Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Album Review: The Dark Element - The Dark Element

Talent is not enough to make it in the music business. Sometimes, you have the wrong album at the wrong time, or you find yourself in a position where fans are wanting something different. That's been the story for Anette olzon through her career. She made her first impact with Alyson Avenue, releasing the AOR classic "Presence Of Mind" (one of my all-time favorites). She and the band couldn't sustain the spark and success of that record, but years later she found herself in Nightwish. Her performances on record were fantastic, but the fans couldn't grow to accept anyone who wasn't in a particular mold, so that didn't work out either. After a solo album that showed she was still a hell of a singer, we now have The Dark Element, trying to return her to glory.

Teaming Olzon with guitarist Jani Liimatainen of Sonata Arctica and Cain's Offering fame provides more than enough talent for The Dark Element to be something special.

Those expectations weren't diminished by the pre-release singles, which showcased a modern and heavy blend of symphonic and power metal, full of heavy riffs and rich melodies. Tracks like "My Sweet Mystery" pack powerful hooks that are immediately memorable, and go down like warm cider on a cold autumn evening. The songs also find the right balance where they have symphonic elements that give enough depth and color to the compositions, but they don't go so far down the rabbit hole of orchestration that the songs themselves get lost in the compositional bravado.

A big part of the package is Anette herself. There are plenty of women in this genre, but none sound quite like her. While there are many who have classical training, and try to sound angelic that way, Anette's sharper vocals are not only more befitting a metal band, but they give The Dark Element a face in an increasingly faceless crowd. I have long been a fan of her voice, and she hasn't lost a step since Alyson Avenue's heyday. She sounds fantastic on these songs, plain and simple.

We get a nice diversity of songs on the album. The title track leads things off with the most densely symphonic approach of them all, while "Someone You Used To Know" is a soothing yet dramatic ballad that shows off the clarity of Anette's voice, and "Here's To You" pulses with a boundless and contagious energy. That track in particular hits on everything that is right with The Dark Element. It's the same case with "Halo", which is a flawless track that should become a staple, it's that good.

I was trying to avoid making the direct comparisons here, but let's go ahead and say it anyway; "The Dark Element" is both better and more enjoyable than any of the recent albums by Nightwish or Sonata Arctica. While they have gone searching for new artistic avenues, The Dark Element is made up of two people who are happy to be making the kind of music they're good at making. There isn't any longing to be taken seriously as something more than a metal band making a metal album, nor any shame in doing something fully inside-the-box.

In that sense, The Dark Element is a replacement for the memories of those bands, filling the void they left when they were tired of being who they were. That works out for everyone, since I can easily ignore them, and instead give my attention here. Hopefully, this album will remind everyone what they've been missing in Anette Olzon. I have no reservations about saying The Dark Element is going to end the year as one of my absolute favorite albums.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Quick Takes: Weezer & Kelly Clarkson

This week marked the release of albums by two artists that have burned bright, and burned out. Both Weezer and Kelly Clarkson are artists who at one time were held in my highest esteem, only to see that status tumble downward as the music they released moved further and further from my my taste. Listening to their newer efforts is a tough task, considering the happiness they have both brought me in the past. That is why I didn't want to spend the time writing full reviews for either of these records. I fear that doing so would only encourage me to write things that are more harsh than they need to be. But I still have something to say about them, so let's do this the quick 'n easy way.

Weezer - Pacific Daydream
To put things bluntly, with the exception of half of "Everything Will Be Alright In The End", everything Weezer has done since "Make Believe" has been like intentionally causing your legacy to rust, because you think it looks 'tough'. Despite being a father in his 40s, Rivers Cuomo has never been less emotionally mature. Yes, when he wrote nonsense songs about how "cheese smells so good on a burnt piece of lamb", he was still better off than he is now. This album continues Weezer's bland mediocrity, where they're happy to be the nerd/emo scene's Jimmy Buffet, putting out fluffy music that encourages people to sit back and pretend surfing and a beer is an adult way of fixing life's problems.

In fact, the only real positive I can take away from this album is the recycling of the lost demo track "Burning Sun". That melody shows up here, but the song adds in new pieces that ruin what was once a great "Green Album" era track. Even when Weezer starts with a leg up now, they trip and fall on their face. No, this is nowhere near as bad as "Raditude", but let's not applaud getting off the bottom of the barrel. This is completely useless music, and I find myself wishing Weezer would take another hiatus, even if it's only for my sake.

Kelly Clarkson - Meaning Of Life
In the world of pop, the last artist I was able to got thoroughly behind was Kelly Clarkson. "Breakaway" remains one of the greatest pop albums ever assembled, and even if the albums that followed were hit and miss, her string of singles was nearly perfect. I could hear her moving in new directions, but there was a core sound to her music that allowed for those detours without falling apart. Unfortunately, we've hit that point where the core has rotted away.

