Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Epica's 'The Solace System' - EP Review

I have said this on here previously, but there is no bigger symphonic metal act in the world right now (with the exception of Nightwish) than the Netherlands' Epica. Since forming in 2002, the band has become genuine big hitters on the world stage and have an impressive discography in which consistently great albums are released at a regular rate. Last year saw the release of The Holographic Principle (which I reviewed here), the band's seventh album, to near-universally excellent reviews. Despite never really releasing a bad album, I felt the found themselves in a bit of a rut with 2012's Requiem for the Indifferent. While the material on that album is still strong, I felt that the production of the songs really constrained their impact. Epica's sound has evolved gradually with each album, and has become more expansive and bombastic each time. In the band's early days there was a greater reliance on synths for the band's orchestral stylings, but over time this has become more organic with huge orchestras and choirs being used in the studio for an authentic symphonic sound. It is clear that the band felt a change was needed, and employed the services of producer Joost van den Broek for 2014's The Quantum Enigma. Suddenly, under this new guidance, Epica's sound really opened out and the music had real breathing room. The compression and dry guitar tones found on Requiem for the Indifferent were gone and instead replaced with warmer and more striking tones, that naturally increase the heaviness and power of the band's material. This sound and trend continued with The Holographic Principle, and continues again on the band's latest studio effort The Solace System. While not a full album, The Solace System still feels like an essential part of the band's discography. This six song EP came from the same sessions as The Holographic Principle, so overall has the same sound and production style, but still feels like a coherent standalone release. With these 'off-cut' releases, there is sometimes a danger that they will contain sub-par material. After all, if these songs were not good enough for the album during which sessions they were recorded during then why are they good enough for a stand-alone release? Thankfully that is not the case with The Solace System, as the six songs here all have strong identities of their own and do not feel like poor cousins of the band's other recent releases.

The EP gets underway with the title track, which in typical Epica fashion is introduced with a gothic choir and a dense symphonic arrangement. The songs on this EP are mostly short, to-the-point efforts compared to many of the sprawling epics on the band's past couple of albums, and this is no different with a strong vocal presence from frontwoman Simone Simons, who particularly shines during a groove-heavy verse. Mark Jansen's harsh vocals are used more sparodically than usual throughout the six songs here, but a heavier pre-chorus here sees him duelling with dramatic strings to good effect. Interestingly, he is once again credited with rhythm guitar on this release, unlike The Solace System's parent album, but I suspect all of guitars on this EP were handled by Isaac Delahaye. Speaking on Delahaye, his strong riffing drives the whole song, and his short guitar solo towards the end adds some extra melody into an already memorable song. Fight Your Demons is a faster, heavier song with some excellent double bass drumming from Ariën van Weesenbeek and a string-heavy opening riff. While the previous song was more of a mid-paced effort, this song showcases the band's death metal influences perfectly, with a few parts that feature Jansen's harsh vocals heavily and some a pummelling drumming performance. Simons also uses the more operatic side of her voice, especially during the choir-dominated choruses, which works well to contrast with the heaviness of the majority of the music. Architect of Light showcases the band's more progressive side somewhat with a great mix of sounds thrown together from the off. A gentle symphonic intro gives way to a heavier riff-heavy section, with plenty of gothic choral lines to provide a dense and foreboding atmosphere. This mood is shattered with the verses, which are based around a very simple guitar riff that has real classic rock swagger and Simons' confident vocal display. Other heavier sections are used throughout, including a great call and response section between Simons and Jansen set to a death metal backing, but overall this is a more melodic piece that stays interesting by constantly changing style.

Wheel of Destiny is more of a guitar-heavy piece with a riff that sounds like something a NWOBHM band might have come up with in 1980, with occasional stabs of orchestra for dynamic effect. While the strings do come to dominate slightly more as the song moves on, Delahaye's riffs, and a strong bass presence from Rob van der Loo, always form the basis of the song. The chorus is a really memorable one, and probably the best on the EP, and features some prominent piano playing from Coen Janssen. In some respect this song has the feel of the band's first couple of albums, before their progressive influences really came to the fore, as it is a more stripped-back song with overt melodies and a simple structure. It also contains one of Delahaye's best guitar solos ever for Epica, and he really lets rip with some really fast, shredded melodies. Acoustic songs are not something that Epica do often, but Immortal Melancholy is just that. Simons' voice really shines here over a simple acoustic guitar and orchestral backing. There are some renaissance-inspired melodies here, which give the song a bit of a Blackmore's Night vibe at times, but overall it feels like a typical Epica ballad that is stripped back even further to it's roots. After that short lull, the EP's final track Decoded Poetry picks up the pace again with a furious opening riff that has a gloriously dramatic symphonic backing. This is another real standout piece on this EP, with another excellent chorus that just gets embedded in your head and a grindingly heavy section with Jansen's grunts. This is another song that mixes things up quite a bit, with an almost-tech metal riff coming out of nowhere towards the end and a discordant symphonic section with demonic choirs galore. It ends the EP on a high, and shows that Epica are capable of cramming a lot into a relatively short space of time. Overall, The Solace System is a must-listen for all Epica fans, especially those who have enjoyed their expanded sound of late. It will definitely keep fans occupied until the band's next album which I am sure, given Epica's usual work rate, is not too far away.

The EP was released on 1st September 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Solace System.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Mostly Autumn - Leamington Review

A Mostly Autumn concert at The Assembly in Leamington Spa seems to be an annual event now and is always something to look forward to in the year's gigging calendar. While the band have been playing in Leamington for a number of years, over the past couple of years the shows have become real showcase events. 2015 and 2016 both featured extended shows at The Assembly, with the evenings consisting of acoustic sets, special guests, and setlist surprises featuring lesser-played songs and choice covers. While 2017's visit to Leamington was not quite as expansive as the previous couple of years, the band made the more 'traditional' concert experience an extra special one with a great setlist and an emotionally-charged performance. Despite releasing their twelfth album Sight of Day earlier in the year, 2017 has been a fairly quiet year for Mostly Autumn when it comes to live activity. The pregnancy of frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh has dictated the band's schedule somewhat but the gigs the band have played so far this year have all been excellent. I saw the band a couple of times earlier in the year, in Tavistock and Bilston, and both shows were excellent. The band debuted some of the new material on these early shows, but seemed to want to hold back the 'bigger' songs of the album for some special showcase shows later in the year. After a quiet summer, during which time Sparnenn-Josh gave birth to a baby girl, it announced that the band's three shows in September (London, Leamington, and a hometown show in York) would all feature the Sight of Day album in full, along with a second set of older material. This made the Leamington show a must-see event. The Assembly is a great place for showcase gigs as the venue is excellent and the town itself is in a very central location which is easy to get to. While I have certainly seem bigger crowds at Mostly Autumn shows over the years, the turnout for this September weekend was not bad at all, and was packed with many of the familiar faces that you see at the band's shows up and down the country.

