Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Album Review - Witherfall - A Prelude To Sorrow

Can a band be the next big thing and still unknown at the same time? If you exist in the world of technical/progressive metal, absolutely. Witherfall made a big splash with their debut record, but given the size of the pool we're dealing with, I wouldn't blame you if you hadn't heard about that. Their style of Nevermore-influenced metal blended technicality and drama, and was certainly one of the more talked about records from a new band in recent times. So it's only fitting their second record is hitting us now, as we are also seeing the release of Warrel Dane's final recordings right now. Sometimes circumstances work out in a funny way.

Putting aside the intro and outro tracks, the record is book-ended by ten-plus minute epics, which is an immediate challenge to the listener. "We Are Nothing" erupts in a flurry of notes, fingers grinding to execute the technical riffing. Those verses are work, and are used to balance the simple chords and melody of the chorus. Witherfall understands the importance of dynamics in songwriting, not getting caught up in their prowess. Ten straight minutes of them playing at the height of their abilities would simply be too much. Having the melodies, and the break with acoustic guitars, is what lets the length stretch out without stretching our patience.

As you would expect from an album centered on death, the mood of the record is dark. The low-tuned guitars are justified by that, as opposed to existing simply because someone thinks they are 'heavier'. But what sets Witherfall apart from the majority of bands with such proficiency is their ability to craft memorable moments and melodies into their songs. Every song manages to slow down enough for Joseph Michael to have a moment to use his voice to wring the emotion from the track. Whether in his lower register, or layering in some higher shrieks, he anchors the music, and conveys the sorrow they are feeling.

The comparisons between Witherfall and Nevermore are hardest to put aside in the early moments of "Shadows", where the riffs circle around themselves like Jeff Loomis' best work, and Michael's voice captures the mania of Warrel Dane's roar. That band is regarded as legendary, so following in their spirit is by no means a bad thing. In a way, Witherfall fills the hole that now exists where that band once did.

I complain often about rock and metal sounding too dark, which I do because there is no reason for every song to be played in Drop-A tuning with all the treble stripped out of the sound. Witherfall is darkness done right, where the sound fits the message. You can feel what they are selling, and that is a key to making this album work. But what makes this a winner is the songwriting. Witherfall has picked up the mantle of Nevermore, and they are carrying on with respect... and talent. "A Prelude To Sorrow" is an album that has a little bit of everything, is challenging, but ultimately satisfies on multiple levels.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Album Review: The Heard - The Island

Imagine if you will a land caught between dream and reality, where your senses can deceive you, where your very idea of self collapses in on itself. A land where anything is possible, and nothing is expected. Now imagine the soundtrack to that trip, and the unique combination of tones and notes that can capture the supernatural. It may seem impossible, but not in The Twilight Zone... sorry, I mean on "The Island".

Forgive my inner Rod Serling popping out there for a moment, but I couldn't help myself. Here we are examining the debut statement from The Heard, the new band featuring three members of the now defunct Crucified Barbara. They have brought in some new (and unexpected) blood, and delivered a concept album that brings us to that ethereal title land.

After the initial wash of sound, the first riffs that come through the speakers have a familiar vibe to them, sounding like a more laid-back version of Ghost's first record. There's that dark, slightly occult feeling the the guitar playing, and Pepper Potemkin's vocals are able to carry the same kind of echoing vibe that Johanna from Lucifer conjures up. Not everything is straight-forward, as a few brief moments of acoustic guitar pop up to add levity to the proceedings. It makes for a song that has anchor points, but drifts away from the straight line enough to keep you unsettled. It's a very good opening.

In fact, that band I just mentioned is a good discussion point. Lucifer released a very good record this year, and The Heard is treading similar ground. They do so in a more meandering, doomier fashion, but the core sound of the two bands is remarkably similar. So for anyone who liked "Lucifer II" (as I did), that is an indication that The Heard should be.... well, heard.

There are tracks that are heavier and more riff-focused, like "Tower Of Silence", and others where the band plays with their softer side, like the appropriately alluring "Sirens", but both approaches leave plenty of room for Pepper to reflect the mood in her voice. Both she and the band are able to show diversity to their approach, which is not just important to differentiate the chapters of the story they're telling, but for any band. Being able to do more than one thing, and not deliver the same song a dozen times in a row, is a sign that there is greater promise lying ahead than for more single-minded bands.

"It" and "Revenge Song" are among the highlights of the record, as each gets to show off the band's melodic side contrasted with the doomy riffing. The latter song, in particular, deserves plaudits for the way the backing vocals are able to give a ghostly sound that plays right into the mood the band is trying to establish. A few more of them sprinkled through the record would have been a nice addition.

