Friday, November 17, 2017

Album Review: Lady Beast - Vicious Breed

The end of the year is a tough time for records to come out, especially for newer bands that don't have much of a profile yet. Most of us have already heard about as much music as we can handle, and many of us have already turned out attention to sorting through our thoughts for the end of the year. That makes it difficult for anything else to penetrate our bubbles, and to get the attention we would be able to pay it at an earlier time. Between sorting what I've already heard, and preparing to block out the holidays for as long as I can, I don't have as much energy to carefully consider new albums as I would like to.

Lady Beast enters that fray with their sophomore album, a true metal record that aims to throw a little bit of everything classic into the pot. There will be twin-guitar harmonies, bits of thrash, and some heavy Sabbath-styled moments. Basically, Lady Beast is trying to take us through a brief history of where heavy metal was through the early 80s.

The opener, "Seal The Hex", throws much of that together just in the first two minutes. There's a soft guitar opening, a melodic lead, and a thrashing riff all before the vocals ever begin. And that moment is where the album comes into focus. There are two sides to Lady Beast's sound, which come with very different judgments. On the instrumental side, the band does a very nice job of sounding like a hard and heavy metal band from the 80s, with plenty of simple and catchy riffs, and plenty of attitude to power through the songs. The guitar tone is a bit fuzzier than I would like for something that's aiming to be old-school, but there's a warmth to the sound that is appealing. Musically, they do a good job of making a throwback record.

The problem is that the vocals don't do anything to help the songs out. Deborah Levine is a decent singer, and she has enough of a voice to pull off the kind of music Lady Beast is trying to make, but the writing isn't strong enough. That's true about a lot of the traditional metal I hear, and it consistently drags down what could be pretty good albums. Listening to these eight tracks, there isn't a single vocal line that you can remember after the record is over. I'm not saying that you have to have pop melodies on a record like this, but Dio and Iron Maiden showed us for decades that classic heavy metal can still have memorable melodies that crowds will want to sing along with in concert. I don't hear any of that on this record.

I'm not going to be harsh on Lady Beast, because there's no need to. They aren't making music that is truly bad, or is a chore to listen to. There's been a lot of that this year, but that isn't what this is. Instead, Lady Beast is making music that pays too much attention to being traditional in sound, and not enough attention to writing the songs that started those traditions. This is one of those bland records that will be covered in dust not too long from now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Album Review: Electric Wizard - Wizard Bloody Wizard

There are such things as trigger words, which upon hearing them, incite a certain reaction from us. They aren't the same for all of us, as mine will obviously differ from yours, but the concept remains. When we hear those words, we either start to salivate at the thought of how great a record is going to be, or we reflexively start to plug our ears, knowing that we aren't going to enjoy the trip we're about to take. For me, there were several that came with this new Electric Wizard album. The press materials promised "cranium crushing bludgeon rock", "relentless aural brain rape", and "43 brain damaging minutes" of music. Any one of those would have made me nervous, but the combination had all but sealed my verdict before I even hit play.

Ever the good soldier, I carried on and listened, trying my best to give the music a fair shake. Thankfully, I don't have to file charges against Electric Wizard, as their music did not do any of the promised assault against my senses they intended. Sure, their music is abrasive, but not so much so that it needs to be promoted with obviously untrue bombast. There were plenty of ways of hyping the music that didn't need to make it sound like a sexual predator. I assume they would have been more effective, to boot.

So what do we get with "Wizard Bloody Wizard"? Well, as the title suggests, we get an album that is highly in debt to the slower doom tracks that early Black Sabbath established, roughed up with enough stoner fuzz to turn someone's lungs black. The songwriting isn't anything out of the ordinary, but the sound itself is so filthy that I feel you would need to be in an altered state of mind to think it sounds good. I don't know why stoner bands ever established a tone that sounds like a broken speaker from a 1972 Oldsmobile station wagon, but that's what we get here. Everything about the record is fuzzy enough to sound out of focus, like getting up and looking out the window without putting your glasses on.

