Thursday, June 29, 2017

Album Review: Riverdogs - California

Let's get this out of the way early; I don't like Vivian Campbell. Never have, probably never will. There has never been a Def Leppard song I like, his attempt to resurrect DIO with The Last In Line was pretty bad, and if I'm being honest, I prefer the DIO albums with Craig Goldy anyway. So it doesn't get me the leeast bit excited that another band of Viv's is back from hibernation. I don't get the appeal of the guy, so I'm not going to be one of those people running to praise anything he does just because it's him. Even though the early DIO albums are good, I don't really put very much of the credit in Viv's hands. He's always been a second fiddle, which makes anything where he's the star a hard swallow.

This time, we get an album of hard rock that veers a bit more towards being bluesy, instead of glam or metal. Really though, you aren't going to hear that much of a difference. All the projects are built from the same basic structure, just with slightly adjusted guitar tones to make them 'unique'.

One of the things that's disappointing about this album is that, when it's done right, bluesy hard rock can have some of the biggest, most swaggering riffs of all. But that's not the case here. Viv and his cohorts stick with the more generic approaches to the music. There really isn't anything, guitar-wise, here that would pique anyone's interest. Viv is a big enough name that you would think you should be able to pick out great Viv moments, but I would never have known he was in this band if it hadn't been plastered on the promotional materials. Viv, at least for twenty-five years, has been a completely anonymous guitar player.

Even that would be forgivable if the rest of the band was helping to deliver songs that transcend their generic nature. Unfortunately, that's not what we get here. These songs don't have interesting riffs, nor rhythms, nor melodies either. Rob Lamothe has a nice voice, but few of his melodies have any energy behind them. "Golden Glow" is a fine enough song, but it's so laid-back you can almost hear him doing the vocals at three in the morning when all he wants to do is go home and go to bed.

Bluesy rock, when done well, can be phenomenal. Bluesy rock, when door poorly, is among the most boring of genres. This album falls closer to the latter category. It's not terrible music, but it never makes an argument for its own existence. It feels like a band going through the motions of making a record. As long as it's been since the last Riverdogs album, I would expect that if they reunited it was because of their passion for the music. I can't hear any of that on this album. "California" is a tepid collection of songs that has no new tricks up its sleeve, and doesn't pull off the old ones very well. It's another Vivian Campbell disappointment, which is exactly what I was expecting.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Album Review: Barb Wire Dolls - Rub My Mind

I don't spend much time diving through the waters of punk music. I never went through a punk phase, nor was I ever someone consumed with the anger necessary to fuel that kind of attitude. I had my forays with The Offspring, and there is the one non-punk Bad Religion album I love, but for the most part, anything that is described that way has remained far off my radar. That would include Barb Wire Dolls previous album, which I was aware of but never actually listened to. But this is a different year, the world is a different place, and it's dedicated to the memory of Lemmy, so how can I say no to giving it a shot? If there is ever the right time during my life for punk, this has to be it.

The album kicks off with "Back In The USSA", which is a more clever take on the current political reality of one of our major parties than I had come up with on my own. But for a song with that viewpoint, there isn't enough venom in the delivery. It almost has a hint of power-pop in the saturated guitars and layered "whoa-oh" vocals. I was expecting spitting bile, and that's not the approach the band took. While it doesn't really work on that track, it does on "If I Fall". It's a throwback to the garage-punk of the Ramones, with a raw energy and a bouncy chorus. That's the kind of punk I can get behind.

"Desert Song" is appropriately named, as the laid-back feeling evokes the imagery of the desert, and the sound given to it by Kyuss. When the build up finally reaches its crescendo, it's a genuinely stirring moment that caught me off-guard. There's evidence of some real nuance in the band's songwriting that the little bits of their music I had heard before didn't contain. If the growth is real, and not just a figment of my limited experience with their music, I'm mighty impressed.

