Monday, 11 December 2017

Threshold - London Review

Threshold are one of my favourite British metal bands. Their concise and melodic take on progressive metal has gained them fans around the world and are a more palatable option for many when it comes to the genre. Given their highly melodic and accessible nature it is perhaps surprising that they are not more popular than they are, but the band seem to the comfortable with their relatively modest stature. The band have been around for nearly 30 years now, having formed in 1988, so it unsurprising that the band have settled into the groove of fairly frequent short European tours with festival dates often thrown in during the summer season for good measure. Earlier this year Threshold released their eleventh studio album Legends of the Shires, a double concept album which saw the band return to their more overtly 'progressive' sound after a few albums of a more straight ahead sound. This album saw the return of singing Glynn Morgan to the band after over a twenty year absence, and his smooth vocal performance is a big part of what makes Legends of the Shires so strong. This latest European trek, the first with Morgan since the touring cycle to promote 1994's Psychedelicatessen, took Legends of the Shires around some of the band's key fanbases and culminated with a home-country show at the O2 Academy in London's upmarket Islington. The Islington Academy is a popular spot for metal bands, so it is a place that I have visited regularly over the years. In fact I saw Threshold there last year, which saw the band perform the whole of their previous album For the Journey, but the Threshold of today is different to the one of January 2016. As mentioned previously, Morgan has replaced outgoing frontman Damian Wilson and Threshold have now slimmed down to a five-piece with the departure of second guitarist Pete Morten. While Morgan now contributes some extra guitar work live, on the whole Threshold are now a one guitar band - something which has it's pros and cons. With snow affecting large parts of the UK, I was worried that the turnout for the show might be quite poor. Luckily this was not the case however and the Islington Academy was pretty full throughout the night, especially by the time Threshold took to the stage at 9pm.

Before Threshold's set however the crowd were treated to two support acts. First up were Day Six from the Netherlands who impressed with half an hour or so of energetic progressive metal. Mixing powerful tech metal riffing with spacey vocal sections made for a dynamic sound, and one that was not too derivative of any of the big names in the genre. Robbie Van Stiphout (vocals/guitar) was the band's focal point, and he owned the stage with his energetic guitar playing, often throwing over-the-top shapes and pulling faces. For a progressive act, there was little in the way of soloing, with the riffs forming the basis of the songs. Any lead work came from keyboardist Rutger Vlek, who's retro-sounding synths helped to cut through the tough guitars. While Day Six's songs were not overly melodic, I enjoyed the band's slightly off-beat sound. I liked the fact that the band had an original take on the progressive metal genre, and they seem like the sort of band I should explore further.

Up next were symphonic metal rising stars Damnation Angels, who also supported Threshold on their last European tour. This time however they were upgraded to the 'main' support act, and as a result had a little longer on stage. The previous tour saw the band give an extended trial to frontman Ignacio Rodriguez, who passed with flying colours and has since become an official member of Damnation Angels. As a result, despite how good they were last time, this time around the band felt complete and they really owned the stage during their five-song set. The band came out to a symphonic backing, and opened with Finding Requiem from their most recent album The Valiant Fire. While still a four-piece, without a full-time keyboard player, which meant that most of the orchestral elements were part of a backing track, Rodriguez now handles some live keyboard work - usually piano parts - which adds to the show. This was evident early on during Bringer of Light, which saw him behind his keyboard for part of the song before coming out to the front to sing the epic chorus. The band seemed to treat the show as if it was their own show, and the energy coming from the stage was palpable. Founding member Will Graney (guitar/vocals) was particularly animated throughout, often posing for cameras and singing nearly all of the lyrics while peeling off his tough riffs and fluid solos. There were plenty of Damnation Angels fans in attendance, which was evident during the chorus for This is Who We Are which saw the crowd joining in at times. Despite all of their song impressing, it was the lengthy ending number The Longest Day of My Life that stood out the most. Rodriguez really owned the song with an piercing vocal display, and the lush orchestrations really filled the venue. It got me thinking how I wish that the band put on their own tour in the near future, as I would love to see a full-length set from the band. The setlist was:

Finding Requiem
Bringer of Light
This is Who We Are
The Longest Day of My Life

The lights in the venue went down again at 9pm, and Threshold took to the stage after a short intro and hit the ground running straight away with a powerful version of Slipstream, one of the band's most well-known songs. With the other four members of the band now being Threshold veterans, all eyes were on 'new' singer Morgan who proceeded to own the song. His smooth voice has more in common with the late Mac's than it does with Wilson's, so his performance of Slipstream was pretty close to the original album version. Morgan certainly had the most to prove out of everyone on stage and, for the most part, he acquitted himself very well. While there were a few moments during the evening where I thought he was struggling a little bit, which was probably the result of being near the end of his first tour in many years, overall he sounded great and really gave his all to the performance. Six songs from the impressive new album were featured throughout the evening, with the lengthy The Man Who Saw Through Time coming next to showcase the band's more progressive sound. Richard West (keyboards/vocals) dominates the song with his delicate piano melodies and cinematic soundscapes, but in truth it is a real band effort which showcases the current Threshold line-up at their best. A couple of older numbers followed; with the jaunty Long Way Home and the murky Innocent, a composition of Morgan's from his first stint with the band, providing plenty of light and shade early on. Innocent was the only song in the set which saw Morgan playing guitar for the entirety of the piece, which gave it a full sound. As mentioned earlier, having founding member Karl Groom (guitar/vocals) handling the vast majority of the songs alone on his guitar has it's pros and cons. On the plus side, the vocals and Steve Anderson's bass playing really have a lot of room to breathe. Anderson is a busy player, and it was great to be able to hear what he was doing more clearly. On the other hand however, there were times in the set that lacked crunch. Having two guitars really bulks up the band's sound and the moments when Morgan picked up his guitar too really proved this. It would be great to see him taking on more guitar responsibilities going forward, as Threshold's sound really is built for two guitars and he is clearly a more than proficient guitarist. Songs like Stars and Satellites actually benefited from the less-cluttered arrangement however, as it allowed the keyboards to really shine through and the vocal harmonies from the band during the chorus really filled the room. After delving back into the band's past once again for the heavy Sunseeker, the remainder of the set was mostly focused on the band's more recent work. The serene The Shire - Part 2 and the progressive metal of Snowblind contrasted with each other well, and showcased the variation of material found on Legends of the Shires. The latter in particular was one of the best songs of the night, with some excellent drumming from long-time sticksman Johanne James. Two of the band's setlist staples brought the main portion of the set to a close, with the lengthy pseudo-ballad Pilot in the Sky of Dreams and the driving, political Mission Profile both bringing big reactions from the crowd, who called for more after the band had left the stage. The was time for a couple more, and the band opted to play two more new songs as an encore which shows how much faith they have in their new material. Another lengthy number in Lost in Translation came first, which had some excellent slide guitar work from Groom towards the end in a Pink Floyd-inspired section, with the hard-hitting new single Small Dark Lines finishing everything off in style. The setlist was:

