Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Album Review: Fleesh - What I Found

It's funny how sometimes you can go years without hearing something, and then in short order you hear it popping up everywhere. Usually, it's one song that has escaped your mind only to come back with a vengeance, but it can happen to larger themes as well. Last year, I reviewed the most recent release from Lucid Fly, who have the unusual (I'm not sure why) sound of modern rock with some prog tendencies, capped off with a female singer. It was something I haven't heard in quite a long time, but here we are just a bit later, and Fleesh is doing something similar in nature, though not necessarily in sound.

Fleesh is a duo from Brazil who have embraced the sound of early neo-prog, but without the excesses that can come along with songs that stretch across an entire side of vinyl. They use the instrumental structure of early Genesis and Yes, but do it in a way concise enough for this modern world.

You don't have to get far into the opening title track before it becomes apparent that Fleesh is a abnd with a warm, inviting sound. There's a richness to the layers of guitars and keyboards that invites you in. Gabby Vessoni's vocals are similarly warm, and it all adds up to a sound that pulls the best aspects from nostalgia. You can hear that spacey, early 80s guitar tone on the solo, but the heart of the song is the melody, which leaves behind the obtuse writing of that time period for something more immediately engaging.

A song like "If I" is both wonderfully laconic and liltingly beautiful. If there's such a thing as restrained pop, this would be a solid example of the style. It's a gentle approach to reeling you in, as opposed to hitting you over the head with musical adventures. That is the album's best attribute, and also the one thing that holds it back.

There is evident influence from the early neo-prog bands, and I admire Fleesh's self-control to not fill their songs with too much instrumental noodling and needlessly expansive song structures. However, the other side of the coin is that their restrained approach to music leaves the album lacking a bit of energy. It's beautiful music, but it strikes me as the kind of album you put on while you're doing something else. It sets a mood, and it serves as a lovely backdrop, but I think it needs a bit more pep to be your full focus for the fifty minutes it lasts.

That being said, let's be clear for a moment; Fleesh has made a beautiful album that recalls the best of neo-prog, and offers up nearly an hour of songs that make a lovely backdrop for life. Not everything has to stand out and demand to be the center of attention. "What I Found" doesn't, and really it might be better off for it. For what the aim of this album is, it absolutely succeeds.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Album Review: Charetta - Fate Strikes Twice

One of the things I've noticed over the last year or two is the ever increasing number of bands that have been coming forward with honest to goodness female rock singers. There was a long time where it seemed the only way a band would consider a woman was if she was a classically trained soprano, but I'm happy to see that has changed. Perhaps I'm just getting old, or maybe I'm ahead of the curve in realizing that the morose men flooding the genre are flaccid and boring, but there's something about a strong woman leading a rock band that gives them a leg up.

Filed under the category of "things I missed in 2016", Charetta is just the latest band in that realm that I've had the chance to share with you.

Charetta's sound is one that is heavy on groove, with low-tuned guitars and riffs that are written to get the crowd at a show moving. The first track here, "We Will Survive", shows what Charetta can do incredibly well. The riffs and thick and chunky, with enough grit to make it clear this is rock and roll, while Angelina's vocals throw out a chorus that has a hint of pop to it. It's a fun, catchy number that appeals to both sides of the equation, which is exactly what great modern rock should be doing.

Of all the modern rock I've listened to in the last couple of years, I can say that easily 80% of it comes from bands who have completely forgotten that music is supposed to be enjoyable, and songs need to be memorable. Charetta doesn't have that problem. In addition to having a good sound, they also know the importance of writing songs with real hooks. That should be a given, but modern rock has blunted songwriting so much that it's shocking to hear a band doing it right.

Even where you think there could be an issue, reading the title "I'm Not Your Bitch", Charetta overcomes the stereotype by writing a song that has a message more nuanced than the language points to, and they do it with a song that uses a sensual hook to support the point they're making. When Angelina lets out a scream at the end of the bridge, it's not just a feature thrown in to make the music 'edgy', it serves a real purpose in expressing the anger behind the song. That's smart songwriting.

Now, could you say that Charetta isn't doing anything new here? Yes, that's not an unfair assessment, but it looks at things from the wrong perspective. There are two ways of approaching the world; inventing the wheel, or improving the wheel. Charetta doesn't need to be blazing new trails when the one that's already there is so sparsely populated by bands that leave any lasting footprints. Instead, they take the sound we're already familiar with and write better songs than the majority of them. That's just as worthwhile a cause than creating a whole new sound just for the sake of being the first to do so.

"Fate Strikes Twice" reminds me a fair bit of Forever Still's album from early 2016, which wound up on my year-end list. If you remember that album, and how quickly Nuclear Blast moved in to scoop them up after the self-release, that will give you a good indication of what Charetta is serving up. And like that album, this is a collection of previous EPs with a few new tracks included to flesh out the record. Both parts are good, but you can hear the difference and growth in their writing between the two halves. Nevertheless, "Fate Strikes Twice" is a good piece of modern rock, and is one from 2016 that deserves to find some new life in the new year.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Album Review: Greywind - Afterthoughts

One of the big surprises of last year was that Jimmy Eat World was able to rise from the ashes of obscurity to make a great record, one that found its way onto my list of the best albums of the year. Alternative rock of that stripe has been all but non-existent in recent years, so hearing something that had both muscle and melody of that variety was incredibly refreshing. Fast-forward a few months, and we're now receiving the debut album from Greywind, who reference that brand of rock as a key influence in their sound. "Afterthoughts" is following in that mold, and has the chance to fill a hole that is desperately needed.

