Sunday, January 21, 2018

Album Review: Myja - Myja

"The best laid plans of mice and men..."

Planning too far ahead can be a problem, because circumstances chance without notice, and we find ourselves reacting to the unforeseen. In December of 2012, when i was already looking back at that year and organizing my thoughts, I came across a little album that upset the apple cart. It didn't wind up at the very top of my list, because of the newness, but it's one that I've listened to regularly ever since. That album was Adler's (yes, that regrettable Steven Adler) "Back From The Dead". To this day I love that record, and it's almost exclusively because of Jacob Bunton, who did all the heavy lifting on in. So when I saw a note come across my inbox that included his name on a new project, I had to check out what was up.

I'm so glad I did.

Myja is the combination of Bunton and Michael Marquart from A Bad Think (Who?), and it's one of those records that comes out of nowhere to completely upend your expectations. To borrow some phrases that may not be technically accurate, but sound it to me, this combination has given us an album of darkly melodic alternative rock dream pop. That doesn't make sense, so let me explain myself.

Myja is technically branded as a dark alternative rock effort, and that is true. There are riffs, and they are played with that no-treble Seattle sound that can't be happy even if you're covering ABBA. The vocals are similarly soft and worn-out, like a hangover trying to call for help. You could call them a grunge-filtered CSNY. So yes, the record is dark.

But at the same time, Myja is not just a rock band. They wouldn't be interesting if they were. What makes them unique is the way they blend that darkness with overtones of 60s pop and modern dream pop. Listening to these songs, and the way the harmonies and melodies recall CSNY if they were playing a gig at a funeral, it's the sort of slight twist on the form that rewires your brain. I would never have thought of taking songs that recall Fastball or Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" album, and putting them through a whiskey bender, but that's what Myja did. And the shock upon shocks is that it works. Damn does it work.

The absolute highlight of this record, and the one track you need to check out to see if you're going to be as taken as I am with it, is "Just One Kiss". The song starts with a simple rock riff, moves into pure classic-era Fastball, and then does something I hate to spoil, but feel I need to. When the chorus hits, not only is it glorious dark pop, but it more or less borrows from Shania Twain's "Still The One". That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I agree with you, in theory, but just listen to it. Trust me. It's one of those moments where you stop in your tracks, ponder what you're hearing, and then proclaim it to be utterly genius.

But that's just one track. The rest of the album is full of melancholic melodic gems. Whether we're talking about "Into Focus" or "Dear Eden", Myja delivers again and again with songs that are the soundtrack to the morning after a night of regrets.

Really, I don't know what else to say about Myja other than this experience is exactly why I write about music. Finding something great is wonderful, but finding something great that you had no idea was coming is even better. With no expectations, with no warning, getting hit this hard by a record sort of takes your breath away. That's what being a fan is all about, and Myja has done that. This album is the first great album of 2018.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Album Review: Black Label Society - Grimmest Hits

Until recently, I had never understood the appeal of Zakk Wylde. He was a player who played on embarrassing Ozzy albums, couldn't refrain from making his guitar sound like strings were breaking, and helped carry on the stereotype that you have to look and sound like an arrested development in order to be metal. Add in the fact that his own band might as well have been a carbon copy of his Ozzy stint, and I could never see why he was regarded as a legend... or funny. But that's another story.

That changed with his last album, the softer "Book Of Shadows II", which finally showed to me that he could write great songs when he wanted to, and was so shocking it became my album of the year for 2016. You would think that would have me excited for his next project, but you would be wrong. Going back to Black Label Society, and everything that entails, means I was expecting the worst as I hit play on "Grimmest Hits".

What I heard over the course of the next nearly full hour was an album that nearly infuriated me. I already knew what Black Label Society was all about, but I thought a bit of that "Book Of Shadows" mentality might have carried through into his main band. I was wrong, as he return to Ozzy's side seems to have been the bigger influence. His down-tuned riffs are the same ones he's been playing for the last twenty-five years, while the songwriting acumen he showed has once again evaporated.

