Monday, April 29, 2019

The Top Ten Songs Of The Last Five Years (2014-2018)

Recently, I have been in a mood where I have been listening to more tracks on their own, as bands continue to shift their release strategies to include more one-off songs. It's a form of listening that is new to me, and one I'm not sure quite how I feel about. But, what it has done is get me thinking about songs as individual pieces of music, which got me to thinking; what are the best songs of the last five years? Luckily, I have been making and keeping lists of my favorites each year, so putting together a quick composite was an easy task. It also shows me that the album continues to dominate, as only one of these songs was not part of at least an EPs worth of music.

Anyway, here are my picks for the ten (really eleven, because why not?) best songs from 2014 to 2018, in alphabetical order:

Dilana - Maybe Just A Little (From "Dilana" - 2016)

Maybe I'm weird, but what I love about this song is the combination of 90s alternative sounds, and Dilana's staid vocals in the chorus. Her own doubts about herself are captured in that performance, and I love little details like that, where a singer uses their voice to convey the feeling, and not just the lyric.

Ghost - Cirice (From "Meliora" - 2015)

This is the moment Ghost became Ghost. They had written a few good songs, but nothing like this, which still feels like the beginning of something epic. This sounds like what would have happened if Black Sabbath started out in a time when rock bands expected to make the mainstream. It was a moment in time, but what a moment it was.

Halestorm - Vicious (From "Vicious" - 2018)

The current climate is one where we all need a bit of attitude to survive. Halestorm captured that on this song, giving us an anthem of survival for what look like bleak days for humanity. I don't know if it will carry us through to when the fever breaks, but it's the best chance we've got.

Jorn - Save Me (From "Dracula: Swing Of Death" - 2015)

The best chapter of this Album Of The Year winner, the story of Dracula and Mina never sounded so fun. This duet is passionate, heavy, and as infectious as the vampire's disease. It's over-the-top, and that's precisely why it stands apart from the crowd.

Karnataka - Fairytale Lies (From "Secrets Of Angels - 2015)

If you wondered what pop music would sound like if it was cinematic, this is the answer. Hayley Griffiths' voice is so pure and beautiful, and the hook so sweeping, that it almost sounds like a song for a Disney princess. It's better than that, but still induces a smile.

Michael Monroe - One Foot Outta The Grave (2017)

A one-off single for a compilation, this was my favorite song of the year. When I think of what rock and roll is, when distilled, I get the sound of his "Blackout States" album, and this song takes that sound and makes it even better.

Nightingale - Forevermore (From "Retribution" - 2014)

Making sweetly melodic rock is hard, because all too often it becomes watered down and weak. Not so here, as Dan Swano builds a truly magnificent song that has hints of the 80s without becoming a cheesy homage, and a melody that highlights the best parts of his voice. The best part is THAT note he reaches for near the end. You'll know it when you hear it. Damn.

Shiverburn - Burned Alive (From "Road To Somewhere - 2016)

While they were around, I thought Shiverburn would become one of my next favorite bands. That didn't happen, but they did leave us a wonderful album that is capped off by this massive song. They effortlessly strike just the right balance of crunchy, heavy guitars, a bit of attitude, and a huge pop chorus. Every time I listen, I miss them already.

Soen - Opal (From "Lykaia" - 2017)

Melancholy is a difficult feeling to achieve, striking the right balance between the light and the dark sides. Soen have mastered that art, and this song was the crown jewel of an Album Of The Year winner. The song is mournful, yet not without hope. Ugly, but not without beauty. It's some of the most interesting metal being made.

The Spider Accomplice - Butterflies In A Beehive (From "Los Angeles: The Trap" - 2015)

The song on this list that touched me the most. The imagery is uniquely stirring, VK uses her voice's power to amplify the emotion of the song, and the minor-key sound of the chorus is heart-wrenching. This song on their debut EP sold me on becoming a fan, which has paid off in spades since then.

Transatlantic - Black As The Sky (From "Kaleidoscope" - 2014)

These epic prog musicians are just as good when they keeps things short and (relatively) simple. There's sly time signatures, but what makes this song is the vibe; roaring organs like the rock of the 70s, coupled with a wonderfully sing-along hook. Who says prog can't be fun?

Zakk Wylde - Lay Me Down (From "Book Of Shadows II" - 2016)

Zakk's best side is his soulful one, best evidenced on "Book Of Shadows II". This is the highlight of what won Album Of The Year from me, and it's the closest thing to a rock gospel I've heard. As his guitar rips through the solo, it's almost a religious experience.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Album Review: Leverage - DeterminUs

Ten years is a long time. We have all aged, the world has gone through tremendous upheaval, and our memories aren't what the used to be. So unless you're a band at the scale of Tool, being absent from the scene for that long is not a recipe for success. Leverage is returning after a decade away, with a couple of new members in tow. I suppose one could ask if this is even the same band that we may or may not remember. I'll say right now I don't remember their previous releases, so I'm not going to address that last question. I will note, however, that with every year between albums, the expectations for the end product get higher. When you only have to write one great song per year to fill out your record, there's not much excuse if the result isn't amazing.

