over to the bar and then rocks out atop it, has been in the repertoire for the band since their debut tour.  Nevertheless, it remains an impressive and unique trick, in this case used early in the set to enhance the experience of “Too Much, Too Young, Too Fast.”

Even with the release of the new album “Breakin’ Outta Hell,” it was a night for classics from Airbourne, as they opened with “Ready to Rock,” the boisterous single from the previous record, “Black Dog Barking.”  Airbourne mixed in tunes from their entire catalogue, including a heavy-handed and welcome “No Way But The Hard Way” which included the crowd chanting in full throat and O’Keefe gleefully swinging a spotlight over the crowd to encourage more help in the chant.

For their worth, the two new tunes on the evening, the title track and “Rivalry” popped with all the vigor and virility one would expect from an Airbourne show.  The new songs, especially the latter, sound right at home in the middle of the set, accompanied by the traditional Airbourne bombast and blitzkrieg.

For all that, though, the highlights of the evening, as one might expect, came from 2007’s electric debut “Runnin’ Wild,” to date still the best and most accomplished Airbourne record.  Five cuts in total, led by an adrenaline-inducing reproduction of the deep album cut “Girls in Black,” which was impressive both for its snappiness and for the pure weight of its punch.  All of the material from this record sounded suitably great, be it the good cheer of “Stand Up for Rock and Roll” or the measured chaos of encore closer “Runnin’ Wild.”

Two notes on the side – first, at a neat and tidy eleven songs, the set went by like a Bob Gibson playoff game, over and done in about an hour and ten minutes.  That’s not a bad thing, but there was some time lost to playful antics and unnecessary wandering, time which could have been spent cramming two or three more tunes in there.  Four albums in, the band certainly has enough material to choose from.  It’s a minor thing to gripe about, but it merits mention.  Second, O’Keefe has developed a gimmick of slamming a beer can into his head until it bursts open, which doesn’t seem like a good idea, but I’ll admit that the visual is pretty impressive.

The entire night, from beginning to end, was a night spent in the joyous cacophony of very loud rock and roll, and was a necessary reminder than the genre, in the classic sense, still has a lot of life left in it.  O’Keefe’s tried-and-true closing, that “as long as we’re alive, and as long as you’re alive, then rock and roll will never die,” is fitting testament to that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Album Review: Eden's Curse - Cardinal

I understand that bands have issues, and that members will come and go. It happens all the time, and I seldom bat an eye at it. But there are a few times when I have to shake my head and wonder just what in the world is going on. Eden's Curse would be one of those bands. They were formed by singer Michael Eden, and obviously, they were named for him. He was the star of the show, and whatever the creative process was, the entire band was centered on him. So when whatever happened led to his departure from the band, the decision to carry on without the namesake of the group is one that I can't quite understand. For the rest of their career, the band is saddled with the reminder that he isn't there anymore, and dogged by questions regarding how and why they continued on without the very reason for the name.

But with that being said, I'm not going to say it affects the music itself. That's what we're here to judge on its own merits.

What Eden's Curse delivers is music that I wouldn't call metal, but is very heavy AOR. It has plenty of heaviness, but is certainly song-oriented the way that I would like it to be. They are clearly focused on writing songs and big melodies, which is both the best and worst thing I can say about the record. It's the best thing I can say, because that should be the aim of any band that isn't trying to write obscurely unintelligible music, but it's also the worst thing, because it reveals the band's failures.

The band is solid enough that the basics of these songs were always going to be good. There isn't a single interesting guitar riff or keyboard line to be found, but that's not the point. This kind of music is entirely dictated on vocals and hooks, and that is where they come up short. Even though this is his second outing with the band, singer Nikola Mijic doesn't have anything interesting to add to the mix. His voice fits right in line with what plenty of other AOR bands offer up, but it's his melodies that are most disappointing. With precious few examples, his writing lacks both the hooks and personality necessary to make this a great record.

I'm not saying "Cardinal" is a bad record. It's perfectly acceptable, but it's going to get swallowed up by better albums that will come out, and that already have. With the saturation of music out there, every album needs to either have a unique identity, or be utterly amazing, to gain traction. "Cardinal" has neither.