The problem is that Kelly Clarkson started out as a spunky, rocking pop star. Her records were energetic, empowering, and loaded up with enough guitars that a rock fan didn't need to feel ashamed of liking her. Today, he voice is still the powerful weapon it always was, but her songs have shifted into a hybrid of modern electro-pop and old-fashioned soul. Gone are the powerful anthems, replaced instead with slinky backdrops that treat guitars like lepers, and relying on vocal power in place of writing solid melodies.

Artists need to evolve as they go along, but to make such a hard shift in direction is a tough task. Soul has often been more about the singer than the song, and I get that feeling from this music. Her voice is titanic, but she needs strong hooks to showcase her formidable talents, which is not something this variation of soul provides. These songs are built as a showcase for her vocals, but there isn't much appeal in just listening to a voice that isn't singing something interesting. She is fantastic, but these songs aren't. They also feel out of place, as I don't know who was calling out for her to move in this direction. It seems to me like Kelly is making a record for an audience that isn't hers, instead of focusing on the one that is.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Album Review: Serenity - Lionheart

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to listen and talk about several Serenity albums. They were a band that caught my attention when I first heard "Fallen Sanctuary", with several songs that were absolutely killer power metal of the symphonic variety. But since then, they have sputtered along as they added and dropped a female singer, and became a band that focused their music on concepts and history. It's a gimmick that hasn't worked out for them, to my ears, because what has gotten lost in the scope of the music are the fantastic moments and hooks that made them great to begin with.

"Lionheart", as the title suggests, dips into British history this time, to tell the story of Richard the Lionheart. If I'm being honest, the British monarchy might be among the very least appealing subjects for an American listener such as myself, what with us fighting a war to never have to think about the 'royals' again, which puts the record in a tough spot. But there is always the chance the music can overcome that handicap.

Things get off to a good start with "United", one of the tracks previewed before the album's release. We get a nice balance of metal and orchestral elements, and the melody in the chorus is restrained and classy. It's the kind of highly professional power metal that you would expect a veteran band like Serenity to be able to make without fail. It doesn't have the spark of their very best material, but it's rock solid and an entire album of such songs would be an easy recommendation.

Unfortunately, I don't feel the album is able to achieve that. Starting with the very next track, the title cut, the hooks don't sharpen their teeth at all. The songs are able to go by without engaging the parts of your brain and heart that want to sing along, which is what great power metal is supposed to do. There are certainly tracks here that do that, but not enough of them. That said, none of these tracks are anything less than solid, given Serenity's track record.

The biggest problem I have with the album isn't even that, though. It's the fact that they are dealing, lyrically, with the heroism and death of a king, but the music itself rarely conveys any of that. It sounds just like every other Serenity album, which does a disservice to the story. There needs to be more diversity to the pacing and tone of the music itself, to make it clear where Richard is in the course of his life. Instead, Serenity gives us traditional Serenity again and again, which is good, but not for the particular task they are trying to achieve here.

So where do I come down on "Lionheart"? It's the same case as the previous several Serenity albums. They make solid power metal, but they aim so high with their historical concepts that I don't feel they ever live up to their own expectations. By telling me this is more than just a collection of songs, it sets my sights higher than they otherwise would be. If this was just a power metal album, I would say it's certainly good enough to give a sampling to. But as a bigger conceptual work, I wanted something a bit more. "Lionheart" is good, as Serenity usually is, but I'm still waiting for them to become great. This isn't quite there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Album Review - Communic - Where Echoes Gather

Every so often, a band comes around that makes you stop in your tracks and realize "this is what I've been wanting without even knowing it." While Nevermore was busy making a name for themselves, I wasn't interested, which is why it was so surprising to me that Communic bowled me over with "Waves Of Visual Decay". That album was such a skillful blend of progressive and thrash metal, with baritone vocals and catchy melodies, that it took the sound Nevermore was making famous, and made it better, at least for me. Since then, however, even Communic hasn't been able to recapture that moment in time, releasing nothing since that has come close to that apex.

This time around, Communic is bringing us all the usual elements of their sound, but wrapped up in a new package. This is their most progressive album yet, with three tracks so sprawling they are presented in multiple parts. Communic's ability to stretch their songs into those seven-to-nine minute lengths is what has separated them from other bands of this style, as they did it with such ease that it never felt gimmicky.

That's a bit less the case here. Take the opening "Pulse Of The Earth" set. The first of the two tracks bobs and weaves through myriad ideas, stopping and starting on a dime. There isn't always an obvious logic to the how or why the riffs and tempo changes, but just when you think the song is going to end without delivering, the end finds one of those beautiful melodies rise up. It's just unfortunate that it only appears once at the end of each part of the song. There is certainly the basis of a great Communic track in these two, but the focus isn't tight enough on the songwriting to bring it all together.