That's what makes this album so frustrated. If he had merely amped up the volume on "Book Of Shadows" style material, we would be telling a very different tale right now. But the melodic edge his softer material has is gone, replaced by the kind of robotic Ozzy singing that is now ingrained in him after so many years of backing up the 'legend' himself. Zakk's voice isn't strong enough to sing over this kind of music. He strains to rise above the band, but he can't, and the lackluster lines he gives himself don't help. The whole thing, much like his schtick in general, sounds forced at every turn.

The title of this record is a fairly bad pun that's barely any better than the bands that name their debut "Greatest Hits". It's not really clever, but it wasn't intended to be so accurate either. This is a grim record, because it shows with clarity the issue at the very heart of Zakk Wylde's career. He's a good guitar player, and can be a good songwriter, but he's not right for the metal he wants to project. The best song on this entire album is "The Only Words", which is the one track that would have worked on "Book Of Shadows II". Zakk's playing, his very guitar tone, and his voice, all point towards searing classic rock. Instead of embracing that, he keeps plodding away at trying to be the epitome of heavy metal.

It only makes it harder to swallow these Black Label Society records. Knowing that he could be making more albums that fit his talents, and would likely be great, makes this all the more disappointing. No, it's not offensively bad, but when mediocre is so far from potential, sometimes that's a greater sin than a bad record from someone who can't do any better.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Album Review: Magnum - Lost On The Road To Eternity

What is there to say about Magnum at this point? They have been around for decades, and have been cranking out Magnum albums that sound like classic Magnum albums with remarkable consistency. When you put one on, you know what you're going to get. They are one of the classiest rock bands out there, and the combination of Tony Clarkin's writing, and Bob Catley's voice, is sort of timeless. We'll all have our disagreements about which Magnum album is our favorite (mine is "Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow" - but that's just when I got into them), but I don't know if it can ever be said they have released anything bad. Even bad Magnum is still good.

So we now move on to the newest Magnum opus. Sorry for that pun. It was unintentional... at first.

For their twentieth(!) album, Magnum is still busy being Magnum. If you've heard any of their recent releases, you already know what to expect from this new album. While they don't hit the Motorhead or AC/DC level of repetition, a Magnum album is always going to sound familiar. That's actually a good thing, because their particular take on melodic hard rock is unique, and why they have endured for so long. When Catley sings one of Clarkin's songs, it sounds like nothing else. It would be disappointing if Magnum veered away from that.

The elephant in the room with this particular album is the length. Eleven tracks doesn't sound like too much, but with only one track failing to break five minutes (and that by only one second), this is a lengthy endeavor. The law of diminishing returns begins to apply by the time the record is done, and I can't help but feel like it would have been better off being a track or two shorter.

The other thing about this album is that it's actually less melodic than some of their other recent albums. The first few tracks don't have the epic melodies I've come to expect from Magnum. "Storm Baby" in particular puzzles me, as the main thrust of the chorus is actually a guitar riff, and not a melody at all. And with the track stretching over six minutes, that's a long time to go without a strong melodic focus.

There's something about this album that never seems to get out of first gear. Even when there's something percolating, it doesn't follow through. "Welcome To The Cosmic Cabaret" builds up to a rocking chorus, and the it immediately break down into nothing but a slow drum beat that Catley finds himself speak-singing over. The momentum is completely gone, and has to be restarted from scratch. That makes the song's job that much harder, and I'm not sure it's able to recover.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the best track here is the title cut, a collaboration with Tobias Sammet. It is cinematic, sweeping, and as good a Magnum track as Magnum has written in a long time. That song, along with first single "Without Love", are classic Magnum. The only problem with them is that there aren't enough of those songs to fill out the album's running time.

