Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Album Review: Valis Ablaze - Render

I must be getting old. I remember back when prog metal referred to music that deviated from conventional structure. It was about playing long songs, taking the listener on some unexpected twists and turns. I also remember when the next variety came up, and prog metal became more about the technical proficiency of the players, where the length of the song didn't define prog as much as the difficulty of playing the songs did. Virtuoso players made prog, regardless of the structure they wrre playing in. I thought that was stretching things a bit, but whatever, it was fine.

Lately, though, prog has also been defined by the bands coming up in the rise of djent, where as long as the time signature isn't 4/4 (or doesn't sound like it even if it is), you qualify. There are scores of bands that chug simple riffs in slightly odd cadences for four minutes, and that somehow is now prog. I don't get how, but the sky looks awfully cloudy today. Maybe I should yell out the window....

That is the style of prog Valis Ablaze plays. If you enjoy counting beats and doing math, they are the kind of band you'll love. Their guitar style is one that doesn't feature big riffs, the kind you could sing along to at a show like "Heaven & Hell" or even "Seven Nation Army". These are riffs where there is little internal melody, they are predominantly focused on the right hand pattern. For a guitar player, that can be fascinating stuff to dissect (if that's your wont), but it makes for a difficult listening experience. By doing so little, the appeal of the songs is shifted almost entirely to the vocals.

I'll say this; Phil Owen has a more appealing voice than many of the extremely ethereal singers djent bands employ. He's got a good tone, and diversity to play up the lighter and heavier sections of the songs. The problem is, as I complain about often with these kinds of bands, the hyper-focus on rhythm among the musicians carries over to the vocals, which don't have a lot of melody to them. They do when compared to the guitars, but it's the kind of melody where anything sung cleanly would sound as such among relentless chugging. Take the vocals out of these constructions, and nothing he is singing would make for a good song on a strummed acoustic guitar.

It feels weird saying this, since I'm still years away from being forty, but maybe it's a generational thing. I'm old enough to remember before the big shift in what constituted popular music, when instruments and melodies were dominant, and not rhythms and percussion. If I was younger, and only knew electronic pop and hip-hop as mainstream, this might be the kind of metal that would get me excited. But since I do remember the old days, and that's what I grew up with, this style is just bland to me. It isn't that there's no swagger or no aggression, it's that I walk away from these songs wondering what I'm supposed to remember.

How does one hum a 7/8 polyrhythm to oneself?

So I have to say the same thing about Valis Ablaze that I do about Periphery, Tesseract, and the rest of that ilk; they sound very good at what they do, I just don't know what the point of it is.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Singles Roundup: Opeth, Dream State, Eclipse, Alter Bridge, & Goo Goo Dolls

Looking around the musical landscape, there aren't any albums I want to talk about today, so let's instead talk about a few singles, since they give me something to say.

Opeth - Heart In Hand

After a few disappointing records, Opeth needs a win. Desperately. Their shift to prog rock has been poorly received, not because of the lack of metal, but because they've written terrible songs for the most part. This first look at their new album is a sign of hope, for once. Maybe writing in Swedish first opened up something in Mikael's mind, but this song is still prog rock, but there are a few hints of old Opeth in the way the riffs move, and the main chorus melody sounds lifted from "Ghost Reveries". This is finally closer to what we had in mind when Opeth announced their stylistic shift. The rest of the album might not follow suit, but for right now, there is reason to think Opeth may have finally found their footing.

Dream State - Primrose

I commented at mid-year that there aren't many things I'm looking forward to at the moment. Dream State's debut record would be one of them. I really enjoyed their EP, and "Hand In Hand" is one of my favorite songs of the year so far. This new single is just as good, and has both hands on the rope, raising the bar just high enough where only our fingertips can touch it. Their melodic post-hardcore sound and songwriting nails the energy and hooks to be infectious. It's great work, and I'm very much excited to hear what else they've got in store for us.

Eclipse - United

While I have loved some of Erik Martensson's side work, his main band hasn't quite gotten me in the same way. This first taste of the new album might be changing that. This song is slightly darker, sounding very much like a song from last year's amazing Nordic Union album. Erik's voice is also not as squeaky clean on this one, and while I would still rather have Ronnie Atkins singing this, this is pure ear candy. The last Eclipse album was very good, and this song points to the new one potentially being great.

Alter Bridge - Wouldn't You Rather?

Alter Bridge is weird to me. They're very good, but I never find myself wanting to listen to them. Plus, the one album of theirs I like in full, "AB III", is often written-off by fans. So I was happy to hear this new song returning to that style, dropping the more involved metal for a simpler, more melodic rock approach. Tremonti's riffs are still thick and heavy, but there's more room for Myles to sing. I don't know if fans will be thrilled, should the album follow suit, but I am.

Goo Goo Dolls - Miracle Pill

Am I supposed to believe that a host of bands from the late 90s and early 00s (The Wallflowers, Matchbox Twenty, Daughtry, etc.) all had the same artistic pull to ditch the guitars they played all their lives in favor of electronic percussion and rhythm-based songwriting? I don't. All of those bands started to pander to modern pop listeners, trying to expand beyond their core fans. Those three I mentioned all completely lost me, because they no longer sounded like themselves, and it was obvious why. Goo Goo Dolls are doing the same thing, with this new song that you wouldn't recognize as them without Johnny Rzeznik's vocals. It's disappointing to hear bands like this move into areas they aren't good at, trying to win over fans who already think they're lame. I'm certainly not going to listen to more of this.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Album Review: Mind Key - MKIII: Aliens In Wonderland

This has been an odd year for progressive metal so far. Other than Dream Theater's newest release, there have been almost no records big enough to land on my radar. I know I did review the new Darkwater record, but beyond that progressive metal has been in a tough position. Of course, some of that depends on how you define prog vs Prog. This new Mind Key album, for instance, is labelled as progressive metal, yet only one of the eleven tracks hits six minutes long (and only by nine seconds). Is that prog?

I've heard it argued both ways; that prog is about defying conventional structures, and that prog is a style of complex music regardless of originality. Personally, I don't know how I can call an album of purely five minute long, verse/chorus songs a prog album. The music might be complex, technical even, but it isn't progressing anything. Mind Key's music is a mix of Dream Theater and Symphony X, which is fine, but they don't add anything new to the mix. Being derivative is not prog. At least not in my book.

But what of the music? Leaving the nomenclature behind, we can look at this record as coming up short on both ends. Good prog metal needs to either have mind-blowing musicianship, or strong melodic hooks, to really capture the listener's attention. Mind Key doesn't hit either of those marks. The melodies are ok-ish, but there isn't a single one that stands up to what Dream Theater does with songs like "Home" or "Outcry". These melodies are mostly forgettable, with the exception of "Hate At First Sight", which is memorable for how much it sounds like an 80s soft rock track. It's the best thing on the record by a mile, but it also feels a bit disconnected from what year it currently is.

The other thing is that the musicianship, while excellent, isn't flashy enough for what this kind of prog needs. Without the big melodies, the album's core focus is on the work the guitars and keys do, and there isn't much there to impress me. The appeal of listening to Michael Romeo or John Petrucci is hearing a litany of riffs and solos you can't imagine fingers being able to actually play. That's the whole crux of that side of the prog debate. Mind Key doesn't go far enough in that direction.

That leaves me with an existential question; what is a prog album, if it is neither prog nor Prog? In the case of Mind Key, it's an album that is rather bland, and all too perfunctory. "Aliens In Wonderland" doesn't make a strong enough case for why I should be investing myself in this music. It doesn't give me enough to warrant repeated listens.

Ultimately, even if an album is decent and well-played, it needs to do what it sets out to. I don't think this one does, so I can't say you need to hear it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Album Review: Hollow Haze - Between Wild Landscapes And Deep Blue Seas

It isn't often the case, but sometimes a record is like having your tail tucked between your legs. At least that's the way I see Hollow Haze, a group that disbanded when the leader tried to make a bigger mark with some more established names, only to crawl back to his old moniker when that fizzled out. But this isn't the original Hollow Haze, no, this is an entirely new group using the same name. As if that wasn't confusing enough, this record also promises us a brand new sound for the group. So what we have is a band that broke up, then got back together with entirely new members, to play a different style of music, but still use the same name. Huh?

This new version of Hollow Haze is attempting to play a symphonic style of power metal that has bigger sounds, and more drama than before. With a powerful production behind them, they do get the first part of that equation right. This record sounds fantastic, and the epic moments have all the power and punch you could ask for. From an engineering perspective, this record is flawless (and a welcome relief after I've been subjected to some pretty bad production jobs lately).

What is less clear to me is why Hollow Haze decided to become symphonic, and whether they know the proper way to do so. It isn't enough just to throw some string patches on the keyboards and add some sounds in the background. Proper symphonic metal needs to integrate those elements into the core of the compositions. I always say if you can remove the strings and the songs are essentially the same, you're doing it wrong. On this record, the strings don't serve in a prominent enough role for my liking. They aren't buried in the mix, but they don't often have the crux of the song in their hands.

Perhaps I'm focusing on that because the songs themselves aren't strong enough. "Destinations" opens things with a rather stomping riff, but it's one of a very few throughout the record that stands out as anything but standard. Couple that with a set of melodies that aren't particularly hooky, and it leaves this record feeling flat, even with the layers of sound giving it depth. There are exceptions, with "It's Always Dark Before The Dawn" having a little more bite in the melody, and standing out as something to remember, but the majority of the record simply doesn't have that kind of appeal.