Listening to the title track, it almost takes me back to the first time I heard "Waves Of Visual Decay". It's true not much has changed in the Communic sound, but there are, pardon the pun, echoes of that album that arise more than I've heard on the preceding albums. That feeling comes up in the three individual tracks as well. "Moondance" has the same sense of foreboding doom, while "Where History Lives" is the hookiest song on the album.

That being said, there is something about Communic's songwriting that binds every song together more than they should. The sonic palate is not very diverse, and the melodies share enough of their cadences that the songs blend into one another on the record, and from album to album. The only real difference between this and any other Communic record is the inclusion of a few more prog riffs in the instrumental breaks. You could drop any of these songs onto any Communic album without sounding out of place. That's great for fans of the band, but it doesn't make a strong case for this particular album if there isn't anything unique to be said about it.

At the end of the day, Communic is going to sound like Communic, and that's a good thing."Where Echoes Gather" is easily their best effort since "Waves Of Visual Decay", and it gets better both as it goes along, and the more you go back to it. The initial impression you get from the onset isn't what you will leave with. In time, the years Communic spent between records was put to good use, as this is a definite step up from where they were the last time I heard them. Making melancholy metal isn't easy, and Communic is one of the bands that has shown the ability to do it well. "Where Echoes Gather" is their best effort in several records, and is a satisfying return to form.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Album Review: Metalite - Heroes In Time

Debut albums are tricky, especially in genres that are now known for their musical innovation. When it comes to melodic metal, a debut album is crucial, because it might be the only time a band ever gets to capture your attention. Knowing that these sorts of bands don't make huge changes to their sound over the years, everything comes down to whether or not they can deliver memorable songs on a consistent basis. If we don't hear that right away, it's easy to put that band aside and forget about them when their next effort comes along. Bands don't get much of an opportunity to grow into themselves, since there is too much music to go back and give second chances to those who didn't make an impact the first time.

Metalite is a new melodic metal band that ventures into these waters, putting their debut on the line for us to listen. I'm not a fan of metal bands that throw the word 'metal' into their name or album titles, since it seems like a cheap way of sounding tough/heavy, but I don't hold that against the music.

The album kicks off with the first single released, "Afterlife", which gets things started with tremendous promise. The riffs are a blend of power metal with some minor hints of thrash in the flourishes, while vocalist Emma Bensing layers her voice to make for a hypnotic chorus. I'm not sure if her voice is naturally echoing from a tight performance, or if there's an effect being put on her vocals, but it makes for a rather unique sound that definitely makes you pay attention.

Let's get the sticking point out of the way. If you hate pop music, especially metal that has pop overtones, you won't like what Metalite is doing here. The music is bright, cheery, and Emma's vocal lines bounce like good pop music is supposed to. This music wouldn't be wrongly described as metallic bubblegum.... but that's exactly why I like it. Too often we get bands that call themselves 'melodic metal', when all they really mean by that is they have a clean singer who can hold notes for a long time. Metalite is actually writing melodic metal that has big, hooky melodies. That shouldn't need to be said, but it is.

So if you're someone like me who has listened to bands like Delain and the like over the years, always wondering why they couldn't consistently deliver songs that matched the voices singing them, Metalite is going to be right up your alley. With the sugary hooks and the ample 80s synths, the music might be a bit too cloying for some, but it does exactly what its aim is.

If you like melodic metal with a heavy dose of melody, "Heroes In Time" will be your jam. Song after song, this album delivers on its goal of being modern metal with more hooks than a backwoods bait shop. If what I said is true, and a band may only get one shot at being heard by their potential audience, Metalite has taken advantage of that opportunity. "Heroes In Time" is packed with great songs, great hooks, and great vocals. As far as melodic metal goes in 2017, you'll be hard-pressed to do any better than Metalite. Kudos are deserved.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Album Review: Europe - Walk The Earth

Here's a dirty secret about the glamorous world of music reviewing; the vast majority of the time we can write most of our opinion before ever hearing a record. The fact of the matter is that few albums truly surprise us. Most of them follow the established patterns that the bands have laid down over the years, just with differing degrees of success. So it was of note that Europe did truly surprise me with their last album, "War Of Kings". I was not expecting Europe to be a fire-breathing reinvention of Deep Purple, but that's what they were. Despite being known in a wider sense only for "The Final Countdown", their last album was both a shock and amazing. Now aware of their recent greatness, I was very much looking forward to hearing what comes next, which is where we are now.

The title track blares out of the speakers to open the album, picking up right where the last record left off, with crunchy guitars and roaring Hammond organs. I'm a bit of a sucker for those, but it's a sound that works so well in rock that it's amazing more bands don't follow suit. It's a muscular sound, but one that also has depth to it, which makes the songs more interesting than if there were simply two layers of guitars playing the same thing.

Europe continues to slay on "The Siege", which takes everything that was great about the title track, and dials is up even further. It's a weighty, heavy song that culminates in one of those great choruses that makes you want to stop your head-banging long enough to sing along. There's nothing complicated about it, but that's what makes it so good.