The Man Who Saw Through Time
Long Way Home
Stars and Satellites
The Shire - Part 2
Pilot in the Sky of Dreams
Mission Profile
Lost in Translation
Small Dark Lines

Overall this was another great showing from Threshold. It was my third time seeing the band and it was great to hear so many songs in the set which I had not heard them do previously. I am looking forward to hearing more from this line-up of the band, and I hope for another tour in the not-so-distant future.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Dark Element's 'The Dark Element' - Album Review

After being unceremoniously dumped mid-tour by the Finnish symphonic metal giants Nightwish in 2012, Anette Olzon's musical life has been fairly quiet. Despite releasing her debut solo album Shine in 2014, an album which came and went without any real fanfare or publicity, it seemed that Olzon had largely retired from the music industry to lead more of a 'normal' life. It seems however that she could not stay away from music for too long, as last year it was announced that she had teamed up with guitarist and songwriter Jani Liimatainen (Sonata Arctica; Altaria; Cain's Offering) to record a new album of melodic metal songs for the Italian label Frontiers Records. While Olzon is the face and voice of this new project, which was revealed earlier this year to be called The Dark Element, it is Liimatainen that is the real brains here. Liimatainen has been a fixture in the melodic metal world for quite some time now, and is renowned as an excellent guitarist and songwriter. He was a key part of Sonata Arctica's early success and the band has never truly been the same after his departure in 2007. Since then he has found success on his own terms with his Cain's Offering albums, and his songwriting contributions can also be heard on the most recent couple of Stratovarius albums where he has struck up a great writing partnership with Timo Kotipelto. Liimatainen has written the entirety of The Dark Element's new self-titled debut album, which was released last month, and those familiar with his previous work will certainly recognise his writing style here instantly. He also handles all of the album's guitar, along with most of the keyboards and some backing vocals. Joining Olzon and Liimatainen in this new venture are bassist Jonas Kuhlberg (Paul Di'Anno; Cain's Offering; One Desire) and drummer Jani Hurula (Cain's Offering; Silent Voices). With three of the people who were responsible for Cain's Offering's well-received 2015 offering Stormcrow, it is unsurprising that the songs contained within The Dark Element are of the symphonic power metal variety. While Liimatainen is used to writing for male voices, his style is perfect for Olzon. Also unsurprising is the Nightwish influences that can be found here. Olzon proved to be a diverse vocalist during her time with that band, and that has certainly been brought forward to this album. There are some songs here which share similarities with her former band, especially with the shorter, poppier songs that she was a part of. The Dark Element is not a particularly grand or progressive album, with most of the songs being fairly short, but each is packed full of great melodies - both from the vocals and from Liimatainen's instruments - that are sure to get lodged in many a brain. In a year which has not been blessed with a wealth of great new power metal albums, this is one that goes some way in addressing that balance.

The album's title track starts things off in style with some dark synths before exploding with a mid-paced grinding riff that sets the mood for the entire song. While portions of the verses are fairly laid back, with minimal guitar work and prominent synths, the majority of the song is heavier with Hurula's booming drumming really driving everything along. Despite this constant groove, the song is still highly melodic, with a stand out chorus that makes the most of Olzon's anthemic vocal melodies and the call-to-arms style that she brought to Nightwish. Liimatainen demonstrates why he is one of the best guitarists in power metal too with a guitar solo that starts off slow and atmospheric, before accelerating towards a shredded conclusion. Lead single My Sweet Mystery is very close to the type of music Nightwish put out while Olzon fronted them, and comparisons can be drawn between this song and the Nightwish single Amaranth. The mix of heavy, orchestral-driven guitar riffing and poppy vocal melodies is present here, and there are plenty of sparkly keyboard motifs that crop up throughout to really give the song that symphonic edge. Olzon's voice floats through the lighthearted verses, and she commands the chorus in her distinct style as the guitars crunch away beneath her. Fans of Nightwish's Dark Passion Play album will find a lot to like with this song, and it was a wise choice for the first single. After two fairly immediate rockers, Last Good Day takes a slightly more atmospheric approach which shows the album's depth and shows off a gentler side of Olzon's voice. This is no ballad however, as the song still contains a sold chorus with plenty of power metal bombast, but much of the song focuses on orchestrations and synths, with the guitars mixed more into the background. Apart from Olzon's gorgeous vocals, it is Kuhlberg's bass that actually stands out the most during the verses. Often bassists are barely audible in symphonic metal bands, so it is great to see the instrumental play a prominent role here with a snaking melody that pins everything together. Here's to You is a more upbeat number, with a jaunty keyboard melody that drives the song's intro along before everything is stripped back for a sparser verse. This contrasts well with the explosive chorus, which sounds more like Delain than Nightwish, with a strutting vocal display and walls of electronics to make everything sparkle. Someone You Used to Know is a slower song, and opens out with some delicate piano melodies which are joined by Olzon's vocals and some simple strings. While Olzon is a great out-and-out rock singer, I have always felt that it is on the ballads that she truly excels. That thought is as good as proved during the song's chorus, which makes the most of her crystal clear delivery and ability to inject plenty of emotion into the lyrics. Dead to Me is another song that really channels the Dark Passion Play-era Nightwish DNA with a dramatic orchestral arrangement and a snaking guitar riff. As with many of the songs here, the verses are somewhat sparser but the rest of the song really rocks with plenty of powerful drumming and little guitar fills. While Liimatainen is a great guitarist, he does not often hammer that point home here with the guitars often forming part of the rhythm section and the keyboards/orchestrations providing the main melodic focus. This is a song that makes more of the riffs however, and it is great to hear his tricky little fills throughout.

