Sunday, 20 August 2017

Nine Inch Nails' 'Add Violence' - EP Review

Following a promise that he made in 2015 Trent Reznor, the man behind the legendary industrial outfit Nine Inch Nails, released his last studio effort under the Nine Inch Nails in December 2016. This long-awaited EP, Not the Actual Events (which I reviewed here), saw Reznor moving away from some of the more ambient sounds which have been dominating his songwriting during the past decade or so, and back to the grittier, rockier approach which served him so well during the early days of Nine Inch Nails' ascent to greatness. Despite Nine Inch Nails being Reznor's main outlet for his musical creativity since 1988, it is fair to say that, in more recent years, it has become one of many irons in Reznor's fire. While he still enjoys to revisit Nine Inch Nails every so often, it seems that his film score work is just as important to him these days; plus his work on getting Apple Music up and running certainly kept him busy. Despite all of these extra distractions, Reznor still makes time for Nine Inch Nails despite the outfit being largely on the back-burning since the end of the 2014 tour. With it's tough and somewhat chaotic sound, Not the Actual Events was a big hit with the Nine Inch Nails fanbase. There were shades of the industrial heaviness of 1994's The Downward Spiral and of the raw stadium rock of 2005's With Teeth, all nicely packaged together in an easily-digestible five track EP. Many of the older fans who had not really enjoyed the more electronica-based sounds Reznor had explored more recently, and in particular on 2013's Hesitation Marks, were brought back on board with Not the Actual Events. It was then revealed that Not the Actual Events was actually the first of a trilogy of new EPs from Reznor the second of which, Add Violence, was released last month somewhat unexpectedly. This series of EPs also sees the debut of Reznor's long-time collaborator Atticus Ross as a full member of Nine Inch Nails. Ross has worked with Reznor in a behind-the-scenes capacity on all Nine Inch Nails releases since With Teeth, is the co-composer on all of Reznor's film soundtracks, and is a part of Reznor's side-project How to Destroy Angels, so his greater involvement in Nine Inch Nails now should not come as a surprise. He obviously works well with Reznor, and it is interesting to see, after all these years, that Nine Inch Nails now has another 'official' member alongside Reznor. His contributions have no doubt helped Reznor to focus his creative muse once again, which can surely be attributed to the success of these two EPs. Add Violence is quite different in style from Not the Actual Events, with the gritty sound once again pushed into the background in favour of a more synth-based sound and murky soundscapes. Add Violence also looks to the band's past for influence too, with shades of 1999's The Fragile and even 2007's Year Zero throughout which helps to contribute to the spacier overall feel.

The EP starts off really well with the synth-heavy Less Than, which sees catchy synth melodies repeating over a punchy drum machine pattern. Reznor's patented half-spoken singing style is introduced almost immediately and this sits perfectly across the dominant synth loops, and some bass guitar playing joins in to add some extra groove. Guitars are absent from the verses, but are used in the chorus for extra power with punky power chords that fit well over the trippy synths. This is a high-energy piece, which is in contrast to much of the rest of the material found on Add Violence, and definitely links this EP to the previous one. Sharlotte Gibson and Allison Iraheta add some backing vocals throughout, which are quite prominent during the choruses, and they are the only guest musicians to be found on this EP. The Lovers is immediately more down-beat with a cold-sounding atmospheric drone which is a good backing for another trippy synth line. During the song's early moments, Reznor's voice is mixed into the background and almost becomes part of the musical landscape of the song, while subtle and haunting piano notes cut through the gloom. When he does begin to sing properly, his mournful croon really helps to add to the strange overall sound of the song. In many ways this is quite a hypnotic piece, with a synth pattern that repeats throughout almost the entirety of the song which helps to draw the listener into the depths of Reznor's mind. This dark feel is built upon further on This isn't the Place, which opens with a slow and menacing bass pattern which is slowly added to with layers of cold synths and atmospheric soundscapes. Reznor's vocals do not kick in until about half way through, and when he does his fragile delivery is quite different to anything he has done recently and definitely harks back, quite appropriately, to The Fragile. By this point, the song has taken on quite a discordant feel, and at times the vocals really clash with the music. I feel this is intentional however, and it works well to create an unsettling atmosphere - something which Reznor has always excelled in. Not Anymore is somewhat of a heavier piece, that opens with a fuzzy bassline and introduces some of the industrial rock elements that featured so heavily on Not the Actual Events. Reznor barks the lyrics throughout with real venom, and the spiky chorus, which is based around a groovy bassline, is one of the EP's most powerful moments. Cold synths are never too far away however, and this song links the previous EP's sound to the sound that dominates Add Violence perfectly, making good use of guitar rhythms and prominent synths. The final song, The Background World, is a lengthy piece at over eleven minutes in length, but the actual 'song' part of this is a more traditional length. It is another downbeat piece, with suffocating synths that create a really desolate feel that is only added to by Reznor's surprisingly melodic vocals. The song's methodical drum programming really draws you into the song, and the beats are easily the thing that stands out the most here. It is this beat that fills the rest of the song's running time, even after the main 'song' is over, as the pattern repeats over and over, getting slightly more distorted and obscured each time, until coming to an end. Overall, Add Violence is another strong effort from Reznor (and Ross) that works as a great companion piece to the previous EP. Their two contrasting styles show off the many sides of Nine Inch Nails perfectly, and I look forward to see where the pair go with the final instalment in the trilogy.

