Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Album Review: Operation:Mindcrime - The New Reality

The last few years have been tough for Geoff Tate. Leaving aside all the drama surrounding Queensryche, and how the fans seem to have had no problem moving on without him, his own career has been taking some very weird turns. He started this Operation: Mindcrime project with the ambition to make a trilogy of concept albums. I don't think that's ever a good idea, but recording them all at once, and trying to write three good albums at the same time, was begging for a disaster. And that's largely what the first two records were. Neither one was good at all, with each being unfocused, messy, and devoid of more than one or two songs that could ever work outside the context of the concept album. That spells failure, but we haven't finished dotting the i's and crossing the t's yet, because we now have the third and final part of the trilogy. How much worse can it get?

That's difficult to answer. We start with "A Head Long Jump", which is a better choice to open the album than when he started one of these with three straight instrumental intros, but that's about all I can say. It takes several minutes to get past the washes of noise, and when we do, the fragment of a song is truly confusing. Tate is singing, but I can't tell what kind of melody he's trying for. Behind that, we get some poor sounding guitars, and drums that are pounding away sloppily and out of time. It sounds like a drunken jam session at the end of a long day that was accidentally put on the record without getting reworked into something usable.

The most frustrating thing about this album isn't the time that is needlessly wasted through segues and intros, nor the infusion of sounds and paths that pull us away from the core of the songs, it's Tate himself. As the creative director and producer of this material, everything comes down to him. I know that Tate is still capable of singing, as he showed during his guest appearance on Avantasia's "Ghostlights" album. But left to his own devices, he falls back into every bad and lazy habit, and he sounds terrible here, compared to what he should be. His voice is so thin and nasal, and his 'melodies' don't work within his limitations whatsoever.

For being a project led by a singer, what is most amazing to me is how little this album is built around him and the narrative he has supposedly written. Most of the record is centered around the weak and sloppy drumming, and keyboards that are always mixed far too loud. Tate takes a back seat to his own ambition, which he no longer knows how to bring to life. The original "Operation: Mindcrime" was a daring narrative that worked (for most people - I've always hated it) because the story could be followed, and the songs could exist on their own. These namesake albums fail for those exact reasons. Three albums in, you could hold a gun to my head and I wouldn't even be able to tell you the first thing about this story, and the songs surely would never be listened to on shuffle. There isn't a single song on this record to match the quality even of "Frequency Unknown", one of the most panned albums of the last decade (although I admit to liking it more than most).

This project was a bad idea, written as a bad idea, recorded as a bad idea. It should be no surprise, then, to discover that the results are, well.... bad.

Hopefully, "The New Reality" will mark the end of this project, because over the course of three albums, Geoff Tate has continued to prove the adage "you can't dig your way out of a hole." He's in one, he's still digging, and at this point all he can hope for is a flood to lift him back to the surface. When you're praying for disaster to save you, it might be time to give up on your current course. Operation: Mindcrime has done nothing but make some of the worst music of recent years.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Album Review: Shakra - Snakes & Ladders

There's a degree to which rock and roll is about arrested development, and the refusal to grow up. At least that's the stereotype about the music, which has often played straight into it, with a mentality exhibited that is perpetually caught in adolescence, if even that developed. Plenty of rock and roll is childish, which makes it interesting that Shakra has named their new album after a game. It was sanitized over the years, but "Snakes & Ladders" is surely a more intriguing name than what many of us know it as. It also is a more matured version, which hopefully bodes well when we peek under the hood, because the last thing my fraying patience needs is another album mired in the first stage of brain development.

Thankfully, Shakra is not scraping songs off the bottom of the barrel, but as the record unfolds, I'm struck by the feeling that the title and imagery are the most interesting part of the whole thing. I don't mean that as an indictment of the record, because it's actually pretty good at what it wants to achieve. Their brand of rock is heavy enough, melodic enough, and definitely solid. The issue is one that I have with any number of albums during the course of a year, where there isn't anything that stands out about the record to make it unique. Shakra can blend into a lineup of melodic hard rock bands very easily, which does hamper the album to a degree.

When we listen to music, perhaps even more important than the album being good is that it's memorable. That can come in the form of being great, but it can also come in the form of being terrible. There are plenty of records that we all have heard, that we all remember, and we all still talk about, that no one wants to ever listen to again. But they exist in a way that makes them completely unique to themselves, and we can't forget the music or the band, even if we want to.

Shakra's music, on the other hand, is comfortably familiar. In both style and substance, this isn't far removed from every other band playing in the same genre. The only ways to fully differentiate yourself are to exist on a higher plane of songwriting, have a guitar hero in your ranks, or have a singer who transcends the band. Shakra doesn't have any of those things. THe songwriting is good, but compare them to albums from Harem Scarem or Eclipse this year, and they don't quite hold up. The guitar playing is fine, but there aren't many riffs that will make people pick up their instruments because they want to learn, and singer Mark Fox has the nasally rough voice that is not out of line with all the people who have tried to ape Axl Rose or Brian Johnson over the years. It's not a tone that I particularly enjoy listening to for long stretches of time, but he's certainly capable.

And that's what I wind up thinking about Shakra. They're fairly good at what they're doing, and there are some very good songs on this album. I enjoyed listening to it while it was playing, but there isn't anything about it that pulls me to return to these songs again and again. I was trying not to use the word 'generic', but it might be the easiest way of getting my point across. "Snakes & Ladders" is a fine album, but fine is only worth so much.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Album Review: Lady Beast - Vicious Breed

The end of the year is a tough time for records to come out, especially for newer bands that don't have much of a profile yet. Most of us have already heard about as much music as we can handle, and many of us have already turned out attention to sorting through our thoughts for the end of the year. That makes it difficult for anything else to penetrate our bubbles, and to get the attention we would be able to pay it at an earlier time. Between sorting what I've already heard, and preparing to block out the holidays for as long as I can, I don't have as much energy to carefully consider new albums as I would like to.

Lady Beast enters that fray with their sophomore album, a true metal record that aims to throw a little bit of everything classic into the pot. There will be twin-guitar harmonies, bits of thrash, and some heavy Sabbath-styled moments. Basically, Lady Beast is trying to take us through a brief history of where heavy metal was through the early 80s.

The opener, "Seal The Hex", throws much of that together just in the first two minutes. There's a soft guitar opening, a melodic lead, and a thrashing riff all before the vocals ever begin. And that moment is where the album comes into focus. There are two sides to Lady Beast's sound, which come with very different judgments. On the instrumental side, the band does a very nice job of sounding like a hard and heavy metal band from the 80s, with plenty of simple and catchy riffs, and plenty of attitude to power through the songs. The guitar tone is a bit fuzzier than I would like for something that's aiming to be old-school, but there's a warmth to the sound that is appealing. Musically, they do a good job of making a throwback record.

The problem is that the vocals don't do anything to help the songs out. Deborah Levine is a decent singer, and she has enough of a voice to pull off the kind of music Lady Beast is trying to make, but the writing isn't strong enough. That's true about a lot of the traditional metal I hear, and it consistently drags down what could be pretty good albums. Listening to these eight tracks, there isn't a single vocal line that you can remember after the record is over. I'm not saying that you have to have pop melodies on a record like this, but Dio and Iron Maiden showed us for decades that classic heavy metal can still have memorable melodies that crowds will want to sing along with in concert. I don't hear any of that on this record.

I'm not going to be harsh on Lady Beast, because there's no need to. They aren't making music that is truly bad, or is a chore to listen to. There's been a lot of that this year, but that isn't what this is. Instead, Lady Beast is making music that pays too much attention to being traditional in sound, and not enough attention to writing the songs that started those traditions. This is one of those bland records that will be covered in dust not too long from now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Album Review: Electric Wizard - Wizard Bloody Wizard

There are such things as trigger words, which upon hearing them, incite a certain reaction from us. They aren't the same for all of us, as mine will obviously differ from yours, but the concept remains. When we hear those words, we either start to salivate at the thought of how great a record is going to be, or we reflexively start to plug our ears, knowing that we aren't going to enjoy the trip we're about to take. For me, there were several that came with this new Electric Wizard album. The press materials promised "cranium crushing bludgeon rock", "relentless aural brain rape", and "43 brain damaging minutes" of music. Any one of those would have made me nervous, but the combination had all but sealed my verdict before I even hit play.

Ever the good soldier, I carried on and listened, trying my best to give the music a fair shake. Thankfully, I don't have to file charges against Electric Wizard, as their music did not do any of the promised assault against my senses they intended. Sure, their music is abrasive, but not so much so that it needs to be promoted with obviously untrue bombast. There were plenty of ways of hyping the music that didn't need to make it sound like a sexual predator. I assume they would have been more effective, to boot.

