Monday, October 22, 2018

Album Roundup: A Light Divided, Mallen, and The Struts

Sometimes there are records I don't get the time to talk about at length, and sometimes there are records that don't give me enough to say about for a full review. Then there are the times when two records come out in short order that are very similar, rendering much of my commentary repeated. In those cases, we can talk about them together, to save some time. Here are two female-fronted (I use the label not as a warning, but as a compliment. I am greatly fond of this sound.) modern rock records I've encountered recently:

A Light Divided - Choose Your Own Adventure

This record caught me a bit off-guard at first. Their sound is not far removed from the first (and better) Letters From The Fire album, but it's Jaycee Clark who steals the show, with a voice that belts the songs out with a hint of Lzzy Hale's screaming rasp in the undertones. Having that voice selling the catchy melodies is something that sounds novel at first, and ultimately fits perfectly. They are able to deliver music that is heavy, energetic, and melodically sticky all at the same time, which is not an easy feat to achieve. "Remedy", "Fear Of Heights" and "Counting To Sober" are all as good as the best the style has to offer. A Light Divided won't get the same attention Halestorm does, but their record isn't that far off the standard. Color me impressed.

Mallen - Polarity

Of the two bands, Mallen's sound is a bit more pop, but without sacrificing the heaviness and guitars to keep the music from becoming too soft or fluffy. You can hear in the songwriting that they are still finding their feet, but there is plenty to like about them. Songs like "My Blackened Heart" are a heavier take on when Paramore was still a rock band, while a song like "This Dream" is everything you could want from a mainstream rock track. For most of the record, Mallen shows themselves to be a promising group who already have some great material, and clearly have room to grow into an even more impressive band. If this record is the first step in a climb, they are going to be worth keeping an eye on. "Polarity" is a solid start to a career, and well worth the time you'll invest in it.

And just for the heck of it...

The Struts - Young & Dangerous

This goes into the category of disappointing, because of the shameless pandering included here. Half the record is the watered-down 'rock' music that is currently acceptable in the pop world, while the other half is blatant Queen copying. That could be fine, but the decisions are too calculated. They go so far as to include a second version of their big single that includes pop star Kesha, because they are trying desperately to get a hit. Their Queen worship makes no sense with the other half of the record, except for the fact that the Freddie Mercury biopic is just coming out. In that context, this record is not only disappointing to listen to, but disappointing for what it says about the band.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Album Review: Northward - Northward

There's a saying that great music is timeless, that a great song is a great song regardless of when it's heard. It's a comforting thought, to think that we aren't creatures of the moment, and that art can endure as something meaningful well down the road. It happens for certain touchstone artists, but most music slips through the hourglass, and becomes more sand in the pile waiting to be tipped over and buried again. Northward puts the timelessness of music to the test in a different way. A collaboration between Floor Jansen and Jorn Viggo Lofstd, this album was written a decade ago, but is only seeing the light of day now, because scheduling did not allow it to exist beforehand. It feels a bit odd to be talking about decade-old music, but at the same time it is still new. How odd.

I will start by saying I am not well-versed in Floor's lengthy career. I never got into After Forever or ReVamp, and Nightwish has always been a mere trifle on my horizon. I was impressed with her contribution to Metal Allegiance's recent album, where she was the highlight. That said, this is my first real exposure to her in a setting I might enjoy.

"When Love Died" tries to burn rubber out of the gates, wasting no time getting up to speed. Early on, it becomes clear that Northward has two things going for them; amazing vocals and guitar playing. Floor and Jorn are masters with their respective instruments, which gives Northward an air of class and skill that few rock bands of this stripe are able to match. And ever since Jorn left the band of the other Jorn, his playing and saturated guitar tone have been missed, so it's great to hear it again.

For two musicians who have spent so long in the melodic metal world, shifting towards more of a rock orientation was never going to be a complete transition. This record does feel more rock than metal, but the guitar tone and Floor's melodic constructions have plenty in common with their metallic pasts. "Get What You Give" has the kind of swelling melody in the chorus that you can imagine orchestrations bringing to life on a massive scale. It's a lovely moment, even if it isn't quite what I was expecting.

"Storm In A Glass" is a better example of where I thought we were heading, with the pace and hooks borrowing more from melodic rock this time around. It's a bouncy number that does exactly what it's supposed to. Some people might criticize it for not being ambition enough, but that misses the whole point. Melodic rock is about satisfaction, and that is what a song like this one delivers.

One area where the album comes up a bit short is, amazingly, in the vocal department. Not Floor's lead vocals, that is. She is a great singer, and sounds good throughout. The problem is the backing vocals. I have long maintained backing vocals are an under-appreciated bit of importance, and they don't quite work here. There aren't enough of them on some of the choruses, and when they do pop up, they sounds more like a doubled Floor lead than anything. Even when the songs are good, they could sound 'bigger' with a different take on the backing vocals. But that's just me.

So is Northward timeless? That's an interesting question. In a sense, the answer is yes, because this record would have sounded just as relevant when it was written a decade ago as it does now. And given how strains of music no longer seem to die out, I imagine there will be records that sound like this from now until the end of time. On the other hand, I don't think it's timeless in the sense that these songs will endure. "Northward" is a solid album, and it's a fine showcase for these two musicians. There's a lot to like about the record, but I just don't hear the songs that are going to become standards for myself, or most fans.

That leaves us to say this; don't worry about time and legacies. Try as we might, we can't write the future today. Whatever happens to music tomorrow, and the days after, is up to fate. We only control today, and for now, "Northward" is an enjoyable record.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Album Review: Amaranthe - Helix

There has always been a fight as to whether metal and pop can coexist. The latter term has been thrown around for decades as a slur in metal circles, because there are a lot of metal fans who are wildly insecure about something I won't speculate on, and have to deride anything that isn't all heavy all the time. For those of us who are more enlightened, the fusion of the two sounds is something that serves as a grand experiment; can we take the most mainstream of sounds, combine it with the most underground, and manage to please the majority? I don't know what the answer to that is, since I consider myself a bit odd when it comes to such things, but Amaranthe has been trying to prove their point. With four albums under their belt already, they are at the forefront of metal's pop infection.

As always, Amaranthe provides us a mixture of Gothenburg melodic death metal and electronic pop. I know how that sounds, but there is a logical way it fits together. Modern pop music, with its programmed percussion and electronic bleeps and bloops, is entirely based on establishing rhythms. So to is the chugging nature of modern heavy metal, where riffs are often about establishing patterns of notes that have no melody, but plenty of percussive force. In that way, the two genres are more alike than you would think, and serve as a natural basis for Amaranthe's sound.

That approach has a downside; namely that if you don't have a mathematical mind to follow and memorize the patterns, the instrumentals of the songs blend into one long string of chugging notes. The first three tracks here fall into that category. The riffs are all so simple and a-melodic that the only thing separating the tracks is the vocal melody. That is helped by the fact Amaranthe is capable of delivering strong hooks, but a bit more separation would certainly be welcome.

"Helix" is a tight album that wastes no time getting from one sticky chorus to another. If metal can often be like trying to get the wiggling bait on the hook, Amaranthe is fishing with dynamite. They are relentless in delivering catchy songs, giving you little time to breathe before the next chorus punches you in the gut again. None of the twelve tracks here even reach the four minute mark, and that's a wise decision. They know what they want to deliver, and their brevity keeps them focused on those goals. Their actual music wouldn't serve for being drawn out in five-minute increments, so playing by the structure of radio pop is smart.

The differences between the tracks comes down to the little details, like whether there are a few more harsh vocals (such as the title track), or how much the electronics are placed in front of or behind the guitars. Yes, it would be fair to say the record is a bit samey throughout, but I don't consider that a criticism. If you have a sound that works, there's nothing wrong with delivering a forty-minute record that keeps its foot on the gas. I said the same thing recently about the identical criticism leveled against Pale Waves, and I'm saying it again here. It's one thing to do exactly the same thing album after album for an entire career, but within the context of one record, I don't mind it at all.

Anything I can say about one song can be said about them all, so I won't try to pick out highlights. "Helix" is a remarkably consistent album that shows how pop and metal are not so different after all. Amaranthe has managed to make music that is heavy, aggressive, sleek, and catchy all at the same time. That's a pretty good achievement, and even if there are a lot of metal fans who will never give them credit, we need to take note and respect what they have done. "Helix" is the metal smoke bomb that shows we all like pop music more than we let on. Easily a recommendation from me.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Album Review: Greta Van Fleet - Anthem Of The Peaceful Army

If you've heard of Greta Van Fleet, the odds are very good I already know what you have heard about them. They cannot seemingly be mentioned without a certain bands from the 70s being brought into the equation. There's a reason for that, as both their sound and look are highly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, but the simple comparison misses out on an important piece of the equation. While the sound Greta Van Fleet mines may be old, they do put a new spin on it. I might be one of the very few, but Led Zeppelin has never appealed to me. I understand their importance, but their music has never hit the marks that I look for when I'm listening. Specifically, Robert Plant rarely sang in the melodic style that appeals to me. He was either singing straight blues (a genre I'm not a fan of), or was wailing away without much melodic development (again, not something I'm a fan of).