The band hit the stage at 6:30pm with the rumbling piano intro of Sight of Day, so it was clear the band were going to be showcasing their new album right off the bat. The title track of the new album is one of the best songs the band have ever done in my opinion, and I had been waiting to hear it live for months. It did not disappoint, and it really got the show off to a great start with Sparnenn-Josh's delicate intro vocals atop Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano melodies really filling the hall. The song is one that builds up over time, and the first part climaxes with a stunning chorus filled with harmony vocals and the band's trademark wall of sound approach. A quieter mid-section gives Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) his first chance to shine of the evening with a beautiful Floydy guitar solo, before the third part kicks in with Chris Johnson's (vocals/guitar) acoustic guitar chords for a high-energy, melodic closing section. The song showcases everything that is great about Mostly Autumn, and it was great to get the chance to hear it live. The rest of the album followed in the order that it appears on the CD, with each track contributing something magic to the evening. The laid-back rock of Once Round the Sun is a fun number live, with a simple chorus that the crowd really latched onto and a strong instrumental section towards the end that was dominated by Angela Gordon's (flute/keyboards/whistle/vocals) flute melodies. There were some moments in the first set where the sound was somewhat muddy. Hammerdown in particular sounded a little rough, with many of the subtitles buried in the mix, but these moments were fairly minimal. Changing Lives is a personal favourite of mine from the new album so it was a real treat to hear it live again. Johnson sings the song beautifully and it is one of those songs that just changes the band's established formula up a little to keep things fresh. Only the Brave is sure to become a live favourite for years to come, and is one of the most in-your-face hard rock songs the band have done for a while. Josh's bluesy rock riff and strong vocals really carry the song, but the melodic chorus with Sparnenn-Josh's harmony vocals and the powerful folky instrumental section with Gordon's flute once again standing out, help to turn it into a dynamic little song. The album's other epic Native Spirit has never been a particular favourite of mine, but it has grown on me somewhat since the album's release. That being said however, the song came across very well live with the progressive arrangement really working well with Josh's lyrics. The song builds towards a symphonic climax, making great use of the band's two keyboard players, and actually became one the highlights of the set. The band were really on fire by this point and the crowd were really into the show. Raindown really comes alive on stage, and the lengthy ballad is another that is likely to be in the set for quite some time. It is a real vocal showcase for Sparnenn-Josh, and allows her to use both the quieter side of her voice and then unleash some real power towards the end. It also features Gordon a lot, with plenty of flute parts for her to shine and chances for her beautiful voice to be heard harmonising with Sparnenn-Josh. Josh also launched into a really explosive solo towards the end, that really came out of nowhere, and he was playing his guitar so hard that he broke his strap! The first part of the show finished with the whimsical Forever and Beyond, a simple little song with a positive message that brought the Sight of Day part of the show to a triumphant end.

A half an hour break followed, but it was not long before the band were back on stage with a set of the band's older material, which included many real fan favourites. Many of the songs played have been featured a lot over the past couple of years, but that did not seem to phase the crowd who cheered enthusiastically for each number played. The folky instrumental Out of the Inn got the second half off to a great start, before the gothic rock of Josh's solo number In for the Bite reintroduced Sparnenn-Josh for the second set. This second half felt like a victory lap after the triumphant Sight of Day showcase, and the crowd favourites came thick and fast. The folk rock of Skin on Skin was up next, which always features a lengthy and explosive drum solo from Alex Cromarty and a drawn-out instrumental section to close with plenty of soloing from Josh. Evergreen has been brought out of the box again this year after a well-deserved break last year, but it still really hits the spot and is one of the band's signature tunes. Sparnenn-Josh had made the song her own since taking the frontwoman spot seven years ago, and the whole band really work together as a whole to create the emotionally-charged piece. Another of the band's signature tunes Mother Nature followed, which has been enjoying a new lease of life of late with regular live outings. The first half is a gorgeous, organic, and folky song with strong vocal harmonies that climaxes with a power chorus, and the second half is an instrumental showcase, featuring an atmospheric keyboard solo from Jennings and ending with a stark bass solo from Andy Smith. There is a reason it is considered one of the band's best achievements, and it has been great to hear it live so often over the past couple of years. Passengers has not been featured much in the band's sets this year, so it was nice to hear it again after a year or so, and it is another fan favourite with an almost AOR-esque chorus. The short piano ballad Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts just gets better every time you hear it, and it has become a real setlist staple of late and allows Sparnenn-Josh to show off her delicate and emotional vocal delivery over Jennings' simple piano lines. Another recent setlist staple is Johnson's Silver Glass, which is always greeted with a huge cheer and always manages to steal the show. Josh's guitar solo in the piece is one of his best in my opinion and the way Johnson sings it never fails to raise a few internal emotions. The main set came to an end with a great version of Sparnenn-Josh's Questioning Eyes which really seemed to hit harder than usual with her vocal prowess really shining through. After a short walk off stage, the band came back for a run through of Heroes Never Die, which is probably the band's signature song, and a spine-tingling version of Tonight complete with some extended soloing from Josh and a chance to introduce the band. The band took their bows to huge cheers from the crowd, and it was clear this special setlist had had the intended effect. The setlist was:

Sight of Day
Once Round the Sun
The Man Without a Name
Hammerdown
Changing Lives
Only the Brave
Native Spirit
Tomorrow Dies
Raindown
Forever and Beyond
-
Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Skin on Skin
Evergreen
Mother Nature
Passengers
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
-
Heroes Never Die
Tonight