Sadly, that means I have to say "Lost On The Road To Eternity" is not one of Magnum's better albums, even among their later works. It has its charms, but it overstays its welcome. Magnum is never bad, but they're usually better than this. I would consider this to be a disappointing turn along that road. Magnum isn't quite lost, as the title suggests, but they could use directions back toward greatness.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Album Review: Machine Head - Catharsis

Over the years, Machine Head has managed to keep themselves at the forefront of the modern metal scene. Whether rap metal, groove metal, epic metal, or whatever else seemed to be the big thing at the time, you could always count on Machine Head to be there, hopping on the bandwagon and getting most of the acclaim. I can't explain why that is, since I have never heard anything in Rob Flynn's music that has struck me as better than average, but the band has been around long enough to be one of the bigger names out there. But it does bring up an interesting question; what does a trend-exploiting band do when metal is no longer popular enough to have trends? We're about to find out.

Things get off to a terrible start with "Volatile", showing how little Flynn has grown up over the years. Over a riff that rips off Slipknot, the very first words we hear are "fuck the world". As he apes Corey Taylor throughout the entirety of the song, his lyrics don't ever seem to have grown beyond adolescence. Hearing a middle-aged man screaming "I'm sick of this shit" isn't cool, and it isn't funny either. It's just sad. And it drags down the entirety of heavy metal. You want to know why I've never called myself a metalhead? That song is why. I'm embarrassed by it. Rob Flynn isn't. That's scary.

It doesn't get any better through the SEVENTY-FIVE minutes of this album. On "California Bleeding" he whines about not caring about getting banned from Disneyland, and things being "whack". Then there's "Triple Beam", where he goes back to rapping in the verses. At that point, I think it's become clear that what I've been listening to is a mid-life crisis. Without anything new to leech off of, Rob Flynn doesn't know what to do with his band, so he is trying to throw everything he's ever done into one big blender, without realizing how it exposes him as a fraud. If there had ever been an identity behind the band's name, they could return to form at any point and have it make sense. But when Machine Head has always been a rip-off of a moment in time, there's nothing to return to. Machine Head is revealing there is no ghost inside the machine.

I would make a joke here about Flynn being an old man yelling at the clouds, but I don't have to. He's included a song here called "Screaming At The Sun", which is pretty much the same thing.

By the time he's singing "I'll take a shit at Mar-A-Lago while I'm drinking a beer", I can't help but feel sorry for Rob Flynn. The fact that he can be his age and release this record without feeling some degree of shame makes me nervous. There is such a startling lack of awareness about how pathetic he sounds rapping about drugs and booze at his age that I can hardly believe this is intended to be serious. But it is. There is something seriously wrong here that this record was written, recorded, and released without anyone stepping in to realize what a terrible idea it is.

"Catharsis" might have been free therapy for Rob Flynn, but it's one of the most painful to listen to albums in recent memory. I'm honestly shocked by what I heard. I couldn't have expected anything nearly this terrible.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Album Review: Leaves Eyes - Sign Of The Dragonhead

Symphonic metal van be called many things; bombastic, overblown, cheesy. They would all be correct, and it's the very use of those words that makes it difficult to understand how I don't like more of it. As someone who grew up worshiping Meat Loaf & Jim Steinman, that should be right up my alley. But there is one thing that has always held me back from embracing the genre; the vocals. While I am a fan of many things in the styles of the pompous, classically trained vocalists are something I have always struggled to adjust to. For whatever reason, that timbre of voice does not land well on my ears. That is why, as I sit down to review this new Leaves Eyes album, I do so with trepidation.

We got a taste of what new singer Elina Siirala was going to sound like with the band when the first single, "Across The Sea", was released. Like you would expect from Leaves Eyes, it's a chugging metal track that bounces along until a catchy melody gives us a solid chorus. It's a solid track, but the opening title track would have been a better teaser, since it's both a stronger composition, and a better showcase for Elina's voice. At this point, practically everyone who follows the scene already knows Leaves Eyes, so that choice isn't paramount.

This is a veteran band with plenty of music under the belts, so there isn't much to be surprised at with the album. They know who they are, how they sound, and how to write a good song. This batch is another fine collection of epic Viking-themed metal that delivers hints of folk, plenty of beautiful colors, and strong melodies. Songs such as "Like A Mountain" and "Jomsborg" are fantastic at delivering on the promise of Leaves Eyes, finding just the right balance between heaviness and beauty, capped off with rousing choruses.

