Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Conversation: 30 Years Of "Appetite For Destruction"

Chris C: Time tricks us. As the years pass, memories lose their details, and all we're left with is what we remember of what we remember. Our memories are as much memories of our memories as they are actual memories of the time. If that sounds confusing, it's because it is. What I'm trying to say is that we can't trust our memories as being the most accurate representations of the past.

Case in point; Guns N Roses. We sit here thirty years removed from the release of the album that changed rock music, which seems like a good time to take a step back and examine what the album meant, what it still means, and what Guns N Roses actual legacy should be.

I'll start with the easy point. "Appetite For Destruction" is the album that ended the era of hair metal. People can talk all they want about Nirvana, and their influence is undeniable, but it was Guns that first popped the bubble that rock in the mainstream had to be shiny music about strippers and partying. Guns showed, like the Rolling Stones before them, that gritty rock that painted the darker side of life could find a wider audience. I went back recently and listened to "Appetite" again, and what strikes me is that it holds up remarkably well. The songs still bristle with energy, Axl Rose's voice and Slash's guitars slash and burn, and the record finds that difficult balance between grime and polish. It truly is one of those records that comes along oh so rarely.

It is also, I believe, the only good album Guns N Roses ever made. We'll get into this, but both "Illusion" albums and "Chinese Democracy" are far too flawed to be anything but curiosities. And yet, like the Sex Pistols, Guns has achieved a legendary reputation on the strength of one lucky accident of an album.

That leads to our first questions; Why is "Appetite" the only good Guns record, and has the drama and disappointment of the last twenty-nine years yet dragged Guns' reputation down to where it should have been all along?

D.M: Okay, to start off, I have a brief issue with the implication that Guns 'N' Roses only produced one good record.  I grant that they only produced one show-stopper, one all-timer in the pantheon of great albums.  But I personally am partial to "Use Your Illusion I," no matter how scattershot and weird it can momentarily be.  I've hit an age where I don't necessarily need an album to be perfect (and no, I'm not implying that you do,) I merely need it to have three or four great moments that I can defend.  Parenthetically, one of my favorite records of all time is White Zombie's "Astro-Creep: 2000," and that record has some real teeth-grindingly bad moments on it.  I'm also a fan of Battlecross' "War of Will" and Unearth's "The March," which have some significant holes in them, so this might be a 'me' thing.  Anyway, you said it yourself, we'll get into that later, so I won't belabor the point now.

The G'n'R reputation question is one that's tougher to ferret a real answer from, because I think the answers vary wildly by generation.  For you and me, who really only to come the band after their historic dysfunction had started, their present legacy in our eyes remains as bizarre and uneven as one can remember.  To my in-laws, though (who I use because they're younger than my own parents, and right in that 45-55 age bracket where G'n'R is in the sweet spot,) the band remains a sort of mythic pinnacle, a legacy beyond reproach, an untouchable, unrepeatable totem of their youths.  So for them, the history of Guns 'N' Roses remains largely untarnished, with few blights that can't be ignored and no ticket price that's too high to see them again.  So, the question of the band's legacy, much as every question about them seems to, results largely in more questions marks.

Which dovetails nicely into your point - that "Appetite" lives right in that sweet spot where it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the soundtrack to a forty-car pileup, the end of hair metal, the signature album of a generation, and, (forgive my liberal use of the Oxford comma,) the part that often gets lost, the early stages of an unprecedented run of success for David Geffen.  There's a whole side section we could run into about Geffen and his perfect sense of the next big, genre-defining thing, whether it was Guns or Nirvana or White Zombie.  Whether or not you believe G'n'R or Nirvana ultimately was the bigger bullet that killed off the veneer and shiny facade of hair metal (and that's not the debate we're having,) the fact is both contributed greatly, and one man had both on his record label.  But that's neither here nor there.

The other thing that's always fascinated me about "Appetite" is the time in which it existed.  When we think of Los Angeles in the late '80s, if we're not talking about the breakthroughs of NWA and similar rap artists, everything points to the Aqua-Net infused, hedonistic indulgences of hair metal during that time period.  Yet here comes Guns 'N' Roses, a band who certainly looked the part, but didn't play it, and they used to famously pal around with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction, two more bands who bucked the trend and emerged from the ashes of burning weaves to loom larger than those band ever could (well, RHCP, anyway.  Jane's Addiction is a debatable question in relation to the fame of, say, Poison or Motley Crue at their height.)  Roughly five years later (granted, a positive eternity in the time frame of musical movements,) Rage Against the Machine releases their first album, which stood a world apart from everything that had come before.  The fact that G'n'R straddled all those lines and yet still so dominated their scene is a rare sort of anachronism in and of itself.

My question to you (and I'm not even sure I answered your question,) is, in the process of Guns 'N' Roses killing off their predecessors and ushering in a new generation of younger, hungrier music fans, did they pave their own way to be eliminated from the public consciousness by Nirvana and grunge?  Does "Appetite" serve merely as a middle bridge between two great movements?  If so, is that why it's the band's only great album?  Had their audience already moved on?

Chris C: I suppose my declaration depends on just how much of the smorgasbord of the "Illusions" you enjoy. There are absolutely classic moments on both of them, and you're right that albums don't need to be perfect to be great, but I can't overlook the fact that they're a complete mess of bloat that include garbage like "Dead Horse" and "Get In The Ring", not to mention two different versions of "Don't Cry" (a song I love) just because Axl couldn't decide on what the lyrics should have been. Those albums are the very reason the mind-game of turning a double album into a single album exists. There is an "Appetite" level classic in there, if you cut out the massive amount of fat. The fun part is that no one can ever agree on what the fat is, but we all admit there is a lot of it.

Your point about "Appetite" being the watershed for a generation is quite right. I fully understand the appeal it held for people who were the right age at the time. It still translates well enough to you and me, and obviously to people who came after us as well. It does make me wonder, however, what the landmark album of our generation is. I think we're slightly too young to say "Nevermind" and slightly too old to say "American Idiot". Do we exist in a spot without a north star to look towards?

I do think you're on to something, but maybe not for the reason you think. That dovetails into why "Appetite" is their only great album. Let me explain.

Guns did set the stage for their own obsolescence, but they did so because of their inability to be honest. As gritty and 'real' as "Appetite" appears to be, it's a con job. That is the band Guns was at the time, but not the band they wanted to be. Listening to the "Illusions", it's made obvious that they didn't want to be the dirty saviors of rock and roll, they (Axl especially) wanted to be artists. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you kill off a genre with raw power, and then say you don't care about what you created anymore, it was a signal to the audience to go find something more authentic.

