Friday, August 31, 2018

Singles Roundup: Disturbed, Steve Perry, Slash, & Amaranthe

As we occasionally do, let's take a momentary break from the flood of new albums to look at a few new singles, and think about what they might mean for the albums they are teasing (including whether or not I'm going to review them in their entirety). This time out, we've got a few big names that need to make a good impression. Let's go:

Disturbed - Are You Ready

All the big guns from years ago are back in action. Godsmack released their most pop album ever, and now Disturbed has their turn in the spotlight. Their continued success has been amazing to me, since I would have sworn they were going to be one-hit wonders way back when. This new song of theirs breaks no new ground. The riff calls back to "Down With The Sickness", just slower and without as much bite. The chorus tries to introduce more melody, and it works well enough. I'm sure it will be a bit hit on rock radio, but it doesn't strike me as anything I'm going to want to listen to more than once or twice. There are promises of some new twists on the album, which I'm glad to hear, because whether they are good or bad, they are needed if I'm going to make it through yet another of their records.

Steve Perry - No Erasin'

Steve Perry hasn't made a record in ages, so it's nice to see him back in the arena. But that's where this gets tough. He is back because his love of music was rekindled by personal pain, which makes it hard to say this; the song is fine, but not at all enough to be his first statement in so long. His voice sounds better than I would have expected, although older. The problem is the melody just don't have any flair or personality. It would make a fine album cut, but being the first single doesn't bode particularly well for the record.

Slash - Driving Rain/Mind Your Manners

The last two Slash records have been ones I enjoyed when they came out, and that I really don't remember much of anymore. The problem, I assume, is that Myles Kennedy has been on so many records in these years that it all blends together. These new songs fit right into that pattern. "Driving Rain" is a sharp number that hits on the best aspects of this particular band. It's got some swagger, and Myles delivers a strong chorus that hooks you in. "Mind Your Manners", though, is more indicative of why I only remember a select few highlights of their previous albums, as it sounds more like a Snakepit number that Myles can't rescue, since he has burned through so many melodies.

Amaranthe - 365

Is Amaranthe the leading purveyor of pop metal? I'm not sure, but they don't shy away from being as pop as metal is going to get. On the first single for their new record, they once again mix the heaviness of Gothenburg death metal with electronic pop music. It doesn't always work, but it is an interesting mix. This song is more miss than hit, as the flow struggles to establish itself, and Elize is seriously straining in the chorus. It isn't her range whatsoever, and it sounds a bit painful to listen to her struggling like this.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Album Review: TheVintage Caravan - Gateways

When you're dealing with a band called The Vintage Caravan, you know what you're going to be getting; vintage rock and roll of the classic variety. And while I give a lot of such bands a chance, and do love the sonic aesthetic, there's something about branding yourself as the past that limits your future. How can we ever expect any growth and development from a band that already is telling you they live firmly in the past? It's one thing if a band is playing that kind of music because that just so happens to be how they sound, but it's another one when they make it clear it was a choice. Art isn't supposed to be a choice, it's supposed to be who you are. But as we already know, music is as much business as it is art.

In the first minute of this record, the band hits several tropes. There is the production, which sounds like a more polished 70s record. There are the riffs, which are the heavy blues Zeppelin imitators have been playing for over forty years. And there is even some cowbell, as if to drive it home that they take as much inspiration from that SNL skit as they do classic bands.

Oskar's vocals are a weak point, his husky delivery neither matching the tone of the music, nor sounding particularly good under the drips of echo and reverb that are covering up for him. He is saved mostly by the nature of the music, which is entirely tilted towards the guitars to do everything interesting. He doesn't offer up much in the way of melody at any point on the record, which is the common thread that binds far too many of these backward-looking rock bands. It is rare to see them write songs that are lush and memorable. For a sound inspired by 'classic rock', almost none of it comes with the potential of one day being classic itself.

"Gateways" is a perfectly acceptable record, but it has nothing about it that screams for your attention. This could easily be a Witchcraft album, or a Horisont album, or any number of other bands. That's the problem with taking heavy inspiration from the past; unless you are doing something different, or truly excel with your songwriting, the music blends into the fabric of history. Graveyard carved out their niche by being expert songwriters, and Blues Pills by adding in a sense of soul no one else has, but The Vintage Caravan is too much what we've already heard a hundred times before.

