Thursday, August 31, 2017

Album Review: Argus - From Fields Of Fire

Has it really been four years since the last Argus album? It doesn't feel like it, nor does it feel like this band has been around as long as they have, considering that I remember hearing their debut  album when it came out. In these years, they have continued to frustrate me as a band that has a great sound, but one that can never put the pieces together by writing a great album to go along with it. Combine that with their lead singer taking part in one of the most boring albums already released this year (Aldruni/Balich), and I'm left scratching my head a bit as to what I should expect from Argus.

As is too typical, the record opens with two minutes of useless noise that supposedly 'sets the scene', but really just wastes my time and annoys me before I can even hear any of their music. If there isn't a real point to an introduction, they should be left on the cutting room floor. Seriously, they don't do what the bands want them to.

Argus sits in an odd place, straddling the line between traditional metal and doom. They have the stripped down guitar tone of an 80s band, and gallop along with those sorts of rhythms, but the tempos never get into high gear, and Balich's wail is pure early doom. And like both of those genres, Argus exists in a place where melody is a difficult word to understand. The press materials talk about catchy hooks, but those are hard to find here. Argus' understanding of melody is the same as it's ever been, and it's why that record I mentioned in my introduction sits so low on my list of releases I've heard this year. Balich simply doesn't write interesting things for himself to sing.

He is a fine vocalist, don't get me wrong. For the style of music, his voice works very well. The problem is that he does what a lot of talented singers do and assumes that simply belting out notes for long stretches of time is interesting enough to listen to. It's not. We need melodies that have flow and movement to them, something that can grab attention on their own, independent of the singer. Argus has never been good in that department, and they aren't this time either. Their songs are instrumentally solid, but let down by vocals that are lethargic.

Argus has been around long enough that they should have shown more growth by now. I've given them a chance every time out, and they deliver the same product time and time again. Now if you like what they're doing, that's great news. But since I'm someone who thinks they could use a more dynamic approach to their songwriting, it's frustrating. There's still all the tools for something great in there, but Argus has never figured out how to put it all together.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Album Review: The Midnight Ghost Train - "Cypress Ave"

Well, ain’t this new and different?

The last time we saw The Midnight Ghost Train, they were an effective but nevertheless straight-ahead, up-and-down sludgy metal band, populating their lyrics with beer and the misgivings of adventurous youth. Their previous album, “Cold Was the Ground” was Clutch on steroids, bold and unrestrained by the tempering of that other band’s jam influence.

Now this…..

This is, in layman’s terms, fucking great.

“Cypress Ave” purposefully keeps a close watch on the gas pedal, never applying too much pressure and allowing the car to roll down the street with a dangerous slow burn, prowling along with a rumbling engine rather than screaming down the lane with coal-burning stacks.  We set the pace early with the measured thump of “Tonight,” a song that is both temperamental and yet careful not to give in totally to the promise of unbridled ferocity.

The albums brims with this kind of maturity, whether the dirty nastiness of “Bury Me Deep,” (which, as an aside, reminds us all that Midnight Ghost Train hasn’t forgotten how to deliver a solid masher,) or the punk/thrash roots of an instant crowd favorite like “Red Eyed Junkie Queen.”

It happens again and again throughout the album’s length, culminating in “The Echo,” a blues-y roll up of genre tropes which knows when to punch hard and knows when to fall back to create anticipation.  Worth noting – fans of a certain age (sigh, that includes me,) may hear the opening desert guitar strains and instantly start to call to mind memories of “The numeric transmission five-triple-zero was received, without interruption, for eight full days….”  (if you don’t know what we’re talking about: to the Google machine!)  This kind of meticulous song writing shows a development on the part of Midnight Ghost Train that many may not have seen coming, and arrives as a remarkably pleasant step forward for the band.

If there is a fault to be had in this new step, it’s that the album revels in this new style so much, it may go to the well once too often.  All of these songs work as individual cuts, but as a full-length album, some of the cuts run together.  Make no mistake, however, this is a 1% complaint on a 99% album.


In truth, we’ve only covered about half the experience, cherry picking one theme to discuss it first.  And while that half of the record is brilliant, it is this other face that outshines the accomplishments we’ve discussed above.

The Midnight Ghost Train has thrown caution and reservation to the wind, opening up their music to a hundred new influences that color the record from beginning to end.  Aside from the move away from baseline growled vocals, the first sign that we as listeners are in for a new experience comes from “The Watcher’s Nest,” which still bristles with the band’s idiomatic power, but trades in much of their ferocity in exchange for a borderline acoustic approach that switches on and off with aplomb, adding an emotional dimension to the music that we haven’t seen before.

That’s just the kickoff, though, to a section of “Cypress Ave” that feels more genuine than perhaps any other album this year.

To write the premise of “Break My Love” on paper, it would sound ridiculous.  A loud, smash-y rock band that likes to take…interesting…band photos is going to write an open-mic-blues-club-poetry-slam-style break up song with no lead guitar line and a vocalist who sounds like he swallowed a bag of gravel…and it’s going to be awesome.  But it is!  It’s clever and different and funny and damn it all, it’s honest.