The EP was released on 21st July 2017 via The Null Corporation. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Less Than.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Wintersun's 'The Forest Seasons' - Album Review

Wintersun are one of those bands which I have listened casually to some extent over the years, but have never really properly made the effort to get into. I bought their second, and up until last month their latest, album Time I not too long after it came out in 2012 but it never particularly grabbed me. Around the same time I also purchased a copy of the band's self-titled debut album from 2004 but, to my shame, it has remained unplayed all this time! I think it is fair to say that Wintersun have just never really excited me enough to ever get me to properly sit down with their discography - despite how sparse it is! Despite this, Wintersun's infamy over the years has not passed me by. The band, if you can even really call Wintersun a band, was formed in 2003 by singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Jari Mäenpää while he was a member of the Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum. Mäenpää left Ensiferum the following year to focus on Wintersun full time and has since become something of a pantomime villain in the metal world. Wintersun was a genuinely well-received album back in 2004, and this immediate success clearly went to Mäenpää's head. In the eight years that passed between Wintersun and Time I, Wintersun fans had to put up with missed deadlines, broken promises, and cancelled concerts while Mäenpää worked on his masterpiece: Time. Only Mäenpää can really explain the reasons for these delays, and he has attempted to do so over the years with many lengthy and sometimes seemingly-unhinged Facebook posts, the result was all but the most ardent Wintersun fans had all but given up on Mäenpää by the time Time I was released. Time I, seemingly half of the promised Time album, certainly received mixed reactions on releases and it continues to divide opinion to this day. There is no denying the creativity of Mäenpää and the scope of his vision when it came to Time I, it was just poorly executed with the final album sounding like a sonic mess, without any real clarity. Time I was the modern metal world's answer to Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, although that comparison is not really apt as Chinese Democracy was actually good! Five more years have passed and we seem no closer to Time II's release, and Mäenpää has damaged his reputation further with more broken promises and a ridiculous public spat with his record label Nuclear Blast when they refused to finance the building of a personal Wintersun recording studio. That being said, earlier in the year Mäenpää made the shock announcement that a new Wintersun album was imminent. This new album was not to be Time II however, but a brand new project called The Forest Seasons. Advanced copies of the album were sold through a crowdfunding site which Mäenpää said will help finance his long-dreamed of studio where he will finally finish Time II. If all this sounds ridiculous, that is because it is, but I have to say that Mäenpää has really come up with the goods on The Forest Seasons. Where Time I was an overblown and confusing mess, The Forest Seasons is a leaner, more melodic beast that sounds much better (despite a few moments where the production suffers from too much going on at once) and is an instantly-enjoyable listen. Made up of only four lengthy songs, each one representing one of the four seasons, this is an album that is easily the best thing I have heard from Wintersun to date, and will probably help to restore Mäenpää's reputation somewhat after years of madness.