Over the course of these ten tracks, we get a healthy dose of high-quality hard rock. Europe are veterans, and that shows throughout the album, as song after song delivers the goods. Now, the question to ask is how this stacks up to "War Of Kings", since that album put Europe back on the map. It's a bit of a tough judgment to make, since although the sonics are the same, they are different albums. "War Of Kings" was a more laid-back and melodic album, while "Walk The Earth" is more in your face and aggressive. Which album is better might come down simply to which side of the rock equation you solve for.

What isn't up for debate is that Europe has followed up a very good record with another very good record. Myself, I find myself erring on the side of melody, so I would still say I prefer "War Of Kings" over this album, but that's splitting hairs. "Walk The Earth" is another great Europe album, and continues the momentum they established. If you haven't heard what Europe is up to these days, you need to. They're a more vital rock band than most half their age. "Walk The Earth" is good stuff indeed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Album Review: Vuur - In This Moment We Are Free

Certain voices are special, and people will follow wherever the singer goes. Anneke Van Giersbergen is one of those singers, someone who has sang with and for myriad bands over the years, and nearly every time she is a highlight of the proceedings. For the worlds of rock and metal, there really isn't anyone else that sounds like her, with a purity of tone that separates her from the crowded field of women fronting bands. The downside to her is that, at least in my eyes, she hasn't made a lot of music that stands up to the quality of her talent. Whether it isn't my style, or something otherwise hard to pinpoint, there isn't much in her career that I can go back to often.

Vuur is her promising new band that sees Anneke in her most metallic element. She trades in the melancholy of the Gathering, the grandeur of Ayreon, and the heft of Devin Townsend, for a sound that is deep and heavy modern metal. The contrast between the low tunings and Anneke's soaring voice is about as stark as you can get, which certainly does give Vuur something unique to hang their hat on.

You get a good sense of what Vuur is about from the opening "My Champion". The initial riffs are heavy as all get-out, with pounding drums and a foreboding atmosphere. When the chorus comes, the chords open up, and Anneke is able to soar over the top of the music with her power and clarity. She's singing a melody that many of the bands with classical singers would write, but Anneke's tone isn't as traditional, which makes it all the more appealing.

Vuur reminds me very much of a band called Stork, who started out as an instrumental prog metal band before adding a female vocalist to try to balance out the intense heaviness of their music. Vuur's tones are similar, but work as an example of how the same sound can take on such different forms in different hands. Stork never really came together, but Vuur does.

The one thing about Vuur, however, is that their music is not what we would call sprightly. It doesn't need to be, but starting with the more restrained tempos, when the band slows down even further, it can get to be a bit much. "Time" is one of those tracks, which veers a bit too close to doom to work with Anneke's voice. That's a minority of the album. Vuur spends most of the time sitting in a comfortable pace, where Anneke has enough room to weave her voice over the riffs to create something engaging. Songs like "The Martyr And The Saint" and "The Fire" build up to powerful crescendos.

I will say this, however; "In This Moment We Are Free" might be a tough album to get through all at once. It's fairly lengthy, and the pacing of the songs doesn't help it to feel any shorter. The quality is there, but it is a lot to take in.

That being the case, I want to make it clear that Vuur's debut album is indeed plenty good. It's a strong showcase for Anneke, and it has some fantastic moments of dramatic metal. If you've ever likes Anneke's voice, it's certainly something to hear.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Album Review: Power Quest - Sixth Dimension

I've talked about it before, but power metal is in a weird place right now. The boom from the earlier part of the millennium is now gone, and many of the bigger names in the genre have evolved into something that isn't quite power metal anymore. Couple that with many of the newer bands being a heavier strain that isn't quite what we remember, and the traditional sound isn't out there as much as it once was, and isn't being done as well either. By simply being traditional, a band like Power Quest is actually being different, which is an odd conundrum, if I've ever heard one.

The opening "Lords Of Tomorrow" does throw a curveball or two our way. It's as power metal as power metal can be, but the way the riffs speed up to Dragonforce levels for a flash of a few seconds, only to die back into the normal rhythm, is something that I don't know I've heard much of. It does give the song some ebb and flow, which can be difficult when double-bass drums carry the majority of every song.

That song gets things off to a cracking start, but it's not long after that we start to get into the problem that has pushed me further and further away from the genre that really got me into metal. Power metal has a formula, and when a band adheres so closely to it all the time, the music becomes rather stale. The thing about power metal in particular is that the music is carried often by the speed and rhythm alone, which means there aren't many memorable riffs to be found. In that case, if the vocals don't deliver the sharp hooks, there isn't anything else to save the songs.

That's sort of where we find ourselves here. Everything on the album is well-executed, but it's so by the book that it's tedious to listen to, since I have a pretty darn good idea what's coming before we get there. The actual musical ideas, both in the guitars and vocals, aren't good enough to overcome the predictability we get again and again. As far as power metal goes, sure, it's not bad. I haven't heard a lot of traditional power metal that's been released recently, but Power Quest isn't far off the mark of the good stuff. The problem is that missing the mark at all, when perfection is still directly competing with the entire history of the genre, means each mistake is magnified.

