Friday, May 31, 2019

Album Review: Majestica - Above The Sky

This is a bit of an odd case. Majestica is a 'new' band that is a continuation of Reinxeed. These are the same guys playing the same type of music, but after being busy with other projects, they regrouped under a different name. I can't say I understand why you would put yourself back at the starting block for a new album, rather than use the name and stature you had already built, but the business of music is none of my business. I'm here to talk about the music on the record, not the name on it.

It's been quite a while since I reviewed a record that was so purely, traditionally power metal. Majestica is paying tribute to everything about the renaissance of power metal, which just so happened to be when I was getting into the genre. Contrary to what you might think, that does not give the album an edge in my mind. Nostalgia has only made that time feel even more formulaic than it did back then. Hearing some of the same tropes for the hundredth time isn't necessary.

The opening title track throws them all in. There are the faint notes of a harpsichord in the instrumental section, to go along with some symphonic backing, and Tommy Johansson delivers a vocal that goes from almost baritone to the rather painful sounding highest ends of his range. There are bits I'm glad to hear, like a guitar solo that plays an actual melody rather than shredding arpeggios, but at this point I don't know if you can write a traditional power metal song that doesn't feel stale. And those high vocals. Oh god, are they an unnecessary blight on what would have otherwise been a pretty good song, as well as a couple more along the way.

Why did power metal ever decide super high vocals were a good thing, anyway? Yes, it set the genre apart from more traditional heavy metal, but it gave it a reputation for being too light and fluffy for any 'serious' metal fan to enjoy. It's a bit of cartoonishness that wasn't necessary, sort of an inverse to the growling that defined death metal as 'cookie monster' music for so long. What's worse is that Tommy has a good voice when he stays in his natural range. His voice is a bit deeper, and if you remember a band called Keldian who made a big impact with their first (and only good) record, he sounds quite a bit like that.

Now we get down to the crux of the matter. This album is one that plays right into the blueprint of traditional power metal. Since the aim is to recreate that period of time once again, I can't fault them for sounding like a dozen other bands from the early 2000s, themselves included. If you want to hear more of that kind of music, Majestica is very good at it. Since they were a part of the scene, they know what to do. Myself, I don't particularly want to hear a resurrection of that resurrection of power metal. When you're trying to bring back an old sound, it's going to sound old, and that's what I get out of this record.

People who are still into power metal will disagree with me, and that's fine. Majestica is doing their nostalgia well, so good on you if that's what you're into. I'm not, at least right now, so my praise will be more tempered.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Singles Roundup: Doll Skin, Pinkfly, Corpse Flower, & The 69 Eyes

We're still a few weeks away from the beginning of the summer release schedule, so things are a bit quiet coming off the holiday weekend. Before we start drowning in big releases, let's talk about a few new songs that need to be addressed, for good and bad.

Doll Skin - Empty House

The first single from their upcoming record showed Doll Skin stepping up their game significantly. Their second single shows that wasn't a fluke. Like "Mark My Words", this song is led by a propulsive chorus that lets the energy of the song pour through the speakers. It's not easy to have attitude and still write sticky songs, but Doll Skin is doing just that. This song moves their upcoming record up to the top of the list of anticipated June releases.

Pinkfly - Happy

It wasn't too long ago I discovered Fit For Rivals, specifically the "Steady Damage" album, which I have grown quite fond of. The timing was precipitous, as the voice of that band is getting her new project off the ground. This is the first song from the new, all female, LGBTQ positive group. Renee Phoenix still has that lovely, rough in all the right ways voice, which embodies the attitude in the song. It's almost mechanical, as the song hammers the hook again and again. It's a solid first statement, and it will be interesting to hear what other paths the group decides to go down.

Corpse Flower - On Top Of The World

The latest project featuring Mike Patton, this is a song that quite pissed me off. It's a more direct and immediate form of art rock, which has melodies that would make it an easy winner.... until the lyrics take us tumbling to the bottom of the barrel. He sings "if I was on top of the world, I'd take a shit on the earth". That line is so childish and immature it ruins every good aspect of the song. Patton's mean-spirited crudeness might be intended for shock, but only in the sense that I never thought he was that stupid. Screw this.