Over their first two EPs, Greta Van Fleet took the building blocks that already existed, and grafted onto them a more modern melodic sensibility. "Black Smoke Rising", in particular, is a catchier number than anything I have ever heard from Zeppelin. In that is a sound that can allow Greta Van Fleet to use the past to create the future. That is the sound of rock and roll returning to the mainstream... if they can keep it up.

Right off the bat, the band shows us they understand that dynamics are what makes rock and roll work. "Age Of Man" kicks things off with soft guitars and an isolated vocal, then builds into a bluesy riff that isn't layered to excess. There's plenty of breathing room to the mix, with plenty of room for the bass to stand out, and guitars that are left natural enough to sound real. It could be considered a play on the past, but it's also the way that best serves the music. We see that to this day with Slash's solo work. He uses the same kind of guitar tones in his music, and his sound is as good as anyone alive.

What's noticeable about this record is that the band is stretching their legs, expanding on their core songwriting by letting the songs drift into instrumental passages that give them a chance to play around themselves without hurting their best attributes. The aforementioned "Age Of Man" does that, flowing through two sections with outside instrumentation giving the song some added gravitas, all the while returning to the main hook, which delivers in that way I never felt Zeppelin did.

"When The Curtain Falls" was the first taste we got of the record, and it stands out still as one of the highlights. It is what Greta Van Fleet is, when boiled to the essence. With brevity, the band is able to transport us back to 1975, but do it in a way that still embraces the evolution rock has gone through in the intervening years. Those four minutes are old-school rock and roll, done as well as it can be.

But like all young bands, there are missteps along the way. "Love, Leaver (Taker, Believer)" has some fine guitar playing, but the track bogs down when the main hook comes along, because it is the four words wailed as single long notes, with no melodic development to be heard. It's a moment that resembles the 70s too much, because it falls into the style of songwriting from back then that feels completely under-developed when compared to what rock is capable of today.

Compare that track with "You're The One", which turns itself into a soft rock sing-along that an entire arena could use as a cell-phones-in-the-air moment to bring everyone together. It's exactly the moment when Greta Van Fleet's potential is most evident. Sure, they are appealing to the people who love classic rock and want to relive that sound, but they are also a band that can write songs unlike any that classic rock ever had. There is an inviting side to their best music that transcends genre, and I can't say I've ever heard that from the big names of the past (at least not on their 'classic' records).

"The New Day" is a similar song, and listening to them back to back, I can't figure out why the band didn't release one of those two tracks as a single. "Lover, Leaver" and "Watching Over" both were, and they are the two tracks that least embody the robust hooks that power the majority of the record. Honestly, I was ambivalent about the record because of those two singles. But now that I've heard them as the weakest numbers, the record has taken on new strength. The previous double EP was a fine collection of songs, but didn't hold together like this collection does as an album. There is something to these songs, even with the diversity of their approaches, that is shared between them, which is what a good album should do.

When I first heard Greta Van Fleet, I didn't get what the hype was. Slowly, I started finding the music staying with me more and more. And now, with "Anthem Of The Peaceful Army" here, I can fully understand it. They still have to prove consistency like Graveyard has, but Greta Van Fleet has quickly moved themselves into the top tier of bands who are breathing new life into classic rock. Living up to the hype is hard, but Greta Van Fleet has done it. "Anthem Of The Peaceful Army" is fantastic.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Album Review: Elvis Costello - Look Now

Following Elvis Costello's career is a bit like watching a chaos pendulum; you know there is a fulcrum around which it all moves, but the next beat is as random as the last. Since the turn of the millennium, Elvis has recorded Southern gothic concept records, classical piano ballads, twenties-style Americana, and one more traditional 'rock' album in between. You never know where he is going next, which means even if you didn't like the last stop, there is always reason for hope the next one will be more up your alley. I will admit that his last two records, which mined the style of early American acoustic composition, were not my cup of tea. There was enough on there I could enjoy, but they are records I can't consider even in the top half of his work.

But as always, Elvis is moving in a new direction again with "Look Now". This isn't the return to raw rock and roll "Momofuku" was, but instead points back most directly to "Imperial Bedroom", the most baroque pop album of his career. Good or bad, that means one thing it cannot be is boring.

"Look Now" is a deceiving title, because the record looks backward more than anything else. Elvis serves up songs that have been in the making for years, revisits collaborations from yesteryear, and even continues on the story of a character from "National Ransom". That occurs on the opening "Under Lime", where the Depression-era Jimmy winds up in the television age, captured in the shift from a bare-bones acoustic song in his first starring role, to a technicolor arrangement this time out, with bubbling bass, strategic pianos, and a horn section for good measure. It's a more upbeat version of "The Long Honeymoon", throwing in a few tricks from the "When I Was Cruel" era.

For large stretches, though, the album that pops to mind most of all is "North". That album of soft and classical piano torch songs is one that never gained much attention or acclaim, but the songwriting lessons from then echo throughout this new record. "Stripping Paper" has some added adornment, but the thrust of the melody, and the circular way it winds around a hook that doesn't exist is straight out of those sessions. The songs that fall into that category, including the three written alongside Burt Bacharach, are the slow beauty that are supposed to show the softer side of the beast.

With his band The Imposters in tow, the best numbers are the ones where the band are allowed to flex their muscles. "Under Lime" and "Unwanted Number" have snap and sparkle, as well as vocal and instrumental bits that stand out and hook you in. The piano line alone on the latter is the kind of simple motif a thousand songs could be built around. In those few notes, Steve Nieve provides more of an anchor than Bacharach's compositions ever do. There is certainly something to be said for polish and beauty, but no amount of make-up can hide a crooked smile.

A few years back, Elvis had hinted he was done recording. In a weird way, this album both justifies and refutes that stance of his. Because this is a record with some great moments and energy captured in the performances, it would be a shame to think Elvis would never go back into a studio to put his music to tape. On the other hand, these songs continue his shift deeper and deeper into what I call 'songwriter mode', where the songs are obviously written for the enjoyment of the author, and not the audience. There are too many songs here that come and go without making a vital musical statement. A song like "Photographs Can Lie" offers nary a piano or vocal line that matters, even though I'm sure there is great satisfaction on Elvis' part in bringing the song to life.

Ultimately, "Look Now" suffers from the same fate as "Imperial Bedroom" did all those years ago. By trying to patch together so many sounds and approaches, there isn't much connective tissue to hold the entire thing together. Flawed though it might have been, "Momofuku" was an album that knew exactly what it wanted to do, and gave us a record that captured The Imposters as the band they are. "Look Now" is half an Imposters record, and half an Elvis genre experiment. It's interesting to hear the twists and turns it takes, but it isn't satisfying the way the great Elvis Costello albums are.

I'm looking now, but I'm not seeing what I hoped for.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Album Review: Impellitteri - The Nature Of The Beast

There always have been, and always will be, plenty of bands that have worlds of talent, who can't seem to make a great record, no matter how hard they try. Impellitteri has been trying their best for decades, and they still haven't mastered the craft. The band's namesake is a highly talented shredder, and Rob Rock has one of the more commanding voices in melodic metal, and yet every time I have ever listened to this group, I came away wondering how they had spent so much time honing their instruments, and not nearly enough honing their songs. Being a great musician is not the same thing as being a great songwriter. Keep that in mind.

"Masquerade" is a great example of what I'm talking about. The main riffs of the song are a blur of notes, which are impressive for anyone who knows what it takes to play that fast and in time. I won't deny his skill, but what is it in service of? When the chorus comes in, Rob Rock chants the word 'masquerade' repeatedly, and without much melodic development. It is supposed to be a chant, but it doesn't give us any reason to want to join in. I've said before, that style of writing worked in the 80s, because that was the only option for mainstream-ish sounding heavy music. Now that we have countless bands taking different and more melodic routes, the old way sounds dated and tired, which it always was.

The other issue is that with the band's love of playing fast, the songs blend together even more than they otherwise might. The thing about a melody is that it needs time to breathe, and the band doesn't give any of their good ideas the space to sink in. By the time you hear it, and get into the groove of it, they have already moved on to the next bit. We can only proccess information so quickly, and the band blazes through the songs faster than I can absorb what they want me to.

We also get two covers on the album, which baffles me. They run through the theme from "Phantom Of The Opera", which gives Chris Impellitteri ample time to shred to his heart's content. Why they didn't simply write a couple of riffs for him to solo over for a more conventional instrumental is beyond me. Hearing it, all I'm thinking is that I would rather be listening to that soundtrack, because the trademark organ theme is more striking than anything Impellitteri is offering us.