Leverage occupies an odd place on the spectrum with this record. They are playing melodic rock, of course, but it's laced with bits of AOR, heaps of prog, and bits and pieces from Magnum. Wrapped up in a package of songs that often hit six or seven minutes, there is certainly a lot going on here.

"Wind Of Morrigan" is a good example of what Leverage is up to. There's an acoustic opening that is almost a sea shanty, a main electric riff that has a folk feeling, and a chorus that layers vocals into a huge sounding hook. There's a degree to which it sounds like a heavier version of Big Big Train, which is an interesting approach. And then as soon as that song is over, the first sounds of "Tiger" are a more grinding metal riff, that eventually leads to some gruff vocals that are completely out of place on this kind of record.

New singer Kimmo Blom has a voice that is rough around the edges, but has some versatility. What he can't do, though, is sing aggressively without the strain in his voice becoming overbearing. Unfortunately, he likes to pepper the heavier moments on the record with that style of vocal, which I find distracting every time he does it. He's good when he sticks to delivering the melodies, but for whatever reason the entire band is dead-set on proving some degree of metal, rather than sticking to the melodic hard rock they're better at.

Just listen to the opening of "Afterworld's Disciple" for an example of this. Over just the bass and drums, Kimmo bellows, his voice warbling with the same awkward tenor as Udo Dirkschneider, whose appeal has always struck me as being due to him coming out when few metal singers could actually sing. With the band pulled back, Kimmo sounds worse than ever, as the volume isn't able to cover up the uncomfortable parts of his voice. Like Udo, or later Nils Patrick Johansson, I can't listen to vocals like this and hear the song underneath the performance. They are too distracting, too unpleasant.

When we do focus on the songs, they can't overcome the other shortcomings. After getting off to a good start, the album quickly falls into a rut of heavy riffs and mediocre melodies. After ten years, I expect so much better than this. There is too much filler here for any album, really, but especially one that has had so much time to write and collect material for. I don't know what these guys have been doing for the last decade, but clearly all of it wasn't spent writing songs. There shouldn't be any way that a song as flat and boring as "Hand Of God" gets put on an album along with the best stuff a group has been writing over the course of a decade. I'm sorry, but for all the flaws it had, even "Chinese Democracy" at least sounded like a record that had years of indecision and work put into it.

Leverage isn't even interesting in the car-crash way.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Album Review: Hardline - Life

As Hardline has been 'back' for several albums now, I keep hearing the same talk each time about how important each release is, because of what Hardline once was. I really hate that kind of talk, because I find it to be both pandering, and self-defeating. The attempts to hype that band as an important part of a scene from the past fall flat to me, because other than reading the press releases that come along with the records, I have never in my life heard anyone talk about Hardline. They might have made a few great albums at one point, but they haven't stuck around and endured. When you make the case that you're back after being forgotten about, you're ignoring a key question; why were you forgotten about in the first place?

This incarnation of the band features Johnny Gioeli, who I believe appeared on three records last year (his pop-leaning solo album being the best of them), and Alessandro Del Vecchio, who is responsible for more of the melodic rock coming out today than you would probably realize. That will become important in a minute.

Hardline fits naturally into the current scene, with over-saturated guitars that are wildly popular, even though I've always found they take away the bite from the riffs. The sound is big, and powerful, which gives Gioeli enough volume to push his voice. He is, as he's always been, the key appeal here. He's got one of those voices that has the perfect amount of grit, that can simultaneously sound aggressive and melodic, strained and relaxed. I haven't always felt he gets the best material to sing, but his talent as a singer has never been in question.

Lead single "Take A Chance" is great melodic rock, a catchy number you can sway along with. It will serve will in the near future when summer weather arrives, and we need some sunny music to fit the mood. Much of the rest of the album is trying to tilt towards the heavier side of the genre, which I don't think is the best decision. Johnny's voice gives the music enough grit that it isn't needed in the guitars, and the heavier and more involved riffs of "Helio's Sun" don't give as much room for the big melodies I expect from the genre. In fact, for being a melodic rock record, there aren't nearly as many big hooks and catchy choruses as I want to hear. The album is more rock, less melodic.

The other issue, as I prefaced earlier, is that it's also incredibly familiar. I don't mean it sounds like a Hardline album for Hardline fans, I mean the involvement of Del Vecchio as the main songwriter leaves the record sounding so much like countless other projects from the label he has had a hand in. If I took a few minutes to look through my archives, I could find at least a dozen albums most of these songs could have fit right in on. That doesn't make them bad, but when all these bands blend together, it's hard to see them as separate entities. Hardline, in that sense, is a continuation of Gioeli/Castronovo, and countless other bands. For a band that is being presented as a gem from the past, the lack of clarity in the present makes that harder to believe.

