Monday, 18 June 2018

Stone Free Festival 2018 (Saturday)

After not getting to a single festival last year, by the time this year comes to a close I will have attended three. Steelhouse and Bloodstock are coming up over the next couple of months, but up first was Stone Free - held in London's prestigious O2 Arena. The festival has been running for a handful of years now, but this was the first time I had opted to go - primarily because the legendary German heavy metal act the Scorpions were headlining the Saturday night, ably assisted by the American thrash titans Megadeth. The festival runs over two days, with one of the versions of Yes and Roger Hodgson topping Sunday's bill, but due to financial reasons and work commitments I opted just to buy a day ticket for the Saturday. The central London location means that hotels must also be factored into the equation, which could make the full weekend quite expensive. I decided that Sunday's bill did not warrant the extra expense, feeling confident that what the Saturday had to offer would be more than enough. Despite the event taking place at the O2 Arena, it was only the evening event that actually took place in the main venue. The festival was spread over the entire O2 complex with bands playing in the smaller IndigO2 throughout the day, as well as on an even smaller stage outside the building's doors. The O2's foyer was taken over by a record and CD fair for most of the day too, which helped to provide some downtime between catching the plethora of bands that were playing. The complex is full of restaurants and bars too, meaning that one never had to venture far for anything during the day. I arrived at the O2 not long before the first band started their set, and spent the first hour or so exploring the record fair and catching a bit of Nitroville - the first band on the Orange Amps Stage outside. Trawling through the numerous boxes of vinyl proved rewarding, as I came away with five new LPs and a couple of CDs. Included in my hall was a cheap vinyl copy of Deep Purple's Come Taste the Band and the debut album from NWOBHM also-rans Rock Goddess who impressed earlier in the year when I saw them supporting Saxon in Cardiff. Nitroville's fairly generic hard rock, that had little in the way of meaningful hooks or melodies, did little to distract me from my record hunting - but I had earmarked the next band up on the Orange Amps Stage as ones to check out, so when Nitroville finished I headed outside and took up my spot for...

Bands on the Orange Amps Stage only had half an hour to play with, and the London-based hard rocker KilliT made their time count with a powerful set of riff-heavy material. Mixing the modern rock swagger of bands like Velvet Revolver with a bit of 1990s dirt, the five-piece entertained the decent-sized crowd with a set of original material. Frontman Gaz Twist, who does not look like your average rock frontman with his fairly reserved appearance, led the band through their paces and showcased his powerful voice. He was a little buried in the mix during the early parts of the set, but as things moved on he stood out more and proved to be a very likeable character. Most of the heavy lifting music wise was done by Niro Knox (guitar/vocals) who handled the bulk of the guitar solos. His bluesy shredding style reminded me a little of ex-Whitesnake guitarist Doug Aldrich, and often stole the spotlight from the rest of the band with his solos - although an extended instrumental section prior to the set's final song proved that rhythm guitarist Claire Genoud is no slouch either! While not all of the band's songs were as catchy as they could be, I enjoyed the band's half an hour on stage. I shall endeavour to check out the band's debut album Shut it Down at some point.

By this point lunch was calling, so I headed back into the main complex in search of some food. Sadly all of the food outlets were pretty expensive, but Nando's provided a relatively cheap option. I had only been to the O2 Arena in its current guise once previously, for Nine Inch Nails in 2009, and I had forgotten just how big it was! Inside the dome is almost a small town, with a large amount of chain restaurants and a large cinema. In fact, as part of the Stone Free itinerary, I could have watched Wayne's World if I had waned to, but with so much music on offer it seemed silly to watch a film I had seen many times previously over the years. After my Nando's, it was almost time for the next band I had earmarked as potentially interesting back outside at the Orange Amps Stage, so I headed back outside and stayed there until the stage finished for the day...

Dirty Thrills:
I had heard Dirty Thrill's referred to as a bit of a poor man's Rival Sons, but I went to their 30 minute set open minded and ready to be impressed. While their brand of fairly generic blues rock is nothing original, there was something about the band's performance that really impressed from the off, and I was genuinely disappointed when everything came to an end. Bands like this rarely manage to create a strong energy with their music, but Dirty Thrills came racing out of the blocks, and threw down riff after riff that hit home. Louis James (vocals/harmonica) was a great frontman and vocalist, often throwing in some high-pitched falsetto to great effect, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Jack Fawdry (guitar/vocals). I have never seen a bluesman so animated on stage, and he continually attacked his guitar with vigour throughout the set, all while throwing some pretty impressive shapes. All of this posturing would be for nothing if the songs were not up to scratch but the band, who are part of the Frontiers Records family, delivered on that front too! The riffs, while all of a similar fuzzy style, were powerful and the songs were all built around choruses which were perfect for James' vocal theatrics. The set was mostly made up of the band's original material, although a cover of Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady was thrown in to give the crowd something they knew. The attendance at the Orange Amps Stage was pretty good throughout the day, and the turnout for Dirty Thrills' set was no different. The band seriously impressed, and I will definitely be checking out their album Heavy Living when I get the chance.

Daxx & Roxane:
Up next were Switzerland's Daxx & Roxane, who were not a duo as their name suggests but a raw, old fashioned rock band. Despite the promise of their Facebook bio, the band failed to impress and I found their music to be mostly quite dull. There were quite a few Daxx & Roxane t-shirts in the crowd, suggesting they have themselves a bit of a following, but I will not be adding myself to it. Having to follow Dirty Thrills' explosive set cannot have helped things, but I found the band's material to be unmemorable and extremely generic. None of their riffs really stuck in the mind, and although Cédric Pfister (vocals/bass guitar) had a strong voice I did not find any of the vocal melodies memorable. The band only had half an hour on stage like all the others, but their set was the only one of the four on the Orange Amps Stage that I watched properly that really dragged. I have to say I was pleased when Daxx & Roxane's set ended, although I was certainly in a minority as there were some in the crowd calling for more. It was good that the band managed to elicit a positive reaction from so many, but they did very little for me.

Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics:
The Orange Amps Stage headliners were my first hotly-anticipated band of the day, and a band I had wanted to see since first hearing their debut album when it was released last year. I have been following frontman Aaron Buchanan since he joined one of my favourite new rock bands of all-time, Heaven's Basement, back in 2011 and in fact I saw his first show with the band in Leicester that year. Sadly Heaven's Basement are no more, but Aaron Buchanan came roaring back with his debut solo album last year and assembled a great band to tour it. Despite again having only half an hour, the band made it count with a powerful seven song set, that contained four songs from the album The Man With the Stars on His Knees and three old Heaven's Basement tunes. Left Me for Dead from the new album got the party started, with the slightly grungy feel of the song giving the set a heavy start. The crowd for this set was vocal throughout, and there seemed to be quite a few existing fans alongside me down at the front. Tom McCarthy (guitar/vocals) then hit the main riff for the old Heaven's Basement track Fire, Fire and that kicked the set into the next gear. The song has a simple chorus to get behind, and many of the crowd shouted it back at the band who seemed to feed of the energy. Despite the small stage, the band played like they were headlining an arena. The Devil That Needs You allowed the grungy vibe to surface again, and gave Laurie Buchanan (guitar/vocals) a chance to take the lead and display some excellent guitar work. McCarthy seemed to take most of the solos, but Laurie Buchanan showcased her talents too. Dancin' Down Below was probably the highlight of the set for me. The new track would have fitted in easily with a second Heaven's Basement album had it happened. There is so much energy in the piece, and has a chorus to match that saw Aaron Buchanan displaying that theatrical voice perfectly. Heartbreaking Son of a Bitch saw Aaron Buchanan handstanding atop the crowd, the latest trick in his long-running line of similar things, before the set came to an abrupt close with Morals? from the band's debut album. It is a shame that, as stage headliners, their set could not have been longer - but I shall be seeing the band twice more this year so I shall look forward to those occasions immensely. The setlist was:

Left Me for Dead
Fire, Fire [Heaven's Basement material]
The Devil That Needs You
I Am Electric [Heaven's Basement material]
Dancin' Down Below
Heartbreaking Son of a Bitch [Heaven's Basement material]

Aaron Buchanan's set brought the action on the Orange Amps Stage to a close. With the doors to the main O2 Arena bowl opening shortly, I made the trek around the inside of the dome to the door I was required to enter by. As I walked past the IndigO2, I could hear the heavy rock 'n' roll of Orange Goblin pouring out of the doors. I did not enter the IndiogO2 at any point during the day, choosing instead to focus on the Orange Amps Stage. I would have liked to see Orange Goblin, as I had enjoyed their at Bloodstock a few years ago, but by the time Aaron Buchanan's set finished they were already well into their set. I opted just to head into the arena bowl and get seated for the three main bands still to come. While there were plenty of people in attendance throughout the day, and the arena bowl was pretty full during Megadeth and the Scorpions' sets, it is certainly fair to say that more tickets could have been sold. Many of us up in the higher tiers of the stadium were offered new seats slightly closer, which shows that there were plenty empty seats around. My seats had a better view than my original ones, which was great, and I got to watch the venue slowly fill up throughout the evening. Up first was...

