Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Album Review: Jinjer - Macro

Last week, I talked about the new album from Infected Rain, and pointed out how they are very much in tune with a trend that I see being set up, one that is being led by Jinjer. We can call it 'hodgepodge metal' if we want to, but the basic idea is that bands are now free to throw anything and everything into one giant stew pot, seeing if all the seasonings come out tasting unique, even if there's a real risk it will be an absolute mess. In one sense, I applaud musicians who think outside the box, but I also worry that it's a sign of artists who don't know who they are or what they want to do. That's one of the reasons I hadn't previously talked about Jinjer, but since they came up as a direct comparison last week, I figured I might as well give them another chance to prove me wrong. So how did they do this time?

They certainly give us a lot to chew on. Within virtually any track on the album, we get crushing modern riffs, ferocious vocals, and moments of atmospheric melody. They never stay in one place for too long, and are intent on exploring every facet of what they can do. Sometimes, that means they deviate from something that is working, while other times it means they can throw an extra good idea or two into a song that otherwise wouldn't make it.

There's a give and take here, where in my mind the band is clearly better at one side of their split personality than the other. And this might be weird coming from me, but Jinjer is actually better when they are heavier, and more attuned to their death metal inspirations. Those segments of the songs are everything they should be, and Tatiana Shmayluk's harsh vocals are massive, deep, and bone-rattling. I can nit-pick over some of the harsh vocal patterns, but they have the pieces to be good at that side of the equation.

Their clean, melodic passages aren't as interesting. Tatiana's voice isn't as strong as a clean singer as it is growling, which leaves those bits sounding as if they struggle to keep up with the heavier moments. It isn't as much a yin and yang pulling the band in different directions as it is an ebb and flow where one pull is obviously stronger. This is where, when comparing Jinjer to Infected Rain, I find the biggest difference. That band had better melodies, stronger hooks, and a more appealing clean voice. At least for me, it did.

And then there's the element to all of this I can't outrun; giving me everything is a bit like giving me nothing. Jinjer has groove metal, death metal, atmospheric sections, and even a few riffs that pull from jazz. That's great, but the more you put into the mix, the more things I have to be a fan of to enjoy the music. With each new sound added in, the pool of potential listeners shrinks. It's creatively interesting, but I can't say I've ever been in a mood where what I wanted to hear was a mash-up of all these things. Normally, I would want to hear one or the other, or perhaps two of them juxtaposed. But with even more than that, I'm simply not that fond of certain parts of Jinjer's sound.

Philosophically, I could spend time here asking questions about what identity means to a shape-shifter, but I'll leave that for you to decide. If you ask me what Jinjer sounds like, there's no easy answer. Likewise, if you ask me if I like Jinjer, that's not an easy call either. They are doing some interesting things, and I appreciate their daring, but there are also glaring flaws. It's a record that is going to be hit-or-miss, but the ratio will be different for everyone.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Album Review: Metalite - Biomechanicals

I've made it clear before that I don't particularly enjoy when bands, or usually the label's PR writers, make claims they can't back up. I get that they have to try to sell me on giving their record a chance, but it doesn't help when they say things I know aren't true even before listening to a note of the music. I don't like being lied to, and that's what I feel these people sometimes are doing. I got that impression with this album, which came with advice that "the quintet from Stolkholm reinvents classic Melodic Metal". No, they don't, and they didn't need to say they did. I heard the first single, and was already impressed enough to give the album a spin. Going so far as to say this is revolutionary is ridiculous.

The claim arises because of "Metalites expertly use of electronic elements" (the missing apostrophe and odd syntax is theirs, not mine), and a lyrical theme about the dangers of technology. Stop me if you're heard this before, but both of those are complete cliches because they've already been done to death. The only way this is revolutionary is if we've somehow made a complete orbit and arrived back at the start. Just stop with this crap.

Metalite doesn't need this anchor dragging them down, because their music is actually good. It can more than stand on its own. They have written a collection of very modern melodic/power metal that has big, bright hooks that new singer Erica Ohlsson delivers with aplomb. It isn't all that far removed from Within Temptation's "Resist" from earlier in the year, which is a good thing, consider that remains a highlight of the year in this genre.

The difference is that Metalite, as their name would imply, puts a bit more metal in the sound, eschewing some of the more dramatic and emotional tones for something more relentless. Given the theme, and those electronic bits, that's a good decision. I don't think adding bleeps and bloops to something trying to evoke a reaction from the audience would be very effective. I also don't think the electronic elements work in this context either, but they don't detract. They're just there, which I take to mean they shouldn't be there. Everything in a song should have something compelling to say why it's there. These electronic bits don't really do that.

Fortunately, the core songwriting is strong. These tracks deliver chugging metal and strong hooks, very much the way that Sinheresy did a couple months ago. As you can tell by dropping yet another perfectly tuned reference, I'm still hung up on this sales job.

If we can put that aside, songs like "Mind Of A Monster" are what this modern strain of metal should be. If you want to hear glossy, hooky, and rather fun metal, this is going to be for you. I very much enjoyed listening to this record giving me yet another dose of Amaranthe-ian metal. Oops, there I go again.

So here's the deal; "Biomechanicals" is an album I definitely like, and would certainly recommend, that is getting held back by its own hype. These reviews I write are basically one long conversation where I tell you what's going on in my mind, and what my reaction to these records is. In this case, that doesn't tell the story I want to tell, or that Metalite would want me to, but it's me being honest. My issues aren't going to affect you, so have at it. Metalite has made a record you won't regret listening to.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Album Review: Dream State - Primrose Path

It's not often I hear a song and say, "Holy shit, what was that?" It's the kind of rush that keeps me on the hunt for new music, but it's a rare bird, which leaves me torn on whether to shout my praises or keep quiet so as not to scare it away. That isn't what happened the first time I heard Dream State. That experience would have been their "White Lies" single, and then the "Recovery" EP. That was enough for me to put them on the list of bands to make sure I was following, because I wanted to hear more from them. I knew from that material that Dream State had already made something really good, but they had potential to grow into something even better. Oh, did they ever.

When "Hand In Hand" was released earlier in the year, it was that "Holy shit" moment I was referring to. Listening to it, I wasn't just hearing Dream State continuing on as a good band, I was hearing the beginning of something massive. While their earlier work was good, this was great. It was the kind of song that tells you everything you need to know about how far a band can go. Dream State, with that song alone, could go as far as they want. But that wasn't the end of it. The next two singles, "Primrose" and "Open Windows" were every bit as good, and put together made for as good a three song suite as there's been all year. They hinted at an album that could rewrite my judgment of the year.

Dream State aren't just making great music, they're making important music. Their sound is that of hope. These songs are born from the darkness in singer CJ's life, but these are not the misanthropic rantings of an angry person wallowing in their own depression. No, Dream State is the vehicle by which she, and the audience, are able to run away from their demons, to feel a human connection with others who have gone through the same thing and come out the other side. Carl Jung wrote about a theory of the collective unconscious, wherein we are all connected at an innate level. Dream State is a collective consciousness, binding us together be reminding us we aren't alone. That is such a vital thing, today more than at other times, and it permeates every facet of "Primrose Path".

The band has mastered a difficult art, that of making aggressive music that still resonates as anthemic. CJ regularly injects her pained screams into these songs, and the band's sound can be categorized as post-hardcore, but their songs are massive, endowed with huge hooks and choruses that their fans can sing along with. Not only are they fantastically memorable, but they allow the listeners to become part of the experience by banging their head and singing the words themselves. It may be accidental, but it's an essential part of continuing the theme of "Primrose Path" being a catharsis for everyone.

And therein is the word I wanted to get to, catharsis. That's the feeling that washes over me listening to this record. Emotions in music come in all forms, which I can illustrate just using releases from this month. Michael Monroe made a pure rock n' roll record that makes me feel happy. Ray Alder made an album that makes me feel the back-side of an episode of melancholy. Dream State makes me feel optimistic about the future. These songs may emerge from a dark place, but they are illuminated by the light at the end of the tunnel. And as the record plays out, they become easier to see as we draw nearer to the source.

I've been taking the big-picture view, because that shows us everything we need to know. Dissecting the songs one-by-one, analyzing individual riffs and lyrics, isn't as important as understanding the meaning. When we stare at a painting, like Edvard Munch's "The Scream", we don't notice and obsess over every brush stroke. Hell, I doubt almost anyone who isn't a devoted art fans even knows there's more than one version of that painting. The differences between them aren't important, because the message gets through in all of them. That's how I feel about "Primrose Path". Yes, the songs are all great, but there isn't a need to say which ones are better than others. That's missing the point.

