Saturday, September 23, 2017

15 Years Later: Tonic's "Head On Straight"

Certain moments stick in our minds, etching themselves into who we are, to the point where no amount of filing can erase the edges. They are formative experiences, and the roots of them grow so deeply around our musical hearts that the elements seep into every decision we make afterwards. We think we are freely choosing which path we take, but our musical taste is imprinted early on, and can rarely be changed.

I had just turned nineteen the week before, and my excitement was far higher for my trip to the record store the next week. In the previous few years, I had gone from a musical neophyte to someone with a favorite band that would wind up sticking at least through the present day. Tonic's first two albums, after they were able to sink in, opened my eyes to a new world of music. They came to explain who I am, musically, so it was with great anticipation that the release date of their new record crawled towards me.

I can still remember driving down to the record store that Tuesday, as soon as my classes were over. The store didn't have many copies, since there were sure to be few Tonic fans in my hometown, and tha band's popularity was already beginning to recede from the mainstream. I picked mine up, and I fidgeted with the plastic shrink-wrap, failing to pry it open with my fingernail before getting home.

I quickly opened the album, and my first thoughts were disappointing. Tonic's usual aesthetic was missing from the cover, which was something I missed, as was the notable lack of included lyrics. As an aspiring songwriter, I was looking forward to dissecting the words to find inspiration for my own. The note directing me to their band's website for the lyrics was a cruel reality of the shifting modern times.

I can't remember my feelings upon first playing the record, whether my opinion was immediate or slow-growing. In time, I came to see "Head On Straight" as the black sheep of Tonic's career. Produced by Bob Rock, and featuring less acoustic guitars than any other Tonic record, it's a unique entry in their brief catalog. It can easily be argued that it was an attempt to do everything possible to maintain their stature.

What I've learned over these years is that black sheep have more fun.

"Head On Straight" is unique for Tonic in that it is their darkest, heaviest album. It was the one time they decided to show the world that they could rock as hard as anyone else. Their trademark melodies were still there, and they couldn't resist throwing in a complete pop song in "Believe Me", but the majority of the record is pumped Marshall amps and guitars that sound as big as the hooks.

Songs like "Roses" and "Liar" achieve the nifty trick of turning simplicity into a virtue. The riffs are only two or three notes, but they're so immediately understandable that you can't forget them. That's the same truth of Emerson Hart's melodies, which hit you in the face and feel like old favorites even before the songs are over. "Count On Me" is a song that proves when you have a good idea, you don't need to gussy it up with unnecessary doo-dads.

When people think of Tonic, they rightfully turn their attention to "Lemon Parade". I do it too (I did an entire week of coverage last year based on it). But revisiting "Head On Straight" over the last few months, I've heard in that record a side of Tonic I wish had come out more often. There was often a darker chord to Emerson's writing than his melodies and Jeff Russo's jangling guitars would make us think. In "Let Me Go", Emerson wrote:

I never thought I'd change my ways
It was an angry thought
That made me turn the other way
And I, I wanna be like that again
When I know there's hope
And hope will always find a friend

In some ways, that sums up the album. It was a turn in a direction the band may or may not have intended, and hope would win out as their next (final?) album would revert back to their usual form. That album would be once again like an old friend to fans.

But "Head On Straight" was something else, something that I gravitated towards as a teenager. And now that I'm older, it speaks to me on a different level, because it's an honest assessment of how life is a cycle of light and dark moments, just as the sun rises and sets. Fifteen years later, I think I love "Head On Straight" more than ever. It's the one Tonic record that feels like an open wound, and perhaps that's why it might just be the most powerful. Let you go? No, I intend to hold on as long as I can.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Album Review: H.E.A.T. - Into The Great Unknown

I make no excuses for the fact that much of my favorite music has an unabashed love for pop melodies. Even when I'm listening to rock and metal, I prefer an approach that puts the emphasis on vocals, and especially with big, sticky hooks. There's nothing better in music, and I find that rock music that ignores this fact is a bit like putting handcuffs on yourself. In recent years, one of my favorite albums that hits all the right marks was H.E.A.T.'s "Tearing Down The Walls". It was the perfect balance of crunchy hard rock and catchy-as-all-hell hooks. It's an album I still listen to, and one where just reading through the track listing, I can hear the songs playing in my head. That's not something I can say all that often these days.

Now it's time for H.E.A.T. to return and try to follow that magnificent record, and they do so in slightly altered form. In the time since we last saw the band, they have lost their guitar player, and replaced him with a familiar face from the past. Does this make a difference?

Not on opener "Bastard Of Society". It's the same high-octane sugar rock that H.E.A.T. is known for. Crunching guitars, big harmonies, and a slick hook all combine for a track that delivers on all levels. Erik Gronwall continues to be a star, with a voice that is better than 90% of the melodic rock singers in the world. He's what made the last H.E.A.T. album so special.

Things change as soon as the second track, "Redefined". There's a different sound and energy to that song, a more laid-back 80s sound that isn't at all like the previous number. There's a solid melody running through the second half of the song, but it takes quite a while to get going, and it's so unlike what I was expecting that it was tricky to wrap my head around. Likewise, "Shit City" is a head-scratcher. The backing vocals give it a modern pop feeling, but it's the lyrics that have me frustrated. The band is better than writing material like that. It's too juvenile and simplistic for them. As listeners, we deserve better writing.

That modern pop feeling is what resonates throughout this album. If you listen to bands like Fun or Imagine Dragons, that's the influence running through these songs, and it's one that I can't say was a good choice. H.E.A.T. does that sound as well or better than those radio bands do, but it's a far cry from the sound they've previously been known for. In fact, the prevailing thought I have through this album is that it doesn't really rock much at all. While they were previously a band that was undeniably a rock band, now it's not so clear. There are still guitars, and loud ones at times, but the focus of the music has shifted towards feelings and rhythms, and away from riffs and chords. That alters the way the melodies are written, and because of that, they are far less engaging.

This simply isn't as heavy, melodic, or catchy an album as the last time we heard from H.E.A.T. There are little hints of that band, especially on "Blind Leads The Blind", but they are few and far between. I don't know if the change in guitarists was a cause or a correlation, but there has been a big shift in what kind of band H.E.A.T. is now, and I can't say I like it.

"Tearing Down The Walls" was a phenomenal album that I admit I was too slow in raving about. "Into The Great Unknown" does venture into those promised new areas, but sometimes change isn't for the best. I consider this one of those times. H.E.A.T. has taken a definite step backwards with this album.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Album Review: Otherwise - Sleeping Lions

Success is a word that needs to be constantly redefined. As the digital revolution has shifted how we listen to music, and the number of bands out there has continued to grow in direct proportion to the fragmentation of the genres, success doesn't mean what it used to. Let's take as an example Otherwise, whose album I'm about to talk about. They are a mainstream rock band who have had several previous singles land on the rock charts. You would think that would make them well known, but while the name is familiar, I can't remember if I've ever heard a song of theirs before. Success, eh?

Now on to "Sleeping Lions", an album that is being marked as the biggest moment in Otherwise's career. Mainstream hard rock is a predictable genre, and there have been so many bands that play the same basic four chord patterns that the only way for a band to really make a statement is to have the sharpest of songwriting. There isn't room for inventive new tricks. Otherwise is not interested in reinventing the wheel here, so it all comes down to whether or not they're able to write the kinds of hooks that stand above the fray.

That's where things become a bit tricky to assess. Otherwise has made an album that is heavy without being a de-tuned mess, an album that rocks while actually being quite slower and subdued, an album that is melodic without being catchy. Those are all semi-contradictions, because that's what "Sleeping Lions" feels like. It's an album that has a certain aim, but I'm not sure ever hits the mark.

The biggest issue is that the choruses, while melodic, never stick with you the way they should. They're perfectly fine, and pleasant to listen to, but if you're trying to cut through the glut of bands throwing songs at radio programmers, you need something more memorable than this. Otherwise sounds like a band that would have been perfectly able to score hits and sell a lot of records in the wake of Nickelback's popularity. The problem with that is Nickelback isn't popular anymore, not in that way.

Rock music doesn't break through, and in part that's because the bands that are aimed at the mainstream are all so similar, and all ply in a trade that is too sterile, to sound unique. Otherwise doesn't have an identity outside of their genre, is the way I would put it. I can't point to a single thing about them that no one else can replicate. They sound exactly like what a mainstream rock band should be, and nothing else.

That's fine, and it makes for a solid record that has no disappointments, but it does leave me unexcited at the end of the record. Look, compare this to Danko Jones latest record, who has more buzz, and this is the clear winner. As far as mainstream rock goes, Otherwise is doing it very well here with "Sleeping Lions". There's nothing about the music itself that isn't well-done. Otherwise has made a very good representation of what the genre is in today's climate. I'm just not sure how much longer this horse can be beaten before we're hitting a pile of bones.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Album Review: Caligula's Horse - In Contact

A few years back, there was a band that came up through the prog metal ranks that caught a lot of people's attention with their blend of modern and folk sounds. That was Caligula's Horse with the album "The Tide, The Thief, And River's End", which was something that felt new and fresh in prog metal, and set the band up as having the buzz to become something special. Their next album was a large disappointment, to me, because they took away all that made them unique and sounded like a clone of Leprous' stale, boring style. The next record was going to define their arc, and that's where we now find ourselves.

