Thursday, September 28, 2017

Album Review: Revolution Saints - Light In The Dark

A few years back, the legion of assembled supergroups made up from the veterans of the 80s produced a real gem. Revolution Saints was not just a band that made a really great melodic rock/AOR album, they were a vehicle to show the vocal talents of Deen Castronovo. Sure, people knew him from his time behind the kit in Journey, but he had never fronted a band for an entire album before, and he more than held his own. In fact, on what was one of the absolute best tracks of that year, he out-dueled the current Journey singer in a duet. So with that kind of successful debut, I was assuredly excited to hear what would come next. That's where "Light In The Dark" comes in.

Following up a great record is never easy, but especially when it's your first album, because there's no telling where your style will take you. Fortunately, Revolution Saints are veterans who have been around long enough to know who they are as musicians.

The title track picks up where the first album ended, blending Doug Aldrich's semi-metallic guitar playing with Deen's gritty vocals, and a smooth AOR melody. That's the formula that worked on the first album, and if it ain't broke there's no reason to fix it. Plenty of music of this style gets put out, even just from their label, and it's clear when a band is a step above the usual competition. Revolution Saints are one that is.

And that brings us to the issue I have with the record. While "Light In The Dark" is a very nice melodic rock record, it's not as captivating as the debut album was. I don't know the circumstances of the writing of these new songs, but the hooks don't sparkle as consistently as their earlier counterparts. There are great moments, but fewer than last time out. That's a high bar to judge against, but I'm comparing the band to themselves, so it's fair. You have a song like "I Wouldn't Change A Thing", which is a ballad in the mold of "You're Not Alone", but it never builds up to a satisfying climax the way that song did. It's the start of a good idea, but it isn't fully fleshed out yet.

But then there are songs like "Don't Surrender", which are perfect examples of how to write melodic rock. At their best, Revolution Saints are the proverbial five-tool players, and that kind of song illustrates them all, as do "Take You Down" and "Freedom".

If we compare Revolution Saints to the other bands that have put out melodic rock albums of this stripe this year, they would come out near the top. They're on par with Eclipse, and trailing only Harem Scarem's career-defining effort. But I can't not compare "Light In The Dark" to the band's own first effort. In that respect, this is a bit of a disappointment. "Light In The Dark" would be a fine debut that would have me excited about their future, which would then lead to growing into a record like their first one, in a perfect world. But the order of the albums is reversed from that, and the sequence does make a difference. "Light In The Dark" is a very good record, and one I can easily recommend checking out, but I can't say the band took a step forward here. Their debut is just too good for that to be the truth.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Album Review: Nocturnal Rites - Phoenix

When I was getting into metal, it was through power metal, and one of the bands that helped usher me in was Nocturnal Rites. That was as "The Grand Illusion" came out, which along with follow-up "The 8th Sin", captured my attention with their blend of modern heaviness and all-out melody. I heard rumblings from older fans that they didn't like the more over modern and pop overtones, but it was magic to my ears. Even if I go a year without hearing those songs, I can still remember most of those melodies vividly. I was saddened when years stretched on, and a full decade elapsed before news came out that Nocturnal Rites was returning. This album has the potential to be one of the biggest moments of the year, if the lengthy time off didn't slow down the band's momentum.

My nerves over the wait were quieted before I ever got the album. The two singles released early, "Before We Waste Away" and "Heart Black As Coal", were both fabulous tracks that picked up right where the band left off, with heavy modern riffing and melodies to die for. I couldn't have asked for anything more, and despite listening to them repeatedly as I waited, they just kept getting better and better, sometimes popping into my head as soon as I woke up in the morning.

Notable was the addition of Per Nilsson, the master guitarist who has lent his talents to countless projects at this point. The band already had great songwriting and fantastic vocals, and now they have a world-class lead guitar player. The solos on this album are a guitar player's dream... and nightmare. The fretboard displays are incredibly impressive, but will also deflate anyone's ego who wants to learn one of these songs.

Despite the time between albums, Johnny Lindqvist sounds as good as ever. His voice is one of the best in all of metal, and after being away for so long, hearing him again is a reminder of why we missed Nocturnal Rites so much. There aren't many power metal singers who can match him in pure tone, or in the ability to write and sell a hook.

The one thing to be said about "Phoenix" is that if you didn't like the direction "The 8th Sin" took, this album isn't going to correct course. These songs are tight, heavy, very modern tracks that don't shy away from pumping up the melodies. It's not the traditional power metal the band started out playing. Myself, I find this approach far more interesting, so I'm very happy to see the band staying the course.

And do they ever. "The Poisonous Seed" is the one track here that comes across flat, but otherwise these are all tracks that absolutely slay with their melodies and hooks. You get hints of strings to expand the scope on two tracks, no all-out ballads, and heavy doses of Nocturnal Rites doing what they do best. Most every song could be singled out, which means there's no need to do so. This is one of those albums where the quality is constant, which is where the time was put to good use. While I loved their last couple of albums, they weren't this jam-packed with great songs. One mediocre song on an album is a greta batting average.