And that's been the reality of Guns ever since. Axl has spent a lifetime collecting paychecks from an album that he immediately moved away from, all the while half-heartedly making an effort to create the music he really wants to. "Appetite" was so big that it stifled the band's ability to ever be anything but that. They all tried with the "Illusions", and Axl tried with "Chinese Democracy", but no one would ever accept anything else. That's why the reunion tour is working so well. It's not complicated. It's Axl and Slash playing the songs that put money in their pockets.

Before asking a loaded question about "Chinese Democracy", let's backtrack to "Appetite" again. Are you a singles or deep cuts guy? Which moments elevate the record from successful to transformative, and what's the one black hole in the middle of it?

D.M: You know, just because neither of us has mentioned it to this point, let's take a moment to recognize that between "Appetite" and the "Illusions," G'n'R did release "Lies."  And I mention that only because it's almost universally overlooked in their history (with more or less good cause,) and because I wouldn't feel we were being proper chroniclers of the event without at least mentioning it.  Also, not for nothing, but if you go into a store that sells used CDs, and you find some G'n'R in there, yes, there's a 70% chance that it's going to be "The Spaghetti Incident."  But that other 30%, without hesitation, is always "Lies."  So right in the beginning of the Guns story, there's a fairly blatant misstep, which perhaps we should have all taken as a sign of things to come.

But anyway, that's not what we're talking about.  To answer your first question first, I have been scrambling my brain in the last two days trying to determine what the hallmark album of our generation is.  And I don't have one answer.  I mean, I don't know how old you need to be to identify those kinds of things, but I'm figuring, perhaps generously, 13-16?  So for me, that puts it right in the 1996-1999 stretch, and frankly, music was pretty awful then.  I've referenced this before, but Kerry King once referred to that period as the time he really didn't want to make sure anymore, because it seemed like the albums that deserved merit weren't getting it, and Limp Bizkit was hugely popular.

For all that though, I did come up with a list of contenders.  We were pretty young, but I distinctly remember "Nevermind" being a huge fucking deal.  No two ways about that.  When fourth graders are talking about your album, you've done something right, especially when the album has been out more than a year already.  I think Soundgarden's "Superunknown," just for it's multiple singles (five blockbusters, with two or three other cuts that got radio play) and staying power, in on the list.  Rage Against the Machine's "Evil Empire," even though it's not their best work, was a monster when it was released.  Hell, even the Offspring's "Smash" might be in their somewhere. As much as neither of us wants to admit it, Marilyn Manson released two popular albums in that stretch, "Antichrist Superstar" and "Mechanical Animals." Outside our normal jurisdiction, Dr Dre's "2001" was a prime mover, one of dozens of rap albums that took over the airwaves for a few years.

Also, not for nothing, but don't overlook Metallica's Black Album.  I know it's been overplayed to the point of parody today, and yes, it was released in 1991 when I was eight years old, but that album ruled the roost for years.  Years.  A pile of singles, whole radio show blocks dedicated to it, late night Metallica sessions on every rock station in every market.  In mid-to-late-nineties radio, there were two inescapable truths - Metallica and ClearChannel.  That was it, man.

Forgive me, I've gotten far afield.  Anyway, Guns 'N' Roses - I have always found interesting the concept of a band that doesn't write the music they want to.  it seems so counter-intuitive, you know?  Maybe I'm a product of the digital music age, when if a band didn't like what one manager wanted, they could find another, or do it themselves, or at least, there already existed a niche audience for their product, they didn't have to fit a mold.  I'm not disagreeing with you about that as far as Guns 'N' Roses goes, though I do wonder if the tail wagged the dog a little bit.  Did Axl love "Appetite" when he wrote it, but then the fame and cash started to pour in, and suddenly he decided he was an artiste' that had to give the world more?  In essence, was Axl always honest with us (stifle your laughter!) and was it just that something about him changed?  Certainly, the "November Rain" video seems like the dream of a self-styled egotistical megalomaniac (love that video, for a lot of reasons, few of them the 'right' reasons,) so is it so hard to believe that Axl simply went mad with power after "Appetite's" success?

Ice-T once described this same phenomenon concerning young upstarts in rap - that the first album is always great because it's gritty and grimy and real and written by a young person with nothing to lose and a terrible life experience.  But then the cash starts flowing, and the next time the kid sits down to write his/her second album from his/her swanky penthouse apartment, he/she looks at the hand holding the paper to the table, and the writing suddenly gets not farther than 'ohmygod, lookit my watch!'

Of course, we might be overlooking a very tangible possibility.  The history of popular music is soaked to the bone with a deluge of bands who were only good enough to conjure up one really excellent album before running out of material, or at the least, never being able to replicate that success.  Admittedly, Guns 'N' Roses was at the very pinnacle of the game when they released "Appetite," but could it be that that was simply their best punch?  For all their pompous excess and bullshit, could Axl and his band really have been guilty of nothing besides not being able to replicate the same caliber of album?  And if that is a crime (and it may not be,) is that crime all the more magnified when your first album was a true all-timer?

As to "Appetite" itself, I admit I am a singles guy, up through and including "Mr. Brownstone."  This is me being overly sentimental about something that deserves little sentiment, but "Sweet Child O Mine," as occasionally hokey and overplayed as it might be, was 'our song' between myself and my high school girlfriend.  There's a certain sinister elements to all of the singles on that album, which is probably unintentional, in that all those singles are instantly memorable.  I don't know if it's the big choruses or the hooks or what it is, but everyone on earth knows "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child O Mine" and "Paradise City."  All of the singles on that album, but particularly those three, magically combined the most laudable elements of arena rock with the fury of the underground, in a way that's been difficult to replicate since.  So really, the 'con job' of "Appetite" is that it destroyed hair metal and arena rock on one hand, but cleverly stabbed it in the back and stole from it on the way out.

Side note apropos of nothing.  If I had a musical time machine, one of the things I would it for would be to go back to 1986 or so and see G'n'R play those same songs in a crappy dive bar, set against the backdrop of the plastic, teased-hair 80s in Los Angeles.  That juxtaposition would have been awesome.

As to the hole in the album, I think anyone who knows me knows what I'm going to say - right after "Paradise City," it goes into "My Michelle" and "Think About You."  Gag.  For an album that broke the mold of rock as we knew it in the late 80s, they sure couldn't resist the temptation to chuck some ballads in there.  Totally unnecessary.  "Sweet Child" and "Paradise City" should have, by all rights, been the closest that album ever got to a ballad.  Garj.

What about you?

Chris C: I didn't exactly forget about "Lies". The problem is has is one that is really a topic for another time, namely that it's an EP, and EPs are the granola bars of music. They exist, and they are music, but they're never what you want them to be. I realize I'm saying this despite putting an EP on my best albums list last year, but that was the ultra-rate exception. I digress, because there isn't enough room here to fully flesh out this subject. Needless to say, "Lies" was a perfect fulcrum to swing their career, letting us all know they were going to piss off everyone all the time.

