Friday, July 20, 2018

Album Review: Redemption - Long Night's Journey Into Day

If you ask me who the best progressive metal band is, I will always tell you it's Redemption. From "The Fullness Of Time" through "The Art Of Loss", they have made a string of classy records that are everything progressive metal both should and shouldn't be. Their song-oriented, deeply emotional music is the perfect antidote to the self-high-fiving that is most of the genre. We can debate which of their records is the best (I personally side with "The Origins Of Ruin"), but it's hard to deny Redemption is among the very best at what they do. That's why it comes as such a shock to the system to hear this new record, where the heart of the band's sound has been replaced, as Ray Alder has moved on, and Evergrey's Tom Englund has taken over behind the mic. It's the biggest chance in the band's history, and one that can ripple through the music. But does it?

The album sets the tone early, with "Eyes You Dare Not Meet In Dreams" kicking things off on an aggressive note. The guitars have that blend of prog and thrash that has been a staple of Redemption's sound, and when Tom enters, his voice does fit in seamlessly. Redemption's music has always played with the darker colors of the rainbow, so the change in vocalists is from one master of the craft to another. In terms of style, there might not have been anyone better to take up the mantle.

What may or may not play quite as well are the choices Tom makes with his voice. For much of the record, he pulls back on his power, using a softer tone to push the melodies. When you get to what should be a major moment, like the chorus in "Someone Else's Problem", I can hear in the back of my head how Ray would have belted it out, so there's a dissonance between what I'm expecting and what Tom delivers. Neither approach is wrong, but it does feel like he's holding back.

There can't be any complaining about "The Echo Chamber", which adds to Redemption's list of massively ass-kicking prog metal. Unlike what I would say is the majority of prog metal bands, they are able to blend heaviness, progressive playing, and soaring melodies into songs that are both challenging and memorable. The first four tracks from this album fit right into that mold, and are a seamless transition from one chapter of the band's history to this new one.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's what the saying tell us, and it holds true a bit here, as "The Last Of Me" is so traditionally Redemption that the main melody sounds curiously like the one from "The Suffocating Silence" several album cycles ago. It inevitably happens to everyone who writes enough songs, but it still sounds strange the first time it's encountered.

"Long Night's Journey Into Day" is an album in two acts. The first act is Redemption in their finest form, delivering everything we could want from them. The second act is a bit different, with a bit less melody leading into the ten minute closing title track. It's not much of a lull, but it's enough to shift the comparison a bit. What this album winds up reminding me of is "Snowfall On Judgment Day", which is the band's heaviest album, and the one I return to the least. I'm in the minority of fans with that, I'm led to believe, so Redemption fans will likely be ecstatic to hear this approach.

A Redemption album is always going to be good, and there's no question this one is. If you like progressive metal, Redemption is still doing is every bit as well as anyone else. I can say I prefer "The Origins Of Ruin" and "The Art Of Loss" to this one, but the differences are slight. Even with new blood, Redemption delivers a record I can't see disappointing anyone who enjoys this kind of music. Whatever trepidation I may have had about the change in voice is in the past, and Redemption is still at the top of progressive metal's hierarchy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Album Review: The Jayhawks - Back Roads and Abandoned Motels

I like The Jayhawks, but I don't know what to make of them anymore. Since I discovered them, they have broken up and gotten back together, reunited with Mark Olson only to see him leave again, and made records that veered from traditional Americana rock to experimental noise rock. All the while, I've been watching from the sidelines while wondering just what in the world is motivating them. There is no easily seen arc of history they are following. Every move seems random. So when their last album seemed to be pushing them into a new (and disappointing, for me) future, they now head fully back into the past.

This new record isn't quite a new record. There are two new compositions to close it out, but the core of the record is made up of songs that Gary Louris had written with and for other artists. We get some tracks written with The Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan, and Emerson Hart (from Tonic), among others. Because these songs reach back, they connect with the original and classic Jayhawks sound, which is a complete departure from the last time we heard the band on record.

For fans like me, who first fell in love with "Hollywood Town Hall", and then heard a bit of a second coming on "Rainy Day Music", this record is a return to The Jayhawks we've been waiting for. Even "Mockingbird Time" didn't sound as wistfully Jayhawks as this record does. Louris has an affection for old Krautrock that has ruined many a Jayhawks song before, all of which has been stripped away from these tracks. His strength has always been in writing sly, subtle melodic Americana, which is what he was always brought in to deliver. It's what this record delivers.

But while this record is all about Louris' writing forays, it is a collaborative effort in the studio, with Tim O'Reagan and Karen Grotberg contributing vocals to several tracks, standing in for some of the co-writers. They bring new textures to the usual Jayhawks sound, and are nice additions. The added vocals in "Gonna Be A Darkness" especially work, as O'Reagan is able to inject enough of Jakob Dylan's gravelly tone to capture his essence.

The best songs here include "Everybody Knows", which was released as a single by The Dixie Chicks, so you might remember it. I don't happen to, so I'm hearing it fresh as a perfect Jayhawks song that could have hung on "Hollywood Town Hall". The Dylan song is another winner, as fans familiar with his work will hear his phrasing all over the melody. It becomes an interesting experience to listen to a favored writer's song being given voice by someone else, and still hearing them in it. It shows the power of the songwriter is stronger than we might often give credit.

The biggest pull on the record, for me, is "Long Time Ago", the song penned with Emerson Hart. As my favorite songwriter, hearing a new track with his fingerprints on it is a treat, and listening I'm not sure why the track had never been released before. While it might not fit in with Tonic, it would have made a fine track for Emerson's solo career. It's nice to have the song rescued from the cutting room floor.

That's what I can say about the entire record. While Louris has been busy taking the band on a string of detours over the last fifteen years, there have been songs like these waiting in the wings (*groan* sorry for the pun). The classic Jayhawks sound is classic for a reason, and it sounds as welcome and timeless now as it ever has. "Hollywood Town Hall" sounds as remarkable and vibrant today as it did when I first heard it, and this is a record that will hold the same appeal. No, I'm not saying it's anywhere near as good as that masterpiece, but it's a beautiful little record that makes time stand still, at least for forty-five minutes.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Double Review: Powerwolf - The Sacrament Of Sin

Hear me out; Powerwolf is a lot like Motorhead. No, they don't sound anything alike, but both bands are groups who created a core sound early in the career, and then continued to deliver that same thing again and again. For the fans, it means you know you're almost always going to like what you hear. For the doubters, it gives them something else to complain about. With Powerwolf, I fall somewhere in the middle. I find their werewolves and vampires schtick to be entertaining, and I always enjoy hearing them, but their music is also in that lot where I don't find myself compelled to listen to it very often, mainly because it always feels exactly the same. Their previous album, "Blessed & Possessed", was probably my favorite so far, and included a few songs that did stand the test of time with me, so this new one has something to live up to.

The album was teased by two singles, "Fire & Forgive" and "Demons Are A Girl's Best Friend", which just so happen to be the first two tracks. Both of them caught my ear, as they are among the better tracks the band has been putting forward; layered with epic organs, having tongue-in-cheek, and delivering catchy melodies that only an operatic power metal werewolf can... apparently. The latter track, in particular, sounds to me like what Lordi would be doing if they made their humor less slapstick.

Ghost has gotten a lot of criticism for their song "Dance Macabre", which people have accused of being a dance song in rocking guise. I could level the same claim at "Killers With The Cross", but that line of thought misses the point. This Powerwolf song, like Ghost's effort, is a riot to listen to. So what if you can dance along with the chorus? Why is that a bad thing? Even horror movies are allowed to have comic relief.

The trend I've noticed, having written about several album cycles from Powerwolf, is that while they haven't changed their sound up one iota, they have been getting better at more consistently delivering heavy hitters. They have enough experience behind them now to know what does and doesn't work, and that translates to albums that have been getting better. I mentioned their last album being my favorite as of yet, which I now have to qualify by saying "The Sacrament Of Sin" is even better. Powerwolf isn't done upping their game just yet.

Of particular note is the ballad "Where The Wild Wolves Have Gone", which is a song I'm not sure they could have pulled off before. It has a sweeping build to it, and the slower pace makes it sound truly cinematic when the strings and horns burnish the chorus. It's absolutely Powerwolf at their best. It's a completely different take on metallic balladry than "Let Their Be Light" was on the last album, which shows Powerwolf has more range than they get credit for.

"The Sacrament Of Sin" is a record that uses its instrumentation to create a sound that is truly massive, dark, and haunting. Sabaton gets most of the credit when it comes to bombastic power metal, but I've never heard Sabaton live up to their source material the way Powerwolf does here.

Powerwolf may always read from the same playbook, but they have refined their approach over the years, to the point where "The Sacrament Of Sin" is their best album yet. Even if you think you already know Powerwolf, you need to give this album a listen, because it's boiled down the best of the band's history into a killer forty-odd minutes of ludicrous power metal. Highly recommended.

