Monday, December 31, 2018

2019: A Year Of Album Anniversaries

The new year is upon us, and every time I encounter one, I can't help but feel that age has turned the process into a wormhole, where each look to the future is also a look backwards. Nostalgia is as much about putting today into context as it is remembering better(?) times. The adage says those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but there's truth in the inverse as well. When we remember the past, we may be doomed to find the present failing to measure up. That could be especially true in 2019, where I am inundated with anniversaries for albums that have meant to much to me over the year. I may take some time during the year to revisit these albums for retrospective analysis, but for right now I'm going to briefly list the eight albums nostalgia is going to have ruling my year.

10 Years Ago:

Killswitch Engage - S/T

This record gets overlooked and written off by a lot of fans, but it shouldn't be. Yes, it showed a different side of Killswitch, ditching some of their heavier tendencies, but it revealed a sound that could expand further, connect more directly, and even touch on the mainstream. It also came full circle in 2018 with Light The Torch, where Howard Jones picked up that sound and showed its power to an audience more willing to hear it.

Bloodbound - Tabula Rasa

I trace the bloodline of modern, heavy power metal straight back to this record. It was the first time I recall hearing Soilwork-esque melodic death metal guitars without harsh vocals limiting the appeal. It burned an impression in my mind as soon as I heard it, and ten years later it still sounds fresh and current. A record truly ahead of its time.

Dilana - InsideOut

I can distinctly remember the wait for this album. There were promises of release, then label issues, and a feeling it may never see the light of day. When it finally did, I scooped it up as quickly as I could, and that officially began the love affair I have with Dilana's voice. It has deepened with time, and her other record, but that does not diminish my affection for this one, which introduced me to my favorite song of all time.

15 Years Ago:

Killswitch Engage - The End Of Heartache

As I started to embrace music heavier than my early experiences, this album was a catalyst. It had just been released, and I had friends who were devoted to it, which explosed me to a form of music I would never have heard otherwise. Metalcore doesn't have the greatest reputation, but it does here. This record is the pinnacle of the style, the moment in time where the formula was crystallized. I'm not sure what I would be writing about if not for this record.

Jimmy Eat World - Futures

A record no one talks about, which is a true shame. "Bleed American" got all the attention, but this darker follow-up is the one that they should be remembered for. A thrilling and moving record, "Futures" is the burnt caramel left at the bottom of the pan after melting down some sugar. It may be dark, but that is where the flavor concentrates. "Futures" should have been the "Pinkerton" for the next generation.

Graham Colton Band - Drive

After the heyday of guitar pop/rock, Graham Colton's band had a shining moment in the sun before they imploded. This record picked up the threads of bands like The Wallflowers, mixed them with some Tom Petty, and gave us a real gift. "Dashboard Confessional" was the big thing at the time, but Graham Colton was making far better music, which makes his meandering into bland pop all the harder to stomach. This is a case of what could have been.

Dio - Master Of The Moon

I was handed a burned copy of this album by a friend, and little did I know what it would start. This was my first exposure to Dio, and it turned me into a fan. While I hold his time in Rainbow and Sabbath ahead of his solo band, I continue to defend this record as the best of his later career. Even now, this slower, more deliberate album fit his voice like a glove, and Dio was as subtly melodic as he had been in ages. It's an overlooked gem.

20 Years Ago:

Tonic - Sugar

Though it's hard for me to remember, there was a time before Tonic was my favorite band. That time ended twenty years ago, when I heard "Sugar" for the first time. Here, for the first time, I was handed the sound that I have spent every day since chasing; guitar-driven rock with beautiful pop hooks. "Sugar" isn't Tonic's best album, but it is still one of my all-time favorites, and it initiated me as a fan. It's influence on my life is immense.

25 Years Ago:

Blues Traveler - Four

The first CD I ever owned (I had "Bat Out Of Hell II" on cassette - which makes me feel so old) was this one, which helped me become a music fan at all. I got the record for the singles, which remain subversively delicious, but it was being able to dig deeper that showed me the importance of albums as a format. This one perhaps has aged a bit more than the others I have mentioned, but its importance cannot be overstated. Every path is one step followed by another. As the second step I took down the road as a music fan, I could have ben lead in dangerous directions. "Four" steered me right.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Singles Roundup: Dream Theater, Avantasia, Candlemass, & The Nearly Deads

As we enter 2019, we don't enter with a clean slate. We like to think everything starts over again when we put a new calendar on the wall, but that's a lie we tell ourselves. Time is not so easily fragmented, and memories and music bleed from one period to the next. So with that being said, let's take a look at a couple of lead singles from bigger-name metal records on the schedule for the first few months of the year, plus one recent entry that would have gone unnoticed otherwise. See, we can't make a clean break after all.

Dream Theater - Untethered Angel

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. The first verse of this song sounds remarkably like "Outcry", but not as good, since that track is fantastic. Dream Theater is going back to basics yet again with this album, and this is a rather concise single for them. The main riff is solid, and heavy, and the solo sections have the intricate playing you would want to hear. The issue isn't even the self-referencing, it's the vocals. The hook of the song is weak and uninspired, and James' vocals are ruined with vocal effects that aren't needed. He sounds great on his solo albums, and terrible in Dream Theater. It's bizarre. This sounds way better than "The Astonishing" and the self-titled, but it doesn't speak to this being one of their best records.

Avantasia - The Raven Child

"Ghostlights" was one of Tobi's best albums. That sets the bar very high for the new one, of which this is the first taste. Tobi has given us the album's epic, which is an interesting choice. We get guest performances from Hansi Kursh and Jorn Lande, both of whom are far more welcome than Michael Kiske (who sadly will appear on the album). This song has a heavier folk influence through the acoustic opening, a string motif that feels Celtic, and a structure that abandons the chorus halfway through. The first two are good decisions, differentiating the song from Tobi's other longer works, but I do feel the song loses a bit of steam in that it doesn't revisit the hook, which is the best part of the song, again in the last few minutes. It almost feels incomplete. Tobi never lets us down, so this is still very good, but it's not quite as exciting as "Mystery Of A Blood Red Rose" was.

Candlemass - The Omega Circle

I should not be reviewing this song. Candlemass is supposed to be retired, and yes, I am angry at them for having lied to us. I won't hold that against the song, though. They are rejoined by their original singer for the first time since the debut album, and the first track is something a bit unusual. What we get is Candlemass doom, but with a production that is right out of the grimy, occult rock playbook that has been so popular in recent times. As old-school as it sounds, it also sounds like the band jumping on a trend. It's not bad, but it doesn't ring as true Candlemass.

The Nearly Deads - Freak Show

I really liked the "Revenge Of The Nearly Deads" EP, but somehow it slipped by me that the band had a new single out. Once I rectified that, I was greeted by one of those slightly frustrating experiences. Don't get me wrong; the new song is great. "Freak Show" has the jaunty rhythm of a carnival, and one of those melodies with a slight lilt to it that softly burrows into your head without you realizing it. As good as their last EP was, I think this song is better than anything off of that, which brings me to the frustration I mentioned. This song is so good that four minutes of it isn't enough. I want to hear more from The Nearly Deads, because if this track is an indication, they are on a roll right now. Big, big thumbs up.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Top Ten Halestorm Songs

As the winner of this year's Album Of The Year, Halestorm has cemented their place as one of my absolute favorite bands of today. When the subject keeps being broached that rock might be dead, I get where the sentiment comes from. Having to listen to an endless stream of songs from Five Finger Death Punch and Theory Of A Deadman would make me want to take rock out behind the woodshed and put it down too. But rock isn't dead, even in the mainstream, because we have bands like Halestorm. So, today let's look at my favorite songs from their already illustrious career, album by album.


Halestorm came out of the gates with a great album. They would top it later, but that takes nothing away from the accomplishment of starting strong. The clear and obvious choice as the best track from that record is "Innocence", which continues to be as awesome as the first time I heard it. When the band falls back to let Lzzy unleash leading into the last chorus, it's pure magic.

I Miss The Misery
Beautiful With You
Here's To Us
Private Parts

"The Strange Case Of..." shared Album Of The Year honors from me, and with tracks like these it's easy to see why. "I Miss The Misery" is a burner of a track that has just enough restraint to the lyrics Lzzy is shouting, while "Beautiful With You" is the best vocal performance of Lzzy's career. Just listen to her belt those notes and tell me who's better. "Here's To Us" is their best rollicking sing-along, and was a harbinger of what would later come. The real standout, though, is "Private Parts", one of the bonus tracks. Lzzy and James Michael duet on one of the most epic four-minute rocking ballads you'll ever hear. It's been six years, and I still can't figure out how a song that good didn't get put on the record. Everyone needs to know about it.

I Am The Fire
What Sober Couldn't Say

"Into The Wild Life" was a bit of a problematic record, but it still produced a few gems. "I Am The Fire" is a full-throated call-to-arms that anchors concerts, while "What Sober Couldn't Say" shows that Lzzy's softer side is just as important as her rock-goddess status.