Which gives way to the jazzy rhythm and breakdown of “Lemon Trees,” a song that builds into an explosive second half, which in turn dovetails into “The Boogie Down.”  The latter song features horns and a guest appearance by rapper Sonny Cheeba (as opposed to Sonny Chiba, star of the classic but slightly overrated martial arts film “The Street Fighter.”)  And yet, as odd as all that sounds, once again, Midnight Ghost Train surprises by making every new twist and turn work.  There’s something infectious about the thin horns of “The Boogie Down,” playing a simple hook, that transforms the song from a trial balloon to a genuine experience.

To complete the effect, we close with the dour and emotionally powerful “Black Wave,” coming down from the bright moments that we rode through previously and planting us firmly back on earth.  The entire exercise of this album section has a vibe like we’re experiencing a ‘week-in-the-life’ series of moments with the band – there’s up and downs, and many different styles of experience all still tied together, however loosely, in the musical paradigm of Midnight Ghost Train.

None of these songs, whether what we talked about in the first half, or what we’ve discussed here, is a throw-away, which is even more amazing.  Each cut is a fully developed track that spans minutes and is given its proper time to breathe, create and properly play out.  “Cypress Ave,” as a result, is many things.  The Clutch part is still in there, but there’s also Kyuss, Orange Goblin, The Sword, John Lee Hooker, just a touch of Miles Davis, and maybe a dash of Aloe Blacc or Mos Def (or both.)  And yet, in the end, “Cypress Ave” is irrevocably The Midnight Ghost Train.

You thought we were done?  We’re not quite done.

The record ends with the bonus track “I Can’t Let You Go”...I’m out of superlatives.  The song is out there on bandcamp and Youtube and wherever the hell else.  Just go find it and listen to it.  It’s the perfect ending to an album of multiples phases and ideals – a rolling combination of everything we’ve discussed to this point (okay, perhaps without the rap bit,) compiled into a seamless, undeniably compelling ending.

Find this album.  Listen to it.  Then listen to it again.  And again.  Take it on a road trip.  That’s all I can say.

Now we’re done.

Monday, August 28, 2017

EP Review: Epica - The Solace System

Epica is one of those bands that I'm supposed to enjoy, because they combine many elements of successful metal, but I can't say that I ever have. Their music is so densely packed that their full-length records are just too much for me. The focus it takes to listen to one without drifting out is something I'm not often able to muster. So while they're a good band, they have never done much for me. But here we have the release of an EP, tracks that didn't fit the theme of their last album, which might be a benefit, at least for me. In a shorter burst, am I finally able to embrace Epica? Let's find out.

With six songs clocking in at just short of half an hour, Epica doesn't give us an opportunity this time to be overwhelmed. Sometimes more is not more, and being amazed shifts into being made a fool.

The title tracks kicks things off in typically bombastic fashion, with swelling choirs and epic-scope thinking. As the song goes through the verses, it hits the main melody, with some fantastic staccato strings giving color to the sound. That moment is fantastic, but the actual melody that Simone is singing isn't nearly as interesting as what the music is doing. She's a great singer, and it's criminal to not give her stronger melodies to work with.

And that's what strikes me most about this EP. Epica is a band of immense talent. They burn through their symphonic metal with technical mastery, and they add in strings and orchestrations that pump every song to the extreme. Musically, they are amazing. The problem is that they don't give that same attention to the vocals. Simone is the visual focus of the band, but she needs to be the aural focus as well. Her voice is special, and Epica simply doesn't write choruses that live up to her talent. A song like "Architect Of Light" is splendid, until the chorus comes and we get some very unmelodic singing, and choirs on top of choirs, to the point where Simone is completely washed out.

What I'm saying is that "The Solace System" is the first Epica release in quite a while I've been able to sit through in total, and it reinforced what I already thought of the band. They are massively talented, but they focus so much on composing their instrumentals that they lose sight of what I think is the most important element, even for a giant metal band; melodies you can connect with. If they ever figured out how to write those kind of vocals lines, Epica would take over the world. Right now, they're still a great band that frustrates me that I can't enjoy them more than I do.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Singles Roundup: Taylor Swift, Foo Fighters, Trivium, & Arch Enemy

As I assumed would be the case, the fall slate of releases is being announced, and with them come new singles to herald the upcoming albums. Let's take a look at a few more:

Taylor Swift - Look What You Made Me Do

The biggest release of the fall will be the new one from Taylor Swift, and the first taste we're getting is a truly bizarre number. Taylor became a full-fledged pop star with "1989", which was an album I gradually warmed to. She did more with the limited palate of modern pop than most people could, and the string of singles off that album will be remembered for as long as she's around.

This song is something completely different. Instead of backwards looking pop, this is forward looking pop, which is where it falls apart. Modern pop is no longer about writing songs, but creating Vine-length memes, and that's where this song exists. Taylor tries to be a sultry noir vixen, but she's too innocent to pull it off. The beat of the song is plastic and flaccid, and worst of all is that she reduces the hook to a repetition of the title. None of Taylor's talent or personality are on display. The track tries so hard, but feels so bland. It's a terrible song, and a very bad omen.

Foo Fighters - The Sky Is A Neighborhood

I sort of gave up on the Foo Fighters with the whole "Sonic Highways" experiment. It wasn't because of the idea, but the execution. They became increasingly bland, losing all the spunk "Wasting Light" had. This new track is a continuation of the Foos aging ungracefully, writing slow and colorless 'rock' that doesn't offer much to listen to. Like the first single, there isn't much of a hook to this song, nor a riff to sink your teeth into. It's so generic that it becomes sad to realize this is the last rock band in the world to come along that can sell out arenas. This is not an arena sized song.

