Friday, November 30, 2018

Singles Roundup: Inglorious, In Flames, Last In Line, and Evergrey

Inglorious - Ride To Nowhere

I'll have more to say when I eventually review the album, but this new single gives me a different feeling than what I got from them before. Inglorious has always been a bluesy classic rock type of band, but there is something in the vocals now that more strongly resembles Myles Kennedy, which has this song sounding like a weaker track from Slash's new solo album. The thrust of the song is solid, but the verses getting to that are so slow that it sucks out a lot of the energy. They always have potential, but the songwriting has yet to click with me.

In Flames - I Am Above

Oh, In Flames, it seems like no one likes you anymore. I would throw myself in that boat, but I was never a big fan of theirs. In fact, the only album that I was ever big on was "Sounds Of A Playground Fading", which isn't exactly a fan favorite. They have fallen even further, with their most recent album being the nadir of their career. I say that because this new track trends back up in the right direction, slightly. The riffs have gotten more generic, and the hooks aren't as sharp as they once were, but this is one of the most solid late-era songs. Anders puts more into the harsh vocals this time, and overall it strikes me as something that can at least earn them a little goodwill.

Last In Line - Landslide

For once, a group of Dio alums have put out something that doesn't sound a lot like Dio. That is refreshing. Of course, I have never found Vivian Campbell to be nearly as interesting as most Dio fans do, which means I don't have any reason to claim Last In Line to be better than they really are. The first album was boring, but this song is better. It's not great, but it's solid stuff that is less insulting than the album Craig Goldy just put out. Just on that front, Viv's got a win under his belt. I wouldn't say I'm excited to hear the record, but I'm not dreading it now either.

Evergrey - A Silent Arc

Confession: I've already heard the entire record. Still, let's talk about the first taste of this new Evergrey offering. What I like about it is the aggression in that almost death metal riffing that opens the song. It's intensely heavy, and it fits the band's overall darkness. Everything through the end of the first verse is great. And then comes the chorus, where the music becomes numb and limp, and Tom Englund croons two notes for the entirety. It's a weak hook, and is exactly the kind of writing that keeps me from getting more heavily into prog metal. Thankfully, I can also say it's the weakest track on the album. So there's that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Album Review: Marius Danielson - Legend Of Valley Doom Pt II

I think I've made this point often enough, but I'll say it once again; I'm tired of these 'jukebox albums', as I call them. A songwriter gets together a host of singers to play the parts in a concept album that no one will ever care about the story of, and the names of the guests are used to sell what would be music from a band that would largely go ignored. Avantasia is about the only one of these projects that has ever been great, which is why it has endured, and that's because Tobias Sammet is able to serve as the fulcrum around which everything orbits. Albums like the first "Legend Of Valley Doom" didn't have that luxury, and instead sounded like a collection of different metal bands all on the same album. It was a decent record, but I find it hard to get excited to listen to that many different voices one after the next.

So now we're back with the second installment in the series(?), which will continue telling a story I cannot claim to know the first thing about. From the song titles, it is clearly about knights and battle, but here's the thing; telling a narrative in lyrics is much harder than most songwriters ever expect. Moving a plot along and developing characters simply doesn't work very often in the confines of the limited number of words a song contains. And when you do try to put the plot first, the words become stilted and awkward. That's why concept records tend to exist only in the mind of the people who write them.

In a strange turn, the album opens with a hymn, a slow ballad that does anything but get the blood pumping. Starting out with the death of a character is an interesting way of jumping into the story, but it doesn't help the album out. That is still the point, making an album, right?

After one up-tempo power metal number, we get sent straight into another slow piano dirge. The pacing of this record is abysmal. Perhaps it would work in the context of putting the two records together, serving as a bit of an intermission, but judging this record on its own, those tracks, and how those interludes are followed with yet another ballad, makes it a chore to stay interested enough to make it to the meat of the album.

Once we get to that portion, we are treated to more of the same well done but extremely generic power metal that the first record gave us. If you like the stereotype of power metal, you'll be happy with these songs. They follow the old Helloween school of power metal like a child traces a drawing to learn their motor skills. It doesn't help that much of the vocal cast resides in the same timbre, so telling them apart and trying to figure out what is going on is exceptionally difficult. Blaze Bayley stands out, but he's the only one. Records like this show how a genre establishes a certain template, and it either attracts singers who already sound that way, or vocalists alter their voices to fit the standard. It's a phenomenon I've long wondered about.