Killing Ourselves To Live
White Dress

And finishing with this year's Album Of The Year, we get three more phenomenal rock and roll moments. "Killing Ourselves To Love" has an 80s vibe that is able to sound familiar without being the outright copycat theft so many bands have been trending towards recently. "White Dress" calls back to the sound of the first two records, with a smooth melodic hook that would have played on pop radio when I was younger. And then there's "Vicious", which was my favorite song of this year. It's a bouncing, crunching, addictive slice of attitude and self-empowerment.

There are more I could list, but we'll save that for another day.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Top Ten Graveyard Songs

We have talked about Graveyard at great length here, because they are not only a great band, but they are one of the few that generates a consensus opinion. While I find myself listening to them fairly often, I do so with the albums in full. In my mind, I even tend to think of them strictly as 35-40 minute blocks of music, rather than as individual tracks that have been collected together. So for a change of pace, I'm going to look through their five album discography and pick out my ten favorite Graveyard tracks. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Siren

In no order, that is, except for this track. Without a doubt in my mind, this is Graveyard's magnum opus, the one song that most encapsulates everything they are. It is epic, yet focused. It is heavy as hell, yet gentle. It is the greatest classic rock song classic rock doesn't know about.

Slow Motion Countdown
Uncomfortably Numb
Hard Time Lovin'
Too Much Is Not Enough

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I love Graveyard when they are at their softest, playing their soulful take on ballads. From the slight grit in Joakim's voice, to the way their amps break up with just a hint of distortion, they are able to sound like they are giving it everything they've got, even when the songs are restrained.

Exit 97
Don't Take Us For Fools

The debut album doesn't get talked about much, but while it is a bit rougher around the edges, the band's sound was fully-formed from the get-go. That is especially true on "Don't Take Us For Fools", which features Graveyard's absolute best 'so simple it's genius' riffs, played with a guitar tone that shows that distortion isn't what makes a sound heavy. Hearing the chunk of those guitars is one of the absolute best moments of their entire career.

No Good, Mr Holden
Thin Line

The other side of Graveyard is faster and more aggressive, and they are great at that as well. Short and sweet, they waste no time in delivering only the meat, with none of the potatoes. Their songwriting is so direct it might seem incomplete, but that's the entire point. When the starting point is so good, you don't need anything else.

You might notice there are only two songs from the two latest albums represented. That isn't a slight on their quality, but a reflection that the period encompassing the first three is one of the magical times in rock when a band couldn't miss. My tastes might be a bit in left-field, but those three records are as good as classic rock can be, so it is no wonder they make up the majority of my love for Graveyard. Maybe that will change the next time I revisit this project. We'll have to see.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Worst/Most Disappointing Albums Of 2018

As we approach the end of the year, we always take the time to go back and highlight what was great about these last twelve months. We do so to give praise to the albums that ave us listening pleasure, but also to try to make sure others don't miss out on what we thought made the year so great. There is another side to the equation, though. Every year also gives unto us a host of records that are either outright terrible, or disappoint us in ways that hurt just as much. Those are the albums we talk about today, divided into those two categories.

Let's get started.

The Worst Albums:

1. Machine Head - Catharsis

This was one of the first albums I heard this year, and it made me fear for how awful the remainder could possibly be. Over the course of twelve months, nothing could dislodge this from its 'perch'. The combination of nu-metal, rapping, and lyrics complaining about the long lines as Disney World are the stuff of my nightmares. Men in their fifties should be self-aware enough to not put out a record as immature as a teenager, but Machine Head always lives down to the lowest common denominator.

2. Ministry - Amerikkkant

This album is supposed to exist as a statement about the current political climate, but there are two problems with that; 1) Al Jourgenson cannot be taken seriously, and 2) This album is god-awful. Al throws together whatever random samples he can find, throws terrible industrial 'beats' over them, and delivers a vocal performance that is either an application to AA, or an indictment of its failures. Is this worse than Machine Head? Actually, yes, it is more unlistenable. But considering I knew it would be terrible, while Machine Head's implosion was slightly more surprising, we grade on a curve.

3. Daughtry - Cage To Rattle

I love the first two Daughtry records. Yes, they are formulaic radio rock, but they are also packed with great songs. Along the way, Daughtry has fallen victim to the de-rocking of mainstream rock, as this is his second consecutive album that is not rocking in the slightest. This flaccid album barely has guitars at all, and Daughtry's once mighty voice is quieted to singing lullabyes and generic trash. He has gone from a record Slash guested on to one now that Elmo could easily appear on. Farewell, Daughtry, you are officially forgotten.

4. Ashes Of Ares - Well Of Souls

I have never understood the appeal of Matt Barlow's voice, but I understand he has a certain stature in the metal community. What I don't understand is how any of those fans can excuse this record. With this effort, Barlow stains his reputation, giving us an album that not only is devoid of a single memorable melody, but exposes his voice as a worn and beaten instrument. He sounds like a shell of himself in the softer moments, so he is forced to spend the majority of the poorly-produced record either shrieking or half-growling. It makes for a record that has little appeal other than the name behind it. That isn't nearly enough to keep it from being one of the most tedious expriences of the year.

5. Fall Out Boy - Mania

Fall Out Boy, like Weezer, has been stuck in a terrible rut for a long time. Ever since coming back from their hiatus, they have borne little resemblence to the group I used to like. For this record, they go even further, bringing in more electronic bleeps and bloops than ever, while also rocking like Pat Boone in red leather. "Young & Menace" is the worst offender, and probably the worst song of the year, but much of the album is the same worthless pandering to a generation that doesn't even know Fall Out Boy is a Simpsons reference. It is the soundtrack to an emo who can't muster a tear to stain their eyeliner.

The Most Disappointing Albums:

1. Elvis Costello - Look Now

Elvis Costello is one of my musical heroes. That said, he also makes a lot of records I don't like at all. This isn't that bad, but the run of singles pointed to this being his grand return as pop's great jukebox. Instead, those three tracks are the best ones, and the only ones with any energy or snap. Much of this record is Elvis playing slow ballads, telling stories about characters instead of writing hooks and melodies the way he used to. I was by no means expecting a classic from a guy who was supposedly retired from the studio, but he got my hopes up with a few great tracks to drop the anvil on my head. I am Wile E Coyote, and "Look Now" is my ACME.

2. Michael Schenker Fest - Resurrection

The last few times I've heard Michael Schenker records, they have all been the same. When someone says they don't listen to any music but their own, there is little choice but for everything to begin to blend together. This record, though, is a special kind of disappointing. He brings in four singers to chronicle his history, so one of them must be able to get some good songs out of him, right? No. Three of the singers voices are in rough shape, and the fourth has never written a song that wasn't some degree of boring. Rough and boring describes this album well.

3. Dream Child - Until Death Do We Meet Again

All the members of Dio's band have been taking turns desecrating his legacy by teaming up to put out albums that prey on our memories, without ever being as good as even Dio's worst records. This is another one, highlighted by having one of the best Dio clone singers in the world. It sounds for all the world like a continuation of "Master Of The Moon", but the cynicism is what makes it so disappointing. Rather than try to prove they have worth of their own, they spend an hour aping every trick Dio ever used. It is shamelessly ripping off the man they claim to love, and it insults his legacy by watering down his catalog with this weak copy.

4. Black Label Society - Grimmest Hits

Zakk Wylde's 2016 solo album was my favorite record of that year. I have never liked Black Label Society, but I foolishly thought some of that songwriting might creep into his main gig. It did in the ballads, but the bulk of this album is still the same one-riff, Ozzy aping bro metal that Zakk has been peddling for decades. Zakk has never understood that his voice simply doesn't work for heavy metal. He sounds terrible straining to be heard over the guitars, and his beliefs about what metal are boil everything down to sound filtered through an image.

5. Seventh Wonder - Tiara

Unlike the other albums on this list, "Tiara" is actually good. The problem is that Seventh Wonder's previosu two albums were both excellent, albeit very different. After eight years of absence, putting out a good album that pales in comparison to both of them is disappointing. I expected them to return with extra fire, with a host of new ideas that sound like eight years of work poured into an album. Instead, we get a recycling of what they have always been, which is fine, but it doesn't feel like what a progressive metal band should be capable of. If this came out five years ago, it would have been perfectly acceptable. With almost a decade of anticipation, it can't live up to their own standard, adjusted for inflation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

D.M's Top Ten Albums of 2018!

This is all pretty straightforward.  Nothing makes us happier as a society than an arbitrary list of a subjective medium, so here’s mine!

The rules, such as they are, remain the same as ever – must be an original stadium album.  No re-releases, no greatest hits, no live albums, no covers albums.  Got it?  Second rule – it goes to 11.

Moving on.

The list you see below, simply for informational purposes, was whittled down from approximately thirty semifinalists that ranged in genre, composition, production and release date.  Thirty candidates is probably fewer than I’m accustomed to compiling, but this may not be a reflection of the year in music, at least not anymore than it is a reflection in my personal and professional life and the diminished time I had to spend with new albums on the whole.  It is entirely possible that I missed something this year I would have really enjoyed, but I remain confident in the caliber and conviction of this list.

The one casualty of having less time, however, was my Little Album That Could award.  I just didn’t get exposed to much local or truly independent music this year, so I have decided not to award that honor, rather than award it in a lackluster, half-assed fashion.

