Monday, November 28, 2016

Album Review: Eternal Idol - The Unrevealed Secret

It seems like every time I turn around, there's something brewing with Fabio Leone. The former Rhapsody singer has split his time between Rhapsody Of Fire and Angra, while doing multiple guest spots and even filling in for Kamelot for a while. The guy is practically everywhere in the power metal world, which surprises me, since I don't get what's so great about him. But, I can put that aside to give a listen to his newest project, a band that combines his voice with Hollow Haze singer Giorgia Colleluori to make something a touch different than we might be expecting.

What we get here is a mildly symphony brand of power metal with an emphasis on retaining strong melodies. It's easy for music with flair to forget about that aspect, but it's crucial to not get bogged down in all the fancy and ornate details that can be put on the music. The core of the song is still the most important thing, and thankfully Eternal Idol is a project that recognizes this. Fabio has provided a strong melodic base for these songs that instantly elevates them ahead of much of the competition.

The downside of the album is that the actual music isn't as memorable as I would like. Power metal is always difficult in this respect. The riffs lack the internal melodies that make them air-guitar favorites, and none of the orchestral parts come through with their own unforgettable hook. The backdrop is a bit bland, but can be overcome with a remarkable vocal performance. The melodies here are solid, but also not as sharp as I would like them to be. They are certainly enjoyable, but not the kind of hooks that are going to leave a lasting impression.

And then there are the vocals themselves. The project is ostensibly a showcase for Fabio and Giorgia, but it doesn't work for me. There's nothing at all wrong with their performances. They do a fine job of pushing the material, but their tones are not the most pleasing to my ear. Everyone has their own preferences, and mine simply run in a different direction.

Ultimately, "The Unrevealed Secret" is a perfectly fine album of mildly symphonic power metal. It certainly has enough going for it to give it a listen, and if you're a fan of Fabio, I'm sure you will like it far more than I did. I've never bee a fan of his voice, which makes it hard for this album to crack through. It didn't, but I can still hear that there's enough good writing here to say the album is successful in what it's trying to achieve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Album Review: Fatal Fusion - Total Absence

This year in prog has been disappointing. The big names that were supposed to carry us through the year fell flat on their faces. Dream Theater made a double album with a story that could have been written by a twelve year old, for all the nuance it showed. Haken followed that up with a love letter to 1985, which is a puzzling decision, since 'real musicians' are supposed to hate that synth filled era. Bubbling in the underground wasn't much of note either. Prog has had a down year, and as we get set to round it out, Fatal Fusion is throwing their hat in the ring. Just on the surface, they have a shot, since they are deeply influenced by the sounds of the 70s, which as we all know, is just what works for this kind of music. Synths will never replace the Hammond organ.

After a two minute instrumental opening that introduces the album with a marching drum-beat and organ swells, we hit the meat of the record. "Shadow Of The King" is the stereotypical Egyptian motif, but it's a trope that usually works. It's just different enough that it makes almost anything sound more dramatic than it would with a more standard scale being used. There's a feeling that isn't entirely removed from "Stargazer" to the song, but the band lacks the fire and flare that Rainbow used in creating their masterpiece. Neither the riffing here, nor the vocals, can reach the heights they would like the song to achieve. It's a decent piece of music, but you can hear they wanted something truly grand, and just aren't quite capable of pulling it off.

There are moments on the record that could be the building blocks of something great. The dark riff leading into a flute line in "Forgotten One" is the kind of musical bit that twists what you expect on its head enough that it's inherently interesting. But the rest of the song lets it down, not delivering anything else of note. It's almost as if the band decided that once they had the one riff to build from, the rest of the song didn't matter.

But the biggest issue with the album is that the vocals kill it. The vocal lines aren't particularly memorable to begin with, but the actual performance isn't up to par. Not everyone is a great singer, I know, but a band needs to know when a member isn't good enough to put on record. That's the case here. Whatever little momentum some of the songs can get going, the vocals are like quicksand, trapping them and dragging them down into the abyss.

While I appreciate the vintage sound that Fatal Fusion is trying to bring back, and I think sonically the album is quite interesting, it lacks the songwriting to be anything but a nostalgia piece. Prog lets you get away with more self-indulgence than most genres do, but you still have to produce songs that have something to say, and something to offer. Fatal Fusion doesn't do that here, and the album suffers for it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Album Review: Sister - Stand Up, Forward, March!