Sadly this night in Leamington was my last of my three Mostly Autumn concerts of 2017, but I am sure there will be more to come next year. Readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of how much of a fan I am of this band by now, and getting so many opportunities to see them live is a real treat. I am already looking forward to the next one, whenever that will be!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Paradise Lost's 'Medusa' - Album Review

Halifax's Paradise Lost, one of the true originators of the death/doom genre during the late 1980s and early 1990s, have been riding on a real high over the past couple of years. For a band who created some of the most melancholic heavy music to come from the UK on their first few releases, Paradise Lost's experimentations with their sound over the years certainly brought mixed results. The initial move away from harsh vocals towards a cleaner, more gothic delivery, that came to a head on fan-favourite album Draconian Times in 1995, was a success and saw the band on a natural trajectory from 1990's debut album Lost Paradise. Post-Draconian Times, it is fair to say that results have been mixed. The introduction of prominent synths, which definitely took influence from bands like The Sisters of Mercy, on 1997's One Second worked well but this direction certainly outstayed it's welcome and Paradise spend ten years or so releasing divisive albums to little commercial success, some of which even the band themselves have now distanced themselves from. For the past ten or so years however, Paradise Lost have been back on the right track. 2007's In Requiem was a return to the gothic melodrama of Draconian Times and certainly raised a few heads when it was released a decade ago. Since then, Paradise Lost have firmly been back in the metal world's collective conscious again. Both 2009's Faith Divides Us - Death Unites Us and 2012's Tragic Idol, which were cut from the same cloth as In Requiem, were well received the band's touring schedule picked up once again as they were booked to play bigger rooms. As an aside, a few years ago the band's two main songwriters, frontman Nick Holmes and guitarist Greg Mackintosh, began to reacquaint themselves with their extreme metal roots. Mackintosh's death/grind side project Vallenfyre, which he fronts, is far heavier and dirtier than anything Paradise Lost have ever done. Their albums, particularly the 2011 debut A Fragile King, have been well received and the band are genuinely big hitters in extreme metal circles. Parallel to this, after around two decades of singing mostly with his clean voice, Holmes joined death metal supergroup Bloodbath in 2012 and unleashed his growls on the world once again. It was no doubt these extra curricular ventures that led to 2015's The Plague Within (which I reviewed here), a monster of a death/doom album that saw Paradise Lost return to their early sound. It was easily the band's best-received album in years, so it is no surprise that the band have returned to that sound once more for their latest opus Medusa, which is their fifteenth studio album overall. The production team responsible for The Plague Within returns here, so it is unsurprising that Medusa feels like a companion piece to the previous release. The only major difference here is Finnish drummer Waltteri Väyrynen (Hypothesis; Vallenfyre), who was officially announced as the band's drummer last year replacing the departing Adrian Erlandsson, but his slow, booming drum style is perfect for the bleak, heavy material found here.

The album gets underway with Fearless Sky, the longest song here at over eight minutes in length, which opens with melancholic organ playing before Mackintosh's first of many crushing riffs kicks in. Subtle, Black Sabbath-esque leads are thrown in over the top, but the song's initial power comes from Mackintosh's doomy chords, backed up well by rhythm guitarist Aaron Aedy and bassist Steve Edmondson. This riff forms the basis of the first part of the song, and sees Holmes unleashing some of the most demonic harsh vocals of his career yet. His slightly croaky delivery is perfect for the song's desolate mood and fits in well with the sluggish pace found here. There is a bit of a chorus which rears it's head every so often, and this sees Holmes employ his gothic clean voice, backed by some melodic guitar leads, which acts a great contrast with the much heavier sections. The majority of this album sees Holmes growling, but bursts of clean vocals help to stop the album from becoming monotonous. Towards the end, the song picks up the pace, with Väyrynen leading the way with lots of excellent drum fills, and sees Holmes' more traditional clean vocals put to good use. With Fearless Sky really setting a dark tone, Gods of Ancient reinforces this with a raw-sounding guitar and some frantic drumming. While the initial instrumental portion of the song is played at a faster pace, when the song reaches the verses the speed slows right down again to that of a crawl as Holmes' throaty harsh vocals pour out of the speakers. Mackintosh uses more guitar leads here, which add a cutting melodic counterpart to Aedy's suffocating chords, and he dominates the instrumental sections with spiralling melodies. Lots of comparisons can be drawn between the sound here and that of Black Sabbath's, as the songs here tend to speed up towards the end with a riff that is similar to something Tony Iommi might have come up with. This song is no different, and picks up towards the end with a heavy, bluesy riff that hits hard. The shorter From the Gallows has one of Mackintosh's trademark guitar leads during the intro, and picks up the pace somewhat with some fast double bass drumming from Väyrynen. The intro riff is still pretty slow, so the fast drumming beneath makes for a slightly unsettling listen. The verses are much faster than usual here, with crunching power chord-based riffing over some more traditional death metal drumming. Paradise Lost are known for their slower sound, but they can pick up the pace well on occasion too and relentless songs like this help to create a dynamic listening experience and allow Väyrynen more of a chance to show off. The Longest Winter returns to the band's customary slower pace however with a really dirty opening riff that really rumbles out of the speakers with true power. Holmes sings much of the song using his clean voice here, something not used since the album's opening number, and his deep, booming voice really cuts through the sludgy riffing perfectly. There is a strong chorus here, not something the band are particularly known for, but the vocal melodies are easy to latch on to and Mackintosh does his bit with some subtle, tortured guitar leads.