First out of the gate, EP Of The Year – There can be no other choice, it has to be Red Eleven’s “Fueled By Fire.”  These guys are among the best bands working today, and their production is spotless for a group working with less than a full budget.  Their guitars are sharp, the harmonies soar, and the songs click with a combination of ‘90s rock sensibility and new age pomp and circumstance.

HONORABLE MENTION– Fair number of bands just on the outside looking in this year, but honorable mentions still abound – The Browning followed up the excellent “Isolation” with “Geist,” and while this new record isn’t as groundbreaking or bombastic at its predecessor, it’s still an album of high merit.  I enjoyed the grunge throwback overtones of Kobra and the Lotus’ “Prevail II,” actually significantly more than I enjoyed the original “Prevail” last year.  Orange Goblin put out another Orange Goblin record, and I also found it was the year for ‘Black’ bands – Black Elephant, Black Royal and Black Wizard all held my attention for a moment.  I had my requisite hour of fun with Parasite, INC, and they flirted with the list for a moment before ultimately falling short.  The last album to be cut was Black Mirrors and their record “Look Into the Black Mirror.”  It was the 12th man on an 11 player roster.  So kudos to them in particular.

Without further ado –

#11 – KING WITCH – “Under the Mountain”

I spent a lot of time with this album when it first came out, and then as the year wore on, I found myself less and less attracted to it.  Some of that was an influx of new material, and I think some of it is that the album doesn’t have a lot of secrets to unravel – the first listen and the twentieth are much the same experience.  That said, this is as great a straight-ahead metal bulldozer as was released this year, and it should be treated as such.  There’s got to be something to be said for being in my personal rotation for five months.

#10 – WITCHSKULL – “Coven’s Will”

It was a great year for doomy, drone-y artists, and Witchskull was no exception.  Relative to the fine wines of high-end production and popular tastes, Witchskull goes down like grain alcohol, but that actually works in its favor.  It’s too easy to draw parallels between this and the grand Black Sabbath albums of old, but sometimes the easy way out is the best way out.  There’s a lot of bluesy dust covering every inch of this album, which makes it infectious.  It’s entirely too easy to just start nodding your head and bob along with the strangled rhythms.  Good stuff.

#9 – GHOST – “Prequelle”

Suck it, haters!  This is a fun record.  I know, I know, there’s a million papercuts of betrayal to all we thought Ghost or wasn’t, blah, blah, blah.  I don’t care about any of that crap.  Ghost has the right to do whatever they want.  Is this a pop album?  Yeah, maybe.  Is the single a sugar-coated affair that leans way over the line?  Sure is.  But the recognition of that fact doesn’t make it any less fun.  You do you, Ghost.

#8 – LORD OF THE LOST – “Thornstar”

I’ll admit it, this got by me on the first pass.  On my running list of music I take in over the course of the year, I marked it down, but didn’t make any special notations next to it.  On some whim in the late fall, I went combing through and tried it again, and that’s when it stuck.  Part industrial, part dark rock, part melodic singalong, “Thornstar” does a lot right, and deserves its place on this list for “Loreley” alone.  I say this through gritted teeth because I have such respect for the artist I’m about to impugn, but Lord of the Lost released the album that Emigrate should have released.

#7 – BLACK MOTH – “Anatomical Venus”

This album hit early and I just kept coming back to it.  The cover art is….well, blech.  But the album is freakin’ great.  I’m starting to think that any band with “Black” at the front of their title is using the word as a family name – it’s their honorific tie to Black Sabbath, a band they all hope to emulate in some form or fashion.  Black Moth takes that formula, injects some rock into it, and then combines the entire proceeding with a siren, hypnotic overlay.  There’s something about this music that’s difficult to describe, something with the tone that’s new and original and haunting.  Every couple months, this would work its way back into my ear.

#6 – SUNDRIFTER – “Visitations”

The desert rock is strong with this one.  Yet, it’s companion is doom, and so the combination of those elements makes for an unique experience.  “Visitations” isn’t solely colored by the red and yellow hues of a sunset among the sand, nor it is entirely given to a black, forested midnight, but lives at the twilight of both those images.  If Witchskull released an album that was easy to fall into the groove of, Sundrifter gave us all an opportunity to zone out entirely, a chance to separate from time itself and just be swept by the undulating wave of music.  This entire paragraph has been too dramatic in general, but it should illustrate the point.

#5 – FEAR OF DOMINATION – “Metanoia”

Many years ago, I reviewed an album by a duo called Alien Vampires, and I think at one point I think I said something like “grab your many-buckled leather pants, colored dreadlock extenders and gas masks, we’re going dancin’!”  I feel the same about this album.  I remain eminently fascinated by the revival of industrial metal that seems to be hand in hand with the rise of EDM, and the fact that those train tracks are colliding with increasing frequency has led to the creation of something entirely new – Alien Vampires, The Browning, Kontrust and 6:33 have all toyed with varying aspects of the idea, but Fear of Domination seems to have found the most complete synthesis of the metal and the electronic.  “Metanoia” also feels the most like a recording of a live experience of any album on this list.  “Sick and Beautiful” might be my favorite song of 2018, and also might be the most fun metal song of the year.


We’re getting into the big hitters now.  This is the separation point, where the albums before now were one caliber and this one and on are the gems of the season.  When I first heard this band described as a bunch of teenagers making metal, I shuddered involuntarily as horrible, uninvited memories of the hype machine surrounding Black Tide came swarming back into my brain.  So it was with considerable caution that I hit play on “Tu”…and was instantly taken by it.  Make no mistake, these kids have a lot of work to do, because the music rough around the edges at the best of times, but the core is a diamond.  There’s one album every year that cracks my list just because it’s so impossibly heavy, and this is it this year.  “Tu” is a straight-ahead banger, a wrecking ball of noise and chanting.  The incorporation of the Maori verses and heritage works to give the band a novel feeling in much the same way as culture works in favor of Tengger Cavalry.  Musically, there’s not a lot new here, but the accents make it feel different and unique.

#3 – GRAVEYARD – “Peace”

I feel a little bad about this, only because as late as October, I was really convinced this was finally going to be the Graveyard album that made it to #1 for me.  This is one of the three or four best bands active in modern music, regardless of genre, and I really felt good giving them the top spot….but then as time went by, two albums edged ahead.  Graveyard, if you’re reading this, I am sorry.  I am out of superlatives to describe this band – they’ve never disappointed me, and every song on this album, and the three albums before it, gives us another piece of an amazing puzzle yet to be completed.  Graveyard does everything right, and reaches across a hundred aisles to attract fans from all walks of music.  “Peace” is a masterpiece, but then, four of the band’s five albums are (and the first one is still good, but not as iconic as the others.)  If you’re not a Graveyard fan yet, I don’t know what to tell you at this point.  Get on the bandwagon, damn it!

#2 – CLUTCH – “Book of Bad Decisions”

Clutch is still teaching masters classes on how to write music.  For a few years there, I was leaving them for dead (my full apology can be found in my formal review of this album,) but now here they are, having hit a double with “Earth Rocker,” and two home runs with “Psychic Warfare” and “Book of Bad Decisions.”  While different in craft and sound, this is some of the band’s best work since “Blast Tyrant,” and Clutch’s impact and command of the genre can’t be undersold.  These boys from Maryland are still a force to be reckoned with and they’re not done yet.

#1 – CANCER BATS – “The Spark That Moves”

What strikes me the most about this album is that Cancer Bats appear to have dropped all pretense of anything else and have gotten back to having fun.  “Searching for Zero” was a fine album, but it lacked a certain human quality that made “Dead Set on Living” such an instant classic.  “The Spark That Moves” is just that, full as ever of piss and vinegar, but also grinning from ear to ear, punching out a combination of styles that still remain harmonious and catchy.  It’s a difficult niche to live in – the speed and simple hooks of punk, the abrasiveness of hardcore and the edgy gravitas of metal must exist in their proper balance, and more bands that we care to recount have tried and failed, or at their best only managed to carry two of the three.  Cancer Bats, by contrast, have found the secret formula.  Much like “Sick and Beautiful” mentioned above (though for wildly different reasons,) if you can’t get up and feel your pulse quicken for “We Run Free,” then you’re abusing the privilege of music.  Every song on this album feels much the same, leaving us with a glorious album that rolls and rumbles with power and conviction.  Find it.  Buy it.  Then buy it for a friend.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Top Ten Songs Of 2018

I am an album person. When I sit down to listen to music, my mood usually wants to hear one artist and one style for a solid chunk of time. One song here and there doesn't give me the same satisfaction, but songs are what everything comes down to. You can't have great artists and great albums without great songs. So while I spend most of my time here talking about records in full, I do like to take time at the end of the year to highlight the individual songs that have spoken to me the most. Here they are.

10. Myja - Just One Kiss

Myja's album mixed grunge and power pop, and nowhere was it more effective than on this track, which is like a piece of bubblegum that leaves your lips stained in goth black. Borrowing a piece of the melody from a massive Shania Twain hit, there is something deeply satisfying about hearing the familiar given a slightly unexpected twist.

9. Nordic Union - Breathtaking

This record had multiple songs that I could have picked, but I settled on this one for a simple reason; it is what the title promises. Melodic rock is often toothless and too smooth for its own good. Nordic Union has grit and melancholy, and that makes the sugar rush of the hook all the sweeter.

