Friday, September 28, 2018

Album Review: Brainstorm - Midnight Ghost

This has been another slow year for power metal. Like the last few, there hasn't been much on the scene that has caught my attention. Either the music has been in the mold of the Helloween rehashers, or it hasn't had the sharp songwriting to overcome the limitations of the genre. Powerwolf put out a great record, but they are the exception to the trend. Brainstorm has something in their corner this time around, producer Seeb Levermann of Orden Ogan fame. His band is one of the few consistently delivering modern power metal that excels, so there is hope that he can steer Brainstorm in a direction that is more enthralling than usual.

His influence is felt early on. "Devil's Eye" opens things with a thrashing riff that chugs along not unlike an Orden Ogan song, but the chorus has deeply layered backing vocals that sound exactly like what Seeb would do with his own group. That massive quality is one of the things that makes them stand out, and it has always worked to make the music sound larger than life. Let's face it; most power metal doesn't have interesting guitar parts, which puts all of the emphasis on the hooks to compel the listener. Making the choruses sound bigger and bigger is one of the tricks that serves to do just that. If they went Iron Maiden style, and went without background vocals at all, this material would sound much flatter than it does. Production does matter.

The other thing that matters is consistency. Even if you can deliver a killer track or two to serve as the highlights, the mark of an album is how deep you can go before you hit filler. That is where Brainstorm has elevated their game. While I am not intimately familiar with their catalog, I've heard enough bits and pieces from them to be able to say this is easily the best they've ever sounded. Sure, it could just be my bias because I am quite fond of Orden Ogan, so any move in that direction would be considered a good thing. Regardless of why, Brainstorm sounds bigger and more engaging than I remember.

If you happened to hear the single, "The Pyre", it doesn't give an accurate representation of what the rest of the record has to offer. That track was released perhaps because it was a bit more traditional, but I find it to be one of the lesser offerings, lacking the immediate hooks that the best tracks here boast. "Ravenous Minds", "Revealing The Dark", and "Divine Inner Ghost" are all banging tracks that have sharp hooks, while we get a more stretched out song in "Jeanne Boulet 1764", but even that one is dramatic and melodic.

"Four Blessings" is a slight hiccup, relying too heavily on "whoa-oh" sections, but it's only a slight dip in the second half of the record. It would be hard to keep up the pace of the initial few tracks, which Brainstorm doesn't quite do, but they acquit themselves well throughout. "Midnight Ghost" is a very solid example of what power metal is today, or maybe what it should be. It isn't fully to greatness, but it's Brainstorm at their best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Album Review: Riverside -Wasteland

There isn't much harder than losing an important band member, except for losing an important band member. Riverside is not walking into this new album simply without guitarist Piotr Grudzinski, they are still mourning his loss. The fork in their road is not one of disagreement, nor a change in direction, but true loss. There were questions about how to move on, and whether it was even something worth pursuing. But they have decided to move on, and Riverside is back, albeit different now.

"Wasteland" is a meditation as much as an album, and trying to judge an expression of grief feels a bit garish to me. How can you tell someone the way they have chosen to cope is wrong?

For this outing, the band has changed course and started to look backward a bit. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the last couple of albums, but this one is more streamlined with callbacks to the "ADHD" sound, which was my favorite of their records. Sounding more like a 70s hard rock band filtered through a prog lens (there are ample hints of Uriah Heep through the organs), the music is more interesting this way than when the band had settled into a more comfortable somber prog mood.

Noticeable about the record is how the guitars are filtered. The distorted tones are fuzzy around the edges, a bit like a ghost hanging in the air. There is a lack of sharpness I would usually criticize, but considering the message the album is putting forward, it makes sense. This music shouldn't crackle with energy, or sparkle with a sheen atop it all. There needs to be grit and emotion to it, and letting the guitars feel distraught and incomplete works for that.

What has always made it difficult for me to get into Riverside is their take on what melody in prog is supposed to be. It's the same issue I have with other bands that receive lavish praise, such as Kingcrow (who also have a new record). They sing clean, but always with such subtlety that the hooks feel dull to the touch. There is melodic and there is catchy, and Riverside has always been exclusively in the former camp. You can argue that this album should be exactly that, but there still needs to be something for us to grab onto as listeners.

"Guardian Angel" is the perfect example of that. The song has some lovely acoustic guitars, but the thrust of the song are softly whispered spoken word vocals that have not an ounce of melody to them. The message may be important, but it gets lost without a delivery method that excites us. It is a slow eulogy at exactly the time the audience needs to be picked back up.