But if you like vintage rock, you already know you're going to enjoy this record a certain amount. It fits the style well, and has redeeming qualities if all you want is another similar record to add to the rotation. Personally, I want to hear something slightly different or sharper from these kinds of bands, and I don't get that here. "Gateways" is decent, but decent isn't good enough to cut through the static. I'm not sure how many will be walking through the gate The Vintage Caravan has opened here.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Album Review: Helion Prime - Terror Of The Cybernetic Space Monster

Power metal was my gateway into heavy music, but man has it become a stagnant genre. That's not to say it wasn't before, but after years of listening to it, I can rarely get excited anymore to hear new records that are so closely copying the old ones. There's a good chance you can put on any power metal record and hear a copy of "Eagle Fly Free", and a guarantee you're going to get stupid double-bass drumming while guitars chug a single chord. So in order to have an appeal, you need to do something different. For Helion Prime, that means taking the band in a sci-fi direction, and trying to tell stories about things other than swords and dragons.

Fitting with the sci-fi theme, the band's sound is in the more modern style of power metal, where the guitars have hints of melodic death metal riffing, the production is sharp and clean, and everything is just a hint darker. That's a style that I like, although I don't often hear it matched up with the kind of melodies that make power metal addictive at its best. I hold that particular banner to be Bloodbound's "Tabula Rasa", which is an interesting point of comparison here.

The path Helion Prime is taking is a record that is cut from a similar cloth, and it just so happens their singer can at times sound quite a bit like Urban breed. If a power metal band is trying to win its way into my cynical heart, that's not a bad place to start.

After the scene-setter, the first real song, "A King Is Born", delivers the goods. It's heavy, chunky, and hooky with a strong melodic presence. It's a nice mix of power metal with doses of heavier sub-genres, which is something it often sorely needs. When a record comes along that is able to master the art of that balance, as Bloodbound did, and as James LaBrie's songwriting partner has on their last couple of albums, the results are stunning. Both of those were albums that featured near the top of my year-end lists. I'll spare you the wait; no, Helion Prime isn't quite that good.

But this is a record that has a lot going for it. By and large, the songwriting is a notch above the usual power metal you're likely to hear. While there is a melody in "Urth" I know I've heard before, these songs sound fresh enough to remain enjoyable throughout. It also reminds me that if this record still feels fresh and modern, the first time I heard this particular sound must have been a mind-blowing revolution.

To close things out, the band stretches their wings with the seventeen minute title track. Like most every track of that length, there are twists and turns that are better than others, but the song returns to a core of melody that pays off the time invested.

Overall, Helion Prime has made a darn solid modern power metal record. I've heard enough of them to know it's not the easiest thing to pull off, so all credit where it's due.

Friday, August 24, 2018

EP Review: Alicia Witt - 15,000 Days

A couple years ago, I talked briefly about the album "Revisionary History" by Alicia Witt. The red-headed actress you are bound to recognize if you have watched any amount of tv over the last twenty years was taking steps with her music career, and I heard something in that record that made me believe there was a bright future in the offing. Fast forward to today, and we get the next episode of her musical story in the form of "15,000 Days", a new EP that sees Alicia growing as a writer, and finding a sound that she can call her own.

If her previous work was a bit incomplete, and searching for an identity, this EP is everything coming together. Alicia's voice and piano are still front-and-center, but there is a lush and organic flow to the music that comes across like a classic singer-songwriter album from the past. It's warm and inviting, while still having layers of depth to come back to.

We got our first tastes from the preview tracks "Younger" and "Still Sorry". The latter leads off the EP, and immediately marks the difference between this recording and her last one. A processed drum line softly enters, followed by a mournful guitar figure. Alicia and her piano float through the verse, and then the chorus unloads a punch. The layered harmonies are gorgeous, and there's a sense of Elton John's late-career renaissance to it. The melody is delicious, and deftly balances the brightness that comes with a pop song with a more somber timbre.

"Younger" follows, and it's easy for me to still hear why it captured my attention and demanded I anticipate this EP. If ever a song can sound restrained and propulsive at the same time, it's the feat mastered here. Alicia's melodies aren't in your face aggressive, but over time the subtleties begin to stay with you longer. A paper cut lasts longer than a punch to the jaw. "Younger" is both the paper cut, and the kiss that makes it better.