Since the core of the band have been playing together for years, it might not quite feel like this is a debut, but every collective is a different beast. The Heard is not any of the members' former work, it is a group unto itself. And for a first statement, "The Island" is a very fine effort. There's been a lot of this doom-laced occult rock lately, and The Heard does it admirably. While it will be interesting to hear how much they try to stretch themselves in the future, the present is mighty fine. "The Island" isn't one you'll mind getting stuck on.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Album Review: Haken - Vector

In the progressive metal world, the biggest name to pop up in the last few years is Haken. From albums that have generated critical acclaim, to being brought on tour by old stalwarts, they have established themselves as the brightest star in the rising sky. I don't quite understand where all the hype has come from. Around the time of "The Mountain", I considered them a decent outfit following the outlines of Dream Theater. There was nothing wrong with them, but nothing special about them either. Their last album is where things went a bit off the rails, with the heavy 80s influences overtaking everything, and rendering the music too backwards looking to be powerful.

"Vector" sees Haken moving back in a more metal direction. This is them playing heavier than the last time we heard them, which is preferable to their 80s fascination. (Side note: I don't understand the purveying appeal of the 80s - is the world really clamoring for terrible synthesizers?) But being progressive metal, there are plenty of moments where the music takes left turns out of nowhere. "The Good Doctor" has several of these, and the music shifts from soft to loud multiple times, and the instrumental segment features a seconds-long skittering of guitar and keyboard notes that comes from nowhere, and leads to nowhere else. That is what passes for 'progressive'.

A bigger issue is that the record claims to, whether fully realized or not, telling a story. That infuriates me, as there is a seven-minute instrumental on the album. I am not a fan of instrumentals most of the time anyway, but I have never heard a defense for including one on a conceptual record. The entire point of such a record is to put forward a narrative, and I have no idea how an instrumental is supposed to help in doing that.

The other songs carry on the trademark Haken sound. The guitars play in polyrhythms, with many of the riffs relying on math to explain the point behind them. Whether we're talking about the guitars or the vocals, there isn't much about the album that immediately jumps out as memorable. Ross Jennings has a suitable voice, but his melodies are drawn out and toothless. I don't know if it's a function of trying to fit his voice atop music that might not be compatible with normally accessible melodies, but he often drones as though he is just another instrument, and not the most vital cog in getting the story across.

There are hints of what could be. There is a melodic break in the twelve-minute "Veil" that is exactly what I would want to hear them doing, but it lasts a few seconds, and gets swallowed on either end by rather turgid developments. The band would clearly rather develop a pattern of guitar notes than give us a melody we can keep in our heads. That's a shame.

This is the part of the review where I would normally try to say that Haken is good at what they do, even if it isn't intended for me. I say 'normally', because I will not be doing that right now. I don't know what it is Haken is trying to do with this record. They have given us a concept record that spends a lot of time wordless, a metal album that pulls back the reigns quite often, and a concise record that breaks the music down into bite-size pieces of flavorless mush.

The easy complaint about progressive music is that it's indulgent without ever having a point. Listening to "Vector", it's not hard to see why people would think that. This record doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, and without an aim, there is no target to hit. I can't figure out why the record was made like this, which means I can't say why I would want to dive in repeatedly and listen to it. Great progressive metal is a blend of new ideas, technical mastery, and great songwriting. The last of those has always been missing from Haken, and it still is here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Album Review: Sirenia - Arcane Astral Aeons

Here's an uncomfortable truth about symphonic metal; while much of it is gorgeous to listen to, the massive amounts of ornate instrumentation obscures the songs enough that little of it makes much an impact with me. I can count on one hand the number of times symphonic music has truly resonated and lasted with me, because many of the composers of it rely on those burnished details, and don't focus enough on the core of the songs. It's an easy mistake to make, but it's one that has plagued an entire genre, because the proginators established the problem so early on. Much of the classic rock revivial suffers from a similar problem, if you want to know. I'm not singling symphonic music out for any reason.

Sirenia is one of those bands that bubbles under the surface, not quite cracking through the way that Nightwish or Delain has. They are in the second tier, and perhaps for that reason is a band I haven't spent much time with. I did review their previous alliterative album ("Dark Days Of Dolor"), and I came away from it with the impression that they had the talent to make beautiful music, but didn't often enough hit on the melodies and songwriting that would let them live up to their potential.

I feel the same way about this new record. Emmanuelle Zoldan has the necessary voice, and the band is a tight unit that plays the music with the polish and precision necessary to be top-notch modern metal. In terms of execution, there's nothing to complain about. Listening to the first single, "Love Like Cyanide", they hit all the right marks. The music is engaging, has depth, and the main hook is as strong as anything on the record. You can even hear bits of black metal come through the guitars, which is an interesting twist on the usual formula. Connecting the dots between Emperor and Nightwish isn't as hard as you might think, so even though it is only the smallest of influences here, it gives us something unique to sink our teeth into.

Sirenia reminds me of Amaranthe, in a way. No, they don't sound much alike, but the approach is similar. They both take modern heavy metal, and add an outside influence to the mechanical chug to give their music some color. Amaranthe uses electronic pop music, while Sirenia has symphonic elements. The difference between them is that Amaranthe has their outside influences as a minor detail, with the emphasis placed on the relentless pop melodies they write. Sirenia, on the other hand, puts more emphasis on the music, as their melodies are softer, subtler, and not as sticky.