Eden's Curse, I think, is in a tight spot. They're continuing on with a name that implies something that's no longer there, and they aren't writing good enough music to move past it. They're a solid band, but they need to be more than that, and because of that I can't get excited by what "Cardinal" has to offer.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Album Review: Sonic Syndicate - Confessions

At some point in their careers, most bands will go through a period of turbulence. It's inevitable that something will come along that isn't a force pushing them forward, and it's interesting to see how they handle those tough times. Some bands use them as a catalyst to move in new and exciting directions, some slog through them with diminishing results, and some fragment and break apart entirely. Sonic Syndicate went through one of those times, taking a break from being a band to figure out their future. After their last album got them the freedom to do whatever they wanted, they are not positioned to make the first statement of who they are, and who they want to be.

This new identity is ushered in through a very weird prism, as the title track launches this album with synthetic sounds that could have easily come off any generic EDM-laced pop song from the radio over the last five years. Guitars do come in and make it clear this is a rock band, but the driving force of this album is far more electronic, and far more pop, than most people will be expecting. If you don't like the plastic sound of modern pop music, Sonic Syndicate is going to have a hard time winning you over.

Myself, I grew up on pop music, so I'm quite torn on what to think of this album. On the one hand, I love rock music that has heavy pop overtones in the melodies. I think more rock bands should aim to write songs that are that melodically sticky. Rock has a dearth of bands that write really memorable songs. On the other hand, as a rock fan, I'm disappointed when the music I'm listening to is so audibly manipulated. I love the authenticity of putting a few mics in front of a band, and just recording what they sound like.

That tough balance extends throughout the record. There are some strong moments and melodies in these songs, with several tracks hitting just the right balance of big hooks and heaviness. "I Like It Rough" is a perfect example of this. It hits all the right marks, it's definitely a rock track, and it has a big chorus that would get an audience pumped. That isn't the rule here, though.

Let me be honest here. I'm not saying this is a bad album, because it isn't. For what Sonic Syndicate is going for, they do well. The issue is that I simply am not a sympathetic audience to this particular brand of pop infecting my rock music. While I enjoy songs like "Still Believe" quite a bit, there's too much of the synthetic pop music running through the album for me to be able to enjoy the whole thing. I grew up in a particular bubble of time when pop music was least affected by computers and digital sounds.

So here's what I will say about "Confessions". If you're looking for an up-to-date infusion of pop into rock music, Sonic Syndicate does it well. They have strong songwriting to go along with their embrace of modern pop. I won't discount that. I'll simply say that you have to enjoy the modern pop charts to enjoy "Confessions", and my confession is that I don't. Sonic Syndicate is doing well, but they're doing something I don't particularly enjoy.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Album Review: Jamestown Revival - The Education Of A Wandering Man

There's one band that slipped under the radar that had a real chance to make room in the mainstream for a new, albeit old, sound years ago. They were The Jayhawks, and their rootsy style of Americana ushered in what was called the 'alt-country' phase, but it could have been so much more. There has always been an opening for well-crafted music that used the American spirit as a backdrop in a way that was far less pandering than Springsteen and his belligerent warbling would ever allow. But that time came and went, and we don't get to hear much rock music anymore that has that folk and country feeling in it. That's why I was extremely hopeful when Jamestown Revival reminded me of those days.

There's much of The Jayhawks in their sound, but updated for the modern times. That's both good and bad, if you're interested in keeping score. The dual vocals that run through the songs, and the buzzing guitars are pure Louris/Olson. There's blues and country running through the songs, but still enough rock and roll to widen the appeal to nearly everyone. The group's sound is the kind of authentic and inviting one that could have deep roots across the spectrum.

But that means nothing if they don't have the songs to back it up. There's good news and bad news on that front. By and large, the group does a good job of writing songs that play to their strengths. There are a number of tracks here that play off that rootsy approach with plenty of power to carry the songs. Those numbers are appealing, and I could easily see them moving the needle a bit. But there are some deeper forays into more traditional country, and those don't work as well. For one thing, the energy of the album completely changes when those songs pop up. As does the sound. They simply don't fit.

The other issue is that the album's production never settles into a rhythm. We get some tracks that are dry and tight traditional, if that exists, alt-country. We also get a few tracks where the drums are pushed to the front, as if to capitalize on modern pop trends. I think either approach could work, but they make for an odd mix on one album. I would have preferred a bit more consistency.