Opening with some distant piano chords, the album's title track is another long one at over six minutes in length. Mackintosh's guitar leads are not always as prominent here as they are on other Paradise Lost, but this song puts them back into the spotlight perfectly right away with some absolutely gorgeous phrasing that just steals the show. I often think that there is a lot of David Gilmour is Mackintosh's lead playing, and some of the melodies here really display that. Again, Holmes sings the song largely using his clean voice and he sound fantastic throughout. In my opinion, Holmes is sounding better than he ever has recently and has put down some of his best vocal performances to date on this album. Both his harsh and clean vocals sound stronger than they ever have here, and his ability to effortlessly switch between the two shows his talent as a vocalist. Every so often the song strips back to the piano lines used in the intro, which works well to provide a mix of light and shade. I feel this song really showcases Paradise Lost at their best as it has a great mix of their more gothic, melodic sound, mixed in with their heavier, death metal sound perfectly. No Passage for the Dead opens with another excellent guitar lead, before again descending into heavier territory with another slow-paced verse packed with Holmes' throat-shredding vocals. Despite the heavier feel, this is still a fairly melodic song with a lot of emphasis placed on Mackintosh's guitar leads and a chorus that features Heather Mackintosh (Tapping the Vein), who has contributed to many of the band's recent albums, harmonising well with Holmes. Single Blood & Chaos is a faster song, and definitely has hallmarks of the band's Draconian Times era but with harsh vocals used in places. Holmes uses both of his voices well here, and that song has a strong gothic overtone that fits perfectly with the somewhat spacey heavier riffs. The song's chorus is easily the most catchy here, which is clearly why the band chose to shoot a video for it. I imagine this song will become a live favourite with it's strong energy and overt melodies. There is a short, but excellent guitar solo from Mackintosh too that adds an extra spark of melody to make this song one of the most instantly memorable the band has done in a while. The closing number Until the Grave returns to the heavy doom metal sound found throughout the majority of the album with another sledgehammer riff. While not as slow as many of the songs here, this still manages to create a creepy atmosphere with with Holmes' perfectly evil vocal display and some chiming guitar melodies that rear their heads throughout to create an unnerving combination. Keyboards are used more extensively during this song however, which does give it more of an atmospheric feel at times, but this takes nothing away from the power of the riffs. Mackintosh gets one last chance to show off with an excellent guitar solo, which shows him playing faster than he often does, before the song comes to a doomy end with plenty of showcase drumming from Väyrynen. Overall, Medusa is another excellent album from a band which has found themselves in the middle of somewhat of a second wind. This album carries on from the great work forged on The Plague Within and sounds even dirtier and heavier at times, while still maintaining a strong gothic edge.

The album was released on 1st September 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Blood & Chaos.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Accept's 'The Rise of Chaos' - Album Review

Accept, hailing from Solingen in Germany, have been around in one form or another since 1968; but since 1976 have been rocking the world with their back-to-basics brand of heavy metal. The band's self-titled debut album in 1979 laid the ground works for the band's sound, but it was four albums released between 1982 and 1986 - bookended by Restless and Wild and Russian Roulette - that really put the band on the world stage, and made them a part of the so-called 'German Invasion' along with the Scorpions and Warlock. Germany has always been a hotbed for new rock and metal acts, but Accept were one of the first to really breakthrough into the world market and became one of the country's most important metal exports. The razor sharp riffs of guitarist Wolf Hoffman and the raspy vocals of frontman Udo Dirkschneider became the hallmarks of the Accept sound and the band became popular for sticking to their principles and doing what they were good at album after album. For the most part Accept have stuck to the same blueprint throughout their career. I have always found them to be the heavy metal equivalent of AC/DC, re-using the same formula over and over, but usually managing to stay fresh despite this. The power of Accept's music has always been in their simple, but powerful riffs and their anthemic, fist-pumping choruses. This has served the band well over the years and there really is no reason for them to deviate far from this successful formula. Like many bands who have been around for a while however, line-up changes have been a big part of Accept's history. Hoffman and bassist Peter Baltes have been ever-present throughout Accept's career, and have become the band's main songwriters, but many others have come and gone over the years. When the band reunited for a fourth time in 2009, Hoffman and Baltes recruited frontman Mark Tornillo to replace Dirkschneider and the three have spearheaded the band since. Blood of the Nations, Tornillo's first album with the band, was released the following year to worldwide acclaim and was the start of a real resurgence for Accept, almost comparable with their early 1980s heyday. 2012's Stalingrad and 2014's Blind Rage followed, both with similarly excellent reviews, and Accept once again became big hitters on the world metal stage. The line-up change curse hit once again in 2015 however, as rhythm guitarist Herman Frank and drummer Stefan Schwarzmann left the band. Both had been with Accept since the 2009 reunion and both had played with Accept at various points in the past, so this was quite a blow for the band. Replacements were sought and guitarist Uwe Lulis (Grave Digger; Rebellion) and drummer Christopher Williams (War Within; Blackfoot) were brought in. As in the past however, Accept rode the line-up change wave well and Lulis and Williams were quickly integrated within Accept's ranks. After plenty of touring, this particular incarnation of Accept's first studio album The Rise of Chaos, which is the band's fifteenth overall, was released last month to similar acclaim to that of the previous three. It will surprise no-one that The Rise of Chaos is classic Accept and an album that sticks to the band's well-established and instantly recognisable sound.

After opening with a riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath, the album gets underway at speed with Die by the Sword, a song that really contains off the hallmarks of what makes Accept so good. Hoffman's riff drives the whole song, but Baltes' bass is constantly prominent in the mix which really helps to give the song serious weight. While many long-time fans of Accept may still miss Dirkschneider, Tornillo has really made the singer role his own since joining the band in 2009. His rasp has arguably more power than Dirkschneider ever possessed, and his is a great vehicle to carry these hard-hitting metal anthems. The song's chorus is as fist-pumping as ever, with powerful gang vocals from the rest of the band that sits perfectly atop a chugging riff. Hoffman is quite an underrated guitarist in my opinion, and he launches into a short neo-classical solo part way through that is a lot more technical that it seems on the surface. While many of Accept's songs are quite fast, many of them are also strong mid-paced efforts and that is exactly what Hole in the Head is. Baltes' bass drives the whole song, and his fat tones really cut through the mix perfectly as the band's two guitarists take more of a backseat. While Accept are not exactly a band to emphasis groove in their songs, this is one where it is more present, especially during the chorus which has a snaking guitar riff that sits below then anthemic vocal melodies that make more use of strong gang vocals. The album's title track picks up the pace once again, and this song is a real throwback to the band's early days. While Accept's sound has barely changed at all throughout their career, this is a song that really sounds like it could have appeared on 1983's Balls to the Wall. Hoffman's driving riff just dominates the whole song, and Williams' drum patterns are simple but come out of the speakers like sledgehammers to inspire plenty of neck movement. The chorus is simple, but very effective, and carries on the song's hard-hitting feeling. Tornillo unleashes some pretty high-pitched vocals in the chorus too, which is a great contrast to the deep gang vocals, and makes it instantly memorable. Koolaid is one of the album's best songs in my opinion, and tells the story of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre. Even for Accept's standards, this song is stripped back to basics and is built around a solid bassline from Baltes that just holds everything together. Tornillo's vocal delivery is understandably subdued during the verses, but picks up as the song moves towards the chorus. The gang vocals here really add some serious power to the song, which acts as a great contrast to the more subdued verses, even if the chorus' lyrics come off as a little unintentionally funny given the song's subject matter. No Regrets is another faster piece, that mixes short snaps of vocally-dominated pieces with almost-thrash metal riffs. The stop-start nature of the song works well however, and makes the bursts of thrash-like energy hit with real power when they come in.