Then we get "Earful", another slow burn of a song that wades into the water carefully, before the bottom falls out and you wind up neck deep in another lovely melody. As with the rest of the songs, Alicia keeps herself restrained, never pushing her voice to do more than it can. She sits in the sweet spot of her range, which makes the music feel relaxed, sweet, and comfortable for both her and us.

"Satellite" is next, and pulls back on the reins. It is a song that moves slowly, soothing you with the tinkling pianos and harmonies, until you almost don't realize the song has gotten into your head. We then finish things off with "Blinkers", which delivers us Alicia's most lilting melody, while the music swells behind her. It's the song that obviously had to close out the EP, and does so with aplomb.

Knowing the story of this EP, and how it came to life, it's hard to complain. That said, I can't help but feel a bit of sadness the rest of the songs from the sessions weren't able to be finished to make this a complete album. The EP is magnificent, but a full album would be among the better releases of the entire year. Still, I'm thankful for what we have. "15,000 Days" is beautiful music, and a monumental step forward for someone who is now an artist with the light of a bright future fully ablaze.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Album Review: Omnium Gatherum - The Burning Cold

Death metal. I listen to very little of it, because it and I have a philosophical disagreement. I love music for the melody of it, while death metal loves the pain of pounding the listener into mental oblivion. The two are very different approaches to what music is supposed to be, and finding a common ground is not easy. That's where melodic death metal comes into play. It tries to be the bridge between brutal and beautiful, and every so often it manages to achieve that. Opeh had great moments, Be'lakor has done good work, and of course there is "Moontower", the single greatest album ever recorded with harsh vocals.

Omnium Gatherum falls into the same category, and while I cannot claim to be a huge fan of theirs, I have enjoyed some of their material in the past. They understand that death metal can have melody and beauty, while only serves to enhance the ugliness under the surface. It's more nuanced, and to me more effective, than simply playing as loud and as hard as you possibly can at all times.

That is well illustrated by "Refining Fire", where you get ringing chords, guitar harmonies, and an attempt to make the vocals as melodic as a growl can be in the chorus. Sure, there are also a few technical runs, and the song pounds along, but the core of the track is focused on creating a memorable statement. That is hard to do with death metal, and even the melodic death metal bands I come across can only do it a fraction of the time. Omnium Gatherum manages to do it more often than most. They build songs that are big and burly, while still graceful and elegant. 'Pure' metal fans might not like that, but it makes for a heck of a lot more interesting experience than your traditional "songwriting means putting a title on our boring growling" death metal.

What is a bit difficult here is trying to talk about Omnium Gatherum's music at any length, because they are remarkably consistent, which makes it hard to single out moments to either highlight or criticise. The details change, but the approach doesn't, which doesn't lend to deep analysis. Then there's the fact that harsh vocals of any kind obscure both the melody and the lyrics, so it's impossible to discuss the song's meanings either.

What I'm saying is that "The Burning Cold" is a very good melodic death metal album, but it's also a record that doesn't leave me a lot to say. Basically, if you've heard them before, you know what you're getting from this new record. They are top-notch at what they do, and this record continues on their path without fail. Sometimes, there isn't a lot new to talk about, so all I can do is reiterate that if you like melodic death metal, few do it better than Omnium Gatherum. If even I like it, that must mean something.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Album Review: Beyond The Black - Heart Of The Hurricane

Oh, symphonic metal. I don't have a deep history with the genre, because many of the bigger bands that define it have one of two problems; either they feature classical singers who clash with the metal elements, or they splash fancy adornments on the bare-bones songs rather than write around their strings and keyboards. In a way, symphonic metal becomes a bit like showing off your bling. The bands are busy showing you all the fancy things they can do with their sounds and productions, but they don't bother telling you why you should be impressed with their songs. So facing that history, and this being a lengthy thirteen track affair, I was certainly nervous about hearing Beyond The Black for the first time.

Just listen to the opening "Hysteria", and you get a sense of what I mean. It's a standard power metal style song, with a few strings in the background. Those elements aren't deeply integrated into the composition. In fact, the song wouldn't change a bit if they were removed. When symphonic metal is at its best, the extra bits carry some of the main melodies, written in a way that plays to the voices of those instruments. If you don't do that, it's all window dressing. And while that can look and sound beautiful, it isn't impressive from a critical standpoint.