"The Nature Of The Beast" is meat-and-potatoes speed metal, but I don't find speed metal to be interesting at all. Playing fast is a skill, but it's only useful if the songs call for it to be used. These songs don't make much of a case for it. In fact, I would dare say slowing the tempos 5-10bpm would make these songs sound heavier, and could even make the melodies stickier.

So look, if you like speed metal, or just need to get your adrenaline flowing, this might be an album for you. It pounds away without letting up, so it does that job. However, that's not what I want to hear from my metal, so I can't say it did much for me. The guys are talented, but yet again they fail to deliver songs that make me pay attention to anything but their speed. When you even manage to make a Black Sabbath song sound wrong (in this case by playing it way too fast), you're not winning me over. "The Nature Of The Beast" is an album I wouldn't recommend, certainly not when compared to the much better albums Rob Rock made with Roy Z. Now those are what they should be doing.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Album Review - Seventh Wonder - Tiara

Sometimes a musician's main gig is the one that pays the bills, but there's another one on the side that is the real attraction. It doesn't happen often, but Seventh Wonder is one of those cases. There's a good chance you know Tommy Karevik as the lead singer of Kamelot, but despite their success, he is a going through the motions and filling a role in that band. When it comes to Seventh Wonder, he gets to fully be himself. We haven't heard from the band in eight years, so we may have forgotten just how good they are at playing progressive metal. Their last two albums, "Mercy Falls" and "The Great Escape" were wildly different record that were both jam packed with intricate playing and ear-worm melodies. I'm hard pressed to think of a better fusion of prog and pop than "Alley Cat". So while Kamelot has been busy, this is what I've been waiting for.

After that much of a wait, the album tries my patience at the start. We get a minute and a half of orchestral swell that doesn't need to be there, and then "The Everones" opens the album proper with one of the least melodic songs the band has written in a long time. Especially egregious is the section where Tommy's altered voice flatly talks through a series of ones and zeroes. It is a prime candidate for some judicious editing.

After that, we get back into traditional Seventh Wonder territory, where the riffs dance over the fretboard in a way that sounds simple yet difficult at the same time, and Tommy delivers passionately melodic vocals. "Dream Machines" is exactly the kind of song you would expect to get, while "Against The Grain" ebbs and flows, with the tempo slowing to make the chorus sound even more dramatic. Couple that with first single "Victorious", and the seeds are planted for the album to blossom into something truly great.

And to keep us from forgetting they are a progressive band, in both name and practice, we get the "Farewell" suite, which is three tracks that span nearly twenty minutes. It serves as the fulcrum around which the story revolves, and "Beyond Today", with its sparse arrangement, is where we also most easily hear the cheesiness that often pops up in Tommy's lyrics. The same thing happened on "Mercy Falls", where the story overtakes the moment, and the words turn from poetry to prose.

"Tiara" comes across as a very safe Seventh Wonder album. It isn't as immediate as either of the last two records, and it also doesn't commit itself to the narrative of the concept the same way "Mercy Falls" did. This record tries to shoot the gap between those two albums, which makes it difficult to assess. They are great at what they do, and this record has plenty of very good material all throughout, but it doesn't have the same spark of excitement their previous work did, because this is in some ways what we've already heard before, which doesn't mesh with the progressive ethos.

I might have been expecting something a little bit different after eight years, but that doesn't stop "Tiara" from being top-notch progressive metal. There isn't another band out there that plays the genre with this much melody, and that alone makes them a vital voice on the scene. There is a similarity between Seventh Wonder and Kamelot in that their records this year feel like they are treading water, but one is clearly better than the other. Seventh Wonder is an interesting and important voice, and even if they are just reintroducing themselves after a bit of a break, hearing them again is very much welcome.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Singles Roundup: Elvis Costello, Greta Van Fleet, Holter, and Weezer

The October slate of albums hasn't been as daunting as I was anticipating, so with a free day to play with, let's take a look at a few of the singles that have been coming out, and see if we can draw any conclusions from them.

Elvis Costello - Suspect My Tears

The third song released from Elvis' new album, which I hope to be talking about next week, this one finds Elvis playing with more of a soul feeling. The album is shaping up to be an eclectic affair, much like "Imperial Bedroom" was, which is a record this song would have fit right in on. I do wish the chorus was a bit more developed than repeating the title line so often, but there is a charm to the track that mostly overcomes that flaw. It isn't a classic, but it mostly hits the right marks.

Greta Van Fleet - Watching Over/Lover, Leaver

The next tracks from the most anticipated rock record of the year (to the mainstream charts), these tracks finds Greta Van Fleet softening things up a bit, and losing a bit of what makes them special. They are at their best when they sound like you-know-who, but do so in a way that is hookier and slightly more modern. These songs don't have any of that. Instead, while the guitars are still doing some interesting stuff, the vocals are left to howl atop the music, essentially doing nothing. Of the three songs we've heard, only one is encouraging for the record.

Holter - I'd Die For You

My favorite metal record of the last five years was the "Dracula: Swing Of Death" concept record put out by Jorn Lande and Trond Holter. It was ludicrous, ridiculous, and still remains an absolute blast. This is the first single for the follow-up, a record abotu Vlad The Impaler. The song lacks some of the campy fun of the original, but the biggest issue is Nils K Rue replacing Jorn as the vocalist. Nils is a fine singer, but he lacks the sinister edge needed to play such a part. And anyone being compared to Jorn is going to look weak. It's a fine song, but it has me worried the new album can't possibly live up to my expectations.

Weezer - California Snow

Oh, Weezer. There was a time in my life they were as important as any band, and now I shake my head and wonder how that could have been. Rivers Cuomo has been desperate to get back his mainstream success, and it shows here. He hops on the trends of 'rock', and has cobbled together a song that manages to be terrible for that style, and terrible for Weezer, all at the same time. Some artists mature as they age. Rivers becomes more and more child-like. It's sad to see. Weezer is all but dead now.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Album Review: Leah - The Quest

Here's something I don't talk about very often; folk metal. I do not come from a background where, either by heritage or geography, I have much of a history with folk music. So when I come across metal that incorporates the style, I'm often at a bit of a loss how I'm supposed to react to it. I say the same thing about the blues, but at least there is enough of it in all stripes of rock and roll that I have absorbed a few of the basics. Folk music is still a foreign language to me, in terms of how the construction is supposed to work alongside the twisted ideas I have in my mind of what music is supposed to be.

It doesn't help when the folk is Celtic, in particular, as Leah is. Plenty of people do, but I don't have a drop of Irish blood in my heritage, which makes it difficult for me to embrace music that is so traditional for a specific culture I am not a part of. Still, I try, because experiments can often lead to surprising results.

The album dares to challenge us, opening with the ten-minute title track, one that takes us on a ride that requires considerable patience. It builds very slowly, and even when the guitars and rock instrumentation kicks in, the song takes plenty of opportunities to slow down, while Leah uses her voice more as an instrument than as the lead. The lyrics are rather few, as she coos and lilts wordlessly for long stretches. It is effective at setting an atmosphere, but I'm not sure what about the song I'm supposed to latch onto. There doesn't seem to be a core to the composition, just plenty of beautiful sounds.

As we move further into the record, that approach shifts into a more structured one, with songs that offer compelling reasons for their existence. Songs like "Edge Of Your Sword" and "Lion Arises" are dotted with interesting musical sounds, but are anchored by Leah's soothing voice delivering caressing melodies. The natural comparison for anything of this sort is Nightwish, especially true since Troy Donockley appears here, but I don't think that's right. Leah's music is more Celtic than symphonic, and yes, there is a difference. This record is more akin to Karnataka's "Secrets Of Angels", a record I adored (right down to the lengthy title track being my least favorite cut), simply a bit slower and softer.

There's a bit of an irony here. Leah's voice is soft and lush, but it's when the album kicks up the energy slightly that she is most compelling. Those don't sounds like the moments that would play to the strengths of her voice, but they are when she is doing something just different enough that it makes you pay attention to what you're hearing. She has the potential to be that good.

The thing about "The Quest" is that because of how much Celtic/folk influence is in the compositions, the record is rather soft and subdued. That plays well with her voice, but it does mean that if you are coming at this from the perspective of a traditional rock or metal fan, you may be disappointed with how often the guitars take a back seat to the Celtic sounds. If you can open your mind to this not being a traditional rock album, then there is plenty here to be excited about.