Analog Man is another real standout song here, and deals with older people's struggles to fit into a modern, technologically-driven world. It is done in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, but the message still resonates clearly and it makes a serious point. This is another mid-paced song, with buzzing staccato guitar riffs atop a constant, rumbling bassline. The call-and-response style chorus is made to be played live, and some bluesier riffs that appear during the song's second half lead to a nice change of pace. Hoffman's guitar solo is surprisingly bluesy too, and relies less on speed that he does usually. What's Done is Done is another instantly catchy song with a bouncy, fast-paced guitar riff and a commanding vocal display from Tornillo. What makes this song so good however is the excellent chorus, which is possibly the best on the album. Most of Accept's choruses are simple and rely on basic melodies, and this one is no different, but it just seems to be catchier than usual. Gang vocals are often used by the band to make their choruses seem more powerful, but here the backing vocals are used in a more subtle way which enhances Tornillo's voice rather than drowning it. I think it works well and really helps to raise this chorus up to the next level while still retaining the band's signature sound. Worlds Colliding is somewhat less-heavy than many of Accept's sound, and instead takes on more of a hard rock crunch with shades of AC/DC and more overt vocal melodies. That is not to say that this song sounds vastly different from anything else on this album, as it does not, but it just seems to go for a slightly more nuanced approach with some surprisingly aching guitar leads in places and a more melodic vocal performance. This is all relative however, as the song still packs in a punch in a way that only Accept can, but there are subtle differences here that give the song a slightly more polished sheen. In contrast Carry the Weight is possibly the heaviest piece on the album with a furious drumming performance throughout from Williams, which makes a good use of some heavy double bass drumming, and some fast, flashy guitar riffs. Accept's riffs are usually simple affairs, that go for power rather than technical prowess, but some of the guitar moments are more intricate than usual which is a nice change and shows Hoffman and Lulis in a different light. The song seems to deal with many of the current affairs going on in the world at the moment, and even mentions Brexit, and portrays the world in quite a downbeat way. This is in contrast with the heavier, faster music here but it still works well and manages to get it's point across well. The album's final song, Race to Extinction, opens out with a slower, methodical riff but soon speeds up somewhat to a more mid-paced rocker that includes some evil-sounding guitar riffs, again reminiscent of Black Sabbath, in places which contrasts well with the upbeat nature of the rest of the music. Style wise this song is typical of the rest of the album, with a hard-hitting gang vocal chorus all led by Tornillo's powerful vocal prowess. It is a strong song to end the album on, and rounds out the themes addressed here perfectly. Overall, The Rise of Chaos is another really strong album from Accept that carries on the good work the band have been doing since Blood of the Nations. Lulis and Williams have fitted into the Accept machine perfectly, and the core of the band - Tornillo, Hoffman, and Baltes - have written another hard-hitting albums of metal anthems that is sure to be enjoyed by many.

The album was released on 4th August 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Rise of Chaos.


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Cruel Knives' 'Side One' - EP Review

Earlier this year, after more than a year of dormancy after the departure of frontman Aaron Buchanan in October 2015, Heaven's Basement announced that they were no more. As someone who had been a fan of the band since almost the very beginning, this was very sad news. While I had been a fan of rock and metal for some time before first hearing anything by Heaven's Basement, they were one of the first 'new' rock bands I discovered in my mid-teens and they, along with a few other bands, felt like part of 'my' generation of rock. Sadly most of these bands are now no more, but it was exciting for a time to discover a new wave of classic rock-inspired bands coming through when my love for the genre was really developing. While I never saw the original line-up live, I saw what became the band's most famous line-up live six times between 2011 and 2015 and two of those gigs in particular really stand out as being some of the best I have seen in small venues. While the end of Heaven's Basement was sad, it was not exactly a surprise either. The band's sound had changed over the years - from 1980s-inspired rock on the self-titled debut EP to a more modernised rock sound on the band's only album Filthy Empire - and it seemed that guitarist Sid Glover wanted to modernise his songwriting style further. As a result, the same announcement that sealed Heaven's Basement fate also gave birth to The Cruel Knives, which saw Glover and Rob Ellershaw (Heaven's Basement's bassist since 2009) deciding stick together, along with new frontman Tom Harris and drummer Al Junior, to start again under a new moniker. Harris, Glover, and Ellershaw; along with Heaven's Basement drummer Chris Rivers; performed a couple of secret shows towards the end of 2016 supporting The Pretty Reckless, and many assumed this would be the new line-up of Heaven's Basement going forward, but this was not to be the case. I am not sure if it was Rivers' departure that led to the name change/re-birth, or whether the band always intended to start again, but re-branding as The Cruel Knives seems to have been the right move as the band's material is quite different to that found in the Heaven's Basement canon. Side One, the band's debut EP, is made up of five songs that represent the direction Glover and Ellershaw are now heading in and was funded by a successful crowdfunding campaign. For a lover of classic rock, and the Heaven's Basement of old, the sound on Side One was a bit of a shock. While this is still 'rock' music, the dirty bluesy riffs and powerful vocals of old are largely gone to be replaced with a slicker, poppier sound. If I am honest, I am not sure this EP will ever really be to my taste, but that is not to say that there are no good songs here and going in with an open mind is highly recommended.