This new record finds Caligula's Horse growing into the change in style they made, feeling more comfortable mixing djent chords and riffs with their melodies. "In Contact" is the album they were trying to make last time, but they weren't yet fully sure how to get there. This is a stunning sounding, well-executed album of profoundly modern prog metal that still manages to have the melodic sensibility of their breakthrough album.

If I can backtrack to that comparison I made earlier, melody is the difference between Caligula's Horse and Leprous. Both are bands with worlds of talent when it comes to executing their ideas, but only one of the bands writes songs that are as concerned with being surface-level engaging as they are with being interesting to the hardcore prog audience. That band is not Leprous.

It sounds perhaps unnecessary for a prog band, but it's vital that Caligula's Horse is able to make their songs work on more than one level, for more than one audience. That's how you grow, and how you eventually become a bigger and bigger name. "In Contact" is the sort of album that can do that for Caligula's Horse. There is plenty in the guitar playing, with the off-kilter riffs and stuttering time signatures, to please the prog crowd, but the songs can also be taken as intricate melodic metal, which opens up a whole new world.

Here's the part where I have to be honest. Is "In Contact" the kind of album that I can easily love and say will be a favorite of mine? No, I can't. I'm not that wedded to progressive metal. What I can say is that I can certainly hear and appreciate what Caligula's Horse has done here. For its aim, "In Contact" is exquisitely performed. It isn't the target I would first shoot for, but that doesn't take away from its success. Caligula's Horse has stepped up their game here, and perhaps found the sound to build their future upon. I know this much; if the choice comes down to Leprous or Caligula's Horse, I'm taking Caligula's Horse every time.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Album Review: Galaktikon II: Become The Storm


“Galaktikon II: Become the Storm” reminds us of a lot of different ideas.  That a rose by any other name can smell as sweet.  That it’s always good to have a backup plan.  That bands and artists can change and evolve.  That metal often takes itself too seriously, and needs to be kicked in the head about it by someone with better perspective.  Perhaps the most important lesson, if we can be allowed to pontificate for a moment, is that in these times when the educational system and the economy as a whole encourage specialization, a person can simultaneously be more than one thing.  You can be a show creator, producer, music maker, any and everything, all at the same time.

Skipping over the legalese of why this album isn’t by Dethklok, what we have here with “Become the Storm” is the opportunity to enjoy more Dethklok-style music under a new name.  You’ll note the use of “Dethklok-style,” because while “Become the Storm” could just as easily be another Dethalbum, the appellation Galaktikon was not to be ignored.

For those who had forgotten, Galaktikon’s first album was released by Brendon Small in 2012 as a side project while he waited for some Dethklok contracts to clear.  This side project (or so we thought at the time,) was meant to be, even more than Dethklok, a dramatic, guitar-driven metal experience, emphasizing clean vocals, big choruses and more than anything else, the idiomatic twin guitar sound of the late 1970s.  The resulting record was a powerhouse, as Small is not only a clever wit and prolific writer, but also a calculating guitar shredder.

And so, in this new record, we see not solely Dethklok or Galaktikon, but a healthy composite of both, from which the entire experience profits.

The listener need not get far to find all possible permutations of the two bands.  “Icarus Six Sixty Six” (perhaps a nod to Iron Maiden – a combination of “Flight of Icarus” and “Flight 666,”) is very much a Dethklok song.  Small snarls his lyrics and bites into his guitar riffs, all set against the always metronomic pulse of Gene Hoglan’s double kick.

Two songs later, “The Ocean Galaktik” is through and through from the Galaktikon catalogue.  It’s a storytelling song, played out over seven minutes through multiple characters and phases, filled with flourish and ascendant chord progressions.  The very blood of “Prophecy of the Lazer Witch” flows in these veins.

Yet, in between the two, we get “The Agenda,” and now we’ve hit upon something interesting.  This is perhaps the album’s single best synthesis of the two bands.  There’s a pounding, growled intro, but the bridge is flighty and accessible, a pattern which repeats in the second half of the song as though it were a play in two acts.

And we’re only four songs in at this point.  The rest of “Become the Storm,” oscillates between one sound or the other, often leaning in one direction but always within the Venn diagram of Brendon Small’s musical idiom.

Worth mentioning just as a spectator is the concept that in Galaktikon we’re now seeing Dethklok made manifest in flesh, no longer a group of musicians playing characters, but a group of musicians as just that.  The metal realm makes room for all manner of executions of this dynamic – GWAR is musicians as physical characters, Dethklok was musicians as virtual characters, and now Galaktikon is, in a sense, virtual characters turned into physical musicians.  Naturally, nature abhors a vaccuum, so in the absence of Dethklok, that void was immediately filled by Pentakill; even more strange since Pentakill represents a corporately-assembled virtual metal band.

Let’s not get lost in the shuffle of existential crises and naming conventions, though.  “Galaktikon II: Become the Storm” works because Small is a unique talent and understands the constructions of what makes metal work, perhaps even better than many genre ‘insiders’ (although Small himself is probably an insider at this point.)  As we mentioned in the open, let this be a reminder to the ‘metaller-than-thou’ among us – great music often defies convention.

While I personally might have liked to see a touch more leaning on the artistry of Small’s twin guitar dynamic, “Become the Storm” doesn’t really suffer for not having it.  It’s an enjoyable album played by talented musicians who know how to utilize open space and combine multiple affects into a single composition.  Many bands could learn from this.  No matter what the name on the front, this is a great record.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Album Review: Dirty Thrills - Heavy Living

Heavy rock evolved from the blues. Led Zeppelin is the most obvious bridge between the two, but there is no denying the origins of hard rock. That's something that has always confused me, because I am someone who likes hard rock, but has never been able to get into the blues at all. Emotional heaviness and sonic heaviness have never meshed in my mind, so I'm not sure what it is I'm missing.

Dirty Thrills are another band that is going back and tying a new line to the blues, tethering their roots tightly. Fronted by the son of an ex Moody Blues singer, I suppose it should be obvious what the band is about to deliver in terms of their own music. Their sound is heavy on the blues, and like their name suggests, dirty around the edges. I'm not sure if they thought lacking studio polish would make them sound more authentic, but there are definite drawbacks to that approach.

The first thing I took note of when listening to "Heavy Living" is that it simply doesn't sound good. It's engineered just fine, but the guitar tone is too fuzzy, to the point where you can't hear the attack on the strings. From the days of BB King's stabbing solos right through to today, real power in guitar playing comes from being clean enough that the way you play comes through. When you can hear the player wailing the notes with the passion of his playing, that's when guitar playing is at its best. Dirty Thrills has a guitar sound that has none of that. Like the picture on the cover of the album, it sounds like what a group of people sitting around half drunk would think sounds awesome, because they're too impaired to know any better.

But the worst thing about Dirty Thrills' music is that there isn't much to it. They write songs that seem to imply a few blues scales and a singer who can sing loud are all rock and roll need. That isn't true in the slightest. For being soaked in the blues, Dirty Thrills bring no emotional weight to these songs. There's no heartache, no desperation, nothing that makes you believe these songs are expressions of who these guys are and what they've been through. It sounds like music written to feel like the blues, which is an insult to what the blues ever was.

Are there redeeming features to Dirty Thrills? I'm sure there are, but when the big concepts are so flawed, the details almost don't matter. A clever lyric somewhere, or a drum fill that catches your attention, aren't enough to outweigh the fact that the record as a whole is a bland, sterile attempt to copy a sound that should mean something deep. "Heavy Living" shows no evidence any of the band members have done that very thing, and that's the worst thing about it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Album Review: Wayward Sons - Ghosts Of Yet To Come

The world is a small place, getting smaller all the time. It's difficult to find any space that hasn't already been filled, occupied, or mined. Even in the world of music, practically everything that can be done has been done, which leaves a lot of newer bands in the unfortunate position of having to find a way to carve out their own identity from a quarry already hollowed out. Wayward Sons are in that unenviable position. They play the kind of rock and roll that many bands have tried to resurrect, but they do it with a name that is all too close to Rival Sons, who are one of the bigger names in that very area. Is the potential for confusion intentional? I have no idea, but it is a bit distracting, I will admit.

"Alive" kicks off the record, and does so with an even more direct comparison; Black Country Communion. The bluesy riff has the same swagger as that band, but it's the vocals where the similarity is unavoidable. Toby Jepsen sounds remarkably like Glenn Hughes, which is something that can be a blessing or a curse. Glenn has one of the most recognizable voices out there, so sounding like him is good. But sounding so much like someone else could also lead people to ask "why don't I just listen to Glenn instead?"

