Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Album Review: Danko Jones - Wild Cat

When you receive an album, you can't help but make snap judgments. While there is the old adage that you can't judge a book (on in this case an album) by its cover, you can make a few pretty good hypotheses based on the outer packaging. When this new Danko Jones album showed up, with it's retro 70's album cover, and the first two songs both name-checking rock and roll, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what I was getting myself into, even if I can't say I've listened to a Danko Jones album before. Was I right?

I've opined many times about my distaste for songs written about rocking. It seems to me that the single least rocking thing you can do is whine to everyone else about how rocking you are. You can't give yourself a nickname, and you can't declare yourself rocking. If it isn't apparent from the music, you're not doing it right.

Danko's approach here is to be meat-and-potatoes rock and roll, with the slightly fuzzy production you would have expected years ago. That guitar tone, with the occasional cowbell hit, makes the record sound older than it's intending. This isn't written like a retro album, so the production choice is odd, and out of place. These songs are calling out for a sharper, more biting production, and instead have to fight through guitars that sound a bit flabby, and never feel the least bit dangerous.

I enjoy the start/stop riffing on "You Are My Woman", which could easily be a Black Star Riders song, but also sounds like a seriously toned-down version of The Darkness, when they were actually a good band. But it also leads to my biggest issue with the album. For a project named after a singer, the vocals are a rather unimportant part of this album. Danko's voice is fine, but his melodies are tame and flat, rarely giving the songs anything that you would imagine yourself singing along with. The entire album is centered around the riffs, for that reason, which is the wrong approach, since the band doesn't write the kind of riffs that can support a song all on their own.

A few of them create some nice rhythms, but they are mostly repetitions of incredibly simple chord sequences. That is the perfect backdrop for songs that have strong melodies to balance out the sound, but we don't get that here. Instead, we have songs that don't have enough interesting moments to justify even the three and four minute running times.

The album cover is a picture of a cat duo-toned to look almost alien. That's a fitting image, because "Wild Cat" sounds like an album that has had all the color and detail stripped away. We have nothing here but the very skeletons of songs, and that's just not enough to interest me when the underlying ideas aren't strong enough. The riffs aren't catchy, and the melodies are boring. That adds up to an album that is trying to convince itself it rocks, but I get the feeling even Danko knows it doesn't.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Best New(ish) Bands

As a music fan, there aren't many experiences that come close to matching the excitement felt when you find a great new band. The problem with that, I have found, is few of those bands that make a great first impression are able to keep that feeling going for very long. There have been many bands I have encountered who made a great album, only to then drift away from whatever it was I found so appealing. Take, for instance, Blues Pills. Their debut record was a fantastic effort of vintage rock and roll, but last year they followed that up with a retro soul album that I didn't understand in the slightest. I would consider that a wasted opportunity. But for every bad story, there is a good one to balance it out. Today I present five of my favorite new bands.

To qualify, they need to have formed recently, and have two or fewer albums under their belts. We aren't far enough along down the road to say for sure these bands will endure, but these are the ones I have the most faith in.

The Spider Accomplice - Having made the best EP in each of the last two years, they sit at the top of the list of bands I can't wait to hear more from. The first two pieces of the "Los Angeles" puzzle are fantastic examples of how to be artistic and adventurous while retaining the direct songwriting and melodic immediacy that eludes many bands with higher aspirations. And having material from two batches that both climbed so high in my esteem sets The Spider Accomplice up as a shining star of promise. When the third installment of their EP series drops, I will be at the front of the line waiting with baited breath to hear what comes next. Combined as one conceptual piece, "Los Angeles" has the potential to be one of the best musical experiences of the last couple years.

Shiverburn - This young band from The Netherlands basically lost a coin flip to place as the second best album of 2016 on my list. I don't remember the last time I heard a debut record that good, nor a pop record from a new act that captures the sound that made me such a music fan in the late 90s/early '00s. As I listen to the pop charts become worse and worse every year, Shiverburn gave me a momentary belief that pop and rock can still coexist in the way I want it to. With another album of similar quality, they can establish themselves as a vital and necessary part of the musical landscape.