We get a few great songs, from "Out Of Time" and "Handful Of Sand", to the piano-driven ballad "Page Of Your Life". There are also a few songs that don't do the job they're supposed to, but that gets outweighed by the better material. Look, I'm not going to say "Life" is a great record, because I don't think it is. But for what it is, it's perfectly fine and enjoyable to listen to. It's biggest concern is getting lost in the pack, which is growing larger day by day.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Album Review: New Year's Day - Unbreakable

Keeping up with the times is a bit of a task. We all tend to get into a groove with the stuff we listen to, and our taste solidifies around a core identity. The thing is; evolution never stops, so it's easy to get left behind if we don't consciously try to open our minds to new sounds and new ideas as they come along. I have felt this way with the modern rock scene, as the particular brand of it I used to listen to has been cycled out in favor of newer sounds. Trying to embrace those has been difficult. But still I try to make sure I'm not totally out-of-touch, so I poke my head in and sample bits here and there. One of those that caught my attention was New Year's Day.

I knew they were growing their audience and their stature, but I hadn't delved into their music until the first single for this new album, "Skeletons", was released. That song, the first time I heard it, sunk its teeth in. It was heavy and catchy, but done in a modern way that sounded so fresh compared to the usual fare. I've listened to that song dozens of times in the meantime, and it's one of the best songs of the entire year. It had me rather excited to hear what else the band had in store for us.

Our second taste was the leadoff track "Come For Me", which is quite different. After a few heavy riffs, the chorus features repeating, staccato vocals that attack like a snare drum. It's a very rhythmic approach to songwriting, something I feel takes a few spins to fully appreciate, especially because when Ash sings the few melodic moments, her voice makes me wonder why it isn't highlighted even more.

There's a strong electronic/dubstep feeling to the record, even if it is purely rock throughout. The guitars skitter and slur, coming in and out of the songs like a drop. It's half djent, half club anthem, and something completely different than anything I've heard before. My mind interprets music through a melodic language, so some of the instrumental details and equations throughout this record require focus and thought to quite understand. It shows music doesn't have to be highly technical pro in order to challenge us.

Thankfully, Ash does get plenty of opportunities to show off her voice. "Unbreakable" features an instrumental backing that is somewhat like if Cannibal Corpse tried to write a ballad, and it lets Ash belt out some huge vocals and screams. It slows the record down without softening it at all, and it sits in a perfect middle-ground where the band is ready to play the biggest stages.

When the band is at their best, they're fusing ultra-modern riffs with big, propulsive hooks. "Done With You" is a great example, with a riff in the bridge that is almost like a telegraph pounding out the message, and then Ash comes in with the hook, and it's massive. The same can be said of "Poltergeist", where the mood is more important than the heaviness, but the end result is another song with a huge chorus.

As I was saying before, all of us eventually become a man (or woman) out of our time. Listening to New Year's Day, I do feel a bit of that. The push/pull, jerking guitars are the sound of a generation different than mine, and I do feel a bit out of place as the record rolls on. But when I consider what the modern rock scene is, I also come away thinking that New Year's Day has a few of the best singles I'm likely to be hearing this year. Some of the songs I've already mentioned should spend considerable time on the charts, at least if there's justice. Yes, I'm a bit of an outsider to this particular record, but it won me over. When the new record smell wears off, and there's been enough time for it to settle, there's quite a bit of strong songwriting here.

"Unbreakable" was a more challenging record for me than most mainstream rock is, but in this case, that's exactly what makes it work. New Year's Day is on the cutting edge, and they've got the songs to make sure the blade is sharp enough to cut through the chaff.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Album Review: Enforcer - Zenith

I don't know the reason why, but somewhere along the way it became almost a rule that metal could no longer be fun. Given that the reason metal moved into the mainstream, and dragged along the classic names, is that there were numerous party anthems that crossed over, it's odd how little of the music anymore is actually fun to listen to. I'm not waxing nostalgic for Quiet Riot (their last album was a smoldering trash heap, after all), but it is nice to hear a record every so often that embraces the attitude that used to be prevalent, and gives us an experience that doesn't require the wearing of black and eyeliner.

Enforcer's new album is pure 80s fun. Traditional heavy metal these days has come to mean swords and dragons, but this is traditional too. Metal wasn't as dour and colorless as it is now, and the stuff that got popular was simple, catchy, and not quite as embarrassing to play in public as all the songs about taking off your robe and wizard hat (inside joke, sorry).

"Die For The Devil" kicks the record off talking all about, well, Satan, but it's done with an air of hair metal that bounces along with energy and rhythm. It's the sort of thing that, with different lyrics, would have fit right in with the Motley Crue's of the 80s. There's plenty of bands doing the nostalgia thing by bringing in the col synth sounds, but this is the better way of doing it; playing something people actually enjoyed about the music from back then.

