Monday, July 30, 2018

Singles Roundup: Elvis Costello, Pale Waves, Blues Traveler, & Greta Van Fleet

We are currently in the summer doldrums, where the release schedule is pretty sparse as far as big releases to look forward to, but the fall has a lot of potentially huge albums (for me) lined up. Let's take a look at the new singles from three of them, plus the one that will be the biggest thing in rock.

Elvis Costello - Under Lime, Unwanted Number

Few musicians have been as important to me as Elvis Costello, who not only occupies a lot of space in my collection, but who taught me many valuable lessons about songwriting. He is preparing for his first 'traditional' Elvis Costello album in a decade, and these two songs show that he's..... once again playing with genre. These songs are hinting at an album like "Imperial Bedroom", where there is all manner of details and orchestrations being bolted to the songs, creating a sonic quilt. These are both solid songs that recall that era, but I think the melodies could have used some more of the time spent on the arrangements. These songs sound more like altered "Momofuku" (a good album, by the way) than a full-on return to the past. They are interesting, and curious.

Pale Waves - Eighteen, Noises

I don't listen to a lot of what gets classified as pop anymore, but Pale Waves has caught my attention, and this album is one of my most anticipated for the rest of the year. These new songs are the forth and fifth from the record to be heard, and they continue to do exactly what I would have expected. On their own, they are very solid and slyly catchy depressive pop songs. The only concern is that so far everything they have released sounds remarkably similar, so will a fourteen song album be too much of one thing? Maybe, but for now, they haven't hit the saturation point yet. Pale Waves is delivering great pop nuggets, and they do so again here.

Blues Traveler - Accelerated Nation

I'm still not sure what I make of Blues Traveler's last album, which was a collaborative effort between them and a host of pop musicians. It was interesting, but something I rarely return to, because it doesn't feel or sound much like them. The first single for their new album returns us squarely to where they were before that experiment. This song continues the band's fascination with pop music, continuing in the mold that was first started with "Truth Be Told". This one is a good effort, falling somewhere in between "Most Precarious" and "You Don't Have To Love Me". I have a feeling it won't represent the album as a whole, but it's a reassuring way to be introduced to the next chapter.

Greta Van Fleet - When The Curtain Falls

And now the big one. The entire rock world will be flipping out, one way or the other, when their first album finally drops, but we got the first taste of it. And..... it still sounds like Led f'n Zeppelin. I wrote about their similarities last week, so let's focus on this song instead. Yes, the guitar tone and vocals still sound exactly like Page and Plant, but they also manage to write a song that infuses more melody than their influence usually did. That's what makes them so puzzling to me. They write songs I like as much if not more than most Zeppelin, but it comes with so much baggage it's hard to enjoy. That is also the case here. By staying so far inside the box, the band hasn't let the light shine on them.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Album Review: Halestorm - Vicious

Here's the thing about Halestorm; they are a mediocre band who happen to be graced by one of the best rock vocalists in the world. Lzzy Hale is an utterly remarkable talent as a singer, but she and her band have so far failed to prove themselves capable as a rock band. Their first two albums are great ("The Strange Case Of..." shared Album Of The Year honors from me), but that's due to the army of outside songwriters who contributed to them. Those hit-makers gave the band a melodic sheen that let them be a perfect balance between pop and rock, between beauty and the beast. When they went on their own for album number three, we saw in full effect they didn't have the writing chops to keep it up, instead writing flabby riffs and relying on Lzzy's power to carry them through. Even she couldn't lift that record up past mediocrity.

I completely understand why they have taken the course they have. The band is big enough now that they can sell records and concert tickets on their name alone. They don't need to release anything to prove themselves anymore. Halestorm is a brand, and it will take a long time before that stops being enough. In the meantime, why would they give up a large percentage of the publishing to their songs if they don't have to? From a business perspective, it makes complete sense for them to keep everything in house, whether the results are good enough or not. Music is a business, and for Halestorm business is good.

That brings us to their second effort mostly on their own. My expectations were set rather low, given that narrative leading in to the record. The first single released, "Uncomfortable", didn't make me feel any better. It's a rough and tumble song that is short on melody, doesn't capture much through the riffs, and leaves Lzzy being too blunt for her own good. "Black Vultures", though, started to get my mind turning. That's a song that is slightly darker, a bit slower, and finally sees Halestorm figuring out how to write their own music without falling into cliche. For once, I thought there was hope for "Vicious".

But hope is dangerous. As soon as you get teased with something beautiful, you get a song like "Do Not Disturb", which goes down as one of the most uncomfortable Halestorm songs yet. It's a slow burn that never ignites, devoid of a riff or melody to create a spark, and finished off with lyrics where Lzzy talks about kinky sex in a hotel room, complete with the painful lyric about wondering what her partner's accent sounds like when they cum. There is sexy, and there is crude. This falls on the latter side.

Lzzy may not be a very good lyricist, but she has upped her game on this record, as the remainder of the album is worlds better than their last outing, and is a pretty good facsimile of "The Strange Case Of...". The guitars are too dark without any top end, and they settle a few too many times into Nickelback grooves, but Lzzy manages to steer things in the right direction more often than not. Songs like "White Dress" and "Vicious" rock with catchy melodies, while the ballads "Heart Of Novocaine" and "The Silence" continue their tradition of writing very strong softer moments.