The 69 Eyes - 27 & Done

I'm not sure how it happens that every genre established a blueprint, and then it seems liek countless identical voices pop up. When it comes to gothic rock, The 69 Eyes have the trademark sound, which is on full display here. This song is well-written, with a solid melodic foundation, but there's one glaring flaw. The morose feeling of gothic rock is so subdued that there is absolutely no energy here at all. I know that's mostly the point, but the snap and sparkle it could have are dulled, which renders everything flat. They tied themselves to a leash, and then started running. Obviously, they're not going to get far.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Album Review: Diviner - Realms Of Time

Either I have fallen out of 'the know', or the first half of 2019 has been terrible for power metal. Other than Avantasia, which at this point isn't really power metal, I can't think of a single power metal album that has made any sort of noise this year. I've been feeling the genre's stagnation for several years now, but the tide is so far from the shore right now that it's hard to remember when the waters were drowning us. That resurrection of the genre has since passed, and now we're faced with two types of power metal, each becoming insular and self-referential to the point where nearly none of the albums are able to feel special.

Diviner is in the heavy power metal camp. They use the heavier, more modern take on the sound, which is the one that theoretically should feel less played-out at this point. That sound, however, has shinier gems to live up to. Considering the albums Orden Ogan and Nocturnal Rites have put out lately, heavy power metal is where the competition is.

Opener "Against The Grain" storms out of the gates with a riff that is more old-school thrash than power metal, which sets an aggressive tone. It's plenty heavy, and the vocals that bear a slight similarity to Hansi Kursh are interesting, but the song lacks any sort of hook whatsoever. Power metal, even of this kind, is still all about the big choruses, and the first statement this album makes is a weak effort.

Things get better as we move along. "Heaven Falls" is just as heavy, but with a much stronger melody, even if the backing vocals should have been on the chorus rather than the pre-chorus. I think I know why they went that route, but it winds up making the main thrust of the song sound smaller than what came before it. That's not how you properly build drama. The climax of the plot can't come in the first act, and the chorus of the song is what needs to be the high point. It's 'Songwriting 101', and it's surprising how often bands don't understand it.

Diviner proves a point I've argued for a long time; writing songs is easy, but writing great songs is hard. From a musical standpoint, the band is giving us some solid heavy metal. It isn't nearly as hard to crank an amp, play a few riffs, and call it a song. What is difficult is crafting melodies, whether vocal or guitar, that are memorable. Diviner doesn't give us many of those over the course of these ten songs. They will scratch the itch if you want to hear something heavy, but not if you want to hear great songs.

All you have to do is look to Nocturnal Rites' "Phoenix" to see my point. That album, like this one, was modern and heavy power metal, but it was bursting with huge choruses and sing-along hooks. You could listen to that album once and start singing the choruses by the end of each song. This album, however, you could listen to several times without being able to pick each song out from the others. "The Earth, The Moon, The Sun" stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest of them, and is quite good, but the remainder of the album blends together into a wash of decency.

Diviner has a good sound, but so do a lot of bands. They need better songs, because this record is only ok.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Singles Roundup: Slipknot, Volbeat, Blink 182, & Pattern Seeking Animals

There aren't many interesting albums to talk about this week, so let's look at some singles instead. We have a few bit names to tackle, and some conclusions to draw about records that are going to dominate the summer.

Slipknot - Unsainted

This is an improvement over the lackluster "All Out Life", but it still succumbs to the issues I've always had with Slipknot. Corey Taylor has pushed enough Stone Sour into their sound that the chorus is a solid, melodic effort, but it sits in a song that doesn't want that sort of hook. The rest of the track is their usual groovy aggression, which gets a bit boring even on a four minute track. They try to combine the anger and ferocity of their ugly days with something more mainstream, and I don't think it works as a whole. Two tracks have shown me all I need to know to avoid the full-length.

Volbeat - Leviathan

There's no denying Volbeat has been getting poppier. Their previous album was one I loved, but split fans by being their most overly mainstream record yet. This first taste of their upcoming record is in the same style, and unapologetically so. There's also the creeping sense of deja vu that comes through the verses, where it's so predictably Volbeat that it sounds like it could be four other of their tracks. The song is good, and it points in the direction I want to hear, but I'm worried Volbeat is starting to repeat themselves.

Blink 182 - Blame It On My Youth

What year is this again? Blink 182 and Backstreet Boys both have new music on the airwaves, and it's hard to tell which one of them is heavier. This is such a departure it's truly shocking. Gone is virtually any semblance that they are a rock band, instead replaced by modern pop that doesn't give the fans anything they want to hear. The first album without Tom Delonge was a mixed bag, but it sounded like Blink. This is worse than that, and doesn't even have the saving grace of satisfying an old itch. What a weird, confusing song.