In the end, that's the thing that continues to hold me back from Sirenia. Like the previous album, "Arcane Astral Aeons" has some beautiful music, and plenty of heavy crunch, but the vocal melodies don't give me either the sugar rush or the killer sharpness that I expect from power metal. They've made a good record, but one that still doesn't live up to what I know they could do. I can hear they have something great in them, but it has to be unlocked. This is another solid album, but I'm waiting for their armor to shine. We aren't quite there yet.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Album Roundup: A Light Divided, Mallen, and The Struts

Sometimes there are records I don't get the time to talk about at length, and sometimes there are records that don't give me enough to say about for a full review. Then there are the times when two records come out in short order that are very similar, rendering much of my commentary repeated. In those cases, we can talk about them together, to save some time. Here are two female-fronted (I use the label not as a warning, but as a compliment. I am greatly fond of this sound.) modern rock records I've encountered recently:

A Light Divided - Choose Your Own Adventure

This record caught me a bit off-guard at first. Their sound is not far removed from the first (and better) Letters From The Fire album, but it's Jaycee Clark who steals the show, with a voice that belts the songs out with a hint of Lzzy Hale's screaming rasp in the undertones. Having that voice selling the catchy melodies is something that sounds novel at first, and ultimately fits perfectly. They are able to deliver music that is heavy, energetic, and melodically sticky all at the same time, which is not an easy feat to achieve. "Remedy", "Fear Of Heights" and "Counting To Sober" are all as good as the best the style has to offer. A Light Divided won't get the same attention Halestorm does, but their record isn't that far off the standard. Color me impressed.

Mallen - Polarity

Of the two bands, Mallen's sound is a bit more pop, but without sacrificing the heaviness and guitars to keep the music from becoming too soft or fluffy. You can hear in the songwriting that they are still finding their feet, but there is plenty to like about them. Songs like "My Blackened Heart" are a heavier take on when Paramore was still a rock band, while a song like "This Dream" is everything you could want from a mainstream rock track. For most of the record, Mallen shows themselves to be a promising group who already have some great material, and clearly have room to grow into an even more impressive band. If this record is the first step in a climb, they are going to be worth keeping an eye on. "Polarity" is a solid start to a career, and well worth the time you'll invest in it.

And just for the heck of it...

The Struts - Young & Dangerous

This goes into the category of disappointing, because of the shameless pandering included here. Half the record is the watered-down 'rock' music that is currently acceptable in the pop world, while the other half is blatant Queen copying. That could be fine, but the decisions are too calculated. They go so far as to include a second version of their big single that includes pop star Kesha, because they are trying desperately to get a hit. Their Queen worship makes no sense with the other half of the record, except for the fact that the Freddie Mercury biopic is just coming out. In that context, this record is not only disappointing to listen to, but disappointing for what it says about the band.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Album Review: Northward - Northward

There's a saying that great music is timeless, that a great song is a great song regardless of when it's heard. It's a comforting thought, to think that we aren't creatures of the moment, and that art can endure as something meaningful well down the road. It happens for certain touchstone artists, but most music slips through the hourglass, and becomes more sand in the pile waiting to be tipped over and buried again. Northward puts the timelessness of music to the test in a different way. A collaboration between Floor Jansen and Jorn Viggo Lofstd, this album was written a decade ago, but is only seeing the light of day now, because scheduling did not allow it to exist beforehand. It feels a bit odd to be talking about decade-old music, but at the same time it is still new. How odd.

I will start by saying I am not well-versed in Floor's lengthy career. I never got into After Forever or ReVamp, and Nightwish has always been a mere trifle on my horizon. I was impressed with her contribution to Metal Allegiance's recent album, where she was the highlight. That said, this is my first real exposure to her in a setting I might enjoy.

"When Love Died" tries to burn rubber out of the gates, wasting no time getting up to speed. Early on, it becomes clear that Northward has two things going for them; amazing vocals and guitar playing. Floor and Jorn are masters with their respective instruments, which gives Northward an air of class and skill that few rock bands of this stripe are able to match. And ever since Jorn left the band of the other Jorn, his playing and saturated guitar tone have been missed, so it's great to hear it again.

For two musicians who have spent so long in the melodic metal world, shifting towards more of a rock orientation was never going to be a complete transition. This record does feel more rock than metal, but the guitar tone and Floor's melodic constructions have plenty in common with their metallic pasts. "Get What You Give" has the kind of swelling melody in the chorus that you can imagine orchestrations bringing to life on a massive scale. It's a lovely moment, even if it isn't quite what I was expecting.

"Storm In A Glass" is a better example of where I thought we were heading, with the pace and hooks borrowing more from melodic rock this time around. It's a bouncy number that does exactly what it's supposed to. Some people might criticize it for not being ambition enough, but that misses the whole point. Melodic rock is about satisfaction, and that is what a song like this one delivers.

One area where the album comes up a bit short is, amazingly, in the vocal department. Not Floor's lead vocals, that is. She is a great singer, and sounds good throughout. The problem is the backing vocals. I have long maintained backing vocals are an under-appreciated bit of importance, and they don't quite work here. There aren't enough of them on some of the choruses, and when they do pop up, they sounds more like a doubled Floor lead than anything. Even when the songs are good, they could sound 'bigger' with a different take on the backing vocals. But that's just me.