I knew we weren't going to get a record with the polish of their early days, but my pessimism turns out to be unfounded. It took Halestorm a record under their belts before they were able to stand on their own, but they have found their own voice now. Their messaging could use a bit more poetry to it, but they are developing as songwriters on their own, and are clearly growing as we move forward. That is the most encouraging sign I could see, given what my cynical nature was thinking. Halestorm is not resting on their laurels whatsoever. We might disagree on exactly what the right path to take is, but we're headed in the same direction now.

"Vicious", once you get past the singles and the blunt talk, is a record that has a lot to offer. I was rooting for the band to pull this off, because Lzzy is someone I can't help but love. She's done us proud enough this time. I'm happy with "Vicious", which I didn't think I was going to say when I started writing about this record.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Greta Van Fleet: The Art Of Business (The Rip-Off)

Greta Van Fleet has returned with the first taste of their upcoming debut album. Over their first two EPs, they got attention for rocketing up the rock charts, and for one other thing. Wait, what was that again.....?

Oh, that's right. They sound like the reincarnation of Led Zeppelin. I don't mean they sound like a band inspired by Zeppelin, I mean they sound like they have coldly dissected that band and copied everything about them they possibly could. Zeppelin is never getting back together, despite the desire for it, so Greta Van Fleet stepped in to give those old fans what they wanted.

And we have given them far too much of a break for how blatantly they have played us for fools. It went something like this.

Put out an EP: Sure, it sounds too much like Zeppelin, but all young bands take time to shake off their influences. They'll grow.

Put out another EP: Sure, it still sounds too much like Zeppelin, but they were probably old songs they already had and are clearing out, so their first album won't sound like that. They'll know better.

Put out a new single: It still sounds exactly like Zeppelin.

That's it. We've had enough time and evidence to say what need to be said; Grata Van Fleet is nothing but a crass marketing gimmick that we've all fallen for. They are not a 'band' in the traditional sense, and are instead a group who have decided to blatantly copy Zeppelin, to fill the space where the cries for a reunion have gone to die.

There is no other explanation anymore. From the very first song they put out, the comparisons have been everywhere, because they didn't even try to hide what they were doing. They have been asked about it time and again, and always try to push it off as a complete coincidence. Are we really supposed to be that naive?

I would think that any band worth their salt, any group that wants to be judged and appreciated on their own merits, would make a move away from Zeppelin's sound for no other reason than to stop the chatter. But that's not what Greta Van Fleet did. No, with their new single, they have leaned in to the controversy, intentionally giving the middle finger to anyone who doesn't bow down before their 'original' sound. We can see now what's going on, and the pathetic thing about it is the band doesn't seem to care. There was an interview where one member tried to claim they don't even know that much about Zeppelin, when there are anecdotes about their early shows being comprised of mostly Zeppelin covers.

Greta Van Fleet think we're stupid. And the sad thing is that a heck of a lot of us seem to be.

And here's the irony; Greta Van Fleet is actually a good band. I was cold on them at first, but I have to admit they are better songwriters (or hired better songwriters) than I initially gave them credit for. With a few more listens, their songs reveal themselves to not just sound like Zeppelin, but actually improve on the formula. They have less turgid blues, and more melody than the classic version did. That was always what kept me from being a big Zeppelin fan, and it tells me that Greta Van Fleet could actually be a great rock band...

... if they had an original thought between the four of them.

But what is clear to me is they are using the controversy and the comparisons to grow faster than they should, to milk as much money from the system as they can before people get tired of them regurgitating the past. It might be a savvy business move, but it betrays art.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Album Review: Dee Snider - For The Love Of Metal

I'm going to admit something; other than "We're Not Gonna Take It", I don't know that I've ever heard a Twisted Sister song. For being as big as they were, and for sticking it out forty years, Twisted Sister has never made a dent in my consciousness. Perhaps that's because they had already stopped making new music, and had become a touring novelty act, by the time I was getting into metal, but they exist out in the periphery where I know about them, but they were never within a stone's throw of relevant to me. So it was with a yawn I met Dee Snider's solo career, which got off to a whimper with his modern alternative rock album, which was so forgettable I can't remember the title of it.

This time out, Jamey Jasta wants to resurrect Snider's spot in the metal pantheon by providing him with a modern album that is metal to the core. It can't be any worse, right?

For one thing, the album delivers on its title, and it is a classic heavy metal record. Snider and Jasta promise an album of 'anthemic' tracks, and they are, if you define the term in the style of the 80s, when Twisted Sister was at their peak. The songs are anthemic in the sense that they have vocal lines in the choruses a crowd can shout along with. They aren't exactly melodic in the way I would rather hear, but they have some old-fashioned metal charm.