What is rock and roll anymore? It's a question I often ask myself, since there doesn't seem to be an easy answer. If you listen to the radio, rock is anything that has even one real instrument playing the music. If you pay attention to some other places, rock is all about being a testosterone-flooded neanderthal who can't form a complete sentence without cursing. And then there's the attitude that rock never evolved past 1979. We lose sight of this, but perhaps the reason we find so few good rock bands these days is that we no longer even know what one is supposed to be.

Sister's answer to the question is to try to fuse a couple of the options together. They take the sleazy Sunset Strip sound, and pump it up to modern levels of heaviness and aggression. With snarled vocals and overdriven guitars, they border on being a metal band, but there's a focus on giving every song a strong melodic chorus to raise your horns to, which feels like a throwback to the 80s. Just listen to "Carved In Stone", and the appeal of Sister is clear. The riff has swagger, and despite the vocals veering from sneering to almost growling, the hook is absolutely irresistible. It also sounds a bit like something that Avenged Sevenfold would write, if they weren't concerned with thinking of themselves as the saviors of the world.

Sister's dedication to making sure rock maintains within spitting distance of the mainstream is something to be commended. Focusing on having songs with strong hooks is not just a way to broaden your own appeal, but a way to retrain our attention on what rock music used to be, and as such why it is no longer popular with the masses.

That sounds like I'm putting a lot of faith in Sister, but let's take a step back here. While I'm commending their approach to rock and roll, the fact of the matter is that the record doesn't live up to those lofty ideals. There's plenty of good music that is enjoyable enough, but there are also problems that keep the record from being what it should be. First is the writing, which doesn't deliver sharp enough hooks. There is certainly an attempt to make every song memorable, but not enough of them follow through. Secondly, and most grating, are the vocals. The insistence on snarling through gritted teeth through most of the songs is a huge mistake. Those kind of vocals are difficult to swallow all the time, and sound completely absurd when done over a lone acoustic guitar passage. You can't take it seriously.

So what I have to say is that Sister is another band to throw on the growing pile of young guns who have a solid idea of how to do something compelling, if not always completely original. There is plenty of promise here for them to make the kind of rock music that can cross over a bit and become successful. The problem is that they have the idea, but not quite the skills to get there. Maybe they'll get there someday, and I hope they do, but right now Sister is still falling a bit short of being appointment listening.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Album Review: Enbound - The Blackened Heart

There is an odd crossover between rock/metal and the theater. They don't seem to be at all connected, but we've now seen singers who have stepped foot in both worlds. Dee Snider, Sebastian Bach, and James Labrie have all taken their turn on stage, and on the stage. Enbound, a newer entry into the world of melodic metal, is another band with a singer who has plied his trade in that other world. What is interesting is how the two are entirely different approaches to singing, and yet the singers return from their sojourns without having learned anything they can apply to their bands. It certainly brings questions to mind.

But back to Enbound. Their style of melodic metal is one that is thoroughly modern, which means the melodic component is up for debate. We get deep, chugging guitars that borrow the rhythmic approach of much of modern heavy metal. Everything locks together into a pounding fury of instruments, but that nature makes it hard to be melodic. There isn't any melody to rhythm, so all of the heavy lifting has to be done by the vocals. That doesn't leave much room for error, so there is a definite tightrope Enbound needs to walk.

The opening "Falling" shows a good example of what I mean. The basic foundation is what you would expect from a modern metal record, but the vocals are never able to find a spot to throw in a melody. They sound good enough, but there isn't a hook to the vocal line at all, and the song feels far longer than its under four minute running time. This is the danger in playing this kind of music. If you falter slightly in the hook, there's nothing to fall back on.

The next few songs remedy that fault, but not as much as necessary. The melodic component is stronger, and there is more of what would qualify as classic hooks, but they still don't have the gripping power that they need to. This is mere conjecture on my part, but I wonder if the time spent on the theater stage has something to do with this, where projection and vocal power in telling the story can sometimes overwhelm the need to have memorable songs. That's the feeling I get from listening to this record.