The Los Angeles-based sleaze rockers Buckcherry had the daunting task of opening proceedings, with much of their set mostly performed to an almost-empty hall as the crowd filed in at a snail's pace. I saw Buckcherry a couple of years ago supporting Steel Panther in Cardiff, where I was pretty underwhelmed by their performance, but this time they were much better. The band's dirty, bluesy, sleazy rock is naturally very sloppy, but it works well with Stevie D. (guitar/vocals) and new boy Kevin Roentgen (guitar/vocals) locking together well with loose riffs and and solos. Frontman, and sole original member, Josh Todd is a strange frontman. He often moves around the stage fairly moodily in a style that often clashes with his crass lyrics - but it works well, and his vocals were much better this time around. The band's short set focused mainly on the band's first three albums, with Ridin' and Slamin' making their impact early and managed to elicit a response from the small crowd. Another highlight of the set was the cocaine-influenced Lit Up, which was probably the best number Buckcherry aired. The chorus rang around the the hall, and showed what a powerful band Buckcherry can be despite the fact their star has fallen over the past few years. A couple more tracks followed, but everything came to a close with Crazy Bitch, probably the band's best known song, which definitely received a strong reception from the crowd. Despite a poor turnout for the evening's opening band, Buckcherry still managed to put on a good show, and helped to warm the crowd up for what was to come. The setlist was:

Broken Glass
Lit Up
Say Fuck It [Icona Pop cover]
Crazy Bitch

Megadeth were the evening's special guests, and by the time they hit the stage the arena bowl was pretty full. Megadeth are a big hit and miss live, and during the run up to their set I was wondering if the sloppy version of the band, or the powerful one would turn up. Thankfully it was the latter and the melodic thrash classic Hangar 18 got the set off to a great start, with Dave Mustaine (vocals/guitar) and Kiko Loureiro (guitar/vocals) nailing the snaking opening riff. Mustaine's live vocals can be a bit ropey, but throughout Megadeth's 75 minute set he sounded something close to his snarling best. A good mix of material was played, with newer numbers like the fast The Threat is Real mixing in well with crunchier tracks like In My Darkest Hour. I had seen the band a couple of times previously, and the band included quite a few songs tonight that I had not heard them play live before. The highlight of these was the old classic The Conjuring which has been returned to the band's set after a two-decade absence. The progressive thrash riffing brought a good response from the crowd, and there were even a few circle pits around. Being the heaviest band on the bill certainly had a bit of an effect on the crowd's reactions throughout Megadeth's set however. There were clearly clusters if die-hard fans down at the front, but there were obviously more than a few who were fairly ambivalent to what was going on up on the stage. This clearly annoyed Mustaine at times, but he did not let it affect the band's performance who were totally on point throughout. Highlights for me were the guitar workout Tornado of Souls, which featured a lengthy and stunning solo from birthday boy Loureiro, and Dystopia - the mid-paced title track from the band's most recent album. Classics were wheeled out towards the end of the set with the band going right back to their 1985 debut for Mechanix. This fast number allowed new drummer Dirk Verbeuren to really demonstrate his skills - which in fairness he did all night. Their Belgian has just the right balance of technical precision and raw power to propel Megadeth's material, and he turned in the best drumming performance of the three Megadeth shows I have now seen. Peace Sells, led by David Ellefson's (bass guitar/vocals) stabbing bassline, brought the main set to a close, before the band came back out for a rousing final song - the powerful Holy Wars...The Punishment Due. This song always closes the band's sets, and it brought a large cheer from the crowd as the band closed the song out and took their bows. While Megadeth probably were not everyone's cup of tea on this bill, they turned in a stunning performance and probably turned a few classic rock fans' heads! The setlist was:

Hangar 18
The Threat is Real
Wake Up Dead
In My Darkest Hour
The Conjuring
Sweating Bullets
Take No Prisoners
Tornado of Souls
Symphony of Destruction
Peace Sells
Holy Wars...The Punishment Due

Despite looking forward to many of the band's on the bill, it was the German rockers the Scorpions that persuaded me to buy the ticket in the first place. The band have neglected the UK for quite some time, sadly, and I had been wanting to see them live for many years. Despite the wait, I was not disappointed as the band hit the stage at around 9:15pm and did not stop until the 11pm curfew, save for the short encore break. As expected, the band focused mainly on their 1980s heyday - with many of the songs played being true classics - but there were a few older and newer numbers throw in too. One of the new songs, Going Out with a Bang from 2015's Return to Forever, opened the show with a shuffling power, before Make It Real, complete with Matthias Jabs' (guitar/vocals) soaring guitar leads, that set the evening alight. The classics constantly flowed, and the band's 70 year old frontman Klaus Meine sung them just as well as he did in the 1980s. The man has not aged a bit, and his unique, accented, voice filled the arena and was often joined by the voices of many thousand fans. The crushing mid-paced The Zoo was an early highlight, with Jabs' lengthy talk box solo, and the instrumental Coast to Coast provided an early chance for founding member Rudolf Schenker (guitar/vocals) to solo. A medley of their 1970s output, including the powerful Steamrock Fever and the anthemic Catch Your Train, sifting out the die-hard from the more casual fans. The band's 1970s work has often been ignored by the band in recent years, so it was great to see a few of those songs resurrected in the form of a medley. I am not sure that two lengthy instrumentals were required, with Jabs' Delicate Dance following not too long from Coast to Coast, but I suppose Meine probably appreciated the breaks at his age. Another medley, this time of acoustic ballads, followed which culminated in a stunning version of Send Me an Angel that had everyone in the crowd singing along while the mirrorball threw lights around the arena. The mega-ballad Wind of Change followed, which was probably the best song of the entire day. The song is so famous for a reason, and hearing the crowd singing along with Meine was something special indeed. Schenker's emotional solo was perfect too, and was the icing on the cake. The rest of the set was made up of real classics, including a short but powerful version of Motörhead's Overkill which was a tribute to the late Lemmy. This led into a lengthy drum solo from new drummer Mikkey Dee, who showcased why he has often been called one of the best heavy metal drummers during his already-long career. Blackout and Big City Nights followed and brought the main set to a close. The cheer that erupted from the crowd was huge, and it was not too long before the band were back out for a couple more. The power ballad Still Loving You went down a storm, before Jabs' laid into the main riff of Rock You Like a Hurricane. It was another highlight of the whole day, with the crowd again singing loudly, which brought the evening to a powerful close. The setlist was:

Going Out with a Bang
Make it Real
Is There Anybody There?
The Zoo
Coast to Coast
Top of the Bill/Steamrock Fever/Speedy's Coming/Catch Your Train
We Built This House

Delicate Dance [w/ Ingo Powitzer]
Follow Your Heart/Eye of the Storm/Send Me an Angel
Wind of Change
Tease Me Please Me
Overkill [Motörhead cover]
Drum solo
Big City Nights
Still Loving You
Rock You Like a Hurricane

The Scorpions were easily the band of the day for me, but Megadeth and Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics also put on excellent shows that made the trip up to London from Devon worth it. It was great to finally see the Scorpions after having wanted to for many years, and they certainly did not disappoint with an arena-moving performance. My overall experience of Stone Free Festival was a positive one, and I will definitely be up for making the effort again next year if the line-up appeals.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Praying Mantis' 'Gravity' - Album Review

Despite initially making a name for themselves as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) movement in the early 1980s, Praying Mantis sadly never truly got the recognition that they deserved. There are probably many reasons for this, one of which almost-certainly being the huge over-saturation of the market when it came to heavier bands at the time, but the reality is that Praying Mantis came and went in the early 1980s - along with many of their peers. Despite carrying the 'metal' tag around with them, due to their association with the NWOBHM movement, Praying Mantis were never a true metal band. Listening back to 1980s seminal NWOBHM compilation, Praying Mantis' single Captured City sticks out like a sore thumb. The offerings from Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Samson found on that LP are packed with brooding riffs and punky attitude, while Captured City oozes with smooth melodies and crisp guitar harmonies - having more in common with hard rock legends like Thin Lizzy than Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. The band's debut album, 1981's Time Tells No Lies, was a minor hit; but it was to be all that anyone heard from Praying Mantis for a decade. Guitarist Tino Troy and bassist Chris Troy, brothers and the band's founding members, reactivated Praying Mantis in 1990 for a tour of Japan, and there has been a version of the band active ever since. Members have come and gone, and numerous albums have been released, but the Troy brothers have been keeping their brand of melodic, AOR-influenced metal alive. While many of the band's albums are quite hard to find these days, as they were released primarily for the Japanese market, this changed around a decade ago when the band joined forces with Italian rock label Frontiers Records for 2009's Sanctuary - a well-received album that reminded many European rock and metal fans that Praying Mantis still existed. That was followed up in 2015 by Legacy (which I reviewed here), a real melodic feast of an album that contains some of my favourite Praying Mantis songs to date. It was also the band's first album with the current line-up, which saw the Troy brothers joined by guitarist Andy Burgess (who has been a part of the band for around a decade now), along newcomers John Cuijpers and drummer Hans in 't Zandt (who sing and play the drums respectively). Keeping the same five together who wrote and recorded Legacy was key for the band, and thankfully all five have returned for Gravity, which sounds like the natural continuation of the previous album. The band's trademark melodic sound is still present here, and there seems to be a bigger dose of AOR here than usual with keyboards taking on a more prominent role than usual. There is still plenty of bite however, thanks to Tino Troy and Burgess' riffs and dual guitar leads, but the strong melodies are likely to appeal more to a melodic rock aficionado than your average metalhead.