So is Northward timeless? That's an interesting question. In a sense, the answer is yes, because this record would have sounded just as relevant when it was written a decade ago as it does now. And given how strains of music no longer seem to die out, I imagine there will be records that sound like this from now until the end of time. On the other hand, I don't think it's timeless in the sense that these songs will endure. "Northward" is a solid album, and it's a fine showcase for these two musicians. There's a lot to like about the record, but I just don't hear the songs that are going to become standards for myself, or most fans.

That leaves us to say this; don't worry about time and legacies. Try as we might, we can't write the future today. Whatever happens to music tomorrow, and the days after, is up to fate. We only control today, and for now, "Northward" is an enjoyable record.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Album Review: Amaranthe - Helix

There has always been a fight as to whether metal and pop can coexist. The latter term has been thrown around for decades as a slur in metal circles, because there are a lot of metal fans who are wildly insecure about something I won't speculate on, and have to deride anything that isn't all heavy all the time. For those of us who are more enlightened, the fusion of the two sounds is something that serves as a grand experiment; can we take the most mainstream of sounds, combine it with the most underground, and manage to please the majority? I don't know what the answer to that is, since I consider myself a bit odd when it comes to such things, but Amaranthe has been trying to prove their point. With four albums under their belt already, they are at the forefront of metal's pop infection.

As always, Amaranthe provides us a mixture of Gothenburg melodic death metal and electronic pop. I know how that sounds, but there is a logical way it fits together. Modern pop music, with its programmed percussion and electronic bleeps and bloops, is entirely based on establishing rhythms. So to is the chugging nature of modern heavy metal, where riffs are often about establishing patterns of notes that have no melody, but plenty of percussive force. In that way, the two genres are more alike than you would think, and serve as a natural basis for Amaranthe's sound.

That approach has a downside; namely that if you don't have a mathematical mind to follow and memorize the patterns, the instrumentals of the songs blend into one long string of chugging notes. The first three tracks here fall into that category. The riffs are all so simple and a-melodic that the only thing separating the tracks is the vocal melody. That is helped by the fact Amaranthe is capable of delivering strong hooks, but a bit more separation would certainly be welcome.

"Helix" is a tight album that wastes no time getting from one sticky chorus to another. If metal can often be like trying to get the wiggling bait on the hook, Amaranthe is fishing with dynamite. They are relentless in delivering catchy songs, giving you little time to breathe before the next chorus punches you in the gut again. None of the twelve tracks here even reach the four minute mark, and that's a wise decision. They know what they want to deliver, and their brevity keeps them focused on those goals. Their actual music wouldn't serve for being drawn out in five-minute increments, so playing by the structure of radio pop is smart.

The differences between the tracks comes down to the little details, like whether there are a few more harsh vocals (such as the title track), or how much the electronics are placed in front of or behind the guitars. Yes, it would be fair to say the record is a bit samey throughout, but I don't consider that a criticism. If you have a sound that works, there's nothing wrong with delivering a forty-minute record that keeps its foot on the gas. I said the same thing recently about the identical criticism leveled against Pale Waves, and I'm saying it again here. It's one thing to do exactly the same thing album after album for an entire career, but within the context of one record, I don't mind it at all.

Anything I can say about one song can be said about them all, so I won't try to pick out highlights. "Helix" is a remarkably consistent album that shows how pop and metal are not so different after all. Amaranthe has managed to make music that is heavy, aggressive, sleek, and catchy all at the same time. That's a pretty good achievement, and even if there are a lot of metal fans who will never give them credit, we need to take note and respect what they have done. "Helix" is the metal smoke bomb that shows we all like pop music more than we let on. Easily a recommendation from me.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Album Review: Greta Van Fleet - Anthem Of The Peaceful Army

If you've heard of Greta Van Fleet, the odds are very good I already know what you have heard about them. They cannot seemingly be mentioned without a certain bands from the 70s being brought into the equation. There's a reason for that, as both their sound and look are highly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, but the simple comparison misses out on an important piece of the equation. While the sound Greta Van Fleet mines may be old, they do put a new spin on it. I might be one of the very few, but Led Zeppelin has never appealed to me. I understand their importance, but their music has never hit the marks that I look for when I'm listening. Specifically, Robert Plant rarely sang in the melodic style that appeals to me. He was either singing straight blues (a genre I'm not a fan of), or was wailing away without much melodic development (again, not something I'm a fan of).

Over their first two EPs, Greta Van Fleet took the building blocks that already existed, and grafted onto them a more modern melodic sensibility. "Black Smoke Rising", in particular, is a catchier number than anything I have ever heard from Zeppelin. In that is a sound that can allow Greta Van Fleet to use the past to create the future. That is the sound of rock and roll returning to the mainstream... if they can keep it up.

Right off the bat, the band shows us they understand that dynamics are what makes rock and roll work. "Age Of Man" kicks things off with soft guitars and an isolated vocal, then builds into a bluesy riff that isn't layered to excess. There's plenty of breathing room to the mix, with plenty of room for the bass to stand out, and guitars that are left natural enough to sound real. It could be considered a play on the past, but it's also the way that best serves the music. We see that to this day with Slash's solo work. He uses the same kind of guitar tones in his music, and his sound is as good as anyone alive.

