Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Album Review: Kobra And The Lotus - Prevail II

Last year, Kobra And The Lotus released the first half of their "Prevail" project, which was both satisfying and frustrating. It was the best work I had yet heard from the band, and made a strong case for both itself and the band, but at the same time, there was enough slack in the rope to make me think having a double album was a mistake, and condensing the best material down into one record would have been the better approach. Now, with the second half of the set arriving, we can put my hypothesis to the test. So what do we get with "Prevail II"?

We make the segue in fine fashion with "Losing My Humanity", the first song released to tease this record. It delivers aggressive guitar playing, snarling attitude, and a big hook that stands up with the better tracks from the first record. Kobra sounds great, and she has the song behind her to make people take note. This is when the band is at their best.

"Let Me Love You" is about the closest thing to a pop song as this band will get, with layers of backing vocals creating an ethereal backdrop for Kobra's more throaty lead. Couple that with "My Immortal", which borrows both a title and a bit of a mood from Evanescence, and this outing finds the band playing a bit more with their melodic side, which I find a refreshing move on their part. Kobra has the voice to pull it off, so giving her more room to showcase her voice can't be considered a bad thing.

Getting deeper into the album, that approach continues to dominate. "Heartache" is a heavy ballad (no sap here, folks), rich with melody while still letting the guitars roar. Even when "Velvet Roses" opens with a beefy riff, it's only a matter of time until Kobra turns the heaviness into a melodic endeavor. From song to song, top to bottom, it's easily the best I've heard this band sound. I said that about "Prevail I", and I'm saying it again about "Prevail II". They are getting better as they move forward, which is harder to do than you might think.

All is not perfect, though. If I'm being honest, I wish the band would adopt a different production approach. The guitar tone is what most people think of when they want heaviness, but I find it too dark and over-saturated to hit with the power the songs are aiming for. A bit more brightness, and a bit more attack from the riffs, and this record would slay. But that's my taste, and not a criticism of the music on offer.

Let's get to the main point, then. Kobra And The Lotus have upped their game once again. "Prevail II" is their best album yet, and is actually strong enough a record that I'm not left wondering what it would sound like with a few of the tracks from "Prevail I" included in the mix. This is more than enough on its own, and I continue to be impressed by how much they grow from release to release. "Prevail II" is Kobra And The Lotus' defining statement.... so far.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dilana Reveals What's "Behind Closed Doors"

Music is a powerful force. Without us knowing how, it can tell us truths we did not otherwise know, and move us in ways we could not otherwise expect. It is rare to be overcome as such by a song or a singer, but it happens, and when it does there is no other word to describe the experience than 'magic'.

I have experienced that gut-punch but a few times, the deepest of which was when Dilana released her album, "Beautiful Monster". Maybe I was biased, or more attuned because of previous affections, but that album was a bomb of emotion that cracked and destroyed the facade that music is merely entertainment. At its best, it is a reflection of the best and the worst in us all.

That brings us to Dilana's new single, "Behind Closed Doors". The world is an ugly place. I don't think anyone can deny that, regardless of your political persuasion. There is pain and suffering everywhere you look, and we don't see enough being done about it. Among the heart-breaking things that are criminally too common is human trafficking. As humans, we may have thought we overcame our darkest days long ago, but the light has not been shined everywhere. Rats still lurk in the shadows.

Written for CKM! (Centrum Kinderhandel Mensenhandel), Dilana's new song is an effort to raise awareness about this blight.

Like her best material, "Behind Closed Doors" is beautiful, painful, but optimistic. A song about not giving up on the people who need us, Dilana again reaches into her soul to paint us a truth we try not to see. Her vocals are tender, yet searing, an embrace wrapped around the harsh reality to remind us things can get better. The guitar figure running through the background mirrors the steady and heightened pulse that carries terror through the blood of victims.

On its own, "Behind Closed Doors" is a wonderful song, and a reminder that we always need more of Dilana in our lives. But as a message, as a teachable moment for something we try not to think about, it becomes even more powerful. Art may not be able to solve the world's ills, but it can move us to want to make ours a better life. That's what "Behind Closed Doors" does. It is a beautiful reminder of what is possible, when we refuse to accept that our darkness is inevitable.

"Behind Closed Doors" will be available everywhere Tuesday, April 24th.

For more on "Behind Closed Doors", and CKM!, visit the following links:

www.dilanarocks.com
https://www.facebook.com/Dilanarocks
www.ckm-fier.nl/pages/home.aspx

Friday, April 20, 2018

Album Review: Ross The Boss - By Blood Sworn

I don't know if this is controversial or not anymore, but here goes; I hate Manowar. I hate their early stuff, I hate their later stuff. In general, I think they're one of the biggest reasons why metal is a world I will never fully inhabit. Between their lousy songs, obsession with dick-swinging (sorry, I mean sword swinging), and their penchant for thinking loin-cloths are 'metal', Manowar deserves to die in the relative obscurity their farewell is garnering. That makes it a little hard to judge a new album from their original guitarist, Ross The Boss, since it's hard to shake the connotations his former life has imbued. Once Manowar, always Manowar?

His solo outings are still traditional heavy metal in that general mold, but they lack the self-righteous snobbery that was never deserved in the first place. As the title track opens the album, it sounds more like early Savatage than anything Manowar has done. Marc Lopes can throw more grit into his voice, a bit like Jon Oliva, as well as shrieking to the high heavens. He certainly gives Ross' band more colors to paint with, all of which get thrown together at times.

That initial track is a bit of a mess, really. We get the gruff vocals in the verses, punctuated by ear-splitting highs, and then a brief chorus that cleans things up for a melody. The pieces don't all fit together, which makes it an odd choice to open the record. You want to put your best foot forward, and this song doesn't have enough of a structure to be that.

The biggest problem I have with the album is that Ross is writing traditional metal, but Lopes' vocals veer towards venom so often that I find myself turned off. "This Is Vengeance" has a thrashing riff and a decent hook, but between his snarl through the verses, and some awful shrieks, it winds up like being clubbed over the head. Some people might like that, but I'm not one of them.

"By Blood Sworn" is the kind of album that lives in a world that thinks metal has to prove itself heavy every second of every song, otherwise it be thought false. There are breaks in the action in the form of a ballad, and a slower doom number, but even then the attitude still bends towards anger. I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in that approach anymore. Not that I ever was, but the tolerance I used to have for it has withered with age.

Ross The Boss will satisfy the metal lifers, the people who still use the word 'heavy' as an adjective denoting quality. For those of us with tastes that aren't as hell-bent for leather, this album is a reminder of why metal can be hard to take seriously.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Album Review: A Perfect Circle - Eat The Elephant

I am of the right age that "Judith" was massively influential, both to me and my generation. It came around at just the right time, and showed us that rock and metal in the mainstream could be both commercial and artistic, successful and visceral. It was a moment in time where the stars aligned, and we got to hear the condensed sound of perfection. In the years that followed, A Perfect Circle lost me as they moved into more obtuse and artistic directions, digging deeper into their desire to be meaningful artists. After the very first album, I could feel myself slipping away from them, so their inevitable return was met with fanfare everywhere, but I was far more cautious.

Their new album, "Eat The Elephant" is both not what you might expect, and also exactly what I knew was coming. Gone are the days when the band could conjure moments that tore through you with fire and passion beyond their own heaviness. Today, A Perfect Circle is more of an emotional band, using texture and nuance to tug at your heartstrings, rather than yank the organ out to feel it beating in their bare hands.

If you come to "Eat The Elephant" expecting anything approaching what rock is in the modern day, you will be disappointed. They don't deliver much in the way of roaring guitars, impassioned vocals, or palpable anger. They are more subdued, more introspective than that. Rather, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel use every tool at their disposal to create beautiful backdrops that lull you in, more a tapestry than a banner. You have to look beyond the first impression to understand all they are doing here.

The most interesting aspect is that Maynard and Billy have more or less traded the usual roles of their instruments in a rock band. Maynard uses his voice and phrasings to create rhythms more than melodies, while Billy's guitars weep and weave melodies in the background, often eschewing rhythms at all. That turns convention on its head, which leaves us with music that is both interesting and a bit odd.

Looking at the aim of this music, there is nothing to say besides it is a clear success. Their music has a soft touch that feels like a ghost reaching out, but you find yourself haunted later on. It's a sly way of subverting the audience, and it creates an album that will leave a different impact than any other you will hear this year. Is it even a rock record? That's a question I'm having trouble answering. The elements are there if you look for them, but it never feels like one. It doesn't need to be, except for the expectation.