There are a few rough moments, though. "We Are Champions" spends its already short time repeating the same two ideas over and over, to the point where it reaches boredom in less than three minutes. If it was going for the psychology of drone, maybe it makes sense, but all I know is it wasn't at all interesting to listen to. Much better is "Fade Away", whose riff borrows just a touch from "Mary Jane's Last Dance". Pulling influence from Tom Petty is never a bad thing.

I think what threw me about the album is the description that came along with it as being from "raucous rockers". That terminology doesn't fit this album at all. There are the influences of early punk in here, but the delivery is executed in a way that everything comes across rather calm and subdued. That's not a bad thing at all, but it leaves a bit of cognitive dissonance between expectation and reality.

Ultimately, I like "Rub My Mind" for what it is. It's a hybrid of stoner, punk, and seventies power-pop. I think it works better like this than if it was the fire-breathing punk record I was expecting. This record sounds more timeless than a teenager's rage, which I think will help down the line. "Rub My Mind" is an album that can grow with you, even if you grow out of the feelings that fuel it. That's a pretty good trick, so it's worth checking out.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Best & Worst Of 2017... So Far

As we approach the halfway mark of the year, I can't help but take a step back to do some accounting on what we've already heard this year. Coming off what I considered to be a slightly weak 2016, I was looking forward to seeing if that was a blip in the radar, or if there was a trend of weakening quality. There has actually been a bit of both, which makes this an interesting, but frustrating, year to sit through. The quality at the top of the market has been strong, but there have also been more unacceptable albums than I can remember in recent years. In alphabetical order, so as not to spoil anything, let's take a look at the best and worst so far.

The Worst:

Adrenaline Mob - We The People

There's an old saying that you can never go broke underestimating people's intelligence. That's what Adrenaline Mob is banking on, releasing one of the most flaccid albums and shameless attempts to hold on to their dying youth in recent memory. The only upside is that it's better than their previous album.

Danzig - Black Laden Crown

Danzig used to be captivating, but like many artists, he's lost sight of himself over the years. He can't hear that his voice is completely shot, nor can he hear that his production abilities are far below par. This is a terrible sounding record of boring songs.

Iced Earth - Incorruptible

Bands rip each other off all the time. What is less common is a band ripping themselves off, but that's essentially what happened here. Iced Earth has become a tribute band to themselves, rehashing the Matt Barlow era so much that this album might as well not even exist.

Pain Of Salvation - In The Passing Light Of Day

Prog can have a reputation for having its head up its ass, and for good reason. Where Daniel Gildenlow got the idea that anyone would want to listen to an hour of his tuneless warbling while the band thumps out bland riffs is beyond me. There's barely any music to this at all.

Steel Panther - Lower The Bar

The joke was funny the first time, and the songs were good. With each passing album, both have gone downhill. Now, I want to know why I'm supposed to think the same tired dick jokes are supposed to be funny. They've run out of ways to talk about banging strippers, so now all that's left is their mediocre music. Lower the bar, indeed.

The Best:

Creeper - Eternity, In Your Arms

Meat Loaf meets AFI, Creeper has done something amazing by packing massive amounts of (melo)drama into three minute songs. These are pocket-size punk operas, and add up to an album that is ear candy with surprising depth.

Harem Scarem - United

Coming out of nowhere, these veterans have put out their best record ever. Song after song, they deliver massive, candy-coated hooks that play over and over in my head. The guitar playing is quirky enough to catch your attention, sounding like a more streamlined version of The Winery Dogs. A phenomenal shock.

Nightmare - Dead Sun

We can quibble, since it came out in Europe last year. Either way, Nightmare has delivered an album that is as heavy as power metal can get, while retaining a strong sense of melody. Maggie Luyten injects life into the band, with her vocals stealing the show. She is a superstar in the making, based on this performance.

Orden Ogan - Gunmen

In the world of power metal, Orden Ogan is currently one of the very best. They've never disappointed, and on this album they kick their game up a notch again. Their second-best album, "Gunmen" is nearly an hour of killer metal that is heavy, epic, and beautiful. Blind Guardian wishes they sounded like this these days.

