Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Album Review: Michael Schenker Fest - Resurrection

Michael Schenker is a tough guy to get a handle on. He claims not to listen to music other than his own, and has had volatile relationships with everyone he has ever worked with. That's the reason for this album under the title Michael Schenker Fest, as opposed to Michael Schenker Group or just his own name. He has spent his entire career bouncing around from name to name, never staying with one singer long enough to build something lasting. This time, he gathers four of the singers he has previously worked with, and puts them together on a single album. I suppose it's his own tribute to himself. He does seem to have an ego.

With Robin McCauley, Graham Bonnet, Gary Barden, and Doogie White behind the mic, you would think there is more than enough talent here to make this the best Michael Schenker album in years. I have missed a few along the way, so I'm not sure if I can say that. What I can say is that while this may be a nice trip down memory lane for Schenker and his longtime fans, it's also evidence of how much age takes a toll on singers. Simply put, a lot of these vocals aren't all that good.

Bonnet and McCauley both struggle with their performances, not willing to admit they aren't their younger selves. Barden fares the best, as his understands the limitations of his current voice, and makes accommodations for it. White is still in fine voice, but he falls into that category of singers who I recognize as good, but never liked. With four singers, only one of whom delivers for me, it starts things out on a sour note.

The other problem is that as Schenker has gotten older, and due to the lack of new influences that he allows himself to hear, he is treading the same ground he always has. This album, both by choice and by nature, is just like every other Michael Schenker album of the last twenty years. A virtuoso soloist but average songwriter, the tired riffs he keeps tweaking to make new albums wind up putting more and more emphasis on the fading vocalists. Even the tempos of the songs have been slowing through the years, which plays into the overall trend.

The opening tracks, "Heart And Soul" and "Warrior" trudge along with flaccid riffs and flat vocals, neither one offering anything of a hook. They're both incredibly basic songs. "Night Moods" picks things up with a solid build and a strong chorus, but it's ruined by Bonnet's horrendous vocals. The first few lines are beyond dreadful, and even if he does improve as he belts more of the notes, the damage has been done already. When Doogie takes the lead for "The Girl With The Stars In Her Eyes", not only does the energy of the song help immensely, but Doogie is able to make the hook stick. It's a real sign of hope.

Even Schenker's soloing on this album is restrained and non-descript. He doesn't stand out at all on an album that has his name right at the top. It strikes me while listening to this album that this might simply be a case of someone thinking it was enough to have the four singers return, and not caring about the quality of the material. That's my only explanation, because this is a completely lifeless version of Michael Schenker that doesn't add anything to his legacy. This isn't "Strangers In The Night". This isn't "MSG". This isn't even "In The Midst Of Beauty" (the underrated late-career gem).

If Michael Schenker Fest is supposed to represent a celebration, it's not one you would want to go to. This is more of a wake than a party. Unless you are the most die-hard Schenker fan, I don't know why you would want to listen to this, when there are so many better options out there already this year.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Album Review: Fight The Fight - Fight The Fight

When you're in the business of talking about music, you wind up reading a lot of press releases. At a certain point, the fawning language begins to blend together, and you wind up searching for keywords to indicate if something it going to be up your alley or not. But every so often, you see a combination of phrases that doesn't appear to make any sense, which sends you to a record to see just what in the heck they were talking about. That's where Fight The Fight comes in. Their debut record was described as a combination of immediately memorable hooks and.... black metal? Do we have another case of Kvelertak on our hands, where hipsters gravitate towards a lousy band simply because they think it's interesting to add intolerable elements to otherwise good music?

We find out quickly, as the band's (lack of) creativity is on full display, opening the album with a track that shares a name with the band and the album. Their inability to come up with a second phrase they like is a bad sign. The song starts out of nowhere with a screeched vocal and tremolo picked riff that is surely black metal, and lo and behold the chorus pulls in sounds that are more like The Smashing Pumpkins. I don't know if I would say the song holds together in a way that makes sense, but the hook is certainly solid.

I've thought about the rise of black metal among hipsters, and have come to the conclusion it's a Luddite response where people are actively gravitating towards a display of non-talent, because there's irony in saying being bad at something is more enjoyable than being good at it.

I have that same feeling during portions of this record. I'm not going to take anything away from what Fight The Fight does well. They do write strong, solid hooks for their songs, and they are able to fuse various strains of rock and metal in their instrumentals to interesting effect. There's a lot to those aspects to enjoy in this record, but they are presented in a way that is nearly impossible to embrace.