Here's the thing about "Eat The Elephant"; I don't know how often I am going to be drawn to listen to it, but it is one of the most intellectual and interesting albums of the year. Whether it speaks to you or not, flipping the script the way it does leaves you thinking not just about what you heard, but what music is and should be. Being able to get you to think is something music doesn't often do. That's commendable. No, this isn't going to tap a zeitgeist the way "Mer De Noms" did, but A Perfect Circle has a different role in the music world today, one that only they seem willing to try to fill.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Album Review: Issa - Run With The Pack

Here's something we don't always like to admit; sometimes good music is good in a way that isn't inherently interesting, which leads to it getting lost in the tsunami of other choices we have. When there are albums always coming out by bigger names, or bigger personalities, or that are swamped in bigger news-making potential, it can be hard to get excited about a nice little record that doesn't break any new ground. That is particularly true in a field like melodic rock, where the focus of the music means there is often little to differentiate one album from the next, save for the melodies. That all means it an be a bit hard to come up with something of note to say about each and every album.

That's where Issa's new album falls. Even though we're only in April, there have been a slew of melodic rock albums that have already grabbed attention, so throwing another one on the pile is a bit like throwing a needle into a sewing kit. It's hard to say I haven't already heard this. The only way to stand out is for the songwriting to be razor sharp, to sever my memories of earlier albums.

That doesn't happen here. "Run With The Pack" is not going to make me forget about the albums W.E.T. and Ammunition have already released, nor will it push out some of the glorious melodies of several heavier albums either. But let's not take that as a searing indictment.

"Run With The Pack", while it isn't that kind of standout record, is also the kind of quality record that doesn't have any glaring flaws. These songs are all darn good, and Issa's voice is different enough from what we usually hear on these records that it does stand on its own. The usual melodic rock suspects provide most of the material here, and they do a good job. You can easily sit back and enjoy this album as catchy hooks come song after song. There's enough guitar presence to make it clear this is a rock album, and the balance of everything is just about right. On that level, I don't actually have any criticism of the record.

However, because it is standard-fare melodic rock, I also don't have a lot to say on the other side of the ledger either. If you listen to enough melodic rock, specifically from the Frontiers camp, you already know what this is going to sound like. The differentiation is usually in degrees of success. On that front, Issa fits nicely in the second tier. It isn't an album that will compete for the best of the year, but it's a very good album that more than earns its stripes. Compare it to another album coming out on the same day from a more noted name, James Christian of House Of Lords, and you'll see that Issa's album is head and shoulders the winner.

Between the musical approach, and Issa's vocal pitch, "Run With The Pack" is a lighter album that will most appeal to the AOR faithful. If you like your rock melodic, and you don't mind a softer touch, Issa delivers an album in "Run With The Pack" that is well worth listening to.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Album Review: Temperance - Of Jupiter And Moons

If I'm being honest, this has not been a good year so far for power metal. I can't think of a single release yet that has caught my attention, which is odd, since I do still have a soft spot for the genre. While there have been great releases from modern metal, hard rock, AOR, and even progressive death metal, power metal has been a bit of a wasteland for me. Everything I've heard has been too much recycling the tropes of the genre, and not doing it in a way that still featured great songwriting. So when I came across the singles from Temperance, what I heard sounded like it could be the answer to the drought.

The hook with Temperance is that they are able to pepper their songs with vocal flourishes and harmonies, courtesy of the three singers in their ranks. Certainly, the way they blend their voices together for the choruses makes them sound enormous, which is exactly what power metal needs. Harmonies are an under-appreciated aspect in metal, and Temperance uses them to their fullest advantage. After "The Last Hope In A World Of Hopes" opens the album with staccato riffing and some orchestration like a Rhapsody song, anything less in the vocal department would have sounded deflated. But they are up to the task, and it makes their melodies sound even more epic.

The music itself is heavier than a lot of melodic or power metal, which further plays into their strengths. Being able to play heavy guitars off soaring melodies is a winning recipe, one we don't get to hear nearly as often as we should. Most bands aren't capable of playing at both ends of the spectrum, which leads to the stereotype of 'flower metal' being so light, or we get heavy melodic metal that isn't very melodic at all. Temperance is able to split the difference, which puts them right in the heart of success.

The other thing working heavily in their favor is the energy that pours out of the music. Some music played quickly sounds like people playing fast for the sake of playing fast, where there is no feeling and only robotic movement. These songs bristle with energy, and you can feel it as they play out. It's the same sort of connection a band has with an audience during a live show, which is why so many people swear by the live experience, despite the less than idea sonic conditions. To get something approaching that on record is a big deal.

Whether it's "Broken Promises" or "Alive Again", Temperance delivers a record that is lively, engaging, and fun. There are hints of Kamelot in a lot of what they do, but if I'm being honest, this record is magnitudes more enjoyable to sit through than Kamelot's recent outing, despite that album's own high quality. The difference between them is one band is making albums by rote to keep the momentum of their career going, while the other is excited to be building something. I can hear that when I'm listening, and it's an immense difference.

This may be a weak year for power metal, but it's not a weak year for Temperance. "Of Jupiter And Moons" is everything that's good about modern power metal, and while it doesn't have the stature or story behind it that the big names do, it's an album that fans of melodic metal should certainly be checking out. Sometimes albums fly under the radar simply because we aren't looking for them. Let's not have that happen here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Singles Roundup: Ghost, Trillium, Letters From The Fire, & Seventh Wonder

Just when you thought things might be slowing down, we get a flood of new songs from albums I'm anticipating, so that means we have to find the time to squeeze in early thoughts on what they mean for the future. Let's go:

Ghost - Rats

With "Meliora", Ghost finally found their true selves. They made an album that was metal, that was accessible, that was all things to all people, and contained the best songs they had yet written. They crossed over into the mainstream, a rare feat, which means this album is going to be one of the most scrutinized of the entire year. This first single is.... clearly not as good as "Cirice".

That song was like a cannon blasting off next to your ear, while this one is more of a standard Ghost song. We get the echoing vocals, the simple riffs that occasionally find a great groove, and moments of darkly hooky brilliance. The section leading out of the second and third chorus is the best part, doing everything Ghost should. This one isn't amazing, but Ghost's lineup woes don't seem to have impacted them much. That's a relief.

Letters From The Fire - Comfort You

This band grew on me. I liked their first album when I first heard it, but it inched up in my esteem with more time. They also underwent a change, with a new singer taking over. This first taste shows a different attitude for the band, shifting into a more take-charge, ass-kicking group. As a single, it does exactly what it's supposed to. It concisely reminds you that they can rock, their new singer fits right in, and they can write some good songs. Hopefully some of the emotional approach from the first album will be somewhere in the track listing, but this is a good start.

Trillium - Time To Shine

Amanda Somerville doesn't always get talked about, since she often is a guest, rather than the star. This is her vehicle, and the first album from it was a very good effort with a few true standout songs. This song tells me already that album number two should be a fine continuation. Trillium's music is dark and ethereal, with Amanda's voice dominating, as it should. She is a fantastic singer, and always stands out as being someone just a little bit different.

This song is everything I could want from Trillium. It has the right sound, and Amanda's melodies are smooth in floating over the metal. As a taste, it definitely whets my appetite. I'm very much looking forward to hearing what else Trillium has in store for us.

Seventh Wonder - Victorious

Here's a popular/unpopular opinion; Seventh Wonder is a better vehicle for Tommy Karevic than Kamelot. The latter might be the bigger band, but the former is the more interesting one. Having just heard a Kamelot record that I'm having trouble remembering individual moments from, this came at just the right time to prove my point. This is what prog metal is all about, combining the tricky times and rhythms with Tommy's gloriously pop melodies. It's bright, shiny, and signals a warning to the rest of the prog metal community. Seventh Wonder is doing this music as well as anyone does, and this song leads me to think they've delivered another great record.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Album Review: Bonfire - Temple Of Lies

Changing vocalists can be traumatic for a band that's been around a long time. Either they find someone who can re-energize them and give a second life, or they slowly begin a decline into irrelevancy as fans pine for the old days. We can run through the examples of each, but I think we've been through it enough to know what's at stake when someone new is fronting an established act. That's where Bonfire finds themselves, with a new voice trying to breathe new life into the long-running band.

Alexx Stahl does give the band an injection of youth. His ability to scrape the ceiling with high notes is not something a more senior singer would be able to pull off. I'm not sure if having that skill is really a good thing or not. Singing high is one thing, but a few of the shrieks he lets out near the beginning of the opening title track are a bit shrill and hard to listen to, at least for me. Once it gets going, the song does a good job of being both catchy and heavy, straddling the line between rock and metal.

"On The Wings Of An Angel" tones down the vocals, and improves immensely. Without the histrionics, the band is able to focus on delivering a catchy melodic rock song that recalls Bon Jovi's string of hits in the 80s. There's definitely a bit of "Livin' On A Prayer" to the interplay between the high vocals and the backing voices, all with the chunky guitar pounding through the verses. They might get a bad rap from people who like more 'true' music, but those songs were great, so sounding like that is nothing to be ashamed of. I'm down with it.