Opening the album is the single Keep it Alive, a melodic track that slowly builds up with some spacey harmony vocals, before a Thin Lizzy-esque main riff kicks in atop Zandt's groove-filled drumming. Cuijpers is easily the best permanent vocalist the band have (discounting singer like Doogie White and John Sloman who have contributed to Praying Mantis albums over the years) and he demonstrates this immediately with a gritty verse delivery. Praying Mantis have often suffered from having sub-par vocalists, but in Cuijpers they have found the man with the pipes to suit their bombastic sound. The tough verses and the soaring choruses here, with plenty of smooth harmony vocals from the band, shows what Praying Mantis have been missing all these years - but it seems Cuijpers is in for the long haul now. Mantis Anthem follows and lowers the pace somewhat, opening with a cheesy synth melody that sounds like it would have been the theme tune for a 1980s sci-fi TV show. While not a ballad the song moves along at a fairly slow pace, allowing the booming drums and bass to create a strong groove while the keyboards provide much of the song's musical meat. The keyboards throughout the album are handled by the Troy bothers and Burgess and sometimes, like during parts of this song, almost replace the guitars entirely. The song toughens up for the chorus, which is certainly attempting something of an anthemic sound (unsurprising given the song's title). Subtle gang vocals are mixed into the chorus, which certainly helps it to hit home, but I feel this chorus does not have quite the effect that it is intended to do. It is a little slow to be a true 'fists in the air' moment, but the melody still manages to find its way into your brain. While many of Praying Mantis' songs are written by the Troy brothers, either together or individually, Time Can Heal was put together by Cuijpers and Burgess. There is a real 1980s AOR vibe here, with a subtle, chugging guitar rhythm throughout and sparkly keyboards that create a sugary atmosphere. Being a big AOR fan, this song really appeals to me and showcases the band's current line-up playing to their strength. While it is probably fair to say that Cuijpers is more at home singing the band's heavier material, his voice is still suited to singing these poppier offerings. The song also shows how well-produced this album is, as all of the elements clearly stand out. Chris Troy's bass cuts through the mix when required, and the keyboards add another layer without drowning out the guitar rhythms. Tino Troy and Burgess were responsible for producing the album, so they should be congratulated on their efforts to make such a well-rounded sound for Gravity. 39 Years, despite a juddering synth intro, is a bit more of a rocker, with strong guitar rhythms and a snaking bassline that really dominates the verses and provides a countermelody to Cuijpers' vocals. The chorus is a strong, and has more than a hint of John Payne-era Asia about it, with Cuijpers' rich vocals really standing out. There are a lot of harmony guitars here too, a cornerstone of Praying Mantis' sound, which sound as good now as they did in the early 1980s.

The album's title track also has a tougher sound, with Chris Troy's bass intro setting the tone before some big harmony guitar melodies kick in. Despite the big production that dominates much of the album, this song feels more stripped-back on the whole. The verses are mostly free of any fuss, with the bass and drums providing a rock solid backing for the vocals. The chorus is a fairly slow one, but one that really grows over time. This was the first song from the album that was made available online prior to the album's release, and on first listen I was not impressed at all. I have had many subsequent listens to the song since however, and it has grown on me since. The guitar solo section stands out too, and features lots of excellent melodies from the band's two guitarists. Tino Troy or Burgess rarely rely on speed for their solos, but instead pack plenty of melody in their playing which often makes the band's instrumental sections stand out. Ghosts of the Past is a song put together by Burgess and some of the band's former members, and it has a bit of a darker feel throughout - despite opening with a melodic piano line. The keyboards here give the song a slightly symphonic quality, often backing up the Deep Purple-esque guitar arpeggios for a snaking, slightly gothic feel. Cuijpers channels his inner Dio here, and shows a slightly rougher side of his voice, which is perfectly suited to the vibe created throughout the song. The darker feel does make Ghosts of the Past stand out somewhat, especially when much of the rest of the album is fairly upbeat, but it provides an interesting change of mood which helps the album to remain interesting. Destiny in Motion opens with an aching guitar melody, and it seems as if the song will be the album's first ballad. This is not the case however, as the song slowly builds up during the dense verses to explode into a bouncy, upbeat chorus that is possibly one of the album's best. The mix of the slower verses with the anthemic choruses is a classic AOR trope, but it still works well despite being done to death over the years. It also features a dramatic guitar solo section, which opens with some bombastic rhythmic blasts before the emotionally-charged solo starts. Sadly the album's booklet does not credit each individual solo, so I am not sure whether Tino Troy or Burgess were responsible for this particular offering, but either way it proves to be a winner. The Last Summer is another slower offering, with an acoustic guitar providing the main body of the verse, with the band's classic guitar harmonies surfacing during the intro, and occasionally elsewhere, to add a touch of class when required. While not a true ballad, the song feels like one at times, and it is good to see the band lowering the pace here and allowing the acoustic guitar to be so prominent. It is present throughout, including throughout the chorus which builds upon the song's simplicity to create a melodic passage of gorgeous harmony vocals.

Foreign Affair is a very keyboard-heavy piece, and is dominated by a synth riff that the song is then built around. Sadly however, the riff is extremely similar to Foreigner's Waiting for a Girl Like You which does end up distracting me while listening to it as all I can hear is Foreigner! This aside however, the song is enjoyable and seems to be the only real ballad of the album. Chiming clean guitars and rhythmic bass make up the rest of the song, and Cuijpers lays down an emotional vocal performance which is akin to many of the mega hits of the 1980s. It does feel a bit like a pastiche of the soaring power ballads of the 1980s however, relying too heavily on the tropes of the genre and a riff that sounds far too similar to something else to establish its own identity. Shadow of Love is a real winner however, and easily my favourite song on the album. It is the only song on the album that is credited to all five band members, showing that more collaboration between the five might be fruitful going forward. The 1980s AIR vibe is still extremely strong here, but this time taking the form of a more upbeat rocker with plenty of synth backing alongside tougher riffs. If this song was released back in 1986 it would have been a huge hit, but sadly that is not the case today. AOR fans like me will lap it up however, and will drawn in by the epic chorus - which is dripping with layers of harmony vocals and sure to prove to be real winner live. Electric piano melodies help to add to the verses, and the toughening up of the guitars as it moves towards the chorus only makes the melodies hit harder when they arrive. The soaring guitar solo really befits the piece, and is the icing on the cake on what is already a really great song. I would love to see the band putting out more songs like this one in the future, and I feel it really brings out the best of the five Praying Mantis members. Final Destination is the album's closing number, and it takes on a heavier feel than most of the rest of the album - more akin to Ghosts of the Past than anything else here. The synths again take on more of a symphonic feel, with the guitar riffs and melodies certainly more metallic than anything else on the album. Zandt even throws in some occasional bursts of double bass drumming which helps to add extra bite and punch to the piece, without ever going overboard and turning the song into a power metal anthem. Despite being quite different to much of the rest of the album, Final Destination works well as a closing number, as the relative urgency in the riffing and drumming builds towards a crescendo which helps to end the album on a high. Overall, Gravity is another really strong album from Praying Mantis and one that adds some more highly-polished melodic rock to their discography. Long-time fans of the band are sure to really enjoy this offering, and any AOR fans who are not already versed with Praying Mantis' work should pick this up for an exciting discovery.

The album was released on 11th May 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Keep it Alive.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Lords of Black's 'Icons of the New Days' - Album Review

Despite containing the current Rainbow frontman among their ranks, the Spanish progressive metal band Lords of Black are still relatively unknown. Having Ronnie Romero as their singer, who occasionally now also treads the boards with the legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore when the latter decides he fancies picking up his Strat again for a few nostalgia-laced Rainbow shows, certainly helped Lords of Black to gain some fans back in 2015 when it was announced that Rainbow was being revived with a new line-up; but it seems Lords of Black have not really been able to convert this association into any meaningful momentum. Fairly minimal touring certainly will not have helped, but I feel that the main issue with Lords of Black is, fundamentally, their songs. The band's core three members - Romero, guitarist and songwriter Tony Hernando, and drummer Andy C. - are all excellent musicians, but there are so many bands that do this brand of metal much better. As an example I recently picked up an album called Distant is the Sun by the Australian band Vanishing Point on the recommendation of a friend, and found my current solitary to it to be much more memorable than anything Lords of Black have released so far. I could name other bands here too, but that would just be labouring the point - which is, sadly, that Lords of Black are just not that memorable. That is not to say that they are a bad band however, because they are not. Both the band's 2014 self-titled debut album and 2016's II (which I reviewed here) had their moments and contained some good songs. The former in particular is a pretty strong effort, and is certainly worth the time of any self-respecting prog/power metal fan. Two years on from II and Lords of Black have attempted to up their game with the lengthy Icons of the New Days, their second album to be released by the Italian label Frontiers Records. Frontiers' interest in Lords of Black is clearly based around Romero's voice, and fame as Rainbow's current frontman, as he seems to be their go-to singer for their project bands that occupy the heavier end of the melodic rock/metal spectrum (The Ferrymen, CoreLeoni, Nozomu Wakai's Destina, etc.). The irony in this however is that Romero seems to have little to do with Lords of Black's direction. It seems to be Hernando's band as he is credited with writing almost the entirety of Icons of the New Days single handedly; as well as playing all of the guitars, bass guitars, and the majority of the keyboards. Hernando is certainly the album's star, with plenty of excellent guitar solos throughout, while Romero's vocal performance is much less refined than anything he has done with Rainbow. Despite its length Icons of the New Days is similar to Lords of Black's previous two albums, but nothing is gained from the extra run time. In fact, the bloated nature of this album actually ends up hurting it as it is almost certainly about 20 minutes too long. There are good songs here, but they are often so buried by filler that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.