Snider's voice, being put at the center of the proceedings, is certainly strong enough to hang with the modern production. Unlike singers today, he is able to blend aggression with enough melody that he straddles the line between barking and singing. That allows the music to be heavy without ever losing touch with accessible songwriting. It's actually a trick that has been lost to time, as most of the vocalists capable of doing such a thing prefer to bifurcate their vocals, and go both ultra guttural and ultra melodic.

Songs like "American Made", which are able to establish a heavy groove, are exactly the kind of modern metal Snider is perfectly suited for. You can think about it as if Five Finger Death Punch made music that wasn't played by and for people without souls. The guitars are thick and saturated, filling the sonic space like a wall of sound, with just enough room for Snider to push through. They were going for heavy metal, and without venturing out of the mainstream, this is about as heavy as you can get. It actually reminds me, instrumentally, of the album Light The Torch put out earlier in the year (a fitting comparison, as Howard Jones make a cameo here). It's modern and crushing, but still has enough rock to balance out the metal.

Frankly, this album shows what a disaster Snider's last outing was. Not only was the record not very good, but it was so obviously contrived to play to an audience neither Snider nor his fans are a part of that it couldn't possibly work. It was a cynical ploy to cross over, and it failed. This record is a more pure evolution of where Snider's music could have gone, if he was still writing songs today. This is a modern, updated take on Snider's career, which is exactly what it should be.

I have to imagine that Twisted Sister fans will be overjoyed by this album, because it delivers Dee Snider as they want to hear him. And for the rest of us who don't have a nostalgic attachment to him, "For The Love Of Metal" is still an excellent foray into the mainstream nexus of rock and metal. This is the best record I've ever heard Jasta have any part in, and it makes a strong case for Dee Snider still having a voice that resonates with today's listeners. This record is surprisingly good.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Album Review: Redemption - Long Night's Journey Into Day

If you ask me who the best progressive metal band is, I will always tell you it's Redemption. From "The Fullness Of Time" through "The Art Of Loss", they have made a string of classy records that are everything progressive metal both should and shouldn't be. Their song-oriented, deeply emotional music is the perfect antidote to the self-high-fiving that is most of the genre. We can debate which of their records is the best (I personally side with "The Origins Of Ruin"), but it's hard to deny Redemption is among the very best at what they do. That's why it comes as such a shock to the system to hear this new record, where the heart of the band's sound has been replaced, as Ray Alder has moved on, and Evergrey's Tom Englund has taken over behind the mic. It's the biggest chance in the band's history, and one that can ripple through the music. But does it?

The album sets the tone early, with "Eyes You Dare Not Meet In Dreams" kicking things off on an aggressive note. The guitars have that blend of prog and thrash that has been a staple of Redemption's sound, and when Tom enters, his voice does fit in seamlessly. Redemption's music has always played with the darker colors of the rainbow, so the change in vocalists is from one master of the craft to another. In terms of style, there might not have been anyone better to take up the mantle.

What may or may not play quite as well are the choices Tom makes with his voice. For much of the record, he pulls back on his power, using a softer tone to push the melodies. When you get to what should be a major moment, like the chorus in "Someone Else's Problem", I can hear in the back of my head how Ray would have belted it out, so there's a dissonance between what I'm expecting and what Tom delivers. Neither approach is wrong, but it does feel like he's holding back.

There can't be any complaining about "The Echo Chamber", which adds to Redemption's list of massively ass-kicking prog metal. Unlike what I would say is the majority of prog metal bands, they are able to blend heaviness, progressive playing, and soaring melodies into songs that are both challenging and memorable. The first four tracks from this album fit right into that mold, and are a seamless transition from one chapter of the band's history to this new one.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's what the saying tell us, and it holds true a bit here, as "The Last Of Me" is so traditionally Redemption that the main melody sounds curiously like the one from "The Suffocating Silence" several album cycles ago. It inevitably happens to everyone who writes enough songs, but it still sounds strange the first time it's encountered.

"Long Night's Journey Into Day" is an album in two acts. The first act is Redemption in their finest form, delivering everything we could want from them. The second act is a bit different, with a bit less melody leading into the ten minute closing title track. It's not much of a lull, but it's enough to shift the comparison a bit. What this album winds up reminding me of is "Snowfall On Judgment Day", which is the band's heaviest album, and the one I return to the least. I'm in the minority of fans with that, I'm led to believe, so Redemption fans will likely be ecstatic to hear this approach.

A Redemption album is always going to be good, and there's no question this one is. If you like progressive metal, Redemption is still doing is every bit as well as anyone else. I can say I prefer "The Origins Of Ruin" and "The Art Of Loss" to this one, but the differences are slight. Even with new blood, Redemption delivers a record I can't see disappointing anyone who enjoys this kind of music. Whatever trepidation I may have had about the change in voice is in the past, and Redemption is still at the top of progressive metal's hierarchy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Album Review: The Jayhawks - Back Roads and Abandoned Motels

I like The Jayhawks, but I don't know what to make of them anymore. Since I discovered them, they have broken up and gotten back together, reunited with Mark Olson only to see him leave again, and made records that veered from traditional Americana rock to experimental noise rock. All the while, I've been watching from the sidelines while wondering just what in the world is motivating them. There is no easily seen arc of history they are following. Every move seems random. So when their last album seemed to be pushing them into a new (and disappointing, for me) future, they now head fully back into the past.

