Thursday, March 30, 2017

Album Review: 1476 - Our Season Draws Near

I've broached the subject before, but let me start this conversation by reiterating the fact that I believe when we hear music makes a difference to how we hear it. Certain albums and certain sounds more closely align with a particular time, and I feel it would behoove artists to keep that in mind, as best they can, when releasing music. I say that because of this album, which 1476 describes as "winter-themed". If that is the case, why is it being released at the end of March, in what is neither practically or technically winter? Even before hitting the play button, I'm perplexed that they would be releasing a record about a specific season right at the time when I'm trying my hardest to move on to the next one. It almost comes across like a network accidentally running a Christmas movie in February.

But let's for the time being move on to the music itself. We start things off with "Our Silver Age", which opens with a single acoustic guitar underpinning vocals that are sung so quietly and sloppily that I can barely make them out. I know there is an indie-rock aesthetic where being lazy in your playing is 'hip', but it sounds awful there, and it sounds awful here too. I can't really tell you what the song is like, because it buries the important parts with lackluster performances, until the instrumental back-half of the song pulls a heavy "The Drapery Falls" vibe. That part is good, but it's a segue, not a song.

We move on to black metal guitars for "Ettins", thankfully without the wretched shrieking that makes that genre intolerable. But like the black metal it's derived from, the vocals do neglect to throw anything melodic on the table, which makes the song as tepid and boring as you would expect tame black metal to be.

As I remember, the previous exposure I had to the band was not like this. The elements were all the same, but their songwriting at least attempted to write songs that could be memorable. They didn't succeed at nearly the rate they needed to, but it was a far better option than what they're serving us here.

Forming a band is easy. Making a record is easy too. The hardest thing in music is writing songs. Not just pieces of music that fill the running time, but real songs that have emotions or melodies listeners can latch on to. That is where 1476 falls on their faces, as many bands tend to. They're able to write music, but not songs. There just aren't moments here that anyone is going to remember. The vocals are largely to blame, with the flat and boring delivery, but the writing itself isn't strong enough that even a good performance would have improved this album much. Like winter, the lasting impact is more about being beaten down than anything.

Which brings me back to the beginning; if "Our Season Draws Near" is a winter album, it needs to be heard in winter. At a time when I'm thinking about the coming of spring, the brightening of the sky, and the warming of the air, the last thing I want to do is go back and listen to an album that says, "hey, wasn't it cool when you were freezing and shoveling snow?!" No.

Maybe "Our Season Draws Near" would be a decent album if that season was in fact drawing near, but I doubt it. It's not good now, and I can't imagine it being any better at another time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Album Review: Sinner - Tequila Suicide

Mat Sinner has seemingly been around forever, and done everything. He's a member of Primal Fear, he's written songs for other projects like Kiske/Somerville, all the while he's fronted his own rock band during his 'down' time. Sinner has never gotten the same amount of attention as a lot of his other projects, even though it's the longest running. I would guess it has something to do with what is viewed as his 'main' priority, but that debate doesn't have anything to do with the music Sinner is putting forward here.

Compared to his other projects, Sinner is the more stripped-down, meat and potatoes rock and roll band. "Go Down Fighting" opens the album in this spirit, a less than three minute burst of rock and roll that's light on riffs, but heavy on the drinking, partying spirit. Sure, I don't relate one bit to lyrics bout getting drunk and raising hell, but the song is trying to be a burst of fun, and it succeeds at that end.

The title track of the album is even better, plowing through the simple song to get to the catchy chorus, which is sung with a laid-back air that works against the bounce of the track. That's not a criticism, as the slight tension it creates is the kind of little detail that makes a simple song work even better. The best thing about meat and potatoes rock is also what makes it problematic. The music can be so simple and straight-forward that you know what you're getting from a song after the first twenty seconds. Fortunately, Sinner isn't going to let the entire album fall into that trap.

Things get switched up just enough from track to track to give the songs their own identities. "Road To Hell" has a feeling that comes from a Black Star Riders album, only better than their effort from this year. Then we get a slightly egotistical number in "Sinner Blues", which is a blues and gospel flavored track that serves the purpose of a ballad, giving the album some time to breathe.

So does "Tequila Suicide" make a statement as an essential album you need to add to your collection? Well, if we're being honest, no, it doesn't. But that doesn't mean anything, since that isn't the aim here. Sinner is out to have a little fun and play some good ol' rock music. That achieve that goal easily. "Tequila Suicide" doesn't have any firecrackers in the track listing that are going to stand out as classics, but it's a compact little album that can be the soundtrack for some fun times. It's good music. That's enough for me.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Album Review: Brother Firetribe - Sunbound

I've made no secret of the fact that I have a fondness for cheesy, 80s style melodic rock. I rather enjoy music that tries to have a good time with itself, although I do have to say that I haven't found many of those records that have stood the test of time. Plenty of them have garnered positive reviews, but they don't seem to hold sway the way that the very best albums each year do. Brother Firetribe falls into that category. I reviewed their last album positively, and I do believe I proclaimed "Desperately" to be one of the best tracks of that entire year, but I can't recall the last time I actually listened to the entirety of that album. Therein lies the problem Brother Firetribe has to overcome; how to make an album that I not only enjoy, but will continue to go back to over time.

We jump straight into the 80s with "Help Is On The Way", which opens with keyboards that are reminiscent of the old hit "Maniac". That cheesy sound is just what I was hoping for, and it's easy to crack a smile knowing that this is an album that wants you to enjoy yourself listening to it. As each year passes, I grow more and more convinced that music needs to focus more on that aspect, and less on the traditionally important rock/metal tendencies like darkness and heaviness.