8. Richie Kotzen - Riot

The Winery Dogs weren't active this year, but this song fills that gap. Sounding exactly like a track from their awesome debut album, Richie on this solo track hits on everything he does so well. There is some flashy guitar playing, a solid groove, and a bouncy hook that kills. This is one of Richie's best, definitely.

7. All That Remains - Everything's Wrong

Why do I hate modern bro-rock? In large part, because if those people were a bit more mature, we would wind up with more songs like this one. It's still dark and suitably heavy, but there's a level of introspection and melody that can only come from an adult attitude. This track is the standout of a surprisingly good record, a singer/songwriter track delivered through the attitude and sound of heavy metal. It works.

6. Ghost - Witch Image

Ghost's "Prequelle" was their poppiest record yet, and no song was poppier than this one, which explains why I love it so much. Pop music with loud guitars is one of my favorite types of music, and Ghost absolutely nail it. Did you ever think a song about rotting flesh could be an infectious pop anthem? Well, it is here. Every time I listen to this song, it winds up caught in my head for days. In Ghost's 'greatest hits', this goes right near the top.

5. Light The Torch - Die Alone

The first time I heard this song, it blew me away. I've come to expect my favorite albums to be one-offs, so when the spirit of my favorite Killswitch Engage album came pounding through the speakers, I was pumped. Howard Jones just has one of those voices that sells his material, so hearing him back to his melodic best is a treat. Couple that hooky melody with some crushing guitars, and you have a recipe for great things.

4. The Spider Accomplice - End My Life

As has seemingly become ritual, The Spider Accomplice are gracing my lists yet again. They continue to spin new patterns with their musical silk, enchanting us until we get so close we wind up stuck in their web. This time, they expand their scope, becoming symphonic, with VK more than matching the power of the backdrop. Every time you encounter this spider, there is something new to hear. But running through it all is a thread of honesty, and it makes everything they put out burn even hotter.

3. W.E.T. - The Burning Pain Of Love

So there's a song that is pure melodic rock bliss, and has backing vocals straight out of the classic Meat Loaf sound? You can't sigh me up faster, and W.E.T. more than deliver on this track, the absolute standout from their latest album. This is the kind of stuff 'true' fans call too cheesy, or wimpy, or whatever other adjective they want to use to deflect from their own insecurity. What this song is, simply, is awesome.

2. Dilana - Behind Closed Doors

There was very little chance my favorite voice could release a new song and it wouldn't end up here. Dilana is one of those rare singers who makes you feel what she is singing, or me at least, and with a powerful message in the lyrics about one of the horrors of humanity, the result is wrenching. A truly beautiful way to shine light upon the darkness.

1. Halestorm - Vicious

Am I vicious? No, not even close. But listening to this song, I can almost feel it. Look, I can't explain everything that goes on in my mind, and why this song captured my attention more than any other this year is one of them that slips through my grasp. Yes, I love the slinky groove, the power of the hook, and Lzzy's goddess vocals, but I could say that about "Killing Myself To Live", too. In fact, I almost did. So why "Vicious"? I suppose in a year where it felt everyone was being beaten down by bad news each and every day, we all need to be a little vicious to survive.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Top Ten Albums Of 2018

Each January, when I turn the calendar over to a new page, there is an excitement over having a fresh start. The next twelve months can contain anything, including the prospect of finding the next piece of music that changes my life. While that did not happen this year, this cycle around the sun did give to us a plethora of releases that made the hard times go by just a bit faster. Most years, I come to this task in the difficult position of trying to decide which albums should get the last slot or two on the list, because there aren't necessarily ten I would say will remain with me for years to come. This time, however, the script is flipped, and I had difficult choices in which albums to leave off the list. It can be argued whether the very top of the list is as strong as some years, but the depth of 2018 has been remarkable. For that reason alone, I have to say this was one of the best years, for me at least, since I started keeping track of my listening habits.

There's one piece of business to attend to first. As the ways we listen to music change, so to can our definition of what a record/album is. That reality comes to the forefront here, as I'm not entirely sure how to consider an album that was released in pieces, across several years. The way I'm choosing to handle the situation is to hand out two top awards; one for the best album released this year, and one for the best record (in sum) that came together this year. I think that's fair.

Anyway, on to the list.

Honorable Mentions: Graveyard - Peace, A Light Divided - Choose Your Own Adventure

These were the hardest to cut from the top ten. Graveyard is one of my favorite bands working right now, and they rebounded from what I felt was their weakest effort with an album that put them back on the right track (that previous record made my list, while this one doesn't, showing what a strong year this was). Greta Van Fleet got all the retro-rock attention, but Grvaeyard are still the masters of it. A Light Divided was a surprising find, but they hit a home run in a style that I am a bit of a sucker for. Their energetic pop/rock is fueled by their quite aggressive female vocals, which lets them be catchy while being heavier than many of the bands like this I have been so high on in recent years (Shiverburn, Letter From The Fire, Forever Still, etc.). They are more than worth checking out.

10. All That Remains - Victim Of The New Disease
There are bands and albums you tell yourself you shouldn't like. There is enough bad blood surrounding All That Remains that for someone like me, who never encountered them during their best period, to get into something they're doing now doesn't make much sense. This record, though, is one that has gotten under my skin. Their radio rock detours get blended into traditional metalcore, which leaves us with an album that is a bit of a hodgepodge, but chock full of great melodic hooks. I knew "Everything's Wrong" and "Wasteland" had promise, and it's nice to hear the entire record, save for the vomit-inducing "Fuck Love", is better than anything I could have expected from this group.

9. Ghost - Prequelle
Ghost continues to grow bigger, and with the exception of "Infestissumam", better with each release. This time around, they fully embrace their pop influences, delivering an album of songs that is filled with their traditional occult-tinged rock, but with a pop sheen that makes the poison go down like candy. Their most infectious songs yet litter this album, with "Dance Macabre" and "Witch Image" standing out as some of the best songs of the entire year. The only thing holding this album back is the brevity. With two long instrumentals, there simply isn't enough of Ghost doing what they do best here.

8. Myja - Myja
A few years back, my list was assaulted late in December by an album I wasn't anticipating from Steven Adler's band, of all people. That album was entirely the work of Jacob Bunton, who is one half of this project as well. Have you ever thought of combining power pop and grunge? I hadn't either, but that's essentially what this album does, and it feels so much more natural than I would have imagined. The melodies are soft and sticky, while the tones and vocals are distant and dark. There's probably a metaphor in there, but let's just leave it at saying this is one of those surprising little albums that makes the hunt for new music so rewarding.

7. The Jayhawks - Back Roads & Abandoned Motels
The one thing The Jayhawks have never been is consistent. With constantly changing lineups, and a sound that shifted multiple times, there are only a few stops along the way I have been keen on. This album is nostalgic, taking me back to those Jayhawks albums I love. There is a heavy dose of "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Rainy Day Music" in these songs, which hold together as an album far more than their genesis would imply. There is something timeless about great music, and this is timeless music.

6. W.E.T. - Earthrage
Melodic rock is often cheesy. Myself, I don't mind that. That charge can be leveled against W.E.T., but these veterans don't care. This project is an outlet for them to have fun, and play music that isn't as serious as their main gigs. You can sense that lightness in these songs, which feature big melodies, bright arrangements, and a relaxed atmosphere. Jeff Scott Soto sounds better here than he has on his other recent appearances, and he's given the best material he's had to sing perhaps ever. The only problem with this album is that its main songwriter released another melodic rock album this year that's even better, which makes this one a touch harder to talk about. We'll get to that shortly.

5. Amaranthe - Helix
I doubt it was intentional, but I find it fascinating how Amaranthe has replicated the plastic, synthetic writing of modern pop music with guitars and real drums. Musically, this is the end result if Max Martin plugged in to a cranked Marshall stack, only with even better hooks. Amaranthe has always been at the forefront of fusing pop and metal, but they go even further this time, and the results are stunning. Song after song, we get a mechanically precise assembly line of ultra-heavy pop. It is an extreme overcorrection to the idea that pop and rock don't go together anymore. They do, and Amaranthe proves it.

4. Pale Waves - My Mind Makes Noises
Speaking of pop music, this is easily the best pop album of the year. Pale Waves caught me by surprise when I first caught wind of them, and since thne they have grown on me as the logical continuation of where I left off with the genre. They have taken Taylor Swift's "1989", rocked a little harder, and given the whole thing a darker vibe. They are the purveyors of what I call 'Daria rock', and it is oh so sweet. This is pop music that plays hard to get, giving you a look from across the room, making you come to her. I don't know if it will be just a moment in time, an endorphin rush that can't last, but even if it is, we've been given a heck of a gift in this album.

3. Nordic Union - Second Coming
The first Nordic Union album was a pleasant surprise, coming in very high on my year-end list. The second album would have to live up to those expectations, and does it ever. Though very similar, this record has a slightly darker tone running through it, which only plays into what made the first record so good. Melodic rock can often by too fluffy and flowery, but Nordic Union is anything but that. This album is crunchy, heavy, and yet unforgettably catchy. Yes, there are a lot of European rock albums that sound like this, but none that are better. This is pure bliss.