There are songs here where the main melody is a simple chant, and others where the chorus is the softest and most subdued part of the track. These decisions put all the focus on, puzzlingly, the guitars. That sets us back to a place where everything is about the rhythms, and the simple chug a few notes riffs. It doesn't feel like an approach that understands songwriting works best when every part of a song brings something memorable to the table. These songs are, for lack of a better way of expressing the thought, forgettable.

So what Enbound have done is something countless bands have done this year. They've delivered an album that is competent, and well played, but offers little to nothing that will stick out from the hundreds of albums we will be exposed to. There's certainly a place for a band that can make decent music, but it's hard to get excited about something quite so bland.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Album Review: Metallica - Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

The last eight years have not been kind to Metallica. After releasing an album that was botched by a humiliating production job that spurred protests, then releasing a movie that was a bomb, and an album with Lou Reed that has become internet shorthand for a disaster of epic proportions, Metallica has spent much of that time endlessly touring their songs from the 80s to make up for the horrible decisions they keep making. It's amazing to me that despite their success, they haven't managed to find anyone in their inner circle who can tell them when they're speeding down the wrong road. They must be surrounded by yes men, because that's the only explanation I can figure out.

This new record comes after eight years of doing everything but making new music, and arrives in the most infuriating way possible. This is a double album that doesn't need to be one. These seventy-seven minutes of music could easily fit on a single CD, but for the purposes of being able to double the number of sales when the Billboard numbers come out, it's split onto two discs. So not only do you have to stop and change discs for no reason as you listen, but the music you do hear follows the Metallica tradition; bloat.

Yes, these twelve tracks average out to over six minutes each, and with the opener only being three minutes long, that makes it very clear that the rest of the album is going to fall into Metallica's habit of writing songs that are too long for their own good. Often, we cycle through three to four different riffs just in the introduction, drawing the songs out for minutes before even hitting the crux of the song. That's fine if you're writing epic prog, but for a metal album like this, doing it on nearly every song is overkill.

Metallica needs an editor, and this album continually proves it. As we move from one mid-tempo song to the next, there is nothing approaching the needed diversity to stretch out over the course of two discs. Every song plays with similar dynamics, and with the exact same guitar tones, which turns the entire thing into a nearly eighty minute dirge.

There is some good material here, but there are two things to note about it; 1) It gets bogged down by the amount of lackluster tracks in between, and 2) Even the best moments here aren't as good as the best from "Death Magnetic". That album had the storytelling through sound of "The Day That Never Comes", the stomping groove of "Cyanide", and the best song they've written in decades, "All Nightmare Long". This album has none of that. The riffs are more forgettable, and the songs themselves more generic than before. If you asked what a Metallica album should sound like at this point, you would get exactly this.

And that's the problem.

Metallica sounds like they're giving us what they think we want, not what they themselves want to do. The way they defend "Lulu", it's clear they have artistic ambitions well beyond making simple heavy metal. So when that's what they deliver us, after this long, it's hard not to see it as pandering. I don't hear any sort of spark in the music, nothing to make me believe this is a passion for them. It sounds like Metallica going through the motions, and since I thought they were overrrated to begin with, that's nothing I'm going to be excited about.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Album Review: Freedom Call - Master Of Light

As the year winds down, we can now assess the trends of how music has unfolded. One of the easiest for me to see is that this was a terrible year for power metal. In fact, the only album I can think of from the style that has made a dent with me is Avantasia's "Ghostlights", and I think it's safe to say that they have branched out well beyond the confines of the genre by now. That leaves us in the position of wondering if power metal is in its second death spiral. There was one after the Helloweens of the world ended their glory days, and it didn't come back into vogue until Hammerfall and Edguy really broke through. Freedom Call has been chugging along this whole time, making bright and uplifting music, but can they prop up an entire year of disappointment?

The album gets off to a rocky start with "Metal Is For Everyone", which continues the long-established trend of songs written about metal being awful. I keep saying this, but it doesn't seem to sink in; if you have to talk about how great metal is, or how metal you are, you're trying to convince of something that isn't true. It's a terrible lyrical conceit, and the song itself isn't any better. It uses the cliches of metal in place of better writing, and it comes off sounding cheesy, and not in the tongue-in-cheek sort of fun way.