"Acid Rain" and "Lament" are far more effective at striking the right balance, delivering powerful doses of emotion that are wrapped up in melodies we can engage with. There is life in them, which is needed on an album preoccupied with death.

I understand that making a record can be a therapeutic experience, and the band needed to do something to take the first steps in moving forward with their lives. But just because something is personal doesn't mean it is enjoyable. I wish the guys in Riverside no ill will, and if this record has helped them, that's great. What I can't do is say I enjoyed listening to this record, because I didn't. Too much of the record is a slow dirge through the pits of despair, which is not where I want to be as a music fan. Good for them, but I'm going to have to pass on this one.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Album Review: Dynazty - Firesign

As I have said many times, what I love perhaps most of all is heavy metal combined with big pop hooks. That combination hits at every part of who I am as a music fan, and it is done well so rarely, so I try to hang on dearly every time I come across a good record. That is why Dynazty is a bit odd. Their last two albums have hit the right balance, and I have enjoyed them, yet they haven't stuck with me the same way my favorites do. I still play Bloodbound's "Tabula Rasa" at least bi-monthly, and James LaBrie's "Impermanent Resonance" hits me every time I hear it. Dynazty hasn't done that for me yet. I always hold out hope that it will happen the next time, which just so happens to be now.

Listening to "Firesign", it sounds like an album I should absolutely love. "The Grey" is a song that builds up to a chorus with a strong melody and stop-start guitars that have a simple hook to them as well. That is the kind of little thing that makes it harder to forget a song. You can take all the technical runs of notes the most talented players can muster, and none of them mean anything. But if you can play two notes that have a groove you can hum along with, you've figured out what writing songs is all about.

Dynazty can't resist throwing some extra cheese into a style of metal that often gets portrayed that way regardless. The title track, as well as a couple of other spots, are dotted with strongly digital synth tones. How seriously you take your metal will probably determine whether or not you enjoy those aspects. For me, they don't last long very long, so I have no problem with them trying to add color to the songs. This wouldn't be the right music for them to go all-in on "Follow The Reaper" era Children Of Bodom synths, but as minor details they work.

The issue that crops up is the nature of pop music. Everyone tends to have an idea of what pop melodies are supposed to sound like (myself included), which can be so limiting that the songs you create off that template can be too similar. There have been a few bands this year I have mentioned having songs that felt too similar to songs from their own recent past. With Dynazty, there are a couple of melodies just within this album that are rather close to one another. I think perhaps the target they were shooting for was not quite wide enough.

But don't let that distract from the main point here, which is that "Firesign" is a solid album of catchy melodic metal. If you've heard any of the singles that were put out, you will know what the rest of the album has to offer. There isn't a lot in the way of diversity here, but what's done is done well. Dynazty has a signature sound they are mining, and they are merely refining that sound to create albums that deliver heavy guitars and catchy vocals. I can't blame them for doing what works.

So my takeaway from "Firesign" is pretty much the same as it was when I was listening to their previous album, "Titanic Mass". Dynazty doesn't quite hit the highs of my favorites from the style, but they do a good job of delivering songs that deliver on all the aspects of metal I love. That makes it an easy recommendation.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Album Review: I:Scintilla - Swayed

In all the time I have been writing about music, I don't know if I have ever covered an album that included the word 'industrial' in the accompanying description. There have been opportunities, I know for sure, but I can't recall ever taking up any of them. I am one of those people who appreciates the organic elements of music. I love the sounds of instruments as they are, and the idea of listening to processed or programmed drums as a centerpiece of the proceedings is not something I have ever looked forward to. There are, by my estimation, two kinds of music listeners; fans of melody and fans of rhythm. I am almost entirely in the first category, which makes these kinds of projects difficult for me, at best.

Listening to I:Scintilla on this record, I'm not sure why they remind us of a past that is no longer the present. This album sees the band moving towards more organic sounds, reducing the programming and samples to small segments in the background, while natural drums power most of the compositions. And when the guitars aren't grinding through songs, as they often don't, there is barely a hint of industrial to the record. Putting that word in my head may create a false scenario where I am holding the record to a standard that shouldn't apply.

There are places where their past creeps up, most notably in "Boxing Glove", where the song is a slow and pounding number that is the dirty, grimy underbelly of a hulking machine. By that nature, it is also one of the least interesting songs here, because it gives Brittany Bindrim less room to work with that most of the others. She is able to bring some real melody to "Carmen Satura", the track that convinced me I should give the record a chance. That is a sound that works, where the heavy rhythms are still dominant, but there is a balance with her voice and melodies that should appeal to all sides.