What's noticeable about this record is that the band is stretching their legs, expanding on their core songwriting by letting the songs drift into instrumental passages that give them a chance to play around themselves without hurting their best attributes. The aforementioned "Age Of Man" does that, flowing through two sections with outside instrumentation giving the song some added gravitas, all the while returning to the main hook, which delivers in that way I never felt Zeppelin did.

"When The Curtain Falls" was the first taste we got of the record, and it stands out still as one of the highlights. It is what Greta Van Fleet is, when boiled to the essence. With brevity, the band is able to transport us back to 1975, but do it in a way that still embraces the evolution rock has gone through in the intervening years. Those four minutes are old-school rock and roll, done as well as it can be.

But like all young bands, there are missteps along the way. "Love, Leaver (Taker, Believer)" has some fine guitar playing, but the track bogs down when the main hook comes along, because it is the four words wailed as single long notes, with no melodic development to be heard. It's a moment that resembles the 70s too much, because it falls into the style of songwriting from back then that feels completely under-developed when compared to what rock is capable of today.

Compare that track with "You're The One", which turns itself into a soft rock sing-along that an entire arena could use as a cell-phones-in-the-air moment to bring everyone together. It's exactly the moment when Greta Van Fleet's potential is most evident. Sure, they are appealing to the people who love classic rock and want to relive that sound, but they are also a band that can write songs unlike any that classic rock ever had. There is an inviting side to their best music that transcends genre, and I can't say I've ever heard that from the big names of the past (at least not on their 'classic' records).

"The New Day" is a similar song, and listening to them back to back, I can't figure out why the band didn't release one of those two tracks as a single. "Lover, Leaver" and "Watching Over" both were, and they are the two tracks that least embody the robust hooks that power the majority of the record. Honestly, I was ambivalent about the record because of those two singles. But now that I've heard them as the weakest numbers, the record has taken on new strength. The previous double EP was a fine collection of songs, but didn't hold together like this collection does as an album. There is something to these songs, even with the diversity of their approaches, that is shared between them, which is what a good album should do.

When I first heard Greta Van Fleet, I didn't get what the hype was. Slowly, I started finding the music staying with me more and more. And now, with "Anthem Of The Peaceful Army" here, I can fully understand it. They still have to prove consistency like Graveyard has, but Greta Van Fleet has quickly moved themselves into the top tier of bands who are breathing new life into classic rock. Living up to the hype is hard, but Greta Van Fleet has done it. "Anthem Of The Peaceful Army" is fantastic.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Album Review: Elvis Costello - Look Now

Following Elvis Costello's career is a bit like watching a chaos pendulum; you know there is a fulcrum around which it all moves, but the next beat is as random as the last. Since the turn of the millennium, Elvis has recorded Southern gothic concept records, classical piano ballads, twenties-style Americana, and one more traditional 'rock' album in between. You never know where he is going next, which means even if you didn't like the last stop, there is always reason for hope the next one will be more up your alley. I will admit that his last two records, which mined the style of early American acoustic composition, were not my cup of tea. There was enough on there I could enjoy, but they are records I can't consider even in the top half of his work.

But as always, Elvis is moving in a new direction again with "Look Now". This isn't the return to raw rock and roll "Momofuku" was, but instead points back most directly to "Imperial Bedroom", the most baroque pop album of his career. Good or bad, that means one thing it cannot be is boring.

"Look Now" is a deceiving title, because the record looks backward more than anything else. Elvis serves up songs that have been in the making for years, revisits collaborations from yesteryear, and even continues on the story of a character from "National Ransom". That occurs on the opening "Under Lime", where the Depression-era Jimmy winds up in the television age, captured in the shift from a bare-bones acoustic song in his first starring role, to a technicolor arrangement this time out, with bubbling bass, strategic pianos, and a horn section for good measure. It's a more upbeat version of "The Long Honeymoon", throwing in a few tricks from the "When I Was Cruel" era.

For large stretches, though, the album that pops to mind most of all is "North". That album of soft and classical piano torch songs is one that never gained much attention or acclaim, but the songwriting lessons from then echo throughout this new record. "Stripping Paper" has some added adornment, but the thrust of the melody, and the circular way it winds around a hook that doesn't exist is straight out of those sessions. The songs that fall into that category, including the three written alongside Burt Bacharach, are the slow beauty that are supposed to show the softer side of the beast.

With his band The Imposters in tow, the best numbers are the ones where the band are allowed to flex their muscles. "Under Lime" and "Unwanted Number" have snap and sparkle, as well as vocal and instrumental bits that stand out and hook you in. The piano line alone on the latter is the kind of simple motif a thousand songs could be built around. In those few notes, Steve Nieve provides more of an anchor than Bacharach's compositions ever do. There is certainly something to be said for polish and beauty, but no amount of make-up can hide a crooked smile.