And the worst part of that is the songs drag out, anywhere from five to eleven minutes. That much of the wretched guitar tone at once, without much development building riffs into something more than a droning hum, is hard to sit through. There simply aren't enough riffs here to justify the song lengths, and even the riffs that are present aren't of the Iommi quality where you don't need anything else. Plus, there's the fact that "Necromania" has a main riff that sounds quite a bit like Kiss' "War Machine". Add that all up, and we get a record that is highly derivative of the past, without making a case for why you should listen to this instead of any of those classic Sabbath records.

I knew before I even listened to "Wizard Bloody Wizard" that it wasn't going to be for me. I gave it a chance to surprise me, but we ended up right where I expected all along. Electric Wizard might have pulled themselves closer to the Black Sabbath playbook this time around, but what's the point of that? There already was a Sabbath, and even on their way out the door, those guys were able to make a record that had sharper riffs and better written songs. "Wizard Bloody Wizard" is a record made to justify a pun, and not much else.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Shining A Spotlight: Pale Waves

There isn't a feeling quite like when you find a new band on the verge of breaking out. Being there at the beginning, and knowing that you are pulling the bandwagon, rather than jumping on it once it's already rolling downhill, is something that can't quite be put into words. As a critic, one of the best things about the 'job' is being able to tell people about these bands, and to think that maybe I have a small part to play in helping to spread the word about some great new music. It doesn't happen as often as I would like it to, but when it does happen, it warms the heart the way The Grinch felt when that Christmas classic jumps the shark.

Today is one of those days where I feel like we're on the verge of something special.

The band behind that is Pale Waves, a new band that has caught my attention with their string of singles. They are the perfect band for this exact moment, for me, because they fill a need that is glaring. This week saw the release of Taylor Swift's newest album, which is a dark turn and a horrible disappointment. We aren't here to re-litigate that record, but I bring it up for a specific reason. "1989" was a fantastic pop record, and Pale Waves have the ability to plug the gap Taylor Swift has left. Their music takes a slightly different turn, but the core of the sound is a more organic version of the 80's synth-pop sound that "1989" updated for the modern age.


With the three singles that have been released, Pale Waves have already given us enough of a taste of who they are to show that they know their identity, and that they are potentially the next big thing in pop/rock. With a Robert Smith aesthetic to go along with jangly guitars and wispy vocals, they are light mixed with dark, edge mixed with softness. They are a throwback to when pop music was still music, where you could hear the humanity in it, even as the delivery emphasizes the polished sheen.

"Television Romance" and "New Year's Eve" are perfect slices of throwback pop, with bouncing rhythms you can dance to, and a laid-back atmosphere that is both detached and engaging. Before you know it, those hooks will be stuck in your head. Pale Waves know their limits, and they play right into their strengths on these songs. That's a veteran move, and it's impressive to see from newcomers.





Right now we only have about ten minutes of music to judge, but that's enough to have my excited about what comes next. 2017 has been a horrible year for pop music, but these songs give me hope. Pale Waves is easily my favorite thing to come from the pop world this year, and as they work on what is expected to be either an EP or full-length for 2018, that release will be something worth anticipating.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Album Review: Taylor Swift - Reputation

At its best, music is enlightening. It can be used to teach us something about the human condition that is easily forgotten, but more often if shines a light on the soul of the songwriter, and allows us to see through the veneer to the core of the person behind the music. Emotions fuel the best music, whether singing in ecstasy or agony. Great songs send a tingle down our spines, as we connect on a fundamental level that our polarized society doesn't often acknowledge. There is something magical about what music is capable of when in the hands of a master crafts-person.

Taylor Swift has been in the spotlight for so long, and has graced so many tabloids, that it's easy to take for granted our access to her. We feel like we've heard from her so often that we know who she is, and have lived life alongside her. The truth of the matter is that Taylor has been remarkable at keeping herself arm's distance away from her audience. Every song we know in our hearts is about a public heartbreak has never been confirmed. They could be stories made up from the same foundation and rouge that paint her cheeks into a flawless canvas. Taylor Swift is a pop star, a celebrity, but she is also strangely anonymous.

"Reputation" is the album that aims to change all that, where Taylor aims to take on her own public image, and tear it down as the web of misconceptions it most likely is. The problem is that because Taylor is so guarded, skepticism means that we shouldn't take anything she says on this album as the truth. She has been private, as is her right, but that means a sudden change of heart is not going to accepted on face value, especially when there is a glaring flaw running through the album that cannot be ignored.