Yes, I think you need to be at least in your teens before the music adults are making can truly define your own experiences. That's why I preclude "Nevermind", and "Dookie" along with it. I know that while I was aware of them at the time, I couldn't possibly say they defined our generation. I would like to agree with "Smash", which may not have aged well, but we both agree is a cultural landmark, but it was also from 1994. Damn, that was a good year. I also gave this topic quite a bit of thought, and the best answer I can come up with is "OK Computer", which bummed me the hell out. Come to think of it, given the experiences of our generation, being bummed the hell out by mediocre music that replaced people with computers is a pretty damn apt metaphor for us. I hate to say it, since the album is awful, but "OK Computer" might be the right answer.

I don't know if Axl loved "Appetite" at the time, but I'm pretty sure he would have preferred to be something else. If I remember correctly, "November Rain" and "Don't Cry" were already kicking around, and if they doesn't show Axl had a serious Elton John crush, I'm not sure what else would. I feel like it was exacerbated by the success they found. It wasn't satisfying to Axl to be popular, but be known as an angry and drug-fueled asshole. He wanted respect in addition to fame, and he wasn't going to get that playing the soundtrack to Skid Row (the place, not the band).

The reason Guns was never able to recreate "Appetite" was, to me, because of two things. One of them is the obvious reality that a lifetime of writing gives you a lot more to work with than the couple years you get afterwards. The other is that "Appetite" was a true collaboration where everyone took their best ideas and threw them together in whatever fashion made the best songs. After that, the process became more about the individuals, and none of them were as strong on their own as they were together. Just look at Slash; until he found Myles Kennedy, he spent fifteen years making completely forgettable records no one cared about. And he's SLASH.

You walked into the trap I intentionally set. I actually feel like "Think About You" is one of the more unfairly maligned songs on "Appetite". No one wanted to hear something a bit softer and more melodic, but looking back in hindsight, it does give a hint of where Axl was headed. My low point on the record is "You're Crazy". I just don't see the point or the need for it. Even "My Michelle", which I do like, has a far more obvious identity. "You're Crazy" is the very definition of filler. It pads the running time without a single idea the other songs don't already tackle. The best song, for me, is also what I have grudgingly admitted to myself is Guns' best song overall; "Rocket Queen". It's everything Guns ever was or would be, all wrapped up in one awesome song. It has a sleazy Slash riff, a catchy chorus, an pretentious tone shift, and the recorded sounds of Axl having sex with a band member's girlfriend. Is there anything more Guns N' Roses than that?

I feel like I need to ask a question here about "Chinese Democracy", but I really don't want to talk about it. It's that rare record that gets unfairly branded as terrible, despite the fact that it isn't a good album. I'm not sure if that makes sense. You can address the album if you would like to, but I'm going to sum up my feelings in two sentences. The songs that have Axl being pretentious Axl ("Better", "Street Of Dreams", "Catcher In The Rye", "There Was A Time") are awesome. The rest of the album is a hot mess. Hey, there's the need for an EP!

Anyway, let's wrap this up with a final question. We're now talked about "Appetite" and how it relates to the following thirty years of Guns' career, but let's talk about how it relates to us. All these years later, how well do you feel the album holds up, and do you think it will continue to resonate with you as we move past the ages in which the songs could apply to us? Will we be looking back as fondly at "Appetite" twenty years from now?

D.M: Dammit!  What about Rob Zombie's "Hellbilly Deluxe?"  I'm just trying to give us a shot at anything that's better than "OK Computer."  Ugh.  Now I have a bad taste in my mouth.

Let me make one quick aside - I totally get what you're saying about Axl and his songwriting and secret heart of hearts where he wanted to be something bigger than he was.  So I think you may have a point about how genuine "Appetite" may or may not be.  But let me add this - I don't want to excoriate Axl too hard for trying to stretch his musical wings.  The heavier genres of music that I call home are languishing in a very serious lack of that very thing, not only in the talent to write outside the box, but in the will to do so.  So I get it - Axl's an easy target when discussing the concept of musicians bullshitting all of us, and make no mistake, deservedly so.  But in this case, it could be worse.

I only have one thing to say about "Chinese Democracy."  Well, okay, two.  First, with all the hype and waiting and cloud of nonsense that surrounded it, that album would have been a flop if it accomplished anything short of establishing a world utopia like the Wyld Stallyns' album was supposed to do in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."  Second, somebody else pointed this out to me, and I can't recall who it was, so I beg forgiveness for not being able to credit him/her; "Chinese Democracy" listens like a synopsis of popular music during the time it was being made.  There are cuts that sound like Metallica, cuts that sound like Kid Rock, cuts that sound like Korn - you can almost draw a chronology of popular rock just by listening to the record.

Before I get to my final thought, let me toss one thing at you quick to finish up.  Why do we love Slash so much as a guitarist?  He's great.  Period.  But he doesn't have a particular sound that's ingrained in his style, and even his style isn't as distinguishable as some of his contemporaries like Van Halen or Hammett or even Angus Young.  And yet, if someone asked me point blank, with no time to react, 'is Slash a great guitarist?' I would say yes.  And mean it!  But why?

"Appetite for Destruction's" current status is a mixed question for me.  Does it hold up from a musical standpoint?  Sure does.  The riffs still bite, the virile arrogance still means something, the songs are still well-constructed, fast-paced and enjoyable.  But it's funny we're discussing this now, because I recently, for myself, ranked my top 100 albums for the first time in four years, only to find that "Appetite" had slipped out of it's previous lofty ranking.  That doesn't necessarily lessen its impact or longevity, but it may well mean that the album will never mean to me what to did to musical adolescents upon its release.  It speaks to a place and an era I never experienced, so there's always going to be some mental separation between me and it, especially since I aged out of my (admittedly minor) teenage rebellious phase, so even that sort of evergreen psychological relationship that people can have with the album is faded.  Twenty years from now, I expect it will be much of the same - it will still be a great record, and while I'll be in my fifties then (*shudder*) the people in their sixties and seventies will still dig on it on different level than I do.  That may be the fate of nearly every album 'of its time and generation' to be all cliche about it, but I suppose what I'm saying is that I don't think "Appetite" can avoid that.  And there's no shame in that, it'll always be the most emblematic album of its time, so maybe it doesn't require a greater legacy than that.

CHRIS C: I will disagree with you regarding Slash. He absolutely has a particular sound. While he absolutely needs a writing partner to elevate his songs, he is one of the greatest soloists in rock history. I can always tell a Slash solo from the first few notes, because his sound is that unique. He is the epitome of fusing the modern rock style with the blues it evolved from. He is the missing link between Jimmy Page and Yngwie Malmsteen, or whatever combination of names you want to use. Yes, he is often overrated, but there aren't many who compare when it comes to being the ultimate lead guitarist.