Trivium - The Hate From Your Heart

I don't even remember the last time I listened to a Trivium song. Curiosity got the better of me here, and I decided to give them a chance. I have to say I like where the band is going these days. They've matured into a metal band that understands the keys to songwriting. The riffs are simple and chunky, and many will complain the chorus is too radio friendly, but that's why it works. It's an inviting song that is easy to get into. Metal doesn't need to be more complicated than that. I may have to give the whole record a chance after hearing this.

Arch Enemy - The World Is Yours

The world's best (only?) arena death metal band is back again, and this song encompasses everything that's good about them. It's aggressive and definitely death metal, but it's also uplifting and anthemic. The guitar playing is magnificently melodic, and the main hook is so simple you can't help but remember it. In fact, the only downside to the song is that new second guitarist Jeff Loomis is unnecessary. His solo is notably weaker than Michael Amott's, and since solos are all he's responsible for on the record, having him around doesn't seem worth it. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the album after this. It's great.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Album Review: Paradise Lost - Medusa

Paradise Lost got a shot in the arm when Nick Holmes joined Bloodbath. That foray back into the world of death metal reignited the fire within the band, and pushed them back into being the gloomy masters of metal they once were. That's not to say they went soft, but they weren't bringing the same level of death metal into their dark atmosphere that they once were. Returning with "Medusa", the band is promising to venture even further in that direction, which is sure to please many of their longtime fans.

They waste no time in showcasing that attitude, as "Fearless Sky" opens with a slow, crawling doom riff and Holmes croaking in his most decrepit voice (that's a compliment, by the way). Writing music that slow and foreboding without it becoming dull is difficult, but Paradise Lost has been at it long enough that they know when enough is enough. The song picks up just a touch at exactly the right moment, and Holmes delivery allows him to articulate hints of melody, which is immensely important. The short passages where his clean voice pops up are welcome, but actually unnecessary. That's not something I expected to ever say.

One of the underappreciated details about an album is vitally important here. The drum sound makes this album feel even heavier than it is. There's an organic feeling to that sound, where you can almost hear the wood reverberating with each hit. It's the kind of sound you don't hear very often anymore, as everyone tries to reach clinical perfection in their recordings. You could call this old-school, which wouldn't be wrong, but it's more that they're just doing it right.

But there are some issues with "Medusa". Despite being only forty-two minutes long, the album does drag a bit because of how slowly paced the whole thing is. I understand Paradise Lost isn't a speedy band by any means, but too many of the slow doom riffs packed one after the other begin to sound alike. And other than "The Longest Winter", which is primarily sung clean, the vocals aren't diverse enough to give the tracks individual identities either.

When we do get a faster track in "Blood And Chaos", it's entirely refreshing. If it had come in the middle of the album, rather than one track from the end, it would have done wonders for the pacing of the record. As it is, the middle section is one slow number after another, which saps the energy from the music.

Look, "Medusa" is well-constructed dark doom/death/Gothic metal. It's heavy, evil, and certainly hits all the marks it's aiming for. It's not the kind of music I tend to listen to, so I'm never going to find myself raving about something like this, but I certainly can appreciate when it's done well. Paradise Lost may be a band a bit long in the tooth, but their fangs are still sharp. "Medusa" is proof of that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Album Review: Anubis Gate - Covered In Black

We're now in August, and I have talked very little about progressive metal this year. For whatever reason, there haven't been very many albums coming down the pike from bands of renown, or the albums that have come out have been disappointing. It's been a very weak year for prog metal of the 'traditional' sort ('traditional progressive' sounds like an oxymoron, no?). The only prog metal album that I've liked so far is Soen's "Lykaia", but that's not in the mold of more typical prog metal, which might be the explanation. Anyway, Anubis Gate is one of those bands that requires attention.

"Covered In Black" is what the cover suggests, an album dedicated to the darker side of life. You can hear that right away in the opener "Psychotopia". The guitars churn with a dark tone and the heaviness of modern, down-tuned metal. There have been progressive bands trying that particular trick, but they often get lost in the morass. Anubis Gate doesn't let the heaviness of the music overshadow the need to be melodic. Between the piano break in place of a traditional solo, and the moderately uplifting chorus, they've found the right balance. That's not always easy to do.

When the band is focused on hitting that mark, the results are very good. They have an appealing blend of progressive metal elements, and they write strong enough songs to pull in even people who aren't particularly interested in the more intricate nuances of their complex passages. Let's compare this to an album from earlier in the year by Vangough. Both are dark progressive metal albums, but Vangough didn't have a single memorable melody to go along with the heavier than usual riffing. Anubis Gate does, and it makes all the difference in the world.

And for the prog lovers in the crowd, while we don't get any epic statements that defy normal songwriting logic, we do get a trilogy of songs that I assume comprises a suite, in the form of "Black", "Blacker", and "Blackest". Two of the three are energetic numbers that are intelligently crafted metal songs with plenty of surface appeal. It's in the mold of what Voyager does, but I find them to be done better than their album from earlier in the year.