Really, the album is something that will depend entirely on how you feel about the cliches it relies on. If you like power metal (I do) and fantasy literature (I don't), you might find this enjoyable. Since I don't care in the slightest about whether the mead-drinkers of Valley Doom get stepped on by a dragon or not, I'm probably missing out on a large part of the appeal. I can judge the record only as a piece of music, and on that level it doesn't work for me. The metal here is recycled power metal, but there isn't even much of it to listen to. This record is dragged down with copious narration and balladry, which is just too much. And I say that as a sucker for ballads.

The first "Valley Doom" record was a decent attempt to jump in on one of the big trends. This second chapter, though, is not the follow-up I was looking for. It's a swing and a miss.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Album Review: Flight - A Leap Through Matter

This has been a big year for retro/vintage rock. The best band of the lot (Graveyard) released a new album earlier this year, and the biggest name among them (Greta Van Fleet) just recently released their debut. There has been a lot of attention paid to music that draws heavily from the past, which is a good thing for the other bands, in the sense that people might be searching out more of the same, but it's negative in the sense that they all have to be compared to those other two, who are probably better than anyone else is going to be. It's yet another double-edged sword when it comes to how to present yourself.

I'm not sure the best way of introducing your record is with a three minute instrumental cut. "Arrival" has a snaking main riff that is very cool, and some Iron Maiden styled guitar harmonies, but I find instrumental music to be largely tedious, and this song wasn't how I wanted the record to start. It's almost begging to be skipped, which with any impatience at all might mean some listeners would move on without sampling any of the remaining songs.

I do like their vintage production, which leaves the guitars sounding raw, and perhaps a bit grainy. It's a natural sound that is from the 70s, one where you can hear the music sounding like it's being played by actual humans, rather than the massively over-saturated and clinical sound that permeates modern recordings. There's breathing room to this music, and that is much appreciated.

The vocals aren't the greatest, but they fit with the retro vibe, and don't distract from what's going on. The issue is that the band is providing a good deal of interesting riffs and guitar parts, while the vocal lines are never as engaging. While this is clearly a guitar album, a little more spark from the vocals would have brought this to another level. As good as Jimmy Page, Downing/Tipton, and Murray/Smith were, they didn't make it by guitar alone. Flight's instrumental talents are there, but for the songwriting to be where they need to be for the band to grow, the vocal writing needs to improve. Many listeners, myself included, identify there first and foremost.

But for guitar fans, Flight has quite a bit to offer. The tones are charming, and the riffs are lively and memorable in the simple way the best classic rock was. There are layers of guitars to dig into, but the playing is focused on delivering riffs that are more about hooking you than they are showing off their chops.

This record is claimed to be a step forward, and it is certainly a step in the right direction. There is work to be done to tighten everything up, but Flight does who they have a lot of potential. They have the right sound, and the right vibe. If they can find the elusive songwriting magic that makes certain music special, they could turn into something really good. As they stand now, "A Leap Through Matter" is a fine little record that is a nice diversion when modern times get to be a bit too much.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Singles Roundup: Soen, Slipknot, and ugh... Weezer

For this Thanksgiving (long) weekend, I thought I would take a moment to point out a couple of recent single releases, and explain why I am, and am not, thankful for what they are telling me about the future. Let's start with the good news first.

Soen - Ritual

"Lykaia" was my #1 album of 2017, and I still find myself going back to it. That record was Soen finding their identity, taking a huge step forward, and also delivering a record that I have been waiting for ever since Opeth decided to leave death metal behind. The first taste of their follow-up has been unveiled, and I am thankful to hear that they have learned the same lessons from "Lykaia" that I did. "Ritual" sounds like a natural continuation, perhaps because it is strikingly similar. The riffs in the instrumental passage are a near clone of how "Sectarian" did the same thing, while the ending borrows a hint of the outro from "God's Acre". They are good moments, so using them again is not unwelcome, although hearing two callbacks in the first song is slightly odd. Soen is one of the metal bands doing something unique and interesting, and given that they had changed radically between each of their first three records, I am thankful to hear the band I was hoping for on this song. I'm eagerly awaiting my opportunity to hear the whole album.