Everything here is played and sung beautifully, but that's not enough to win me over. It's important, but great songs can stand up to an array of mistakes, while even perfection can't lift mediocrity to the highest rung. Unfortunately, that's what this record strikes me as. It's perfectly pleasant to listen to, but there isn't a single moment that makes me believe I'm listening to a great band, nor one I have to go back and hear again. This falls into that category of records I will listen to if it comes on, but I will probably never choose to play of my own volition.

As I've noted before, I've heard so much music now that I find myself less and less impressed by the glut in the middle of the curve. That's where Hollow Haze sits. They're perfectly fine. Is that enough for you?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Album Review: Glasya - Heaven's Demise

There are a lot of people who love the beauty symphonic metal is able to bring us, with the lush instrumental sounds, and often classically trained singers who can bring an operatic tone to the music. It has become a very common sound, and it's also one that I have really not been able to embrace. It isn't as though I don't want to. I love the idea of having big, dramatic elements to the songs that more conventional metal sounds can't create, but I have always had a big problem with classical sounding vocalists. There is something in that style that doesn't hit my ears well, and it has ruined many popular bands for me. So it is always with apprehension that I press play on a band like Glasya.

When the title track bursts open with its string arrangements slashing through the mix, the first comparison that came to mind was Hollenthon. Obviously, that becomes moot once the vocals start, but I appreciate the heaviness the guitars still bring, and how the crux of the composition is put on the strings, not merely using them as set decoration. That approach happens far too often, and renders symphonic metal rather useless. If you can remove the symphony and have the same song, why was it ever there to begin with?

The band also uses chanted backing vocals to give the music more of a gritty feel than some of the overly polished bands of the same ilk. It's a little detail that keeps the music from becoming too saccharine, too neutered. Sonically, they've hit on a good balance that is both beautiful and powerful. That's something to commend.

There is, of course, the one issue looming over the entire record; the vocals. Though I'm sure they are done well, from a technical perspective, the style and tone is not my taste, and it also makes it hard for the lyrics to be made out clearly. When a big chorus comes along, and I can make out the crooning notes and nothing else, it is a drawback for me. A well-written song shouldn't be spoiled by a performance that denies me access to a part of the composition. The same criticism would be leveled against a record if the production obscured the details, or if the whole thing was fuzzy past comprehension, so it's only fair to say the vocals should be similarly clear.

I also realize, however, that my opinion is simply my own. The proliferation and success of classical singers in metal shows there is an ample audience ready to soak this up. Me not being one of them doesn't speak negatively about Glasya, it merely points out a difference of perspective.

So if you're more of a fan of classical singing than I am, I can absolutely recommend Glasya to you. Their sound is great, their songs are strong, and they have an identity. That can't be said about a lot of bands, so they are ahead of the pack in that respect. They haven't changed my mind on symphonic metal, but that would have been a tall order. It may not be for me, but I can appreciate when a style I'm not a huge fan of is done well. "Heaven's Demise" is done well.

Glasya should satisfy symphonic metal fans, no doubt.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Singles Roundup: Richie Kotzen, Hayley Griffiths, Twin Temple, Killswitch Engage, and Volbeat

The summer music slate is looking quite bleak, if I'm being honest. July and August have few records that are demanding my attention, so let's take a moment to look at some singles instead, and see if they offer any hope for the near future.

Richie Kotzen - Venom

Last year, Richie Kotzen put out two singles that were excellent, sounded like The Winery Dogs, and pointed at potentially a great new record from him. That may or may not come, but this year's first bit of new music is decidedly weaker than where we left him. This song doesn't have the blazing licks or sticky melodies that "Riot" did. That song made my list of favorites last year, and this one wouldn't even make a list of monthly favorites. Hopefully Richie has something better up his sleeve, because knowing what his last few solo albums were like, my enthusiasm is dying.

Hayley Griffiths - Haunted

The second single from the former Karnataka singer is even better than the first one. Here, we find her playing that same kind of dramatic, theatrical rock/metal. She has one of the clearest and strongest voices of any rock singer with a classical background, and that lets her give the melody a bite similar singers can't muster. I haven't heard if something bigger is coming down the road, but if it is, this is the kind of song that gets expectations raised quite high. I loved "Secrets Of Angels", and I love this song too. Keep it up, Hayley!

Twin Temple - Satan's A Woman

The debut album from these satanic doo-wop purveyors was a fun, retro blast. It wasn't the kind of thing that endures, but it has its moments. This new track captures all the best elements of their record. It's definitely a pastiche, and gimmicky, but it's also a lot of fun. If Ghost is a band that's been putting a shine on Satan in a more mainstream sort of music, Twin Temple can make Satan sexy. And if the title of this song is right, she certainly has my attention.

Killswitch Engage - Unleashed

I am a Howard fan, but Jesse's return to the band was quite good. Their last album was not, and I fear this single points further down that road. The big, anthemic choruses that defined metalcore are absent from this song. Jesse sounds good, but he's not given anything interesting to sing. Perhaps that band wants to prove they are still aggressive and heavy, but this is the sort of thing that pushes me away. Killswitch works when they can play to the heavy and the melodic. Heck, they defined an entire genre by doing that. So why aren't they doing it anymore?

Volbeat - Last Day Under The Sun

I'm worried about this record, now more than ever. Their last album was their most pop-leaning, and even though I thought it was fantastic, they were losing their identity. By the time this song hit my ears, I'm not sure I would even be able to tell you it was Volbeat, if not for the vocals. They are now fully mainstream, and without either component of what made their sound so fresh and unique. This song is so limp, and devoid of character that I'm preparing for the worst. Volbeat's best days surely look behind them at this point.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Album Review: Visionatica - Enigma Fire

I find myself saying the same things over and over when it comes to certain genres. Symphonic metal is one of them. If I go back through all the albums fitting the bill I've reviewed over the years, in most of them I would have talked about how many of the bands don't properly embrace the challenge of writing for the symphonic elements, and that classical singers aren't my cup of tea. We can get it out of the way right now that the same is true here, which puts a fairly hard limit on how successful an album like this can be.

But let's be clear; I am not anti-symphonic. I'm all for a good song that throws epic sounds into the mix, but I don't hear many of them that do it in the way I want to hear it. Though rock and not metal, Karnataka's "Secrets Of Angels" is my benchmark for how to integrate symphonic bits into the composition of the songs, while also writing irresistible songs. Spoiler alert; Visionatica doesn't achieve that.

Let's take a look at the first full song on the record, "The Pharao". It starts out with a simple guitar riff, but the symphonic bits are kept for the verses, where they flit in the background. They don't offer a hook of their own, nor do they mirror the riff, so I'm not entirely sure what they are doing there. Then the vocals from Tamara Avodem come in, and while she is a fine singer, her voice is so clean and polished it doesn't sound forceful enough to compete with a metal band. She sounds too small for the stage, and once that realization kicked in, it was hard to take in the rest of the music without that preconception.

Ultimately, that is the biggest takeaway I have from the record. The songs are pleasant, but there is absolutely no edge whatsoever to this music. Metal can be polished, but it can also be polished too far. Between the sheen, and Tamara's vocals, this is a a metal album that doesn't sound the least bit heavy. I've heard clips of Enya songs that had more weight and passion to them. I'm not trying to be harsh, but I'm also not going to sit here and tell you this is something it isn't. Sure, it's got distorted guitars, but it barely rocks, let alone throws up the metal horns.

This is the sort of album that is for die-hard symphonic fans, and just about no one else. Visionatica is not in league with the best the genre has to offer, and they're not really in the next tier down either. They're a band that has adopted the style, but doesn't have the songwriting chops to hit the mark. These songs not only fail to make good use of the symphonic elements, but they aren't particularly interesting as metal tracks either. I say that last bit about Nightwish's recent output as well, but at least they have other interesting things to keep my attention. Visionatica doesn't.

So what we have here is an album that is a pale imitation of something better. There's not much of a reason to be listening to this.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Album Review: Pattern Seeking Animals - Pattern Seeking Animals

The recent incarnations of Spock's Beard have been a mixed bag. They've put out great albums like "X" and "Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep", but also efforts like "The Oblivion Particle" that were tedious compared to their best work. What I've always found a bit odd is their relationship to John Boegehold, who has never been a member of the band, but who provided many songs in the post-Neal Morse years. I'm not surprised he would want to make a name for himself, but I am surprised that the band he put together to do so is... current and former members of Spock's Beard. So what we have here is a prog band made up by a guy who writes Spock's Beard music, being played by Spock's Beard members, that isn't actually Spock's Beard.

The press release says this project is consciously trying to do some different things than Spock's Beard, which is absolutely necessary, but something I'm not sure can be done. Most musicians have a particular way of writing and playing, and throwing a different synth patch on the keyboard isn't going to change that. My thoughts upon hearing the first song released, "No Burden Left To Carry", was exactly that. The building riffs, layered harmonies, and even the synth tones themselves, are exactly what I thought they would be. The differences are only apparent to those closest to the music.