Forever Still - Another group that made my list of favorites from 2016, Forever Still has proven to me that they aren't a flash in the pan. From EP to EP, to their debut album, they have only gotten better with each turn. That trajectory tells me that there is still room for growth, which would elevate them into one of the best modern, mainstream rock bands out there. My faith is not alone, as the re-release of "Tied Down" on Nuclear Blast shows that the industry is catching on. I can say I was there early, and in their case, that's a badge of pride.

Lunden Reign - Classic rock is a hard thing for modern bands to recreate, and few do it better than Lunden Reign. Nikki and Laura have reached into the past, and created a sound for themselves that recalls the best of Heart and Led Zeppelin. I was a great fan of "American Stranger", and with "Red Wagon" previewing what is soon to come, I have no doubt that they are going to continue to make great music that has an authenticity and spirit sorely lacking in other places.

And for the last spot, I couldn't choose. There are two more bands I'm extremely hopeful for, but with a slight bit more hesitation:

Incura & Bad Salad - These two bands have both made music that I quite loved. Incura's debut album was the best example of theatrically-inclined rock that I remember hearing, but I do wonder how easily that weird yet sticky sound can be carried over from album to album. I am optimistic, for sure, but I realize the possibility of a let-down is higher. As for Bad Salad, I find them to be the most promising progressive metal band of the last few years. Their debut album was derivative, but extremely good. Then their "Puzzled" EP shifted into a more unique sound, and was so good it made my year-end list when it came out. What worries me is that they are at work on a new concept album, and I have a questionable history with those. Concepts are hard to pull off, and as good as I think Bad Salad are, it would be easy for the album to fall victim to the issues plagued by the format.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Album Review: Arduini/Balich - Dawn Of Ages

The world of doom is one that I can't speak to with much authority. There are few doom bands that I follow to any degree, and the ones that I have been mildly a fan of over the years have seemingly all fallen into disrepair. In fact, I can't actually recall the last doom metal album I heard that I actually enjoyed. Am I in too good a mood for doom? Not likely, but I won't completely discount the idea. So when this album came around, presented as a progressive doom-laden musical journey, I wasn't getting my hopes up. Featuring a former Fates Warning guitarist from the era when they weren't yet Fates Warning, and the voice of the increasingly dull Argus, Arduini/Balich is a project with its work cut out for it, if it wants to impress me.

Our journey begins with four minutes of guitar buildup, as Arduini winds through a few melodies before the first riffs finally appear. When that happens, we get a very Sabbath-ian chugging, complete with dirty distortion and bent notes pulling the end of each riff just far enough off key to sound unsettling. Balich comes in, and while I've never denied that the guy has a good voice for this kind of music, he is one in the long line of singers who isn't nearly as good a writer as he is a vocalist. "The Fallen" is a ten minute opus where very little actually happens. After all the time spent building to the meat of the track, the riff is underwhelming, and Balich doesn't offer anything close to a memorable melody.

"Forever Fade" is better, in that the guitar build is more effective, and the atmosphere is easier to swallow. But again, the main riff of the song is a bit of chugging followed by a bent note, and Balich is in full-on anti-melody mode. It almost sounds as though he was trying to be as bland as humanly possible as a vocalist. It's not a good sound. Not at all.

And then there's the biggest issue with the album. At six tracks and an hour long, it is a chore to get through. Tracks ranging from ten to seventeen minutes are fine as occasional forays into something more experimental, but when four of the six tracks on the record are that long, without the requisite amount of musical ideas to fill the time, it's self-indulgent, and hurts the product.

I know exactly what "Dawn Of Ages" is. This is a record that a guitarist made because he was tired of not being the central focus of his old band. This is a guitarist's album made for guitarists, with a vocalist in place just to appease the people who don't like instrumental music. The guitar playing on here would be fine for an old-school Sabbath worshiping band, assuming they wanted to play half an hour of gritty music. There is not an hour's worth of good ideas here, and Balich adds absolutely nothing with his vocals. He has no melodies, and doesn't even have a riff to follow the way Ozzy used to.