So I think we come down in the same place when it comes to the legacy of "Appetite For Destruction". At this point, it's reached the status where it will always be legendary because it is legendary, and following generations will embrace it because they've already been told it deserves their acclaim. For us, it was not a seminal part of our youth, but we remember hearing about that experience from the slightly older people in our lives, so I think we're actually perfectly positioned to pass judgment. For me, I say that "Appetite For Destruction" is going to, for better or worse, go down in history as the defining example of what rock and roll in the 80s was. And really, you can't go too wrong with that.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Album Review: Mindmaze - Resolve

Here were are again, getting ready to dive into another concept album. I can't begin to express how tired I am of these things, albums that try and (almost always) fail to be something more than albums. Let's face it; it's hard to tell a story through lyrics, and even when you can, there aren't enough words on an album to make the story interesting. There is a reason musicians play music, and writers write. Very few times has there ever been an album that told a compelling story that was easy to understand without glaring at a lyric sheet for hours on end. Luckily, MindMaze is doing something smart here, and have made what is more of a thematic album, rather than a pure plot-driven conceptual piece. That gives them much more of a margin to work with.

The album kicks off with a four minute instrumental, which thankfully is not a useless introductory piece. This is a fully-formed song, with acoustic guitars that open from a place of longing, and build into a metal song with soaring lead guitars. It's a far more effective use of instrumental time than the usual cinematic scene-setter. I do, however, quibble with the pacing of the album. The instrumental opening leads into the lackluster "Fight The Future", and then we are immediately thrown back into a minute long instrumental segue. There hasn't been enough meat on the bone yet for a break to be necessary. It slows any momentum before it can get going.

Theme or not, the album needs to deliver on the songwriting if it's going to succeed. That's where we come up a bit short. It's not that Mindmaze can't write songs, but they don't put all the elements together. They have a good sound, and a good singer, but the songs lack the hooks that would take this to the next level. There is serious talent in the instrumental department, with plenty of riffs and solos that are heavy and melodic in the right amounts. The arrangements are great, and while I find Sarah Teets a more than capable vocalist, the writing doesn't give her much to work with. Melodically, the songs don't provide sweeping choruses for her to sing, nor does the band add in enough backing vocals to at least pump them up. Albums like this are supposed to sound larger than life, but the band comes across sounding a bit small, because they don't utilize the advantage they can gain by layering some extra voices to make an epic choir.

"Resolve" carries on like this for sixty-eight minutes, during which time it does grow tedious. There are good ideas in here, but the band doesn't hone in on them and turn them into lethal songs. If this album was pared down to under an hour, and the melodies were given a bit more punch, this could be a really good album. However, that's not where we are. Instead, we're faced with a record that is punching a bit above its weight. MindMaze is a solid group, and "Resolve" isn't a bad record by any means, but there's still so much potential for growth here. Hopefully, next time out they will deliver on that promise.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Album Review: Pyramaze - Contigent

Not every story is linear. Some meander around the crux of the plot, trying to give different perspectives before making the main point. Bands can follow the same pattern. Not every band is going to stay together and go from one album to the next in a predictable fashion. Pyramaze has been one to defy that normalcy. Starting out as a classic power metal band, they then became an Iced Earth clone when the brought in Matt Barlow for one album, and then they became a modern power metal outfit when he was gone, after a brief spell with another known singer that didn't even generate an album. To say that there has been turmoil in the Pyramaze world would be a bit of an understatement. But things are stable now, so how do we get along with this new record?

Pyramaze has once again made a shift in sound, this time becoming a more cinematic outfit, turning their music into something more epic and grand than before. It's still a heavy, down-tuned version of power metal with progressive elements, but they are trying to make something with more weight to the compositions.

We don't get to hear much of that in the opening "Land Of Information". That's probably a wise move to transition us into where they are going, giving us a more traditional song that moves through its time with some heavy riffs, a good melody, and just a hint of cinema creeping in at the end. "Kingdom Of Solace" introduces us full-scale to what the band is aiming for. Opening with a full film-score setup, there is absolutely a heightened sense of drama added to the song. There are plenty of details to focus on, letting the song be enjoyed on more than one level. The problem is that for all the good of the music, the melody of the song is weak, which undercuts the whole point.

There are two ways of utilizing orchestral elements in metal. You can slap them on as needless window-dressing, or you can write the songs around those elements. Pyramaze is frustrating here, because they try to split the difference. There are times when they use the epic sounds as the base for a song, but there are other songs where those elements are almost non-existent. It gives the album a disjointed feeling, as though these songs were from two different projects.

That is all about the style, not the substance. Pyramaze is a talented band, and there is ample opportunity for them to show that throughout this lengthy conceptual piece. Songs like "Star Men", "A World Divided", and "Nemesis" are all very good power metal. They don't rise above that like the press release says they were aiming for, but good music is good music.

The only thing "Contingent" suffers from is ambition. The album is trying to be something that I don't think the band was quite ready to pull off. There's a good modern, heavy power metal album in here, but it has too many bells and whistles trying to doll it up as something more. If Pyramaze had dialed back a bit, they could have made something great here. As it stands, "Contingent" is a good album that could have been better. It's up to you to judge if that's good enough for you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Album Review: Life of Agony - "A Place Where There's No More Pain

To say it’s been a long journey to get here by New York natives Life of Agony is a gross, negligent understatement.  We don’t have the time or inclination to review the whole saga here, but the information is readily available for those who seek it, and it can all succinctly summed up by saying that an awful lot happened.  Yet, for all the hiatuses and tours and albums and rumors, we stand here today in 2017 faced with largely the same band we were introduced to in 1993.

More to the point, as the band embarks upon the long awaited journey that will see the release of their new studio album “A Place Where There’s No More Pain,” the message remains the same as it was almost a quarter century ago.  Life is hard, it can be unfair, mistakes are made, and somewhere, buried down at the bottom, the knowledge that you’re not alone.  It’s a message that has become Life of Agony’s stock in trade (and how could it not, just look at the band’s name,) and it is where their music is the most comfortable.

This new record, perhaps predictably given the band’s membership and their combined experience, doesn’t subscribe unilaterally to the signature sound of Life of Agony, but instead lives at the comfortable intersection of Life of Agony and A Pale Horse Named Death.  If the last time you paid serious attention to LoA was all the way back at their debut, you’ll find this album to be just as dire, but musically mellower, content to roll the riffs at you rather than batter you with them.

That doesn’t mean that the element of menace inherent to this band or style of music is absent, just altered ever so slightly.  The opening up-and-down thump of “Meet My Maker” breathes life into the album from the start, in that delightfully dirty way that only sludgy bands from the Northeast ever seemed to really master (with all respect to grunge, this movement is similar but not the same.)  There’s a certain sense of ‘old home week’ in hearing this sound again, a coming back to form that fans of the band have been awaiting for so long.