We get a tonal shift with "Zenith Of The Black Sun", which stands out as a mid-tempo rocker in the "Holy Diver" mold. The riff has that same chest-pounding quality to it, even if the vocals are of the Vince Neil mold, which gives the song a completely different end result. The journey through the 80s continues with songs that sound a little like Motorhead, and the ballad "Regrets" that has a heavy Queen vibe. Enforcer is throwing everything against the wall, serving as a one-stop jukebox show of the entire decade. That's an approach which carries a lot of risk.

Not only does the record jump around from song to song, some of the songs contain odd shifts as well. "Searching For You" has a bridge that doesn't fit in with the speedy rest of the song, and the rhythmic shift from the verse to the chorus of "The End Of A Universe" is incredibly awkward. Both feel like they have parts shoehorned in that were written for other songs, which makes what we're given hard to digest.

There are certainly good moments to be found in all of these songs, and a few like "One Thousand Years Of Darkness" work well in whole, but there are also enough questionable choices made here that the record can't climb up the next rung of the ladder. It's a solid record, but it veers away from the great first impression far too quickly. Enforcer is trying to touch on everything that made 80s metal what it was, but if you heard the first single like I did, you're going to be disappointed to hear that while the band is trying to have fun, those cheesy hair metal tendencies are nowhere else to be found. I don't want to call it false advertising, but the band did pick a song to preface the album that doesn't necessarily fit with the rest of the material.

"Zenith" clearly isn't that, but it's still a decent way to spend 45 minutes. I just wish the band had fully embrced the fun they wanted us to hear. More of that would have made this record far better.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Album Review: Grand Magus - Wolf God

Here we are again. Every few years, I find myself sitting down with a new Grand Magus record, and the same thing happens by the time I'm done with the experience. Each time around, I listen to the latest batch of songs, I enjoy their throaty traditional metal, and then I promptly forget to listen to them until the next record is due to come along. I don't know why this is, what about their music makes it fade from my memory, but for as good as the band is at what they do, it doesn't have nearly the staying power as I would think it should. Perhaps it's just because traditional metal is so ingrained in heavy music culture that it feels too familiar, and often doesn't have a hook of its own anymore. Perhaps the music is more of a hormonal experience than it is great songwriting. I don't know.

That brings us to "Wolf God", the latest effort by Grand Magus. For those who aren't familiar with them, Grand Magus is one of the best sounding traditional metal bands, and that doesn't change here. Their sound is thick and meaty, a bit rough around the edges, like JB's voice. He has a huge bellowing voice that is pure metal, nailing the split between gritty heft and melody. Grand Magus is as much about the sound, for me, as the songs.

On an already short album (38 minutes), the first two are spent on an introduction building up some tension. When the title track starts things off properly, it's exactly the Grand Magus we've grown accustomed to. The riffs are simple, the tempos in the middle, and the focus largely put on JB's voice. They don't do anything complicated, or fancy, nor should they. People use the phrase 'meat and potatoes' with a bit of derision, but there's no need for that. Simple music is just as satisfying, and often more so.

Plenty of bands write songs about mythology and battles, but few of them actually sound big enough to be the soundtrack to a sweeping landscape shot of such an epic encounter. When Grand Magus expands just a bit, like the do on the five minute "A Hall Clad In Gold", they absolutely do. That song has the scope and the power to score a colossal battle scene. It's what the band does so well, and it's why I'm never disappointed to hear a new record is on the way. With apologies to Sabaton, or Amon Amarth, or any of the other bands who tackle similar material, they don't do it this well.

"Dawn Of Fire" is a very similar track, and it reveals the biggest 'issue' Grand Magus has; namely, they are one of those bands that makes records that sound quite a bit like each other. That isn't a problem for everyone (myself included), but it will annoy some. It's also, perhaps, the answer to the question I posed to myself at the beginning. Getting truly excited about a new Grand Magus album is a bit difficult when I already know exactly what it's going to sound like. And when "Brother Of The Storm" features a melody I'm sure I've heard from them before, that is amplified.

None of that detracts from the main point, which is that if you like traditional heavy metal (and especially if you're sick of the high-pitched singers who populate many of those bands), Grand Magus is exactly what you're looking for. They are one of the most appealing traditional heavy metal bands out there. No frills, no extras, just classic heavy metal like we remember from the old days. I can't tell you if this album is better than the last one, or the one before that, because all of them they've made since shifting away from doomier material are remarkably consistent. If you've ever liked Grand Magus, you're sure to like "Wolf God". If you haven't heard of them before, you should give them a listen, because they are a great embodiment of the roots of heavy metal.