But as the album unfolds, it is a sound I'm not sure the band is fully committed to. Often, there is a sense they are holding back, unsure if they can or should move further away from industrial. I can't answer that question, since they never go far enough to see what they are capable of as a band without limits, but I can say that trying to straddle the fence seldom leads to rewards as satisfying as if you stay on either side.

There are some lovely melodies here, like in "Nothing But Recordings", but not enough of them to fill out the record. This is a transitional point, and like when you crest a hill at freeway speeds, there's a split second where you feel your stomach rise up into your chest. That's where we are here, since it's never clear whether the band is going to pull the trick off or not. While I appreciate them trying something new, and moving to make their music more human, I don't think there has been enough development of their songwriting to match what the production is aiming for.

That leaves "Swayed" as one of those albums stuck in the middle, where both fans of where the band has been and where the band may ultimately wind up will both be both intrigued and disappointed at the same time. If a new act in their career is opening, this is merely setting the scene. It might be interesting, but it isn't captivating.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Album Review: Dark Sarah - The Golden Moth

Cinematic metal. Those are two words that scare me when I come across them. When I think of metal, cinema isn't something that comes to my mind very often. The world of cinematic writing, and the soundtracks where it is usually found, have little to do with the basic structure of metal as we have come to embrace it. Cinematic writing, as I often hear, eschews the immediacy of riffs and hooks for an approach that relies on atmosphere and scope to wow us. While there are times and places where that can work, I find it lacking for entire albums. I'm not saying metal needs to be a punch in the teeth (I don't really like that style, to be honest), but it's very easy to get drawn out to the point the songs feel like a used up elastic band. So does Dark Sarah avoid that fate?

Let's take a look at "Trespasser", the first full track on the record. It starts out with a heavy riff that gets your blood pumping... and then calms down into a soft crawl while the two vocalists trade barely whispered lines. The metal kicks back up for the chorus, but Heidi's vocals are so high and laden with vibrato that the lyric gets lost, while JPs vocals are so much deeper that they don't blend well enough.

The other issue is that the melodies they reach for are of the variety I have long expressed my displeasure with; long held notes with no urgency to bend around a hook. Yes, they can showcase the power and beauty of a singer's voice, but they lack bite, and are so soft they leave no impact on a listener's memory.

The story of the record is the namesake character escaping the underworld to a wasteland, and then teaming up with a dragon to find their way to the gods. That's rather standard stuff for epic power metal, but it leaves me a bit confused. The settings, and the dragon character, aren't backed up by the music that we're hearing. So much of it is triumphant and uplifting that it flies in the face of the story. The wasteland should require more gritty music, and the dragon needs to have a metallic snarl behind him, but that's not what the record delivers. Concept albums are always tough to pull off without sounding cheesy, and this is one of the reasons why. "Star Wars" was filmed on set with Darth Vader's voice being performed as Scottish. That's the sort of non-sequitur we end up with here, though obviously not to that degree.

That feeling makes it harder to fully embrace the good material on the record. "Wheel" and "My Beautiful Enemy" are wonderfully pleasant symphonic metal with classical vocals, and a straight-forward album of songs like that would be quite enjoyable. However, I can't ignore the cognitive dissonance that exists. Every detail of an album matters, especially when you say it is like a movie telling an epic story. Plot holes can ruin a movie, and there are audio equivalents for albums.

There is also no momentum built up at any point. There are moments in "Pirates" that hit the right marks for the story, but they get swallowed up by long passages of quiet ambiance and soft crooning. Why is a dragon crooning?

That confusion is the main takeaway I had from this album. There are aspects to what Dark Sarah is doing here that I really like, but the entire experience is hampered by the concept. Once you get beyond that first song, there are ample hooks and glorious moments, but the songs spend so much time setting the stage for that scene they feel like one-liners, and not routines. I wish I could say otherwise, but "The Golden Moth" is a promising collection of ideas that can't overcome the clunky execution of a concept album. That's a shame, because I hear a lot of potential here to be a more metallic version of Karnataka's last album, which was a masterstroke of cinematic writing. Maybe next time.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Album Review: Clutch - "Book of Bad Decisions"

It may be time to eat a little crow.  In fact, it’s probably well past time.

Following the release of “Robot Hive/Exodus,” things started to angle down for Clutch.  Their jam dalliances were coming more and more into the fore of their music, and it was causing division among the fanbase – those who wanted the band to perpetually be the group that released “Pure Rock Fury,” and those who wanted to hear more from “Jam Room.”  (Just as an editorial note for context, I was in the former group.)