Chris C


I think I’m starting to sense a trend with Powerwolf releases. 2011 saw the release of “Blood of the Saints,” which instantly became the gold standard for Powerwolf and the high water mark for the genre of power metal as we entered boldly into the ‘10s. Two years later we heard “Preachers of the Night” which was…fine. There was nothing bad about it, excepting maybe the cover art that vaguely resembled the Big Bad Wolf costumed in grandma’s night clothes waiting for Little Red Riding Hood, but there was also nothing revolutionary or especially inspiring about it. Again, a two year gap, and then “Blessed and Possessed,” an album that established the high water mark all over again. And now…

…”The Sacrament of Sin.” And it’s….fine. Unfortunately, that may be all it is. And you have to give it some credit, because it’s clearly trying real hard, but leveraged against the previous album, and the catalogue that came before it, there’s not much here to write home about.

Before we get hasty, let’s clarify a little – this is a Powerwolf album, so it does boast some memorable moments. There’s a three song set in the middle of the record that shows us the best strengths of Powerwolf right in a row. It begins with “Incense and Iron,” which works because of the sheer, transmissible charisma of Attila Dorn’s vocals and the band’s ability to write impossibly giant hook choruses. From a musical standpoint, there’s not even that much going on, but the melody, operating in conjunction with the gang vocals makes for a rousing listen. There are few bands who can so ably convey their magnetic personalities into a recorded experience, but Powerwolf has mastered the secret.

This dovetails into “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone,” which is the kind of song only Powerwolf can pull off without seeming hokey. The song’s gravitas is melodramatic even by the lofty standards of the band singing the song, but in reflexive fashion, that’s what makes it work; the song is so far over the top that it transcends mere melodrama and becomes something indefinable. It’s also annoying good at being an earwig, which means you’ll end up explaining the song, and by extension Powerwolf, to your coworkers. Good luck.

And then the sequence closes with “Stossgebet,” and now we get just a taste of the Teutonic power and precision that so capably represents all the German metal bands of all stripes. Couple that with Powerwolf’s natural flair and excellent sense of the beat, and you get a track with punchy delivery and memorable stanzas.

That’s three songs out of eleven, though, and the other eight aren’t bad, but they’re not worth mentioning, either. “The Sacrament of Sin” suffers more for what it lacks than for what it possesses – there is no adrenaline-infused “Dead Boys Don’t Cry,” no blood-pumping “Higher Than Heaven.” This record is much more measured, with no room for that kind of delivery, which is ultimately to its detriment. “Venom of Venus” comes the closest, but is content to sit in third gear.

Two notes before closing. First, It could be me, I may be losing my mind, but this record seems seeded through with just the barest hint of concession to arena rock. Powerwolf has always danced with this devil, but there’s something about the even pacing of the downbeats and the construction of the harmonies that makes one narrow the eyes, wondering if the relationship has gotten tighter.
Second, and this is no small thing. I know I spent a lot of time in this review telling you that Powerwolf failed to live up to their own lofty benchmarks, but it does bear noting that these gentlemen are one of the few, if not the only, power metal band still making interesting music. The genre as a whole has stagnated in the new millennium, except for this small band of German rogues who are pushing the envelope. They are to be commended; that’s not easy after fifteen years together.

So, “The Sacrament of Sin,” isn’t an all-time classic, but it’s a perfectly adequate album made by professionals who measured their stride and tried to concentrate on the presence of their songs more than the prowess in them.

And to come full circle, if the pattern holds, their next album will be a blockbuster.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Twenty Years Later: Bruce Dickinson's "Chemical Wedding"

Twenty years ago, we were living in what can be considered the dark ages of heavy metal. The old guard of classic bands had either fractured, or had changed into unrecognizable groups that had abandoned what made them popular. In their place, we had new bands that were sapping the life from the genre, whether it be the nu-metal that dumbed everything down so far we still haven't regained what was lost, or they were following the mold of Pantera and assuming that being louder and angrier was all that was needed. Metal didn't have fun anymore, it didn't have much of a brain either, and there aren't many records from that time period that have stood the test of time. For good reason.

But there are oases in every desert, and even then records were being released that challenged our conceptions of what metal was, and what it could be. You might think the best of them all would have been from a new voice, a group of hungry young musicians hell-bent on taking over the world. You would be wrong if you did. The defining statement of that time came from one of the old guard, the only one who was trying to move forward; Bruce Dickinson.

The then former Iron Maiden singer had been out on his own for a few years by the time 1998 had come around. His early solo albums were hit-and-miss affairs that made people pine for a reunion. It was with 1997's "Accident Of Birth" that Dickinson returned to full-throated metal, and he did so in such a fashion that suddenly the cries for Iron Maiden to be reborn were quieted. But even as great as that record was, Bruce had something yet more grand up his sleeve.

The year 1998 saw Slayer bottoming out with their trend-hopping "Diabolus In Musica", Metallica playing nothing but cover songs, and Kid Rock ascending to mainstream stardom. It was a dark time for good, serious heavy metal. The answer to fans' prayers would be coming, however.

Bruce Dickinson was always a bit of an odd fit for metal culture. A pilot, fencer, and author, he was not the leather-clad banger that the genre is so disappointingly associated with. Iron Maiden had long incorporated history and literature into their lyrics, but even they had never gone this far. With his magnum opus, Dickinson would shape his music into a conceptual piece diving into the life and work of William Blake, complete with one of his paintings gracing us on the cover.

Teaming up with Roy Z and his fellow Iron Maiden ex-pat Adrian Smith, Dickinson stepped into the studio with inspiration, and walked out with the defining album of the time.

The most striking facet of the album is the overwhelming heaviness the music is able to capture.  By stringing the guitars with bass strings, the album takes on a tone unlike any other, giving previously unheard heft to the traditional metal arrangements.  It is not far removed, stylistically, from what he had done with Iron Maiden, but “The Chemical Wedding” is the heaviest piece of music Dickinson has ever made.  That heaviness is not just sonic, as the songs are written and sung with just as much emotional weight.

Dickinson's vocals are a dramatic performance, his siren of a voice crying out above the fury of the music in a way few singers can match.  He roars through songs like “The Tower” and “Jerusalem”, displaying all the skills that make him one of metal's legendary singers.  While Roy Z and his Iron Maiden compatriot Adrian Smith pound out some furiously progressive metal arrangements, Dickinson pours melodies into every song, giving the songs all the tools needed to be great.  Making music that it at once this heavy and this melodic is nearly impossible, but it is done with such ease on “The Chemical Wedding” that it makes an unfair standard for everyone else to live up to.
While the title track may sound too simple at first blush, the ballad is a showcase for the clarity and beauty Dickinson's voice can achieve, and is merely setting the table for the more epic moments.  The unexpected reprise of the chorus at the end of the closing “The Alchemist” ties the project together, and when viewed as part of a larger work, the title track is an integral calm before the storm.
For as great as those tracks are, one song stands above all the others as a definitive masterpiece.  That song, “Book Of Thel”, is an eight minute piece of metal perfection.  The riffs are the heaviest on the album, the arrangement is expansive and progressive, and Dickinson's vocal is an impassioned cry that boasts one of the best melodies he ever had the fortune to sing.  The song is a revelation, the sort of piece that has you worn out by the end for merely listening.  It is at once the highlight of a remarkable album, and a singular statement attesting to the validity and vitality of metal as an art form.  “The Chemical Wedding” is not just the best album Bruce Dickinson ever sang on, it is one of the greatest metal albums ever made, and a staggering work of genius.

Twenty years later, the album is as vital and potent as ever.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Album Review: Two Of A Kind - Rise

As the name would suggest, what makes Two Of A Kind unique is having not one, but two singers in the fold. As I sat down to write this, I started thinking about all the music I have listened to, and I struggled to come up with other bands that featured two different vocalists (other than having one clean, one harsh). Usually, one singer is more than enough to convey the songs and the messages, and having more than that would invite comparisons where fans will like one more than the other. So it's actually interesting to hear a band that embraces having two different voices. When you hear a lot of music that is similar, these little details help them stand out, definitely.

There's another factor about this record that stands out; the bass. The way the album is produced, and with the guitars mostly sitting in the background, the bass ends up right in front of the mix. Given how almost all modern music is presented, it's a jarring change to hear the instruments' roles reversed. Of course, I could posit the reason for the mixing being an effort to hide the guitar's tone. The record does sound a bit rough around the edges in places.

But the songwriting is far more important than the level of polish on the recording. That's where Two Of A Kind stands stronger. For the most part, "Rise" is an album that delivers 80s style rock with plenty of big choruses made even bigger by the ability to layer the two singers into a wall of vocals. That's the band's strongest attribute, and they wisely play off it.

What is less successful is the song "Rock Your World", which not only falls into the category of rock songs about rocking, but has lyrics that specifically tell us that Two Of A Kind is going to rock us. I shouldn't have to say this as often as I do, but let me reiterate; if you have to tell us how much you rock, you probably don't rock at all. Sorry.

"Naked" might be the best track, a beautiful lighter-swinging half ballad that builds effectively, and pays it all off. The album as a whole, however, can't maintain that momentum. When they try to rev things up, they falter. They aren't a heavy band, and rocking on the edge of their limits doesn't play into their melodic strengths. When they allow themselves to dial things back, they're good. That doesn't happen as often as it should.