These people can talk about the album as being a 'musical journey', but that's a fancy way of saying they were indulging themselves without caring if the end result was listenable. "Dawn Of Ages" is a mediocre EP stretched out to a lengthy album. My patience doesn't stretch that far, so consider this a miserable flop.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Album Review: Crystal Fairy - Crystal Fairy

Supergroups are an easy way to gain attention when starting out a new project. Aside from the mixing of fan-bases that each member will bring in, there is an increased level of buzz generated in the media for a band with members that are already known. It's an easier story to write, as opposed to a wholly original group with no established history to fall back on. Of course, that all depends on the members being well-known enough to create that self-sufficient attention. In the case of Crystal Fairy, while these people are certainly well-known among a certain stripe of music fans, I cannot lay any claim to being familiar with any of their previous work. So you will see no Mars Volta or Melvins references here. I am doing the rare thing and walking into a supergroup completely blind to their history.

What Crystal Fairy is all about is gritty rock and roll. There's a dirty edge to the rumbling guitars that makes this album sound like a product of the underground, even if it really isn't. There is very much a DIY aesthetic to the tones that are chosen, which makes this sound more like a project a few friends threw together in their garage, as opposed to a band aiming to make a quick buck on the touring circuit. That's a very good thing.

I quite enjoy the mix of Teri Gender Bender's voice against the heavy crunch the music provides. I might not have thought about such a voice fronting a band with this particular style, but that uniqueness is one of the best things Crystal Fairy has going for them. They don't sound like much else out there.

The problem, however, is that while Crystal Fairy has a likeable sound, they don't necessarily have the songs to back it up. The opening "Chiseler" has a solid groove to it, and "Drugs On The Bus" pounds like a sledgehammer, but there isn't enough sinew to the songwriting to tie the pieces together. The vocals might be an interesting choice, but they don't do anything interesting. Now I realize that this isn't supposed to be pop music, but when the band drifts into more stoner rock sensibilities, there needs to be some sort of melody coming through to give the listener something to remember. For all of the guitar talent that Crystal Fairy boasts, the riffs don't often hit that sweet spot where they are memorable on their own.

The best songs here are the ones that keep the tempos moving along at a reasonable clip. It's easy when playing this kind of music to let everything slow to a crawl, and when Crystal Fairy does, the songs bog down in tedium. Perhaps I just don't understand that kind of influence, or I haven't been properly influenced for it, but it is not appealing in the least.

So what to make of Crystal Fairy? Well, my honest answer is that they are a band that is doing something right, and something wrong. They have a sound that is fresh enough, and has something appealing about it. However, they also have songs that don't feel vibrant and vital. They are, at this point, more an idea than a working entity. There is a hint of a great band in here, but this is step one on the road to that point. It's interesting, but not quite there yet.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

My Take: Beyonce, Adele, & The Grammys

Sunday night at the Grammys, Adele swept the major categories for the second time in her career, becoming the first artist to do so. The morning after, I awoke to a flood of stories that were angry rants about the robbery that took place. The overwhelming consensus of the commentariat was that Beyonce deserved to win, and it was somehow an affront to the idea of justice that she wasn't given her first Album Of The Year statuette.

These arguments came in three flavors:

1) Beyonce's album was better
2) Beyonce's album was a cultural force
3) Beyonce only lost because of racism

The first argument is one of personal taste, and if you think Beyonce made a better record than Adele, that's fine. I won't try to persuade you differently. But if you were being an objective observer, I don't know how you could have expected any other result.

Yes, "Lemonade" was a cultural force that resonated immensely. But it did so in a narrow band of the population. Beyonce's experiences are not universal, and her pride in making an album that was representative of her culture, while a brave stand for an artist of her stature, limited the appeal it could have across generational lines.

Also, the release of "Lemonade" was not strictly about the music. The accompanying videos, and the visual story the album told, was as much a part of the experience as the songs themselves. While that can be a powerful artistic statement, the reliance on video for delivering the message is self-defeating when then talking about awards that are handed out strictly for the music. "Lemonade" was not presented as an album, but an experience, which I think came back to bite it when the Grammy voters took up their ballots.