The vocals of Mina Caputo remain as melodically anguished as ever, coupled as a near perfect vehicle for the simple but affecting lyrics containing a lifetime of personal struggle and perseverance.  The shadow of suicide, for so long an integral part of Life of Agony’s lyrical metaphor, remains lurking in the background, coloring even the otherwise comparatively bright title track.  Much as with all of their records, “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” is not the kind of record one chooses to rock while driving to the grocery store on a bright, sunny afternoon.

As much as we parenthetically dismissed grunge earlier, the fans of that once paramount genre will find a lot of comfortable listening here.  It’s not such a stretch to suggest that “Dead Speak Kindly” would have been right at home in the post-“Dirt” world of Alice in Chains – that may sound too easy a parallel given the usual subject matter of that band and of LoA as we previously discussed, but that doesn’t make the comparison less valid.  Fans of AiC (myself included,) may wonder wistfully if that band could have turned out like this if only Layne had survived.

That said, there is also some room here for the punk roots that set the stage for all the NYHC scene to thrive.  While the verses of “A New Low” sludge along with the dark drudgery of Type O Negative, it’s in the choruses that the fist-in-the-face of punk shows a winking hint of fiery life.  This continues as the band rolls into “World Gone Mad,” perhaps the only other similar cut on the duration of the album.

Which may, in turn, be perhaps the only failing of this effort.  For all that “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” rumbles and shambles through an introspective and eminently listenable forty or so minutes, many of the songs strike much the same notes over and over again.  There is just the barest but noticeable hint throughout the course of the proceedings that some of the selections are indistinct from one another, which also heightens the sense that this record lacks a taste of the je ne sais quoi of “River Runs Red.”

But tread carefully before rendering judgement – to compare those musicians from more than two decades ago to these musicians is perhaps borderline unfair, even if it is the same group of people.  This album does not lack for quality, it’s merely a different experience than “River Runs Red,” which remains so vital because recording technology allows it to sound as it did back then.  Where that album is ragged and vitriolic, this one is mature and measured.

So, when it’s all over, “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” may not be quite the same achievement as “River Runs Red,” but it doesn’t necessarily need to be, either.  Times and themes are allowed to shift over the course of nearly twenty-five years, and so this album serves as a reminder that Life of Agony both is and isn’t the same band that we once knew.  After a long break and an incredible, documentary-worthy road to get here, the band has served us fans with a quality album that’s a credit to the legacy of the artists that produced it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Album Review: The Electric Coast - Warming Quilt

It's funny how we often find ourselves complaining about the imperfections in the music we listen to, wishing they could be smoothed out and the music be made that little bit more perfect. It's an understandable desire to want the best representation possible of the music, but it does clash with the occasional artist that comes along with a giant, glaring flaw that can be completely looked past. Intellectually, it's difficult to understand exactly how we rationalize these episodes, but music is not an intellectual pursuit. Music, at its core, is about making the listener feel something. You don't need to be perfect to do that.

I say that because The Electric Coast has one of those giant, glaring flaws staring us straight in the face. But before we get to that, let's examine what the music has to offer.

If you remember what has happened to indie rock recently, you know that it's become an angular, insular form of music that has stripped-down the fidelity and replaced actual songwriting with 'setting a mood'. Indie rock is the ramshackle husk given a cheap coat of paint by wannabe poets who aren't actually musicians. What indie rock used to be, before it was ruined, was a simple form of music that a couple guys in a garage could hammer out and entertain people with. That's the kind of music The Electric Coast is making.

The veneer is glossy, and the tones are shimmering, but the music being offered up is simple rock where a couple chords and a sing-song melody are all that you need. It's engaging music, the kind that reminds you its ok to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself. That makes my job a bit difficult, since there isn't anything heady or intricate to relate through words. At a certain point, you just need to hear it for yourself.

When you do, there are two things that you will note. One of them is that The Electric Coast has put together a solid album of catchy, melodic indie rock that has songs with high replay value. You aren't going to hear a riff that makes you bang your head, nor a beat that catches your attention, but that's the point. The melodies slowly build one atop the next, until you realize that you're listening to an excellent display of songwriting. There are ebbs and flows, and a few moments where things could use a punch-up, but the vast majority of this record is highly entertaining, and perfect for an early Spring afternoon.

The other thing you will notice is that flaw I mentioned earlier. The vocals on this album are going to make or break your experience. The raspy delivery is not one you hear often, and I can fully understand why it would scare off many listeners. But if you remember that mainstay of the European melodic rock scene, Michael Bormann, you've heard this approach before. It's rough, but it seems to me the coarseness of the vocals plays off the sheen of the guitars in a way a cleaner voice wouldn't be able to. It's as if the vocals have to carry the weight of being a rock band, while the actual music can play a poppier style. It's an interesting approach, and it works for me.

I heard the single "Disagree" as an accident. It intrigued me a bit, so I kept listening. There was a nagging thought in the back of my head that this was something worth digging into. After a few spins, I realized that The Electric Coast is on to something here. "Warming Quilt" is a charming record that I greatly enjoyed, and one I think it going to be a staple of this summer season.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Album Review: Crazy Lixx - Ruff Justice

Having lived through the latter part of the 80s, with memories of that time, I sometimes wonder why it is that we have such nostalgia for that time. The Reagan years were tumultuous, music was either synth pop dreck or the glam metal phase, and don't get me started about the ungodly amount of cheese that permeated tv and movies. It was an odd time, a time that's hard to look back at without cringing, and yet we have nostalgia for it. I suppose we white-wash the bad parts from our memories, and we only remember the good times. Otherwise, I'm not sure what exactly the attraction of hairspray and spandex could ever be.

Crazy Lixx is here to remind us of those glory days, with an album that is a full-on embrace of everything that is cheese. That includes 80s glam rock, as well as the poor (by today's standards) horror movies of the time. But can something that focuses on things we laugh about from the past be taken seriously in the here and now?

Crazzy Lixx says "everything was better in the 80s". That is so untrue I can't begin to explain their lack of brain power, but there are parallels between now and then. And the one thing the 80s had that is worth emulating is the sense of fun. Despite the negatives of the time, entertainment of all stripes aimed to do just that; entertain. That's what Crazy Lixx has going for them. Whether you like cheesy rock or not, you can't deny that there's a degree to which they're having fun, and they want us to have fun, that you don't get from more modern musical approaches.

Just listen to the first track, "Wild Child". It's a song that could be about a warewolf, but the sugary heaps of backing vocals make it a song that's so stupid it's hard to not love it. It's the kind of song that you can easily imagine yourself singing along with on a summer day, with the wind blowing through your hair as you head down the highway.