"The Same Mistakes Again" does point us in a slightly new direction. It's a short song that tries to wring drama out with some string arrangements, and does so with a slightly Beatles-esque feeling. It's a lovely sounding track, and it's melodic, but it's too subtle. It needs to have both the hook and the drama revved up even more to hit greatness. This is prog, after all, where there's no such thing as not going far enough. Yet, this song doesn't go far enough.

Six of the nine tracks on this album are short and straight-forward, focused more on the songwriting than the prog. I like this decision, but it also highlights when there are deficiencies. Take "No One Ever Dies And Made Me King" for example. It's a short, almost pop tune, and I can argue it hits the mark by being catchy, but it does so in an annoying, lazy way. The entire chorus is just the title repeated over and over again, which is weak writing that has always (even when it was Iron Maiden doing it) reeked of not knowing how to give the song a proper chorus.

The other issue is that the entire album is too smooth for its own good. Neither the riffs nor the melodies have any real bite to them. That was one of the main issues I've had with the last two Spock's Beard albums as well. These are fine enough songs, and it's an enjoyable listen, but there's no spark, no energy, to these tracks. The whole thing sounds like very mature prog, but I spend most of the record begging for something to reach out and slap me.

They might say this is a completely different animal, but I'm going to compare this to Spock's Beard anyway, because they sound pretty much identical to my ears. Pattern Seeking Animals fits in the middle of that hierarchy. It isn't as good as "X" or "Brief Nocturnes..." (the best Spock's album, and made by this basic lineup), but it's easily more engaging than the last two albums. Frankly, they might as well had waited for the usual album gap and called this a Spock's Beard album. It sounds like one, it feels like one, and it's actually an improvement over what they have been doing.

So let's call this a mixed bag. It's fine, but not thrilling, if you get my drift.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Conversation: Midway Through 2019

CHRIS C: The digital revolution has had many effects, one of the seldom noticed being the acceleration of time. Without having physical calendars we use to mark the days, flipping them with each month or tearing a page every day, it's easier for each solar cycle to blend into each other, creating a blur of time our eyes can never quite focus on. That's the fancy way of saying, "it's the middle of the year already?" We say that every year, it seems.

As I'm looking back at this year, so far, I'm struck by a couple of things; 1) There have been very few 'great' albums to this point, 2) There has been a ton of truly awful music, and 3) The trends of recent years have not yet abated. We are still seeing fake retirements, sequels to albums (as if that's a thing), and attention being funneled upward so that only the already biggest names generate any buzz.

But, for the first time in a decade, we can talk about a new Tool album without it being a running joke. I believe that sentence fully satisfies my eagerness to talk about that subject. Meme culture loses out on one of their old standards (they can go back to Necrophagist, but no one cares about them, right?), but I'm sure they'll recover.

Actually, perhaps the thing I wanted to talk about most has nothing to do with music at all, but rather fashion. Bruce Dickinson answered a question about his now long hair in a snarky way, but it did bring up the old questions about the metal 'look', how it ever started, and why the supposed fans who celebrate individualism are so triggered by a musician's hair deviating from the accepted length. What say you?

D.M: Hello!  Welcome to another summer, and here we go again! 

Working backwards through your points - The whole 'look' argument goes back probably several thousand years without any clear resolution or logical basis.  Really, the only thing that's advanced in the intervening time is that we're better at identifying that the entire "look" thing is generally ridiculous.  And believe me, we haven't improved that much - there are still more cultural circles than not where you and I would be thoroughly castigated (at best) for even suggesting the irrelevancy of look (which I will stop putting in quotes, since we've established it.)  Man, everyone wants to be part of something, while simultaneously wanting to not be part of a whole.  We all wear our brands rather literally on our sleeves - Nike, Brooks Brothers, Harley Davidson, any professional or college sports team of any stripe, Kangol, whatever.  At this point, down in the frightening hipster depths of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NOT wearing labels on your sleeve has become its own label.  So what the hell, the problem is older than us, and will likely outlive us.

That said, let me attempt some manner of rationalization here - the metal look actually predates metal, at least as far at the hair is concerned.  It's a direct extension (no pun intended,) of when the hippies grew their hair out in reaction to a society that rejected their ideals.  Metal picked that up and combined it with a lower-rent, motorcycle gang aesthetic, and made a look that was unique unto its time.  It's a crying shame that the image was usurped by and suffered such indignity at the hands of hair metal, but such seems to be the fate of all counter-culture aesthetics - to be co-opted by somebody who has figured out how to capitalize on it and turn it into a tradable commodity.

Nevertheless, that's not what you asked.  Where do I stand?  I couldn't give a rat's ass about somebody's hairstyle.  Some of this may be bitterness on my part - I am incapable of growing long hair, not because I am balding, but because I am genetically predisposed to hair that grows out rather than down.  Even absent that though, Scott Ian wrote in his autobiography that one of the reasons he cut his hair initially was because he was tired of being chased out of hardcore shows with the epithet "poser," which is a sentiment I'm down with.  I mean, nobody at work expects me to be a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, mostly because of unfair stereotypes toward metal fans, but c'mon, why can't we all be anything regardless of how we look and dress?  And the exclusionary idea that we must look a certain way to belong in a group is laughable.  P.J. O'Rourke once famously said "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please."  Seems easy enough as far as image and fandom is concerned.  We'll get back to this a minute, because I have a question I want to pose to you.

 (The part people conveniently forget and struggle with is the second part of the quote: "And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."  We see this second part in the NHL - the league and its players in some ways still think it's 1983, and as a consequence, the league remains a localized and niche sport.)

Let me zero in momentarily on the fake retirement thing for a minute.  I've come to make a weird peace with this.  It's not my place to tell someone when to hang it up, especially when it's far easier to just ignore or otherwise pretend that the new music isn't happening.  I mean, would anyone but the most fanatical devotee argue that Judas Priest hasn't been 'retired' since after "Painkiller" was released?  And I have as much love for JP as the next guy, hell, maybe more, but they've been retreading and repacking nostalgia (much like Bruce Springsteen! Zing!) since before their actual first retirement.  Like Kobe Bryant but worse, the Slayer retirement tour has dragged across multiple years.  That equine is flagellated, gentlemen.  Say goodnight, if you actually intend to say goodnight (I have my doubts.)  Because apparently I'm in a quotable mode today, I remember waaaay back before Deadpool comics were popular, the assassin Bullseye tells 'Pool that the number one cause of death among the elderly is retirement.  So I get it, man.  Do your thing.  (I'm also surreptitiously embarrassed to admit that I thought the Diamond Head album was alright.  It wasn't a world beater, but it didn't suck.)

That said, we discussed this briefly offline, but yikes, Frontiers Records is having a bad year, aren't they?  They usually manage to pump out a couple gems a year from the part of their catalog that isn't collecting Social Security, but man, it's been a rough road for them in the first six months.

And this tails into your first two points, which I am wholly on board with - music this year ain't been great, and I hate to say that because I'm eternally an optimist that I'll find something to love, but the struggle has been real.  I don't even want to talk about what my top three albums of the year are right now, because I like them, but I desperately hope they're not my top three in December.  And yeah, much in the same way that emo and nu-metal filled in the vacuum following the collapse of grunge, we seem to be seeing a lot of acts who want to try and evolve what was working so well a couple years back.  To the point that I'm seeing more and more promos labelled "post-metal."  Can someone, anyone, explain to me what the fuck that's supposed to be?  I am becoming increasingly concerned that I've crossed the threshold where I'm now an old man who doesn't get young people's music, but I am still holding onto the faith that my judgment is not compromised and that the music around me is getting worse.  My taste is admittedly hard to define, but I know it when I hear it, and I haven't been hearing it.

Circling back to the image thing, I was speaking with another friend recently about the culture of metal as a whole and how the scene offers the celebration of an unreality.  We were speaking in broad terms about how fans (and really, it applies to all subcultures,) laud the ideals expressed in their chosen music, but that those ideals offer little connection to their actual lives.  And so you have a group of people who separate their reality into what they want to be, and then what actually is, and in some cases, begin to ostracize the 'real' people they encounter.  I'm probably not communicating the sentiment we were discussing clearly, but I think you see what I'm getting at, and I would be very curious for your interpretation of the phenomenon.  This certainly plays into the 'image' conversation, but I think it runs deeper than superficial wardrobes.


CHRIS C: Obviously, we are the wrong people to be talking about long hair in metal, as neither one of us has ever had such a style. Your sociological analysis is correct, but what amazes me about how it developed is that metal, of all genres, established essentially a uniform that so many people became devoted to. It flies in the face of everything that metal has always said it's supposed to be. I shouldn't be surprised by that, since every group that has an ethos eventually contorts itself to justify what they want, rather than what they have professed. Look no further than certain political strains here in America right now.

It goes beyond metal, of course. We need to look no further than Hulk Hogan. There we have a guy who was clearly bald, but was so committed to the image of long hair being the sign of rocking power (remember he said he auditioned to be Metallica's bassist?) that he grew his donut ring down to his shoulders. Heck, he now wears bandanas with a wig sewn into them to make it look like he still has even that horror show. Look, I know why wrestlers often had long hair (yes, I was a smark), but the only metal musician who *must* have it for that reason is Dave Mustaine. At least his hair obscures that he's barely trying to sing, if the vocals are live at a show at all.