Furthermore, let's not forget about who won this award. Adele is not a token winner, some out of the blue name picked simply to (allegedly) uphold the voters' superiority complex. Adele was as much a phenomenon as Beyonce. "25" was not just critically acclaimed, but it crossed gender and age boundaries like no record ever has, selling more copies from its release to its Grammy nomination than any album in the history of recorded music. Think about that.

"25" was not a nice album that voters used as a way to send a message. It was the biggest record on the planet, and single-handedly smashed every conception we had about what record sales could be in the age of streaming. Beyonce's album was important to the people who heard it, while Adele's album had the added layer of being important to the very idea of recorded music. So let's stop talking as though Adele lucked into anything. She made a fantastic record that turned the world of music on its head.

But the worst take of all that I saw was one that declared Beyonce was robbed, and she should have won, because "she's an artist." I can't get over the dripping condescension in that statement towards Adele, who (and I'll get in trouble here) is more of an artist than Beyonce will ever be.

I personally don't care how many people it takes to make a record. A great song is a great song, regardless of how it came to be. But if you're going to use the argument that Beyonce is a great artist, please explain to me how that great artist needs more than two dozen people to write an album with her, including more than a dozen for a single song. That doesn't sound artistic to me.

Really, though, we need to get over the idea that our taste is the only taste that matters. All of these angry rants demanding Beyonce was really the winner are just people expressing outrage that people don't see things the same way they do. It should have been obvious that Adele has a wide and deep base of critical and popular support, and was always the front-runner to win this Grammy.

And if you're going to argue the other way, try arguing actual music merits. I'd love to hear that.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Album Review: Dool - Here Now, There Then

When bands are composed of members who were in other bands, the story is often told strictly through the terms of those former bands. But what does that mean for those of us who never listened to the prior groups? In the case of Dool, it means I hadn't the foggiest idea what to think going into this record. The main attraction here are two former members of The Devil's Blood, a band whose name I had heard, but whom I never listened to. In that sense, I can't say that I have any prior affinity for Dool, nor any reason to unfairly compare them to a different group. Despite history, I am flying blind.

The album gets off to what can generously be called a deliberate start. Nearly two minutes of slow guitars pick soft sequences of notes, delaying the true start to the music. When it does get going, "Vantablack" stretches out for ten minutes, and shows us the kind of dark rock that Dool is going to be playing. The song is slow, with a few simple riffs to underscore the far-away vocals. The mix puts them back far enough that they can be difficult to hear, which could be a decision to give the album a Gothic atmosphere, but I feel that it dulls the song's ability to grab the listener.

The pace picks up a bit on "Golden Serpents", and with the added bounce comes a sound that is far more appealing. The ability to combine a darker aesthetic with a happier tempo is one of the things that this kind of music needs to do if it wants to make an impact, and there are times when Dool does that. The chorus in the aforementioned song has a lively cadence, and the guitar freakout that comes right after has a spirit of 70s adventurism to it. That kind of song is something that is hugely appealing when done well.

There is a comparison for this album I can make. It reminds me a good deal of Year Of The Goat's "The Unspeakable", which was one of my favorite albums from a couple years back. Like that album, this is vintage occult-tinged rock that tries to balance atmosphere with hooky songwriting. And for the most part, Dool is able to do that pretty well. It's not quite as relentlessly catchy as "The Unspeakable" was, and the opening ten minutes add nothing, but the majority of the album is a fun mix of darkness and hooks.

Another way to think about Dool is what if Ghost was less blatantly (satirically) Satanic, and wrote music to be played in smokey clubs instead of big arenas. That's essentially what Dool is doing here. When the take the right cues, they are capable of making music that is thoroughly enjoyable. The problem is that, being a new band, they haven't figured out the right balance yet. There are a couple songs that are heavily doom, and they are plodding and uninteresting. Towards the back of the album there are also longer instrumental passages, which suck some of the life out of the songs.