There's another band out there also showing their love for the 80s you might know of. Yes, I'm talking about Steel Panther. The two bands are similar in that they both love the glam rock of the 80s and want to bring it into the modern day, but they do so in completely different fashions. Steel Panther laughs at the very thing they're trying to say they love, which undercuts the point. If the format they play in is a joke, they're making jokes about a joke, which is such a pointless conceit that I can't even be mad at their pathetic freshman-grade 'humor'. Crazy Lixx, on the other hand, is making an honest attempt to recreate the music and show their love for it. They know it's cheesy, but that's the appeal. Instead of being a complete farce, it's tongue-in-cheek, and that slight bit of subtlety makes all the difference.

Is "Ruff Justice" a great album? No, but I'm not sure it's supposed to be. It wants to remind us of a certain time and a certain sound, and it definitely does that. It's a fun listen, but it's popcorn entertainment. It goes down well, but it's empty calories. Fun while it lasts, but nothing that we're going to be nostalgic about even a year from now.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Album Review: Through Fire - Breathe (Deluxe Reissue)

A fact of being a music fan is that you simply cannot hear everything that gets released. It's impossible. I don't tally the amount of records that I have access to, but if I tried to listen to every single one of them, I wouldn't have time in the day for anything else. We have to manage our time, pick and choose, or else we get consumed in the avalanche. As much as deluxe reissues of albums can seem like a way of bilking fans for more and more money, they can also give a moment of attention back to an album that has slipped through the cracks. Through Fire's album from last year is one of those I think I heard mentioned in passing once, but it isn't something I ever listened to. This reissue of the album has brought it to my attention.

Through Fire plays that style of modern rock that straddles the line between rock and metal, where the guitars are too saturated to be purely rock, but the songs aren't aggressive enough to be metal. It's a sound that is probably intended to appeal to fans on both sides of the fence, but I don't think it works quite that way. I imagine that rock fans won't enjoy the heavier moments nearly as much, and the metal fans are still going to think this is too mainstream. But I could be wrong.

The album gets off to a good start with "Breakout" and "Stronger", which have heavy riffs and choruses that throw in hefty doses of melody. In fact, though I doubt anyone will want me to make this comparison, the vocal tone makes the songs come across like a far heavier version of Chris Daughtry's first post American Idol album. Take that for what you will.

The strong start fades as the middle of the album hits. The title track is a bit slow, but ultimately redeems itself, but "Take It All Away" can't manage that trick. It's a song that strips all the melody out of the band's sound, and pounds away at a rhythm and a shout that isn't appealing at all. It's a jarring shift from the songs that came before, and would sound like a completely different band if "Dead Inside" didn't follow it and follow suit.

The album rights itself by the end, which leaves a better taste in my mouth. This edition of the album includes two extended versions of tracks, which add a few seconds to each without doing much to change the experience. There's also an acoustic version of the title track, which I think better captures the emotion the band was going for.

The most interesting moment, though, is the inclusion of a cover of Christina Perri's "Jar Of Hearts". The proper album included an Ellie Goulding cover, and adding in this cover, I think it shows where the band needs to head in the future. When they take their pseudo-grunge aesthetic, and mix it with pop melodies, the results are interesting. When they fall back into angry radio rock, they're lifeless and boring.

"Breathe" is a decent little album, and this version is worth checking out for the "Jar Of Hearts" cover. These sorts of rock versions of pop songs are a guilty pleasure, and this is a good one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Album Review: Adrenaline Rush - Soul Survivor

I'm not sure exactly why it is, but when I see rock and metal albums that are being released, there's always a little note alerting the audience when the singer is female. That sounds ridiculous when I say it, and there is something rather sexist about the practice. Are rock and metal fans really so saturated with machismo that they can't handle a woman fronting a band? I don't know if it's out of spite, or if I'm just weird, but when I see that designation, I'm actually more drawn to check out the music. I'm rather fond of strong women singing rock and roll, so I was always going to check out the sophomore release from Adrenaline Rush.

I didn't hear this band's debut album, so I can't make a comment on the changes they've undergone in the time since, but this album finds them playing a very late-era Dio variety of hard rock. It has the basic feeling of the 80s, but with a tempo and heaviness that is more restrained than those drug-fueled days.

What that does is give more room in the mix for Tåve Wanning's vocals, which are obviously the biggest selling point for the band. Putting aside her presence as the image of the band, her voice is what is going to carry these songs. She isn't the typical rock and roll sounding woman. She's more piercing, and isn't going to carry the songs on the sheer character of her voice the way some other singers are able to. She needs the songs to work for what she does well, which I don't mean to sound as a slight.

The thing about playing 80s inspired hard rock is that it's an era that wasn't reliant on melodies. The form was still new enough at generating attention, especially in the nascent days of MTV, that the songwriting of even the classic bands of the time would fall short of expectations today. As much as I love Dio, the albums he put out with his namesake band were often filled with songs that were painfully under-written and boring. That's the fault Adrenaline Rush needs to be careful to avoid.

They do a solid job of it, too. Coming out of the gate, the initial run of tracks do a good job of balancing their rock edge with enough melody to serve as worthwhile showcases for Tåve's voice. Later, when we arrive at "Break The Silence", we get the perfect example of what she, and the band, are capable of. It's a perfect few minutes of hard rock glory.

And sure, there are a few tracks here that are too cliche and not exciting enough, but those are the exception. The majority of "Soul Survivor" is well worth the time. There are little tweaks to the band's sound that could probably better play to their strengths, but those are the sorts of discoveries that come with time. For now, they're on a good path. "Soul Survivor" is an enjoyable album, and Tåve is setting the band up for a solid future. At least for those people who aren't limited by their inability to accept something slightly different from their rock music.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Album Review: Audio Jane - Naive

We are all products of our time. Like baby ducklings who imprint on their mother to guide them through the formative stages of life, music fans are forever bound to the music that surrounded them as they fell in love with music. For me, that time was the early to mid 90s. The one thing about that period of time, if you were looking beyond the pop charts, was an overwhelming sense of despair. The music of the time was depressing, morose, and mired in the darkness. Looking back at history, it doesn't make any sense that one of the peaceful, prosperous times in our history led to a generation of whining mopers, but that's how it went.

So there is some nostalgia at play with Audio Jane's new album. It's impossible to listen to their hazy pop sound and not hear those old days again. There's a cloud of self-pity in the tones of the record that are pure 90s, transported to today. It might not be the best thing to say, but my initial thought is that this is a record that will play well with those of a certain age, and not at all with anyone who wasn't forged in the 90s.

For those of us in that target demographic, "Naive" is an album that succeeds because of the memories it evokes. It's hard to get excited about such a laconic piece of work, as the slow tempos and husky vocals are an energy sap. This isn't an album that you can smile along to. It's one that you would imagine hearing a band playing in the corner of a dimly lit townie bar on a Wednesday night. You don't dance to it, you shuffle your weight from foot to foot with your back planted against the wall.