Things get better when Freedom Call remembers what made them an enjoyable band in the past. When they stick with making positive, cheery metal lush with sing-along choruses, they shine. Their shorter, snappier numbers are still exactly what you would expect, but in the good way. When you put on a power metal album, you want to hear some speedy, happy music with big melodies. Freedom Call can deliver that, when they aren't trying to do something more grand. The pluralized title track is an example of what I'm talking about. It takes an extra minute or two, and tries to be a dramatic epic, but there isn't any immediacy to the track, and it feels a bit subdued, which is the opposite of what they wanted to achieve.

I get that after as many albums as Freedom Call have made, there's a yearning to do something a little bit different and change up the routine. I totally respect that, but I think more often bands that take risks need to have some additional perspective and understand whether those new attempts have worked or not. In the case of Freedom Call, there is a path forward here that would have worked. When the band adds in orchestrations, those moments are dramatic, epic, and tend to elevate the songs. If they had decided to become more of a symphonic band, I think it could have given a fresh coat of paint to their music.

Look, there's nothing wrong with "Master Of Light", aside from the horrible cover art. They make solid power metal, and in a year where that has been in short supply, it's nice to hear a band that keeps doing what they do best. I'm not overly fond of the detours like "Ghost Ballet", but there's enough here to make a solid album. Freedom Call has always been solid, and they are again here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Album Review: Sirenia - Dim Days Of Dolor

I sometimes struggle to remember all of the music I've heard, considering how much of it there is, and how much of it becomes forgettable. But I seem to recall that there was a time when symphonic metal was actually fun. Not that the music was necessarily 'happy', but there was a sense of enjoyment both in the writing and the performances, where you could tell that the bands loved what they were doing. That, in turn, made the music ever more enjoyable to listen to. But recently, it seems to me as though most of the bands with symphonic elements are throwing them out there because they feel like they have to, and the music has been drained of its color. Perhaps this line of thinking is perpetuated by the title of this record.

Or, it could be that the record itself fulfills the prophecy of the cover. Listening to the opening "Goddess Of The Sea", it's hard for me not to think that way. The song goes through it's dark tones, offering little melodic reprieve. The symphonic parts follow the guitars, which is a waste of that entire array of sounds, and the vocals are utterly unintelligible. I truly can't understand why that track would serve as the opening statement to the record, given how hard it is to get into.

There are better tracks, though, so don't write off the record just yet. The title track is a far, far better effort, with a punchier tempo and a hook that will stick with you. It's not as symphonic, no, but perhaps that's what makes it more effective. There's more of a song behind the lush sounds. It's an approach the band would be advised to take up more often, which makes it more of a shame when they revert to an odd semi-death metal approach for "The 12th Hour". That song not only doesn't have any melody, but the attempts to sound like a Gothic horror soundtrack make it uncomfortable. I'm not sure what makes bands think that string orchestrations and female classical singers should be paired with half-assed death metal, but it doesn't work. Not at all.

Like many bands of this ilk, Sirenia gets caught up in trying to sound grand and epic, and focus more of their attention on the sounds and arrangements, and not on the core of songwriting. The window-dressing is beautiful, but that doesn't matter if the walls supporting the window are on the verge of crumbling. That's an extreme analogy, but the point I'm getting at is that all of the lush instrumental layers you can throw on a song won't change whether it's a good song or not. And unfortunately for Sirenia, the songs they've written here aren't interesting or memorable enough.

There are plenty of moments that are great, and I can hear the ideas that would have made for some great songs, but they aren't carried to fruition. There's a great verse that leads to a lackluster chorus. There's a beautiful string piece that leads to a flat riff. On and on that goes, to the point where I think the band would have been better off focusing exclusively on the orchestrations or the metal, and leaving the other completely off. It's clear to me their focus is split, which leads to songs that don't have enough development.

Look, there's nothing terribly wrong here. The music is fine, but what does that really mean? We're nearing the end of the year, and while my thoughts turn to organizing the lists of music I've heard, one thing is clear; fine music gets forgotten. So what does that say about Sirenia?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Album Review: Destrage - "A Means to No End"

Only slightly more often than weary travelers are said to see visions of Brigadoon, there comes an album that delivers on all the possible promises of its chosen genre.  The record possesses skill, strength, deep musical understanding and a unique ability to stimulate each and every cynical synapse in the brain of the listener.  To capture and impress that kind of breakthrough is a distant cousin to capturing lightning in a bottle.  In 2014, the Italian band (for to add a descriptor and call them a metal band is insultingly limited,) channeled all of that into their album “Are You Kidding Me? No.”  To do so again for their new record “A Means to No End,” to inscribe that same musical magic a second time, would be a borderline miracle, no?