Pattern Seeking Animals - No Burden Left To Carry

Speaking of confusing, there's this one. This band is made up of a bunch of current and former Spock's Beard members, plus the guy who's written a lot of the recent Spock's material, but it's not Spock's. They talk about this being something different, but it sounds pretty much exactly like the last couple of Spock's records, but with even less melodic edge to it. "Brief Nocturnes & Dreamless Sleep" was phenomenal, and features most of this lineup. This is staid, boring prog that created a new band where one wasn't needed. Last year's Spock's album was disappointing enough. I didn't need even more of it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Album Review: SOTO - Origami

With the records that have been released in the last couple of years, I have found that my enjoyment of Jeff Scott Soto is inversely related to the input he has in the writing of the songs. His most recent solo album was not very good, where he was driving the ship. Sons Of Apollo's record was pretty good, where he had help from a mediocre songwriter in Derek Sherinian. But the W.E.T. album, where he had great songwriters alongside him, was phenomenal. So that makes this new outing from his metallic solo band something I'm not sure how to approach. With his name branded on it, and I assume his hand guiding the process, the fear is that he is entirely one of those singers with a voice I like and writing abilities I don't.

We kick things off with "HyperMania", which is an interesting song featuring a truly awful title. There's a riff that sounds like an eight-string guitar, super deep and a bit flabby (a feature of the guitar - the sonic range of the instrument shouldn't be that low), which is melded with more of an alternative rock/AOR chorus. It's an unexpected combination, but it's one that works.

To that respect, "Origama" plays out as a spiritual twin to Sons Of Apollo, which was also a low-tuned yet accessible slightly prog metal record. The difference is which side of the ledger gets more of the focus. Sons Of Apollo tried to have it both ways, which I felt was the biggest flaw of the band's hastily put together debut. SOTO doesn't have that problem. This album is focused on being accessible first, with the musicianship a nice addition to the songwriting, and not the other way around. That makes this a much easier listen, but it does also put the focus back on Soto himself, and whether he is able to give himself the hooks and melodies to make these songs shine.

The answer to that is both yes and no. "Origami" is worlds better than his last solo album, and not just because this is heavier. This material does give Soto a better platform to sing on, and he does a fine job of making these songs more accessible than the instrumentals might suggest. He doesn't match up with the muscular hooks W.E.T. generated, but that would be a tall order for anyone. What he has done, though, is provide a blueprint for the next time I expect to hear from him.

This album is what Sons Of Apollo should have been, and might have been, if they hadn't put the entire album together in less than a fortnight. Had they taken more time, and learned what they were and weren't good at, this is where we would have ended up. Like that band, what makes "Origami" work is when it is determined to be deeply heavy, musically prodigious, accessible rock/metal. The album is players who are too good to tame themselves to play four minute poppy rock, who are playing it anyway. That, I find appealing.

I don't know if there are any songs that stand out from the pack, but tracks like "Detonate" and "Torn" are exactly what I would have said I wanted before I ever heard the record. Maybe it was a good thing I went into this with low expectations, because the pleasant surprise I got song after song was more impressive by how far it cleared the bar with each leap.

Ultimately, SOTO has put out a record that works not only on its own, but also in context. The various projects Jeff Scott Soto has been involved in recently come together on this album, and that makes for a far more interesting experience than if he had stayed in any one corner. "Origami" folds all sides of his music into this one record, and it makes for a very good one.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Album Review: Destrage - "The Chosen One"

As soon as one attaches the appellation “experimental metal band” to a particular act, it causes a variety of facial reactions in the audience, most of which fall into a pair of categories: confusion or, perhaps more common, revulsion.

That rarest of all metal acts is the one that can proudly profess themselves as experimental and at the same time not alienate the core audience.  Destrage has managed to do this for four studio albums, and thus we are presented with their fifth effort “The Chosen One,” which promises more of same, even with the early press releases talking about adding more energy into the proceedings.

The resulting album provides an experience that is much different than “A Means to No End,” the band’s prior release and high-water mark.  Destrage has clearly taken pains to craft something different from that stellar record, rather than try to recreate it (or, by extension, “Are You Kidding Me? No,” from two album cycles ago,) and some of the value of the record will depend on what the listener to trying to find in Destrage.

The off-kilter beats and wild, winding guitar licks that so commonly issue forth from tandem Matteo Di Giola and Ralph Salati are still here, and their idiomatic juxtaposition of the artistically articulate and the boilerplate rhythm continues to work magic.  “About That,” the album’s best moment, is comprised almost solely of this very thing, and there are none who ply this trade better than this band.  The music staggers the mind with its flurry of passionate and parabolic riffs, but always stays rooted in the simplicity of a strummed chord.

