Sunday, July 30, 2017

EP Review: The Winery Dogs - Dog Years

*"Dog Years" is a DVD/CD set. The DVD is a well-shot, well-played concert that shows The Winery Dogs are a great live band. However, while the show is good, and certainly worth it for any fan of the band, this review will focus on what I found more interesting; five new songs.

The Winery Dogs are busy guys. At any moment, there's no telling where in the world, and with whom any of the three will be playing. So it comes as no surprise that the band is taking a bit of a break right now to explore their other projects. In the meantime, however, they're not leaving us hanging. A new package is being released that includes a DVD recorded on their tour supporting "Hot Streak", as well as an EP of tracks that didn't make it onto the record. If the dogs are going to be sleeping for a little while, this is a nice treat to keep us from getting restless.

First up on the EP is "Criminal", which depending on exactly when and where you bought their debut album, you might have already heard. It fits in seamlessly with that record (it's the song in the track listing I usually assume is there, not "Time Machine"), and it remains as good as it sounded back then. It's the band doing what they do best, delivering groovy and sophisticated hard rock with plenty of great melody.

"The Game" fits in with "Hot Streak", pulling back a bit on the hard rock for some other influences. Billy Sheehan's bass funks through the verses, while Richie's guitar swirls around in the background. Over the course of just two records, the band has evolved into more of a pure power trio, with fewer layers of guitars, and more space in the compositions for everyone to do their own thing. There were times on "Hot Streak" where I thought they took that a hair too far, but this song has enough anchor points to keep it tethered to the comfort zone.

"Solid Ground" is an acoustic ballad that will draw comparisons to "To Be With You" and "More Than Words". The band's harmonies are on full display, with all three voices blending together and standing out beautifully. It's the kind of song that might benefit from the slightest push of the energy, but the harmonies are so engaging that you don't mind.

The closing two tracks, "Love Is Alive" and "Moonage Daydream" are more standard-fare Winery Dogs music. The latter, in particular, is interesting for the sharp blues solo Richie pulls out. It's a sound I'm not sure I've heard from the Dogs before, and it might hint at future developments. The song itself is one that isn't as immediate as some of their other material, but when you take a step back, it certainly comes into focus as something wholly worthwhile.

So what to make of this EP? I think these songs find a nice middle ground between the two albums, which might be why they didn't quite fit with the tone of "Hot Streak". I liked that album, but I didn't like it as much as the debut. If these songs had been switched out for some of the ones I wasn't keen on, that might not have been the case. This is a great little package of music from The Winery Dogs, and is absolutely worth hearing for anyone who enjoyed either album.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Album Review: The Dukes - Smoke Against The Beat

There's something about being too artistic that can actually work against a band. The Dukes are a band that calls themselves art-rock, but that means something different here than being pretentious. The Dukes mean it in the sense that they are also visual artists, filling their shows with various eye-catching displays that enhance the music. While that is wonderful, it can also lead to an issue if the band doesn't realize the difference between a show and a record. Their visual acuity can't help the songs on a record, and it's easy for a fragmented focus to result in songs that feel as though they are missing a vital component.

The opening number, "Just In Case", is not a song that would raise those concerns. It's a smoothly melodic song that has a laid-back atmosphere and an engaging approach. It reminds me of an album I reviewed earlier by The Electric Coast, which was quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, that's not the approach the band decided to take for the rest of the album. Rather than building on that feeling, the title track follows and veers in a completely unrelated direction. With more focus on rhythm and a try at being funky, it lacks the melodic appeal, and instead comes across weakly.

It's made all the more questionable as the next few tracks return to the original sound, which makes me wonder where that song came from, why it's on the album, and why it was made the centerpiece of the experience.

After that, the album is a frustrating give-and-take, where they bounce between those two approaches in a way that I can't imagine anyone will enjoy. The modern approach and the more melodic one do not have large cross-over in their appeal, and putting both of them on the album they way they have here makes it difficult for people to enjoy the album as a whole. I like "Just In Case" and "Gold Digger" quite a bit, but when they have to sit beside the title track and "Black Hole Love", it feels like two different bands fighting for the spotlight.

That's actually a good comparison. This album feels like a split, but with the tracks randomized. I don't know what possesses a band to take two wildly different approaches on the same album, but I can say pretty safely that it doesn't work. There are a few tracks here that are good, but the insistence on switching things up, maybe for the sake of 'art', doesn't work. It sabotages the album, and leaves me frustrated. If they picked one path or the other, I may or may not like the band more (depending on which they pick), but I would have a real opinion. As it stands, "Smoke Against The Beat" pushes me away, because even after listening to it, I don't have a clue who The Dukes are.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Album Review: Exit Eden - Rhapsodies In Black

Let's forget the last two years ever existed. If we do that, I can readily claim that pop music is often overlooked for the quality of songwriting that goes into making those earworms. We often think of them as fluffy and disposable, largely because of the artist's images and the synthetic sound of the 'instruments' used to make it, but underneath the facade is some incredibly strong melodic writing (or there used to be - the last two years have been pure garbage). When a pop song is taken by a rock band and amped up with heavier guitars, it's amazing the transformation, and just how good a lot of them sound. I know there's a terrific example of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" out there, and last year a metal version of Adele's entire "25" was put out, which certainly made me take notice.

The ladies of Exit Eden are doing the same thing, reinventing some classic pop hits as darker, more symphonic rock and metal tracks. Some people might say this project is lesser because they aren't writing new songs, but the whole point is that they're proving a larger point about music itself. One that we should remember, and hopefully one that will bleed back into the pop music itself (Remember when pop songs had guitars? Oh, those were the days....)