We feel like experts in Taylor Swift's life, because of how omnipresent she has been in pop culture, which makes "Reputation" a stunning misfire. If Taylor was indeed trying to reveal more of herself, and fight back against the image the media has created of her as a contrived pop star hungry for fame and attention, the worst way to fight back would be by releasing an album that is this shallow. Taylor turned to pop on "1989", but now that she is viewed as a pop star, she has leaned into the image by making a record that is so blatantly trend-hopping that it almost feels like a joke. The dirty trap beats and utter lack of melody running through singles like "Look What You Made Me Do" wouldn't even be recognizable as Taylor Swift songs if not for the music videos she appears in.

Beyond that, Taylor's writing is not mining the depths of herself for truths no one else could tell. These songs are the same girl-meets-boy songs she has been singing for years, only this time without the nuance and detail that made her wise beyond her years. "Gorgeous" is man-hungry in a way that would be called misogyny if sung from the other perspective. When she speaks (not sings) that the old Taylor is dead, its as believable as the special effects in "Plan Nine From Outer Space". We can't tell if the old Taylor is dead not just because we didn't know her as a person, but because the new Taylor isn't any more open than the old one. The only difference is that her surface-level observations are more bitter than before. It's depth in the sense that we have gone from the sweet zest of a citrus fruit to the bitter pulp. We haven't reached the fruit yet, but the flavor has become intolerable.

Taylor Swift has never been honest with us as an audience, but that's actually ok. She was a nimble enough songwriter that she made her inauthenticity work. We knew it was an act, which made it all the more remarkable that she was able to turn it into such fantastic pop singles. Now, however, the songwriting acumen she displayed has been replaced by the pop conveyor belt, which has stripped away anything that was ever unique about Taylor, whether it was authentic or an act. She has become just another pop star, and she doesn't have the charisma to play the part of a bad girl.

I don't know who Taylor Swift is as a person. I'm not saying that to pass judgment on her, but to illustrate a point. After so much time in the spotlight, I don't feel like I'm an closer to understanding her now than I was when I first heard "Red" on the radio. In the pretext of this album, which is supposed to correct the record, being as in the dark as ever before means only one thing; even if the songs are good, Taylor Swift has utterly failed with this record. She hasn't taught us anything, and she hasn't entertained us. She has failed on multiple levels, which makes "Reputation" one of the biggest busts in modern pop history. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Album Review: Pink Cream 69 - Headstrong


Names and symbols are important. We can argue about whether they should be, or whether music itself should be all we're concerned with, but we live in a commercial reality. The fact that Pink Cream 69 is names Pink Cream 69 is one of the reasons why they languish in the melodic rock scrum, only known to those people who seek out that kind of music. They've made plenty of solid records (at least one of which I used to be quite fond of), but they have a tough sell to make just on the basis of their name. Try telling a friend or family member about them. It's awkward.

After thirty years, the band is celebrating their anniversary with this new album, continuing along the trajectory they've been on for years now. The combination of Dennis Ward and David Readman have established the band's sound and identity, and it would be foolish to think they're going to change now.

The band's appeal is that in the world of melodic rock, they are on the heavier end. There's a slight metallic edge to their riffing, and Readman's voice can get just rough enough to dirty up the sound. That might sound good, but it actually works against them. Melodic rock is, etymologically, melodic first and foremost. Their heavier approach to the form dulls the melody, which is a decision that makes me scratch my head a bit.

They write riffs that fit the melodic mold, putting most of the focus on the vocals. But by virtue of the songs being heavier, and written in the way they are, Readman's melodies in the choruses are flat, trying to be more chants than sing-alongs. When you compare this to the album Ward made recently with his other band, Khymera, the difference is stark. Khymera's album had far more melodies, and was the kind of album that put a smile on your face, even if you didn't fall in love with it. Punk Cream 69 is not capable of doing that, at least not here.

This is an album that, to me, doesn't know what it wants to be. The band feels caught between melodic rock and heavy metal, and they mix the forgettable parts of both, and not the appealing ones. If they had chosen to write inventive riffs with strong melodies, we would be talking about something special here. Instead, they have generic guitar playing with bone-stock choruses. It lacks anything to give the songs a spark.