What has always made Destrage’s particular blend work, and the vehicle that continues to propel them, is what can only be called a rubber band effect.  This act probes the edges and stretches conventional metal to its limit (within reason – there’s no self-important atmospheric wandering here, or dabbling with ‘post-metal,’ whatever the hell that’s supposed to be,) but always, always returns the listener to a massive, dramatic and accessible chorus that is ripe for chanting and singalongs.  We hear this throughout the duration of “The Chosen One,” notably for “Hey, Stranger!” and similar to the platitudes we levied above, none do this better than Destrage.

We’ve made it clear – there’s a lot to like on “The Chosen One,” and there’s a plethora of lessons that other bands could learn from here.  It needs to be clear before we go on that this is a very good record and worthy of all the accolades it will receive.


One of Destrage’s most innovate and laudable talents over the course of their previous works is the ability to go out of bounds for the sake of achieving the sound they want.  In a metal genre overloaded with steroidal simpletons who lack creativity, no band showed us more conjectural musical possibilities than did Destrage.  Whether is was the serene but mournful chanting of “A Promise, A Debt,” the arena rock hooks of “The Flight,” the borderline trip-hop of “Blah Blah” or in particular, the mariachi cornucopia of “Are You Kidding Me? No,” there was always present the great influence of another genre.  “The Chosen One,” in short, lacks this same unbridled creativity.  If the band’s objective was to inject their proceedings with more straight-ahead vitriol, then they’ve accomplished that wholly, but at the cost of that which made them truly ‘experimental.’  Thus, as we said at the beginning, some of the value here will be reflective of why the listener journeyed here in the first place.

With all that said, “The Chosen One” is still a worthy addition to the catalogue, and marks the third time in six years that the band has released an album ranging between ‘great’ and ‘superior.’  Certainly, that puts them in the running for Best Active Metal Band On Earth, whenever the question comes up in conversation.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Album Review: Crazy Lixx - Forever Wild

Crazy Lixx has been trying to keep the sound of 80s excess alive, although why a bunch of guys who didn't live through that time chose that style for their band is something I'm not sure I understand. The same thing is true elsewhere, such as how Greta Van Fleet both look and sound like hippies pulled from a second-rate Woodstock. We know there's an act being portrayed, which does put a bit of a fog over the results of the records. If they aren't being honest, and we know they aren't being honest, how is the music supposed to endure? Sure, Motley Crue and those such bands were largely garbage (as musicians and as people), but they weren't being something they weren't.

They have mastered the sound of the late 80s, for sure. The guitar tone has that reverb-tinged overdrive, and the gang choruses are straight off MTV. The only difference between what Crazy Lixx are doing here and what Def Leppard was doing in the 80s is that you can't make the "what has nine arms and sucks?" joke about them. They're playing a crunchy style of hard rock eschews any of the soft, melty cheese that large percentages of today's scene is coated in. Crazy Lixx are definitely a rock band first, which definitely helps them.

If I can draw a comparison, this record isn't totally dissimilar to Hardcore Superstar's breakthrough "Dreamin' In A Casket". They both borrow from the sleazy days of rock, though one with far more snotty attitude than the other. What I'm getting at is how, after Hardcore Superstar utterly collapsed, it proved just how hard it is to consistently deliver this kind of music. Heck, even one of the model bands, Guns N Roses, managed only one good album.

Sure, Crazy Lixx is going a bit too close for comfort on "Eagle", but it's a great song. In fact, even though it sounds so much like them, this Def Leppard hater likes it more than any of their songs. ("Pour Some Sugar On Me" is one of the worst rock songs ever - sorry, just saying it.) In another sense, Crazy Lixx is the counterweight to Steel Panther, as they both sound remarkably alike, and both have tongue-in-cheek, but only one of them makes music worth giving a damn about. Hint, it's not Steel Panther.

This is another record where you have to buy into the throwback sound. If you still dig the sound of the 80s, then Crazy Lixx has delivered a pretty darn good representation of what that time was all about. I wish they pulled back slightly on the overt nostalgia, but then again I don't think I'm the target audience. Even so, I like what they're doing. If party rock is ever going to come back, Crazy Lixx might be the band to do it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Album Review: Vanishing Signs - Vanishing Signs

Greatness is something we used to spill copious amounts of ink, and now spend countless hours contorting our fingers on keyboards, trying to explain. The fact is language isn't strong enough to fully convey something as complex as greatness, or an emotion. Great music makes us feel something, and those feelings are beyond the capabilities of words. No poet can turn a phrase that can accurately reflect what love feels like, or the tingle that runs down your skin when you hear something truly special. We try, I try, but sometimes we have to understand the limitations we are working with, and instead turn our attention to what our voices can actually accomplish.