Soen - Lykaia

This is what Opeth should have evolved into. Soen takes a massive leap forward here, delivering their best album by a mile. The riffing and vocal tone might be a bit too close to Opeth for some people, but I love hearing a style that has fallen by the wayside. Musically inventive and hauntingly melodic, Soen has come into their own.

The Warning - XXI Century Blood

Three young ladies have earned their acclaim for this one, an album that delivers mainstream rock better than many of their major-label competitors. Listening, you would have no idea their ages. When you find out, you wonder how in the heck these three can make an album this good, while Halestorm squandered every opportunity in the world on their last album. One heck of a debut.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Album Review: 42 Decibel - Overloaded

Rock and roll is, in essence, about pushing the limits. It started out by taking the music of the day and making it louder, heavier, and more obnoxious to the older generations. There's nothing new about trying to be more than everyone else. But there is something worrying when this new 42 Decibel album comes along with an explanation that the band recorded it by trying to push the equipment into the red line. Even without hearing a note, I was conjuring up images of distorted recordings and unlistenable songs. That's what happened to Baroness' "Purple", which was utterly ruined by a hatchet-job production. Putting that in my mind before listening was not a good idea.

Thankfully, they don't take things to that extreme. The sound is rough around the edges, but never to the point of distractions. The guitars have that slightly swampy tone that an under-powered amp being pushed to its limits gets, which is slightly fuzzier than the music needs. If they cleaned it up just a bit, there would be more bite to the riffs, which I think would make things hit just a bit harder. It's counter-intuitive, but sometimes turning down the gain makes the guitars sound heavier.

But production aside, the real issue to have with this album lies in the songwriting. Simply put, 42 Decibel aren't delivering at the level they need to. There are a few decent riffs, and the vintage sound is good, but there are no vocals or melodies here that are worth listening to. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I'm failing to see the point of taking this kind of music, and more or less screeching atonally over the top of it. The vocals aren't good at all, and what is being sung is boring as well.

You would think a rock band would take one of two approaches; either have big melodies like an AOR band, or lock in with the riffs to drive simple hooks the way that Ozzy did with Black Sabbath. Instead, the eschew any rhyme or reason, and instead caterwaul completely separate from the rest of the band. It's such a waste of any potential, and it just strikes me as being lazy.

Because of that, I can't say that "Overloaded" approaches being a good album. The vocals are such a distraction that there's no chance the songs can overcome them. This is the kind of record that gets made because someone has the idea music that sounds like the 70s will sell, but they don't have any idea how to make that kind of music. "Overloaded" is anything but. It's underwhelming.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Album Review: Orden Ogan - Gunmen

Power metal, as a genre, is stale beyond belief. You have dozens of new bands that are doing the same things the old guard used to do, and you have the big names still out there, but now making rather bland follow-ups to their once greatness. One of the very few bright spots is Orden Ogan, who have carved out a niche as one of the few bands making power metal that really matters. I maintain that "Easton Hope" is one of the best power metal records of the last fifteen years or so, and the records that have come since might not match it in scope, but they come darn close. So when they announced a new record for this year, I was finally excited about something in metal.

To be honest, I was a bit worried by the theme of the record. Volbeat tried a similar Western motif, and it was a disaster. Thankfully, it didn't take very long to hear that Orden Ogan was in complete control of their sound.

With each passing record, Orden Ogan has been getting heavier, and that continues here. "Gunmen" is their heaviest record to date, and it's a refreshing change of pace for the power metal world. There's no one who could seriously call this 'flower metal'. This is thick, chunky, crushingly heavy power metal that tries to make every song more epic than the last. Some bands, no matter how much studio trickery they use, sound small. Orden Ogan sounds massive.

