Friday, June 29, 2018

Album Review: Bullet For My Valentine - Gravity

It's funny how no matter the form you're talking about, the biggest names that loom over the scene are far smaller than you would ever imagine. Just as the biggest movies of a given year reach a small fraction of the potential audience, so to do the biggest bands. Bullet For My Valentine is a heavy-hitter in the rock world, with a stature placing them in the upper tier, and yet I can't recall ever sitting down and listening to one of their records before. There is simply so much music to get through that even the biggest of names can slide by without realizing it. So in perhaps an interesting development, I get to experience their latest work with fresh ears and few expectations.

The key takeaway from "Gravity" is that this is a thoroughly modern rock record, where the guitars and aggression are balanced equally with synths and electronics. That is a sound that does sound fresh and current, but can also be a tough pill to swallow. I, for one, have never warmed to electronic elements in my music, despite how long they have been around.

The core of the band's sound is still anthemic rock music, the kind that will fill the venues they play live. Songs like "Over It" will go over great live, with plenty of opportunity for the audience to sing along when the chorus comes along. These are the kind of songs where the band is at their best, and where their music has a chance to achieve what they want it to. But then there are songs like "Letting You Go", where they go for a more aggressive sound, and in doing so strip away all the melody from the music. That leaves a song which lacks a hook, and even the guitar tone becomes harsh when the focus is put on it.

There are also a number of songs where the verses are soft beds of ambience with some crooning, which can come across a bit lifeless before the choruses come. If they come. "The Very Last Time" is the most electronic song on the album, and even the hook of the song is rather ambient, without any strong guitar presence. That leaves the song sounding small.

After getting off to a solid start, "Gravity" loses steam quickly. Maybe it's just because the electronic elements don't appeal to me at all, but the songs in the middle of the record fall flat, without memorable melodies. They float along like a wispy cloud on a summer day, barely visible as the sun slowly tears it to pieces. I can hear the band has the ability to put together songs that are far more effective, but the choices they make here don't do them any favors. They intentionally blunt the sharp edge off the music, which turns the killer instinct into a game of epee.

From what I had heard about Bullet For My Valentine over the years, I was expecting more from them. "Gravity" isn't a bad album, but it's too chill and laid-back in many places to make the statement it should. I don't know if rock and ambient electronics can mix, but I don't think they do here. "Gravity", I would say, is a disappointment.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Album Review: Night Flight Orchestra - Sometimes The World Ain't Enough

I'm not sure what to make of it when a side project overtakes the main gig. That's not exactly what is happening here, but Bjorn Strid's way to blow of steam is releasing an album for the second consecutive year, while Soilwork is still toiling away at their next album. Part of me wonders if that signals a shift in heart, or if there would be wisdom to not using so many ideas up when trying to write for two different bands. I've heard many people get stretched too thin with these projects, where they all suffer from not being given the right amount of time and focus. Is that what's happening here?

The Night Flight Orchestra has found a time machine to the 80s, picking up where "Amber Galactic" left off. I'm not really a child of the 80s rock scene, so I don't get the nostalgia for that particular era of sound, but this is a group that can perfectly capture that time.

We get started with "This Time", which heaps strings onto that 80s sound, rocking through with a balance of synth-rock, prog, and good ol' rock and roll. Bjorn sounds right at home singing this slightly cheesy music, which is still hard to imagine, given where he made his name. With the right amount of reverb put on his voice, you can easily hear him fitting in on the charts next to Hall & Oates. His voice is smooth, and you can almost hear his tongue in his cheek as he sings this material.

The title track is a harder rocking affair, with the opening thrust giving allusions to Journey's "Separate Ways". Likewise, it isn't the track bearing their name, but "Moments Of Thunder" that sounds like an REO Speedwagon song, hinting at being a ballad, while still offering up some drama. The backing vocals in particular have echoes of Jim Steinman in them, which is always a welcome detail for me.

As I said about the previous album, The Night Flight Orchestra is great at capturing that vein of the rock universe. If you like 80s rock, particularly of the mainstream variety, this group is a tremendous nostalgia trip. There are a lot of bands that are trying to bring back this type of rock (though I'm not sure why), and none do it this well. They are undeniably the best 80s-themed rock band going right now, and that includes the actual 80s bands that have yet to retire.

The only issue I have is that the music is so tied to that particular era of the past that it doesn't speak to me. I came of musical age a few years after this sound had already played out, and while I remember hearing those Journey and Speedwagon songs on the radio, it was already passe by the time I heard it. Unless you were heavily invested in this rock scene at the time, I don't see the appeal of the actual sonic choices. It was an era filled with reverb and tacky synths, neither of which has ever sounded good since. By choosing the adopt the tropes of that time, I find the potential audience limited. The good news for the band is that the metal audience has been aging, so there will be plenty of fans who will be of the age to eat this up.

This isn't my first go-round with The Night Flight Orchestra, and each time I've come away saying the same thing. They are great at what they do, but what they do isn't aimed at me. But if you are more generous to 80s rock than I am, don't miss out on the best recreation you'll ever hear.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Best Of 2018... So Far

Is it really the middle of the year already? It feels like every time I turn around, another six months has gone by and it's time to sort through my thoughts again. These first six months of 2018 have had a lot of great music to sort through, but it has also had the land mines we've had to carefully avoid. More than that, there is an interesting development on the intellectual front.

We often confront ourselves with questions when we talk about music. Is this record pushing boundaries? Is this record better than that record? How will this band ever top themselves?

What we don't often get are existential questions, but this year has given me one. Namely, what is an album? Are separate releases that make up a single entity one album? There isn't any hard and fast rule to these things, and I believe the nature of the term has been fluid as we have seen technology completely upend our understanding of how the business works. So with that being said, and since this is my list and I can make my own rules, I am going to declare:

The Best Album Of 2018, So Far:

The Spider Accomplice - Los Angeles

The third installment of this conceptual piece came out this year, and since it all follows the same story, I'm considering it one album for the purposes of this list. I'm doing that because "Los Angeles" is easily my favorite bit of music this year. Over the course of this song cycle, The Spider Accomplice takes us on a twisting, turning ride through the world of pop/rock, hitting on too many sounds and influences to count, all while maintaining both a constant core to their sound and a through-line of growth. The combination of VK Lynne's big voice and melodies with Arno's inventive musical backdrops has created a band where anything is possible, and like a rainbow in the sky, what color you can reach out and touch depends on where you're looking. In my mind, "Los Angeles" is the most important album of the year.

My other favorites this year include (in alphabetical order):

Ghost - Prequelle

Ghost has been getting better each time out, save for their misguided sophomore album. This is easily their poppiest album, but that's exactly what I love about it. Writing an album about the plague, and death in general, that is so upbeat sounding and infectious (pardon the pun) is the kind of subversion that makes me happy. Throw in the fact that Ghost continues to hone their craft, and you get an album that overcomes its flaws on the sheer strength of its smile-inducing capabilities.

Graveyard - Peace

The best rock and roll band going is back, and they pick up in fine form. "Peace" is their heaviest album to date, but is still packed with both the simple riffs that have always made guitar players jealous, and the emotional melodies that show a songwriter's touch. Music doesn't need to be any more complicated than this, because doing something simple the right way is harder than it sounds. In five albums, Graveyard has now made four of the best classic rock records since the 70s. How's that for success?

Light The Torch - Revival

I'm the weirdo whose favorite Killswitch Engage record is the 2009 self-titled. I love the way they pumped heaps of melody into the sound, which is what makes "Revival" such a wonder for me. This is a spiritual successor to that record, where Howard Jones returns to his most melodic side, creating an album that is mainstream in its catchiness, but still undeniably heavier than hell. When it comes to heavy music, this is what I want to hear. Big guitars, big vocals, and big melodies.

Myja - Myja

What happens when power-pop meets grungy alternative rock? You get Myja, who have made a record that is dark and hazy like a classic Seattle album, yet bristles with the sheen of power-pop melody. It is both upbeat and downbeat at the same time, and the clash of sounds makes it an interesting listen. It is akin to a Fastball record in the midst of depression. It's beautiful to listen to, and the record contains one of the best songs of the year in "One More Kiss", the only rock song I've ever heard that borrows from Shania Twain and makes it work.