So overall, "Phoenix" is an even better comeback than I could have expected. Power metal is rather stale right now, and "Phoenix" is the kind of album that should be made more often. "The 8th Sin" was at the forefront of taking power metal into the modern melodic age, and "Phoenix" does the same thing. Sadly, that means the rest of the scene hasn't advanced the ball much in the intervening years. That doesn't diminish the fact that "Phoenix" is the best power metal album so far this year, and is one anyone who enjoys melodic metal has to give a listen.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

15 Years Later: Tonic's "Head On Straight"

Certain moments stick in our minds, etching themselves into who we are, to the point where no amount of filing can erase the edges. They are formative experiences, and the roots of them grow so deeply around our musical hearts that the elements seep into every decision we make afterwards. We think we are freely choosing which path we take, but our musical taste is imprinted early on, and can rarely be changed.

I had just turned nineteen the week before, and my excitement was far higher for my trip to the record store the next week. In the previous few years, I had gone from a musical neophyte to someone with a favorite band that would wind up sticking at least through the present day. Tonic's first two albums, after they were able to sink in, opened my eyes to a new world of music. They came to explain who I am, musically, so it was with great anticipation that the release date of their new record crawled towards me.

I can still remember driving down to the record store that Tuesday, as soon as my classes were over. The store didn't have many copies, since there were sure to be few Tonic fans in my hometown, and tha band's popularity was already beginning to recede from the mainstream. I picked mine up, and I fidgeted with the plastic shrink-wrap, failing to pry it open with my fingernail before getting home.

I quickly opened the album, and my first thoughts were disappointing. Tonic's usual aesthetic was missing from the cover, which was something I missed, as was the notable lack of included lyrics. As an aspiring songwriter, I was looking forward to dissecting the words to find inspiration for my own. The note directing me to their band's website for the lyrics was a cruel reality of the shifting modern times.

I can't remember my feelings upon first playing the record, whether my opinion was immediate or slow-growing. In time, I came to see "Head On Straight" as the black sheep of Tonic's career. Produced by Bob Rock, and featuring less acoustic guitars than any other Tonic record, it's a unique entry in their brief catalog. It can easily be argued that it was an attempt to do everything possible to maintain their stature.

What I've learned over these years is that black sheep have more fun.

"Head On Straight" is unique for Tonic in that it is their darkest, heaviest album. It was the one time they decided to show the world that they could rock as hard as anyone else. Their trademark melodies were still there, and they couldn't resist throwing in a complete pop song in "Believe Me", but the majority of the record is pumped Marshall amps and guitars that sound as big as the hooks.

Songs like "Roses" and "Liar" achieve the nifty trick of turning simplicity into a virtue. The riffs are only two or three notes, but they're so immediately understandable that you can't forget them. That's the same truth of Emerson Hart's melodies, which hit you in the face and feel like old favorites even before the songs are over. "Count On Me" is a song that proves when you have a good idea, you don't need to gussy it up with unnecessary doo-dads.

When people think of Tonic, they rightfully turn their attention to "Lemon Parade". I do it too (I did an entire week of coverage last year based on it). But revisiting "Head On Straight" over the last few months, I've heard in that record a side of Tonic I wish had come out more often. There was often a darker chord to Emerson's writing than his melodies and Jeff Russo's jangling guitars would make us think. In "Let Me Go", Emerson wrote:

I never thought I'd change my ways
It was an angry thought
That made me turn the other way
And I, I wanna be like that again
When I know there's hope
And hope will always find a friend

In some ways, that sums up the album. It was a turn in a direction the band may or may not have intended, and hope would win out as their next (final?) album would revert back to their usual form. That album would be once again like an old friend to fans.

But "Head On Straight" was something else, something that I gravitated towards as a teenager. And now that I'm older, it speaks to me on a different level, because it's an honest assessment of how life is a cycle of light and dark moments, just as the sun rises and sets. Fifteen years later, I think I love "Head On Straight" more than ever. It's the one Tonic record that feels like an open wound, and perhaps that's why it might just be the most powerful. Let you go? No, I intend to hold on as long as I can.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Album Review: H.E.A.T. - Into The Great Unknown

I make no excuses for the fact that much of my favorite music has an unabashed love for pop melodies. Even when I'm listening to rock and metal, I prefer an approach that puts the emphasis on vocals, and especially with big, sticky hooks. There's nothing better in music, and I find that rock music that ignores this fact is a bit like putting handcuffs on yourself. In recent years, one of my favorite albums that hits all the right marks was H.E.A.T.'s "Tearing Down The Walls". It was the perfect balance of crunchy hard rock and catchy-as-all-hell hooks. It's an album I still listen to, and one where just reading through the track listing, I can hear the songs playing in my head. That's not something I can say all that often these days.