Despite this however, the album opens up in a fairly strong fashion with three powerful tracks in a row. World Gone Mad is the first, and it boasts a memorable riff that has hypnotic, Michael Schenker-esque, qualities despite the piece's overall heaviness. The heavier intro gives way to a chugging verse that sees Romero laying down a powerful vocal performance over a simple musical backing - something which continues into the song's melodic chorus. A simple keyboard backing helps the song to create a strong atmosphere, but musically it is always Hernando's guitar that dominates despite sometimes simply providing a bed for the vocals. He gets to shine part-way through the piece however with a great neo-classical guitar solo that builds up slowly over some marching drums to climax in a flurry of arpeggios that rivals the great Yngwie Malmsteen's signature style. The album's title track follows and it is the first of two songs co-written by drummer Andy C., who's writing style seems to always be focused around create a strong atmosphere. As a result, the keyboards take on a slightly more prominent role, with a silky synth riff sitting behind the chugging. industrial guitar rhythms that drive everything. The verses here have a very staccato feel to them, with Romero's vocals taking on a deeper, semi-whispered tone which works well. The chorus, while not exactly the world-beater, is still powerful and sees Romero pushing his voice a little to contrast with the more reserved verse delivery. The thing that makes this song as effective as it is however is the atmosphere it creates, which is down to Andy C.'s synth arrangements (he is responsible for the keyboards on the songs he co-wrote) and the suitably spacey guitar solo that comes out of nowhere towards the end. Andy C.'s second and final composition, In a Place Like This, follows and continues the atmospheric feel of the previous piece with trippy electronics and a dense wall of guitars. An aggressive synth riff fills the verses, which forms the perfect backing for Romero's gritty vocal display. Romero really shines throughout this song, and shows why Ritchie Blackmore chose him to front a reformed version of Rainbow. The slightly more melodic chorus, with soaring pianos mixed into the crushing guitar rhythms, shows Romero channelling his inner Ronnie James Dio to great, dramatic effect. Sadly however, the album rarely reaches the height of these opening three songs again. When a Hero Takes a Fall is a solid enough piece though, and ups the pace compared to anything heard on the album so far. Andy C.'s powerful drumming drives the piece, and an overwrought vocal performance helps to add some drama. The chorus here is pretty good, and shows the band can still operate at higher tempos. While not as good as the previous three songs, it is still an enjoyable piece of metal that creates a strong energy but lacks the atmospherics that were used so effectively previously.

Forevermore is another passable piece, with a bouncy opening melodies complete with driving synths, and a slightly spooky verse with some choppy double bass drumming and chiming clean guitars mixed into the background behind the tougher rhythms to help create an atmosphere. My main issue with the song however is the lack of a decent chorus. The song seems to build up towards one, but it never really materialises which is a shame. What passes as a chorus is overlong and without the anthemic melodies that it needs, which makes the song feel like one long piece without any sense of structure. That said however, there is a really good guitar solo from Hernando that shows him to be an extremely competent player. The Way I'll Remember is better however, and shows more of a depth of songwriting with a piano intro and a stronger sense of melody throughout. Despite the slower intro, the song is not a ballad but instead is a powerful piece of power metal that features one of the album's best choruses and a great riff. I like the fact that the piano from the intro is used throughout, which helps to add atmosphere when needed. Prog/power bands should use keyboards in my opinion as they really help to diversify the sound. This song is a great example of that, and is one of the few songs here that matches up to the quality of the opening trio. The closing classical guitar outro only adds to the song's depth, and shows what the band can achieve if they really put their minds to it. Fallin' is a bit of a smoother song, with a strangely floaty verse and a fairly light feel overall. While not a ballad, it is certainly the least heavy of the album's songs up to this point and it helps to provide a bit of a chance of pace - despite some pretty tough guitar rhythms at times. Despite this however the song's melodies fail to take hold as much as they should. The chorus is pretty workmanlike, especially when compared to the stadium-filling one that the previous song was built around. King's Reborn that follows however is one of the album's real low points for me. At nearly eight minutes long, it is much longer than necessary and it lacks any real standout melodies. The thing about the song that annoys me the most however is the song's main riff, which is just a blantant rip off of Dio's Holy Diver. It is almost a note-for-note copy which strikes me as extremely lazy, especially when Hernando has displayed on this album, and on the band's previous two efforts, that he is a more than capable riff writer. There is also something about Romero's vocals that grates with me. I am a big fan of his voice, especially at both of the Rainbow shows I have been to, but here he seems to be singing slightly higher than his usual style which does not sound right. It sounds overdone, and sadly a little hard on the ears. His pronunciation seems quite lazy here too, which is not often the case with him, but the song might as well be called 'King's Reburn'!

Long Way to Go is better, and picks up the pace for a faster piece of heavy power metal that sees the band letting their hair down for a fairly powerful romp. Romero is back to his best vocally here, with a gritty performance that puts the strange delivery of the last song to the back of the listeners mind. He spits out the verse lyrics with real venom, which suits the driving guitar riff backing. Andy C. lets rip during the choruses, with a punchy fast beat that allows Romero to unleash some mean low-pitched screams - à la Jørn Lande - to add some real gravity to the song. Hernando's guitar solo is great too, and shows him shredding his way to the finish line to fit in with the song's overall speed. The Edge of Darkness is a groove-based mid-paced offering which returns the keyboards to a more prominent position again which helps to provide some contrast between between the tough guitar sounds as the more melodic synths double up with the main riff and add a counter melody to some of the tough instrumental sections. Apart from some interesting riffs however, the song does not really offer too much else. The chorus features more of Romero's strange, annoying higher-pitched vocals that again grate with me. The melodies throughout do not really grab hold anyway, so that ensures the song does not really stick in the memory. Wait No Prayers for the Dying is the album's penultimate track, and it ups the pace again which creates some energy. I cannot believe that anyone at the record label did not pick up the fact that the song's title makes no sense however. I understand that English is not any of the members of Lords of Black's first language, but having a title like Wait No Prayers for the Dying on the back of your CD case just makes the album look unprofessional. This, along with some of the pronunciation issues encountered earlier on in the album, shows that Lords of Black need to tighten some of the real basics up, and someone at Frontiers Records needs to be working with them in this regard. This is by no means an issue exclusive to Lords of Black however, and lots of the bands I listen to have singers that occasionally pronounce words in somewhat hilarious ways, but to have song titles that have me double checking the CD booklet to make sure iTunes' Gracenote song metadata database has not made a mistake is not a good sign! All I Have Left is the album's last song, and the band's longest song to date, clocking in at over eleven minutes. Despite its length, it is a pretty strong song that mixes faster and slower sections together well to create a coherent and interesting piece of prog metal. Unsurprisingly there are a lot of instrumental sections here, and this gives Hernando a chance to really let rip with his guitar. There are plenty of strong riffs here, and some of the guitar solos are very good indeed - with some hooky folky melodies thrown in to help keep things interesting. Romero shines when he gets to sing too, but for me this is Hernando's song as his diverse and powerful guitar playing helps to bring the album to a close. Overall, I think it is fair to say that Icons of the New Days is a flawed album - but one that contains its share of strong moments. Two of my favourite songs here were co-written by Andy C., so I would like to see Hernando collaborating with him more on the band's future albums. It could have also done with a couple of slower songs to really help shake the pace up a bit - which could have taken the place of the some of the more dreary offerings Icons of the New Days makes.