W.E.T. - Earthrage

Europe has been giving us a steady stream of great melodic rock, and one of the usual suspects strikes again here. Erik Martensson and his cohorts have made an album of melodic rock that is heavy when it needs to be, but is shameless in wringing melodies for all they're worth. Many might say the record is cheesy, and perhaps it is, but it's also simply a blast to listen to. Sometimes music is just there to give us a good time, and W.E.T. has mastered that with this album.

And we will pretend the bad stuff, which includes Machine Head and Fall Out Boy's newest 'efforts', didn't happen. At least not until the end of the year, by which time I will hopefully have some creative ways of explaining how bad they are.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Conversation: Midway Through 2018

CHRIS C: Here we are again, at the midpoint of another year. It doesn't feel like it's been six months since we last gathered to survey the scenery, but time marches on whether we like it or not. It's been an eventful period, both in new music and in music news. Before we get to what we've seen from the music itself, let's get the biggest story of the year out of the way first.

Kudos to Slayer for knowing when to hang it up. We've been talking about this day since Jeff Hanneman first took his absence from the band, but it was still surprising to see it finally happen. We've been seeing more and more bands keep trotting themselves out for run after run long after they stopped being who we remembered them to be, so it's refreshing to Slayer do what so few others can. RATT just apparently fired their guitarist after years of feuding to get the name back, and are going to head out as a broken unit once more. Judas Priest is out there now without either of the guitar players who penned every single damn song fans care about. KISS is still talking about replacing everyone and having nameless scabs playing dates. Plus, there's that Ronnie James Dio sacrilege out there.

So to have Slayer (or Tom Araya, I'm guessing) actually retire before the crowds stop showing up is something revolutionary. The last few Slayer albums have been middling at best, so this retirement is mostly about touring. Slayer still puts on a ferocious show, but at what point does it get uncomfortable to watch guys pushing sixty playing a song like "Payback", with those literary lyrics, "I'm going to tear your fucking eyes out, Rip your fucking flesh off, Beat you till you're just a fucking lifeless carcass"? Metal was never designed for the middle aged and older crowd, so now that the big names are members of AARP, we have to reconsider how much cognitive dissonance we're willing to accept.

That's actually why I have always spoken out about certain varieties of metal lyrics. Songs that scream rebellion, or brag about how metal someone is, they just don't hold up when the voices behind them could be sponsored by Just For Men. If metal had grown up more over the years, and taken a more enlightened approach, maybe we wouldn't be facing this. There's a reason why Iron Maiden doesn't look or sound silly still playing their songs. They work no matter the age.

The other big news of the year, at least for us, is the return of Graveyard from what I guess was technically a breakup. That episode reminds us that bands are complex tangles of interpersonal relationships, and no matter how well things are going, it doesn't mean problems won't arise. But before I get too deep into that, and we explore whether Ghost is about to become the mainstream face of rock, I'll let you take the lead.

D.M: Cripes, is it June already?  I feel like I was just shoveling snow a week ago.  At any rate, before we dive too deeply into the matters at hand, let me begin by apologizing publicly to you, our friends in music promotion, and our dedicated army (not to overstate it,) of readers.  I think I have successfully reviewed one album so far this year, which is a God damn shame on my part.  I haven’t been nearly up to the level I would expect of myself.

I’m trying to write a book, make upgrades to house, deal with some personal stuff, and oh by the way still show up to work on time and do my job.  Sadly, this has caused my print musical participation to go down.  I’ll do better in the back half, I promise.

Anyway, to the points at hand.  Last thing first – Ghost, as much as you and I want them to be on top of the heap as aural world conquerors, and as much as they probably deserve it, it won’t happen.  I say that not to be contrarian or even to be pessimistic, but just because as someone who works in media, I’d like to think I have some sense of how this works.  Ghost’s ceiling comes from the double-edged sword they set themselves up with directly from the gate – their gimmick.  It’s not that a gimmick in and of itself can preclude you from that level of fame, but the nature of the gimmick can, and any band that openly touts themselves, even in jest, as affiliated with Satan or demonic imagery of any kind won’t ever see themselves playing on the daytime talk show circuit.

I hear some of you out there already – ‘but what about KISS?’ you’re saying.  And that’s fair, but if you really examine KISS, their affiliation with the devil came more from other people looking for it than from them talking about it.  Same for Alice Cooper and even Marilyn Manson.  Satan remains a taboo subject, and don’t get me wrong, Ghost can have a great career and make piles of money and be every bit as successful even as some of the top dogs like Iron Maiden, but they’ll never be Metallica.

It’s the difference between Ghost and Greta Van Fleet.  As derivative as GVF is (with all requisite apologies to my wife, who loves them,) their sound is catchy and well produced and they look the part and most importantly of all, they don’t offend.  Just wait, if they haven’t already, they’re gonna start appearing in car commercials any minute now.

At the risk of going too deep into the reeds, I believe there’s even some current socio-economic trends that hurt Ghost’s chance at mainstream superstardom, but what it boils down to is that right now, people aren’t in a mood to be shocked or challenged.  In the present state of media distribution, where it’s easy to ignore anything that affronts your affirmed values, that’s exactly what people are going to do with Ghost – ignore them.  It’s sad, really.

Now that I’ve flagellated that deceased equine into the dust, yay, Graveyard is back!  Now, everything I just talked about should work in favor of Graveyard, so I don’t know what’s holding them back.  All I can think of is that even after their ‘breakup,’ this new album “Peace,” which you and I love because it’s complex and beautiful and professional, doesn’t have the pop get up and go to make them a household name.  Graveyard’s music is soulful and fulfilling, which for audiophiles like us are the best possible qualities, but for the casual dude or dudette (do people still say dudette?  Did anyone ever really say it?) spinning their satellite radio dial might not stop for a Graveyard tune.

….is Slayer really done?

I want to believe they are, because as you said, both of us have been pulling for that for years now.  But we know how this works.  How many times has Ozzy been done?  Or KISS?  Or The Rolling Stones?  Judas Priest, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails have all faked their own deaths.  Music is like comic books or soap operas – it’s hard to believe someone’s actually dead.

For my part, Slayer was done for me a few years ago when I saw them in 2014.  No Hanneman, no Lombardo.  What was left?  A bunch of talented dudes, but dudes going through the motions.  It was disappointing to say the least, sad to say the worst.  I haven’t turned an eye to Slayer’s farewell tour, one because I don’t think the bill is that great, and second, because I was lucky enough to see them when they were SLAYER, a few years before Jeff started having health problems.  What they are now is an imitation of what they were then.

I will take exception to one thing you said, which is the point about the juvenile lyrics.  Yeah, okay, they’re juvenile.  I’m not gonna argue that.  I’m not even gonna argue that they’re good lyrics, because they’re not.

What I will argue is maybe tangential to your point, but I think it’s important.  As a culture, not just musical culture but as a whole, we’re real big on the idea that people should act their age, or that certain emotions or states of being or whatever are best left to certain age groups.  I can’t abide that.  As we get older, don’t we bust our asses and strive as hard as we do so that we can realize the aspirations we had at a younger age?  Why then must we sacrifice those ideals to conform to a societal norm that shuns us for exercising the decision making we’ve gained.  I have never understood the people I encounter who say ‘well, I used to listen to metal, but I’m too old for it now.’ Why?  Says who?  Listen, I get it, tastes change, and that’s fine.  But if that’s the case, just say your tastes changed.  Don’t give me some line about how you feel you have to act your age.  As a great friend once told me, the only thing you’ve ever too old to do is drink illegally.

So I guess what I’m circling around is this – I believe Slayer should be done because that train has run out of steam, but I don’t think Araya or King or whoever should be told to stop just because they’re older than they used to be.  Now, I cede, they might be a bad example because they’re also individually out of new ideas, and thus out of steam, but if they teamed up and started a totally different band that played death metal covers of showtunes or even if they just started a new thrash band with just as obscene lyrics and called it “REYALS” or something, you do you, man.

I’m with you in that some media doesn’t age well (anybody read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” lately?) but that doesn’t necessarily diminish its value as an artifact of its time if the artist wants to continue showing it to us.

Anyway, I feel like I was just real negative and contrarian for about twelve hundred words, which isn’t like me at all, and not necessarily how I wanted to kick this off.  My apologies.  Before I get too far down the rabbit hole, what else you got?