"Wolf God" is another rock solid outing.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Album Review: Pristine - Road Back To Ruin

I was commenting to someone last week that when it comes to rock, I tend to prefer organic sounding records. I can see the appeal of the larger-than-life sound, with a wall of sound so massive you know the band would need an army of guitar players to recreate it, all polished to within an inch of its life. That's fine, but I would rather hear a band stripped down to the basics, sounding as if they're recorded live off the floor. What's most important is the music, so why do we care so much about the gloss and candy that bands use to cover it up? I can't really answer that, and thankfully today I don't have to. Pristine is the kind of raw, organic rock band that doesn't need any frills to get their point across.

As that opening paragraph indicates, Pristine is giving us an album of classic rock played in the classic manner, with a sound that sounds like what you would hear at a live show, because the basic tracks were indeed cut live. Some might say the guitars don't have enough heft to them because of this, but that's what I love about it. This is what rock and roll actually sounds like if you're in the room with a band. Anyone who could bring a complaint about that is committing some serious logic crime; you can't like rock if you don't like what rock actually sounds like.

Between that production, the obvious blues influences, and Heidi Solheim's voice, the band comes across sounding very much like the first Blues Pills album. Considering how much I loved that record, and summarily hated their shift into soul for the follow-up, hearing something reminiscent of my fonder memories is very welcome indeed. I also love the hints of Hammond organ that give the songs some extra color, keeping the vintage sound, while also not cluttering up the recordings with unnecessary layers of guitars.

There's a balance between short and snappy songs, and longer tracks that ebb and flow a bit more. "Sinnerman" is a burner to open the record, bristling with the energy of early rock and roll. Comparatively, "Bluebird" is a blues number that almost turns into drone with its repeated mantra as the song slows down and then builds back up. It might go on a bit long, but it's done for effect, and it still works.

"Aurora Skies" is a quiet ballad that uses a minimalist backdrop to put the focus squarely on Heidi's voice, and it's five minutes that shows how great she can be. She wrings the song out of her, with a vocal tone that has soul, and just a hint of grit. She doesn't flex her power as much as Elin Larsson does, but they share more than a passing resemblance to one another.

This is the kind of record that needs a bit of time to sink in. It doesn't have the immediate gratification that one with bigger melodies would, but as you continue listening, the little details are able to reveal themselves. In time, you'll start to find the songs growing more familiar. I wouldn't mind a bit more hookiness, but I came to appreciate these songs for the way they're written.

So does "Road Back To Ruin" lead us there? No, it doesn't. Ruin is not the final destination. Pristine is sending us on a journey back to the classic days of rock, and it's one that makes for a pleasant journey. Heidi is a star of a vocalist, and the album would be worth giving a chance just for her. The songs deliver a solid batch of bluesy vintage rock, so put together we get a record that fits in well with the Blues Pills of the world.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Album Review: Glitter Wizard - Opera Villains

One thing I've come to learn in the years I've been doing this is that when a band and/or label has a hard time telling you what an album sounds like, it usually isn't a good thing. They are either covering up for the fact they know the release is weak, and they don't want you to see their tepid descriptions and realize it, or they themselves have no idea how to describe it, which can mean it's largely an experimental mess that doesn't come together whatsoever. So when Glitter Wizard arrived, complete with talk about not knowing it it was glam, hard rock, psych rock, or any number of other genres, I became hesitant. Throwing that much stuff in one album rarely leads to good results.

The album opens on "A Spell So Evil", with fuzzy 70s guitars, and echoing vocals that sounds a bit like a worn-out Deep Purple vinyl, minus the songwriting. The riff is scratchy, and the vocals cycle through some flat lines without any sort of hook to them. The sudden shift to a more punk sound in the middle doesn't do the song any favors. That section isn't particularly strong either, and it sounds rather out of place. In one song, my concerns about the record were quickly realized.

"The Toxic Lady" is far better. It stays focused on being more of an occult rock song, where the riff is slow enough the lousy guitar tone doesn't blur the notes into a mess of noise, but most importantly the song has the kind of 'mystical' melody that has real appeal. This direction is one that, if the band kept at it, could lead to some very good results. It proves, entirely on its own, that the band and their sound can absolutely produce great results.

They don't, however, stay on that path. They shift straight into an acoustic dirge that slows the momentum to a crawl, and is pretty much a waste of two minutes. They then shift into a "Highway Star" styled burner of a track, which gets back to highlighting the shortcomings of this production, as the fuzz obscured most of what the band is trying to do. As you can tell, I was rightly frustrated by the band's constant shifting of their sound. With everything sounding so different, there's no cohesion to the record, no identity to tell me who Glitter Wizard are.

You would think if that's your band's name, and you mention glam in the press materials, you would have a clear identity as a pompous, glam rock band. That could work, but the band doesn't commit to that, or anything else. There is absolutely a space right now for a band that takes "Rocket Man" style Elton John, and pumps it up with huge guitars into an overblown orgy of cheesy delight. Glitter Wizard does nothing of the sort. Several of the tracks here aren't even what I would call full songs, but rather rough sketches that serve more as segues. But segues between what? The 'core' songs aren't long or engrossing enough to require a breather in between, nor do the segues serve as connective tissue to smooth the shift from one sound to another. They exist, I assume, to fill out the running time to a full-length.