And no, this is not jealousy over the fact that my hair is not luxurious enough anymore to grow out. I never wanted it, and still wouldn't. You're right that we are certainly un-metal in appearance. I have no tattoos, no piercings, no wannabe Viking beard, and most of my clothes have collars (not the S&M kind). The entire concept of the metal image is a big reason why, along with my other ecclectic tastes, I have never once described myself as a 'metalhead'. A group about not fitting in makes me feel like... I don't fit in. *Paging Alanis Morrissette*

Like you, I have no issue with bands carrying on longer than they should, as long as they're honest about it. We both think Slayer should have hung it up after one farewell tour without Jeff, but they have yet to lie to us, so it doesn't bother me that they stuck around. When I start getting upset is when bands make grand pronouncements about the end, and then backtrack on it. If you don't want to retire, don't retire, but don't sell me a crock of shit. I spent a decent portion of my review of the new Candlemass album on this topic, since they promoted the previous one as the last album they would ever make. I treated it as such at the time, so I feel like a fool going back to that well. Scorpions are doing the same thing. Musicians don't owe their fans much. It's art, or it should be, so there are no guarantees that a band is going to make the kind of music we want them to, on the schedule we want them to. That's fine. All that bands owe us is to tell us the truth.

That actually dovetails into the most disgusting story of the year. Manowar guitarist Karl Logan is sitting in jail as I write this, charged with possessing child pornography. The band announced when the story first came to light that he wouldn't be performing with them, but there has never been word he is out of the band officially. Manowar is on tour, they just put out an EP (worst music of the year, by the way), and they can't tell us if a sex offender is still an official member of the band. Of all the things to not be honest with, siding with child victims is as hard to explain as any.

Yes, Frontiers has had a bad first half of the year. Now they're pulling bands out of mothballs that haven't recorded in thirty years, and who weren't popular then. Nostalgia is a drug, apparently. How else can you explain all the bands trying to copy the 80s sound. I remember (barely) when that sound phased out, and we were all happy to see it go. Why do people like it again now?

Post-metal, to me, has always meant post-songwriting. It's an excuse for making drawn-out noise that doesn't bother with things like being interesting, or having riffs and melodies you can remember. It's sort of shoegaze, but for people who hate shoegaze. I've actually wondered the same thing about myself, given the lackluster results so far, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel on new music yet. I am leaning towards the belief no new music will ever be able to make a deep impact, given how crammed my mental jukebox already is. We've reached the point where we've heard so much music, we aren't willing to put up with anything but the best anymore. When I'm looking through my CD pile to find something I want to listen to, there are hundreds of them I wouldn't bother with if they came out today, but back then they were exciting enough to keep around. I don't believe there's any limit on how much great music we can carry, but my back is breaking from mediocrity.

Metal has been 'aspirational' for a long time. The 80s, in particular, were filled with it. The people who were filling stadiums to see hair bands weren't actually partying every night and banging strippers, but they wanted music that gave them hope they could do that one day (maybe another reason I don't like much 80s metal?). People who thought the answers to their problems could be found in sex and drugs gravitated to bands that told them they were right. People who thought the answers were in rejecting the shackles, namely religion, gravitated to the anti-religious message of black and death metal. People who thought the answer was in projecting strength until the lie became real gravitated to things like viking metal, and the historical bands that tell tales of war. We use music not only as an escape, but as a mask to hide when we get stuck. Records become a security blanket, reinforcing whatever beliefs we already hold about the world. They serve as stand-ins for the people we want to be, but don't think we can become. It helps to hear someone telling us we're right, even when we know they're putting on an image as much as we are. It is mob mentality, but why should music be any different than politics?

D.M: I begin by saying that I understand I was the one who lobbed the first stone at Frontiers, but allow me a small hypocrisy in attempting to come to their defense just a little.  From a strictly business standpoint, the people who listened to Ratt back when they were a thing may (and I wouldn't lump everyone in here, but I'm willing to bet it's a sizable percentage,) be listening to Ratt now, or at least in absence of that, are looking for the sound of their youth.  That was what, thirty, thirty-five years ago that the the sound was in heyday?  Isn't it possible, if you're Frontiers, that you've recognized that in the modern music distribution model, that's the only age group that still regularly buys music, rather than stream it from some other source?  I mean, that must have some hand in the process, right?  That these are people you can still sell huge numbers of physical copies to?  Maybe I'm out of my depth.

Addressing your first point, someday, when I have free time and and am independently wealthy, I'll write my doctoral thesis about the things metal is, the things it should be, and the thing it should not be.  You are, of course, correct (we're agreeing and awful lot this year, we should be careful to simply not pat each other on the back.....uh.....the Orioles suck and the designated hitter is stupid!) metal, as the voice of the no ones, the nobodies, the last in line (to steal from Saul Williams, who is NOT metal,) should not have a codified stance on anything, but rather, should be accepting and blending of all underrepresented ideals. 

The reality is, this can't happen, because the genre is just that - a genre.  That's a limiting factor by the very definition of the term, since the sect can proclaim to represent all the misrepresented, but so long as it is bound by the subjective art underneath, it will automatically attract some devotees, and those devotees will, by their human nature, exclude others.  The fact that metal takes this several steps down the line, and has become the single most combative and exclusionary range of fan bases is a separate and more serious issue, but that's not what we're talking about.  To your initial point, there was a brief golden heyday in the late seventies into the early eighties when punk, hardcore, metal, hip-hop and even reggae all ate from the same mutually respective table, but that period was all too brief.

So what happened?  Well, it seems simple, and I'll draw this out to get to my point.  A bunch on visionaries came up with the initial metal sound and image.  The general consensus is that this begins with Black Sabbath, which I agree with, but by the time we've scripted the visuals and the scene has come together as an even semi-united front, we've worked into the late seventies.  There's a proliferation of leather jackets and spikes and torn jeans and mohawks and whatever else (headbands, maybe?) and now we have the prototype 'look.'  Fast forward, and once the visionaries blazed the path, the new- and late-comers enter the fold and adopt the same image, but without adding their own likeness.  Whoever was adopted into the scene after the initial push lacked the creativity to expand upon what already existed, and pretty soon, the initial pattern attains its own self-sustaining momentum that moves from prototype to stereotype. 

I bring all that up to tie together several of my points and hopefully boil down all of our conversations into one grand postulate that I've been chewing on a lot lately, especially when mired in the depths of what we both seem to perceive as a sub-par musical year:

President Harry Truman (here I go again with the quoting,) once opined that "the 'C' students run the world."

Are we simply seeing a manifestation of that treatise?  The whole world is seeded through with C students, why would music be different?  It stands to reason that there are C student record execs, C student A&R people, and that they would contract and endorse C student artists.  That chills my spine with its simple, horrible and crushing inevitability, but I can't escape the idea.  When we first started this musical journey of ours some ten years ago (or thereabouts,) I think we were mired in a fallow period for great, creative music.  Since probably, oh, 2012 or so, I would argue that we've had a pretty good run, and then we started to see the seams last year.  Perhaps we're just regressing to the mean?  I'm normally an optimist about these things, but I'm obsessed with this idea that we can ask all we want for transcendent, imaginative and genre-bending musicians to step up all we want, but maybe there just aren't many out there right now.  Maybe we're sodden with C students while we want for the top scholars to come around to another album cycle?

I have one potential saving-throw of a caveat here, but I'll keep it in my pocket until you've had a chance to address my overbearing pessimism.


CHRIS C: The business model makes sense, of course. Frontiers goes out and signs any 'name' they can get their hands on, knowing there's at least some number of people who will buy a record with that slapped on the front cover. You're right that the older generation are the only ones who regularly buy CDs, so throwing them a bone isn't a bad business move at all. I totally understand why they keep cycling through the same stuff, hoping that the appeal of those nostalgia acts will translate in some part to the new bands they also have on the roster. Again, from the perspective of the bottom line, it makes sense. The problem is on the artistic side of the ledger, because Frontiers has done what other labels have always been afraid to; turned music into a true conveyor belt. There's no way to argue whether or not these are genuine bands and projects coming together to put out more 'great' old-school music when the press releases for half of them outright say they were put together by the head of the label. They have a roster of people who are happy for the payday of spending their time writing as many songs as they can, then giving them to assorted projects to fill out the busy release schedule. That's how we end up with certain singers appearing on three records in a year, or one songwriter having credits on half a dozen records.

And who is to blame? It's the fans. The fans, like the RATT fans you mentioned, are too willing to put up with anything that comes down the pike. Let's take RATT, for an example. That band has broken up and gotten back together, sued each other, shed members who claimed they had to be part of a 'true' version of RATT, and only released one album in twenty years anyone thought was better than utter crap. And yet, RATT still has enough fans to tour and justify a record deal. I'm not going to use the obvious metaphor, for obvious reasons, but fans of those types of bands are too forgiving. When you have been mistreated, and the bands all but admit they're fighting for who gets a bigger cut of your money, there has to come a point where you cut them off. I fear an entire generation, or at least those who haven't given up on music yet, will never do that.