The album was released on 11th May 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for World Gone Mad.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Dimmu Borgir's 'Eonian' - Album Review

Regular readers of this blog will notice that I do not review many new extreme metal releases. Despite considerable effort on my part over the years to gain an appreciation for the much heavier end of the metal spectrum, true enjoyment of the majority of black and death metal bands continues to elude me. Occasionally however, a new album comes along by one of the big hitters in extreme metal that I find myself enjoying. Morbid Angel's most recent effort Kingdoms Disdained (which I reviewed here) was the last extreme metal album to really grab my attention with it's uncompromising aural assault. That album was released back in December of 2017, but five months on from that album's release I have found a new extreme metal opus to enjoy. That album is Eonian, the latest album from Norwegian black metal titans Dimmu Borgir - a band I have been a casual fan of for some time. My first real encounter with the band was picking up their 2007 release In Sorte Diaboli at a local second-hand CD shop around ten years ago. While it is not an album that I listen to very often, it is probably the first black metal album that I ever bought. By this point in their career however, calling Dimmu Borgir a simple black metal band seems a little crass. Their early 1990s genesis saw the band revelling in that raw, scratchy sound that defines black metal, but by the time In Sorte Diaboli was conceived, and in fact for a few years prior to this, Dimmu Borgir's sound had become much more polished and symphonic. While frontman Shagrath's vocals still contain the trademark black metal rasp, the band's two guitarists regularly employ tremolo picking for that chaotic black metal sound, the Dimmu Borgir of 2007 (and indeed now) is a much more sophisticated beast. 2010's Abrahadabra pushed the band further into the realms of symphonic metal, but it proved to be a divisive release. It certainly helped the band to reach a wider audience with its strong progressive and symphonic tendencies, but many hardcore extreme metal fans were turned off by the overt melodies found within. Abrahadabra turned out to be the band's last album for eight years, until the release of Eonian last month. With Eonian Dimmu Borgir have continued the strong symphonic path forged on Abrahadabra, but with a greater focus once again on the heavier end of their sound. Eonian certainly feels more like a black metal album than Abrahadabra, and could draw back some older fans of the band that where alienated by the latter. In many ways however, Eonian feels like the natural successor to the band's previous album, and sees the band's core three members (Shagrath along with guitarists Galder and Silenoz) creating more epic music. The three have handled the bass guitar parts between them on this album, with the keyboards and drums once again handled by long-time sideman Gerlioz and Daray respectively.

The album opens with The Unveiling - a feast of dense symphonic arrangements, gothic choirs, and heavy riffs. After a slightly industrial opening, the piece takes off with a lumbering riff backed by wordless choral vocals, before a tremolo-picked riff crashes in atop Daray's fast footwork. The song is a perfect representation of the modern Dimmu Borgir sound, and mixes the band's heavy black metal core with dense atmospheric soundscapes for a captivating. Gerlioz' piano dominates the verses, while Shagrath's crackling vocals add shade to the song's overall light. There are moments of true heaviness, such as the aforementioned black metal riffing, but large portions of the song feel more like a part of a film soundtrack than anything else. There are lengthy sections that see the choirs taking the lead vocally, with a gorgeous symphonic arrangement to back them up - all with minimal intervention from the band apart from to provide a basic rhythm. In this respect the song can feel like an elongated intro piece, but with moments of harsh black metal thrown in to set the listener up for what is to come. Lead single Interdimensional Summit is a true symphonic metal piece, complete with epic melodies and dramatic string stabs. There are parts of the song that would not sound out of place on one of Nightwish's more recent albums, but with Shagrath's snarls replacing the female operatic vocals. It works well however, and shows how far Dimmu Borgir have come since their raw early 1990s roots. The chorus once again sees the choirs take the lead for an epic delivery that would not feel out of place in the grandest of cathedrals. Despite how great this sounds, it is a shame that much of the album's first two songs have been handed over to choirs vocally, diminishing Shagrath's role in the delivery. I would have liked to hear his voice mixed in with the choirs to add some overall grit and darkness. Ætheric ups the heaviness however and feels like the first true black metal piece on the album with a lightning-fast opening riff that shows of the guitarists' picking speed as well as drummer Daray's chops. Despite this opening salvo, the song mostly proceeds at more of a mid pace, with Shagrath spitting out the verse lyrics with real venom over a muscular riff. The song does not follow a conventional structure however, with lots happening in a relatively short space of time. There is a lot more of the choir to be found, but here they mostly back Shagrath which gives the band's frontman a lot more time in the spotlight. The mix of the classical singers and Shagrath's black metal rasps is a great contrast, and helps to the song to become one of the album's highlights.

Council of Wolves and Snakes is another of the album's singles, and opens with a Eastern-tinged snaking guitar riff that slowly builds up over some tribal-esque drumming towards an atmospheric verse that hangs around a ringing bassline. In some respects, the song feels like the musical equivalent of crawling through a dark tunnel, with Shagrath's semi-whispered vocals acting as your guide through the maze. The murky darkness is broken up with occasional bursts of speed, and then beautifully dense sections built around acoustic guitar melodies. Once again there are a lot of moods found throughout, creating a bit of a schizophrenic listen but one that is ultimately satisfying. The Empyrean Phoenix is a bit more of a straight ahead piece, with a soaring main riff that will bury itself in your brain and more focus on the band's traditional metal core. The riffing throughout is strong, and often dominates rather than being buried by the orchestrations - despite a fairly lengthy choral section part-way through. This section aside however, this is probably the most overtly guitar-driven pieces on the album, with playful lead sections mixing in well with dense well-of-sound parts driven by blast beat drumming. Lightbringer is packed full of groove and is built around a mid-paced thrash-esque riff that creeps along menacingly atop a surprisingly simple drum pattern. This is however until the song speeds up with Daray's sudden drumming explosion and Shagrath begins his latest snarling aural assault. There are parts of the song where the keyboards and the orchestrations are almost entirely absent, which allows for the band's paint-stripping black metal more to really shine. There are moments here which sound like the Dimmu Borgir of old - raw and uncompromising - but then another keyboard melody will start and the listener is dragged back into 2018 and the band's modern sound. Vocally, this is a powerful piece and probably allows Shagrath more time singing unhampered than anywhere else on the album. The choral parts are kept to a minimum here, which allows the true heaviness of the song to shine through. I am Sovereign is the album's longest piece at just shy of seven minutes in length, but this does not stop the band going for an all-out metal assault throughout with much of the song operating at a high tempo. Given the length of the piece however, and more progressive approach is inevitable and slower moments are peppered throughout. There is a really heavy section that sounds more like something from an old-school death/doom record than a traditional black metal album, with Shagrath's vocals taking on a much lower and darker tone than usual. This gives the song a different sound to anything else on the album, as Shagrath's usual semi-spoken snarls sound so different to his vocal approach here. It works well however, and adds some weight to a diverse song that sounds like an early Opeth song one minute, and a lighter symphonic piece with floaty guitar leads the next.

Archaic Correspondence is more overtly black metal however, and ups the album's quota of moments of raw power with plenty of abrasive blast beat drumming and harsh guitar melodies that deliberately clash with each other for that classic unsettling black metal vibe. That being said however, there are still moments of light in the darkness. Soloists from the choir take short lead vocal sections which provide a change of pace from Shagrath's snarls and the huge choral onslaught. This helps the song to stand out, and brings back memories of ICS Vortex's time in the band when he would occasional provide sections of clean vocals for contrast. Alpha Aeon Omega definitely sounds like a song that could have appeared on In Sorte Diaboli with the band's core black metal sound dominating. The orchestral elements are more of a supporting piece here, and are often mixed into the background, which allows the band to dominate. There is some of the album's best drumming to be found throughout this song too, with mid-paced groove sections sitting side by side with extremely fast sections to provide a workout for Daray. While there are a few choral sections, this is largely a true metal fest with some of the album's most stripped-back passages - something which ensures the penultimate song stands out. This leads nicely into the album's closing piece, the instrumental Rite of Passage. The sound of rainfall is mixed in with doomy piano chords and clean guitar, which is soon joined by a slow drum beat and an orchestral backing. This lengthy instrumental outro is not a heavy piece at all, despite some punchy drumming throughout, but instead one that makes the most of the soaring orchestrals to create an atmosphere reminiscent of a more laid back version of the rest of the album. It works well to bring a dynamic album to a leisurely close, and somehow seems to link back to how the album opened. Overall, Eonian is a varied and interesting album from one of the true veterans of the extreme metal world. This is not an album that can be appreciated in a single sitting, and time needs to be taken to fully appreciate what Dimmu Borgir have tried to achieve. It is an album that creates a powerful atmosphere throughout, and seems to be a statement from the band as to their intentions for the future.