Dool is showing plenty of potential here, and there are four or five really good tracks. There's hope for them to focus their sound and make something great next time out, but this record is a bit short of the high bar the comparisons have set for it. It's solid, but it's a work in progress.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Album Review: Battle Beast - Bringer Of Pain

The worlds of traditional and power metal have branched off into two categories. You have the one group that is still writing music in the old Helloween mold, with speedy chugging and soaring vocals. You have the other group that is writing chunky, modern melodeath inspired songs with deeper and sadder vocals. Then, in the middle, you have a few bands that want to take us back to the good ol' days, when music was as cheesy as it was heavy, when bands could be menacing and fun at the same time. Modern audiences might not get it, but those of us just old enough to remember when a poorly sketched cartoon on an album cover was enough to start Congressional hearings will have a wry smile knowing that spirit hasn't been completely forgotten.

Battle Beast, with this newest album, is putting their tongue firmly in cheek, creating a metal album that embraces the cheesier aspects of the 80s, and updating it with a modern crunch. If you take metal seriously, you might want to walk away. But if you have a sense of humor, let's talk.

"Straight To The Heart" gets... forgive the pun, straight to the heart of the album's attitude. With big, cheesy synth pulses mixed in with the riffs, there's a pervasive air of fun to the album right away that tells you it's going to be a fun ride. And when they get to the chorus and Noora Louhimo's raspy voice tears through the hook, it becomes one of those perfect nuggets of nostalgia for people like me, who lament the fact that heavy metal has become so obsessed with being miserable. Battle Beast is here to kick ass and have fun, which are indeed two things that can be done at the same time.

You may have heard the single already, "Familiar Hell". Dear lord, it is about as perfect a cheesy, pop metal song as you can write. The hook is better than almost anything Taylor Swift has written, and there are more than passing resemblances to Bonnie Tyler in Noora's vocals. Considering that Bonnie gained her fame singing songs by the master of overblown cheese, Jim Steinman, that makes Noora a perfect fit for what Battle Beast is doing here. Maybe I'm a sucker, but it will be one of the best songs of the year. I'm sure of it.

If the whole album was that riotously catchy, I'd spend another three paragraphs rambling on about how often I hit the replay button. The rest of the album, as expected, doesn't measure up to those fantastic tracks. There are attempts at being heavier, like "Lost In Wars", that are enjoyable in their own way, but just don't have quite the the same panache.

But let's not lose sight of the main point. Battle Beast has made a heavy metal album that is fun, and that's something in rare supply. Sure, there's a song or two that is a bit flat, but the overall presentation here is one well worth hearing, if you're a fan of the old days when metal fans were goofballs, and not into self-harm. Sure, "Bringer Of Pain" is cheesy, but that's what makes it endearing. If you can handle that, Battle Beast is well worth your time.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Album Review: Bloodbound - War Of Dragons

Oh Bloodbound, what a strange journey it has been. Before they ever released a record, I was one of those people in the right places online to hear about this upcoming new band that was set to do something special. I heard "Nosferatu" that first day, and I sensed the spark of something great. We know the story by now. Urban Breed came, then went, then came, then went. Over the course of their time together, Bloodbound has made two albums that I think are fantastic, including one that is in my top twenty of all time. Those are the two albums with Urban. The others have left no lasting impact on me, which makes passing judgment on Bloodbound as a band difficult to do.

I have, however, kept giving each new album a try, in the hope they can recapture what made them great at one time. The band has found stability in the last three albums, but that stability has come at the expense of inspiration. Bloodbound has settled into a predictable groove now, with each album following a template.

That's not to say they don't color around the edges a bit. This time around, Bloodbound is throwing more keyboards back into the mix, adding a hint of cheese and symphonic bombast to the songs. It's not a bad approach, since these songs are not composed in a way that puts the riffs at center stage much of the time. The one questionable use of this tactic is evident in "Tears Of A Dragonheart", where the keys back every syllable of the chorus. It's one layer too many, and distracts from the hook.

Moreover, what's lacking here are those songs that have big, melodic hooks for days. Songs like "Unholy Cross" and "Bonebreaker" from this version of the band did that incredibly well, and it's not to be found here. Instead, "War Of Dragons" is filled with hooks that replicate the hits of percussion. I know that the removal of melody has been a big trend in heavier regions of the metal universe, but a power metal band like Bloodbound can't afford to get rid of the defining aspect of their sound.