"Sunbound" plays like the name suggests, a warm sound that wants to recall bright summer days. This is the kind of album you could easily imagine playing on a mid-afternoon drive through the countryside, with friends singing along and laughing. Think "Car Pool Karaoke" for the analog age. Or as we non-teenagers call it; the way things used to be.

Brother Firetribe has found a comfortable place in their career, where they know exactly what they want to achieve as a band. They write music that is catchy and fun, and embraces the forgotten elements of the past. That makes the music endearing to anyone who remembers those days (even the dying days, faintly, like I do), but it doesn't overcome the issue I was mentioning earlier. While I thoroughly enjoyed my forty-five minutes listening to "Sunbound", I can tell already that it's not going to be an album that stands out and demands for me to play it again and again. That's not saying it isn't good, but it does limit how fervently I can talk about it.

Also at issue is that I don't hear that one song that can rise above and become one of the anthems of the year. "Desperately" did that last time, and nothing here approaches that level of musical addictivity. "Sunbound" is a solid album, and there is nothing remotely bad about it, but there also isn't anything remarkable about it.

"Sunbound" is a good album that is an enjoyable way to spend some time. I'm sure on a lazy summer day I will find myself matching my mood with this record, but it will be an occasional thing. I don't quite think "Sunbound" is an anytime, anywhere sort of album, and those are the best ones. Still, for a dose of fun, Brother Firetribe has make a good record. Don't think I intend to say anything otherwise.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Album Review: Art Of Anarchy - The Madness

A couple of years ago, Art Of Anarchy emerged from nowhere as one of those supergroups you expect nothing from. What was surprising is that despite Scott Weiland trying his hardest to distance himself in every way from the group, it was the best piece of music he had been involved in for a long, long time. No, it wasn't perfect, but there were killer tracks on the album, and even if Weiland thought it was a mercenary job, the music gave him just the right canvas to paint his melodies on. But if we were wondering if he would see that his solo career was horrid and decide this band was a better path forward, that ended with his untimely death. It also left Art Of Anarchy wondering how you replace a mercurial singer with nostalgic credibility.

The answer is you hire another singer with this same traits; Scott Stapp.

Yes, the former (current?) singer of Creed is the new voice behind Art Of Anarchy, which is a dramatic shift, to say the least. Like Weiland, Stapp has had a rocky run leading up to his tenure in this band. Can they possibly go two-for-two rehabbing careers?

Before we get to that, let's point out that Art Of Anarchy has rectified my biggest complaint about their debut record. They had a scratchy, brittle guitar tone that was distracting throughout the album, because it sounded weak and not at all heavy. The guitars here have a much meatier tone, without the buzz that made me think my speakers were having technical difficulties. That alone is a point in the band's favor.

Stapp was, even at the best of times, a polarizing figure. His voice carries the tone of bad Eddie Vedder impressions, and his tendency for bombastic and irony-obtuse pomposity was bordering on a messiah complex. Art Of Anarchy is able to reign him in by putting together an album that runs only thirty-six minutes, with only one song hitting the four minute mark. That doesn't give Stapp time to do anything but deliver the hooks. It's a very wise choice.

There's enough talent in this band to be able to write mainstream heavy rock songs that can get the job done. That's what Art Of Anarchy does on this album. They take a slightly more direct route this time, focusing a bit more on the heavier groove side of modern rock, leaving behind the bits that played better against Weiland's psychedelic ramblings. Stapp gets strong bursts of rock that try to hit quickly and not waste a second. For the most part, they hit the mark more often than not. Whether we're talking about the title track single, or "1000 Degrees", they're songs that have strong melodies and can easily fit in on rock radio without a problem. Compared to the sorts of things that Disturbed or Five Finger Death Punch have been defecating out for years now, Art Of Anarchy is a definite improvement.

That said, I would also say confidently that this record is not as interesting an experiment as the debut was. This album is good, and certainly has its place, but it doesn't seem to have the spark the prior record did, whether it was intentional or not. It's a bit more of what you would expect, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it isn't exciting. Art Of Anarchy gets more out of Stapp than I would have thought possible, so in that way they have done amazing work with written-off singers. Art Of Anarchy has a lot to be proud of, and I'll happily play this album more times, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say I preferred who they were to who they now are. That was out of their control, but it's how I see things.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Album Review: Creeper - Eternity, In Your Arms

It's exciting to get in on the ground floor of something. In business, it means that you have the most opportunity to maximize the profits from an investment. In music, it means that you get to say you were there at the start of something great, and you can lord your superiority over everyone who arrives late to the party for the rest of time. With the amount of attention Creeper has been generating leading to the release of this, their debut album, being on board here and now could be one of those times people are going to regret missing out on in the future.

Creeper has been taking the alternative/punk/emo and various other scenes by storm, with a series of EPs that have been raising their profile. And with the string of singles from this album, they've created one of the most anticipated albums of the year. For a band with no previous albums to their credit, who have made a conceptual piece based on Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, that's already a heck of an achievement.

The album kicks off with the explosive single, "Black Rain", which has already taken the world by storm, and is undoubtedly one of the best songs so far this year. It's a gloriously epic song that over-stuffs its three-plus minutes with enough drama to fill a song twice its length. You get hints of the band's AFI styled punk roots through the verses, and then the chorus is a huge hymn that rises towards the heavens. It's a remarkable song, and sold me on Creeper's growth as a band from their last EP.