"Sixth Dimension" isn't bad at all, but it's not exciting or memorable. It's power metal in the power metal mold, which is great for serious power metal fans. For everyone else, it's an album that will confirm whatever it is you already think about power metal.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Album Review: Bigfoot - Bigfoot

This has been an odd year for music. Along the way, there have been more truly awful records than I can ever remember, and the good stuff has been evenly distributed among the various genres and sub-genres that I listen to. The one thing that has been lacking is a good ol' fashioned hard rock record. There have been great melodic rock records, but the meat-and-potatoes stuff has been lacking. It's not entirely surprising that there aren't a load of players right now who are masters of the riff, but it does leave a hole for a band like Bigfoot, who are that kind of no frills rock band.

The thing about lacking bells and whistles is that it puts even more emphasis on the elements that are there, which can expose a band's shortcomings. Let's take the first two songs from this record as an example. "Karma" is a deliberate rock song that lacks personality, with vocals that are trying to sing more powerfully than Anthony Ellis is capable of. It's rather bland, and rather mediocre. But then there's "The Fear", which has a far more melodic hook that is very good, but the song spends large portions of the verses with weak sounding guitars and absolutely no drumming. There's nothing pushing the song forward, which makes the whole package seem half-cocked.

After that give and take, the album settles into a groove when the band dips their toe a bit harder into Southern rock. That decision sets them up for better results, as a bluesier and grittier take is where they sound most comfortable. The string of songs from "Forever Alone" to "Prisoner Of War" find the band hitting their stride, and it's a convincing enough group of tracks. If they had delivered an entire album in that mold, it would be something truly interesting.

However, Bigfoot hasn't quite figured out who they are as a band. At times, they're a Southern rock powerhouse, while at other times they try to be a 70's style melodic rock band. It's not just that they're obviously better at one sound than the other, it's that the two don't allow for the album to sound cohesive. There's a big difference between the shorter and longer tracks, both in style and substance, and that's exactly the sort of thing that kills an album.

If Bigfoot had delivered an entire album of their better side, I would be telling you to go check it out. However, they didn't do that, and while half of the album is solid old-school Southern hard rock, there's too much material here that doesn't have that same impact or quality. Look, Bigfoot definitely has the potential to be very good at a particular style. They don't stick with it quite enough on this album, but they do offer up hope that in the future they will deliver on that promise. As it is, this record is a decent starting point.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Album Review: Sorcerer - The Crowning Of The Fire King

Here's the thing about doom metal; unless it's in the hands of experts, it's far too easy for the music to get bogged down in slow tempos that don't allow for any kind of musical development. I've heard more bad doom that is just one slow riff after another, with a singer copying Ozzy's lazy, 'repeat the riff with the vocals' style for a lifetime. So when something comes along that does doom the way it's supposed to, I have to thank the metal gods. There was a time when Candlemass did that, but their fake retirement has led to anger upon my part, and bad music on theirs.

That's where Sorcerer comes in. They have picked up the slack, and are showing the rest of the world that doom can be dark and heavy, sure, but also beautiful and melodic. If you want to use the description 'epic doom', it wouldn't be wrong. This music is big, burly, and gorgeous as well. Trying to pull that off is not an easy feat, and Sorcerer has done it with aplomb on this album.

I never heard any of Sorcerer's previous material, but I can't imagine being able to do doom any better than this. Everything about "The Crowning Of The Fire King" is nearly flawless, from the deeply emotional vocals, to guitar solos that serve as additional melodies, to riffs that find the perfect balance between heaviness, groove, and melody. There are lengthy tracks, but everything in the songs is essential, so they never feel their length. Much of doom metal can drag along on one or two repeated riffs, but these are real compositions that ebb and flow, build and deconstruct, until they reach a conclusion that makes sense.

The comparison that comes to mind is While Heaven Wept's "Vast Oceans Lachrymose". That's the only other doom album I can ever recall hearing that had as much attention paid to the details as the crux. That album stunned me at the time with the depth of the layered music setting a beautiful stage for the songs. The problem was the album only had three songs that lived up to atmosphere. Sorcerer is able to achieve a similar feeling, but carry it through with a full album of great songs.

I don't need to break this down track by track, because this is an album that is a cohesive whole, where every song is as good as the one before and after it. "The Crowning Of The Fire King" could just as easily be the crowning of the doom kings, because after this effort, I can't think of a finer doom band working today.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Album Review: Nachtblut - "Apostasie"

When you have music conversations with your friends, and you’re trying to get them to listen to a new band that you like and they’ve never heard of, you inevitably make comparisons, trying to find an analog to a touchstone that they’ll already know.  That analog can touch on multiple points, be it a familiar aspect of the band’s sound, style, appearance or genre. 