Now it's time for H.E.A.T. to return and try to follow that magnificent record, and they do so in slightly altered form. In the time since we last saw the band, they have lost their guitar player, and replaced him with a familiar face from the past. Does this make a difference?

Not on opener "Bastard Of Society". It's the same high-octane sugar rock that H.E.A.T. is known for. Crunching guitars, big harmonies, and a slick hook all combine for a track that delivers on all levels. Erik Gronwall continues to be a star, with a voice that is better than 90% of the melodic rock singers in the world. He's what made the last H.E.A.T. album so special.

Things change as soon as the second track, "Redefined". There's a different sound and energy to that song, a more laid-back 80s sound that isn't at all like the previous number. There's a solid melody running through the second half of the song, but it takes quite a while to get going, and it's so unlike what I was expecting that it was tricky to wrap my head around. Likewise, "Shit City" is a head-scratcher. The backing vocals give it a modern pop feeling, but it's the lyrics that have me frustrated. The band is better than writing material like that. It's too juvenile and simplistic for them. As listeners, we deserve better writing.

That modern pop feeling is what resonates throughout this album. If you listen to bands like Fun or Imagine Dragons, that's the influence running through these songs, and it's one that I can't say was a good choice. H.E.A.T. does that sound as well or better than those radio bands do, but it's a far cry from the sound they've previously been known for. In fact, the prevailing thought I have through this album is that it doesn't really rock much at all. While they were previously a band that was undeniably a rock band, now it's not so clear. There are still guitars, and loud ones at times, but the focus of the music has shifted towards feelings and rhythms, and away from riffs and chords. That alters the way the melodies are written, and because of that, they are far less engaging.

This simply isn't as heavy, melodic, or catchy an album as the last time we heard from H.E.A.T. There are little hints of that band, especially on "Blind Leads The Blind", but they are few and far between. I don't know if the change in guitarists was a cause or a correlation, but there has been a big shift in what kind of band H.E.A.T. is now, and I can't say I like it.

"Tearing Down The Walls" was a phenomenal album that I admit I was too slow in raving about. "Into The Great Unknown" does venture into those promised new areas, but sometimes change isn't for the best. I consider this one of those times. H.E.A.T. has taken a definite step backwards with this album.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Album Review: Otherwise - Sleeping Lions

Success is a word that needs to be constantly redefined. As the digital revolution has shifted how we listen to music, and the number of bands out there has continued to grow in direct proportion to the fragmentation of the genres, success doesn't mean what it used to. Let's take as an example Otherwise, whose album I'm about to talk about. They are a mainstream rock band who have had several previous singles land on the rock charts. You would think that would make them well known, but while the name is familiar, I can't remember if I've ever heard a song of theirs before. Success, eh?

Now on to "Sleeping Lions", an album that is being marked as the biggest moment in Otherwise's career. Mainstream hard rock is a predictable genre, and there have been so many bands that play the same basic four chord patterns that the only way for a band to really make a statement is to have the sharpest of songwriting. There isn't room for inventive new tricks. Otherwise is not interested in reinventing the wheel here, so it all comes down to whether or not they're able to write the kinds of hooks that stand above the fray.

That's where things become a bit tricky to assess. Otherwise has made an album that is heavy without being a de-tuned mess, an album that rocks while actually being quite slower and subdued, an album that is melodic without being catchy. Those are all semi-contradictions, because that's what "Sleeping Lions" feels like. It's an album that has a certain aim, but I'm not sure ever hits the mark.

The biggest issue is that the choruses, while melodic, never stick with you the way they should. They're perfectly fine, and pleasant to listen to, but if you're trying to cut through the glut of bands throwing songs at radio programmers, you need something more memorable than this. Otherwise sounds like a band that would have been perfectly able to score hits and sell a lot of records in the wake of Nickelback's popularity. The problem with that is Nickelback isn't popular anymore, not in that way.

Rock music doesn't break through, and in part that's because the bands that are aimed at the mainstream are all so similar, and all ply in a trade that is too sterile, to sound unique. Otherwise doesn't have an identity outside of their genre, is the way I would put it. I can't point to a single thing about them that no one else can replicate. They sound exactly like what a mainstream rock band should be, and nothing else.

That's fine, and it makes for a solid record that has no disappointments, but it does leave me unexcited at the end of the record. Look, compare this to Danko Jones latest record, who has more buzz, and this is the clear winner. As far as mainstream rock goes, Otherwise is doing it very well here with "Sleeping Lions". There's nothing about the music itself that isn't well-done. Otherwise has made a very good representation of what the genre is in today's climate. I'm just not sure how much longer this horse can be beaten before we're hitting a pile of bones.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Album Review: Caligula's Horse - In Contact

A few years back, there was a band that came up through the prog metal ranks that caught a lot of people's attention with their blend of modern and folk sounds. That was Caligula's Horse with the album "The Tide, The Thief, And River's End", which was something that felt new and fresh in prog metal, and set the band up as having the buzz to become something special. Their next album was a large disappointment, to me, because they took away all that made them unique and sounded like a clone of Leprous' stale, boring style. The next record was going to define their arc, and that's where we now find ourselves.