If you're old enough to have been aware of the punk and pop-punk scenes of the mid and late 90s, there are hints of influences that pop up throughout the album that are nice nuggets of nostalgia, but work in the context of the album. Since the subject matter deals with a figure who never grew up, who lived in what was essentially frozen time, hearing fragments of the past pop up here and there is a smart way of selling the motif.

Creeper has made smart decisions about how they've approached this material, but what about the songs themselves? If you've heard any of the singles, you already know Creeper is capable of writing potent punk with a theatrical flair. The combination of "Black Rain", "Suzanne", and "Hiding With Boys" are brilliant singles, songs that don't spend a second longer than they need to in establishing the idea, then hitting you over the head with a cast-iron hook. If you remember Daffy Duck seeing start spinning around his head in an old Looney Tunes adventure, that's not that far off from what Creeper's best songs can do to you.

The band uses the theatrical nature of their music to great effect. From track to track, everything about the band's sound, including the vocal timbres, changes to fit the song's needs. They are essentially characters playing out the story, which is the sort of approach that usually is beyond the grasp of bands. It's impressive that Creeper has such a hold on their dynamics at this stage of their career. It not only shows their talent, but it takes what was already a good album and makes it special.

One of the little things I appreciate is the feeling in the verses of "Down Below", which is a very close copy of a song off Michael Monroe's fantastic album "Blackout States". I'm sure no one in Creeper heard that album, as most people didn't, but the familiarity brought a smile to my face.

I'll sum it up by drawing a comparison. A decade ago, Green Day took punk to a new place by making a concept record that drew heavily from the influence of bands like The Who. Creeper is building upon that legacy by choosing instead to take in influences from Meat Loaf and Broadway. The embrace the pomposity of their music, and aren't afraid of being a bit over the top. That's the right attitude to have. People are willing to take the journey with you, if you believe enough in yourself. Creeper does, and it comes through in the music.

"Eternity, In Your Arms" is the kind of album bands are afraid to make; diverse, creative, artistic, and a challenge for narrow-minded fans. Creeper has massive ambition waiting to be unleashed, and "Eternity, In Your Arms" is a stunning first statement. This is the sort of album you have to hear, because there isn't really anything else like it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spinning Seduction: Talking With The Spider Accomplice

If you have been reading this site over the course of the last six months, you will have picked up on my continued championing of The Spider Accomplice. The upstart rock band has been on a tear, releasing the first two installments of their conceptual "Los Angeles" series about their adopted hometown. Their music is adventurous yet familiar, powerful yet graceful. They are one of the most promising new bands of recent years, and have released the best EP in each of the last two years, hands down. As they prepare for the third and final installment of their trilogy, I got the chance to pose a few questions and find out what this spider still has to spin.

The Spider Accomplice seems to be picking up more and more attention. Do you think it was important to introduce the band, and the Los Angeles concept, in smaller pieces, as opposed to an entire album that could have gotten lost in the shuffle?

VK: I do; currently, there are so many pieces of media to draw our attention that a full-length record often gets short changed. We craft each song with intent and meaning, and when we release them in smaller groupings, listeners are more likely to absorb them.

Arno: Yes, I think this was the best way to introduce ourselves; in smaller batches of songs and keeping the momentum longer than just one release. And I think the songs work together better in small batches, and the story comes across better. People can concentrate on 6 songs easier than on 12 songs. But the key is to keep high standard all the time.

There are three members of the band, and three EPs that will form the whole of the "Los Angeles" project. Is that a coincidence?

VK: Like V from ‘V for Vendetta’, I do not believe in coincidence. ;)

Arno: I think yes. We just needed three EPs to tell the story.

How accepting are your fellow band members of the pink motif?

VK: It was their idea! I have had pink hair for years, and when we were discussing our stage attire, Arno said, “Let’s wear pink suits!” I thought he was kidding at first….Nope! They both were enthusiastic about it, and we haven’t looked back since.

Arno: We all like pink, and our look is unique. So no complains from anyone :)

Every band dynamic is different. What do each of you bring to The Spider Accomplice that lets you be so successful?

VK: On a creative level, Arno brings amazing riffs, I bring melodies and lyrics, and Justin brings artwork and sound design…then we all bring our musicality and see what we can cook!

Arno: As long as there's a good idea behind a song, and we are open minded, anything can happen. But being open minded is the strength we all share. We all have different influences, which hopefully comes across in our songs.

Was it intentional to have the songs showcase such an array of influences, or did it come naturally through the writing process?

VK: It was not something that was designed…we are all products of very diverse experiences and influences, so we write and play what sounds good to us.

Arno: We have lots of different influences, and this world is full of great music, so we want to be as diverse as possible. Just to keep music interesting and fun to play. Most likely it will sound like us in the end.

Sub-question: When writing a conceptual piece, were the songs written specifically for the sound of each part of the story, or did the story evolve to fit the music that you were writing?

VK: For me, it’s simultaneous. Songwriting is very visceral, and it comes out of that moment in time, that experience, and what I’m feeling- that usually informs the story.

Arno: It evolved. But the main thread is always there.

You've been in the industry for a while, so I was wondering what you consider the advantages of being an independent band. Is it in the back of your mind as a goal to grow The Spider Accomplice into a band that attracts a label?

VK: The advantage is we can do whatever the hell we want creatively. Usually a label curtails some of that. However; with the industry in such an upheaval, I rule nothing out- things can change. Whatever avenue is going to make it possible for us to make music- and play it for people who love it- for the rest of our lives is the road we’ll take.