"Feed The Fire" slows things down, and makes a questionable decision along the way. A more plodding track that goes to the chanting chorus trope rather than a big melody, the lyrics of the chorus go so far as to reference a bonfire, which seems a bit to meta for my taste. There had to have been another approach that didn't seem to 'on the nose'.

That difference in style carries through the rest of the album. For every track with a great melodic hook, there's one with a chant that isn't nearly as engaging. It fits the bill of old-school hard rock, but it's one of the traits I've never enjoyed about the style, and have never warmed up to. It probably goes down better in the live setting, where the crowd will join in and turn it into a communal experience, but we're talking about a record, and those sorts of things don't translate in the studio.

The album does regain its footing and end on a high note. "Crazy Over You" might be the best Bon Jovi song Bon Jovi never wrote, and it closes the album with the best track of the bunch. It's slick, it's melodic, and those backing vocals make the hook sound absolutely massive. The chanted choruses might be what sounds great being shouted back in a club, but this is what works in an arena. I just wish there was a bit more of it here.

This new Bonfire album is one of those that falls into the middle ground. There is some really, really good stuff on it, and a few songs that slow the momentum to a crawl. As a whole, it's a fine album, though I think its greatest appeal will be to those fans who came up through the 80s and are more forgiving of that brand of songwriting.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Album Review: Stryper - God Damn Evil

Stryper in recent years have fallen victim to a sad trend, where band after band feels the pressure to make their latest work their heaviest, if for no other reason than to say "it's our heaviest record ever!" The thing that gets lost is that 'heavy' is a description, not a demarcation of quality. I can point to countless records that prove heavy music can be absolutely retched, and lighter music can be great. So while Stryper's recent albums have all been pretty good, their constant decree that they are heavier than ever makes me wonder if they're missing the whole point.

That was put into sharp focus when they released the album opening "Take It To The Cross" to start the album cycle. It was supposed to show how crushingly heavy Stryper is now, but it created controversy due to the fact it was the least Stryper song ever, and featured a chorus so absurd it single-handedly reversed the decades of work Stryper has done to overcome their initial status as a bit of a joke to 'real' metal fans. Yes, that song is that bad. But we have an entire record following it. Do they atone for that sin?

That's not the easiest question to answer. Like most of the music Michael Sweet has been pumping out across his various projects in recent years, there are positives and negatives to be found. The second single, "Sorry", is classic Stryper, with a simple guitar riff that sets the tone, and a chorus that hits the right melodic tone. It's the kind of song that gets written off for either being too simple, or too soft, but it's what good records are built off; solid songs that give a solid base so the new elements have a core to return to.

Then there's the title track, which is the most 80s of all the songs. The way Sweet builds the chorus, with the chanting backing vocals behind him, is ripped right out of their heyday. Fans of the old days are going to love it, even if the wordplay could be considered a bit forced for the same of buzz.

Also interesting is the mix of the record, which puts the bass right up front with the guitars. It's rare to hear a metal record with this much bass in it, and I wonder how much of that was to showcase their newest member. It certainly makes "God Damn Evil" stand out and not sound like every other record coming down the river. That is never a bad thing.

But there are some negatives here. "Take It To The Cross" is the most obvious, but there is also "Lost", where Sweet spends the entire chorus belting out uncomfortable high notes. It isn't very melodic, and it doesn't sound particularly good either. It isn't that strongest part of his voice.

To swing back to the positive, Stryper is still very good when they stick to what they do best. "You Don't Even Know" is a fun, anthemic track, while "The Valley" mines the well of Egyptian themes for a nice, more epic feeling song. They showcase Stryper at their best, using simplicity to put the focus on the songwriting. Those kinds of songs also make some of their decisions, like the opener, even more confusing. They have been earning a lot of good will in this latest run with albums that were heavy yet classic, and proved Stryper could be a serious machine when they want to be.

Which brings us to judgment day (See what I did there? I can pun too) for "God Damn Evil". If you're tempted to judge the album from "Take It To The Cross", please don't. That song is such an outlier we can pretend it doesn't exist. Once you get past that, you get another modern Stryper record that is simple heavy metal delivering easy to digest songs that should go down well on tour. Michael Sweet still sounds great when he doesn't push his voice where it doesn't belong, and the majority of this record is classic Stryper. Maybe we consider this a conceptual record, where "Take It To The Cross" is the personification of evil, and Stryper spends the rest of the record damning it back to whatever hell it came from. If I think about it that way, it works.

However you view it, Stryper continues on as they have been, mostly hitting the right marks, and delivering another album that more than stands up to anything their 80s brethren have been up to.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Album Review: Gus G - Fearless

There are things about the world I will never understand. One of them is how Gus G has become one of the biggest names in the world of guitar. He's someone who has a main band that has one great album under their belt ("The Premonition" - although even that is marred by a cover of the 80s hit "Maniac"), and who never wrote a single song during his time playing with Ozzy. Looking at his career, it baffles me that he has become as widely known as he has, especially since the last Firewind album was incredibly boring to me.

However, when the first taste of this new solo album came out, I was ready to buy in again. Gus and veteran singer/songwriter/bassist/producer Dennis Ward formed a power trio whose first single, "Letting Go", sounded to my ears like what the best Ozzy album of this millennium possibly could. It was dark, heavy, groovy, and totally melodic when it came time for a hook. I was more than ready to believe Gus had finally found the right niche for his playing.

That Ozzy feeling is hard to escape. Aside from the fact that the album sounds completely like a modern Ozzy record would, as filtered through Gus' style, "Mr. Manson" lyrically would fall into line with "Mr. Crowley". Aside from whether writing about Charles Manson is in good taste, it might be a bit too obvious a wink and nod.

The last time I heard Dennis Ward, on his most recent album with Khymera, he was a solid AOR style singer. Here, he sounds completely different, adding more sinister tones and grit to his voice, nailing exactly what this music needs. I didn't know he had this in him, and it's impressive to see him have that kind of range. Choosing him as the singer, as opposed to a revolving door of guests, certainly went a long way to making "Fearless" the album it is.

What I find a bit odd about the record is that for eight of the ten songs, Gus plays things rather tame, fitting in as a part of the larger song. Then, there's the title track and "Thrill Of The Chase", which are instrumentals that feature Gus throwing in his classical and shredding talents. They're the tracks you would most expect from a guitar player's solo album, but they do sound a bit out of place among a collection of modern rock songs like this.

When they stick to the formula of making modern (radio?) rock, "Fearless" works. Songs like "Chances" and "Letting Go" are the kind of tracks that outstrip everything on the charts. They have just enough heaviness, melody, and flashy soloing to strike a winning balance. "Money For Nothing" might be completely out-of-date with its lyrics mentioning playing guitar on MTV, but the song itself is definitely enjoyable.

The thing about "Fearless" is that, like a lot of albums made by guitar players who are at the forefront, it asks listeners to be fans of more than one thing at a time. We have here a combination of heavy modern rock and flashy neo-classical tinged instrumentals. I'll be honest here; I've never been a fan of instrumental music, because most rock and metal instrumentals lack the structure to make them feel like true songs. Because of that, having two on this record does dampen my enthusiasm a bit.

However, the rest of "Fearless" is really good for its aim. I certainly enjoy this more than anything Gus has done since that little run with Firewind what seems like ages ago now. Gus has stepped up his game here from both his last solo album, and from Firewind's last outing. That's nice to see, because as his name continues to grow, getting better along with it is the right recipe for sustaining it. "Fearless" is a good step in that direction.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Singles Roundup: Graveyard, Tremonti, & Five Finger Death Punch

 One day, three new singles from huge names. That means we need to talk about them, even if it wasn't scheduled.

Graveyard - Please Don't

I love Graveyard, but there's something lingering in the back of my mind.

I find the first three albums to be amazing. Sure, the debut was a bit rough around the edges, but it was still really good. Then they got better and made a great record in "Hisingen Blues", totally coming into their own. "Lights Out" perfected their sound, and is legitimately one of my favorite records of all time.

Then their last record felt weird. Half of it was as good as everything else, but there were a couple of tracks that branched off in directions I didn't like. And he decision to let the other members sing didn't help, since neither of them were as good as Joakim. It was the first time they were disappointing to me.

This song sounds like it's trying to go back to those classic records, but it can't quite get there. It's pretty good, but neither the riff nor the melody has that so-simple-it's-genius knack. Maybe the fuzzy tone is hiding it. Graveyard's music usually grows, so I'm hoping this is just a first listen issue.

I'm still hoping the album, and the lineup change, can get them back to where they belong.

Tremonti - A Dying Machine

As these albums keep coming, they grow less and less necessary. This project was supposed to be the outlet for Tremonti's heavier, more thrash metal side to come out, but now that Alter Bridge has been embracing heaviness, there's been a complete shift towards being more of a radio band. That puts them right in the wheelhouse of... Alter Bridge. The leadoff single for the new album is as commercial as Tremonti's solo band has yet gotten, and I'm struggling to see why he needs the separate project, other than as an excuse to put out more records without diluting Alter Bridge's name.