At this point, Orden Ogan has their sound, and they stick with it. If you heard "Easton Hope", you know what "To The North" and "Ravenhead" both offered, albeit with a few very slight dips into new territory. In that respect, "Gunmen" is the safest Orden Ogan album yet, because it doesn't break any new ground. These ten tracks give us heavy doses of the band's chugging riffs and huge choirs. We don't even get a ballad or heavily folk-influenced song this time around. But while this album is safe, it's also the most consistent album they've put out. Every song follows the same trajectory, but that's because it's a great one.

Orden Ogan is, to put it simply, the modern update on Blind Guardian's classic period. It's that kind of epic power metal, but with an even heavier and dirtier edge to the music. They find the perfect blend of low-tuned crunch and gritty melody. And with their penchant for adding choirs on top of choirs, those choruses are massive hymns to the metal gods. If I'm being nit-picky here, they do sometimes layer in a few too many voices where the lyrics become hard to decipher, but the sheer amount of tracks emphasizes the epic scope of the songs.

You may notice I haven't mentioned any tracks by name. That's because there isn't any need to single out specific tracks. "Gunmen" is remarkably consistent, where nearly every song is of the same excellent level of quality. It really is a case of 'if you like one, you'll like them all'.

Orden Ogan hasn't gotten the level of acclaim more traditional power metal bands have, but what they've done is quietly built up a discography of stellar releases that put them right at the top of the list of bands currently populating the genre. They are an excellent band who make really good to great records, and "Gunmen" is another one that continues their winning streak. They've never made even a mediocre record, and they haven't here either. "Gunmen" is easily one of the best metal records of the year, and one you need to go listen to. Seriously.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Album Review: Broadside - Paradise

Oh, what was become of pop/punk? All of the bands that were that, or alternative, have taken on new sounds over the years. Some of them tried to go serious, some modern pop (Fall Out Boy), and others have bizarrely taken on 80's New Wave, despite not being alive when that was popular. For whatever reason, those bands that used to make punky music that was fun to listen to no longer want to have any fun. That leaves it to smaller-profile bands to carry the torch, and not depress the hell out of us. Which brings us to Broadside.

That's not to say you can't introduce modern bits into the sound. "Hidden Colors" opens the album by doing this. Among the usual riffs, there's an odd tone that is pulled out of the modern 'blip and beep' pop catalog, but when it's used only as a coloring, it can work. The problem is when bands try to build their entire sound around those fake and phony tones. That makes the music sound sterile and a cash grab.

It can be argued that Broadside adheres a bit too closely to the formula for pop/punk that was written years ago. There are times in songs like "Paradise" where the rhythm and vocal tones are eerily reminiscent of early Fall Out Boy, but that's sort of the point here. Broadside is still a young band, and they're still in the process of absorbing their influences into their own writing. Finding a style uniquely their own is going to take time, and as long as they deliver on the quality, a bit of sameness isn't anything to criticize them for.

That's where I'm happy to say Broadside hasn't disappointed. Maybe it's because I don't spend a lot of time listening to the modern wave of pop/punk, but there's something refreshing about their delivery that really works. Their music is ingratiating, pleasant, and incredibly sturdy. It might be lacking a bit of immediacy, and there isn't any track that stands out as something that will be a timeless favorite, but the album as a whole is solid through and through.

I think the best way to sum it up, at least if you're older than your mid-twenties, is to say that Broadside has made the album Fall Out Boy would have if they decided to go back to their roots after "Folie A Deux" got a lackluster reception (though I think it's a very good album). So yes, Broadside isn't doing anything but patching up the old, worn-out wheel, but there's no shame in delivering something plenty of fans are happy to take more of. "Paradise" is a fine little record.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Album Review: Rise Against - Wolves

Given the state of world politics, it seems we are going to see a wave of punk and hardcore music rise up, and at least attempt to wash away some of the filth we have been wading through. But since an album usually takes months to write, record, and release, we aren't yet at the point where that anger is going to manifest itself in a string of albums that try to claim the throne of this decade's "American Idiot". Rise Against is angry about the state of things, I'm sure, but they've been angry for a long time. "Wolves" may have some commentary about our current leadership, but there is plenty of vitriol for other issues as well from this long-running band.