Arno: I'd like to work with industry pros to help getting our music heard. Being independent is hard work and there;s only so much you can do, so it would be great to have people with knowledge of the industry to work with us.

As a writer myself, I'm always interested in the process. What does writing look like for the band? Or for yourself as a solo artist?

Arno: Writing is work too, but the most fun. Someone brings is in an idea and we brainstorm from that to make it interesting and fun for all of us.

VK: What he said!

I'd like to ask about a few specific songs, if I may. "Bromelaid" might just be the most striking song you've released yet. Am I wrong in hearing influences from The Smiths in the guitars?

Arno: Yes, there are influences from Johnny Marr, but also from other great guitarists from the era. I like the way they make music sounding big with very simple style of playing. But also, my influences come from very different genres and eras, from metal to jazz. When you put those together, I hope it sounds interesting:)

When you write a song like that, do you know immediately that you've got something special?

VK: We did-that song has been our baby since it was born.

Arno: I felt it with "Bromelaid". I knew we had something there from the start. And I'm very happy the way it came together.

"You Still Lie" is a very pop-friendly song. How important do you feel it is to write music that has an infectious appeal, that the crowd at one of your shows can sing along with?

Arno: I like the song and it came together very easily. We hadn't done a song like that, and if someone can make it catchy, it's VK. I wanted to make a happier song and there we were:) It's very important to have those kind of songs to break the ice. If a listener likes a song, they can dig deeper to find out the other songs and albums.

"Butterflies In A Beehive" is a beautiful, minor-key sounding song. How do you find the right balance between light and dark in your music?

VK: Lyrically, I don’t try to consciously do that…the words are just what come out of me.

Arno: When we try to make a happier song but we all like minor key songs, the songs come out as both. I think they sound hopeful and beautiful. And it's fun to play between light and dark. I hope they are bit more unpredictable.

The third installment of the "Los Angeles" series is in the works, I assume. When all three EPs are out, and put together into a whole, do you have any plans for where the band goes afterward?

VK: I have some ideas….. ;)

Arno: As long as I can write and play more songs, I'm a happy camper. Third part of the "Los Angeles" will sound different, again. And I'm already very excited about it. That's the priority right now, and after that, we'll see what's the best way to release new music. Will it be one album, or double album, no one knows yet:) As long as we keep working hard, and keep the high standard, anything can happen.

I know it's hard for independent bands to play live as much as fans would want them to, and that you've commented trying to explain the reality of touring. How important a part of being in a band is playing live for you? What do you get out of a Spider Accomplice show?

VK: If we could play every single night, we would. We love the live show, we love to tour, it’s the best damn thing on earth.

Arno: Playing live is very important, but it requires money to travel and advertise the gigs. All the money we make, we put in the band. But it seems there's never enough:) On stage, we give all we have, but we try to maintain dynamics. That's easy because we have a wide array of songs, but we always take the listeners into consideration by not playing too loud and showing variety of songs and feelings.

Finally, are there any other projects you're working on that you would like to tease?

Arno: Only The Spider Accomplice.

To hear and buy "Los Angeles: The Trap", and "Los Angeles: The Abduction", head over to The Spider Accomplice on Bandcamp.

And to keep up with the band, like them on Facebook.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Album Review: Vangough - Warpaint

The world of progressive metal is weird right now. The big names on the scene have been releasing albums that I find completely boring, at best, and the underground isn't coming up with a string of great new bands to take their place. Between Dream Theater writing the most childish concept album in recent memory, and bands like Leprous and Haken making albums that are cold and melodically devoid, progressive metal is in a dark place. It seems there is no alternative other than writing mechanical music that sounds like it would appeal more to machines than people. I don't know what is causing that, but it does make me nervous whenever progressive metal is now in the on-deck circle.

Vangough is a band that flies under the radar often. I did review their previous album when it came out, and I heard in that enough promise to make it a point to see how they have evolved.

"Morphine" gets us off to that kind of mechanical start, with two minutes of music that cycles through rhythmic exercises, which are the kinds of riffs that I have never believed can carry a song. That style of guitar playing requires a highly melodic and memorable vocal performance, since it's hard to memorize and hum a rhythm. The vocal sections of the song don't do that, though, as the delivery for the first two minutes is slow and flat. The slow and heavy riff that then serves to anchor the screaming is fine, but it doesn't work as the main hook of a song. It fits in with the popularity of a band like Gojira, but since I've never understood their appeal, I don't get it here either.

What's frustrating to me about Vangough is that there is obvious talent in the band, but they don't seem to ever hone in on a style that is their own. At times, they try to play a technical style of progressive metal, then they switch to the more modern chunky rhythm style, and at other times they try to be the slow and emotional band that Pain Of Salvation uses as an excuse for their lackluster songwriting. There never seems to be any heart to these songs, no reason for them to exist. If you asked me why Vangough made this record, I couldn't tell you.

Often, I think progressive bands think that just because they don't want to adhere to the conventions, they don't have to write compelling songs. The technicality, or the scope, are supposed to be entertaining enough on their own.

They aren't.