And yet, at the risk of abating the suspense too early, here we are again, faced with another masterpiece from the unquiet and imaginative minds that mix and blend and cut and make whole entire catalogues of musical acumen.  Bear with me a moment - no, this new record is not a unilateral improvement from “Are You Kidding Me? No,” and that’s the highest possible compliment that can be bestowed upon it; that a follow up album could be every bit as captivating and thunderously powerful as the engaging and consuming album that preceded it.

For those familiar with the band we’re talking about, let’s hit the differences real fast so that you can move on quickly and get to listening without further delay.  “A Means to No End” follows much of the same unconstrained, borderline progressive idiom as its predecessor, free to change gears and switch cadences with little rhyme or reason except that it has the capacity to do so.  The album can be haunting one moment and comforting the next, ponderous and gentle, both electric and eclectic.  The primary difference between the two is that “A Means to No End” is less likely to completely change musical tracks and more content to stay within the varying partitions of metal.  So, no, there are no mariachi interludes or passing lounge bridges or quick jazz escapes this time around.  Instead, the band concentrates on their riffs, delivering delicious hooks that hit and run and leave the listening wanting amid the constant traffic of an altering musical landscape.

Now, if that’s all you need to know, get out of here and get to listening.  If you’re new to this particular game, here comes the tutorial.

Let’s close up that comment on riffs before we get into the other meat and potatoes.  Unlike nearly any other band on the circuit in any walk of music today, Destrage never allows one of their riffs to overstay its welcome, no matter how compelling or captivating.  It’s really an art, the band’s ability to keep the portion size small enough that the listener leaves hungry after each and every song, thus ensuring the album’s ability to be listened to over and over again in order to get that same flavor back on their palette.

As the cherry on that proverbial sundae, Destrage composes riffs that are more than just a catchy collection of five or six notes well-placed in relation to each other.  Each of the truly memorable licks has an intricacy that makes it easy to identify as great, but complex enough that it doesn’t wear itself out banging around your subconscious, easily amused musical cerebrum.  In short, none of these riffs are Pantera’s “Walk,” which while great, can be recalled ad nauseum at the drop of a hat.  

Just listen to the cycling power of the main line for “The Flight.”  That’s one part the smooth but muscled thump of Wolfmother, one part the jagged edge of Soundgarden and one part the precision of Fear Factory all fused seamlessly into a dynamic and enticing whole that you love when you hear it, but have a hard time humming an hour later.  All that does is make you want to hear it again.

The dirty secret in Destrage’s compositional style is that they borrow a good bit of styling and flair from the alternative rock and grunge scene of the ‘90s, couching them all within distorted piles of scrap metal and whatever other pointy aural objects are scattered around.  Just listen to “Peacefully Lost,” and you’ll hear that the first two thirds of the song could have easily been a cut nestled in the b-side of Alice in Chains’ self-titled record.  Similarly, “Symphony of the Ego,” particularly as it picks through its opening salvo, sounds akin to some of the classic Primus tracks from twenty years ago, weaving in and out with an Annihilator-ish breakdown.  The influence isn’t always easy to detect, but the elements are always there.

As a kicker, Destrage maintains their real calling card, which has been prevalent on each and every one of their albums; the band has a mastery like no other band of finding the exact right time to bring a song back from the brink by inserting a memorable and highly accessible chorus.  The baseline melody, if it can be called such, or “Blah Blah” is abstract at the best of times, but your ear catches the hallmarks of the bass riff every time the song is about to hit the chorus again.  That makes the undulating but unpredictable and fuzzy meanderings of the rest of the song come together, as Destrage always crosses back over the zero sum line to keep the song moving.

And oh, by the way, if we haven’t talked about it yet, as though it’s even important after everything we’ve just discussed, yes, the album is full of the customary metal broken-glass sludge that goes to eleven and breaks your neck with its dominating power and virility.