"Until The End" is a great song, with an arpeggiated riff that is just different enough to stand out, and the hook of the song fits right in the classic rock mold, but hits you with a bit of a punch. That's the kind of song that can help a band like this stand out, and not "Ghost", which is ok, but sounds far too much like a Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders outtake. So much classic rock has been written, and the looming influences are so strong, that it's often difficult to avoid sounding like the legends.

The record is a bit of a half and half proposition. There are tracks that are excellent classic sounding rock, which in a weak year for vintage sounding music are some of the better efforts I've heard. But the other half of the record isn't as well written, and goes through the motions too much for the record as a whole to be sterling. "Crush" is one of those examples, a song that doesn't have a sharp enough riff, and really never builds to a chorus at all. I expect more from this kind of music, even if it would have been fine in 1977.

Overall, "Ghosts Of Yet To Come" is a solid record that could, and probably should, be far better. Classic rock can be tricky to get right, and Wayward Sons show they can do it, but they don't come through often enough for me to say this album is something you need to hear. It's good enough, but that's about it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Singles Roundup: Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, & More

The new music keeps coming, and I can only cover so many albums at a time, so let's take a look at a few more recent tracks.

Taylor Swift - ...Are You Ready

The first song released from Taylor's new album was awful, and this one is just slightly less awful. Turning to pop was one thing, but now Taylor has gone fully into the dark world of trap percussion, which renders her meaningless to her own music. There is no space for her to actually sing, so she wades through the mist of this 'song' looking for something to do. It might be catchy like a sickening virus, but it's certainly not good.

Kelly Clarkson - Love So Soft

Kelly Clarkson is perhaps my favorite pop performer. Her voice is fantastic, and "Breakaway" is a flawless pop album that is one of my all time favorites. It's always nice to see her return, but this time I can't say I'm excited. This song, like Taylor before her, goes so far into the modern 'percussion and nothing else' approach that what made her earlier music great is missing. She sounds great, as you would expect, but there isn't a melody to anchor the song. The hook is a repetitive mantra, and not up to par.

Europe - Walk The Earth

These guys were a huge surprise to me with their last album, which was amazing. The first single from their follow-up is now out, and it's once again pretty good. They have matured into a full-on Deep Purple styled band, with huge organs and organic guitar tones. I absolutely love that sound, even if this composition isn't quite as strong as the better songs from the last record. This is still good, and bodes well for the album.

Sons Of Apollo - Sign Of The Times

Mike Portnoy's new progressive metal band is making grand proclamations, and this is the only song we have so far to judge them on. They talk bigger than they should, but their first effort is very good. It's a nice blend of modern and classic prog metal, with plenty of heaviness, melody, and instrumental prowess. It's the best platform Bumblefoot has ever had, and this song piqued my interest. I wasn't keen on the idea of the band when I heard about it, but I'm certainly going to check out the record now.

Skarlett Riot - Break

We finish off with the best of the bunch. I've already heard the entire album (a review is upcoming), but with the single just being released, we need to talk about them now. Skarlett Riot are able to toe the line between modern rock and heavy metal, with solid guitar riffs and great vocal melodies. Skarlett Riot fall into the same category that Forever Still did last year; heavy and catchy music that retains an energetic appeal through sing-along hooks. This is just the first taste of an album made up of ten songs of this quality.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Album Review: Hell In The Club - See You On The Dark Side

I'm not quite sure why the 80s have been getting recycled so much lately, but it seems that every week there's another record coming out claiming influence from that decade. Let's be honest, while there were some classic records that came out back then, it was also a time when rock and metal were finding themselves, and the albums we remember are as much because they were first as because they were good. Songwriting has evolved greatly since then, to the point where albums that successfully rehash the 80s sound *cough*Jorn*cough* simply aren't good enough. That's why when Hell In The Club says they are at least trying to fuse together everything that came from that decade, rather than just one sound, it gives me some hope.

The best thing Hell In The Club has going for them is that they want to have fun. If there's a single thing about the 80s that's worth copying, it's that feeling. Whether it was the Sunset Strip or the world stage, rock and metal bands were partying and having a good time as they set the world on fire. Today, everything is far too dour and miserable, so good time rock and roll is more than welcome.

The opening track, "We Are On Fire", is all that and more. It's got enough heaviness in the riffs, but the energy is infectious. It moves along with a bouncing rhythm, and then the chorus is a stack of gang vocals that are right out of the glory days. In less than three minutes, the band has given us good riffs and a great hook, which is all you need to succeed.

The first three tracks show that off, each a different take on their melodic hard rock, but each packing a memorable hook. There's the short and sweet blitz, the more relaxed hard rock, and an acoustic backdrop to a slightly country feeling. Those little bits of diversity go a long way, even on a record that isn't that long. "I Wanna Swing Like Peter Parker" and "Houston We've Got No Money" lack that, and they do slow down the record's momentum.

"A Melody, A Memory" picks things back up, with not just a sweet hook, but a section in the middle with overlapping counterpoint melodies, which certainly makes the song stand out in the midst of the album. Considering that I hate Def Leppard, I'm not too hot on "Showtime", which is the most Leppard-esque song on the album. I know they were huge, and influenced a lot of bands, but they annoy the hell out of me, and hearing tinges of them in a song is sure to kill it for me.

But overall, Hell In The Club has made a record that zips along with a sense of fun that is a nice change of pace from much of the music I have the opportunity to hear. It's not quite at the level of label-mates Eclipse or Harem Scarem, who both released excellent albums this year, but "See You On The Dark Side" is an enjoyable album that more than holds its own.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Double Review: Arch Enemy - Will To Power

It’s almost like clockwork. In a total of twenty-one years of existence, Arch Enemy has released ten studio albums, never more than four years apart. Right on schedule three years following the release of “War Eternal,” Alissa White-Gluz’s debut with the Swedish death metal veterans, we are given another effort to indulge in, this time entitled “Will to Power.”
What remains perhaps most remarkable in the history of Arch Enemy is the continuity in the band’s membership. Yes, a few people have come and gone, but even those who leave (Angela Gossow, Christopher Arnott,) never seem all that far out of reach, and the pieces that get added (White-Gluz,) don’t require the band to change their paradigm.

Arch Enemy as a single, contiguous entity is probably best identified by their signature tandem guitar sound, and in the wake of Christopher Arnott’s departure in 2012, the selection of ‘the right person’ seemed of paramount importance. For a time, that guy was Nick Cordle, at that point moving over from the band Arsis, and all seemed well, until he suddenly left the stage in 2014.

Into that void steps what appears on face to be another perfect fit, former Nevermore axman and solo virtuoso Jeff Loomis. Thus, the stage is set for “Will to Power.”

As far as the fit with Loomis goes, everything here seem to be in order and everyone can go about their business. The double six-string arrangement wastes no time, beginning to scream with righteous metal fury at the very start of “The Race,” which is the album’s first real track.

The same as “War Eternal” that came before, it’s difficult to tell where the album would have sounded different if the second Arnott brother were still in place. Loomis certainly brings his own accomplished pedigree to the table, but also comes armed with a thorough understanding of how this style of music works – as with the transition to White-Gluz, no material changes in style are necessary here. One can listen to “Murder Scene” and feel completely at home with the archetypical style that remains both idiomatic to Arch Enemy and highly enjoyable for its melodic composition.

That last bit is important to highlight. Arch Enemy has always performed on the melodic side of melodic death metal, but the band’s trend, beginning noticeably around the time of “Rise of the Tyrant” and through the re-recordings of “Root of All Evil,” toward open accessibility and cleaner tones is front and center for this album. Nearly every song boasts a clean, memorable hook, and there are selections where the vocals turn normal and the guitar riffs become deliberate, even if the percussion would suggest otherwise.
“Will to Power,” for those who need a quick and easy reference, is probably more “Khaos Legions” than it is “War Eternal,” and remains somewhat far afield from the band’s earliest records like “Burning Bridges.” And the upshot here is that that’s okay – while the very idea of pop death metal (if such a term even exists) remains anathema to some, it is truly uncharted territory, where one would think there might be room for growth and success.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let’s not get carried away. Arch Enemy still lives with their feet firmly planted in the terra firma of death metal, that oh-so-dangerous and sacrosanct institution that metal fans will hold close forever as part of their genre that norms and squares alike will never understand. Just don’t be shocked when you find yourself unconsciously tapping a toe, even to a song with the fervor and bile of “First Day in Hell.”

One may notice we’ve spoken about the record largely in generalities, and some of that has to do with the parallel between “Will to Power” and “Khaos Legions.” “Will to Power,” much like the other record in question, is an approachable album filled with many good songs, but there is not one transcendent that stands out among the others. We’re by no means complaining about an album of twelve songs where nine or ten are enjoyable, but what separates “War Eternal” from “Will to Power” is the presence of songs like “Avalanche,” which made that prior record a more memorable experience overall (never minding the band’s older albums that boasted classics like “Diva Satanica” and “Bury Me an Angel.”) It’s not for lack of trying – “Will to Power” delivers several cuts that brim with promise, but “Avalanche” was that rare alignment of planets that stands the test of time.