The next two albums, if you were a fan of the band’s particular brand of blistering, riff-driving metal, were disappointing to say the least.  They had strayed too far from their root source and there was a sense that the bell curve which had peaked with “Blast Tyrant” was riding the inevitable crash back to the bottom.

Now though, retribution and redemption.  “Earth Rocker” showed some promise, and then “Psychic Warfare” was a modern masterpiece; while not the same style per se as some of its lofty predecessors, the album popped with spirit and vigor and showed that the band was still possessed of plenty of fight and desire.

And now we come to “Book of Bad Decisions.”

What we are really presented here is two records in one – an album proper of eight songs, attached to a back-half EP that experiments in a new direction.  Imagine if the band’s self-titled album and the “Impetus” EP had been packaged as one record, and you’re in the right direction.

Addressing the first half first (natch,) we kick the album off with “Gimme the Keys,” and the logical extension of “Psychic Warfare” kicks into high gear from jump.  Off we go.

There’s a different flavor here, though.  “Book of Bad Decisions” is something we haven’t heard from Clutch before – there’s a level of accessibility here we’re not accustomed to while they’re composing music with this much body.  Not to say that Clutch has ever been as dense as a technical death metal experiment or anything, but they have always had enough edge to elude radio and popular visibility.  This album changes all of that by taking the rock hooks of (ugh) “From Beale Street to Oblivion” and mixing them with a throatier sensibility and deeper groove.

In the final cut, what we hear is a big, loud album that sounds like the soundtrack to a “Mirror, Mirror” version of “American Hustle,” or some similarly themed throwback to 1970’s intrigue.  The bombast of “How to Shake Hands” alone is fuzzy as hell but stylized and measured in a way that only Clutch has mastered.

To pair this song with “In Walks Barbarella” is the album’s best back-to-back punch, though it comes with the caveat that we’ve never heard Clutch put down a lick like the latter song.  The principal melody is put down by horns, which gives an affect like Elvis in the later Las Vegas days, but still threaded through with Clutch’s usual down-tuned aplomb.  Roll this all together with the jangly piano of “Vision Quest” and the insistent cowbell (insert joke here,) of “Weird Times,” and we have a Clutch experience that’s exceptionally high octane, but remarkably different from what we’re used to the from the band.

The second half of the record begins with “Sonic Counselor,” and from this point forward, we return to the bluesy, gin-soaked basement that Clutch has felt singularly at home in for more than twenty-five years.  “A Good Fire” thumps along with the carousing, beer-swinging style that’s become so idiomatic in the band’s music, and it’s a pleasant enough return to the expected.

In a twist, the more traditional second half of “Book of Bad Decisions,” is actually the less interesting one, as Clutch runs out of experimental material and simply goes back to stripped-down basics.  That’s not to say that it’s not enjoyable, far from it – it simply feels like we’ve heard it before, right down to the slow, plodding burn of the album’s closer, “Lorelei.”  Clutch has written variations of this song multiple times, whether it be “Spacegrass,” “Drink to the Dead,” “The Dragonfly,” “Son of Virginia,” or whatever other version.

All credit to Clutch here.  To write an album of fifteen songs that contains no filler whatsoever, and moreover makes all those songs compelling and enjoyable on some level, is no small feat.  And no matter what we said above, make no mistake that there are no duds here – the second half of the album is only diminished in quality relative to the first half, not to good music as a whole.  “Book of Bad Decisions” does require a little more patience to get into than “Psychic Warfare” did, but it’s one of the best albums of the year to date. Period.

And here’s where the crow eating comes in.  There is no way that “Book of Bad Decisions” can happen without the band having worked through and ultimately absorbed the lessons of “From Beale Street to Oblivion” and “Strange Cousins From the West.”  We have lamented on these very pages that Clutch may never again be ‘The American Psycho Band’ as was boasted on the back cover of their eponymous record, and they may never be, but to grow and evolve is the lifeblood of any group of creative professionals, and so to expect the same thing over a quarter-century was the height of folly on our part in the first place.  Mea culpa.

A further serving of crow – since “Strange Cousins,” (and no, I am not changing my opinion of that record or “Beale Street,”) Clutch has released three albums ranging from good to exceptional, all of which belong in the pantheon of the band’s most laudable works.  Speaking for anyone who may have left the band for dead, our bad, Clutch.