2. Light The Torch - Revival
A month before the release date, when "Die Alone" finished playing for the first time, I thought to myself what I was hearing could be special. When I finally got the album, I was proven right. Howard Jones is a massive vocal talent, and his era of Killswitch Engage is the one I grew attached to, the 2009 self-titled album especially. This album is the natural extension of that one, which is just what I needed. Jones and his band play at their most melodic, giving us an album of songs that are simple, direct, crushingly heavy, and packed with the muscular melodies that defined the entire metalcore genre. Howard has never been better than this, nor has he been given as much room to showcase his melodic ear. This album is why I love heavy music.

1. Halestorm - Vicious
Why do I love this new Halestorm album? Well, I can't really put my finger on it. There are lyrics the poet in me wishes were more nuanced, a couple songs with a focus on rhythm that normally isn't my thing, and yet I keep finding myself wanting to come back again and again. Lzzy Hale is a charismatic supernova, and the greatest vocalist of her generation, but more than that it's when Halestorm writes a great modern rock track, there is no one better at selling it. In fact, this album is so good it's made me revisit my opinion of their previous record, which now makes far more sense. How about that? "Vicious" made me love two albums at the same time. Mostly, the decision to put this at the top of the list came down to the simple fact that there was nothing that came out in 2018 I spent more time listening to, or that made me pick up my guitar and try to figure out a few of the songs. That is the ultimate test of when something has taken over my brain. So yeah, this album, and the fact that Halestorm is now only the second artist to ever top my list twice, has cemented my opinion that Halestorm is clearly the best modern rock band in the world now. I said it.

Now for the special award. While this record wasn't released in its entirety this year, the final piece was, and in total it is the record that most defines the year for me. Therefore...

The Record Of The Year:

The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles

Each of the three EPs released by The Spider Accomplice has been a different thread in the web they have been constructing. Now that we are able to put them together, step back and see the delicate patterns glistening in the sun, we are confronted with a record that challenges our interpretation of what modern rock can be. As sprawling as its namesake city, "Los Angeles" is the soundtrack to a million lost souls trying to find their way together, a city that hangs together because everyone is in the same boat, searching for themselves. VK and Arno constantly amaze me with the way they are able to blend the light and dark, maintaining their identity while experimenting, all the while writing songs that speak to our collective truth. If you press me, there is no other record that sums up 2018 more than "Los Angeles", even if it is a reality I have constructed for myself. How de rigueur, eh?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Conversation: Wrapping Up 2018

Chris C: Physicists say gravity is a constant, but it's getting hard to believe that when the sands in the hourglass seem to be falling faster with each passing year. Here we are again, getting ready to pass judgment on the music to come from another trip 'round the sun. We can be thankful to still have our health and youthful vigor, but as we mentioned in a separate conversation, not everyone we know is so lucky. In that way, whether the year in music was good or bad, it would be hard to walk away from 2018 all that disappointed.

This was another eventful year for music, with plenty of good, bad, and even heart-breaking twists and turns. We got records that were amazing, we finally get to be rid of KISS, and we lost some important members of the metal community. Believe me, we will get to Jill Janus, and a discussion surrounding mental health later. But I want to start things off on a different note, with perhaps the biggest development of the year in rock; Greta Van Fleet. They sold more records than perennial chart-toppers Disturbed, and generated a massive amount of press (including a laughable review from Pitchfork that created a lot of press about the press about the record - meta!), while seeming to make no one happy.

We've both come to the conclusion that bands are damned if they do, damned if they don't. New rock bands get compared to the past, and told they can't measure up, because rock and roll was better back then. When a band tries to recapture that sound, they get called rip-offs. Greta Van Fleet is the biggest poster child yet for that. Accused of ripping off a band that ripped off countless blues musicians, I was not at all surprised to see the mixed-at-best reaction to their debut album, most of which mentioned almost nothing about the music itself. We laugh about when rock in the 80s was all about image, but it's the same thing now, isn't it? Greta Van Fleet is being punished for their guitar tone and vocal timbre (not to mention wardrobe and hair choices), which is the antithesis of rock, right?

I prefer to focus on the music that gets made, since that's the only thing that actually matters. My thoughts on their album are posted here. I find them to be an update throwback, of similar spirit but different sound, like Graveyard. What say you? And where else do you want to begin?

D.M: Briefly addressing your opening statement, a friend once opined that the passage of time may appear to abbreviate in our perception because each passing year represents a lesser and lesser percentage of the total time we've been on earth.  I had never thought about it that way, but I bet there's some mileage to be gotten out of that if you spent enough time on it.


Did we really get rid of KISS?  I personally doubt it.  We've heard this song and dance before, and at the very least, even if they're not making music or touring anymore, we all know Gene won't be satisfied until he's sold the KISS logo and name to every product on earth.  I don't know if there are KISS dish towels yet (there probably are,) but let's assume they're coming, along with KISS thumbtacks, KISS home insulation and KISS printer paper.

I'm going to try to tackle Greta Van Fleet in two parts.

First, the music itself.  I've listened to the album a few times now, both while sitting and concentrating on it, and on a few road trips with my wife, who is a fan.  The album is fine...but it's just fine.  There's nothing there that makes me jump out of my seat in appreciation, or have any desire to go out and defend the music with GVF on my shield.  There's also nothing absolutely terrible about it.  You and I are both mature enough as people and as music critics to recognize that the comparisons to Led Zeppelin are appropriate to some degree, but also editorially a little lazy.  There's both more and less going on in the record than a simple copy of Zep, as I can hear some Grand Funk Railroad and maybe a little Neil Young and a dash of sixties folk rock.  That said, I find it to be a synthesis of those things rather than a recreation of them, which I'll address more in the second part.  I think my main detraction from the album as a whole is that I feel like Josh Kiszka is yelling at me all the time, and I'm not sure he knows why.  It's funny you mentioned Disturbed - Josh's vocals are akin to Dave Draiman, in that he seems to have one single intonation.  Now, I'm fine with being shouted at by a vocalist for an extended period (Brian Johnson comes to mind,) but only if I believe the conviction behind it, and I don't get the sense of that purpose from Josh's vocals.  He's yelling either because he can, or because he's not even grown into his voice yet, which are both forgivable offenses in the short term, but are a point of concern moving forward.

Here's the second part, which will combine both my larger concerns and address some of the more global criticisms of the band.  This comes with the caveat that I will use Led Zeppelin as a comparison because it is the most common frame of reference for GVF, more than because I believe them to be the only parallel.  And my thoughts go like this: to emulate is one thing.  To be is another thing entirely.  Yes, the band has captured the essence of something that has come before, but I disagree that they're created something new.  No one is suggesting it's easy to become successful as a precise recitation of the past, but at some point, you become an also-ran of that same past unless you can transcend.  And what's getting lost in the endless "next Led Zeppelin" press is that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and John Bonham (and fine, Robert Plant, too,) were a cosmically-ordained, planet-aligning mix of incredibly talented musicians, and the jury is still very much out on whether these kids from Michigan have that same knack for creation and genre definition.  In the present, there's nothing on this album that tells me they do.  I don't see these kids writing "In My Time of Dying" just yet (which is a sneaky great Zeppelin tune, btw.)

When you and I were strictly (or more strictly) covering metal records, we were inundated with bands who sounded like Black Sabbath.  People made a whole career of being a Black Sabbath copy (looking at you, Church of Misery,) but nobody was putting away their copy of "Master of Reality" in favor of one of these clones.  If they're not careful, the same fate will befall GVF, because it is categorically impossible to out-Zeppelin Zeppelin.  They are the definition of Led Zeppelin.  They've done it.  Same goes for Black Sabbath and Kyuss and Iron Maiden and the Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine and all those headline acts who defined or re-defined their genre.  Perhaps "re-define" is the key word.  Graveyard, to your point, has done this (and I'm sure we'll discuss "Peace" later.)  Yes, they have a lot of the past in the their sound, but their arrangement is unique - they don't sound exactly like anyone, and you know a Graveyard song when you hear one.  If GVF can't find that same level of separation, people are just going to go back to listening to "Led Zeppelin II" because it's the prime, unimpeachable example of that sound.  And it'll happen, because right now, everyone says GVF sounds like Led Zeppelin - no one is saying they're an improvement on Led Zeppelin.  (And I know this rings a little flat to you, as a non-Zep fan.)

As for the other criticisms, the Pitchfork review was entirely too glib and click-baity for its own good, but there was one interesting kernel in there - the idea that we might, for the first time, have a band that comes to the height of popularity because an algorithm is feeding them to a captive audience.  Are they a product of Spotify or YouTube or whatever?  Greta Van Fleet is on tour right now - I am deeply curious to know what the median age of the paying customers is.  There are only three choices, really - young people who are experiencing rock for the first time, young people who love classic rock and want the chance to get a glimpse of what it was like back in the day, and old farts who are reliving the glory of their youth for a limited time.  I'm inclined to think group three has a heavy hand here.  Did this band come to fame because of a career spent toiling in the underground with misfit kids latching on and spreading the word, or are they prominent because dudes like Eddie Trunk (and all respect to Eddie Trunk, he's a legend,) got hold of the record and touted it as a resurrection of the past?  That doesn't diminish their authenticity or even come as a criticism, but it does bring me back to the concerns in the above paragraph about their staying power, and it does tread into interesting territory about the future distribution and promotion of music.