That’s it.  I’m out of superlatives, and to try and use further language to describe this record would be attempting to render a pattern out of an album that is liquid and beyond easy, glib epithets.  “A Means to No End,” again at the risk of dropping the pretense of mystery, the clubhouse leader for album of the year, and there’s not a lot of year left.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Album Review: Hammer King - King Is Rising

Traditional metal has had a bad year. For whatever reason, it seems like there have been fewer releases coming out playing the old-school variety of metal, and even fewer of them have been worth listening to. As metal continues to move further and further down into modern territory, with death metal slowly taking over everything, there hasn't been much room for the old guard, nor has there been much to celebrate about it. Sabaton might be the one 'savior' of the genre, but they have established themselves now as putting out regular, brief albums where the coast along on their laurels. No, traditional metal has been in a slump, and Hammer King will need an awfully big hammer to bust out of it.

Like the cover would suggest, Hammer King is making the kind of traditional metal that would carry you into battle, with hymns to some imaginary metal gods asking for protection as we wage war against the forces of bad taste. Or something like that. The reality is that they're making the kind of metal that can easily take itself far too seriously. All we have to do is look at Manowar to see how a bit of ego can infect the music like a deadly pathogen, taking something fun and turning it into the biggest joke we've ever seen.

Thankfully, Hammer King doesn't allow themselves to be taken that far down the rabbit hole. They keep themselves on the right keel, where the music is not weighed down by its own sense of self. These are, by and large, short and speedy numbers that want to get the blood pumping and the fists raised. On that level, they success fairly often. The songwriting isn't quite as sharp as the Hammerfall albums that defined the modern version of this music, and there isn't quite as much personality to the vocals as Saboton or Grand Magus, but the overall package is enjoyable.

The album gets off to a good start, with a few numbers that have the hooks that traditional metal needs, but the middle of the record start to bog down when the tempos also slow. The best traditional metal needs to either have riffs that break away from the usual chugging and galloping, which Hammer King doesn't, or you need massive choruses that the crowd can sing along with. That latter area is where the band comes up short. These aren't bad songs, but they aren't carrying the kind hooks that the crowd will sing along with. They're more chants, and while those have their place, they don't replace a strong melody as the basis for a song.

So with Hammer King we get an illustration of where traditional metal is right now. There's plenty of bands making decent music, like this, but nothing that is making much of a mark. "King Is Rising" might try, but it doesn't fully rise.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Album Review: Annisokay - Devil May Care

Metalcore. Wow, it's been a long time since I've given that term any significant amount of thought. Even when it was at its height, I mostly stayed away from the genre. I dipped my toe in with Killswitch Engage (count me on Team Howard), but that was about the extent of it. And when even that formerly great band is treading water, I don't put much faith in the genre to produce much of worth. Part of that is the rote formula of the music, and part is that as I have gotten older, I have grown less willing to sit through the screaming verses to get to the meaty hooks of the songs. But, I do like to think of myself as a fair person, so I am giving Annisokay a chance to prove me wrong.

The opening track, "Loud", veers closer to being melodic death metal than even the genre's roots would imply. The riffing is pure melodeath, and the clean vocals only come in for spot duty, leaving the heavy lifting of the verses and the choruses to the guttural shouting. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, nor necessarily what I prefer, but it's a well-written song that gets the point across ably.

After that, we revert to form, with the songs fitting into the harsh verse/clean chorus formula, but they do that because it works. There's no need to do something wildly different just for the sake of it. There's plenty of room to throw in new ideas, as the band does, through the actual musical ideas. "Smile" features a bridge that is straight out of the Meshuggah playbook. Mating those kinds of deeply percussive riffs to a song with an actual melodic component shows that there is something of note in such playing, not that Meshuggah is capable of ever showing it.

We reach a sticking point for many people with "Blind Lane", which ditches most of the heavier influences for a smoother sound that vocally isn't out of line with something Linkin Park would do. Of course, while the heavier, more metal fans might be dismayed by the song, I think it's a refreshing change of pace, and one of the best songs on the album. In fact, I think that's what makes Annisokay successful; their ability to make their clean sections bounce with a slight hint of pop/radio rock, as opposed to the more emo dramatic swells most bands prefer.