Maybe thirty years of being saddled with a horrible name has pushed the band towards trying to hard to prove themselves. I don't know how they came to this formula, but it isn't working. It's not bad music like a lot of things I've heard this year, but it's entirely anonymous.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Album Review: Sweet & Lynch - Unified

Many people were excited not too long back for the pairing of Michael Sweet and George Lynch. Those were people generally a decade or so older than me, who grew up listening to Stryper and Dokken, and who wanted to relive those days once again. Of course, Stryper is still out there doing their thing, and Michael Sweet is also making solo albums, and George Lynch has both Lynch Mob and KXM, so I'm not sure there was a need for either of them to make yet more records. Still, the first album from this team was a solid effort that pleased most everyone, and created enough anticipation for a second go-round. I just have to say that with a Sweet solo album last year, and another Stryper album in the works as we speak, I'm a bit worried about him running through all of his good ideas.

Maybe it's just because I grew up listening to the music of the 90s, but the idea of George Lynch as some kind of guitar god has never been something I can wrap my head around. Dokken is a band that might as well not exist to me, and nothing I've heard from Lynch has ever impressed me more than your average, generic rock guitarist. I say that because again here, the riffs provided by Lynch don't stand out in the way I would like them to. He can play, but his riffs never compete with Sweet for attention. Despite the branding, this is clearly Sweet's show.

Speaking of Sweet, he turns in another full-throttle vocal performance on this album, blasting his way through these tracks. He still has all the range and power he ever did, the latter of which he uses often.

Most of the record sits in the comfort zone of 80s rock you would expect from these guys. There is a curve-ball in "Walk", which morphs from straight-ahead rocker into a Queen-esque chorus that is unlike most anything I can remember from these recent Michael Sweet albums. It's not only a really good song, but the uniqueness of it makes it stand out as something easily remembered. I'll nominate it as the best track on the album, and the one you should check out.

But the issue I have with the album is the same one I've had with recent Stryper releases; Sweet relies too much on his vocal power. When I say that, what I mean is that he sometimes thinks that singing a chorus at the top of his lungs is just as good as writing a hooky melody. Listen to "Make Your Mark" to hear what I mean. He practically shouts through the chorus, which barely has any melodic movement to it at all. It's rather tepid.

That gets balanced out by tracks like "Tried & True" and "Unified", which are more in line with what I would want. We get doses of Lynch's slightly sleazy guitar playing, while Sweet's hooks are far more melodic and memorable. They're very good, as is at least half the album, which is what makes it a bit frustrating. There's a lot to like in the approach Sweet & Lynch take on their music, and they've produced some very good songs, but they haven't carried it through an entire album. They're a good band making good records, but there's the potential in their combined talents to be doing something more. Still, this is a satisfying record for 80s rock aficionados.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Album Review: GWAR - "The Blood of Gods"


At first take, you see the updates in your inbox or on social media about a new GWAR album, and you shrug it off; the band produces albums like clockwork and cynics would suggest that they only release new material as an excuse to tour anyway, so the news hardly seems worth a second look.

And then you realize what it is you’re actually seeing, and you remember everything that’s happened.  “The Blood of Gods,” marks the first fresh (perhaps filthy?) studio material from the iconic band since the premature death of Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie,) and who knows not only what mysteries it contains but how it will be received?  Will fans and critics accept an album that no longer features the man who made the band what it is?

To answer that, you first have to examine the album itself.  Maybe this is a dated reference, but anybody remember the classic Steve Martin/Rick Moranis movie “My Blue Heaven”?  If you remember, much before the gimmick was taken by the sitcom “Frasier,” the movie breaks ups its chapters with full-screen messages hinting at what comes next.  There is one in particular, where Vincent Antonelli (Steve Martin,) tell us (forgive me if the quote is not exact) “As I am trained for nothing else, I re-embark on my old career.”

I told you that story to tell you this one; that’s sort of how “The Blood of Gods” feels.  There is no debating that over time, between the metal directional influence of Corey Smoot and Brockie’s own willingness to allow GWAR to evolve and change, GWAR became less a punk/thrash band and more in the true metal vein.  The band that both of those men left behind was not the band they had inherited or started.  In the absence of those governing forces, it’s easy to envision the band, reunited with former member Michael Bishop in the lead, having a meeting where somebody said “well, hell, what did we used to do?  Can we do that again?”