Overall, that makes this a difficult album to recommend. There are some charming moments on it, but there are enough songs that struggle it doesn't make it over the hump. Add in the production that leaves the record sounding dated, and it just doesn't make a strong enough case. After a decade between albums, I would have expected more from this group. Melodic rock has already offered up plenty of better albums, including this month alone.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Album Review: Destinia - Metal Souls

There's a saying, "how can I miss you when you won't go away?" I find myself saying this about Ronnie Romero. I have nothing against the guy as a singer, but last year he made an album with The Ferrymen, and this year he has been on the new Rainbow single, plus albums by Lords Of Black, CoreLeone, and now Destinia. I'm sorry, but that's just too much of him in too short a time. I feel like I've barely had a chance to listen to his latest album when another one is coming down the pike. And while he's a good singer, he's not good enough to take up that much of my time.

Destinia is interesting because it promises to be the lightest and most melodic of the projects he's been involved with lately. To that end, I was interested, because what most annoys me is his insistence on singing with more grit than his voice actually has. He plays away from his strenghts as a singer, so he can take up the mantle of the new Dio (even though we all know that's Jorn).

"Metal Souls" is an album of pure melodic power metal, one that will never be confused with his usual heavier gigs. Every song has a big, lush chorus bursting with melody. It is easily the hookiest album Ronnie has ever been a part of, and that makes it easy for me to say it's also my favorite of them all.

While melodic, there's still enough crunch and heaviness to this record for almost anyone who enjoys non-extreme metal. The riffs are chunky at times, with the saturated guitar tone filling the sonic space to every corner. It's a big sound, and properly fits Ronnie's big vocals.

Song to song, these are highly melodic, and highly memorable songs. Whether it's the storming title track, or the emotional ballad "Take Me Home", the choruses and melodies in these songs will make an impact in your mind. Power metal has grown stale, and I haven't heard much in the traditional form done better than this in the last couple of years. You're never going to get surprised by anything on the record, but for following the rules, the songwriting is more than sharp enough to make this an engaging album.

My one issue with it is the same as every album Ronnie is on; him. Ronnie has immense capabilities as a singer, but his voice is too thin to sing with grit the way that Dio or Jorn can. Ronnie's cleaner tones are beautiful, but his 'angry' tone is too shrill when compared to the greats. Even in this more melodic setting, he insists on staying in that metal approach far too often, which undercuts the sugary appeal of these songs. Believe it or not, a really good singer brings these songs down a bit from where they could be. I can hardly make it through "Raise Your Fist" because the note Ronnie keep hitting, in that tone, sounds too much like an alarm bell.

The good news is the majority of "Metal Souls" is a very good melodic power metal album that does much of what The Dark Element did last year, just not quite at that level of excellence. I do wonder, though, if I would take this album even more positively if I wasn't in the midst of Ronnie Romero fatigue.

The bottom line is that Destinia has a winner here. This album is as good as power metal has been in 2018, and as good as Ronnie Romero has ever been. Whatever flaws there might be, they don't keep this from being a great album for a sunny summer day. "Metal Souls" is definitely worth a listen.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Album Review: Gioeli/Castronovo - Set The World On Fire

These records where two notable vocalists are paired up together for a series of duets have become quite the trend. It all started with the Allen/Lande albums, and has since seen any number of combinations, some with more reason and success than others. This time, we get Johnny Gioeli and Deen Castronovo, two men who might not be the first you would put together, but who do have history from way back in the day with Hardline. That lets this record make sense, and it shows how much life happens when you look back at where we used to be.

My biggest pet peeve with these projects is when the singers are ill-chosen for their roles. Earlier this year, there was an album of this kind that came out under the banner of Leone/Conti, where the two singers were so indistinguishable I seldom could figure out who was singing what. That made the whole thing seem pointless, even though it was good. That problem does not exist here whatsoever, with Gioeli's sharp attack and Deen's raspy voice sounding nothing alike, but blending together well.

We first heard this combination on "Through", which was a propulsive morsel of melodic rock that was nearly flawless. It was melodic bliss, and their contrasting voices built into something close to epic. Their tones occupy different parts of the spectrum, which allows them to give a depth to the choruses and backing vocals we seldom hear. They often sound big but flat, because they are often sung all by the main vocalist. But having these two filling out the highs and lows is a revelation about how to do it right. It's a magical sound.

The music on this record is melodic rock with a bit of dramatic flair. There are hints of pianos here and there, and some strings on the ballad "It's All About You", which give the songs a heightened emotional pull. Depending on the band, many would have used synths instead of pianos, but doing so would neuter the impact of having those elements at all. Hearing the resonance of an organic instrument is what lets us connect to it. Synths are disposable, forgettable.

In the middle of the record, we get a cover of Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now". It was jarring to hear at first, and I'm not entirely sure why it got put on the record, but it works in the context. Regardless of your feelings on that genre, the song itself is a catchy number that sounds good in this more rocking version. Pop songs get ragged on a lot, but the best of them are better written than sneering snobs will ever give credit. Adding guitars and pumping up the energy to make thme proper rock songs shows how the melodic constructions are sometimes head and shoulders above what we're used to hearing.

There's a feeling to this record that recalls Meat Loaf's lesser-known 80s output. Since I'm fond of a record like "Bad Attitude" quite a bit, the similarity in tone is welcome to me. These melodic rock records get pumped out at a frenzied clip. Every month there's probably a dozen or so that fall into the category, most of which I will never remember again, because they're all so similar. What I like about this record is how it has a sound of its own, and doesn't sound at all like W.E.T., or Sunstorm, or any of the others that have come out this year. It truly does sound like an album tailored for these singers.

When it comes to melodic rock this year, Gioeli/Castronovo is near the top of the pack. I don't think it quite has the spark W.E.T. does, but this is a more mature release that serves a different purpose. To that aim, it's a fantastic record that delivers what would be as good as any 'adult contemporary' album of recent years, if that was still a thing anyone paid attention to.

I liked this record a lot.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Album Review: Kissin' Dynamite - Ecstasy

Rock and roll might not be dead, but it lives in the shadows, at least in America. When you turn on the radio, all you hear are either pop songs, hip-hop songs, a mix of them, or some flaccid bunch of whining that has usurped the word 'rock'. Real rock and roll is hard to find, and when you do, it certainly doesn't get the love or attention it should. Rock used to be the soundtrack to life, because it was through rock and roll that we were able to live our dreams, albeit vicariously. Now, rock is shorthand for being stodgy and old, for being out of touch with the current culture. I am certainly out of touch, and so is Kissin' Dynamite.

They are unabashedly a rock and roll band, borrowing from the Def Leppard school of the 80s, where the choruses are bright and layered with sweetened gang vocals to make them sound larger than life. It's rock and roll of the neon lights type, not the gritty and bluesy feel of the 70s, but the kind that filled the Sunset Strip and served as the soundtrack to nights the participants recall fondly even though they can't remember a thing they did back then.

That's the gist of things here. There isn't much need to go into the songs individually, because it's the general aura that wins out over any of them on their own. The material is all rock solid, if you will, but what makes or breaks the record is what you want out of your rock and roll. If you're one of those people who listen for the aggression and anger, who use rock for a release, Kissin' Dynamite is going to disappoint you. That's not what they're here for. They've made an album that is perfect to throw on while you and your friends bang your heads and have a good time.

Ok, I'll be honest and say I don't ever do that, but this would be a good record if I did.

We've become accustomed to thinking rock and roll is broken, and that something new needs to come along and fix it. Records like this prove that line of thinking to be completely wrong. I'm not saying "Ecstasy" is ever going to be a classic record, because it isn't, but it does prove that rock is still a vital form of music. Listening to this record, I can hear in it the elements that made me love music and pick up a guitar. The band isn't breaking any new ground, but that's pretty much the point. Our desire for something new is misguided. What we need to search for is something better.

"Ecstasy" is a solid good-time rock and roll record that does exactly what it wants to. If all you want is to spend some time bobbing your head and raising the horns, Kissin' Dynamite has a record for you. If you're demanding something more inventive or progressive, you're looking in the wrong direction. "Ecstasy" is a better Tremonti record than the one he just released.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Album Review: Lucifer - Lucifer II

The Oath only lasted for one album (actually, I think they broke up before it even came out), but they made quite the impact. For their short shelf-life, they are fondly remembered for the brand of vintage rock and roll they resurrected, and the bands they formed after the dust settled have gotten plenty of attention. Lucifer's first album was well-received from those same fans and critics, although I will say it didn't do much to impress me. It lacked some of the grit The Oath had, and I felt something was missing without the combination of the creative forces. Now they are back for the follow-up, and there is a shift in the focus, one that pulls them closer to my tastes. So does Lucifer raise a hellishly good time with this album?

This time out, Lucifer is certainly a less doomy, occult band than they were before. The sound is still rooted in the same influences, but the music is freer, and more open to melodic possibilities. This is 70s rock with a hint of darkness and doom creeping in, rather than dark rock with a hint of 70s flair growing aroudn the edges. That means this album is more of a classic rock record than Lucifer seemed possible of before the change in membership.

For a band started by and centered around Johanna Sadonis and her voice, this shift is both critically important, and strangely necessary. She possesses the kind of voice that fits the timeless haze of the music, which makes it a surprise to hear her say this album gives her more room to sing melodically. I'm scratching my head wondering how her own band handcuffed her from using her talents, when she is the focal point of the whole enterprise. Perhaps, like a lot of bands that come after a first success, everything was thrown together too quickly to work the kinks out before being revealed to a large audience.