What we have then, is a capable record that will get any listener through the end of the summer season and well into the fall and winter, but its staying power in a catalog already adorned with many memorable moments is an open question. Nevertheless, “Will to Power” is worth the journey for any fans of Arch Enemy, Jeff Loomis and melodic death metal.

- D:M

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Arch Enemy is one of those rare bands that has been able to move into new eras of their career more than once. The shift from Johan Liva to Angela Gossow was genre-defining, but the shift from her to Alissa White-Gluz has been just as important. Arch Enemy is arguable the biggest death metal band in the world, and a change in singers, no matter how similar they might be, carries enormous risk. As they approach their second album together, we see yet more turnover in the band, as the second guitarist position is now filled by former Nevermore fret-burner Jeff Loomis. There is now an unfair amount of talent in Arch Enemy, but does that mean great things for the band?

Yes and no. Let's start with the good news. Arch Enemy is the leading (only)purveyor of what I call 'arena death metal'. They have a sound, and they write songs, that are extreme metal sing-alongs, the kind of songs that can have an adoring crowd growling right with them. Their best songs are anthems that just happen to be dirty and aggressive. First single "The World Is Yours" is one of those songs. After all the heavy riffs and melodic leads, the crux of the song is an uplifting chorus that will absolutely be a live classic for the fans to interact with. Plenty of melodic metal bands try for that feeling and fail, so it's impressive to hear a band like this pull it off.

We get a solid number of those tracks here. "The Eagle Flies Alone" and closer "A Fight I Must Win" are in a similar style, and are as catchy as death metal can get. The latter is one of Arch Enemy's best ever songs. These are the tracks that even I, someone who isn't all that keen on death metal, can fully get behind. And while plenty of fans will probably cry sell-out over it, I'm also a fan of Alissa's use of clean vocals on "Reason To Believe", which aren't overdone, but work well to give the song some dynamics. Her growls in the chorus sound heavier because the verses are allowed to sound softer than usual. It works together as a great song.

Now for the not quite as great news. Arch Enemy has provided us those great tracks, and there is more than enough great guitar playing on this album, but there are also a handful of tracks that lack the epic flair of their best songs. That's not to say they're bad songs, but when you've written a few anthems, anything that isn't seems a bit flat in comparison.

And then there's the inclusion of Jeff Loomis. He's an amazing guitar player, but he's practically invisible on this album. Not only does Michael Amott write all the songs, but his solos are more identifiable than Loomis'. The album wouldn't have been any different, or any worse, if they had brought in anyone else to play second guitar.

But let's get to the bottom line. If you like Arch Enemy, "Will To Power" is one of their more interesting outings. The band throws in little touches that expand their sound in new directions, especially in some of the segue pieces. Alissa is fitting in perfectly as a vocalist, and there aren't many bands that can match Arch Enemy when they're at their best. They haven't managed to do that for an entire album yet, but they do it often enough that "Will To Power" is definitely worth hearing.

- Chris C

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Taylor Swift's Real Problem

The world of pop culture has been going crazy for the last week over Taylor Swift's big comeback. Both the song and the accompanying video have broken the internet with reactions, almost universally bad. Taylor Swift has undergone a heel turn, it seems, and is now pop's most hated villain. While Adele is breaking sales records, and Rihanna is racking up #1s despite not being very good, and Beyonce is the cultural zeitgeist, poor Taylor is left to wonder what her place in the pop world is. That last bit is where the real problem lies.

Taylor Swift's problem is not that she has a phony image. That criticism has been with her the whole time, and it didn't stop her from amassing huge sales and a legion of loyal fans. She was obviously playing up her innocence, but she did it in a way that empowered young girls, which was commendable in a time when plenty of other pop stars were busy twerking rather than singing. Plenty of stars have been phony, and as long as the music still works, they have been able to make out just fine. No, that's not her problem.

Taylor Swift's problem is not that her new song is awful. Don't get me wrong, it most certainly is, but that can be survived. "Shake It Off" was barely a mediocre song, but Taylor's machine was able to turn it into an anthem that launched the biggest phase of her career yet. And in a time when the charts are so starved for a single decent song that Justin Beiber is the key to racking up huge hits, Taylor doesn't need good music to thrive. The people she reportedly is feuding with aren't good either, so playing down to their level would not preclude Taylor from having success. "Look What You Made Me Do" is horrible, but it's not worse than anything Fifth Harmony have ever put out. No, that's not her problem either.

Taylor Swift's problem is that she has become what she was always fighting not to be; a boilerplate pop star.

The appeal of Taylor Swift was always that she was a (nominally) country artist who could cross-over to the pop world and garner attention in a way that no one else has been able to for quite a long time. "1989" was the first step in changing her persona, but it was one that was done with enough care that she could make the transition without alienating people on either side. It was an unabashedly pop album, but she was the same person she had always been, so we could accept that she wanted to try some new things.

With this first foray from her new album, that Taylor is now gone. She admits as much in the lyrics, but she misses the symbolism of her statement. Not only is the naive and innocent Taylor gone from her music, the Taylor that had the benefit of the doubt from the public is gone now too. Pop stars are given no leash anymore. If they don't produce hit after hit without so much as a hiccup, they get tossed aside. By putting out just this one flop, Taylor will be pushing a boulder uphill.

The bad girl schtick is also the height of cliche. Every young woman in pop goes through something like this at one point or another. Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus basically went insane, Christina Aguilera went through a provocative phase that came across as cheap, so Taylor's portrayal of herself as a villain is right in line with what we should have been expecting. This new image is supposed to catch us by surprise and give us a new perspective on her as both a person and an artist.

It doesn't. Taylor Swift is still the carefully constructed public figure she has always been. If we were getting anything from her that felt remotely authentic, maybe this would all work out. But it's hard to listen to her work her way through a song like she's trying and not know she's playing a part. That's the problem. Yes, pop stars have always been actors, in a sense, but they were better at making the role seem convincing. Taylor can't do that yet. She's the heel who doesn't understand that a heel has to be justified in why they've turned to the dark side.

Taylor Swift turned to give her new record a story-line. That's not a good reason, and it isn't going to work.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Album Review: Argus - From Fields Of Fire

Has it really been four years since the last Argus album? It doesn't feel like it, nor does it feel like this band has been around as long as they have, considering that I remember hearing their debut  album when it came out. In these years, they have continued to frustrate me as a band that has a great sound, but one that can never put the pieces together by writing a great album to go along with it. Combine that with their lead singer taking part in one of the most boring albums already released this year (Aldruni/Balich), and I'm left scratching my head a bit as to what I should expect from Argus.

As is too typical, the record opens with two minutes of useless noise that supposedly 'sets the scene', but really just wastes my time and annoys me before I can even hear any of their music. If there isn't a real point to an introduction, they should be left on the cutting room floor. Seriously, they don't do what the bands want them to.

Argus sits in an odd place, straddling the line between traditional metal and doom. They have the stripped down guitar tone of an 80s band, and gallop along with those sorts of rhythms, but the tempos never get into high gear, and Balich's wail is pure early doom. And like both of those genres, Argus exists in a place where melody is a difficult word to understand. The press materials talk about catchy hooks, but those are hard to find here. Argus' understanding of melody is the same as it's ever been, and it's why that record I mentioned in my introduction sits so low on my list of releases I've heard this year. Balich simply doesn't write interesting things for himself to sing.

He is a fine vocalist, don't get me wrong. For the style of music, his voice works very well. The problem is that he does what a lot of talented singers do and assumes that simply belting out notes for long stretches of time is interesting enough to listen to. It's not. We need melodies that have flow and movement to them, something that can grab attention on their own, independent of the singer. Argus has never been good in that department, and they aren't this time either. Their songs are instrumentally solid, but let down by vocals that are lethargic.

Argus has been around long enough that they should have shown more growth by now. I've given them a chance every time out, and they deliver the same product time and time again. Now if you like what they're doing, that's great news. But since I'm someone who thinks they could use a more dynamic approach to their songwriting, it's frustrating. There's still all the tools for something great in there, but Argus has never figured out how to put it all together.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Album Review: The Midnight Ghost Train - "Cypress Ave"


Well, ain’t this new and different?

The last time we saw The Midnight Ghost Train, they were an effective but nevertheless straight-ahead, up-and-down sludgy metal band, populating their lyrics with beer and the misgivings of adventurous youth. Their previous album, “Cold Was the Ground” was Clutch on steroids, bold and unrestrained by the tempering of that other band’s jam influence.

Now this…..

This is, in layman’s terms, fucking great.

“Cypress Ave” purposefully keeps a close watch on the gas pedal, never applying too much pressure and allowing the car to roll down the street with a dangerous slow burn, prowling along with a rumbling engine rather than screaming down the lane with coal-burning stacks.  We set the pace early with the measured thump of “Tonight,” a song that is both temperamental and yet careful not to give in totally to the promise of unbridled ferocity.