"Warpaint" proves this through each of its songs. In this amalgamation of modern progressive metal styles, we get a little taste of why each one is mediocre on its own. Combined, it makes for an album that has nothing at all memorable about it. The riffs fade away, the melodies were never there, and even the muted colors on the album cover are soon to be but a memory. "Warpaint" isn't squandered opportunity; it's an album that never had a chance.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Second Opinion: Crystal Fairy - "Crystal Fairy"

Wait a second.  You mean to tell me that there’s a supergroup composed of the instruments behind Melvins, At the Drive-In and Le Butcherettes?  That might be, on paper, one of the more bizarre combinations in recent memory, and that’s in the face of scattershot supergroups like Adrenaline Mob and a smattering of others.

The natural assumption here is that there is no middle ground this band can occupy.  The indescribably acerbic potential of a concoction that’s one part Buzz Osborne and equal measures Teri Gender Bender and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez lends the audience to believe that only two possible outcomes exist – The Crystal Fairy album will either be the best or worst album ever.  No other outcomes seem plausible.

If we’re being honest, much of that assumption comes from the stigma attached to King Buzzo, a man whose career has been as varied and versatile as any in recent memory, but who is also given to flights of bizarre fancy and sidebars that may have been best left as ideas sketched haphazardly onto loose leaf notebook paper.  That said, King Buzzo has always secretly kept one underlying truth in his personal poker hand, which is that his passion to each project is the conduit through which his dedication to it can be measured.  The Cliff Notes version is this – Musically, Buzzo never half-asses anything.  (The same can’t necessarily be said for his wardrobe.  I saw the man once perform in what appeared to be a paisley Snuggie.)

To that end, and perhaps to the surprise of many, one of the fundamental traits of Crystal Fairy is that Buzzo plays it fairly straight here, and the rest of the band follows suit.  As one might reasonably anticipate, the lyrics are predictably ridiculous (and by the time you get to album closer “Vampire X-Mas,” you’ve pretty much got the whole picture,) but the music is very much punk-influenced rock that’s more or less by the numbers.

Which isn’t a bad thing by any stretch.  If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that what’s old can be new again when properly handled by experts, and Crystal Fairy treats the product with the proper examination and respect.  The opening thrum of “Chiseler” combines the best elements of classic punk, grunge and alternative rock breakdowns to create a sound that isn’t revolutionary but carries the proper weight of a job well done.

This continues in various forms throughout the record, starting with the boom and pound of “Drugs on the Bus” which isn’t exactly worlds apart from Melvins’ classic “Revolve.”  Rodriguez-Lopez adapts himself well into this paradigm of music, using some of his recognizable technique within the greater framework of what Crystal Fairy is offering.

From there until the end, all of the songs strike many of the same notes, with variations of success.  The title track is quite well distinguished and rhythmic and just plain good (bonus, always fun to talk about a song, album and band all having the same title – the song “Iron Maiden” on the album “Iron Maiden” by the band Iron Maiden; the song “Black Sabbath” on the album “Black Sabbath” by the band Black Sabbath; the song “Crystal Fairy” on the album “Crystal Fairy” by the band Crystal Fairy.)  Plus, there’s a real, tangible catchiness to the stop-and-go of “Necklace of Divorce,” which reminds every so obliquely of the Toadies, and it’s in these subtle moments where the band really shines, highlight Gender Bender’s sanguine but tilted vocals with each measure.

That said, the back half of the record repeats a lot of the same and doesn’t necessarily do so with the same degree of accomplishment.  “Secret Agent Rat” is ambitious but sort of falls apart under its own weight and the piercing scream of “Posesion” fails to really capture before becoming grating.  So while the ponderous drone of “Moth Tongue” works, the musical stretching of “Under Trouble” or “Bent Teeth” doesn’t.

When it’s all said and done, Crystal Fairy ends up occupying much of the space that none of us thought it would – it’s a pretty good record, but not a transcendent one.  Where the album truly succeeds perhaps dictates the lens it must be viewed through, which is as a demonstration of a group of friends and musical compatriots getting together to jam some ideas out and see what they can make work.  It’s an exercise that any amateur musician and his/her friends have executed a hundred times, and if Crystal Fairy does nothing else, they remind us of the importance of music among friends.  So there’s that, and that’s no small take away.  Still, don’t expect something you’ve never heard before.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Album Review: House Of Lords - Saint Of The Lost Souls

A couple years ago, when I was talking about House Of Lords' previous album, I was musing on how they were a band that always made solid music, but I was never in a rush to listen to them. Several albums had slipped past me, and I didn't care. That was changed with "Indestructible", which was a powerhouse album that I still go back to. It not only made me rethink my opinion of House Of Lords, but it made their next album appointment listening, to see if they could keep up that momentum, or if it was a fleeting moment in the sun.

We are now at that judgment day.

Things get off to a good star with "Harlequin". After a frustrating wait for the build-up to finish, the song itself is classic House Of Lords, melodic rock with James Christian's hook carrying the day. The production is a bit more polished than last time out, but stops short of being the hyper-glossy sound that makes many AOR bands unappealing to me. House Of Lords still sounds like a rock band.

By the middle of the record, we get to the same problem I had with the previous album; House Of Lords occasionally tries to write a song heavier than they are as a band, and it doesn't work. In this case, it's the title track, which is let down first of all by the guitars not being heavy enough for the riff they're trying to get across, but more by the chorus, which can't fit a smooth melody into the space given for the vocals. It's more aggressive, and less interesting.

House Of Lords is better at the first word of 'melodic rock', and it shows. When they don't worry about trying to be heavy, they make fantastic music. As I already mentioned, "Harlequin" is a great song, and the ballad "The Sun Will Never Set Again" is also top-notch. They aren't fluff, so I can't understand the need to try to up the heaviness here and there to a degree the band just isn't capable of. It's better to work to your strengths.