The album was released on 4th May 2018 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Interdimensional Summit.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Black Stone Cherry's 'Family Tree' - Album Review

Ever since signing to the Mascot Label Group in 2015, the Kentucky-based southern rock band Black Stone Cherry have found their mojo again. The band had been with the giant rock and metal label Roadrunner since the very early days of their career, but their sound was stagnating under what seemed to be a push from the Roadrunner to commercialise their sound. 2006's self-titled debut album and its follow-up, 2008's Folklore and Superstition, were two of the best southern rock albums for years and they helped to bring the genre kicking and screaming into the modern day with anthemic songwriting, dirty blues riffs, and soulful vocals that often told relatable stories. With these two albums Black Stone Cherry brought the sounds of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, and Molly Hatchet to a whole new generation of rock fans; and mixed it with some of the 1990s post-grunge toughness of Creed. It was these albums that made Black Stone Cherry such an exciting prospect to the young classic rock fan I was back in the late 2000s, and they were both played regularly on my iPod. 2011's Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea was an enjoyable album full of catchy songs, but the cracks were beginning to show. Folklore and Superstition had its share of ballads, but Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea seemed to really focus on them. This, coupled with some natty singles that were more Nickelback than The Allman Brothers Band, was the start of the band's decline for me and 2014's Magic Mountain (which I reviewed here) saw the band slide further down the slope of record company pressure with a fairly average collection of songs that added little to the band's legacy. I enjoyed Magic Mountain initially, as can be seen from my review from the time, but looking back it saw the band caught between wanting to headline arenas (which they ironically did here in the UK during the Magic Mountain tour) and wanting to write honest songs. The split with Roadrunner was inevitable, and the smaller label Mascot Records seem to have given Black Stone Cherry a free hand to just be themselves. 2016's Kentucky (which I reviewed here) was easily the band's best album since Folklore and Superstition and saw them once again churning out dirty southern rock riffs that befitted their core sound. An EP of blues covers last year allowed the band to have some fun with some of their favourite blues classics, but it is the band's sixth studio album which was released last month that really interests me. Family Tree is the band's second full length effort wit Mascot, and it builds on the good work the band re-established on Kentucky. While not exactly adding anything new to their sound, Family Tree sees Black Stone Cherry once again turning in a soulful collection of hard rocking southern anthems that are befitting their history. This is a totally self-produced effort that seems to have involved as few outside influences as possible. The band's frontman Chris Robertson mixed the album, and bassist Jon Lawhon designed and produced all of the artwork - which shows that Black Stone Cherry have really gone back to basics here and made exactly the album that they wanted to make.

The album opens up with Bad Habit, one of the album's lead singles and the type of boogie-laden track fans have come to expect from Black Stone Cherry. A groove-filled rock riff drives the song, while Lawhon's bass dominates the verses with a snaking melody. Southern rock is all about the groove, and this song has it in spades as Robertson and fellow guitarist Ben Wells lock in together for a riff that is worthy of one of Blackfoot's best albums, before Robertson lays down a bleeding solo after the song's midpoint. Bad Habit is the sort of song that really sets out the band's stall early, and should prepare the listener for what else is to follow. Burnin' opens out with a heavier riff, more reminiscent of the more basic compositions found on Magic Mountain, but with some sharp lead guitar atop it to ensure it takes hold. The verses are a big of a chug, with the bass once again highly placed in the mix, before the lighter choruses provide a strong hook. Robertson's southern voice is always packed full of character, and he ensures the chorus here soars. It is songs like this that show the 1990s post-grunge influences are still very much a part of Black Stone Cherry's sound, but when used effectively - as they have been here - they can prove to be an asset rather than a drawback. New Kinda Feelin' is packed with boogie, and features driving piano melodies mixed into the background of the song courtesy of session player Kevin McKendree. Most southern rock bands make good use of keyboards, but Black Stone Cherry have only ever used them sparingly. While the band's riffing still dominates the song, the barroom piano style helps to add another dimension to the piece. As a result the song has a dirty blues feel to it, packed full of stomp, that is sure to go down well if the band ever choose to play it live. Despite a slow-burning percussion-filled intro, Carry Me On Down the Road soon opens up with a strong riff that forces its way out of the speakers with raw southern power. Despite this however, the song is not really a driving rocker and instead seems to channel some country influences with fast-picked guitar melodies during the chorus and a lighter overall tone. This is not the twee country rock that fills American football stadiums however, but a powerful brand that is packed full of blues and southern attitude. While not exactly something totally new for Black Stone Cherry, it still feels like something different to their usual sound which helps to keep things interesting.

There are not a lot of ballads to be found on Family Tree, but My Last Breath is one of the offerings here that matches that description the closest. The song opens with organ melodies, which Robertson soon delivers the lyrics atop in his signature soulful fashion. After the first chorus the rest of the band joins in with a burst of slide guitar and a methodical, percussive rhythm. The organ continues to be a big part of the sound however, and still drives everything despite the rest of the instrumentation that gets introduced. A horn section and gospel-esque singers are added to the mix the further song moves along to create an even bigger sound. While Black Stone Cherry are at their best when they are rocking out, songs like this to create a change of pace are always welcome. Southern Fried Friday Night is a riff driven rocker, and feels a bit like a spiritual sequel to White Trash Millionaire. The main riff is led by some talkbox leads, and the chorus is one of the album's catchiest. In my opinion, this is the sort of the song that Black Stone Cherry excel at an they always seem to be able to whip up a party atmosphere with their huge grooves and anthemic choruses. The song is sure to become a live staple for years to come, and crowds will love moving to the big riff as it blasts from the speakers. Dancin' in the Rain is a powerful piece of blues rock that features the talents of Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers Band; Gov't Mule), who contributes some additional lead guitar as well as sharing the lead vocals throughout with Robertson. Robertson takes the first verse, whereas Haynes handles the second with his slightly huskier voice. The tough style of Robertson mixes well with the bluesier drawl of Haynes for a contrasting vocal delivery. Haynes is also a great guitarist and there are moments where both him and Robertson and laying down leads and duelling with each other. As a result of the vocal contrast and the excellent guitar work throughout, this is one of my favourite pieces on the album. It feels like a real lost classic southern rock anthem, and Haynes' appearance just adds that extra sparkle to the piece. Ain't Nobody is probably the first song on the album that does not quite hit the spot. While there is quite a strong chorus to be found, as well as some occasional bursts of slide guitar, the rest of the song just does not reach the energy levels found elsewhere. The shuffling beat of the verses does not really help, as it means the song cannot reach a good speed, while elsewhere the melodies feel basic and not fully fleshed out. Those who want some real down and dirty blues however will love the grooves and melodies found in James Brown. While the poppy wordless vocal melodies that are used throughout parts of the song are a little annoying, the rest of the song is great. Songs like this make you realise just how well produced the album is. The guitar tone used for the rhythms here is huge, and it really makes the riffs stand out, especially against the poppier backdrop. The gospel-esque singers are also used throughout here which, apart from some of the aforementioned silly bits, works really well. They harmonise well with Robertson during the choruses, and add bluesy acumen elsewhere with additional vocal lines thrown in between Robertson's lines.

The bluesy feeling continues throughout You Got the Blues which feels like a real throwback to the band's earlier albums. The raw southern riffs are excellent, and John Fred Young's drums perfectly accentuate everything. I believe he is one of the best modern pure rock drummers as he has such a great sense of feel without ever over-playing - despite really letting rip at times. This big , raw production really suits his style, and allows him to hit the drums in his customary hard way while the rest of the band turn it up around him. I just love his drumming during the song's chorus, and his extended improv over the outro shows his diversity and feel perfectly. I Need a Woman slows things down a little, but not in a ballad sense. This is another big rock song, but one that just reigns it in a little and sits back on a muscular riff that dominates everything. Lawhon's bass once again gets to shine during the verses, while Robertson and Wells add little lead snippets for affect. While the melodies are not as strong here, the song is still worth listening to for the big guitar solo. Robertson takes the vast majority of the band's solos, but here it sounds like both him and Wells are trading off licks throughout which gives the instrumental break a slightly chaotic, but impressive, sound. Get Me Over You has quite a stop-start sound at times, with short guitar riffs fitting around vocal melodies and drum rolls - which is a classic southern rock trait. As a result the piece has a strong blues stomp throughout which is driven along by Young's excellent drumming. While the like the song's energy, it definitely lacks in the melody department and is not as catchy as many of the pieces here. There is an interesting tribal-esque section however which features a bit of a breakdown filled with percussion and chanting. It works quite well, and helps to add something memorable to the song. The album comes to an end with the title track, which is another favourite of mine. Much like My Last Breath, the song is one of the few here that resembles anything like a ballad but in truth it is just a great rock song as the organ-drenched main riff should tell you. The extremely melodic chorus has the feel of an epic rock ballad, but the rest of the song punches with bluesy riffing and excellent organ playing. This song is another example of the good that keyboards can add to the band's sound, and I would love to see them incorporating things like this a lot more going forward. Family Tree is a great 'ending' song. So many albums just end with a regular song, but this feels like a statement piece and closes everything out nicely. The guitar solo is great too, and sees Robertson really letting rip with a flurry of notes before attacking the song's powerful chorus one last time. Overall, Family Tree is another really strong effort from Black Stone Cherry that seems them firmly back on track again after going in the right direction with Kentucky. It is just a great collection of modern southern rock songs that sees the band back to doing what they do best and seeming invigorated.