The albums brims with this kind of maturity, whether the dirty nastiness of “Bury Me Deep,” (which, as an aside, reminds us all that Midnight Ghost Train hasn’t forgotten how to deliver a solid masher,) or the punk/thrash roots of an instant crowd favorite like “Red Eyed Junkie Queen.”

It happens again and again throughout the album’s length, culminating in “The Echo,” a blues-y roll up of genre tropes which knows when to punch hard and knows when to fall back to create anticipation.  Worth noting – fans of a certain age (sigh, that includes me,) may hear the opening desert guitar strains and instantly start to call to mind memories of “The numeric transmission five-triple-zero was received, without interruption, for eight full days….”  (if you don’t know what we’re talking about: to the Google machine!)  This kind of meticulous song writing shows a development on the part of Midnight Ghost Train that many may not have seen coming, and arrives as a remarkably pleasant step forward for the band.

If there is a fault to be had in this new step, it’s that the album revels in this new style so much, it may go to the well once too often.  All of these songs work as individual cuts, but as a full-length album, some of the cuts run together.  Make no mistake, however, this is a 1% complaint on a 99% album.

BUT WAIT!  THERE’S MORE!

In truth, we’ve only covered about half the experience, cherry picking one theme to discuss it first.  And while that half of the record is brilliant, it is this other face that outshines the accomplishments we’ve discussed above.

The Midnight Ghost Train has thrown caution and reservation to the wind, opening up their music to a hundred new influences that color the record from beginning to end.  Aside from the move away from baseline growled vocals, the first sign that we as listeners are in for a new experience comes from “The Watcher’s Nest,” which still bristles with the band’s idiomatic power, but trades in much of their ferocity in exchange for a borderline acoustic approach that switches on and off with aplomb, adding an emotional dimension to the music that we haven’t seen before.

That’s just the kickoff, though, to a section of “Cypress Ave” that feels more genuine than perhaps any other album this year.

To write the premise of “Break My Love” on paper, it would sound ridiculous.  A loud, smash-y rock band that likes to take…interesting…band photos is going to write an open-mic-blues-club-poetry-slam-style break up song with no lead guitar line and a vocalist who sounds like he swallowed a bag of gravel…and it’s going to be awesome.  But it is!  It’s clever and different and funny and damn it all, it’s honest.

Which gives way to the jazzy rhythm and breakdown of “Lemon Trees,” a song that builds into an explosive second half, which in turn dovetails into “The Boogie Down.”  The latter song features horns and a guest appearance by rapper Sonny Cheeba (as opposed to Sonny Chiba, star of the classic but slightly overrated martial arts film “The Street Fighter.”)  And yet, as odd as all that sounds, once again, Midnight Ghost Train surprises by making every new twist and turn work.  There’s something infectious about the thin horns of “The Boogie Down,” playing a simple hook, that transforms the song from a trial balloon to a genuine experience.

To complete the effect, we close with the dour and emotionally powerful “Black Wave,” coming down from the bright moments that we rode through previously and planting us firmly back on earth.  The entire exercise of this album section has a vibe like we’re experiencing a ‘week-in-the-life’ series of moments with the band – there’s up and downs, and many different styles of experience all still tied together, however loosely, in the musical paradigm of Midnight Ghost Train.

None of these songs, whether what we talked about in the first half, or what we’ve discussed here, is a throw-away, which is even more amazing.  Each cut is a fully developed track that spans minutes and is given its proper time to breathe, create and properly play out.  “Cypress Ave,” as a result, is many things.  The Clutch part is still in there, but there’s also Kyuss, Orange Goblin, The Sword, John Lee Hooker, just a touch of Miles Davis, and maybe a dash of Aloe Blacc or Mos Def (or both.)  And yet, in the end, “Cypress Ave” is irrevocably The Midnight Ghost Train.

You thought we were done?  We’re not quite done.

The record ends with the bonus track “I Can’t Let You Go”...I’m out of superlatives.  The song is out there on bandcamp and Youtube and wherever the hell else.  Just go find it and listen to it.  It’s the perfect ending to an album of multiples phases and ideals – a rolling combination of everything we’ve discussed to this point (okay, perhaps without the rap bit,) compiled into a seamless, undeniably compelling ending.

Find this album.  Listen to it.  Then listen to it again.  And again.  Take it on a road trip.  That’s all I can say.

Now we’re done.

Monday, August 28, 2017

EP Review: Epica - The Solace System

Epica is one of those bands that I'm supposed to enjoy, because they combine many elements of successful metal, but I can't say that I ever have. Their music is so densely packed that their full-length records are just too much for me. The focus it takes to listen to one without drifting out is something I'm not often able to muster. So while they're a good band, they have never done much for me. But here we have the release of an EP, tracks that didn't fit the theme of their last album, which might be a benefit, at least for me. In a shorter burst, am I finally able to embrace Epica? Let's find out.

With six songs clocking in at just short of half an hour, Epica doesn't give us an opportunity this time to be overwhelmed. Sometimes more is not more, and being amazed shifts into being made a fool.

The title tracks kicks things off in typically bombastic fashion, with swelling choirs and epic-scope thinking. As the song goes through the verses, it hits the main melody, with some fantastic staccato strings giving color to the sound. That moment is fantastic, but the actual melody that Simone is singing isn't nearly as interesting as what the music is doing. She's a great singer, and it's criminal to not give her stronger melodies to work with.

And that's what strikes me most about this EP. Epica is a band of immense talent. They burn through their symphonic metal with technical mastery, and they add in strings and orchestrations that pump every song to the extreme. Musically, they are amazing. The problem is that they don't give that same attention to the vocals. Simone is the visual focus of the band, but she needs to be the aural focus as well. Her voice is special, and Epica simply doesn't write choruses that live up to her talent. A song like "Architect Of Light" is splendid, until the chorus comes and we get some very unmelodic singing, and choirs on top of choirs, to the point where Simone is completely washed out.

What I'm saying is that "The Solace System" is the first Epica release in quite a while I've been able to sit through in total, and it reinforced what I already thought of the band. They are massively talented, but they focus so much on composing their instrumentals that they lose sight of what I think is the most important element, even for a giant metal band; melodies you can connect with. If they ever figured out how to write those kind of vocals lines, Epica would take over the world. Right now, they're still a great band that frustrates me that I can't enjoy them more than I do.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Singles Roundup: Taylor Swift, Foo Fighters, Trivium, & Arch Enemy

As I assumed would be the case, the fall slate of releases is being announced, and with them come new singles to herald the upcoming albums. Let's take a look at a few more:

Taylor Swift - Look What You Made Me Do

The biggest release of the fall will be the new one from Taylor Swift, and the first taste we're getting is a truly bizarre number. Taylor became a full-fledged pop star with "1989", which was an album I gradually warmed to. She did more with the limited palate of modern pop than most people could, and the string of singles off that album will be remembered for as long as she's around.

This song is something completely different. Instead of backwards looking pop, this is forward looking pop, which is where it falls apart. Modern pop is no longer about writing songs, but creating Vine-length memes, and that's where this song exists. Taylor tries to be a sultry noir vixen, but she's too innocent to pull it off. The beat of the song is plastic and flaccid, and worst of all is that she reduces the hook to a repetition of the title. None of Taylor's talent or personality are on display. The track tries so hard, but feels so bland. It's a terrible song, and a very bad omen.

Foo Fighters - The Sky Is A Neighborhood

I sort of gave up on the Foo Fighters with the whole "Sonic Highways" experiment. It wasn't because of the idea, but the execution. They became increasingly bland, losing all the spunk "Wasting Light" had. This new track is a continuation of the Foos aging ungracefully, writing slow and colorless 'rock' that doesn't offer much to listen to. Like the first single, there isn't much of a hook to this song, nor a riff to sink your teeth into. It's so generic that it becomes sad to realize this is the last rock band in the world to come along that can sell out arenas. This is not an arena sized song.

Trivium - The Hate From Your Heart

I don't even remember the last time I listened to a Trivium song. Curiosity got the better of me here, and I decided to give them a chance. I have to say I like where the band is going these days. They've matured into a metal band that understands the keys to songwriting. The riffs are simple and chunky, and many will complain the chorus is too radio friendly, but that's why it works. It's an inviting song that is easy to get into. Metal doesn't need to be more complicated than that. I may have to give the whole record a chance after hearing this.

Arch Enemy - The World Is Yours

The world's best (only?) arena death metal band is back again, and this song encompasses everything that's good about them. It's aggressive and definitely death metal, but it's also uplifting and anthemic. The guitar playing is magnificently melodic, and the main hook is so simple you can't help but remember it. In fact, the only downside to the song is that new second guitarist Jeff Loomis is unnecessary. His solo is notably weaker than Michael Amott's, and since solos are all he's responsible for on the record, having him around doesn't seem worth it. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the album after this. It's great.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Album Review: Paradise Lost - Medusa

Paradise Lost got a shot in the arm when Nick Holmes joined Bloodbath. That foray back into the world of death metal reignited the fire within the band, and pushed them back into being the gloomy masters of metal they once were. That's not to say they went soft, but they weren't bringing the same level of death metal into their dark atmosphere that they once were. Returning with "Medusa", the band is promising to venture even further in that direction, which is sure to please many of their longtime fans.