The band's black metal tendencies ruin this record. When the band is playing something melodically interesting, and the vocals are shrieking for no good reason, I'm left at a loss. The only thing I can imagine as an explanation is they are trying to throw in a little bit of something for every kind of metal fan, but that's a fool's errand. There are so many kinds of metal today, which share few fans between the extremes, that all they are doing is pissing off everyone who doesn't want to hear the other side of the equation. And unlike bands like Opeth, who made it clear what they were trying to do with their music, Fight The Fight has no blueprint to understand how they get from Point A to Point B.

I suppose the good thing about the record is that it clocks in only around half an hour, so the frustration doesn't last as long as it could. I struggle with whether albums like this are truly full-lengths, but I'll save that conversation for a better record.

Fight The Fight may have an interesting idea in their heads, and certainly some talent, they don't know how to translate that into songs someone like me would want to listen to yet. This album is a bit of a mess.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Album Review: Revertigo - Revertigo

Certain musicians names pop up again and again, and it's hard to explain why. For me, one of those names is Mats Leven. He has worked with numerous bands over the years, and every time I've heard him on a record, I've wondered what everyone else sees in him that I don't. None of the projects he has taken part in has struck me as great, and while he is a fine enough singer, he doesn't move the needle and make the material better. He is the musical equivalent of a replacement player in baseball, that mythical figure who exists just so you can judge if someone is good or not. So when a new band came across my desk that features him in a prominent role, my curiosity was piqued as to whether he has something more to offer when more involved in the process.

Before getting to the music itself, I have to note this is the third album in the last month I've reviewed where a track, album, and band all share the same name. For crying out loud, don't be so damn lazy, bands. Free advice; just because Black Sabbath did something doesn't mean you have to do it to. They made plenty of bad decisions in their time.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, let's talk about the record itself. Revertigo delivers an odd mixture of doom, melodic metal, and 80s rock. On tracks like the opening "Hoodwinked", it works well, but at other times it leaves questions about exactly what this project is trying to achieve. Was this just an outlet for whatever songs were left over from other projects, or is there supposed to be a connecting thread running through them that gives Revertigo an identity of their own.

It's not easy to see how we get from the doomy melody of that opener to something like "Symphony Of Fallen Angels", which has the artificial sounding drum patterns of that awful strain of 'rock' that has come to be the only kind the mainstream knows exists. There simply isn't any logical progression from one sound to the other, which means that album doesn't cohere into a whole.

This album is at its best when it sticks closer to Mats' past in doom bands, just with a bit more melody. "Hoodwinked" is great, as is "The Cause", two of the tracks that follow that blueprint. Those songs are doomy hard rock with big melodies, and they create something rather interesting. Doom has little melody, and melodic rock is seldom doomy. The combination is something we don't get to hear very often, and it's something I would be very interested in hearing more of, to be honest.

Unfortunately, this album doesn't find a creative vein to mine. The eleven tracks on this record flit around, never settling on just who Revertigo are. That's a shame, because there is a path evident here where they could have done something rather good, but there are a few too many diversions that bring too much modern rock synthetics into the proceedings. They stick out like a sore thumb, and like a hitch-hiker in this day of wariness, they end up going nowhere.

Revertigo is another in the long list of good ideas that don't manifest themselves. There are some good tracks here, and there is a glimmer of what could have been, but the package doesn't have the focus necessary to rise above being merely decent. Like my earlier commentary, this is replacement level music.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Shining A Spotlight: Yours Truly

It's a fact of life that no matter how wide you spread your wings, no matter how much you try to hear, there will always be music that slips past you. There's no getting around that fact. There are a set number of albums I can listen to in a given year, and there are a hundred-fold more released. What I can do, though, is take a step back every now and again and look back at something I missed out on at the time that happens to deserve more of a light being shined on it. That's what we're going to do today.

Yours Truly is an Australian group that fits comfortably into a niche of the market I happen to be particularly fond of. They are an alternative/pop-punk band who have plenty of crunchy guitars, sticky hooks, and a singer who can sound both beautiful and energetic at the same time. Over the last couple of years I have reviewed and talked about an ever-growing number of bands in this style, and Yours Truly fits in as having as much potential as any of them.

Last year saw the release of their EP, "Too Late For Apologies". In five songs, they made a statement and proved they are a formidable young band. In a year that saw Paramore give the middle finger to their old fans that wanted to hear guitars instead of synths from before they were even born, Yours Truly fills the gap. In fact, this EP is better than any collection of songs I've ever heard from Paramore. They are consistently more engaging, and better written, than almost anything the mainstream has offered for people like me who love pop music with big guitars.