Clutch remains the pace car for American rock, and all of its derivatives.  They continue to show us how it should be done.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Album Review: Uriah Heep - Living The Dream

Every year when the State Fair is open for business, I'm amazed at how many bands from the 50s-70s are still on the road, playing the same songs they have for decades. Music is one of those businesses where very few seem to ever retire, even when it's clear many of them should have hung up their boots long ago. I know why a lot of them are out there cashing the checks, but I always get bothered by those who have toured for ages without writing anything new in years, if not decades. Being a musician should be about more than playing the old hits. You need to still have a creative passion, or at least I tend to think you do. So when an old-guard band like Uriah Heep is still releasing records, I consider that far more respectable than some bands who will not be named here.

This latest run of albums from the band has seen them garnering a fair amount of attention. I will admit, however, that after "Wake The Sleeper", I haven't been impressed by much of the music they have offered up. They still retain that classic, organ-drenched sound that I do love, but as I have discussed many times with the wave of retro rock bands, songwriting is far more important than sonics.

Let's take the first two tracks on this album, as an illustration. "Grazed By Heaven" starts things out with those lush Hammond chords, but the chorus is heavy on the one-note chanting that has never appealed to me. The title track that follows has less of a riff, but the chorus is multitudes more melodic. It's easy to hear which of these two songs is going to leave the more lasting impression. One might be more fun for the live show, and audience participation, but that's not the same thing as making a great record.

Normally, with albums from veteran bands like this, one of two things happens; either they hit on a fountain of youth to make one of their best albums ever (like Harem Scarem did last year), or they have a couple great tracks on an album that is hit and miss.

What happens less often is to have a record that doesn't have any highlights. Usually, any band that's been doing this long enough will be able to put together one killer track that will make the experience worthwhile. This time, though, Uriah Heep doesn't do that. There isn't that one song on this record that you will remember, that will stand up with their old classics.

That being said, it's not as though this is a bad record. It's all perfectly acceptable Uriah Heep music. If you're a fan of their style, and Bernie Shaw's voice, then you can have a decent time listening to this record. But if you're looking for some cracking songs that are going to stick with you, you might end up disappointed. Getting this record is better than endless tours with nary a new note to be heard, but it also isn't anything to get overly excited about. It's laid-back music that fits the stereotype of veteran bands. I don't believe in that, but every once in a while it happens to be true.

Uriah Heep may be "Living The Dream", but this album is one you'll have to write down as soon as you awaken if you want to remember it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Album Review: Ethernity - The Human Race Extinction

Melodic progressive metal is a thing, but I don't always understand why. Not that I don't get the music, or like a fair bit of it, but the nomenclature is an issue. There is a lot of progressive metal, and the melodic kind especially, that isn't progressive. I don't see how playing a straight-forward song in 3/4 instead of 4/4 makes the music 'progressive'. If you need to do a statistical analysis to tell something isn't quite the usual way, it might as well have not been done in the first place. So the comparisons between Ethernity and bands like Symphony X and Evergrey come as both a blessing and a curse. Those are somewhat lofty standards (for the genre) to live up to.

What sets Ethernity apart from almost any other band playing this kind of music is Julie Colin, who brings a completely different approach to her vocals. Melodic progressive metal is jammed full of singers who either scrape the highest notes of their registers, or fake tough-guy grit. Julie sits comfortably in between, her voice naturally lower than the sky-scrapers, and with the right amount of attitude to not sound like she's trying too hard to be something she isn't.

Musically, we find ourselves in the style of metal where the guitars are ringing chords through the melodic choruses, while the verses syncopate rhythms, as opposed to playing melodic riffs. That is what is popular today, and there are plenty of albums where it works very well, but I can't help but always want to hear something more from the guitarists. When the genre was founded on Tony Iommi, it is sad to hear album after album where there isn't a single riff you could hum or sing along with the way Black Sabbath (and later Heaven & Hell) crowds always have.

Part of what that means is the songs tend to blend together until we get to the big melodic moment. It does unite the songs, which makes sense with this being a conceptual story, but lengthier albums could stand to have a little more diversity to capture and keep our attention. The big melodic moments, though, more often than not pay things off well enough to make that a minor concern.

"Grey Skies", in particular, hits with an immense power. The melody cascades down, with the power of the mix putting real weight behind it. Those are the kinds of moments that are undeniable (oh yeah, and that Symphony X maybe never delivered).

The entire first half of the record works well, hammering home songs with heavy riffs and big hooks. That run of songs is better than anything Evergrey has done since "Torn", which I have always felt is a terribly underrated record. The middle of the album, however, starts to bog down a bit. "Rise Of Droids"has a chorus that is a slow, dull chant, which is then followed by nearly three minutes of instrumental interlude that doesn't have anything to say, but merely serves as an intermission.