Slipknot - All Out Life

I have seen several opinions on this song that all rave about how this is Slipknot again at their most brutal, and how fantastic it is to hear them letting loose.... and I wonder how we are listening to the same thing. Is it brutal? Yes, it is indeed tough to sit through. Corey Taylor screams his head off while the band charges through two or three of the most basic nu-metal riffs imaginable. All of the musical development that Slipknot had gone through, whether you liked it or not, is gone. Whereas once you had to admit they were a talented group, this song makes it easy to say they aren't. This song is almost what you would expect from a bunch of 20 year-olds who wanted to make their own Slipknot band. It has no great riff, no interesting vocal pattern. It is angry noise for the sake of angry noise. And when I know they can do better, that's insulting. So I'm thankful to know I can skip any new Slipknot music without feeling like I'm missing something.

Weezer - Zombie Bastards

So Weezer has finally confirmed "The Black Album" will be coming out in 2019, and given the first two songs we have heard, it is already the front-runner to be the worst album of the year. Weezer has long been stuck in Rivers Cuomo's arrested development, but never before has his mid-life crisis sounded so hollow. Now he is trying to jump on drum-machine pop/rock, and populating his songs with slang that was dated even ten years ago, and a song about f'n zombies. Yes, I am that one person who didn't mind when he wrote a song about a spider ("Freak Me Out" - the lyrics are stupid, but the song was a chill pop vibe that an older Rivers should have leaned into), but this is too much. There is even a line where he says, "blah blah blah". And this is coming from a man well into his forties. Rivers has never reconciled making an old man's album when he was so young, so he has been chasing youth ever since. The problem is that youth cannot be caught, so all he does is sound increasingly more pathetic as his detachment from the audience he wants grows ever larger. This song is truly awful. I'm not thankful for it, but I am thankful to know having even a shred of hope for Weezer again is a mistake.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Album Review: Roine Stolt's Flower King - Manifesto Of An Alchemist

I don't know the issues that go on behind the scenes, and I'm not going to try to speculate on them. What I do know is that The Flower Kings had regrouped and put out two albums not that long ago, one of which ("Desolation Rose") I was very high on. In the meantime, something happened among the members, as Roine Stolt made a record with Transatlantic, made one with Jon Anderson, and put together The Sea Within. And now he's regrouped some familiar faces under the guise of a solo album that is branded to sound as much like The Flower Kings as possible. Oh, the joys of legalities.

Anyway, on to the music. We got our first taste in the form of "Lost America", which is the first full track on the album, after the introduction. It's a bit of an odd choice to lead things off, on record and in promotion. The song is rather slow, and features Stolt's guitar mostly dancing around in the background, while a sort of jazz groove from the bass leads the way. Stolt is on lead vocals for the majority of the record, and his limited range can be a blessing and a curse. This song, in particular, never seems to get out of first gear, which has been a problem with a lot of Roine's music lately.

When you couple that with the worrying trend that his records have been sounding darker and less sharp with each passing release, we wind up with an album that doesn't sound inviting the way his old music did. Yes, much of the music is rather slow and ponderous, but the actual sonics are more buried in the mix. Nothing stands out from the rest, which doesn't help listeners (dedicated or surface-level) dig in. Perhaps the point has come where Roine has heard so much of his own music he needs fresh ears to put the right gloss on it.

"Ze Pawns" has a strong main line to it, recalling a few of the laid-back 80s easy rock hits, but so much of the track is slow wandering to get there. There is not only no immediacy to the track, but seemingly no desire from Roine to let us know there is a destination if we're patient enough. I've talked before about him being one of those musicians who makes records that are more interesting for him as a musician than for us as listeners, and songs like this one are exactly what I'm talking about.

I was surprised by "The Sea Within" early in the year. I didn't expect that record to be as soft and slow as it turned out to be, and that sound has carried over to this one as well. Listening to it, I get the mental image of a group of musicians sitting in the same room, staring at their instruments to get a glimpse of their watches, waiting for the clock to hit quitting time. There simply isn't anything here that sounds inspired, or that sounded like fun for the band to record. It's a record that sounds like the stereotype of what a group of middle-aged men would be doing. Sure, they are of that generation, but Roine's compatriot Neal Morse hasn't gotten this flaccid on his prog albums.

There is simply too much talent on this album for it to sound so dull. Given the capabilities on display, the fault has to lie with Roine, who has composed music that doesn't use anyone to their full potential. Or perhaps the music needing to be written for his voice is the problem, because Roine is capable of hitting but a few notes, and relies on charisma in his vocals to get by. Since he doesn't put much passion into these performances, that charisma is lacking, and so too is the end result.