A song like "Winter" is an anthem in the making, at least for people who are slightly younger than I am. All of their material is bristling with sharp melodies and rock energy. It's a wonderful mix, and is a kind of music that stands the test of time very well.

There is a comparison I can make that is eerily apt. Yours Truly sounds, in everything from song construction to vocal tone, incredibly similar to Shiverburn. Considering that their album was nearly my #1 that year, sharing so much is a highlight of Yours Truly's approach. But that wouldn't be enough on its own. The band needs to deliver with their songs, and Yours Truly absolutely does. "Too Late For Apologies" is a great EP. In fact, it's only flaw is being a mere seventeen minutes. I'm left wanting more from them.

Fortunately, they have a new single that was released recently, "High Hopes". It picks up where the EP left off, and delivers another dose of hook-laden sugar-punk. Being able to consistently deliver great songs is the hallmark of a band that can endure. This newest song is the spark plug winter needed, and an indication than they aren't going to take any steps backwards when their next material appears.
I missed out on "Too Late For Apologies" when it first came out, but hopefully the title is not accurate. This is my apology for taking so long to find this music and talk about the potential the band has for the future. Given the songs they've released already, Yours Truly is truly a band to watch. They have everything I love about rock music, and I can't wait to hear what comes next. Hopefully, it might include a bigger serving of their satisfying recipe.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Album Review: Animal Drive - Bite!

Here's a funny fact; the biggest metal band in the world might just be Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their ability to draw huge crowds year after year has turned them into a gold mine, and one of the few groups out there who feature guitars and can claim that level of fame. It's also a bit sad, since they are primarily a Christmas entity, and their success means that a short holiday season is more profitable than an entire year of being a touring band. Why do I bring this up? Because one of their newest touring singers is the driving force behind this band Animal Drive. Having the ability to claim membership in a group that can have their pick of performers is a feather in the proverbial cap, for sure.

Just from the first song, "Goddamn Marathon", you can see why Dino Jelusic was given such a large stage to perform on. His voice is big, powerful, and a blend of Russell Allen and David Coverdale. He actually sounds like what Ronnie Romero is claimed to be. So if you like great singers, he will definitely fit the bill. As for the song itself, it lives in an odd place halfway between Whitesnake and Dream Theater, with blues and prog battling to see which direction things will go, which doesn't leave a lot of room for a melody. There's one beautiful moment at the start of the chorus, but it only lasts for a line or two, which is disappointing.

"Tower Of Lies (I Walk Alone)" is a far better example of what Animal Drive can do. It's heavy, aggressive, and boasts a hook that finds the right approach for the music. They make comparisons to Skid Row, but Sebastian Bach never had the gravitas Dino is capable of. I don't mean this to sound insulting (or maybe I do, since he comes across poorly), but this song sounds like if Skid Row hadn't been wearing pants two sizes too small.

That up and down carries through the album. When they turn up the amps and try to be as heavy as they can, things are only so-so. "Had Enough" is a mediocre song, and "Time Machine" tries to ape the "Dehumanizer" era of Black Sabbath a bit too much. Those types of songs will please people who think that heaviness is a description of quality, but they ring a bit hollow when you know there's better out there. The band's more restrained songs, like "Hands Of Time" and "Father" are far more effective, because they not only feature some real melody, but you can get more of an emotional resonance than macho posturing (which is a form of musical dick-measuring I don't give a damn about).

That leaves Animal Drive falling into a very large pool of young bands; those who are capable of greatness, but can't pull it off over the course of an entire record. Half of "Bite!" is really, really good. Unfortunately, the other half of the record is a bit on the bland side. This is one of those records that in the 80s would have done well, because it has enough strong material to keep the string of singles going, but today an album needs the deeper cuts to be just as strong. "Bite!", minus the unnecessary exclamation point, is a decent album, it just isn't consistent enough to be a great one.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Album Review: Shiraz Lane - Carnival Days

Among the problems that younger bands have in gaining traction as they come up through the ranks is the fact that older bands refuse to leave the stage. It seems like every few days we're hearing about another bands from the distant past that is either getting back together after decades apart, or are on yet another loop of the nostalgia train. They have name power already, so they suck up all the oxygen in the room, leaving little time for newer bands to get their chance. What's worse, when that band inevitably has their sound compared to one of those old-guard bands, a large number of people will just go back and listen to the name-brand instead.