Glitter Wizard reminded me of something I want to see from a rock band, but they didn't deliver it themselves. The record I wanted to hear would be amazing, but the one we're given is deeply lackluster. They feel like they're caught between being serious and being campy, and they fall flat on their face trying to straddle the divide. Sorry, but "Opera Villains" is a poor man's, poor man's Queen.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Album Review: Sabbath Assembly - A Letter Of Red

My colleague and I have discussed many things we don't like about the current state of music, and one of them is the overuse of the word 'dark'. It's a cliche, and it doesn't really tell us much about whether the music you're making is actually any good. Like 'heavy', or 'fast', they describe qualities, not quality. Plus, it seems a lot of dark rock and metal bands use that word as a way of saying you should be focused on the atmosphere they create, rather than their songs, because they know it's much easier to achieve the former. Sabbath Assembly, as you can guess by the band referenced by their name, are what constitutes a dark rock band of the modern vintage kind.

The echoing vocals of "Solve et Coagula" fit, as the language barrier is obscured by the production, with many of the words getting lost in the mix. Plenty of bands that call themselves 'dark' rely on obscuring parts of the performances for the sake of atmosphere, but it rarely serves as a strong point. Songs are almost always better when the lyrics come through, and the message of the song is easy for the listener to hear. I don't like having to work to hear a singer, and I find it a flaw, both of the singer and producer, if the lyrics have to be read to be understood.

"The Serpent Uncoils" introduces an influence you might not expect for a band of this kind; Heart. The main galloping riff to the song is reminiscent of "Barracuda", although it doesn't build to a climax, instead generating energy just so everything can slow down to a more ethereal moment. It's a waste of a song that could be more powerful if the band didn't feel the need to bring everything back into the shadows. Their commitment to being a dark, doom-influenced band gives them a narrow palate of colors to paint with, and they water them down anytime something might be veering towards the vibrant.

I find the sound, distant and tinged with reverb, to be tiring after two songs. There aren't any hooks to the songs to brag my attention, and then the sound itself is rather misty. Absolutely nothing about the album is sharp, and demands my attention. It's very easy to find your thoughts drifting away to something else as this plays, because the band isn't giving you a reason to stay focused. Perhaps that works in a dark and smoky club as they play, but it doesn't work on record, when there are countless other things going on around us at every moment.

There isn't much to say about this record, because it doesn't give me much material to work with. It's an album that floats by, a bit like a ghost, leaving only the faintest of impressions on your mind. It's the kind of music I hear a lot, and that has never explained to me what the point is supposed to be. As a songwriter, I can't imagine pouring myself into compositions that don't have something compelling about them. I don't hear in any of these songs the idea they had, whether it's a guitar riff or a vocal line, that convinced them they needed to build a song around it. There isn't anything of that sort here. The album is just sort of.... there.

And ultimately, that's one of the saddest things I can say.

Monday, April 8, 2019

EP Review: Yours Truly - Afterglow

Sometime after the release of their "Too Late For Apologies" EP, someone who knows my affection for these kinds of bands pointed me in the direction of Yours Truly. It didn't take more than a minute or two for me to realize they were exactly what I was looking for. They had the perfect blend of bright pop and crunchy rock, appealing to both sides of me at the same time. And given that the band I would most directly compare them to (whom any of you would only know through my constant invocation of their name) had seemingly broken up, Yours Truly was a godsend. The only problem? The EP clocked in at seventeen minutes, which left me wanting so much more.

And more is what we now get.

"Afterglow" is Yours Truly becoming even brighter, even catchier, even more irresistible. If you're like me, and you love pop music and rocking guitars, then the best pop album of our lifetime very well might be Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway". Despite her reality tv beginnings, that record is the epitome of rocking pop. Well, Yours Truly is carrying on in that spirit, and this EP is perhaps the closest thing to that classic as I've ever heard.

Things kick off with "Circles", with pulsing guitars that bounce with pop/punk energy. The tone and production is bright and shiny, but the guitars are rocking enough for the muted chords in the second verse to hit with power. Combine all of that with Mikaila's soaring vocals in the chorus, which sticks like velcro, and you get a winner of a song. And just to top it all off, the opening (and recurring) guitar lick is one of those motifs that is not only memorable, but helps the band stand out from all the others who rely strictly on ringing chords, and who let synths take the lead.

"I Can't Feel" comes next, and throws more of a dance feeling into the mix. The song practically begs you to bop your head along with it, and then the chorus comes along, which pulls from the mid-00s pop/punk scene. It's effervescent, and just brings a smile to my face. When Paramore went full-on pop with their least record, this is the sound they should have been aiming for. Yours Truly doesn't have to give up their rock cred, and they still write catchier songs.