So what do we get with "Wizard Bloody Wizard"? Well, as the title suggests, we get an album that is highly in debt to the slower doom tracks that early Black Sabbath established, roughed up with enough stoner fuzz to turn someone's lungs black. The songwriting isn't anything out of the ordinary, but the sound itself is so filthy that I feel you would need to be in an altered state of mind to think it sounds good. I don't know why stoner bands ever established a tone that sounds like a broken speaker from a 1972 Oldsmobile station wagon, but that's what we get here. Everything about the record is fuzzy enough to sound out of focus, like getting up and looking out the window without putting your glasses on.

And the worst part of that is the songs drag out, anywhere from five to eleven minutes. That much of the wretched guitar tone at once, without much development building riffs into something more than a droning hum, is hard to sit through. There simply aren't enough riffs here to justify the song lengths, and even the riffs that are present aren't of the Iommi quality where you don't need anything else. Plus, there's the fact that "Necromania" has a main riff that sounds quite a bit like Kiss' "War Machine". Add that all up, and we get a record that is highly derivative of the past, without making a case for why you should listen to this instead of any of those classic Sabbath records.

I knew before I even listened to "Wizard Bloody Wizard" that it wasn't going to be for me. I gave it a chance to surprise me, but we ended up right where I expected all along. Electric Wizard might have pulled themselves closer to the Black Sabbath playbook this time around, but what's the point of that? There already was a Sabbath, and even on their way out the door, those guys were able to make a record that had sharper riffs and better written songs. "Wizard Bloody Wizard" is a record made to justify a pun, and not much else.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Shining A Spotlight: Pale Waves

There isn't a feeling quite like when you find a new band on the verge of breaking out. Being there at the beginning, and knowing that you are pulling the bandwagon, rather than jumping on it once it's already rolling downhill, is something that can't quite be put into words. As a critic, one of the best things about the 'job' is being able to tell people about these bands, and to think that maybe I have a small part to play in helping to spread the word about some great new music. It doesn't happen as often as I would like it to, but when it does happen, it warms the heart the way The Grinch felt when that Christmas classic jumps the shark.

Today is one of those days where I feel like we're on the verge of something special.

The band behind that is Pale Waves, a new band that has caught my attention with their string of singles. They are the perfect band for this exact moment, for me, because they fill a need that is glaring. This week saw the release of Taylor Swift's newest album, which is a dark turn and a horrible disappointment. We aren't here to re-litigate that record, but I bring it up for a specific reason. "1989" was a fantastic pop record, and Pale Waves have the ability to plug the gap Taylor Swift has left. Their music takes a slightly different turn, but the core of the sound is a more organic version of the 80's synth-pop sound that "1989" updated for the modern age.

With the three singles that have been released, Pale Waves have already given us enough of a taste of who they are to show that they know their identity, and that they are potentially the next big thing in pop/rock. With a Robert Smith aesthetic to go along with jangly guitars and wispy vocals, they are light mixed with dark, edge mixed with softness. They are a throwback to when pop music was still music, where you could hear the humanity in it, even as the delivery emphasizes the polished sheen.

"Television Romance" and "New Year's Eve" are perfect slices of throwback pop, with bouncing rhythms you can dance to, and a laid-back atmosphere that is both detached and engaging. Before you know it, those hooks will be stuck in your head. Pale Waves know their limits, and they play right into their strengths on these songs. That's a veteran move, and it's impressive to see from newcomers.

Right now we only have about ten minutes of music to judge, but that's enough to have my excited about what comes next. 2017 has been a horrible year for pop music, but these songs give me hope. Pale Waves is easily my favorite thing to come from the pop world this year, and as they work on what is expected to be either an EP or full-length for 2018, that release will be something worth anticipating.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Album Review: Taylor Swift - Reputation

At its best, music is enlightening. It can be used to teach us something about the human condition that is easily forgotten, but more often if shines a light on the soul of the songwriter, and allows us to see through the veneer to the core of the person behind the music. Emotions fuel the best music, whether singing in ecstasy or agony. Great songs send a tingle down our spines, as we connect on a fundamental level that our polarized society doesn't often acknowledge. There is something magical about what music is capable of when in the hands of a master crafts-person.

Taylor Swift has been in the spotlight for so long, and has graced so many tabloids, that it's easy to take for granted our access to her. We feel like we've heard from her so often that we know who she is, and have lived life alongside her. The truth of the matter is that Taylor has been remarkable at keeping herself arm's distance away from her audience. Every song we know in our hearts is about a public heartbreak has never been confirmed. They could be stories made up from the same foundation and rouge that paint her cheeks into a flawless canvas. Taylor Swift is a pop star, a celebrity, but she is also strangely anonymous.

"Reputation" is the album that aims to change all that, where Taylor aims to take on her own public image, and tear it down as the web of misconceptions it most likely is. The problem is that because Taylor is so guarded, skepticism means that we shouldn't take anything she says on this album as the truth. She has been private, as is her right, but that means a sudden change of heart is not going to accepted on face value, especially when there is a glaring flaw running through the album that cannot be ignored.

We feel like experts in Taylor Swift's life, because of how omnipresent she has been in pop culture, which makes "Reputation" a stunning misfire. If Taylor was indeed trying to reveal more of herself, and fight back against the image the media has created of her as a contrived pop star hungry for fame and attention, the worst way to fight back would be by releasing an album that is this shallow. Taylor turned to pop on "1989", but now that she is viewed as a pop star, she has leaned into the image by making a record that is so blatantly trend-hopping that it almost feels like a joke. The dirty trap beats and utter lack of melody running through singles like "Look What You Made Me Do" wouldn't even be recognizable as Taylor Swift songs if not for the music videos she appears in.

Beyond that, Taylor's writing is not mining the depths of herself for truths no one else could tell. These songs are the same girl-meets-boy songs she has been singing for years, only this time without the nuance and detail that made her wise beyond her years. "Gorgeous" is man-hungry in a way that would be called misogyny if sung from the other perspective. When she speaks (not sings) that the old Taylor is dead, its as believable as the special effects in "Plan Nine From Outer Space". We can't tell if the old Taylor is dead not just because we didn't know her as a person, but because the new Taylor isn't any more open than the old one. The only difference is that her surface-level observations are more bitter than before. It's depth in the sense that we have gone from the sweet zest of a citrus fruit to the bitter pulp. We haven't reached the fruit yet, but the flavor has become intolerable.

Taylor Swift has never been honest with us as an audience, but that's actually ok. She was a nimble enough songwriter that she made her inauthenticity work. We knew it was an act, which made it all the more remarkable that she was able to turn it into such fantastic pop singles. Now, however, the songwriting acumen she displayed has been replaced by the pop conveyor belt, which has stripped away anything that was ever unique about Taylor, whether it was authentic or an act. She has become just another pop star, and she doesn't have the charisma to play the part of a bad girl.

I don't know who Taylor Swift is as a person. I'm not saying that to pass judgment on her, but to illustrate a point. After so much time in the spotlight, I don't feel like I'm an closer to understanding her now than I was when I first heard "Red" on the radio. In the pretext of this album, which is supposed to correct the record, being as in the dark as ever before means only one thing; even if the songs are good, Taylor Swift has utterly failed with this record. She hasn't taught us anything, and she hasn't entertained us. She has failed on multiple levels, which makes "Reputation" one of the biggest busts in modern pop history. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Album Review: Pink Cream 69 - Headstrong

Names and symbols are important. We can argue about whether they should be, or whether music itself should be all we're concerned with, but we live in a commercial reality. The fact that Pink Cream 69 is names Pink Cream 69 is one of the reasons why they languish in the melodic rock scrum, only known to those people who seek out that kind of music. They've made plenty of solid records (at least one of which I used to be quite fond of), but they have a tough sell to make just on the basis of their name. Try telling a friend or family member about them. It's awkward.

After thirty years, the band is celebrating their anniversary with this new album, continuing along the trajectory they've been on for years now. The combination of Dennis Ward and David Readman have established the band's sound and identity, and it would be foolish to think they're going to change now.

The band's appeal is that in the world of melodic rock, they are on the heavier end. There's a slight metallic edge to their riffing, and Readman's voice can get just rough enough to dirty up the sound. That might sound good, but it actually works against them. Melodic rock is, etymologically, melodic first and foremost. Their heavier approach to the form dulls the melody, which is a decision that makes me scratch my head a bit.

They write riffs that fit the melodic mold, putting most of the focus on the vocals. But by virtue of the songs being heavier, and written in the way they are, Readman's melodies in the choruses are flat, trying to be more chants than sing-alongs. When you compare this to the album Ward made recently with his other band, Khymera, the difference is stark. Khymera's album had far more melodies, and was the kind of album that put a smile on your face, even if you didn't fall in love with it. Punk Cream 69 is not capable of doing that, at least not here.