That's the key word. Jamestown Revival has written some good material for this album, but there isn't an entire album's worth of it. There are places where the album drags a bit here and there, when they try some things that aren't exactly in their wheelhouse. But, those are the smaller piece of the puzzle. Mostly, Jamestown Revival has made a solid album that is a good first step. In fact, considering that the band I keep comparing them to, The Jayhawks, also put out a record this year, I can say Jamestown Revival managed to out-Jayhawks The Jayhawks this time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Album Review: Take Over And Destroy - Take Over And Destroy

Recent years have given us a number of bands that have embraced the sounds of the past to try to bring heavy music back to its occult (at least in image) roots. While there is something charming to the vintage sounds that could have come straight off a vinyl pulled out of a dusty attic, the fact of the matter is that none of the bands doing that sort of thing have spent nearly as much time refining their songwriting as they have twisting the dials for the perfectly imperfect production. They are gimmicks more than bands, and the songs are far less memorable than the sound they are presented with.

Take Over And Destroy is another of these bands, one that uses just about every sort of influence they can find, to make a mix that should be entirely unique. But since there are so many bands that have tried this, that quality has been tempered, to say the least.

But let's start off with the obvious. The production on this album is gloriously retro, sounding every bit the part of an old recording lost for decades until recently being found. There's something about hearing vintage gear that you know isn't being manipulated to sound inhumanly perfect that makes music easier to swallow. I do love that plug in and play ethos, so if nothing else, Take Over And Destroy has made an album that is enjoyable on that front.

When it comes to the music itself, the results are more mixed. By throwing so many different parts into the mix, the results are as muddied as you would expect. Just take the opening number, "By Knife", for example. We get a gallop from Iron Maiden's playbook, a section of Gothic rock vocals, and then a screamed chorus that is death-n-roll. Each part on its own is fine, and I don't dislike the song, but they don't exactly feel like they belong together. I prefer my songwriting to be more logical.

At times, what we get is an approach that echoes what Ghost would be, if they had death metal roots instead of pop. That misses the point of why Ghost has become so popular; the pop elements of their sound makes their music hard to resist. Take Over And Destroy, on the other hand, lacks those elements, which makes their music more 'pure', but also far less enjoyable. I'm not sure exactly who this is trying to appeal to. Death metal fans aren't going to be happy with how rock and roll this album is, and rock fans aren't going to be enamored with the come-and-go growls that litter the record. It's stuck in the middle of something, which is a dangerous place to be.

There are some fun moments here, for sure. "Separate From The Shadows" is a rollicking little song, and by and large they are tracks that have charm. While what I said earlier sounds harsh, it shouldn't be taken that way. This is a solid album, and the songs are enjoyable enough to sit down and take in. My issue isn't that the music is bad, because it isn't, but rather in what it's trying to accomplish. I know how much time and effort it takes to make a record, and I don't see the potential reward for the band in this case. The appeal for this blend of styles is so narrow that they seem destines to be one of those curiosities that gets relegated to the bottom shelf of hole-in-the-wall record shops, just like the albums that inspired it.

So look, if you want to spend a small chunk of time listening to something pretty good and mildly interesting, give this a shot. It's worth hearing once, but Take Over And Destroy is neither going to take over, nor destroy, based on this one.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Album Review: Airbourne - "Breakin' Outta Hell"

Airbourne has come a long way since their inception, but the Australians seem to be travelling on a nearly circular track.  That’s not meant as an insult, particularly in light of the fact that the band is following very much in the hallowed footsteps of a true giant in countrymates AC/DC.  (Sidebar: Airbourne may or may not like that they are so frequently cast in that other band’s shadow, but it is the reality of the game for them, better or worse.)  The ability to deliver consistent content spread over a series of years is to Airbourne’s benefit, therefore the fact that despite various trial and tribulations the band releases consistent product is all to the good.

So how did we get here?  The journey began with the excellent and highly promising “Runnin’ Wild,” a powerhouse debut that granted the band instant commercial exposure and the height of success.  What followed is an up and down road – sophomore album “No Guts, No Glory” was a much more muted experience, recorded at the end of a seemingly endless slog of tours and appearances.  Three years ago, “Black Dog Barking” brought band closer to center and now here we are with “Breakin’ Outta Hell,” the band’s fourth record, again released after a three year interval.

“Breakin’ Outta Hell” bears many of the same hallmarks that made “Runnin’ Wild” work so well in the first place.  There are big choruses, toe-tapping drum beats and simple but effective guitar work.  This is an album of power and virility, combining profanity and adrenaline and a party sentiment with powerful but stable rock and roll.  Seems a simple formula, and if we’re being honest, it is – but it works.  The title track, which also opens the record, is a thumping, well-paced introduction to the kind of experience we can expect for the duration.