A few years back, Elvis had hinted he was done recording. In a weird way, this album both justifies and refutes that stance of his. Because this is a record with some great moments and energy captured in the performances, it would be a shame to think Elvis would never go back into a studio to put his music to tape. On the other hand, these songs continue his shift deeper and deeper into what I call 'songwriter mode', where the songs are obviously written for the enjoyment of the author, and not the audience. There are too many songs here that come and go without making a vital musical statement. A song like "Photographs Can Lie" offers nary a piano or vocal line that matters, even though I'm sure there is great satisfaction on Elvis' part in bringing the song to life.

Ultimately, "Look Now" suffers from the same fate as "Imperial Bedroom" did all those years ago. By trying to patch together so many sounds and approaches, there isn't much connective tissue to hold the entire thing together. Flawed though it might have been, "Momofuku" was an album that knew exactly what it wanted to do, and gave us a record that captured The Imposters as the band they are. "Look Now" is half an Imposters record, and half an Elvis genre experiment. It's interesting to hear the twists and turns it takes, but it isn't satisfying the way the great Elvis Costello albums are.

I'm looking now, but I'm not seeing what I hoped for.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Album Review: Impellitteri - The Nature Of The Beast

There always have been, and always will be, plenty of bands that have worlds of talent, who can't seem to make a great record, no matter how hard they try. Impellitteri has been trying their best for decades, and they still haven't mastered the craft. The band's namesake is a highly talented shredder, and Rob Rock has one of the more commanding voices in melodic metal, and yet every time I have ever listened to this group, I came away wondering how they had spent so much time honing their instruments, and not nearly enough honing their songs. Being a great musician is not the same thing as being a great songwriter. Keep that in mind.

"Masquerade" is a great example of what I'm talking about. The main riffs of the song are a blur of notes, which are impressive for anyone who knows what it takes to play that fast and in time. I won't deny his skill, but what is it in service of? When the chorus comes in, Rob Rock chants the word 'masquerade' repeatedly, and without much melodic development. It is supposed to be a chant, but it doesn't give us any reason to want to join in. I've said before, that style of writing worked in the 80s, because that was the only option for mainstream-ish sounding heavy music. Now that we have countless bands taking different and more melodic routes, the old way sounds dated and tired, which it always was.

The other issue is that with the band's love of playing fast, the songs blend together even more than they otherwise might. The thing about a melody is that it needs time to breathe, and the band doesn't give any of their good ideas the space to sink in. By the time you hear it, and get into the groove of it, they have already moved on to the next bit. We can only proccess information so quickly, and the band blazes through the songs faster than I can absorb what they want me to.

We also get two covers on the album, which baffles me. They run through the theme from "Phantom Of The Opera", which gives Chris Impellitteri ample time to shred to his heart's content. Why they didn't simply write a couple of riffs for him to solo over for a more conventional instrumental is beyond me. Hearing it, all I'm thinking is that I would rather be listening to that soundtrack, because the trademark organ theme is more striking than anything Impellitteri is offering us.

"The Nature Of The Beast" is meat-and-potatoes speed metal, but I don't find speed metal to be interesting at all. Playing fast is a skill, but it's only useful if the songs call for it to be used. These songs don't make much of a case for it. In fact, I would dare say slowing the tempos 5-10bpm would make these songs sound heavier, and could even make the melodies stickier.

So look, if you like speed metal, or just need to get your adrenaline flowing, this might be an album for you. It pounds away without letting up, so it does that job. However, that's not what I want to hear from my metal, so I can't say it did much for me. The guys are talented, but yet again they fail to deliver songs that make me pay attention to anything but their speed. When you even manage to make a Black Sabbath song sound wrong (in this case by playing it way too fast), you're not winning me over. "The Nature Of The Beast" is an album I wouldn't recommend, certainly not when compared to the much better albums Rob Rock made with Roy Z. Now those are what they should be doing.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Album Review - Seventh Wonder - Tiara

Sometimes a musician's main gig is the one that pays the bills, but there's another one on the side that is the real attraction. It doesn't happen often, but Seventh Wonder is one of those cases. There's a good chance you know Tommy Karevik as the lead singer of Kamelot, but despite their success, he is a going through the motions and filling a role in that band. When it comes to Seventh Wonder, he gets to fully be himself. We haven't heard from the band in eight years, so we may have forgotten just how good they are at playing progressive metal. Their last two albums, "Mercy Falls" and "The Great Escape" were wildly different record that were both jam packed with intricate playing and ear-worm melodies. I'm hard pressed to think of a better fusion of prog and pop than "Alley Cat". So while Kamelot has been busy, this is what I've been waiting for.

After that much of a wait, the album tries my patience at the start. We get a minute and a half of orchestral swell that doesn't need to be there, and then "The Everones" opens the album proper with one of the least melodic songs the band has written in a long time. Especially egregious is the section where Tommy's altered voice flatly talks through a series of ones and zeroes. It is a prime candidate for some judicious editing.

After that, we get back into traditional Seventh Wonder territory, where the riffs dance over the fretboard in a way that sounds simple yet difficult at the same time, and Tommy delivers passionately melodic vocals. "Dream Machines" is exactly the kind of song you would expect to get, while "Against The Grain" ebbs and flows, with the tempo slowing to make the chorus sound even more dramatic. Couple that with first single "Victorious", and the seeds are planted for the album to blossom into something truly great.