The album gets underway with the longest song, the near-fifteen minute epic Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring). After a minute or so of atmospheric wind noises, the drums kick in and a symphonic instrumental passage complete with some Oriental-inspired melodies gets things off to a strong start. Reading the album's liner notes, it is clear that The Forest Seasons, more so than any of Wintersun's previous albums, is a Mäenpää solo album in all but name. The other three band members: guitarist Teemu Mäntysaari; bassist Jukka Koskinen; and even drummer Kai Hahto; are conspicuous by their absence for the most part with Mäenpää instead opting to handle all of the album's instruments and programme the drums. In fairness, the programmed drums actually sound quite good, with plenty of punch, but Hahto is such a great drummer it seems a shame that his skills are not utilised here. Mäntysaari and Koskinen provide some additional vocals throughout, but overall this is clearly Mäenpää's project. Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring) is mostly a fairly mid-paced effort, with Mäenpää's harsh vocals dominating over gothic and symphonic backdrops. Mäenpää has always aspired to write grand and epic pieces, and this song definitely comes close to fulfilling those aspirations. Unlike the majority of Time I, Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring) is well-produced and there is a good balance between the heavy guitars and the more ethereal orchestral elements. This song is probably the most upbeat piece on the album, with folky melodies thrown in fairly often to provide a strong sense of melody throughout and allows Mäenpää a chance to show off his lead guitar skills. He rarely indulges in lengthy guitar solos, but the folky interludes here allow him a little opportunity to spread his wings. Short sections that feature clean vocals also add extra melody, and are used sparingly enough to make sure they make maximum impact when they do come in. The second number, The Forest that Weeps (Summer) opens with a frantic acoustic guitar melody over which layers of effects and subtle string arrangements are laid. While not quite as upbeat as the previous number, this is still a relatively light-hearted piece on the surface that makes liberal use of shimmering keyboard textures which are a great contrast to the harsh tones of the guitars. Many riffs throughout have the swagger of many of the great traditional metal bands of the past and, despite it's length, the song has a more traditional structure with an obviously melodic chorus that repeats throughout. The chorus makes use of Mäenpää's clean vocals, and the his folk-esque chants bring to mind the band Týr at times. The singer of Týr appropriately makes an appearance on the track, as part of a large choir made up of members of many metal bands such as Ensiferum, Turisas, and Children of Bodom. This choir helps to really bulk out certain sections of the song and it really adds depth. The song contains many instrumental interludes, which again make use of folky melodies. There is a great section about two thirds of the way through which starts out acoustically and then moves into a hard-hitting riff-driven section which features the same melody that was playing on the acoustic instruments played over a variety of tempos for effect. The last portion of the song contains the chorus, but thing time sung by the choir for full effect which is just as powerful as is sounds!

The album takes a heavier turn on Eternal Darkness (Autumn) which features prominent black metal influences and a murkier overall tone. Again the songs builds up slowly with an atmospheric intro, but as soon as the drums kick in with the blast beats the song really gets going with a dramatic stabbing string section and buzzsaw rhythm guitars. Mäenpää's black metal rasps are actually very convincing, and shows his diversity as a vocalist - something which he has probably not pushed himself far enough with previously. While I am not a big fan of black metal, I appreciate it occasionally, and the symphonic black metal of bands like Dimmu Borgir is certainly exciting and enjoyable. While not as good as their dark bombast, Mäenpää has done well on Eternal Darkness (Autumn) to channel that spirit and create a dark and heavy song that fits in with the overall album but also feels like something new for Wintersun. Most of the song moves along at a fast pace, which is thanks to the fast blast beats courtesy of the drum machine, but the pace does slow down sometimes and allows mournful guitar leads to shine through. This gothic turn helps to keep the song fresh, and stops it from becoming an assault on the senses. In fairness however, this is not the case with the faster sections anyway as the balance between the black metal elements and the extremely effective orchestral scores is pretty much spot on. The song is very well produced and this keeps things flowing nicely and ensures that the nuances are not lost in the mix - something which happened constantly on Time I. A lengthy shredded guitar solo is another highlight of the song, and shows that Mäenpää's guitar playing can really shine when it needs to. The album's final number, Loneliness (Winter), changes things up again with a melancholic overall feel and a much slower pace. Comparisons can be drawn between this song and many of the bands that make up the world of gothic metal with methodical guitar rhythms and moody orchestral sounds dominating the sound. While Mäenpää usually sings the majority of his songs in his harsh voice, much of this song is sung using his clean voice. While his clean vocals are a little rudimentary in comparison to his harsh delivery, they still work well and help to convey the song's mood perfectly - fitting in with the wintry, desolate themes. Explosions of heaviness are still present here, and these see Mäenpää growling once again, but for the most part this song is fairly laid back in comparison to the rest of the album, which helps things wind down after the black metal exploits of the previous song. Towards the song's end, you really start to get used to Mäenpää's clean vocals too, and I feel that this is something that he could work into something really effective with time and more practice. This song is a showcase for him vocally, and it is great to see him spread his wings. Overall, The Forest Seasons is an album that I did not expect to enjoy anywhere near as much as I do. Wintersun have never really done it for me a great deal previously but this album, despite only being four songs long, has made me change my mind about them somewhat. Hopefully Wintersun albums of the future will follow the well-produced mould of this one, and not the overblown and chaotic sound that was present on Time I.