Some of them are easy.  Graveyard sounds like Led Zeppelin.  Midnight Ghost Train is similar to Clutch.  Turisas sounds like Andrew Lloyd Weber has an angry, metal-obsessed son.

Then comes Nachtblut.  It’s taken a while to come up with a proper analogy, but here it is – Nachtblut, and their new album “Apostasie,” lies halfway between Rammstein and Finntroll…both in musical sensibility, and in general silliness.

Before rumors start to swirl, let’s put this in its proper context.  That is a compliment.  Pure and simple.  In a year when it seems like the calendar is overly saturated with bands coming back out of the woodwork after multiple decade hiatuses, here’s a German band virtually unknown to American audiences that are putting fresh, personalized spins on sounds we thought we knew.

Addressing the other elephant in the room, as far as the silliness goes, maybe we’re reading this wrong and “Apostasie” is supposed to be as serious as a heart attack, but that seems unlikely.  If the Upstate New York public education system’s German curriculum is worth anything, some of these song titles translate to “Your Death is my Hooker,” and “Women De-boning,” so it’s hard to envision that the tongue isn’t firmly buried in the cheek here.

To top it off, if you skip to the end, there’s a truly excellent and highly enjoyable cover of the German rapper Kollegah’s hit “Wat is’ denn los mit dir,” which caps the album perfectly.  It’s a fantastic change of pace with some really bright keyboard work that stays within the envelope of Nachtblut while still showing an ability for musical interpretation.

Anyway, the meat of the album is an adrenaline-fueled, riff-heavy ride that will find a niche with fans across the spectrum of metal, as evidenced by the bands cited at the head of this thing.  There’s a lot of great design elements here in the construction, even if you can’t understand the German lyrics.  “Amok” rumbles with purpose and direction, but is flanked on either side by some clear piano and punctuated by a clean-toned guitar solo in the song’s second half.  The juxtaposition of the clean tones with the over-driven, screaming punch of the song’s basic riff creates a dichotomy that is simple, but adds a lot of depth.

As ever in this kind of effort, the keyboards can make or break an album by either accenting it or driving it over the cliff into contrivance.  Nachtblut employs the alarmingly bright tones of keyboardist Lymania’s harmonies to create real depth and help move the songs along.  “Scheinfromm” by itself is a powerhouse, but the electronic elements turn it into a more memorable, and thus more effective, song.

Not to be outdone, Nachtblut also gives us “Geboren um zu leben,” which for all its metal underpinnings, can safely be recognized as crossing the border into industrial, with its mechanized beats and heavy electronic influence.  The breakdowns and bridges are deceptively danceable, showing just another facet of what “Apostasie” brings to the table.

Listen, we’ve now spent three paragraphs distinguishing what some might call minor differences in affect or musical idiom, but being able to separate those pages and provide the listener with a handful of different styles while staying on message is what makes “Apostasie” so much more accomplished than many of its contemporaries.

A couple odd notes that have to be addressed.  If it were not for the soft piano section of “Frauenausbeiner,” an attentive listener may think that the song is a Germanized version of AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me.”  The basic riff, the structure, even the cadence is remarkably similar to that song from “Back in Black.” 

Also, the piano ballad “Einsam,” while executed well enough and highlighted by the emotive and earnest performance of guest vocalist Aeva Maurelle, feels a little out of place on the record, both because it’s sandwiched between a rousing arena-rock clone (as mentioned above,) and the beer-stein swinging celebration of the title track, and because as we’ve already talked about, there’s a question of seriousness amidst the bravado here.

Let’s not lose the forest for a couple of trees, though.  “Apostasie” is great.  One of the most purely enjoyable, catchy and consistently well-constructed albums of 2017.  It doesn’t require a lot of dissection to be able to understand what’s going on here; it’s a straight-ahead, rolling gothic metal record that knows how to be fun and punchy at the same time.  Especially as we hurtle inexorably toward year-end award season, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not spend some time with Nachtblut.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Album Review: Fozzy - Judas

When Fozzy first came about, I don't know anyone who would have said all these years later they would not only still be around, but they would be one of the better known rock/metal bands out there in the mainstream vain. The idea of a band fronted by Chris Jericho, backed by the guitarist from Stuck Mojo, who started out their time playing covers under the guise of a story that they were the rightful creators of metal's legacy, was absolutely insane. And yet Fozzy has proven people wrong, maturing into a band that has been making good records. Their acclaim is not without merit. We've now reached their seventh album, which arrives at the height of Fozzy's fame.

This was made evident with the title track, which not only leads off the album, but was the first single released. The video blew up online, racking up a massive amount of plays. It's the perfect embodiment of who Fozzy are. Ward provides simple guitars that establish a groove, and Jericho gives a melodic sheen to the chorus, which uses repetition to become annoyingly catchy. It's one of the better songs Fozzy has ever written.