The album was released on 20th April 2018 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Bad Habit.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Stryper's 'God Damn Evil' - Album Review

There are not that many bands from the hair metal era that are still releasing albums on a fairly regular basis. Hair metal, more than many other genres it seems, has become something of a nostalgia fest - with many of the classic bands of that era content to tour their hits into the ground, with the thought of a new album probably the furthest thing from their minds. In this context, California's Stryper are bucking the trend. Despite their heyday coming to an end sometime in the late 1980s, the Christian metal band have entered into a second purple patch of late. They have been releasing albums on a fairly regular basis since 2005, with each one being a hit with their fanbase. Their sound has gotten a little heavier in recent years, with more emphasis on big riffs than keyboards and radio-friendly ballads - but the classic Stryper sound is still evident. I came back on board with the band in 2013 when they released the excellent No More Hell to Pay (which I reviewed here), which is probably my second-favourite album of theirs after 1986's classic To Hell With the Devil. While I was already familiar with the band's hits, No More Hell to Pay was the first Stryper album that I bought when it came out and was the first album of theirs that I truly digested. Two years later came Fallen (which I reviewed here) which trod a similar path to No More Hell to Pay while, in my opinion, not quite reaching the heights of the 2013 effort. Fallen seems to have been the better-received of the two albums overall, but for me the songs just were not as catchy. Keeping up with their regular release schedule, last month saw the release of God Damn Evil, the band's tenth studio album, released just over two years from Fallen. Like the previous two albums, God Damn Evil is a great modern-sounding Stryper album - with all the hallmarks of the band's 1980s heyday wrapped up in a modern, heavy production. Since Fallen's release however, Stryper have undergone a line-up change when bassist Tim Gaines was ousted from the band rather publicly last year. The band's founder Michael Sweet made this situation by making lots of extended and rather haughty statements on social media (which he seems to spend a lot of time doing, usually when Stryper has come under criticism for some reason or another) being rather rude about Gaines - which was certainly a change from his previous mantra about how Stryper were still performing with all four members of their classic line-up! All of this aside however, the fact of the matter is that Gaines was out, and his replacement Perry Richardson (FireHouse) was in. Richardson is a veteran of the 1980s metal scene himself, and seems to be a perfect fit for the band's sound although he did not actually contribute to the recording of God Damn Evil. It seems the album was recorded during the turmoil, and the bass parts were handled by session player John O'Boyle. Despite the circumstances the album was made under, it seems that Sweet has managed to write another great selection of songs. The material here, which in parts is the closest they have sounded to their 1980s sound for a long time, certainly rivals their other recent material and is an extremely impressive listen.

Despite much of the album harking back to the band's 1980s sound, Stryper throw a curveball right away and immediately hit the listener with probably their heaviest song to date: Take it to the Cross. Perhaps unsurprisingly the song has divided opinion, but anyone who likes good old fashioned heavy metal should appreciate what Stryper have done here. The dense, atmospheric intro soon gives way to a driving metal riff that would not have sounded out of place on a classic Judas Priest album, while a dark gothic choir adds some doomy vocals for affect. The Judas Priest comparisons continue throughout, with Michael Sweet's voice breaking into short, high-pitched screams occasionally to add an overall edge. The biggest surprise however comes in the form of the chorus, which takes a thrashy, speed metal approach with Michael Sweet's snarled vocals being mixed with harsh vocals courtesy of Matt Bachand (Shadows Fall; Act of Defiance). Many fans have not liked this move towards a heavier sound, but I think it works really well for the modern Stryper. Drummer Robert Sweet impresses throughout with a varied drumming display that is the icing on the cake of what is already a powerful song. The rest of the album follows more along the lines of what the listener would expect, and Sorry sounds like many of the songs found on the band's other recent albums. The verses are a bit of a chug, with Michael Sweet and fellow guitarist Oz Fox laying down a simple power chord crunch over a punchy drum pattern. The chorus sees the song open up however, with lots of harmony vocals to make it a more memorable moment. The band have done better choruses in their career, but it still hits the spot and it is easy to see the song working well live with the crowd helping Michael Sweet out with the big harmonies. A melodic guitar solo is also included, which focuses more on neo-classical phrasing than shredding. Lost is similar, but picks up the pace a little with a Van Halen-esque main riff that jumps out of the speakers as the subtle pinch harmonics squeal. The verses take their cues from this riff, and steam along at a reasonable pace with O'Boyle's bass driving everything with a fat, melodic tone. The chorus is something else however, and seems to have a bit of a power metal influence with Michael Sweet's screaming falsettos and a dense keyboard backing courtesy of session player Paul McNamara. Stryper have done this sort of thing before, but here it just sounds better than ever. It is amazing to hear Michael Sweet still hitting notes like he does here, especially when so many of his peers are now wheezing their way through their greatest hits live these days.

The album's title track is next and takes on a bit more of a bluesy feel and becomes a real anthemic stomper. The main riff is packed full of 1970s classic rock goodness, and this purveys the rest of the song. Robert Sweet's deliberate drum pattern, which is constantly mid-paced, helps the anthemic feeling of the song - especially during the chorus which features quite a lot of gang vocals to emphasise the vocal melodies. There are better songs throughout this album, but the rather primal groove of God Damn Evil still holds some appeal and it is sure to get heads nodding live. You Don't Even Know Me slows things down a little. While it is not a ballad, it moves along at a pace which is just under the traditional mid-pace and allows a slightly creepy atmosphere to be created. Michael Sweet's sings in a style that is not unlike that of Alice Cooper's throughout the verses, although he returns to his more traditional delivery during the choruses which pack more of a punch - using the band's trademark big vocal arrangements to sit atop the still-lumbering pace. As a result the piece feels heavier than it probably is, but it still works well and adds to the overall variation of the moods found throughout the album. The Valley is one of the album's main singles, and once again follows the standard modern Stryper template with a muscular mid-paced riff and a loud drum beat. Robert Sweet might not be the most technical or impressive drummer in the world, but his playing always packs a punch. He is similar to Vinny Appice in that respect I always think, and contributes more in the way of raw power than finesse. His playing perfectly drives the song, which is based around another strong riff, and culminates in a big chorus which sees Michael Sweet adapting Psalm 23 for the lyrical hook. A lengthy guitar solo, which features turns from both Michael Sweet and Fox, is one of the better instrumental portions of the album and is brimming with melodic phrasing.
Sea of Thieves has a real 1980s metal feel to it, with a riff that sounds like it could have belonged to a mid-paced Testament song stitched onto a more melodic hard rock backing. The combination works well however, and creates a heavy feel while still also ticking all the melodic rock boxes. Despite this it is probably one of the album's less interesting pieces, simply because the vocal melodies just do not have the staying power of others found throughout the album. The chorus for one just lacks the soaring qualities found elsewhere, which ensures that the song comes and goes without fully making an impact. Those who really miss the overblown 1980s melodic sound will love Beautiful and it sounds like something that could have appeared on 1988's In God We Trust, an album which turned the radio-friendly feeling up to 11! The verses are quite a basic chug, not unlike the vast majority of the album, but the chorus includes Def Leppard levels of vocal harmonies to hammer its point home. Those who are suckers for a bit of AOR, like me, will instantly be drawn to this song due to this chorus; while those who exclusively like their music to be heavier will be turned off. It is great to hear the band really turning the clock back here and drawing influence from their back catalogue. While Stryper should be congratulated on largely being able to modernise their sound to ensure that they stay relevant and not sound dated; there is nothing wrong with occasionally letting your hair down.

Following on from this nostalgia trip is another one, with the album's ballad Can't Live Without Your Love feeling like something that would have troubled the charts in the late 1980s. Chiming clean guitars dominate the verses, and this is probably the only time on the album where the tough guitar rhythms that characterise the modern Stryper sound are mixed into the background to allow another vibe to dominate. The chorus is similar to that found in Beautiful, with big harmony vocals and McNamara's keyboard layers creating an emotional wall of noise. While Robert Sweet sometimes seems to forget that this is a ballad and still hits his drums as hard as he can, it is great to hear the band tone it down a little during this one song and provide a little break from the screaming guitar riffing found elsewhere. Own Up gets to album back on a heavier track with a growling groove-based riff and a chorus that seems to take something from punk with faster vocal melodies. The standout performer here though is session man O'Boyle who turns in a great bass line throughout that really contrasts nicely with the main riff. The bass has never been a big part of Stryper's sound, so it is good to see it pushed the fore here - often dominating the guitars in fact. Songs are always more interesting when the bass is doing something memorable rather than simply just following the rhythm guitar. The album's final song The Devil Doesn't Live Here picks up the pace once more and turns in an energetic, riff-heavy piece to see things come to close. Robert Sweet impresses here with a strong performance, which often includes the use of fast double bass pedal patterns to help drive the song along. While many of Stryper's lyrics are spiritual in some form or other, the lyrics of this song are one of their more blatantly religious offerings. I am not religious, so to me these lyrics always sound like those songs you hear played in American gospel churches set to a heavy metal backing - while is always a big jarring. This is something you have to expect with a Stryper album however, and those who want to actively avoid anything overtly religious should probably skip this last song! It is still a fun piece of heavy metal however, and ensure the album ends on a fast, powerful note after two somewhat slower pieces. Overall, God Damn Evil is another really solid effort from Stryper that continues their impressive recent run of new albums. I definitely prefer this album to Fallen, and with time it could even eclipse No More Hell to Pay as my favourite modern Stryper album. It seems the band have focused on the melodies during the writing of this album, and it shows.