The EP opens with The World We Were Sold, a riff-heavy rocker that is the closest thing hear to Heaven's Basement's sound. Glover has always been a great riff writer, and this song is no different with a fast-paced guitar pattern that drives the entire song. Harris, while a strong singer in his own right, lacks the raw power of Heaven's Basement's two main frontmen and instead opts for a slightly higher-pitched delivery that works melodically but is less hard-hitting than the song probably needs. This song was released online on the day The Cruel Knives were launched, and it definitely seems like a bridge between old and new. The chorus is a strong moment, which makes the most of Harris' more melodic vocal delivery, and the twisted guitar solo from Glover is different from his classic rock-inspired past but works well in the song's context. Itch opens with a snaking bassline riff from Ellershaw which Harris sings over in his slightly thin style which gives the song a slightly modern indie rock feel - at least at first. Things do get heavier throughout however, and Glover does launch into a meaty riff which then leads into a punchy chorus with some catchy wordless vocal sections. Ellershaw continues to dominate throughout however, especially during the verses which really shows his skills as a player. The song really lets go towards the end, with a frantic hard section that draws the song to a close. Kill the Messenger opens with a slightly atmospheric intro that has layers of effects-drenched guitar and Harris' naked and somewhat fragile vocal performance. When the song gets going however it turns into an enjoyable rocker but this is a song which I feel could have benefited from a ballsier vocal delivery. One the one hand I do like Harris as a singer, and he can really let rip when the moment takes him, but on the other hand I feel his voice is often a little fragile for Glover's riffing. Glover has always worked with really strong frontmen, and I am not sure that Harris really falls into that category. Squeeze is easily the weak link on the EP for me, and attempts a more lighter hearted rock sound with Harris' perpetually high vocals and slightly funky overall feel. This is the sort of song that would probably work if done by a band like The Struts, who have that slightly quirky personality, but when done by The Cruel Knives just feels a little forced. There is certainly no dirt under the nails of this song, and sticks out on an EP that generally hits pretty hard. The Promised Land is the EP's closing number and is probably my favourite number here with a dirty slide guitar intro and a great bass groove throughout. There are certainly shades of the old Heaven's Basement sound here, but adapted well to make great use of Harris' higher voice. The chorus is an instantly catchy one, with some excellent tremolo guitar playing underneath the vocals, and the musicianship throughout is strong. I feel that this is the song where the sound The Cruel Knives are attempting to pursue comes together the best, and I hope to see more of this going forward. Overall, Side One is a good start from a new band that are going to have the break out of the shadow of Heaven's Basement. It is hard for fans of that band's work, especially the band's early work, to not be slightly disappointed with the lighter overall feel of the EP, but there are definitely more high points than low ones here and I will be interested to see where they go from here.

The self-released EP was released on 28th July 2017. Below is the band's promotional sound clip for The World We Were Sold.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Kim Seviour's 'Recovery is Learning' - Album Review

English singer Kim Seviour rose to fame as the frontwoman of the progressive rock band Touchstone, a band she fronted for eight years between 2007 and 2015. Despite Touchstone having been around in various forms since it was formed by keyboardist and vocalist Rob Cottingham in 2003, and even releasing an EP with previous singer Liz Clayden in 2006, it was with Seviour that Touchstone really began to make waves in the progressive rock world. The band's debut album, the excellent Discordant Dreams, was released the same year Seviour joined the band - and three more albums were released at regular two year intervals. While her role on Discordant Dreams is largely that of a harmony vocalist, as Cottingham initially dominated the band's sound vocally, this changed moving forward with her taking a much greater role on 2009's Wintercoast and then essentially singing all of the lead vocals on 2011's The City Sleeps and 2013's Oceans of Time. Seviour also had a greater hand in the band's songwriting process as time went on, with her being credited with the majority of the lyrics on the band's most recent releases. Sadly, it seems by the time Oceans of Time was released the band as it was had run it's course somewhat. I have never really got into Oceans of Time and I feel that it is significantly weaker than the rest of the band's catalogue. It is probably right then that two years later the classic Touchstone line-up split three ways. Seviour had already decided to leave the band, as she was struggling to commit to touring due to her long struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Cottingham announced in the run up to Seviour's planned farewell show that he too would leave the band. This left guitarist Adam Hodgson, bassist Moo, and drummer Henry Rogers to carry on the Touchstone name, which they have done excellently with vocalist Aggie and keyboardist Liam Holmes, and released the EP Lights from the Sky last year. Cottingham has since formed Cairo, and he seen him return to the sound of Discordant Dreams with his vocals once again taking centre stage, and released the album SAY last year. Seviour's plan when leaving Touchstone was to make her own album, and this was finally released in July titled Recovery is Learning. Taking influence from her struggles with illness over the year, the album is an extremely positive one that celebrates life and is driven by her charming vocal abilities. The album was written in collaboration with John Mitchell (Arena; Kino; Frost*; It Bites; Lonely Robot) who worked with Touchstone in the studio on all of their albums. Mitchell has also produced this new album and played the vast majority of the album's instruments. Graham Brown (Cairo) played all of the drums on the album, and Touchstone's Holmes contributed piano to one song, but everything else was played by Mitchell. This is both a blessing and a curse, as at times Recovery is Learning can sound like a cousin to his recent Lonely Robot solo albums, but overall Mitchell's songwriting and musical abilities is a big asset to the album. Unsurprisingly however, this is an album that largely focuses on the vocals and the vocal melodies. This is not a complex progressive rock album built on long instrumental sections, but instead a concise and melody-driven release that features some of Seviour's best vocal performances yet.