Things do pick up for the end of the record, so we can finish on a high note. That leaves us to make a final judgment. "The Human Race Extinction" is an album that has a lot of pluses on the ledger, but also a few minuses. Overall, the good outweighs the bad, and it stands as a solid and enjoyable record for fans of the style. It isn't one of the best records of the year, but it's a good one.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Album Review: Pale Waves - My Mind Makes Noises

Pop music is a reflection of its time, whether that be the sunny optimism of the 60s, the obsession with technology in the 80s, or today's brain dead era that treats anything approaching intellectualism as a cause to rally the masses with pitchforks and torches. I want there to be more to this time and place than an aversion to intelligence. Pop music, regardless of the incarnation, is supposed to be the fluffy soundtrack that propels us through life. The reality of the times is why I have spent very little time or attention on pop music these days. I find no enjoyment in computerized blips and bleeps, capped off with lyrics that think twelve repetitions of the same word is good enough. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, and that's not really what pop music is.

Good pop music is fun, but fun in a way that fits the cultural zeitgeist. Right now, that might mean pop music that is tinged with an undertone of righteous anger, but I don't see it that way. Neither does Pale Waves. Their music is pop, and it's fun, but it comes with an undertone of melancholy that sets it apart, and reminds us we're all just trying to get through each day without having our heads explode.

Pale Waves sound is one I have described as 'Daria rock'. If you are of a certain age (which I am), you remember that show as a hilarious comedy that made us laugh at the absurdity of being young and disillusioned. It also, however, made us sad when we realized how accurate the stereotypes were, and how easily they transferred into adulthood. Pale Waves music achieves that same feat, like a Technicolor film noir. The backdrop is bright and shiny, but Heather Baron-Gracie's lyrics and delivery have an icy tinge to them that is detached the same way we now feel further apart from each other, despite having never been more connected.

The buzz started last year when "Television Romance" was released. That sound captured people's attention because it took a sound that we were used to hearing, and twisted it just enough that it felt new and fresh. That sound was the bright, bouncy song that made us feel like when the sugar high was already wearing off. It was euphoria after the fact, where we can appreciate the feeling more fully. That song appears here on the record, and still acts like a stiletto piercing our pop loving hearts.

Let's get one thing out of the way early; as the singles have kept coming, there has been criticism that the band is already repeating themselves, and the songs are too similar. That isn't entirely unfair, but it misses the bigger point; Pale Waves is establishing their musical identity, and that entails making it clear. They do that by delivering an album that will appeal to fans from track one to track fourteen.

"My Mind Makes Noises" is, in my mind, the logical follow-up statement to Taylor Swift's "1989". Both records trade in the slightly synthesized, slightly detached pop sound. But whereas Taylor was writing for sunny days, Pale Waves live under cloudier atmospheres. As we all know, those are the days where the air feels alive with the static of a building storm.

And a storm is what Pale Waves are.  "Eighteen", "There's a Honey", and "Noises" welcome us into the record with songs that are already familiar to us. They are like cold fire, somehow pulling us in while keeping us at arm's distance. They are also classic pop nuggets, with hooks that don't seem impressive the first time you hear them, until you realize you still find yourself humming them the next day. There is music that tries to be catchy, and there is music that is naturally memorable. For being so young, Pale Waves falls on the right side of that equation effortlessly.

We can also put it this way; do you remember how obvious it is that Fall Out Boy is pandering to modern listeners to keep themselves relevant? This record is the complete opposite; a record that sounds modern and up-to-date, but without a hint of pandering. This is really who they are, and because you can hear the authenticity in what Heather is singing about, the music becomes that much more vibrant and embraceable. The skipping vocals in "Loveless Girl" are a natural part of the sound, and not like a botched cosmetic surgery, as we saw from Fall Out Boy's "Young and Menace".

And to answer the critics, there is "When Did I Lose It All", one of the album's quasi-ballads, and a unique song in their catalog. With the rhythm slowed down, and the energy tamped down, the beauty of the band's sound is put on full display. There is a lush depth to the layers of guitars and synths that makes the band sound stadium sized. This, and not whatever Imagine Dragons is doing, is how pop/rock is supposed to sound on the biggest stages.

"One More Time" is as massive a pop song as there has been in years, and is an obvious example of how Pale Waves will be headlining arenas in short order. In fact, the only negative I can find with the record is that the band didn't find room in the running order to include "New Year's Eve". They already have too many good songs. What a problem to have...