CHRIS C: The reason I'm higher on Ghost's chances than you are is because the bar for what I'm claiming has been lowered so, so far. Think about it; what is success for a rock band these days? There aren't any rock bands at all that are able to cross over into the 'mainstream' mainstream. None are generating hit singles on the real charts. Rock now exists completely within itself. Foo Fighters would be the current biggest rock band, but none of their singles form the last couple records made it to Top 40 radio. They've become too old and tired for that format. Nickelback has fizzled out, and they haven't had a hit in a while either. Even someone as massive as U2 hasn't had a true hit in a couple of album cycles. The only band that can qualify is Maroon 5, but they're not a rock band anymore, if they ever were.

Among rock fans, I think Ghost hits enough marks to be able to appeal to a wide array of us. They're heavy enough, they're dark enough, but they're also fun. They are the one band in rock that a fan could conceivably drag an unsuspecting friend to a show and have them enjoy the heck out of it. As evidenced by the video for "Dance Macabre", Ghost has become the pop outlet for a lot of metal people too. So no, Ghost will never be Metallica, but we're judging them against the rock bands of their own time. Compared to them, I could see Ghost reaching the top.

Greta Van Fleet is way too early to say anything about, since they haven't even recorded a damn album yet. Right now, I think a lot of their 'success' is about nothing but their Zeppelin similarities. I've had their music sitting in front of me for a while, and I can't actually tell you the last time I played it. Like Ghost, right now GVF is a gimmick, and I'm going to have to wait and see if they can overcome that. If their eventual album sounds just like Zeppelin, it might do well, but it will be the start of their downfall. They can only be a clone for so long before people get tired of it. How many AC/DC clones have there been over the years? I can't even count, but every single one of them faded from memory when it became clear there was never going to be anything original to them. Remember the band Jet? They had a true breakout, mainstream hit, and they disappeared right after that because everyone realized all they could do was copy what we've already heard. GVF has a lot of growing to do, and not much time to do it.

Graveyard suffers that same problem, actually. Forget about crossing over to the mainstream because of a lack of 'pop get up and go'. They haven't even risen in the rock world, and largely because of their old-school flair. The music communities I travel in don't get Graveyard at all. It's the old story of a retro band having trouble appealing to a modern audience. We both love Graveyard dearly, and would assume rock fans of all stripes would hear what we hear, but they don't. I don't know what it is rock fans are after, but apparently it isn't this.

We briefly discussed this on our own, but our shared love of Graveyard is odd, considering our very different takes on their career. I feel they came out of the gate swinging, and have been fighting to keep it up, while you find they stumbled a bit earlier and are currently at the height of their powers. What's remarkable, to me, is the floor is so high for them that we both agree even their lesser albums are still better than most other rock out there. I don't know if there's any other band we share an affinity for where our rankings are quite so different. Maybe Iron Maiden.

I do find it funny you use the word 'audiophile', though. One thing I would say about "Peace" is the recording is a bit fuzzy for my taste. I miss some of the bluesy 'thump' the guitars used to have.

Maybe I didn't use the best words for what I mean about Slayer. It isn't just that their lyrics are juvenile and sound odd coming out of men who are deciding at what age to start collecting Social Security, it's that Slayer is a band that suffers from Homer Simpson disease; they have gotten dumber as time passes. Slayer's early material was evil and controversial, and most of it actually holds up extremely well. But somewhere in the 90s, Kerry got lazy, and with each passing album the lyrics became more and more about cursing, instead of actually saying something. It peaked on "God Hates Us All", but all their modern albums have been so ham-fisted in their delivery there's no point to it anymore. What's clear is what you said, that Slayer is out of ideas. What started out as a critique of religion became anger at it, which then became saying "fuck religion". In trying to say the same thing album after album, they found the only way to continue sounding the way Slayer is supposed to sound was by growing more coarse. Many of Kerry's songs today are the sort of things that get a pass from a youngster, under the guise of "they don't know any better yet". Slayer sure as hell does by now, and that's the problem. Or was, to be more accurate. But then again, I'm a bitter former intellectual, so I don't speak for most metal fans.

A theme that is popping up here is nostalgia, whether for the sound of a time period, or for bands from our younger days. I wonder how much of that is involved in my love for one of my picks for the best releases so far this year. I wrote about this before, but when I was first truly getting into metal (which you helped with), the biggest name from this side of the pond pulling me in was Killswitch Engage. Regardless of how those albums hold up to modern listeners, they hold tremendous nostalgic appeal for me, so I'm left pondering if memories of first hearing Howard Jones are the catalyst for how I feel regarding his new band. Since I didn't like the band that came in-between, I'm inclined to give myself the benefit of the objective doubt, but it does bring up issues regarding how we can ever escape the gravitational pull of the past. Whether it's bands from long ago we come back to long after they have had their day, or new bands that are aping old sounds, it feels like half of our musical lives are spent looking backward.

It's why I have a bit of trouble with bands like The Night Flight Orchestra, or Greta Van Fleet, etc. While I will never deny their talents, I don't quite see the need to recreate what has already been. Especially in the case of all the bands that are bringing back the synths and reverb of the 80s. Didn't rock fans spend an entire generation bitching about that stuff? Now we want it back? That's what's great about Graveyard. While their production sounds like the 70s, name me a classic rock band that sounds like them. I can't think of any who write and play the same way they do. They bring something unique to an old sound, which is how to properly do nostalgia. You prime the pump with something familiar, but quench us with something new.

I suppose we could talk about the effects of the #MeToo movement on bands, but I'd rather stay on less depressing subjects. So instead I'll ask, has anything about 2018 been truly memorable? That's a question I'm struggling with.

D.M: You know, can we step back a second and examine something?  It struck me when you started talking about the Foo Fighters and U2 and others massive rock bands who may never again strike at the popularity they used to enjoy.  (Real quick, let me add Muse and maybe *shrug* Coldplay to your list of uber-popular current mainstream rock bands.  Also, if they ever came back again, which looks increasingly unlikely, The White Stripes.)

That’s when it hit me.  How do we explain Radiohead?  I’ve never been a fan, but I have to admit, they are a phenomenon, and they still seem to be able to sell out any arena they want on any given night in any city on earth.  I thought their star had faded when it seems like their hiatus would be ongoing, but then a couple years ago, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” and bam!  They’re selling out three nights at MSG again.

I’ve never been able to figure out how they do it.  The band has little in the way of a public promotional vehicle, has enjoyed virtually no radio play outside of college campuses, and doesn’t make a ton of statements or public appearances.  Somehow, for twenty years, they’ve probably been one of the top six or seven rock acts in the world, and the average person on the street might be only dimly aware of them.  I don’t get it.  They’re clearly the outlier, but how did they even get to that point?

In answer to what you say about Ghost though, I would argue they’ve already attained the level you’re talking about.  Or at the very least, they don’t have far to go.  Outside of obtuse metal fans who refuse to enjoy the band on some point of twisted principle, I think they’ve already reached several market segments that a common popular metal band can’t boast.

Which begs the question…deep breath…is Ghost a metal band?  And listen, let me add that it doesn’t really matter if they are or aren’t, and I don’t especially care, but we live in a society of classification and neat genre definitions, and it’s a fun conversation.

I do remember Jet!  I saw them live in concert, twice!  I also remember Airbourne.  They’ve carved out a decent career for themselves, but never gotten out of the shadow of being, to your point, a younger AC/DC.

Totally with you on GVF – every time I hear them, I think to myself ‘but I already own “Physical Graffiti.”

And yes, while we love Graveyard and Iron Maiden for different reasons, let’s have a moment of solidarity!  We both agree that Anthrax should have stuck with John Bush.  Or at the very, dead least, should acknowledge that John Bush happened.  It’s an ongoing shame!

The worst thing that ever happened to Slayer (okay, second worst thing – I assume Hanneman’s passing was the worst thing,) is that they let Kerry King start writing the majority of the songs, both lyrically and musically.  (This comes with a giant ‘but’ – King also wrote the music and lyrics for “Temptation,” which I personally think is the best song Slayer ever wrote.)  King didn’t, and doesn’t, have the nuance, if it can be called that, that makes up the best Slayer songs.  Everything he writes is damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead, with no room for great riffs or breathing space, which is numbing after a while.  And, as you pointed out, he’s a…subpar…lyricist.  The cruelest joke of all of this is that Slayer wasn’t even nominated for a single Grammy until after King takes over the lion’s share of the writing duties.  What are we doing?