The Depeche Mode song "Question Of Time" opens the album, and is a dramatic, ornate slab of melodic metal that tells you what you're going to get from Exit Eden. The four ladies take turns belting out the song, with Amanda Somerville in particular scaling new heights of melodrama with her voice. The song has never sounded this big, and the arrangement really works as a symphonic metal song.

Other highlights include the first single, a cover of Rihanna's "Unfaithful". The lone scratching violin that is allowed to pop up in the intro and the verse is the kind of creepy bit of darkness that a Gothic or Victorian ethos needs to have, and it shows the attention to detail that was put into making these songs something unique. When the chorus arrives, and the four ladies are teaming up, we get a revelation of pop music. They take the melody to places Rihanna never could, showing just how excellent the writing truly is. It's a song that would fit seamlessly in Nightwish's glory days, which is not at all what most metal fans would consider of a pop song.

The cover of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" falls into this category as well. It was always a song with a bit of drama in it, and this arrangement turns the dial up to eleven. Likewise, Katy Perry's "Firework" scales new mountains in this setting. And you can't talk about drama without mentioning Jim Steinman, who is covered in the massive rendition of "Total Eclipse Of The Heart". All I can say is "Oh....My.... God...." Someone seriously needs to get Amanda or Jorn Lande to do an entire album of metal covers of Jim Steinman songs. It would make my heart melt. (I would volunteer my time to serve as the Steinman "expert" curating the track listing. Seriously.)

The only song that doesn't hit the mark, to me, is the closing "Fade To Grey". It wasn't written with the same melodic sense as the other songs, and wasn't a good fit for the tone of the album. The pick of Madonna's "Frozen" is the other non-standout, but more because of what could have been than actual weakness on its part. I have to imagine "Like A Prayer" would have fit in even better here.

Really, there's no downside to Exit Eden. By starting with the framework of a hit pop song, and building out the symphonic metal from there, the most important part of the song is already taken care of. So much of metal in this mold uses the beauty of the vocal to hide the fact the composers aren't capable of writing a sticky melody that will remain in your head. Exit Eden skips over this problem entirely, and uses the talents of the musicians to enhance songs that were already great. It's using the skills of the musicians to their best effect, while letting the hardest part of songwriting be handled by the pros.

You could criticize "Rhapsodies In Black" for being a cover album. You wouldn't be wrong, but it's more than that. This isn't a band just putting a thin veneer on a bunch of songs so they didn't have to sit down and write some of their own. Exit Eden is a project that is making a point about pop music, metal, and how they can interact. As a songwriter, it's fascinating to hear how a song can be utterly transformed by the musicians whose hands it is in, while still remaining the same song we've already known and loved.

Yes, there isn't anything technically 'new' about Exit Eden, but their existence is a novel experiment, and one that I'm thrilled by. Hearing pop music emerge from its cocoon, metamorphosed into this dramatic metal album, is something amazing. I grew up listening to pop music, and later got into metal. This album fuses those two identities nearly perfectly. It's remarkable. I love so much about this album. Go listen to some of it. Trust me.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Album Review: The Wizards - Full Moon In Scorpio

Black Sabbath set the rules for heavy metal, but forty years later, you wouldn't know that if you didn't read it in a book somewhere. The vestiges of Sabbath's doom and gloom sound have disappeared from the mainstream, having been replaced with a feeling that metal is supposed to be about either being mad as hell or showing off inhuman instrumental abilities. There isn't much room left for heavy songs about heavy subjects, the kind of music that took the blues and turned it into crushing elegies. There are still a few bands that try to do that sort of thing, but they are small bands relegated to the underground. That's where we find The Wizards, who are offering up one of those Sabbath-style slabs of old-time metal.

The easiest comparison to make is to the Dio-era of Sabbath's history. The music here is a bit brighter and up-tempo, like those Dio albums, and Ian Mason's vocals have the power the legend himself put into every song. If you liked "Heaven & Hell" and "Mob Rules", this is an album that could easily appeal to you.

Let's take "Avidya", the opening track. It opens with a riff that has an Iommi-esque sense of melody, but it also moves along with a hint of a Maiden-esque gallop. That makes it interesting, and then the body of the song has big vocals and one of those traditional metal choruses that is rousing without being sing-song. It's a strong track, and a great table-setter. "Calliope" follows a similar blueprint, but it's here that the vocals show their influence more obviously. As Ian belts out another really good song, it's easy to hear both Danzig and Meat Loaf in his delivery. There's the power of the Loaf in his vibrato, and the slight dark blues warble of Danzig's heyday (I won't insult him by saying he sounds like current Danzig).

Then there's "Stardust", which has a similar feeling to "Lonely Is The Word", with that pulsing guitar through the verses. But what makes it stand out is when the chorus arrives, and for the first time the band introduces some heavy backing vocals. It makes that section stand out, and as the riff morphs in the background, the song is able to seamlessly shift from throbbing energy to a slow, sludgy riff and back again.

If we're talking about the album like an old vinyl, Side One is stronger than Side Two, but the drop-off isn't much. "Halftones To Eternity" just lacks a bit of the flare of the earlier tracks, and doesn't have quite as much of an identity all its own. But that lull is short, as the album finishes off with two more excellent tracks. "Who Are You, Mr Gurdjieff?" is possibly the heaviest song on the record, which then breaks into some softer melodies and again well placed backing vocals. It strikes a wonderful balance, and sets the stage for the massive closer, "When We Were Gods". That song builds from a soft guitar intro into a mash of ringing chords, searing solos, and skyscraper vocals. Ian is belting with all his gusto, and the song is fitting as the capstone on the record.