As I don't listen to or review very much in this style, "Wolves" is my first exposure to Rise Against. The first thing that strikes me about their music isn't the energy, or the anger, but rather a similarity that is unexpected. Tim McIlrath's vocals roar through the album, but they do so with a tone that immediately brings (at least to mine) to mind Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. That's a rather unique tone, and a good one, so hearing that was notable.

Rise Against's music is the right balance of righteous fury and restrained melody. They understand that a subversive message is more likely to work when it comes in an appealing package. When you give an anti-establishment message a catchy hook, it sinks in, even if people don't realize what they're actually hearing. It's hard to listen to "How Many Walls" (the best song here) and not get caught up in the music, even if you don't get the message on first listen. It's sneaky, but it works.

The best of Rise Against's music accomplishes that, pulsing with energy until the hook comes, at which point the music smooths out just enough for the melody to catch you. The aforementioned song does that, as does "Welcome To The Breakdown". Those are perfect examples of how to fuse punk and hardcore with strong hooks, a skill that not many bands are able to demonstrate.

That being said, not everything on the album is quite as sharp. There are other tracks that wander a bit too far into the punk waters for my tastes. They aren't bad by any means, but they feel too direct and blunt, when compared to the more nuanced approach some of the other tracks take. This is most evident through the beginning of the album, where the songs are stacked to make it clear this is supposed to be an angry album. That's fine, but those songs are less interesting, so it makes for a slow start. Once you get beyond those first few, the rest of the album hits the sweet spot and finishes strong.

So what I will say about "Wolves" is that while there are a few missteps here and there, it's a gripping excoriation of the world around us. They sum it up when they say, "this is bullshit". The world might be, but Rise Against isn't. "Wolves" won't define the generation, but it's a very good album.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Album Review: Iced Earth - Incorruptible

The story of Iced Earth, at this point, is half tragedy. Through their own failings, the success they had built up through the years has eroded, as the band has turned down a path of endless change that has resulted in continued stagnation. I never got the appeal of Matt Barlow, but the band made some very good records with him. Ripper Owens might be bland, and there was a god-awful amount of filler involved, but "Framing Armageddon" had some of the band's best songs on it. Then, the game of musical chairs has gotten to the point where keeping track of who is and isn't in the band isn't worth the effort. Stu Block has been behind the mike for three albums now, counting this one, but all he has done is clone the previous singers while Jon Shaeffer writes songs that copy his own works of the past. It's a recipe for boredom, which is unfortunately where Iced Earth has been residing lately.

Fans have been joking for at least fifteen years that the band only has two songs, and simply rewrites the gallops and ballads slightly for each new album. That simplifies things a bit too much, but there is a lot of truth in saying the band's sound has become stale after this many albums. While Jon Shaeffer's lightning speed chugging was once revolutionary, we've been hearing him do it for twenty-plus years now. There isn't a single riff he can play in that style that offers anything new.

The thing about "Incorruptible" that will most please the long time fans is the same thing that makes me so luke-warm about it; this album could have been put out between "The Dark Saga" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes". I don't mean that in terms of quality, but in the actual sound. Shaeffer's guitar tone has never changed, and Block continues to move closer and closer into a perfect clone of Matt Barlow. It wouldn't be hard to believe in the latter's return, if the band said he was really the one singing.

What's disappointing about that is it feels too safe. Fans want that sound, and Shaeffer is doing everything he can to give it to them. Couple that with the talk in recent years of the investments he's made to turn Iced Earth into his full-time job, and the necessity of the sound soon triumphs over the desire for it. For whatever complaints you could have raised about the Ripper albums, they at least tried a few new things then. Barlow's return (halfway through a double concept album, which made no sense), then subsequent departure again, sucked the last bits of creativity out of the band.