Greywind takes a slightly different tract, marrying that surging sound to elements of post-rock atmospherics, creating an identity that is more slow-burning and introspective. Within each song, you get moments of power juxtaposed with graceful passages of emotion. Adding that darker, more conceptually heavy component to the music has the potential to elevate the music above the simple formula of power chords and sugary hooks that might have been expected.

That's the potential. Whether or not they hit those marks is a different story. What is successful is the approach they take of blending the soft and the heavy in the same song, as opposed to taking their reserved moments and putting them in separate songs. That is often done, and it usually fails, because a four minute stretch of meandering notes doesn't often have anything compelling to offer. But by utilizing those elements as a set-up for the more muscular hooks, both sides get to play off each other. It should be Songwriting 101, but it's amazing how often bands lack an awareness of how to best frame their ideas.

Which brings us to the crux of the album. While Greywind has a laudable sound, and show they understand how to construct songs to make them most effective, the actual content of the music doesn't quite live up to the promise. There are good tracks here, notably the opening trio of "Afterthoughts", "Forest Ablaze", and "Circle", but the album spends too much time lost as it tries to get from one good moment to the next. This style of music isn't known for its memorable riffing, and that carries through, with little of the guitar work doing anything of note. It sets the stage, but through the slower moments, there are just hints of fragmented chords that are place-holders until the choruses come. It would work well enough if the choruses had enough punch, but the hooks are solid when they need to be devastating.

"Afterthoughts" is a fine record, and it's enjoyable to listen to, but there was the potential for even more here. With a bit more polishing here and there, this could have been elevated to where Jimmy Eat World landed with "Integrity Blues". Both albums are dark, pop-fueled rock records, but only one of them managed to convey the feeling and the sound of putting a candy coating on a bitter pill. Greywind has the ability to get there, but they need more experience before they make the record that will define them. This is a good first step, but it's a record that feels like them finding their footing for what will come next.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Album Review: The Murder Of My Sweet - Echoes Of The Aftermath

It was only a little more than a year ago that The Murder Of My Sweet released their big, sprawling, dramatic concept album, "Beth Out Of Hell". That album made a sizeable impact, and earned high praise from all around. It did not from me, however, because I had missed it when it came out, and didn't actually hear the record until far later. It was the kind of thing that was right up my alley, so I was disappointed in myself, but not in the record. Capitalizing on that success, the band is back in short order with a new batch of songs, this time without the grandiose concept pushing them to epic heights.

What we get this time is an album that promises the same kind of symphonic fervor, but with songs that are more straight-forward and compact. Hearing that, combined with the short time between the two albums, does throw up a few warning bells. Are they warranted?

The answer to that isn't quite so simple. It will depend very much on what you're expecting of this album. If you're expecting, or hoping, that it will be a continuation of "Beth Out Of Hell", you might be disappointed. Without the story and the scope behind it, this record doesn't feel as titanic in proportion as its predecessor. There's nothing wrong with having a more intimate record, but we can't pretend we don't judge things in relation to others.

However, if you keep in mind that this is a different beast, "Echoes Of The Aftermath" is just as enjoyable an experience as "Beth Out Of Hell" was. While I was initially disappointed by the preview tracks that were released, they make far more sense in the context of the album. The Murder Of My Sweet is much more of an album band, so perhaps it was just that one track on its own didn't have the right elements to blow me away as a single. But when I hear "Racing Heart" during the album's run, it not only fits right in, but it sounds fresher and more lively.

The band knows that it's not enough to slap some orchestral keyboards onto mediocre songs and claim to be doing something amazing (unlike some bands that will remain nameless). These songs are cinematic and lush, but they are at their core strongly melodic metal tracks that have an endearing vocal presence. Angelic Rylin doesn't have the pure vocal power that many of her peers do, but that actually works in her favor. Rather than throwing out huge bursts of vocal volume to drown out the melody, she uses her warmer tones to bend the melody into something more engaging. It's because of sharp writing, but also a keen understanding that sometimes less can be more. Oversinging these songs would not have made them any better.

When the band is hitting their marks, they make some fantastic music. The entire first half of the record is the kind of lush and melodic metal that speaks to both the metal and pop fan in me. That is the kind of music that has the chance of being something special, and I was preparing on first listen to hand out my highest recommendation. However, the middle of the album loses a substantial amount of steam, ironically beginning with "Flatline". There's a stretch of tracks where the bounce disappears, and the songs get bogged down in slower tempos and weaker hooks. They're fine enough songs, but bunched together after a string of great material, the difference in quality is more notable.

So to circle back to my comment about warning bells, there was a reason for them to be sounding. I don't know enough to say if it was because of the short turnaround or the pressure of following a huge record, but this one doesn't reach the same heights as "Beth Out Of Hell". It's a good record, don't get me wrong, but it's one where I can see room for improvement. It's long enough that it would have been a better experience to remove one or two of the slower tracks and focus on the warm melodies the first half of the album showcased. Like a real echo, "Echoes Of The Aftermath" is a little quieter, a little weaker, than the original. It's still good, but there's a reason bands have trouble following up the album of their career. Stepping out of a shadow is hard, and this album doesn't quite get there.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ten Years On: Revisiting 2007

While I am not the most obsessive of people, I have scraps of paper lying around listing every album I've listened to for at least the last decade. I know that if I don't do so, I will forget about great records when I go to do my year-end awards, but in the long-term, those lists serve as a nice reminder of how I have ended up where I have. Sometimes, in those lists, I can see the first steps down paths that have branched well off from where my musical tastes used to be.