This song is rather bland, and lacking the bite the first Tremonti record had. He has been part of so many records now that everything blends together, and is only differentiated by the voice singing. And since I find Mark's voice to be the least distinctive he's worked with, that leads this track to be a fine, but unexciting, first taste of the concept album.

Five Finger Death Punch - Fake

No band does a better job of making us all feel ashamed of ourselves than Five Finger Death Punch. Listening to this new song is like getting repeatedly punched in the face. It hurts, and you feel like your brain has been damaged once it's over. The ultra-generic groove riffs are inoffensive, but Ivan Moody remains one of the worst frontmen in rock/metal history. He growls his way through lyrics that punctuate each line of the chorus by calling someone (us?) a "motherfucker". Yes, after decades on this earth, and the trials and tribulations that force you to grow up, that's the best he can do. It's pathetic.

The only thing more embarrassing than Five Finger Death Punch is the fact they're one of the most popular bands in the mainstream. It's a sign of the apocalypse, I would bet.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Album Review: Spiders - Killer Machine

Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of words talking about the crop of bands mining the 70s for inspiration, and how there's a major difference between capturing the sound of classic rock and the essence of it. There's nothing difficult about digging up an old Vox or Marshall amp and recording the sound that comes out of it. But to capture the spirit of rock and roll that had no boundaries, well, that's a different task entirely. Most fail miserably on that front, even as they make records that sound exactly like a lost vinyl from 1977. The one band that does it right is Graveyard, and with Spiders heading into the studio with a producer who helped helm that band, there's reason to think we have something here.

While Spiders are indeed digging into the past for inspiration, they borrow more from the early punk bands than they do classic rock. That gives them a fresher take on the past, if such a thing is logically possible. Sonically, there isn't anything here to distinguish Spiders from an early Ramones or New York Dolls record. It has that rough around the edges, gritty sound that defined punk as being abrasive but never non-musical. The fuzz levels are just right, and there isn't anything to complain about as far as the production goes. It nails the vintage vibe.

"Dead Or Alive" was the first single, and is everything you could want from this kind of music. It has that dirty vintage vibe, some short but sweep guitar harmonies, and a hook that Ann-Sofie Hoyles pounds like a sledgehammer. So many decades after rock and roll was born and bred, the bones still hold strong. When you have the right pieces, you don't need to mess with the formula and add in superfluous playing to make a good song. That's what this one proves.

Formula can be a dirty word, but it doesn't need to be. Spiders follow one through most of this record, but that is no reason for criticism. They understand that a good song needs only a solid riff and a catchy hook, and they don't throw more into the mix than they need. Most of these songs are built from the same style of chord-based riffs, giving a solid backing for Ann-Sofie's vocals, which deliver that punch to the face. Taking a foray in some other direction, just for the sake of doing something different, wouldn't fit the record at all, and it would most likely color outside the band's strengths. They know who they are and what they do, and they're fine with that.

Sure, not every song is going to be as successful as "Dead Or Alive" or "Burning For You", but even the lesser tracks remain energetic and engaging. The record isn't long enough for them to drag down the momentum in any substantial way.

So is "Killer Machine" what its title implies? Honestly, not quite. It's a thoroughly enjoyable record that I had a great time listening to, but there's just enough fat around the edges to keep it from hitting that "all killer, no filler" mantra. Spiders have made a very good record, and that's nothing to criticize. As it pertains to the vintage rock world, "Killer Machine" is a darn fine entry.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Album Review: Kamelot - The Shadow Theory

There's a point for all successful bands where they have to decide what kind of future they are going to have; will they be a band always pushing forward to find new fans, or will they be one delivering to the faithful. Neither one is a right choice, or a wrong choice, but merely different options for how to proceed. Great bands have taken both courses and remained great, so there is no implication on my part attached to either. Kamelot is firmly in the latter category, having established a sound and style, and done nothing to deviate from it. On their third outing with Tommy Karevic behind the mic, they keep on keeping on.

For Kamelot fans, that will be music to their ears, literally. Kamelot are very good at what they do, and after so many albums, their fans are more than happy with more traditional Kamelot material. For those of us who aren't devoted to their cause, the prospect of another album that doesn't alter their trajectory is a bit of a mixed bag. I've listened to every album as they have come out since "Ghost Opera", and with each one the same thing happens. I hear an album that delivers compelling, involved modern power metal with fantastic vocals... and then I tend to push them to the back burner until the next album comes along.

Their biggest selling point continues to be Tommy Karevic, who is a remarkable singer. The only downside to having him in the band is that he shines so much in his other band, Seventh Wonder, that I always feel like he could do even more in Kamelot.

Turning our attention back to this album, "The Shadow Theory" is another fine outing from Kamelot. If you've already heard "RavenLight", you know what you're going to be getting here. Kamelot's music is slightly gothic, highly dramatic, and a beautifully melodic take on the modern and heavy strain of power metal. Tommy delivers amazing vocals, and the music behind him gives a palate of colors to paint with, even if they are all dark. A song like "Burns To Embrace" is something a bit new for the band, mixing the down-tuned guitars with folk strings to create a song that weaves through several moods over the course of six minutes, anchored as always by melody.

Sure, there's a ballad "In Twilight Hours" that could use a bit more power, and "Kevlar Skin" isn't their sharpest work, but the majority of the album is top-notch Kamelot material. I might be imagining things, but I think I hear more of Tommy's influence coming through in the melodies, which does help to make this sound a hair different than the past. Kamelot always sounds like Kamelot, but this time they don't sound like they are repeating themselves.

So what do we make of "The Shadow Theory"? It's naturally a hit for any and all fans of Kamelot, and this time around I can extend the umbrella further. This album feels fresher than the last couple of Kamelot albums, and does a better job of moving the band forward. "The Shadow Theory" is a very good album, and it's one that I imagine anyone who like melodic or power metal will be quite happy with.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Album Review: Light The Torch - Revival

I've said several times before that, as someone who didn't come to metal when I was exceedingly young, one of my formative experiences was listening to Killswitch Engage's "The End Of Heartache". Over the last fifteen years, every time I listen to something that draws from metal's modern incarnations, my mind wanders back to those days, and that album. And while it helped form me, it was with their 2009 self-titled album that they truly hooked me, with Howard Jones' powerful vocals, heartfelt lyrics, and massive vocal hooks. It has remained one of my favorite metal albums, because of its unique embrace of lush melody. So when Howard's current band announced their new album would have a heavier fixation on melody than anything since then, I was certainly intrigued.

When the first two singles came along, and I heard what they meant, I was not just intrigued, but floored by what was possible. This was what I had been waiting for.

Those songs, "Die Alone" and "Calm Before The Storm", are everything that modern metal should be, but rarely is. The riffs are deep and heavy, the rhythms with enough groove to get heads banging, and Howard's vocals absolutely soaring as he delivers titanic melodies. He has been a prominent figure in the metal world for nearly fifteen years now, and I can honestly say he's never sounded better than he has here. And with the vocals tilting more than ever to his cleans, that truth is even more apparent.

That shift is crucial. In their time as Devil You Know, these core musicians weren't able to completely capture their potential. Those records were fueled by heaviness, and while Howard is a great harsh vocalist, they were lacking the balance and dynamics that make anything even tangentially associated with metalcore great. What makes Light The Torch work is the re-calibrating of their sound, painting melody on top of brutal heaviness, the light and dark dancing in a way that heightens the extremes. This record sounds heavier than any death metal record, because (to excuse a pun) the calm before the storm lulls you into forgetting how crushing they can be when they lock in.

Somewhere along the way, it became conventional wisdom to say that heavy metal shouldn't be emotional or melodic. The music got intertwined with a false image of masculinity, where anger was the only appropriate expression. "Revival" is not that kind of record, and while there will be people who gripe about it being too 'commercial', those are the thoughts of people who can't see the bigger picture.

It has been said that the devil's greatest trick is convincing people he doesn't exist. Likewise, the greatest trick metal can undertake is convincing people it almost isn't metal. Yes, "Raise The Dead" sounds like a song that could be a radio hit, but that masks the truth that behind that sticky melody is a fire-breathing metal monster slowly burning you alive. If you're like me, you can listen to "Revival" on the surface and be awash in the fantastic melodies Howard keeps delivering. But if you're not paying attention, you don't realize that the band is indoctrinating you into all manner of modern heavy metal tropes. This is the kind of record that can convert non-metal fans. It's sneaky like that.

Those who walk into a situation with expectations could find themselves disappointed. If you thought Light The Torch would be the second coming of Killswitch Engage, or even Devil You Know, this record will not speak to you. They aren't recreating the past, they're building a new future. By leaving the preconceptions behind, they have found themselves in a place few bands are able to; the spotlight.