"High Hopes" was released as a stand-alone single last year, and it hasn't lost any of its impact here. This song finds Yours Truly indulging their heavier side, with the guitars chunkier and less shimmering. This is the song I could most easily imagine circa-2005 Kelly Clarkson singing. It would have fit right in with "Since U Been Gone". It's just under four minutes of absolute perfection.

"Delusional Paradise" is a duet that reminds me quite a bit of "Cork Tree" era Fall Out Boy, but more emotional than snark-pop, especially with the acoustic guitars that poke through the mix here and there. It serves as the breather where a ballad would usually sit, but it doesn't go that far in softening the band's edges. Other than one needlessly crass line from Mikaila's partner, it's a lovely song that shows us how Yours Truly can do more resonant material as well as they can their ear-candy.

The title track finishes things off, with heavy chugging guitars through the verses, and a relentlessly sunny chorus that finishes the job of giving us a cavity from the sugary hooks they've been pouring into us. At this point, I can say that as good as the "Too Late For Apologies" EP was, "Afterglow" is a more interesting collection of songs. It balances pop and heaviness, fun and meaning, in a way that gives us a wonderful mix of everything Yours Truly is capable of.

What I can tell you is that in the world of bands that straddle the line between pop and rock, Yours Truly are currently the best of them all. Full stop. I adore "Afterglow", and in fact, the only complaint is that I love it so much I want another five songs to give me an even bigger dose of their addictive style.

Friday, April 5, 2019

EP Review: Manowar - The Final Battle I

It's not entirely hyperbole to say that Manowar embodies everything that's ever been wrong with heavy metal. It started in the 80s, when they made people think it was acceptable for your image to be that of loin-cloths. It continued by making the glorification of sword-swinging war a standard trope of bone-headed masculinity. The band then became run by an overblown ego who thought Manowar somehow important to the world, when everyone knows they were always laughed at. It kept going when they got to the creatively barren point of their career where they have reissues, remixed, and re-recorded their seminal (how appropriate a term) albums again and again. And now it ends with them buried under the cloud of their most recent guitarist being arrested and charged with possession of child pornography. Yes, the story of Manowar is flaming garbage at every turn, matched only by their music's descent into unlistenable noise.

I thought that had culminated with their last album, which was one of the worst sounding records I have ever come across. Joey DeMaio's bass cut through the mix like a rusty chainsaw, turning the already weak songs into a buzzing assault on the ears that any novice would be ashamed to have put out into the world, let alone a thirty year veteran who owns his own studio. If that record was indicative of their facilities, it should have gone out of business.

That brings us to this new EP, which is a complete insult to the fans who have allowed Manowar to be a thing all these years. Let's dispel any notion of this being good, because it isn't. On every level, this is a release the band should have been ashamed to put out.

We'll start with the elephant in the room. The press release trumpeting this EP, the first of three that will make up a full record, has precisely zero mentions of who is playing guitar for the band. Considering the legal jeopardy of their most recent player, one would think Manowar would be eager to make sure people know they aren't supporting child exploitation by buying or streaming this new music. But that's not where Manowar went, because these songs lead me to believe that bassist Joey DeMaio likely played guitar himself on these tracks.... and he is not a guitar player. Not only does the tone sound like a beginner's first practice amp, but the 'riffs' are so remarkably simple anyone who has played guitar for more than a few weeks would be able to master them.

The other big flaw is the closing "You Shall Die Before I Die", the title of which sounds to me like the band trying out medieval playground insults. That song drags on for six minutes, featuring Joey DeMaio's raspy spoken word vocals, as he tries to sound epic, but actually just sounds like a guy with a sore throat calling into the next room for someone to bring him a lozenge. It isn't musical, it isn't interesting, and it's a waste of time on what is already a short EP. Not to mention that the first track is two minutes of scene-setting, so what we really get here are just two 'real' songs, both of which are slow, plodding numbers that don't have any power or majesty.

I'm left shaking my head. I don't understand why this EP exists. There are only two real songs, neither one of them is good, and they put both of the most boring parts of a concept album (the intro and the narrative) on here. Maybe they would be ok if they were buried amid eight more decent tracks, but this is what they've chosen to put out to generate excitement for the next two. Is this a case of them needing the money from the sales of this to finish the other EPs? Or maybe it's an experiment to see how little effort they have to put into their music to get their fans to still buy it?

Whatever the case, Manowar is now the Black Knight from the Monty Python movie. They have been hacked to pieces by their own deeds, yet they insist they are still strong and powerful, and will continue to rock the world. Like hell they will. Manowar can't even rock the local Bass Pro Shops. Trust me, I know.