But we soldier into the future, this time with Shiraz Lane, who are trying to keep up thier growing momentum with this, their second album. Playing into the point I was making, I am rather certain I never heard a note of their music until this album came across my desk. There's way too much music to hear, so bands like Shiraz Lane have a hard time breaking through.

They waste no time in capturing your attention, though. The opening title track doesn't start with a big build up or swelling guitars. No, it starts with a saxophone and jazzy piano, sounding a bit like a rocking cabaret. And unlike when Geoff Tate has tried this sort of thing to spectacularly horrible results, this instrumentation damn well works. There's some of the feeling from My Chemical Romance's "The Black Parade" in there, but the main thrust is the fun atmosphere and the big hooks propelling the album to a massive start. It's not even four minutes of music, but it sounds more epic than a lot of lengthy time-wasters ever could.

Moving past that, the album settles into a more traditional groove, with the songs balancing chunky Slash-styled riffs with big sing-along melodies. There's a real sense of fun to their music, where a crowd watching them in a small club would rather be bouncing and singing along, rather than getting drunk and and using them as a diversion from real life. Rock goes down that latter path too often, so it's nice to hear Shiraz Lane playing up the lighter, enjoyable side of the music.

One of my favorites is "Gotta Be Real", which is a power ballad that has hints of "Summer Breeze" and Hall & Oates, as the saxophone comes back into play. It's a great decision, because it gives the song the vibe of what passed for sensuality in the 80s, and it adds color to an already great song.

Is there anything spectacular about "Carnival Nights"? If I'm being honest, no, there isn't. It doesn't quite reach the upper echelon of melodic bliss, but it's a damn solid album that more than delivers on expectations. While the old guard of bands get the lion's share of the attention, it's bands like Shiraz Lane who are the future of rock and roll. If "Carnival Nights" is any indication, the future looks pretty good.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"Fuck This": A Message From VK Lynne

Listeners of music, no matter how devoted, don't always pay enough attention to the words being sung. We might know enough of them to sing along, but we are often happy as long as the song has a bouncy tempo or a catchy chorus. When we talk about art being disposable, it comes in two forms. One is the group of artists who produce content simply trying to make money, while the other is due to listeners who don't care to understand, or think about, the art they are consuming.

But you know who does care about words and messages? Songwriters. I don't mean anyone who writes a song, but the people who use music as a vehicle to express their deepest thoughts and feelings, the people for whom writing is a calling they can't ignore. Many of them also pour their words into other forms of art, which is what brings us here today.

VK Lynne, the powerful pink motor that fuels The Spider Accomplice, one of my favorite bands of recent years, is one of those artists who uses any form that will carry her voice. Today, she releases a new video poem, making an important statement.

The world is not fair. We know this. We see it every time we turn on a television or radio, when we see and hear untalented people being pushed to the heights of fame and power, while those who pour their hearts and talents into being the best they can be get run over, because they don't fit the mold of what we're looking for.

I can't understand what it's like to live under the pressure of superficiality the way that every woman does. Whether in politics or celebrity, we do judge books by their covers. Occasionally we're right, but seldom do we stop and think not just about how much we miss out because a first impression didn't bowl us over, but how little we think of ourselves that we allow looks to drive our own estimation of worth. I can admit that while I do my damnedest to let talent and accomplishment drive my judgments, I am aware of my biases towards certain aesthetics. Even that small step matters.

Society has a problem we seem unwilling to tackle. We suppose women are second-class, and treat it as a curiosity when they show ability and talent, as though it's nothing more than a way to entertain a pasty, overweight man while he waits for his next little blue pill to kick in. It makes the blood boil. Some of us are too polite to say it more bluntly. VK Lynne is not.

She simply says, "fuck this". 

To get the full experience of VK Lynne as an artist, head over to her Facebook page or her website.

Album Review: Painted Doll - Painted Doll

What happens when you put a comedian and a death metal drummer/vocalist together? No, that's not a joke. Painted Doll is just that combination, with Dave Hill coming together with Autopsy's Chris Reifert to form something rather unexpected. You might assume they would traffic in the darker realm, perhaps with black comedic takes on death metal's violence obsession, but that's nto what this is at all. Rather, Painted Doll is a throwback to the power-pop and psych-rock of the late 60s. So what does it sound like?