This is a record for completists. I know a lot of Flower Kings fans didn't think their comeback measured up to their classic period, and I know this album doesn't live up to that comeback either. So if we use a little logic, and this isn't as good as something that wasn't as good as something else, it means "Manifesto Of An Alchemist" is one of the weakest efforts in Roine's history. Alchemy was the attempt to turn the worthless into gold. Roine hasn't done that on this album. Not at all.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Album Review: Kalidia - The Frozen Throne

I'm not sure why the idea of having 'pride' in your identity ever came to be. When it comes to my heritage, I've never sought out things from those areas, and when something does come along, I don't give it any special consideration. Kalidia is an Italian power metal band, so am I supposed to have some connection to them because my ancestors shared a piece of land with theirs? It's a confusing topic, but it's the sort of thing that comes to mind when a band like Kalidia pops up. There are a lot of Italian power metal bands, but I'll be honest and say I don't get around to listening to most of them. It is the land that gave us Rhapsody, so I guess we know what we're getting into.

Thankfully, Kalidia doesn't sound anything like Rhapsody. They are both power metal, but Kalidia is on the side of the ledger that has a bit more heaviness, sharper riffs, and far less cheese. Listening to "The Frozen Throne" is not like attending a fondue party. The opening title track has some chunky chugging to get across the point this is a metal record, even if there are going to be a few sonic additions that add some color here and there. Nicoletta Rosellini helps the cause with her voice, which is a touch lower and breathier than we often hear from power metal singers, male or female.

In "Circe's Spell", we get hints of orchestration to widen the sound, while "Black Sails" adds a Celtic guitar melody. Those little details do their job, giving each song an identity that lets them stand apart from each other, even as they blend together to establish the album's tone. That is the sort of thing that bands and producers don't always think about, and in fairness it isn't always necessary, but it can be a vitally important stitch in the tapestry of a record.

The record gets off to a slow start with the title track, which is the least appealing track here. It has a nice metallic edge, but it has the least amount of melody for Nicoletta to work with, which makes it less interesting to listen to. The songs that follow lean more towards a lush melodic side, which is where the band finds their footing. Everything that comes after is rather enjoyable power metal that plays with the styles that bands like Delain and their cohorts lead the way with, and do it comparably well. "The Frozen Crown" is a polished record that stands up well to the competition.

I'm not going to say this record is amazing, because it doesn't reach those heights. While the songs are melodic and engaging, they don't have razor sharp hooks. They are good, but they can get lost in the sea of releases we have to deal with. I would say this is right up there as one of the better albums of the type I've heard this year, easily. Compared to the album Sirenia released recently, this is clearly the superior one. So while it may not be one of the best albums of the year, "The Frozen Crown" is still a good record that shows Kalidia to be capable of climbing up another ring on the ladder. They've done well here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Album Review: Warkings - Reborn

We've talked about gimmicks before. A gimmick is often treated as a way of demeaning whatever group it is we're talking about, because there is a segment of the population that thinks the music is the only thing that matters, and the sole thing that impacts success. That's ridiculous, because the music business is as much about getting ears to hear your music as it is that music pleasing the fans once they hear it. So gimmicks work. Ghost won fans over with their increasingly infectious music, but they were able to get to do that because their gimmick drew people's interest first. It's the only reason KISS has ever been anything but a lousy cock-rock band. It's why people think David Lee Roth is a great frontman, when he wastes the time your money paid for by doing karate moves on stage. Life is a gimmick. Get over it.

Warkings is also a gimmick. There's no issue with that, other than the fact that the gimmick is one of the least effective I've ever seen. They are hand-picked by Odin himself to bring metal to the masses, a faceless combination of musicians who represent the best of what power metal can be.

That would be fine, except for the fact that any power metal fan who has ever heard any of his previous work will immediately know who the vocalist here is. Gimmicks don't work nearly as well when there's no possible was to suspend disbelief, even for a second. If you're claiming anonymity, it helps to start with an anonymous musician.

But what about the music? They play a predictable style of chunky power metal with heavy lyrical themes of war. Frankly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about how great war is, and how much I should lionize warriors. The topic is so worn out and tired, and given the political discourse of the day revolving around the toxicity of modern masculinity, it feels wrong to be spending entire albums praising mass bloodshed and death. War is one of the failings of humanity, and here we have another group making it sound like a gift from the gods.

Fortunately, from a philosophical perspective, not a lot about this album works as a hymnal. I will say that "Never Surrender" is a cracking power metal anthem, and is generic enough in the lyrics to be inoffensive. It is a good example of what power metal is at its best. It is surrounded, though, with songs like "Hephaistos", which eschew melodies and hooks for droning chants that aren't engaging at all. There is a belief that those sorts of vocal parts sound 'big', but layers of voices don't make something interesting. If it's a boring vocal line, it's a boring vocal line no matter how many singers are included.