The album was released on 21st July 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official lyric video for Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring).

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Mr. Big's 'Defying Gravity' - Album Review

Mr. Big are one of those bands that have always been hard to pigeonhole. They are mostly lumped in with the hair metal scene, which is understandable give the era in which Mr. Big released their best-known work, but in truth they have always had much more substance than that. Prior to the band's formation in the late 1980s, both guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan were well-known and respected musicians; with both often being heralded as virtuoso of their respective instruments. Gilbert's time in the speed metal act Racer X and Sheehan's tenure in the solo band of Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth had brought both of the musicians many plaudits in the rock and metal worlds, but it was in Mr. Big where they would find their true homes. The band was formed in 1988 and the virtuosic pair were joined by frontman Eric Martin and drummer Pat Torpey. A year later, the band's self-titled debut album was released and the Mr. Big sound was established. On the surface, Mr. Big are a good, old-fashioned hard rock act. The blues-based riffing and soloing that was pioneers in the 1970s by many of the genre's greats formed the basis of Mr. Big's sound, but the commercial sheen of the hair metal world that the band were formed in-amongst is also present. While the band's songs are often simple, memorable hard rock numbers, it is the musical ability of Gilbert and Sheehan that really defined Mr. Big. Both have the ability to really turn on a dime, and this skill lead to the band's knack of occasionally veering off into a off-kilter instrumental section, with the guitar and bass often playing together in a way which is rarely found elsewhere. Martin's warm bluesy voice, which is was different from the higher-pitched sound that was popular at the time, also lent to the band's signature sound and over the years he has proved himself to be a fantastic singer and songwriter - probably one the genre's most underrated stars. Martin, Gilbert, Sheehan, and Torpey have made up Mr. Big for the majority of the band's time in existence, save for a period between 1997 and 2002 when Gilbert was replaced by former Poison guitarist Richie Kotzen. After breaking up in 2002, the band reconvened in 2009 and the original line-up has been together ever since. The band's seventh album What If... was released a year later and was seen as a great comeback for the band. ...The Stories We Could Tell was released in 2014 to less-stellar reviews, and I have to admit that I am still yet to hear this album. Sadly this album did not feature Torpey due to his diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease, with the album's drums being programmed by Torpey and the rest of the band. Torpey's condition has greatly lessened his role in the band, but he is still active in the songwriting, something of which he has always been heavily involved in with Mr. Big. Last month saw the release of the band's ninth album Defying Gravity, their third since their 2009 reunion. With Torpey's condition still preventing him from drumming at full capacity Matt Starr (Ace Frehley; Burning Rain), who has been touring with the band for the past couple of years, has recorded most of, if not all of, the album's drum tracks. Sound wise, this album has a much rawer, bluesier sound than has been featured by the band previously, which definitely has it's pros and cons.