That would make this still a good album, if they were able to hit their marks. "Reign Of Fire" is a pretty bad track, and while "Hit The Wall" does make an impact, it does so in a way I find annoying instead of memorable. This is the same issues I've had with House Of Lords before. They are not at all consistent when it comes to songwriting. There will be four or five amazing tracks on an album, and then another three that leave me scratching my head that it's the same band. That holds true here as well. There's half of this album that is really good stuff. The other half is either boring or disappointingly mediocre.

That leaves me to say that "Saint Of The Lost Souls" is merely a decent album, and is certainly not as good as "Indestructible" was. That album was fantastic, and this one makes me want to pull that one out again.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Initial Impressions: Tyce - Hero

I have made no secret of the fact that Jim Steinman is one of the small handful of musical heroes I have. He is largely responsible for me falling in love with music, and even all these years later, I am a devoted fan of those classic songs. So each and every time a project comes along that resurrects his music, I'm interested in hearing a fresh take on the maestro's work.

This time around, we get an album of Steinan covers performed by Broadway singer Tyce. I will preface this by saying I have not heard every second of the album. These thoughts are my impressions from the samples, bits and pieces I've had the opportunity to hear so far.

Track selection is paramount. Steinman has enough amazing songs in his catalog for a cover artist to make a truly awe-inspiring album. Tyce, however, has picked a few classics, the song-du-jour, and a couple of odd choices. Taking on "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" and "It's All Coming Back To Me" are obvious and necessary choices, and I understand piggy-backing on the "Bat Out Of Hell" musical and Meat Loaf's recent album by taking "Braver Than We Are", but I cannot say "I'll Kill You If You Don't Come Back" or "I'm Gonna Love Her For Both Of Us" are quality choices. Not when there are other songs like "Surf's Up", "Bad For Good", "Nowhere Fast", and "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" that rarely get any attention. The album starts out from a weaker score by virtue of the track selection.

The sound is solidly professional, and while less bombastic than the man himself, has the appropriate Steinman sound. I feel "Holding Out For A Hero" was slowed down far too much, and a handful of the other tracks could have used a bit more instrumentation to beef up the drama, but the production of the record is better than I was expecting.

Those decisions, I'm sure, were made to put the focus on Tyce's voice, since this is his album, after all. That's where everything goes wrong.

For a professional singer, one who also spends time as a vocal coach, Tyce is bordering on awful at times. People can disagree on a singer's tone, but I have one rule for any singer; pronounce your words. If you can't manage to enunciate the lyrics, your performance is lazy and simply not good enough. Tyce sometimes sounds a bit shrill for my taste, but his voice is his voice, and that's fine. What isn't fine is that he often slurs his way through the lyrics, making lines I know by heart indecipherable. It's not just annoying, but it insults the man whose music Tyce is claiming to be honoring.

We keep seeing just how hard it is to properly recreate Jim Steinman's music. Meat Loaf failed completely last year, because his voice is shot, and Tyce doesn't fare much better here. With a powerful voice and an entire catalog of great music to choose from, it's sad that this is the best he could produce.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Album Review: Eclipse - Monumentum

Every now and again, the world of rock needs to be reminded that there isn't much better than having a band with sing-along songs that can bring a crowd to their feet for an entire set. 'True' rockers scoff at bands like Bon Jovi, but there's a reason why he has been so successful over the years; plenty of people want rock and roll to be fun. Eclipse is the latest band trying to kick rock in the ass and get it moving in the right direction again. Their last album won heaps of acclaim, and while it was very good, it was lead man Erik Martensson's side project Nordic Union that perfected the craft. Big, pop-laden melodies meshing with heavy guitars. It's like peanut butter and chocolate, except that the allergy 'true' rockers have is entirely a delusion of their own minds.

I'm completely in the dark as to how anyone who likes rock can listen to "Vertigo" and not be drawn in. The riff is heavy and chunky, and the chorus is so slick it's to die for. If there's a better formula for mixing pop and hard rock, I haven't found it. Martensson says "when I go and see a band I just want to hear songs that make me wanna put my fist in the air and scream along," describing this album as "one giant fist". That it is.

As you could guess from their trend of making up their own cheesy words to use as album titles, Eclipse wants their music to be the soundtrack to the best moments of your life. Even compared to their previous album, "Monumentum" is a more focused killing machine delivering the big hooks more efficiently to your bloodstream. The band's songwriting uses music like a drug, trimming away a little bit on each outing to make the hit stronger.

If you're a fan of any sort of melodic rock, there isn't much to say about "Monumentum" that isn't a dozen different ways of telling you this album is as close to pop/rock perfection as you can get. It's that energetic, uplifting kind of rock that you're going to find yourself singing in random moments when you weren't even thinking about this record. Eclipse has been on this trajectory, but they've honed their songwriting enough that they've managed to top themselves (though I don't think they topped Nordic Union).

But my job is to be a critic, so I'll also mention the one area where the album has a slight stumble. A few of the riffs and melodies are beginning to feel familiar, particularly "Killing Me". I feel like I've heard Martensson write that song before. It's still great, but it pulls me out of the experience just enough that I made note of it.