Whatever the reason, this new incarnation of Lucifer is a different, and better, beast. The music is still dirty and gritty, but it rises out of the muck to deliver moments of melody that are far and away above anything on the first record. Whether it's the laid-back "California Son", or the driving "Dancing With Mr. D", Lucifer is able to give us a record that sound like the catchiest stoner record ever made. The guitar tone is that kind of hazy brand of heavy, but I don't know if I've ever heard it used to make music that wasn't a wandering mess of boring ideas. This is what that genre can be, and it sounds good.

"Lucifer II" is a dramatically better record than its predecessor, which should be all I need to say, but I'll go a step further. Not only is that true, but I'm inclined to believe it's a better record than The Oath's was, which started this hype train rolling down the tracks in the first place. I know this is the sort of record I was hoping The Oath would get around to making, if they had stuck together. Lucifer has risen, and this is their clarion call. "Lucifer II" is a dirty, gritty, and damn good rock and roll record.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Album Review: Bullet For My Valentine - Gravity

It's funny how no matter the form you're talking about, the biggest names that loom over the scene are far smaller than you would ever imagine. Just as the biggest movies of a given year reach a small fraction of the potential audience, so to do the biggest bands. Bullet For My Valentine is a heavy-hitter in the rock world, with a stature placing them in the upper tier, and yet I can't recall ever sitting down and listening to one of their records before. There is simply so much music to get through that even the biggest of names can slide by without realizing it. So in perhaps an interesting development, I get to experience their latest work with fresh ears and few expectations.

The key takeaway from "Gravity" is that this is a thoroughly modern rock record, where the guitars and aggression are balanced equally with synths and electronics. That is a sound that does sound fresh and current, but can also be a tough pill to swallow. I, for one, have never warmed to electronic elements in my music, despite how long they have been around.

The core of the band's sound is still anthemic rock music, the kind that will fill the venues they play live. Songs like "Over It" will go over great live, with plenty of opportunity for the audience to sing along when the chorus comes along. These are the kind of songs where the band is at their best, and where their music has a chance to achieve what they want it to. But then there are songs like "Letting You Go", where they go for a more aggressive sound, and in doing so strip away all the melody from the music. That leaves a song which lacks a hook, and even the guitar tone becomes harsh when the focus is put on it.

There are also a number of songs where the verses are soft beds of ambience with some crooning, which can come across a bit lifeless before the choruses come. If they come. "The Very Last Time" is the most electronic song on the album, and even the hook of the song is rather ambient, without any strong guitar presence. That leaves the song sounding small.

After getting off to a solid start, "Gravity" loses steam quickly. Maybe it's just because the electronic elements don't appeal to me at all, but the songs in the middle of the record fall flat, without memorable melodies. They float along like a wispy cloud on a summer day, barely visible as the sun slowly tears it to pieces. I can hear the band has the ability to put together songs that are far more effective, but the choices they make here don't do them any favors. They intentionally blunt the sharp edge off the music, which turns the killer instinct into a game of epee.

From what I had heard about Bullet For My Valentine over the years, I was expecting more from them. "Gravity" isn't a bad album, but it's too chill and laid-back in many places to make the statement it should. I don't know if rock and ambient electronics can mix, but I don't think they do here. "Gravity", I would say, is a disappointment.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Album Review: Night Flight Orchestra - Sometimes The World Ain't Enough

I'm not sure what to make of it when a side project overtakes the main gig. That's not exactly what is happening here, but Bjorn Strid's way to blow of steam is releasing an album for the second consecutive year, while Soilwork is still toiling away at their next album. Part of me wonders if that signals a shift in heart, or if there would be wisdom to not using so many ideas up when trying to write for two different bands. I've heard many people get stretched too thin with these projects, where they all suffer from not being given the right amount of time and focus. Is that what's happening here?

The Night Flight Orchestra has found a time machine to the 80s, picking up where "Amber Galactic" left off. I'm not really a child of the 80s rock scene, so I don't get the nostalgia for that particular era of sound, but this is a group that can perfectly capture that time.

We get started with "This Time", which heaps strings onto that 80s sound, rocking through with a balance of synth-rock, prog, and good ol' rock and roll. Bjorn sounds right at home singing this slightly cheesy music, which is still hard to imagine, given where he made his name. With the right amount of reverb put on his voice, you can easily hear him fitting in on the charts next to Hall & Oates. His voice is smooth, and you can almost hear his tongue in his cheek as he sings this material.

The title track is a harder rocking affair, with the opening thrust giving allusions to Journey's "Separate Ways". Likewise, it isn't the track bearing their name, but "Moments Of Thunder" that sounds like an REO Speedwagon song, hinting at being a ballad, while still offering up some drama. The backing vocals in particular have echoes of Jim Steinman in them, which is always a welcome detail for me.

As I said about the previous album, The Night Flight Orchestra is great at capturing that vein of the rock universe. If you like 80s rock, particularly of the mainstream variety, this group is a tremendous nostalgia trip. There are a lot of bands that are trying to bring back this type of rock (though I'm not sure why), and none do it this well. They are undeniably the best 80s-themed rock band going right now, and that includes the actual 80s bands that have yet to retire.

The only issue I have is that the music is so tied to that particular era of the past that it doesn't speak to me. I came of musical age a few years after this sound had already played out, and while I remember hearing those Journey and Speedwagon songs on the radio, it was already passe by the time I heard it. Unless you were heavily invested in this rock scene at the time, I don't see the appeal of the actual sonic choices. It was an era filled with reverb and tacky synths, neither of which has ever sounded good since. By choosing the adopt the tropes of that time, I find the potential audience limited. The good news for the band is that the metal audience has been aging, so there will be plenty of fans who will be of the age to eat this up.

This isn't my first go-round with The Night Flight Orchestra, and each time I've come away saying the same thing. They are great at what they do, but what they do isn't aimed at me. But if you are more generous to 80s rock than I am, don't miss out on the best recreation you'll ever hear.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Best Of 2018... So Far

Is it really the middle of the year already? It feels like every time I turn around, another six months has gone by and it's time to sort through my thoughts again. These first six months of 2018 have had a lot of great music to sort through, but it has also had the land mines we've had to carefully avoid. More than that, there is an interesting development on the intellectual front.

We often confront ourselves with questions when we talk about music. Is this record pushing boundaries? Is this record better than that record? How will this band ever top themselves?

What we don't often get are existential questions, but this year has given me one. Namely, what is an album? Are separate releases that make up a single entity one album? There isn't any hard and fast rule to these things, and I believe the nature of the term has been fluid as we have seen technology completely upend our understanding of how the business works. So with that being said, and since this is my list and I can make my own rules, I am going to declare:

The Best Album Of 2018, So Far:

The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles

The third installment of this conceptual piece came out this year, and since it all follows the same story, I'm considering it one album for the purposes of this list. I'm doing that because "Los Angeles" is easily my favorite bit of music this year. Over the course of this song cycle, The Spider Accomplice takes us on a twisting, turning ride through the world of pop/rock, hitting on too many sounds and influences to count, all while maintaining both a constant core to their sound and a through-line of growth. The combination of VK Lynne's big voice and melodies with Arno's inventive musical backdrops has created a band where anything is possible, and like a rainbow in the sky, what color you can reach out and touch depends on where you're looking. In my mind, "Los Angeles" is the most important album of the year.

My other favorites this year include (in alphabetical order):

Ghost - Prequelle

Ghost has been getting better each time out, save for their misguided sophomore album. This is easily their poppiest album, but that's exactly what I love about it. Writing an album about the plague, and death in general, that is so upbeat sounding and infectious (pardon the pun) is the kind of subversion that makes me happy. Throw in the fact that Ghost continues to hone their craft, and you get an album that overcomes its flaws on the sheer strength of its smile-inducing capabilities.

Graveyard - Peace

The best rock and roll band going is back, and they pick up in fine form. "Peace" is their heaviest album to date, but is still packed with both the simple riffs that have always made guitar players jealous, and the emotional melodies that show a songwriter's touch. Music doesn't need to be any more complicated than this, because doing something simple the right way is harder than it sounds. In five albums, Graveyard has now made four of the best classic rock records since the 70s. How's that for success?

Light The Torch - Revival

I'm the weirdo whose favorite Killswitch Engage record is the 2009 self-titled. I love the way they pumped heaps of melody into the sound, which is what makes "Revival" such a wonder for me. This is a spiritual successor to that record, where Howard Jones returns to his most melodic side, creating an album that is mainstream in its catchiness, but still undeniably heavier than hell. When it comes to heavy music, this is what I want to hear. Big guitars, big vocals, and big melodies.

Myja - Myja

What happens when power-pop meets grungy alternative rock? You get Myja, who have made a record that is dark and hazy like a classic Seattle album, yet bristles with the sheen of power-pop melody. It is both upbeat and downbeat at the same time, and the clash of sounds makes it an interesting listen. It is akin to a Fastball record in the midst of depression. It's beautiful to listen to, and the record contains one of the best songs of the year in "One More Kiss", the only rock song I've ever heard that borrows from Shania Twain and makes it work.

W.E.T. - Earthrage

Europe has been giving us a steady stream of great melodic rock, and one of the usual suspects strikes again here. Erik Martensson and his cohorts have made an album of melodic rock that is heavy when it needs to be, but is shameless in wringing melodies for all they're worth. Many might say the record is cheesy, and perhaps it is, but it's also simply a blast to listen to. Sometimes music is just there to give us a good time, and W.E.T. has mastered that with this album.