If we don't want to keep agreeing all the time, those examples didn't work. Of course the Orioles suck, and the DH is stupid. I may be a fan, but the only surprise of the last twenty years was those three years the Orioles didn't suck. I was fully ready to say they would never make the playoffs again in my lifetime, given the money in the division. Things have reverted back to the mean. The DH talk doesn't directly have anything to do with it, but I realized I haven't watched a baseball game all year. I remember I used to, and then somewhere along the lines I stopped. In fact, there's a lot of stuff I used to follow more closely that I no longer do, and it isn't because I've simply run out of time. I suppose I prioritized music over some other things.

What you're saying, essentially, is that fashiona and music follow the same trend that we've talked about. In both cases, the originators pulled together wide influences, and those who came after were influenced only by the originators. On more than one occasion, we've talked about how it has been limiting on the potential of genres, but I think this is the first time we've made the connection to the fans' behavior. I do wonder, though, how much of the people following the musicians was natural, and how much was directed by releases such as "Hell Bent For Leather", "No Life Til Leather", and the like. The people were not without their marching orders. I can say, no matter how uncool my (lack of) style might be, it's entirely my own.

I'm not as pessimistic about the C-students as you are, but what you're noticing isn't wrong. Let's be real; the world has always been filled with them. We need look no further than 1977 for this. Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman peddled "Bat Out Of Hell" to every record company under the sun, and they all laughed them out of the offices. The visionary would have seen the potential far earlier. And we can't forget that we look at the past differently. The olden days released a substantial amount of terrible, forgettable music as well, that just so happens to have been forgotten, while today's crap is still fresh in our minds. There's certainly more of it now, but there's more music overall, so I'm not sure the proportion has changed.

If I can take the cynical note for a second, I wouldn't be surprised if the changes in delivery have impacted the music itself. If I was in a band, I could easily see how putting my every effort into making a great record wouldn't be worth it when I'm only getting a few pennies from album royalties. As long as touring, and t-shirt sales, make up the base of income, the music is going to be secondary. Once a band has their two or three songs to pull in the crowd, they can almost go on cruise control from then on. I don't mean to keep shitting on RATT, but even their fans don't care if they ever write another good album. They show up to hear "Round & Round" again. We're at a point where making truly great music is mostly a point of pride, and I think what world politics have shown us the last few years is that a huge number of people have none.

That said, I can't say whether or not it's the reason why the quality has taken a general downturn this last year or so. I'm sure it's a factor, but I also think that we have our own cycles, and they might not be aligned with the industry at the moment. I went through a power metal phase (you remember me playing Edguy in college) that ended, I had that stretch where I was our designated prog guy, but that has cooled off considerably, and I just got through a period where I was much more into hard rock. I'm not sure where I'm headed right now, and that indecision about my own musical identity at the moment must also contribute. Perhaps everything (with a few exceptions) sounds dull to us because we don't know what we want to hear, at least not until we hear it.

Somehow, I think that sounded both bleak and optimistic. How did I become the optimist?

D.M: Let me say unequivocally, for the record, that I have no problem with this becoming a Ratt-bash.  (By the by, are they always spelled with capital letters like that?  Have I been wrong all these years?)  Because we needed a recognizable name to scapegoat, and as much as Whitesnake’s new album was the perfect target, the pre-adolescent in me who didn’t know any better in the middle 90s still has a soft spot for some old Whitesnake tunes (but probably not the ones you think – they cut some stuff with Steve Vai that was legit and doesn’t get talked about at all.)

Also, tossing out one thing quickly – I give you credit for sticking with the O’s as long as you did.  I’ve been a Mets fan forever, and that comes with its own self-flagellations, but with the Mets there’s always the hope that they can pull together the resources to make a run.  They may sign stupid contracts, but at least they sign them.  Baltimore’s ownership group, Albert Belle that one time aside (and now Chris Davis, I suppose,) hasn’t shown the wherewithal to pony up in what is among the toughest divisions in sports.

You make an extremely valid point, one worth repeating and remembering.  That every era has produced piles of crap music, which gets thoroughly forgotten.  It would probably serve me well to remember that I (we) am in a unique position to be exposed to everything that’s out there (or at least, a much greater sample size than the common consumer.)  and thus we are overloaded with material that most people never realize exists. 

I remember all that Edguy, though!  Here’s the thing, though – I remember all that Edguy fondly, even if it was never my particular taste (not that it wasn’t.)  It was quirky and different and popped in all the right places.  By contrast, I am now pretty much done with power metal as a genre, outside of Powerwolf, depending on your opinion of it they qualify as power metal.

As a genre, power metal is about out of ideas (which we’ve discussed before.)  That doesn’t mean it can’t be great again at some point in the future, but right now every band who professes to that title is mired in mediocrity.  Hell, how many times can we listen to Sabaton release the same damn album?  These are the C Students I’m talking about; artists who are content to re-create the same thing over and over again.  This ties into your point about us not necessarily knowing what we want to hear, except to me it proves the opposite.  You and I and many other, svelte, urbane, visionary geniuses may be searching for something and not finding it, but at least we know we’re searching for something.  I think there are whole genres of music right now where fans and musicians and labels alike are convinced that what they have is good enough, and the talent pool is shallow and stagnant.  It’s not malicious on anyone’s part – they’re doing the best job they can, there just isn’t much out there right now.

As perhaps an overly simplified analog to what I’m talking about, I point to the running back position.  For years, we heard about the death of the workhorse running back, that it was a relic of a bygone era that would never return to league.  Fast forward to 2019, and teams are running Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell and Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley and a host of others who are electric and enjoyable to watch.  Suddenly running back is in vogue again – could it be that all that changed is that a better caliber of player started playing the position.

To come full circle, as a partial side note, you and I, as you say, may not know what we’re searching for except when we stumble across it, but that very fact implies that we’re still growing and evolving as music fans.  We haven’t confined ourselves to a single identity.  WHICH ACTUALLY (by our self-important definition of the ethos,) MAKES US THE MOST METAL OF ALL!

Anyway, I said I had a Dungeons & Dragons saving throw, and I do.  Is it me, or are there a huge number of albums this year where bands want to sound like old Nine Inch Nails?  Now, that’s not a new sound in and of itself, and I’ve been banging on this drum for a long time, but to me, the next frontier of heavy music lies in the continued synthesis of metal and electronic.  The Browning and Fear of Domination and a hundred others are dancing in concentric circles around whatever the evolution will be, and I look forward to hearing something I haven’t heard before.

But what the hell do I know?  The next big thing will probably be Stream of Consciousness Ozark Jazz Metal.

Go!


CHRIS C: Since you brought up Whitesnake, can we talk for just a second about how dishonest a percentage (majority?) of music fans are? I listened to that album, and afterwards the main takeaway I had was that Coverdale sounds like a shell of himself. He's not the only one in that boat. Geoff Tate has a new project out this month as well, and I can obviously hear he's a guy who spent two decades smoking and not taking care of his voice. Yet when I hear reaction from fans, they still say those guys sound really good. No. No they don't. They don't sound as bad on record as they do during some live shows, or as bad as they have when they weren't trying hard enough, but they don't sound good either. Forget Tate, since I don't care about his career, but Coverdale used to be a great singer. Those Whitesnake hits from the 80s are still omnipresent because they were good, and because Coverdale had the voice. Now he doesn't, and fans keep pretending it's 1987.

I've got it double bad; though an early O's fan, I adopted the Mets as my NL team once cable started to carry every one of their games up here. I've gone through the phases of hope and realization many times with both of them. I think that's why football has managed to separate itself from every other sport. At least if you follow a terrible NFL team, the salary cap gives you a shot of getting better much faster. There aren't as many decade long stretches of truly horrific, fan-destroying craptitude.

Oh dear god is there a lot of crap we get sent. We've talked about this before, but things got much better once I decided to never listen to anything that says 'death' or 'black' in the description, unless I already know something about them. Beyond that, there are too many albums each year to list that are either too generic to even be generic, or so amateurish it makes me wonder how bad the musicians need to be. I am not a great musician by any means, nor do I have any actual recording equipment, but even I was able to lay down some rock tracks that didn't sound like they were recorded in a wind tunnel. It's not that hard these days to make a record that sounds decent.

Power metal is weird, because there's two completely different styles of it, and neither one is exciting right now. You're thinking about the traditional stuff, and yes, it is beyond stale. Everyone has been copying the same three Helloween songs for thirty years, and it's led to an entire genre that seems to take pride in being retrograde. Edguy are about the only band who started in that realm I still enjoy, and that's because by the time I was bugging you with them, they had moved on and put a lot more rock and classic metal influences in the mix. But there's another variety of power metal you might not be as familiar with. We can call it either modern, or heavy, power metal. In my mind it started with Bloodbound's one-off album, "Tabula Rasa", which was essentially mid-era Soilwork with all clean vocals. There's now a ton of bands aping that instrumental approach, but because they have heavier influences, they miss the melodic part they need.

Powerwolf is absolutely power metal, in that second style. They are also one of the best out there, given the competition. Myself, I've never heard the appeal of Sabaton. They have always struck me as a band that is metal in image only. They wear camo gear, and they sing about war, but their music is almost pop when you break it down. Also, are you as sick as I am of bands singing about military history? There was one album a little while ago that caught me at the wrong time, and it really pissed me off that they were basically singing about the glory of going to another country and killing a bunch of people just because they had political or religious differences. Saying your country was better at creating death doesn't seem like a point of pride to me.