Halo is one of my favourite songs here, and it really grabs hold from the opening moments with a massive synth riff drives everything and brings to mind the Swedish band Amaranthe at times, but with more weight. The best part about this song however is the chorus which, although extremely simple, is a real stadium-worthy piece. The vast majority of the songs on this album were made with melody in mind, and they seem begging to be played live. The Dark Element do have a few shows booked for next year and, while it is not yet clear whether this will become a full-time band for all involved, this song is sure to become a real focal point of the live set with the dance-able grooves hooky chorus. I Cannot Raise the Dead, despite the title, is more of a low-key number with plenty of floaty melodies and atmospheric synths. While not exactly the ballad, this is certainly not a heavy song and there are even touches of AOR here - think 1980s Heart - to pushes the melodies to the fore. Despite this, there is an excellent guitar solo from Liimatainen that brings the metal showmanship back to the song. While the song is mostly spacier, the solo is a real shred-fest that still fits in with everything else despite being quite different. The Ghost and the Reaper once again mine Olzon's Nightwish past with lots of playful keyboard melodies and an upbeat feel driven by Liimatainen's chugging guitar riffs. This is also one of the few songs on the album which does not let up on the energy front throughout. Unlike most of the other cuts here, the verses are quite guitar-heavy which gives the song a heavier feel despite the plentiful soaring melodies. This is why the song is another one of my real favourites here, and shows that Olzon can really do the heavier songs justice, something which she often faced criticism for during her time with Nightwish. Heaven of Your Heart is another piano-led ballad. Unsurprisingly, Olzon really sounds fantastic here, with her slightly poppy voice having the necessary sweetness required to carry the melodies. For much of the song, Olzon is solely accompanied by the piano which really exposes her vocal performance, and she more than stands up to the scrutiny. Strings are added throughout the song at certain points to add depth, but mostly this is a simple song that acts as a good contrast to the bombast that dominates this album and provides a little light amongst all the shade. After that little respite, the album's final number Only One Who Knows Me comes along to add one last bit of rock to proceedings. While not a particularly heavy piece, the mid-paced number possess a strong cinematic chorus that definitely feels like it knows it's closing out the album. The whole song has that feeling actually, with wider soundscapes throughout the piece with plenty of excellent keyboards and an emotional guitar solo that plays as the song fades out and the album comes to an end. Overall, The Dark Element is a strong start for this new collaboration between Olzon and Liimatainen. While it does rely heavily on the previous work of them both, playing to their strengths has helped to forge a very memorable album packed with melodic metal anthems. If this project is to become a more permanent arrangement it would be good to see the duo trying some new things, but for a debut album this hits hard and is one of the most enjoyable symphonic/power metal albums released this year.

The album was released on 10th November 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for My Sweet Mystery.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Vandenberg's Moonkings' 'MK II' - Album Review

Despite never really becoming a household name, Dutch songwriter and guitarist Adrian Vandenberg has enjoyed a successful career over the past few decades. He debuted with his first band Teaser in the late 1970s, but it was with the band Vandenberg that he first really found fame. As the band's lead guitarist, songwriter, and namesake, Vandenberg was always the focal point. Vandenberg released three albums between 1982 and 1985 which were popular worldwide despite the band never really fulfilling their potential. The power ballad Burning Heart (which is not the same song that Survivor would release a few years later) even charted in a few countries, and remains a minor classic of the hard rock and metal genres. 1987 saw a big turning point in Vandenberg's life however, when he was invited by David Coverdale to join the new-look Whitesnake line-up that he was assembling to tour the new 1987, which would go on to become a smash hit and a real era-defining classic. While the album was largely finished by the time Vandenberg came on board, he did arrive in time to record the guitar solo on the iconic re-recording of Here I Go Again, which has arguably become Whitesnake's signature song. Whitesnake would become Vandenberg's home for the best part of the next ten years which saw him collaborate with Coverdale on two studio albums: 1989's Slip of the Tongue and 1997's Restless Heart. These albums could not be further away from each other - with the screaming, leather-wearing hair metal of the former being a stark contrast with the more reflective blues of the latter - but this only shows Vandenberg's versatility as a songwriter. Despite not contributing to the recording of Slip of the Tongue due to a hand injury, he co-wrote the entire album (with the exception of the old classic Fool for Your Loving which was re-recorded for the album) which should immediately showcase the man's talents. In amongst this, he assembled the short-lived project called Manic Eden which released a self-titled album of bluesy rock tracks in 1994. When Whitesnake split up, seemingly for good, in 1997 Vandenberg seemed to retire from the music industry. Despite making the odd guest appearance with the current incarnation of Whitesnake over the past ten or so years, nothing new was really heard from Vandenberg until 2013 when he announced that he was forming a new band called Vandenberg's Moonkings. Their self-titled debut album was released the next year, and showcased the heavy blues rock sound that characterises much of Vandenberg's work. Joined by singer Jan Hoving, bassist Sem Christoffel, and drummer Mart Nijen Es, Vandenberg showed the world that he could still rock and write memorable songs. Fast forward three years and Vandenberg's Moonkings are still going strong. Their second album, titled MK II, was released last month to strong reviews and contains another collection of powerful blues rock anthems featuring lots of excellent guitar work from the flying Dutchman.