Listen, it’s not just you.  We’re all products of our high school self, right?  We can grow and change, and I’m certainly not the same person I was then in many ways, but when I pop in Soundgarden’s “Superunknown,” it rings certain bells that no matter how dusty they get, remain part of my mental firmament.  And there’s no question that that colors how I view the music I hear now.

Somebody recently read me a statistic (for whatever that’s worth,) that said that most people stop aggregating new music after they turn thirty-five.  While that’s less than two weeks away for me (I won’t be able to check the ‘18-34’ box anymore, which means I’ve officially hit the age where advertising agencies no longer care about me,) I’d like to think that I’ll keep collecting and finding new avenues that I enjoy.  But I can’t lie – I feel like I have a pretty solid musical identity at this point, and the things I enjoy in the future will most likely fit within my already established paradigm.

Which dovetails into your larger point.  There’s plenty of bands I’ve heard this year who show some promise, but I ultimately shrug and resolve myself to the fact that I’ve heard it before, somewhere else, probably better.  Black Sabbath clones are the most obvious example in my line of musical ingest, but there are an awful lot of Deep Purples and would-be Overkills and stuff I feel like I already know.

2018 has been notable for me in a couple areas – first and saddest, it saw the release of another mediocre album by The Sword.  Stop it.  Please.  Listen, I can’t tell them what to do and how to express themselves as artists, but I can tell them that they’re more talented that what they’ve chosen to do.

Second, not that any of these bands have necessarily blown my socks off or anything, but I have heard a very scant handful of acts dip their toe into the shallowest edges of the rap metal pool.  Which had been so summarily polluted during its heyday that it was declared a brownfield and left for figurative dead.  I am happy to see it has healed a little, just enough to be interesting, because while rap metal became the most annoying genre you can imagine, it also gave us Rage Against the Machine, and so while it may never come to prominence again, so long as the bad memories persist, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t experiment a little to see what the fringes look like.  I’m into it.


CHRIS C: The way I want to explain Radiohead is rather disrespectful, both to the band and their fans, so I'll try to soften what I'm thinking. The thrust of it is that Radiohead is to rock what Phish is to whatever genre they play. Radiohead's trippy electronics and emphasis on doodly atmosphere is the perfect setting for listening while high. Certainly, I have never listened to a Radiohead song and come away with a firm memory in my mind. The other aspect would be that "OK Computer" was far better at expanding out beyond the confines of rock than I had ever expected. I would venture there are a fair number of Radiohead fans who don't actually like rock, and don't listen to any other rock bands. In that way, what they've done is genius, even if I don't care at all about it.

Is Ghost a metal band? No, they aren't, and I don't think they ever were. Even on their first album, they were only taking cues from proto-metal. They never had the heaviness of a 'real' metal band, and they have always loved their sing-along melodies more than most self-respecting metal fans would be able to handle. From day one, I've thought they were a rock band. That puts them nicely into the category with people like Alice Cooper, with whom they obviously share roots. "Meliroa" had its heavy moments, but even that record lacked the aggression of metal. There are hints at metal in their sound, but that's about it.

That does bring up the question of what exactly metal is. Over the years, as metal has expanded into heavier and heavier areas, has the window of acceptably metal metal moved that way in tandem? Are the fringe metal bands of the past now explicitly rock bands today? Maybe in 1979 Ghost would have been a metal band, but not today. That leads us into why Eddie Trunk is a moron, since he doesn't understand why so many metal musicians and fans love Ghost. The answer is simple; metal fans can like things that aren't metal, you twit!

My commentary is from someone who has extremely limited stake as a listener, but Anthrax has ceased to be a credible recording unit since John Bush got shown the door. They might be selling more concert tickets with fans who still wish they were as thin and had as much hair as they did in the 80s, Anthrax has been so calculating in the machinations that they've rendered their own career a business decision. I don't know how to listen to their natural evolution, followed by the immediate snap back to the past as though the 90s never existed, as anything other than a cynical ploy to make money. We know the music they're making right now isn't the music they'd be making if Bush had remained with them. It's hard to then take them seriously. They're literally just giving us what they think we want. While music is both art and business, I prefer it when the art at least gets to pretend to matter more.

I think you're half right. Kerry taking the reigns of Slayer was surely a bad thing, but their fall began with "Diabolous In Musica", which was almost all Jeff's baby. The problem they had was once they reached a certain level of success, they went their separate ways. It happens all the time, most famously with Lennon and McCartney. Instead of banging out songs together, they were writing everything at home, even admitting they rarely spoke when there wasn't band business to attend to. Neither one of them had the sounding board to wipe the shit off their songs, so Slayer became two different bands that shared a singer and space on albums. Being able to so obviously tell whose songs were whose never struck me as a good thing. The one thing that would have saved Slayer is if Tom had been more assertive. If he took leadership, and served as an editor for both of the others, I think we would have gotten albums that hung together better, and that didn't insult our intelligence the same way.

I'm not far behind in joining you outside the target ad demo. I would like to think I'm far from the end of my time searching and discovering new music. I get many of the same feelings you do, where everything feels tired and done before, and those stretches of time are tough. I've grown tired of trying to find new ways to describe the music of Generic Band #512. But then there will occasionally be that one thing that is just unique enough, or just flat out great at something established, to make it all worthwhile. I have the kind of mindset that will hate myself if I know that gem is out there and I missed it. A bit of OCD will probably keep me going even after I feel my shelves have enough music I love on them.

There's a side-effect of this job. Because of how much new music there is to sort through, and how often a new release needs to be listened to to really sink in as a favorite, there never seems to be time to go back and listen to all the great records from before. I hate realizing how long it's been since I've spun some of my favorites, but there's only so much time in the day.

As for me, there has really only been one thing of note; there is an absolute leader now for my favorite 'new' band. That would happen to be The Spider Accomplice, who released the third and final installment of their concept record, "Los Angeles" recently. What I love about them isn't just that they make great alternative/pop/rock, it's that each release has given us something new and different, while still sounding like them. When we keep talking about bands rehashing and rehashing, this is precisely the antidote to that. All three of their EPs are great in their own way. Most bands don't take long to disappoint me in some fashion, so getting three releases in where I'm still raving means something big is going on. As I mentioned to you before, I'm the sort of person for whom it's rare for me to find a band where I like more than one or two of their releases passionately. So me saying this already about this group is impressive.

Ok, I'm slightly lying. There is one other thing of note. I firmly believe that as of now, Machine Head is a shoo-in for the worst record of the year. If I can drop the pretense of being fair for a moment, I'll describe it as a garbage big filled with dirty diapers that were left in a compost pile during a sunny heat wave.

Care to top that?

D.M: What strikes me as the most odd in your assertion of Eddie Trunk's idiocy is that he is (or was) the most vocal proponent of Greta Van Fleet, so he's clearly maintaining a double standard in the 'old is new again' department.

Speaking of, not to drag the conversation back to GVF, but I just had a sobering thought: do they even need to release an album?  Could we be seeing the advent of a new business model, where bands only release a new single every three to four months?  I don't mean to assume or insult, but they hardly seem like the kind of band who's going to release the next great concept album, so why would they release a whole bunch of music at once?  As much as a trickle of single releases sounds like anathema to me, I can see some obvious advantages.  How often, as music reviewers, have we said "there are good singles, but the album as a whole isn't that great"?  If you're a band, why not concentrate on making one song at a time great, and then generate additional buzz by releasing them over time?  Oh man.  I hope I haven't just given someone an idea.

The question of the moving metal goalpost is an interesting one, because you're right, Ghost may not be a metal band (and no one is saying they need to be,) and yet they would have easily crossed that threshold back in the day.  I find that gratifying in that clearly we've at least reached a point where 'metal' is determined based on sound rather than something as subjective as content.  By that I mean that Ghost, as a band whose act is based around demonic imagery, would have been branded as the scariest metal band on Earth just by their mere being, where now their sound excludes them from that same group (to some.)  But, the caveat here, as it always is, is the force of nostalgia.  I was listening to the first Danzig record the other day, which is widely regarded as part of the bible of metal (contradictory though that term sounds,) and really, it's not a metal album by the modern definition.  Neither are any of Ozzy's early works, and some luminaries like Judas Priest's "British Steel" might not be, either.  Yet, because they were metal 'then,' they are metal 'now,' solely because we want to remember them that way.

I also have difficulty with the concept of defining what metal is, because by its very nature, metal is meant to rebellious, and therefore should be resistant to classification in the first place.  There comes a reflexive point where to not be metal might be the most metal thing of all.  And therefore, maybe Ghost is metal after all?