"Incorruptible" doesn't offer a single thing you haven't heard Iced Earth do before, but it plays the old tricks fairly well. If you're a fan of the band's glory days, you'll find plenty here to satisfy you. There are the baritone vocals and history lessons you now expect from the band, and the songs are solid, if unspectacular. There's nothing as good as "I'd Die For You", but there's also nothing as bad as "Red Baron/Blue Max". It's middle of the road for the band, which given how they now approach making music, is about the best we can expect.

Iced Earth is always going to sound like Iced Earth, so how much you want to hear more of that determines how much you will enjoy "Incorruptible". Myself, I'll stick with "Horror Show" if I want to hear this particular sound.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Quick Take: The Nearly Deads - Revenge Of The Nearly Deads [EP]

What says the beginning of summer better than some upbeat, punky rock and roll? This is the time of high spirits and sunshine, and it makes for a good place for The Nearly Deads to release their new EP. I can't exactly remember how or where I was pointed in their direction, but the singles they have been putting out were intriguing, and now that the final product is here, I feel like there's enough to talk about.

The songs we were given early lead off the EP. Both "Diamond In The Rough" and "My Evil Ways" are bouncy tracks that have the sound you might have associated with Paramore years ago, before they became a New Wave band. It's also, if you're a reader of these pages, close to the sound that Shiverburn had on what was my second favorite album of last year. It's crunchy rock, modern, and with just enough pop overtones that the songs are restlessly catchy. It's the kind of music, in fitting with the season, that I can easily see people singing along with in the car, with the windows down and the volume cranked.

The entire band does a great job of setting up their music, but the star of the show is absolutely Theresa Jeane. Her voice has that spunky energy to it that makes the songs sparkle, and she can sell the melodies and hooks with aplomb. That's not true of everyone who can sing. She does it, and because of that, this EP rises above the pack.

I don't know what The Nearly Deads need to extract revenge from, but they've done it. While I selfishly wish this was a full album, it's a fantastic EP that delivers a bite-size serving of what modern rock should be.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Album Review: Walpyrgus - Walpyrgus Nights

One of the things I continually harp on is that metal is not often fun anymore. Bands from all across the genre take themselves deadly seriously, and they treat the idea of their fans enjoying themselves while listening to the music as an insult. Art is not allowed to be entertaining, it seems, which makes it refreshing when something like Walpyrgus comes along. This collective is one that says if metal is a feast, they want to be the fondue pot at the end of the night. In other words, this is horribly cheesy old-school metal that is so tongue-in-cheek it pushes your mouth into a smile.

Walpyrgus is an amalgum of Twisted Tower Dire and While Heaven Wept, which indicates right off the bat that what we're getting is a blend of various old-school heavy metal sounds focused through a slightly progressive prism. Unlike the brooding gravitas the latter band trades in, Walpyrgus is all about having fun. This is the sort of project that refreshes the artists, since it's enjoyable to kick back and make music that's enjoyable to both play and listen to, which does make me wonder why the heck they can't make their main bands that way.

Anyway, it's hard not to find this album charming. "The Dead Of Night" opens the album up with some classic metal guitars, a hint of Slough Feg in the riffing, and a chorus that piles up melodies in a way that is cheesy while trying not to sound too cheesy. I wouldn't mind if they had gone full-blown in that direction, but this works well enough. Even if a song like "Dead Girls" doesn't have as strong a hook as I would like, the quick bouncy track is still able to put its three minutes to solid use. The punk influence is something different to bring to the table.

"Walpyrgus Nights" falls into that category of album that is all too common. It's a fun listen, and it's all quality stuff, but none of it rises up to the level of being great. There are good songs, and it's a good album, but that's all it is. I was hoping and waiting for a song to come along that would be that one jewel to shine and make the others more valuable by association. That song didn't come.

Instead, we get a svelte album that does what it sets out to do; have fun. It's a nice little throwback to the old days of heavy metal, and it's certainly a solid way to spend forty minutes of your time. That being said, I can't say it's an album that I'm going to be drawn to return to again and again. Walpyrgus has done something good here, so let that be the main takeaway.