"Battle Cry" and "Holy Storm" are also fine enough tracks, but not anything that will set the world on fire. For being sold as much emanating from the halls of Valhalla itself, Warkings have given us a rather generic album. There's plenty of power metal that sounds like this, and most of it is able to sound catchier while doing it. As I was saying at the beginning, a gimmick is a fine way to get attention, as long as the music is able to back it up. In the case of Warkings, it doesn't. Even with the gimmick, or maybe because of it, the music isn't good enough to live up to the claims.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

EP Review: Salvation Jayne - Salvation Jayne

For as much of a moment in time as Queens Of The Stone Age had with "Songs For The Deaf", there is little of their influence to still be felt, outside of the stoner scene. Around that time, there were bands that sounded like them, and while few of them amounted to much, it's odd how certain bands have their sound all but disappear from the cultural landscape, while much smaller groups have theirs seep into the tentacles of rock history. Queens Of The Stone Age are one of those groups falling by the wayside, which made it interesting to see their name pop up as an influence for Salvation Jayne's new EP.

"Cortez" opens the EP with a fuzzy riff that absolutely could have been from a Queens song. It has that desert drone vibe, but thankfully it isn't allowed to dominate the entire song. Things speed up a bit as the vocals come in, and we get more of a regular rock track from then on. There's a nice balance between trying to be melodic and mainstream while also staying gritty and heavy.

"Juno" tries to be a more energetic track, but the chorus is too much "hey hey", and not enough melody for me. "Black Heart" is a better track, as they are able to ride a Queens vibe into a chorus that reads like a Halestorm track. It isn't quite that sharp, but it's an approach that shows what the band is capable of, and it piques my interest, for sure. I wish they could go down that path more, because there's something to it. "Tongue Tied" is a stab at pop from a group that really isn't pop, so it doesn't quite work. "The Art Of Falling" closes things with more of a ballad, which takes a while to get to the crescendo, but is quite satisfying when it does.

Which leaves us with this as a verdict; this EP reaches out in multiple directions, and doesn't settle on who Salvation Jayne are at the core of their sound. There is some good stuff here, and some that needs a bit of work. But if they refine what they're good at, there's plenty of room to grow into a good band.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Album Review: All That Remains - Victim Of The New Disease

Metalcore. Is there a style of metal that has come along since the hairspray days that was more immediately dated than metalcore? From the foundational days right through today, it's hard to listen to a metalcore record and not feel like it's 2005. What's weird about that is how metalcore is what should be the perfect music for the modern age of metal. It is a blend of everything that metal currently is; down-tuned guitars, technical (at times) playing, ferocious screaming, and beautiful melody. But there was a short shelf life, and most of the bands that cemented the genre started drifting towards other ideas, as All That Remains did as they morphed into more of a radio rock outfit. That was not received well at all. It makes you wonder if their return to a more aggressive side with this record is a strategy, rather than where their inspiration took them.

We get off to a bad start with "Fuck Love", whose flaws should be evident without me saying anything. Those three minutes of screaming are somehow considered 'edgy' or 'angst' when coming from a man in his forties, when it would be called a temper tantrum if he was four. I don't expect everyone to be a true poet, but there is a degree of maturity I require these days. I'm not that old, and stuff like this song makes me cringe too hard to put up with it. If it wasn't immature, I would tell "Fuck Love" to fuck off. I'm better than that, though.

The other two songs we got a preview of are worlds better. "Everything's Wrong" and "Wasteland" are phenomenal tracks, and the reason I'm talking about this album, considering I had never gotten into All That Remains before. "Everything's Wrong" hit me the first time I stumbled across it, delivering a dark and melancholy form of radio rock that is beautiful and slightly haunting. Phil Labonte sounds great, and his lyrics are more introspective here. I'm not sure how it isn't getting traction on the modern rock charts. It is everything Disturbed is trying to be, but runs circles around them.

The band's years spent escaping metalcore have, ironically, made them better at exactly that. A song like "Blood To Spill" is metalcore through and through, but Labonte now has a better grasp (or better help) writing melodies that fit the balance the best of the genre always offered. In between the chugging riffs and screaming verses, the chorus sits as the melodic center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, a gift for those of us who get tired of being yelled at by overgrown man-children.