In fact, "Sign Of The Dragonhead" is nearly flawless at what it tries to do. The songwriting is sharp, the sound is excellent, and there isn't any fat on these bones. The album hits the mark again and again.

So why am I not totally sold on it? That would be because of my earlier concern. While Elina is a talented singer for what she does, that sound is one I simply don't enjoy. There are some moments when she is singing more restrained and sound great, but her full-throated approach is simply not for me. If her vocals were more in the traditional vain of a rock/metal singer, I would be effusive in my praise for this album. However, vocals are such a big part of a band's sound (and what I usually focus on), that I can't ignore them.

That means I have two things to say about "Sign Of The Dragonhead". First, it's a beautifully executed album that fans of this genre will eat up. It's as good as anything of this style I've heard in the last couple of years. Second, it's an album I will feel a tinge of regret over, because I already know I'm not going to return to it as often as I should. But if you enjoy this style, and singers in this mold, Leaves Eyes has hit a definite home run with this one.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Album Review: Falling Through April - Zodiac

Everyone has certain things, when it comes to music, they could be considered suckers for. Myself, I fall into that category when it comes to ballads, Steinman-esque music, and also female fronted pop/rock bands. Recent years have brought a string of them, many of which I have liked and raved about. We've had great albums from Halestorm, Jasmine Cain, The Warning, Forever Still, and Shiverburn (who nearly won Album Of The Year from me). So when a new year is kicking off, and one of the first albums I'm given a chance to listen to for this blank slate falls into that category, I am a happy camper.

Falling Through April keeps things short and simple, with nine tracks (the tenth being an acoustic version of an album track) often not hitting the three minute mark. They have taken the course of writing tight pop songs that don't waste any time with rock and roll indulgences. That is a strategy that both works and doesn't work, depending on how you want to view their potential career arc.

On the one hand, they are doing something very smart by playing into the attention span of modern listeners. Their target audience is largely younger than I am (and no, I'm not that old), and lives in the streaming world. For those purposes, hitting listeners with the hooks and getting out quick makes all the sense in the world. They don't bother with stretching the songs out so everyone can get their moment to shine. The band is clearly focused on serving the songs, which means putting Mikaela Salazar's vocals and hooks at the forefront. It works, since these songs are slick numbers that deliver a brand of alternative/pop that used to be quite popular, and always sounds good when it's done well. It is here.

On the other hand, there's the question about the future of the band. While these songs are sharply written and highly enjoyable, there's also the issue of the record being short, and what that means. These nine original songs won't hit half an hour, which can be a problem if the band is going to try to be a touring workhorse. The brevity of the music isn't going to help fill up a 45-60 minute slot on stage.

Getting back to the music, Falling Through April's sound is that bouncy brand of alternative/pop that feels young and vibrant, even when the music slows for dramatic effect. "With You In Mind" is a quasi-ballad that makes the most overly emotional appeal of the bunch, but it avoids being maudlin or dragging down the energy. That's actually a difficult trick to pull off, so their success is commendable.

How much you enjoy "Zodiac" is going to depend on whether or not you like this style of music. If you grew up loving early Paramore, this is an easy recommendation. Likewise, if you simply like both the hooks of pop and the energy and sound of rock and roll guitars, Falling Through April are delivering for you. I know there are a lot of people for whom the word 'pop' is almost a slur. They won't be won over by this record, but the rest of us will get a fun collection of songs that is a bright diversion on what can be depressing winter days.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Album Review: Summoning - With Doom We Come

As the new year opens, winter is making sure we get off to as depressing a start as possible, to extinguish the hope that a new year might mean now possibilities. The bitter cold is in full force, with the temperatures where I am locked well, well below the freezing point. That wretched forecast befits Summoning, who are here to give their frosty take on epic black metal, in the guise of an album that feels like it will stretch on as long as winter itself. As someone who is not a black metal fan, the thought of sitting down to a lengthy album featuring multiple ten minte epics of screeching coldness is like a nightmare. So why am I doing it? For one thing, the beginning of the year does not offer a panapoly of choices to review, but also because I want to test whether black metal has a better chance of succeeding with me in these conditions.