"Primrose Path" isn't that kind of album. This is one of those rare records that speaks to us at gut level. It's greatness is heard, but also felt. There's no need to go beyond that. "Primrose Path" is everything I could have ever hoped for, and everything so many people are going to need. Simply put, it is stunning.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Album Review: Infected Rain - Endorphin

The great thing about the future is that none of us can see it. The scary thing about the future is that none of us can see it. Something is coming, and it will involve change, but no one knows what that will entail until it actually happens. We might have a hunch, or a hope, but the only way we're ever going to find out what comes next is to wait until this chapter is over. I've seen enough trends come and go to know this about the future; it will change, but it will stay the same. No sound will ever go away, we will merely add new ones to the already too-long list of genres. Our options will expand, and I will feel even more overwhelmed trying to keep a base of knowledge widespread enough to feel good about.

The current wave of the future in metal are what I will call ratatouille bands. They are the ones who don't adhere to genres, and throw everything under the sun into one pot, trying to see if the result can please everyone. Much like how every color put together makes a weird shade of brown, I'm not convinced all forms of music can sound good when combined. Jinjer is the band everyone knows about doing this, but Infected Rain was actually the first of them I encountered.

The good thing about Infected Rain is that no matter what kind of metal you like, there will be moments on this record you will love. The bad thing about Infected Rain is that unless you love every kind of metal, there will be moments on this record you will hate. Since I don't know anyone with standards who loves everything metal entails, that means this record is akin to the ol' claw machine; plenty of hope interspersed with disappointment.

Just look at the opening track, "Earth Mantra". It opens with blast-beats and screamed vocals, then segues into a clean guitar figure and whispered vocals, then adds electronic bits, then explodes into a metallic fury again. I ask the question genuinely; are there a lot of people who love blast beats and ambient dream-gaze, and who want them combined in the same song? When I'm listening to something like that, all I can think is that it can't possibly appeal to a large number of people. For instance, I love the melodic part over the heavy guitars that ends the track, but Lena's barking in the first half doesn't hold much appeal to me.

I find "Black Gold" to be far more successful, because it has a better focus on what it's trying to be. The song is aggressive throughout (maybe a bit more than I'd like), but everything is built around that energy level, and it fits together well. It lacks melody, but that makes sense for a track of that style. They makes up for that on "Symphony Of Trust", where Lena uses her clean voice to great effect. In fact, that leads me to the biggest disappointment on the album. Screaming/growling vocalists seldom write melodic vocal lines for their harsh voices, but I was hoping that Lena' background with clean singing would lead her to write the same kinds of vocal lines for both sides of her voice. She doesn't.

So throughout the album we ping-pong from moments of aggressive metal to (attempted) beautiful melody. There isn't a formula for how these transitions are handled, which I think is a drawback. As a listener who prefers one side of this equation, I prefer knowing there is going to be a pay-off for me in most or all of the songs. I don't get that impression when listening to this record. They are there, but they can't be counted on, if that makes sense.

Comparing Infected Rain to Jinjer might be a cheap ploy, but let me indulge myself anyway. I have given both bands a try, and while they take similar approaches, only one of them has shown me the kind of songwriting that could eventually win me over. Jinjer is the bigger name, but Infected Rain has a better sense of melody, and uses enough of it to make me think there's something here worth keeping an eye on. I've never gotten that impression from Jinjer.

So what do I think of "Endorphin"? Well, that's a bit harder to pin down. There is a lot to like, but also enough I'm not so fond of, to make it a split decision. I get why they don't, but if they could hone and focus their sound just a bit, I could find myself getting into it. As it stands, "Endorphin" is an album that I hear quite a bit of potential in, and like for what it is, but what it is will hold it back. Hopefully, you'll get even more out of it than I did. They're well worth giving a shot.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Album Review: Life of Agony - "The Sound of Scars"

We’re going to commit a cardinal sin of editorial review writing, and give away the verdict early.  “The Sound of Scars,” the new album from Life of Agony and sequel to the all-time classic “River Runs Red” is a laudable achievement and an excellent listen, well worth the time of old fans, and a fantastic invitation to a genre left for dead by many new fans.

The textbook says not to do what we just did, but we’re about to go fairly deep into the reeds, and we needed the context of the verdict to provide some stable ground.

And now I’ll commit a second cardinal sin of reviewing, which is to inject myself into the proceedings.

I am having a hell of a time trying to assess this album properly.  It’s not that I didn’t want a sequel to “River Runs Red,” it’s that I never expected one – and the fact that the band is expressly promoting the album as such makes it hard to know by what standard the album should be judged; is this a relic of the past and times gone by, or is this the beginning of a resurgence by one of the best innovators in the class?

Certainly, with all the band has been through, and with society’s increased focus on issues of mental health, a sequel was in the cards.  If we can speak plainly, no one is better equipped in the metal community than Life of Agony to represent the sum total of those issues in a way that is both responsible and appropriate.  As a quick aside and without going into the gory details, I’m glad they did – I’ve been presented with my own (comparatively minor) mental health issues over the past couple years, and the subject needs as much spotlight as it can get.

As we said at the top, I like this album.  A lot.  We’ll get into the minutiae in a minute, but the point that needs to be addressed is that there’s an inexorable phantasmagoria involved with this album.  The close association to “River Runs Red” means that the memories of that record get mixed up in the interpretation of this one and it becomes a difficult mental exercise to separate the two.  It’s like when you’re talking to your parents and your brain fills in the image of them from your childhood, but then you see a picture of them without context and realize that they have in fact gotten older.

Which only becomes complicated because of the following point – I like “The Sound of Scars” a lot, but I don’t entirely know why.  The album hits all the right notes (pun intended,) and the songwriting strays back to the edgy and dangerous origin of the band, even more than their previous effort, “A Place Where There’s No More Pain.”  For all that, there is a certain lack of musical innovation here; the album doesn’t feel very ‘new,’ and so I’m forced to wonder if I enjoy this record so much because of its own merits, or as an exercise in nostalgia.  I have led myself to believe it’s the former, and I hope against hope I’m right, for as frequent visitors to this website will note, the latter would make me an unholy hypocrite.

As a second point, there will be some question as to whether this album impacts the legacy of “River Runs Red.”  Part of the power and emotional effectiveness of that album was the no-nonsense recognition of the pain and struggle of the protagonist, ending with his lamentable suicide.  If only someone had reached out to him, or if only he had known there were like-minded people out in his world….

To discover in the early going of this new effort that he survives doesn’t necessarily tarnish that impact, but it could alter its interpretation.  This new album sees the same character grow and struggle and strive all over again, this time ending with a glimmer of hope that both appreciates and respects his troubled journey and gives him the chance to thrive as he goes forward.  In the new millennium maybe that’s the message we most need to hear, and I hope that for fans this doesn’t diminish the weight of “River Runs Red,” but there will be an argument that it could (I can see it now: ‘well, the dude lives, so everything’s okay, right?’ Which is infantile in its simplicity and dismisses the point entirely,) and my fear is that the more stubborn among us will cling to what was rather than grasp what could be (which is, in itself, a theme of the album.)  Remember, people; you probably know someone who is struggling.  They may not show it, and they may not even really know it.  But it’s serious.  Check in on the people around you.  It makes a difference.

Anyway, the record.  What’s novel is that no one writes songs like this anymore, and so perhaps what’s ‘new’ is actually a continuation that has laid dormant for too long.  Somewhere in winding path that’s become metal, we lost the ability to write sharp, spiky melodies and still have them be melodies.  Life of Agony was among the best at this in the first place, and they don’t disappoint here, with the infectiously rhythmic “Scars” leading off the album.

There are many bands who would have attempted and failed to write “Black Heart,” the album’s second real cut, for they could not have balanced it so well on the precipice between heavy and anthemic.  There are those uneducated or naïve metal fans who will smear “The Sound of Scars” for sitting in the middle of these two styles, but those fans are fools.  Superior songwriting will carry the day in any genre, and metal is no exception.  The vacillation between the heavy beat and the accenting guitar is a nuance that would be lost in many cases, but makes for great composition here.

While many will point to the shadow of “River Runs Red” that colors the songwriting of “The Sound of Scars,” there are many other bands that can be faintly heard here, through intention or accident.  “Lay Down” bears the hallmarks of both Rage Against the Machine’s “Vietnow” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” while still sounding intrinsically like an LoA original.

In a moment of levity, the first fourteen seconds of “Eliminate” are almost identical to the first fourteen seconds of The Bouncing Souls’ “Manthem,” to the point that I had to do a double check to make sure it wasn’t a cover I had missed.  Seriously, pull up both songs and take a listen.  (Unnecessary tangent – “Manthem” appears on TBS’ “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” which to me, is still the greatest pop punk album ever written, and it’s not close.)