They waste no time in showcasing that attitude, as "Fearless Sky" opens with a slow, crawling doom riff and Holmes croaking in his most decrepit voice (that's a compliment, by the way). Writing music that slow and foreboding without it becoming dull is difficult, but Paradise Lost has been at it long enough that they know when enough is enough. The song picks up just a touch at exactly the right moment, and Holmes delivery allows him to articulate hints of melody, which is immensely important. The short passages where his clean voice pops up are welcome, but actually unnecessary. That's not something I expected to ever say.

One of the underappreciated details about an album is vitally important here. The drum sound makes this album feel even heavier than it is. There's an organic feeling to that sound, where you can almost hear the wood reverberating with each hit. It's the kind of sound you don't hear very often anymore, as everyone tries to reach clinical perfection in their recordings. You could call this old-school, which wouldn't be wrong, but it's more that they're just doing it right.

But there are some issues with "Medusa". Despite being only forty-two minutes long, the album does drag a bit because of how slowly paced the whole thing is. I understand Paradise Lost isn't a speedy band by any means, but too many of the slow doom riffs packed one after the other begin to sound alike. And other than "The Longest Winter", which is primarily sung clean, the vocals aren't diverse enough to give the tracks individual identities either.

When we do get a faster track in "Blood And Chaos", it's entirely refreshing. If it had come in the middle of the album, rather than one track from the end, it would have done wonders for the pacing of the record. As it is, the middle section is one slow number after another, which saps the energy from the music.

Look, "Medusa" is well-constructed dark doom/death/Gothic metal. It's heavy, evil, and certainly hits all the marks it's aiming for. It's not the kind of music I tend to listen to, so I'm never going to find myself raving about something like this, but I certainly can appreciate when it's done well. Paradise Lost may be a band a bit long in the tooth, but their fangs are still sharp. "Medusa" is proof of that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Album Review: Anubis Gate - Covered In Black

We're now in August, and I have talked very little about progressive metal this year. For whatever reason, there haven't been very many albums coming down the pike from bands of renown, or the albums that have come out have been disappointing. It's been a very weak year for prog metal of the 'traditional' sort ('traditional progressive' sounds like an oxymoron, no?). The only prog metal album that I've liked so far is Soen's "Lykaia", but that's not in the mold of more typical prog metal, which might be the explanation. Anyway, Anubis Gate is one of those bands that requires attention.

"Covered In Black" is what the cover suggests, an album dedicated to the darker side of life. You can hear that right away in the opener "Psychotopia". The guitars churn with a dark tone and the heaviness of modern, down-tuned metal. There have been progressive bands trying that particular trick, but they often get lost in the morass. Anubis Gate doesn't let the heaviness of the music overshadow the need to be melodic. Between the piano break in place of a traditional solo, and the moderately uplifting chorus, they've found the right balance. That's not always easy to do.

When the band is focused on hitting that mark, the results are very good. They have an appealing blend of progressive metal elements, and they write strong enough songs to pull in even people who aren't particularly interested in the more intricate nuances of their complex passages. Let's compare this to an album from earlier in the year by Vangough. Both are dark progressive metal albums, but Vangough didn't have a single memorable melody to go along with the heavier than usual riffing. Anubis Gate does, and it makes all the difference in the world.

And for the prog lovers in the crowd, while we don't get any epic statements that defy normal songwriting logic, we do get a trilogy of songs that I assume comprises a suite, in the form of "Black", "Blacker", and "Blackest". Two of the three are energetic numbers that are intelligently crafted metal songs with plenty of surface appeal. It's in the mold of what Voyager does, but I find them to be done better than their album from earlier in the year.

Really, the only thing I find odd about the album is "The New Delhi Assassination", which doesn't work at all for me. It's a conglomeration of world music sounds and stage setting, but I don't here it cohere into a song worth listening to.

Other than that aside, "Covered In Black" is one of the better progressive metal albums of the year, for sure. Anubis Gate is a prog metal band that is evolving their sound without letting go of who they are, and the result is music that is interesting on several levels. Your mileage will vary with how much you like prog metal, which is not my genre of choice most of the time, but for those inclined for this kind of music, Anubis Gate is trying to end this year's disappointments.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Revisiting: Killswitch Engage

I got into metal, seriously, in a weird way. I was sitting in on a friend's college radio show, and hearing a few of the tracks he was playing caught my attention in a way heavy music never had before. That might not be odd, but as a someone growing up in Upstate New York, the fact that the music was European power metal surely was. I don't know if I could have found more than two people I knew even casually who could have named a single band from that scene. Yet that is the music that moved me towards heavy metal.

At that time, the mainstream scene was seeing the rise of metalcore as a real force. Though I was focused on the European scene, I was taking note of the American bands that were leaving an impact. One friend in particular would often point me towards a specific band; Killswitch Engage.
This was just as "The End Of Heartache" was being released, and with ample time to kill on my hands, I would occasionally give the album a listen. It didn't strike me as anything special, but ever so often I would have the nagging thought that I needed to listen to it again, because I was missing something. Those feelings have kept at me for more than ten years now, even as I was reviewing new albums from the band, and just recently I decided it was once again time to look back at what I was missing.

The two incarnations of Killswitch Engage are nearly indistinguishable, in terms of the important traits, but they also couldn't be more different. The Jesse versus Howard debate still rages, because even though the band is doing the exact same things, their forces of personality completely changed how the music was heard. For me, the answer to the debate is simple. Jesse was there when they were still rough around the edges, and came back when they were going through the motions. Howard was there when the band perfected their form. He is, to me, the definitive voice of Killswitch Engage.

Two things about "The End Of Heartache" are clear to me, listening to the record these years later. One, it is the perfect encapsulation of what metalcore is all about. If you need a bllueprint for the genre, this album is it. There is ferocious heft to the guitars, but Howard is able to take the anger of an entire generation and turn that into anthems of communal self-esteem boosting. Killswitch was able to do what the other metalcore bands couldn't, by moving beyond just alternating clean and harsh vocals. Howard tapped into real emotion, and wrote melodies that worked on stage in a way that the audience could share the experience with the band. It was something special, and despite the simplicity of the construction, it was rock solid.

Unfortunately for Killswitch Engage, it was also the only one of their traditional albums that achieved the feat. Every other album of theirs has been trying to recapture that spark, without being able to keep the flame alive.
The one exception is their 2009 self-titled album, which broke the rules. Working with Brendan O'Brien, Killswitch Engage decided to push themselves in a different direction. Rather than focusing on their metal roots, that album pushed them further into melodic territory. The result was an album that fans hated, and that is always overlooked, but it's also the album that sticks with me the most. Is it softer than their others? Maybe. Howard screams a bit less, and the guitar tone is a bit fuzzier, but the band is still more than heavy enough. What it does best is twist the formula just enough to show us we don't have to be the self-loathing youth that first connected with the band's music. This was their growth, their showcase to the world that they had become adults who knew how to handle their baggage. They didn't need to share the anger with the world, because they were mature enough to push it into productive avenues.

That was short-lived, as not long after the record was released the band went through the kind of turmoil that could only have one result; the nostalgic attempt to recreate their glory days. You could say it worked, but nothing the band has done since then has reached the same heights. It's too safe, too clinical, to expected.

But there will always be something in me that looks back to those few records and understands now that Killswitch Engage changed heavy metal. I can't say if it was for the better or the worse, but I do know that no other band did what they did as well, not even themselves.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Album Review: The New Roses - One More For The Road

Not that long ago, I reviewed a record from a band I had never heard of that caught my attention. That was the previous album from The New Roses, which was one I enjoyed quite a bit, and that I cheaply compared to that old group with the word 'roses' in their name. I thought I was hearing what was going to be a band to watch, and then when the first single for this new record were released, I was left scratching my head. Was this really the same band that I enjoyed? What had happened?

That was because of the song "Life Ain't Easy (For A Boy With Long Hair)", which was a southern rock song with asinine lyrics that made me cringe from the moment I heard them. I don't know what the inspiration for that sort of thing was, but it made me incredibly nervous about diving into the entire album. The slippery slope is a very real thing.

Hitting the play button, the first thing we hear is "Quarter To Twelve", which is more in line with the classic hard rock I was expecting. There are hints of Slash and Joe Perry in some of the guitar playing, and the rough vocals fit right in. That's when the band is at their best, but there are elements on this record that get thrown in and distract from their strengths. "My Own Worst Enemy" is a solid bluesy rock track with some very nice guitar work and a solid chorus. The problem is that right before that kicks in is a terrible few seconds of layered "na-na" vocals, which are a nod to the modern 'rock' that hits the pop charts. Not only does it sound bad, it sounds completely out of place for a band like this. They're short interruptions, but the kill the song every time they come along.