I can only offer this, and it's a lame cop-out, I admit.  I know metal when I hear it.

See, what you bring up in reference to the drive to find new music is something I think about a lot.  I also don't like to feel like I'm being left in the lurch, and I also tire of the slog of saying the same thing over and over again, but like you, sometimes somebody is just new enough, or just different enough.  As I reflect on two of my favorite bands of the moment, they reflect each side of this dichotomy - Destrage is something new, a whole new universe of sound and musical blending that I've never experienced to such an accomplished degree before.  Graveyard is something old made new again.  So I am both in and out of my comfort zone.

I hate to admit this, because it makes me sound incredibly lazy, but I didn't even listen to Machine Head's album.  I have long since written them off as a band who 'I know what they sound like.'  I apparently should be glad I missed it.

Sigh, I can't top what you've put down, only because it means fifteen more minutes of me scratching my head and crying about The Sword.  Nobody wants that.

What's got you excited for the second half of the year?

CHRIS C: What you're suggesting has already started to happen, and it makes me sad. There are many bands out there now who have already scrapped albums in favor of EPs, and soon will scrap EPs in favor of singles. There is nothing wrong with singles, or EPs (I've liked many of them recently quite a lot), but I do come from the old school that appreciates being able to sit down and listen to a band for a solid length of time when I'm in the mood to hear them. Plus, it saddens me if there are great singles that never get included in a larger release, because they tend to slip out of the consciousness more easily. I'm probably too analog for the currently digital world, however.

My bigger issue with the practice is how it doesn't make sense if a band wants to grow, and pursue music as a career. It's difficult to have the conversation telling someone about a great new band you've found, and you can only point them to two songs that exist. Or, you have a band like Greta Van Fleet who can be headlining tours, but they barely have half an hour of original music to their name. How are they supposed to give a show that isn't a rip-off if they don't have enough music to fill the set?

Maybe I'm weird, but if I have forty-five minutes or so to sit down and listen to music, I almost exclusively want to listen to one band and one style over that time. I don't want to have to sort through a list of thousands of songs and dart between a hundred different styles. I don't find that enjoyable. While there is something to be said for releasing only as much music as you can make great, I would also say it's harder to love a band if you are only getting fun-sized pieces from them. As much as we rag on Springsteen (got it in!), he's written a few great songs. If he had only released singles, and they were the ones, I could be led to think he's amazing, when in fact I actually don't care for 90% or more of everything he's ever done. It can distort our perception.

You're totally right about those Danzig records. They aren't metal at all, according to today's thought. I would say that the first Black Sabbath album, despite its status as the beginning, probably isn't one either. It's confusing to look back at metal's history and have to do this kind of retroactive brain surgery. We can hold two records in our hands that are nearly identical, and because one was made three decades earlier, they wind up on either side of the metal debate. It's stupid, but I don't feel anyone has the desire (or the courage, for that matter) to go back and re-categorize all of those albums. Who wants to say Metallica was really only a thrash band for one album? Or that Priest has gone back and forth from rock to metal and back a few times?

I'm actually more comfortable with Ghost being a rock band than a metal one, because not having the weight of metal's expectations on them allows the music to take in new influences all the time. They're getting away with "Dance Macabre" (which I think it awesome, by the way) because it's a dancy rock song from a rock band. If they were truly a metal band, people would be shouting "heresy!" That would be ludicrous, but metal fans can often be a small-minded lot.

I don't blame you. Machine Head has had more than enough chances to show us they're something other than trend-chasing has-beens. I only gave them the time of day because I heard rumors of how bad it was going to be, and I'm often curious about train wrecks. I think if there's one person in the metal world who is a complete and utter poser, it's Robb Flynn. His entire career seems to be one long attempt to not be one album behind whatever's popular at the moment.

As for the rest of the year, I'm not sure if the news just slips out of my mind because of the pace of life, but I can't think of much I'm 'excited' about. I'm always interested to hear what Halestorm is up to, even if I think they've completely lost their way. There are supposed to be new albums from Forever Still and Jasmine Cain on the way that are following up records I really liked. And there are a couple of progressive metal albums coming from Redemption and Seventh Wonder that could be very good. Otherwise, I'm in wait-and-see mode until next year, when we get new Avantasia music. Oh, and Tool too, but I don't care very much about that.

What does your crystal ball show?

D.M: You know, I'm loathe to even bring this up, but while we sit here and ruminate on why Ghost may or may not get acceptance from the metal commuity at large (not that they need it, as we've determined,) it strikes me that I don't remember any acrimony of this magnitude over HIM.  Now, there's a bunch of mitigating factors there, not the least of which is that HIM a) sucks, and b) appealed to, I think, young women, as opposed to Ghost's broader audience (and there's nothing wrong with appealing to young women, it works for HIM, it's just a difference.)  Even so though, I don't remember anyone in particular complaining about HIM's brand of metal - so-called 'Love Metal' - at least not to the degree that Ghost receives criticism.  What am I missing here?  Did I just block out a whole conversation that happened eight years ago?  Or did not enough people give a crap about HIM?  Secondarily, the heartagram was everywhere for a couple years, is it even possible that Ville Valo helped ready the world for Ghost?  I shudder to even type that.

As for my crystal ball, some enticing options in the nearish future.  Children of Bodom and Powerwolf both have upcoming records.  I'm always a little cautious with CoB because they do have a couple duds in their history, but they also released "Relentless, Reckless Forever," which is a personal top ten album for me all time.  Powerwolf tends to deliver a consistent product, so less suspense there, but that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to it.  As a matter of fact, they may be the only power metal band that really holds my attention these days - I find the genre has stagnated.

As ever, I continue my campaign for the release of the last Blackguard album, "Storm," but that's here more as a token than as a legit wish.  Hope always springs eternal that I will find some new, hidden gem out in the ether, and the early summer has had several promising releases so far.

And I actually have a bunch of good concerts coming up this summer, including but not limited to Arch Enemy, Red Fang and Life of Agony, so a full summer lies ahead!

That's all I got, take us home.

CHRIS C: I think the difference between HIM and Ghost is that while they are/were both bands that blended dark imagery with pop melodies, HIM's success was mostly exclusive to the mainstream. They were big at their height (I remember hearing "Wings Of A Butterfly" all the time), but you didn't have members of Metallica and the like participating in their videos, and taking them on tour. For whatever reason, Ghost has more of a foothold with purely metal people than other more melodic bands ever have. It's probably because the imagery gives them an excuse to claim they aren't being 'weak' or 'soft'. That line of thinking is absurd, but let's not kid ourselves. The kinds of people who think carving Slayer's name into their flesh is a good idea are never going to admit they like other kinds of music.

That's precisely why I've never called myself a metalhead. It's a loaded term.

With all of that being said, we've reached the end of another one of these conversations. I think what we've proven is that there is an intellectual level at which this music exists, even if the artists don't know it. Music isn't simply a series of pleasant sounding notes our brain glitches and gets stuck with. Music is a reflection of culture and humanity, for better and for worse. At least this time, it seems the first half of 2018 has given us a bit more of the former than the latter.

Onward to the second half of the year!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Album Review: City Of The Weak - Pulling Teeth

We all have our weaknesses. For me, one of them is certainly pop/rock bands with female singers. Maybe I'm getting soft as I get older, or maybe I'm just sick to death of guys barking like morons when they should be singing, but several of my favorite albums in recent years fit this mold, and I'm always prone to giving a chance to anyone who can be the next one in the line. There are several more such releases on schedule for later this year, so City Of The Weak serves as a sort of prequel to those records. But that isn't to discount their chances.

The album starts off with "Like I Do", where we get some staccato pop/punk riffing through the verses, followed by a chorus that brings a lovely melody. Stef's voice is a touch lower, and definitely less piercing than many of the women I hear in these bands. It sets the band apart a bit, and it also makes the music sound a hair darker, both of which are good things. It's easy for this style to push too hard, to become a bit too bright, where it loses some of the teeth that makes it the perfect combination. City Of The Weak stays on the right side of that line, without fail.

Later, on "Glad You Could Make It", the band gets heavier as they throw in a couple of slick guitar riffs that border on being metal. They're still tempered by a bouncing chorus that roots the song in accessibility, which is exactly what they should be doing. Making a song catchy is one of the hardest things a songwriter can do, and it often gets a bad reputation from rock and metal fans who don't understand the entire point of writing music is for people to remember it. Otherwise, why bother?