And we will pretend the bad stuff, which includes Machine Head and Fall Out Boy's newest 'efforts', didn't happen. At least not until the end of the year, by which time I will hopefully have some creative ways of explaining how bad they are.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Conversation: Midway Through 2018

CHRIS C: Here we are again, at the midpoint of another year. It doesn't feel like it's been six months since we last gathered to survey the scenery, but time marches on whether we like it or not. It's been an eventful period, both in new music and in music news. Before we get to what we've seen from the music itself, let's get the biggest story of the year out of the way first.

Kudos to Slayer for knowing when to hang it up. We've been talking about this day since Jeff Hanneman first took his absence from the band, but it was still surprising to see it finally happen. We've been seeing more and more bands keep trotting themselves out for run after run long after they stopped being who we remembered them to be, so it's refreshing to Slayer do what so few others can. RATT just apparently fired their guitarist after years of feuding to get the name back, and are going to head out as a broken unit once more. Judas Priest is out there now without either of the guitar players who penned every single damn song fans care about. KISS is still talking about replacing everyone and having nameless scabs playing dates. Plus, there's that Ronnie James Dio sacrilege out there.

So to have Slayer (or Tom Araya, I'm guessing) actually retire before the crowds stop showing up is something revolutionary. The last few Slayer albums have been middling at best, so this retirement is mostly about touring. Slayer still puts on a ferocious show, but at what point does it get uncomfortable to watch guys pushing sixty playing a song like "Payback", with those literary lyrics, "I'm going to tear your fucking eyes out, Rip your fucking flesh off, Beat you till you're just a fucking lifeless carcass"? Metal was never designed for the middle aged and older crowd, so now that the big names are members of AARP, we have to reconsider how much cognitive dissonance we're willing to accept.

That's actually why I have always spoken out about certain varieties of metal lyrics. Songs that scream rebellion, or brag about how metal someone is, they just don't hold up when the voices behind them could be sponsored by Just For Men. If metal had grown up more over the years, and taken a more enlightened approach, maybe we wouldn't be facing this. There's a reason why Iron Maiden doesn't look or sound silly still playing their songs. They work no matter the age.

The other big news of the year, at least for us, is the return of Graveyard from what I guess was technically a breakup. That episode reminds us that bands are complex tangles of interpersonal relationships, and no matter how well things are going, it doesn't mean problems won't arise. But before I get too deep into that, and we explore whether Ghost is about to become the mainstream face of rock, I'll let you take the lead.

D.M: Cripes, is it June already?  I feel like I was just shoveling snow a week ago.  At any rate, before we dive too deeply into the matters at hand, let me begin by apologizing publicly to you, our friends in music promotion, and our dedicated army (not to overstate it,) of readers.  I think I have successfully reviewed one album so far this year, which is a God damn shame on my part.  I haven’t been nearly up to the level I would expect of myself.

I’m trying to write a book, make upgrades to house, deal with some personal stuff, and oh by the way still show up to work on time and do my job.  Sadly, this has caused my print musical participation to go down.  I’ll do better in the back half, I promise.

Anyway, to the points at hand.  Last thing first – Ghost, as much as you and I want them to be on top of the heap as aural world conquerors, and as much as they probably deserve it, it won’t happen.  I say that not to be contrarian or even to be pessimistic, but just because as someone who works in media, I’d like to think I have some sense of how this works.  Ghost’s ceiling comes from the double-edged sword they set themselves up with directly from the gate – their gimmick.  It’s not that a gimmick in and of itself can preclude you from that level of fame, but the nature of the gimmick can, and any band that openly touts themselves, even in jest, as affiliated with Satan or demonic imagery of any kind won’t ever see themselves playing on the daytime talk show circuit.

I hear some of you out there already – ‘but what about KISS?’ you’re saying.  And that’s fair, but if you really examine KISS, their affiliation with the devil came more from other people looking for it than from them talking about it.  Same for Alice Cooper and even Marilyn Manson.  Satan remains a taboo subject, and don’t get me wrong, Ghost can have a great career and make piles of money and be every bit as successful even as some of the top dogs like Iron Maiden, but they’ll never be Metallica.

It’s the difference between Ghost and Greta Van Fleet.  As derivative as GVF is (with all requisite apologies to my wife, who loves them,) their sound is catchy and well produced and they look the part and most importantly of all, they don’t offend.  Just wait, if they haven’t already, they’re gonna start appearing in car commercials any minute now.

At the risk of going too deep into the reeds, I believe there’s even some current socio-economic trends that hurt Ghost’s chance at mainstream superstardom, but what it boils down to is that right now, people aren’t in a mood to be shocked or challenged.  In the present state of media distribution, where it’s easy to ignore anything that affronts your affirmed values, that’s exactly what people are going to do with Ghost – ignore them.  It’s sad, really.

Now that I’ve flagellated that deceased equine into the dust, yay, Graveyard is back!  Now, everything I just talked about should work in favor of Graveyard, so I don’t know what’s holding them back.  All I can think of is that even after their ‘breakup,’ this new album “Peace,” which you and I love because it’s complex and beautiful and professional, doesn’t have the pop get up and go to make them a household name.  Graveyard’s music is soulful and fulfilling, which for audiophiles like us are the best possible qualities, but for the casual dude or dudette (do people still say dudette?  Did anyone ever really say it?) spinning their satellite radio dial might not stop for a Graveyard tune.

….is Slayer really done?

I want to believe they are, because as you said, both of us have been pulling for that for years now.  But we know how this works.  How many times has Ozzy been done?  Or KISS?  Or The Rolling Stones?  Judas Priest, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails have all faked their own deaths.  Music is like comic books or soap operas – it’s hard to believe someone’s actually dead.

For my part, Slayer was done for me a few years ago when I saw them in 2014.  No Hanneman, no Lombardo.  What was left?  A bunch of talented dudes, but dudes going through the motions.  It was disappointing to say the least, sad to say the worst.  I haven’t turned an eye to Slayer’s farewell tour, one because I don’t think the bill is that great, and second, because I was lucky enough to see them when they were SLAYER, a few years before Jeff started having health problems.  What they are now is an imitation of what they were then.

I will take exception to one thing you said, which is the point about the juvenile lyrics.  Yeah, okay, they’re juvenile.  I’m not gonna argue that.  I’m not even gonna argue that they’re good lyrics, because they’re not.

What I will argue is maybe tangential to your point, but I think it’s important.  As a culture, not just musical culture but as a whole, we’re real big on the idea that people should act their age, or that certain emotions or states of being or whatever are best left to certain age groups.  I can’t abide that.  As we get older, don’t we bust our asses and strive as hard as we do so that we can realize the aspirations we had at a younger age?  Why then must we sacrifice those ideals to conform to a societal norm that shuns us for exercising the decision making we’ve gained.  I have never understood the people I encounter who say ‘well, I used to listen to metal, but I’m too old for it now.’ Why?  Says who?  Listen, I get it, tastes change, and that’s fine.  But if that’s the case, just say your tastes changed.  Don’t give me some line about how you feel you have to act your age.  As a great friend once told me, the only thing you’ve ever too old to do is drink illegally.

So I guess what I’m circling around is this – I believe Slayer should be done because that train has run out of steam, but I don’t think Araya or King or whoever should be told to stop just because they’re older than they used to be.  Now, I cede, they might be a bad example because they’re also individually out of new ideas, and thus out of steam, but if they teamed up and started a totally different band that played death metal covers of showtunes or even if they just started a new thrash band with just as obscene lyrics and called it “REYALS” or something, you do you, man.

I’m with you in that some media doesn’t age well (anybody read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” lately?) but that doesn’t necessarily diminish its value as an artifact of its time if the artist wants to continue showing it to us.

Anyway, I feel like I was just real negative and contrarian for about twelve hundred words, which isn’t like me at all, and not necessarily how I wanted to kick this off.  My apologies.  Before I get too far down the rabbit hole, what else you got?

CHRIS C: The reason I'm higher on Ghost's chances than you are is because the bar for what I'm claiming has been lowered so, so far. Think about it; what is success for a rock band these days? There aren't any rock bands at all that are able to cross over into the 'mainstream' mainstream. None are generating hit singles on the real charts. Rock now exists completely within itself. Foo Fighters would be the current biggest rock band, but none of their singles form the last couple records made it to Top 40 radio. They've become too old and tired for that format. Nickelback has fizzled out, and they haven't had a hit in a while either. Even someone as massive as U2 hasn't had a true hit in a couple of album cycles. The only band that can qualify is Maroon 5, but they're not a rock band anymore, if they ever were.

Among rock fans, I think Ghost hits enough marks to be able to appeal to a wide array of us. They're heavy enough, they're dark enough, but they're also fun. They are the one band in rock that a fan could conceivably drag an unsuspecting friend to a show and have them enjoy the heck out of it. As evidenced by the video for "Dance Macabre", Ghost has become the pop outlet for a lot of metal people too. So no, Ghost will never be Metallica, but we're judging them against the rock bands of their own time. Compared to them, I could see Ghost reaching the top.