This new record finds Caligula's Horse growing into the change in style they made, feeling more comfortable mixing djent chords and riffs with their melodies. "In Contact" is the album they were trying to make last time, but they weren't yet fully sure how to get there. This is a stunning sounding, well-executed album of profoundly modern prog metal that still manages to have the melodic sensibility of their breakthrough album.

If I can backtrack to that comparison I made earlier, melody is the difference between Caligula's Horse and Leprous. Both are bands with worlds of talent when it comes to executing their ideas, but only one of the bands writes songs that are as concerned with being surface-level engaging as they are with being interesting to the hardcore prog audience. That band is not Leprous.

It sounds perhaps unnecessary for a prog band, but it's vital that Caligula's Horse is able to make their songs work on more than one level, for more than one audience. That's how you grow, and how you eventually become a bigger and bigger name. "In Contact" is the sort of album that can do that for Caligula's Horse. There is plenty in the guitar playing, with the off-kilter riffs and stuttering time signatures, to please the prog crowd, but the songs can also be taken as intricate melodic metal, which opens up a whole new world.

Here's the part where I have to be honest. Is "In Contact" the kind of album that I can easily love and say will be a favorite of mine? No, I can't. I'm not that wedded to progressive metal. What I can say is that I can certainly hear and appreciate what Caligula's Horse has done here. For its aim, "In Contact" is exquisitely performed. It isn't the target I would first shoot for, but that doesn't take away from its success. Caligula's Horse has stepped up their game here, and perhaps found the sound to build their future upon. I know this much; if the choice comes down to Leprous or Caligula's Horse, I'm taking Caligula's Horse every time.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Album Review: Galaktikon II: Become The Storm

“Galaktikon II: Become the Storm” reminds us of a lot of different ideas.  That a rose by any other name can smell as sweet.  That it’s always good to have a backup plan.  That bands and artists can change and evolve.  That metal often takes itself too seriously, and needs to be kicked in the head about it by someone with better perspective.  Perhaps the most important lesson, if we can be allowed to pontificate for a moment, is that in these times when the educational system and the economy as a whole encourage specialization, a person can simultaneously be more than one thing.  You can be a show creator, producer, music maker, any and everything, all at the same time.

Skipping over the legalese of why this album isn’t by Dethklok, what we have here with “Become the Storm” is the opportunity to enjoy more Dethklok-style music under a new name.  You’ll note the use of “Dethklok-style,” because while “Become the Storm” could just as easily be another Dethalbum, the appellation Galaktikon was not to be ignored.

For those who had forgotten, Galaktikon’s first album was released by Brendon Small in 2012 as a side project while he waited for some Dethklok contracts to clear.  This side project (or so we thought at the time,) was meant to be, even more than Dethklok, a dramatic, guitar-driven metal experience, emphasizing clean vocals, big choruses and more than anything else, the idiomatic twin guitar sound of the late 1970s.  The resulting record was a powerhouse, as Small is not only a clever wit and prolific writer, but also a calculating guitar shredder.

And so, in this new record, we see not solely Dethklok or Galaktikon, but a healthy composite of both, from which the entire experience profits.

The listener need not get far to find all possible permutations of the two bands.  “Icarus Six Sixty Six” (perhaps a nod to Iron Maiden – a combination of “Flight of Icarus” and “Flight 666,”) is very much a Dethklok song.  Small snarls his lyrics and bites into his guitar riffs, all set against the always metronomic pulse of Gene Hoglan’s double kick.

Two songs later, “The Ocean Galaktik” is through and through from the Galaktikon catalogue.  It’s a storytelling song, played out over seven minutes through multiple characters and phases, filled with flourish and ascendant chord progressions.  The very blood of “Prophecy of the Lazer Witch” flows in these veins.

Yet, in between the two, we get “The Agenda,” and now we’ve hit upon something interesting.  This is perhaps the album’s single best synthesis of the two bands.  There’s a pounding, growled intro, but the bridge is flighty and accessible, a pattern which repeats in the second half of the song as though it were a play in two acts.

And we’re only four songs in at this point.  The rest of “Become the Storm,” oscillates between one sound or the other, often leaning in one direction but always within the Venn diagram of Brendon Small’s musical idiom.

Worth mentioning just as a spectator is the concept that in Galaktikon we’re now seeing Dethklok made manifest in flesh, no longer a group of musicians playing characters, but a group of musicians as just that.  The metal realm makes room for all manner of executions of this dynamic – GWAR is musicians as physical characters, Dethklok was musicians as virtual characters, and now Galaktikon is, in a sense, virtual characters turned into physical musicians.  Naturally, nature abhors a vaccuum, so in the absence of Dethklok, that void was immediately filled by Pentakill; even more strange since Pentakill represents a corporately-assembled virtual metal band.