So here's where I stand on "Devil May Care": if you are a pure heavy metal fan, you might not enjoy the tone and structure of the clean vocals on this record. However, if you are a fan of melodic music who also happens to enjoy heavier stuff from time to time, Annisokay has done a very fine job of making a record that gives a little something for everyone. This isn't my favorite type of music, but I like what Annisokay is doing here. "Devil May Care" is a really good metalcore record.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Album Review: Pretty Maids - Kingmaker

It's been a busy year for Ronnie Atkins. The singer popped up as a guest on this year's Avantasia album, turning in one of the best performances throughout that record. Around the same time, he joined forces in the Nordic Union project, which released one of the absolute best albums of the year. So without his main band lifting a finger, it's been a productive, and excellent year for Ronnie. But now, as the year winds down, he keeps up the workload with a new Pretty Maids album. This is something that two years ago I would have put at the bottom of my pile, and gotten to it if I had extra time, because I was never privy to the legacy of Pretty Maids. But with this year being what it's been, this became a priority listen.

Ronnie has a voice that can work across the rock/metal spectrum. He can sing the most melodic of material, but he can also put a rough rasp onto his voice to work with heavier songs. Pretty Maids put that range of talents to use here, but not always to the best of effects. He sounds great throughout, but the songs where his harsher approach pop up tend to be less interesting than the more melodic fare. The opening "When God Took A Day Off" takes a while to get going, and once it does, the end result is a song that is trying too hard to be heavy. The song is lacking a strong melody to anchor it, which puts all the emphasis on the guitars. That can work, but the riffs in the song aren't the kind that can serve as the entire hook, so the song feels weak as an opener, despite trying to portray heaviness and strength.

By contrast, songs like "Face The World" and "Humanize Me" are able to be plenty heavy enough, but also retain the big hooks that make melodic metal so engaging. It's hard to listen to those songs and not get caught up in the spirit of the music. It's not easy to write music that is heavy and catchy at the same time, but Pretty Maids prove several times that they can do it masterfully. And really, after that awkward opening track, "Kingmaker" reveals itself to be not that dissimilar from the Nordic Union album. It's heavy, sticky music that balances big guitars and catchy melodies. There isn't a better formula out there, so it's hard to find much fault with what Pretty Maids are doing here.

It would be unfair to compare this to the Nordic Union album, since they have different aims, but I'm going to do so anyway. That project was pop metal perfection, while Pretty Maids are more of a straight-forward rock/metal band. Taking that into consideration, what "Kingmaker" does is almost as impressive as what one of the handful of best records of the year managed. Yes, I'm saying I prefer that record to "Kingmaker", but Pretty Maids have made the better metal record. Anyone who's a fan of melodic metal will love "Kingmaker", because it's a great album.

Ronnie Atkins was already the star of 2016, and "Kingmaker" just keeps adding to what has been one heck of a year for him.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Album Review: Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell - "Keep It Greasy"

Four years ago, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell released their debut full-length record, “Don’t Hear It…Fear It!” which was a quirky collection of retro fuzz rock mixed through with some bizarre but creative interludes to make the music sound fresh.  It was a truly great record, one that I named Album of the Year (though there were two other albums that maybe deserved a longer look,) and it was with barely constrained patience that we all waited for the follow up.

2014 brought us “Check ‘Em Before You Wreck ‘Em,” which was….not quite the follow up we were waiting for.  So now two more years have passed and we see the The Shovell (as the kids call them,) embarking again to find inspiration in their creative blend of psychedelia and old school rock and roll.

New album “Keep It Greasy” does away with the superfluous punctuation and special title characters of its predecessors and delivers on the promise of a back-to-basics rock performance.  It admittedly sounds a little duplicitous for this band to go back-to-basics when they never engaged in the basics in the first place, but as a permutation of the larger universe of rock and roll, this new record is borne from the experiential sensibility of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

What strikes first and foremost about The Shovell as they continue to evolve on this record is that they’ve nailed down the proper balance between venturing into margin-bending bridges and cutaways and going completely off the rails into the abyss of semi-progressive wanker rock.  That’s a mouthful, but it’s an important point, as the band’s sophomore album struggled to fit their own ill-cut puzzle pieces together in many instances.

To listen to “Hawkline Monkster” is to hear all that makes the Shovell great – a throaty, proto-Black Sabbath bass riff that’s stacked at the bottom of a pile of a whole bunch of throwback distortion and noise.  The subject matter is, as is generally the case with Shovell songs, secondary to the music, which gives the listener ample opportunity to drink in the concoction of riffs and swagger that characterize the best of this genre.