The album opens with the lead single Chiasma which is based around a strong piano riff with a tough rock backing. The verses are somewhat paired back, letting a snaking bassline dominate, while layers of atmospheric keyboards create a strong mood. Seviour's vocals in the verses are simply gorgeous, using a slightly higher register of her voice than usual, which works perfectly against the simpler backdrop. The chorus rocks harder, utilising the intro's piano riff and a more powerful vocal delivery. There is a short guitar solo in the song, not something which is used too often throughout the album, but it does give Mitchell a chance to cut loose on his main instrument. This is an excellent song, and a perfect way to kick off a new solo career with intent. Call to Action retains the energy of the previous song with a heavy opening guitar riff. While Touchstone were prone to heavier moments, I did not expect Seviour to carry this over into her solo career. I am glad she did however as it works well here. Like the previous number however the verses are calmer, this time with a chiming piano backing that sits atop a drum groove. The chorus is one of the album's best, with infectious vocal melodies that sink in after only a couple of listens and more heavier guitars. A short proggy guitar-led instrumental section provides a change of pace, before the song builds back up to another reprise of the chorus. Connect opens with a mid-paced guitar chug and a strong synth melody that provides the main hook. The bass guitar once again dominates the verses, with Seviour's fragile, almost whispered, vocals providing a counter melody. Despite the chugging intro, this is a fairly light song overall with little prominent guitar work outside of the intro sections, with it instead focusing on bass and chiming keyboards. Another spacey instrumental section adds a different dimension, although it does not last long before Seviour begins singing over it. Her vocals are mixed into the background however, with her becoming part of the soundscape as the piano takes centre stage. Fabergé, is the song to feature Holmes' piano playing and he teams up well with Mitchell in the intro as the two play the same floaty melody to great effect. After three fairly rocky pieces, this is the first real slower number on the album. The clean guitar melodies and the piano dominate, with Seviour's expressive and somewhat mournful vocals croon over the top. The song does build up somewhat over time, with drums coming in during the second verse and things open up after the second chorus with a subtle choral effect to give a big sound. Mitchell solos here once again, but this time he gets quite a long time to show off his skills with a slow, melodic guitar solo. Mother Wisdom retains the slower feel of the previous song, but adds some rock groove to the proceedings as the tight rhythm section drive everything forward. Seviour's vocals provide the main melodies, as the musical backing is often rather sparse, but there are some spacey synths throughout that add some sparkle and shimmer throughout. This is the case however until a slightly heavier instrumental section kicks in towards the end with a tough guitar riff and even more keyboards. It adds another dimension to the song, and helps it to remain interesting throughout.

The Dive returns to the slightly heavier feel of the opening few songs, with an upbeat guitar-led intro which features some melodic wordless vocals from Seviour. This is not a song that ever really lets the energy levels drop, as even the verses this time do not really pair things back too much, with fast keyboard riffs and swells of effects-heavy guitar. The choruses are fast, and very melodic, with a confident vocal performance and even some double bass drumming from Brown. While not a heavy album, it is good to see moments here where things move towards that territory somewhat. Seviour sings well over the rockier songs in my opinion, and it lets her break free a little and really let her hair down. A strong bluesy guitar solo provides extra melody here, and is one of the few moments where the pace slows down a little, before coming to a quiet end with Seviour's final chiming vocal line. Where She Sleeps is a piano ballad, and works well coming off the back of the heavier previous song. Mitchell is more known in the rock world as a guitarist, but he really is a man of many talents and proves this here with an excellent performance behind the piano. While the piano is the song's main instrumental, and often the song's only instrument, there is a section towards the end where the song builds up further with a strong symphonic backing with some rhythmic percussion. The album's title track follows, and again it opens up with some rolling piano melodies. I particularly like Seviour's vocal performance here, as she initially sings in a much lower register than she does usually and she raises the pitch of her voice gradually as the song moves forward. While not a ballad, the song is not exactly an out-and-out rocker either, and moves along at a nice pace with lots of strong melodies from various sources. The piano constantly stands out here, as to Seviour's vocals. At points she harmonises with herself which creates a surprisingly big sound that recalls some of the more epic tracks she participated in during her time with Touchstone. The album's final song Morning of the Soul carries on from the previous number in similar fashion with chiming keyboards and a driving bassline. In fact the album's two closing numbers are cut from the same cloth, so they seem to meld together into one big song. Some more prominent guitar playing does come in here too, with some heavier chugging sections and one final guitar solo too add a little piece of musical finesse towards the end. An excerpt from John Keats' poem To Hope is spoken towards the end to good effect, before a reprise of the song's chorus sees the album out to melodic close. Overall, Recovery is Learning is a strong start to Seviour's solo career, and one that is different enough from her work with Touchstone to make an obvious distinction between the two bodies of work. Obviously there are shades of her former band throughout these nine songs, but overall this feels like something new. Mitchell's influence is apparent however, and at times the album does feel a little too close to his Lonely Robot albums for it to have it's own true identity. I would like to see Seviour collaborate with a different people on her next album, if she does one, so she can really start to forge her own identity. That being said, this is still an impressive debut album from a great singer, and one that I can see myself enjoying a lot over the coming months.

The album was released on 28th July 2017 via White Star Records. Below is her promotional video for Chiasma.


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Alice Cooper's 'Paranormal' - Album Review

Few solo artists can claim to be as influential or as revolutionary as Alice Cooper has been over the past five decades. While strictly not the first to do so, Cooper's use of make-up, an on-stage persona, and an over-the-top stage show really pushed the boundaries of live performance and redefined what a rock and roll show could be. His first album, Pretties for You, was released in 1969 and he has continued to release albums fairly regularly ever since. While it is his legendary live shows that he is most known for, his extensive back catalogue of studio recordings is impressive and contains many bona fide classics. Over the years, Cooper has tried his hand at many different styles of music. While his early 1970s glam rock output with the original Alice Cooper Band is arguably his most famous sound, his late 1970s/early 1980s experimental period has a cult following, and his late 1980s/early 1990s heavier rock sound that took influence from the hair metal phenomenon is still extremely popular. The heavier sound was retained during the late 1990s/early 2000s, but it was forged with industrial sounds which helped Cooper return to the horror themes of his earlier work. In recent years however Cooper has returned to his early sound somewhat with albums that contain catchy rock songs, with slight gothic overtones, and strong rock and roll/blues grooves. His last album, 2011's Welcome 2 My Nightmare, was an unexpected hit with many critics and fans calling it his best album for quite some time. While the original Alice Cooper Band has not been together for many years, Cooper has often used his touring band to record albums with. Welcome 2 My Nightmare changed this somewhat with a huge army of session musicians, songwriters, and previous collaborates coming together to create a fun album that really took the listener back to Cooper's early 1970s glory days. This approach has been continued on his latest effort, Paranormal, which believe it or not is his twenty seventh studio album! Produced by long-time producer Bob Ezrin, along with current live band member Tommy Henriksen and Swedish songwriter and session muscian Tommy Denander, Paranormal retains the bluesy 1970s sound of the previous effort and really sounds like Cooper is deliberately attempting to recreate his classic sound. Ezrin, Henriksen, and Denander are also responsible for much of the album's songwriting along with Cooper, and play many of the album's instruments. The drums throughout are mostly handled by Larry Mullen Jr. (U2), and the bass is mostly played by session king Jimmie Lee Sloas, so the majority of the instrumentation heard on the album is played by those five men. A few guests appear throughout however, including Roger Glover (Deep Purple; Rainbow) and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), but Cooper fans will be happiest to hear that the three remaining members of the original Alice Cooper Band - guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith - also appear on the album which helps to reinforce that classic 1970s sound when they appear.