And to keep us from forgetting they are a progressive band, in both name and practice, we get the "Farewell" suite, which is three tracks that span nearly twenty minutes. It serves as the fulcrum around which the story revolves, and "Beyond Today", with its sparse arrangement, is where we also most easily hear the cheesiness that often pops up in Tommy's lyrics. The same thing happened on "Mercy Falls", where the story overtakes the moment, and the words turn from poetry to prose.

"Tiara" comes across as a very safe Seventh Wonder album. It isn't as immediate as either of the last two records, and it also doesn't commit itself to the narrative of the concept the same way "Mercy Falls" did. This record tries to shoot the gap between those two albums, which makes it difficult to assess. They are great at what they do, and this record has plenty of very good material all throughout, but it doesn't have the same spark of excitement their previous work did, because this is in some ways what we've already heard before, which doesn't mesh with the progressive ethos.

I might have been expecting something a little bit different after eight years, but that doesn't stop "Tiara" from being top-notch progressive metal. There isn't another band out there that plays the genre with this much melody, and that alone makes them a vital voice on the scene. There is a similarity between Seventh Wonder and Kamelot in that their records this year feel like they are treading water, but one is clearly better than the other. Seventh Wonder is an interesting and important voice, and even if they are just reintroducing themselves after a bit of a break, hearing them again is very much welcome.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Singles Roundup: Elvis Costello, Greta Van Fleet, Holter, and Weezer

The October slate of albums hasn't been as daunting as I was anticipating, so with a free day to play with, let's take a look at a few of the singles that have been coming out, and see if we can draw any conclusions from them.

Elvis Costello - Suspect My Tears

The third song released from Elvis' new album, which I hope to be talking about next week, this one finds Elvis playing with more of a soul feeling. The album is shaping up to be an eclectic affair, much like "Imperial Bedroom" was, which is a record this song would have fit right in on. I do wish the chorus was a bit more developed than repeating the title line so often, but there is a charm to the track that mostly overcomes that flaw. It isn't a classic, but it mostly hits the right marks.

Greta Van Fleet - Watching Over/Lover, Leaver

The next tracks from the most anticipated rock record of the year (to the mainstream charts), these tracks finds Greta Van Fleet softening things up a bit, and losing a bit of what makes them special. They are at their best when they sound like you-know-who, but do so in a way that is hookier and slightly more modern. These songs don't have any of that. Instead, while the guitars are still doing some interesting stuff, the vocals are left to howl atop the music, essentially doing nothing. Of the three songs we've heard, only one is encouraging for the record.

Holter - I'd Die For You

My favorite metal record of the last five years was the "Dracula: Swing Of Death" concept record put out by Jorn Lande and Trond Holter. It was ludicrous, ridiculous, and still remains an absolute blast. This is the first single for the follow-up, a record abotu Vlad The Impaler. The song lacks some of the campy fun of the original, but the biggest issue is Nils K Rue replacing Jorn as the vocalist. Nils is a fine singer, but he lacks the sinister edge needed to play such a part. And anyone being compared to Jorn is going to look weak. It's a fine song, but it has me worried the new album can't possibly live up to my expectations.

Weezer - California Snow

Oh, Weezer. There was a time in my life they were as important as any band, and now I shake my head and wonder how that could have been. Rivers Cuomo has been desperate to get back his mainstream success, and it shows here. He hops on the trends of 'rock', and has cobbled together a song that manages to be terrible for that style, and terrible for Weezer, all at the same time. Some artists mature as they age. Rivers becomes more and more child-like. It's sad to see. Weezer is all but dead now.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Album Review: Leah - The Quest

Here's something I don't talk about very often; folk metal. I do not come from a background where, either by heritage or geography, I have much of a history with folk music. So when I come across metal that incorporates the style, I'm often at a bit of a loss how I'm supposed to react to it. I say the same thing about the blues, but at least there is enough of it in all stripes of rock and roll that I have absorbed a few of the basics. Folk music is still a foreign language to me, in terms of how the construction is supposed to work alongside the twisted ideas I have in my mind of what music is supposed to be.

It doesn't help when the folk is Celtic, in particular, as Leah is. Plenty of people do, but I don't have a drop of Irish blood in my heritage, which makes it difficult for me to embrace music that is so traditional for a specific culture I am not a part of. Still, I try, because experiments can often lead to surprising results.

The album dares to challenge us, opening with the ten-minute title track, one that takes us on a ride that requires considerable patience. It builds very slowly, and even when the guitars and rock instrumentation kicks in, the song takes plenty of opportunities to slow down, while Leah uses her voice more as an instrument than as the lead. The lyrics are rather few, as she coos and lilts wordlessly for long stretches. It is effective at setting an atmosphere, but I'm not sure what about the song I'm supposed to latch onto. There doesn't seem to be a core to the composition, just plenty of beautiful sounds.