I feel that way about Dilana, the voice powering Vanishing Signs, who enter the fray with one thing no other band has; that voice. It's such a simple statement, but the message it carries is monumental.

Featuring former Gotthard organist Neil Otupacca, Vanishing Signs is classic heavy rock with swelling organs filling out the beefy mix. Sadly, so many bands we hear today are fixated on recreating synth tones from the 80s, when records like this make clear the Hammond organ is still the reigning king of rock and roll keyboards. It mixes so well with the saturated guitars that we get a wash of rock that slowly wears us down, much like the waves on the shoreline. The mix of rocking guitars, humming organs, and Dilana's voice is something we heard briefly on her song "Falling Apart", as it was originally recorded, and is glorious to hear again.

I particularly love the piano-driven drama of "No Regrets", which is an emotional crescendo featuring a guest vocal from Maggy Luyten, which amuses me, as the comment I made when she sang on Nightmare's "Dead Sun" album was that she sounded like Dilana singing metal. Now here we are with the two sharing a song. It's tremendous, from the passionate vocals, to the searing melody, to the guitar solo that releases all the tension exactly the right way.

The music Vanishing Signs gives us is muscular rock, the kind that hooks you with its power, not a sugary veneer. The melodies are strong without ever touching on pop, but it's the weight the band puts into these songs that wins you over. Everything is played all-out, but rather than sounding like they're trying too hard, it sounds like the love of rock and roll coming through the speakers. It's a very 'live' atmosphere, embodied in Dilana wishing us a good night at the end of "The Right Time", and it works to make the record sound authentic.

If we're going to talk positives, we also have to talk negatives, and there's one glaring negative I wouldn't ignore, regardless of the particular affection I might have. Two songs on the record don't feature Dilana, which I have to say is a mistake, both because she is a unique selling point to differentiate Vanishing Signs from every other rock band, but also because it dilutes a band's identity to not have a singular voice. The songs without her, "Heavy Hammond" and "Rolling On" are certainly still good, but it's harder to know exactly who the band are when the most identifiable and relatable part of their sound isn't consistent.

But looking at the bigger picture, here's what I will say; Vanishing Signs has delivered a great old-school album that is modern classic rock. They have the sound, the songs, and the voice to compete in the world of throwback rock. All they need is for you to give them a chance.

Album Review: First Signal - Line Of Fire

Though they have a lengthy history, Harem Scarem's latest album, "United", was the first time I encountered them, and singer Harry Hess. That record quickly shot to the top of the year, and wound up coming in at #2 when lists were tallied up. That was a shock, both because I had no prior experience to draw from, and because when I went back and explored some of their back catalog, none of it held a candle to that record. Something magical happened putting that one together, and even though I loved it, and heard Harry Hess as a phenomenal melodic rock singer, the prospect of a new First Signal album wasn't exciting me. That's because this project finds Harry singing the songs of the melodic rock factory, which means it bares more of the shape of the cookie-cutter we hear so often.

"Born To Be A Rebel" kicks things off in full 80s fashion, sounding a lot like a lost Bon Jovi song. Harry's voice has the same qualities as Jon's, and the riff through the verses has a similar vibe to "Livin' On A Prayer". The main hook of the song isn't that strong, but it sets the stage for what the rest of the album is going to deliver; 80s melodic hard rock that sounds very 80s.

I'm just young enough to not remember the 80s until they were already over, so the continued nostalgia for reverb and awful synths continues to baffle me. It sounded hokey to me when I heard those songs played as the old hits on the radio, and it doesn't sound any better to me now. Music production has come so far there are many ways to make melodic rock that doesn't sound dated and cheesy, and yet we're subjected to album after album that recall days when bands were judged for as much hairspray they used as anything. Why?

Getting back to the music, the songs picked for this album are stronger than I expected they would be. The usual suspects write so many that there aren't enough to go around for how many albums get released. Whether through bribery or luck, more than I thought made their way to this record. Uniformally, these tracks deliver solid music, nice melodies, and the opportunity for Harry to provide some great vocals.

No, nothing here is as good as that Harem Scarem album, but that's not what I'm comparing it to. Taken on its own, "Line Of Fire" is a great throwback to the sound of the 80s. I find some of the choices to be a bit too backwards looking, but that's also the point. "Never Look Back" is supposed to sound like a ballad that could have been on "Slippery When Wet", and it absolutely succeeds at that. In fact, as far as 80s rock albums go, "Line Of Fire" would certainly outrank anything Poison, or most of the hair metal crew ever did.

