Thursday, March 29, 2018

Album Review: Primordial - Exile Amongst The Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Album Review: Barren Earth - A Complex Of Cages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Singles Roundup: Amorphis, Stryper, & More

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

Amorphis - The Bee

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

Stryper - Sorry

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

Dokken - It's Another Day

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

Pearl Jam - Can't Deny Me

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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Album Review: Bulletboys - From Out Of The Skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Album Review: Borealis - The Offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Quick Takes: Judas Priest & Rainbow

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

Judas Priest - Firepower

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

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

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

Rainbow - Waiting For A Sign

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Album Review: Axel Rudi Pell - Knights Call

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Album Review: W.E.T. - Earthrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Hearing Lunden Reign's "Confession"

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Album Review: Tengger Cavalry - "Clan Bi"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Album Review: The Watchers - Black Abyss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 4, 2018

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

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

Judas Priest - Never The Heroes

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

Kamelot - RavenLight

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

Kobra & The Lotus - Losing My Humanity

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

Gus G - Letting Go

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Album Review: Stone Broken - Ain't Always Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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