Every few years an album comes along that manages to perfectly marry modern heaviness with classic melody. When that happens, I proclaim it to be the start of a new metal Enlightenment, only for no one else to jump on board. Whether this album will have more impact in that direction than the others is unimportant. What is important is to make clear that "Revival" is higher-level metal, a step forward on the evolutionary ladder, and absolutely one of the best records that will come out in 2018.

Howard Jones' voice helped me become a metal fan. Light The Torch, with this album, pays off on all those years of listening and joins Bloodbound's "Tabula Rasa" and James LaBrie's "Impermanent Resonance" in my pantheon of what is possible in modern heavy metal.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Album Review: Primordial - Exile Amongst The Ruins

Few bands are truly unique. There are so many bands populating every corner fo the rock and metal spheres that to sound truly original, to have no one else who does what you do, is something rather remarkable. Primordial is one of those bands, a group who have carved out their own identity that is quintessentially Primordial. If you've ever heard their music before, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven't, there isn't an easy way to describe it either. They are themselves, and they are wholly separate from the rest of the metal world. In that way, they are a rousing success.

That being said, I have never been enamored with their actual musical output. They combine Celtic folk and black metal, neither of which is a format I particularly enjoy, which makes the combination not something high on my list of priorities. While I appreciate what they do, I find their music to be overly long to the point of losing me. They set moods and drone on with their chords and riffs longer than I would like, and while AA Nemtheanga has a voice that commands attention, he doesn't deliver melodically in a way that would excuse the tedium of the songs behind him.

This album is no different, and is not one for the impatient among us. Only one of these eight tracks clocks in at less than seven minutes, with three exceeding nine. And given that Primordial does not put the gas to the floor very often, that makes for an album that feels every bit of its length.

The opening "Nail Their Tongues" is Primordial through and through. A lengthy guitar introduction slowly begins things, and once the song gets going, it's compelling stuff. The riffs establish the dark tone, and Nemtheanga's vocals are the rough battle cry they have always been. There's a hint of melody to it, and everything is rolling along well... until ten seconds of pure black metal, complete with rasped vocals, kicks in. Not only does it sound terrible, but there was no connective tissue to explain why the left-turn was made, and then abandoned mere seconds later. Those are the kinds of decisions that have always kept me from getting more into their music.

The other issue is that the length of the songs, combined with their penchant for using ringing chords means that it's also easy for the songs to blend together. Aside from the acoustic intro to "Where Lie The Gods", the majority of the record sits in the same areas, which means that every song is competing with the next for the same place in your head. I get they have a signature sound, but at a certain point doing the same thing for an hour at a time gets not only frustrating for a listener, but it hits the point of diminishing returns.

I like Primordial, in small doses. Listening to the first half of the record, I was enjoying their dark and melancholic metal. At a certain point, however, the tempos began to drag, and I felt the noose tightening. They tried to plow the same field so often that I, as the yoked oxen, struggled to make it to the finish.

Maybe I'm just too impatient for Primordial. Patience is not a trait most people associate with me, so this could just be a case of my attention span not being slack enough to stretch to this degree. I want to like Primordial, because I hear quite a bit in each of their records to think I should be more enamored by them, but there is always that question of time. I do think they continue to hone their craft, and this was the easiest of their records for me to get through. I would say that makes it their best, in my eyes, but I'm not entirely sure what that means. All I can say is that if you don't mind taking the time for a journey, Primordial's latest might just be the ride you're looking for.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Album Review: Barren Earth - A Complex Of Cages

Thankfully, the metal world is wide and deep, so people like me don't have to listen to what makes up so much of the genre; death metal. I'm the kind of listener who can only tolerate that style for short periods of time, and only when certain moods are in sway. Even then, I gravitate towards death metal that is on the tamer side, either that which already contains a lot of melody (Dan Swano's work, or bands like Be'lakor) or bands that mix death metal with more melodic fare (mid-era Opeth, Scar Symmetry). Barren Earth is one of those bands that sort of splits the difference between the two, which means they are deserving of another chance.

"A Complex Of Cages" is likely their most progressive album to date, with these nine tracks clocking in at roughly an hour, only one clocking in at less than five minutes (barely). This is as much an experience as it is an album, as that amount of time gives the band ample space to traverse the landscape, which they put to good use. The opener, "The Living Fortress" is nearly seven minutes of prog through and through, with organs ripped from a 70s Yes album interspersed with moments of death metal fury. The find a solid balance between the two, and between keeping the song structured as they explore their musical ideas. It leads to a moment of beauty at the end, where the guitars swell under the roaring vocals right as the melodic hook re-renters. It's fantastic.

Listening to "Ruby", it's hard not to get the feeling of the classic Opeth albums. With death metal leaning verses that have just enough guitar intricacy to elevate themselves, leading into a chorus that layers acoustic guitars under mournful clean vocals, the track is by no means a copycat, but carries on the spirit of fusing beauty and brutality in the same way. It's a sound that works remarkably well when it's done the right way, and Barren Earth has that locked down. Hearing death metal like this makes me even more forlorn that so much of it doesn't understand how important adding dynamics can be to amplifying the impact.

That becomes evident on "Zeal", where we get three minutes of buildup for a four minute doomy death metal song, the first one here that stays firmly planted on one side of the divide. That decision works against it, as it is easily the least interesting song, even in the way the riffs are put together. Where everything else has layers to dissect, "Zeal" is flat and much more immediately apparent. It almost doesn't feel like it belongs on this record, given how different the approach is.

But that's certainly the exception here. The majority of the album is a beautiful brand of death metal that is able to be dark and heavy without succumbing to the need to strip the musicality out of the songs. Barren Earth is giving us music with details lurking in the background, songs that can reveal nuances after the first listen, tracks that can work on multiple levels. That isn't an easy thing to do, and I haven't always thought Barren Earth hit the mark on their previous albums either. While there was always good stuff, they have upped the ante this time, for sure. "A Complex Of Cages" is their best album to date, and is precisely how death metal can be used in service of heavy songwriting.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if "A Complex Of Cages" ended up my favorite extreme metal album of the year.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Singles Roundup: Amorphis, Stryper, & More

It seems like there has been a constant stream of new songs being released by bands of note, both for good and for bad. Even though it hasn't been long since the last time, let's run through some new singles.

Amorphis - The Bee

Here's an unusual one for a single. This prog-death number gives us riffs that sound like Avantasia, truly gutteral growls, melancholy melodies, and at least four distinct sections that rotate outside of the usual verse/chorus structure. It's a bit challenging, and it's quite a statement. The previous Amorphis album was very good for the style, but this already sounds like a step even further. I don't know if the record can live up, but this track is remarkable.

Stryper - Sorry

If you remember, the first Stryper single for their new album was the most god-awful (pun intended) song of their career. As bad as that was is as much a return to form this one is. We get your ultra-basic Stryper song here, with the bare-bones riffs and Michael Sweet's simple melodies. There isn't a single thing about this song that isn't prototypical at this point, but it works well. It doesn't excuse their massive mistake, but it earns back most of their good will.

Dokken - It's Another Day

I've never understood why people still care about Dokken. Judging by this song, the first recorded by the classic lineup in two decades, I still don't. Don sounds old and tired, and the rest of the band goes through the motions of their 80s rock that they already have several other outlets for. And since no reformation is going to be lasting, it's a one-off that has little reason for being. It's passable, but not much more.

Pearl Jam - Can't Deny Me

These grunge veterans have, over the years, turned into a classic rock band, which is where they are as we approach their first new album in several years. This song continues in their recent tradition of making perfectly acceptable, yet somewhat bland, rock and roll that serves mostly to keep their touring business alive. They haven't recorded a vital song in quite a while, and this is not it. One might have thought their outspokenness would have resulted in a political song to rouse the masses, but instead we get a supposed self-empowerment song that doesn't have enough oomph to get the job done. It's pleasant, but it doesn't make me excited to hear more.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Album Review: Bulletboys - From Out Of The Skies

Is there still a place in this world for 80s glam metal? I really don't know the answer to that. While it was popular in the moment it came out, the shine didn't last for long, despite so many of those bands continuing on for decades afterward. Even today, we continually hear about bands from that time period either still forging ahead, or getting back together. My best guess is the people who were listening at the time have reached the age where they need to make one last push toward youth before hanging up the fight. Whatever the case, we don't live in glam times. The world is too depressing, too ugly, for old-time hedonism.

The love of the 80s has never made any sense to me. Rock and metal fans pride themselves on putting the music ahead of the image, of rewarding talent above marketing. And yet, we have this wistful nostalgia for the time period where record companies and MTV were shoving bands down our throats for no reason other than they looked 'good' in videos. That's a relative term, since there was never anything 'metal' about wearing makeup and long hair.