I'm not going to try to tell you Leah's rocking take on it has converted me into a massive fan of folk music. That wasn't going to happen, but what I can say is that I appreciate the sheer beauty of what she and her collaborators have put together here. "The Quest" is an album that delivers its goals exceptionally. I may not have the mindset to spin this regularly, but damn if it isn't the perfect album for the right mood. This sort of album is why I still like to step outside my comfort zone every so often. I wouldn't have exposed myself to Leah otherwise, and that would be a shame. "The Quest" is an album I'm glad to have heard.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Album Review: Blues Traveler - Hurry Up & Hang Around

Blues Traveler has always been a band that lets their sound, travel, if you will. Along the winding path of their career, the one constant has been change. "Save His Soul" sounded nothing like "Four", which sounded nothing like "Truth Be Told", which sounded nothing like "Blow Up The Moon". They have always been chasing something, but what exactly that is has always been nebulous. In the beginning, the strove for respect. Then they strove for the status they deserved. Then they strove to regain their place. And finally, they strove to make themselves happy. That leaves us with a string of records that hold together, but form a patchwork that draws your attention to a different area each time. And even when they are taking a detour that might not be your choice, there are always interesting twists that make it worth your while to take the ride with them.

With the band having reached a milestone of longevity, the question of how to commemorate that brings them back (nearly) full circle. While their last couple records have seen Blues Traveler injecting their sound with pop songwriters in the search for the perfect collaboration, "Hurry Up & Hang Around" finds them stripping back to the garage band they started out as. This is the most classically Blues Traveler album they have made, in approach, in many a year.

Our first taste of this chapter came from the opening track, "Accelerated Nation", which came out of the gates in traditional Blues Traveler form. Sounding like a mix of all their eras, the song fused their classic sound with the polished writing of their modern work, giving us a song that fits the same mold "Most Precarious" did (and sadly never got credit for - that was a better single than it is remembered as).

Longtime fans will recognize bits and pieces that should evoke a smile, like how John Popper's melody in the verses of "She Becomes My Way" stretches a syllable or two longer than anyone else would write it. Those are the details that I have always appreciated, both as a fan and as a songwriter. Every writer and every band has idiosyncrasies that pop up, which I think got too smoothed out with the amount of collaboration they had been doing lately. Even when they were writing great songs, like "Matador" was, they didn't have those trademark elements. Hearing them again is a treat.

Another one pops up on "Daddy Went A Giggin'", where Popper's melody in the verses, and some of the feel of the instrumental, is somewhat pulled from his solo album, "Zygote" (the song "His Own Hands" in particular). The songwriting on this record is a throwback to the "Four" and "Straight On Til Morning" period, but more concise than they were back then. The band has been constantly trimming away the excess from their old tendencies, which leaves us with a lean record. Old fans might think there's a looseness missing from the recordings, but it shows how their focus has shifted over the years towards sharp songwriting.

The thing about being a Blues Traveler fan is that we can argue over which of their experiments are our favorites. Some of us will love how gritty and heavy they got on "Bastardos!", while others will appreciate the slickness of "Truth Be Told". This one, though, feels like the right record for an anniversary period, because it is the one record since "Four" that best captures every side of the band.

Given how much the world has changed since "Run Around" and "Hook" were near the top of the charts, it's a good decision that the band is no longer trying to chase a hit, and is instead writing music that is befitting of their status. There are clover hooks and strong melodies, but they integrate into the core of the band's sound, rather than sounding like the token attempt to appeal to a demographic that no longer exists. Look, I love "Girl Inside My Head" and "Amber Awaits" too, but even then there no longer existed the proper outlet for them to become mainstream hits.

"Hurry Up & Hang Around" is a record made for Blues Traveler fans by the biggest fans of them all, the band. At this stage of their career, that's exactly what most people want to hear. And listening to the results, I can't argue. This record will make any Blues Traveler fan happy, and it will reset things so the next experiment is more welcome.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Album Review: Brainstorm - Midnight Ghost

This has been another slow year for power metal. Like the last few, there hasn't been much on the scene that has caught my attention. Either the music has been in the mold of the Helloween rehashers, or it hasn't had the sharp songwriting to overcome the limitations of the genre. Powerwolf put out a great record, but they are the exception to the trend. Brainstorm has something in their corner this time around, producer Seeb Levermann of Orden Ogan fame. His band is one of the few consistently delivering modern power metal that excels, so there is hope that he can steer Brainstorm in a direction that is more enthralling than usual.

His influence is felt early on. "Devil's Eye" opens things with a thrashing riff that chugs along not unlike an Orden Ogan song, but the chorus has deeply layered backing vocals that sound exactly like what Seeb would do with his own group. That massive quality is one of the things that makes them stand out, and it has always worked to make the music sound larger than life. Let's face it; most power metal doesn't have interesting guitar parts, which puts all of the emphasis on the hooks to compel the listener. Making the choruses sound bigger and bigger is one of the tricks that serves to do just that. If they went Iron Maiden style, and went without background vocals at all, this material would sound much flatter than it does. Production does matter.

The other thing that matters is consistency. Even if you can deliver a killer track or two to serve as the highlights, the mark of an album is how deep you can go before you hit filler. That is where Brainstorm has elevated their game. While I am not intimately familiar with their catalog, I've heard enough bits and pieces from them to be able to say this is easily the best they've ever sounded. Sure, it could just be my bias because I am quite fond of Orden Ogan, so any move in that direction would be considered a good thing. Regardless of why, Brainstorm sounds bigger and more engaging than I remember.

If you happened to hear the single, "The Pyre", it doesn't give an accurate representation of what the rest of the record has to offer. That track was released perhaps because it was a bit more traditional, but I find it to be one of the lesser offerings, lacking the immediate hooks that the best tracks here boast. "Ravenous Minds", "Revealing The Dark", and "Divine Inner Ghost" are all banging tracks that have sharp hooks, while we get a more stretched out song in "Jeanne Boulet 1764", but even that one is dramatic and melodic.

"Four Blessings" is a slight hiccup, relying too heavily on "whoa-oh" sections, but it's only a slight dip in the second half of the record. It would be hard to keep up the pace of the initial few tracks, which Brainstorm doesn't quite do, but they acquit themselves well throughout. "Midnight Ghost" is a very solid example of what power metal is today, or maybe what it should be. It isn't fully to greatness, but it's Brainstorm at their best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Album Review: Riverside -Wasteland

There isn't much harder than losing an important band member, except for losing an important band member. Riverside is not walking into this new album simply without guitarist Piotr Grudzinski, they are still mourning his loss. The fork in their road is not one of disagreement, nor a change in direction, but true loss. There were questions about how to move on, and whether it was even something worth pursuing. But they have decided to move on, and Riverside is back, albeit different now.

"Wasteland" is a meditation as much as an album, and trying to judge an expression of grief feels a bit garish to me. How can you tell someone the way they have chosen to cope is wrong?

For this outing, the band has changed course and started to look backward a bit. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the last couple of albums, but this one is more streamlined with callbacks to the "ADHD" sound, which was my favorite of their records. Sounding more like a 70s hard rock band filtered through a prog lens (there are ample hints of Uriah Heep through the organs), the music is more interesting this way than when the band had settled into a more comfortable somber prog mood.

Noticeable about the record is how the guitars are filtered. The distorted tones are fuzzy around the edges, a bit like a ghost hanging in the air. There is a lack of sharpness I would usually criticize, but considering the message the album is putting forward, it makes sense. This music shouldn't crackle with energy, or sparkle with a sheen atop it all. There needs to be grit and emotion to it, and letting the guitars feel distraught and incomplete works for that.

What has always made it difficult for me to get into Riverside is their take on what melody in prog is supposed to be. It's the same issue I have with other bands that receive lavish praise, such as Kingcrow (who also have a new record). They sing clean, but always with such subtlety that the hooks feel dull to the touch. There is melodic and there is catchy, and Riverside has always been exclusively in the former camp. You can argue that this album should be exactly that, but there still needs to be something for us to grab onto as listeners.

"Guardian Angel" is the perfect example of that. The song has some lovely acoustic guitars, but the thrust of the song are softly whispered spoken word vocals that have not an ounce of melody to them. The message may be important, but it gets lost without a delivery method that excites us. It is a slow eulogy at exactly the time the audience needs to be picked back up.

"Acid Rain" and "Lament" are far more effective at striking the right balance, delivering powerful doses of emotion that are wrapped up in melodies we can engage with. There is life in them, which is needed on an album preoccupied with death.

I understand that making a record can be a therapeutic experience, and the band needed to do something to take the first steps in moving forward with their lives. But just because something is personal doesn't mean it is enjoyable. I wish the guys in Riverside no ill will, and if this record has helped them, that's great. What I can't do is say I enjoyed listening to this record, because I didn't. Too much of the record is a slow dirge through the pits of despair, which is not where I want to be as a music fan. Good for them, but I'm going to have to pass on this one.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Album Review: Dynazty - Firesign

As I have said many times, what I love perhaps most of all is heavy metal combined with big pop hooks. That combination hits at every part of who I am as a music fan, and it is done well so rarely, so I try to hang on dearly every time I come across a good record. That is why Dynazty is a bit odd. Their last two albums have hit the right balance, and I have enjoyed them, yet they haven't stuck with me the same way my favorites do. I still play Bloodbound's "Tabula Rasa" at least bi-monthly, and James LaBrie's "Impermanent Resonance" hits me every time I hear it. Dynazty hasn't done that for me yet. I always hold out hope that it will happen the next time, which just so happens to be now.