The album was released on 20th April 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Valley.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

FM/Dare - London Review

When two of the best British melodic rock bands announce a short co-headline UK tour, it would be remiss of any self-respecting rock fan to miss out. While melodic rock, or AOR, is definitely more of America's forte, there have still been a handful of bands from these shores which have released material to rival the likes of Journey and Survivor. FM and Dare are two such bands, and yesterday the two descended upon the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire in London for the first of five co-headline shows which are taking place over the next month. Both bands were formed in the 1980s, and both bands found early success; but in the intervening couple of decades both have settled down to a much more modest existence. Neither FM or Dare trouble the charts any more, but both have strong fanbases, both home and abroad, and are always worth making the effort to go and see. I would have travelled to see either band on their own, but an evening featuring good-length sets from both made the journal from Devon to London a no-brainer. I had seen FM a handful of times previously over the past few years, so I knew exactly what to expect from the London-based band. Dare on the other hand were a more unknown entity - at least in the live context. My only previous experience of Dare live was a short support slot with Europe at the Roundhouse a couple of years ago, where they had only around 30 minutes on stage and had to battle throughout with a less-than-helpful sound mix. I was confident that they would shine at their own show however, and was really excited to see more or less a full set from the band. It was also announced that former Little Angels and current Wayward Sons frontman Toby Jepson would be opening all five shows, which added an extra layer of excitement as I have been a fan of his for a while. This bill seemed to appeal to plenty of others too, as the Empire attracted a good-sized crowd. Some of the sections of seating were closed off, but the main balcony was pretty full and there was a strong contingent of fans down in the pit. There was plenty of space to move about if required however, showing that there were more tickets that could have been sold, but the amount of people that were there managed to create an excellent atmosphere throughout the evening and made all three acts feel welcome.

Jepson took to the stage armed only with his acoustic guitar not too long after the doors opened, and soon warmed the crowd up with a selection of songs from across his career played in a stripped-down way. A couple of songs from his current venture Wayward Sons were featured, including the opening Ghost, but the vast majority of the songs featured were from his days with Little Angels. I was fortunate enough to catch the reformed Little Angels back in 2012, so it was great to see Jepson performing some of those songs again. One of the early highlights of his set was the ballad I Ain't Gonna Cry which turned out to be the first real sing-a-long of the night. There were clearly a lot of Little Angels fans in, and they revelled in helping Jepson sing some of the band's best songs. There were solo numbers and a song form his time with Fastway thrown in too, but it was the Little Angels material that stole the show. Towards the end of his set, he threw together a little medley of some of the band's rockier singles, including Young Gods (Stand Up, Stand Up) and Too Much Too Young which certainly went down very well with the crowd. Jepson received a deserved cheer when he left the stage, and I made a mental note to check out Wayward Sons' debut album soon.

There was barely five minutes between Jepson leaving the stage and Dare starting their set. With their gear already set up, the band clearly wanted to capitalise on Jepson's good work and they hit the stage with a crowd who were ready for more. Dare were formed by frontman and songwriter Darren Wharton in 1985 after his previous band Thin Lizzy's demise and found early success with a couple of melodic hard rock albums and their accompanying singles. The Dare of today has a much more sedate sound however, and they display a strong Celtic influence throughout their work. The first half of their set showcased this perfectly, as they opened with Sea of Roses from 2004's Beneath the Shining Water and then proceeded to play five songs from 2016's excellent Sacred Ground. Wharton's smooth voice is perfect for this brand of atmospheric Celtic rock, and he sounded great throughout the band's 75 minute set. The first half of Dare's set was quite one-paced, with Vinny Burns' (guitar/vocals) slow, melodic guitar leads often cutting through the soft rock backing and Wharton's crooned lyrics really filling the venue. There is something about Dare's modern sound that just washes over you, and it was great to hear half of their latest album featured. A highlight was the slightly rockier Days of Summer which is easily my favourite from the new album. It has one of the best choruses in the band's catalogue, and there were many around me who clearly agree as they joined me in singing it back at Wharton. This half of the set was rounded off with a rendition of Thin Lizzy's Emerald, but with the pace slowed down greatly to turn it into almost a piece of Celtic folk rather than the twin-guitar hard rock of the original. It worked well in this format however, and led nicely into the set's second half which, as Wharton quipped, took in their 'heavy rock' period. Songs from 1988's Out of the Silence and 1991's Blood from Stone were featured here, and the set certainly moved through the gears somewhat. Marc Roberts' keyboards moved from providing dense atmospheric soundscapes to melodic 1980s synth leads and each song was met with a big cheer. We Don't Need a Reason was an early highlight from this portion of the set, with Burns attacking his guitar for the muscular riff and the shredded solo. Abandon probably received the biggest cheer of the night, and Roberts' keyboards cut through the mix perfectly and the crowd really helped Wharton out with the powerful melodies. The set did slow again somewhat towards the end, as ballads King of Spades and Return the Heart brought the 14-song set to an end. The former was a real highlight however, as it has been a favourite of mine for a while. Wharton sung the song, which was written for Phil Lynott, with real passion - and this Lynott tribute continued with Burns playing a portion of Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend as part of an extended solo section. Like Jepson, Dare also received a well-deserved cheer from the crowd as they left the stage and there were many around me towards the front of the stalls area who seemed shocked by just how good they were. The setlist was:

Sea of Roses
I'll Hear You Pray
Days of Summer
Every Time We Say Goodbye
Emerald [Thin Lizzy cover]
Wings of Fire
We Don't Need a Reason
Into the Fire
The Raindance
King of Spades/Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend [Thin Lizzy cover]
Return the Heart

Despite Dare being a tough act to follow, FM were more than up for the task and seemed up for the evening as soon as they took their position at around 9:40pm. I had last seen the band at Castel Roc, held at Chepstow Castle, last August where early technical issues seemed to knock them off guard a bit, but this 90 minute set saw them running on full power from the first number to the encore. Black Magic, from the new album Atomic Generation, proved to be a powerful opening number and Steve Overland (vocals/guitar) prowled around the front of the stage singing the lyrics while Jim Kirkpatrick (guitar/vocals) handled all of the guitar parts himself. Only two numbers from the new album were played, and the set acted as a bit of an FM history lessen with songs from throughout their career, including some lesser-played numbers, featured. The ever-present I Belong to the Night, with Jem Davis' keyboards perfectly cutting through the mix, got everyone going early on before the early single Let Love be the Leader only heightened the party atmosphere. For the most part the set was built around the band's rockier material, which ensured that the energy was constantly at a high level. It only took a few numbers for the crowd to be totally on board with FM, and everyone was singing along with the band in no time. The rarely-played smooth AOR of The Dream That Died was an early highlight. Overland commented that the band had not played it since the late 1980s so it was great to see the song brought out the vaults for a much-deserved airing. It was great to hear the catchy Over You, preceded by Kirkpatrick's guitar showcase Metropolis, again too and it saw Overland, Kirkpatrick, and Merv Goldsworthy (bass guitar/vocals) harmonising well during the poppy chorus.

The soaring ballad Closer to Heaven was a rare change of pace, and saw Overland taking on the lead guitar duties for a tasteful solo. By this point it was clear just how excellent the live sound mix was. Much like a recent Marillion show I attended, the mix was just about perfect. There was a great separation between all of the instruments, enough backing vocals to re-create those famous harmonies, and Pete Jupp's drums had just enough punch to give the band a slightly heavier feel. This was particularly evident towards the end of the band's set when many of their best-known songs were wheeled out. Tough it Out sounded more powerful than ever as Overland belted out the anthemic chorus and Kirkpatrick nailed the snaking riff. The Desmond Child-penned single Bad Luck might have been the best-received track of the night, with everyone around me singing along, before That Girl received a similar reception which brought a big smile from Davis as he hammered away at the chorus' riff on his stack of keyboards. Killed by Love, the only other song from Atomic Generation featured in the set, brought the main set to a close. It seemed like an odd move to end with a new one, but plenty in the crowd seemed to know it already and gave up a huge cheer as the band left the stage. It was past 11pm by this time so I assumed it was all over, but the band defied the curfew and came back for a couple more. The bluesy romp of Burning My Heart Down got everyone's feet stomping and hands clapping before Overland brought Wharton back onto the stage for a fiery rendition of Thin Lizzy's The Boys are Back in Town. FM seem to enjoy covering songs with their touring partners as part of their encore, and it worked well providing one last chance for everyone to sing-a-long with Wharton, who took the lead vocals, and the band. The setlist was:

Black Magic
I Belong to the Night
Life is a Highway
Let Love be the Leader
The Dream That Died
Other Side of Midnight
Over You
Close to Heaven
Does it Feel Like Love

Story of My Life
Tough it Out
Bad Luck
That Girl
Killed by Love
Burning My Heart Down
The Boys are Back in Town [Thin Lizzy cover w/ Darren Wharton]

Overall this was a fantastic evening of melodic rock from two of the country's best exports of the genre - not forgetting Jepson who warmed everyone up nicely with his preceding acoustic set. It was great to finally see a full set from Dare, who really impressed and sounded so much better here than during their small support set with Europe a couple of years ago, and FM knocked it out of the park with a great career-spanning set that proves why they are still so loved around the world.