Let’s not get lost in the shuffle of existential crises and naming conventions, though.  “Galaktikon II: Become the Storm” works because Small is a unique talent and understands the constructions of what makes metal work, perhaps even better than many genre ‘insiders’ (although Small himself is probably an insider at this point.)  As we mentioned in the open, let this be a reminder to the ‘metaller-than-thou’ among us – great music often defies convention.

While I personally might have liked to see a touch more leaning on the artistry of Small’s twin guitar dynamic, “Become the Storm” doesn’t really suffer for not having it.  It’s an enjoyable album played by talented musicians who know how to utilize open space and combine multiple affects into a single composition.  Many bands could learn from this.  No matter what the name on the front, this is a great record.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Album Review: Dirty Thrills - Heavy Living

Heavy rock evolved from the blues. Led Zeppelin is the most obvious bridge between the two, but there is no denying the origins of hard rock. That's something that has always confused me, because I am someone who likes hard rock, but has never been able to get into the blues at all. Emotional heaviness and sonic heaviness have never meshed in my mind, so I'm not sure what it is I'm missing.

Dirty Thrills are another band that is going back and tying a new line to the blues, tethering their roots tightly. Fronted by the son of an ex Moody Blues singer, I suppose it should be obvious what the band is about to deliver in terms of their own music. Their sound is heavy on the blues, and like their name suggests, dirty around the edges. I'm not sure if they thought lacking studio polish would make them sound more authentic, but there are definite drawbacks to that approach.

The first thing I took note of when listening to "Heavy Living" is that it simply doesn't sound good. It's engineered just fine, but the guitar tone is too fuzzy, to the point where you can't hear the attack on the strings. From the days of BB King's stabbing solos right through to today, real power in guitar playing comes from being clean enough that the way you play comes through. When you can hear the player wailing the notes with the passion of his playing, that's when guitar playing is at its best. Dirty Thrills has a guitar sound that has none of that. Like the picture on the cover of the album, it sounds like what a group of people sitting around half drunk would think sounds awesome, because they're too impaired to know any better.

But the worst thing about Dirty Thrills' music is that there isn't much to it. They write songs that seem to imply a few blues scales and a singer who can sing loud are all rock and roll need. That isn't true in the slightest. For being soaked in the blues, Dirty Thrills bring no emotional weight to these songs. There's no heartache, no desperation, nothing that makes you believe these songs are expressions of who these guys are and what they've been through. It sounds like music written to feel like the blues, which is an insult to what the blues ever was.

Are there redeeming features to Dirty Thrills? I'm sure there are, but when the big concepts are so flawed, the details almost don't matter. A clever lyric somewhere, or a drum fill that catches your attention, aren't enough to outweigh the fact that the record as a whole is a bland, sterile attempt to copy a sound that should mean something deep. "Heavy Living" shows no evidence any of the band members have done that very thing, and that's the worst thing about it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Album Review: Wayward Sons - Ghosts Of Yet To Come

The world is a small place, getting smaller all the time. It's difficult to find any space that hasn't already been filled, occupied, or mined. Even in the world of music, practically everything that can be done has been done, which leaves a lot of newer bands in the unfortunate position of having to find a way to carve out their own identity from a quarry already hollowed out. Wayward Sons are in that unenviable position. They play the kind of rock and roll that many bands have tried to resurrect, but they do it with a name that is all too close to Rival Sons, who are one of the bigger names in that very area. Is the potential for confusion intentional? I have no idea, but it is a bit distracting, I will admit.

"Alive" kicks off the record, and does so with an even more direct comparison; Black Country Communion. The bluesy riff has the same swagger as that band, but it's the vocals where the similarity is unavoidable. Toby Jepsen sounds remarkably like Glenn Hughes, which is something that can be a blessing or a curse. Glenn has one of the most recognizable voices out there, so sounding like him is good. But sounding so much like someone else could also lead people to ask "why don't I just listen to Glenn instead?"

"Until The End" is a great song, with an arpeggiated riff that is just different enough to stand out, and the hook of the song fits right in the classic rock mold, but hits you with a bit of a punch. That's the kind of song that can help a band like this stand out, and not "Ghost", which is ok, but sounds far too much like a Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders outtake. So much classic rock has been written, and the looming influences are so strong, that it's often difficult to avoid sounding like the legends.

The record is a bit of a half and half proposition. There are tracks that are excellent classic sounding rock, which in a weak year for vintage sounding music are some of the better efforts I've heard. But the other half of the record isn't as well written, and goes through the motions too much for the record as a whole to be sterling. "Crush" is one of those examples, a song that doesn't have a sharp enough riff, and really never builds to a chorus at all. I expect more from this kind of music, even if it would have been fine in 1977.