Listening to "Firesign", it sounds like an album I should absolutely love. "The Grey" is a song that builds up to a chorus with a strong melody and stop-start guitars that have a simple hook to them as well. That is the kind of little thing that makes it harder to forget a song. You can take all the technical runs of notes the most talented players can muster, and none of them mean anything. But if you can play two notes that have a groove you can hum along with, you've figured out what writing songs is all about.

Dynazty can't resist throwing some extra cheese into a style of metal that often gets portrayed that way regardless. The title track, as well as a couple of other spots, are dotted with strongly digital synth tones. How seriously you take your metal will probably determine whether or not you enjoy those aspects. For me, they don't last long very long, so I have no problem with them trying to add color to the songs. This wouldn't be the right music for them to go all-in on "Follow The Reaper" era Children Of Bodom synths, but as minor details they work.

The issue that crops up is the nature of pop music. Everyone tends to have an idea of what pop melodies are supposed to sound like (myself included), which can be so limiting that the songs you create off that template can be too similar. There have been a few bands this year I have mentioned having songs that felt too similar to songs from their own recent past. With Dynazty, there are a couple of melodies just within this album that are rather close to one another. I think perhaps the target they were shooting for was not quite wide enough.

But don't let that distract from the main point here, which is that "Firesign" is a solid album of catchy melodic metal. If you've heard any of the singles that were put out, you will know what the rest of the album has to offer. There isn't a lot in the way of diversity here, but what's done is done well. Dynazty has a signature sound they are mining, and they are merely refining that sound to create albums that deliver heavy guitars and catchy vocals. I can't blame them for doing what works.

So my takeaway from "Firesign" is pretty much the same as it was when I was listening to their previous album, "Titanic Mass". Dynazty doesn't quite hit the highs of my favorites from the style, but they do a good job of delivering songs that deliver on all the aspects of metal I love. That makes it an easy recommendation.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Album Review: I:Scintilla - Swayed

In all the time I have been writing about music, I don't know if I have ever covered an album that included the word 'industrial' in the accompanying description. There have been opportunities, I know for sure, but I can't recall ever taking up any of them. I am one of those people who appreciates the organic elements of music. I love the sounds of instruments as they are, and the idea of listening to processed or programmed drums as a centerpiece of the proceedings is not something I have ever looked forward to. There are, by my estimation, two kinds of music listeners; fans of melody and fans of rhythm. I am almost entirely in the first category, which makes these kinds of projects difficult for me, at best.

Listening to I:Scintilla on this record, I'm not sure why they remind us of a past that is no longer the present. This album sees the band moving towards more organic sounds, reducing the programming and samples to small segments in the background, while natural drums power most of the compositions. And when the guitars aren't grinding through songs, as they often don't, there is barely a hint of industrial to the record. Putting that word in my head may create a false scenario where I am holding the record to a standard that shouldn't apply.

There are places where their past creeps up, most notably in "Boxing Glove", where the song is a slow and pounding number that is the dirty, grimy underbelly of a hulking machine. By that nature, it is also one of the least interesting songs here, because it gives Brittany Bindrim less room to work with that most of the others. She is able to bring some real melody to "Carmen Satura", the track that convinced me I should give the record a chance. That is a sound that works, where the heavy rhythms are still dominant, but there is a balance with her voice and melodies that should appeal to all sides.

But as the album unfolds, it is a sound I'm not sure the band is fully committed to. Often, there is a sense they are holding back, unsure if they can or should move further away from industrial. I can't answer that question, since they never go far enough to see what they are capable of as a band without limits, but I can say that trying to straddle the fence seldom leads to rewards as satisfying as if you stay on either side.

There are some lovely melodies here, like in "Nothing But Recordings", but not enough of them to fill out the record. This is a transitional point, and like when you crest a hill at freeway speeds, there's a split second where you feel your stomach rise up into your chest. That's where we are here, since it's never clear whether the band is going to pull the trick off or not. While I appreciate them trying something new, and moving to make their music more human, I don't think there has been enough development of their songwriting to match what the production is aiming for.

That leaves "Swayed" as one of those albums stuck in the middle, where both fans of where the band has been and where the band may ultimately wind up will both be both intrigued and disappointed at the same time. If a new act in their career is opening, this is merely setting the scene. It might be interesting, but it isn't captivating.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Album Review: Dark Sarah - The Golden Moth

Cinematic metal. Those are two words that scare me when I come across them. When I think of metal, cinema isn't something that comes to my mind very often. The world of cinematic writing, and the soundtracks where it is usually found, have little to do with the basic structure of metal as we have come to embrace it. Cinematic writing, as I often hear, eschews the immediacy of riffs and hooks for an approach that relies on atmosphere and scope to wow us. While there are times and places where that can work, I find it lacking for entire albums. I'm not saying metal needs to be a punch in the teeth (I don't really like that style, to be honest), but it's very easy to get drawn out to the point the songs feel like a used up elastic band. So does Dark Sarah avoid that fate?

Let's take a look at "Trespasser", the first full track on the record. It starts out with a heavy riff that gets your blood pumping... and then calms down into a soft crawl while the two vocalists trade barely whispered lines. The metal kicks back up for the chorus, but Heidi's vocals are so high and laden with vibrato that the lyric gets lost, while JPs vocals are so much deeper that they don't blend well enough.

The other issue is that the melodies they reach for are of the variety I have long expressed my displeasure with; long held notes with no urgency to bend around a hook. Yes, they can showcase the power and beauty of a singer's voice, but they lack bite, and are so soft they leave no impact on a listener's memory.

The story of the record is the namesake character escaping the underworld to a wasteland, and then teaming up with a dragon to find their way to the gods. That's rather standard stuff for epic power metal, but it leaves me a bit confused. The settings, and the dragon character, aren't backed up by the music that we're hearing. So much of it is triumphant and uplifting that it flies in the face of the story. The wasteland should require more gritty music, and the dragon needs to have a metallic snarl behind him, but that's not what the record delivers. Concept albums are always tough to pull off without sounding cheesy, and this is one of the reasons why. "Star Wars" was filmed on set with Darth Vader's voice being performed as Scottish. That's the sort of non-sequitur we end up with here, though obviously not to that degree.

That feeling makes it harder to fully embrace the good material on the record. "Wheel" and "My Beautiful Enemy" are wonderfully pleasant symphonic metal with classical vocals, and a straight-forward album of songs like that would be quite enjoyable. However, I can't ignore the cognitive dissonance that exists. Every detail of an album matters, especially when you say it is like a movie telling an epic story. Plot holes can ruin a movie, and there are audio equivalents for albums.

There is also no momentum built up at any point. There are moments in "Pirates" that hit the right marks for the story, but they get swallowed up by long passages of quiet ambiance and soft crooning. Why is a dragon crooning?

That confusion is the main takeaway I had from this album. There are aspects to what Dark Sarah is doing here that I really like, but the entire experience is hampered by the concept. Once you get beyond that first song, there are ample hooks and glorious moments, but the songs spend so much time setting the stage for that scene they feel like one-liners, and not routines. I wish I could say otherwise, but "The Golden Moth" is a promising collection of ideas that can't overcome the clunky execution of a concept album. That's a shame, because I hear a lot of potential here to be a more metallic version of Karnataka's last album, which was a masterstroke of cinematic writing. Maybe next time.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Album Review: Clutch - "Book of Bad Decisions"

It may be time to eat a little crow.  In fact, it’s probably well past time.

Following the release of “Robot Hive/Exodus,” things started to angle down for Clutch.  Their jam dalliances were coming more and more into the fore of their music, and it was causing division among the fanbase – those who wanted the band to perpetually be the group that released “Pure Rock Fury,” and those who wanted to hear more from “Jam Room.”  (Just as an editorial note for context, I was in the former group.)

The next two albums, if you were a fan of the band’s particular brand of blistering, riff-driving metal, were disappointing to say the least.  They had strayed too far from their root source and there was a sense that the bell curve which had peaked with “Blast Tyrant” was riding the inevitable crash back to the bottom.

Now though, retribution and redemption.  “Earth Rocker” showed some promise, and then “Psychic Warfare” was a modern masterpiece; while not the same style per se as some of its lofty predecessors, the album popped with spirit and vigor and showed that the band was still possessed of plenty of fight and desire.

And now we come to “Book of Bad Decisions.”

What we are really presented here is two records in one – an album proper of eight songs, attached to a back-half EP that experiments in a new direction.  Imagine if the band’s self-titled album and the “Impetus” EP had been packaged as one record, and you’re in the right direction.