Bulletboys may have started out in the glam world, but that's not where they are today. This album, recorded in Dave Grohl's studio, certainly takes more than a passing influence from Foo Fighters. Between the way the riffs are constructed, to the inclusion of some screaming vocals at times, there is barely a moment on the album where I wasn't thinking about how much it sounds like them. That isn't by itself a bad thing. Foo Fighters used to be a good band, and they have a litany of great tracks that have become a part of us all.

That being said, I'm always a bit taken aback when a record sounds so much like someone else, to the point where I feel it has to be intentional. I felt that way when Soen came on the scene with an album that was more Tool than Tool (they have since redeemed themselves), and I feel that way here. I am by no means someone who needs every band to be pushing boundaries and forging new paths for rock music. I don't care at all if every song is verse/chorus, or if there isn't anything that hasn't been done before, so long as the songs are well written.

That's what makes judging this album so odd. I feel like I should be knocking Bulletboys a few points because of how blatant their influence here comes through, but at the same time I want to give them credit for doing it better than Grohl and his cohorts have for the last two album cycles. The fact of the matter is that while this album might live in a shadow, it's a light that can cast its own.

As a modern sounding rock record, yes in that mold I've mentioned, Bulletboys have done well for themselves. They music is a bit rough around the edges, and the vocals could use more weight behind them, but their songwriting hits the mark more often than not. They deliver the kinds of melodies and choruses that have escaped Foo Fighters now that the latter band has moved into pretentious 70s mode. Sure, there are missteps along the way, but the majority of the album is rock solid stuff that impressed me, and exceeded my relatively low expectations.

Look, I'm not going to tell you Bulletboys have crafted a classic album here, but "From Out Of The Skies" is a good album that has something to offer if you haven't been finding a lot of great music this year. This one is a decent way of biding your time until the next great thing comes along.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Album Review: Borealis - The Offering

There are some bands who have a sound that makes them stand out among the crowd, who are nearly impossible to copy. Those are the lucky ones, since they don't have to worry about people getting tired of hearing a hundred other bands that sound just like them. The downside to that is when a band comes along that does happen to sound like them, it leads to questions about how deliberate that happenstance is. Borealis is perhaps the only band who sounds like Evergrey, which is why I'm thinking of this. When I listened to their last album, the only thought I had all the way through was that it could have easily carried that moniker, and it also happened to be better than most of the Evergrey albums I've listened to (I'm the weird guy who likes "Torn").

This time around, Borealis returns with a concept album, which doesn't mean much anymore. Does anyone really know the stories to these things? I have a few in my collection, and I couldn't give you a recap of any of the narratives. Anyway...

Look, there's no getting around comparing this album to the recent Evergrey releases. I wish there was, but I don't know how else to give you the right idea of what is in store for you when listening to this record. Aside from the vocal similarities, the construction of the music itself has taken the same path, with melodies that can be interchanged between the bands. That means if you're a fan of Evergrey, you can stop reading here and start listening right away. If you're not a fan, stick around for a bit.

Perhaps the story needed a prelude, but the opening "The Fire Between Us" gets the album off to a slow start. The sound is grand and epic, but the promise of sweeping melody isn't there, and the vocal parts never captivate the way the instrumentals promise. "Sign Of No Return" quickly turns that around, and delivers what I was expecting of Borealis; heavy and beautiful modern prog metal with a sense of drama and melody that sounds rich and deep. It proves when they hit the mark, they are truly impressive.

The feeling the rest of the album gives me is one of difficulty, as though I'm straddling the line between satisfaction and disappointment. "The Offering" is certainly an enjoyable album, and is without doubt better than any of Evergrey's recent outputs. However, there are times where Borealis is content to use Matt Marinelli's vocal power to carry the songs with huge belted notes. When you break them down, some of the melodies aren't particularly memorable without the volume he imparts. That's one of the complaints I have about Evergrey as well.

The other thing to note is that "The Offering", in being a modern prog metal album, is LOUD. Like loud to the point where it gets tiring by the time the hour has passed. They go full steam ahead with a dense mix for nearly the entire running time, which is a bit of sensory overload for me. I certainly would have appreciated a mix that breathes a bit more.

Overall, I'm stuck in the middle with "The Offering". I like it, and there is plenty to applaud about this effort, but there are also things holding it back from being the kind of album I will return to again and again. In that respect, it's much like their previous album, which I praised at the time, and haven't listened to since. It's nice to know Borealis is out there and making music, but I'm still waiting for everything to click.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Quick Takes: Judas Priest & Rainbow

Some musical developments are interesting, but I don't have a whole lot to say about. Let's take a look at two of those today:

Judas Priest - Firepower

I have never been much of a Judas Priest fan. I appreciate their importance, but that style of traditional heavy metal isn't my thing. I don't enjoy Halford's shrieking vocals, I don't find their melodic writing nearly as interesting as Iron Maiden's, and I certainly can't understand why everyone loves "Painkiller" so much. So it was with low expectations that I waded into this new album. Did anything change my mind?

In a word, no. The style and sound of Judas Priest still isn't for me, although that is not me saying their work here is bad. I had listened to "Angel Of Retribution" and "Nostradamus" when they came out, and barring the occasional song, they were dreadful. They sounded like the albums that would be made by a band who had given up on being anything but a nostalgia tour. Sure, "Worth Fighting For" is a fantastic song, but not when you have to sit through "Loch Ness". And nothing can justify writing a double concept album that takes seriously one of the great Charlatans of history.

Which is what makes "Firepower" interesting. It sounds better than anything Priest has done in ages, which I have a feeling is attributed to Andy Sneap doing far more than setting up microphones and pushing faders on the console. Whatever the case, this is an album that does exactly what it needs to for the hardcore fans. It hits all the right marks, and sounds like what Priest should sound like. If it is their final album, they're going out on a high note. I'm never going to be a big fan, but I can easily see they've done something right this time.

Rainbow - Waiting For A Sign

Who would have thought that Rainbow would have ever released new music again? Sure, it's only a single this time, but the idea seemed impossible until it became real. The first new music from the band in decades, this single is something that falls into an unexpected place I'm not sure is what anyone wanted. It doesn't have any of the fire or passion from the classic Rainbow albums, and Backmore's guitar is subdued enough that it isn't that far removed from the less baroque songs he's been playing all along with Blackmore's Night.

That said, it is a song I've been enjoying. Ronnie Romero might be pushed way too hard as the future of rock and metal vocalists, but he delivers on this song. By being lighter, it forces Romero not to push his voice into its harshly gritty zone. He's allowed to use his tone, and not try to sound like a Dio clone. That works well for him, since his heavier approach reveals that he is more of a rock singer than metal.

While it's nice to have Rainbow back, and the song is enjoyable, it also feels a bit incomplete, as Blackmore takes over and ends things with a lengthy solo that doesn't build to a satisfying ending. It limps across the finish, and could have used another run through the hook to end on a bang. What is good could have been better.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Album Review: Axel Rudi Pell - Knights Call

When it comes to melodic heavy metal, there is probably no one more consistent than Axel Rudi Pell. He may get thrown in with AC/DC and Motorhead as artists who deliver the same album time and again, but given how much we often criticize left turns that don't work out, I hardly think someone can be blamed for sticking with what they're good at. This new album marks his seventeenth outing, and once again finds Axel and his cohorts doing exactly what they do. When you put on an Axel Rudi Pell album, you know what you're getting. The differences are only in degrees of success. So where do we stand this time?

After the obligatory intro, we go to the well that has been in place since at least "Neon Knights", with the album starting off with a shorter, swifter, and punchier number to get things going with a bang. The guitars are a bit hazier than I remember Axel preferring, but Johnny Gioeli continues to be one of the most underrated vocalists in the game. He sounds great, and the melody comes through enough to make "The Wild And The Young" a fine way to ease into this record.

Like I said before, Axel Rudi Pell albums are gradations on a monochrome at this point. Some are slightly darker, some are slightly faster, but they all are cut from the same cloth. One thing of note is that Pell can't hide his affection for Ritchie Blackmore, as this album features both "Long Live Rock" and "Tower Of Babylon", which aren't dissimilar titles to Rainbow songs. Unfortunately, the former succumbs to the trend of songs about rock and roll neither rocking nor rolling. I've noted this before, though I've never pinned down exactly why, but songs with this subject matter go for simple jingoism that simply isn't that interesting.

In typical fashion, we get a couple of more epic cuts, which are properly dramatic and satisfying, as well as a ballad. I'm usually the first guy to say I'm a sucker for ballads, but this one lacks some of the romantic sweep of his best ones, dragging on too long without enough of an emotional payoff. Seven-plus minutes is a bit too long for how much material is in it.