Painted Doll's approach is hazy-day power pop, the kind that is upbeat... if you're strung out. The opener, "Together Alone", also the first track released, bounds along with a wonderfully lazy energy, the guitars jangling under the mud of the production, the vocals laid-back and not at all pushing to get to the front of the mix. It's a sound that is inviting without ever trying to make a spectacle of itself. Another way of saying it is that Painted Doll's music is pop music that can be played in the background to set the mood.

One of the little details I always appreciate pops up in "Carousel", as backing vocals come in during the chorus to "doo doo doo" and add an extra bit of color to what's going on. It's a wonderful moment, but it sadly doesn't come around enough. The track comes and goes in two and a half minutes, which isn't enough time for the thrust of the song to come back around again after the solo. Power-pop is supposed to be tight, but that might be taking things a bit too far.

The band gives us one of those trifecta's, a band/album/song all sharing the same name. In this case, it happens to be the best song on the record. The chorus has beautiful, layered vocals that create a huge harmony, and with four minutes to play with, the song is able to develop into a full-fledged piece. There's a bit of Foo Fighters to the main guitar line, but the heart of the song is pure 60s, and reminds me of how satisfying power-pop can be when it's done really well.

Which brings me to the crux of the issue here. Painted Doll's debut album is quite enjoyable, and has a great sound, but I can't say it's great. There are songs that are, like the title track and "She Talks To Mirrors", but the record as a whole doesn't measure up to that standard. For every great track, there's an "Eclipse" that doesn't seem to go anywhere, and doesn't have a sugary hook. But, the good outweighs the bad, easily. "Painted Doll" might not be a great record, but it's one that makes for a fun listen, and a fun reminder of a type of music you don't get to hear much of anymore. Certainly, if you like power-pop, this record is a fine way of spending half an hour.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Singles Roundup: Stryper, APC, Dream State, & Light The Torch

With February and March looking to be filled with new releases, singles have been pouring out at a good clip. Before some of these records come out, and because I might not get around to covering them all, let's take a look at which songs are and aren't moving the needle in the right direction.

Stryper - Take It To The Cross

Stryper has had a weird middle age crisis. While they have been making solid records, they are doing so under the guise of trying to prove they are a HEAVY heavy metal band. They aren't, and it leads to ridiculous things like this new single. It starts out well enough with some solid riffs, but all we have to talk about it that chorus, that wretched, awful, horrible chorus. Michael Sweet shrieks in his worst high-pitch vocals, repeating the same line again and again, sounding like a toddler who didn't get his way in daycare. It's embarrassing, and possibly the worst musical moment I've heard this year so far.

A Perfect Circle - TalkTalk

I don't get this band anymore. It seems like for as long as I can remember, despite being led by a talented guitar player, A Perfect Circle's music is nothing but floating atmosphere and non-sensical vocal wandering. That is true of this latest single from their upcoming return. It's pleasant, but never goes anywhere, and never builds to anything more than background noise. Maynard phones in his performance, and the whole thing sounds like a band that is only making music because there still isn't anything for Tool to do.

Dream State - In This Hell

Here's a young band that is moving in the right direction. Their blend of modern metal is much appreciated here, on what I think is their best song yet. Solid riffs and plenty of heavy attitude give way to a chorus that hits just the right amount of melody. There's something oddly familiar about the hook that I can't put my finger on, but it still works. This is a nice effort from a band that's still growing into themselves. Well done.

Light The Torch - Die Alone

Let's cap this off with the best we have this time out. I have always been on Team Howard when it comes to Killswitch Engage. I have also always staunchly defended their 2009 self-titled album. So it's no wonder I find myself loving this new song from Howard's band's new name, since it brings that album to mind so clearly. Yes, it follows the formula, but why mess with what works? Howard sounds fantastic, and when he focuses on melody in his writing, the results are fantastic. This song would have fit right in on that Killswitch record, and while that means a lot of people will complain it isn't heavy enough, it means I am going to eat it up.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Album Review: Thundermother - Thundermother

Truth: 2017 was the year of women, in all walks of society. We had the political backlash that resulted in the largest protests in America since the Vietnam War, "Wonder Woman" was a massive hit at the box office, and the women who called out the rampant sexism in our culture were named Person(s) Of The Year. Last year was powered and defined by women, so it's fitting that here in early 2018 we find ourselves talking about Thundermother, a band of ladies who take the spirit of AC/DC style rock and roll, and make sure we know they play it as well as anyone else.

The first think you notice about Thundermother, as "Revival" slowly builds up, is they have nailed the Young's guitar tone. It is not only quintessential rock and roll, but it's also as good as any tone that has ever been generated by an amp, so you earn big points right away for borrowing from the best. "Thundermother" sounds like a classic album, even before you listen to it, because they chose the right blueprint to follow.