In that spirit, I am taking the opportunity to look back a decade, and see where I was then, where I am now, and how my views have changed in the intervening years. And as the year goes along, when the schedule permits it, I am planning to have a few special pieces talking about some of the more important albums from 2007.

But first, let's recap what my picks were that year:

10. DSG - Hellborn
9. King Diamond - Give Me Your Soul... Please
8. Fall Out Boy - Infinity On High
7. Magnum - Princess Alice And THe Broken Arrow
6. The Codex - S/T
5. Bloodbound - Book Of The Dead
4. Allen/Lande - The Revenge
3. Bruce Springsteen - Magic
2. Scorpions - Humanity: Hour 1
1. Emerson Hart - Cigarettes & Gasoline

Where to begin? The most obvious place is with my final selection, as while at the time I was trying to give DSG the benefit of the doubt, there has been literally nothing in the last ten years to warrant that decision. It's a record that has aged extremely poorly, and I can't quite say why I defended it so strongly at the time.

The other glaring choice is Bloodbound. Sandwiched between two excellent record was this one, which I think I overrated because of how much I wanted to like it. It's not a bad record, but it pales so much in comparison to the two records Urban Breed made with the band that it's difficult to see it as anything but a disappointment. Neither of those albums should have made the list.

My bigger crime was not including those, but keeping Fall Out Boy far too low on the list, and excluding three records that have become among the very best that year had to offer. Redemption's "The Origins Of Ruin" is one of my handful of favorite progressive metal albums, Nightingale's "White Darkness" is a fantastic throwback to 70's prog-inspired hard rock, and Keldian put out their one and only good album, which was a sci-fi power metal album so weird that it was amazing. All of those albums I was a fool for not embracing sooner. I would blame youth, but I was old enough at the time to know better.

But what did I get right? The top three selections I made were all correct, though I might quibble over the order. We'll leave out for now that I probably don't see objectively when it comes to my favorite songwriter, so let's examine the other two. Scorpions took a huge risk by making a concept album, with the help of hit-maker Desmond Child and his friends. I know the record is not looked fondly upon by the band's fans, and I get why, but that's the exact reason I love the record so much. Instead of the bravado and riff-heavy approach the band had been taking on their lackluster later works, "Humanity" was a full-on modern, melodic rock album. Yes, it's obvious the band had help from pros, but who cares when the results are this good?

But the most important album of the year was Bruce Springsteen's "Magic". I am no devotee of The Boss, but this is the one album of his where I buy into the hype surrounding him, which is funny, because it's probably his most forgotten album of the last fifteen years. What makes "Magic" so wonderful is that Springsteen isn't concerned with being the working-class hero making big statements on life and politics. These are smaller songs, and they are a deliberate homage to the pop hits of the late 60s. That sunny sound gives the record bounce that not even Springsteen can kill, and it just so happens they're also some of the best melodic constructions of his career. In a way, it's the un-Springsteen Springsteen record, and it was probably the best record of 2007.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Album Review: Stephen Pearcy - Smash

Here's an admission; despite being just old enough to remember the tail end of the 80s hair metal scene, I don't think I've ever voluntarily listened to a RATT song. In fact, despite knowing the names of one or two, I don't think I even subconsciously know what any of them sound like. RATT is, in my mind, one of those bands that has achieved a level of recognition that is mostly dependent on people remembering their name, and not their music. And that is without even getting into the fighting and legal issues that RATT has been going through recently. That's something that I am not even going to touch.

But while that is going on, Stephen Pearcy has been busy putting together a new solo album. That is what we're here to talk about.

For an album with a bright red devil on the cover, things get off to a slow and sluggish start. "I Know I'm Crazy" hs a slow buildup of swelling sound, and then meanders through an even slower verse that might be trying to be bluesy, but I can't really be sure what the aim is. Things at least kick into gear for the chorus, although that does lead us to my major problem with the album, which is unfortunately Stephen himself.

The 80s were a time of excess and decadence, where bands were able to achieve success as much through their big hair and bigger videos than through the music itself. Stephen, frankly, seems to be a victim of this. His voice just doesn't cut it for this music. His tone is too shrill, and every time he tries to power through, there is audible correction being done. It's not as embarrassing as some recent efforts by Geoff Tate, but Pearcy doesn't have the voice to be the centerpiece of an album anymore.

He could get away with his limitations if the album was designed to accommodate them. But it isn't. The band doesn't provide meaty enough riffs to take the attention away from Pearcy's voice, nor does Pearcy provide himself solid enough hooks to require our forgiveness. Too much of the writing is depending on Pearcy to have the vocal charisma to carry the load, and unless I'm pining for the old days, I don't see how anyone can say he does anymore.

I don't have a problem with meat-and-potatoes rock, but I still expect it to be good. On this album, I don't hear anything that stands out as being above average. It's a perfectly bland album that is entirely reliant on Pearcy to sell it. Whatever charms he has are completely lost on me, so I can't say this record has done anything for me. It's something that not long after this review gets posted, I will fade from my memory.

Kind of like the 80s...

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Album Review: Firewind - Immortals

There was a time when I thought that Firewind was the most promising band on the planet. They had made a good record in the form of "Allegiance", and then followed that up with the phenomenal hooky rock meets power metal juggernaut "The Premonition". If that was going to be the genesis of their future, Firewind had both the buzz and the talent to have become the next big thing. That didn't happen, obviously. They stumbled back into making decent music, then lost their singer, then Gus G became more interested in being Ozzy Osbourne's sidekick than pushing his own band. I get it, but that means that hopes for this new Firewind record are at all-time lows.