Addressing the first half first (natch,) we kick the album off with “Gimme the Keys,” and the logical extension of “Psychic Warfare” kicks into high gear from jump.  Off we go.

There’s a different flavor here, though.  “Book of Bad Decisions” is something we haven’t heard from Clutch before – there’s a level of accessibility here we’re not accustomed to while they’re composing music with this much body.  Not to say that Clutch has ever been as dense as a technical death metal experiment or anything, but they have always had enough edge to elude radio and popular visibility.  This album changes all of that by taking the rock hooks of (ugh) “From Beale Street to Oblivion” and mixing them with a throatier sensibility and deeper groove.

In the final cut, what we hear is a big, loud album that sounds like the soundtrack to a “Mirror, Mirror” version of “American Hustle,” or some similarly themed throwback to 1970’s intrigue.  The bombast of “How to Shake Hands” alone is fuzzy as hell but stylized and measured in a way that only Clutch has mastered.

To pair this song with “In Walks Barbarella” is the album’s best back-to-back punch, though it comes with the caveat that we’ve never heard Clutch put down a lick like the latter song.  The principal melody is put down by horns, which gives an affect like Elvis in the later Las Vegas days, but still threaded through with Clutch’s usual down-tuned aplomb.  Roll this all together with the jangly piano of “Vision Quest” and the insistent cowbell (insert joke here,) of “Weird Times,” and we have a Clutch experience that’s exceptionally high octane, but remarkably different from what we’re used to the from the band.

The second half of the record begins with “Sonic Counselor,” and from this point forward, we return to the bluesy, gin-soaked basement that Clutch has felt singularly at home in for more than twenty-five years.  “A Good Fire” thumps along with the carousing, beer-swinging style that’s become so idiomatic in the band’s music, and it’s a pleasant enough return to the expected.

In a twist, the more traditional second half of “Book of Bad Decisions,” is actually the less interesting one, as Clutch runs out of experimental material and simply goes back to stripped-down basics.  That’s not to say that it’s not enjoyable, far from it – it simply feels like we’ve heard it before, right down to the slow, plodding burn of the album’s closer, “Lorelei.”  Clutch has written variations of this song multiple times, whether it be “Spacegrass,” “Drink to the Dead,” “The Dragonfly,” “Son of Virginia,” or whatever other version.

All credit to Clutch here.  To write an album of fifteen songs that contains no filler whatsoever, and moreover makes all those songs compelling and enjoyable on some level, is no small feat.  And no matter what we said above, make no mistake that there are no duds here – the second half of the album is only diminished in quality relative to the first half, not to good music as a whole.  “Book of Bad Decisions” does require a little more patience to get into than “Psychic Warfare” did, but it’s one of the best albums of the year to date. Period.

And here’s where the crow eating comes in.  There is no way that “Book of Bad Decisions” can happen without the band having worked through and ultimately absorbed the lessons of “From Beale Street to Oblivion” and “Strange Cousins From the West.”  We have lamented on these very pages that Clutch may never again be ‘The American Psycho Band’ as was boasted on the back cover of their eponymous record, and they may never be, but to grow and evolve is the lifeblood of any group of creative professionals, and so to expect the same thing over a quarter-century was the height of folly on our part in the first place.  Mea culpa.

A further serving of crow – since “Strange Cousins,” (and no, I am not changing my opinion of that record or “Beale Street,”) Clutch has released three albums ranging from good to exceptional, all of which belong in the pantheon of the band’s most laudable works.  Speaking for anyone who may have left the band for dead, our bad, Clutch.

Clutch remains the pace car for American rock, and all of its derivatives.  They continue to show us how it should be done.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Album Review: Uriah Heep - Living The Dream

Every year when the State Fair is open for business, I'm amazed at how many bands from the 50s-70s are still on the road, playing the same songs they have for decades. Music is one of those businesses where very few seem to ever retire, even when it's clear many of them should have hung up their boots long ago. I know why a lot of them are out there cashing the checks, but I always get bothered by those who have toured for ages without writing anything new in years, if not decades. Being a musician should be about more than playing the old hits. You need to still have a creative passion, or at least I tend to think you do. So when an old-guard band like Uriah Heep is still releasing records, I consider that far more respectable than some bands who will not be named here.

This latest run of albums from the band has seen them garnering a fair amount of attention. I will admit, however, that after "Wake The Sleeper", I haven't been impressed by much of the music they have offered up. They still retain that classic, organ-drenched sound that I do love, but as I have discussed many times with the wave of retro rock bands, songwriting is far more important than sonics.

Let's take the first two tracks on this album, as an illustration. "Grazed By Heaven" starts things out with those lush Hammond chords, but the chorus is heavy on the one-note chanting that has never appealed to me. The title track that follows has less of a riff, but the chorus is multitudes more melodic. It's easy to hear which of these two songs is going to leave the more lasting impression. One might be more fun for the live show, and audience participation, but that's not the same thing as making a great record.

Normally, with albums from veteran bands like this, one of two things happens; either they hit on a fountain of youth to make one of their best albums ever (like Harem Scarem did last year), or they have a couple great tracks on an album that is hit and miss.

What happens less often is to have a record that doesn't have any highlights. Usually, any band that's been doing this long enough will be able to put together one killer track that will make the experience worthwhile. This time, though, Uriah Heep doesn't do that. There isn't that one song on this record that you will remember, that will stand up with their old classics.

That being said, it's not as though this is a bad record. It's all perfectly acceptable Uriah Heep music. If you're a fan of their style, and Bernie Shaw's voice, then you can have a decent time listening to this record. But if you're looking for some cracking songs that are going to stick with you, you might end up disappointed. Getting this record is better than endless tours with nary a new note to be heard, but it also isn't anything to get overly excited about. It's laid-back music that fits the stereotype of veteran bands. I don't believe in that, but every once in a while it happens to be true.

Uriah Heep may be "Living The Dream", but this album is one you'll have to write down as soon as you awaken if you want to remember it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Album Review: Ethernity - The Human Race Extinction

Melodic progressive metal is a thing, but I don't always understand why. Not that I don't get the music, or like a fair bit of it, but the nomenclature is an issue. There is a lot of progressive metal, and the melodic kind especially, that isn't progressive. I don't see how playing a straight-forward song in 3/4 instead of 4/4 makes the music 'progressive'. If you need to do a statistical analysis to tell something isn't quite the usual way, it might as well have not been done in the first place. So the comparisons between Ethernity and bands like Symphony X and Evergrey come as both a blessing and a curse. Those are somewhat lofty standards (for the genre) to live up to.

What sets Ethernity apart from almost any other band playing this kind of music is Julie Colin, who brings a completely different approach to her vocals. Melodic progressive metal is jammed full of singers who either scrape the highest notes of their registers, or fake tough-guy grit. Julie sits comfortably in between, her voice naturally lower than the sky-scrapers, and with the right amount of attitude to not sound like she's trying too hard to be something she isn't.

Musically, we find ourselves in the style of metal where the guitars are ringing chords through the melodic choruses, while the verses syncopate rhythms, as opposed to playing melodic riffs. That is what is popular today, and there are plenty of albums where it works very well, but I can't help but always want to hear something more from the guitarists. When the genre was founded on Tony Iommi, it is sad to hear album after album where there isn't a single riff you could hum or sing along with the way Black Sabbath (and later Heaven & Hell) crowds always have.

Part of what that means is the songs tend to blend together until we get to the big melodic moment. It does unite the songs, which makes sense with this being a conceptual story, but lengthier albums could stand to have a little more diversity to capture and keep our attention. The big melodic moments, though, more often than not pay things off well enough to make that a minor concern.

"Grey Skies", in particular, hits with an immense power. The melody cascades down, with the power of the mix putting real weight behind it. Those are the kinds of moments that are undeniable (oh yeah, and that Symphony X maybe never delivered).

The entire first half of the record works well, hammering home songs with heavy riffs and big hooks. That run of songs is better than anything Evergrey has done since "Torn", which I have always felt is a terribly underrated record. The middle of the album, however, starts to bog down a bit. "Rise Of Droids"has a chorus that is a slow, dull chant, which is then followed by nearly three minutes of instrumental interlude that doesn't have anything to say, but merely serves as an intermission.

Things do pick up for the end of the record, so we can finish on a high note. That leaves us to make a final judgment. "The Human Race Extinction" is an album that has a lot of pluses on the ledger, but also a few minuses. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, and it stands as a solid and enjoyable record for fans of the style. It isn't one of the best records of the year, but it's a good one.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Album Review: Pale Waves - My Mind Makes Noises

Pop music is a reflection of its time, whether that be the sunny optimism of the 60s, the obsession with technology in the 80s, or today's brain dead era that treats anything approaching intellectualism as a cause to rally the masses with pitchforks and torches. I want there to be more to this time and place than an aversion to intelligence. Pop music, regardless of the incarnation, is supposed to be the fluffy soundtrack that propels us through life. The reality of the times is why I have spent very little time or attention on pop music these days. I find no enjoyment in computerized blips and bleeps, capped off with lyrics that think twelve repetitions of the same word is good enough. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, and that's not really what pop music is.