"The Final Battle" had better be just that, because I don't know if I've ever heard a better argument in favor of forced retirement.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Album Review: Pharlee - Pharlee

Whether you want to use the word occult, psychedelic, mystical, or anything else, there has been an absolute tsunami of bands coming forward with ethereal women trying to captivate us like the devil in the blues. Many have been successful. Lucifer made a compelling record last year, I loved the album The Black Marbles made just before splitting up, and the most successful of them all was the debut Blues Pills record. So let's just say I'm amenable to what Pharlee is aiming to achieve with this record.

And as I just talked about ethereal women, this record opens with a song called.... "Ethereal Woman". The riff is fuzzy, intricate, and backed by stabs of Hammond organ. Even if it's an easy way to sound like a throwback, I never get tired of hearing organ in my rock. And a throwback Pharlee is, as this record sounds every bit the time capsule from the mid 70s. The haze covering the analog recording is like the layer of dust getting caught in the grooves of a record that has sat unplayed for decades. As soon as you put it on, you know this isn't a modern record.

The band spotlights 'blues-rock banshee' Macarena Rivera's voice, but not at the expense of the ensemble. She is given her time to shine, but in the midst of songs that highlight the band's playing. They move up and down the fret-boards while she waits for her moment to unleash. She fits the mold, but doesn't have the raw power of an Elin Larsson, or the detached charisma of Johanna Sardanis. Of course, part of that could be do to the production, where we don't get a really clear performance captured on tape. I think there is more to her than we're able to hear.

That would do a world of good, because the band hasn't yet found their songwriting legs. They have the sound nailed down, but the songs themselves aren't particularly engaging. The band tears through their riffs so fast they don't have much groove or melody to them, and that doesn't give Macarena a lot to play off. She wails in the right moments, but to rise above the noise, the nuance and movement of melody get lost in the shout.

With only five original songs here, and none of them standing out, it's hard to talk about the potential Pharlee does or doesn't have. They can play, and they can recreate the production of the past, but those are the least important parts of making great music. Everything comes down to writing great songs (or picking great ones to play), and Pharlee doesn't show here that they will be able to do that. This record is much like the time period it's inspired by; clearly not the future.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Singles Roundup: Dream State, The Nearly Deads, Baronness, Neal Morse, & Scott Stapp

As we get ready to start another month, the release schedule is still filling in, so let's take a look at a few singles to get us going.

Dream State - Hand In Hand

The "Recovery" EP was a very good release that I have grown quite fond of, but this new single raises the bar even higher, is their best song yet, and is perhaps my favorite song so far this year. It amazes me how they are able to bring in aspects of hardcore, yet have the music remain upbeat and catchy. This song is one that crowds at live shows will be shouting along with, no doubt. I particularly love how when the song pulls back for a moment, CJ's soft vocals, and then the shout afterwards, make her Welsh accent readily apparent. It sounds passionate, and real. If this is any indication, their upcoming debut full-length is going to be one to watch out for.

The Nearly Deads - Halfway To Nowhere

The band's last single, "Freakshow", was perhaps their best song yet, so how do they follow that up? Very well, it seems. These recent songs inject more groove to the guitars, sounding a bit grittier, and maybe more rock because of it. TJ's vocals and hook are the key, with some sunny-day charm and an effervescence I find alluring. Like "Freakshow", The Nearly Deads are really hitting their stride here. I can only hope these songs are leading to a larger release. I would love to have more material like this.

Baroness - Borderlines

"Purple" was the first Baroness album I enjoyed, as they stripped away a lot of the sludge for a sound that was more epic, and more melodic. This new single is a continuation of that sound, for good and bad. The good is that it sets an atmosphere early, and builds a solid and strong composition around it. The bad is, like "Purple", anytime the band is playing with volume, the production is so clipped and distorted the track is ruined. I haven't listened to "Purple" since putting it on my year-end list, and I'm afraid this record is about to suffer the same fate.

Neal Morse - Get Behind Me Satan

Coming this summer, Neal adds to his collection of them with a double-concept rock opera about.... Jesus. I'm not knocking the guy for writing about his faith. I've liked plenty of his music focused on that, so that's not the issue here. The problem is that this single happens to be one of his worst songs. Neal, whether he's doing prog or pop, always writes some of the catchiest damn melodies you'll ever hear. That's what's missing from this song, which is such a generic middle-aged rocker that there's practically nothing to it. The entire piece is supposed to be diverse, and it had better be, because this first taste is not a promising start for a concept that will be hard for many to swallow anyway.

Scott Stapp - Purpose For Pain

What the hell is going on here? This year, I've already quite enjoyed an Avril Lavigne album, and now Scott Stapp has put out a lead single that's also pretty darn good. The guy got a lot of grief, and for good reason. Creed became intolerable, and Stapp joined Art Of Anarchy after the only reason to enjoy their first record had passed away. So it's with great surprise I found myself saying this new single is the best thing he's done in who knows how long. I don't know why he worked with on his upcoming record, but if it all sounds like this, we might have to get used to a world in which Scott Stapp isn't always a joke.