"Misery In Me" is an interesting track, because the pre-chorus is almost a straight copy of Killswitch Engage's "In Due Time". Since that wasn't exactly a deep cut, I'm not sure how no one who worked on the record didn't hear that similarity, as the last thing a metalcore band wants is to invite comparisons with the group that's done it the best. At least the chorus that follows is solid enough to make sure the entire song doesn't get swallowed up by the 'borrowing' of that melody.

I assume the more hardcore fans will hate the acoustic ballad "Alone In The Darkness", and especially "Just Tell Me Something", which is the most mainstream song on the entire record, and is the closest thing here to the records that have been turning fans off. I, though, enjoy that song. I went back and listened to the band's last record to get a bit of context, and I understand why fans were upset. Those songs weren't very good at the style they were trying to be. This time around, they're much better at writing for the masses.

Aside from that opening stumble, "Victim Of The New Disease" is actually a very good record. It vacillates between metalcore and modern rock, but both styles are done well, and Labonte's melodies are solid and sturdy. "Fuck Love" is lousy, but everything else is highly enjoyable, and indeed a return to form. All That Remains might have a bad reputation these days, but this should help them rehab that.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Album Review: Ten - Illuminati

Some people lose their minds as they get older. Not senility, mind you, but they lose sight of who they were and slowly drift off into the weird fringes of their personalities. I'm sure we all have at least one friend or relative who has had a dramatic shift in who they are, who now believes in ideas or politics they never would have before. I don't know what causes it, but it is both sad and troubling to watch someone's very identity unravel. It happens in music, too. It isn't always as readily apparent, but there are artists who lose sight of what they do best.

Ten is one of the bands that has taken that sad route. The sugary band of melodic fluff is now gone, replaced by something alien. Last year they unleashed "Gothica", where one of the sunniest bands ever decided to try to tell Gothic horror stories. Needless to say, the clash with their disposition left that as one of the worst records of the year. And now a year later, they are back with an album that delves into the Illuminati. Great, now they are conspiracy theorists too. Ugh.

This record is one that tries my patience before ever hitting play, based on that fact, but also because none of the ten songs here clocks in at less than five minutes. That leaves this being a very lengthy record, which is a hard sell as attention spans continue to get shorter. On the plus side, ditching the Gothic themes from the last record at least rights the ship. Ten is not a dark band, so singing songs about vampires and evil was simply impossible for them without radically re-imagining their sound. After so long, that wasn't going to happen. "Illuminati" keeps the theme confined to the lyrics, so at least the music returns to being more traditional Ten fare.

That alone is reason to celebrate, but there's more to it than that. Gary Hughes may not be back to his best form, like "Stormwarning" or the albums he wrote for Bob Catley, but his songs are better here than Ten has put out in several cycles. Did the Illuminati give him better material in exchange for a positive spin on their society? See how stupid talking about a shadowy organization sounds?

So yes, this is an improvement, but it's still an album that lacks the needed spark. Hughes hasn't pushed his voice in decades, and his flat delivery keeps any song from building to a true moment of resolution. Plus, his production and composition puts the keyboards in the forefront, which makes me laugh at the fact the band has three guitarists listed on the roster. This is music that could be accomplished by one, with no problem.

There are some good songs and melodies here, but the album is ponderous, and drags in between those moments. It doesn't feel worth sitting through three minutes of ballad-ish buildup to get to a big hook about genetic manipulation. The conspiracies in the lyrics are enough to kill anything the record is able to build up. I know a lot of people don't care about lyrics, and can overlook anything they might contain, but I am not one of them. Words matter, and I don't know how a song that is essantially about putting your head in the sand and ignoring reality is ever going to be something I can enjoy.

So look, "Illuminati" sounds enough like old Ten to satisfy most listeners. It's a perfectly decent record if you just want to hear some (very) soft rock with smooth melodies. It is easily worlds better than "Gothica", but I don't want to go much further than that. Lyrically, this record is one of those things I feel worse about myself for even listening to. I don't like the idea of humoring these kinds of ideas, because we have seen them take a foothold in civic life. Ten doesn't have the power to change a single mind, but even the possibility they could lead someone to delve into this psuedo-"knowledge" is reason enough to tell you never to listen to it. Nothing on here is worth that risk.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Album Review: Ashes Of Ares - Well Of Souls

For a lot of people, Matt Barlow is THE voice of Iced Earth. There was something about his baritone that was different than everything else out there, to the point where not only do many people still lionize his every uttered note, but the band themselves went out and got a singer who can basically clone his performance. Myself, I can't say I was ever that much a fan of his. He's fine, but I found his voice to be over-wrought, and his softer tones to be relatively weak. In fact, my favorite Iced Earth record has Ripper Owens on vocals, so what do I know? Barlow has been busy in his time since last splitting with Iced Earth, with this second Ashes Of Ares album being the latest effort from him.