Basically, my judgment comes down to this; if you love 80s melodic hard rock, First Signal is an easy win for you. They do the style incredibly well, albeit differently than The Night Flight Orchestra does. This is pretty close to the best Bon Jovi record since Bon Jovi stopped being interesting. However, if you don't have as much patience for the sounds of the past, this might be a bit harder to swallow. The songs are good, the performances are great, it's just harder for me to connect music that's nostalgic for a time I never experienced the way Harry and his generation did. Don't let that dissuade you if you're not me. "Line Of Fire" is plenty of fun.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Album Review: Arch/Matheos - Winter Ethereal

John Arch is a polarizing figure, for sure. That's rather funny, considering that he's known for being the original voice of Fates Warning, but the band didn't take off until he was gone. So he's remembered for being the singer on albums that weren't popular, and for having a voice that can fairly be compared to a cat getting caught in a car engine. I remember listening to "Sympathetic Resonance", where he re-teamed with Jim Matheos for a full-length for the first time in decades, wondering the whole time how in the world anyone liked the guy. I've gotten in several arguments on forums over the years on that subject, as his voice is truly one of the most uncomfortable sounds I've ever heard come out of the human body. And yet there are people who say he's one of the greatest singers in metal history.

Yeah, not a chance. Before I get to discussing this album in particular, let me explain why I believe John Arch is a terrible singer. I'm not talking about the tone of his voice, which will be personal preference. I'm talking about an objective take on why he is awful.

The role of a singer is to use the melody to deliver the lyric. If you are a singer (we'll leave screaming/growling out of this, but it still applies), your job is to sing the song so the audience can hear it, and can connect to it. If you are so mealy-mouthed, or lazy, in your deliver that the listener can't understand the words you are singing, you have outright failed. This isn't like on "South Park", where Kenny's dialogue is intentionally obscured as part of the joke. John Arch is indecipherable far too often. About half of the lyrics he pens go unheard under his caterwauling. His own (presumably) hard work utterly wasted because of his performance.

Now we can talk about this record. "Vermilion Moons" opens with a lot of promise. There are some interesting guitar chords, and Arch delivers a roller-coaster melody that has real bounce to it. The song then gets bogged down, however, with several sectional tone shifts, including a bridge where Arch is completely incomprehensible. There are some good ideas, for sure, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

"Wanderlust" is the best song I've heard out of this project. It has energy, and an uplifting sense about the music. The downside is that Arch writes very long melodies filled with words, so the song is so crammed with his vocals it feels much longer than its six minute running time. That feeling extends throughout the record, as Arch's voice begins to wear thinner and thinner with each song, so my patience is all but exhausted by the time we hit the thirteen minute closer.

The main takeaway is this; Jim Matheos has put together an album that is, musically, more interesting than the recent Fates Warning albums. This isn't as downbeat as that band has largely become, and the extra energy we get at times buoys things incredibly well. From that perspective, this is an intriguing album. However, we have to deal with the main man John Arch, and his polarizing voice. I'm not going to sugar-coat things; he ruins what could have been a very good album. I simply cannot listen to him sing these songs without putting my hands together in a silent prayer that he is going to get better on the next song. But that never happens.

If you like John Arch, "Winter Ethereal" is a better album than "Sympathetic Resonance" was. If you don't like John Arch, you're in the majority, and this album isn't going to do anything to win you over. Like marmite, you have to have grown up with John Arch to think he's good.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Album Review: Whitesnake - Flesh & Blood

I don't know why, but I've been hearing Whitensake everywhere. The band has somehow gotten their songs into a host of recent commercials, which is something I'm not sure I understand, since the people advertizers target would have barely been born when the classic '87 self-titled album came out. The people these companies want to buy their products wouldn't know who Whitesnake are, so why are their songs being used to brainwash them into buying stuff? It baffles me. I like "Here I Go Again" just fine, but even I consider myself too young to really know or care about Whitesnake. Let's face it, they haven't been relevant to anything in decades.

There's also that little issue of David Coverdale's voice, which has not aged as well as his hair. Coverdale has been sounding worse and worse in recent years, so listening to a record where he is obviously being propped up is not exactly an 'event'.

This time out, Doug Aldritch has been replaced by Joel Hoekstra as the second guitarist. If you could have named the guys in the band besides Coverdale before I just said that, you're definitely a music nerd. The players don't matter much, as Whitesnake continues on being Whitesnake, with Coverdale firmly driving the ship. What we're going to get is an album of slightly bluesy hard rock that is mostly centered around Coverdale chasing after women. Not a lot changes in their camp.