After opening with an album AC/DC-esque guitar assault, the album's first song Tightrope explodes into with strong, mid-paced bluesy riff that drives the verses as Hoving shows from the outset that he is a good singer. While there are times when it sounds like he is trying a bit too hard to sound like Coverdale, he still impresses throughout with a decent amount of power. This is not a flashy song, but one that really establishes the band's sound early on. The chorus is a memorable moment, with some higher vocals from Hoving and some real classic rock melodies. Vandenberg's short, but bluesy, guitar solo shows his skills too and shows that he has lost none of his chops over the years. Reputation is a faster song and is built around a riff that sees both Vandenberg and Christoffel really looking in well together for a tight and heavy sound. This riff really helps to keep the energy levels in the song at a high level which helps to give the album a real shot of adrenaline. This is a song that is more about the riffs and the energy than the vocals, and is capped off by a shredding solo from Vandenberg that matches the song's kinetic feel. Angel in Black is another mid-paced stomping rock track, and one that really seems to take a lot from the early Whitesnake songbook. It opens slowly, with moody clean guitar melodies before transitioning into full-blown rock mode with a strutting chorus characterised by an excellent vocal. From then on, the song is mostly a hard rocking one driven by Es' hollow drumming. While the band's rhythm section largely only play the basic rhythms here, the big sound on both the drums and the bass really helps this album to sound as good as it does. This is not a complicated or cluttered album, and Es' big drum sound really helps to carry the album. The Fire is the only lengthy song here, with a running time of just over seven minutes. Keyboards are not a big part of this album's sound, but they are used here to help create a bit of an atmosphere early on as Hoving croons the opening few lyrics atop another clean guitar melody. You would be forgiven for assuming that this song was going to be a ballad, but it does not take too long to open out again into another mid-paced rocker with similarities in sound to Led Zeppelin with a juddering main riff and high vocals. That being said, given the song's length it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a certainly amount of light and shade here. The more relaxed intro does resurface later on during the song's length, which is a great contrast to Vandenberg's fiery guitar solo that happens just before it. Walk Away opens with some bluesy acoustic guitar playing which, although the song does open out somewhat as it moves along, comes to dominate. This is definitely the album's first ballad, and showcases a slightly gentler side of Hoving's voice that demonstrates his ability to carry a fair amount of emotion in his delivery. Vandenberg's emotional guitar solo fits perfectly into the song, and the stakes are raised towards the end with a subtle but effective string arrangement that helps to add serious depth. After a couple of more 'involved' songs, All or Nothing strips the album back to the bare bones with a bluesy riff that sounds like something Free might have come up with in the early 1970s and some true classic rock strut. While this is not a song that really makes much of an impact, it helps to remind the listener of the band's core principles after deviating from these somewhat in the previous couple of songs.

What Doesn't Kill You is, in my opinion, one of the album's best moments. The slightly jangly opening sounds different from what you would expect from the band, but the song's power cannot be denied. The chorus is a real winner, with a dominate string arrangement that stabs through the rock instrumentation as Hoving's voice sings the lyrics. The mix of more acoustically-dominated sections, and grand almost-pomp rock sections makes the song stand out and shows the diversity of Vandenberg's songwriting. This is another song that contains plenty of light and shade, which is something that is important for creating a varied and dynamic album. Ready for the Taking opens with a dirty blues feel with a swampy riff and downbeat vocals. This murky intro does not last long however as the song soon opens up into another mid-paced rocker, although there is still a swampy feel throughout with some slightly grungy guitar work. Hoving clearly does not get the memo for this however, as his vocals still soar as they do elsewhere on the album. It would have been interesting to see him approach the song with a more downbeat style, much like his vocals during the intro, as this would have fit in well with the rest of the band and would have created something a bit different. After a slightly spacey keyboard-heavy intro, New Day kicks the album's energy levels into the higher gear again with some staccato guitar riffing and punchy drumming. Despite this higher energy, the song actually has quite a poppy feel. The chorus feels like a bit of a party anthem, and the cleaner guitar tones throughout set the song apart from the heavier blues that dominates the album. This all works well however, and helps to bring some fun back to the album after the murkier preceding number. Hard Way has a bit of an AC/DC vibe throughout with a riff that sounds like something the Young brothers might have come up with, but Hoving's strong vocal performance keeps it from sounding like a clone of that band. The chorus especially sees him shine, as he unleashes song pretty impressive high notes which fit well with Vandenberg's ringing guitar chords. The combination of the raw guitar playing and Hoving's excellent vocals make this song really stand out, and it is another of the album's highlights for me. The guitar solo here is memorable too, as it is more schizophrenic than Vandenberg's usual cleaner style, which helps add another dimension to the song. Love Runs Out is a cover of the hit song by the American pop group OneRepublic. This is a strange song for a band like Vandenberg's Moonkings to cover, but it still works well when forced into the band's blues rock formula. It is clear when listening to the song that the band were having a lot of fun when arranging and recording their version of it, and it helps to bring a bit of a party vibe to the album's end. If You Can't Handle the Heat is the album's closing number however, and is another solid slab of blues rock that seems to deliberately showcase the band's main sounds to round out the album in style after the slightly off the wall cover. There is another strong Led Zeppelin feel here too with some Jimmy Page-esque guitar playing which really helps to end the album on a high. Overall, MK II is a solid follow up to a solid debut album. While there is nothing on this album that we have not heard before, there is still plenty to enjoy and the quality of the songwriting remains high. It is always good to hear something new from Vandenberg, and it seems this band is now in it for the long run.

The album was released on 3rd November 2017 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Tightrope.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Temperance Movement - Plymouth Review

Blues rock revivalists The Temperance Movement have been making a name for themselves since forming back in 2011. With influences ranging from classic bands like The Rolling Stones and The Black Crowes, as well as more contemporary acts like The White Stripes, the band's high energy brand of blues rock is easy to enjoy and their reputation as a live band is where they have really made their fans. I first came into contact with the band at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2013, a month before the release of their self-titled debut album. Despite getting and enjoying the Pride EP in preparation for their festival appearance, it was their show to a packed out Main Stage marquee on that day that really convinced me that this was a band that was going to go places. The release of their album was successful for the band, and their star has been on the gradual rise ever since helped by plentiful touring. Despite a few opportunities to see the band in the UK since that appearance at the CRF, the band's tours have never matched up with my availability. They always seem to come around at busy times when lots of other bands are touring and I already have a lot in the diary. This changed this year however when the band announced an extensive UK tour of smaller venues than they would typically play to allow them to road test some new material for their upcoming third album. A show at the underused Hub in Plymouth was announced, so tickets were bought for this immediately. Sadly however, when the day finally came around, the band were forced to cancel due to an illness affecting frontman Phil Campbell. This was, of course, very disappointing but it only took the band and venue a couple of days to announce a replacement date. This was yesterday, just short of two weeks after the original date, which meant that there was not long to wait. The original date was sold out, but some tickets were returned by those who could not make the rescheduled date. I am assuming then that the second date did not end up selling out, despite some probable take-up on the door, but despite this there was still a large crowd in The Hub throughout the evening.