Overall, "Ghosts Of Yet To Come" is a solid record that could, and probably should, be far better. Classic rock can be tricky to get right, and Wayward Sons show they can do it, but they don't come through often enough for me to say this album is something you need to hear. It's good enough, but that's about it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Singles Roundup: Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, & More

The new music keeps coming, and I can only cover so many albums at a time, so let's take a look at a few more recent tracks.

Taylor Swift - ...Are You Ready

The first song released from Taylor's new album was awful, and this one is just slightly less awful. Turning to pop was one thing, but now Taylor has gone fully into the dark world of trap percussion, which renders her meaningless to her own music. There is no space for her to actually sing, so she wades through the mist of this 'song' looking for something to do. It might be catchy like a sickening virus, but it's certainly not good.

Kelly Clarkson - Love So Soft

Kelly Clarkson is perhaps my favorite pop performer. Her voice is fantastic, and "Breakaway" is a flawless pop album that is one of my all time favorites. It's always nice to see her return, but this time I can't say I'm excited. This song, like Taylor before her, goes so far into the modern 'percussion and nothing else' approach that what made her earlier music great is missing. She sounds great, as you would expect, but there isn't a melody to anchor the song. The hook is a repetitive mantra, and not up to par.

Europe - Walk The Earth

These guys were a huge surprise to me with their last album, which was amazing. The first single from their follow-up is now out, and it's once again pretty good. They have matured into a full-on Deep Purple styled band, with huge organs and organic guitar tones. I absolutely love that sound, even if this composition isn't quite as strong as the better songs from the last record. This is still good, and bodes well for the album.

Sons Of Apollo - Sign Of The Times

Mike Portnoy's new progressive metal band is making grand proclamations, and this is the only song we have so far to judge them on. They talk bigger than they should, but their first effort is very good. It's a nice blend of modern and classic prog metal, with plenty of heaviness, melody, and instrumental prowess. It's the best platform Bumblefoot has ever had, and this song piqued my interest. I wasn't keen on the idea of the band when I heard about it, but I'm certainly going to check out the record now.

Skarlett Riot - Break

We finish off with the best of the bunch. I've already heard the entire album (a review is upcoming), but with the single just being released, we need to talk about them now. Skarlett Riot are able to toe the line between modern rock and heavy metal, with solid guitar riffs and great vocal melodies. Skarlett Riot fall into the same category that Forever Still did last year; heavy and catchy music that retains an energetic appeal through sing-along hooks. This is just the first taste of an album made up of ten songs of this quality.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Album Review: Hell In The Club - See You On The Dark Side

I'm not quite sure why the 80s have been getting recycled so much lately, but it seems that every week there's another record coming out claiming influence from that decade. Let's be honest, while there were some classic records that came out back then, it was also a time when rock and metal were finding themselves, and the albums we remember are as much because they were first as because they were good. Songwriting has evolved greatly since then, to the point where albums that successfully rehash the 80s sound *cough*Jorn*cough* simply aren't good enough. That's why when Hell In The Club says they are at least trying to fuse together everything that came from that decade, rather than just one sound, it gives me some hope.

The best thing Hell In The Club has going for them is that they want to have fun. If there's a single thing about the 80s that's worth copying, it's that feeling. Whether it was the Sunset Strip or the world stage, rock and metal bands were partying and having a good time as they set the world on fire. Today, everything is far too dour and miserable, so good time rock and roll is more than welcome.

The opening track, "We Are On Fire", is all that and more. It's got enough heaviness in the riffs, but the energy is infectious. It moves along with a bouncing rhythm, and then the chorus is a stack of gang vocals that are right out of the glory days. In less than three minutes, the band has given us good riffs and a great hook, which is all you need to succeed.

The first three tracks show that off, each a different take on their melodic hard rock, but each packing a memorable hook. There's the short and sweet blitz, the more relaxed hard rock, and an acoustic backdrop to a slightly country feeling. Those little bits of diversity go a long way, even on a record that isn't that long. "I Wanna Swing Like Peter Parker" and "Houston We've Got No Money" lack that, and they do slow down the record's momentum.

"A Melody, A Memory" picks things back up, with not just a sweet hook, but a section in the middle with overlapping counterpoint melodies, which certainly makes the song stand out in the midst of the album. Considering that I hate Def Leppard, I'm not too hot on "Showtime", which is the most Leppard-esque song on the album. I know they were huge, and influenced a lot of bands, but they annoy the hell out of me, and hearing tinges of them in a song is sure to kill it for me.