Notable is that Coverdale seems to have finally realized his vocal limitations, as the majority of his vocals on the record are rather tame and subdued. He rarely tries to put any force behind his voice, which is a smart call, but it also draws attention to the reality. If the band is trying to sound big and rocking, and the vocalist doesn't match, the reason why becomes rather obvious. Coverdale's voice is thinner, more shrill than ever before. He doesn't have the range, power, or clarity he once did. He sounds old.

The songs don't bail him out very often. Coverdale still writes songs as if he is a young man, light on melodies and centered more on his vocal charisma. That worked when he was singing in Deep Purple, but not anymore. "Hey You (You Make Me Rock)" is not just incredibly cliche, it has one of thsoe practically worthless choruses where the band chants each word with a solid pause between them. It wants to be an anthem, but it sounds like trying to get a kindergarten class to recite the alphabet back to the teacher.

Hoekstra, along with mainstay Reb Beach, are supposed to be a duo of phenomenal guitar players. They may have talented hands, but they write limp and boring songs for Coverdale. There aren't any riffs here that go beyond the basics of blues-rock, or that you would hang your hat on as examples of your great playing. I thought the band's last outing being a re-recording of Deep Purple classics would have given them a clearer example of the standard they need to hold for themselves, but that didn't happen.

It's not that "Flesh & Blood" is bad. Believe me, there has been a rash of truly awful records this year, and Whitesnake is nowhere close to making that list. That said, this record also isn't that good. It's perfectly acceptable music for people who want to hear Whitesnake being Whitesnake. The 50+ crowd will be happy to play this once in a while, and if Coverdale plays a song or two in concert, it'll fit in fine. But if you're in that demographic being inundated with classic Whitesnake as a sales tool, you might be inclined to check out the band's new album, and you're not going to like this much at all. Whitesnake sounds dated, but not in the good way. They are stuck in 1987, but they're too old to stay there.

This is an album for die-hard Whitesnake fans, and no one else.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Singles Roundup - Kim Jennett, Taylor Swift, Doll Skin, and Neal Morse

Once again, it's time to examine a few new singles, and think about what they might hold for our musical futures. We've got a real grab-bag of stuff this time, so let's get to it.

Kim Jennett - Unbroken

With an album coming sometime this year, hopefully, her third single continues to showcase Kim's potential as a future rock powerhouse of a vocalist. "Love Like Suicide" was her coming out party, and this ballad is the statement that puts all the focus on her voice. And what a voice it is. Kim has the power and tone to compete with Ann Wilson at her very best, and the song is a lovely ode that gives her just enough melody to put that voice to good use. I'm very much looking forward to getting the full-length experience, because Kim is a real talent.

Taylor Swift & Brenden Urie - Me!

The first thought that popped into my head when I heard this was, "how is the guy from Panic! At The Disco a big enough name to duet with Taylor Swift"? Several listens later, that's still bothering me. If this song is signaling the next phase of Taylor's career, it will certainly be interesting. "Reputation" was a black latex mask, whereas this song is like standing in front of the display of Easter Peeps. It's bright, vibrant, and basically a Disney song without the plot devices. I fear an entire album of this kind of song would be a sugar bomb, and make me feel a bit sick.

Doll Skin - Mark My Words

These ladies do something interesting with this song, taking a hooky hard rock song and infusing it with a dose of 'riot girl' attitude. If Sleater-Kinney had more hard rock influences, they would probably sound like this song. It bristles with energy, wonderfully builds the guitar parts up before breaking them down, and centers on a pounding chorus that becomes as permanent as the ink the lyrics talk about. This is their best song yet, and a promising indication that the album could be a highlight.

Neal Morse - There's a Highway

Coming next month is Neal's double-disc rock opera about the life of Jesus. That was always going to be tough to swallow, even for this fan, and the two songs thus far released aren't making it any easier. Like the first track, this is a simple number that is among the most bland Neal has ever recorded. The melodies are weak, and the subject matter isn't going to rescue it for me. I've heard enough samples of the record to be left wondering how a passion project such as this, inspired by the biggest force in Neal's life, could wind up sounding so small and tired.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Album Review: Amon Amarth - Berserker

I say this about several bands, but Amon Amarth is firmly in the Motorhead stage of their career. They are big enough now to sustain their success with the audience they already have, so the deliver what the people want, which is album after album of their majestic take on death metal. Most people have settled on one or two of those records as their best, but they are in a groove where every record is cut from the same cloth, so there is little chance of being disappointed if you're already on board as a fan. And considering that Amon Amarth is perhaps the most accessible death metal band currently operating, they are a useful gateway for people to dip their toes into extreme waters, even if there are some of the more 'true' fans who dislike the polish on their sound.