With a new singer in tow, this album also marks a complete shift in how the band operates, with Gus G writing all of the material with melodic rock omnipresence Dennis Ward. While that ensures things are in steady hands, it also could clog up the process with a stale quality, given the number of albums he has had a hand in writing/playing/producing.

The big story, of course, is new singer Henning Basse. He's a solid singer in his clean tones, but for some reason he tries to be more aggressive than Firewind's music calls for, which is not a sound that he or the band is particularly good at. He also lacks the charisma that Apollo had during his tenure, so Firewind has certainly become more focused on Gus G's guitar work. That is not the best decision either, since it might be an uncommon opinion, but Gus is not all that interesting a guitarist. He's a great player, but the music he comes up with is lock, stock and barrel power metal by the numbers.

That leaves us in the position of saying that most of the credit for the album is going to be given to Dennis Ward, who I have to assume is responsible for most of the vocals lines and hooks. Ward does give us some good songs here. The opening "Hands Of Time" unfolds into a sweet and effective chorus, the likes of which Firewind used to trade in with ease. But those have been largely replaced with choruses that use more gang chants, and less melodies. "Back On the Throne" could be a song from Dio in the 80s, when he was often in the habit of not bothering to write choruses, since his voice was powerful enough to carry even a song fragment to success. Henning isn't Dio, and he can't do that. The under-written songs need more meat on the bone if they are going to be satisfying.

Firewind is also jumping on the growing bandwagon of bands writing about historical wars and battles, which is a cliche now, but also takes them in a direction that doesn't play to their strengths. Firewind is not an epic, majestic band that can create sounds big enough to replicate the theater of war. They were at their best when they wrote hooky songs that blurred the lines between power metal and melodic rock. Those days are long gone, and we're all the worse for it.

Look, I don't want to pile on Firewind. They're not doing anything bad here. It's a perfectly solid record that die-hard power metallers are going to enjoy. But as someone who used to think quite highly of the band, I'm sad to see them go down a path that feels like a regression towards being like everyone else. Firewind had an identity all their own once, and now they sound like plenty of other bands. "Immortals" will play well with fans of all of that, but it disappointed me.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

EP Review: Shallow Side - One

The EP. As a format, it seems to be growing in popularity. As we consume music in new ways, fewer people bother sitting through the experience that is a full album. We want everything now, and in pieces that fit our short attention spans. It can be hard to make an impact with a full album, if you don't already have an established base of fans, so I understand why EPs are growing. They're faster, easier, and cheaper. They are also less satisfying, but that's just me.

Shallow Side is jumping on the bandwagon, using this EP as a way of introducing themselves before their album launches. These six tracks will give us a taste of what is to come on the full-length, while hopefully whetting our appetite to want more.

Things kick off with "We Roll", which is heavy on the drums and bass for the basis of the song, with a few guitar licks coming in to maintain rock credentials. It doesn't sound that far removed from what Fall Out Boy has been doing since their resurrection, albeit without the pretentious and annoying lyrics. It's completely different from the single, "Rebel", which is a more traditionally rock and roll track. "Rebel" still has the modern touches that make it unmistakably of the moment, but it uses the dynamics between quiet verses and the heavy rock chorus to have much more to offer.

That comparison to Fall Out Boy pops up again in "Fight Or Flight", where the background vocals that are used sound like something they would utilize. It's a popular sound that Shallow Side is working with, but they have more of a rock edge to them than most of the bands that qualify as this brand of 'rock' these days. That gives them a leg up on the competition. Rock music needs to actually be rock music if it's going to be any good. Those other bands are not, while Shallow Side has much more promise.

Look, is this really my kind of music? No, I'm not all that enamored with music that relies this much on establishing a rhythm as the key part of the songs. But, I know what the style is, since it's everywhere, and I can say that Shallow Side is doing it better than many. "Can You Hear Me" is a better song than anything a 'rock' band has placed on the Hot 100 in a long time, but that's also not saying a lot.

Is this EP good? Yes, it is. Does it make me excited for the album, when it drops? Well, that's a tricky question. It does its job of showing that Shallow Side has potential to make some good music, and the record could be very good for what it is. The issue I have is that I know this style of music is never going to floor me, so I can only be so excited by the prospects. But if you like current pop/rock. Shallow Side is definitely worth checking out.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Album Review: Solarus - Reunion

I have had several lengthy arguments over the years regarding the nature and meaning of progressive metal. There are two different ways to define it, and there is no consensus about to be reached on which way we should go. So with the caveat in place that I have no idea whether or not I accept the term, let's move to the subject of prog/power metal. That specific area is the one that raises the most questions, and it is there that Solarus resides. This is where we get bands like Vanden Plas, Pagan's Mind, and now Solarus. It isn't quite power metal, and it isn't quite progressive metal, so we really need to find a catch-all term for it.

Solarus comes to us as a plucky, independent band, making their first statement entirely on their own. One thing I have learned over the years of doing this job is that you can't write off bands just because they come to you through alternative means. Last year, my second favorite album, and two of my top five, came from independent bands.

You wouldn't know this about Solarus just by listening to "Reunion". The sound is a big and polished as any major (for metal) label effort in this style. The guitars have the clarity and heft to match the best of the genre, and the mix puts the vocals in perfect balance with the music. Even with the democratization of music production, making a record that sounds this good is not an easy thing, so the band deserves kudos for giving us such a wonderful sounding album.

All of that would be a footnote if the music doesn't back up the technical successes. I will confess that this style of music usually does little for me. I can't say why, since I like all of the elements, but the end result usually sounds too sterile for my liking. Solarus, however, has made a record that exceeds the vast majority of prog/power that I've been hearing.