And so they did.  “The Blood of Gods” has much more in common with “This Toilet Earth” or even the hallowed “Scumdogs of the Universe,” than it does with “War Party” or “Lust in Space.”  We see a return here to much of the two-beat, thrash beginnings of the band, from simple drum beats and rapid-fire guitars, to a thematic return of making fun of people and declaring the Earth a giant piece of excrement.

Now, let’s be clear here – that’s certainly enjoyable in its own right, and there’s plenty to smirk at here, headlined by the blistering riff and repeated gang chorus of “Fuck This Place.”  In another universe, sans costumes and perhaps with slightly less profanity, this song would have felt right at home on any classic Minor Threat or Black Flag album. 

The thing that’s remained unchanged is that GWAR still has a predilection for the off-kilter oddity of a long form storytelling piece, and that’s how we get “The Sordid Soliloquy of Sawborg Destructo” right in the middle of the album.

The general tone here remains that of old school GWAR however, with their idiomatic synergy of the highly theatric with the musically accessible.  “Swarm” works because it treads that line, halfway between the acclaim of Thin Lizzy’s dual guitar innovation and the base comical profanity of the S.O.D.  Few bands have as much history doing both, and thus even in returning to an earlier era, GWAR can still teach a thing or two.

That’s why the album works, even if it is a departure from the band’s more recent efforts – because in going back to their roots, GWAR thus returns to a form of their art which had already worked for them in the past.  In answer the questions at the top of this article then, new fans may have to make an adjustment, but they should find enough familiarity to adapt without overwhelming difficulty.  Old fans and critics alike will feel that what is old can be new again.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Album Review: Jeff Scott Soto - Retribution

Timing can be everything. The right records needs to find the right ears at the right time, or else even the best of music can fall by the wayside. There's no way to know when the right time is, but there are definitely wrong times. To my ears, it's wrong to release cold and depressing albums during the summer months. What's harder to conclude is what to do when a musician has multiple bands with material ready at the same time. That's what Jeff Scott Soto is dealing with, as this album comes mere weeks after the release of an album from his newest band, Sons Of Apollo. Is that strategy going to get more ears on this release, or will the comparison between the two turn more people off? It's hard to say, but it lingers behind this album.

I say that because, with a hand in the songwriting of both albums, it can be questioned if Soto was writing too many songs in too short a period of time, should they not all hit their mark. That was the first thought I had when I heard the single, "Inside Outside", which immediately struck me as not being a strong enough song for that platform. The chorus of the song simply isn't very memorable, and Soto's rough vocals, combined with the production and mixing, make the track sound like a demo, and not a final product.

On the other hand, the opening title track is far better, with Soto's voice more in line with the deeper Paul Stanley tones he often gives off, and a chorus that hits the sweet spot of melodic rock/metal. That song would have been a far better showcase prior to the album's release. But that's just me.

As the album carries on, I get the same feeling from it that I did from the Sons Of Apollo record; Soto has plenty of ability to write and sing a great song, but he doesn't do it often enough. For every hooky song, there's one that falls completely flat. It makes listening to the record difficult, as bouncing back and forth between really good and not so great tracks is less satisfying than having an entire album of merely good songs.

"Retribution" is an album that has plenty of 80s appeal in its sound, and that's a fitting way of thinking about it. If this record was released in 1988, it has the three or four singles that could have made people believe and buy the album, while the rest of the album was made up of fillers that wouldn't matter once people had already made their purchase. But today, when most albums are able to be extensively previewed before determining if they're worth investing in, I just don't hear enough from it.

Soto has talent, and a ballad like "Feels Like Forever" is something I can fully get behind, but the record as a whole doesn't maintain a level. It's not a bad record, but Soto has in the span of a month released two records that are both half really good and half not so much. It makes me wonder what either project would have sounded like if he was able to take the best melodies from both albums and combine them. That's not what we've got here, so I can only judge what we do have. That's "Retribution", which is a forgettable record, I have to say.