Support came from the punky two piece Naked Six who played for around 40 minutes and entertained the growing crowd with their fairly abrasive sound. Naked Six's sound was packed full of energy led by Seb Byford's (vocals/guitar) riffs. Many of the band's riffs were typical blues rock-style riffs, but played with plenty of distortion and energy while drummer Tom Witts punished his kit. While the band certainly had plenty of genuine energy, the band's material is very samey. After three or four numbers it became fairly obvious what the next song was going to sound like. That said, I did quite enjoy what the band were doing, as they had a kinetic stage presence and a tough sound, but I feel a little more variation in their material would really help them to stand out.

After a change over,  9:30pm rolled around and The Temperance Movement hit the stage and played right through until the 11pm curfew. With this tour being all about debuting some new material, it was fitting that two new numbers opened up the evening. New single Caught in the Middle and the bluesy The Way it Was and the Way it is Now both went down really well, and showed that the band have come on in leaps and bounds since that show in 2013. A couple of personal changes have happened since then, and it was one of the 'newer' members, Matt White (guitar/vocals), that impressed during these songs with some excellent guitar soloing. Improvisation and soloing has been given greater preference in the intervening years it seems, with both White and fellow guitarist Paul Sayer impressing throughout with their fast, bluesy licks. A few old favourites followed, with Magnify from last year's White Bear album impressing, before a couple of the band's debut album really got the crowd singing and moving. Ain't No Telling was the pick of the bunch with a strong groove, helped by Nick Fyffe's bassline, and containing a strong chorus for everyone to sing. Talking of singing, whatever it was that had been bothering Campbell a couple of weeks previously was now long gone and he often stole the show with his gravelly vocals and his erratic stage presence. He sure likes to dance, and he spent much of the set flailing around and generally looking like he was having a wail of a time. A few more new songs followed, including the excellent Another Spiral which started off fairly slowly before exploding in a huge rock workout including a lengthy and jaw-dropping solo from Sayer. Despite really enjoying the band's previous show in 2013, I had felt that the band were a little stayed and could have done with cutting loose sometimes. This solo from Sayer was exactly what I was hoping from from the band, and shows how powerful they can be when they really get going. This was followed by two more proper rock tracks from the debut album, Only Friend and Take it Back, the latter of which had everyone singing the wordless chorus back at the band. A few quieter numbers were included towards the end, including the lesser-played B-side Time Won't Leave and the title track of the upcoming album A Deeper Cut. Both featured Campbell strumming on an acoustic guitar and singing the more delicate tracks beautifully. The main set came to an end with a powerful version of Get Yourself Free, which left the crowd baying for more thanks to it's high energy. A couple more followed of course. The first was another new one, Backwater Zoo, which saw Campbell sat at a electric piano to lead the band through the jaunty, boogie-orientated piece, before the evening came to a close with the hard and heavy Battle Lines, a song which really sums up the band's sound and ethos. The setlist was:

Caught in the Middle
The Way it Was and the Way it is Now
Ain't No Telling
Higher Than the Sun
Another Spiral
Only Friend
Take it Back

Time Won't Leave
Built-In Forgetter
A Deeper Cut
Get Yourself Free
Backwater Zoo
Battle Lines

Despite having to wait a couple of extra weeks, this show was more than worth the four year wait! The band have come far in that time and, judging by the quality of the new songs on display, A Deeper Cut is going to be one of the albums to watch out for in the early part of 2018.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Cyhra's 'Letters to Myself' - Album Review

As a music fan, I am always on the look out for new bands to get my teeth into. Having consumed so much music over the years, this quest for new things to enjoy can often be harder than it was a few years ago but there still seems to be enough out there to keep me on the hunt. One such band that I have recently stumbled upon is the Swedish group Cyhra who formed earlier this year. I suppose that it is fair to label Cyhra as a 'supergroup' as the members of the band are all well-known names in the metal world. The core of the band is frontman Jake E (Dream Evil; Amaranthe) and guitarist Jesper Strömblad (In Flames; Ceremonial Oath; HammerFall; Dimension Zero; The Resistance) who apparently put this new band together after inviting each other to work on their respective proposed solo projects. Instead of undertaking two separate projects, the two decided to join forces and create a new band that incorporated many of the sounds that the two had become well-known for throughout their careers. E and Strömblad have written all the songs on the band's newly-released debut album Letters to Myself together and the album's sound is a real meeting of minds. Strömblad, being one of the founding members of the seminal melodic death metal act In Flames, is known for crafting heavy but melodic guitar riffs and leads. Those instantly-recognisable sounds are all over Letters to Myself but melded with E's soaring melodic clean vocals and more pop sensibilities. E's work with Amaranthe is also well-known. The pop metal act has grown in popularity over the past few years, partly due to E's strong vocals and melodic songwriting, and there are certainly similarities that can be drawn between Amaranthe and Cyhra when it comes to the melodies. Letters to Myself is a fairly poppy album overall, which is something that is largely different to what Strömblad would usually be a part of, but let us not forget that he co-wrote much of the material on the first three HammerFall albums so he is no stranger to a more melodic sound. His iconic riffs and guitar leads are very prominent here though, so his style has fitting in with E's more poppy approach perfectly. Joining the core pair are bassist Peter Iwers (In Flames) and drummer Alex Landenburg (Annihilator; Axxis; Luca Turilli's Rhapsody) who have formed a tough and heavy rhythm section which is a perfect backing for the more melodic toppings created by E and Strömblad. Interestingly, this is the first album that Strömblad and Iwers have performed on together since In Flames' 2008 album A Sense of Purpose so it great to see this two old comrades working together again. Letters to Myself also featured the guitar skills of Euge Valovirta (Godsplague; Shining), who played most of the album's guitar solos, who has now been added to the band as an official member going forward which will allow the album's twin-guitar leads to be recreated live perfectly.