This new record isn't quite a new record. There are two new compositions to close it out, but the core of the record is made up of songs that Gary Louris had written with and for other artists. We get some tracks written with The Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan, and Emerson Hart (from Tonic), among others. Because these songs reach back, they connect with the original and classic Jayhawks sound, which is a complete departure from the last time we heard the band on record.

For fans like me, who first fell in love with "Hollywood Town Hall", and then heard a bit of a second coming on "Rainy Day Music", this record is a return to The Jayhawks we've been waiting for. Even "Mockingbird Time" didn't sound as wistfully Jayhawks as this record does. Louris has an affection for old Krautrock that has ruined many a Jayhawks song before, all of which has been stripped away from these tracks. His strength has always been in writing sly, subtle melodic Americana, which is what he was always brought in to deliver. It's what this record delivers.

But while this record is all about Louris' writing forays, it is a collaborative effort in the studio, with Tim O'Reagan and Karen Grotberg contributing vocals to several tracks, standing in for some of the co-writers. They bring new textures to the usual Jayhawks sound, and are nice additions. The added vocals in "Gonna Be A Darkness" especially work, as O'Reagan is able to inject enough of Jakob Dylan's gravelly tone to capture his essence.

The best songs here include "Everybody Knows", which was released as a single by The Dixie Chicks, so you might remember it. I don't happen to, so I'm hearing it fresh as a perfect Jayhawks song that could have hung on "Hollywood Town Hall". The Dylan song is another winner, as fans familiar with his work will hear his phrasing all over the melody. It becomes an interesting experience to listen to a favored writer's song being given voice by someone else, and still hearing them in it. It shows the power of the songwriter is stronger than we might often give credit.

The biggest pull on the record, for me, is "Long Time Ago", the song penned with Emerson Hart. As my favorite songwriter, hearing a new track with his fingerprints on it is a treat, and listening I'm not sure why the track had never been released before. While it might not fit in with Tonic, it would have made a fine track for Emerson's solo career. It's nice to have the song rescued from the cutting room floor.

That's what I can say about the entire record. While Louris has been busy taking the band on a string of detours over the last fifteen years, there have been songs like these waiting in the wings (*groan* sorry for the pun). The classic Jayhawks sound is classic for a reason, and it sounds as welcome and timeless now as it ever has. "Hollywood Town Hall" sounds as remarkable and vibrant today as it did when I first heard it, and this is a record that will hold the same appeal. No, I'm not saying it's anywhere near as good as that masterpiece, but it's a beautiful little record that makes time stand still, at least for forty-five minutes.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Double Review: Powerwolf - The Sacrament Of Sin

Hear me out; Powerwolf is a lot like Motorhead. No, they don't sound anything alike, but both bands are groups who created a core sound early in the career, and then continued to deliver that same thing again and again. For the fans, it means you know you're almost always going to like what you hear. For the doubters, it gives them something else to complain about. With Powerwolf, I fall somewhere in the middle. I find their werewolves and vampires schtick to be entertaining, and I always enjoy hearing them, but their music is also in that lot where I don't find myself compelled to listen to it very often, mainly because it always feels exactly the same. Their previous album, "Blessed & Possessed", was probably my favorite so far, and included a few songs that did stand the test of time with me, so this new one has something to live up to.

The album was teased by two singles, "Fire & Forgive" and "Demons Are A Girl's Best Friend", which just so happen to be the first two tracks. Both of them caught my ear, as they are among the better tracks the band has been putting forward; layered with epic organs, having tongue-in-cheek, and delivering catchy melodies that only an operatic power metal werewolf can... apparently. The latter track, in particular, sounds to me like what Lordi would be doing if they made their humor less slapstick.

Ghost has gotten a lot of criticism for their song "Dance Macabre", which people have accused of being a dance song in rocking guise. I could level the same claim at "Killers With The Cross", but that line of thought misses the point. This Powerwolf song, like Ghost's effort, is a riot to listen to. So what if you can dance along with the chorus? Why is that a bad thing? Even horror movies are allowed to have comic relief.

The trend I've noticed, having written about several album cycles from Powerwolf, is that while they haven't changed their sound up one iota, they have been getting better at more consistently delivering heavy hitters. They have enough experience behind them now to know what does and doesn't work, and that translates to albums that have been getting better. I mentioned their last album being my favorite as of yet, which I now have to qualify by saying "The Sacrament Of Sin" is even better. Powerwolf isn't done upping their game just yet.

Of particular note is the ballad "Where The Wild Wolves Have Gone", which is a song I'm not sure they could have pulled off before. It has a sweeping build to it, and the slower pace makes it sound truly cinematic when the strings and horns burnish the chorus. It's absolutely Powerwolf at their best. It's a completely different take on metallic balladry than "Let Their Be Light" was on the last album, which shows Powerwolf has more range than they get credit for.

"The Sacrament Of Sin" is a record that uses its instrumentation to create a sound that is truly massive, dark, and haunting. Sabaton gets most of the credit when it comes to bombastic power metal, but I've never heard Sabaton live up to their source material the way Powerwolf does here.