The album gets off to a bizarre start in the form of "Tar-Calion", which spends seven minutes rotating through sounds without ever showing its purpose as a song. There are buildups of horns, classical guitar segues, spoken word segments, and buzzing guitars that sound like the practice amp I got along with my first real electric. I know black metal is about being ugly, but for the life of me I can't understand the appeal of recording the guitars in such low fidelity that you can't make out the individual notes. It does fit in as the sonic equivalent of a white-out, but neither one of those phenomenon are something you actually want to go through.

The other big issue is that Summoning's style is easy to lose focus while listening to, as the guitars drone through fuzzy chords throughout far too much of the album, rarely playing anything approaching a riff. The differentiation from song to song is left to the horns and other adornments, which makes the album feel like a single hour-long block of noise.

I know that Summoning are one of the bigger names in this realm of black metal, but that doesn't change my opinion of what I'm listening to. "With Doom We Come" is an album that fails across the entire spectrum. Sonically, it sounds awful. That's to be expected, but it still holds true. The writing is also sub-par, with little imperative shown by any of the tracks. There are no moments, no riffs or motifs, that stand out as the creative spark behind the track. Everything is bland and tepid, with not a single moment that is memorable as a great idea. Then there's the title, which is also a failure. Doom is something that, while I don't love it, I do understand. This album has no doom. Yes, it's rather slow and foreboding, but it's in the sense of watching the snow pile up, knowing you have to go out and shovel it. There is nothing sinister, evil, or emotional about these songs at all.

I've never enjoyed black metal, but every now and again I give it another shot to see if I have changed enough to appreciate it. It's never happened, and it hasn't here either. Summoning might make a lot of people happy with this album, but they won't be fans of music, because little of what I heard here fits my definition of the format. Songs need to have a point, and be performed and transmitted in a way that gets that point across. Summoning doesn't do any of that. They play lengthy passages of noise, disguised as grandeur. It's not. It's just exhausting.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Album Review: Audrey Horne - Blackout

With the start of a new year comes a clean slate, metaphorically speaking. We don't really get to discard what came before, and nothing is different than the day before except for the date we forget to write correctly for a month or two, but there is the idea of starting fresh that carries great appeal. So it is fitting that the first review I sit down to write for the new year is in its own way a clean slate, in that Audrey Horne is a band I am previously unfamiliar with. My ignorance aside, the prospect of starting the year with an album of catchy heavy metal anthems is just the sort of thing to snap out of the funk of a brutal cold spell.

The album opens in fine fashion with "This Is War", which offers an updated take on the Iron Maiden gallop and guitar harmonies. It's a throwback in spirit, but it doesn't try to recreate the past. There is still a modernity in the approach, which shines through on the chorus, which is more of a stadium sing-along than most of the classic-era Maiden tracks were written to be. Maybe the slowdown in the solo saps some of the momentum and could have been omitted, but the rest of the track is a fine opening to the album.

The rest of the songs that follow show an admirable range and diversity. "Audrevolution" is linguistically questionable, but it has a punk energy that revs things up, while "Blackout" sounds like it could have come off the first (and only really good) Black Star Riders album. Then there's "This Man", that has a Thin Lizzy vibe to the song that makes it endearing, even if the writing isn't quite as sharp.

Once the middle of the album hits, so does a bit of a lagging feeling. The songs don't dip in quality, but the steady quality and pacing of them does make the album feel a bit longer than its actual running time. There are good melodies on a lot of these songs, but the instrumentals are so driven by guitar harmonies that there isn't enough riffs or weight to the tracks. These songs sound like they need more guitar underpinning them. I'm not someone who likes to say music needs to be heavier, but this is a case where I think more rhythm guitars and a beefier sound would have done a lot of good.

But having said that, I have to reiterate there's nothing wrong at all with "Blackout". It's a perfectly good album to kick the year off. We're just easing in to the swing of things again, and this album serves that purpose. I would be disappointed in 2018 if this wound up being among the best albums we're offered, but as an appetizer, "Blackout" is an enjoyable way to spend forty minutes or so.