Where we hit the meat of the album is in the middle, with “Empty Hole” and “My Way Out.”  This is where “The Sound of Scars” shines brightest, as Life of Agony best displays their unique blend of rock, punk and metal to glorious consequence, bending all three genres into an inseparable weave that makes for two powerful songs paired with strong lyrical messages.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about “A Place Where There’s No More Pain” and said this: “…the message remains the same as it was almost a quarter century ago.  Life is hard, it can be unfair, mistakes are made, and somewhere, buried down at the bottom…[is] the knowledge that you’re not alone.  It’s a message that has become Life of Agony’s stock in trade (and how could it not, just look at the band’s name,) and it is where their music is the most comfortable.”

That remains emphatically true for “The Sound of Scars,” and that’s what both continues to fuel the band and makes this an album not to be missed.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Album Review: Alter Bridge - Walk The Sky

I have to give credit to Alter Bridge for one thing; all of their albums are unique. They have made it a habit of giving us different sides of their sound with each release, not all of which are as enjoyable for me, but that show they aren't going through the motions. They keep challenging themselves as artists and songwriters, and I appreciate that. It would be easy for them to see their success and decide to do that same thing over and over again. One of the reasons I think they've been so successful is that we know we need to listen to the new records, because it won't be what we already expect. There can't be any complacency from us either.

Over their last couple of records, they have been trending heavier, adding in more metal to their original sound. I haven't been particularly fond of that move, both because I think they work better as a rock band, but also because it blurs the lines and makes it less clear why the Tremonti side-project needs to exist. So when the singles to this album started coming, and they hinted at a return to a sound more reminiscent of "AB III", I was excited.

That doesn't mean Alter Bridge is softening up, it just means they aren't packing their songs with as many notes. The bouncing, down-tuned riff anchoring "Wouldn't You Rather" is still incredibly heavy, but there's enough space for the riff to establish some groove. A lot of this record is more for bouncing your foot than banging your head, and that's not a bad thing at all. It also sets up interesting possibilities, like on "In The Deep", where the metal picking is saved for the chorus, which is a reversal of the way songs are usually constructed. It catches your attention, and from there the battle is made much easier.

Some might be nervous about the introduction of keyboards on this record. "Godspeed" opens with a riff buoyed by a synth, but we're not talking about a "Jump" situation. They aren't domineering, or shrill, and they don't distract from what Mark and Myles are doing with their guitars. They merely give the band another layer of texture to play with, which opens up new opportunities.

I mentioned "AB III" earlier, and as this album unfolds, the comparison between the two grows stronger. Both albums have Alter Bridge playing low-tuned, really heavy rock songs that still have plenty of melodies. That being my favorite Alter Bridge album doesn't hurt when it comes to this one's appeal. Like that album, this one has heaviness, groove, and big melodies, which I've always considered the basis of Alter Bridge's sound. They got away from that, especially on "Fortress", so it's nice to hear them getting back to rocking like this.

Alter Bridge is absolutely one of the best modern rock bands, and this album is them nearly at their best, but it does still have the one flaw most of their records do; it's too long. Clocking in at just over an hour, I do find myself wishing it was ten minutes or so shorter, not because any of the songs aren't up to par, but just because long records have been getting harder and harder for me to sit through. A forty-five minute record will get more repeated plays than a sixty minute one. It's simply harder to find the time to properly listen to a full hour of an album.

There comes a point where we enact the law of diminishing returns. Are the songs at the end of the record lesser than those at the start? I don't think so, but they can sometimes feel that way, because the thirteenth track treading similar ground can't have the same impact as the first or second. If "Clear Horizon" had been placed in the early part of the track listing, and "Godspeed" the latter, I expect my initial reaction to both would have been reversed. They are both excellent tracks, but one was able to hit me with fresher ears.

Length aside, "Walk The Sky" finds Alter Bridge in a good place, once again delivering powerful modern rock that moves the genre forward, both in quality and nuance. There is a depth to their music few bands of this kind have, more musical than most are capable of, and more philosophical than any want to be. For me, they haven't quite matched their magnum opus, but they've come close, and that's more than good enough. "Walk The Sky" is everything it needs to be.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Album Review: Vanden Plas - The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening

Concepts keep getting bigger, don't they? What started with making an album that told a story has now gotten to the point of creating universes where multiple albums are needed to flesh out the landscape. Vanden Plas have already done that with their two-part "Chronicles Of The Immortals", and are now doing it again with this record, which is the first of at least two parts telling a story about ghosts, psychology, and a bunch of other conceits that lyrics are never going to be able to fully capture. They also do this with an album containing only six songs, stretching out to be proggier than their last few outings.

Gone is the musical theater approach, and back is the prog metal. Unfortunately, this is done to promote a story about the paranormal, which is a bunch of hokum. I'm rather dismayed at the band's insistence on spending multiple albums telling stories about a bunch of bullshit. Oh well.

Vanden Plas is good at what they do. I know there are people who are devoted fans of prog metal who worship the ground they walk on more than most bands of their ilk, and I do get it. Compared to a lot of bands in the genre, they have a better ear for songcraft. They take the conventional formula, and do it with enough finesse and class to make prog metal almost feel beautiful, which isn't always what you would equate with it. It's a bit funny, though, that Vanden Plas is moving more towards prog while Dream Theater streamlined, and they wound up with very similar records this year.

The songs on this record are put together with a nod towards dynamics. They don't blaze through riffs one after the other, nor do they settle on a tempo and hammer it for the entire length. If there's a slightly technical riff, it will be followed in short order by something a bit heavier, or with more groove, breaking up the song into easily identifiable sections, and making good use of the run-times that inch up near the ten minute mark. When we talk about songwriting, this is one of the little details that lesser artists aren't able to master. It isn't enough to just have good ideas, you have to know how to put them together in a way that maximizes their impact. There's nuance to writing a great song.

I've always thought Vanden Plas works best when they use grand, sweeping melodies to give us a sound that feels suitably epic. That's exactly the feeling they establish with this record. The melodies on "Three Ghosts" and "Devil's Poetry" are the kind that move in just the right way. We don't get to hear that very often, even among some of the most celebrated prog metal. I have sadly come to learn that most musicians who get involved in prog either can't or won't pay attention to whether their songs play to all audiences. Vanden Plas' are longer, and they ask for the listeners attention, but there is a surface-level appeal that makes the investment worth it.

I'm not going to lie; I cringe at the spelling of the title, and wish I didn't have to hear lyrics about necromancers. I don't enjoy the concept of this concept album, but that doesn't change the fact that Vanden Plas has made a very good prog metal record. They are recycling their own formula a bit, but that's not a problem when it works. And it does here. This ghost experiment pays off.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Album Review: The Ferrymen - A New Evil

Two years ago, The Ferrymen was launched to give Ronnie Romero yet another outlet for his voice. He was the 'hottest' thing on the scene at the time, and was in a stretch where he appeared on way too many records, and was getting far too much praise. The guy is good, but he isn't the second coming, and I was starting to get rightly pissed off that he was being equated to Ronnie James Dio, especially since he got handed the job of resurrecting Rainbow. That said, The Ferrymen was to my ears the best of the various projects he was part of, and since Magnus Karlsson has made plenty of stuff I've enjoyed over the years, I had hope things would gel into something even better the second time around. So was that optimism misplaced?

Yes and no. We'll start with the easy part. Is "A New Evil" a good album? Of course it is. To the best of my recollection, Magnus has never put out a record that isn't at least good, if not great (I still say his best work is Bob Catley's "Immortal", even if I'm the only one). You know when you put on one of his albums that you're going to get quality music through and through. The core of who he is as a songwriter doesn't change, so that also means you know pretty much exactly what this record is going to sound like. Little details change, and he tries to make this a little bit heavier than some of his other outings, but it sounds like a Magnus Karlsson record. That's a very good thing.

The harder part is whether this stands out as one of his better albums, and whether it's better than the first record. That isn't an easy judgment for me to make, since for whatever reason, Ronnie's voice leaves me rather cold. It's been that way since the first time I heard Lords Of Black, and it doesn't matter what band he's singing with. Something about his voice doesn't resonate with me, not the way that, for instance, Jorn would singing this same material. If you love Ronnie, you can pretty much disregard this part of my opinion. I just happen to think he pushes his voice too hard, especially when the music is supposed to be more melodic.

And that's when Magnus is at his best as a writer. "Heartbeat" and "My Dearest Fear" are soaring tracks with Magnus' trademark melodies that are sure to get caught in your head more than once. It's the heavier stuff that doesn't work as well, like the title track, which is trying to sound too much like his gig in Primal Fear. Thankfully, there aren't a lot of those tracks, and the album settles into a more comfortable groove for most of the running time. When they focus on that, the results are great.

This second album from The Ferrymen fits in neatly with the first one. It's very good melodic metal, and while it might not reach the heights of the best stuff Magnus Karlsson has penned, it's still easily my favorite outlet so far for Ronnie Romero. What Magnus is able to do that other writers haven't managed yet is to give him a strong enough melodic base, because his voice sands it down quite a bit from what I imagine another vocalist could do with the same material. They mostly strike the right balance, and that ends up giving us an album that is plenty satisfying. Maybe they haven't raised the bar, but consistently hitting the mark isn't anything to discount.