Really, the only thing I find odd about the album is "The New Delhi Assassination", which doesn't work at all for me. It's a conglomeration of world music sounds and stage setting, but I don't here it cohere into a song worth listening to.

Other than that aside, "Covered In Black" is one of the better progressive metal albums of the year, for sure. Anubis Gate is a prog metal band that is evolving their sound without letting go of who they are, and the result is music that is interesting on several levels. Your mileage will vary with how much you like prog metal, which is not my genre of choice most of the time, but for those inclined for this kind of music, Anubis Gate is trying to end this year's disappointments.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Revisiting: Killswitch Engage

I got into metal, seriously, in a weird way. I was sitting in on a friend's college radio show, and hearing a few of the tracks he was playing caught my attention in a way heavy music never had before. That might not be odd, but as a someone growing up in Upstate New York, the fact that the music was European power metal surely was. I don't know if I could have found more than two people I knew even casually who could have named a single band from that scene. Yet that is the music that moved me towards heavy metal.

At that time, the mainstream scene was seeing the rise of metalcore as a real force. Though I was focused on the European scene, I was taking note of the American bands that were leaving an impact. One friend in particular would often point me towards a specific band; Killswitch Engage.
This was just as "The End Of Heartache" was being released, and with ample time to kill on my hands, I would occasionally give the album a listen. It didn't strike me as anything special, but ever so often I would have the nagging thought that I needed to listen to it again, because I was missing something. Those feelings have kept at me for more than ten years now, even as I was reviewing new albums from the band, and just recently I decided it was once again time to look back at what I was missing.

The two incarnations of Killswitch Engage are nearly indistinguishable, in terms of the important traits, but they also couldn't be more different. The Jesse versus Howard debate still rages, because even though the band is doing the exact same things, their forces of personality completely changed how the music was heard. For me, the answer to the debate is simple. Jesse was there when they were still rough around the edges, and came back when they were going through the motions. Howard was there when the band perfected their form. He is, to me, the definitive voice of Killswitch Engage.

Two things about "The End Of Heartache" are clear to me, listening to the record these years later. One, it is the perfect encapsulation of what metalcore is all about. If you need a bllueprint for the genre, this album is it. There is ferocious heft to the guitars, but Howard is able to take the anger of an entire generation and turn that into anthems of communal self-esteem boosting. Killswitch was able to do what the other metalcore bands couldn't, by moving beyond just alternating clean and harsh vocals. Howard tapped into real emotion, and wrote melodies that worked on stage in a way that the audience could share the experience with the band. It was something special, and despite the simplicity of the construction, it was rock solid.

Unfortunately for Killswitch Engage, it was also the only one of their traditional albums that achieved the feat. Every other album of theirs has been trying to recapture that spark, without being able to keep the flame alive.
The one exception is their 2009 self-titled album, which broke the rules. Working with Brendan O'Brien, Killswitch Engage decided to push themselves in a different direction. Rather than focusing on their metal roots, that album pushed them further into melodic territory. The result was an album that fans hated, and that is always overlooked, but it's also the album that sticks with me the most. Is it softer than their others? Maybe. Howard screams a bit less, and the guitar tone is a bit fuzzier, but the band is still more than heavy enough. What it does best is twist the formula just enough to show us we don't have to be the self-loathing youth that first connected with the band's music. This was their growth, their showcase to the world that they had become adults who knew how to handle their baggage. They didn't need to share the anger with the world, because they were mature enough to push it into productive avenues.

That was short-lived, as not long after the record was released the band went through the kind of turmoil that could only have one result; the nostalgic attempt to recreate their glory days. You could say it worked, but nothing the band has done since then has reached the same heights. It's too safe, too clinical, to expected.

But there will always be something in me that looks back to those few records and understands now that Killswitch Engage changed heavy metal. I can't say if it was for the better or the worse, but I do know that no other band did what they did as well, not even themselves.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Album Review: The New Roses - One More For The Road

Not that long ago, I reviewed a record from a band I had never heard of that caught my attention. That was the previous album from The New Roses, which was one I enjoyed quite a bit, and that I cheaply compared to that old group with the word 'roses' in their name. I thought I was hearing what was going to be a band to watch, and then when the first single for this new record were released, I was left scratching my head. Was this really the same band that I enjoyed? What had happened?

That was because of the song "Life Ain't Easy (For A Boy With Long Hair)", which was a southern rock song with asinine lyrics that made me cringe from the moment I heard them. I don't know what the inspiration for that sort of thing was, but it made me incredibly nervous about diving into the entire album. The slippery slope is a very real thing.

Hitting the play button, the first thing we hear is "Quarter To Twelve", which is more in line with the classic hard rock I was expecting. There are hints of Slash and Joe Perry in some of the guitar playing, and the rough vocals fit right in. That's when the band is at their best, but there are elements on this record that get thrown in and distract from their strengths. "My Own Worst Enemy" is a solid bluesy rock track with some very nice guitar work and a solid chorus. The problem is that right before that kicks in is a terrible few seconds of layered "na-na" vocals, which are a nod to the modern 'rock' that hits the pop charts. Not only does it sound bad, it sounds completely out of place for a band like this. They're short interruptions, but the kill the song every time they come along.