However, that concern is a small part of the record. For the most part, Axel Rudi Pell has delivered another album that succeeds at providing us a healthy dose of melodic metal in the old-school way. Axel hasn't changed over the years, which is a good thing. When you have a sound that works, there's nothing wrong with giving people what you know you can do. Axel has been doing that for a long time now, and he does it again here. Is "Knights Call" better or worse than the other albums he's been putting out in recent years? That's hard to say. What I can say is that he always delivers a solid product, and that's the case here too. "Knights Call" is certainly an enjoyable record.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Album Review: W.E.T. - Earthrage

As I get older, I find myself more and more being drawn to big melodic rock, as the darker and less fun variations hold less and less appeal to me. I no longer see the point of music that isn't engaging. I also, as someone who has dabbled in music myself, am deeply impressed by artists who are able to not just write great music, but do it consistently and at a frantic pace. I know just how hard it is to write songs, and how quickly the well can run dry. So when you have people like Erik Martensson and Jeff Scott Soto, who have each been a part of multiple records just in the last six months, having yet another with the promise of this one is something that you can't take lightly.

Leading up to the release of "Earthrage", we got two singles that not only made it clear this was going to be the best W.E.T. album yet, but they blew me away enough to make the wait to listen excruciating. "Watch The Fire" and "Urgent" are two fantastic examples of the modern, slick melodic rock that has become a bit of an epidemic. Once you get hooked on the stuff, and those tracks were powerful doses, it's hard to go without a fix.

Martensson, in particular, has been a part of several of the best albums of this kind in recent years. Between his main band Eclipse, Nordic Union, and Ammunition, he has written a wealth of songs that deliver powerful and memorable hooks. And here he's at it again. W.E.T. falls right in line with those other projects, with each one just slightly unique enough to make them stand apart. Soto's voice is the main driver of this one, as his deeper voice gives a different take than we usually hear. Soto's solo album last year was hit-and-miss, and Sons Of Apollo had its moments, but this is where he gets to spread his wings as a singer. He sounds better here than he has in a long time, soaring when needed, and serving as the gravitas to the melodic bliss.

There are hints in his voice that make W.E.T. sound a bit like an alternate universe, where KISS was actually a good band that focused as much on their music as they did on making money. Actually, Paul Stanley's late-career solo album "Live To Win" isn't a terrible comparison to make. Like that album, "Earthrage" is packed with crunchy guitars and sugary hooks that just don't let up.

From top to bottom, "Earthrage" is one killer track after the next. Previous W.E.T. albums have featured some flab, especially in their more saccharine moments, but that is not the case here. These guys have been sharpening their songwriting, and the result is an album that could easily serve as a compilation of the very best from a band of this ilk. To think this isn't even the main vehicle for any of the musicians here is quite a statement. I can think of many, many bands that would kill to be able to rake it in on tour on the back of this kind of record.

The reason I'm not pointing out highlights here is because there aren't any, at least not in the traditional sense. Every track on this record is as good as the next, and considering that it starts out with "Watch The Fire", which might just be the best song so far this year, that's saying something. The rockers, the ballads, it's all so good it might as well be beyond criticism. I shook my head sarcastically when Frontiers said this might be one of the best albums ever released on their label.

I'm not shaking my head anymore. I don't know just yet how "Earthrage" is going to stand up to the onslaught of listens it will get, but right now I'm comfortable saying that not only is it a remarkable album, it's definitely a serious contender already to be the best album of 2018.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

EP Review: Pale Waves - All The Things I Never Said

Last autumn, I wrote about the pop/rock band Pale Waves, proclaiming them a band to watch out for, on the strength of their first three singles. I was not alone, as they have been gaining more and more attention in the mainstream, and are included in most everyone's list of bands poised to break out in 2018. That will probably have to wait for the full-length record they are working on right now, but before that comes out, we have an EP to put a cap on this first chapter in their young career. With four tracks they have been playing live on their current tours, it's a taste of who Pale Waves are and can be, and a frustrating example of how pop music (and the modern, digital age) can shoot itself in the foot. We'll get to that later.

Let's start with the four tracks we are given here. The EP kicks off with "New Year's Eve", one of their singles from last year, and a song that captures everything this phase of Pale Waves is all about. Their sound is what I'll call depressing pop, with the right kind of bright and jangly guitars, but played with a tone that sands down the shimmer, while the Heather Baron-Gracie's vocals have the detached feeling of a mid-90s slacker teen. I love that mix, which comes across as a savory bubblegum. "New Year's Eve" was fantastic then (and yes, I did close out the year listening to it), and it's still a fantastic pop tune.

Likewise, we have already heard "My Obsession", which is the band's slow burn song. Stretching over four minutes, the slow and soft verses set up the big pop hit of the choruses. While their songs can be a bit samey, this is the one that shows a different range for them, and is why there's so much hope for them as an album band, not just a singles band.

The newer tracks here are "The Tide" and "Heavenly", both of which are short and snappy numbers that deliver the hooks. Finding unique things to say about each track is a bit difficult, since they all share a similar sound, and many of the melodies rely on the same phrasing. That does two things. It means that if you like one Pale Waves song, you're going to quickly like them all, but it also means they need to be careful in the future about keeping their songs from blending together. That doesn't apply on an EP as short as this, which gets in and out long before you can grow tired of the band's signature sound.

But there's also something profoundly disappointing about this EP. While these songs are all good, I'm let down by the tracks that were picked. There are two other singles from last year that are not included here, "Television Romance" and "There's A Honey", which are amazing songs. Since the band has talked about their upcoming full-length having a different tone than the songs they have already released, that indicated neither will be used for that project, so I can't understand the reasoning for not including them here. The EP is only fifteen minutes long. Include the other two tracks, and we're not cracking twenty minutes by all that much. It would not only make this EP even better for their inclusion, but it would help the fans out by giving them the tracks in an easier to keep track of format. I'm of the old school, so I get annoyed when bands put out a single here and there, leaving those songs forever orphaned in playlists. It's a disservice to their own hard work.

That aside, I can't complain about the actual music Pale Waves has given us here. They have an endearing take on pop/rock that appeals to those of us who are old enough to have identified with "Daria", even if the band themselves aren't. Cold, depressing pop music is one of those things that is so amazing when you hear a great song, because it never occurs to you it's possible. Pale Waves shows it is, and while I have my issues with "All The Things I Never Said", their first real release is great stuff.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Hearing Lunden Reign's "Confession"

Classic rock needs to be listened to in classic formats, right? I can't answer that, as I have never taken part in the swell of vinyl's resurgence, but it makes sense that important music should be available in important formats (that being something other than digital). In that spirit, we have news to discuss.

Lunden Reign released one of my favorite records of 2015. "American Stranger" was a classic rock record that sounded both timeless and modern, and showed a band that was jumping out of the gates well ahead of the pack. Not only was that record terrific, but it came with plenty of reason to believe that they would only grow into something more impressive as they moved forward. We got a small taste of that with the single release of "Red Wagon", and now the full truth is ready to be revealed.

"Confessions", the follow-up album is complete, and waiting to be unveiled to the public. All that's holding this new record back from immediately taking up residency on your turntable or playlist is the cost of pressing the actual records. To that end, the band has set up a Kickstarter campaign to get the physical records pressed and sent out to you, the loyal listeners.

As someone who has heard the record, I can speak from experience that if you liked "American Stranger", or any form of classic rock that has a strong melodic focus, or even just music with a message, "Confessions" is a great album. Lunden Reign has grown in the years since their first record, and every ring of experience can be heard throughout these songs. In a time when art is disposable, when so much music is written solely for the sake of having new material to play and sell, "Confessions" is the kind of authentic experience we don't get nearly as often as we should.

To find out more about the album and how to get your own copy, including a preview of the music, head to their Kickstarter page.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Album Review: Tengger Cavalry - "Clan Bi"


Well, this seems a little moot now, doesn’t it?

Just days after the release of their sixth album “Clan Bi,” Tengger Cavalry called it quits, citing unfair treatment and an unfair record deal, both squarely laid at the feet of “scumbug” (their words,) Marco Barbieri. 

Full disclosure – in the process of our musical pursuits, both Chris and I have had dealings with Barbieri, either through bands he was directly promoting, or through his affiliation with Century Media Records.  I have also, on the heels of the Tengger Cavalry album “Blood Sacrifice Shaman,” interviewed vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and ideaman Nature Ganganbaigal.  All parties have always been cool with us.  I don’t know what’s transpired between them, and we won’t speculate.
We can only judge what currently stands as Tengger Cavalry’s last will and testament, their new album “Clan Bi.”

Tengger Cavalry had made their name and come to considerable critical acclaim based primarily on their blending of throat singing and traditional instruments into the more common tropes of heavy metal as we know it.  “Clan Bi” continues some of those trends, but also eschews the working formula for sections at a time, in favor of a new sound that is academically interesting, but doesn’t always carry the same magnetic hook, of their tried-and-true stylings.