Talking about running backs points me in a different direction; how did athletes become so fragile? Cy Young had 800 decisions in his career, pitched every four days, and looked a bit like a lump. Today's chiseled specimens pitch every six days, throw fewer pitches than ever, and can't make it through a season without getting hurt at least once. RBs can no longer run the ball twenty times a game without breaking down, even though everyone used to do it, and careers for them aren't any longer now than before. NBA players play fewer minutes, get to skip games, and play a season with more off days than ever, yet they still complain they're too tired. Heck, Porzingis said he was tired halfway through his second season, and he was only 20 or 21! Can you imagine if a guitar player today said he/she couldn't play more than one gig a week because their hands are tired? Look, I'm not saying the old days might not have pushed people too far, but today's 'better' athletes make it sound like what we all grew up seeing wasn't even possible.

I wasn't going to say it, but since you did, yes, I am more metal than the 'true, kvlt' metal fans, because I don't care about being metal. It's a riff on Socrates' "the man who knows nothing" paradox. It also is a side-effect of coming up before hyper-genrefication. We were exposed to a little bit of everything, because anything could have been popular back then. We got pop, rock, a little metal, hip-hop, and everything in between. When "TRL" was a thing, it was amazing to see how Korn and The Backstreet Boys could show up on the same countdown day after day. But now, everything is much more siloed, and more fans are trained early to like only one thing. That makes them happy hearing the C-students rehashing yesterday's leftovers, while we have other interests that make second-rate music unappealing. If we were becoming teenagers now, I don't know if I would be able to become a music fan.

Hmm... I'm not sure if there are more bands now trying to bring electronic sounds into the mix, or if they're finally getting better at it. There are certainly bands doing the pure industrial thing (Rammstein is back), bands doing the mix of guitars with electronic pop, and I've heard more than one bringing bits of dubstep into the mix as well. That could very well be the next big trend, especially since it plays into the DIY ethos of not needing a studio and a budget to make records. Simple economics might push us in that direction. That's interesting, now that I think about it.

So, do you have any hopes for the rest of 2019?


D.M: I mean, I think I get it.  People don't want to be honest about Coverdale and Whitesnake (or Danzig, if we're being honest,) because to admit the aging and faltering of their hero is to admit the aging and faltering of themselves.  It's a tough place to find yourself in.

It's funny you mentioned your personal restriction on black and death records.  Some time ago, I had to make my own limitation on what I was willing to listen to, and I ended up drawing a line at bands with bodily functions or derogatory names for anatomy in their title.  So, no more Vomit Fist or Piss Vortex or Maggot Twat for me.  I don't feel as though I've missed out on all that much.

Isn't the history of metal and war themes interesting?  At the advent of the genre, you had bands singing about war as a warning to the young generations - there was a pervasive theme of "please don't reduce us to atoms with an abundance of nuclear weapons."  In this way, as much as genre die hards may never admit it, metal was essentially a heavier alternative to the hippie-powered folk rock that was its contemporary (you know, when the genre wasn't singing about Tolkien novels - looking at you, Cirith Ungol.)  As we moved into metal's golden era in the early '80s, we see a definitive split in the relationship between war and metal.  The thrash pioneers were maintaining their anti-Cold War messaging, while Iron Maiden was concurrently starting to lionize the RAF and other brave souls who had defended Britain against Nazi aggression.  That same thematic dichotomy still exists, though now its division is much more clearly defined by the tenets of sub-genre.  Power metal, as you noted, has gone from celebrating defending heroes to celebrating, in some ways, the glory of the act itself, which is rather unique in the history of human storytelling.  Even the Germanic Epics, while focused on a conquering hero, were still focused on one man, and not on his actions.

As for the fragility of modern athletes, I defer to the expertise of Dr. James Andrews (the three scariest words in sports.)  He suggested, that as far as baseball is concerned, the two worth things to ever happen to the sport are the radar gun and winter league baseball.  The former because it made velocity a prized asset, and eliminated the possibility that a guy could pitch his breaking stuff in the middle innings to relieve pressure on his arm, and the latter because it meant the shoulder and elbow joins of young pitchers never got to rest.  The repeated wear and tear, when combined with the strategy of asking players to go at full velocity all the time, results in athletes with a shorter shelf life.

For the rest of 2019, I'm hopeful in that I know there are six months still to go.  Which is a lot of time left for good things to happen.  Even just in the last few weeks, there have been a couple unexpected gems (I surprisingly really like the Royal Republic album, and the Combichrist cover of "California Uber Alles" is badass,) so the calendar is still in my favor. 

Also, in perhaps the biggest news of the year (or several years, based on my commentary in these semi-annual conversations of ours,) Blackguard has released the first single from their long-shelved album "Storm," with promises to release the full album soon.  My wish may finally come true!

And you?


CHRIS C: We may not want to admit the shortcomings of our heroes, but at some point we need to be honest with ourselves, and not live inside a delusion. Look, if fans still want to enjoy Coverdale, Tate, and Danzig (yes, he sounded truly awful on his last album - the upcoming Danzig sings Elvis album is going to be a disaster), that's great. Go ahead and eat it up, just don't try to sell me that they're still at their peak. Flawed musicians have made plenty of great music, and sometimes the flaws can even enhance the experience. Then again, I don't have deep ties with bands/guitarists/singers, etc. I connect with songs and albums, so I'm looking at it differently.

What I didn't mention the first time is what I call my 'intelligence test'. If a band's name, the album title, or the artwork give me the impression it insults my intelligence, it also gets thrown on the discard pile. All of those bodily function/secretion bands are on the list, for sure. I don't know why 'pornogrind' exists as a genre, but I'm never going to know what it sounds like. Sorry any band that intends to make an album called "Crucifixes For Tampons", you're not welcome here.

Here's what bothers me about the war themes; given what metal so often is, I don't know how much stock to put in them? I mentioned in the first paragraph that I don't have deep ties to bands, and this is a reason why. When we're talking about metal, I get no sense of who the people are. Let's take Sabaton, for an example. I've heard a few of their records, and I don't have a damn clue who they are. Their songs are abstract stories about history, so if I don't have a connection to the battle/person they're singing about, what else is there? I don't even know if they honestly are fascinated by the stuff, or if it's all a gimmick so they don't have to write anything personal. That even gets to Iron Maiden, to a lesser degree. All those songs about history are great, but they aren't songs you're going to hold dear, because they got you through a moment in time. War is inhuman, and in a way, I find singing about it strips the human connection out of the music.

Yeah, the radar gun is a demon. Greg Maddux is the greatest pitcher of the last forty years, and if he was coming up today, he'd never make it out of the minors. Most sports have had the nuance taken out of them. It might make for some more impressive feats, but it also makes for a less enjoyable product, as a spectator. Since The US Open is on as I'm writing this, and I'm going to absorb as much golf coverage as I can, even I will admit the 'bomb and gouge' style of play now, where everyone is hitting everything as far as possible, substituting strength for technology, isn't as fun as it used to be for me. Like the people who set world records by putting as many live squirrels down their pants as possible, something impressive isn't the same as something interesting.

Honestly, I can't say I have much on the horizon I'm looking at. The Frontiers factory is going to have the new one from The Dark Element, featuring the best Nightwish singer, and there's a young pop/hardcore band whose debut could be really good, but either I forget the news as soon as I hear it, or the schedule is a bit bare right now. I'm not won over by the two Volbeat singles, Tool is likely going to bore me, and I never cared about Slipknot at all, so the big names everyone is talking about won't be what I am. There is a new solo album from the leader of my favorite band due sometime before the end of the year. However, he's firmly in middle-age now, and it's supposed to be a reflective story about the cycle of life and aging, so I don't have my hopes up there. And with that cycle only beginning, I've given up on hoping he'll ever put out another record with the band (heck, he now plays occasional shows under the name without the other two).

My wish is for no more bad music to come out. I've already got more than enough competition for the worst of the year. I don't want to have to expand the list, or listen to much more terrible music.

D.M: You know, maybe it's reflexive - maybe the fact that you don't know much about Sabaton after all these albums tells you what you need to know.  The absence of something could in and of itself be something.

Not much in the way of closing thoughts from me.  The one thing I keep coming back to is that for me, 2019 stands on the edge of a musical precipice.  This year could either be the last strong year for a while (which is starting to trend toward,) or could mark the beginning of a new weak, un-creative era in music.  I certainly pine for the former, as that allows for the possibility that 2020, the ultimate hindsight year (sorry, awful joke there,) could carry the torch and be faced with the same dilemma in twelve months' time.  Either way, much as in the immediate aftermath of grunge, it feels like a musical market correction may be in the offing.

But I don't want to be too pessimistic.  As my Dad once told me, the disco era seemed like a never-ending hell while you were living through it, but in retrospect, a lot of memorable records were released during that same time.  So brace for impact, but don't forget to treasure the jewels.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Best/Worst Of 2019... So Far

Just when it feels like the year is just getting started, at least around here, we're actually hitting the halfway mark. That makes it a good time to take stock of where we have been so far, to give ourselves an expectation for the rest of the year. There has been a lot of music to get through, and the results so far have been a mixed bag. There haven't been as many great albums as I would have hoped for, and there have been more terrible ones than I wanted to sit through. Here's how they break down, in alphabetical order:

The Best:

Any Given Day - Overpower

Here's an example of how faults can be overcome. I wish this record didn't bother with the metalcore convention of growling/screaming the verses, but the choruses are so glorious, melodic, and memorable that any complaints are easily forgiven. More than anything, this record feels and sounds like the Temonti record Tremonti has not been able to make for himself. Surprise of the year, so far, for sure.