So what do we make of "Full Moon In Scorpio"? It's an album that isn't perfect, but has a lot going for it. Anyone who's a fan of old heavy metal of the Dio and Danzig persuasion should find plenty about this album they will enjoy. In terms of traditional heavy metal, this is one of the better efforts I've heard this year. It's certainly better than what Danzig himself put out, and it's better than the music the members of Dio or Sabbath who are still active have done in the last five years. All in all, it's a good time.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Album Review: Ded - Mis-An-thrope

Anger is the fuel of youth, or so people are led to believe. Young bands come roaring out of the blocks full of rage, exploding through the speakers, before eventually settling down as they get older. It's that slow down that annoys a lot of fans, people who for whatever reason are trying to cling to their youths, never wanting to forget what it was like to be filled with righteous fury. Myself, I was never that way, and as time has moved on, I have understood even less the appeal of listening to bands that scream their heads off the whole time. That would be why I haven't spent much of any time in my life listening to music self-described as "hard core". Ded claims their music is different, that it leads to the same feeling as a good horror movie, which sounds interesting enough to me to give them a shot.

"Architect" opens the album with a grind-style nu-metal riff and an expletive in the very first line. Edgy, huh? The song tries to get a stomping groove going, which it sort of does, and then there's a clean sung chorus that actually does a lot to anchor the song's aggression in something easier to swallow. It's a style that Korn pioneered, and Slipknot eventually took on, but it's still highly effective. It's not a bad track at all.

Of course, there is an issue I have with the delivery. The band says the lyrics are deep, and deal with issues up to and including existentialism. That's an intriguing claim, but it's also counteracted by the screamed delivery in many of the verses. Those lyrics are rendered indecipherable by the harsh tone, which seems to defeat the purpose of writing songs that are supposed to be about something. The message might as well not exist if the listener can't understand what the message is supposed to be.

As the record unfolds, we get a heavier dose of that Korn sound. "Anti-Everything" uses more clean vocals, and with the spoken-type verses, it feels exactly like we're in 1998 again. In fact, I went out of my norm last year by actually listening to Korn's most recent album. "Mis-An-thrope" reminds me so much of that album it's scary, right down to the band's insistence on not following it's own internal grammar with the title's capitilizations.

This approach does two things, one good and one bad. The good news is that Ded is following a sound that works. There's plenty of precedent that what they are doing will find an audience, and many of the hooks here are darn solid, and well worth listening to. The bad news is that the verses to almost every one of these songs are unnecessary, and are just filling time before the choruses arrive. Let's take "Remember The Enemy" for example. The chorus to the song is fantastic, but the verses skiffle along without a riff or a melody, just rambling words and a few blips of sound. All the time between choruses is wasted, and offers nothing to build the track.

Worst of all, though, is the disappointment in the lyrics. From what was promised, I expected far, far more than "fuck me and fuck you too" as the main hook in "FMFY". That is so childish and desperate that I wanted to hit the skip button the instant I heard it. If you are going to claim any sort of depth to your music, you have to deliver it. Saying "fuck you because of your politics" is not deeper than saying "fuck you because you're ugly". They are both stupid, pathetic, and quite frankly insulting to my intelligence.

So what do I make of "Mis-An-thrope"? I'm actually a bit torn, given the tone of what I just wrote. This isn't a style I particularly enjoy, but I do hear enough in the choruses of these songs to think Ded has some real potential. It's just that they haven't figured out how to build entire songs around those good ideas. If they can figure that out, they might have a chance. As for now, I'll go listen to Korn's album again. Their experience made for a far better record than this.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Album Review: Mr Big - Defying Gravity

"But they're big in Japan..."

That's one of the lines that gets trotted out when a band doesn't seem to be gaining the traction it should. It started with Cheap Trick, but it's equally applicable to Mr Big. Despite the band only having modest success in America, they have established themselves as a force overseas. That has allowed this current run to carry forward, as the band has been as active and productive as at any point since their first run of glory. Their last two albums have been strong showings, and they've even cranked out a few tracks, like "Undertow", that in a more just rock climate would have gotten airplay over here.

Mr Big has always been a harder-edged band than they get credit for, but this time around they take a slightly different route with the music. The last couple of albums have been solid mixes of powerful hard rock and heavy blues-type tracks. This time around, however, the band takes a far more laid-back approach. The initial tracks on this album come out of the gate with a restrained energy, and not hitting you right in the face. That's not at all what I was expecting. "Open Your Eyes" and the title track both have the blues in their DNA, and move with the deliberate pace that might convey. The title track, in particular, does manage to stretch out into a solid chorus, but even then it doesn't sound quite as propulsive as what I consider the band's best songs.

Like their biggest hit, we get an acoustic ballad here as well, but "Damn I'm In Love Again" is no "To Be With You". It doesn't hit the three minute mark, and in its short time doesn't have anything I could identify as the hook. That's disappointing, since Eric Martin has more than enough voice to make those sorts of songs work. His recent experiences with Avantasia, both on record and tour, have put his name back out there as a singer of note. With that, it's hard to listen to him singing melodies that don't give him anything interesting to do.

There's another issue here. The album was recorded live in the studio, which is fine, but the production is severely lacking. The guitars sound weak and blurry. "Mean To Me" is supposed to be a speedy, technical run up and down the fretboard, but the solo is the only place where Paul Gilbert's guitar doesn't sound like the amp has been muffled. That quick riff needs to be played with a clean and sharp tone to bite, and that's not at all what we get here. Heaviness actually comes through clarity.