You need not get farther than the title track, which is the album’s second cut but first real song.  It is, much as we described above, an interesting song, but not always a good one.  It is certainly heavier than we’ve come to expect from Tengger Cavalry, there is no doubt of that, although the song still maintains the cinematic qualities that the band has always folded into their music so well.

The throat singing is there, too, although it’s been altered.  Rather than the traditional guttural notes and foreign words, the technique is instead used to sing short phrases in English.  Listen, I live primarily in the world of metal, so unusual vocals are an accepted part of the game, but there’s a robotic quality to Nature’s utterances that doesn’t sit comfortably.  I don’t know that any band has attempted to incorporate throat singing in this fashion, so full marks for originality, but…I don’t know.  They do it a few times on the album, and it doesn’t feel right.

Still talking about the title track, the traditional stringed accompaniment is as well accented and form-fitting for the song as one could ask for.  On paper this kind of matchup doesn’t work, but that speaks to the talent of Tengger Cavalry to make so delicate a sound work as an overlay for the hammering underneath.

On the other hand, the insistence of the jaw harp in the mix is forced.  I understand that the jaw harp is a storied and respected folk instrument, but its prevalence in the melody of the song is too reminiscent of the soundtrack from a Rayman video game.

And we’ve only gotten through one song!  The upshot of this entire conversation is that the kind of risks that Tengger Cavalry took in the song above appear throughout the duration of the record, with mixed results at best.

The electronic beat of “Electric Shaman” works – it’s crisp, it sounds new, it’s a concept where Nature is applying his multi-faceted experience to craft something we haven’t heard before.  And then the weird vocals and punchy, overbearing rhythms of “Redefine” come around two cuts later, and now I don’t know what to think again.  It’s this kind of dichotomy which makes the record difficult to judge in its entirety, and that statement is perhaps damning in and of itself.

“Clan Bi” is an album that gives with one hand and takes with the other.  Don’t be mistaken, it has moments of tangible, clairvoyant wonder; it also gets mired in new and unsuccessful twists that may be worthy in the attempt but fail to hit home.  It is equal parts revelation and frustrating riddle.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Album Review: The Watchers - Black Abyss

For all of the genre spam we get, there are combinations of words that aren't used very often. Going all the way back to Black Sabbath, there is a long history of doom metal, but we seldom hear anyone described as 'doom rock'. What exactly would that be? As I think about it, I'm not entirely sure, but The Watchers are here to make an effort to answer that question. They call themselves a doom rock band, born of the dreary heaviness of the old days, but apparently not wanting to be thought of as a metal band. Even as a critic, I'll admit that trying to keep straight who is and who isn't, what is and what isn't, is a futile task.

Then again, there's a question to be asked about what exactly doom is when it comes to music. The first two names that ever pop up in those discussions are the aforementioned Sabbath, as well as Candlemass. Anyone who doesn't follow those blueprints likely has a harder time being taken seriously as doom. Look at Trouble. They started out down that path, but then they shifted sounds on their seminal self-titled album (one of the criminally forgotten gems). Were they still doom then? I don't know.

The Watchers are certainly not doom in the Candlemass mold. Their sound has the gritty fuzz to the guitars that stoner influences would bring in, and the pacing is never as slow as traditional doom would dictate. However, you can hear in certain riffs the unmistakable thrust of doom. That makes this hard to quantify as a record.

I'm spending so much time on the semantics and philosophies of the music, because there isn't really much to say about the record itself. The Watchers are giving us music that hits the right marks, but does so in a way that doesn't have much spark behind it. I do appreciate their attempt to take the foreboding of doom and give it a kick in the ass with some more energetic pacing, but the songs don't have the rock elements solidly enough in place to make it work.

My biggest complaint comes in the vocal department, where the approach is much more in the stoner/rock mold than traditional doom, but there isn't a melody here that either plays to the strengths of doom, or can cut across it and shine light on the darkness. The whole of the experience is fine, but it doesn't demand your attention. As doom, it's not bleak or crushing enough, and as rock it isn't melodic enough. This album lives in a weird mid-point where it can't reach far enough in any direction to grab the best elements.

That means that "Black Abyss" is an interesting album, if for nothing else than reminding me how few bands ever tried to build on Trouble's masterpiece. But, it's also an album I can't tell you is particularly worth your time to listen to. It's certainly not a waste, but it does need some extra seasoning to be desirable.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Singles Roundup: Judas Priest, Kamelot, Kobra & The Lotus, and Gus G

As the year keeps unfolding, the big name releases are beginning to solidify. A few of them are coming up in the near future, which gives us some new preview songs to talk about. Let's see what they're up to.

Judas Priest - Never The Heroes

I won't shy away from saying that I am not the least bit excited about a new Judas Priest album. Even without the Glen Tipton news, I've never been enough of a fan to get hyped about an album that follows three I felt were numbing. This track is the best of the pre-release songs, but that still isn't saying much. Priest has now adopted the Andy Sneap blueprint sound, which takes away a bit of their unique charm, and Halford is clearly an aging vocalist. Everything is pretty good here, though, so this definitely sounds like it will be better than most of what they have done since Rob returned.

Kamelot - RavenLight

Here's a controversial thought; I'm more excited this year for Tommy's other band, Seventh Wonder's new album. That said, Kamelot always demands attention. Our first look at their upcoming album is a short and to-the-point track that hits the right marks for a Kamelot track. Basically, they continue to make dark, dramatic, elegant metal that feels a bit different than everyone else. If you like Kamelot, this is everything you'd want it to be. I'm more agnostic on them, but there's plenty to like about it. A positive sign for the album.

Kobra & The Lotus - Losing My Humanity

I hate double albums. Whether released at the same time or not, the fact that two are supposed to be one piece of work means that I can't help but look for the filled. "Prevail I" has enough of it, and I'm sure this one will as well, that one killer album became two good ones. This track is not their strongest effort, and while it does embrace the anger of the message, it isn't as developed and memorable as the best songs off the previous album. I do wish they had made that one killer record, because I know they have it in them.

Gus G - Letting Go

Gus has reinvented his solo career again, this time working as a power trio. This first taste of his upcoming album is a bit confusing. The verses are dark and borrow heavily from his 'mentor' Ozzy (the bad years mostly), but the chorus is a darkly melodic bit that I enjoy quite a lot. Dennis Ward might not be the best fit for this group, if this song is an indication, but I already like this more than either Gus' last solo album, or the dull Firewind album these two made last year.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Album Review: Stone Broken - Ain't Always Easy

Let's be honest about something here; mainstream rock has been boring for a long time. I don't mean in potential, as I have found numerous bands bubbling well under the radar who are doing great things with the guitars + melodies format. But in the mainstream, where the music can actually have hope of getting played and getting exposure, there hasn't been an interesting band to come along in ages. We get the same flaccid sound being recycled by ten bands a week, plus the old guard who are no longer making music that lives up to their own standards (hello, Foo Fighters). So when faced with a new mainstream rock album to look at, I have to admit that my hopes are rarely set very high.

If you were expecting anything other than the usual from Stone Broken, you would be disappointed. "Ain't Always Easy" is an album that fits right into the groove that bands like Nickelback established more than a decade ago, never daring to do anything to differentiate themselves. The thick and dark guitar tone is the same one used by nearly every band, and is one of the things I like least about the current trends. It's an anonymous tone, one that tries to sound heavy, but has no bite whatsoever.

Combined with the vocals, Stone Broken could pass for any other band of this style. The only thing that separates any of them are the actual songs, which doesn't help in this case, because most of this record travels the same terrain melodically as well. Some of these songs sound familiar on first listen, because they are so similar to what we've all heard before. Whether it's a Nickelback song here, or a Daughtry song there, I made it through this entire album without feeling like I know who Stone Broken are. All I can say about them is they listen to a lot of radio rock.

That doesn't mean everything is terrible. "Home" sounds quite a bit like the first two (and really good) Daughtry albums, including a shared title from one of those songs. I think what works about it is that it's the one song that dials down the rock conventions, adds in some acoustic guitar texture, and sounds more sincere than the heavier material. That track I like quite a bit.

The rest of the album is more hit and miss. There are some moments, like in "Follow Me" and "I Believe", where the old formula proves to work. But there are plenty of others where it sounds like all Stone Broken is doing is recycling what they grew up listening to. That's not to say anything is bad, because it isn't. Everything here is perfectly acceptable mainstream rock, as it stands, that would fit right in on the airwaves. To that end, the album achieves what it sets out to do.

"Ain't Always Easy" is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road rock record, which is why it will succeed. This is the kind of rock music that will get spins on the radio, and maybe get a placement or two in a movie or commercial. For their careers, this album will do exactly what they want it to. For me, it's too much of what I've already grown tired of from everyone else to say I'm going to want to listen to this when I'm not being prompted towards it. Stone Broken is good at this style, but it's not what I'm looking for right now. That's not a knock on them, it's just reality.