Powerwolf may always read from the same playbook, but they have refined their approach over the years, to the point where "The Sacrament Of Sin" is their best album yet. Even if you think you already know Powerwolf, you need to give this album a listen, because it's boiled down the best of the band's history into a killer forty-odd minutes of ludicrous power metal. Highly recommended.

Chris C


I think I’m starting to sense a trend with Powerwolf releases. 2011 saw the release of “Blood of the Saints,” which instantly became the gold standard for Powerwolf and the high water mark for the genre of power metal as we entered boldly into the ‘10s. Two years later we heard “Preachers of the Night” which was…fine. There was nothing bad about it, excepting maybe the cover art that vaguely resembled the Big Bad Wolf costumed in grandma’s night clothes waiting for Little Red Riding Hood, but there was also nothing revolutionary or especially inspiring about it. Again, a two year gap, and then “Blessed and Possessed,” an album that established the high water mark all over again. And now…

…”The Sacrament of Sin.” And it’s….fine. Unfortunately, that may be all it is. And you have to give it some credit, because it’s clearly trying real hard, but leveraged against the previous album, and the catalogue that came before it, there’s not much here to write home about.

Before we get hasty, let’s clarify a little – this is a Powerwolf album, so it does boast some memorable moments. There’s a three song set in the middle of the record that shows us the best strengths of Powerwolf right in a row. It begins with “Incense and Iron,” which works because of the sheer, transmissible charisma of Attila Dorn’s vocals and the band’s ability to write impossibly giant hook choruses. From a musical standpoint, there’s not even that much going on, but the melody, operating in conjunction with the gang vocals makes for a rousing listen. There are few bands who can so ably convey their magnetic personalities into a recorded experience, but Powerwolf has mastered the secret.

This dovetails into “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone,” which is the kind of song only Powerwolf can pull off without seeming hokey. The song’s gravitas is melodramatic even by the lofty standards of the band singing the song, but in reflexive fashion, that’s what makes it work; the song is so far over the top that it transcends mere melodrama and becomes something indefinable. It’s also annoying good at being an earwig, which means you’ll end up explaining the song, and by extension Powerwolf, to your coworkers. Good luck.

And then the sequence closes with “Stossgebet,” and now we get just a taste of the Teutonic power and precision that so capably represents all the German metal bands of all stripes. Couple that with Powerwolf’s natural flair and excellent sense of the beat, and you get a track with punchy delivery and memorable stanzas.

That’s three songs out of eleven, though, and the other eight aren’t bad, but they’re not worth mentioning, either. “The Sacrament of Sin” suffers more for what it lacks than for what it possesses – there is no adrenaline-infused “Dead Boys Don’t Cry,” no blood-pumping “Higher Than Heaven.” This record is much more measured, with no room for that kind of delivery, which is ultimately to its detriment. “Venom of Venus” comes the closest, but is content to sit in third gear.

Two notes before closing. First, It could be me, I may be losing my mind, but this record seems seeded through with just the barest hint of concession to arena rock. Powerwolf has always danced with this devil, but there’s something about the even pacing of the downbeats and the construction of the harmonies that makes one narrow the eyes, wondering if the relationship has gotten tighter.
Second, and this is no small thing. I know I spent a lot of time in this review telling you that Powerwolf failed to live up to their own lofty benchmarks, but it does bear noting that these gentlemen are one of the few, if not the only, power metal band still making interesting music. The genre as a whole has stagnated in the new millennium, except for this small band of German rogues who are pushing the envelope. They are to be commended; that’s not easy after fifteen years together.

So, “The Sacrament of Sin,” isn’t an all-time classic, but it’s a perfectly adequate album made by professionals who measured their stride and tried to concentrate on the presence of their songs more than the prowess in them.

And to come full circle, if the pattern holds, their next album will be a blockbuster.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Twenty Years Later: Bruce Dickinson's "Chemical Wedding"

Twenty years ago, we were living in what can be considered the dark ages of heavy metal. The old guard of classic bands had either fractured, or had changed into unrecognizable groups that had abandoned what made them popular. In their place, we had new bands that were sapping the life from the genre, whether it be the nu-metal that dumbed everything down so far we still haven't regained what was lost, or they were following the mold of Pantera and assuming that being louder and angrier was all that was needed. Metal didn't have fun anymore, it didn't have much of a brain either, and there aren't many records from that time period that have stood the test of time. For good reason.

But there are oases in every desert, and even then records were being released that challenged our conceptions of what metal was, and what it could be. You might think the best of them all would have been from a new voice, a group of hungry young musicians hell-bent on taking over the world. You would be wrong if you did. The defining statement of that time came from one of the old guard, the only one who was trying to move forward; Bruce Dickinson.

The then former Iron Maiden singer had been out on his own for a few years by the time 1998 had come around. His early solo albums were hit-and-miss affairs that made people pine for a reunion. It was with 1997's "Accident Of Birth" that Dickinson returned to full-throated metal, and he did so in such a fashion that suddenly the cries for Iron Maiden to be reborn were quieted. But even as great as that record was, Bruce had something yet more grand up his sleeve.