"Naive" is an album that requires a bit of patience. If you listen quickly once, you're likely to miss out on the appeal these songs have. Given repeated listens, they begin to slowly unfold and grow roots. Audio Jane makes subtle music, but these are not subtle times, which can certainly be an issue. I didn't at first grasp everything the album has to offer. My initial impression was that it reminded me of my younger days in a pleasant way, but it didn't make a deep impact on me. As I gave it a bit of space, I found myself remembering that atmosphere, and hearing it in my head. I went back and listened again, and I began to understand the album.

Is "Naive" for everyone? Heck no. It's a piece of music aimed at a specific audience, and in certain moods it will work for them. I don't know how long, or how often you can live in the past, so I can't say how effective Audio Jane is going to be over the long haul. But for a break from today, and a reminder of the old days, it's a nice little diversion.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Album Review: Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth

Richie Kotzen certainly keeps himself busy. Just in the last few years he has released two albums with The Winery Dogs, and played hundreds of shows around the world in support of them, all the while fitting in a solo career in the short breaks in the schedule. He's one of those songwriters who never stops writing, so now that the band is taking a break to explore their other endeavors, Richie is already back with his twenty-first solo album. Produced and played almost exclusively by Richie himself, it is the true epitome of a solo album.

The record kicks off with the six minute "End Of Earth", which takes the hard rock The Winery Dogs plays, simplifies the rhythm section, and puts all the focus on Kotzen. There are multiple sections, some bluesy, some a bit instrumentally busy, and a chorus that slows down to a sweet melody. The production is a bit raw and lo-fi, but not so much that it distracts from the music.

Being a Richie Kotzen album, you know not every song is going to follow the same script. We get tracks like "Thunder", a short and simple heavy rocker built from a groovy riff, and other songs like "Divine Power", which is a slow and acoustic blues number. I know what direction I prefer, so I'm not sure what to make of the R&B style of "My Rock". While on the one hand I enjoy Richie's use of harmonies throughout the track, I also find the melody to be on the verge of being too repetitive.

I think the low point is "This Is Life", which is more than five minutes of twisted soul music that never really seems to hit on the main point. I can hear in Richie's delivery that he truly believes in the song, but I'm not sure I hear what that song is. Melodically, it's deficient when compared to what I know he's capable of.

The danger in albums like this, which traverse a fairly wide number of styles, is that it's incredibly difficult to do them all well enough to please listeners who aren't necessarily fans of all of them. I know that's the case for me. When Richie sticks to playing music that is more clearly pop and rock oriented, the songs are very good. It's when he starts off down roads that I normally don't travel that I get lost. There's that section in the middle of the album that diverges from my taste too much. I'm not going to say they're bad songs, since I don't listen to enough music in those styles to compare. What I will say is that the album loses all its momentum, for me, when that happens.

Ultimately, "Salting Earth" is an album that showcases the various sides of Richie's musical personality. I, myself, am not as diverse as Richie, so I can't get as much out of the album as he put in. There's plenty of good songs on the album, but they don't hold together as an entire album as much as I would like. But given the nature of solo projects, that's not entirely opposite the point.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Album Review: The Warning - XXI Century Blood

Everywhere you look, it seems like achievement is happening at younger and younger ages. If, for instance you follow the LPGA, you would know that your career is considered nearly over when you hit thirty, and an eleven year-old has qualified for the biggest tournament of the year. Think about that. It happens in music as well. In this age of specialization and limitless technological possibilities, bands don't have to wait until adulthood to have the resources to make music. They can make solid recordings starting whenever they're old enough to hit the record button.

The Warning is one of these tales of youth taking over the world. The band is comprised of three sisters, none of whom have hit their twenties yet. It's astounding to think that such young women have put together a band who have accomplished as much as they have already, but what's even more amazing is just how good they already are.

If you didn't know the band's story, which I didn't when I first heard some of this music, you would never guess. This album is a polished and professional outing that hits the marks of pop-leaning rock and roll with aplomb. Last year, Shiverburn nearly won Album Of The Year with a similar style, and while The Warning hasn't hit that same level of absolute brilliance, they've made a record that outclasses many that come from bands with a much higher profile.

Not only do the sisters play with the skill of veterans, the vocals have a maturity that few young singers manage to pull off. They sound like a band that has more years under their belts, which extends to their songs. Catchy music often gets written-off with a bit of a snide remark as if it's no skill to write what you could call simple music. In fact, the opposite is true. Writing a ten minute progressive opus is easy, because no one expects the music to be any good. Writing a short and sweet pop song is one of the hardest things you can do as a musician. So when The Warning shows up with a song like "Shattered Heart", which is a phenomenal pop song, that's a sign that they have what it takes.

There is also a deft amount of variety on the record. There are the move overt pop leaning songs, some more modern rhythm-centered songs like "Survive", as well as the ballads you would expect to find. And in all cases, they do a remarkable job with each one. "Our Mistakes" and "Unmendable" are both fantastically catchy songs, while "Wildfire" is a modern burner, and "Show Me The Light" and "Black Holes (Don't Hold On)" are stirring ballads that give the album the give and take that makes it so effective. There isn't a single track here that falls short of the mark. The time and care taken to make this album shows.

Any rock group with a female singer and a mainstream sound is going to draw the inevitable comparison to Halestorm. The Warning has given us a record that is easily better than Halestorm's latest, but is still looking up at their masterful second album. That's actually high praise. These young ladies have made a better record than a huge band on a major label with every resource they could ever dream of to help them write songs could muster.

I hate to go to the well of age so often, but it's amazing to think a record like this can be made by teenagers. I remember what I was doing at that age as a musician, and I couldn't have begun to imagine making a record that rivals the names you hear on the radio. The Warning has done that. There are no growing pains here, there's no faint praise where I say I can see where they hope to be in a few albums. The Warning are already there. "XXI Century Blood" is a great album on its own merits, but with the story, it's one that does that rare thing and stands out from the crowd. I'm rather stunned by The Warning. Kudos, ladies.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Album Review: Trial - Motherless

When you think about original figures in metal, one of the first that jumps to mind is King Diamond. There is simply no one like him, other than the people who shamelessly rip him off... sorry, pay homage to him. It's hard to be original in any field, even more so when there are literally thousands of bands putting out thousands of records each and every year. It's inevitable that you are going to wind up sounding like someone else, no matter how hard you try not to. That's fine. As long as you aren't aiming to be a blatant copy, it can actually be helpful, since it is both familiar and a way of identifying where a band is coming from.

I bring this up because I get a heavy vibe of the King from Trial's new album. Unlike the band Them, this is not a case of copying for the sake of getting attention. This is an organic outgrowth of certain traits, and there is more than enough to separate Trial from that influence.