This is an album that, to me, doesn't know what it wants to be. The band feels caught between melodic rock and heavy metal, and they mix the forgettable parts of both, and not the appealing ones. If they had chosen to write inventive riffs with strong melodies, we would be talking about something special here. Instead, they have generic guitar playing with bone-stock choruses. It lacks anything to give the songs a spark.

Maybe thirty years of being saddled with a horrible name has pushed the band towards trying to hard to prove themselves. I don't know how they came to this formula, but it isn't working. It's not bad music like a lot of things I've heard this year, but it's entirely anonymous.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Album Review: Sweet & Lynch - Unified

Many people were excited not too long back for the pairing of Michael Sweet and George Lynch. Those were people generally a decade or so older than me, who grew up listening to Stryper and Dokken, and who wanted to relive those days once again. Of course, Stryper is still out there doing their thing, and Michael Sweet is also making solo albums, and George Lynch has both Lynch Mob and KXM, so I'm not sure there was a need for either of them to make yet more records. Still, the first album from this team was a solid effort that pleased most everyone, and created enough anticipation for a second go-round. I just have to say that with a Sweet solo album last year, and another Stryper album in the works as we speak, I'm a bit worried about him running through all of his good ideas.

Maybe it's just because I grew up listening to the music of the 90s, but the idea of George Lynch as some kind of guitar god has never been something I can wrap my head around. Dokken is a band that might as well not exist to me, and nothing I've heard from Lynch has ever impressed me more than your average, generic rock guitarist. I say that because again here, the riffs provided by Lynch don't stand out in the way I would like them to. He can play, but his riffs never compete with Sweet for attention. Despite the branding, this is clearly Sweet's show.

Speaking of Sweet, he turns in another full-throttle vocal performance on this album, blasting his way through these tracks. He still has all the range and power he ever did, the latter of which he uses often.

Most of the record sits in the comfort zone of 80s rock you would expect from these guys. There is a curve-ball in "Walk", which morphs from straight-ahead rocker into a Queen-esque chorus that is unlike most anything I can remember from these recent Michael Sweet albums. It's not only a really good song, but the uniqueness of it makes it stand out as something easily remembered. I'll nominate it as the best track on the album, and the one you should check out.

But the issue I have with the album is the same one I've had with recent Stryper releases; Sweet relies too much on his vocal power. When I say that, what I mean is that he sometimes thinks that singing a chorus at the top of his lungs is just as good as writing a hooky melody. Listen to "Make Your Mark" to hear what I mean. He practically shouts through the chorus, which barely has any melodic movement to it at all. It's rather tepid.

That gets balanced out by tracks like "Tried & True" and "Unified", which are more in line with what I would want. We get doses of Lynch's slightly sleazy guitar playing, while Sweet's hooks are far more melodic and memorable. They're very good, as is at least half the album, which is what makes it a bit frustrating. There's a lot to like in the approach Sweet & Lynch take on their music, and they've produced some very good songs, but they haven't carried it through an entire album. They're a good band making good records, but there's the potential in their combined talents to be doing something more. Still, this is a satisfying record for 80s rock aficionados.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Album Review: GWAR - "The Blood of Gods"

At first take, you see the updates in your inbox or on social media about a new GWAR album, and you shrug it off; the band produces albums like clockwork and cynics would suggest that they only release new material as an excuse to tour anyway, so the news hardly seems worth a second look.

And then you realize what it is you’re actually seeing, and you remember everything that’s happened.  “The Blood of Gods,” marks the first fresh (perhaps filthy?) studio material from the iconic band since the premature death of Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie,) and who knows not only what mysteries it contains but how it will be received?  Will fans and critics accept an album that no longer features the man who made the band what it is?

To answer that, you first have to examine the album itself.  Maybe this is a dated reference, but anybody remember the classic Steve Martin/Rick Moranis movie “My Blue Heaven”?  If you remember, much before the gimmick was taken by the sitcom “Frasier,” the movie breaks ups its chapters with full-screen messages hinting at what comes next.  There is one in particular, where Vincent Antonelli (Steve Martin,) tell us (forgive me if the quote is not exact) “As I am trained for nothing else, I re-embark on my old career.”

I told you that story to tell you this one; that’s sort of how “The Blood of Gods” feels.  There is no debating that over time, between the metal directional influence of Corey Smoot and Brockie’s own willingness to allow GWAR to evolve and change, GWAR became less a punk/thrash band and more in the true metal vein.  The band that both of those men left behind was not the band they had inherited or started.  In the absence of those governing forces, it’s easy to envision the band, reunited with former member Michael Bishop in the lead, having a meeting where somebody said “well, hell, what did we used to do?  Can we do that again?”

And so they did.  “The Blood of Gods” has much more in common with “This Toilet Earth” or even the hallowed “Scumdogs of the Universe,” than it does with “War Party” or “Lust in Space.”  We see a return here to much of the two-beat, thrash beginnings of the band, from simple drum beats and rapid-fire guitars, to a thematic return of making fun of people and declaring the Earth a giant piece of excrement.

Now, let’s be clear here – that’s certainly enjoyable in its own right, and there’s plenty to smirk at here, headlined by the blistering riff and repeated gang chorus of “Fuck This Place.”  In another universe, sans costumes and perhaps with slightly less profanity, this song would have felt right at home on any classic Minor Threat or Black Flag album. 

The thing that’s remained unchanged is that GWAR still has a predilection for the off-kilter oddity of a long form storytelling piece, and that’s how we get “The Sordid Soliloquy of Sawborg Destructo” right in the middle of the album.

The general tone here remains that of old school GWAR however, with their idiomatic synergy of the highly theatric with the musically accessible.  “Swarm” works because it treads that line, halfway between the acclaim of Thin Lizzy’s dual guitar innovation and the base comical profanity of the S.O.D.  Few bands have as much history doing both, and thus even in returning to an earlier era, GWAR can still teach a thing or two.

That’s why the album works, even if it is a departure from the band’s more recent efforts – because in going back to their roots, GWAR thus returns to a form of their art which had already worked for them in the past.  In answer the questions at the top of this article then, new fans may have to make an adjustment, but they should find enough familiarity to adapt without overwhelming difficulty.  Old fans and critics alike will feel that what is old can be new again.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Album Review: Jeff Scott Soto - Retribution

Timing can be everything. The right records needs to find the right ears at the right time, or else even the best of music can fall by the wayside. There's no way to know when the right time is, but there are definitely wrong times. To my ears, it's wrong to release cold and depressing albums during the summer months. What's harder to conclude is what to do when a musician has multiple bands with material ready at the same time. That's what Jeff Scott Soto is dealing with, as this album comes mere weeks after the release of an album from his newest band, Sons Of Apollo. Is that strategy going to get more ears on this release, or will the comparison between the two turn more people off? It's hard to say, but it lingers behind this album.

I say that because, with a hand in the songwriting of both albums, it can be questioned if Soto was writing too many songs in too short a period of time, should they not all hit their mark. That was the first thought I had when I heard the single, "Inside Outside", which immediately struck me as not being a strong enough song for that platform. The chorus of the song simply isn't very memorable, and Soto's rough vocals, combined with the production and mixing, make the track sound like a demo, and not a final product.

On the other hand, the opening title track is far better, with Soto's voice more in line with the deeper Paul Stanley tones he often gives off, and a chorus that hits the sweet spot of melodic rock/metal. That song would have been a far better showcase prior to the album's release. But that's just me.

As the album carries on, I get the same feeling from it that I did from the Sons Of Apollo record; Soto has plenty of ability to write and sing a great song, but he doesn't do it often enough. For every hooky song, there's one that falls completely flat. It makes listening to the record difficult, as bouncing back and forth between really good and not so great tracks is less satisfying than having an entire album of merely good songs.

"Retribution" is an album that has plenty of 80s appeal in its sound, and that's a fitting way of thinking about it. If this record was released in 1988, it has the three or four singles that could have made people believe and buy the album, while the rest of the album was made up of fillers that wouldn't matter once people had already made their purchase. But today, when most albums are able to be extensively previewed before determining if they're worth investing in, I just don't hear enough from it.

Soto has talent, and a ballad like "Feels Like Forever" is something I can fully get behind, but the record as a whole doesn't maintain a level. It's not a bad record, but Soto has in the span of a month released two records that are both half really good and half not so much. It makes me wonder what either project would have sounded like if he was able to take the best melodies from both albums and combine them. That's not what we've got here, so I can only judge what we do have. That's "Retribution", which is a forgettable record, I have to say.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Album Review: The Dark Element - The Dark Element

Talent is not enough to make it in the music business. Sometimes, you have the wrong album at the wrong time, or you find yourself in a position where fans are wanting something different. That's been the story for Anette olzon through her career. She made her first impact with Alyson Avenue, releasing the AOR classic "Presence Of Mind" (one of my all-time favorites). She and the band couldn't sustain the spark and success of that record, but years later she found herself in Nightwish. Her performances on record were fantastic, but the fans couldn't grow to accept anyone who wasn't in a particular mold, so that didn't work out either. After a solo album that showed she was still a hell of a singer, we now have The Dark Element, trying to return her to glory.