The year 1998 saw Slayer bottoming out with their trend-hopping "Diabolus In Musica", Metallica playing nothing but cover songs, and Kid Rock ascending to mainstream stardom. It was a dark time for good, serious heavy metal. The answer to fans' prayers would be coming, however.

Bruce Dickinson was always a bit of an odd fit for metal culture. A pilot, fencer, and author, he was not the leather-clad banger that the genre is so disappointingly associated with. Iron Maiden had long incorporated history and literature into their lyrics, but even they had never gone this far. With his magnum opus, Dickinson would shape his music into a conceptual piece diving into the life and work of William Blake, complete with one of his paintings gracing us on the cover.

Teaming up with Roy Z and his fellow Iron Maiden ex-pat Adrian Smith, Dickinson stepped into the studio with inspiration, and walked out with the defining album of the time.

The most striking facet of the album is the overwhelming heaviness the music is able to capture.  By stringing the guitars with bass strings, the album takes on a tone unlike any other, giving previously unheard heft to the traditional metal arrangements.  It is not far removed, stylistically, from what he had done with Iron Maiden, but “The Chemical Wedding” is the heaviest piece of music Dickinson has ever made.  That heaviness is not just sonic, as the songs are written and sung with just as much emotional weight.

Dickinson's vocals are a dramatic performance, his siren of a voice crying out above the fury of the music in a way few singers can match.  He roars through songs like “The Tower” and “Jerusalem”, displaying all the skills that make him one of metal's legendary singers.  While Roy Z and his Iron Maiden compatriot Adrian Smith pound out some furiously progressive metal arrangements, Dickinson pours melodies into every song, giving the songs all the tools needed to be great.  Making music that it at once this heavy and this melodic is nearly impossible, but it is done with such ease on “The Chemical Wedding” that it makes an unfair standard for everyone else to live up to.
While the title track may sound too simple at first blush, the ballad is a showcase for the clarity and beauty Dickinson's voice can achieve, and is merely setting the table for the more epic moments.  The unexpected reprise of the chorus at the end of the closing “The Alchemist” ties the project together, and when viewed as part of a larger work, the title track is an integral calm before the storm.
For as great as those tracks are, one song stands above all the others as a definitive masterpiece.  That song, “Book Of Thel”, is an eight minute piece of metal perfection.  The riffs are the heaviest on the album, the arrangement is expansive and progressive, and Dickinson's vocal is an impassioned cry that boasts one of the best melodies he ever had the fortune to sing.  The song is a revelation, the sort of piece that has you worn out by the end for merely listening.  It is at once the highlight of a remarkable album, and a singular statement attesting to the validity and vitality of metal as an art form.  “The Chemical Wedding” is not just the best album Bruce Dickinson ever sang on, it is one of the greatest metal albums ever made, and a staggering work of genius.

Twenty years later, the album is as vital and potent as ever.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Album Review: Two Of A Kind - Rise

As the name would suggest, what makes Two Of A Kind unique is having not one, but two singers in the fold. As I sat down to write this, I started thinking about all the music I have listened to, and I struggled to come up with other bands that featured two different vocalists (other than having one clean, one harsh). Usually, one singer is more than enough to convey the songs and the messages, and having more than that would invite comparisons where fans will like one more than the other. So it's actually interesting to hear a band that embraces having two different voices. When you hear a lot of music that is similar, these little details help them stand out, definitely.

There's another factor about this record that stands out; the bass. The way the album is produced, and with the guitars mostly sitting in the background, the bass ends up right in front of the mix. Given how almost all modern music is presented, it's a jarring change to hear the instruments' roles reversed. Of course, I could posit the reason for the mixing being an effort to hide the guitar's tone. The record does sound a bit rough around the edges in places.

But the songwriting is far more important than the level of polish on the recording. That's where Two Of A Kind stands stronger. For the most part, "Rise" is an album that delivers 80s style rock with plenty of big choruses made even bigger by the ability to layer the two singers into a wall of vocals. That's the band's strongest attribute, and they wisely play off it.

What is less successful is the song "Rock Your World", which not only falls into the category of rock songs about rocking, but has lyrics that specifically tell us that Two Of A Kind is going to rock us. I shouldn't have to say this as often as I do, but let me reiterate; if you have to tell us how much you rock, you probably don't rock at all. Sorry.

"Naked" might be the best track, a beautiful lighter-swinging half ballad that builds effectively, and pays it all off. The album as a whole, however, can't maintain that momentum. When they try to rev things up, they falter. They aren't a heavy band, and rocking on the edge of their limits doesn't play into their melodic strengths. When they allow themselves to dial things back, they're good. That doesn't happen as often as it should.