Greta Van Fleet is way too early to say anything about, since they haven't even recorded a damn album yet. Right now, I think a lot of their 'success' is about nothing but their Zeppelin similarities. I've had their music sitting in front of me for a while, and I can't actually tell you the last time I played it. Like Ghost, right now GVF is a gimmick, and I'm going to have to wait and see if they can overcome that. If their eventual album sounds just like Zeppelin, it might do well, but it will be the start of their downfall. They can only be a clone for so long before people get tired of it. How many AC/DC clones have there been over the years? I can't even count, but every single one of them faded from memory when it became clear there was never going to be anything original to them. Remember the band Jet? They had a true breakout, mainstream hit, and they disappeared right after that because everyone realized all they could do was copy what we've already heard. GVF has a lot of growing to do, and not much time to do it.

Graveyard suffers that same problem, actually. Forget about crossing over to the mainstream because of a lack of 'pop get up and go'. They haven't even risen in the rock world, and largely because of their old-school flair. The music communities I travel in don't get Graveyard at all. It's the old story of a retro band having trouble appealing to a modern audience. We both love Graveyard dearly, and would assume rock fans of all stripes would hear what we hear, but they don't. I don't know what it is rock fans are after, but apparently it isn't this.

We briefly discussed this on our own, but our shared love of Graveyard is odd, considering our very different takes on their career. I feel they came out of the gate swinging, and have been fighting to keep it up, while you find they stumbled a bit earlier and are currently at the height of their powers. What's remarkable, to me, is the floor is so high for them that we both agree even their lesser albums are still better than most other rock out there. I don't know if there's any other band we share an affinity for where our rankings are quite so different. Maybe Iron Maiden.

I do find it funny you use the word 'audiophile', though. One thing I would say about "Peace" is the recording is a bit fuzzy for my taste. I miss some of the bluesy 'thump' the guitars used to have.

Maybe I didn't use the best words for what I mean about Slayer. It isn't just that their lyrics are juvenile and sound odd coming out of men who are deciding at what age to start collecting Social Security, it's that Slayer is a band that suffers from Homer Simpson disease; they have gotten dumber as time passes. Slayer's early material was evil and controversial, and most of it actually holds up extremely well. But somewhere in the 90s, Kerry got lazy, and with each passing album the lyrics became more and more about cursing, instead of actually saying something. It peaked on "God Hates Us All", but all their modern albums have been so ham-fisted in their delivery there's no point to it anymore. What's clear is what you said, that Slayer is out of ideas. What started out as a critique of religion became anger at it, which then became saying "fuck religion". In trying to say the same thing album after album, they found the only way to continue sounding the way Slayer is supposed to sound was by growing more coarse. Many of Kerry's songs today are the sort of things that get a pass from a youngster, under the guise of "they don't know any better yet". Slayer sure as hell does by now, and that's the problem. Or was, to be more accurate. But then again, I'm a bitter former intellectual, so I don't speak for most metal fans.

A theme that is popping up here is nostalgia, whether for the sound of a time period, or for bands from our younger days. I wonder how much of that is involved in my love for one of my picks for the best releases so far this year. I wrote about this before, but when I was first truly getting into metal (which you helped with), the biggest name from this side of the pond pulling me in was Killswitch Engage. Regardless of how those albums hold up to modern listeners, they hold tremendous nostalgic appeal for me, so I'm left pondering if memories of first hearing Howard Jones are the catalyst for how I feel regarding his new band. Since I didn't like the band that came in-between, I'm inclined to give myself the benefit of the objective doubt, but it does bring up issues regarding how we can ever escape the gravitational pull of the past. Whether it's bands from long ago we come back to long after they have had their day, or new bands that are aping old sounds, it feels like half of our musical lives are spent looking backward.

It's why I have a bit of trouble with bands like The Night Flight Orchestra, or Greta Van Fleet, etc. While I will never deny their talents, I don't quite see the need to recreate what has already been. Especially in the case of all the bands that are bringing back the synths and reverb of the 80s. Didn't rock fans spend an entire generation bitching about that stuff? Now we want it back? That's what's great about Graveyard. While their production sounds like the 70s, name me a classic rock band that sounds like them. I can't think of any who write and play the same way they do. They bring something unique to an old sound, which is how to properly do nostalgia. You prime the pump with something familiar, but quench us with something new.

I suppose we could talk about the effects of the #MeToo movement on bands, but I'd rather stay on less depressing subjects. So instead I'll ask, has anything about 2018 been truly memorable? That's a question I'm struggling with.

D.M: You know, can we step back a second and examine something?  It struck me when you started talking about the Foo Fighters and U2 and others massive rock bands who may never again strike at the popularity they used to enjoy.  (Real quick, let me add Muse and maybe *shrug* Coldplay to your list of uber-popular current mainstream rock bands.  Also, if they ever came back again, which looks increasingly unlikely, The White Stripes.)

That’s when it hit me.  How do we explain Radiohead?  I’ve never been a fan, but I have to admit, they are a phenomenon, and they still seem to be able to sell out any arena they want on any given night in any city on earth.  I thought their star had faded when it seems like their hiatus would be ongoing, but then a couple years ago, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” and bam!  They’re selling out three nights at MSG again.

I’ve never been able to figure out how they do it.  The band has little in the way of a public promotional vehicle, has enjoyed virtually no radio play outside of college campuses, and doesn’t make a ton of statements or public appearances.  Somehow, for twenty years, they’ve probably been one of the top six or seven rock acts in the world, and the average person on the street might be only dimly aware of them.  I don’t get it.  They’re clearly the outlier, but how did they even get to that point?

In answer to what you say about Ghost though, I would argue they’ve already attained the level you’re talking about.  Or at the very least, they don’t have far to go.  Outside of obtuse metal fans who refuse to enjoy the band on some point of twisted principle, I think they’ve already reached several market segments that a common popular metal band can’t boast.

Which begs the question…deep breath…is Ghost a metal band?  And listen, let me add that it doesn’t really matter if they are or aren’t, and I don’t especially care, but we live in a society of classification and neat genre definitions, and it’s a fun conversation.

I do remember Jet!  I saw them live in concert, twice!  I also remember Airbourne.  They’ve carved out a decent career for themselves, but never gotten out of the shadow of being, to your point, a younger AC/DC.

Totally with you on GVF – every time I hear them, I think to myself ‘but I already own “Physical Graffiti.”

And yes, while we love Graveyard and Iron Maiden for different reasons, let’s have a moment of solidarity!  We both agree that Anthrax should have stuck with John Bush.  Or at the very, dead least, should acknowledge that John Bush happened.  It’s an ongoing shame!

The worst thing that ever happened to Slayer (okay, second worst thing – I assume Hanneman’s passing was the worst thing,) is that they let Kerry King start writing the majority of the songs, both lyrically and musically.  (This comes with a giant ‘but’ – King also wrote the music and lyrics for “Temptation,” which I personally think is the best song Slayer ever wrote.)  King didn’t, and doesn’t, have the nuance, if it can be called that, that makes up the best Slayer songs.  Everything he writes is damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead, with no room for great riffs or breathing space, which is numbing after a while.  And, as you pointed out, he’s a…subpar…lyricist.  The cruelest joke of all of this is that Slayer wasn’t even nominated for a single Grammy until after King takes over the lion’s share of the writing duties.  What are we doing?

Listen, it’s not just you.  We’re all products of our high school self, right?  We can grow and change, and I’m certainly not the same person I was then in many ways, but when I pop in Soundgarden’s “Superunknown,” it rings certain bells that no matter how dusty they get, remain part of my mental firmament.  And there’s no question that that colors how I view the music I hear now.

Somebody recently read me a statistic (for whatever that’s worth,) that said that most people stop aggregating new music after they turn thirty-five.  While that’s less than two weeks away for me (I won’t be able to check the ‘18-34’ box anymore, which means I’ve officially hit the age where advertising agencies no longer care about me,) I’d like to think that I’ll keep collecting and finding new avenues that I enjoy.  But I can’t lie – I feel like I have a pretty solid musical identity at this point, and the things I enjoy in the future will most likely fit within my already established paradigm.

Which dovetails into your larger point.  There’s plenty of bands I’ve heard this year who show some promise, but I ultimately shrug and resolve myself to the fact that I’ve heard it before, somewhere else, probably better.  Black Sabbath clones are the most obvious example in my line of musical ingest, but there are an awful lot of Deep Purples and would-be Overkills and stuff I feel like I already know.

2018 has been notable for me in a couple areas – first and saddest, it saw the release of another mediocre album by The Sword.  Stop it.  Please.  Listen, I can’t tell them what to do and how to express themselves as artists, but I can tell them that they’re more talented that what they’ve chosen to do.

Second, not that any of these bands have necessarily blown my socks off or anything, but I have heard a very scant handful of acts dip their toe into the shallowest edges of the rap metal pool.  Which had been so summarily polluted during its heyday that it was declared a brownfield and left for figurative dead.  I am happy to see it has healed a little, just enough to be interesting, because while rap metal became the most annoying genre you can imagine, it also gave us Rage Against the Machine, and so while it may never come to prominence again, so long as the bad memories persist, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t experiment a little to see what the fringes look like.  I’m into it.