Teaming Olzon with guitarist Jani Liimatainen of Sonata Arctica and Cain's Offering fame provides more than enough talent for The Dark Element to be something special.

Those expectations weren't diminished by the pre-release singles, which showcased a modern and heavy blend of symphonic and power metal, full of heavy riffs and rich melodies. Tracks like "My Sweet Mystery" pack powerful hooks that are immediately memorable, and go down like warm cider on a cold autumn evening. The songs also find the right balance where they have symphonic elements that give enough depth and color to the compositions, but they don't go so far down the rabbit hole of orchestration that the songs themselves get lost in the compositional bravado.

A big part of the package is Anette herself. There are plenty of women in this genre, but none sound quite like her. While there are many who have classical training, and try to sound angelic that way, Anette's sharper vocals are not only more befitting a metal band, but they give The Dark Element a face in an increasingly faceless crowd. I have long been a fan of her voice, and she hasn't lost a step since Alyson Avenue's heyday. She sounds fantastic on these songs, plain and simple.

We get a nice diversity of songs on the album. The title track leads things off with the most densely symphonic approach of them all, while "Someone You Used To Know" is a soothing yet dramatic ballad that shows off the clarity of Anette's voice, and "Here's To You" pulses with a boundless and contagious energy. That track in particular hits on everything that is right with The Dark Element. It's the same case with "Halo", which is a flawless track that should become a staple, it's that good.

I was trying to avoid making the direct comparisons here, but let's go ahead and say it anyway; "The Dark Element" is both better and more enjoyable than any of the recent albums by Nightwish or Sonata Arctica. While they have gone searching for new artistic avenues, The Dark Element is made up of two people who are happy to be making the kind of music they're good at making. There isn't any longing to be taken seriously as something more than a metal band making a metal album, nor any shame in doing something fully inside-the-box.

In that sense, The Dark Element is a replacement for the memories of those bands, filling the void they left when they were tired of being who they were. That works out for everyone, since I can easily ignore them, and instead give my attention here. Hopefully, this album will remind everyone what they've been missing in Anette Olzon. I have no reservations about saying The Dark Element is going to end the year as one of my absolute favorite albums.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Quick Takes: Weezer & Kelly Clarkson

This week marked the release of albums by two artists that have burned bright, and burned out. Both Weezer and Kelly Clarkson are artists who at one time were held in my highest esteem, only to see that status tumble downward as the music they released moved further and further from my my taste. Listening to their newer efforts is a tough task, considering the happiness they have both brought me in the past. That is why I didn't want to spend the time writing full reviews for either of these records. I fear that doing so would only encourage me to write things that are more harsh than they need to be. But I still have something to say about them, so let's do this the quick 'n easy way.

Weezer - Pacific Daydream
To put things bluntly, with the exception of half of "Everything Will Be Alright In The End", everything Weezer has done since "Make Believe" has been like intentionally causing your legacy to rust, because you think it looks 'tough'. Despite being a father in his 40s, Rivers Cuomo has never been less emotionally mature. Yes, when he wrote nonsense songs about how "cheese smells so good on a burnt piece of lamb", he was still better off than he is now. This album continues Weezer's bland mediocrity, where they're happy to be the nerd/emo scene's Jimmy Buffet, putting out fluffy music that encourages people to sit back and pretend surfing and a beer is an adult way of fixing life's problems.

In fact, the only real positive I can take away from this album is the recycling of the lost demo track "Burning Sun". That melody shows up here, but the song adds in new pieces that ruin what was once a great "Green Album" era track. Even when Weezer starts with a leg up now, they trip and fall on their face. No, this is nowhere near as bad as "Raditude", but let's not applaud getting off the bottom of the barrel. This is completely useless music, and I find myself wishing Weezer would take another hiatus, even if it's only for my sake.

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning Of Life
In the world of pop, the last artist I was able to got thoroughly behind was Kelly Clarkson. "Breakaway" remains one of the greatest pop albums ever assembled, and even if the albums that followed were hit and miss, her string of singles was nearly perfect. I could hear her moving in new directions, but there was a core sound to her music that allowed for those detours without falling apart. Unfortunately, we've hit that point where the core has rotted away.

The problem is that Kelly Clarkson started out as a spunky, rocking pop star. Her records were energetic, empowering, and loaded up with enough guitars that a rock fan didn't need to feel ashamed of liking her. Today, he voice is still the powerful weapon it always was, but her songs have shifted into a hybrid of modern electro-pop and old-fashioned soul. Gone are the powerful anthems, replaced instead with slinky backdrops that treat guitars like lepers, and relying on vocal power in place of writing solid melodies.

Artists need to evolve as they go along, but to make such a hard shift in direction is a tough task. Soul has often been more about the singer than the song, and I get that feeling from this music. Her voice is titanic, but she needs strong hooks to showcase her formidable talents, which is not something this variation of soul provides. These songs are built as a showcase for her vocals, but there isn't much appeal in just listening to a voice that isn't singing something interesting. She is fantastic, but these songs aren't. They also feel out of place, as I don't know who was calling out for her to move in this direction. It seems to me like Kelly is making a record for an audience that isn't hers, instead of focusing on the one that is.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Album Review: Serenity - Lionheart

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to listen and talk about several Serenity albums. They were a band that caught my attention when I first heard "Fallen Sanctuary", with several songs that were absolutely killer power metal of the symphonic variety. But since then, they have sputtered along as they added and dropped a female singer, and became a band that focused their music on concepts and history. It's a gimmick that hasn't worked out for them, to my ears, because what has gotten lost in the scope of the music are the fantastic moments and hooks that made them great to begin with.

"Lionheart", as the title suggests, dips into British history this time, to tell the story of Richard the Lionheart. If I'm being honest, the British monarchy might be among the very least appealing subjects for an American listener such as myself, what with us fighting a war to never have to think about the 'royals' again, which puts the record in a tough spot. But there is always the chance the music can overcome that handicap.

Things get off to a good start with "United", one of the tracks previewed before the album's release. We get a nice balance of metal and orchestral elements, and the melody in the chorus is restrained and classy. It's the kind of highly professional power metal that you would expect a veteran band like Serenity to be able to make without fail. It doesn't have the spark of their very best material, but it's rock solid and an entire album of such songs would be an easy recommendation.

Unfortunately, I don't feel the album is able to achieve that. Starting with the very next track, the title cut, the hooks don't sharpen their teeth at all. The songs are able to go by without engaging the parts of your brain and heart that want to sing along, which is what great power metal is supposed to do. There are certainly tracks here that do that, but not enough of them. That said, none of these tracks are anything less than solid, given Serenity's track record.

The biggest problem I have with the album isn't even that, though. It's the fact that they are dealing, lyrically, with the heroism and death of a king, but the music itself rarely conveys any of that. It sounds just like every other Serenity album, which does a disservice to the story. There needs to be more diversity to the pacing and tone of the music itself, to make it clear where Richard is in the course of his life. Instead, Serenity gives us traditional Serenity again and again, which is good, but not for the particular task they are trying to achieve here.

So where do I come down on "Lionheart"? It's the same case as the previous several Serenity albums. They make solid power metal, but they aim so high with their historical concepts that I don't feel they ever live up to their own expectations. By telling me this is more than just a collection of songs, it sets my sights higher than they otherwise would be. If this was just a power metal album, I would say it's certainly good enough to give a sampling to. But as a bigger conceptual work, I wanted something a bit more. "Lionheart" is good, as Serenity usually is, but I'm still waiting for them to become great. This isn't quite there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Album Review - Communic - Where Echoes Gather

Every so often, a band comes around that makes you stop in your tracks and realize "this is what I've been wanting without even knowing it." While Nevermore was busy making a name for themselves, I wasn't interested, which is why it was so surprising to me that Communic bowled me over with "Waves Of Visual Decay". That album was such a skillful blend of progressive and thrash metal, with baritone vocals and catchy melodies, that it took the sound Nevermore was making famous, and made it better, at least for me. Since then, however, even Communic hasn't been able to recapture that moment in time, releasing nothing since that has come close to that apex.

This time around, Communic is bringing us all the usual elements of their sound, but wrapped up in a new package. This is their most progressive album yet, with three tracks so sprawling they are presented in multiple parts. Communic's ability to stretch their songs into those seven-to-nine minute lengths is what has separated them from other bands of this style, as they did it with such ease that it never felt gimmicky.