And by the time the woodwinds make an appearance on "Silver Wings", it's apparent that this album is an attempt to make something out of the Rhapsody playbook, a soundtrack to a fantasy story I don't care about. I was cringing a bit just from the title referencing dragons, but my utter lack of interest in anything fantasy-realm related makes the subject matter here a chore. I don't know how power metal got stuck on swords and dragons, but I wish they would stop.

So "War Of Dragons" continues Bloodbound's flat-line trajectory. This incarnation of the band has found what they want to do, and they keep churning out albums that I suppose appeal to enough power metal fans. Myself, I find their current approach to be stale. "War Of Dragons" isn't a bad album, but it's a bland take on something that is meant to be grandiose. I realize they're never going to reach the heights I remember them for, but I would like to say I see some forward momentum for the band. Unfortunately, I don't. Bloodbound is stable now, but that might have made them too safe.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Album Review: Kreator - Gods Of Violence

I declared that 2016 might have been the weakest year for music since I've been keeping track of my listening. Part of the reason for that, at least on the metal side of the ledger, is because it was viewed by many as the year of thrash. Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax all released (hugely underwhelming) new albums, and it seemed for a while all anyone could do was talk about thrash, of which I am not a fan. Not being an adrenaline-fueled teenager, the speed of thrash is something that's never spoken to me, and the lack of good vocalists in the genre rarely overcame that fact. But, I'm usually willing to give things a chance, so with the hype surrounding the new Kreator album in full swing, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Could these thrash titans win me over?

In one word; yes.

In more words; Kreator is able to do something unique and desperately needed with thrash. While they harness all the speed and venom you would expect from the genre, they do so with a few different influences, Iron Maiden foremost among them. There are plenty of moments here where the two guitars break off into harmonies that Murray and Smith would have played in 1986, which is the single best thing about Kreator's modern sound. Thrash is often so focused on the percussive bursts of the rhythm guitars that melody is completely ignored. Adding those elements into the musical backdrop not only gives us something deeper and more engaging to listen to, but it lessens the load the vocals need to lift to make the songs memorable.

On that front, however, Mille Petrozza doesn't need much help. One of my main issues with thrash is that the vocals are often an afterthought, but here Mille gives every song a chorus that is loud and aggressive, but anthemic enough that the crowd in the pit can easily shout along with it as their bodies bang off one another.

Take "Totalitarian Terror", for example. The opening riff is a blitzkrieg of thrash fury, running through a verse that could have been on any Slayer record. But instead of throwing out some random phrasing to serve as a hook, Mille has something much more grand to offer. It takes a traditional thrash motif, and then makes it better, just because they can.

But the Iron Maiden influence isn't strictly what it sounds like at first. It can also be viewed as being filtered through the Gothenberg melodic death metal school that pulled from that sound. In fact, I would argue that Kreator's sound at this point is half thrash, half melodic death metal. Mille's melodic growl is certainly something sitting in between a regular vocalist and a harsh death vocalist. He does give a heavy edge to the music, but depending on which side of the aisle you're coming from, he can also be a detriment.

But let's hone in on the important point. "Gods Of Violence" is a better example of how to do thrash than anything the Big Four have put out in decades. For all the praise those bands still get when they put out anything at all, Kreator is doing it better. They're heavier, more melodic, and writing better songs to boot. Look, I'm not Mr Thrash, so I'm never going to say that this is my favorite thing in the world, but I can recognize when something is done exceptionally well. Kreator has done that here. "Gods Of Violence" is everything a modern thrash album should be.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Album Review: Horisont - About Time

Time has a funny way of folding in on itself, turning trend-lines into blips, as the horizon ebbs and flows like the tides. It was only about two years ago when the retro rock revival was in full swing, and there were several bands with immensely bright futures who were going to wash out the worst of rock, and replace it with a more authentic vision. But now, that is a forgotten memory. Graveyard has broken up, Blues Pills decided to make a soul record, and none of the others have stepped up their game. What was a promising group of bands is now a rudderless ship, as the bright spot in the world of rock has been dimmed to a flickering wick fighting off a cold draft.

