Monday, April 30, 2018

Album Review: Ihsahn - 'Amr

One thing you can't deny is that Ihsahn has been eclectic. In the years since Emperor folded, he has traversed a wide swath of musical ground, peddling everything from black metal to free-form jazz. He has never rested on his laurels, and while I can't say I have enjoyed much of the music he has made (since we share radically different musical roots), I do respect his dedication to moving forward. Whether you like what he's doing or not, every album is an interesting experience, because you never know exactly what you're going to get.

For this album, we get his spin on the metal of the 80s, as his streamlined approach has integrated the synths that ruled that decade. Rather than an album relying on the scope of orchestration, or the rule-bending of jazz, "'Amr" focuses on the coldness that comes from artificiality. A synth is more than a sonic tone, it is a nod to technology replacing humanity in music. And since Ihsahn's roots are in black metal, where humanity can be hard to find anyway, that is a combination that makes a lot of sense.

Putting it bluntly, this is a difficult album. Ihsahn throws enough blistering drums and progressive riffs into the mix to constantly challenge the listener, but it's not as simple as that. There is also the fact that these songs, despite their structure being simplified, spend much of their time screeching without melody, flattening  out where sharp edges need to be. Without massive orchestrations to give the songs character, Ihsahn's songwriting simply isn't interesting enough to carry the day.

It's a fundamental truth about music that the hardest thing to do is write simple songs. Think about it; if you write a twenty minute progressive epic, you can take needless detours, indulge every thought you've ever had, and claim the whole thing is about a 'journey'. To write a good, simple song, you have to focus on every idea you have and use only the best of them. Simplicity shines a spotlight on your ideas, stripping away the coats of varnish lesser songwriters use to polish the proverbial turd.

I don't intend to use that word with regards to "'Amr", but the point remains. This album is one that falters because of its focus. The pacing is often too slow, the actual musical ideas aren't particularly interesting, and Ihsahn's vocals rarely add elements that elevate the compositions. The entire album feels like it was written for no other reason than to use certain synth sounds. The songs themselves are turgid, lacking either the visceral bite or the intellectual sprawl of Ihsahn's best work. This is a condensed version of Ihsahn as a solo artist, and like an abridged version of a novel, a lot is lost in the missing details.

I understand that Ihsahn is considered a legend, and I will likely be one of the few voices saying this, but he is not particularly well-suited to writing conventional music. "'Amr" is likely the most straight-forward album he has released yet, and it is the one that most exposes his shortcomings.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Album Review: Riot V - Armor Of Light

I don't know what to make of bands who get tagged as 'legendary', but yet who I have never heard of, and who never once made it into common conversation. Riot is one of those bands. If you listen to a lot of metal fans from the 80s, Riot gets mentioned often as one of the great yet underappreciated bands of the day. To the rest of us who weren't there in that moment, no one has thought of Riot in several decades. So when most of the band got back together, and lawyers forced them to add an extra character to their name, it was a cause for great.... ambivalence. Riot fans gobbled up their last album, and non-Riot fans went on as they always had, forgetting Riot ever existed.

But this new version of the band is back for another go 'round, so let's dip our toe into the water and see what all this fuss is about.

"Armor Of Light" is a very slick, modern interpretation of 80s speedy heavy metal. It's a hybrid of traditional and power metal, which means we get galloping guitars and big choruses, with a bit more attitude than the lighter side often provides. Their sound, for a modern comparison, is actually fairly close to the abnd Theocracy, both in composition and in Todd Michael Hall's vocal tone. If you've ever heard their album "Mirror Of Souls", it's an indication of just how high the bar can be set for this kind of music.

Not that Riot V ever gets there, nor should it be expected. "Armor Of Light" is not a modern classic, but that by no means implies that it's a disappointment of an album. Rather, it's actually a better record than I had been expecting it to be, given my usual feelings towards the bands from their era. The band has been around long enough that they have a comfort level that will always be met. When you get tracks like "Angel's Thunder, Devil's Reign", it's easy to see why people still connect to the music. It has the gallop to get your fist pumping, and a chorus that bounces with the right amount of hook. It's great.

Contrast that song to "Messiah", and you get an illustration of what I feared. "Messiah" is the generic 80s song that doesn't try to provide a big chorus, but just shouts the title in a few different ways. It was the way songs were written in the 80s, and whether it was Riot or Dio, a lot of those songs just don't hold up anymore.

"Heart Of A Lion" is the second or third time in the past year Richard The Lionheart has been a subject of the music I've listened to. The historical story leads to a few awkward lyrics, but the sound is a jaunty number the gets the job done well. For the most part, Riot is delivering solid material that I imagine plays right into what their longtime fans are going to want from them. And since they are the target audience, and not converting the uninitiated, we have to call that a success.

Really, my only criticism of the record is that by focusing on pace, fifty-five minutes of music seems to be a bit much. The album could have used a breather or two to slow things down, rather than race onward at full speed the whole time. But since I seem to be in the minority when it comes to such things, take that for what you will.

To get to the point, Riot V may not be the legends they sometimes get included among, but this current version of the band is doing good things. Traditional heavy metal fans are going to eat up what they're doing here. "Armor Of Light" is an album that brings the 80s up to date, and delivers everything an old-school heavy metal fan could want.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Album Review: Kobra And The Lotus - Prevail II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dilana Reveals What's "Behind Closed Doors"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Album Review: Ross The Boss - By Blood Sworn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Album Review: A Perfect Circle - Eat The Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Album Review: Issa - Run With The Pack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Album Review: Temperance - Of Jupiter And Moons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

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

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

Ghost - Rats

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

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

Letters From The Fire - Comfort You

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

Trillium - Time To Shine

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

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

Seventh Wonder - Victorious

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Album Review: Bonfire - Temple Of Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Album Review: Stryper - God Damn Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Album Review: Gus G - Fearless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

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

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

Graveyard - Please Don't

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

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

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

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

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

Tremonti - A Dying Machine

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

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

Five Finger Death Punch - Fake

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

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Album Review: Spiders - Killer Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Album Review: Kamelot - The Shadow Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Album Review: Light The Torch - Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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