CHRIS C: The way I want to explain Radiohead is rather disrespectful, both to the band and their fans, so I'll try to soften what I'm thinking. The thrust of it is that Radiohead is to rock what Phish is to whatever genre they play. Radiohead's trippy electronics and emphasis on doodly atmosphere is the perfect setting for listening while high. Certainly, I have never listened to a Radiohead song and come away with a firm memory in my mind. The other aspect would be that "OK Computer" was far better at expanding out beyond the confines of rock than I had ever expected. I would venture there are a fair number of Radiohead fans who don't actually like rock, and don't listen to any other rock bands. In that way, what they've done is genius, even if I don't care at all about it.

Is Ghost a metal band? No, they aren't, and I don't think they ever were. Even on their first album, they were only taking cues from proto-metal. They never had the heaviness of a 'real' metal band, and they have always loved their sing-along melodies more than most self-respecting metal fans would be able to handle. From day one, I've thought they were a rock band. That puts them nicely into the category with people like Alice Cooper, with whom they obviously share roots. "Meliroa" had its heavy moments, but even that record lacked the aggression of metal. There are hints at metal in their sound, but that's about it.

That does bring up the question of what exactly metal is. Over the years, as metal has expanded into heavier and heavier areas, has the window of acceptably metal metal moved that way in tandem? Are the fringe metal bands of the past now explicitly rock bands today? Maybe in 1979 Ghost would have been a metal band, but not today. That leads us into why Eddie Trunk is a moron, since he doesn't understand why so many metal musicians and fans love Ghost. The answer is simple; metal fans can like things that aren't metal, you twit!

My commentary is from someone who has extremely limited stake as a listener, but Anthrax has ceased to be a credible recording unit since John Bush got shown the door. They might be selling more concert tickets with fans who still wish they were as thin and had as much hair as they did in the 80s, Anthrax has been so calculating in the machinations that they've rendered their own career a business decision. I don't know how to listen to their natural evolution, followed by the immediate snap back to the past as though the 90s never existed, as anything other than a cynical ploy to make money. We know the music they're making right now isn't the music they'd be making if Bush had remained with them. It's hard to then take them seriously. They're literally just giving us what they think we want. While music is both art and business, I prefer it when the art at least gets to pretend to matter more.

I think you're half right. Kerry taking the reigns of Slayer was surely a bad thing, but their fall began with "Diabolous In Musica", which was almost all Jeff's baby. The problem they had was once they reached a certain level of success, they went their separate ways. It happens all the time, most famously with Lennon and McCartney. Instead of banging out songs together, they were writing everything at home, even admitting they rarely spoke when there wasn't band business to attend to. Neither one of them had the sounding board to wipe the shit off their songs, so Slayer became two different bands that shared a singer and space on albums. Being able to so obviously tell whose songs were whose never struck me as a good thing. The one thing that would have saved Slayer is if Tom had been more assertive. If he took leadership, and served as an editor for both of the others, I think we would have gotten albums that hung together better, and that didn't insult our intelligence the same way.

I'm not far behind in joining you outside the target ad demo. I would like to think I'm far from the end of my time searching and discovering new music. I get many of the same feelings you do, where everything feels tired and done before, and those stretches of time are tough. I've grown tired of trying to find new ways to describe the music of Generic Band #512. But then there will occasionally be that one thing that is just unique enough, or just flat out great at something established, to make it all worthwhile. I have the kind of mindset that will hate myself if I know that gem is out there and I missed it. A bit of OCD will probably keep me going even after I feel my shelves have enough music I love on them.

There's a side-effect of this job. Because of how much new music there is to sort through, and how often a new release needs to be listened to to really sink in as a favorite, there never seems to be time to go back and listen to all the great records from before. I hate realizing how long it's been since I've spun some of my favorites, but there's only so much time in the day.

As for me, there has really only been one thing of note; there is an absolute leader now for my favorite 'new' band. That would happen to be The Spider Accomplice, who released the third and final installment of their concept record, "Los Angeles" recently. What I love about them isn't just that they make great alternative/pop/rock, it's that each release has given us something new and different, while still sounding like them. When we keep talking about bands rehashing and rehashing, this is precisely the antidote to that. All three of their EPs are great in their own way. Most bands don't take long to disappoint me in some fashion, so getting three releases in where I'm still raving means something big is going on. As I mentioned to you before, I'm the sort of person for whom it's rare for me to find a band where I like more than one or two of their releases passionately. So me saying this already about this group is impressive.

Ok, I'm slightly lying. There is one other thing of note. I firmly believe that as of now, Machine Head is a shoo-in for the worst record of the year. If I can drop the pretense of being fair for a moment, I'll describe it as a garbage big filled with dirty diapers that were left in a compost pile during a sunny heat wave.

Care to top that?

D.M: What strikes me as the most odd in your assertion of Eddie Trunk's idiocy is that he is (or was) the most vocal proponent of Greta Van Fleet, so he's clearly maintaining a double standard in the 'old is new again' department.

Speaking of, not to drag the conversation back to GVF, but I just had a sobering thought: do they even need to release an album?  Could we be seeing the advent of a new business model, where bands only release a new single every three to four months?  I don't mean to assume or insult, but they hardly seem like the kind of band who's going to release the next great concept album, so why would they release a whole bunch of music at once?  As much as a trickle of single releases sounds like anathema to me, I can see some obvious advantages.  How often, as music reviewers, have we said "there are good singles, but the album as a whole isn't that great"?  If you're a band, why not concentrate on making one song at a time great, and then generate additional buzz by releasing them over time?  Oh man.  I hope I haven't just given someone an idea.

The question of the moving metal goalpost is an interesting one, because you're right, Ghost may not be a metal band (and no one is saying they need to be,) and yet they would have easily crossed that threshold back in the day.  I find that gratifying in that clearly we've at least reached a point where 'metal' is determined based on sound rather than something as subjective as content.  By that I mean that Ghost, as a band whose act is based around demonic imagery, would have been branded as the scariest metal band on Earth just by their mere being, where now their sound excludes them from that same group (to some.)  But, the caveat here, as it always is, is the force of nostalgia.  I was listening to the first Danzig record the other day, which is widely regarded as part of the bible of metal (contradictory though that term sounds,) and really, it's not a metal album by the modern definition.  Neither are any of Ozzy's early works, and some luminaries like Judas Priest's "British Steel" might not be, either.  Yet, because they were metal 'then,' they are metal 'now,' solely because we want to remember them that way.

I also have difficulty with the concept of defining what metal is, because by its very nature, metal is meant to rebellious, and therefore should be resistant to classification in the first place.  There comes a reflexive point where to not be metal might be the most metal thing of all.  And therefore, maybe Ghost is metal after all?

I can only offer this, and it's a lame cop-out, I admit.  I know metal when I hear it.

See, what you bring up in reference to the drive to find new music is something I think about a lot.  I also don't like to feel like I'm being left in the lurch, and I also tire of the slog of saying the same thing over and over again, but like you, sometimes somebody is just new enough, or just different enough.  As I reflect on two of my favorite bands of the moment, they reflect each side of this dichotomy - Destrage is something new, a whole new universe of sound and musical blending that I've never experienced to such an accomplished degree before.  Graveyard is something old made new again.  So I am both in and out of my comfort zone.

I hate to admit this, because it makes me sound incredibly lazy, but I didn't even listen to Machine Head's album.  I have long since written them off as a band who 'I know what they sound like.'  I apparently should be glad I missed it.

Sigh, I can't top what you've put down, only because it means fifteen more minutes of me scratching my head and crying about The Sword.  Nobody wants that.

What's got you excited for the second half of the year?

CHRIS C: What you're suggesting has already started to happen, and it makes me sad. There are many bands out there now who have already scrapped albums in favor of EPs, and soon will scrap EPs in favor of singles. There is nothing wrong with singles, or EPs (I've liked many of them recently quite a lot), but I do come from the old school that appreciates being able to sit down and listen to a band for a solid length of time when I'm in the mood to hear them. Plus, it saddens me if there are great singles that never get included in a larger release, because they tend to slip out of the consciousness more easily. I'm probably too analog for the currently digital world, however.

My bigger issue with the practice is how it doesn't make sense if a band wants to grow, and pursue music as a career. It's difficult to have the conversation telling someone about a great new band you've found, and you can only point them to two songs that exist. Or, you have a band like Greta Van Fleet who can be headlining tours, but they barely have half an hour of original music to their name. How are they supposed to give a show that isn't a rip-off if they don't have enough music to fill the set?

Maybe I'm weird, but if I have forty-five minutes or so to sit down and listen to music, I almost exclusively want to listen to one band and one style over that time. I don't want to have to sort through a list of thousands of songs and dart between a hundred different styles. I don't find that enjoyable. While there is something to be said for releasing only as much music as you can make great, I would also say it's harder to love a band if you are only getting fun-sized pieces from them. As much as we rag on Springsteen (got it in!), he's written a few great songs. If he had only released singles, and they were the ones, I could be led to think he's amazing, when in fact I actually don't care for 90% or more of everything he's ever done. It can distort our perception.

You're totally right about those Danzig records. They aren't metal at all, according to today's thought. I would say that the first Black Sabbath album, despite its status as the beginning, probably isn't one either. It's confusing to look back at metal's history and have to do this kind of retroactive brain surgery. We can hold two records in our hands that are nearly identical, and because one was made three decades earlier, they wind up on either side of the metal debate. It's stupid, but I don't feel anyone has the desire (or the courage, for that matter) to go back and re-categorize all of those albums. Who wants to say Metallica was really only a thrash band for one album? Or that Priest has gone back and forth from rock to metal and back a few times?