Thankfully, the majority of the album is made up of the kind of songs The New Roses excel at; gritty rock and roll that feel like a more direct and tame version of the drug-fueled Guns N' Roses experience. Those adjectives are not to be taken as a slight. Guns had gotten too far up their own backsides, so not being as self-indulgent, and self-destructive, is not a complaint. The New Roses have the same spirit, but don't drift off into 'artistic' neverlands. They stay in the sweet spot of writing songs.

The downside of their approach is that while The New Roses are a very good band at what they do, it can be said they don't define their own identity well enough that you're going to remember these songs long after you hear the album. That's what happened to me with their last album, and I'm afraid that's what will happen here too. The music is good, but since it reminds me so much of other things, it won't have the same impact as a group doing something clearly their own.

So with that being said, let's cut to the chase. "One More For The Road" is The New Roses doing their thing, and doing it well. Yes, "Life Ain't Easy..." is a terrible song, but it's only one track, and the rest of the album lives up to what I was expecting. There isn't a lot of good ol' hard rock anymore, and The New Roses provide that. I can easily recommend this album for anyone who wants a good time with some good music.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Album Review: Serious Black - Magic

Not all 'supergroups' turn out to be super, and few of them experience growth after their formation. The fact of the matter is that once a musician has established themselves, it's difficult to break free of that mold and do something new. The members of Serious Black were like that when they came together, putting out a good debut that often felt like more of the same from veterans of power metal. But last year's "Mirrorworld" was something different. That album showed tremendous growth, and more maturity, and earned itself a slot on my list of the best albums of the year (accurately; the deluxe edition did). So when they are ready to return but a year later, I am both excited for what they have in store, but I'm also a bit worried they might be pushing themselves a bit too hard. Which wins out?

This time out, Serious Black is offering up a nearly hour long concept album about a man and a journey through a magical land filled with witches and drama.

Over the course of two albums, the times I have most appreciated Serious Black are when they leave the blueprint of power metal behind. There's a time and a place for ripping through a double-bass number, but the songs where they gave Urban breed more space to ply his...ahem... magic were the ones that most resonated with me. That's why "Mirrorworld" caught me so off-guard when it was released. From the singles I had heard, I was not expecting the diversity of songwriting, nor the tracks that ended up being my favorites.

Concept albums are tricky, because there are tropes about them that have never sat right with me. The one minute introduction is one of them, a short interlude with the narrator welcoming us to the story, these sorts of tracks are inconsequential. Then there's "Burn Witches Burn", which is a nice little track filled with organs that I love in the background, but the song stops before the solo for a narrative breakdown. Spoken word and music are two things I don't think belong together, and it drags down my enjoyment of a song every time I have to listen to talking in the middle of one.

What works incredibly well on this album is the use of keyboards to set the tone of the songs. Shifting sounds from track to track, the sense of drama comes from the keyboards, which are able to add a slightly sinister feeling to what would otherwise be energetic power metal songs. There are a lot of concept albums that fail to match the feeling of the music to the narrative through-lines, but Serious Black has achieved the right balance, without resorting to ham-fisted usurping of a dozen genres for each scene. This still feels like Serious Black, through and through.

The other thing of note, at least to me, is that "Magic" is a tight, concise album. While it runs nearly an hour, each song briskly moves along, and if anything they feel like they need slightly more time to make their point. There is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more, for sure, but at a couple of points I almost have the impression the band is rushing through the compositions, to make sure the record doesn't get too long.

Mostly, what I can say about "Magic" is that, in spite of stretching their creative boundaries with a concept, the album feels like a step back from where "Mirrorworld" was taking us. Yes, "Magic" has a narrative scope that expands outward, but the music is more traditional in its power metal forms, which doesn't feel to me as experimental as the softer songs, and more at times hard rock approach that "Mirrorworld" gave us. And with Urban's vocal approach, particularly with respect to the backing vocals, there is a hint of King Diamond's conceptual stories that creeps in. It never becomes distracting, but King's approach is one that relies far less on melodies and hooks, which has tamped down some of the buoyant choruses from what Serious Black is capable of.

Furthermore, this is an album that takes time before it fully sinks in. On my first listen, I was definitely underwhelmed by what I heard. But since I have a lot of respect for Urban, who has helmed some of my favorite recent metal albums, I gave it several more chances. With each listen, the songs became more familiar, and the bits that felt underwhelming became more clearly subtle than disappointing. "Skeletons On Parade" and "The Witch Of Caldwell Town" are the only tracks that immediately stuck out, and they remain the best songs on the album, with the kind of choruses that make power metal glorious. I particularly love how the latter track slows down for the last chorus, which makes it sound yet more epic. The rest of the album grows stickier with time, but you have to give it the chance to grow legs, which we don't always get the chance to do.

What I'm getting at is that my opinion is a bit two-fold. Serious Black are a very talented band, and this album is obviously put together by veterans who couldn't make a bad record without trying to deliberately do so. "Magic" is a very good album that doesn't feel like an album that would come out just a year after a monster release. Don't get me wrong; "Magic" is very good power metal. That's my issue, though. I was hoping Serious Black was going to break a bit more free of that mold. By focusing on a story, and bringing it to life through Urban's writing and performance, "Magic" isn't the melodic feast "Mirrorworld" was building towards.