Thankfully, the majority of the album is made up of the kind of songs The New Roses excel at; gritty rock and roll that feel like a more direct and tame version of the drug-fueled Guns N' Roses experience. Those adjectives are not to be taken as a slight. Guns had gotten too far up their own backsides, so not being as self-indulgent, and self-destructive, is not a complaint. The New Roses have the same spirit, but don't drift off into 'artistic' neverlands. They stay in the sweet spot of writing songs.

The downside of their approach is that while The New Roses are a very good band at what they do, it can be said they don't define their own identity well enough that you're going to remember these songs long after you hear the album. That's what happened to me with their last album, and I'm afraid that's what will happen here too. The music is good, but since it reminds me so much of other things, it won't have the same impact as a group doing something clearly their own.

So with that being said, let's cut to the chase. "One More For The Road" is The New Roses doing their thing, and doing it well. Yes, "Life Ain't Easy..." is a terrible song, but it's only one track, and the rest of the album lives up to what I was expecting. There isn't a lot of good ol' hard rock anymore, and The New Roses provide that. I can easily recommend this album for anyone who wants a good time with some good music.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Album Review: Serious Black - Magic

Not all 'supergroups' turn out to be super, and few of them experience growth after their formation. The fact of the matter is that once a musician has established themselves, it's difficult to break free of that mold and do something new. The members of Serious Black were like that when they came together, putting out a good debut that often felt like more of the same from veterans of power metal. But last year's "Mirrorworld" was something different. That album showed tremendous growth, and more maturity, and earned itself a slot on my list of the best albums of the year (accurately; the deluxe edition did). So when they are ready to return but a year later, I am both excited for what they have in store, but I'm also a bit worried they might be pushing themselves a bit too hard. Which wins out?

This time out, Serious Black is offering up a nearly hour long concept album about a man and a journey through a magical land filled with witches and drama.

Over the course of two albums, the times I have most appreciated Serious Black are when they leave the blueprint of power metal behind. There's a time and a place for ripping through a double-bass number, but the songs where they gave Urban breed more space to ply his...ahem... magic were the ones that most resonated with me. That's why "Mirrorworld" caught me so off-guard when it was released. From the singles I had heard, I was not expecting the diversity of songwriting, nor the tracks that ended up being my favorites.

Concept albums are tricky, because there are tropes about them that have never sat right with me. The one minute introduction is one of them, a short interlude with the narrator welcoming us to the story, these sorts of tracks are inconsequential. Then there's "Burn Witches Burn", which is a nice little track filled with organs that I love in the background, but the song stops before the solo for a narrative breakdown. Spoken word and music are two things I don't think belong together, and it drags down my enjoyment of a song every time I have to listen to talking in the middle of one.

What works incredibly well on this album is the use of keyboards to set the tone of the songs. Shifting sounds from track to track, the sense of drama comes from the keyboards, which are able to add a slightly sinister feeling to what would otherwise be energetic power metal songs. There are a lot of concept albums that fail to match the feeling of the music to the narrative through-lines, but Serious Black has achieved the right balance, without resorting to ham-fisted usurping of a dozen genres for each scene. This still feels like Serious Black, through and through.

The other thing of note, at least to me, is that "Magic" is a tight, concise album. While it runs nearly an hour, each song briskly moves along, and if anything they feel like they need slightly more time to make their point. There is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more, for sure, but at a couple of points I almost have the impression the band is rushing through the compositions, to make sure the record doesn't get too long.

Mostly, what I can say about "Magic" is that, in spite of stretching their creative boundaries with a concept, the album feels like a step back from where "Mirrorworld" was taking us. Yes, "Magic" has a narrative scope that expands outward, but the music is more traditional in its power metal forms, which doesn't feel to me as experimental as the softer songs, and more at times hard rock approach that "Mirrorworld" gave us. And with Urban's vocal approach, particularly with respect to the backing vocals, there is a hint of King Diamond's conceptual stories that creeps in. It never becomes distracting, but King's approach is one that relies far less on melodies and hooks, which has tamped down some of the buoyant choruses from what Serious Black is capable of.

Furthermore, this is an album that takes time before it fully sinks in. On my first listen, I was definitely underwhelmed by what I heard. But since I have a lot of respect for Urban, who has helmed some of my favorite recent metal albums, I gave it several more chances. With each listen, the songs became more familiar, and the bits that felt underwhelming became more clearly subtle than disappointing. "Skeletons On Parade" and "The Witch Of Caldwell Town" are the only tracks that immediately stuck out, and they remain the best songs on the album, with the kind of choruses that make power metal glorious. I particularly love how the latter track slows down for the last chorus, which makes it sound yet more epic. The rest of the album grows stickier with time, but you have to give it the chance to grow legs, which we don't always get the chance to do.

What I'm getting at is that my opinion is a bit two-fold. Serious Black are a very talented band, and this album is obviously put together by veterans who couldn't make a bad record without trying to deliberately do so. "Magic" is a very good album that doesn't feel like an album that would come out just a year after a monster release. Don't get me wrong; "Magic" is very good power metal. That's my issue, though. I was hoping Serious Black was going to break a bit more free of that mold. By focusing on a story, and bringing it to life through Urban's writing and performance, "Magic" isn't the melodic feast "Mirrorworld" was building towards.

While "Magic" is a step forward in some ways, it's a step backward in some others. It's a very good album, and it might very well end up being one of my favorites at the end of the year, but the nature of its construction is going to mean it's not an album that will stay with me as strongly as "Mirrorworld" did.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Album Review: Leaving Eden - Out Of The Ashes

The mainstream rock scene is one that I'm not sure I can even identify anymore. What constitutes rock these days is not what I remember, nor is it something I particularly enjoy. Whether we're talking about the screaming bands that are more metal than rock, or the sophomoric 'bro' bands, the range of sounds that get lumped under the same term is useless is helping us figure out if we're going to like something. That made me turn up my eyebrow when I saw Leaving Eden describe their new album as 'extreme rock'. I have no idea what that is, nor whether it's accurate or not, but I decided I needed to find out for myself.

These are pedantic issues to bring up, but I'm a writer who loves words, so I do need to say that 'extreme rock' is not a fitting description of Leaving Eden's music. There's nothing extreme about it, so I think they might be setting people up for disappointment if that's what they are expecting to hear.

That being said, what's important is the actual music. The first couple of tracks on the record are solid modern rock tracks that fit in with what the genre has been producing. There are moments where you can hear a melody begin to sparkle, but the songs pull back just enough to stop them from glistening. They're solid songs, but the adherence to being as rock as possible holds the songs back from what they could have been.

The title track fixes that, and shows what Leaving Eden is good at. With a more dramatic flair, it's a song that is able to use the atmosphere to sound heavy, while retaining a chorus that has a strong melody. Eve's vocals are at their best here, sounding confident with just a hint of aggression that makes it clear she's a rock singer through and through. That can get taken a bit too far, especially in some of the juvenile lyrics of "Sometimes", but usually she's the bright spot that differentiates Leaving Eden from a lot of the faceless bands that play similarly down-tuned rock and roll.

My favorite track on the album is "No Soul", which is the ballad that isn't really a ballad of the album. The riffs are as heavy as the rest of the album, but the duet vocals and hints of piano are a different tone, and the chorus has some of the sweep that a ballad usually does. It's a lovely piece of melodic hard rock, and is an avenue I think the band would be wise to explore more often.

So where do I come down on "Out Of The Ashes"? In a world of stale modern rock, Leavin Eden is a solid alternative to the usual names. This is a quick and enjoyable enough record, one that doesn't do much wrong. It's also a record that is a stepping stone to where the band needs to get. There is still room for improvement, which will hopefully continue to come. That being said, "Out Of The Ashes" is a fine record for now, while we wait for them to fully grow into themselves.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Album Review: In Evil Hour - Lights Down

What do I know about punk and/or hardcore music? If I'm being honest, the answer is not much, since my favorite punk album is the least punk album Bad Religion admits exists (that would be "The Dissent Of Man", which is phenomenal). When it comes to grittier punk, I don't have much experience with the form. But considering the political climate all around the world, and my expectation that the fury being felt is going to propel a new wave of angry young bands, I thought it to be an appropriate time to dip my feet into the pool. To do so, I'm starting with the UK's In Evil Hour, whose melodic punk/hardcore is one of the early entries into our new political uprising.

"Binding Ropes" kicks things off with a riff, and a guitar tone, that is more heavy metal than pure punk. But once the chorus comes along, and the backing vocals pop up, that Bad Religion/AFI style of punk is made very clear. When it's done well, it hits just the right balance between bristling energy and anthemic shout-along. That's pretty much what In Evil Hour is able to do on this song. It's a fine opening statement.

"Enemy Within" follows with a sound that references not only AFI, but some of The Offspring's better singles, if they hadn't polished off all the rough edges. Keeping in mind that while The Offspring are rather bland and lousy now, they were once a really good band, so recalling those days is a worthy comparison to make. Not only that, but the song contains a breakdown that is surprisingly heavy, and Al's vocals shift from her gritty singing into a full on swallowed-glass roar. In a small dose like that, it definitely drives the point home.