What's always kept me from fully embracing Fozzy is their occasional forays out of their comfort zone. They have not always been the most consistent of bands, but to their credit, they have gotten better in that regard with each album. "Judas" sees them finally hitting their stride, where I can't say there's a lull when the album drags along for me. Ward and Jericho deliver across the board here, with the most solid set of songs Fozzy has yet committed to tape.

The opening run of songs sets the agenda clearly. "Judas", "Drinking With Jesus", and "Painless" are prime Fozzy cuts, balancing the band's modern and classic sides. There's a lot to like about what Fozzy is doing here, and clear that the band has been constantly evolving into a machine intent on becoming one of the bigger names in the modern rock/metal style. Their sound is thoroughly modern, once in a while to their own detriment. While I said there aren't prolonged lulls, there is "Three Days In Jail", which borrows a bit too much from modern schlock to really be good. The beginning to the song is good, but when it turns to rapping, it loses me. That's not what Fozzy is, and I don't understand why they would even think about adding in an element that is totally anathema to their identity. That's a huge mistake.

Otherwise, Fozzy has done well for themselves here. Not knowing exactly which bands to compare them to, I can't say they're on the top tier, but they are still evolving and improving. Fozzy has come a long way from when they started out, and they're becoming more focused with each passing album. "Judas" is their best album yet.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Album Review: Iris Divine - The Static And The Noise

Modern prog metal has gone in a direction I don't quite understand. With bands like Haken trying to recreate the worst of the 80s, and Leprous leading the way into rhythmic non-songwriting, so much of what constitutes the young generation of the genre is making music that is a chore to listen to. Gone are the days when prog metal bands showed off their skill and knowledge while in the context of real and good songs. Now it's all about being dark, and playing in odd time signatures, but with very little focus from the singers on connecting with the listeners. I find it sad, but few people seem to agree with me.

Iris Divine is a band that does, however. Their debut album was one that had plenty of intricate playing, and was certainly heavy, but it was all centered around great melodic songwriting. "Karma Sown" was one of the best prog release of that year, so I was excited to see them return with a new record that doesn't change up the winning formula.

Let's take the opening track, "Catalyst", for example. The song opens with a super heavy riff, then the drums start pounding out a pattern that isn't a straight 4/4 beat. Some unique chords ring in the background, and then the chorus comes in with a strong melodic focus. There's also a few technical riffs in the middle-eight, capping off a jam-packed five minutes of music. As you can see, there's a bit of everything thrown in, but it's done with skill. This isn't like some bands, where the various sections get glued together with no thought behind it. This is well-conceived, and logical. It's also very good.

One of the things I appreciate about Iris Divine's writing is that they use dynamics to their advantage. "Taking Back The Fall" starts out with a crushing riff, but the band doesn't feel the need to keep the song at that intensity throughout. Their let things pull back for a while, which is not only smart because that kind of heaviness gets tiring, but it lets those moments sound heavier by virtue of having a comparison to be made.

Another point to note is that this is a phenomenally produced record. While the sound is still modern and loud, the clarity and balance of the recording is great. The guitars have just the right amount of bite on them, the vocals come through clear, and the mix has everything sitting just right. And unlike a lot of metal, the bass is even easily audible. Plenty of bands on major labels can't match the pure sound of this album.

"The Static And The Noise" is a very fine modern prog metal album. While the genre's leaders are getting lost, Iris Divine is stepping right past them. I'll admit that I'm not as keen on the closing track, "We All Dissolve", because of the overuse of spoken word elements, but otherwise the album is as good as you can ask for from a young band like this. Iris Divine has made an album that is heavy, challenging, yet accessible. That's the perfect balance, and "The Static And The Noise" fits right in with "Karma Sown" as great examples of how to do it right.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Album Review: Sons Of Apollo - Psychotic Symphony

Over the last few years, Mike Portnoy has been a busy man, releasing albums with more projects than I can probably count. Some of them have been great (the first Winery Dogs album, Transatlantic's latest resurrection), some have been good, and a couple have definitely not been my thing. He has traversed everything from prog, to thrash, to pop, with plenty of rock thrown in between. The one thing he hadn't done is go back to the music that made him renowned. Sons Of Apollo is his first foray back into the world of progressive metal since he ventured out into his creative rumspringa, which means it's something to take note of. Having Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, Bumblefoot, and Jeff Scott Soto on board also means that this is a band that will get its share of attention, and should have the talent to back up their proclamations of greatness.

Like any prog band would, Sons Of Apollo open their album with an eleven minute mini-eipc, this one borrowing the themes and feelings of eastern music. What we get are heavy, low-tuned riffs, Portnoy pounding away at his drums like only he can, and plenty of melodic sensibility that is more derived from hard rock than normal progressive metal.