After an electronic and percussive intro, Karma kicks the album off with one of Strömblad's signature guitar leads. It is fair to say that the metal world has been missing his guitar playing, and this opening riff reminds us exactly why he is held in such high regard. E's voice is certainly poppier than anything he has ever worked with in the past, but the mix works well. E is a modern star in his own right, and it is Amaranthe's loss to lose him, and it is great to hear him handle all of the vocals in this band without having to compete with two other singers. The verses have a strong Amaranthe vibe with electronics and less guitar work, but the choruses are melodic metal gold with some strong vocal harmonies atop that intro riff. The song sums up Cyhra's sound perfectly, and it is a great number to open with. Heartrage is more overtly metal, with a tougher opening and faster, more guitar-heavy verses. Despite Strömblad's influence over the sound, Cyhra probably has more in comparison with Amaranthe than In Flames. Cyhra are certainly heavier than Amaranthe, but the melodies are just as infectious and the synths and electronics are just as prominent. This comparison might put some people off, as Amaranthe are often seen as quite a divisive band, but the melodies here are so memorable that I am sure they will be hard to resist. Here to Save You opens with an acoustic intro, but slightly thrashy riff soon kicks in to drive a strong verse. Most of the songs here have quite basic structures, but contain plenty of light and shade to keep things interesting. This song for example mixes slower and quieter sections in the verses, with heavier sections as things move towards the chorus. As expected too, the chorus is the song's focus with E's soaring vocals really standing out and carrying a fair amount of emotion with them. Muted Life opens with a slightly symphonic feel as Landenburg's staccato drumming drives everything as the keyboards stab away behind him. Most of the synths here are programmed by E and Strömblad, but some of the keyboard parts throughout the album are played by Jonah Weingarten (Pyramaze; Echoterra). The synth work dominates here, with the guitars and bass creating tough rhythms beneath. There are still moments for Strömblad to shine however, with some excellent harmony guitar leads that lead into a fantastic, but short, solo from Valovirta. Closure is a bit of a ballad with a slower intro that sees acoustic guitar chords mixed in with dense piano notes and subtle guitar leads. E's vocals are made for faster, more expressive songs, but he still does really well when it comes to ballads. His voice is instantly likeable and he sounds great when slowing down to sing something with a little more emotional weight. While the choruses here are a little heavier, with a stronger guitar presence, the song remains in the ballad category. Letter to Myself picks the pace up a bit after the slower previous number and returns to the melodic metal sound that characterises the album. The riffs here really sound like something that could have been found on an old In Flames album, but mixed with something overall more melodic. While the vocal melodies here are not as instantly memorable as those which have come previously, the song still impresses with a really smooth sound. E his some impressive high notes here too, something which he is not exactly known for, and that shows off his extensive vocal range.

Dark Clarity, with a title that sounds like it should have been an old In Flames track, opens with a great twin-lead guitar riff before everything drops out for a sparser verse that is based around an off-kilter drum pattern from Landenburg. The music on this album does not exactly provide too many opportunities for Iwers and Landenburg to really shine, as the rhythms and grooves are fairly basic throughout, so it was great to hear something different during this song. The chorus here is really poppy, with lots of synths and electronics sitting above Strömblad's basic, tough guitar rhythms. Holding Your Breath opens out like an Amaranthe song with a collection of synth sounds and a strong groove provided the drums. This vibe dominates the song for the most part, with the verses featuring relatively little guitar work as E's voice dominates. Things change for the chorus however which actually sounds a little like modern Kamelot! The slightly dark vibe that characterises that band's work is present here and it works well in contrast with the synth-heavy verses. E unleashes some more really high vocals here too which helps the song to stand out. Rescue Ride is built around a piano motif which drives the verses. Despite a more upbeat chorus, this song is mostly a fairly low key affair with verses that are content to almost boil under the surface. The chorus however is very close to the Amaranthe songbook with overtly poppy melodies that will definitely appeal to fans of E's previous band. Black Wings opens slowly, but soon builds up as Landenburg takes over with some machine gun drumming that helps the song build towards the chorus. The slightly choppy verses have a slightly emo feel about them, something which is not often found in metal, but it works well. The standout moment of this song however is the chorus. The pace slows a little here and E takes over with a really expressive and powerful vocal performance. I feel that more people will be aware of how good a singer E is after hearing this album, and this performance shows that he is more than capable of leading a band on his own. Inside a Lullaby is another slower song and one that prominently features the piano playing of Weingarten. The keyboards throughout this album are often used in a more atmospheric or rhythmic capacity, but they take the lead here as the classically-inspired melodies roll through the song as E croons atop them. Weingarten's work with Pyramaze has gained him a lot of plaudits recently, and this beautiful performance really reinforces that. It makes this song what it is, and it is a perfect ballad. The album comes to a close with Dead to Me, which features rather awkward spoken word sections that sound more like something that should be on a Five Finger Death Punch album. This is the band's only real misstep on the album in my opinion, as this chest-beating monologue really does not fit well in the song, or with the band's overall sound. Despite that, the song is still strong with a delicate acoustic build up that culminates in another excellent chorus. Cyhra really have a knack for writing memorable catchy choruses, and this could be one of the most interesting of the bunch. If only those awful spoken word sections were not a part of this song, as it would probably be one of the album's best songs otherwise! Overall, Letters to Myself is a really strong debut from Cyhra and a great reintroduction into the metal world for E and Strömblad, who have both been without bands of late. The songs here are instantly memorable and I really look forward to seeing where they go from here.