In "Bitter", she sings "every day I feel a little more unsure". Isn't that how we all feel, as the world seems to be crumbling around us?

The band has a DIY charm to their music. "Lights Down" isn't a slick record with a sheen of money emanating off it. It's a record that feels more homespun, which makes it feel more authentic. Much like how it's ridiculous to hear a band of millionaires like Metallica still trying to write songs about being angry and young, punk like this wouldn't work if it sounded clinical and spotless. I actually quite enjoy hearing the humanity of the performances. Hitting the feeling is often more important than hitting the notes.

I went into this album having never heard In Evil Hour before, having only just discovered them as I read through a list of upcoming releases. They intrigued me enough to inquire deeper, and I'm glad I did. I won't try to say what the true punk fan is going to think of "Lights Down", but I can say that this is the kind of punk that I can get behind. It's political and angry, but it retains a melodic sense that remembers a subversive message goes down better when it's hidden in a catchy tune.

"Lights Down" is a record that hits the mark. I don't have the disposition of a punk rebel, but for a few minutes, In Evil Hour made it sound appealing. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Album Review: Incura - Incura II

A couple of years back, I was a huge fan of the 'debut' record from Incura, which was an album that took a theatrical axe to the bloated corpse of melodic rock, painting the scene with a riotous sense of fun as vivid as the blood Sweeny Todd spilled on stages across the world. They understood that sometimes rock needs to embrace how overblown it can all be, and they made a record that was packed to the brim with unforgettable songs. But then they didn't follow up on that. Promises of a new album were made, but updates were slow in coming. Months passed without so much as a sentence confirming the album was still under construction.

So it was with great surprise that I saw the album show up, despite never hearing word from the band or their label that the album had even been recorded. It struck me as a huge mistake from a PR perspective, and if we weren't in the midst of the slow summer season, I might not have been able to fit this album into my schedule. That's criminal, since I had been looking forward to it so much.

Anyway, let's get on to the music. Within the first thirty seconds of "Love To Forget", everything I loved about Incura before is back for another go. The riffs are heavy rock that have some swing and bounce in them, and the vocals are such theatrical performances that I can already hear more serious rock fans whining that this is making a mockery of the form (as though bro-rock, black metal, and everything else doesn't do the same thing). Incura's version of rock is supposed to be fun and indulgent, and that it certainly is.

There was one thing missing from the cocktail in that opening number; the sticky melodies. The last record was one of those that stayed in your head whether you wanted it to or not, and that element is largely missing not only from that song, but from this entire album. I understand why completely; the first record compiled the very best Incura had ever written, and now they had to write that many more great songs in a shorter amount of time. That can be tough, I know.

That element might be absent, but Incura still has enough to propel the album forward. "Now Or Never" might be a bit subdued compared to the Incura I previously knew, but it's still a fun sing-along of a track that has a spirit that puts a smile on my face. As does "Remodel", which throws in hints of djent to the riffing, but has a vocal and chorus that is straight from the first album. It's exactly the kind of song I was hoping for, and it's fantastic.

In addition to the great new tracks, we also get the worst song I've heard from Incura yet, "Help Me Save Myself Tonight". I don't doubt that it means a lot to the band, but it's a flaccid track that bounces from meandering verses to a chorus that is more shouting than a melody. It's a completely misstep, and "This Is What You Get" doesn't do anything to reclaim the momentum. With some vintage effects to change up the sound, there was the chance for something interesting to happen, but the song again lacks a hook that would make the song memorable.

"Incura II" is not at all the record I had been waiting for. It was on my list of most anticipated records both last year and this year. So what happened? I can understand what happened with the songwriting, as I explained earlier. More puzzling is what happened to the album itself, how it appeared out of nowhere with no fanfare or buildup. I have a theory as to how that happened, but I don't want to get out ahead of myself there. All I will say is that unless this is all part of some renegade, underground marketing campaign, it's not a good sign for Incura.

When I saw this record was finally there to be heard, I was thrilled. I cleared out time as soon as possible to listen to it, and then felt more and more disappointed as the record kept playing. It's a decent enough record, but since my previous experience with Incura was amazing, "Incura II" is a pretty significant letdown. They say sequels are rarely as good as the original, and that's the case here. "Incura II" is a shadow of it's namesake.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Singles Roundup: Nocturnal Rites, Black Country Communion, & More

The summer slump is upon us, with the schedule showing a lack of quality and/or interesting albums to talk about week after week. Things will pick up once the festival season is over, and fall is upon us. We are getting the first teasers of those fall albums already, so let's take a look at three recent singles that are harbingers of what is to come soon.

Nocturnal Rites - Before We Waste Away

It's been roughly a decade since Nocturnal Rites released an album, but judging by this first song released from their comeback, it's as if no time at all has passed. They hit all the right marks from their last two albums, which upped the melodic factor to pop levels. They are a bit more metallic here, but there is no doubt this song is all about the hook, which Johnny Lindqvist delivers with that voice we've been waiting ages to hear again. Despite the wait, this song gives me high hopes for their new album.

Black Country Communion - Collide

Another band that took time off, Black Country Communion is one that has never been a favorite of mine. Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa both have backgrounds far more rooted in the blues than I prefer, but this first single teases a heavier album that could be more straight-forward rock. If so, that would be a positive development for me. This track is one I like a fair amount. The riffs are heavy with some groove, and Glenn sounds great as he belts out the chorus. The time apart was well used if this is the result.

Nitro - It Won't Die

Continuing the trend of bands that are coming back together, Nitro returns to a world completely different than when they could become successful simply because Michael Angelo Batio could play right or left handed. Today, you actually need to be good, which Nitro most definitely is not. This song is a cruel joke on us, a pathetic attempt from two guys in their fifties to write music for frat bros, without even knowing the nu-metal style they're copying went out of style a decade ago or more. The riffs are awful, the mix is terrible, and the vocals/lyrics are so bad I can't believe this is a serious effort. In a year filled with bad music, this is as bad as it gets.

Caligula's Horse - Will's Song (Let The Colours Run)

Here we have a band whose first album I liked, but who ran into trouble with their second album, which delved too far into djent for my taste. With the first single from their third album, they've found a balance between the two. The riffing is still highly modern, glitchy, and filled with the djent rhythms that are so popular, but the melodies are more apparent than on the previous record. It's a much better blend of heavy yet catchy, rhythmic yet melodic. A solid opening statement.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Album Review: Dead Cross - Dead Cross

There are certain musicians who, by virtue of their skill with an instrument, get a reputation as being among the very best at what they do. But what gets lost is that often the circumstances have much to do with that person being able to showcase themselves in the first place. Being in the right place at the right time is vitally important, because even many 'legends' can't survive on their own, without the right partners to work with. Case in point; Dave Lombardo. He is a legendary drummer, but when he isn't working on music written by more talented songwriters, either in Slayer or Testament, he is anonymous. Nothing he has done outside of those long-established bands has ever come close to earning him real acclaim.

Teaming up with Mike Patton might have been something that could, but Dead Cross is not going to be that vehicle. Or let me rephrase that, since there is always the chance it might. Dead Cross should not be that vehicle. It is a band that is so wildly misguided, so unbelievably detached from music as a common form, that it is utterly baffling.

First of all, I will admit to being unfamiliar with Mike Patton's history. I know his reputation, but I couldn't pick him out of a lineup if he was wearing a name tag. This album is the first thing I know of him, and I sincerely hope it will be the last. His atonal shrieking and foul-mouthed lyrics are a parody of what hardcore or punk music is supposed to be. He sounds like a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, trying his damnedest to sound vital, youthful, and not like a man slowly graying into irrelevance.

But he is just the most obvious of the problems Dead Cross has. The biggest problem is that between Patton, Lombardo, and the rest of the band, there is still a dearth of songwriting talent. I know the band's identity is supposed to be 'brutal' and 'manic', but there still needs to be some structure underneath the chaos. You can't rebel against the rules if there are none, so to speak.

And that's what makes "Dead Cross" so painful to listen to. There isn't a single riff that doesn't blur by in a mess of noise, there isn't a drum pattern that you can air-drum to, there isn't a vocal line anyone would ever find themselves accidentally shouting along to. This is a band that takes Slayer's chaos and forgets that Slayer was still writing real songs. These are sketches of noise that never develop, that go nowhere, and that offer nothing appealing for the ear.

If I was writing the history books, Dead Cross is a band that would end any discussion of Patton or Lombardo being remembered as among the best at what they do. It is such a collosal waste of talent, such a pathetic attempt to turn back the clock, that it truly does undo much of the good work they must have done in their careers.

I seem to have been saying this a lot lately, but "Dead Cross" is a heavy contender for the worst album of the year. While others may have been more disappointing in relation to expectations, "Dead Cross" is on its own accord truly awful. The only redeeming feature I could find is that it is mercifully short. If it were any longer, I would have grown genuinely angry that I had wasted that much of my time listening to this slap-dash effort.

Dead Cross is dead to me, period.