With that out of the way, let's focus on the positive here; Beyond The Black is writing good power metal, with plenty of big melodies. We can differ over the colors used, but the songs themselves are beyond reproach. The band has delivered strong material with solid hooks, and Jennifer Haben is more than up to the task of making these songs work. Her voice is clean and beautiful, but never so much so that she doesn't fit the nature of metal. She is equally adept at the heavier material like the title track as she is with the sweeping ballad "Through The Mirror".

The band keeps piling great songs on top of each other. "Million Lightyears" and "Song For The Godless" continue the run, and are equally fantastic numbers that hit all the right melodic notes. And it's about here in the record that I realized the biggest problem I was having; it isn't symphonic metal. Sure, there are added bits here and there, but the focus is never on the band being more than a traditional guitar/bass/drums setup. This is melodic/power metal with a few adornments, which is why it works so well. There isn't any self-indulgence to show how much of a 'composer' anyone is. They are writing songs that want to work as melodic metal, and that they do.

Really, the only issue with the record is that it might be a little longer than it needs to be. I've found that lengthy records have had a harder and harder time keeping my attention for the duration, so having fifteen tracks available could be too much of a good thing. Of course, having more than enough good songs for an album is a problem most bands don't have. Too much of a good thing is always better than not enough, and that they do. There aren't songs on here where things slow down, or you think they don't measure up. That's impressive.

I hadn't heard of Beyond The Black before I sat down to listen to this record, so it caught me a bit by surprise. If they aren't already a band on the upswing, this record should ensure they will soon be. It's very good, and better at this style than several of the big names.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Album Review: Mob Rules - Beast Reborn

Sometimes a band drifts in a direction, or does something specifically, that makes you scratch your head. That happened to me with the previous Mob Rules album, where they went from power metal stalwarts to being almost a clone of later Iron Maiden. I didn't mind that, since I like that era of Maiden quite a bit, and the songs Mob Rules came up with were pretty good. But in the time since then, I haven't gone back to that record at all, because if I want to hear something that sounds like Maiden, I'll just listen to Maiden. Their shift in that direction sapped their own identity away, and I'm not sure how they wound up cloning someone else, since they have been around for long enough to have figured themselves out. Anyway, a new album could change that up, or it could continue them down that path. Let's find out.

After the obligatory intro, the record starts off with "Ghost Of A Chance", which has hints of Maiden again in the guitars, especially the harmonies, but retains more of Mob Rules' own identity. They're able to fuse some of those classic guitar parts with a chorus that is bigger and hookier than what they would come up with if they were pulling too heavily from the playbook.

Thankfully, they are able to stick to their own guns through most of the record. There are moments here and there when the guitar runs are a bit too obvious where they got their inspiration, but largely the band sounds like themselves again. There's a hint of pompous, symphonic flair to the tracks, as they try to make the choruses sound as grand and epic as they possibly can. There are times when that works exceedingly well, and other times when they might be trying a hair too hard.

Ironically, it's in the tracks with the heaviest Maiden influence that the music hits hardest. Those are the songs where they hit on something more interesting than the traditional power metal instrumentation. When they can combine that with a bigger chorus, that is when they are at their best. There are some of those moments on this record, but maybe not quite as many as I would have hoped for.

What is a bit difficult about this record is that it makes me of two minds; on the one hand, I want to commend the band on making a solid record that is much more their own this time out, but on the other hand, I want to say the previous album was a better overall effort. I'm not sure what it means for me to be saying an album I thought was a bit too heavy-handed with its influence was a better one than this effort. I wouldn't read to much into it, since I can't tell if I'm intending anything other than the obvious comparison.

So, "Beast Reborn" is a solid Mob Rules album. It sounds more like the band used to than when we last heard them, which is probably a good thing, even if they have to take a slight step back before they can move forward again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Album Review: Lola Black - Nothing's Gonna Be Alright

I'm not sure what the word 'buzz' means anymore. As I was reading the preamble to this album, I was informed about the growing profile of Lola Black, and the buzz she has been generating. Granted, I am not plugged into the mainstream of rock where I catch everything, but I had never heard her name, which leaves me wondering just what level of attention is enough to start bragging about. I know PR departments need to do what they need to do, but at some point we begin to tune out when the claims become too outrageous. I laugh when I get a press release about a 'legendary' band who never sold more than a handful of records, and while this isn't that bad, it shares the exaggeration.