While "Magic" is a step forward in some ways, it's a step backward in some others. It's a very good album, and it might very well end up being one of my favorites at the end of the year, but the nature of its construction is going to mean it's not an album that will stay with me as strongly as "Mirrorworld" did.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Album Review: Leaving Eden - Out Of The Ashes

The mainstream rock scene is one that I'm not sure I can even identify anymore. What constitutes rock these days is not what I remember, nor is it something I particularly enjoy. Whether we're talking about the screaming bands that are more metal than rock, or the sophomoric 'bro' bands, the range of sounds that get lumped under the same term is useless is helping us figure out if we're going to like something. That made me turn up my eyebrow when I saw Leaving Eden describe their new album as 'extreme rock'. I have no idea what that is, nor whether it's accurate or not, but I decided I needed to find out for myself.

These are pedantic issues to bring up, but I'm a writer who loves words, so I do need to say that 'extreme rock' is not a fitting description of Leaving Eden's music. There's nothing extreme about it, so I think they might be setting people up for disappointment if that's what they are expecting to hear.

That being said, what's important is the actual music. The first couple of tracks on the record are solid modern rock tracks that fit in with what the genre has been producing. There are moments where you can hear a melody begin to sparkle, but the songs pull back just enough to stop them from glistening. They're solid songs, but the adherence to being as rock as possible holds the songs back from what they could have been.

The title track fixes that, and shows what Leaving Eden is good at. With a more dramatic flair, it's a song that is able to use the atmosphere to sound heavy, while retaining a chorus that has a strong melody. Eve's vocals are at their best here, sounding confident with just a hint of aggression that makes it clear she's a rock singer through and through. That can get taken a bit too far, especially in some of the juvenile lyrics of "Sometimes", but usually she's the bright spot that differentiates Leaving Eden from a lot of the faceless bands that play similarly down-tuned rock and roll.

My favorite track on the album is "No Soul", which is the ballad that isn't really a ballad of the album. The riffs are as heavy as the rest of the album, but the duet vocals and hints of piano are a different tone, and the chorus has some of the sweep that a ballad usually does. It's a lovely piece of melodic hard rock, and is an avenue I think the band would be wise to explore more often.

So where do I come down on "Out Of The Ashes"? In a world of stale modern rock, Leavin Eden is a solid alternative to the usual names. This is a quick and enjoyable enough record, one that doesn't do much wrong. It's also a record that is a stepping stone to where the band needs to get. There is still room for improvement, which will hopefully continue to come. That being said, "Out Of The Ashes" is a fine record for now, while we wait for them to fully grow into themselves.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Album Review: In Evil Hour - Lights Down

What do I know about punk and/or hardcore music? If I'm being honest, the answer is not much, since my favorite punk album is the least punk album Bad Religion admits exists (that would be "The Dissent Of Man", which is phenomenal). When it comes to grittier punk, I don't have much experience with the form. But considering the political climate all around the world, and my expectation that the fury being felt is going to propel a new wave of angry young bands, I thought it to be an appropriate time to dip my feet into the pool. To do so, I'm starting with the UK's In Evil Hour, whose melodic punk/hardcore is one of the early entries into our new political uprising.

"Binding Ropes" kicks things off with a riff, and a guitar tone, that is more heavy metal than pure punk. But once the chorus comes along, and the backing vocals pop up, that Bad Religion/AFI style of punk is made very clear. When it's done well, it hits just the right balance between bristling energy and anthemic shout-along. That's pretty much what In Evil Hour is able to do on this song. It's a fine opening statement.

"Enemy Within" follows with a sound that references not only AFI, but some of The Offspring's better singles, if they hadn't polished off all the rough edges. Keeping in mind that while The Offspring are rather bland and lousy now, they were once a really good band, so recalling those days is a worthy comparison to make. Not only that, but the song contains a breakdown that is surprisingly heavy, and Al's vocals shift from her gritty singing into a full on swallowed-glass roar. In a small dose like that, it definitely drives the point home.

In "Bitter", she sings "every day I feel a little more unsure". Isn't that how we all feel, as the world seems to be crumbling around us?

The band has a DIY charm to their music. "Lights Down" isn't a slick record with a sheen of money emanating off it. It's a record that feels more homespun, which makes it feel more authentic. Much like how it's ridiculous to hear a band of millionaires like Metallica still trying to write songs about being angry and young, punk like this wouldn't work if it sounded clinical and spotless. I actually quite enjoy hearing the humanity of the performances. Hitting the feeling is often more important than hitting the notes.

I went into this album having never heard In Evil Hour before, having only just discovered them as I read through a list of upcoming releases. They intrigued me enough to inquire deeper, and I'm glad I did. I won't try to say what the true punk fan is going to think of "Lights Down", but I can say that this is the kind of punk that I can get behind. It's political and angry, but it retains a melodic sense that remembers a subversive message goes down better when it's hidden in a catchy tune.

"Lights Down" is a record that hits the mark. I don't have the disposition of a punk rebel, but for a few minutes, In Evil Hour made it sound appealing. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Album Review: Incura - Incura II

A couple of years back, I was a huge fan of the 'debut' record from Incura, which was an album that took a theatrical axe to the bloated corpse of melodic rock, painting the scene with a riotous sense of fun as vivid as the blood Sweeny Todd spilled on stages across the world. They understood that sometimes rock needs to embrace how overblown it can all be, and they made a record that was packed to the brim with unforgettable songs. But then they didn't follow up on that. Promises of a new album were made, but updates were slow in coming. Months passed without so much as a sentence confirming the album was still under construction.