"Not This Time" is the first single, sitting in the middle of the record, and it might be the quintessential song here. Chugging guitars give the verses heft, and the chorus has Stef soaring more than any of the other tracks. Her melodies are melodic and catchy, but come with a slight undertone of melancholy, which I love. It's a bit more subtle, and not smashing you in the face. You can try so hard to be pop that it loses its effectiveness. That is not the case here at all.

The whole of this record is highly engaging pop/rock that does what this kinds of music is supposed to. It's lively, it's catchy, and it's a soundtrack for a good time. The only complaint I have is that the record is only 31 minutes, including a two minute instrumental. It would have been better with an extra song or two to give us more time together, but what is here is certainly good enough. I may be biased toward enjoying this style more than many, but "Pulling Teeth" is a good record regardless of that. This record came as a surprise, and it's a welcome one.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Album Review: The Sea Within - The Sea Within

These days, it seems that all genres are cannibalistic, but prog perhaps more than any other. The small group of people who love to play it get together in new combinations of the same faces all the time, producing music that ironically begins to sound the same because of the sheer volume of it. The Sea Within is a new such group, combining Roine Stolt and Jonas Reingold of The Flower Kings with Marco Minnemann (who has played with nearly everyone), and Daniel Gildenlow from Pain Of Salvation. Given Daniel's stint as the fifth member of Transatlantic on stage, one wonders if this project is an attempt to recreate that band's success.

What I find interesting about The Sea Within is that for being a prog ensemble, they have actually given us an album that is much more concise and song-oriented than might have been expected. Only one of the tracks across these seventy-seven minutes hits the ten minute mark. While the music might take detours of style, the songs stay focused to a startling degree.

"Ashes Of Dawn" would be a straight-forward rocker with a Flower Kings flavor, if not for the saxophone solo that gives the middle eight a dose of jazz feeling. It's those unexpected details that give most of the prog weight to this record. Given how many double albums and twenty minute epics these guys have written over the years, writing a record like this might have been the best way to challenge themselves.

Given how much I disliked the most recent Pain Of Salvation record, I was wary of what influence Gildenlow would bring to this group. For the most part, The Sea Within sounds like The Flower Kings, but with the added heaviness of someone more in tune with progressive metal. It is not that heavy by any means, but the sound is a bit deeper and darker than Roine's usual tones. That works in the band's favor, giving them an identity beyond everyone's histories.

The group I would most compare The Sea Within to is actually Flying Colors. Between Gildenlow's vocal similarities, and having prog musicians largely playing in constrained structures, there is a lot tying the two together. The Sea Within is more prog, obviously, with a looser jazz improvisational feeling to much of their music. To me, it sounds like the band had the basic melodic ideas locked in, then went into the studio and jammed their way to a complete song. That approach can keep things fresh, can lead to interesting detours, but it can also be indulgent in a way that the music is more appealing to the players than the audience. Prog often encounters that issue.

However, while I am by no means the world's biggest prog fan (despite holding Transatlantic in extremely high esteem), The Sea Within rarely takes things too far for me. That means they might disappoint more devoted fans of prog, but I quite enjoy hearing them ride the knife's edge between commercial and artistic. It's more exciting, and adventurous, than making another prog album of giant epics. They could do that in their sleep.

"The Sea Within" is an album I would classify as 'Dave Matthews Prog'. There's a lot of great playing, and plenty of interesting developments, but the whole thing is a bit too slow and somber to work as well as it should. The album doesn't quite get things firing on all cylinders at any point. The music is lovely, and the sound is engaging, but there's a lack of energy that makes the full running time a bit much. I can see why the band members would have enjoyed themselves in the studio making this record, but it's music for the musicians, and that is what I most feared.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My Favorite Songs: Dilana's "Falling Apart"

The red light bled, the digital image fuzzy as the camera was overwhelmed by the scene it was trying to capture. The audio was distorted, the band louder than the microphone could handle. In the days before everyone had studio-level equipment in their pocket, having any footage of a live show was a treat, regardless of the quality. And when that footage revealed the first blossoms of new music from someone you were obsessed with, it didn't matter how many of the details you could make out. To take the words from one of my heroes; "Every moment [came] like a gift from the gods. Someone must have blessed us when they gave us those songs."

I can vividly remember the first time I watched that grainy video of Dilana performing her newest song. I had fallen in love with her voice through the corporate machine, but what I was waiting for was something honest, something truly from her. In those days, music didn't seep from every corner of the world the way it does now, and finding out what was in the pipeline required work. Seeing the title of the video pop up in the list of new uploads caught my eye, and sent me on a journey.

Dilana introduced the new song, and after a few seconds of being charmed by her accent, the band kicked in and began playing "Falling Apart".

Immediately, there was power in the music that crashed over me. Rock music is usually loud, but only in rare cases does it feel like a weight coming down on your chest. That kind of impact is hard to make, and though the sketch was rough, I could feel that from the very first. I watched that video countless times, waiting for the day I would be able to properly hear this song.

That day eventually came, when "InsideOut" escaped legal purgatory and made its way into the world. I listened with a focused mind to everything, but waited impatiently for that one song to begin. When it did, the pressure in my chest tightened, and I could feel the song speaking to me.

"I'm so bloody fucked up, I don't know where to start
 Sick of hurting, I'm not falling in love, I'm falling apart"

I was trying to find my way, and figure myself out when I first heard the song, and those words connected with me. I could sympathize with being broken, and not knowing what to do about it. I wouldn't fall into that cliche of saying I felt as though the song was written for me, but I understood I was on the same wavelength, which was enough of a thread to hang on to.

Despite the lyrics, the song was not a message of self-defeat. The raging guitars and the roaring organ were a statement of defiance, a call for all the fucked up people to stand up and claim their status, to be proud and empowered of being self-aware enough to understood how we were broken. Everyone is, but not all admit it.

Through the years, the song would continue to grow on me, slowly becoming more and more a part of my unconscious. Later, when Dilana's next album was delivered, there was that old friend again, starting at me on the track listing. I asked myself how it could ever be improved on, how it could resonate more than the original recording.

What I didn't realize is how songs change with us over time. What was once a song about being unrepentant had evolved into something far more emotional. Stripped-down to an acoustic guitar and her voice, Dilana delivered a searing song that dug deeper, ripping at the wires keeping a heart beating. Now, with a few years more age and experience, the same words were a eulogy for the past, for the people we were, as we strive to grow and improve. Those words about falling apart were resigned, an acknowledgment that we are far from finished products. As people, there is no way to put the puzzle together.

Being able to hear the same song from two different perspectives, and have both of them remain vitally important, is something I can't recall ever happening before. I've heard plenty of rock songs be played in an acoustic setting, but it is always a changing of the window dressing, and never the view. What Dilana did was something special, being able to use the delivery to mold the message. While a recording may be a snapshot in time, a song is forever. "Falling Apart" endures within me because of that, and the lessons I have learned from it are why I consider it to be my absolute favorite song.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Album Review: Tad Morose - Chapter X

Some bands are able to flourish after a change in their lineup. New blood can give new life to a group, if they find the right way of refocusing themselves... and if the member or members who left weren't the reason the band succeeded in the first place. Tad Morose is one of those unfortunate groups who fall into that last category. Urban Breed was not just their singer, but he was their driving force, the key that made them work. Since he left years ago, the band has been floundering, and despite having a solid lineup now, they haven't come close to capturing any of the spark their best records had. They are pale shadows of themselves, as evidenced by the massive creativity of the title of their tenth album; "Chapter X".

This time around, Tad Morose is going for the philosophy that more is always better. This album spans fourteen tracks, extending well beyond where most albums do today. I've found myself drawn less and less to lengthy albums recently, and this many tracks is a daunting prospect.

"Apocalypse" leads things off with chunky riffing, a hint of prog to the guitar runs, and a sound that captures the Tad Morose spirit. Ronny Hemlin does a fine job delivering his vocals, but much like their last album, the band falters when it comes to delivering the big melodies Urban used to give them. Layering the chorus with some deep, slightly harsh vocals, didn't help to make the song feel melodic. It made the recording sound dirty, which couldn't have been what they were going for.