On to the record. Lola Black is making her first big swing with this record, teaming up with well-known producer Bob Marlette for an album of slick and modern rock that fits in perfectly with where the charts are right now. The opening title track is the first single, and it draws you in to wanting to hear what else Lola is going to have to offer. With verses that dip into electronic atmospheres, you might get complacent, but then the chorus has a punch and a big hook that are pure radio rock. Lola's voice is strong and clear, and she has plenty of personality to carry the proceedings.

She follows that up with "How To Say Goodbye", which isn't fully a ballad, but is a softer-tinged approach that relies heavier on the emotions Lola can pull out of the melody. It's a beautiful track, and I love seeing rock artist who aren't tricked into believing they have to be heavy and 'tough' all the time. The genre can be so much more than that, and it works very well for an artist like Lola to embrace the entire spectrum of what rock can be.

A couple months ago, Letters From The Fire released a new album, and that brings a comparison to mind. While that band leaned more into the punk and aggressive sides of modern rock, what Lola Black is doing with this record is more in line with that band's first album, which is one that I have grown to love. Filling the void that Letters From The Fire created is exactly what modern rock needs. There is often a dearth of true hooks and emotional resonance in the genre, so hearing Lola Black give us both is a refreshing experience.

Another great track is "All In", which is a good metaphor. I don't know if Lola has indeed gone 'all in' with this record, but if she has the bet has clearly paid off. "Nothing's Gonna Be Alright" is a great mainstream rock album in a time when those are hard to come by. Some people might complain it isn't always heavy enough, but that misses the point. If everything is heavy, it fades into noise. What we get here is a well-balanced album that does exactly what it's supposed to.

The only problem is how the record finishes, with a cover of The Weeknd's "Starboy". It is so completely out of place on an album like this, and it pisses me off. Not only does it stand out because of the rapping feature, but I would be embarrassed to be listening to it when the racial language in the song starts to appear. It's something I want no part of. Thankfully, the song is last so it's easier to skip, but I still don't want a record where I have to remember to hit the 'stop' button so I don't get angry.

Lola Black is saying "nothing's gonna be alright", but I don't agree. With this album, we're mostly on the right track, and it sounds like everything will work out just fine.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Album Review: Doro - Forever Warriors/Forever United

When Doro first made her appearance on the scene, she was a rarity; a woman front and center in heavy metal. The culture has evolved over the years for the better, and it is no longer highly of note when a band has less y chromosomes than members. Everyone in metal now, whether they know the history or not, owes a debt of gratitude to Doro for helping to open the door and make it acceptable for women to show that they can rock. But, paying our respects doesn't mean giving someone a free pass, and for all the good Doro has done, she also has more than her share of underwhelming music.

That was made all too clear when "All For Metal" was released as the first single from these two records. It was a song written for the sake of the video potential, a brag track that touts how metal Doro has always been. There were two major problems with it. 1) Anytime you have to tell people you're metal, it sort of makes the case you really aren't, and 2) The song wasn't metal! There was barely a guitar to be heard in the track. It was a complete farce to release a non-rocking song to tell people how your life is dedicated to rocking. I felt sorry for her after listening to that song. But we soldier on.

With two albums to digest, Doro is trying our patience. While I'm not a fan of the two releases spaced out by a couple of months trick, I'm also not a fan of two albums being dumped on us at the same time. It's really too much music to take in at once. I can't say with any certainty it does, but I imagine my opinion of these releases may very well subtract a few points because of this.

The records are not helped by a sub-standard production job. "Forever United" opens with "Resistance", where the guitars are so far back in the mix they are hard to hear, then goes to "Lift Me Up", where the chorus is overwhelmed by guitars that sound like they were pushed so far up they are clipping. Surely, after three decades in music, Doro should have a better handle on the music than to allow a producer to hamper her in this way. It can be difficult to get a shiny, slick mix that highlights everything, but getting a rough balance isn't hard at all. This production isn't good enough, sorry.

All of that is a shame, because Doro has charm. On softer numbers like "Lift Me Up" and "It Cuts So Deep", she delivers sultry vocals that stand out from what you usually hear, and make the songs rather compelling. They are, sadly, the minority here. We get eighty minutes of music across nineteen songs, and if I was pressed to say, there might barely be one full album of quality material here. Between the tepid rockers, the non-melodic ballads, and the inclusion of some truly awful gargling vocals on "If I Can't Have You - No One Will", these records are filled with bad ideas.