That's a bit less the case here. Take the opening "Pulse Of The Earth" set. The first of the two tracks bobs and weaves through myriad ideas, stopping and starting on a dime. There isn't always an obvious logic to the how or why the riffs and tempo changes, but just when you think the song is going to end without delivering, the end finds one of those beautiful melodies rise up. It's just unfortunate that it only appears once at the end of each part of the song. There is certainly the basis of a great Communic track in these two, but the focus isn't tight enough on the songwriting to bring it all together.

Listening to the title track, it almost takes me back to the first time I heard "Waves Of Visual Decay". It's true not much has changed in the Communic sound, but there are, pardon the pun, echoes of that album that arise more than I've heard on the preceding albums. That feeling comes up in the three individual tracks as well. "Moondance" has the same sense of foreboding doom, while "Where History Lives" is the hookiest song on the album.

That being said, there is something about Communic's songwriting that binds every song together more than they should. The sonic palate is not very diverse, and the melodies share enough of their cadences that the songs blend into one another on the record, and from album to album. The only real difference between this and any other Communic record is the inclusion of a few more prog riffs in the instrumental breaks. You could drop any of these songs onto any Communic album without sounding out of place. That's great for fans of the band, but it doesn't make a strong case for this particular album if there isn't anything unique to be said about it.

At the end of the day, Communic is going to sound like Communic, and that's a good thing."Where Echoes Gather" is easily their best effort since "Waves Of Visual Decay", and it gets better both as it goes along, and the more you go back to it. The initial impression you get from the onset isn't what you will leave with. In time, the years Communic spent between records was put to good use, as this is a definite step up from where they were the last time I heard them. Making melancholy metal isn't easy, and Communic is one of the bands that has shown the ability to do it well. "Where Echoes Gather" is their best effort in several records, and is a satisfying return to form.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Album Review: Metalite - Heroes In Time

Debut albums are tricky, especially in genres that are now known for their musical innovation. When it comes to melodic metal, a debut album is crucial, because it might be the only time a band ever gets to capture your attention. Knowing that these sorts of bands don't make huge changes to their sound over the years, everything comes down to whether or not they can deliver memorable songs on a consistent basis. If we don't hear that right away, it's easy to put that band aside and forget about them when their next effort comes along. Bands don't get much of an opportunity to grow into themselves, since there is too much music to go back and give second chances to those who didn't make an impact the first time.

Metalite is a new melodic metal band that ventures into these waters, putting their debut on the line for us to listen. I'm not a fan of metal bands that throw the word 'metal' into their name or album titles, since it seems like a cheap way of sounding tough/heavy, but I don't hold that against the music.

The album kicks off with the first single released, "Afterlife", which gets things started with tremendous promise. The riffs are a blend of power metal with some minor hints of thrash in the flourishes, while vocalist Emma Bensing layers her voice to make for a hypnotic chorus. I'm not sure if her voice is naturally echoing from a tight performance, or if there's an effect being put on her vocals, but it makes for a rather unique sound that definitely makes you pay attention.

Let's get the sticking point out of the way. If you hate pop music, especially metal that has pop overtones, you won't like what Metalite is doing here. The music is bright, cheery, and Emma's vocal lines bounce like good pop music is supposed to. This music wouldn't be wrongly described as metallic bubblegum.... but that's exactly why I like it. Too often we get bands that call themselves 'melodic metal', when all they really mean by that is they have a clean singer who can hold notes for a long time. Metalite is actually writing melodic metal that has big, hooky melodies. That shouldn't need to be said, but it is.

So if you're someone like me who has listened to bands like Delain and the like over the years, always wondering why they couldn't consistently deliver songs that matched the voices singing them, Metalite is going to be right up your alley. With the sugary hooks and the ample 80s synths, the music might be a bit too cloying for some, but it does exactly what its aim is.

If you like melodic metal with a heavy dose of melody, "Heroes In Time" will be your jam. Song after song, this album delivers on its goal of being modern metal with more hooks than a backwoods bait shop. If what I said is true, and a band may only get one shot at being heard by their potential audience, Metalite has taken advantage of that opportunity. "Heroes In Time" is packed with great songs, great hooks, and great vocals. As far as melodic metal goes in 2017, you'll be hard-pressed to do any better than Metalite. Kudos are deserved.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Album Review: Europe - Walk The Earth

Here's a dirty secret about the glamorous world of music reviewing; the vast majority of the time we can write most of our opinion before ever hearing a record. The fact of the matter is that few albums truly surprise us. Most of them follow the established patterns that the bands have laid down over the years, just with differing degrees of success. So it was of note that Europe did truly surprise me with their last album, "War Of Kings". I was not expecting Europe to be a fire-breathing reinvention of Deep Purple, but that's what they were. Despite being known in a wider sense only for "The Final Countdown", their last album was both a shock and amazing. Now aware of their recent greatness, I was very much looking forward to hearing what comes next, which is where we are now.

The title track blares out of the speakers to open the album, picking up right where the last record left off, with crunchy guitars and roaring Hammond organs. I'm a bit of a sucker for those, but it's a sound that works so well in rock that it's amazing more bands don't follow suit. It's a muscular sound, but one that also has depth to it, which makes the songs more interesting than if there were simply two layers of guitars playing the same thing.

Europe continues to slay on "The Siege", which takes everything that was great about the title track, and dials is up even further. It's a weighty, heavy song that culminates in one of those great choruses that makes you want to stop your head-banging long enough to sing along. There's nothing complicated about it, but that's what makes it so good.

Over the course of these ten tracks, we get a healthy dose of high-quality hard rock. Europe are veterans, and that shows throughout the album, as song after song delivers the goods. Now, the question to ask is how this stacks up to "War Of Kings", since that album put Europe back on the map. It's a bit of a tough judgment to make, since although the sonics are the same, they are different albums. "War Of Kings" was a more laid-back and melodic album, while "Walk The Earth" is more in your face and aggressive. Which album is better might come down simply to which side of the rock equation you solve for.

What isn't up for debate is that Europe has followed up a very good record with another very good record. Myself, I find myself erring on the side of melody, so I would still say I prefer "War Of Kings" over this album, but that's splitting hairs. "Walk The Earth" is another great Europe album, and continues the momentum they established. If you haven't heard what Europe is up to these days, you need to. They're a more vital rock band than most half their age. "Walk The Earth" is good stuff indeed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Album Review: Vuur - In This Moment We Are Free

Certain voices are special, and people will follow wherever the singer goes. Anneke Van Giersbergen is one of those singers, someone who has sang with and for myriad bands over the years, and nearly every time she is a highlight of the proceedings. For the worlds of rock and metal, there really isn't anyone else that sounds like her, with a purity of tone that separates her from the crowded field of women fronting bands. The downside to her is that, at least in my eyes, she hasn't made a lot of music that stands up to the quality of her talent. Whether it isn't my style, or something otherwise hard to pinpoint, there isn't much in her career that I can go back to often.

Vuur is her promising new band that sees Anneke in her most metallic element. She trades in the melancholy of the Gathering, the grandeur of Ayreon, and the heft of Devin Townsend, for a sound that is deep and heavy modern metal. The contrast between the low tunings and Anneke's soaring voice is about as stark as you can get, which certainly does give Vuur something unique to hang their hat on.

You get a good sense of what Vuur is about from the opening "My Champion". The initial riffs are heavy as all get-out, with pounding drums and a foreboding atmosphere. When the chorus comes, the chords open up, and Anneke is able to soar over the top of the music with her power and clarity. She's singing a melody that many of the bands with classical singers would write, but Anneke's tone isn't as traditional, which makes it all the more appealing.

Vuur reminds me very much of a band called Stork, who started out as an instrumental prog metal band before adding a female vocalist to try to balance out the intense heaviness of their music. Vuur's tones are similar, but work as an example of how the same sound can take on such different forms in different hands. Stork never really came together, but Vuur does.

The one thing about Vuur, however, is that their music is not what we would call sprightly. It doesn't need to be, but starting with the more restrained tempos, when the band slows down even further, it can get to be a bit much. "Time" is one of those tracks, which veers a bit too close to doom to work with Anneke's voice. That's a minority of the album. Vuur spends most of the time sitting in a comfortable pace, where Anneke has enough room to weave her voice over the riffs to create something engaging. Songs like "The Martyr And The Saint" and "The Fire" build up to powerful crescendos.

I will say this, however; "In This Moment We Are Free" might be a tough album to get through all at once. It's fairly lengthy, and the pacing of the songs doesn't help it to feel any shorter. The quality is there, but it is a lot to take in.