That is the predominant take-away from this album. The band is able to sound like themselves from the glory days, as their style of power metal was always dark but very safe. Writing riffs that fit in with their old style is easy, but what is always hard is crafting hooks. If it was easy, every band would be putting out earworms all the time. Tad Morose is trying hard here, but they just don't have the songs behind them to make a great album, let alone one that lasts this long.

There isn't anything about "Chapter X" that is bad. The band is perfectly solid at what they do, but what they do isn't exciting either. There aren't enough hooks, and there isn't enough energy in the music. They have never been the fastest band, but so many of these songs chug along at moderate paces without building up to a grand reveal. It comes across sounding a bit flat and tired. I said many of these same things about the previous album, which makes it disappointing to see they have carried on doing exactly the same thing here.

I'm sure there are die-hard fans of Tad Morose who will enjoy this, since it does still sound undeniably like them, but there are so many other bands who are writing better songs right now that I can't say their trademark sound is enough for me.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Album Review: Velvet Viper - Respice Finem

We know nothing, and should always keep that in mind. No matter how much music we listen to, there is always going to be far more we have never heard. Today's experience in humility comes in the form of Velvet Viper, a band that has been around twenty-five years, and whom I had never heard of before sitting down with this album. It goes to show how much luck is involved in any group ever breaking through the noise, since reaching the people who would love your music is a bit like throwing darts in the dark.

Velvet Viper trades in a style of heavy metal that is part traditional, part dramatic, and with a hint of prog. "Shadow Ryche" captures their sound, with a riff that climbs like a spider, a bit of influence from the namesake of the title's spelling, and a chorus with big choirs that drips with dramatic effect. That's when the band is at their best, using the allure of something bigger to heighten their own abilities. The same thing happens in the ten-minute title track. There are sections of basic metal, but there are moments when the choirs kick in that elevate things greatly.

The thing about what Velvet Viper is doing is that this album is a nostalgia bomb, sounding like it was plucked out of 1987. Everything from the guitar tones to the writing style is purely of that era, which means that older metal fans are going to get a kick out of the fist-pumping tracks the band has in store for us. Younger fans who weren't listening to metal in the 80s, like me, will get less out of the experience. I can certainly appreciate what that music had to offer, but having grown up with a different style, it doesn't speak to me the same way it will the generation before me.

For what they're doing, Velvet Viper is good at it. There is much to like about this album, from the perspective of traditional heavy metal. "Respice Finem" is a bit slower, but it sounds quite a bit like classic Queensryche, which means it will appeal to plenty of people. Myself, I've never seen what was so great about them, but that's probably because I think Geoff Tate has always sounded like he inhaled too much helium.

Nevertheless, while Velvet Viper isn't exactly my style, it's a good album that I can recognize for what it is. Sure, there are nits to pick, but let's not dwell on that. "Respice Finem" does a good job of reminding us what the old days of heavy metal were like, and keeping perspective is always important.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Album Review: TNT - XIII

I'm not old enough to remember when TNT was a relevant rock band, so all I know of them is the drama surrounding their revolving door singer's perch. Tony Harnell has come and gone more times than I can count, and along the way they have squandered whatever good will they might have once had by not delivering new music, and offering mediocre music on the rare occasions they did. At a certain point, when things become so difficult just to exist, it needs to be asked whether there is really a point in continuing on. I don't see anyone clamoring for TNT to keep going, and I don't hear any buzz in advance of this latest attempt at hitting the reset button.

The record was teased with the single "Get Ready For Some Hard Rock", which came across as more of a warning than they intended. It was a disappointing song, sounding cheap and unfinished, and not at all like the hard rock we were expecting. If that was a signal of what was to come, we should tread carefully.

And indeed, this TNT record is not at all what I would have expected from them. Instead of playing classic hard rock, or melodic rock, this album finds them sounding more like a modern pop/rock band, but without the catchy hooks that can sometimes make that style bearable. Instead, what we get is a lifeless attempt at sounding relevant, with songs heavy on drum grooves, and guitars that sound like practice amps that screech when trying to play anything heavy. These tracks have no energy, no guts, and no hooks. Instead of a band that's been around for decades, this album sounds like a local band's first effort in a real studio.

What I find most amazing is that TNT is a band with a long history, and some degree of success that should carry them beyond this simply by muscle memory. Veterans who have been around the block enough times might not have the most creative spark anymore, but they have written enough songs to know what does and doesn't work. That makes the decisions on this record even harder to understand. It actually falls much in line with Quiet Riot's album from last year, where you have people with enough name and reputation to be able to bring in whatever help it takes to make a quality album, but they can't see themselves honestly anymore.

The sense I get from listening to this album is that the turmoil within the band's lineup very possibly boils down to a split on the direction to go. I can see why some with a hard rock pedigree would want nothing to do with this watered-down sound, and for Tony Harnell especially, as he can be working right now on a new Starbreaker album, which is an infinitely better option for him.

The redeeming thing about "XIII" is that there are worse records that have been put out recently by bands of similar vintage. There isn't much positive to say, but it's still a more professional sounding record than Quiet Riot put out, and it's still a better record than LA Guns released. They haven't fallen quite as hard as those bands, but there isn't much to be said in TNT's favor. This record is necessary to show the band isn't folding in the face of their problems, but this record is a problem unto itself. I wouldn't consider it a good enough album from a brand new rock band just getting their feet under them, but for a veteran group, it's inexcusable.

Triskaidekaphobia applies here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Album Review: Sunstorm - Road To Hell

It hasn't been the best few years for Joe Lynn Turner. He wasn't called upon to front the resurrected Rainbow, and not long ago he suffered a heart attack that has put him on the sidelines. Before that happened, however, he recorded this new album with his Sunstorm project. What started out as AOR took on a decidedly heavier tone with their previous album, the very good "Edge Of Tomorrow". That album found Sunstorm coming out of the gates as a heavy melodic rock band, and gave Turner some of the most muscular music he's had to sing in many a year. I've revisited that album several times since it came out, so I was very much looking forward to hearing what they would do as a follow up.

While many of Turner's contemporaries have either retired, or now sound like shadows of themselves (*cough*Graham Bonnet*cough*), his voice (at the time of recording) was still as strong as ever. On this record, he doesn't sound anything approaching his age. The style of music might be tilted more towards his generation than the kind of melodic rock being made by the younger crowd, but he gives them a run for their money in terms of pure ability.

If you heard "Edge Of Tomorrow", you know what to expect from this album, as they fit together like facing pages in a book. If it isn't broke, don't fix it. Sunstorm was just hitting their stride, so there was no reason to mix things up just for the sake of doing something different. The whole appeal of AOR-style melodic rock is to get a dose of a certain strain of music. Sunstorm definitely delivers that here.

There's two kinds of melodic rock; the pop-influenced, and the more traditional form. Sunstorm is the latter. Turner is melodic throughout, as are the guitar harmonies, but there's nary a hint of pop to the choruses. They rely on Turner's smooth voice to gently push the melodies. What that means is the album is lovely to listen to, but requires repeated listens before you start really grabbing the hooks. This isn't an immediate album that will hit you over the head with the catchy bits, and hope you pick up on the rest of the details. What we get is more balanced, more nuanced, and frankly an album that needs you to invest some time in it.

That's the biggest difference between these two most recent Sunstorm albums. "Edge Of Tomorrow" had more of that immediate impact. There were a few more riffs and melodies that stuck on the first listen, and made it necessary to keep going back. "Road To Hell" is of the same quality, but has fewer bright colors waving at you in the breeze. What I think that does is establish the relationship as "Edge Of Tomorrow" being the big brother, and "Road To Hell" being the younger brother who won't be given the same amount of attention.

That's not a slight. "Edge Of Tomorrow" was a great record for its style. I get enough music thrown at me that it's hard for anything that wasn't immediately a favorite to endure after its cycle is over. That record did. It's only because of that I would say it's the better of the two. "Road To Hell" is nearly as good a record, and certainly delivers plenty of very good melodic rock of the classic kind. Turner sounds great, and the songs are good. What more can you ask?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Album Review: Trillium - Tectonic

If you've been following melodic metal for the last decade, you know who Amanda Somerville is. Between her guest appearances on numerous albums, her role as Tobias Sammet's live sidekick on Avantasia tours, and her collaborative albums with Michael Kiske, she has been seemingly everywhere. Even if you don't think you know her, you do. That makes it a bit odd that in all that time, she has only one metal album to her own name. Trillium's first album, "Alloy", was a darkly beautiful album that fused melody and drama, and served as a showcase for Amanda's standout vocals. Seven years after that album, and after much life got in the way, Trillium is back (with a slightly altered name) to continue reminding us of Amanda's underrated talents.