So it was with great surprise that I saw the album show up, despite never hearing word from the band or their label that the album had even been recorded. It struck me as a huge mistake from a PR perspective, and if we weren't in the midst of the slow summer season, I might not have been able to fit this album into my schedule. That's criminal, since I had been looking forward to it so much.

Anyway, let's get on to the music. Within the first thirty seconds of "Love To Forget", everything I loved about Incura before is back for another go. The riffs are heavy rock that have some swing and bounce in them, and the vocals are such theatrical performances that I can already hear more serious rock fans whining that this is making a mockery of the form (as though bro-rock, black metal, and everything else doesn't do the same thing). Incura's version of rock is supposed to be fun and indulgent, and that it certainly is.

There was one thing missing from the cocktail in that opening number; the sticky melodies. The last record was one of those that stayed in your head whether you wanted it to or not, and that element is largely missing not only from that song, but from this entire album. I understand why completely; the first record compiled the very best Incura had ever written, and now they had to write that many more great songs in a shorter amount of time. That can be tough, I know.

That element might be absent, but Incura still has enough to propel the album forward. "Now Or Never" might be a bit subdued compared to the Incura I previously knew, but it's still a fun sing-along of a track that has a spirit that puts a smile on my face. As does "Remodel", which throws in hints of djent to the riffing, but has a vocal and chorus that is straight from the first album. It's exactly the kind of song I was hoping for, and it's fantastic.

In addition to the great new tracks, we also get the worst song I've heard from Incura yet, "Help Me Save Myself Tonight". I don't doubt that it means a lot to the band, but it's a flaccid track that bounces from meandering verses to a chorus that is more shouting than a melody. It's a completely misstep, and "This Is What You Get" doesn't do anything to reclaim the momentum. With some vintage effects to change up the sound, there was the chance for something interesting to happen, but the song again lacks a hook that would make the song memorable.

"Incura II" is not at all the record I had been waiting for. It was on my list of most anticipated records both last year and this year. So what happened? I can understand what happened with the songwriting, as I explained earlier. More puzzling is what happened to the album itself, how it appeared out of nowhere with no fanfare or buildup. I have a theory as to how that happened, but I don't want to get out ahead of myself there. All I will say is that unless this is all part of some renegade, underground marketing campaign, it's not a good sign for Incura.

When I saw this record was finally there to be heard, I was thrilled. I cleared out time as soon as possible to listen to it, and then felt more and more disappointed as the record kept playing. It's a decent enough record, but since my previous experience with Incura was amazing, "Incura II" is a pretty significant letdown. They say sequels are rarely as good as the original, and that's the case here. "Incura II" is a shadow of it's namesake.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Singles Roundup: Nocturnal Rites, Black Country Communion, & More

The summer slump is upon us, with the schedule showing a lack of quality and/or interesting albums to talk about week after week. Things will pick up once the festival season is over, and fall is upon us. We are getting the first teasers of those fall albums already, so let's take a look at three recent singles that are harbingers of what is to come soon.

Nocturnal Rites - Before We Waste Away

It's been roughly a decade since Nocturnal Rites released an album, but judging by this first song released from their comeback, it's as if no time at all has passed. They hit all the right marks from their last two albums, which upped the melodic factor to pop levels. They are a bit more metallic here, but there is no doubt this song is all about the hook, which Johnny Lindqvist delivers with that voice we've been waiting ages to hear again. Despite the wait, this song gives me high hopes for their new album.

Black Country Communion - Collide

Another band that took time off, Black Country Communion is one that has never been a favorite of mine. Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa both have backgrounds far more rooted in the blues than I prefer, but this first single teases a heavier album that could be more straight-forward rock. If so, that would be a positive development for me. This track is one I like a fair amount. The riffs are heavy with some groove, and Glenn sounds great as he belts out the chorus. The time apart was well used if this is the result.

Nitro - It Won't Die

Continuing the trend of bands that are coming back together, Nitro returns to a world completely different than when they could become successful simply because Michael Angelo Batio could play right or left handed. Today, you actually need to be good, which Nitro most definitely is not. This song is a cruel joke on us, a pathetic attempt from two guys in their fifties to write music for frat bros, without even knowing the nu-metal style they're copying went out of style a decade ago or more. The riffs are awful, the mix is terrible, and the vocals/lyrics are so bad I can't believe this is a serious effort. In a year filled with bad music, this is as bad as it gets.

Caligula's Horse - Will's Song (Let The Colours Run)

Here we have a band whose first album I liked, but who ran into trouble with their second album, which delved too far into djent for my taste. With the first single from their third album, they've found a balance between the two. The riffing is still highly modern, glitchy, and filled with the djent rhythms that are so popular, but the melodies are more apparent than on the previous record. It's a much better blend of heavy yet catchy, rhythmic yet melodic. A solid opening statement.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Album Review: Dead Cross - Dead Cross

There are certain musicians who, by virtue of their skill with an instrument, get a reputation as being among the very best at what they do. But what gets lost is that often the circumstances have much to do with that person being able to showcase themselves in the first place. Being in the right place at the right time is vitally important, because even many 'legends' can't survive on their own, without the right partners to work with. Case in point; Dave Lombardo. He is a legendary drummer, but when he isn't working on music written by more talented songwriters, either in Slayer or Testament, he is anonymous. Nothing he has done outside of those long-established bands has ever come close to earning him real acclaim.