Truly, I don't know why Doro felt the need to release two records right now. There is no way to say both of these albums are good enough to warrant not cutting a bunch of songs from the run-time. If the best songs made up one forty minute record, it would be a fine enough Doro record to give it a passing grade. But trying to get through both of these records is a chore, and someone along the line was supposed to realize that. I hate to say it, but Doro got let down here by everyone, including herself. These records, combined, are simply not good enough.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Album Review: Van Canto - Trust In Rust

We use the word 'gimmick' as a pejorative, when we really shouldn't. Gimmicks are easy ways to stand apart, and not necessarily something to be ashamed of. Ghost is the foremost gimmick band out there right now, but does their image and the rotating 'cast' of singers who have fronted them have any impact on the music? Of course not. Music is music, regardless of what else is going on around it. So the fact that Van Canto was able to find an untapped niche should not be considered a point to ding them on. Whether you like what they do or not, chances are if you've heard them you can't forget who they are. That's the whole point.

Van Canto's gimmick, for the uninitiated, is that they are a heavy metal band whose only musician is a drummer. All of the guitars and bass are provided by the singers, who stand in for the instruments. It's the sort of thing that sound like it couldn't possibly work, and yet they have a way of pulling it off (sometimes) in a way that makes you forget what you're listening to. They do not, however, always make great records. While they are great at doing what they do, songwriting is a different skill, one they sometimes struggle with.

The opening track "Back In The Lead", explicitly welcomes us back to the show, and immediately runs into trouble. Some of the lead vocals are mixed too low, muffling them. Plus, the lyrics are in that line where they tell us how they are going to rock us. I've said it for years, and I'll say it for years ahead; if you have to tell me you rock, you don't.

Furthermore, some of the lead vocals are weaker than I remember. One voice, in particular, is so rough around the edges he sounds like he has damaged vocal cords. It's a bit uncomfortable to listen to, given how often he is put to the forefront. It is also harder to overlook the vocals flaws, because the songs themselves don't give us a lot to sink our teeth into other than those vocals. The main melodies to the songs are rather flat and weak, with none of them sticking out as a memorable hook. The imitated riffs don't have a lot to them either, mostly trying to chug like the most generic parts of power metal.

This isn't my first foray into Van Canto's wacky metal world, but I don't remember my past experiences being this disappointing. I don't know if the band is going through a slump, but there's something about this album that is lacking a spark of energy. It is supposed to be a power metal record, but it is a chore to get through. The songs slog their way through, and there isn't anything particularly fun or enjoyable to listening to them. It's quite a disappointing listen, really.

I want to like Van canto, I really do. I find their gimmick entertaining, and I've heard them pull it off before in ways that are startlingly effective. This record, however, is not that. This is them going through the motions, without the songs to back up their gimmick. That word only becomes an insult when it's all a band has to offer. If you have the songs, you're colorful. If you don't, you're tricking us. Sadly, this album is closer to the latter.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Album Review: King Company - Queen Of Hearts

I'll be honest with you; with the amount of melodic rock records I get to hear, there's a point at which everything but the very best records blend together into a haze. It's not the fault of the bands, but like a sponge getting drenched, a mind can only hold so much music before it needs to be wrung out. I remember King Company from their debut album, in part because Pasi from Thunderstone was the singer, and I remember thinking it was a very solid record. I also, though, don't remember a single song from it anymore. That's what happens when there are at least five melodic rock albums every month coming out, all playing within the same range of sound. You can't remember everything vividly.

For album number two, the group is different, as Pasi was having vocal issues, resulting in a new singer handling this material. Those sorts of changes are never easy to handle, especially when a group is just trying to get themselves started. They haven't established an identity yet, and it's already changing.

It takes a bit of time to figure out what Leonard Guillan sounds like, as the vocals through much of the opening title track sound like there are multiple filters and effects on his voice, which gives them an alien feeling I can't say I'm fond of. He sits uncomfortably in the mix, where a drier recording would have more bite to it, and would be a more respectful way of showing how well he can sing. In time, he is revealed to be a fine singer, albeit he has the slight misfortune to sound similar to Ronnie Romero, who frequent readers might know I have been complaining about with regularity, given how often I have had to review his various projects these last couple of years. While Leonard is good, he has a tone I'm simply tired of.

But let's get down to business and talk about the music. As I remember from their first album, King Company is indeed a very capable melodic rock band. They are heavy enough to not be AOR, but melodic enough they don't fall into that 80s 'songwriting doesn't matter' style. They fit right in the sweet spot, where there is enough balance that both everyone and no one can complain about what they do. Couple that with a knack for writing solid hooks, and that leaves us with an album that is right in line with their first one, and sits comfortably among the solid melodic rock records this year has already given us.