The thing of note, for me, is that this is the bluesiest I've ever heard Mr Big. I'm sure that is going to please plenty of people, but it disappointed me. I am not a fan of the blues, or heavily blues-based rock and roll. I find it lacking in the melodic department, and that's what "Defying Gravity" is for me. It's just not the music I was expecting, nor the music I wanted. Mr Big are all fantastic musicians, and I have plenty of respect for all of them and the music they've made, but this one just isn't for me. And now that I've said that, I'd all but guarantee this will be their most successful album in ages. I'm often wrong like that.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

EP Review: Vista - Long Live

Ok, stop me if you've heard this one before; Vista is a female-fronted alternative rock band....  I know, I know, there have been a lot of similar bands I have covered here, but for good reason. In the last few years, by whatever happenstance, we have seen a surge in the number of not just bands like this, but good bands like this. As modern rock continues to trudge into the doldrums of Five Finger Death Punch knockoffs, the alternative scene's focus on better aspects has made it a respite for people like me. After many bands fronted by great women lately, we now get to take a look at Vista's new EP, to see if they continue the parade.

We start off with "Allegiance", which is an unexpected little number. After the first verse, we get bursts of orchestration to punctuate the song, which goes a long way to making it feel more epic within the limits of three minutes. It showcases the band's best qualities, while being brisk enough to avoid any slack in the writing. Hope delivers a solid vocal and a solid chorus, making the song a winner.

"Inside Anxious" is a very modern song, and one that will probably divide listeners. The core of the song is again very good, with nice energy and a strong hook, but then there are a few places where the band dives into electronics and stutters and distorts the vocal for effect. Those moments, at least for me, are incredibly distracting, take away from the good songwriting they were establishing, and plain don't sound very good. But then again, I'm probably a touch too old to be the target audience for that approach.

I'm quite fond of "Hellbent". It's a bouncy number that fits very well as a kiss-off song. This is one of the cases where the expletives are well utilized, and push the impact of the words, rather than just being thrown in to sound tough or mean. It's nice to see a young band understand the difference, and fall on the right side of the ledger.

If Vista is looking for a single that could garner them attention and build their name, they can't do any better than "Dominance 2.0". Not only is it the heaviest song in terms of the guitars that run through the verses, but the hook is the most immediately catchy on the EP. There's a hint of AFI that I hear in it, which reinforces the melody as a real winner. It's a really great song. "Part III" is only a minute long, but by stripping things back it showcases how good Hope's voice is. We then finish with "Henchmen", which is another jaunty song that has enough pep to make the hook pop.

There have been a lot of bands releasing music in this style recently, and Vista can be added to the list who are doing it well. When I first became aquainted with them through Twitter, I heard promise but wasn't truly enamored with their "Versus" EP. With "Long Live", Vista has taken the step forward I was hoping for, and they've made a very nice EP that sets them up for even bigger things in the future. Well done.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

EP Review: Bloody Hammers - The Horrific Case Of The Bloody Hammers

Pulp. We know the word, although most of us probably first think of "Pulp Fiction". Pulp is terrible in orange juice, but a hoot in art. Old pulp comics, and old pulp movies, are cheesy fun that recall the old days when we were more entertained by an actor in a stupid and obviously fake mask than we are today by tens of millions of dollars worth of computer effects. Sometimes, being serious actually makes the point easier to miss. So when Bloody Hammers new EP is presented with a cover that makes it the pulpiest pulp this side of a paper factory, you can bet I'm going to give it a listen.

Sadly, the promise of some good pulp/grindhouse fun is not carried through into the music. We are promised "ice-cold nostalgia of 70's b-list thrillers", but the music lacks any of the campy charm that came from the era. It's slow, dark, and never gives the impression that they know tongue-in-cheek isn't a medical condition. Take a song like "Blood". There's one heavy riff that repeats through the verses, and then the 'chorus' doesn't offer up anything approaching a melody. It's almost a spoken word piece, rather than a proper song.

Sure, the synths at the start of "The Beyond" are fun, and do sound from the period the EP is shooting for, but the song itself is barely there. It crawls along, and again gargles out a few words instead of a melody. I'm not sure I understand what the point of this music is. The riffs aren't doing anything memorable, and the vocals are flat and disinterested. Neither aspect is giving us anything to grasp.

I hate to say it, but the best part of the entire EP is the cover art. That lives up to the promise of classic horror, while the music withers on the vine. I could make the obvious pun here that the title is accurate, but I don't want to call this horrific. What it is more closely resembles a terrible misunderstanding. This is the soundtrack of an idea the band had no idea how to pull off.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Album Review: Edguy - Monuments

Time flies by, doesn't it? That's the first thing that comes to mind when it's pointed out that Edguy is celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band. It's a big milestone, and one that makes me feel old, considering how long my relationship with the band is, and how it only constitutes half of their existence. That's remarkable. And to celebrate the occasion, the band is putting out this new package, which is two parts greatest hits, and one part new material. Let's start with the old stuff:

Making a greatest hits for a band that doesn't actually have what you would call hits is difficult. Aside from the live favorites, picking a track listing from all the albums that will satisfy everyone is practically impossible. Older fans are going to feel upset that "Theater Of Salvation" doesn't get more tracks on the album, while newer fans are going to wonder why so much of the more traditional power metal still has a place in Edguy's world. I get it.

That being said, they've done a good job of finding the right balance between the two sides of the coin. The most important early tracks are here, and no album gets put into the spotlight. Myself, I would try to lobby for one or two more from "Tinnitus Sanctus", which is my favorite, but the inclusion of some of their EP only tracks makes up for it. Those deserved to be given a second chance. "Holy Water" and "Judas At The Opera" should have been on an album long ago.

As for the new songs, they try to fuse the old and the new. "Ravenblack" is the one that sound most like Avantasia, but it's an absolutely killer track, so any similarity is more than forgiven. "Wrestle With The Devil" is a more modern, and groovy take on Edguy's usual sound, with a more subdued chorus that is more of a grower than usual, while "Open Sesame" and "Landmarks" are more old-school in their approach. The latter, along with "The Mountaineer" are rock solid Edguy material, but I will say that I'm not as keen on "Open Sesame". As his wings have spread, I've felt that Tobi's writing hasn't worked as well on the speedy numbers in recent years, and that's what happened here. It's not a bad song, but it's just not as engaging to me as the rest.