Horisont, though, is still out there and still plugging away, making the kind of rock music that could be undiscovered vinyls from the 70s. That is their charm, although I would say that they have yet to write songs that fully live up to the appeal of their sound. I have listened as each album has come out, waiting for them to master the art of writing like a 70s band, and not just sounding like one. Is this where they do that?

That's a tough question to answer. "The Hive" is most certainly a weird trip of a song, with enough changes in tone and tempo to make the three minutes a whiplash, and a few vocals that try to reach the sky the way Robert Plant thought was fun when everyone was too drug-fueled to know better. It is certainly a remnant of those days.

The tracks that follow are completely different in their approach, but they borrow the right ideas from the past, in a way that makes me think Horisont is finally figuring out that there's more to being a successful retro band than simply using old gear and pressing your album on vinyl. Even little things like the synth tone at the end of "Without Warning" are key to making these songs more than a pastiche of the past.

I've been critical of Horisont in the past, because they have always fallen short when it comes to the quality of their actual songs. What I can say about "About Time" is that it's easily Horisont's most interesting, and likely best record. They take a few more detours here, and feel more comfortable when doing so. There isn't the forced attempt to fit into the blueprint of what we wrongly think the 70s sounded like. The band is more confident in being themselves, and that comes through in the music.

The downside, however, is that they sometimes try to stretch their ideas too much, to the point where even the three minute running times can feel a bit long. Horisont is improving, but they haven't quite mastered the art of vintage songwriting the way that Graveyard did. "Night Line" is a very nice replication of the attitude of Thin Lizzy, but some of the other tracks lack that one signature hook that is necessary.

But let's focus on the positives here. "About Time" is the first Horisont record that I feel captures what they've been going for all along. It not only sounds like the 70s, it feels like the 70s as well. That's exactly what's missing from most of the retro bands out there, so achieving that is something to be proud of. Horisont may not be on the level of the top tier bands yet, but unlike the majority of bands in recent years that can't sustain themselves, let alone display growth, Horisont is doing that.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Album Review: Black Star Riders - Heavy Fire

A few years ago, the members of Black Star Riders made one of the best decisions in recent memory when they opted not to make their new music under the banner of Thin Lizzy. That name carried too many expectations and comparisons for their music to ever be taken at face value, whereas giving up the easy audience was the only way to ensure that they were making their mark on their merits. And make a mark they did. Their first album, "All Hell Breaks Loose" was a phenomenal classic rock record, with enough modern touches to make sure it sounded like a band with a vibrant future. It was something that deserved to stand on its own, rather than being compared to "Jailbreak" in every other paragraph. The follow-up, though, didn't continue that momentum. "The Killer Instinct" was a solid album, but it was clearly a step below the spark they had from their years touring as Thin Lizzy. If their sophomore effort was them finding their own voice, it could mean trouble.

So here we are with the third record, the one that will either right the ship, or the one that will make it obvious that Black Star Riders doesn't have the fire to keep a hot streak going.

Unfortunately, it seems the latter is the case, and I have to say I saw it coming. With Ricky Warwick having released two albums of material last year, and Damon Johnson starting his own side-project as well, the core of the songwriting for the band was making it all too obvious they were spreading themselves too thin. Not many people can write albums upon albums of songs in such short order, and it seems Black Star Riders have fallen victim to the necessity in this day for artists to make as much music as they possibly can.

Many of the songs here play from the same blueprint as the first two Black Star Riders albums so closely that the chord progressions sound nearly identical, and with the lack of bluesy riffs to balance out the familiar chords, there's an immediate lack of freshness to the album. It sounds a bit stale. Even if you like the sound, which I do, there is nothing whatsoever about this album to differentiate it from the first two. And if all three albums are identical, I'm not sure why I would ever listen to anything but the amazing debut.

The other issue I'm having trouble with is Warwick's insistence on repeating lines in the choruses of these songs. Plenty of other bands have done it before, and I always find it to be a lazy way of writing. Rather than find something interesting to say for four lines, or altering the melody ever so slightly to give the song some movement, he chooses instead to repeat the exact same thing. There's no skill in that.