I'll say this right at the beginning; I don't believe I ever heard the first Ashes Of Ares album, so I won't be making any comparisons between the two.

If there was any question who is the driving force here, the opening "Consuming The Mana" makes it clear very quickly. Barlow opens his song proper with a piercing wail, uses both his clean and gruff singing, and absolutely dominate the mix. His voice sits very high, and is the only bit of the music that sounds clear and punchy. The guitars especially are fuzzy and almost feel out of focus. When the record tries to get heavy, that is a real detriment, because it doesn't sound heavy at all. The instrumentals of the songs sound amateurish, frankly.

That puts Barlow front-and-center, and entrusts the entire success of the songs to him. That will probably work for the target audience, but it doesn't for me. Barlow gives it his all, utilizing every trick he has in his playbook, but there isn't any interesting songwriting here at all. He has next to nothing to work with, melodically, which turns these songs into a long drive down an arrow-straight piece of road. You'll get where you're going, but there's no scenery to look at, and no challenge to stop your mind from wandering away from the wheel.

I don't get Barlow's decision on "Soul Searcher" to sing with that warbling hint of a growl in his voice, considering the song is a ballad. The guitars are clean, the pace is slow, and he is almost barking through what is supposed to be an emotional moment. That doesn't work whatsoever, but it might be because his softer register sounds worn out when he does try to use it. There's probably a reason why many of his vocals here are layered with highs and lows together, rather than leaving him exposed. Or maybe that is another byproduct of the entire production being lackluster.

I always try to look for the positives, and that is proving hard to do with this record. Matt Barlow fans will be happy just to hear his voice, but other than giving him another opportunity to be heard, I'm not able to point to anything else encouraging. What we have here is a record that sounds tired, flimsy, and under-written. If this album is the well of souls, the water is running very low. I don't enjoy saying this, but Ashes Of Ares is one of the weaker albums I've heard all year.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Album Review: Nordic Union - Second Coming

Erik Martensson has been a very busy guy. Just this year, he has already put out records with W.E.T. and Ammunition, and his main gig Eclipse put out a record last year as well. We are in no short supply of his songs, and yet here we find ourselves ready for another one. This is the second outing with Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids handling the vocals, which is about the only thing that differentiates all of these groups. Nordic Union is actually my favorite of the records I have heard from him, but I can't tell if that's because Ronnie's voice gives the music a slightly different color, or because it was the first one I spent any real time with. We're about to find that out with this record.

The two singles that were put out before the release, "Walk With Me Through The Fire" and "Because Of Us" didn't hit me the way the first records did. After hearing so many of Erik's songs, his tendencies are showing through so much that it's hard to get as excited about hearing the same thing yet again. That's not to say it isn't good, because W.E.T.'s album is one of the best of the year, but it does dilute the impact each album is able to make.

You get all of that wrapped up nicely in the opening track, "My Fear And My Faith". It starts out with a heavy riff, and builds into a hooky chorus that is everything melodic rock should be. That hook, though, is nearly the same as a melody from the first album. It sounds great, until you remember you've already heard it. I don't say this just to say it. I am a songwriter myself, so I know that every musician has a certain number of ideas in their reservoir. I have been worried for a while that Erik is writing songs and putting out albums too quickly, burning through the melodies he has on tap. That fear is starting to materialize here. This record is melodic rock goodness through and through, but it's too familiar for its own good.

I hate to focus on records other than the one I'm talking about, but it feels necessary. "Second Coming" is a very good record, and it does exactly what the excellent first Nordic Union album did. I have to be honest and say that it took me quite a few spins before I was fully embracing this record as being at the same level as the first one, because I already reviewed and enjoyed two other records that sound nearly identical to it this year. There's the adage, "familiarity breeds contempt". That's going way too far, because I do love this music, but there is a creeping sense of deja vu that takes a fair few listens to fully wash away.

Let's get back to the positives here. Erik is a master of his craft, so this is an album of melodic earworms that will surely please any fan of hooky hard rock. I also love the harder edge Ronnie's voice gives to the music, which stops it from ever feeling a bit too fluffy. They fit exceptionally well together, and I genuinely do prefer this approach to Eclipse, even if that puts me in the minority. In a vacuum, there isn't anything at all I could complain about with this record. It's melodic rock exactly as it should be.