The Ferrymen continue to be very good at what they do.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Album Review: Ray Alder - What The Water Wants

Ray Alder is an interesting case. He's the voice of Fates Warning, but not only has his voice been restricted greatly by time, but there's still a subset of fans who salivate over everything his predecessor does. Ray was also the voice of Redemption, which was a second-position project that I always enjoyed exponentially more than his main gig. The albums he made with Redemption were fantastic, in large part due to him getting to utilize the best attributes of his current voice. His importance was made all the more clear once Tom Englund took over, because that album has been completely forgotten in just a year. Given that disappointment, I am certainly ready to hear Ray doing something more melodic again, which is exactly where this, his first true solo album, comes in.

Voices are all unique, for the most part, and Ray Alder has one of the more unique voices in metal. He can't hit the high notes he used to when he first joined Fates Warning, but the way his voice has aged has given him an emotional resonance that most metal singers simply don't have. His voice sounds lived in, as though it speaks from experience. He's a similar case to former MSG singer Gary Barden, in that they are clearly not what they once were, but they have something rather special about the way the patina of age has changed their instrument. Sometimes, getting worse makes something better.

What I love about this record is that it fuses the two bands Ray is known for, while still sounding completely different. There is plenty of atmospheric sound and soft crooning in the verses of the songs, like there would be in Fates Warning, but there are also beautiful melodies, like we would find in Redemption. But this record is not prog, is not really metal, and certainly isn't experimental. By the way, those are all good things.

What we get on "What The Water Wants" are lovely melodic rock songs that breathe, flow, and deliver a soothing catharsis. With Ray's voice, everything he sings comes across melancholic, and that feeling plays off the melodies in a beautiful way. I don't particularly like the term, but it's a slightly darker sound for a very mainstream-ish record. Ray and his band aren't interested in hitting you over the head with their music, this is more subtle and more nuanced than that. This is reflective music, not rousing music.

Even the more aggressive songs, like "Shine", have a laid-back attitude to them. It's the kind of attitude that seethes rather than rages, an inward turn where most would be exploding. There are going to be plenty of people, mostly extroverts, who don't get this approach. Introverts, or maybe I should say people who erect walls to keep themselves from spilling out, and not the world from getting in, will understand the feeling this album gives me. It's not a common occurrence in rock or metal, for obvious reasons.

If I'm being honest, that's the most important thing I can say here. I could try to point to individual songs for little guitar tidbits, or a specific melody, but that's missing the point. The details are lovely, but the bigger picture is where my focus is. All of the songs here are strong, and there is very little I could criticize if I wanted to, but but I want to leave you with the same impression I get from listening to this record. Yes, the songs are important on their own, and there are some great ones here, but this is a record you feel as much as you hear. It won't resonate with everyone, and that's fine. But if you give it a chance, it might be able to show you a different side of what rock music can be. Power can heal sometimes, and that's what Ray Alder is trying to do.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Album Review: Namo Maitri - "Withered Mind"

Occasionally in this human existence, we are encouraged to step outside our comfort zone and engage in an activity we otherwise would not.  It is the potential of the experience that lures us, for it theoretically promises two beneficial outcomes – either we have found a new experience that we enjoy or, perhaps more commonly, we are least granted some new sense of perspective on the activities we already enjoy so well.

All that preamble is meant to say this – I’ve taken a dive into electronic music.

It seemed the natural thing to do.  Music has been trending that way for a while, and with its recent invasion even into the fortress of metal, it was time to see what all the ruckus was about.  So, for the time since I sampled DJ Tiësto’s “In My Memory” roughly around 2002 (which speaks not only to my age, but to the idea that I have perpetually been six months behind new music even then,) I took the recommendation of a trusted friend and ventured roughly blind into the soundscape of Namo Maitri’s “Withered Mind.”

What’s most impressive, about Namo Maitri’s collection of songs, and what will become a theme here, is the range which they exist in.  The album begins with “Isolation,” an etheric wisp with a borderline tribal affect, which pleasantly quiets the mind.  This plays in stark contrast to the follow up title track, which begins (and is threaded through,) with a sample of Charles Manson’s (in)famous “Believe me…” quote.  The juxtaposition of the two songs is jarring, but serves to demonstrate the number of roads that Namo Maitri is willing to take us down, which is to his credit.

“Legacy” is where the album comes alive.  Everything that the artist has built up toward through his first three tracks coalesces here, with a well-paced trip-hop beat underpinning the slower and more melodic overlay we’ve come to expect through the beginning of the album.  The song is a hybrid of themes from various Halloween movies (I mean the holiday, not the specific slasher movie series,) and early 90’s west coast hip-hop pacing.  While that sounds like an untenable combination, this is where “Withered Mind” shows us its excellent potential.

“Old Milk” is the album’s opus, an eight-minute laid back banger that would feel at home rolling down a sunshine-beaten, downtown avenue with some friends in a hydraulically-equipped car.  Surprising for an instrumental track over eight minutes, the cut is never boring, as it moves between three separate acts; a scratched intro, a sparse but thunderous piano middle, and finally a fully electronic ending with layered beats in harmony.  The second act is the most effective as the piano provides pleasant discord from the airy beat underneath, lending the piece depth, but all three phases are bound by the simulated hip-hop clap and weave around each other.

The curious adventures continue with the next two tracks, as we get the guitar-composed “Shampoo Night” (featuring KMFDM’s Andee Blacksugar, who seems to be popping up in this column a lot lately,) which then turns into “Time to Go Back,” which I want to pause on for a moment.  This latter song spends half of its time influenced by the dance music of the Indian subcontinent, and then transitions into an almost proto-reggae.  I didn’t think I’d write any of that today, but it’s the kind of experimentation that (micro) Namo Maitri and (macro) electronic music can play with and come off sounding fantastic.

The most damning thing one could really say about “Withered Mind,” is that many of the songs are very short, and manage to just establish their central idea before the end comes.  In some ways “Withered Mind” is reminiscent of J Dilla’s “Donuts,” in that we are presented with the ideas of songs and musical postulations more than we are the completed evolution of those same ideas.  I would have liked two more minutes of “Time to Go Back” to cite one example.

For all that, the focus here really should be that Namo Maitri gives us an opportunity to explore a much wider landscape of music than is customarily combined on one album.  Furthermore, “Withered Mind” does so without making us wander through a dense slog of electronic production and over-permutated beats.  These songs are light and airy, easy to get into, simple to listen to and free to enjoy.  Particularly for an inexperienced metalhead like me.  So if you’re looking to wade into deeper water, Namo Maitri provides a fine portal.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Album Review Wayward Sons - The Truth Ain't What It Used To Be

Why is it so hard for pure rock and roll bands to write catchy, melodic songs? I've been thinking about this lately, as a few albums have come down the pike that have all the elements of being great, other than the songs. You know, the important bits. There's something about rock (this extends to metal as well, but we're not dealing with that today) that either gives musicians license to not write appealing songs, or attracts songwriters who aren't good at writing songs. I'm not sure if it's just the hope that cranked amps will deafen the audience to the point where anything sounds good, or if they expect their fans to be half-buzzed every time they listen. Whatever the case, rock and roll needs new bands to come up who can give us great songs, and Wayward Sons showed some promise their first time out.

Early on this second album, we can hear a band trying their best to do just that. "Any Other Way" and "As Black As Sin" are making a conscious effort to give us well-rounded songs with more melody than vocal power, using the power of early rock simplicity to their advantage. It's a solid recipe, and the band is doing it well enough to make a strong case for themselves. If we look back just a little bit, it's the same approach The New Roses used on their album, but this is executed with a bit more rock and roll honesty.

"Joke's On You" raises things up another level, with the introduction of a piano to carry the main theme, it takes us back to the old days when rock was still a mash-up of a little bit of everything. It's close to being that great song we need to hear. It gets followed by "Little White Lies", which has a nice almost Beatles-esque guitar intro, but the song itself is the least hooky on the album up to that point. I was secretly hoping it would be a cover of the Fastball song of the same name, which would be fantastic in a raw, more rocking version. But that's not what this is.

It's comical that they then move into "Feel Good Hit", where the hook is Toby repeatedly singing "this is the feel good hit of the summer." No, it isn't. It's a good song, but we all know it's never going to be a hit, and it's being released IN AUTUMN. I know I'm nit-picking, but if you're going to release a song with that kind of lyric, you have to do it at the right time. Otherwise, you look like an idiot. Well, you already do for singing about how awesome your own song is, but still...