This might be petty of me, but I can't totally dismiss the haircuts and throwback clothing of Greta Van Fleet.  I know it's the smallest one percent of everything they have going on, but as they say, 'dress for the job you want.'  It would be one thing if these guys were out there in street clothes and had a retro sound, but there's a level of conscious decision that's gone into the band's image and appearance that can't be dismissed in the final analysis.  Maybe I'm cynical, but whoever is driving Greta Van Fleet's bus (van, I suppose,) whether it's the kids themselves or somebody else, wants them to appear as a revival act, as a rolling piece of living nostalgia.  Which means they'll inevitably be judged against that standard.

Right now, Greta Van Fleet is where Airbourne was after their first record.  No more and no less.  Airbourne's made a living as an AC/DC copy (and a good one, for the record,) but they never supplanted the root band, and a lot of people moved on.

That's probably a thousand words from me to digest, so before we get into other stuff, I'll let you deal with my initial ramblings.

CHRIS C: I know I have made that point before, though I can't for the life of me remember if I said it to you at any time.

Ah yes, clone bands. I would say we have encountered at least one of them for every big name that has ever existed. Sabbath is the most common, which my hatred of Ozzy's voice (fun fact; Ozzy is not on my top three, or four, Sabbath albums - discuss) means I will be forever tortured by it, but they are all represented. The thing about clone bands is that they say out loud what is supposed to be whispered. Music is a business, sure, but we like to pretend most of the people involved are still at it because of artistic drive. But when you are in a clone band, there isn't a way to claim you're doing it for noble intentions. Nothing you have to say is important, since the band you're cloning has already said it. What's weird, though, is that there is one of them that made a big name for themselves. Primal Fear is absolutely a Judas Priest clone, featuring a guy who auditioned for Halford's spot, recreating the two or three 'good' Priest albums for those kinds of metal fans.

Greta Van Fleet are absolutely a clone of Zeppelin. I don't deny that. The band is pretty obviously playing on the hunger that is still out there for Page and Plant, but I suppose that might be the reason why I give them more of a pass. They are cloning a band that is never coming back, whereas all the Maiden and Sabbath clones were running concurrently with the originals. I wasn't so much saying Greta Van Fleet has done something original with their sound as I was saying they write songs in a slightly different way than Zeppelin, which at least to my ears makes them sound a hair bit less of a rip-off. I might be hearing things.

Don't get me started on vocalists. The feeling of being screamed at is the biggest reason why large swaths of metal are unlistenable to me. I ascribe to a theory that if the band wasn't there, would I put up with the person performing that way in my ear? The answer for all of the intelligible screamers and growlers is NO. I would never sit through more than twenty seconds of Messhugah's vocalist screaming at me, so I can't see why I would allow it just because the band is playing some sludgy riffs behind it. I get a bit high-minded here, but I think of music as a way for humans to connect, to share bits of their minds and feelings that have no other form of expression. But when you then decide to scream, you suck the humanity out of the performance, which waters down the pull of the music. Voices are all individual, and we're never going to hear them the same way and like the same ones, but I would like to think we can at least agree on what the point of having a vocalist is supposed to be. But maybe not.

That brings us to "Peace", as you mentioned. Since vocalists are so unique, it often leaves me shaking my head at bands that employ more than one singing lead. I don't know if there has ever been a band other than The Beatles where I haven't easily preferred one over the other(s). Graveyard is one of them, and the fact that they have been giving tracks to the other members to sing is a major reason why I haven't found myself returning to these most recent albums as much as "Hisingen Blues" and "Lights Out". "Peace" is great, and it's their most rocking record, but only Joakim sounds like he was singing directly into the grooves of a vinyl record. But to return to our original point, Graveyard works exponentially better than Greta Van Fleet, because they are the ultimate example of inspiration existing with originality. No one can possibly deny Graveyard is pure classic rock, but I have never heard anyone tell me who they sound like. They synthesized an entire genre, without letting too much of any one band bleed through. That is not as good a business move, but it is the artistic choice.

Here's what I mean by us being rid of KISS. Sure, the tour might never end, but they see the light waiting for them to walk into it, and they seem firmly committed to never trying to make music again. If all they ever do is tour under the guise of being done, they will fade into obscurity in time. Not that anyone ever should have, but no one will take them seriously again. They are now as relevant as Herman's Hermits (who still play the state fair, or similar events around here, most years).

Perhaps what ties a lot of these stories together is that musicians need to have an unhealthy mental bent to make it to the top. They either need to be greedy (like Gene Simmons), delusional (take your pick), or fine with taking credit for the accomplishments of others (here's your Greta Van Fleet types). Artistry and mental illness have long had connections, but music right now is a form where it isn't just that a mental condition can spark creativity, but a healthy disposition can force people to rightly say the business isn't worth the effort. I wouldn't dare try to explain what was going on in Jill Janus' mind, but I have thought about her often when these sorts of points come up. Clearly, our musical communities don't have enough understanding for the people who live behind the music we listen to.

I've given you a few things to chew on, so I will hand you the baton.

D.M: Fundamentally, the issue with clone bands is that the players involved may not be as talented as the pinnacle musicians they're trying to emulate.  As so many of my metaphors do, this one will turn to sports - the triangle offense looked great with Jordan, Pippen and Grant/Rodman/Harper/etc, and it looked great with O'Neal and Bryant...and then it didn't look so great with Carmelo, Tim Hardaway Jr and Iman Shumpert.  Mike Martz created the Greatest Show on Turf, and now is a head coach in something called the Alliance of American Football because lo and behold, he couldn't recreate his success without five hall of fame caliber players (Warner, Bruce, Holt, Faulk, Pace.)  Really, 'clone' may not be the accurate nomenclature for what we're trying to describe, since clone implies an equal level of ability. 

What makes the clone band so disappointing is that they have the opportunity to extend the creativity of something that came before when that thing has faded.  To use your example, Judas Priest is probably coming to the end of their run as innovative songwriters (and that be being kind,) but Primal Fear, who is a talented band for what it's worth, hasn't taken the reins and shifted the paradigm at all.  Essentially, we've just gotten another decade of the same things we loved about "Painkiller," and as we all know, to simply repeat yourself over the course of decades and never offer something of substance makes you....Bruce Springsteen.

Back up a second - let me see if I can guess your four favorite Sabbath albums based on your quip.  Okay, I know you love "Mob Rules" and "Heaven & Hell," so that's two.  I'm gonna say "Dehumanizer" and...."Headless Cross"?  I know a few people who are mysteriously big on the Tony Martin era, are you among them?

This is the point of the show where I make a complete ass of myself and broadcast for the masses that I am not someone who hears the vocals of a song in the forefront.  That sounds insane, I know, and it's hard to describe, but it's true.  I hear the rhythm section first, and that's what collects my attention, especially if the melody and the rhythm are in sync.  To that end, I hear the vocals more as an additional instrument in the overall mix than a do a prime driving factor in the song.  My point is this - I think I have a high tolerance for screamed vocals because to me, it's a part of the arrangement, more than a direct message to the listener.  Subsequently, I think this is why I don't have the same dilemma with Graveyard passing out the vocals duties - there's no question that the different gentlemen all sound different, which lends a different color to the proceedings.  And for me, they're not like Soundgarden or Alice in Chains or the Screaming Trees, where Cornell/Staley & Cantrell/Lanegan are so idiomatic of the band's sound.  Joakim Nilsson is a fine vocalist, but I don't need him in every song.  This is where you're really going to take a swing at me, but "From a Hole in the Hall" was my favorite song on "Innocence and Decadence." 

Let's be clear though - we may disagree about facets of them, and I don't want to go out on a limb and speak for you, but if we were to independently list our top five favorite active bands, we would both have Graveyard in the top ten.  Maybe we'd both have them in the top five.  It probably sounds pedantic, but they're simply amazing.  One of the few bands who never disappoints with their creativity and expression (Turisas, you're on that list.  Get off your ass and release another album already!  It's been five years!)

Oh man, the mental imbalance required to be successful in music may not be all that different from the one required to be successful in sports (here I go again.)  Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Tom Brady are, from a strictly psychological point of view, borderline sociopaths.  They are guilty of having an all-consuming obsession with winning, at the least.  To be a success in the music business is no doubt similar, with a notable exception - athletes don't have to provide the source material.  The sport already existed, they just have to live within the rules and structure of it (or push the boundaries of it.)  As we've seen, to really have an impact in music, your message needs to be on point, and that usually requires the kind of passion or heartache (or both,) that can only come with strange circumstances and unusual mindsets.  The struggle has to be relevant, but also very real.  That's a potent and toxic combination in many cases.

And thus, Jill Janus.  I don't have a ton to say here except that I was extraordinarily sad when I heard the news.  She was one of my favorite people I ever interviewed - charming and kind and funny and quick-witted, accepting and patient and candid in a way that few others were.  You got the impression that she was uniquely aware of her fans and not only knew how to connect with them on a human level, but felt the need to do so.  For me, the real story of her passing is that we all need to be in touch with our friends.  See how they're doing.  You can't always see the signs, but for the person suffering, knowing that someone cares enough to hang around and ask can make a difference.