In fact, the label of progressive metal is where Sons Of Apollo might have done themselves a disservice. Yes, there are lengthy songs and plenty of intricate playing, but the focus of their music isn't intently on those aspects. There are plenty of occasions where its clear the band is just as inclined to be a modern heavy metal band, just with virtuoso players at every position. The singles "Coming Home" and "Signs Of The Time" gave us that indication before the album's release, and a couple of other tracks are in that same style. There's a clear bifurcation of the band's prog and melodic sides.

It's actually refreshing that Sons Of Apollo aren't committed to making progressive metal that needs to be progressive at all times. They have their moments where they stretch things out and showcase their skill, but there is a focus on writing more memorable songs than you often get from this kind of music. As far as prog metal goes, the band's guitar sound is heavier and more modern than the traditionalists, and Soto's voice matches the lower tones, which gives the entire album a heft that really works. They often find a groove and let that carry through large portions of the songs, a move I find both smart and effective.

The band is best summed up by "Alive". That song has the dark guitar tones, moments of softer reflection, and a killer hook. It's just the right blend of what Sons Of Apollo are, and it also makes clear what they aren't (which is a copy of what the members have done before).

In fact, my only real complaint with the album is the curious decision to finish with a ten minute instrumental. I'm not a fan of instrumental music to begin with, especially from a band that has a singer in the ranks, but to end the album with it doesn't make much sense to me. You want to end an album with a statement, and it's hard to see the message in finishing with a song that omits one member of the band for the entire running time. If I was the producer, I would have shortened the track, and switched it out with the similarly proggy "Labyrinth", but what do I know?

Other than that one nit I picked, I'm coming away from "Psychotic Symphony" rather pleased. There were worries that the band was going to try to compete too directly with Portnoy and Sherinian's past, but those turned out to be for naught. Sons Of Apollo are indeed an entity unto themselves, and whether they're strictly prog metal or not can be debated, but it doesn't matter. What it all comes down to is whether or not the music is good, and I can say that "Psychotic Symphony" is. In the pantheon of Portnoy, this isn't up there with his very best work (mostly his Transatlantic and Neal Morse - solo, not Band - albums), but it's far above Adrenaline Mob or Metal Allegiance.

Sons Of Apollo has a bit of buzz, and "Psychotic Symphony" lives up to most of it. I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but the result is pretty darn good.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Album Review: Skarlett Riot - Regenerate

There are certain parts of the job of being a music critic that suck the life out of you, like having to review the latest disappointment from a veteran stalwart. There are other parts of the job, however, that refresh your spirit, like when you find a hungry young band ready to grab the brass ring. That is the most rewarding part of the job, being able to find new young bands that have the potential to become the next big thing, and feeling that you might have even the tiniest bit of a part in helping to get the word out about them. There have been a few bands in my time that have given me that feeling, and even though most of those that have released a second album already have not been able to follow up the success, I'm always optimistic about each one I find.

Skarlett Riot is the next band on that list.

I was aware of Skarlett Riot before "Regenerate" was announced, but I had heard their music only in passing. I knew that they had talent and potential, but I wasn't ready for what they are putting forward with "Regenerate".

Simply put, Skarlett Riot has stepped up to the big time. "Regenerate" is a ten track, forty minute album that is packed with heavy riffs, great vocals, and massive hooks. I dip into this well too often, but do you remember when Halestorm tried to go heavy, but all they did was write boring riffs and lousy songs? Well, Skarlett Riot pulls off what Halestorm was trying to do, and does it nearly perfectly.

Take opener and first single "Break" for example. After the scene is set, the riffs charge ahead like an Arch Enemy song, and the chorus reaches for the sky. It's a remarkable blend of metallic heaviness and shimmering, arena-sized hooks, and it carries throughout the album. Every track here has the heaviness a rock or metal fan craves, and a chorus the crowd will be singing back to the band when they're on stage. That kind of consistency is difficult to pull off, believe me, which makes it all the more noteworthy that Skarlett Riot doesn't misfire a single time here. As an opening statement, this is a heck of a record.

Not to discount the rest of the band, who do a great job of providing a heavy, chunky sound that straddles the line between rock and metal, but at the epicenter of the band's sound is lead singer Skarlett. She has the ability to shift her voice from youthful innocence to powerful passion, and it's her selling of the hooks that makes the band stand out from the crowd. "Regenerate" is the band's coming out party, but it's Skarlett who will be blowing out the candles on the cake.

Picking out highlights isn't necessary here. Every song on the album is just as good as the last. "Regenerate" is one of those albums where the line "all killer, no filler" is fitting. There's no wasted time on this album, which is a tight assault wisely kept from getting to the point of diminishing returns. Would an extra song or two have been nice? Sure, more great music is almost always welcome, but keeping the record finely honed and leaving us wanting more is an equally admirable thing to achieve. And that they did.

With "Regenerate", Skarlett Riot has sounded an alarm. They are coming, and you had better take note. "Regenerate" is one of the best records of the year, and Skarlett Riot is a band poised to become one of the next big things. Welcome to the big leagues, Skarlett Riot. Your first swing is a home run.