I'm being a bit hard on the band, because they should be better than this. The majority of this album is actually very good. They've got plenty of songs with strong hook, enough diversity, and plenty of appeal. If they keep from shooting themselves in the foot, they have a chance to do some good things. Half of this record is well worth listening to. The problem is there's half the album that doesn't measure up, either with the hooks or the lyrics.

So that leaves us in the same place with Wayward Sons as when we began. They are a band with a lot of potential, but who have a tendency to embrace some of the cringe-inducing parts of rock history, and that holds them back. This record is solid, but far from great. And coming out at a time flush with big releases, it's not going to stand out from that crowd.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Album Review: KMFDM - Paradise

To say that we live in tumultuous times is a glib understatement, but it’s what we’ll say in the interest of expedience.  There is no better band to witness, chronicle and comment on these times than KMFDM, who themselves have provided a record of the Cold War and its nefarious implications, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war on Terror, the explosion of the internet, the acceleration of globalization and the advent of social media.  There is no singular or group of musicians better prepared to engage the underground with an account of the times in which we live.

Simultaneously, when a band who is thought of as the parent of an entire genre has been at the top of the pedestal for so long, there are two possible trajectories for their career arc.  The first and more common is that the band runs out of creative juice and rests comfortably on the laurels of the legacy they’ve spent their lifeblood establishing.  There is no shame in this.  Less frequently but with greater impact is the band who looks over their shoulder at the pursuit, grits their teeth and throws the afterburners on to keep pushing the limits.

There can be no greater synthesis of both of these ideas than KMFDM’s new record “Paradise,” which speaks in plain, unadorned language about the real world state of affairs and challenges the status quo of industrial by looking at Combichrist, Fear of Domination and a hundred other contemporaries and saying “congratulations, you’re where we were for ‘WWIII.’  Here’s where the bar is now.”

The first and most powerful display of the band’s progression into a novel, metamorphosed version of themselves is “K.M.F,” a gleefully profane banger where the progenitors of the ‘ultra-heavy beat’ double down on the bass and rumble the speakers with a turbo hip-hop beat turned metal.  In this way, “K.M.F” (the title itself a play on one of the internet’s more popular perversions of KMFDM’s acronym,) represents one of the strengths of “Paradise” as a whole, which lies in the parallels between this album, where crushing beats lay the bedrock for spontaneous, melodious riffs and the early days of rap, where a DJ laid it down for an MC to create.   The phenomenon is unique to the genre and represents a shift in how we may be asked to think about industrial music going forward.

Don’t misread that - guitarist Andee Blacksugar has plenty to do, but there can be little doubt that KMFDM is taking advantage of the explosion in electronic music to bend us toward simpler, sparser beats that reflect the genre’s refined sensibility, more than the common ‘might makes right’ approach to songwriting.  We saw glimpses of KMFDM treading this road beginning all the back on “Blitz,” but these fresh parables of righteous indignation and enlightened awareness are wholly couched within a collection of beats that can only be described as eminently danceable.  “WDYWB,” as an example, is a purely digital experience, and provides a welcome change of pace from the stereotypical din.

There are bright spots throughout the album, especially provided that one keeps enough of an open mind to accept that not every song is to going to blister with the pace or brutality of some of the band’s best-known singles.  “Piggy” (not a cover of the NIN song of the same name,) is an off-kilter hop that asks you walk along on the journey while Blacksugar provides accompaniment.  In some ways, the songcraft here is similar to the Jane’s Addiction album “The Great Escape Artist,” where Dave Navarro elected to work within an electronic framework rather than try to shine apart from it.

For purists, the album remains stocked with hallmarks of days past for KMFDM, not the least of which is “Binge, Boil and Blow,” featuring a return of KMFDM extended family member Ray Watts.  His voice remains deep and distinct for new fans and particularly resonant for those of us who have been around for a minute.  Nevermind the fact that the song reminds us all of how accomplished Sascha Konietzko is as a writer in this idiom.  This song and the title track are callbacks to the great days of KMFDM’s past, reminding us that “Paradise” may be a reflection of now, but this band has been with us for a lifetime.  They crunch the right rhythms and gnash their teeth with the proper vigor – this is the legacy of KMFDM rendered in 2019.

The album starts to close with “Automoton” and “Megalo,” which both blend the old and new with aplomb.  These are both new songs, but Sascha makes sure we hear the barest hints of “Rip the System” and the highlights of “Nihil” in the mix.  While the sound seemingly trespasses into experimental territory, there is a skilled hand at the wheel here, making sure that the fans are getting the KMFDM they love in new ways.

No album is perfect, especially one that plays with a new version of an established formula, and “Paradise” is no exception to that.  There are moments, like “Oh My Goth” that lack the same vitriolic sense of urgency that is so pervasive in the early going.  That’s easily forgivable when “Paradise” provides us with so much innovation in a genre that is actively exploring its identity in a novel electronic soundscape.

KMFDM is not now, and will likely never be, content to rest on their laurels and allow their hall of fame catalogue to speak for them.  “Paradise” represents the band’s ability to create, innovate and generate in the new millennium, while still maintaining the sense of social responsibility that has energized them for so long.  This is a worthy addition to an established collection.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Album Review: Eclipse - Paradigm

After getting three albums featuring his songwriting last year, this is the first time we've been graced by Erik Martensson in 2019. He has proven himself to be one of the best, and the most prolific, songwriters in melodic rock these days, so there is always anticipation to hear what he does next. I'll be honest here, though; Eclipse is not my favorite project of his, even if it is the biggest. I have preferred the two albums he made as Nordic Union, with Ronnie Atkins singing, to the songs Erik hiself has voiced in his main band. But coming off of a fantastic album with them, and with more time in between for us to take a breath from his songwriting, my expectations for Eclipse are higher than they've ever been. And considering the two singles released for the record had some of that Nordic Union darkness to them, I was more than ready for this.

Those songs, "United" and "Viva La Victoria", were as catchy as anything Eclipse has done before, but with a bit less of the bright sheen that has kept me from fully loving their previous records. Erik's voice can be a bit too clean at times, so hearing hints of Atkins' grit come through in his delivery gave the songs just enough texture that both of them were instantly more memorable to me than anything from "Monumentum" or "Armageddonize". They're the Eclipse I've been waiting for.

Sure, there's a bit of a formula going on here. The second track, "Mary Leigh" fits the same slot and mold that "Hypocrisy" did on the first Nordic Union album, complete with a chorus featuring a woman's name (it was Caroline in the previous track). Is that a drawback? It could be taken that way if you're tired of the formula, but I'm not there yet, so I'm not bothered by it. As long as the songs are this good, minor quibbles aren't important.

What the singles implied is made clearer listening to the album in full; this is a slightly darker version of Eclipse. I find that a welcome development, but I'm sure some fans will be disappointed in not having another pure sugar rush delivered to their veins. All the catchy hooks and infectious melodies you could want are still there, but they have a different finish on them. If their earlier work was like a coat of glossy paint reflecting the sun, this is semi-gloss. It's not much different, but just enough for the impact to be noted.

When we do get something a bit... fluffier, it doesn't sounds as powerful. "38 or 44" is good, but that hook doesn't resonate the way that "Blood Wants Blood" does, and I think it's because of how sunny it sounds. Sunlight fades colors, and in this case, it might also fade melodies. I do think Erik's writing hits a better chord when he dials down the cheeriness.

But that's one song, and this is an album that delivers exactly what it's supposed to. If you like melodic rock, big guitars paired with even bigger hooks, Eclipse is doing just that. Sure, I'm still going to say I prefer Nordic Union, but the gap is getting closer. The last couple of Eclipse albums have been very good, but this might just be the best of the bunch. Basically, when it comes to melodic rock, there hasn't been a better album yet in 2019. Is that clear enough?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Album Review: Michael Monroe - One Man Gang

I know Michael Monroe has been around a long time, and he's a bit of a legend in certain circles. That said, I can honestly say I knew next to nothing of his music when "Blackout States" came out. It only took a few minutes, but that record immediately laid claim to being one of the best pure rock 'n roll albums of recent years, and it nearly won Album Of The Year accolades from me. I went back and listened to the records that came before, and none of them touched it. The stand-alone song included on Monroe's greatest hits package was even better than anything on "Blackout States", and was the best song of that year, which only made me even more anxious to hear if he and his band could carry over that momentum to another absolutely killer record. That time has finally arrived.

The album kicks off with the previewed pair of singles, the title track and "Last Train To Tokyo". They carry on from "Blackout States" wonderfully. The former is a gritty Sunset Strip rocker with plenty of snarl packed into its two-and-a-half minutes, while the latter is a big, hooky rocker that is the soundtrack to a fun night out. There isn't a lot of rock and roll I've been hearing that capture that kind of good time spirit, so hearing it in these tracks is a nice antidote to so much of the music we're all subjected to.