"Stars" is the highlight of the record, to my ears. It is the most obvious throwback to the 80s, with a synth leading the main riff, while the pianos and big hook make for a delicious combination. The bar has been set by W.E.T., and this song matches their best efforts. The rest of the album can't match that lofty height, but it seldom dips from being a good record. I will say, though, that I can't help but think it would have come across a bit better if Pasi had been able to sing well enough to record these songs. His voice simply has something more 'it' than Leonard does.

So overall, King Company takes their second step towards establishing who they are, and it leads them in the right direction. There are tweaks here and there to how the recording was put together that can be made, but their songwriting has certainly stepped up since the first record. I can say this is easily a better record than that one, which again, I liked when it came out. However, there's so much competition I can't say if this is a record that will stick with me down the line, but it's a good record for the here and now.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Album Review: Primal Fear - Apocalypse

When Primal Fear started, there was a need for their existence. Judas Priest was falling off a cliff, and Ralph Scheepers used the notoriety from his audition to start a band to fill the void of classic Priest. For most of the last twenty years, there has been plenty of room for both bands, because the bigger name was wallowing in late-career ennui. But now that they have roared back to form with an album that most are calling their best since "Painkiller" (to me one of the most overrated albums of all time), what is the point of Primal Fear? Do we still need a copy when the original is in good shape?

The other thing regarding Primal Fear is that, other than one album where they ventured very slightly outside their comfort zone, every album delivers exactly the same thing. We get pounding traditional heavy metal with soaring vocals... exactly like people remember from Judas Priest. It is consistency for the fans, but tedious for those of us who never thought Maiden vs Priest was even a discussion. Frankly, after having gone through the last three or four Primal Fear albums in this role, I'm desperate to be surprised by the band.

Unfortunately, they aren't capable of delivering what I was looking for. The album kicks off with a string of songs that pound and blister, while Scheepers wails away. His voice has always sounded a bit odd to me, and when he strains to sound as heavy as the band wants to be, it gets worse. "The Ritual" is where they fall into the abyss, with a plodding riff that isn't particularly interesting, and the chorus is Scheepers struggling to make a flat and boring melody sound tough. It doesn't, and it comes across as complete filler.

If they could stick to material like "King Of Madness", there is plenty of potential to do good work. That song, which was a single, establishes a groove and has one of the most melodic choruses on the record. It still isn't what I would classify as 'hooky', but the sound is refreshing after the first two tracks offer nothing but stereotypical metal.

Then we get "Blood Sweat & Fear", which is the most blatant Priest song on an album of them. It's of similar quality to "Firepower", but it does the exact same thing, which makes it harder to take Primal Fear seriously. Two decades into their run, we still can't listen to one of their records without the comparison hitting us in the face like a bug splattering on a windshield. Frankly, I find it a bit sad they have never established their own identity.

There are hints of what could be in "Supernova", where some strings and extra guitar harmonies make their sound bigger and more lush. That is the same divergence I mentioned earlier that they tried during their "Seven Seals" phase. I enjoyed those twists, and I like them here too. But when we only get one of them on a record, it's a false tease that makes the rest of the pastiche harder to swallow.

So what we wind up with is another mixed bag album, which is what you get from a band with several distinctive songwriters all contributing. In addition to the aforementioned good tracks, there is also "Hounds Of Justice" delivering quality melodic heavy metal, but there is half of the record which is tired and dull, and doesn't play at all to Scheepers ability to sing. Ever since Rob Halford started shrieking in place of singing a real melody, metal bands have been following suit, to painful results. Primal Fear has never been able to resist that urge, and it hurts them.

"Apocalypse" is a Primal Fear album as they all are; flawed. The band has the potential to do great things, and if you love Judas Priest like gods, they already do. But for the rest of us, they fall into the same category that Greta Van Fleet does in the mainstream now; a copy that claims not to be a copy, when we all know they're a copy. And good as they might be at recreating a sound, that is always less interesting than being original.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Album Review: The Temperance Movement - A Deeper Cut

One of the genres I've never gotten much into is southern rock. Both sonically and culturally, there is something about the music I have never been able to connect with. Every so often a band comes along that makes me think I can change that, but it never seems to last. The last time that happened was with Blackberry Smoke's album "The Whippoorwill". I had encountered them briefly, and so gave that album a chance. It was largely enjoyable, and I certainly liked their sound, but they quickly fizzled for me, with their subsequent work making no impact at all.