That being the case, I want to make it clear that Vuur's debut album is indeed plenty good. It's a strong showcase for Anneke, and it has some fantastic moments of dramatic metal. If you've ever likes Anneke's voice, it's certainly something to hear.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Album Review: Power Quest - Sixth Dimension

I've talked about it before, but power metal is in a weird place right now. The boom from the earlier part of the millennium is now gone, and many of the bigger names in the genre have evolved into something that isn't quite power metal anymore. Couple that with many of the newer bands being a heavier strain that isn't quite what we remember, and the traditional sound isn't out there as much as it once was, and isn't being done as well either. By simply being traditional, a band like Power Quest is actually being different, which is an odd conundrum, if I've ever heard one.

The opening "Lords Of Tomorrow" does throw a curveball or two our way. It's as power metal as power metal can be, but the way the riffs speed up to Dragonforce levels for a flash of a few seconds, only to die back into the normal rhythm, is something that I don't know I've heard much of. It does give the song some ebb and flow, which can be difficult when double-bass drums carry the majority of every song.

That song gets things off to a cracking start, but it's not long after that we start to get into the problem that has pushed me further and further away from the genre that really got me into metal. Power metal has a formula, and when a band adheres so closely to it all the time, the music becomes rather stale. The thing about power metal in particular is that the music is carried often by the speed and rhythm alone, which means there aren't many memorable riffs to be found. In that case, if the vocals don't deliver the sharp hooks, there isn't anything else to save the songs.

That's sort of where we find ourselves here. Everything on the album is well-executed, but it's so by the book that it's tedious to listen to, since I have a pretty darn good idea what's coming before we get there. The actual musical ideas, both in the guitars and vocals, aren't good enough to overcome the predictability we get again and again. As far as power metal goes, sure, it's not bad. I haven't heard a lot of traditional power metal that's been released recently, but Power Quest isn't far off the mark of the good stuff. The problem is that missing the mark at all, when perfection is still directly competing with the entire history of the genre, means each mistake is magnified.

"Sixth Dimension" isn't bad at all, but it's not exciting or memorable. It's power metal in the power metal mold, which is great for serious power metal fans. For everyone else, it's an album that will confirm whatever it is you already think about power metal.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Album Review: Bigfoot - Bigfoot

This has been an odd year for music. Along the way, there have been more truly awful records than I can ever remember, and the good stuff has been evenly distributed among the various genres and sub-genres that I listen to. The one thing that has been lacking is a good ol' fashioned hard rock record. There have been great melodic rock records, but the meat-and-potatoes stuff has been lacking. It's not entirely surprising that there aren't a load of players right now who are masters of the riff, but it does leave a hole for a band like Bigfoot, who are that kind of no frills rock band.

The thing about lacking bells and whistles is that it puts even more emphasis on the elements that are there, which can expose a band's shortcomings. Let's take the first two songs from this record as an example. "Karma" is a deliberate rock song that lacks personality, with vocals that are trying to sing more powerfully than Anthony Ellis is capable of. It's rather bland, and rather mediocre. But then there's "The Fear", which has a far more melodic hook that is very good, but the song spends large portions of the verses with weak sounding guitars and absolutely no drumming. There's nothing pushing the song forward, which makes the whole package seem half-cocked.

After that give and take, the album settles into a groove when the band dips their toe a bit harder into Southern rock. That decision sets them up for better results, as a bluesier and grittier take is where they sound most comfortable. The string of songs from "Forever Alone" to "Prisoner Of War" find the band hitting their stride, and it's a convincing enough group of tracks. If they had delivered an entire album in that mold, it would be something truly interesting.

However, Bigfoot hasn't quite figured out who they are as a band. At times, they're a Southern rock powerhouse, while at other times they try to be a 70's style melodic rock band. It's not just that they're obviously better at one sound than the other, it's that the two don't allow for the album to sound cohesive. There's a big difference between the shorter and longer tracks, both in style and substance, and that's exactly the sort of thing that kills an album.

If Bigfoot had delivered an entire album of their better side, I would be telling you to go check it out. However, they didn't do that, and while half of the album is solid old-school Southern hard rock, there's too much material here that doesn't have that same impact or quality. Look, Bigfoot definitely has the potential to be very good at a particular style. They don't stick with it quite enough on this album, but they do offer up hope that in the future they will deliver on that promise. As it is, this record is a decent starting point.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Album Review: Sorcerer - The Crowning Of The Fire King

Here's the thing about doom metal; unless it's in the hands of experts, it's far too easy for the music to get bogged down in slow tempos that don't allow for any kind of musical development. I've heard more bad doom that is just one slow riff after another, with a singer copying Ozzy's lazy, 'repeat the riff with the vocals' style for a lifetime. So when something comes along that does doom the way it's supposed to, I have to thank the metal gods. There was a time when Candlemass did that, but their fake retirement has led to anger upon my part, and bad music on theirs.

That's where Sorcerer comes in. They have picked up the slack, and are showing the rest of the world that doom can be dark and heavy, sure, but also beautiful and melodic. If you want to use the description 'epic doom', it wouldn't be wrong. This music is big, burly, and gorgeous as well. Trying to pull that off is not an easy feat, and Sorcerer has done it with aplomb on this album.

I never heard any of Sorcerer's previous material, but I can't imagine being able to do doom any better than this. Everything about "The Crowning Of The Fire King" is nearly flawless, from the deeply emotional vocals, to guitar solos that serve as additional melodies, to riffs that find the perfect balance between heaviness, groove, and melody. There are lengthy tracks, but everything in the songs is essential, so they never feel their length. Much of doom metal can drag along on one or two repeated riffs, but these are real compositions that ebb and flow, build and deconstruct, until they reach a conclusion that makes sense.

The comparison that comes to mind is While Heaven Wept's "Vast Oceans Lachrymose". That's the only other doom album I can ever recall hearing that had as much attention paid to the details as the crux. That album stunned me at the time with the depth of the layered music setting a beautiful stage for the songs. The problem was the album only had three songs that lived up to atmosphere. Sorcerer is able to achieve a similar feeling, but carry it through with a full album of great songs.

I don't need to break this down track by track, because this is an album that is a cohesive whole, where every song is as good as the one before and after it. "The Crowning Of The Fire King" could just as easily be the crowning of the doom kings, because after this effort, I can't think of a finer doom band working today.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Album Review: Nachtblut - "Apostasie"

When you have music conversations with your friends, and you’re trying to get them to listen to a new band that you like and they’ve never heard of, you inevitably make comparisons, trying to find an analog to a touchstone that they’ll already know.  That analog can touch on multiple points, be it a familiar aspect of the band’s sound, style, appearance or genre. 

Some of them are easy.  Graveyard sounds like Led Zeppelin.  Midnight Ghost Train is similar to Clutch.  Turisas sounds like Andrew Lloyd Weber has an angry, metal-obsessed son.

Then comes Nachtblut.  It’s taken a while to come up with a proper analogy, but here it is – Nachtblut, and their new album “Apostasie,” lies halfway between Rammstein and Finntroll…both in musical sensibility, and in general silliness.

Before rumors start to swirl, let’s put this in its proper context.  That is a compliment.  Pure and simple.  In a year when it seems like the calendar is overly saturated with bands coming back out of the woodwork after multiple decade hiatuses, here’s a German band virtually unknown to American audiences that are putting fresh, personalized spins on sounds we thought we knew.

Addressing the other elephant in the room, as far as the silliness goes, maybe we’re reading this wrong and “Apostasie” is supposed to be as serious as a heart attack, but that seems unlikely.  If the Upstate New York public education system’s German curriculum is worth anything, some of these song titles translate to “Your Death is my Hooker,” and “Women De-boning,” so it’s hard to envision that the tongue isn’t firmly buried in the cheek here.

To top it off, if you skip to the end, there’s a truly excellent and highly enjoyable cover of the German rapper Kollegah’s hit “Wat is’ denn los mit dir,” which caps the album perfectly.  It’s a fantastic change of pace with some really bright keyboard work that stays within the envelope of Nachtblut while still showing an ability for musical interpretation.

Anyway, the meat of the album is an adrenaline-fueled, riff-heavy ride that will find a niche with fans across the spectrum of metal, as evidenced by the bands cited at the head of this thing.  There’s a lot of great design elements here in the construction, even if you can’t understand the German lyrics.  “Amok” rumbles with purpose and direction, but is flanked on either side by some clear piano and punctuated by a clean-toned guitar solo in the song’s second half.  The juxtaposition of the clean tones with the over-driven, screaming punch of the song’s basic riff creates a dichotomy that is simple, but adds a lot of depth.

As ever in this kind of effort, the keyboards can make or break an album by either accenting it or driving it over the cliff into contrivance.  Nachtblut employs the alarmingly bright tones of keyboardist Lymania’s harmonies to create real depth and help move the songs along.  “Scheinfromm” by itself is a powerhouse, but the electronic elements turn it into a more memorable, and thus more effective, song.