There's a new wrinkle with "Midsummer Nights", which is more of a heavy ballad than anything off the last album, and a rather stirring song that will surely get lighters... er, sorry, cell phones, waiving in the air. It's completely different, but "The Pitfalls Of Being An Outsider" will have similar crowd interaction, as that chorus is begging to have an audience shouting along with Michael and his band. It's a communal experience. Rock used to be that way, didn't it?

I also love the use of harmonica and saxophone to give some of the songs a little twist from the expected. When you've got a core sound to what your band does, simple things like adding a three second flash of something unusual is all it takes sometimes to make sure the songs stand out as individual. There's nothing to be scared of by breaking free of the guitar/bass/drums setup, and while Michael has been doing it for a long time anyway, he's got enough of a legacy that he can do whatever the hell he wants. No one is going to tell him no.

If you heard "Blackout States", the best thing I can say is that "One Man Gang" makes for a perfect one-two punch with that one. If you haven't heard it, why not? There are a lot of varieties and strains of rock, but if you're talking about good ol' rock and roll, there isn't anyone doing it better than Michael Monroe and this version of his band. "One Man Gang" is a reminder that rock can be about good times and having fun, a swaggering bravado where we play a character cooler and more interesting than we actually are, so we can live out some fantasies.

I want to join this "One Man Gang". It fucking rocks.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Album Review: Opeth - In Cauda Venenum

Opeth is beyond frustrating, and it doesn't even have much to do with them. I've said this before, but I'll reiterate; I was supportive of the idea of dropping the death metal from their sound. That was the direction I was hoping Opeth would go, but the way by which they did it has been rather flaccid, recreating prog rock of the 70s in a boring way, and no longer sounding much like Opeth. That would be disappointing in and of itself, but it's made even worse because we have Soen, who on their two most recent records have grabbed the thread Opeth left behind, and pulled on it to weave their own sound which is exactly what Opeth should have done as they moved forward. Suddenly, Opeth not only no longer rocks, but they aren't the most Opeth-ian modern Opeth. To have your identity usurped, and improved upon, is the sort of thing that makes me wonder what I'm supposed to think of Opeth.

With their latest entry in their classic prog phase, the answer is made perhaps harder by the very nature of the record, which was written and recorded in Swedish, then translated to English for those of us who want to understand what the heck we're listening to. I feel this guarantees there will be important details lost in translation.

Let's get this out of the way first; Mikael Akerfeldt is, and has always been, a lousy songwriter. It got better for a while, but is drifting back in the wrong direction. I don't mean he's bad in the sense that he writes boring music or has bad ideas (though he sometimes does), but rather that he's a bad songwriter because far too often his idea of song-craft is to glue to completely different ideas together without even a hint of a segue. He's like a squirrel unsure which way to run when he sees a person approaching. People have long called that 'progressive', but there's a better word for it; lazy.

The two songs we were given as previews, which also happen to be the first two on the record after the three minutes of my time the band wastes, explain the dichotomy of Opeth. "Dignity" has a wonderful guitar solo at the beginning, and a rousing melody for the main hook, but it also offers no transition as it bounces from rock to acoustic, from full band to barely audible. "Heart In Hand" has less of these moments, but midway through the track we go from a nice rock song to a full-on folk number, and I can't quite figure out how we got there, because Mikael doesn't explain himself through the music.

My frustration with that tendency is more pronounced this time around, since this is probably the best album of Opeth's full-on prog period. There are a lot of beautiful pieces of music throughout this record, but they're hard to listen to if you're someone who likes things to make sense. On the plus side, this is the most cohesive their prog period has ever sounded, in terms of them knowing who they are, and what they want to accomplish. It's still a fair bit a rehash of the 70s, but it is no longer a haphazard collection of disparate sounds ("Heritage"), so lifeless as to be a lullaby ("Pale Communion"), or a weak attempt to sound heavy ("Sorceress"). This record distills all of Akerfeldt's prog loves into a single sound, which instantly makes this the definitive record of this phase of their career.

The record has its prog tangents, it's riffs that are pure Opeth, and a sense of dynamics where the heavy moments actually sound heavy again, even though they aren't, by comparison to their old days. Really, the only thing holding Opeth back is the songwriting. Look at "Universal Truth". After a decent opening section, the song completely stops. There's three seconds of silence, and then a different sound and motif come in. Why? How? What Akerfeldt is doing there is essentially channel surfing. He got bored with one idea, so he switched to another without finishing it off. I want to reach out and strangle him for this.

By the end of the intolerable sixty-nine minutes of this record, I'm where I was before this album cycle started; hopeless about Opeth's future. For a brief moment when the singles came out, I thought Akerfeldt might have found a new well of inspiration by writing in his native language, but the album bogs down and reveals the cracks in his foundation just as much as the last few have. There is still good here, but I'm not going to sift through the rubble looking for it. Not when there is so much music out there that doesn't require me testing my patience, and not when there's a band that gives me what I want from Opeth.

Middle-aged, post-divorce Opeth is not something I can relate to. Nor do I want to.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Singles Roundup: Ghost, The Dark Element, Fozzy, and Dream State

Septempber has had a significant number of important records, but that's nothing compared to what October is going to have for us. I'm already feeling overwhelmed by the pile waiting for me, and that's with a few big ones still to arrive. So before I fall down the rabbit hole of those later albums, let's take a couple of minutes to talk about a few singles that have come out I think need some attention.

Ghost – Kiss the Go-Goat/Mary On A Cross

Is there a bigger band in the mainstream than Ghost right now? Since the next album is still in the early stages of development, we're given this two song release to tide us over. It hits on the good and the bad of Ghost. The good is that they can get away with just about anything, including presenting this as a lost, fifty year old recording. The bad is that they try some of this stuff, when it doesn't need to be done. "Kiss The Go-Goat", in particular, is the most gimmicky song they have done in a long time, and not coincidentally one of the weakest. "Mary On A Cross" is better, but this feels like a place-holder, like something they didn't put a lot of effort into. This doesn't detract from the last album, or hinder the next, but it does make this release a bit hollow and empty.

The Dark Element – Songs The Night Sings

The debut album from this project not only brought Anette Olzon back to people's attention, but it also turned out to be one of the best albums of that year. Now that they've seen the success of that record, and have had a couple years to figure out how they best fit together, my expectation would be for them to grow into an even better outfit for their second album. This first taste we're getting hints at the direction the record might go. This song is a continuation of the first, but still expertly written. With this as how they chose to introduce the record, I'm thinking we might be in line for something that adheres to the same structure, trying to step things up in terms of making the songs even stickier. It's mission accomplished for this track, as the bar has been set awfully high for one of the most anticipated records of the fall.

Fozzy – Nowhere To Run

I'm always surprised that Fozzy has become a genuinely successful rock band, not because of who Chris Jericho is, but because he's not really a very good singer. Like always, his voice here is watery, as though his throat somehow contains an echo effect. Is that charisma? Fozzy has also completely streamlines their sound, no longer trying to hide they are hit-seekers. They are a world away from when they used to facetiously claim to have written Priest and Maiden's hit songs. Like "Judas", they've also managed to nail the formula. This song is going to be a hit, and we're going to hear a lot of it. They can't deliver an entire album like this, but they've got the one song they need to keep their momentum going.

Dream State – Open Windows

I've already raved about the first two singles from their upcoming debut album, but let me do the same for this song. Dream State are on a roll leading up to the record, with all three of these songs being explosive numbers that explode in our heads. We hear a lot of songs that are clearly an artist pouring their pain into the music, but it's only in rare instances where we can hear them coming out the other side of the dark times. That's what these Dream State songs do. This isn't just sharing a universal feeling, it's a way to move past it, and there's a clear catharsis that comes when CJ starts shouting the chorus. It's pure bliss.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Album Review: Dragonforce - Extreme Power Metal

Has a metal band squandered their moment in the spotlight quite the way Dragonforce has? With their success as one of the definitive tracks of the rock video game era, they should have been set up for career growth, and a position as one of the bigger metal bands in the mainstream. But between a change in singers, and a lack of great songwriting (perhaps more a bad selection of singles - there were some great songs on "Maximum Overload"), they are rarely talked about anymore. They're almost afterthoughts.

And now they do something that always irritates me. They have named their new album "Extreme Power Metal". Not only does that name sound cheesy and stupid, but it makes a promise Dragonforce is not going to be able to keep. Other than some guitar solos that are played in a blur, there will be absolutely nothing about the record that is extreme, and trying to pass it off as such makes them look foolish.

Opener "Highway To Oblivion" gets closer to the old Dragonforce formula, with chugging guitars played faster than my hands would ever be able to move, and high pitched vocals trying like hell to make a catchy melody fit over the top of all of that, a couple fleeting seconds of video-game music sounds included. As cheesy as it is, that's what Dragonforce is known for, and it's where their charms lie. Those first couple of records took power metal by storm because they were something unique, and they had good songwriting to balance out the histrionics. Their downslide started when they got away from what they are good at. It's nice to hear them find themselves again.