Forever Still - Breathe In Colours

Coming off a promising debut album, Forever Still stepped it up and delivered an even better sophomore outing. They were able to make dark rock both heavy and beautiful, in no small part because of the fantastic vocal abilities of Maja Shining. 'Mainstream' might be a dirty word, but Forever Still have nailed everything that's good about it. This record should continue their ascent.

Soen - Lotus

With their last album winning AOTY from me, the follow-up would have to be something stunning to stand a chance of a repeat. They delivered exactly that. Evolving into an even more focused, melodic beast, Soen has made a record that is both melancholy and optimistic. It's music that captures the feeling of seeing the sun breaking through the storm clouds, knowing it will soon rescue you.

Vanishing Signs - Vanishing Signs

I am a vocals-first listener, and Vanishing Signs delivers unto me my favorite voice of them all. Playing some darn solid old-school rock with plenty of killer Hammond organs, they have given us an album that does vintage the right way. No frills, no gimmicks, just good songs and great performances.

Yours Truly - Afterglow [EP]

From their first EP to this new one, Yours Truly got even more pop. Their music is shinier, bouncier, and even better. Of all the bands out there right fronted by women who are writing riotously catchy pop/rock, none of them are doing it better than Yours Truly. The only criticism I can muster is that they haven't given us a full-length to truly satisfy us.

Just missing out: Avantasia - Moonglow, Within Temptation - Resist, The Beautiful Monument - I'm The Reaper

The Worst:

Arch/Matheos - Winter Ethereal

John Arch is a terrible singer, I say objectively. His shrill tone is like nails-on-a-chalkboard to me, but the bigger problem is how he slurs his way through melodies, obscuring his lyrics to the point they could not exist and mean just as much. His performance on this album is so terrible it ruins what could have been a good progressive metal album.

Devin Townsend - Empath

"Will It Blend?" was a viral hit on YouTube. It doesn't carry over to music, where Devin Townsend threw together every idea he's ever had, resulting in an album that makes no sense whatsoever. Jumping from death metal, to children's choirs, to cat's meowing, it's an insult to the audience how little he cared to put his craziest ideas in any sort of context.

Manowar - The Final Battle I

I can't tell you how much I hate sharing a hometown with this band. This collection of 'songs' is among the worst music I've ever heard. It's lifeless, boring, recorded terribly, and a complete waste of time. And considering the band continues to dodge questions about their (accused) child-porn owning former(?) member, it's also morally bankrupt.

The Three Tremors - S/T

Three singers get together and shriek their lungs out. No thanks.

Weezer - The Black Album

I know better than to get my hopes up anymore, but I always wonder if this is the time Weezer is going to turn things around. Not here, their worst album yet. Rivers Cuomo is in full mental decline on this collection of pop cynicism, where he bitches about his fans, continues to act like a teenager (despite being middle-aged), and now thinks it's edgy for him to start swearing. It's pathetic, as is the fact I ever liked Weezer as much as I did.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Album Review: The Beautiful Monument - I'm The Reaper

I've heard people say that Paramore kicked off the golden age of women in and fronting guitar music. That isn't wrong, but it's incomplete. Those who say that are likely not old enough to remember the last time such a thing was true, which was more of a golden age, because those women were getting on the charts, not just making records fans love. Alanis Morisette and No Doubt had huge hits, even Meredith Brooks was able to score a hit with "Bitch", and then there's the one I fell for; Natalie Imbruglia's cover of "Torn". That one isn't really 'rock', per se, but it's the one that won me over.

I say this to point out The Beautiful Monument is the sort of band I've been searching out for twenty years now. Whether it be Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway" album, or more recent outings like Shiverburn's "Road To Somewhere", pop-leaning rock with a great female voice is one of those things that I'm a sucker for.

So when I heard the singles from this album, "Deceiver" and "Stay", I was instantly on board. Those tracks were propulsive rock when pop sheen, and melodies that quickly became earworms. Perhaps the saddest thing I can say about this job is that finding hook-laden rock music is a rarity, so it's appreciated even more when it comes along. Those singles, with the bright melodies, deep lyrics, and heavy riffs in the bridges, pointed to exactly the kind of album we need more of.

That made it rather surprising to hear the record kick off with "Give Up", which is a softer, far more electronic-leaning song than what we were previewed. It took a minute to get, but that more atmospheric introduction to the album serves as a way of setting the stage for what is to come. It's a song that can probably only work in the leadoff slot, so credit goes to the band for making a smart decision putting it there, even if it does catch you a bit off-guard. Perhaps that was even the point.

I mentioned Shiverburn in my introduction, and it's a shame practically no one knows who I'm talking about, because that record is what The Beautiful Monument most reminds me of. Their music has plenty of guitar crunch to be rock, but the melodies are so lush and sticky you can mistake them for pop. Or at least the kind of pop I used to like, and that Pale Waves brought back last year. They perfectly straddle the line between rock and pop, where the balance lets them sit on the razor's edge. They could easily fall in either direction, but they hold their footing like a mountain goat on a rocky crag, which leaves them standing with few peers who can play this sound, and play it well.

I'll be honest here; "Deceiver" and "Stay" are the strongest songs on the album. The latter, in particular, is one of the most infectious songs I've heard all year. The remainder of the album is still really good, but the band put their best foot forward, for sure. That's the way it should be, really, as if they didn't do that I might not have heard them, and I certainly wouldn't have been pulled to listen to the record. I'm glad they did, and I did, because this is an album that hits the spot.

Lizi sings on "Cursed" that "you never get over the pain inside". That can be true, but it's easier when you can share it, and that is made easier when it gets put in a package that draws people in, rather than push them away. "I'm The Reaper" is an album working through demons, but the band does so with a sound that throws an arm around your shoulder, telling you we're all in this together. It's a far more effective way of dealing than being so cold and miserable it drags you further into the darkness with every note.

The Beautiful Monument has given us a tight, alluring record with "I'm The Reaper". If this album does indeed carry a schythe, the band's swing has buried it in my heart.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Album Review: Doll Skin - Love Is Dead And We Killed Her

When Sleater-Kinney returned from their hiatus, it was a huge deal. The punk attitude that got thrown under the label 'riot grrrl' had been missing from the mainstream for quite a while, and what they did was update it with a more mature, and *frankly* better written sound. They showed that punk, feminism, and damn catchy rock music could all coexist in one beautiful mixture. I don't know if Doll Skin takes that influence directly, but that's the point of reference my thoughts start from as I put on their new record. Here, we have a band of young women who are open about their beliefs, fearless about using their voices, and who also happen to be writing some great rock and roll.

They caught my attention with the first single, "Mark My Words", which was a bit of a bolt from the blue. It was a propulsive track that had palpable energy, just enough attitude, and huge melodies. I wasn't familiar yet with Doll Skin, but it put them on my radar. The second single, "Empty House", was even better. Those two songs showed a band that could straddle the line perfectly of writing pure rock that is as catchy as pop, without ever making you think it is. They have true sing-along rock.

What makes Doll Skin stand out from so many other bands with prominent women is the skill spread out among the members. This isn't the case of a great singer with great melodies singing over some bland rock instrumentation. All four of these women bring their absolute best, so while Sydney Dolezal's voice will get the lion's share of the attention, Alex Snowden, Nicole Rich, and Meghan Herring are every bit as important to making this record work. From the groovy riff of the title track, to the searing solo in "Empty House", there's so much more to Doll Skin than I usually hear from bands that can be labeled mainstream.

In "No Fear", there's a definite mid-90s vibe to the guitars, as the tones and chord choices have echoes of Weezer (when they were good) to them, which along with the hand-claps makes it a charm offensive. That's contrasted with "Outta My Mind", with its almost surf-rock meets grunge riffs, and backing vocals that are slightly snotty (in the good way). There's a diversity to the songs as the band explores the shades and contours of their sound, which makes for an interesting ride. Even with the best bones, eleven songs built on the fame framework can be a bit tiresome as a record, but that's not an issue we have to worry about here.

Track by track, the album gets stronger as each and every song reveals a message and a hook sharp enough to pierce straight to the heart. One can be a fluke, two is a trend, and a whole record is a sign of greatness. Doll Skin has grown into a formidable band with this record. They've written an album that is loaded with potential singles, and practically guarantees they move up at least another rung on the ladder. Very few rock bands like them are making records that are this powerful, and this well-crafted. There's a killer instinct that turns melody into a hook, and Doll Skin have it in spades on this record.

Doll Skin twists the old Nietzsche line on "Love Is Dead And We Killed Her", but they are wrong. Love is not dead, because I love this record.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Album Review: Slough Feg - New Organon

I'll get this out of the way early; I've always thought Slough Feg is a radically overrated band. I like them, but the underground of people who claim them to be one of the best bands going are out of their minds. They're a solid band, and they've made a couple of decent records, but they also write tons of filler tracks that are empty skeletons around a guitar harmony. If not for their penchant for taking licks from Thin Lizzy, and the very unique vocals, Slough Feg would have faded into obscurity long ago. Oh, that and their name.