Teaming up with Mike Patton might have been something that could, but Dead Cross is not going to be that vehicle. Or let me rephrase that, since there is always the chance it might. Dead Cross should not be that vehicle. It is a band that is so wildly misguided, so unbelievably detached from music as a common form, that it is utterly baffling.

First of all, I will admit to being unfamiliar with Mike Patton's history. I know his reputation, but I couldn't pick him out of a lineup if he was wearing a name tag. This album is the first thing I know of him, and I sincerely hope it will be the last. His atonal shrieking and foul-mouthed lyrics are a parody of what hardcore or punk music is supposed to be. He sounds like a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, trying his damnedest to sound vital, youthful, and not like a man slowly graying into irrelevance.

But he is just the most obvious of the problems Dead Cross has. The biggest problem is that between Patton, Lombardo, and the rest of the band, there is still a dearth of songwriting talent. I know the band's identity is supposed to be 'brutal' and 'manic', but there still needs to be some structure underneath the chaos. You can't rebel against the rules if there are none, so to speak.

And that's what makes "Dead Cross" so painful to listen to. There isn't a single riff that doesn't blur by in a mess of noise, there isn't a drum pattern that you can air-drum to, there isn't a vocal line anyone would ever find themselves accidentally shouting along to. This is a band that takes Slayer's chaos and forgets that Slayer was still writing real songs. These are sketches of noise that never develop, that go nowhere, and that offer nothing appealing for the ear.

If I was writing the history books, Dead Cross is a band that would end any discussion of Patton or Lombardo being remembered as among the best at what they do. It is such a collosal waste of talent, such a pathetic attempt to turn back the clock, that it truly does undo much of the good work they must have done in their careers.

I seem to have been saying this a lot lately, but "Dead Cross" is a heavy contender for the worst album of the year. While others may have been more disappointing in relation to expectations, "Dead Cross" is on its own accord truly awful. The only redeeming feature I could find is that it is mercifully short. If it were any longer, I would have grown genuinely angry that I had wasted that much of my time listening to this slap-dash effort.

Dead Cross is dead to me, period.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Album Review: Quiet Riot - Road Rage

If there is one thing about the history of metal that is more depressing than anything else, it's that Quiet Riot was the first metal band to top the charts. It's not that they were terrible (I never listened to them back theen, so I can't say), it's insulting to the genre for them to have that honor because it's the only piece of their legacy.... other than people dying. Seriously, can anyone think of a single thing to say about Quiet Riot other than their chart success and their losses? I certainly can't. They have been resting on the laurels of being in the right place at the right time for decades, and now they are finally getting around to doing what bands are supposed to do and release a new album.

But they can't even do that without controversy. "Road Rage", as you hear it, is not how it was recorded. The band had a different singer who recorded the entire album, only to then get fired once the press releases were already being sent out to the world. So the album got postponed while the band recruited a former Americal Idol contestant to come in and re-record all the vocals. That process did not bode well for the album.

And boy was that omen telling.

Let me save you some time, if you're having a busy day when you read this. "Road Rage" is an abomination, and quite possibly the worst album of the year.

If you're still reading, let's dive a bit deeper into the album. Listening to "Road Rage", you wouldn't know that the last thirty years ever happened, in more than one respect. The songwriting on the album is thoroughly lackluster, with riffs that serve as good background noise, and vocal melodies that are right out of the days before metal bands bothered to write real hooks. Quiet Riot is still existing in a world where playing a loud electric guitar was enough to amaze people. It's not, and despite being veterans, I can't even say this is an album of well put together, but less exciting, songs. These songs lack any creative spark at all, and can't make up for the routine sameness of the material with hooks or little details that stand out and rescue the songs. It's a tuneless album that's as sophisticated and adept as the wretched cover art. Guys in their 50s singing about rolling joints isn't metal, it's sad.

Sad is the word that most comes up when I think about this record. Next on the docket is new singer James Durbin. I won't hold his past against him, but his performance here is horrible. When the first single was released, it wasn't until the second chorus came along that I realized he wasn't a female guest singer. His high-pitched shriek is annoying, shrill, and gets old very fast. When he tries to sound tough, it's even worse, as his voice doesn't have an ounce of aggression to it. He is completely miscast on this album, and if anything he drags the sub-par compositions down even further.

But worst of all is the production of the album. Despite being a 'legendary' band, and having decades of experience in the industry, "Road Rage" sounds like a local band's demo. The sound is thin, muffled, and lacking any of the punch or clarity that a metal record of today needs. You can't even call it a throwback to the old days, because most of the big records from the 80s sounded better than this. I don't know who let this album be released like this, but there are serious hearing issues among the people responsible for making this record.

So we have an album that is poorly written, poorly sung, and poorly recorded. It's a trinity of mistakes that amounts to a single thing; "Road Rage" is one of the most inexcusably awful records of the year. Other bands from their time make good records. Other bands on their label make good records. They have no excuse for this record being so bad. If they were anyone but Quiet Riot, I don't think this would even be released.

Whatever you do, avoid hearing a note of this one. It will only ruin your mood.