Overall, though, the new material here is more very good Edguy music that fits right in, quality-wise, with "Space Police". Edguy is comfortably in who they are, and that's what the deliver. If you've liked Edguy all along, the hits are still awesome, and the new songs are a nice present. Sure, I would have preferred waiting a little longer for a whole album, but new Edguy is new Edguy. "Monuments" has plenty of reasons to give it a listen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Conversation: 2017, So Far

Chris C: Here we go again. It seems like the blink of an eye, but we already find ourselves at the mid-point of this year, which means it's a good time to take a stp back and try to figure out what the heck just happened. The passage of time isn't a topic up for discussion here, but in a way it also is. The acceleration of each impending sunrise does add more and more momentum onto the release schedule, which makes each trend reverberate even harder, and die out even faster.

To the topic of this year's music; The main takeaway I've had so far is that this has been a unique year in terms of the strata of rankings. I've managed to find a very solid number of great albums that I would have no problem putting on my list at the end of the year, and I've also suffered through more downright terrible albums than I can remember in recent years (and that's without all the extreme metal I don't even sample). What I haven't found are enough of those mid-level albums that give a year depth. To use a sports analogy (since we seem to love them), there are a lot of max-level albums, a lot of veteran-minimum albums, and very few that would bloat the salary cap with their perfectly acceptable performance and salary.

The reason that has been such a focal point for me is that the albums falling on the terrible end of the scale are mostly ones from big name artists who have been among the most hyped. When all that hype sinks in (and I'm not immune from getting my hopes up), and then the album is a crushing disappointment, those hopes make the suffering feel even worse. We're talking about bands like Iced Earth, Pain Of Salvation, and Danzig (Oh, Danzig. Would you like to talk about how far he's fallen?). Talk about those albums was everywhere, and once I heard them, I felt like I was watching a bad CGI movie, and I was the only one who could tell. Is the key to put your fingers in your ears and pretend an album doesn't exist until you actually hit the play button?

Couple that with decent but criminally disappointing albums from favorites of mine like Jorn, Fastball, and House Of Lords, and we get a crowded list of reasons to think 2017 might actually be even worse as a year (in total, not just music) than 2016. And that's a hard feat.

But there has also been plenty of good to talk about, but before I get into that, I'll let you give your impressions.

D.M:   So, I think I agree with you that this year has been strange for rankings purposes, but not necessarily for the same reasons.  Let me add the caveat before I get too far that my personal year has been so full of other major life-altering goings-on that I have to admit I’ve been fairly distracted from making entirely cogent critiques of music and have had the opportunity to really dig into fewer things.  With that, allow me to launch into it.

I admit that to this point I have only found four or five records in total that I am truly willing to go to bat for.  So continuing your apt analogy, there are some max-level players out there (though without spoiling it, if I were to pick an album of the year right now, it would be an instrumental record, which for me is nearly insane to even consider,) but I find that those max-level records are all max for different reasons.  To continue down the analogy rabbit hole, I have a point guard, a shooting guard, a power forward, a small forward (is scoring forward the fashionable term now?) and a center.  So I’m willing to pay them all top dollar, but they all do different things.

And even among that cream of the crop, there’s really only three albums so far that if you caught me on the street at any time and said ‘what albums do you love this year?’ I would think of their names.  (Though, jumping ahead, I did really like the Soen album, though now some months later, I can’t really recall why, so I may have to revisit it.)

I also have found this year that among the lower strata of good albums (talk about a backhanded compliment,) that they are generally intriguing because they either do something new, or try a style I haven’t heard in a long time.  Recently, I’ve been spending some time with The One Hundred’s record, which may or may not be great (and perhaps the fact that I haven’t decided is indication enough,) but I find myself drawn to it because it’s the first attempt at honest, new rap metal I’ve heard in a long time.  Notable mostly because yes, trends in music ebb and flow, but by the end of its short life, rap metal had become so reviled and ridiculed that it seemed the genre would never heal.  And yet, twenty years down the line (shit, I’m getting older, aren’t I?) here we may be again.  Lest someone get the wrong idea, this is not a nostalgia trip for me (outside of Rage and Orange 9mm, me and rap metal never really got along,) but it is refreshing to see a band try to resurrect a genre from my youth that I never thought I would see again.

There’s more I can get into about genres come home to roost, new bands versus old bands and some thoughts on Chris Cornell, but I’ll save it for now and toss it back – what trends are you seeing this year?

CHRIS C: Rap metal, eh? I saw that album come across my desk, but I will readily admit I never even bothered to sample a single song from it. One of the things I've found out over the years is that as I've gotten older, I have less and less tolerance for music that misses what I think are the main points of making music. Rap metal would almost exclusively fit into that category. Or maybe Limp Bizkit just ruined everything for everyone for all of time. I wouldn't put it past them.

I will leave it to you to carry the ball with Chris Cornell's passing, since I was never really into any of his projects, but there is one thing I would like to say. I truly dislike the way that we, as a society, have usurped the word 'tragedy', and turned it into a synonym for 'sad'. They are not the same thing, and it does a disservice to both the memories of the truly tragic, and the push to avoid the sad, to confuse them. Buddy Holly dying in a plane crash was tragic. Chris Cornell's death is terribly sad, but I wouldn't put it in the same category, because calling it a tragedy gives it a connotation of being unavoidable, like an "act of God". It was anything but, and I'm afraid that the misuse of terms is going to make it harder to use his memory to increase awareness and prevention of drug abuse. Now that would be a tragedy.