We get one new moment in "Breathtaking", which is easily my favorite track on the record. The pace is slower, the mood heavier, and because it's something just a hair different than everything else, it stands out. It doesn't sound like it, but it fills the same role "Hypocricy" did on the first record. It's a sheer ass-kicker.

So what it comes down to is this; "Second Coming" is a great melodic rock album, and it sits alongside the first record as being just about as good as this style can be done. I would be raving even more about it if this was the first time in 2018 I was hearing this. As much as I do want to stress my affection for the record, and how it will certainly wind up being one of the best records of the year when all is said and done, it was a more difficult process to get there than it should have been. Ammunition, W.E.T., and Nordic Union's albums this year are all excellent, but they stand in direct competition with each other, which isn't advantageous.

Nordic Union, though, is my favorite of the bunch. "Second Coming" may not be as novel, but it's just as good.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Album Review: Holter - Vlad The Impaler

In January of 2015, I encountered one of the biggest surprises of my music listening life. Jorn Lande and Trond Holter put out a concept album telling the story of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", which was complete with cheesy sound effects and a sense of camp that rivaled the 1960's Batman television show. It was the kind of absurdity I should have laughed at and discarded. Instead, the sheer sense of fun of the album transcended past the typical boundaries of heavy metal, and left that record not only as the far and away best record of the year, but one that remains one of my favorite records of the last five years.... period. Needless to say, this is a record that has a lot to live up to.

First and foremost, we need to note the big change this time out. Jorn has been replaced with Nils K Rue of Pagan's Mind fame. Nils is a fine singer in his own right, but I will admit to some disappointment in his inclusion here. Not only is Jorn a singular talent, but Nils simply doesn't have the menace to his voice to make me believe he is a blood-thirsty murderer leaving a heap of bodies on pikes outside his castle walls.

But we heard from "Worlds On Fire" and "I'll Die For You" that Holter didn't need Jorn around to come up with material that hit the right marks, with an infectious hookiness that knows playing things absolutely straight would be a huge mistake. Everyone involved knows that there is a spirit of fun to this project that maybe shouldn't be in a record telling the story of one of the most cruel men to ever walk the face of the earth, but it's precisely because of that the whole thing works as well as it does. Nothing about bloody death says there should be a guitar solo epic enough to recreate Slash's parts in the "November Rain" video, but we get a couple of them anyway, because why the hell not?

The biggest difference between the two records is that this one is more of a straight-forward metal record, whereas "Dracula" had more theatrical and narrative moments to make the experience unique. That is a double-edged sword. To me, that robs this of a few bits of inspiration I was looking forward to, but I know a lot of people thought the first record went too far down that rabbit hole, so this refocusing will make this a more palatable outing. Not everyone grew up with Meat Loaf as their first musical love, the way I did.

When Holter gets it right, he gets it totally right. Songs like "I'll Die For You" and "The Last Generation" are heavy metal with a theatrical flair to their massive hooks. The latter, sung by Eva Iselin Erichsen, feels entirely like a song that Dracula and Mina could have dueted on the last record. Her inclusion is one of the highlights of the album, as were her female predecessor's the last time 'round. Seriously, the Broadway prayer "Shadows Of Love" wouldn't be as effective with Nils behind the mic.

"Without You" is this record's take on "Hands Of Your God", while "Under Your Skin" is akin to "Queen Of The Damned", both records feature penultimate instrumentals, and there's even a direct sequel in "Save Me Part II". So yes, it does feel a little bit like Holter is trying very hard to replicate the formula that made the first record special. Lightning can't be captured in a bottle, however, so those little callbacks not only tie the albums together, but invite comparisons that don't need to be there. "Vlad The Impaler" is a terrific album in the style of "Dracula", good enough that it doesn't need to hit us over the head with the connection.

But minor gripes aside, Holter has taken vampire lore for another winning spin. No, it isn't as much a revelation as "Dracula" was, but it was never going to be. That album was a moment of inspiration that caught everyone off-guard, and it was the surprise factor that turned it from a great record into a defining one. This record had expectations coming in, and even though it nearly meets all of them, it was never going to knock me over, since I was already braced.

Let's not let that spoil a good thing. If you loved "Dracula", you'll feel the same way about "Vlad The Impaler". There's a lot of cheesy metal, a lot of conceptual metal, and a lot of dramatic metal. Holter wraps it all up in one package that is ruthlessly effective. Sort of like a certain historical figure......a