No easy transition off of that, but aside from the expectations surrounding Greta Van Fleet, the other major story of the year was Ghost.  I'm a fan of "Prequelle," I think it comes down to a band having fun doing what they want to do (which was a theme for a lot of bands this year,) but the purists weren't fans.  You're more pop-oriented than me, how did it strike you?

CHRIS C: You're mostly right about the clone bands, but there is a detail in Primal Fear's history that shows they both did try something new, and failed to modify what a clone is. There was a period a decade or so back when they released "The Seventh Seal", wherein they tried to expand their songwriting. They had a few longer tracks, and they introduced more symphonic bits.... and the fans complained they didn't sound enough like Judas Priest anymore. The ultimate problem with clones isn't that they get compared unfavorably to the originals, it's that they can never escape the comparisons. Unless you branch off very early, you will forever be a clone. For an example, see the band Soen. Their first album is a 100% Tool clone. In the old Limewire days, it would have spread like wildfire AS the new Tool album. But as soon as their second album, they moved on to a more Opeth vibe, so now they aren't looked at in that manner. You can use a similarity to get your name out there, but you don't have long before you have to prove yourself.

Speaking of clones; I've always been hoping for more bands to try cloning the sound Bruce Dickinson had going on "Accident Of Birth" and "The Chemical Wedding". There was one band that did it very well, but they disappeared after one album. And yet we get new Priest clones each and every year....

You absolutely nailed it. I am not a big Tony Martin guy, and I can do without his other albums, but "Headless Cross" is indeed awesome. It sounds horribly 80s, but it's good stuff.

You're not weird. I've had several people over the years tell me I'm wrong, not weird - wrong, for listening the way I do. But it makes sense to me. I am a writer/lyricist, and I would be a singer if I had a better voice, so it's natural for me to focus on the part of a song that I would be most intent on creating myself. Given the popularity of hip-hop, modern pop, and the various forms of extreme metal, I'm clearly in what is now the minority. Maybe I just picked up my instrument too late in life, and I had already baked in my opinions. I'm the weirdo who didn't learn how to play guitar because I wanted to play guitar, but with the sole purpose of having a tool to write songs with. I think if I was a more dedicated guitar player, I would have a tighter focus on the instrumental parts when I'm listening to new stuff. But nothing is absolute, and an album like Trouble's awesome self-titled is a guitar album first and foremost, even for me.

Top five active bands, eh? You had your confession, so here's mine. I'm not really a fan of bands. I'm fickle enough to please that even bands I like disappoint me a good portion of the time, so there aren't many I would so outright I am a fan of, with no reservations. That said, as short as my list of options would be, Graveyard is absolutely on there. Given that I can't truly say my favorite band is 'active', Graveyard is probably in a dogfight with Halestorm for the title of my favorite going at the moment. That name brings up something I want to talk about, but that's for when we get to what surprised us this year.

Too much of society is focused on lauding the sociopath. Music, sports, politics (oh man); they're all filled with terrible people doing terrible things in the name of advancing themselves. We all get twisted up when those behaviors become normalized. What's always given me a face-palm moment is when the 'analysts' complain about an athlete who doesn't scream in his teammates face and act like a belligerent douche-nozzle, because it proves he's not a leader. Being quiet and doing your job well isn't good enough. So why do we demonize the failed leader, but not the people who need someone screaming in their face in order to do their job? That sounds like the issue to me, and you never hear any of the supposed experts calling out the people who are actually showing weakness. As long as you aren't the highest paid, you apparently have no responsibility to give a damn.

Ghost went full pop, that's for sure. I thought it was great, and the logical extension for them if they really do want to take over the rock world, but I get why a lot of more hardcore rock and metal fans weren't into it. I know Eddie Trunk did several shows trying to figure out why so many metal musicians love Ghost. I give him no credence, though, since the band he can't stop talking about just put out a Queen-aping record that features them doing a version of their single with Kesha, in a blatant play for mainstream pop appeal. For Ghost, going pop works with the gimmick. They are supposedly trying to spread the word of Satan, and how better to do that than with bubblegum songs that can sneak into the heads of average people? By no means am I saying they're perfect. I can't defend the idea of this kind of band putting two five-minute instrumentals on a record. Ghost is about the gimmick and the character, so leaving ten of the forty minutes without either was inexplicable. Watch, you're going to say you loved those parts. We've talked before about how a rock band is going to grow into something that will push into the mainstream, it's going to take moves that make the original fans uncomfortable. Ghost is trying, and we still have to wait to see if it works.

I mentioned it earlier, so let's get to it. What about this year was a surprise, either for good or bad? You know who my surprise is about, but maybe not how.

D.M: You know, so long as we're going down the rabbit hole, who's the best clone band ever?  Is it even possible to rate such a thing?  I'm not sure what the metric would be - is it the most enjoyable, or would it be the one who accomplished the most, or the one who advanced the genre the most?  And if the latter, is it a clone band anymore?  For my money, I might stick with Airbourne.  Their first album is great, and the more AC/DC turns into nothing but a traveling museum made out of mercenary parts, the more Airbourne's authenticity helps their case.  I could also go with the Texas Hippie Coalition, but I hold them in too high esteem to denigrate them by calling them strictly a clone band.

Because you asked (wait, it was me who asked,) my top five active bands, in no order, looks like this: Turisas, Destrage, Red Fang, Red Eleven, Graveyard.  Cancer Bats on the outside looking in.

It's funny you mention lauding the sociopath - a mutual friend of ours and I were recently having a conversation of much this same stripe, and he encapsulated it better than I think I could have - we, as a society, equate success with virtue.  Which is not only frighteningly true, but it works hand in hand with something we've been dancing around for years - that in America, we struggle mightily with the concept that a person can be two things concurrently.  Ronnie Radke can be a successful musician AND a questionable (to be gentle about it,) human being.  Phil Spector can be a visionary AND a lunatic.  Aaron Rodgers can be an all-time great quarterback talent AND a prickly, cold person.  These things aren't mutually exclusive.  I think what makes the scenarios I just talked about so unique is that when it comes to public life and accolades, it is often difficult to be one WITHOUT being the other.  (As an aside, here's my favorite one - Michael Jordan can be the best basketball player AND a brutal, tyrannical teammate and self-absorbed asshole.  The man could be the greatest ambassador for his game in history, greater even than Magic Johnson, but he never speaks, doesn't make appearances, doesn't do interviews.  Granted, he doesn't owe those things to anybody, but knowing what we know, doesn't it feel like there's some spite there?)

Speaking of people who may be some degree of sociopathic (is that a word?) I'm going to stray from music for a moment.  I meant to ask you think offline, but what the hell, we're here - this whole Phil and Tiger match for a bazillion dollars, this is a crock of shit, right?  (And for those reading, I am writing this about two days prior to the event,) Like, this feels ten years too late, and it also feels like it wouldn't have happened ten years ago, if that makes sense.  This, for me, has all the hallmarks of two dudes cashing in while they're past their prime but still game enough to draw.  But you're my golf guy - you tell me.  (Things only I would notice that drive me nuts - on their media tour the other day, when they appeared on "Pardon the Interruption," Phil sat screen left and Tiger screen right, then on "SportsCenter" at 6pm, they were reversed for no reason I could tell.)

Getting back to it, I think the one thing that really surprised me this year was the number of bands who seemed to just want to have fun.  That sound vague and stupid even as I type it, but allow me to elaborate.  Ghost just went for it and made the pop record they've been leaning toward for a while now (and no, I'm with you - I didn't need two instrumentals.)  The Cancer Bats were clearing going for a particular mood on their previous album "Searching for Zero," but dumped it and went back to making rock-core (I invented a new genre!) for this year's "The Spark That Moves."  Clutch continued the bouncy momentum of "Psychic Warfare" with "Book of Bad Decisions," and Orange Goblin...well, they just made another Orange Goblin record.  But I can't help but feel like this is a good thing - maybe, optimistically, we've gotten to the point with easy digital distribution and audience intelligence where bands don't need to fit a 'scene' anymore.  They can just be, and people will find them.  Maybe.

This name will come up for me again, but I was also surprised by the band Alien Weaponry.  As soon as I read "teenagers" in the band bio, horrible memories of the flood (no pun intended) or expectation that surrounded Black Tide came back to me.  And listen, AW's album "Tu" is as raw as can be, and they've got a lot they can tighten up, but their sound is unique and they're on to something.


CHRIS C: The best clone band? Wow, that's actually a far harder question than I thought it was going to be, mainly because the vast majority of them are cloning someone I was never a super big fan of to begin with. I can appreciate AC/DC, Priest, and Sabbath, but I don't listen to enough of any of them to give much credence to bands that sound like them. I suppose I have to say my answer is none, and I have mostly avoided becoming invested in any clones. You could make the argument that Edguy and Avantasia both started as Helloween clones, but they have shifted far away from that as they moved along, and it's the later stuff I'm more a fan of. As for a slightly different question; Avenged Sevenfold is probably the most successful of them, what with that album they made that was pretty much lightly rewritten rock/metal standards. I didn't even listen to it, but I still hate them for that.