Trial's sound is a throwback to the early days of metal, for all that means. There are no guitars with unholy amounts of layered distortion, nor is there thundering drumming playing ridiculous double-bass patterns for the entirety of songs. This is more restrained, and more focused on writing songs. I appreciate that approach, but I don't think Trial is necessarily achieving what they want to here. Yes, they are trying to follow in the footsteps of the metal forefathers, but they don't have the songwriting skills to live up to that aim.

The guitar work throughout the album is easily the best part, with plenty of crunchy riffs and solid solos, capped off with a tone that sounds fresh. The vocals are all the cheesy 80s worship you could ask for, which is where that King Diamond influence comes in. The high shrieking is a descendant of his iconic vocals, but that's where the praise begins to fade. While the sound is wonderful, the actual songs are only ok. With a charismatic vocalist, I was expecting more from the vocal melodies, which are probably the weakest aspect of the album. There's nothing here that is either strongly hooky, or strangely memorable. The vocals sort of blend into the music, which is a missed opportunity.

There are lots of bands that try to make old-school metal, and believe me, Trial is better than a lot of them. But that on its own only makes them a good band. To be great, and to make me really care about their record, I need something more. I need the songs to live up to the standard of the old classics. That's where "Motherless" comes up short. Yes, it sounds great, and it sounds like the classics, but it's not as good as the classics. They haven't given me a good enough reason to stop spinning "Heaven & Hell", and put on their record instead.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Album Review: Avelion - Illusion Of Transparency

Modern metal has taken a turn in an unexpected direction. When metal started, it was hard and heavy, but it was also filled with some variety of melody. Guitar harmonies, vocal hooks, it was music that was still very much based on the traditional song structures that came from normal rock and roll. But now, there is a lot of metal that is hardly identifiable as such, because it has shifted into an almost entirely rhythmic genre. Djent is the obvious place where this has happened, but the effects have leeched into everything. For someone like me, who grew up in a pop world, and lacks the brain wiring to care about what odd number of beats are being played, it can make things tough.

Avelion is not a djent band, but they do approach their version of metal with an eye towards that rhythm. The music the band makes is deeply tuned, and pounds away in syncopated riffs that challenge the lower frequencies of our hearing. They use that template as the basis for songs that do try to inject more melody into the proceedings than many of the rhythm-centric bands do.

The positive of this approach is that Avelion's music is dark and heavy, which gives them a nice palate to play off. Juxtaposing that sound with some more soothing melodies is something that works well to build and release tension. They try to ride a razor's edge, and for the most part do that very well. They don't drift too far in either direction, and instead find a satisfying middle ground, knowing how to stick to what works.

The negative of this approach is that the songs, even on a debut record, blend into each other far too much. One of the reasons I don't gravitate towards this kind of music is because rhythms are harder to remember than melodies. By focusing so much on the instruments making rhythms instead of riffs, there is little to distinguish each song from the next. There is the slight tinkling of pianos here and there, but that's about it. Being in a comfort zone is a good thing, but there needs to be enough movement even within that to allow for the music to stay fresh.

"Illusion Of Transparency" is an album that doesn't overstay its welcome, but you also have clearly heard everything it has to offer by the time it's done. It's a fairly good record, and I don't have any complaints about spending my time listening to it, but I also don't have any plaudits to offer up. It's a solid record, and it's better than a lot of the music I have to wade through, but it's nothing to get excited about either. If music is an economy, Avelion has made a thoroughly middle-class album. It's comfortable, worth having, but not the dream we all want to have come true.

Your mileage may vary, so check them out. They deserve a chance, that's for sure.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Album Review: Royal Thunder - Wick

Each decade, or era, depending on how you want to divide time, has its own sound. Whether it was glam in the 80s, or grunge in the 90s, certain sounds gain traction and become what other bands chase after. In this current time, one of those sounds is the sludgy, dingy form of rock that Mastodon and Baroness have brought into the mainstream. Just under that surface, you have loads of other bands who are using the same palate to create their music, including Royal Thunder. While I never got around to giving their previous albums a full review, I was intrigued enough to see if they could turn the template into something both unique and invigorating. With their third album now upon us, the time seems right to dive in and see if they have grown into something special.

The main thing that sets Royal Thunder apart from the other bands that are playing this swampy kind of rock is that they have a more obvious influence from blues and folk music. They aren't approaching their songwriting from the perspective of metal fans who want to add grit to make their music sound ugly, their grit is a more organic outgrowth of the dark emotions that often permeate their influences. Organic is a key word. Any style of music can work, but they always work better when you can hear the artist isn't trying to put on a show.

The other thing that sets Royal Thunder apart is that they aren't just a band of tattooed, bearded non-hipster hipsters. Singer Mlny Parsonz gives Roayal Thunder a different sound to everyone else in their genre, as her voice has a feminine edge that brings a delicate touch even to the moments when she's screaming her lungs out. Her presence keeps the music from ever veering too far down the path of being angry for the sake of being angry, and losing the musicality that someone not in the frame of mind to punch through a brick wall needs.

Listening to the single, "April Showers", there's a heavy Danzig vibe, if you took away the metallic crunch. It's a dirty blues song with a rock edge, and Mlny roars through the verses before the momentary release of melody. It's also interesting that there are nearly no chords throughout the song, as the guitars instead stick to playing picked arpeggios and blues runs, which gives the bass ample space to stand out and drive the heft of the track.

The best aspect of Royal Thunder is the vibe their music gives off. They have a laid-back aggression that is a simmering heat, and plays well against the usual approach of hitting the listener in the face with an iron skillet. The restraint makes the moments with the guitars amp things up that much stronger. It also keeps the record from tiring you out before the fifty-plus minutes has come to its conclusion.

When they combine that with their better melodies, like they do on "Tied" and "We Slipped", the songs they write are fantastic. It's classic rock that sounds classic in the way I always maintain Graveyard is the lone band that understands. These songs can compete with Graveyard, which is a high compliment.

Sure, they don't hit that mark all the time. Royal Thunder is a band that sounds like there's a half-empty bottle of Jack rattling around on their amps while they play, which doesn't lend itself to the kind of melodic approach I tend to prefer. Still, it's a bit frustrating to listen to a few of these songs, waiting for the big moment to come, only to find that it doesn't materialize. It's a function of the style, which is not one I have ever been prone to loving, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't mention it.

So what is "Wick"? Well, it's the kind of album that I want to love. They have the sound, and the ability to make some great, dirty classic rock. They're very close to being where I think they need to get, but could still use a voice to push them one step further. That being said, Royal Thunder know what they're doing, and they are capable of great things. "Wick" is a very fine album, and while it won't get the accolades Mastodon will, it's the more interesting listening experience. "Wick" is a thumbs up, with hope that its roots grow deeper with more time.