Overall, that makes this a difficult album to recommend. There are some charming moments on it, but there are enough songs that struggle it doesn't make it over the hump. Add in the production that leaves the record sounding dated, and it just doesn't make a strong enough case. After a decade between albums, I would have expected more from this group. Melodic rock has already offered up plenty of better albums, including this month alone.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Album Review: Destinia - Metal Souls

There's a saying, "how can I miss you when you won't go away?" I find myself saying this about Ronnie Romero. I have nothing against the guy as a singer, but last year he made an album with The Ferrymen, and this year he has been on the new Rainbow single, plus albums by Lords Of Black, CoreLeone, and now Destinia. I'm sorry, but that's just too much of him in too short a time. I feel like I've barely had a chance to listen to his latest album when another one is coming down the pike. And while he's a good singer, he's not good enough to take up that much of my time.

Destinia is interesting because it promises to be the lightest and most melodic of the projects he's been involved with lately. To that end, I was interested, because what most annoys me is his insistence on singing with more grit than his voice actually has. He plays away from his strenghts as a singer, so he can take up the mantle of the new Dio (even though we all know that's Jorn).

"Metal Souls" is an album of pure melodic power metal, one that will never be confused with his usual heavier gigs. Every song has a big, lush chorus bursting with melody. It is easily the hookiest album Ronnie has ever been a part of, and that makes it easy for me to say it's also my favorite of them all.

While melodic, there's still enough crunch and heaviness to this record for almost anyone who enjoys non-extreme metal. The riffs are chunky at times, with the saturated guitar tone filling the sonic space to every corner. It's a big sound, and properly fits Ronnie's big vocals.

Song to song, these are highly melodic, and highly memorable songs. Whether it's the storming title track, or the emotional ballad "Take Me Home", the choruses and melodies in these songs will make an impact in your mind. Power metal has grown stale, and I haven't heard much in the traditional form done better than this in the last couple of years. You're never going to get surprised by anything on the record, but for following the rules, the songwriting is more than sharp enough to make this an engaging album.

My one issue with it is the same as every album Ronnie is on; him. Ronnie has immense capabilities as a singer, but his voice is too thin to sing with grit the way that Dio or Jorn can. Ronnie's cleaner tones are beautiful, but his 'angry' tone is too shrill when compared to the greats. Even in this more melodic setting, he insists on staying in that metal approach far too often, which undercuts the sugary appeal of these songs. Believe it or not, a really good singer brings these songs down a bit from where they could be. I can hardly make it through "Raise Your Fist" because the note Ronnie keep hitting, in that tone, sounds too much like an alarm bell.

The good news is the majority of "Metal Souls" is a very good melodic power metal album that does much of what The Dark Element did last year, just not quite at that level of excellence. I do wonder, though, if I would take this album even more positively if I wasn't in the midst of Ronnie Romero fatigue.

The bottom line is that Destinia has a winner here. This album is as good as power metal has been in 2018, and as good as Ronnie Romero has ever been. Whatever flaws there might be, they don't keep this from being a great album for a sunny summer day. "Metal Souls" is definitely worth a listen.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Album Review: Gioeli/Castronovo - Set The World On Fire

These records where two notable vocalists are paired up together for a series of duets have become quite the trend. It all started with the Allen/Lande albums, and has since seen any number of combinations, some with more reason and success than others. This time, we get Johnny Gioeli and Deen Castronovo, two men who might not be the first you would put together, but who do have history from way back in the day with Hardline. That lets this record make sense, and it shows how much life happens when you look back at where we used to be.

My biggest pet peeve with these projects is when the singers are ill-chosen for their roles. Earlier this year, there was an album of this kind that came out under the banner of Leone/Conti, where the two singers were so indistinguishable I seldom could figure out who was singing what. That made the whole thing seem pointless, even though it was good. That problem does not exist here whatsoever, with Gioeli's sharp attack and Deen's raspy voice sounding nothing alike, but blending together well.

We first heard this combination on "Through", which was a propulsive morsel of melodic rock that was nearly flawless. It was melodic bliss, and their contrasting voices built into something close to epic. Their tones occupy different parts of the spectrum, which allows them to give a depth to the choruses and backing vocals we seldom hear. They often sound big but flat, because they are often sung all by the main vocalist. But having these two filling out the highs and lows is a revelation about how to do it right. It's a magical sound.

The music on this record is melodic rock with a bit of dramatic flair. There are hints of pianos here and there, and some strings on the ballad "It's All About You", which give the songs a heightened emotional pull. Depending on the band, many would have used synths instead of pianos, but doing so would neuter the impact of having those elements at all. Hearing the resonance of an organic instrument is what lets us connect to it. Synths are disposable, forgettable.

In the middle of the record, we get a cover of Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now". It was jarring to hear at first, and I'm not entirely sure why it got put on the record, but it works in the context. Regardless of your feelings on that genre, the song itself is a catchy number that sounds good in this more rocking version. Pop songs get ragged on a lot, but the best of them are better written than sneering snobs will ever give credit. Adding guitars and pumping up the energy to make thme proper rock songs shows how the melodic constructions are sometimes head and shoulders above what we're used to hearing.

There's a feeling to this record that recalls Meat Loaf's lesser-known 80s output. Since I'm fond of a record like "Bad Attitude" quite a bit, the similarity in tone is welcome to me. These melodic rock records get pumped out at a frenzied clip. Every month there's probably a dozen or so that fall into the category, most of which I will never remember again, because they're all so similar. What I like about this record is how it has a sound of its own, and doesn't sound at all like W.E.T., or Sunstorm, or any of the others that have come out this year. It truly does sound like an album tailored for these singers.