To be honest, I don't really see any trends that have taken hold this year, other than the increase in really bad albums by artist who should know better. Perhaps we're in an odd time between the death of djent and whatever will come next, but there isn't any one dominant thing out there that has caught my attention. In a way, that lack of a trend is a trend in and of itself. Bands might finally have the opportunity to use that open space to carve out a unique identity for themselves. I've seen that a touch with Creeper, who don't look or sound like anything else going on in the punk/emo scene right now. It's almost a return to horror punk, which would actually be something I would like to see.

You mention Soen, and while they completely dismantle the point I was just making, I too love that record. But what I love about it is how they pretty blatantly take Opeth's "Blackwater Park" sound, strip out the death metal, and streamline it just enough to be different. I know you haven't, but plenty of people have spent thousands of words complaining about how Opeth's evolution has ruined that once great band. What's interesting about Soen right now, at least to me, is that "Lykaia" is actually the exact album people wanted Opeth to make when they started to change. I can't recall many times a band has taken up the sound and essentially replaced another. I find that fascinating.

Actually, there is one trend I've noticed, but it's only for my own sake, since I've been the dissenting voice for a long time now. This year has actually been better for metal than the last few. Sure, there are a few bombs to avoid, but metal might be swinging the pendulum back away from the djent and death metal that has infiltrated the biggest of names. Or maybe we're just lucky and all those bands are off-cycle this year. Either way, it's nice to not be screamed and growled at quite so much.

Let's hear your take on Cornell, and I'll ask you a question I asked myself not long ago; has this year had no giant releases? I can't think of any that, whether you like them or not, EVERYONE felt they had to hear and comment on.

D.M: Rap metal is a finicky thing to judge, because it almost takes the characteristics of rap more than it does of metal, in that who is performing the art defines the art more than the nature of the art itself.  That probably sounds like the most pompous thing anybody's said today, so let me try to re-tread and also add the caveat that this is one lilly-white guy's opinion.  'Metal' as we know it has a number of different subgenres that are defined by their aural principles - too many subgenres, in fact.  And while the quality of any given metal record is still very much defined by who is making it, there are discernible flavors to every genre even if the performers are crappy.  'Rap', by contrast, is entirely dependent on the individual creating the art.  If the MC is somebody of high quality (Chuck D, KRS-One, Rakim,) then the rap is good.  Absent that, rap that is executed by a so-called 'whack' MC is entirely tasteless (meaning without flavor, not meaning offensive or in poor taste,) like a canvas simply painted gray.  Rap metal follows the second trend more than the first.  So when the music is being played by people of skill (Tom Morello, who I know you are more lukewarm on than most,) it is excellent, but when it is left in the hands of hacks (Fred Durst,) the entire banquet suffers (despite the notable talents of Wes Borland, respect where it's due.)

But I told you that story to tell you this one - my brother, who is seven years older than me, was going through high school right in the heart of the early nineties.  And while everyone was singing the praises of grunge, the last days of hair metal and Metallica's Black Album, he had one friend who was listening to a little band from Los Angeles called Rage Against the Machine, and their sound, love it or hate it, was totally revolutionary at the time of inception.  So there is merit to the genre, when done properly.

That said, thanks for Limp Bizkit, the genre is now an object of ridicule, and I can never use the expression 'just one of those days' ever again.

On to more serious matters - the pain of Chris Cornell's death comes in the form of the realization that our understanding of mental health remains woefully inadequate.  This is just another example of a situation where someone we all thought was in perfectly fine shape was actually suffering greatly on the inside, and had simply become adept at hiding his pain.  And it'a a hard thing to think about - because even those trained to look for the signs of mental distress or turmoil may have missed any exhibitions of Cornell's plight, and perhaps even he himself had become accustomed to a feeling of familiarity about the whole thing and didn't understand how deep down the rabbit hole he was.  Man, in layman's terms, it just plain sucks.  It's another talent gone before his time, and moreover, another human life wasted without cause.  My sadness at his passing partially resonates from his influence on me as an artist and performer, but also just comes from the sadness that always accompanies a suicide.  From a life standpoint, before I get accused of speaking way above my pay grade on the issues of mental health, the lesson is to reach out to your friends both if you need help, or suspect that they need help.  We're all in this together.

From a more objective musical standpoint, I think the loss registers most in the sense that grunge was arguably the last of the truly mainstream, broad-sweeping trends, and now many of its major familiar faces are gone.  We had already had to cope with the loss of Cobain, Staley and Wood, but we thought Cornell would stick around, and even if the genre was never to be resurrected to its glory, at least we would share the memory of the important days with him.  But now, (aside from Pearl Jam, who hardly qualified as a grunge band anymore (double parenthesis - and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just a fact,)) the once powerful and tidal force of grunge is figuratively, and perhaps literally, voiceless.

The lack of a trend does make for an interesting trend, because we haven't seen anything like this in recent memory.  Even in the absence of mainstream promote-able trends which have more or less gone the way of the dodo, the underground genres have always been tied to waves from geographical locations, be it Gotherburg or Montreal or Boston or whatever, and those came with their own sound.  Right now, and perhaps for the last two years, there's been no guiding principle in metal that has dictated the pace of the genre's progression.  The only possible addendum one could make to that is that there seems to be a greater emphasis on stoner and more ambient metals, but there's an argument to be made that this has always existed ever since the debut of Black Sabbath, and so may be experiencing a resurgence more than a rebirth.  So, we're seeing still more callbacks to the rock trends of the seventies, from twin guitars on down, which isn't a bad thing.  That said, those trends are popularizing stoner metal, but stoner metal hasn't reached beyond its bounds to influence anyone else yet.  For example, no one expects the upcoming Galaktikon album (which I am immensely excited for, by the by,) to exhibit stoner influences.