The band's appeal has always been centered on two facets; the hints of arena metal their music contains, and Johan Hegg's intelligible vocals. Even in a genre obsessed with brutality, being able to hear the lyrics and make that connection is huge. There's no reason death metal can't be understood, or have melody, and Amon Amarth are believers in my take on the genre.

What doesn't work as well is the sheer scope of the album. With twelve tracks that clock in at nearly an hour, this is a lot of hammering death metal to take in all at once. At least for me it is. Even though Amon Amarth is melodic for death metal, that isn't a high bar to clear. They are among the best songwriters in death metal, and Hegg's bellow is impressive, but I have to say the monotony of growling gets old long before the album reaches its conclusion. The delivery doesn't leave enough room for nuance. When Hegg is already roaring through the first verse and chorus of "Crack The Sky", which is great, it doesn't leave him anywhere to go when the song is supposedly building to its climax.

There's also the issue of "Shield Wall", which barely feels like a song, considering how often the single line of the refrain is repeated. I don't quite understand why a songwriter would recite the same line four or more times as the hook to a song. It was trite when Iron Maiden started doing it all the time, and it's no better now. All it does is make me think the songwriter doesn't have enough to say to fill out the song, which only leads the question of why the song is about that topic if they have so little to say.

The band says "Berserker" is their most grand and epic statement yet, but I'm not hearing it. It's long, for sure, but it doesn't sound any different than "Jomsviking" did, and if anything, this album has less shout-along songs for the live stage than before. Whether it's just the sheer length of the record, or that they are doing the same thing as always, I'm not finding this album to be as memorable as some of their previous work. It's pure Amon Amarth, but is that enough? For people who like death metal more than I do, yeah, I'm sure it is. But as someone who only dabbles in the genre once in a great while, there isn't as much here for me.

Basically, Amon Amarth has delivered a record for Amon Amarth fans. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'm not saying they're wrong to do so. I'm merely saying it leaves me on the outside.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Album Review: Jasmine Cain - Seven

Things sometimes happen for the most inexplicable of reasons. A few years ago, as I was doing my daily browsing of new music, I was struck by the cover of one album. Without knowing anything other than the face I was looking at, I went and checked out the music behind those eyes. As it turned out, Jasmine Cain's "White Noise" was exactly the album I had been looking for. Since then, it has become one of the records I replay the most. That record was the perfect blend of "Since U Been Gone" and Halestorm's first record, with a sultry and powerful voice capable of making you stand up and say, "damn". Jasmine is also an incredibly cool, uplifting personality who I can't help but want to root for. So when she announced a new album, I was exceedingly eager to give it voice on this site.

What's different with this album is a bigger dose of rock and roll attitude. Jasmine has gotten heavier with these new songs, bringing some new influences into the mix. That includes the throaty almost growl that powers the opening "Burnout", as well as the grinding riff and rhythm underpinning "Do It For You". This album is far more about capturing the energy of a live show than before, where everything tends to get played a bit louder and heavier, once the adrenaline starts flowing.

"Be Brave" is the album's centerpiece, and rightfully served as the first single. Jasmine and her band fuse 80s guitar tones with 90s atmospheres, while her voice towers over everything. A lot of rock singers need flash or gimmicks, but not Jasmine. Give her any song, and her voice is big enough to fill it. There's something about her tone, which is able to be soft yet aggressive, with the exact amount of breathiness I love, that's magical.

I invoked early Halestorm in my introduction, which is rather fitting, because "Seven" has taken similar steps to what "Vicious" did. This is a more aggressive record, as well as one that tones down the more pop sense of melody for a rhythmic hookiness instead. The guitar and bass riffs are as central to the hook as Jasmine's vocals, which is a new twist for her music. What it means is that "Seven" is a record for a different mood than "White Noise" was. Whereas that record was (in my mind) a sunny summer day album, this one is much more a night at the bar album.

I've loved the song "Ghost" since Jasmine uploaded a video of her playing the song acoustically, and the new arrangement with the full band is just as good. The melody and her voice capture a beautiful sense of melancholy, making a poignant statement that sounds aching. It pulls back the curtain just enough to show a vulnerability the record needed to balance out the confidence and attitude the heavier tracks put forward. It serves to remind us that there's as much power in looking inward as in projecting outward.

"Seven" caught me a bit by surprise. I wasn't quite expecting this kind of record, though I could easily say being given something other than what you thought you were getting is often how the best things happen. "White Noise" was one side of Jasmine, and "Seven" is another. I appreciate being able to receive a more well-rounded image of who Jasmine is, both as an artist and a person. So while it might take an extra few spins to move into this new chapter of Jasmine's music, they are well worth the time. Jasmine has a knack for this.