Look, I don't review a lot of pop music anymore, because I find myself out of touch with where the scene is. I've aged out of the window the mainstream is aiming for. But that doesn't mean I don't still love pop music when it's done well. "1989" brought me back to paying attention to what is going on, and I'm grateful it has, because the time it took me to grow into that type of pop is what allows me to hear Pale Waves for what they are. "My Mind Makes Noises" is more than just a debut album. It is a record that plants a flag at the summit of the pop mountain, boldly proclaiming their intention to claim the entire landscape as their own.

In the world of pop as it stands in 2018, they very well could. "My Mind Makes Noises" is a masterful reminder that sometimes collective wisdom exists because the truth is obvious to everyone.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Album Review: Dream Child - Until Death Do We Meet Again

Ronnie James Dio's death left a gaping hole in the metal world. We might not have realized it at the time, but there was no lder statesman who could fit into his role as the powerful overlord of our music. But rather than let things evolve as they saw fit, we have been saddled with a development that is quite sad. A hologram of Dio is out 'performing', sullying his legacy, while the various members of his band have decided to try to recreate the glory of the past. I could be cynical and say it's because they know they have no careers of their own at this point, and still need Dio's name to garner any attention. Ok, I am cynical, and that's exactly what has happened. Vivian Campbell gathered up half of them for his 'real' version of Dio (minus the man himself), while this band features Craig Goldy and company doing their damnedest to clone the original.

What makes this group stand out is Diego Valdez, who takes up the mantle by being about as good a clone of Dio as I've ever heard. If the recording wasn't so much cleaner than what was done at the time, you could easily mistake him and this record for the follow-up to "Dream Evil".

While a lot of people will hear that and scream in delight, I am not one of them. Regardless of the quality of the music, I find it troubling to hear these veterans spend so much of their energy making a record that doesn't have a single drop of originality to it. This record is a copy, perhaps a loving one, but a copy nonetheless. Opening "Under The Wire" even has the right pacing and vocal line to sound exactly like a cut from "Master Of The Moon". Now, I like that album a lot more than most Dio fans do, but I don't need or want to hear it again.

But what of the music? That's where we can take a more positive tact. I have made no secrets of the fact that both Viv and Goldy have done absolutely nothing without Dio that I have ever liked. I didn't like Viv's Dio tribute, or his blues band, and Goldy's last effort was flat and lifeless. So put in that context, Dream Child is the best album either of them has made on their own, perhaps ever.

Yes, it sounds just like Dio, and borrows quite a bit from his bag of songwriting tricks, but that's also what makes it work. There's a level of familiarity to these songs already that makes it hard to hate them, no matter what you feel about the project on a philosophical level. But be warned; this is Dio in the "Master Of The Moon" mold, not the early days. It's stomping and restrained, not speedy. That approach fit where Dio was in his later years, and it sounds much fresher here than a recreation of "Holy Diver" would. That sound was purely of the 80s, whereas this record is a nostalgia trip that doesn't sound as dated.

While there is a lot to enjoy here, there are two big drawbacks. One is the length, as these dozen songs regularly top five minutes, meaning you've got more than an hour of music here. The other is the inevitable comparison to the Dio band, because the tribute is so glaring and obvious. By doing everything they can to remind you they were part of Dio's band, all they have really done is remind us of the records they made with the man, which let's be honest, are all better than this one.

There have been a lot of tributes to Dio since his passing, and I have no hesitation in saying Dream Child might be the best of them all. For Dio-style heavy metal, it's done exceptionally well. These guys learned from the master himself how to write this kind of music, and that shows. If the vocals were his, this would be a perfectly solid late-era Dio album. So in that respect, Dream Child is a success. This isn't a case of ripping people off to watch a cartoon, or a band as a tribute from someone who hated Dio's guts. This is an act of love, and it's hard to judge something like that. Maybe we should just take it for what it is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Album Review: Metal Allegiance - Volume II

I never did review the first Metal Allegiance album, which was for two reasons. For one thing, I was (and still am) tired of albums with half a dozen different singers on them, since the odds of me liking them all is astronomically small. For another thing, I assumed it was going to be a one-and-done project, something that was done for the fun of it, but would never be followed up on. And yet, here we are with the second album ready to strike, so this time I might as well give them a chance to impress me. After all, with Mike Portnoy and Alex Skolnick the drivers of the group, there's enough reason to be mildly curious about what they are capable of coming up with. After all, there's something fascinating about those who usually don't write the band's songs now in charge of the creative process. So let's see what we've got here.

The lineup of guest vocalists this time around features Floor Jansen, Max Cavalera, Johan Hegg, and John Bush, among others. It's a list of heavy hitters, although they wouldn't be my first choices.