So now we've talked about the return of seventies rock trends, rap metal, the-style-Opeth-should-have-had, and if you listen to the new album from the Corroded and obfuscate your hearing just a little, it sounds like someone might be trying to make Rob Zombie-style metal again, which has been all but silent ever since "The Sinister Urge" (and yes, I realize Zombie has released several records since then.)  So if you are a listener with a variety of taste in your palate, this is potentially a golden dawn.  Let me follow up with this, though: why AREN'T we seeing a trend?

As for the lack of a major release, no, there's hasn't been one yet.  But there will be.  I don't know what it's going to be, but metal journalism is nothing if not predictable, and so I say with absolute faith that there will be some album from Mastodon or Behemoth or Ufomammut that everyone will be climbing all over each other to self-importantly bloviate about.  You and I both know that metal loves nothing more than to find some album that people with sense want no part of and then expansively dictate to the audience about why that album is the most important album in a hundred years.  THAT trend, much as we would prefer otherwise, recurs with depressing regularity.

CHRIS C: Your commentary on Chris Cornell was apt, and wise. Mental anguish is, in different terms, one of the thing that has always bothered me about metal, and why I hesitate to call myself a big fan. So much of metal intentionally focuses on the side of life that either causes or results in that kind of mental state. I'm not sure it's healthy for bands or listeners to spend so much time inundating themselves with so much anger and depression. I've mentioned this to you before, but I definitely noticed a difference when I cut much of that kind of music out of my life. In some ways, metal can often find itself a negative reinforcement, which is the last thing most people need.

Grunge is something that, despite living through the time, I don't understand. You just said that Pearl Jam wasn't really a grunge band, and heck, I'm not saying you're wrong. But combine that with the people who say Alice In Chains wasn't really a grunge band (they were metal), nor was Nirvana (pop), I have to ask; who the hell WAS a grunge band? It seems grunge was a word that got thrown out there to describe a fashion choice more than a musical one, and that really it all comes down to who wore unbuttoned flannel shirts. Has a genre ever been dependant on clothes before?

If I can play armchair psychologist here for a minute, I think the reason we aren't seeing a trend ties into the subsequent point about their being a lack of huge releases this year. In order to get a trend going (cynicism alert!), someone needs to demonstrate that there is money to be made selling those kinds of records. Since Ghost came out, I haven't seen anyone trying anything new that has broken through and shown a profit potential. Djent only blew up once Meshuggah and Periphery started raking in decent money. I feel that's what we're going to need before another trend really takes off.

The funny thing about the lack of huge releases is that we've had plenty of albums from what you would think were big enough names. Mastodon put out an album, but they've severely damaged their own brand, to the point they barely registered to a lot of people. Kreator had an album that was well-received, but it was much of the same, and not 'true' enough for many, so they didn't either. Then again, maybe we've just finally hit the point where we are too fractured for any one record to do that across the spectrum. I find it hard to believe that any fan like me can really be intrigued by a black metal record, or those fans by a power metal record. Metal is somewhat meaningless now. Dive a bit deeper, and each sub-group has big releases.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, let me ask what has surprised you so far (good or bad), and what you're looking forward to for the rest of 2017.

D.M: Let me clarify a little - Pearl Jam certainly used to be a grunge band, but in the intervening years, they've veered away from their root sound.  That's not an insult or strike against them, although that comes with the admission that I more or less lost interest in them after "Vitalogy," when their sound began to evolve and they became pioneers in the cardboard-CD-sleeve march.  Their temperamental shift is likely a result of time as much as anything else; who's to say that if Soundgarden's timeline had remained unbroken, they wouldn't have done the same? 

To address your concern, though, I think grunge, as many underground movements that become popular do, suffers from some brush back by adherents who now find the genre to be overexposed in retrospect.  So, their reaction to trying to hold grunge close to the vest is to attempt to cut off the limbs that people can hold on to.  There's also a geographical element involved in grunge that exists in few other mainstream genres.  I, for one, however pretentious this may be, have never considered Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins part of the grunge movement, since they originated in San Diego and Chicago respectively, not the original Seattle scene (although make no mistake, while I never liked the Pumpkins, I do have an affinity for the first two STP records.)

Corollary to that, grunge can be hard to define because it was comprised mainly of facets from other genres, and was more an amalgam of those sounds than a truly new movement or innovation (which sadly may be what is presently dooming the genre to relative obscurity as newcomers seem to have bypassed the movement for inspiration.)  But grunge was borne of punk, rock, metal, blues, an ambitious use of amplified gain, flannel shirts and teenage ennui.  So, no single identifying marker exists.

For the record though, when I think about the core of 'grunge bands,' these are the club's ranking members (in no order): Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam (then,) Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Green River, Screaming Trees (who will forever be underrated,) Mother Love Bone, Tad, Temple of the Dog, and I know King Buzzo hates it, but the Melvins are inextricably tied to the genre whether or not they matched it musically.  That's pretty much the list.

And in answer to your actual question about genres and clothes - I can't think of one.  Was there a specific shoe tied to shoegaze?

Real quick before I go on, speak of the devil!  Ufomammut just announced pre-orders for their upcoming album.  Let the self-aggrandizement and fatuous preening of the reviewers lining up to fawn begin!  (Members of Ufomammut, if you happen to be reading this, it's not your fault.  We're cool.)

Much to my own surprise, I actually agree with you that 'metal' as a single label has very little meaning now, with the exception that perhaps Rob Zombie or Godsmack or Disturbed fit no other qualifiers and the term 'pop metal' just feels wrong.  That said, I would offer one note of caution about the fractured audience.  You're right, of course, the audience now, in perhaps all genres and not limited to metal, floating away from each other at an alarming rate, but it's been that way for a while now, and then all of a sudden there was Ghost.  So while it happens with less and less frequency, it can still happen.