That being said, there are still moments on the album that are great. "Cold War Love" uses an interesting muted soft riff to lead into a chorus that finally sounds like the big melody I've been waiting for. The subdued nature of the song, and the build and release it utilizes, gives the track an identity so it stands out. It's a very fine song, and easily my favorite here.

So what can we say about "Heavy Fire"? Well, I don't want to say it's a bad album, because it's not. It's perfectly solid, and I would enjoy it a fair bit on its merits, if it weren't for the fact that I feel Black Star Riders have already made this exactly same album, and better. Black Star Riders are a good band, and I wish them well, but they are a bit of a one-trick pony. At this point, as the albums blend together and Ricky Warwick's melodies seem to intersect, hearing one song/album is hearing them all. It's good, but I need something more.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Album Review: Soen - Lykaia

Soen is an interesting case. As the return vehicle of former Opeth drummer Martin Lopez, everyone was expecting a band that touched on the same basic themes as the legends. Instead, Soen's debut record was a near exact copy of Tool, which while a good record, was shocking in how much it plagiarized that band's sound. They brought in a few of the more Opeth-ian bits we expected on their second album, which was one that veered a bit too far into the abstract. So with two records under their belt, and no identity of their own having been firmly established, that led to serious questions being raised about this, their critical third album. The best news leading up to the release was that the band had focused on a more natural recording process, which would hopefully lead to a more organic record.

We got out first taste of this new approach through the two singles, "Sectarian" and "Lucidity". The former opens the record, and introduces us to a new approach that is no longer afraid of the band's most obvious connection. The opening chords and the bridge riff are pure Opeth, as are many of the riffs that drive these songs. The Tool influence from the debut has been replaced with a more melodic edge, which is a wise move, as it gives Soen an identity that finally feels like their own. That is highlighted on "Lucidity", which diverges from everything we know about the band to spend its nearly seven minutes as a slow, plaintive ballad that highlights some lovely harmonies.

Three albums in, and I don't think it's possible for Soen to have found a better vocalist. Joel Ekelöf is the ideal blend of Maynard and Mikael, which allows the band to shift their focus from rhythm to melody without having to think twice about it. And with two albums under his belt digesting this rhythmic beast, the melodic writing has become stronger than before. That has been my main gripe with Soen so far. While they have a great sound, and some intricate rhythms, the melodies sitting atop them have not always been up to the level of the rest of the band. This was most apparent on "Tellurian", which I feel suffered from a lack of real songwriting.

"Lykaia" is the best distillation yet of the Soen sound. Martin Lopez is still playing tricky rhythms, and the guitars have just the right amount of dark bite to them, but everything hangs together as more cohesive songs than before. Now, when a song like "Orison" breaks down into a slow and somber section, it feels like the natural flow of a composition catching its breath. All bands have growing pains, even those formed from veteran musicians. Soen had to make it through that period in the public eye, but it's clear they are emerging on the other side now.

If you allow me a slightly indulgent aside here; when Opeth phased out their growled vocals a few albums back, there was massive interest in hearing what they could do, and how big they could get, with a more appealing facade. Obviously, that didn't work out, as Opeth is now flailing to justify their current sound. I mention this because "Lykaia" is exactly what we were hoping Opeth was moving towards; heavy, melodic, involved music that is immediately gratifying but still challenges us as listeners.

Sometimes you don't realize something is needed until it falls into your lap. "Lykaia" is the album that the metal universe needs right now. While metal is fracturing into tiny splinters with fans that no longer cross the boundaries, Soen has made an album that is is the embodiment of what truly modern progressive metal can be. Opeth set the metal world on fire with a run of albums that could never bridge the divides between us, but "Lykaia" can. Let me say something controversial here; the only thing holding "Lykaia" back from being the most important metal album of the year is the lack of growled vocals, and if you're one of those people who won't listen to metal with clean singing, you aren't a fan of music. Full stop.

I've been a bit harder on Soen than many, because I could imagine where they could wind up. This is that place I imagined, and now that they're here, we need to recognize that "Lykaia" is quite possibly the album that will define metal in 2017, and the first true contender to be Album Of The Year.