There is a major reason for that, and it's the vocals of Sarah Dee. While she doesn't have the most powerful or technically precise of voices, she has a brighter tone, and puts all the right effort into her performance. And in the vocal duets with the baritone of Matt Marinelli of Borealis, we get a version of 'beauty and the beast' metal that doesn't have to bring in the ugly scars of death metal to achieve the balance of light and dark. [Aside: Why do bands regularly bring in guest vocalists who sound so much like the main singer? The point of a duet is to have to different voices to play off. Right?]They can serve as melodic counterparts to one another, and the melodies here are all smartly written, and have just enough bounce to keep pace with the chugging guitars. Often, we hear these kinds of bands put forward chorus after chorus of flat, drawn-out notes, thinking that they are sweeping and epic. In truth, they're mostly tired and boring, and Solarus completely avoids them.

But this is a full band effort, and there is much to appreciate all around. The guitar playing is sharp and heavy, giving a meaty metallic undertone for the orchestral parts and the sweet vocals. Adding to that, we get some of the more effective solos in the genre, capped off with a truly gorgeous tone on them. The lead guitar is really a treat here, and used in just the right balance to showcase the playing without distracting from the songs. Lucas McArthur deserves plenty of acclaim for tastefully leading his band through his adept playing.

Often, the bands that play this style are either not heavy enough, or they coast on powerhouse vocalists, to wind up with a sound that is less than the sum of the parts. Solarus tweaks the formula just enough that they avoid every problem that could face a power/prog band. Their songs are heavy, intricate enough, dramatic, and wonderfully melodic. From "Shattered Skies", to "Prayer For The Fallen", and the immense title track, there is hardly a weak moment to be found on this record. This is not just an excellent example of how to make power/prog matter again, it's a record that unfolds a little more every time you listen to it. That means it will grow on you, and since it makes a good first impression, that means it's going to wind up being one of the better metal records of 2017.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Album Review: Grave Digger - Healed By Metal

What can we say about Grave Digger? The band has been around for decades, and seemingly done it all. They've entered that air of seniority, where every time they make a record, it's an event both because we know what we're getting, and because they're an institution. Even when they aren't reaching their old heights, they are always welcome to bring along some new music. It's the same boat that Motorhead reached before their ultimate conclusion, and it's a better boat than the one Judas Priest is in, which is the one where we cover our eyes and hope they don't embarrass themselves again.

Or at least that's what we want to think. "Healed By Metal" starts off in a way that has me questioning everything. I have a long-standing dislike of songs that talk about metal as a subject, and the title track opens the album by reaffirming everything I've ever said on the subject. It's cheesy, ugly, and makes me certain that I don't want to be part of the metal culture if it sounds like that. It's a song that wants to be an anthem, but you can't force those things to happen. They just do.

Case in point: "Free Forever". That is a song that does everything "Healed By Metal" wants to, but it actually succeeds. There's a bit of swagger in the riff, the vocals are appropriately gruff, but then the chorus has that Running Wild style shanty melody that works exceedingly well. In fact, the few tracks in a row that follow the opener make me wonder how the band thought not only that it was good enough to make the album, but to lead it off and serve as the title. It was a horrible decision, and almost made me neglect the record entirely.

I don't consider it a coincidence that the other track that drags the record down is "Ten Commandments Of Metal", which falls into the same quagmire. Perhaps there should be an eleventh commandment; thou shalt not write metal about metal.

But those two tracks don't define the whole of the album. The rest of the tracks are Grave Digger's enjoyable blend of traditional and power metal, and they offer up enough to make the record worth its while. Veteran bands usually know how to deliver a solid record, and that's what Grave Digger has done here. It's solid, which is the good and the bad. But hey, it could always be worse.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Album Review: Nightmare - Dead Sun

I don't like it when this happens, but here I am late to the party on this new record, because of the differences between living on each side of the Atlantic. Europe received this album back at the end of November, and now two months later, it is in my inbox for American release. I won't go into the business aspect of these decisions, but from a selfish perspective I don't like it. There was a case a few years back where the same thing happened to Nightingale's "Retribution", an album that almost won the honors as my album of the year, except that I couldn't decide which year it belonged part of. Delays are one thing, but when they span the difference between years, it gets to be annoying. But, I'm not going to hold that against the music.

Nightmare is a long-running power metal institution, but one that has a new twist in the form of a new female singer. While plenty of power metal bands have taken that course, this one is different, since we are not talking about a classically trained singer providing operatic tones. No, Nightmare opted for a grittier, more metal sound.

Despite how long the band has been around, they are clearly fired up as "Infected" gets things going with pounding drums and down-tuned guitars. It's a heavy, raging beast of a song, and one that shows this might be power, but it's nothing close to 'flower metal'. Nightmare is going all-out to make "Dead Sun" a heavy affair, and that is the album's best redeeming feature. They don't worry about making sure the songs are shiny enough for the modern power metal fan, focusing instead on playing to their strengths.

That does two things; 1) It keeps the band on the right track, and 2) It makes the album a bit too cohesive, if that makes sense. Because they don't take any deviations, everything on the album fits nicely into a single category, where if you like what you're hearing, you're going to like the whole of the album. The problem with that is while the songs are good, they do start to sound a bit similar. The nature of power metal riffing is such that you don't get a lot of variety from the chugging double-bass pace.