When you dig a bit deeper, you find that avoiding comparisons to AC/DC is going to be nearly impossible. The way they build riffs from simple groups of notes, and punctuate them with ringing open chords, is straight from that playbook. It's also still as effective as any evolution rock and roll has undergone in the last four decades. "Revival" is a pure classic rock and roll track, and sets the stage effectively.

Thundermother isn't here to deliver anything fancy, or prettied up. Theirs is a no-frills style of rock and roll that doesn't bother with sweeteners or pop melodies. They go for the attack of making everything so blunt and in your face that you have no choice but to grasp every nuance, because there isn't any. Like a lot of those classics from back in the day, their music isn't what you would call catchy in the modern sense, but it drills down and does the job like a masonry bit cutting through a concrete wall of cynicism.

My pick for the best track here is the 'ballad' "Fire In The Rain", which uses the softer chords through the verses to not only build up for the guitar solo, but to showcase Guernica Mancini's vocals. Her voice is phenomenal, containing the perfect amount of grit to sound rough and tumble without being too harsh to carry the songs. And when you realize the entire record was cut live on the floor, the performances of the entire band become even more impressive. This record is raw rock, yes, but it's played so well you would never know they didn't spend months agonizing over every detail. I can only imagine how good they must be live, if this is an indication.

Sometimes I get lost as music from all corners come streaming in. It's easy to forget the power that old fashioned rock and roll possesses, but Thundermother is here to remind us. This new record is a pure distillation of the essence of rock and roll, and it's potent. I bend more toward the melodic side of the spectrum, but I can't deny that Thundermother's new lineup has delivered a heck of a classic rock and roll record. No frills, no gimmicks (and no Axl Rose), just ass kicking rock and roll. This simple recipe works.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Album Review: Neal Morse - Life & Times

Between his work with Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, and under his own name, anyone who has been into prog over the last twenty years knows about Neal Morse. He is one of the most prolific artists out there, who also happens to turn in stellar releases nearly every time out. What fewer people know is that in addition to being one of the leading figures in modern prog, Neal has occasionally released albums that fit more in the singer/songwriter mold, and show a different side of him. These albums, like "God Won't Give Up" and "Songs From November" (my #2 album of 2014), are among my favorites from his entire catalog. They show that Neal is a pure songwriter at heart, which is what makes him so great as a prog musician. So the prospect of a new songwriter album was not only a bit of good news, it was as exciting to me as could be.

With many of these songs written while on tour behind the massive double album "The Similitude Of A Dream", Neal goes in the complete opposite direction here, with simple songs that keep a low-key attitude and atmosphere. The release may be in the dead of winter, but this is the kind of album to put on late on a summer night, feeling the temperature dropping from oppressive to comfortable. That's actually the word I would most use to describe the album; comfortable.

These songs are sketches of life as it is, not as we long ago hoped it would be. Observations about cashiers with man-buns are the order of the day here, snapshots of moments in time that catch our eye when we're no longer concerned with trying to be more rebellious than we are. Neal's music here is more relaxed than ever here, with soft acoustic strumming and restrained vocals carrying much of this album. It certainly sounds like the kind of music you would want to hear, and write, in between loud gigs.

The centerpiece of the album is "He Died At Home", the first song that was released. Detailing a story of military suicide, it's a sparse composition that wrenches emotion from the pain-spoken words. It's hard to write songs about such heavy topics without sounding either maudlin or exploitative, but Neal threads the needle and makes a moving piece of music that speaks to a real societal problem. That is commendable on its own.

Things are not always so grave. That track is balanced by others like "Selfie In The Square", which expresses the desire to share a lazy day off with the person you love, and capture them as you only can at arms length. You could say that some of this is corny, but that's sort of the point. We all have some of that in us, and a hallmark of getting older is being comfortable with who we are, and not caring about trying to impress people. These songs were written for Neal to save moments and feelings, not to make himself look cool or important. That's refreshing.