The album opens with the title track, which is co-written by and features Glover, and it perfectly captures the creepy atmospherics of 1975's Welcome to my Nightmare with metronomic guitar melodies, occasional bursts of heavy 1970s-style rock, and Cooper's snarling vocals. Cooper's voice has barely changed at all throughout his career and he sounds as good as he did during his original early 1970s heyday. The song is mostly a slower one, but an explosive section towards the end that contains a a fluid guitar solo definitely helps to raise the energy levels somewhat before the creepy atmosphere returns. Dead Flies is a great slab of bluesy rock, and harks back to the sound the original Alice Cooper forged on songs like Under my Wheels. Denander and Henriksen form a formidable guitar duo here with a muscular riff that sits perfectly over Sloas' walking bassline. Cooper talk-sings his way through the verses with ease, but things pick up further during the somewhat anthemic choruses which make good use of the song's main riff and subtle vocal harmonies. A bluesy guitar solo is the icing on the cake, and really helps to reinforce that early 1970s sound. Fireball, which is co-written by and features Dunaway, is an upbeat rock track packed full of energy. Dunaway's bassline unsurprisingly drives the song, but the guitars help with some excellent riffing and bursts of lead to add extra melody. Ezrin's organ envelops the whole song, and gives the song a suffocating blues feel that contrasts well against Cooper's somewhat distant vocal performance. It is the longest song on the album, at just short of five minutes in length, but never outstays it's welcome with an addictive rhythm and a great raw production. Paranoiac Personality opens with Sloas' slow bassline, but the song soon explodes into a real slab of somewhat funky groove rock with a great guitar riff and some excellent drumming from Mullen. While the verses are packed with groove, the choruses are much more traditional with gang-style backing vocals which I am sure will go down well live, and big power chords from the guitars. Again, there is a fantastic guitar solo section which sounds like both Denander and Henriksen cutting loose. While the solos are never long on this album, as most of the songs are around the three minute mark, these little bursts of lead really help to bring the album to life. Fallen in Love features Gibbons on guitar so the song unsurprisingly opens with a sloppy bluesy riff that sounds like something Gibbons would have written for ZZ Top. While not credited, it also sounds like he contributes backing vocals to the track as it really sounds like his Texas drawl during the choruses! He definitely contributes the guitar solo however, as the tortured bluesy sounds coming out of the speakers could not belong to anyone else. This is something a little different to what Cooper usually does, but the songs works really well and is packed with attitude.

Dynamite Road opens the second half of the album up with an excellent blues shuffle. Cooper once again employs the talk-singing vocal style here which works well as the guitars chop away behind him. Mullen again shows his drumming chops here with a great performance that recalls many of the rock 'n' roll and blues legends of the 1950s and 1960s. It's a short song, and one that never lets up with the vocal lines coming thick and fast, but it is one that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Private Public Breakdown is more of a mid-paced rocker that is build around a strong guitar melody and a more overtly melodic vocal performance. This song really is classic Cooper and sounds like something that could have been on 1973's Billion Dollar Babies. Many of the songs on this album are faster efforts, but this one is happy to move along at a slower pace and the let the repeating guitar melody really drive things nicely. The chorus is another strong moment and helps to add extra melody. Holy Water is one of the best moments on the album in my opinion. There is a prominent horn section featured throughout and the performances of the rhythm section really gives the song natural swing. Cooper's vocals are at his most expressive here, and are very theatrical in their delivery. Horns are not something that Cooper has used much in the past, but it works well here and really make the song stand out. There is also a guitar solo performed by session musician Steve Hunter who has been collaborating with Cooper on and off since the mid-1970s. This song was not something I was expecting when listening to this album for the first time, but it really works well and I would be interested to see him tackle more songs like this in the future. Rats features the three remaining original Alice Cooper Band members, and has a great 1950s rock 'n' roll with bluesy guitar licks and plenty of keyboards from Ezrin. While not written by the original band, there is clearly still a lot of chemistry between the four men and their contributions really help to bring the song to life. A screeching bluesy guitar solo towards the end enhances that rock 'n' roll mood, as does Cooper's expressive vocal performances throughout. The Sound of A, also co-written by Dunaway, is a fairly experimental piece that features Ezrin's organ once more and plenty of acoustic guitars. It is an odd song to close such an upbeat and rocky album with, but the creepy atmospherics are somewhat comparable to that of the album's title track, effectively book-ending the album. I prefer Cooper's rockier efforts, but he does these more downbeat songs well too. Without having a true ballad on the album, this song acts as one with a melancholic feel and layers of atmosphere. Some of the guitar playing here sounds like something David Gilmour might have come up with had he ever collaborated with Cooper, but it is the growling organ that steals the show here and really makes the track what it is. Overall, Paranormal is another really strong album from Cooper that is the latest in a string of impressive releases. The album comes with a bonus disc that features two more new songs that also feature the original Alice Cooper band, and a handful of live recordings featuring Cooper's current live band. The whole package is excellent and is definitely recommended for fans of Cooper's early 1970s output.

The album was released on 28th July 2017 via earMusic. Below is his promotional lyric video for Paranormal.