But that's the critic in me being critical, because it's my job. The takeaway from "Dead Sun" is that Nightmare has definitely found themselves writing an exciting new chapter in their long career. Maggy Luyten is a powerhouse of a vocalist, sounding like a mix of Dilana and ex-Meat Loaf duet partner Patti Russo. She's got the potential to be a star in the metal world, and she makes this album exceptionally appealing. She is certainly the star of the show, but the songs have more than enough muscle and melody to hold their own. As you listen to the album a second, then a third time, the nuances of the hooks begin to stand out, and you realize that the focus I mentioned earlier works to the record's benefit in the form of honing the blade to a lethal point. Give "Dead Sun" enough time, and it goes from being a record that sounded good, to one that sounds great, to one that I found myself unexpectedly loving to a startling degree.

So if you decide to count "Dead Sun" as a 2017 album, which I'm going to for accounting purposes, Nightmare has notched the first damn good metal album of the year. I don't know if it will hold up as the best 2017 will have to offer, but it's a welcoming way to begin a new year, that much I know for sure. I certainly want to hear more from them, as long as they have Maggy around.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Album Review: AFI - AFI (The Blood Album)

Back many years ago, when emo was having its day in the sun, I was either just too young or just too old to have ever bought into the fad. While I heard the bits that were on the radio, or on MTV when they actually played music, none of it made much of an impact on me. But if I did have to say what my favorite of the lot was, though it's a bit of a cliche, my answer would be AFI's "Sing The Sorrow". That album shows its age, but it has a handful of the best emo-tinged songs that any of the bands of that time ever came up with. Even though I haven't spun that album in many years, I still find myself humming "Silver & Cold" from time to time. I haven't kept up with what AFI has been doing, since I doubt it would have been what I was looking for, but since they are releasing a new album in the soft opening of the new year, I figured I could be a bit nostalgic and give them a chance.

The opening "Dark Snow" is classic AFI, using the three minutes to layer some textured guitars, a somber mood, and a hook that tries like heck to soar. It doesn't quite get to that level, but it's a solid example of what AFI does well. But the band doesn't sit in their comfort zone throughout the whole of the record. "White Offerings" is an unusual track, one that side-steps their pop leanings for a more aggressive and less hooky tact. I'm not sure it works, but it's certainly the band showing that they aren't just churning out the same thing again and again.

In fact, in several places this album sees Danny Havok being more aggressive than usual, adding more rasp and bite to his delivery, and sanding the sheen off of his melodies. "Still A Stranger" is far more punk in its approach, adding gang vocals, and a barked poetic section, which both give the song a unique character.

But unique is not a synonym for good, and while those tracks have interesting moments, the best material on the album are the songs that call back to AFI's tradition of making emotional punk with heavy hooks. "Snow Cats" and "Hidden Knives" adhere to what you would expect, but they fit into the wheelhouse of what the band is best at. They're propulsive little numbers that hit you with big melodies that you know you're going to find stuck in your head at some point.

The judgment with albums like this come down to the balance between the great and the good. All of the tracks fall into one category or the other, with nothing venturing into poor territory. I find that the majority of the record falls into the category of being good, but not rising above. The highlights are great, and the rest of the album is enjoyable, but the replay value is limited by both the the consistent acceptability of the music and the number of the songs. Any time you have more than a dozen tracks on a record, it becomes harder and harder to fully absorb that many different ideas at once.

But let's boil it down; "The Blood Album", as it will be known, is a good AFI record. It doesn't quite have the sizzle the band had when they were flying high at the top of their popularity, but it's the best thing I've heard from them since "Girl's Not Grey". AFI has kicked the year off to a good start.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Top Twenty Albums Of All Time: 10-1

10. Black Sabbath - Heaven & Hell (Previous Rank: 10)

 Ronnie James Dio is rightfully legendary, and while his work with Rainbow and Dio both contain transcendent moments, his best album is this one, where he showed that Black Sabbath was so much more than they were with Ozzy. In these forty minutes, Black Sabbath redefined who they were by writing songs that were more reflective of the skills they possessed. The band and Dio brought out the best in each other, and songs like "Neon Knights", "Children Of The Sea", and "Die Young" are gripping pieces of metal that I have often considered the greatest metal album ever made. That has changed, but "Heaven & Hell" is the highlight of these legends' careers.

9. Matchbox Twenty - Mad Season (Previous Rank: 6)
 Having grown up listening to pop music, I still have a huge soft spot for when it's done well. "Mad Season" is a jukebox of all the ways that can be done. We get the dark rock song in "Bent", the sickly sweet ballad "If You're Gone", and the buoyant "Crutch". The album mines every vein of pop, making a grab-bag of sounds that could have been a disaster, if not for the songwriting prowess that holds it all together. From the aptly-titled "Angry", to the ornate beauty of "Leave", this album is, by virtue of when it came out, almost an obituary for the style of pop music I grew up listening to.

8. Avantasia - The Metal Opera Pt II (Previous Rank: 8)
I can't always explain why certain albums work hit me more than others. For instance, I seem to be the only person who believes this is better than the first installment of "The Metal Opera". While that one was good, it was too generic. This album saw that all change, as Tobias Sammet embraced his inner Meat Loaf for the first time, and made a true metal opera. It's gigantic, swaggering, cheesy for sure, and a riot to listen to. Tobi has long been one of metal's best songwriters, and despite the slightly underdone production here and there, this is his most accomplished set of songs.