Good pop music is fun, but fun in a way that fits the cultural zeitgeist. Right now, that might mean pop music that is tinged with an undertone of righteous anger, but I don't see it that way. Neither does Pale Waves. Their music is pop, and it's fun, but it comes with an undertone of melancholy that sets it apart, and reminds us we're all just trying to get through each day without having our heads explode.

Pale Waves sound is one I have described as 'Daria rock'. If you are of a certain age (which I am), you remember that show as a hilarious comedy that made us laugh at the absurdity of being young and disillusioned. It also, however, made us sad when we realized how accurate the stereotypes were, and how easily they transferred into adulthood. Pale Waves music achieves that same feat, like a Technicolor film noir. The backdrop is bright and shiny, but Heather Baron-Gracie's lyrics and delivery have an icy tinge to them that is detached the same way we now feel further apart from each other, despite having never been more connected.

The buzz started last year when "Television Romance" was released. That sound captured people's attention because it took a sound that we were used to hearing, and twisted it just enough that it felt new and fresh. That sound was the bright, bouncy song that made us feel like when the sugar high was already wearing off. It was euphoria after the fact, where we can appreciate the feeling more fully. That song appears here on the record, and still acts like a stiletto piercing our pop loving hearts.

Let's get one thing out of the way early; as the singles have kept coming, there has been criticism that the band is already repeating themselves, and the songs are too similar. That isn't entirely unfair, but it misses the bigger point; Pale Waves is establishing their musical identity, and that entails making it clear. They do that by delivering an album that will appeal to fans from track one to track fourteen.

"My Mind Makes Noises" is, in my mind, the logical follow-up statement to Taylor Swift's "1989". Both records trade in the slightly synthesized, slightly detached pop sound. But whereas Taylor was writing for sunny days, Pale Waves live under cloudier atmospheres. As we all know, those are the days where the air feels alive with the static of a building storm.

And a storm is what Pale Waves are.  "Eighteen", "There's a Honey", and "Noises" welcome us into the record with songs that are already familiar to us. They are like cold fire, somehow pulling us in while keeping us at arm's distance. They are also classic pop nuggets, with hooks that don't seem impressive the first time you hear them, until you realize you still find yourself humming them the next day. There is music that tries to be catchy, and there is music that is naturally memorable. For being so young, Pale Waves falls on the right side of that equation effortlessly.

We can also put it this way; do you remember how obvious it is that Fall Out Boy is pandering to modern listeners to keep themselves relevant? This record is the complete opposite; a record that sounds modern and up-to-date, but without a hint of pandering. This is really who they are, and because you can hear the authenticity in what Heather is singing about, the music becomes that much more vibrant and embraceable. The skipping vocals in "Loveless Girl" are a natural part of the sound, and not like a botched cosmetic surgery, as we saw from Fall Out Boy's "Young and Menace".

And to answer the critics, there is "When Did I Lose It All", one of the album's quasi-ballads, and a unique song in their catalog. With the rhythm slowed down, and the energy tamped down, the beauty of the band's sound is put on full display. There is a lush depth to the layers of guitars and synths that makes the band sound stadium sized. This, and not whatever Imagine Dragons is doing, is how pop/rock is supposed to sound on the biggest stages.

"One More Time" is as massive a pop song as there has been in years, and is an obvious example of how Pale Waves will be headlining arenas in short order. In fact, the only negative I can find with the record is that the band didn't find room in the running order to include "New Year's Eve". They already have too many good songs. What a problem to have...

Look, I don't review a lot of pop music anymore, because I find myself out of touch with where the scene is. I've aged out of the window the mainstream is aiming for. But that doesn't mean I don't still love pop music when it's done well. "1989" brought me back to paying attention to what is going on, and I'm grateful it has, because the time it took me to grow into that type of pop is what allows me to hear Pale Waves for what they are. "My Mind Makes Noises" is more than just a debut album. It is a record that plants a flag at the summit of the pop mountain, boldly proclaiming their intention to claim the entire landscape as their own.

In the world of pop as it stands in 2018, they very well could. "My Mind Makes Noises" is a masterful reminder that sometimes collective wisdom exists because the truth is obvious to everyone.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Album Review: Dream Child - Until Death Do We Meet Again

Ronnie James Dio's death left a gaping hole in the metal world. We might not have realized it at the time, but there was no lder statesman who could fit into his role as the powerful overlord of our music. But rather than let things evolve as they saw fit, we have been saddled with a development that is quite sad. A hologram of Dio is out 'performing', sullying his legacy, while the various members of his band have decided to try to recreate the glory of the past. I could be cynical and say it's because they know they have no careers of their own at this point, and still need Dio's name to garner any attention. Ok, I am cynical, and that's exactly what has happened. Vivian Campbell gathered up half of them for his 'real' version of Dio (minus the man himself), while this band features Craig Goldy and company doing their damnedest to clone the original.

What makes this group stand out is Diego Valdez, who takes up the mantle by being about as good a clone of Dio as I've ever heard. If the recording wasn't so much cleaner than what was done at the time, you could easily mistake him and this record for the follow-up to "Dream Evil".

While a lot of people will hear that and scream in delight, I am not one of them. Regardless of the quality of the music, I find it troubling to hear these veterans spend so much of their energy making a record that doesn't have a single drop of originality to it. This record is a copy, perhaps a loving one, but a copy nonetheless. Opening "Under The Wire" even has the right pacing and vocal line to sound exactly like a cut from "Master Of The Moon". Now, I like that album a lot more than most Dio fans do, but I don't need or want to hear it again.

But what of the music? That's where we can take a more positive tact. I have made no secrets of the fact that both Viv and Goldy have done absolutely nothing without Dio that I have ever liked. I didn't like Viv's Dio tribute, or his blues band, and Goldy's last effort was flat and lifeless. So put in that context, Dream Child is the best album either of them has made on their own, perhaps ever.

Yes, it sounds just like Dio, and borrows quite a bit from his bag of songwriting tricks, but that's also what makes it work. There's a level of familiarity to these songs already that makes it hard to hate them, no matter what you feel about the project on a philosophical level. But be warned; this is Dio in the "Master Of The Moon" mold, not the early days. It's stomping and restrained, not speedy. That approach fit where Dio was in his later years, and it sounds much fresher here than a recreation of "Holy Diver" would. That sound was purely of the 80s, whereas this record is a nostalgia trip that doesn't sound as dated.

While there is a lot to enjoy here, there are two big drawbacks. One is the length, as these dozen songs regularly top five minutes, meaning you've got more than an hour of music here. The other is the inevitable comparison to the Dio band, because the tribute is so glaring and obvious. By doing everything they can to remind you they were part of Dio's band, all they have really done is remind us of the records they made with the man, which let's be honest, are all better than this one.

There have been a lot of tributes to Dio since his passing, and I have no hesitation in saying Dream Child might be the best of them all. For Dio-style heavy metal, it's done exceptionally well. These guys learned from the master himself how to write this kind of music, and that shows. If the vocals were his, this would be a perfectly solid late-era Dio album. So in that respect, Dream Child is a success. This isn't a case of ripping people off to watch a cartoon, or a band as a tribute from someone who hated Dio's guts. This is an act of love, and it's hard to judge something like that. Maybe we should just take it for what it is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Album Review: Metal Allegiance - Volume II

I never did review the first Metal Allegiance album, which was for two reasons. For one thing, I was (and still am) tired of albums with half a dozen different singers on them, since the odds of me liking them all is astronomically small. For another thing, I assumed it was going to be a one-and-done project, something that was done for the fun of it, but would never be followed up on. And yet, here we are with the second album ready to strike, so this time I might as well give them a chance to impress me. After all, with Mike Portnoy and Alex Skolnick the drivers of the group, there's enough reason to be mildly curious about what they are capable of coming up with. After all, there's something fascinating about those who usually don't write the band's songs now in charge of the creative process. So let's see what we've got here.

The lineup of guest vocalists this time around features Floor Jansen, Max Cavalera, Johan Hegg, and John Bush, among others. It's a list of heavy hitters, although they wouldn't be my first choices.

The most interesting track for me is "Bound By Silence", which features John Bush. Over the last few years, as Anthrax has returned to 'prominence' by peddling nostalgia, Bush's tenure with the band has been forgotten. That's a damn shame, since he is a capable singer, and those records are better than they get credit for. His voice still sounds modern, even though he's been around for thirty years. I don't always think it works for Armored Saint, but it fits right in with this heavier, thrashier music. Those five minutes are a pleasure to listen to.