This same blend appears again about halfway through the solid “I’m Movin’” which unleashes a massive guitar solo, breakdown and second solo into a Who-like creation that eschews standard form in favor of creativity.  It’s a dice roll to slam so many disparate elements into a single song, particularly when the bookend riffs and rhythms of said song sound very different than the sampling in the middle, but much as they did on their first record, The Shovell delivers in places where most artists would struggle.  And it’s not that they are so well studied in the forms and machinations of music that they can spin silk where others can’t even locate the spinning wheel – it’s really that the band completely discards the rule book and just has a knack for throwing the right paint at the wall to match the paint that’s already there.

For all that though, it’s hard not to sit back and enjoy the easy, rolling rhythms, especially those of “Tired’N’Wired’” which, axiomatically, is this album’s ‘broken clock’ – it just happens to be right rather than being planned that way.

While “Keep It Greasy” is a strong improvement over its predecessor, its one weakness is that the tone of the album is starkly singular.  Many of these songs maintain the same pace and basic cadence, which coupled with the warm, rounded distortion of the guitars, means that it’s not always easy to walk into the room and know which cut you’re hearing.  As a listener who’s investing in this record (and it’s worth it, if you value my opinion at all,) make sure to properly familiarize yourself with the cuts before it just becomes part of your shuffle playlist.

So the third time may be the charm...again.
 While “Keep It Greasy” doesn’t quite boast the frankly insane magic of the band’s debut, it doesn’t necessarily need to.  This album takes the lessons learned and applies them to impressive effect, creating an experience that rock fans both new and old should find value in.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Album Review: Lucid Fly - Building Castles In Air

There are certain bands that, despite reaching success, don't spread a web of influence out over those who come after. It's not always apparent what that is, but for some reason, they don't inspire followers to pick up the thread of their music and spin something new from it. Their sound does not incubate, but instead solidifies in the amber of time, remaining a curious fossil of a particular moment.

That sounds profound, but it's really just my way of getting to the point that Lucid Fly carries influences from A Perfect Circle, who are a band that I can't say I've heard much of in any bands since. That alone makes them unique. Then saying that they play a brand of modern/prog rock that is dark and atmospheric, powered by a throaty female voice, makes them something worth singling out.

You don't have to get far into the opener, "Billowy And Broken", before that influence makes itself apparent. There is a distinct feeling to the guitars, as they weave around each other to set a mood, that is ripped right from that playbook. It is certainly not the normal way of writing modern rock/metal. There's more nuance and texture to these compositions than you're used to hearing in four minute increments.

Even though the band doesn't extend these songs into lengthy diatribes, there are those elements of prog that remind us we're listening to something more involved than your typical radio band. Even in these running times, the songs ebb and flow, build up and break down, shifting their sounds often enough to avoid the standard verse/chorus formula (not that I find it a problem - there's a reason song structure became mostly standardized). We aren't talking full-throated prog that would scare away people for whom it's a dirty word, but just enough flavoring to make sure you're paying attention throughout.

And it's in that regard that my one criticism of the album appears. While I love the mood that the band is able to set, and while the guitar work is far more interesting than a lot of what I have to listen to, the slight prog bent to the album is also felt in the melodic constructions. There's plenty of nicely melodic moments that are thoroughly enjoyable to listen to, but the one thing that's missing are a few of those towering moments that will stick with you long after the album is over. Like the subdued mood of the album, the hooks are also more on the subtle side. They're still good, but they will require more listening before they fully set in. Personally, I think instant gratification is as important as lasting satisfaction.

The one song that fits that bill most of all is "Visions Of Grandeur", the first single and from which the album title is pulled. On that track, not only do we get a more rousing melody, but in it we can hear Nikki Layne at her best. She holds back from what she's capable of to fit the music, but when she does let loose, she has more than enough talent to tear down the house.

So what we have in "Building Castles In Air" is a fantastic sounding record (seriously, the production if gorgeous) that reminds me of a very particular moment in time (people of a certain age know what I'm talking about). There isn't a lot of music being made like this right now, and Lucid Fly is a nice reminder that there are more ways of making rock and metal than the standard routes we hear so often. "Building Castles In Air" is a fantastic way to spend a gloomy autumn day, and I hope is just the start of a longer career.

*Editor's note: In the interest of disclosure, I should make it clear that I assisted the band by providing information to help them organize the release and promotion of this album.