There are a lot of women in metal today (a great thing to see), and a large number of them have classical training. But even among that group, Amanda is unique, and doesn't sound much like any of them. That could make her a bit more of an acquired taste, but I for one have long been a fan of her less fragile delivery.

This time around, Amanda and Sander Gommans give us an album of dark, dramatic, heavy melodic metal that sounds exactly like Trillium. When "Stand Up" introduces some orchestral decorations, there's a natural echo of last year's album from The Dark Element, but with enough of a twist to make sure this is no copy of anyone else. By the power and charisma of her voice alone, nothing Amanda does can sound like anything but her.

Then there are the two singles you might have heard already, "Time To Shine" and "Shards", which hit the sweet spot of having enough metallic heft in the riffs, while still boasting big, muscular melodies that give ample room for Amanda's vocal power to shine. Pardon the pun.

And we get "Full Speed Ahead", which charges forward with a thick, deep riff that is heavier than what you would expect from a melodic album. At many points on the album, during verses, the album's sound is ethereal, like a fog slowly creeping over a lake under the glow of a full moon. It's beautiful, but in that way that makes your hair stand on end. You can't look away, but you know something might be lurking just beyond the scope of your vision.

Over the course of the album, the pair delivers music that is almost a musical theater version of where melodic metal is today. There's enough heightened drama, and skyscraper moments, to make the comparison work. Yes, Broadway would never dream of being so heavy, but the writing is not without similarities. There's a long history of this, going all the way back to Jim Steinman turning his stage musical into "Bat Out Of Hell". Great music needs to make a connection with the listener, and mining drama is one way to gather the fairy dust needed to sprinkle over a set of songs.

The only downside to this album is it lacks that one giant song that demands to be remembered as a classic, the way Amanda's duet with Jorn, "Scream It", did on the first Trillium album. But reaching that height is a rarity for anyone, so it's by no means a demerit that song still stands above all else.

"Tectonic" took a long time to be brought to life, but the wait was worth it. Seven years ago I was hugely fond of "Alloy", and while this album is a different beast entirely, it makes the same case for Trillium's importance. Amanda Somerville has a different perspective on melodic metal, and being able to see the same thing from different angles is a vital skill. "Tectonic" isn't just an album of striking and haunting songs, it shifts our understanding of what melodic metal can be ever so slightly. Having your eyes and ears opened is enlightening, and that can be even more important than music.

Don't sleep on Trillium.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Album Review: Refuge - Solitary Men

At a certain point, following a band's history can be a bit absurd. Rage has been around for decades, and has undergone numerous lineup changes, but they were always Rage. Now, however, the mastermind of the band has teamed up with some former members to form.... a band that isn't Rage. Refuge is the rebirth of the 'classic' Rage lineup, together for the first time in over two decades, which now puts Rage in rarefied air. While bands like LA Guns and Queensryche have had competing versions feuding over a name, this is the same person (Peavy Wagner) essentially having two versions of his own band. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but this is heavy metal, so what ever does?

I missed out on covering the latest Rage album, mostly because Rage has made so many albums that stick in their comfortable wheelhouse that there isn't much to say about them anymore. Rage albums are Rage albums, and if you like one you're bound to like them all to some degree. That's the same case here. Refuge is a new name on the same product, and the music we get is the same Rage-style heavy metal that the fans will certainly enjoy what they hear, even if the rest of us wonder exactly what the point behind all of this is.

Refuge came to life as a result of a surprise reunion show the members played. If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that fans rarely want to hear new material from old bands. There's a reason why new material is often joked about as being the 'bathroom break' during a concert. So I'm not sure why there was a market for new material from a nostalgia act that hadn't even run its course as such. If Refuge goes back out to play more gigs, these songs aren't what the fans are going to be screaming to hear. Sadly, the majority in the crowd won't even know this album exists.

But what of the songs themselves? Refuge is firmly in the old meat-and-potatoes style of Rage. A few simple riffs and Peavy's shouted melodies sound no different now than they did back in the day. If you were looking for growth and evolution, you're in the wrong place. This album is entirely about bringing the past back to life, and to that end, they do a good job. This is material that can fit in well with the back catalog, so they have done what they set out to.

However, if you aren't already a Rage die-hard, this isn't going to do a whole lot for you. This record sounds like so many other Rage albums that I swear I've already heard most of this before, and I'm not even that well-versed in their history. Their style is so straight-forward, and they are so happy to be living the old times again, that it isn't exciting to anyone who wasn't around at the time. Music has evolved so far in the years since that hearing what we've already heard so many times is tiresome. That doesn't make the music bad, but it does mean it's hard to be excited about another helping of something familiar.

Refuge started as a way of celebrating Rage's past, and this album continues on with that. Unfortunately, it also means this album is a bit like a spare tire. It's necessary if it's for the ride you're on, but it's never thought about by anyone else.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Album Review: Ghost - Prequelle

Is Ghost just a gimmick? There has been plenty of discussion recently about whether or not Ghost would be popular if they hadn't adopted their schtick. Eddie Trunk in particular has said Ghost is pop music wearing Satanic makeup, and he can't understand why metal fans are into it. First of all, Ghost isn't a metal band. Secondly, Eddie Trunk is an idiot who has spent forty years of his life worshiping KISS, the gimmick band to end all gimmick bands. So let's be honest here are call it like it is; Ghost has benefited massively from their imagery, but plenty of bands have had interesting visuals without the music to back it up. By and large, Ghost has delivered on that end, and rightfully deserve to be as big as any new rock band is. "Meliora" cemented them as the real deal, upping the ante in every respect. That was their breakthrough, and if all goes according to plan, "Prequelle" is what makes them undeniable.

We already know this is possible from the two singles, "Rats" and "Dance Macabre", which pick up where Ghost left off. Cardinal Copia and his band of ghouls deliver us hard rock flourishing with giant pop hooks, tongue-in-cheek Satanism, and enough cheese to make the whole thing a riot. "Dance Macabre" is what set off the firestorm, with its dance rhythm and irresistible chorus, but listen carefully to the rest of the song. When was the last time you heard pop music with that meaty a guitar riff?

That's what makes Ghost so effective; the ability to color across the genre lines. They're a rock band, but they have hints of metal, pop, prog, and orchestral soundtracks. While the 'true' rock and metal people are obviously disturbed by people who don't adhere to the strict rules of what they consider good music (those rules are garbage), the rest of us understand that Ghost is, like the plague they write about on this record, infecting the masses with the cause of heavy music precisely because they aren't playing by the rules.

"Faith" and "See The Light" have big harmonies that anchor the songs, but they also come complete with sections of crushing riffs. This album, despite its intent on melody and pop sheen, is the heaviest Ghost album to date. In fact, if it wasn't for the Cardinal's vocal timbre, no one would dare question Ghost's heavy cred. Other than the disappointing sophomore album, Ghost has been getting heavier (and better) with every album.

The odd thing about this record is that for all the focus on the Cardinal, and the 'rotating' cast of singers Ghost has had in their ranks, there are three instrumentals present here. I am not a fan of instrumental music usually, and I don't see why Ghost went in that direction, since those songs aren't the kind that can fill the arenas that are the band's ultimate goal. "Miasma" is a big, dramatic number that does as good a job as it can, saxophone solo included, but I can't help but think I would prefer another Ghost earworm instead.

Ghost's music and image play into each other, inseparable. A band wearing their gimmick needs to make suitable music, but a band playing this epic. melodramatic rock can't be standing on stage wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. Ghost is cinematic in what they do, and their image finishes the job selling you on these characters. "Pro Memoria" is a gorgeous ballad that captures the same spirit "He Is" did on the last album, but with more nuances in the use of chimes, and more doses of heaviness, to boot. It's not a song U2 could pull off live without looking like fools, no matter how big their stage setup is.

"Prequelle" is the next step in Ghost's takeover of rock. I'm convinced they are going to become the biggest band in the genre, and this album offers up a handful of new songs that will become live standards. Ghost knows exactly how to manipulate their music and their audience, and the results continue to get better and better. I said this last time, and I'll say it again; Ghost has just made their best record yet, and you damn well need to hear it.