I say that because this new album from The Temperance Movement sounds quite a bit like Blackberry Smoke. They have tapped into the blues roots of American southern rock, which is funny, as the band is British. You could try to say they are bluesy in the way The Rolling Stones were, but I hear so much of the American south in their sound that I don't think it would be an accurate claim. And since this is an album made in the aftermath of a lapse of sobriety, the southern connections ring even louder (what is that genre if not about drinking?).

I started my preface talking about my distance from this style, in part to make it clear what The Temperance Movement has done here. This is not music I am naturally drawn to loving, and yet I find this record to be engaging and enjoyable in a way that old-school rock sometimes struggles to be. There are two tracks these bands can take. One is to be like Graveyard, and use the weight and power of the blues to propel their rock and roll. The other is to lean into emotion and try to add plaintive melody into the mix. That's the approach The Temperance Movement has taken, and it pays off in spades.

"A Deeper Cut" is an album of bluesy vintage rock and roll, but we seldom hear it (new or old) with so many lush melodies carrying the songs. This is less an album of big bluesy riffs than it is a songwriter's album. You get the swagger of rock and roll, the gritty power that comes from that old-school Marshall sound, but you also get beautiful moments of melody that classic rock never offered up. Mick Jagger might have had charisma (I don't see it, but everyone else does), but no Stones songs I've ever heard were constructed like this, nor do I think he could have sung them.

It's odd how we associate certain sounds with places, and become amazed when the geography doesn't match our ears. The Temperance Movement doesn't sound like a British band at all, but I think that's one of the things that makes this album work. They are filtering their perspective through the sound of someone else, which gives a different take on it than from those you would expect. As outsiders, they can bring something new.

Maybe the people who grew up loving Lynyrd Skynyrd would find sacrilege to the changes made to the sound, but I find The Temperance Movement to be refreshing. "A Deeper Cut" is the kind of album that works across genres and borders. They've done a damn good job with this one.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Album Review: Nookie - Exceptions

In all the years I've been writing about music, I have covered just about everything. I've reviewed the spectrum from pop to black metal, from mainstream rock to jazzy instrumentals. But sitting down to write about this record, I believe it's the first time I've ever covered a record in another language, where whether or not I can make them out, I can't connect whatsoever to the lyrics. Considering that I'm both a writer and a songwriter, it's an odd distance to have between myself and the music. While there are many, especially in the metal world, who write off lyrics as being completely unimportant, I am not one of them. The message of a song can certainly detract from what might otherwise be a good composition. It happens all the time, so it's odd thinking these songs could be something I would hate, if I understood them.

Nookie is a Russian alternative singer, and leaving geopolitics behind, has an album that sounds a lot like the Western alternative female-fronted scene, just with Cyrillic syllables in the melodies. Her voice sits in that comfortable zone between pop and punk, where she has enough of a shout to it that the music comes across as aggressive, but she's able to keep enough melody when it's time for a hook. Hers is a style like a rougher version of early Paramore.

The upside of the record is Nookie herself. Even with the language barrier, she has a charisma that carries into the music where I can feel what she's going for. She's energetic, angry, and easily the selling point of the whole experience.

The downside of the record is, as I thought it might be, the fact that I can't connect to the music on more than a glossy surface level. Simply trying to talk about what songs work the best is difficult, as the language forms strings of letters I struggle to make sense of. Conveying thoughts about things that aren't anchored to my own reality is one of those philosophical puzzles that isn't easy to solve. So rather than pick out songs to highlight little things, let's stick with overall impressions.

"Exceptions" is fascinating for what it teaches me. It is a record firmly in a style I have a soft spot for, but the language barrier makes it impossible for me to say how much I do or don't like it. I relate to songs both melodically and lyrically (trust me, plenty of songs have been ruined by posturing about how much someone rocks, parties, or drinks), and half of the experience has been removed here. I like what I do hear, but I'm missing the human connection. It's part of the reason I've rarely enjoyed extreme metal. I like the poetry of music, and it's missing here.

That said, "Exceptions" is a solid record for the style, and it's an interesting thought experiement for me. I don't know if you will get the same thing out of it, but at least for the sake of opening my eyes, it was worth listening to.