"Life & Times" is the most restrained album Neal has ever made. These songs don't have the pop hooks or bouncy guitars of his other songwriter material, but they're great in a different way. There will be a segment of people who won't give this album a chance because of its subdued nature, but they will be missing out on the charms Neal is putting on display here. "Life & Times" is a different album for him, even among his songwriter albums, but it's every bit as good. It might take a change of perspective, but Neal Morse has delivered once again. "Life & Times" is a great album from a great songwriter, and an album that will grow the more you listen to it.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Album Review: W.A.S.P. - ReIdolized

While a large part of the music industry is looking for new ways to make money from the past, I seldom partake in the long line of reissues, remasters, and other assorted parlays of history. Seldom do they add anything to the album's legacy, and often they only serve to mar the memories we have. While certain things can be made 'better', our minds are more powerful than Pro-Tools, and it will never sound as good. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of their seminal "The Crimson Idol", W.A.S.P. dug back into the past, but they did it in a way that changes our perspective, so I feel there's something to talk about here.

"The Crimson Idol" is one of the enduring metal albums of a fallow period, because it was a rare example of a metal artist looking to make something more artistic than another set of songs about drinking, fighting, and screwing (Blackie wrote as many cringe-worthy, stupid songs as anyone). This was a soundtrack to a movie that never existed, a story that worked on record with better songs than "Operation:Mindcrime" (still the most overrated album in metal history).

This new version of the album (there is also as much of the movie as could be assembled included) is both re-recorded, and re-imagined. This is not as simple as running the original album through a compressor to make it sound shiny and loud, and calling it a day. Blackie went back into the studio to re-record the entire album, while also including additional songs to flesh out the story. That makes this not just a different experience, but one that now spans two CDs.

What is amazing about listening to this new take is how little has changed in the last twenty-five years. When "The Invisible Boy" kicks into gear, W.A.S.P. is timeless. They were able to match the unrefined sound of amps from the day, while Blackie's voice is nearly unchanged from way back when. For everything he's been through, and as rough as he can look at times, his voice is in remarkable shape. This project wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't.

Let's be honest about one thing; no one this long after the fact is going to be able to match the youthful energy they had, nor the excitement for the initial recording. There is some of the spark of the original album that is lacking here. You can't expect Blackie to have the same passion for the playing after running through these songs hundreds of times over the decades. Everything just feels a beat slower than it used to.

The sound this time is cleaner, but that almost works against the narrative. A story about depression on Skid Row doesn't fit with a pristine presentation. A rougher approach is more in line with the story, and it's an example of how making things better isn't always for the best. The limitations of the time can lead to happy accidents, or moments of magic that can never be replicated.

And then there are the new songs included in this version. The most puzzling is the inclusion of "Miss You", which was featured on the most recent album, "Golgotha". That song, and that record, were both excellent, but I'm not sure how a song written twenty years later for a completely unrelated album can be shoehorned into a concept like this. It's the kind of decision that is not only confusing, but makes me think it has something to do with squeezing out a few more publishing pennies. It comes across as crassly corporate thinking, which goes against the

The biggest problem "The Crimson Idol" had is one that was only worsened here; bloating. The original album was well-crafted and featured the best songs of W.A.S.P.'s career, but the interludes and segues dragged everything out longer than it needed to be. This version only makes that more evident, as the addition of yet more songs slows the album down yet more. It might help the narrative flow, but it kills the album as a musical experience. It's too long now, and could use some serious tightening. There was never a need for minutes on end of soloing in songs that were telling stories, but it's an even more egregious error as the running time has grown, especially as one of the new songs more or less recycles musical themes from the album's other tracks. There is superfluous material here.

So what we have here is a bigger, better sounding version of a classic record that is actually worse for all that was added. The extra songs bog the record down, and there was a charm in the rougher sound of the original. You have to work hard to ruin a great album, which didn't happen here. "ReIdolized" isn't as great as the original, but it's an interesting take on what that album could have been if the vision had been fully carried out at the time. It's a bit of a curiosity, but that's about it. "The Crimson Idol" was, and is, just fine as it already exists.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Album Review: Corrosion of Conformity - "No Cross No Crown"

Maybe we’ve talked about this before, but when Bilbo Baggins returned to the Shire after The Battle of Five Armies and the rest of his adventure, he titled his eventual book on the subject “There and Back Again.”  I bring this up because as we get a little older, we come to have greater recognition of the circular nature of so much of our lives, the series of ebbs and flows that weave us between points A and B, and often back to A.

It’s appropriate to use that as the context for the discussion of Corrosion of Conformity’s new album “No Cross No Crown,” because, if you hadn’t heard, the band has been reunited with Pepper Keenan, and flowers seem to be back in bloom.  The band has released this new effort which sees them in a more mature and altogether more reflective headspace, which tempers their previous piss and vinegar ever so slightly.

The album contains fewer vitriolic assaults railing against the failings of the establishment as previous CoC albums, but that does not mean that the band is without vigor or purpose.