Not to be outdone, Nachtblut also gives us “Geboren um zu leben,” which for all its metal underpinnings, can safely be recognized as crossing the border into industrial, with its mechanized beats and heavy electronic influence.  The breakdowns and bridges are deceptively danceable, showing just another facet of what “Apostasie” brings to the table.

Listen, we’ve now spent three paragraphs distinguishing what some might call minor differences in affect or musical idiom, but being able to separate those pages and provide the listener with a handful of different styles while staying on message is what makes “Apostasie” so much more accomplished than many of its contemporaries.

A couple odd notes that have to be addressed.  If it were not for the soft piano section of “Frauenausbeiner,” an attentive listener may think that the song is a Germanized version of AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me.”  The basic riff, the structure, even the cadence is remarkably similar to that song from “Back in Black.” 

Also, the piano ballad “Einsam,” while executed well enough and highlighted by the emotive and earnest performance of guest vocalist Aeva Maurelle, feels a little out of place on the record, both because it’s sandwiched between a rousing arena-rock clone (as mentioned above,) and the beer-stein swinging celebration of the title track, and because as we’ve already talked about, there’s a question of seriousness amidst the bravado here.

Let’s not lose the forest for a couple of trees, though.  “Apostasie” is great.  One of the most purely enjoyable, catchy and consistently well-constructed albums of 2017.  It doesn’t require a lot of dissection to be able to understand what’s going on here; it’s a straight-ahead, rolling gothic metal record that knows how to be fun and punchy at the same time.  Especially as we hurtle inexorably toward year-end award season, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not spend some time with Nachtblut.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Album Review: Fozzy - Judas

When Fozzy first came about, I don't know anyone who would have said all these years later they would not only still be around, but they would be one of the better known rock/metal bands out there in the mainstream vain. The idea of a band fronted by Chris Jericho, backed by the guitarist from Stuck Mojo, who started out their time playing covers under the guise of a story that they were the rightful creators of metal's legacy, was absolutely insane. And yet Fozzy has proven people wrong, maturing into a band that has been making good records. Their acclaim is not without merit. We've now reached their seventh album, which arrives at the height of Fozzy's fame.

This was made evident with the title track, which not only leads off the album, but was the first single released. The video blew up online, racking up a massive amount of plays. It's the perfect embodiment of who Fozzy are. Ward provides simple guitars that establish a groove, and Jericho gives a melodic sheen to the chorus, which uses repetition to become annoyingly catchy. It's one of the better songs Fozzy has ever written.

What's always kept me from fully embracing Fozzy is their occasional forays out of their comfort zone. They have not always been the most consistent of bands, but to their credit, they have gotten better in that regard with each album. "Judas" sees them finally hitting their stride, where I can't say there's a lull when the album drags along for me. Ward and Jericho deliver across the board here, with the most solid set of songs Fozzy has yet committed to tape.

The opening run of songs sets the agenda clearly. "Judas", "Drinking With Jesus", and "Painless" are prime Fozzy cuts, balancing the band's modern and classic sides. There's a lot to like about what Fozzy is doing here, and clear that the band has been constantly evolving into a machine intent on becoming one of the bigger names in the modern rock/metal style. Their sound is thoroughly modern, once in a while to their own detriment. While I said there aren't prolonged lulls, there is "Three Days In Jail", which borrows a bit too much from modern schlock to really be good. The beginning to the song is good, but when it turns to rapping, it loses me. That's not what Fozzy is, and I don't understand why they would even think about adding in an element that is totally anathema to their identity. That's a huge mistake.

Otherwise, Fozzy has done well for themselves here. Not knowing exactly which bands to compare them to, I can't say they're on the top tier, but they are still evolving and improving. Fozzy has come a long way from when they started out, and they're becoming more focused with each passing album. "Judas" is their best album yet.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Album Review: Iris Divine - The Static And The Noise

Modern prog metal has gone in a direction I don't quite understand. With bands like Haken trying to recreate the worst of the 80s, and Leprous leading the way into rhythmic non-songwriting, so much of what constitutes the young generation of the genre is making music that is a chore to listen to. Gone are the days when prog metal bands showed off their skill and knowledge while in the context of real and good songs. Now it's all about being dark, and playing in odd time signatures, but with very little focus from the singers on connecting with the listeners. I find it sad, but few people seem to agree with me.

Iris Divine is a band that does, however. Their debut album was one that had plenty of intricate playing, and was certainly heavy, but it was all centered around great melodic songwriting. "Karma Sown" was one of the best prog release of that year, so I was excited to see them return with a new record that doesn't change up the winning formula.

Let's take the opening track, "Catalyst", for example. The song opens with a super heavy riff, then the drums start pounding out a pattern that isn't a straight 4/4 beat. Some unique chords ring in the background, and then the chorus comes in with a strong melodic focus. There's also a few technical riffs in the middle-eight, capping off a jam-packed five minutes of music. As you can see, there's a bit of everything thrown in, but it's done with skill. This isn't like some bands, where the various sections get glued together with no thought behind it. This is well-conceived, and logical. It's also very good.

One of the things I appreciate about Iris Divine's writing is that they use dynamics to their advantage. "Taking Back The Fall" starts out with a crushing riff, but the band doesn't feel the need to keep the song at that intensity throughout. Their let things pull back for a while, which is not only smart because that kind of heaviness gets tiring, but it lets those moments sound heavier by virtue of having a comparison to be made.

Another point to note is that this is a phenomenally produced record. While the sound is still modern and loud, the clarity and balance of the recording is great. The guitars have just the right amount of bite on them, the vocals come through clear, and the mix has everything sitting just right. And unlike a lot of metal, the bass is even easily audible. Plenty of bands on major labels can't match the pure sound of this album.

"The Static And The Noise" is a very fine modern prog metal album. While the genre's leaders are getting lost, Iris Divine is stepping right past them. I'll admit that I'm not as keen on the closing track, "We All Dissolve", because of the overuse of spoken word elements, but otherwise the album is as good as you can ask for from a young band like this. Iris Divine has made an album that is heavy, challenging, yet accessible. That's the perfect balance, and "The Static And The Noise" fits right in with "Karma Sown" as great examples of how to do it right.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Album Review: Sons Of Apollo - Psychotic Symphony

Over the last few years, Mike Portnoy has been a busy man, releasing albums with more projects than I can probably count. Some of them have been great (the first Winery Dogs album, Transatlantic's latest resurrection), some have been good, and a couple have definitely not been my thing. He has traversed everything from prog, to thrash, to pop, with plenty of rock thrown in between. The one thing he hadn't done is go back to the music that made him renowned. Sons Of Apollo is his first foray back into the world of progressive metal since he ventured out into his creative rumspringa, which means it's something to take note of. Having Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, Bumblefoot, and Jeff Scott Soto on board also means that this is a band that will get its share of attention, and should have the talent to back up their proclamations of greatness.

Like any prog band would, Sons Of Apollo open their album with an eleven minute mini-eipc, this one borrowing the themes and feelings of eastern music. What we get are heavy, low-tuned riffs, Portnoy pounding away at his drums like only he can, and plenty of melodic sensibility that is more derived from hard rock than normal progressive metal.

In fact, the label of progressive metal is where Sons Of Apollo might have done themselves a disservice. Yes, there are lengthy songs and plenty of intricate playing, but the focus of their music isn't intently on those aspects. There are plenty of occasions where its clear the band is just as inclined to be a modern heavy metal band, just with virtuoso players at every position. The singles "Coming Home" and "Signs Of The Time" gave us that indication before the album's release, and a couple of other tracks are in that same style. There's a clear bifurcation of the band's prog and melodic sides.

It's actually refreshing that Sons Of Apollo aren't committed to making progressive metal that needs to be progressive at all times. They have their moments where they stretch things out and showcase their skill, but there is a focus on writing more memorable songs than you often get from this kind of music. As far as prog metal goes, the band's guitar sound is heavier and more modern than the traditionalists, and Soto's voice matches the lower tones, which gives the entire album a heft that really works. They often find a groove and let that carry through large portions of the songs, a move I find both smart and effective.

The band is best summed up by "Alive". That song has the dark guitar tones, moments of softer reflection, and a killer hook. It's just the right blend of what Sons Of Apollo are, and it also makes clear what they aren't (which is a copy of what the members have done before).

In fact, my only real complaint with the album is the curious decision to finish with a ten minute instrumental. I'm not a fan of instrumental music to begin with, especially from a band that has a singer in the ranks, but to end the album with it doesn't make much sense to me. You want to end an album with a statement, and it's hard to see the message in finishing with a song that omits one member of the band for the entire running time. If I was the producer, I would have shortened the track, and switched it out with the similarly proggy "Labyrinth", but what do I know?