I'm actually more comfortable with Ghost being a rock band than a metal one, because not having the weight of metal's expectations on them allows the music to take in new influences all the time. They're getting away with "Dance Macabre" (which I think it awesome, by the way) because it's a dancy rock song from a rock band. If they were truly a metal band, people would be shouting "heresy!" That would be ludicrous, but metal fans can often be a small-minded lot.

I don't blame you. Machine Head has had more than enough chances to show us they're something other than trend-chasing has-beens. I only gave them the time of day because I heard rumors of how bad it was going to be, and I'm often curious about train wrecks. I think if there's one person in the metal world who is a complete and utter poser, it's Robb Flynn. His entire career seems to be one long attempt to not be one album behind whatever's popular at the moment.

As for the rest of the year, I'm not sure if the news just slips out of my mind because of the pace of life, but I can't think of much I'm 'excited' about. I'm always interested to hear what Halestorm is up to, even if I think they've completely lost their way. There are supposed to be new albums from Forever Still and Jasmine Cain on the way that are following up records I really liked. And there are a couple of progressive metal albums coming from Redemption and Seventh Wonder that could be very good. Otherwise, I'm in wait-and-see mode until next year, when we get new Avantasia music. Oh, and Tool too, but I don't care very much about that.

What does your crystal ball show?

D.M: You know, I'm loathe to even bring this up, but while we sit here and ruminate on why Ghost may or may not get acceptance from the metal commuity at large (not that they need it, as we've determined,) it strikes me that I don't remember any acrimony of this magnitude over HIM.  Now, there's a bunch of mitigating factors there, not the least of which is that HIM a) sucks, and b) appealed to, I think, young women, as opposed to Ghost's broader audience (and there's nothing wrong with appealing to young women, it works for HIM, it's just a difference.)  Even so though, I don't remember anyone in particular complaining about HIM's brand of metal - so-called 'Love Metal' - at least not to the degree that Ghost receives criticism.  What am I missing here?  Did I just block out a whole conversation that happened eight years ago?  Or did not enough people give a crap about HIM?  Secondarily, the heartagram was everywhere for a couple years, is it even possible that Ville Valo helped ready the world for Ghost?  I shudder to even type that.

As for my crystal ball, some enticing options in the nearish future.  Children of Bodom and Powerwolf both have upcoming records.  I'm always a little cautious with CoB because they do have a couple duds in their history, but they also released "Relentless, Reckless Forever," which is a personal top ten album for me all time.  Powerwolf tends to deliver a consistent product, so less suspense there, but that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to it.  As a matter of fact, they may be the only power metal band that really holds my attention these days - I find the genre has stagnated.

As ever, I continue my campaign for the release of the last Blackguard album, "Storm," but that's here more as a token than as a legit wish.  Hope always springs eternal that I will find some new, hidden gem out in the ether, and the early summer has had several promising releases so far.

And I actually have a bunch of good concerts coming up this summer, including but not limited to Arch Enemy, Red Fang and Life of Agony, so a full summer lies ahead!

That's all I got, take us home.

CHRIS C: I think the difference between HIM and Ghost is that while they are/were both bands that blended dark imagery with pop melodies, HIM's success was mostly exclusive to the mainstream. They were big at their height (I remember hearing "Wings Of A Butterfly" all the time), but you didn't have members of Metallica and the like participating in their videos, and taking them on tour. For whatever reason, Ghost has more of a foothold with purely metal people than other more melodic bands ever have. It's probably because the imagery gives them an excuse to claim they aren't being 'weak' or 'soft'. That line of thinking is absurd, but let's not kid ourselves. The kinds of people who think carving Slayer's name into their flesh is a good idea are never going to admit they like other kinds of music.

That's precisely why I've never called myself a metalhead. It's a loaded term.

With all of that being said, we've reached the end of another one of these conversations. I think what we've proven is that there is an intellectual level at which this music exists, even if the artists don't know it. Music isn't simply a series of pleasant sounding notes our brain glitches and gets stuck with. Music is a reflection of culture and humanity, for better and for worse. At least this time, it seems the first half of 2018 has given us a bit more of the former than the latter.

Onward to the second half of the year!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Album Review: City Of The Weak - Pulling Teeth

We all have our weaknesses. For me, one of them is certainly pop/rock bands with female singers. Maybe I'm getting soft as I get older, or maybe I'm just sick to death of guys barking like morons when they should be singing, but several of my favorite albums in recent years fit this mold, and I'm always prone to giving a chance to anyone who can be the next one in the line. There are several more such releases on schedule for later this year, so City Of The Weak serves as a sort of prequel to those records. But that isn't to discount their chances.

The album starts off with "Like I Do", where we get some staccato pop/punk riffing through the verses, followed by a chorus that brings a lovely melody. Stef's voice is a touch lower, and definitely less piercing than many of the women I hear in these bands. It sets the band apart a bit, and it also makes the music sound a hair darker, both of which are good things. It's easy for this style to push too hard, to become a bit too bright, where it loses some of the teeth that makes it the perfect combination. City Of The Weak stays on the right side of that line, without fail.

Later, on "Glad You Could Make It", the band gets heavier as they throw in a couple of slick guitar riffs that border on being metal. They're still tempered by a bouncing chorus that roots the song in accessibility, which is exactly what they should be doing. Making a song catchy is one of the hardest things a songwriter can do, and it often gets a bad reputation from rock and metal fans who don't understand the entire point of writing music is for people to remember it. Otherwise, why bother?

"Not This Time" is the first single, sitting in the middle of the record, and it might be the quintessential song here. Chugging guitars give the verses heft, and the chorus has Stef soaring more than any of the other tracks. Her melodies are melodic and catchy, but come with a slight undertone of melancholy, which I love. It's a bit more subtle, and not smashing you in the face. You can try so hard to be pop that it loses its effectiveness. That is not the case here at all.

The whole of this record is highly engaging pop/rock that does what this kinds of music is supposed to. It's lively, it's catchy, and it's a soundtrack for a good time. The only complaint I have is that the record is only 31 minutes, including a two minute instrumental. It would have been better with an extra song or two to give us more time together, but what is here is certainly good enough. I may be biased toward enjoying this style more than many, but "Pulling Teeth" is a good record regardless of that. This record came as a surprise, and it's a welcome one.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Album Review: The Sea Within - The Sea Within

These days, it seems that all genres are cannibalistic, but prog perhaps more than any other. The small group of people who love to play it get together in new combinations of the same faces all the time, producing music that ironically begins to sound the same because of the sheer volume of it. The Sea Within is a new such group, combining Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold of The Flower Kings with Marco Minnemann (who has played with nearly everyone), and Daniel Gildenlow from Pain Of Salvation. Given Daniel's stint as the fifth member of Transatlantic on stage, one wonders if this project is an attempt to recreate that band's success.

What I find interesting about The Sea Within is that for being a prog ensemble, they have actually given us an album that is much more concise and song-oriented than might have been expected. Only one of the tracks across these seventy-seven minutes hits the ten minute mark. While the music might take detours of style, the songs stay focused to a startling degree.

"Ashes Of Dawn" would be a straight-forward rocker with a Flower Kings flavor, if not for the saxophone solo that gives the middle eight a dose of jazz feeling. It's those unexpected details that give most of the prog weight to this record. Given how many double albums and twenty minute epics these guys have written over the years, writing a record like this might have been the best way to challenge themselves.

Given how much I disliked the most recent Pain Of Salvation record, I was wary of what influence Gildenlow would bring to this group. For the most part, The Sea Within sounds like The Flower Kings, but with the added heaviness of someone more in tune with progressive metal. It is not that heavy by any means, but the sound is a bit deeper and darker than Roine's usual tones. That works in the band's favor, giving them an identity beyond everyone's histories.

The group I would most compare The Sea Within to is actually Flying Colors. Between Gildenlow's vocal similarities, and having prog musicians largely playing in constrained structures, there is a lot tying the two together. The Sea Within is more prog, obviously, with a looser jazz improvisational feeling to much of their music. To me, it sounds like the band had the basic melodic ideas locked in, then went into the studio and jammed their way to a complete song. That approach can keep things fresh, can lead to interesting detours, but it can also be indulgent in a way that the music is more appealing to the players than the audience. Prog often encounters that issue.

However, while I am by no means the world's biggest prog fan (despite holding Transatlantic in extremely high esteem), The Sea Within rarely takes things too far for me. That means they might disappoint more devoted fans of prog, but I quite enjoy hearing them ride the knife's edge between commercial and artistic. It's more exciting, and adventurous, than making another prog album of giant epics. They could do that in their sleep.

"The Sea Within" is an album I would classify as 'Dave Matthews Prog'. There's a lot of great playing, and plenty of interesting developments, but the whole thing is a bit too slow and somber to work as well as it should. The album doesn't quite get things firing on all cylinders at any point. The music is lovely, and the sound is engaging, but there's a lack of energy that makes the full running time a bit much. I can see why the band members would have enjoyed themselves in the studio making this record, but it's music for the musicians, and that is what I most feared.