The most interesting track for me is "Bound By Silence", which features John Bush. Over the last few years, as Anthrax has returned to 'prominence' by peddling nostalgia, Bush's tenure with the band has been forgotten. That's a damn shame, since he is a capable singer, and those records are better than they get credit for. His voice still sounds modern, even though he's been around for thirty years. I don't always think it works for Armored Saint, but it fits right in with this heavier, thrashier music. Those five minutes are a pleasure to listen to.

The parts where the group stays true to the old thrash playbook work just fine. Singers like Bobby Blitz and Floor Jansen do a fine job of balancing out the sound and giving the songs some depth. The problem is that there are other tracks where the vocalists are too harsh, and the music becomes tedious in its dedication to being heavy at all costs. I am not a big fan of harsh vocals for the simple reason that they tend to completely strip away any sense of melody from the music, and that's what guys like Max Cavalera do. His track is an endless slog of barking that could easily be put on the next 'dogs sing metal' parody album.

This album falls victim to exactly what I assumed it would before I ever hit the play button. By collecting such a wide variety of vocalists to handle these ten tracks, the band might have been showing their wide-ranging love of metal, but they have backed themselves into a corner where it's incredibly difficult to love the whole record. I doubt many people are going to love Floor Jansen's operatic power, and then turn around and want to hear Johan Hegg's track that borders on being pure death metal. I know I didn't.

The band are capable instrumentalists, so the bones of these songs are solid. This sounds like a modern take on old-school thrash, which is exactly what it's supposed to be. It doesn't sound dissimilar to a newer Overkill record. But the vocalists make it come across as a jukebox, and not a 'band'. There is no uniting sound to grab onto, since it changes with each passing song. Maybe that's interesting if you're Portnoy, who is in ten different bands, but not for me when I want to sit down and listen to one thing at a time.

I realize that projects like this are fun for the musicians, but this one wasn't fun for me as a listener. John Bush's track is good, and Floor Jansen's is fantastic, but there's too much sludge and extreme metal creeping into the vocals for me to ever like this as more than a passing curiosity. Maybe people who are more purely into metal will have better success, but it isn't for me.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Album Review: The Skull - The Endless Road Turns Dark

We often talk of greatness as though it is a tangible quality an artist possesses, one that endures until they have run through their supply. That's not how it works. Greatness can last for a career, but more often it is a flash of inspiration that is never again seen. It is the proverbial lightning that never strikes twice. I feel that way about Eric Wagner, who fronted Trouble when they made one of the greatest metal albums ever (the 1991 self-titled), but who has also made a slog of turgid albums that tarnish that legacy. Greatness, for him, was ever so fleeting.

The first album from The Skull went back to his doom roots, and was a pedestrian affair that I can hardly remember now. His other project Blackfinger, was better, but even they could only make it one record deep before growing stale. Suffice it to say, I wasn't walking into this record expecting the second coming of Trouble, even though that's exactly what they're shooting for.

The key to this kind of doom lays in the guitar tone. Trouble had one of the best of all time, and The Skull tries to copy as much of that sound as they can. The guitars are dirty and thick, but fuzzy yet chunky as the same time. It's a sound that works well with Wagner's voice, loose and laid-back. If you push all the thoughts out of your mind, it's not inconceivable to think this record could have fit right in with "Psalm 9".

The opening title track is Wagner at his best. Both the riff and his melody are as simple as can be, which is precisely why they work. No one is trying to do too much, and every element has plenty of space to make its impact. Wagner no longer scrapes glass with his vocals, but his tone is so unique he doesn't need to do anything more than show up to put his stamp on a record. That can sometimes be his downfall, as he doesn't always craft a melody for himself that sticks like a cobweb on the edge of a raised casket lid.

Fortunately, he is more engaged on this record than the last couple he has made, which makes this a far more enjoyable listen. There aren't any surprises in store, but that's ok when the material that is here does what it's supposed to. While the debut might have been a decent enough doom record, this one sounds like an old Trouble record, which I imagine is what fans will actually want to hear. This time around, the riffs have more of the Trouble swagger, where even the slower moments have a groove to them that keeps your swaying. It's hard to make slow music that doesn't feel stagnant, which is why doom often struggles.

This is still a sow, plaintive record, but the songwriting is sharper than it was the last time out. That record was a chore to listen to, because it was so standard nothing could stand out. This record has more personality to it, which makes a huge difference. I will admit that the doom era of Trouble has always been my least favorite, this record does doom with just enough flair that it stands up well when compared to those genre classics. My expectations coming in might have been low, but by more fully embracing his past, Eric Wagner has made a classically Trouble record here. I'm impressed.