As you would expect from the title, "Cosmic Power Of The Infinite Shred Machine" is a song centered around several lengthy, flashy guitar solos. That might be fun for them, but you should listen to "The Last Dragonborn" instead, because that is killer power metal. It's got both folk and asian instrumentation detailing the background, but it's the hook that is undeniable. It sounds thundering, epic, and like a chest-beating warrior's hymn. Ok, I'll admit I don't care for the fantasy lyrics that make up so much of power metal, but it damn well works here. I don't think this song could be written about mundane life and be as effective. This is the Dragonforce I love. "Remembrance Day" fits this same mold.

We get a fair amount of that on this record. "Razorblade Meltdown" is another big winner that delivers the high-octane power we expect, but also hooks that are stronger than what they're usually able to corral at their speed. What I'm not as fond of are the more 80s influences on "Troopers Of The Stars" and "Strangers". I've gone on before about not understanding the obsession with that decade, and Dragonforce isn't winning me over on that argument. They aren't bad songs by any means, but I would prefer them to sound a bit more modern. Oh well.

By the time the record is over, I'm left feeling that this is the best Dragonforce album since ZP left the band. The strong material is still strong, but this time even the stuff I'm not quite as high on is better than usual. The low(er) points involve minor nit-picking. There isn't anything here I would genuinely complain about. It might be a bit late for Dragonfoce to recapture their momentum, but this record makes a strong case they're not going to fade away. I wasn't expecting it to be anything but another Dragonforce record, but "Extreme Power Metal" is more than that. It's the best Dragonforce record in a long time.

And the record ends with a cover of "My Heart Will Go On". Yes, the Titanic song. I find it absolutely hilarious. Then again, I love metal covers of super cheesy pop music. Exit Eden doing "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" is awesome, and Steel Panther doing "I Want It That Way" is the highlight of their career. So Dragonforce have given us a fun little nugget to end on. Kudos.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Album Review: Kadavar - For The Dead Travel Fast

I've been making this point on-and-off for a few years now, and I'll say it again at the start of this review; 'vintage' rock band are almost all terrible. I adore Graveyard, and the first Blues Pills album was amazing, but those are the rare exceptions of these sorts of bands knowing how to write good songs. For the most part, they are so wrapped up in recreating the sound of the past, and crowing about recording to tape when they do, that they don't understand what the whole point of being in a band is. Kadavar is one of those bands in that category, at least in my eyes, because they have yet to write a single song that has stuck with me. They sound good, but there's nothing there. They are empty calories.

Speaking of that, there's nothing that puts me in a worse mood than wasting my time. The first track on the record is the two minute "The End", which is a mix of a long silence, some wind, and a very short build of instruments. Essentially, it's absolutely nothing other than space that could have been used for real music, or better yet, cut entirely, since it detracts from the record. It sure as hell doesn't add anything.

Moving on to the songs that matter, Kadavar has embraced a sound that sounds like the past, but not in the way they want it to. This record doesn't sounds like the organic, natural productions of the time. No, it sounds like a vinyl record that's been sitting around since 1972, with enough fuzz, echo, and poor mixing to make Black Sabbath's debut sound like a gem. And considering how fast and cheap that was recorded, being worse is a big black mark on Kadavar. At least the production stops the retched falsetto vocals in "Evil Forces" from coming through the mix even more than they do. I already want to plug my ears when they come along, but if they were as high in the mix as vocals should be, I'm not sure how I would ever make it through the song.

As I was saying at the start, Kadavar is one of those bands that doesn't write great songs, so little thing matter more. I could forgive some production issues if the music is great, but it's not. Especially when we get to "Children Of The Night", the only impression I get from the music is that of a Ghost demo. It sounds like a rough sketch of a better band, something that got cut from the running when it was clear the song wasn't going to be turned into anything better.

Listening to Kadavar, I keep asking myself one question; why should I be listening to them, when there are other bands who do this same thing far better than them? They don't have a great guitar player, or a great singer, or any elements to the music that I could convince myself are worth giving them another chance for. I hear this cloudy mess of music, and there isn't anything I want to hear again. Maybe there could be if it didn't make me think my ears were plugged, but this record isn't pleasant to listen to. I feel like I need a hearing aid, which isn't a good thing to be saying.

Kadavar have been around long enough now that I'm not going to cut them any slack for being a band still finding their way. They know enough at this point to have deliberately chosen to make a record like this. If they aren't able to write better songs, that's fine. Not everyone can. But everyone can choose not to make a record whose sound pushes you away. Kadavar went down that route, and I'm not going with them. Maybe I'll give them another chance in a few years, if they want to move into the current millenium, but if they're staying in the past, I hope their time capsule stays buried in my backyard. I don't want to hear it again.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Album Review: Michael Schenker Fest - Revelation

For a guy who has been on his own for as long as he has, Michael Schenker sure seems to put together a lot of projects. Rather than brand himself as a true solo artist, he's had albums under his own name, as Michael Schenker Group, as Michael Schenker's Temple Of Rock, and now as Michael Schenker Fest. All of this comes for a guy who admits to not listening to any music other than his own, lest his muse get corrupted by the music of others. That's a really weird thing for anyone to say, but especially for someone who has spent most of the last couple decades recycling the same old stuff.

That is never more true than with this project, which gathers up four of his former singers, giving them all a little, but not enough, to do. I wasn't much of a fan of the first album under this moniker, mostly for the fact that while it did sound like everything else Schenker has put out in recent memory, the vocalists were not in the best shape. A couple years since then isn't going to improve matters on that front.

Basically, if you like anything Schenker has done since in the last twenty years, this album will be fine for you. I know a lot of guitar players worship the guy, but he hasn't played anything I've been overly impressed with in a long time. I'm not a solos guy, so maybe his 'genius' is lost on me. Putting the songs together, he's good, but every album has been mostly the same, so it always comes down to what the singers are able to make of them.

I'll be honest; I've never been fond of albums like this with multiple singers. The main reason for that is simple; I'm going to like one singer more than the rest, and I'm going to be disappointed they don't get more of the spotlight. Or, the other way to look at it is there will surely be one singer I like less than the others, and I'll be angry they get as much time behind the mic as they do. That would be Graham Bonnet, if you're curious. His voice is not strong enough for him to push himself the way he still does. His tone annoys me, and has for a long time.

Gary Barden's voice is the most shot, by far, but it's gone in a way that left him with a husky tone I sort of like. Plus, it keeps him from trying to hit any god-forsaken high notes. The only Schenker album of recent vintage I've actually enjoyed was "In The Midst Of Beauty", which might just be because Barden's limitations make it the only album without some of the rock cliches.

This record is more pure Schenker. That's why he, and his fans, want. What I want it to hear something that stands out from the overwhelming amount of records Schenker has put out. That's not what I'm getting from this record. Other than a hint of 80s synth on "Behind The Smile", this record is virtually indistinguishable from the previous one, and all the ones before that. Since I wasn't buying in on that one, the same is true this time. Schenker is doing a solid job, and the record isn't bad by any means, but it also doesn't do anything exciting.

"Revelation" is not what the title suggests. It's good Michael Schenker music, and I might even say it's a bit better than the first album branded as the Fest, but I've heard all the Michael Schenker I ever need to.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Album Review: Kobra & The Lotus - Evolution

Kobra & The Lotus are coming off an ambitious project. Not long ago, they put out both "Prevail I" and "Prevail II", one of those double albums that isn't really a double album, that also happened to be released months apart so they could get twice the sales. You know; business. But that aside, those records showed a band that was growing and getting better, with the second installment being the best music I had yet heard from them. I still wasn't completely sold, but they were getting closer and closer to the bullseye. What is surprising now is that the band is back for another album already, since the usual time between releases hasn't been reached, and the last record was actually two records. Did they have enough time to generate enough great ideas for another album already?

To sum it up; yes and no.

The two singles for the album, "Burn" and "Get The F_ck Out Of Here" were regressions to the mean, leaving behind the band's evident growth into a melodic hard rock powerhouse for something far simpler, more generic, and in the case of the latter, pathetically trying to be edgy. Kobra Paige doesn't need to start throwing around f-bombs and middle fingers to get our attention. That she feels the need to use that song to promote the record was the first indication this wasn't going to be another step forward. It was a lapse of judgment, but sometimes those moments are quite telling. I would also put "Thundersmith" in this category, with a lumbering melody, and some obnoxious gang vocals to kick it off. It doesn't fit in with what I know of the band.

When you put the record on, the first song you're greeted with after the introduction is the title track, which is a completely different beast. This one is Kobra singing melodically, using the strengths of her and the band's appeal, and even throwing in a little western guitar lick in the background to give it a bit of flair. Kobra's voice is not gritty, it doesn't sound snarling or dripping with attitude, so it makes far more sense for her to focus on being the melodic counterpoint to the guitars. When they stick to that, which most of the album does, I like them. They just can't help themselves from time to time.