When it comes to melodic rock this year, Gioeli/Castronovo is near the top of the pack. I don't think it quite has the spark W.E.T. does, but this is a more mature release that serves a different purpose. To that aim, it's a fantastic record that delivers what would be as good as any 'adult contemporary' album of recent years, if that was still a thing anyone paid attention to.

I liked this record a lot.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Album Review: Kissin' Dynamite - Ecstasy

Rock and roll might not be dead, but it lives in the shadows, at least in America. When you turn on the radio, all you hear are either pop songs, hip-hop songs, a mix of them, or some flaccid bunch of whining that has usurped the word 'rock'. Real rock and roll is hard to find, and when you do, it certainly doesn't get the love or attention it should. Rock used to be the soundtrack to life, because it was through rock and roll that we were able to live our dreams, albeit vicariously. Now, rock is shorthand for being stodgy and old, for being out of touch with the current culture. I am certainly out of touch, and so is Kissin' Dynamite.

They are unabashedly a rock and roll band, borrowing from the Def Leppard school of the 80s, where the choruses are bright and layered with sweetened gang vocals to make them sound larger than life. It's rock and roll of the neon lights type, not the gritty and bluesy feel of the 70s, but the kind that filled the Sunset Strip and served as the soundtrack to nights the participants recall fondly even though they can't remember a thing they did back then.

That's the gist of things here. There isn't much need to go into the songs individually, because it's the general aura that wins out over any of them on their own. The material is all rock solid, if you will, but what makes or breaks the record is what you want out of your rock and roll. If you're one of those people who listen for the aggression and anger, who use rock for a release, Kissin' Dynamite is going to disappoint you. That's not what they're here for. They've made an album that is perfect to throw on while you and your friends bang your heads and have a good time.

Ok, I'll be honest and say I don't ever do that, but this would be a good record if I did.

We've become accustomed to thinking rock and roll is broken, and that something new needs to come along and fix it. Records like this prove that line of thinking to be completely wrong. I'm not saying "Ecstasy" is ever going to be a classic record, because it isn't, but it does prove that rock is still a vital form of music. Listening to this record, I can hear in it the elements that made me love music and pick up a guitar. The band isn't breaking any new ground, but that's pretty much the point. Our desire for something new is misguided. What we need to search for is something better.

"Ecstasy" is a solid good-time rock and roll record that does exactly what it wants to. If all you want is to spend some time bobbing your head and raising the horns, Kissin' Dynamite has a record for you. If you're demanding something more inventive or progressive, you're looking in the wrong direction. "Ecstasy" is a better Tremonti record than the one he just released.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Album Review: Lucifer - Lucifer II

The Oath only lasted for one album (actually, I think they broke up before it even came out), but they made quite the impact. For their short shelf-life, they are fondly remembered for the brand of vintage rock and roll they resurrected, and the bands they formed after the dust settled have gotten plenty of attention. Lucifer's first album was well-received from those same fans and critics, although I will say it didn't do much to impress me. It lacked some of the grit The Oath had, and I felt something was missing without the combination of the creative forces. Now they are back for the follow-up, and there is a shift in the focus, one that pulls them closer to my tastes. So does Lucifer raise a hellishly good time with this album?

This time out, Lucifer is certainly a less doomy, occult band than they were before. The sound is still rooted in the same influences, but the music is freer, and more open to melodic possibilities. This is 70s rock with a hint of darkness and doom creeping in, rather than dark rock with a hint of 70s flair growing aroudn the edges. That means this album is more of a classic rock record than Lucifer seemed possible of before the change in membership.

For a band started by and centered around Johanna Sadonis and her voice, this shift is both critically important, and strangely necessary. She possesses the kind of voice that fits the timeless haze of the music, which makes it a surprise to hear her say this album gives her more room to sing melodically. I'm scratching my head wondering how her own band handcuffed her from using her talents, when she is the focal point of the whole enterprise. Perhaps, like a lot of bands that come after a first success, everything was thrown together too quickly to work the kinks out before being revealed to a large audience.

Whatever the reason, this new incarnation of Lucifer is a different, and better, beast. The music is still dirty and gritty, but it rises out of the muck to deliver moments of melody that are far and away above anything on the first record. Whether it's the laid-back "California Son", or the driving "Dancing With Mr. D", Lucifer is able to give us a record that sound like the catchiest stoner record ever made. The guitar tone is that kind of hazy brand of heavy, but I don't know if I've ever heard it used to make music that wasn't a wandering mess of boring ideas. This is what that genre can be, and it sounds good.

"Lucifer II" is a dramatically better record than its predecessor, which should be all I need to say, but I'll go a step further. Not only is that true, but I'm inclined to believe it's a better record than The Oath's was, which started this hype train rolling down the tracks in the first place. I know this is the sort of record I was hoping The Oath would get around to making, if they had stuck together. Lucifer has risen, and this is their clarion call. "Lucifer II" is a dirty, gritty, and damn good rock and roll record.