7. Bruce Dickinson - The Chemical Wedding (Previous Rank: 9)
 The greatest metal album of all time? My answer is a resounding yes. Few will agree with me, but Bruce Dickinson managed to do the impossible by making a trilogy of solo records better than anything Iron Maiden has ever done (which I say as someone who is an Iron Maiden fan). This is the best of that trilogy, and it's a stunning work of genius that never ceases to amaze me. Without devolving into eight-string madness, Bruce and his band have made one of the most aurally and intellectually heavy metal albums ever. The sound is a growling, chugging metal machine, and Bruce soars above it all with his dramatic take on the life and work of William Blake. Few could have imagined such a record, and no one else can top it. It is criminal that this record is only legendary in the underground.

6. Tonic - Sugar (Previous Rank: 7)
 Much like "Mad Season", mentioned earlier, "Sugar" is a songbook masquerading as an album. The set of songs is not a common thread, but instead is Tonic exploring all the avenues they had in front of them following their platinum success. There's hard-driving rock, shimmering pop, and one massive hit in the form of "You Wanted More". In many ways, "Sugar" is the definitive Tonic record, because it's the one that shows all of the band's influences and capabilities. They try on different guises, and they all work, because Emerson Hart is a masterful songwriter. The diversity of the record is its strength, giving you a different experience every four minutes.

5. Elvis Costello - King Of America (Previous Rank: 5)
 No album has taught me more over the years about the art of songwriting than "King Of America" has. It is a masterclass taught by Elvis Costello, as he has stripped down his songs to the bare bones, often just his acoustic guitar and ghostly band members barely percolating above the background silence. But in those songs, Elvis shows that it isn't production or layered band arrangements that make songs work. The song itself needs to be built on a foundation of steel. That is what these songs are, portraits of America that need no adornment to be powerful, no lush orchestras to be beautiful. It's the simplicity of a man and a guitar that makes this album work. It also contains one of my favorites quips from a song, "she said that she was working for the ABC News, it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use." No one could twist a knife quite like Elvis.

4. Dilana - Beautiful Monster (Previous Rank: 4)
It's easy to become jaded and think that you've heard everything there is to offer, that no new music can ever stand up to the memories you already have. And then something comes along to blow up the wall you've put up around yourself. That's what Dilana did with this album, a piece of music I spent many words originally trying to convey my thoughts on. I was a jaded critic, and still am, but a record like this is able to pierce through that facade and hit me somewhere deeper. This is as raw and emotional an album as I've ever heard, one where Dilana's peerless voice is able to make you feel each and every word she sings. It is a somber affair, yes, but it is a catharsis that is necessary. Music like this makes it possible to clear out the junk, and make room for honesty.

3. The Wallflowers - (Breach) (Previous Rank: 3)
Everyone remembers "Bringing Down The Horse", but few ever even heard the record that followed it up, which is a shame, because it's better in every way. Jakob Dylan came into his own on this album, writing the kind of American rock and roll that Tom Petty preached, and that his father's electric excursion could not have produced. While "Mourning Train" is a somber procession (in the best way), the meat of the album are muscular rock tracks that wind guitars and keyboards together in tight little knots of intricacy. There's always something going on in the background, while Dylan delivers his finest poetry. "Letters From The Wasteland" and "Sleepwalker" are muscular tracks that show power can take forms other than heaviness. Dylan's melodies are relentlessly catchy, and he delivers one of the finest lines I've ever heard in a song when he sings, "I can't fix something this complex any more than I can build a rose." That's how I feel about the record.

2. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell II (Previous Rank: 2)
Few record have the power to transport me to another place. The second, and best, installment of the Bat series is one of them. This is two men at the height of their powers, putting it all on the table, because there was no telling if they would ever get a shot. I don't know if any record has ever been more bombastic, more overwrought, and more dramatic. Jim Steinman is a hero of mine, and this album is the main reason why. No one else could have written these songs, and no one but Meat Loaf could have sung them. It was a moment in time where everything came together, and every time I listen to these songs, I'm transported back to when I first fell in love with music. It was because of this record, and it still holds up as a mad genius' most ostentatious display.

1. Tonic - Lemon Parade (Previous Rank: 1)

But my favorite album of all time is "Lemon Parade", for two separate but intertwined reasons. The first is that it is a truly amazing record. This might have been a debut album, but it is a lived-in classic rock record that could have come from the late 70s without missing a beat. It had all of Emerson Hart's trademark songcraft, but wrapped up in a package that was more powerful, heavier, and rock oriented. The other reason is that, in addition to the songs themselves, "Lemon Parade" is the album that I've been chasing. As a musician myself, we all have influences we try to live up to. "Lemon Parade" is the album I wish I could make. Not only did "If You Could Only See" lead me to pick up my first instrument, but it and this record remain the blueprint for everything I have tried to do with it. Any record that leaves that kind of impact on me has to be my favorite album of all time. That is "Lemon Parade".

Monday, January 2, 2017

My Top Twenty Albums Of All Time: 20-11

Every music fan has faced the question at some point; what are your favorite albums ever? In some respects, it's an unbelieveably easy question to answer. We surely know what albums have meant the most to us, and we've most enjoyed, during the course of our time as fans. On the other hand, it's also a wrenchingly difficult question to wrap our heads around. To boil down a lifetime of listening to a few albums, and to then go further and rank them in order, pits the various reasons we listen against each other, and complicated math is necessary to sort through the results.

I have done this before, but the results were only shared with friends. Now, for the first time, I will put this compilation of my favorite albums on the record, for you to argue with and snicker at. To arrive at these findings, I considered the relative greatness of the records, how much of an impact they have had on me as a music fan, and perhaps most importantly how often I listen to them and how much enjoyment I still get out of them.

That last point made an impact on the list. This is the third time that I have ranked my favorites, and because of how infrequently I reach for it these days, there is one album that has dropped from number four to completely out of the top twenty. Others have risen steadily. Here, now, are what stand today as my twenty favorite albums of all time.