The second cut is the anthemic “Rivalry,” which follows all the same steps and works in the same manner as the best Airbourne songs of the past.  The pace is deliberate, the lyrics direct and the chorus amplified, if perhaps the verses and breakdown are a little more muted that would have been optimal.  There’s only one flaw in the song, which is that from first stanza, you can almost detect that this song was written with commercial purposes in mind.  It’s too easy to picture this track as part of a late-season college football broadcast or any number of upcoming NHL regular season games.  That doesn’t make the song bad, but it does cheapen it a little.

About halfway down there’s “Thin the Blood,” and this is where Airbourne has always stood out from their contemporaries and even put a leg up on their forefathers – the ability to consistently and thoroughly inject some speed into the proceedings, which really pushes the song’s pulse up and makes the listener bop along.  It’s not all that different from the dialogue between Bart and Homer about doing things the ‘Max Power way.’  “There’s three ways to do things – the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way.” “Isn’t that the wrong way?” “Yes, but faster.”

Other than that, much of the bulk of “Breakin’ Outta Hell” is standard fare – partying, drinking, fighting, the virtues of rock and roll and lovema-….oh.

…okay, let’s talk about that last one for a second.  Airbourne is not at all shy about the subject of women; NOT AT ALL SHY.  Maybe I’m getting old, but a little humility would have helped here, because let me tell you, a song like “Down On You” is alarmingly candid about its subject matter, not even couched within the juvenile metaphors that rock has used for fifty or more years.  “Do Me Like You Do Yourself” isn’t exactly leaving much to the imagination.  It’s frankly sort of gross.  Take that for what you will.

Neither here nor there, the album cover looks like that one boss fight from "Contra III: The Alien Wars," but with hair.

It probably sounds like I’m especially down on “Breakin’ Outta Hell,” which isn’t the case at all, so let me apologize if I’ve been damning with faint praise.  This is a good album.  By most standards, a very good album.  But ‘very good album’ is probably about as far as it goes.  For all that this new record is better than the two albums which preceded it, it’s not quite to the level of “Runnin’ Wild.”  For all that, the real takeaway here is that Airbourne knows what they’re doing and still knows how to deliver a consistent product more than ten years later.

Album Review: Hardline - Human Nature

Sometimes I have to take a step back and remember what year I'm living in. I'm not complaining in the slightest, but it is amazing to me how many bands from yesteryear have come roaring back to life in recent times. Several of them have done so to school the bland imitators that have sprung up in the meantime, but there are times when I'll look through the music news and have to remind myself that it's actually 2016. Hardline has been back for a while now, but they fall into this category of band that had a flash of success long ago, and are now trying to recapture that feeling. They have the right pieces on board to do so, but it's hard to gain traction for a project that's been around this long. Can they do it?

Hardline has two things going for them. They have singer Johnny Gioeli's huge voice to lead them, and they have Frontier's in-house specialist Alessandro Del Vecchio on board providing songs. He's written enough material for various projects that he's proven anything he's involved in will have a certain level of quality. The band also says that this is their heaviest album, although heaviness is a relative thing when it comes to what is essentially a melodic rock band.

The tough thing, for me, is trying to convey thoughts about an album like this without repeating myself for the hundredth time. Melodic hard rock, especially of this particular variety, plays from the same formula it always has, without even getting into how many times it's the same people playing the same music, but under a different banner. The only thing that ever changes is the quality level of the tracks. Some bands do this well, some not so much. The diving line is over who has songwriting chops, with Hardline sitting somewhere right in the middle.

"Human Nature" is a good album, and I would never try to insinuate that it's a dud. But, I also would never try to say this is as good as I would like it to be. Just in terms of melodic rock of all stripes, it pales in comparison to what Nordic Union did earlier this year, and in terms of bands of a certain vintage, this is far from being as good as House Of Lord's album was last year. That album was a masterclass in writing melodic rock that was razor sharp. Hardline isn't quite on that level here.

So what Hardline has done is make a damn solid melodic rock album. They bring up the inevitable comparison to their own classic, which I think is a set-up for failure. Nothing released today can ever compare with decades of nostalgia. This album is not "Double Eclipse", and it shouldn't be. It has its own identity, and if you take it for what it is, you'll enjoy it. Hardline, in this form, is too talented to make anything less than a good record, which is what they've delivered here. There's nothing wrong with good music.