As we move further into the record, that approach shifts into a more structured one, with songs that offer compelling reasons for their existence. Songs like "Edge Of Your Sword" and "Lion Arises" are dotted with interesting musical sounds, but are anchored by Leah's soothing voice delivering caressing melodies. The natural comparison for anything of this sort is Nightwish, especially true since Troy Donockley appears here, but I don't think that's right. Leah's music is more Celtic than symphonic, and yes, there is a difference. This record is more akin to Karnataka's "Secrets Of Angels", a record I adored (right down to the lengthy title track being my least favorite cut), simply a bit slower and softer.

There's a bit of an irony here. Leah's voice is soft and lush, but it's when the album kicks up the energy slightly that she is most compelling. Those don't sounds like the moments that would play to the strengths of her voice, but they are when she is doing something just different enough that it makes you pay attention to what you're hearing. She has the potential to be that good.

The thing about "The Quest" is that because of how much Celtic/folk influence is in the compositions, the record is rather soft and subdued. That plays well with her voice, but it does mean that if you are coming at this from the perspective of a traditional rock or metal fan, you may be disappointed with how often the guitars take a back seat to the Celtic sounds. If you can open your mind to this not being a traditional rock album, then there is plenty here to be excited about.

I'm not going to try to tell you Leah's rocking take on it has converted me into a massive fan of folk music. That wasn't going to happen, but what I can say is that I appreciate the sheer beauty of what she and her collaborators have put together here. "The Quest" is an album that delivers its goals exceptionally. I may not have the mindset to spin this regularly, but damn if it isn't the perfect album for the right mood. This sort of album is why I still like to step outside my comfort zone every so often. I wouldn't have exposed myself to Leah otherwise, and that would be a shame. "The Quest" is an album I'm glad to have heard.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Album Review: Blues Traveler - Hurry Up & Hang Around

Blues Traveler has always been a band that lets their sound, travel, if you will. Along the winding path of their career, the one constant has been change. "Save His Soul" sounded nothing like "Four", which sounded nothing like "Truth Be Told", which sounded nothing like "Blow Up The Moon". They have always been chasing something, but what exactly that is has always been nebulous. In the beginning, the strove for respect. Then they strove for the status they deserved. Then they strove to regain their place. And finally, they strove to make themselves happy. That leaves us with a string of records that hold together, but form a patchwork that draws your attention to a different area each time. And even when they are taking a detour that might not be your choice, there are always interesting twists that make it worth your while to take the ride with them.

With the band having reached a milestone of longevity, the question of how to commemorate that brings them back (nearly) full circle. While their last couple records have seen Blues Traveler injecting their sound with pop songwriters in the search for the perfect collaboration, "Hurry Up & Hang Around" finds them stripping back to the garage band they started out as. This is the most classically Blues Traveler album they have made, in approach, in many a year.

Our first taste of this chapter came from the opening track, "Accelerated Nation", which came out of the gates in traditional Blues Traveler form. Sounding like a mix of all their eras, the song fused their classic sound with the polished writing of their modern work, giving us a song that fits the same mold "Most Precarious" did (and sadly never got credit for - that was a better single than it is remembered as).

Longtime fans will recognize bits and pieces that should evoke a smile, like how John Popper's melody in the verses of "She Becomes My Way" stretches a syllable or two longer than anyone else would write it. Those are the details that I have always appreciated, both as a fan and as a songwriter. Every writer and every band has idiosyncrasies that pop up, which I think got too smoothed out with the amount of collaboration they had been doing lately. Even when they were writing great songs, like "Matador" was, they didn't have those trademark elements. Hearing them again is a treat.

Another one pops up on "Daddy Went A Giggin'", where Popper's melody in the verses, and some of the feel of the instrumental, is somewhat pulled from his solo album, "Zygote" (the song "His Own Hands" in particular). The songwriting on this record is a throwback to the "Four" and "Straight On Til Morning" period, but more concise than they were back then. The band has been constantly trimming away the excess from their old tendencies, which leaves us with a lean record. Old fans might think there's a looseness missing from the recordings, but it shows how their focus has shifted over the years towards sharp songwriting.

The thing about being a Blues Traveler fan is that we can argue over which of their experiments are our favorites. Some of us will love how gritty and heavy they got on "Bastardos!", while others will appreciate the slickness of "Truth Be Told". This one, though, feels like the right record for an anniversary period, because it is the one record since "Four" that best captures every side of the band.

Given how much the world has changed since "Run Around" and "Hook" were near the top of the charts, it's a good decision that the band is no longer trying to chase a hit, and is instead writing music that is befitting of their status. There are clover hooks and strong melodies, but they integrate into the core of the band's sound, rather than sounding like the token attempt to appeal to a demographic that no longer exists. Look, I love "Girl Inside My Head" and "Amber Awaits" too, but even then there no longer existed the proper outlet for them to become mainstream hits.

"Hurry Up & Hang Around" is a record made for Blues Traveler fans by the biggest fans of them all, the band. At this stage of their career, that's exactly what most people want to hear. And listening to the results, I can't argue. This record will make any Blues Traveler fan happy, and it will reset things so the next experiment is more welcome.