Rather, the focus for this release seems to be centered more solely on the groove of the music; an attempt to drill down and find the core of what makes sludge metal tick, then amplify that sound (no pun intended) to concoct an album that exists as a function of the essence of the music, rather than the emotion that stirs it.

And the groove, to that end, is excellent.  As much as we don’t traditionally think of southern-fried metal as being inclusive of North Carolina, there’s an awful lot of barbecue flavor glazing the surface of “No Cross No Crown.”  In an odd reflection of metal eras, it’s hard not to hear a healthy dose of Texas Hippie Coalition within the seams of this new (old) Corrosion of Conformity.  “Cast the First Stone” in particular rumbles ahead with the swaggering bravado that has always been so idiomatic of the art form.

There’s more to it than that, though.  The album is vital and punchy, properly paced but never without reason or direction or intensity.  Listen to “The Luddite,” and you’ll hear a song that doesn’t trade as a speed merchant, but there is no denying the song’s infectious nature or ability to get wormed into your ear.  The same idea continues for “Wolf Named Crow” and even the shambling thump of “Nothing Left to Say.”

It is worth noting that while this is a very enjoyable and accomplished album, sludge metal on the whole is not exactly an evolving genre full of new, exciting concepts.  So listen to this album with confidence, but don’t expect that you hear something you’ve never heard before.

That’s not necessarily what this is about, though.  In many ways, “No Cross No Crown” is cousin to Prong’s “X – No Absolutes” from a little while back; both albums prove that a veteran band can take in the trends around, make small adjustments to stay relevant within their genre, and yet still put together a record that could teach a lesson or two to younger bands about how this all works.  This is a fun album that gets better with repeated listens.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Album Review: Metaprism - Catalyst To Awakening

When I was in my more formative years, the hottest thing going in the world of heavy metal was Killswitch Engage. Metalcore was still something brand new, and it was that group who both defined and ruined the genre. I say that because they wrote the rules for what popular metalcore should be, but they did it so well that everyone else blatantly copied them for at least a decade, leading to so much stale and mediocre music. That mix of death metal and hooky clean vocals has bled out through metal, and can be found in every corner of the metal map. But as I have grown older, two things have become clear to me; 1) To quote a famous character, "I'm getting too old for this shit", and 2) Few of the bands that do it really know how to write vocal melodies.

Metaprism is not metalcore, in the strictest sense, but they do weave through clean and harsh in the same way, but the reason they caught my attention is that they, more than most bands of this style, know how to write songs.

Their sound is that thick, rhythmic, tuned low and nasty brand of modern heavy metal, but that serves as a counterweight to the vocal hooks, and not as the alpha and omega of their approach. My main gripe with so much of today's metal is the band's write themselves into a hole by creating music that is so dark and de-tuned that there isn't space for melody. Metaprism never falls into that trap, instead spreading one wing into heaviness, and the other into melody. That is an approach that lets them cover all bases, and gives them ample room to paint.

The initial one-two punch of "Codex Regius" and "Unleash The Fire" chug along with the heaviness and riffs you would want from a modern heavy metal record, but they then branch off into hooky choruses that are so much more engaging than the simple crooning done by the bands that rely on the power of their singer to carry the load. Writing melody is about a lot more than just singing a note or two cleanly, and that's what we get here.

There is some bounce to these melodies, a feeling that gets you to nod your head along with them. It's a less than common sensation from metal records, which makes it all the more appreciated when it comes along. And by and large, song after song on "Catalyst To Awakening" delivers them. "Carve The Stone" is as sticky a chorus as they come, while the quasi-ballad "Aftermath" is melodically rich, and absolutely fabulous.

The album hinges on the two-part "Anomalous". Over those ten minutes, the band tones down their melodic elements for a heavier and harder workout, with more focus on their death metal influences. Your judgment of the record is going to come down to those two tracks. If they still stick with you, this album is one that does modern metal exceptionally well. If they fall a little bit flat of the rest of the songs, then it's an album that has a lot going for it, but falls a hair short of being great.

Myself, I'm going to split the difference. For the most part, "Catalyst To Awakening" is a really good modern heavy metal album that reminds me (in spirit, not in sound) of those old days hearing Killswitch Engage at their best. There are little decisions here and there I can nit-pick, but when isn't that true? The bottom line is that Metaprism has made a modern heavy metal record that stands up well to anything being released in this style. I don't know if I'm 'woke', but I'm listening, and for a musician that's more important.