The album was released on 20th October 2017 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Karma.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

John Coghlan's Quo - Tavistock Review

John Coghlan was one of the founding members of Status Quo, one of the most iconic British rock bands of all time. The drummer joined the band that would become Status Quo in 1963, and sat behind the drum kit for nearly 20 years until he walked out of the band in 1981 after a very successful career. Status Quo in the 1970s were an unstoppable force. Their unique blend of rock 'n' roll, blues, and skiffle music made for a simple, but extremely likeable sound; and their singles were often troubling the upper echelons of the charts. Throughout the 1970s Status Quo released an album a year, and toured heavily to promote them. Status Quo tickets were always hot property, and the band is still regarded as one of the great live experiences that one must try. It is fair to say that Status Quo's glory days are long past however, but the original magic of those early Status Quo shows was on display again throughout 2013 and 2014 when the band's four original members reunited for a couple of tours. These shows were the first time that Coghlan had played with Status Quo since 1981, and the shows were a treat for die-hard Status Quo fans everywhere. This reunion was only ever going to be a temporary arrangement however, and the then-current Status Quo line-up continues on touring afterwards. These tours seemed to reignite Coghlan's love for playing live again after quite a few years of relative inactivity, and for the last few years he has been touring sporadically under the name John Coghlan's Quo, playing many of the early Status Quo favourites to fans all over the country. Joining Coghlan on this venture currently are Rick Abbs (vocals/guitar), Mick Hughes (guitar/vocals), and Rick Chase (vocals/bass guitar). The four-piece line-up are faithful to the original Status Quo sound and the talent of those involved helps to bring those much-loved songs alive once again. When I saw that Coghlan was bringing his band down the West country for show at one of my favourite venues, The Wharf in Tavistock, plans were made to go. I have seen Status Quo three times over the years, but their setlists have become fairly stale of late so I was looking forward to hearing a few different songs played by Coghlan and his band.

There was no support band, so Coghlan and friends took to the stage at 8:30pm and immediately launched into Junior's Wailing, the old Steamhammer track that Status Quo often used to open their shows with, which was sung by Chase. Abbs and Chase traded vocals throughout the night, with Abbs handling the songs originally sung by Francis Rossi and Chase taking Rick Parfitt and Alan Lancaster's leads, and both had powerful voices that were able to do the songs justice. The first half of the show, after which a short break followed, largely focused on deeper cuts from the Status Quo catalogue. Songs that the current Status Quo line-up have not played for years were wheeled out, including a great version of the bluesy In My Chair and the slightly poppy Claudie. It was great to hear these old songs live, and the band really seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage, which was certainly helped by a loud, near-capacity crowd. Coghlan, now 71, was never the world's most explosive drummer, but he always had great rhythm and a booming sound - both of which were on display in Tavistock. Towards the end of the first half a couple more well-known songs were played, with a bouncy version of Break the Rules going down well, before Something 'bout You Baby I Like brought the first half to a close with plenty of singing from the crowd. After a short beer break, the band came back on for another set which largely focused on some of Status Quo's bigger hits. Standards Caroline and Roll Over Lay Down were an excellent start, before Coghlan took us all back to 1968 with a strong version of the band's first hit Pictures of Matchstick Men. During this set Coghlan also came down to the front of the stage to address the crowd, and led a tribute to the late Parfitt. His heartfelt words made me think about all of the rock legends that have been lost over the last few years, and how that generation that started rock as we know today are all slowly dying. After that sobering thought, it was back to the music with an excellent version of Parfitt's Rain, before two upbeat rockers Hold You Back and Big Fat Mama - which was dedicated to the late Malcolm Young - brought the evening to a close. The roar of the large crowd of course brought the band back out for more, and a couple more songs were played. Chase sung a rousing version of Backwater, before Abbs took the microphone one last time for an extended version of one of Status Quo's biggest hits Down Down, which saw plenty of guitar soloing and ended, fittingly, with a drum solo from Coghlan. As the band took their bows, the appreciation of the crowd was easily heard and I doubt this will be the last time that Coghlan visits Tavistock! The setlist was (N.B. all of the songs below, unless otherwise stated, are Status Quo songs):

Junior's Wailing [Steamhammer cover]
Rockers Rollin'
In My Chair
(April) Spring, Summer and Wednesdays
A Year
Break the Rules
Something 'bout You Baby I Like [Richard Supa cover]
Roll Over Lay Down
Pictures of Matchstick Men
Paper Plane
All the Reasons
Hold You Back
Big Fat Mama
Down Down

Overall this was a fun night of boogie rock 'n' roll with one of the original guys that helped to popularise that style of music in the first place. While at times it felt like I was watching a very good Status Quo tribute band, this was a very enjoyable evening and I will definitely see John Coghlan's Quo again if they come back to the South West.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Vuur's 'In This Moment We Are Free - Cities' - Album Review

Anneke Van Giersbergen (The Gathering; The Gentle Storm) is well known in the rock and metal worlds due to her ethereal vocal style. While many women that front metal bands adopt a more operatic approach to their vocals, Van Giersbergen has always trodden a more haunting path. She first rose to prominence as a member of the atmospheric gothic/prog rock band The Gathering, whom she fronted between 1994 and 2007. The Gathering was a great showcase for her alternative vocal stylings, and the band gained quite a cult following during her tenure as frontwoman. Aside from The Gathering, which has dominated much of her career, Van Giersbergen has also lent her voice to many projects throughout the years. She has a great working relationship with the Dutch virtuoso musician and songwriter Arjen Anthony Lucassen and has appeared on many of his Ayreon albums, including 1998's classic Into the Electric Castle, and in 2009 she started working with Devin Townsend, appearing on many of his albums and often performing live with him. Her most recent metal release was two years ago and this saw her once again teaming up with Lucassen. The duo, calling themselves The Gentle Storm, released a concept album called The Diary which featured many guest musicians but really was a showcase for Van Giersbergen's voice. She, without the famously-stage shy Lucassen, took The Diary on tour and it was that that prompted her to begin her new project - simply titled Vuur. While Van Giersbergen has always maintained a prolific solo career alongside all of her various other projects, Vuur - which really is Van Giersbergen's baby - is her first truly metal work that is her own. Most of her metal outings in the past have been part of collaborations or through guest appearances, but Vuur is Van Giersbergen through and through. The reason I say that Vuur was born through the touring cycle for The Diary is because four of the five members of Vuur were a part of the band that took that album on the road. Joining Van Giersbergen on this new venture are guitarist Ferry Duijsens, who has played with Van Giersbergen on her solo outings and has also been a touring member of Leaves' Eyes, bassist Johan Van Stratum (Stream of Passion), and drummer Ed Warby (Gorefest) who has been Lucassen's go-to drummer for many years and has appeared on nearly all of the Dutch musicians releases. Joining these four is guitarist Jord Otto (ReVamp), who is the only member of Vuur not to have any previous association with The Gentle Storm. Vuur's debut album, rather wordily titled In This Moment We Are Free - Cities, is inspired by many of the cities that she has visited while touring the world performing. She co-wrote the album's songs with Joost Van Den Broek, who also produced the album and presumably contributed the sparse keyboard arrangements, but there are other collaborators throughout who each bring something to the table.