But overall, Hell In The Club has made a record that zips along with a sense of fun that is a nice change of pace from much of the music I have the opportunity to hear. It's not quite at the level of label-mates Eclipse or Harem Scarem, who both released excellent albums this year, but "See You On The Dark Side" is an enjoyable album that more than holds its own.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Double Review: Arch Enemy - Will To Power

It’s almost like clockwork. In a total of twenty-one years of existence, Arch Enemy has released ten studio albums, never more than four years apart. Right on schedule three years following the release of “War Eternal,” Alissa White-Gluz’s debut with the Swedish death metal veterans, we are given another effort to indulge in, this time entitled “Will to Power.”
What remains perhaps most remarkable in the history of Arch Enemy is the continuity in the band’s membership. Yes, a few people have come and gone, but even those who leave (Angela Gossow, Christopher Arnott,) never seem all that far out of reach, and the pieces that get added (White-Gluz,) don’t require the band to change their paradigm.

Arch Enemy as a single, contiguous entity is probably best identified by their signature tandem guitar sound, and in the wake of Christopher Arnott’s departure in 2012, the selection of ‘the right person’ seemed of paramount importance. For a time, that guy was Nick Cordle, at that point moving over from the band Arsis, and all seemed well, until he suddenly left the stage in 2014.

Into that void steps what appears on face to be another perfect fit, former Nevermore axman and solo virtuoso Jeff Loomis. Thus, the stage is set for “Will to Power.”

As far as the fit with Loomis goes, everything here seem to be in order and everyone can go about their business. The double six-string arrangement wastes no time, beginning to scream with righteous metal fury at the very start of “The Race,” which is the album’s first real track.

The same as “War Eternal” that came before, it’s difficult to tell where the album would have sounded different if the second Arnott brother were still in place. Loomis certainly brings his own accomplished pedigree to the table, but also comes armed with a thorough understanding of how this style of music works – as with the transition to White-Gluz, no material changes in style are necessary here. One can listen to “Murder Scene” and feel completely at home with the archetypical style that remains both idiomatic to Arch Enemy and highly enjoyable for its melodic composition.

That last bit is important to highlight. Arch Enemy has always performed on the melodic side of melodic death metal, but the band’s trend, beginning noticeably around the time of “Rise of the Tyrant” and through the re-recordings of “Root of All Evil,” toward open accessibility and cleaner tones is front and center for this album. Nearly every song boasts a clean, memorable hook, and there are selections where the vocals turn normal and the guitar riffs become deliberate, even if the percussion would suggest otherwise.
“Will to Power,” for those who need a quick and easy reference, is probably more “Khaos Legions” than it is “War Eternal,” and remains somewhat far afield from the band’s earliest records like “Burning Bridges.” And the upshot here is that that’s okay – while the very idea of pop death metal (if such a term even exists) remains anathema to some, it is truly uncharted territory, where one would think there might be room for growth and success.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let’s not get carried away. Arch Enemy still lives with their feet firmly planted in the terra firma of death metal, that oh-so-dangerous and sacrosanct institution that metal fans will hold close forever as part of their genre that norms and squares alike will never understand. Just don’t be shocked when you find yourself unconsciously tapping a toe, even to a song with the fervor and bile of “First Day in Hell.”

One may notice we’ve spoken about the record largely in generalities, and some of that has to do with the parallel between “Will to Power” and “Khaos Legions.” “Will to Power,” much like the other record in question, is an approachable album filled with many good songs, but there is not one transcendent that stands out among the others. We’re by no means complaining about an album of twelve songs where nine or ten are enjoyable, but what separates “War Eternal” from “Will to Power” is the presence of songs like “Avalanche,” which made that prior record a more memorable experience overall (never minding the band’s older albums that boasted classics like “Diva Satanica” and “Bury Me an Angel.”) It’s not for lack of trying – “Will to Power” delivers several cuts that brim with promise, but “Avalanche” was that rare alignment of planets that stands the test of time.

What we have then, is a capable record that will get any listener through the end of the summer season and well into the fall and winter, but its staying power in a catalog already adorned with many memorable moments is an open question. Nevertheless, “Will to Power” is worth the journey for any fans of Arch Enemy, Jeff Loomis and melodic death metal.

- D:M


Arch Enemy is one of those rare bands that has been able to move into new eras of their career more than once. The shift from Johan Liva to Angela Gossow was genre-defining, but the shift from her to Alissa White-Gluz has been just as important. Arch Enemy is arguable the biggest death metal band in the world, and a change in singers, no matter how similar they might be, carries enormous risk. As they approach their second album together, we see yet more turnover in the band, as the second guitarist position is now filled by former Nevermore fret-burner Jeff Loomis. There is now an unfair amount of talent in Arch Enemy, but does that mean great things for the band?

Yes and no. Let's start with the good news. Arch Enemy is the leading (only)purveyor of what I call 'arena death metal'. They have a sound, and they write songs, that are extreme metal sing-alongs, the kind of songs that can have an adoring crowd growling right with them. Their best songs are anthems that just happen to be dirty and aggressive. First single "The World Is Yours" is one of those songs. After all the heavy riffs and melodic leads, the crux of the song is an uplifting chorus that will absolutely be a live classic for the fans to interact with. Plenty of melodic metal bands try for that feeling and fail, so it's impressive to hear a band like this pull it off.