If that's the only criticism I can throw out there, that should tell you what you need to know. Erik Martensson is a heck of a songwriter, and Eclipse is still getting better as a band. "Monumentum" is exactly the kind of addictive rock I love, and it's sure to go down as one of the best records of the year. I just hope Martensson takes heed of someone else who went down the path of being a mercenary writer. Magnus Karlsson burned through so many songs on so many projects that didn't generate buzz that he has noticeably waned. I don't want to see that happen to Martensson. If he can focus all his attention on Eclipse, given how great "Monumentum" is, he can build this band into something truly special.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Blessed By The Music: Talking With Neal Morse

Neal Morse is one of the most prolific artists, in any genre, in the last twenty years. Since coming on the scene with Spock's Beard, Neal has released countless albums with that band, on his own, and with Transatlantic and Flying Colors. He is also one of the most spiritual lyricists working on the prog scene, a facet that not only sets him apart, but imbues his music with a feeling unique from most everything else out there.

With the upcoming release of the DVD set chronicling the epic Morsefest 2015 event, I had the chance to pose a few questions to prog's preeminent songwriter.
The new Morsefest 2015 DVD set chronicles the second event celebrating some of your solo albums. What is it that draws you to writing these big, conceptual style albums that you've done so often?

When I was a kid, I was involved in a lot of big musical projects through the connections with my father. I sang the lead in an opera when I was nine years old when I saw “West Side Story,” and was quite taken with it. I think I've always wanted to do "big" pieces of music, and I love writing to a story. It's something I really calls to me and calls forth the music as well.

The Neal Morse Band is a different entity than where you were making those albums as a solo artist. What do Eric and Bill add to the performances of the older material?

Perfection! They play all the music with such passion and skill it's amazing. Also, their voices are so great and the vocal blend between all of us is so special we can bring that to the older material as well. Really brings it to life and a great way. 

You've performed suites of "?" before. How hard is it, as a musician with so much material in your catalog, to pare down the music to fit in the time-frame of a single show?

It is a challenge when many of your "songs" or 30 minutes long! It makes it very difficult to pick an encore! But at Morsefest, it is generally easier, because we choose what albums we are going to play far in advance so there isn't a lot of discussion about it. We know what we're doing.

Between the success of Morsefest, and the reception "The Similitude Of A Dream" received, do you feel you have found momentum in your career, and that your profile is growing?

It seems so. To quote this song, "we've got some new momentum, we better keep on going!" Yeah, it seems like with the new album and all the concerts going so well that the band is really killing it right now. I mean that in a good way of course. :-)  It's pretty amazing what is happening and I'm just trying to fully appreciate it and soak up the blessing of this time.

You've made countless albums with Mike Portnoy. It's well-established how close a relationship you have with him, but I'm curious; what is it he brings to the writing and recording process that makes him so invaluable?

Mike is so much more than just a tremendous drummer. He brings incredible arranging skill as well as musicality and vision to all of our projects and albums. He's also really enthusiastic, like when he loves stuff he just loves it times 10! And that can be really helpful in the studio maybe when everyone's confused and wondering whether what we're doing is right and good or not, Mike very often with his enthusiasm will push things through that are very good. He also has an incredible intuition about him about what the right approach is and where the piece should go next. His contribution to our many albums is highly valued.

Having released so many albums, are there any that have been received by the public in a way you weren't expecting, either for better or worse?

Yeah, sure. I was pleasantly surprised how well received THE SIMILITUDE OF A DREAM has been. Man, people are really going for this album in a big way. I've been disappointed sometimes with the response to some of my song oriented albums like SONGS FROM NOVEMBER. I always think if you really put your heart into an album and do it really well and it's got really good songs on it that it will eventually do well, but the sales on that one were pretty weak. I still think it's a great album. Oh well… Onto the next!

One of my favorite songs of yours is "The Change". Is it difficult to have great songs like that one which weren't on one of your bigger prog albums, so they don't get the appreciation or attention you might think they deserve?

It's strange in my world that what is generally thought of as commercial is uncommercial in my world and vice versa. So, yeah, it's weird that some of my songs that are a little more normal, if they're on an album of normal songs they don't get heard as much. I'm just glad to have an audience at all actually and to be able play music for a living is amazing so, praise the Lord!

These involved prog albums aren't all you do. My favorite of your albums are actually your singer/songwriter works, "God Won't Give Up" and "Songs From November". Are those albums you make for the enjoyment of it, or do you think there are lessons to be learned for your prog albums from writing simpler songs?

I just like to mix it up. After I've done a big Prog epic many times I'd like to just sit down and write some simple songs, you know? So I like to do different things and not always the same kinds of projects. So, yes I guess it is for my own enjoyment! :-) Hopefully it's for other peoples enjoyment too. 

As a songwriter myself, what I love most about your music is that you focus on writing great songs and great melodies, which can be rare in prog. Do you think that prog musicians now, who can grow up listening to nothing but prog, miss out on the advantages you had growing up in a time when music was less segregated, and you could be influenced by more different sounds and approaches?

Possibly, I don’t know, but I do always try to tell younger musicians and writers to always have a song in their epic pieces. It's really important to always have singable melodies and catchy song parts in amongst the instrumentals. That is something that people tend to drop out these days.

You are an incredibly busy musician, with the Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors, and Transatlantic. Do you have any plans, or thoughts, to making another singer/songwriter album in the future?

I do have a lot of half written singer-songwriter type songs right now. While I'm on vacation I'll just sit down and plunk out a few ideas. So I have quite a backlog of that right now, but I don't know with all the touring going on how long it will take me to get into all those ideas and finish them. We shall see.

Finally, less of a question this time. Your music is important to so many people, both spiritual and not. I think that's because of the positivity and the joy you put into it. What does it mean to you to be able to bring that happiness to your listeners?