"We Come Undone" and "Wounds" are both fantastic, where the hooks play well with Kobra's voice. Her tone isn't as bright as many women in rock, which means she can get away with going further down the pop/melodic side without it sounding as obvious. They never test the edges of how far they can go, but I don't think it's a coincidence that she sounds the best, and the songs are better, when they aren't trying to be as heavy as possible. So yeah, I would say the ballad "Wash Away" is one of the best songs on the record for that very reason.

So here's where things get a bit dicey, at least as being philosophical goes. The band put out a double record that wasn't well-defined as such, with two records that were almost identical. This album has two sides to the music, which if expanded out, would have made for a double album with distinct identities. But instead, we got two of the same, followed by one kaleidoscope. I would have preferred things turned the other way around, but what will be will be. "Evolution" has a lot of good on it, and plenty of moments where the band is showing how they are still getting better at what they do. Unfortunately, it also has a couple songs that detract from all the good they do. Maybe a bit more time to weed those out would have done the record some good.

"Evolution" is good, but I think I would point you toward "Prevail II" first.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Album Review: Absence Of Despair - Desolate

Did I miss the memo saying that this decade was going to wrap up by flashing back to the glory days of metalcore? I must have, since I have seen more of it flashing by than I recall in previous years, and some of it is darn good, to boot. All That Remains impressed my last year, while Killswitch Engage's recent album has grown on me a lot, and Any Given Day's "Overpower" is still one of the best albums of the entire year. I don't know what's gotten into the water, or whatever trendy energy drink metal musicians consume, but it's a bit weird for the genre to be going so strong right now.

Absence Of Despair are newcomers to my attention, which doesn't really say anything about their stature, since I don't actually follow the scene, other than the unavoidable bigger names. But when I'm given the promise of hard-hitting grooves, and addictive hooks, I'm usually willing to see whether there's any meat on that bone.

The answer to that question is... not really.

The band is trying, but something is missing. They get the heavier part of the metalcore equation with ease. The crushing metal half is exactly that, a blend of metalcore and hardcore that is fiery and aggressive, although I don't think it has nearly as much groove as I was told. Instrumentally, they fall on the less melodic side of the genre, but that's ok. There's still enough power there to be pretty good.

Vocally, things suffer. The harsh vocals are a combination of death growls and higher-pitched screams, neither of which settles into a nice pocket. There isn't enough consistency from song to song in how the delivery is going to work, so it's hard to nail the band's identity. But the biggest drawback is when we get to the choruses. That's the part that wins me over, when metalcore is great. These hooks, despite the advertising, are not addictive at all. In fact, they're barely hooks. The choruses never feel bigger, or brighter, or any more melodic than the verses. That's a big problem.

Metalcore is the balance of heavy and melodic, angry and emotional. This record, with its darker focus, doesn't find that balance at all. It's a bit like watching a toddler and a teenager playing on a teeter-totter on the playground. One side is going to be left very disappointed. Sure, "Fearless" is a good track, and probably the best one here, but even so it wouldn't be a great track on a great metalcore record.

The impression I get from this record is one that comes up a lot these days; that these guys grew up listening to metalcore, so all their influences are various metalcore bands, recycled and regurgitated. The original wave had all sorts of influences, many of them far more mainstream and melodic. Listening to this, I can't see where these guys would have ever been fans of Dio or Iron Maiden. That's a big drawback, since it limits the scope incredibly narrow.

"Desolate" is a release of energy, but that's about it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Album Review: The 69 Eyes - West End

One of the things that drives me crazy about music is how once a genre develops, suddenly we find dozens of singers who all have the same basic tone and timbre. I find it hard to believe that everyone who sounds a certain way just so happens to want to make the same kind of music. Sure, I'm cynical, but it can't be a coincidence that so many of the post-grunge singers sounded like Eddie Vedder, or that every gothic rock singer sounds exactly the same. And that's what keeps me at arm's length from bands like The 69 Eyes. Listening to how blueprint their sound is makes it impossible to take them entirely seriously. It's obviously put-on to adhere to the genre's rules, and that limits the ways I can connect to the music.

Given the limitations in the vocal department, the melodies on this record have to be sterling for it to work. On first single "27 & Done", they do exactly that. The band is able to take the gothic feeling, yet still give it an almost upbeat energy that gets your foot tapping. That's a different approach than "Two Horns Up", which opens the album with a snarling attack, and plenty of almost growled vocals layered in the mix. That they can take both of those paths, make them unique, and still have them end up with slyly memorable songs, is quite a feat.

They can't keep that up over the course of the entire album, however. "Change" drags a bit with it's five-and-a-half minute runtime, getting a bit too repetitive by the time we reach the end. Then there's "Cheyenna", a single that wasn't catchy in the slightest, and is the weakest song on the album. It's where the limitations of this style become most apparent. When everything is subdued, and reliant on subtlety, the inferences have to be razor sharp if they're going to be heard. Sometimes weak writing can be glossed over by charismatic or dramatic performances. That's obviously not happening with gothic vocals.

The album alternates between really good stuff like "Death & Desire" and less interesting material like "The Last House On The Left" (coincidentally, that movie is terrible too). It winds up not just being a bit disjointed, but sucking the enjoyment out of the album. After the very good start, the momentum stalls out right at the point where you need it. The vocals already make the album monotone enough, so the dips in quality are hard to get through without wanting to hit the skip button.

There's enough good material on "West End" to still give the record a recommendation, and to be disappointed not everything lives up to that standard. There's half the record that is really good, even to this non-goth fan. If everything was that quality, this would be a pleasant surprise that could make a run for album of the month. But those few weak tracks are enough to derail the train. Gothic rock needs everything to be perfect if it's going to succeed, and throwing a perfect game is damn hard to do. The 69 Eyes puts up a quality start, but the bullpen might have just blown the save.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Album Review: Masters Of Ceremony - Signs Of Wings

Sascha Paeth has had a hand in a ton of records, even though you might not know it. As a producer and studio owner, check out his list of credits. It's rather large, and includes a lot of records you and I have probably heard. Plus, he's also been the main guitarist in Avantasia for most of the last six albums and tours. The guy gets around, but almost all of his career has been spent in service of the music of other people. So what would an album from Sascha himself sound like? That's what we're about to find out. Masters Of Ceremony is the first time I can ever recall listening to more than one song from his pen (he wrote one on Trillium's "Alloy", and it's the one I skip almost every time).

The most important piece of the puzzle when a guitarist makes an album of his own is finding a singer. No matter how good the musician is, the singer is going to be the make-or-break part of the equation. Just look at the difference between how Slash is perceived now, as oppose to when he had his Snakepit band going. Myles Kennedy has given him a huge boost. Sascha's pick is Seven Spires singer Adrienne Cowan, which is an unusual pick, I would say. She doesn't sound like the power metal he is known for working on, and she also brings in harsh tones that I wasn't expecting.

The opening "The Time Has Come" wears Sascha's time in Avantasia on its sleeve, with a melody that easily could have been on "The Scarecrow". And here's where I have to point to the above paragraph. Adrienne can sing, but her voice on this song is more of a shout than anything, with a tone that recalls the feminist punk of the 90s. It doesn't sound right, at least to me, on this kind of music. And with her harsh vocals not doing much to win me over either, what was a well-written song is held back by a vocal delivery that could have been so much better.

I get why Sascha went with her; she's more versatile than a lot of singers, and this is a diverse album. We get straight-forward power metal, sure, but we also get highly dramatic songs like "Die Just A Little" that have some Broadway influence, and something like "Radar" with a more Celtic/folk motif. Sascha needed a singer who could play multiple parts, and Adrienne does fill that role.

None of the information I was given indicate the writing credits, so I don't know whether Sascha called in some of his friends to help him write these tracks, or whether years of working with talented writers has rubbed off on him, but this is an album flush with strong hooks and melodies. The choruses of these songs are big, powerful, and better than most of the power metal I've heard this year (barring Avantasia, of course). If this is all Sascha's doing, then I give him a lot of credit. He's written a darn good album.

There are really only two complaints I have. I've already voiced one, so let me address the other one here; this album sounds like a Sascha Paeth production. I know, that doesn't sound surprising at all. What I'm saying is that between the guitar playing, the tone, and the level of polish, the instrumental portions of this record could just as easily be the next Avantasia album. This album that is supposed to be an expression of Sascha sounds just like everything else that comes out of his studio. That shows me a lack of versatility as a producer if he's made every record sound like him, rather than the bands he's producing.

Let me be clear, though; the nits I'm picking don't outweigh the good the album does. Not even close. "Signs Of Wings" is damn good power metal, and there's a lot to like about it.