The parts where the group stays true to the old thrash playbook work just fine. Singers like Bobby Blitz and Floor Jansen do a fine job of balancing out the sound and giving the songs some depth. The problem is that there are other tracks where the vocalists are too harsh, and the music becomes tedious in its dedication to being heavy at all costs. I am not a big fan of harsh vocals for the simple reason that they tend to completely strip away any sense of melody from the music, and that's what guys like Max Cavalera do. His track is an endless slog of barking that could easily be put on the next 'dogs sing metal' parody album.

This album falls victim to exactly what I assumed it would before I ever hit the play button. By collecting such a wide variety of vocalists to handle these ten tracks, the band might have been showing their wide-ranging love of metal, but they have backed themselves into a corner where it's incredibly difficult to love the whole record. I doubt many people are going to love Floor Jansen's operatic power, and then turn around and want to hear Johan Hegg's track that borders on being pure death metal. I know I didn't.

The band are capable instrumentalists, so the bones of these songs are solid. This sounds like a modern take on old-school thrash, which is exactly what it's supposed to be. It doesn't sound dissimilar to a newer Overkill record. But the vocalists make it come across as a jukebox, and not a 'band'. There is no uniting sound to grab onto, since it changes with each passing song. Maybe that's interesting if you're Portnoy, who is in ten different bands, but not for me when I want to sit down and listen to one thing at a time.

I realize that projects like this are fun for the musicians, but this one wasn't fun for me as a listener. John Bush's track is good, and Floor Jansen's is fantastic, but there's too much sludge and extreme metal creeping into the vocals for me to ever like this as more than a passing curiosity. Maybe people who are more purely into metal will have better success, but it isn't for me.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Album Review: The Skull - The Endless Road Turns Dark

We often talk of greatness as though it is a tangible quality an artist possesses, one that endures until they have run through their supply. That's not how it works. Greatness can last for a career, but more often it is a flash of inspiration that is never again seen. It is the proverbial lightning that never strikes twice. I feel that way about Eric Wagner, who fronted Trouble when they made one of the greatest metal albums ever (the 1991 self-titled), but who has also made a slog of turgid albums that tarnish that legacy. Greatness, for him, was ever so fleeting.

The first album from The Skull went back to his doom roots, and was a pedestrian affair that I can hardly remember now. His other project Blackfinger, was better, but even they could only make it one record deep before growing stale. Suffice it to say, I wasn't walking into this record expecting the second coming of Trouble, even though that's exactly what they're shooting for.

The key to this kind of doom lays in the guitar tone. Trouble had one of the best of all time, and The Skull tries to copy as much of that sound as they can. The guitars are dirty and thick, but fuzzy yet chunky as the same time. It's a sound that works well with Wagner's voice, loose and laid-back. If you push all the thoughts out of your mind, it's not inconceivable to think this record could have fit right in with "Psalm 9".

The opening title track is Wagner at his best. Both the riff and his melody are as simple as can be, which is precisely why they work. No one is trying to do too much, and every element has plenty of space to make its impact. Wagner no longer scrapes glass with his vocals, but his tone is so unique he doesn't need to do anything more than show up to put his stamp on a record. That can sometimes be his downfall, as he doesn't always craft a melody for himself that sticks like a cobweb on the edge of a raised casket lid.

Fortunately, he is more engaged on this record than the last couple he has made, which makes this a far more enjoyable listen. There aren't any surprises in store, but that's ok when the material that is here does what it's supposed to. While the debut might have been a decent enough doom record, this one sounds like an old Trouble record, which I imagine is what fans will actually want to hear. This time around, the riffs have more of the Trouble swagger, where even the slower moments have a groove to them that keeps your swaying. It's hard to make slow music that doesn't feel stagnant, which is why doom often struggles.

This is still a sow, plaintive record, but the songwriting is sharper than it was the last time out. That record was a chore to listen to, because it was so standard nothing could stand out. This record has more personality to it, which makes a huge difference. I will admit that the doom era of Trouble has always been my least favorite, this record does doom with just enough flair that it stands up well when compared to those genre classics. My expectations coming in might have been low, but by more fully embracing his past, Eric Wagner has made a classically Trouble record here. I'm impressed.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Singles Roundup: Disturbed, Steve Perry, Slash, & Amaranthe

As we occasionally do, let's take a momentary break from the flood of new albums to look at a few new singles, and think about what they might mean for the albums they are teasing (including whether or not I'm going to review them in their entirety). This time out, we've got a few big names that need to make a good impression. Let's go:

Disturbed - Are You Ready

All the big guns from years ago are back in action. Godsmack released their most pop album ever, and now Disturbed has their turn in the spotlight. Their continued success has been amazing to me, since I would have sworn they were going to be one-hit wonders way back when. This new song of theirs breaks no new ground. The riff calls back to "Down With The Sickness", just slower and without as much bite. The chorus tries to introduce more melody, and it works well enough. I'm sure it will be a bit hit on rock radio, but it doesn't strike me as anything I'm going to want to listen to more than once or twice. There are promises of some new twists on the album, which I'm glad to hear, because whether they are good or bad, they are needed if I'm going to make it through yet another of their records.

Steve Perry - No Erasin'

Steve Perry hasn't made a record in ages, so it's nice to see him back in the arena. But that's where this gets tough. He is back because his love of music was rekindled by personal pain, which makes it hard to say this; the song is fine, but not at all enough to be his first statement in so long. His voice sounds better than I would have expected, although older. The problem is the melody just don't have any flair or personality. It would make a fine album cut, but being the first single doesn't bode particularly well for the record.

Slash - Driving Rain/Mind Your Manners

The last two Slash records have been ones I enjoyed when they came out, and that I really don't remember much of anymore. The problem, I assume, is that Myles Kennedy has been on so many records in these years that it all blends together. These new songs fit right into that pattern. "Driving Rain" is a sharp number that hits on the best aspects of this particular band. It's got some swagger, and Myles delivers a strong chorus that hooks you in. "Mind Your Manners", though, is more indicative of why I only remember a select few highlights of their previous albums, as it sounds more like a Snakepit number that Myles can't rescue, since he has burned through so many melodies.

Amaranthe - 365

Is Amaranthe the leading purveyor of pop metal? I'm not sure, but they don't shy away from being as pop as metal is going to get. On the first single for their new record, they once again mix the heaviness of Gothenburg death metal with electronic pop music. It doesn't always work, but it is an interesting mix. This song is more miss than hit, as the flow struggles to establish itself, and Elize is seriously straining in the chorus. It isn't her range whatsoever, and it sounds a bit painful to listen to her struggling like this.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Album Review: TheVintage Caravan - Gateways

When you're dealing with a band called The Vintage Caravan, you know what you're going to be getting; vintage rock and roll of the classic variety. And while I give a lot of such bands a chance, and do love the sonic aesthetic, there's something about branding yourself as the past that limits your future. How can we ever expect any growth and development from a band that already is telling you they live firmly in the past? It's one thing if a band is playing that kind of music because that just so happens to be how they sound, but it's another one when they make it clear it was a choice. Art isn't supposed to be a choice, it's supposed to be who you are. But as we already know, music is as much business as it is art.

In the first minute of this record, the band hits several tropes. There is the production, which sounds like a more polished 70s record. There are the riffs, which are the heavy blues Zeppelin imitators have been playing for over forty years. And there is even some cowbell, as if to drive it home that they take as much inspiration from that SNL skit as they do classic bands.

Oskar's vocals are a weak point, his husky delivery neither matching the tone of the music, nor sounding particularly good under the drips of echo and reverb that are covering up for him. He is saved mostly by the nature of the music, which is entirely tilted towards the guitars to do everything interesting. He doesn't offer up much in the way of melody at any point on the record, which is the common thread that binds far too many of these backward-looking rock bands. It is rare to see them write songs that are lush and memorable. For a sound inspired by 'classic rock', almost none of it comes with the potential of one day being classic itself.

"Gateways" is a perfectly acceptable record, but it has nothing about it that screams for your attention. This could easily be a Witchcraft album, or a Horisont album, or any number of other bands. That's the problem with taking heavy inspiration from the past; unless you are doing something different, or truly excel with your songwriting, the music blends into the fabric of history. Graveyard carved out their niche by being expert songwriters, and Blues Pills by adding in a sense of soul no one else has, but The Vintage Caravan is too much what we've already heard a hundred times before.

But if you like vintage rock, you already know you're going to enjoy this record a certain amount. It fits the style well, and has redeeming qualities if all you want is another similar record to add to the rotation. Personally, I want to hear something slightly different or sharper from these kinds of bands, and I don't get that here. "Gateways" is decent, but decent isn't good enough to cut through the static. I'm not sure how many will be walking through the gate The Vintage Caravan has opened here.