But after taking considerable time off, Slough Feg tells us they have only returned becaue they have a collection of songs good enough that they had to be released. This isn't an album put out to go through the motions of the release cycle, but the very best material Slough Feg has come up with in the years since we last heard from them. Now that they have set the bar so high, don't blame me if they fail to clear it.

We immediately get classic Slough Feg on the opening "Headhunter". The intertwined guitars mix doom with the folk flair, and Scalzi's gravelly voice is exactly what we remember. It takes two verse cycles before we get to the crux of the song, which is a Celtic/folk melody that's precisely the kind of thing that makes the good parts of Slough Feg good. It's hampered by a production that puts the vocals far enough back in the mix they're difficult to make out, which is a shame. Also a shame is that the best part of the song is only played in the foreground once, while nearly two minutes are handed over to meandering guitar solos. In the classic Slough Feg tradition, the band can't help but handcuff their own songs.

In the second tracks, "Discourse On Equality", there's a reprehensible stretch of time where the guitar 'solo' is made up of squealing and feedback that is entirely unmusical, and painfully unpleasant. There is simply no excuse for putting pure noise into a song, other than being a dick.

Songs like "The Apology" are much better. That still doesn't hit the best marks that most of "Down Among The Deadmen" did, or songs like "Free Market Barbarian", but it has some nice playing, and a solid hook. It's quirky while still being digestible.

As is often the case with Slough Feg, I get the feeling from many of these songs that they aren't songs as much as they are excuses to play a lot of guitar. They do that, and if you're someone who thinks riffs and solos are all that matters, then you're probably going to like this record a lot more than I did. I certainly don't hate it, and I see the charm in a few places, but by and large I don't hear fully fleshed-out compositions that have instrumental and vocal parts that have strong appeal. A lot of the vocals and vocal lines here come across like afterthoughts, which as mentioned before, could be in part from the vocals being too far back in the mix. That single choice turns everything into a wash of sound that does the band no favors.

Ultimately, Slough Feg is who they are. They're a solid little band that puts out wildly inconsistent records that have a certain appeal. That's not nearly enough for me to say this record is worth your time. The writing is rough, the production is rough (it's more than the low vocals), and frankly, they've put out several records much better than this one. They set the bar high, so all I'm doing it not bending down to save them. This one fails on its own accord.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Album Review: Royal Republic - "Club Majesty"


A brief preface – nearly everything in this review will sound like a backhanded compliment.  But that’s sort of the point of “Club Majesty” in the first place.

Throughout the history of popular music, there’s always been a place for bands that aren’t meant to be taken totally seriously.  Ghost is the most recent headline example, but GWAR certainly falls on that spectrum, as well as S.O.D, Big Dumb Face, Lordi, Green Jelly, Haunted Garage, and…….well hell, there’s got to be one non-metal one....They Might Be Giants (phew, that was close.)  Anyway, add Royal Republic to the list.  Done poorly, tongue-in-cheek rock is frankly awful, but there’s a narrow trench leading to an exhaust port less than two meters wide that if you can successfully navigate that, you’ve got gold on your hands.

Royal Republic, for their new album “Club Majesty” threads that needle almost flawlessly, which is a rare feat in and of itself, but they accomplish the task by combining tenets of pop, rock, disco and blues and blending them into a slurry that’s one part high-octane Reverend Horton Heat, one part the Spinners, a splash of the Bee-Gees and just the barest, barely perceptible hint of the rock side of Bruno Mars.

It takes a little patience to unlock.  The first play-through sees the listener taken aback, the general reaction being “what on earth IS this?” because the album comes full force from the beginning of “Fireman and Dancer” and never lets up on the combination of catchy rock and unapologetic campiness.  Once the initial shock wears off, the layers start to peel and it becomes more accessible.  Make note though, the camp never lets up, so prepare yourself accordingly.

Where “Club Majesty” first finds some purchase is in the well-arranged and mixed choral vocals of “Can’t Fight the Disco,” which leads to involuntary toe-tapping and head-nodding.  These songs are capably constructed and designed to be earworms, which is exceptionally hard to do on such a consistent basis.  For songs that lack bridges in the traditional sense and never change their idea or theme once they’ve started, they still hold attention through sheer force of personality.

The album is never better than it is on “Like a Lover,” which is the perfect synthesis of all the band wants to be – rocking, simple, sleazy, infectious.  The giant hook chorus, complete with choral backing vocals and simple but soaring melody, makes for a nearly perfect rock banger in four-four time.

Vocally, Adam Grahn lives, however unlikely, at the crossroads of Jyrki 69 and Dave Wyndorf.  He dances with brilliantly dumb puns and lyrics barely fit for a high school kid’s ruled notebook pages, and all of that is to the album’s betterment.  One need not get farther than the pleasantly bumping “Fortune Favors” to see the finest example of the outlandishly simple executed at a professional level.  The rhythm is infectious enough as it is, but it’s sold by Grahn’s matter-of-fact delivery.

A note of caution – while “Club Majesty” is a rollicking, fun ride, it also possesses the strong potential to be the most goddamn annoying album in your collection if the timing is bad or you’re in the wrong mood.  Any album with an affect like this balances precariously on the precipice of being too much, and if you’re not looking for this specific brand of beat-driven campiness, it can go badly.  To wit, my phone was shuffling songs through the Bluetooth connection to my car’s sound system, and “Bulldog” came on while I was (parked) trying to dial into an important but stressful conference call for work.  And as I’m hastily hunting through my contacts for the call-in number, the song starts yelling at me “YOU TAKE A DUMP I PICK IT UP IN A BAG!” which is categorically the last thing I wanted to hear in that moment.  So, listener be cautioned.

“Club Majesty” is just that – downbeat-heavy pop rock that engenders majesty through sleazy themes and catchy arrangement.  It’s probably not for everyone, but the people who won’t dig it probably aren’t any fun.  And if music isn’t fun, then what the hell are you even doing?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Album Review: TheNightTimeProject - Pale Season

When a band has a sound that is entirely their own, the inadvertently create a niche that conditions the audience to expect more of the same. So when that band decides to take some time off, there is a gap that needs to be filled in, and often no one to do it. That's the case with Katatonia, who are a unique entity that has more or less defined what the word 'melancholy' sounds like. Others do sad rock, but none quite like them, so their current hiatus (on the heels of what I think is their best album) has stirred a hunger. What can be done about that? When it comes to TheNightTimeProject, a couple former members of Katatonia do their solid best to recreate the magic.

Getting the sound right is the easy part. Fredrik and Mattias Norrman spent fifteen years playing guitar and bass in Katatonia, so putting together instrumentals that carry that familiar sound is easy. The guitar tones are just right, and the playing is slow and somber in all the proper places. The feeling of melancholy permeates the music, even when it gets heavier and tries to pick up the pace. The hard part is finding a voice to give the music life, and in Alexander Backlund they have one that shares a tonal similarity to Jonas Renske, which locks down the necessary elements.

There's a fine edge when making music that is downcast. It's easy to let things get away from you, and have the songs wind up being too slow, too sad, flat when they are trying to be stirring. The thing about painting in dark colors is that if you aren't careful, you wind up with a black canvas. TheNightTimeProject learned from the right sources, and put their knowledge and experience to good use. Their songs are sweeping and melodic, with soft edges to obscure the creeping shadows.

That being said, the similarities extend to the same issue I have with much of Katatonia's work; namely, as much as I like the sound and mood the establish, and as enjoyable as the records can be as I listen to them, the songs are as ethereal as a shadow. Once the light rises and the mood lifts again, these songs dissolve into the air. It's not that every song needs to be an inescapable earworm, but the laconic tones and melodies here are not the kind that are likely to get caught in your head if you aren't searching for them. That doesn't make them bad, far from it, but it does mean this may not be a record that sits in the forefront of your mind, nagging at you to listen to it again and again.

But for a gray morning, this is the perfect soundtrack. "Pale Season" is the kind of album that creates a suffocating haze of an atmosphere, the kind so thick your thoughts can't escape. It is an album for reflection, for rumination, for feeling. I'm not always sure how to judge albums like this, where the feeling the evoke is almost more important than the songs themselves. What I can say is that if the mood is the key, TheNightTimeProject absolutely nails it.

The other thing I will say is this; as I mentioned previously, I found "The Fall Of Hearts" to be the best Katatonia album yet. "Pale Season" is a more compact version of that album, hitting all the same melodic notes. It's a beautiful record that stands toe-to-toe with the behemoth. That's all the praise you need, right?

I would mention one other concern, yet again shared (sorry to keep banging that drum); the timing. When I received this record and first played it, the weather was mired in a stretch of gloomy clouds and non-stop rain. Hearing this record for the first time in the beautiful summer weather, with sunny skies overhead, might not be the best way for this music to sink in. The music doesn't match the time, and at least for me that can make a difference. I know it took me until the start of autumn to fall for Katatonia, and the same could have been true for TheNightTimeProject, if not for rotten weather here.

So with all that said, here's the bottom line; whether it has claws that will dig into your flesh, or merely a ghostly hand that creates a chill, TheNightTimeProject has made a beautiful album that fills a niche you might not know is there. But when you need an album like this, you'll be glad to have "Pale Season".