It’s funny. When I was trying to get a record deal as a singer songwriter in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my music became more and more somber. I feel like I became a brooding songwriter. You know what I mean? And now I'm in such a different place that I can write from a place of deliverance and joy. It's really great to be able to impart that to others, but really all I can say is glory to God, because I was not like that before! It's really something that he has done in me and I'm glad it comes across in the music that I'm writing because I think that that's the greatest feeling that I could share. 

Thanks a lot man! God bless,

For information on everything Neal is working on, including ordering the Morsefest 2015 DVD set, go to Radiant Records.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Album Review: Beatrix Players - Magnified

When you think about the circumstances of life back then, it's funny how we still romanticize the Victorian era. When you drive by an old Victorian house in town, you likely give it a long look and remark at the beauty of the architecture. If you've ever owned Victorian furniture, you know how uncomfortable it can be, but you also realize that few styles have ever evoked as much style and class as that one. The Victorian era was one that has endured through style and art, but not necessarily music. We don't often sit back and listen to a chamber quartet, or whatever the modern equivalent would be. But it does ask the question: what would modern Victorian music sound like?

The answer might just be the Beatrix players.

The three ladies making up the group have created a unique sound, with only a piano and cello serving as the dark backdrop to their harmonies and melodies. It's a sound that, like the old chamber music, could be performed by a group in the confines of a living room in an old Victorian house. It's a sound that is incredibly subtle, and requires a pre-internet level of attention to truly get the most from. This is not the kind of music you can put on in the background while doing chores around the house, unless you want to miss out on the details that make the music interesting.

Perhaps that is a scary proposition, needing the dedicate yourself to the act of listening. It is no longer something that comes naturally, but when something comes along to require that level of focus, it reminds you of the power music can hold. If you just casually listen to "Lady Of The Lake", as I did when I first heard about this album, you might come away with the impression that the Beatrix Players are three women with soft voices who sing somber songs. But when you listen more carefully, you can hear the way they layer their voices, running cascading melodies against one another. It's far more complex music than first glance might tell you. There might only be two instruments, but that's the great trick being played here.

Throughout the songs on this album, the ladies are able to use their voices to great effect, not letting the melodies get swallowed by the somber pacing of the songs. It's easy for slower material to lose all its energy and become static, but these songs keep the melodies enough at the forefront that the songs don't hit fallow patches. There is a reason for everything on display here.

If I'm being honest, the one thing I do have to say is that this is an album that, at least for me, is one of those that requires a very specific mood. The soft and dark mood has its place, absolutely, but this isn't an album that I could find myself putting on at any random time. That doesn't make it lesser as a work, but it does mean I might not give it the same number of listens as a similarly well-done album in a different style.

But the main point here is that if you're looking for something different, something that can evoke memories of a bygone past, the Beatrix Players have made an album that does what it aims to very well. It transports you to a different time and place, and these three ladies have shown us a way to make classically-oriented music shine in a modern sense. No, I might not be spinning "Magnified" every day, but on those occasions when my mood matches the music, it will be a welcome soundtrack.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

DVD Review: Morsefest 2015

There are a few things that are certainties. Yes, this is where I insert the joke about death, taxes, and a new Neal Morse DVD. Over the course of his time as a solo artist, Neal has made it a habit to document every recording and every tour. While that can seem like overkill to some people, his fans are more than happy to see each one rolling down the line, because they are all different enough to justify themselves.

This time, we get the second installment of Morsefest, the ultimate Neal Morse experience. The first installment covered the "Testimony" and "One" albums, which moving chronologically makes this the installment where Neal and his band cover the "?" and "Solo Scriptura" albums, playing them both in full, while throwing in a set's worth of other classic Morse music.

Let's just state the obvious right off the bat; this is a package for the die-hard Neal Morse fan. Having four hours of material, including two prog epics performed in their entirety, is a lot to ask of anyone who isn't already sold on the music. Myself, "?" is my favorite of Neal's prog solo albums, so I was excited to see and hear what it would be like for Neal and his band to bring it to life on the stage. Before we get there, the band performs a set of material that includes tracks from the (at the time) most recent Neal Morse Band album, but also a few deep cuts for the die-hards. We get "Go The Way You Go" from the old Spock's Beard days, which is a nice treat, and we get the first performance of "A Whole 'Nother Trip". It's a song that doesn't get much attention, but in the live setting, it's a (pardon the pun) trip to hear.

That leads into "?", which is a beautiful, horn-laden conceptual suite that translates beautifully to the stage. The hints of funk and groove pop when played live, and the energy the band puts into the performance is infectious. In fact, that's the biggest selling point of everything Neal does. Sure, there are moments throughout the shows where things are a bit hokey, but that's part of the charm. You can't watch the band, and Neal in particular, play this music without seeing how much it means to them. That's actually a rare quality, and it's refreshing to see.

Night two gives us the prog workout of "Sola Scriptura", with it's massive prog slabs, along with Spock's epic "At The End Of The Day", and a medley of tracks from Transatlantic's "The Whirlwind". It's an amazing amount of dense and involved music, and while it's brilliantly played, it can be a bit much to take in all at once.

But if you're a fan of prog, and of Neal, this is the sort of show you want to see. The band is delighted to be playing some of Neal's best music, and the result is a DVD set that gives you the chance to be there to see an epic show that will never be duplicated. With a horn section, a choir, and a few special guests and unusual instruments, we're seeing something unique. It's not just a band playing the music. It is a show, and it's one that prog fans should be elated has been captured for us to enjoy.