I think the thing that surprises me most this year actually has to do with me.  Responsibilities in my life have caused me to have less time to monitor the goings-on of music, and even less time to actively review it, as attentive readers have no doubt noticed.  The part that surprises me in all that is that there have been a number of releases by prominent old school artists that I found I just had no interest in.  It felt like a waste of time to even launch the most cursory examination of their product, for I knew that I would either find nothing new, or be disappointed.  As such, I haven't heard the new Mastodon, or the new Kreator.  I didn't listen to Danzig's album.  I didn't even blink at Iced Earth.  And what feels weird is that I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it.  I think the omission of Danzig from my curiosity is the most shocking, only because I harbor such love for the first three Danzig records, and of course, the Misfits.  But there it is.  There appear to be some bands I'm simply done with.  The rule isn't universal, as I'm very much interested in the upcoming Arch Enemy record and also rushed out to hear the new Dragonforce, but a lot of bands are starting to fall off the cliff for me as my free time just won't allow the indulgence.

As a side note, one other surprise - while I agree with the criticisms in your poignant and thoughtful review, I really did enjoy The Night Flight Orchestra.

So, as we begin to wrap up, what are you looking forward to in the year's back half?

CHRIS C: I will let you have the last word on grunge. I was still off in different musical worlds at the time, so I can't speak with anything but backwards looking knowledge of the scene. I get what you're saying about Pearl Jam. They are certainly more of what you would call 'classic rock' these days. I suppose that brings up a question; does a band's genre change over time as they evolve, or is it locked in place by their formative records?

Was Metallica always a thrash band? Is Opeth still progressive death metal? These are the sorts of things that drive metal nomenclaturists nuts.

Ghost did hit, but even their stunning success needs to be measured. Yes, they have achieved far more than anyone would have thought for a band of their kind, but they haven't come close to the heights that rock and metal bands used to. Aside from one late-night performance, they haven't come close to breaking into 'the mainstream'. Twenty years ago, the buzz they've generated would have led to filling stadiums, and at least one song crossing over to become a minor hit. Today, I'll guarantee you anyone who doesn't actively follow the metal scene would never have even heard their name. And now that there is a legal battle, and the masks have been pulled off, I'm afraid the gimmick might have run its course. I'm not sure the band is nearly as interesting knowing it's Tobias and the studio musicians.

You aren't crazy for how you're thinking. All of those big-names you mentioned weren't releases I was interested in listening to either. They are all bands that have hit the point of diminishing returns. They have either fallen from grace, or released so many albums at this point that another one can't possibly offer up anything new. It's a dilemma that artists face. There comes a certain point where the only way to please your fans is to quit. And let's face it, Iced Earth was kind of boring even at their best. Danzig I only listened to because of how shockingly bad the first single was. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and needed to see how much the big magazines were paid off to claim it was a good album (answer; a lot).

The Night Flight Orchestra album was very good for what it was. The problem is that it was copying a style of music that never had much great songwriting. There has been so much nostalgia for the 80s lately (and why? I recall everyone younger than a boomer hating the Reagan years), and I'm a bit burned out on the sound.

My surprise of the year, if you're interested, is Harem Scarem. Here's a band that has been cranking out boring melodic rock since reforming, and they come out with an absolutely killer album this year. Bands that have been around twenty-five years aren't supposed to make their best music, but they went and did it. I've lost count of how many times I've listened to it.

As for the rest of the year, there isn't much on the horizon yet that I know of. I'm looking forward to the new Serious Black album, but considering it will be barely a year since the last one came out, I'm quite nervous about this being a rushed pile of leftovers (though Graveyard did the quick turnaround spectacularly, so what do I know?). The other big one is the long-awaited return of Nocturnal Rites. The first single just came out, and it's fantastic. Power/melodic metal might be getting a nice shot in the arm here. At least I hope so.

I'll give you the final word, and ask what you're looking forward to, and what you would like to see, if you were in charge of the world. Myself, my wish is the same one that I've had for several years now. I desperately want to see both Graveyard and Tonic finally get around to releasing DVDs. I don't know what the market for them is anymore, but I for one would love to have a document of a show, since I'm probably never going to get around to actually seeing them. Come on people, help a guy out!

D.M: Interestingly enough regarding Pearl Jam, I have often asked not only that same question, but how often a band suffers the opposite problem - where the band stays the same in sound and tone, but the expectations of their genre change underneath them.  Like, when Bruce Springsteen started, he was rock, but now, he hasn't changed a single iota and his genre has devolved where he's now 'crap.'  (Woohoo!  Checked the 'cheap shot at Springsteen' box!  Just under the wire!)

As for what I am looking forward to the remainder of the year, I just found out that the Offspring have a tour date near me, and while I may well be twenty years too late, I've still never seen them, so the chance to cross them off is exciting.  As for actual album releases, I am interested in both the forthcoming Arch Enemy release, and the upcoming Galaktikon album, the latter more because I'm curious to see if it sounds like Dethklok (which has been hinted,) or Galaktikon (which would be awesome, considering I don't think anyone foresaw a follow-up coming there.)  Because it still hasn't been released yet, I am contractually obligated to mention that I am still awaiting the final Blackguard album, "Storm."  And also, it's been four years since the last Turisas record, so I am now checking their various social media and web accounts about once a fort night to see if there is any progress there.  They keep announcing more concert dates, which is great, but no new music yet.  I await with baited breath.

Chris C: And with your ritual shot at Springsteen now completed, I think that's a wrap for this discussion. It's been an odd year, and we have roughly six more months of it to go. Will it get better, will it stay weird? We'll reconvene in December and figure that all out. Until then, back to the music!