We get a solid number of those tracks here. "The Eagle Flies Alone" and closer "A Fight I Must Win" are in a similar style, and are as catchy as death metal can get. The latter is one of Arch Enemy's best ever songs. These are the tracks that even I, someone who isn't all that keen on death metal, can fully get behind. And while plenty of fans will probably cry sell-out over it, I'm also a fan of Alissa's use of clean vocals on "Reason To Believe", which aren't overdone, but work well to give the song some dynamics. Her growls in the chorus sound heavier because the verses are allowed to sound softer than usual. It works together as a great song.

Now for the not quite as great news. Arch Enemy has provided us those great tracks, and there is more than enough great guitar playing on this album, but there are also a handful of tracks that lack the epic flair of their best songs. That's not to say they're bad songs, but when you've written a few anthems, anything that isn't seems a bit flat in comparison.

And then there's the inclusion of Jeff Loomis. He's an amazing guitar player, but he's practically invisible on this album. Not only does Michael Amott write all the songs, but his solos are more identifiable than Loomis'. The album wouldn't have been any different, or any worse, if they had brought in anyone else to play second guitar.

But let's get to the bottom line. If you like Arch Enemy, "Will To Power" is one of their more interesting outings. The band throws in little touches that expand their sound in new directions, especially in some of the segue pieces. Alissa is fitting in perfectly as a vocalist, and there aren't many bands that can match Arch Enemy when they're at their best. They haven't managed to do that for an entire album yet, but they do it often enough that "Will To Power" is definitely worth hearing.

- Chris C

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Taylor Swift's Real Problem

The world of pop culture has been going crazy for the last week over Taylor Swift's big comeback. Both the song and the accompanying video have broken the internet with reactions, almost universally bad. Taylor Swift has undergone a heel turn, it seems, and is now pop's most hated villain. While Adele is breaking sales records, and Rihanna is racking up #1s despite not being very good, and Beyonce is the cultural zeitgeist, poor Taylor is left to wonder what her place in the pop world is. That last bit is where the real problem lies.

Taylor Swift's problem is not that she has a phony image. That criticism has been with her the whole time, and it didn't stop her from amassing huge sales and a legion of loyal fans. She was obviously playing up her innocence, but she did it in a way that empowered young girls, which was commendable in a time when plenty of other pop stars were busy twerking rather than singing. Plenty of stars have been phony, and as long as the music still works, they have been able to make out just fine. No, that's not her problem.

Taylor Swift's problem is not that her new song is awful. Don't get me wrong, it most certainly is, but that can be survived. "Shake It Off" was barely a mediocre song, but Taylor's machine was able to turn it into an anthem that launched the biggest phase of her career yet. And in a time when the charts are so starved for a single decent song that Justin Beiber is the key to racking up huge hits, Taylor doesn't need good music to thrive. The people she reportedly is feuding with aren't good either, so playing down to their level would not preclude Taylor from having success. "Look What You Made Me Do" is horrible, but it's not worse than anything Fifth Harmony have ever put out. No, that's not her problem either.

Taylor Swift's problem is that she has become what she was always fighting not to be; a boilerplate pop star.

The appeal of Taylor Swift was always that she was a (nominally) country artist who could cross-over to the pop world and garner attention in a way that no one else has been able to for quite a long time. "1989" was the first step in changing her persona, but it was one that was done with enough care that she could make the transition without alienating people on either side. It was an unabashedly pop album, but she was the same person she had always been, so we could accept that she wanted to try some new things.

With this first foray from her new album, that Taylor is now gone. She admits as much in the lyrics, but she misses the symbolism of her statement. Not only is the naive and innocent Taylor gone from her music, the Taylor that had the benefit of the doubt from the public is gone now too. Pop stars are given no leash anymore. If they don't produce hit after hit without so much as a hiccup, they get tossed aside. By putting out just this one flop, Taylor will be pushing a boulder uphill.

The bad girl schtick is also the height of cliche. Every young woman in pop goes through something like this at one point or another. Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus basically went insane, Christina Aguilera went through a provocative phase that came across as cheap, so Taylor's portrayal of herself as a villain is right in line with what we should have been expecting. This new image is supposed to catch us by surprise and give us a new perspective on her as both a person and an artist.

It doesn't. Taylor Swift is still the carefully constructed public figure she has always been. If we were getting anything from her that felt remotely authentic, maybe this would all work out. But it's hard to listen to her work her way through a song like she's trying and not know she's playing a part. That's the problem. Yes, pop stars have always been actors, in a sense, but they were better at making the role seem convincing. Taylor can't do that yet. She's the heel who doesn't understand that a heel has to be justified in why they've turned to the dark side.

Taylor Swift turned to give her new record a story-line. That's not a good reason, and it isn't going to work.