The fairly lengthy My Champion - Berlin gets the album underway, and establishes the album's mood and sound right away. Many of the riffs used throughout the album are definitely inspired by the popular djent movement, and this song opens powerfully with some staccato guitar rhythms and punchy drums. While Van Giersbergen's work is usually quite atmospheric, this album is definitely not one to focus on that side of her style. While there are moments of it, the dominant forces throughout are Otto and Duijsens' guitars. Van Giersbergen's vocals are as soaring as always however, and this angelic quality mixes well with the tough metal riffing. The song's chorus really showcases her vocal prowess, with some wonderfully delicate harmonies, which work well above the wall of guitars. There are guitar solos throughout, and this song contains a short one, but mostly this album is all about the riffs. Time - Rotterdam opens up fairly slowly, with a lumbering heavy riff that builds as it moves forward and adds some twin guitar harmonies for great melodic effect. This riff dominates the early part of the song, as it has a fairly long intro, but once the vocals kick in everything is stripped back to basic rhythms with Warby's slow double bass drumming driving everything. Many of the songs here are in the 'mid-paced' category, with very few really fast sections, but this song is slower than most with a real doom vibe at times with Van Stratum's bass really standing out at times for some crushing low notes. A flashy guitar solo does lift the mood a little, but this song's real power comes from the slow riffing. The Martyr and the Saint - Beirut is a more instantly-melodic song than the previous two, with the vocal melodies really standing out throughout. This is not an album full of catchy 'tunes', but this song certainly places melody at the front and centre. Van Giersbergen really shines here, with layers of vocal harmonies to really help bring the best out of all of her talents. The riffing throughout is instantly memorable too, with some punchy little guitar dances that really jump out, and show all four of the band's instrumentalists locked in together perfectly. The Fire - San Francisco definitely emphasises the more atmospheric side of Van Giersbergen's music, although the heavy riffing that characterises the album is still present. The verses here are more stripped back, with simple keyboard textures dominating along with a more restrained guitar attack. Despite this, there are still some heavy moments here and these see Van Giersbergen really going for it vocally, with some of the album's most powerful vocal liens. Freedom - Rio, which is co-written by Mark Holcomb (Periphery), is ironically one of the album's simplest pieces. Being co-written by a member of one of the most influential djent bands, it would make sense for this song to be a tech metal feast. This is not the case however and the song is built around a soaring chorus that is one of the album's most memorable moments. Many parts of the song feature melodic clean guitar passages, something which is not that common here, and that really allows Van Giersbergen to shine vocally with her angelic vocals showcasing why she is often regarded as one of the finest female singers in rock and metal. The heaviness returns with Days Go By - London, which is another song that really typifies the album's overall style. Despite this, there is some impressive lead guitar playing here, especially in the intro which showcases some flashy shredded runs which is something that is not found too commonly here. Elsewhere however, the song is typical of the dense metal arrangements found throughout this album.

Sail Away - Santiago, which is co-written by Esa Holopainen (Amorphis), definitely has a slightly different vibe than many of the other songs here. Comparisons with Holopainen's main band can certainly be drawn here, especially during more melodic intro, and this is a song that really puts the vocal melodies up on a pedestal. This is another instantly-memorable song, with a truly excellent chorus and some slightly folky melodies throughout that are clearly Holopainen's influence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my love for more melodic metal, it is the songs like this one on the album which connect with me more. This is probably my favourite piece here, and I would like to see more of this type of thing from Vuur in the future. Valley of Diamonds - Mexico City is co-written by Daniel Cardoso (Anathema) who Van Giersbergen is no stranger to working with as the two have collaborated previously during her solo career. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this is a song that leaves the heaviness behind somewhat and focuses more on atmospherics. This is not a song to feature too many big riffs, but instead opts for haunting clean guitars and percussive rhythms to allow the vocals room to breathe. The song does get a little more energetic as it moves forward, and a section towards the end sees the pace pick up a fair bit, but the overall mood of this song is a calmer and more reflective. Your Glorious Light Will Shine - Helsinki opens with a gorgeous orchestral arrangement, not something which is commonly found here, before opening out into a heavier song with punchy mid-paced riffing and more obvious energy than is found elsewhere. The verses alternate between stripped-back vocal-led pieces and heavier sections dominated by the guitars. In an album that does not put too much stock in guitar solos, there is an excellent one here that comes as a bit of a surprise with some really fast but tasteful phrases that fit the song's overall more energetic feel. Save Me - Istanbul is another song that is co-written by Holopainen, and again traces of the Amorphis sound can be found here. The intro places more emphasis on the lead guitar, which is always nice to hear, the the folky melodies that were found earlier in the album reappear here. Sadly the big vocal melodies that dominated Holopainen's earlier co-write are not present here, and that does not really help the song to stand out from the crowd. Reunite! - Paris, the album's closing track, starts out slowly and is probably the closest thing to a ballad that this album has. Clean guitars and atmospheric keyboards dominate the opening portion of the song, which sees some of Van Giersbergen's trademark ethereal vocals. Most of her work here is more powerful than her usual delivery, so it is nice to see something more akin to hear earlier work during this last song. The song does become heavier as it moves along, although always at a fairly slow pace which allows the vocals to dominate, as well as a short guitar solo. It is quite a different song than the majority of what is found here, but it works well as a closing number due to it's closing credits-like quality and ethereal trappings. Overall, In This Moment We Are Free - Cities is a strong debut album from Vuur and sees Van Giersbergen finally taking the initiative to start her own metal band. While I would definitely like to see more of the melodic side of the band presented going forward, I feel this is a good start and is sure to impress fans of her voice.

The album was released on 20th October 2017 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional video for My Champion - Berlin.