Other than that one nit I picked, I'm coming away from "Psychotic Symphony" rather pleased. There were worries that the band was going to try to compete too directly with Portnoy and Sherinian's past, but those turned out to be for naught. Sons Of Apollo are indeed an entity unto themselves, and whether they're strictly prog metal or not can be debated, but it doesn't matter. What it all comes down to is whether or not the music is good, and I can say that "Psychotic Symphony" is. In the pantheon of Portnoy, this isn't up there with his very best work (mostly his Transatlantic and Neal Morse - solo, not Band - albums), but it's far above Adrenaline Mob or Metal Allegiance.

Sons Of Apollo has a bit of buzz, and "Psychotic Symphony" lives up to most of it. I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but the result is pretty darn good.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Album Review: Skarlett Riot - Regenerate

There are certain parts of the job of being a music critic that suck the life out of you, like having to review the latest disappointment from a veteran stalwart. There are other parts of the job, however, that refresh your spirit, like when you find a hungry young band ready to grab the brass ring. That is the most rewarding part of the job, being able to find new young bands that have the potential to become the next big thing, and feeling that you might have even the tiniest bit of a part in helping to get the word out about them. There have been a few bands in my time that have given me that feeling, and even though most of those that have released a second album already have not been able to follow up the success, I'm always optimistic about each one I find.

Skarlett Riot is the next band on that list.

I was aware of Skarlett Riot before "Regenerate" was announced, but I had heard their music only in passing. I knew that they had talent and potential, but I wasn't ready for what they are putting forward with "Regenerate".

Simply put, Skarlett Riot has stepped up to the big time. "Regenerate" is a ten track, forty minute album that is packed with heavy riffs, great vocals, and massive hooks. I dip into this well too often, but do you remember when Halestorm tried to go heavy, but all they did was write boring riffs and lousy songs? Well, Skarlett Riot pulls off what Halestorm was trying to do, and does it nearly perfectly.

Take opener and first single "Break" for example. After the scene is set, the riffs charge ahead like an Arch Enemy song, and the chorus reaches for the sky. It's a remarkable blend of metallic heaviness and shimmering, arena-sized hooks, and it carries throughout the album. Every track here has the heaviness a rock or metal fan craves, and a chorus the crowd will be singing back to the band when they're on stage. That kind of consistency is difficult to pull off, believe me, which makes it all the more noteworthy that Skarlett Riot doesn't misfire a single time here. As an opening statement, this is a heck of a record.

Not to discount the rest of the band, who do a great job of providing a heavy, chunky sound that straddles the line between rock and metal, but at the epicenter of the band's sound is lead singer Skarlett. She has the ability to shift her voice from youthful innocence to powerful passion, and it's her selling of the hooks that makes the band stand out from the crowd. "Regenerate" is the band's coming out party, but it's Skarlett who will be blowing out the candles on the cake.

Picking out highlights isn't necessary here. Every song on the album is just as good as the last. "Regenerate" is one of those albums where the line "all killer, no filler" is fitting. There's no wasted time on this album, which is a tight assault wisely kept from getting to the point of diminishing returns. Would an extra song or two have been nice? Sure, more great music is almost always welcome, but keeping the record finely honed and leaving us wanting more is an equally admirable thing to achieve. And that they did.

With "Regenerate", Skarlett Riot has sounded an alarm. They are coming, and you had better take note. "Regenerate" is one of the best records of the year, and Skarlett Riot is a band poised to become one of the next big things. Welcome to the big leagues, Skarlett Riot. Your first swing is a home run.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Album Review: Revolution Saints - Light In The Dark

A few years back, the legion of assembled supergroups made up from the veterans of the 80s produced a real gem. Revolution Saints was not just a band that made a really great melodic rock/AOR album, they were a vehicle to show the vocal talents of Deen Castronovo. Sure, people knew him from his time behind the kit in Journey, but he had never fronted a band for an entire album before, and he more than held his own. In fact, on what was one of the absolute best tracks of that year, he out-dueled the current Journey singer in a duet. So with that kind of successful debut, I was assuredly excited to hear what would come next. That's where "Light In The Dark" comes in.

Following up a great record is never easy, but especially when it's your first album, because there's no telling where your style will take you. Fortunately, Revolution Saints are veterans who have been around long enough to know who they are as musicians.

The title track picks up where the first album ended, blending Doug Aldrich's semi-metallic guitar playing with Deen's gritty vocals, and a smooth AOR melody. That's the formula that worked on the first album, and if it ain't broke there's no reason to fix it. Plenty of music of this style gets put out, even just from their label, and it's clear when a band is a step above the usual competition. Revolution Saints are one that is.

And that brings us to the issue I have with the record. While "Light In The Dark" is a very nice melodic rock record, it's not as captivating as the debut album was. I don't know the circumstances of the writing of these new songs, but the hooks don't sparkle as consistently as their earlier counterparts. There are great moments, but fewer than last time out. That's a high bar to judge against, but I'm comparing the band to themselves, so it's fair. You have a song like "I Wouldn't Change A Thing", which is a ballad in the mold of "You're Not Alone", but it never builds up to a satisfying climax the way that song did. It's the start of a good idea, but it isn't fully fleshed out yet.

But then there are songs like "Don't Surrender", which are perfect examples of how to write melodic rock. At their best, Revolution Saints are the proverbial five-tool players, and that kind of song illustrates them all, as do "Take You Down" and "Freedom".

If we compare Revolution Saints to the other bands that have put out melodic rock albums of this stripe this year, they would come out near the top. They're on par with Eclipse, and trailing only Harem Scarem's career-defining effort. But I can't not compare "Light In The Dark" to the band's own first effort. In that respect, this is a bit of a disappointment. "Light In The Dark" would be a fine debut that would have me excited about their future, which would then lead to growing into a record like their first one, in a perfect world. But the order of the albums is reversed from that, and the sequence does make a difference. "Light In The Dark" is a very good record, and one I can easily recommend checking out, but I can't say the band took a step forward here. Their debut is just too good for that to be the truth.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Album Review: Nocturnal Rites - Phoenix

When I was getting into metal, it was through power metal, and one of the bands that helped usher me in was Nocturnal Rites. That was as "The Grand Illusion" came out, which along with follow-up "The 8th Sin", captured my attention with their blend of modern heaviness and all-out melody. I heard rumblings from older fans that they didn't like the more over modern and pop overtones, but it was magic to my ears. Even if I go a year without hearing those songs, I can still remember most of those melodies vividly. I was saddened when years stretched on, and a full decade elapsed before news came out that Nocturnal Rites was returning. This album has the potential to be one of the biggest moments of the year, if the lengthy time off didn't slow down the band's momentum.

My nerves over the wait were quieted before I ever got the album. The two singles released early, "Before We Waste Away" and "Heart Black As Coal", were both fabulous tracks that picked up right where the band left off, with heavy modern riffing and melodies to die for. I couldn't have asked for anything more, and despite listening to them repeatedly as I waited, they just kept getting better and better, sometimes popping into my head as soon as I woke up in the morning.

Notable was the addition of Per Nilsson, the master guitarist who has lent his talents to countless projects at this point. The band already had great songwriting and fantastic vocals, and now they have a world-class lead guitar player. The solos on this album are a guitar player's dream... and nightmare. The fretboard displays are incredibly impressive, but will also deflate anyone's ego who wants to learn one of these songs.

Despite the time between albums, Johnny Lindqvist sounds as good as ever. His voice is one of the best in all of metal, and after being away for so long, hearing him again is a reminder of why we missed Nocturnal Rites so much. There aren't many power metal singers who can match him in pure tone, or in the ability to write and sell a hook.

The one thing to be said about "Phoenix" is that if you didn't like the direction "The 8th Sin" took, this album isn't going to correct course. These songs are tight, heavy, very modern tracks that don't shy away from pumping up the melodies. It's not the traditional power metal the band started out playing. Myself, I find this approach far more interesting, so I'm very happy to see the band staying the course.

And do they ever. "The Poisonous Seed" is the one track here that comes across flat, but otherwise these are all tracks that absolutely slay with their melodies and hooks. You get hints of strings to expand the scope on two tracks, no all-out ballads, and heavy doses of Nocturnal Rites doing what they do best. Most every song could be singled out, which means there's no need to do so. This is one of those albums where the quality is constant, which is where the time was put to good use. While I loved their last couple of albums, they weren't this jam-packed with great songs. One mediocre song on an album is a greta batting average.

So overall, "Phoenix" is an even better comeback than I could have expected. Power metal is rather stale right now, and "Phoenix" is the kind of album that should be made more often. "The 8th Sin" was at the forefront of taking power metal into the modern melodic age, and "Phoenix" does the same thing. Sadly, that means the rest of the scene hasn't advanced the ball much in the intervening years. That doesn't diminish the fact that "Phoenix" is the best power metal album so far this year, and is one anyone who enjoys melodic metal has to give a listen.