You're absolutely right about our inability to hold two thoughts in our heads about a single person. Before diving into sports, I'll throw another one out there. Everyone talks about Ellen as this loving, generous, kind spirit. And yet she tortures her employees and friends by deliberately scaring them or making them do things she knows they hate, all for a laugh. If there wasn't a camera on the whole time, it would be disturbing.

Success really is the cure-all. I need to point no further than to the current occupant of a certain residence. Half of the country is willing to justify anything, so long as their side is picking out the curtains. Aaron Rodgers is absolutely a cold person. As one myself, I don't mean that as a criticism, but it's pretty clear to me he's not the kind of guy who should be in commercials, and yet....  Or look at Eli Manning. When the Giants were good, people thought he was 'charming' in a doofus kind of way. Now that they suck, not so much. But those Super Bowls do keep people from reminding everyone Eli engaged in outright fraud that sucked money out of the pockets of people who actually thought his signature was worth something. The joys of fame.

We're also seeing it with the recently deceased rapper with the horrible name I'm not going to bother googling to spell correctly. He was, by all estimations, a shitty human being. Yet because someone thought his mumbling flows were good, there was mourning upon his death. I won't be so callous as to say he deserved it, but he certainly didn't deserve tributes, or to have his stuff go to the top of the charts. There's something bred into the American idea wherein we think success is a limited entity, and since we all make it there on our own (a lie, but widely believed), people have to be screwed in order to get there. Success is far more than having the most money, or being on tv the most. People say we lose sight that music and sports are a business. No, I think we lose sight that music is supposed to be an art.

Tiger and Phil, oh boy. Tiger fits into that sociopath category as well. He can flash a smile, and he was taught how to fool people by his father, but you don't set up a system with your agent to cheat on your wife in every city you travel to without having a degree of sociopath in you. And just to be clear, while the rest of the world was creaming themselves as Tiger finally won a tournament again, I haven't forgiven him (and don't plan to) for lying to our faces for so long while being a lousy person. As to the matchup, of course it's two guys cashing in while they still can. Phil knows he only has a year or two left before he's on the first tee of the US Senior Open, and Tiger's body is going to fail him entirely at some point. The whole thing is a manufactured mess that proves neither one of them actually cares about their fans, despite what they say (and Phil's reputation for majorly tipping - which is probably more PR than anything). You have to multi-millionaires getting together to play for someone else's money they they don't need, and then want the fans to pay for the privilege of watching the rich get richer. Holy Roman debauchery, Batman! Could you imagine Michael Jordan making people pay to come watch him light cigars with $100 bills? Actually, I can, so scratch that. This match is everything that's wrong with modern sports. It is greed masking as entertainment. They could have done a great thing and put the match on regular tv while playing for their own money, which would have been something original and unique, and maybe revealed a bit about who they really are when the stress got to them. Instead, how is anyone supposed to give a damn about someone obscenely rich winning or not winning more money that they don't need?

Back to the point, now. My surprise of the year was Halestorm, but not in the way you might think. I'm not surprised that "Vicious" was a good album, if that's what you were thinking. While I was quite vocal about not liking the one before this, I know they're a good band, and I adore Lzzy, so I hadn't dared write them off yet. No, what surprised me is how this record has changed my perception. "Into The Wild Life" was a departure, both in terms of how it was written, and how it sounded. "Vicious" goes in that same direction, so you would think I would be similarly wary. I was at first, but it's a better written album. They have shifted focus to being more riff and rhythm focused, but because they have better songs behind them, I can clearly hear what they are going for. And now that I see where the path leads, I can see where the previous album was trying to go. So with that better understanding, I can appreciate what they were trying to do last time far more than I did before. What I thought were mistakes are now more evidently growing pains on the way to something new that is just as good as what I regretted them leaving behind. I can't think of another time when a record changed my opinion of a different record. I thought that was rather interesting.

I suppose we have talked long enough to start wrapping things up. So I will pose to you the usual array of questions; the good, the bad, and what is waiting on the other side of the horizon?

D.M: Take this for what it's worth - I cannot personally attest to this, I have only heard it twenty-fifth hand.  Rumor has it Ellen is so tough to work for that the show at one point had burned through six directors in seven years, or some similarly ridiculous proportion.  Yikes.

I can't say I shed a tear when I read that Turner was going to issue refunds on the Tiger/Phil fiasco, and make absolutely no money on the proceedings at all.  As you said, served them right.  As an aside, I'm not much for MMA, but why on God's green earth was Chuck Lidell fighting the other night?  Good lord, he's starting to get Ric Flair's body.  Never a positive sign, at least not during my adult life.  Dude, hang it up.

My best thing for this year may be repetitive, but I am increasingly thankful for it - my top ten albums haven't been narrowed down into a solid list yet, but I am thankful that eleven of the contenders are bands I wasn't familiar with before.  They say by our age that people stop discovering new music and new media and recess into their favorites of old.  I am happy that I am vital enough to keep wanting to hear new and better and most of all, more.

Also good, more crossover between the electronic and the rock and metal.  I might be getting suckered in a little here because I am an easy target for a heavy downbeat, which electronic music specializes in almost exclusively, but besides the Browning, Lord of the Lost and Fear of Domination both turned in excellent records that integrated two previously disparate styles.  As a musical society, we toyed with this in the '90s, between Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy and Godhead and a hundred others, but these new albums seem to be built on an established foundation.  Curious to see where it goes next.

The bad was that a bunch of bands I already loved failed to live up to expectation.  I was amped for new records from Red Dragon Cartel and Emigrate, and both were lukewarm affairs that totally lost the keen edge which made their previous efforts so laudable.  And the beat goes on - heavyweights like Monster Magnet and Skindred failed to impress, and even bands further under the radar like Halcyon Way and Spiders couldn't deliver for me.  So make no mistake, Clutch and a few others rose to the occasion, but it was a bad year for established names on the whole.

And the ugly - just the crossover effort between Gridfailure and Megalophobe.  This isn't even necessarily their fault - they're totally allowed to make whatever music they want to make.  But with names like that, it sounds like any collaboration should represent the soundtrack to a category five hurricane.  Instead, it sounds like forty-five minutes of windy farts.  Not very editorially insightful on my fart, but there it is.

Next year?  New Children of Bodom record, curious to see what they evolve into this time.  Also, new John 5 & the Creatures, and at this point, I daresay that John 5 is a more vital and creative artist than Rob Zombie himself (with no disrespect to the Rob, he'll always be a legend to me,) so I'm looking forward to that.  Nothing else screams out at me, unless, as I put in here every year, Blackguard finally releases "Storm."

Take us home!

CHRIS C: I am not versed in the MMA world, so I can't comment too much about Chuck Liddell. What I know is old guys who haven't been deemed good in ages shouldn't be headlining a major card. Although, being Ric Flair wouldn't be a bad thing. Sure, he was never the most cosmetically amazing wrestler out there, but that body wrestled more matches for more years than just about anybody. As an aside, have you ever seen the pictures of him from before the plane crash? Holy hell, he was thick. He became an entirely different person after that.

That statistic is depressing. I love all my old favorite records, but I can't yet imagine having only them to listen to for the rest of my life. Even when we hit December, and the flow of new stuff slows down, I find myself getting antsy for something new to come along. While I can get worn down by the grind at various points during the year, I also know that new music is what keeps me interested in the art. I would say that if you are a real music lover, you can't shut yourself off. Not kowing when the next great thing is going to come along would be criminal for a fan. But I suppose it comes down to the simple fact most people aren't fans in the same way they we are. They have 'families'. Bah! Albums are better, right?

For me, the best thing this year wasn't even music. Sure, there was a lot of good stuff, but my favorite experiences of the year were interactions I had with musicians. I've already recounted them to you, but being able to have that kind of connection with people I like and admire is one of those things that still makes me shake my head. I'm not sure how it happened, or why I can't seem to replicate it when it would be helpful, but it's hard to find anything better than making an impact with someone who has done the same for you. Highlight of my year, definitely.

The bad is the number of older artists who keep trying to chase youth, looking pathetic in the process. It happened to Machine Head and Ministry (not that they were ever good) this year, and it's already been made clear Weezer has another epic faceplant on the schedule for 2019. I continually get annoyed when artists in their 40s and 50s try to prove they're still hip and current. You aren't. Your actual fans don't care, because they aren't either. No one wants to watch a guy with a gray beard playing songs about Bronies.

Normally, I don't know of much to get excited about as the new year approaches. This time, though, there's a host of stuff to (perhaps dangerously) pique my interest. In the first few months, we're going to have new records from The Neal Morse Band, Dream Theater (AOTY winner in 2011), Avantasia (a long-time favorite), Michael Monroe (#2 in 2015), and the one I might be most interested in, a new Soen record (AOTY winner this time last year). That's quite a few albums with a lot of potential already on my radar. Perhaps it will be another great year.

And as we wind this up for another year, I just want to make note of the realization we came to, that sums up a lot of this. We can be two very different people, who come to music from different approaches, and who use music for different reasons, but we still come together because we love music. It is important to us, despite those differences. And as long as it remains important, this is still a practice worth pursuing. Cheers.