20. Trouble - Trouble (Previous Rank: 16)

If you're a guitar player, you need to know about Trouble. They have the single greatest guitar tandem that no one ever talks about, and they have never been better than on their 1990 self-titled album. Their tone is crushing, the riffs have Tony Iommi's knack for being memorable by themselves, and Eric Wagner has one of the most unique voices you'll ever hear. That makes the band an acquired taste, but it works for me. Rick Rubin cut the fat out of their songwriting, and these songs are focused metallic assaults that hit hard, and linger long after.

19. Edguy - Tinnitus Sanctus (Previous Rank: 18)
Edguy is the band that got me into metal, but it is not any of the albums that did so that make my list. Instead, I pick the black sheep of their career, the album even their fans love to hate. Why? "Tinnitus Sanctus" has Edguy's usual humor and abundance of catchy melodies, but twists it with a darker and heavier guitar sound. The balance of heaviness and cheesy melody combines two of my musical loves, and makes for an album I can grab at any time and enjoy. I love Edguy, but this is likely half of my listening to them.

18. Edward O'Connell - Vanishing Act (Previous Rank: 30)
A slot on this list had always been filled by Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces", which I consider as good a pop record ever made by a rock artist. That was until I realized I like "Vanishing Act" even more. It sounds like a vintage Costello record in all the best ways, with vocals and sweet, sticky melodies that bring to mind the master songwriter. These songs have sly humor, and put the power back into power-pop. It's hard to find a better collection of slick, hooky songs.

17. Dan Swano - Moontower (Previous Rank: 19)
The greatest death metal album ever made, bar none. This album that has been described as "if Rush played death metal" is a one-of-a-kind record that rightfully should have defined a genre. Instead, this melodic, classic rock meets death metal album languishes as an underappreciated gem. The vintage synths give the music a classic prog feel, the riffing is clean and dirty at the same time, and Dan Swano delivers the single greatest harsh vocal performance ever. He's clear, brutal, and able to growl true melodies. An incredible feat.

16. Elton John - The Captain & The Kid (Previous Rank: 20)
Often, Elton's persona overwhemls the music he has made. That's what makes an album like this so special. Everything about it is stripped back to the basics, as he and Bernie Taupin tell their own story through these songs. Elton is a masterful songwriter, and that's what shines through on this record. It's not as lively or flamboyant as Elton's hits from the 70s, but it's honest and authentic, which are more important factors. Song after song, he hits on great melodies that make you wonder how he was still firing on all cylinders thirty albums into his career.

15. Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope (Previous Rank: 14)
Over the last few years, one of my big developments as a music fan is the growing esteem I have for the works of Neal Morse. While plenty of his albums are fantastic, it was with this one that I was most amazed. Progressive rock can be indulgent, pretentious, and difficult to embrace. Transatlantic is the first two, to be sure. With two half-hour suites sandwiching three more digestible tracks, this is an album that demands patience. But no matter the length, the band delivers intricate musical moments that combine with fantastic melodies to make for a musical epiphany. It's a journey well worth taking.

14. Graveyard - Lights out (Previous Rank: 33)
When I first heard this album, I described it as 'the closest thing we have to a time machine, to go back and experience what it was like when rock ruled the world'. I didn't know at the time those words would not be hyperbole. Graveyard, before they sadly disbanded, established themselves as the greatest band of recent years. All four of their albums are great, but it's "Lights Out" that stands above the rest. This was the perfect balance between their ragged rock and their wrenching ballads, between their energy and their emotion. In a little over half an hour, Graveyard runs the gamut of what classic rock was and could again be, and they made a record that may not be a time machine, but it will be a time capsule to prove great rock records are still being made. I expect this to continue climbing my list in the coming years.

13. Bob Catley - Immortal (Previous Rank: 23)
Bob Catley has one of those magical voices that I can't help but love listening to, though his career is largely filled with albums that aren't as interesting as he himself is. The biggest exception is "Immortal", a solo album that gave him the best material of his career. For an hour, Catley is able to deliver his dramatic vocals on songs that are melodic metal perfection. The man knows how to sell a song, and he delivers a fantastic performance on an album that would be great no matter who was singing it. But it's Catley, and he makes it even better. It's hard to find, but well worth the search. This style doesn't get any better.

12. Bloodbound - Tabula Rasa (Previous Rank: 13)
The evolution of metal in the 21st century has been interesting, if for no other reason than seeing it all go wrong. "Tabula Rasa" was an album that blew me away when I first heard it, and one that remains a mystery as to why it didn't completely redefine what metal was about to be. The band takes the chainsaw rhythmic attack of melodic death metal, and adds Urban Breed's phenomenal vocal power and melodies to make something that was truly unique at the time. Even now, it sounds completely ahead of its time, and every time I listen to the record, I feel like I'm hearing the next evolution of metal, even though I know it is mostly a fossilized branch of the evolutionary tree that bore no fruit.

11. Jimmy Eat World - Futures (Previous Rank: 17)
"Futures" was Jimmy Eat World's version of "Pinkerton". After they achieved massive success with shiny pop/rock hits, they turned around and made a record that was dark and depressive, which no one wanted to hear. These many years later, it stands out as the best thign they've ever done. Their heavy guitar rock rages harder for the anger behind the songs, and the ballads are infused with a darkness that makes the melodies even more longing. It's an atmospheric record, in a sense, that requires a certain mood to get the most impact from it. But when that mood hits, there's nothing quite like the feeling "Futures" is able to showcase.