The album gets underway in fine fashion with the hard rocking Open Your Eyes, which opens with a Zeppelin-esque riff that makes the most of the album's rawer production. This gives way to a strident verse, backed by Sheehan's snaking bassline, and a somewhat AOR-inspired chorus with tight vocal harmonies and catchy melodies. This is one the songs on the album that best exemplifies the trademark interplay between Gilbert and Sheehan, with the two often locking into great bluesy grooves to great effect. The little pattern the follows the main riff is a great example of this, and shows their willingness to take a little risk and deviate from the norm. The album's title track seems to start off in a similar fashion, but the chiming guitar melody is surprisingly catchy and light-hearted which makes a nice change from a muscular riffing of the previous number. Once again, Sheehan's bass playing really dominates the verses with his heavily-overdriven instrument growling away to provide the main rhythms as Gilbert plays around him with his intricate leads. The chorus is another good one, but lacks the real killer hook that the previous song had. The highlight for me though is Gilbert's playing throughout, which includes a really tasteful solo and plenty of little licks. This song reminds me of the sound that Europe have been pursuing in recent years and, in fact, the bluesy overtones of this album mean that plenty of comparisons can be drawn. I think Europe did it better, but Mr. Big have also proved it to be a fruitful path to tread. Everybody Needs a Little Trouble is a mid-apced rocker that recalls the band's first couple of albums with a strong classic rock strut backed by a strong marching drum beat. Martin's vocals during the verses are quite different from his normal style, as they are delivered in an-almost snarling whisper, but he returns to his bluesy croon for the sleazy choruses which are packed with attitude. This song also contains Gilbert's first really lengthy solo on the album, which sees him cut loose with plenty of fast licks that are a good contrast to the methodical rhythm the rest of the song possesses. Damn I'm in Love Again is an acoustic-led piece with an-almost whimsical quality. Gilbert's acoustic guitars dominate throughout, and Martin sings the reflective lyrics effortless over the subtle percussion backing. Mr. Big have always done acoustic songs well, and in fact had a big hit with one back in the day, and this is another strong effort in that department. It is quite a short song, but helps to provide some diversity during the album's first half. Mean to Me is quite the opposite of the previous number and opens with a loose, but technically brilliant, guitar riff which sees the band's three musicians locking together perfectly with the unusual rhythms really standing out. The main body of the song is more typical, with a power chord-heavy verse which makes the most of Martin's vocal skills. The strange riff resurfaces in the chorus and somehow the band manage to make it work and fit a vocal melody over the top of it without it ever sounding forced. That has always been one of Mr. Big's skills, and this has helped them from stand out from the crowd over the years. Nothin' Bad ('Bout Feelin' Good) is another slower number, which sees Gilbert's acoustic guitars once again dominating, especially during the early part of the song. Unlike the previous acoustic number, this is more of a rocker and does feature the other members of the band heavily and once again recalls the raw style of Led Zeppelin. While not a bad song, it lacks the spark that many of the album's early numbers had and makes it one of the album's least interesting cuts.

Forever and Back sees the bluesy influence brought to the front again with a fuzzy guitar pattern and some lyrics about lost love sung perfectly by Martin. The song's chorus is a good one, which has a slightly jazzy beat and plenty of wordless backing vocals from the band to add a slight gospel feel. It is another relatively slow song, but it still packs a punch and really shows the raw sound the band aimed for on this album in a good light. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a great guitar solo from Gilbert here which, while following many of the bluesy clichés, really adds to the mood of the piece perfectly. The fuzzy sound continues on She's all Coming Back to Me Now, but the smooth melodies really recall the band's early days with Martin crafting some strong AOR-esque vocal melodies throughout which fit in well despite the rawer sound. Musically the song is less interesting than many of the others here, with a very basic guitar pattern throughout from Gilbert and Sheehan's bass is barely audible. The good chorus saves the song from real mediocrity however and has a light-hearted feel that is easy to get behind and sing along with. 1992 is one of my favourite pieces from the album and tells the story of the band having a hit with To Be With You and how quickly they fell from grace afterwards. The self-effacing lyrics are great and the song contains what is probably the album's best chorus. The opening guitar/bass riff is fantastic too, and really shows what Gilbert and Sheehan can do. In my opinion there is not enough of this kind of interplay on the album, but when it rears it's head it really hits the spot. This song however is really crying out for a smoother production more akin to the band's early albums, showing that their bluesy approach on this album is not without it's flaws. Nothing At All is another strutting mid-paced rocker, which is defined by an excellent drum performance. It is not clear whether the drums are played by Torpey or Starr - as both are credited with playing drums on the album - but I would assume that this is Starr's handiwork given Torpey's condition. The drums lay down a strong groove which is never really broken throughout, which is of course helped by Sheehan's thick bass playing. Songs like this really bring the best out of the album's production, and show that on the whole it was the right decision. The album's last, and longest, number Be Kind is a real bluesy workout with slide guitar sections, lengthy guitar solos, and walking bassline-led verses which sees Martin's croon put to good use. This is definitely not a typical Mr. Big number, but it fits well within the themes and sounds of the album and features some excellent guitar playing from Gilbert that is more restrained than his usual shredded style. Overall, Defying Gravity is another strong effort from Mr. Big that shows they still have plenty left to say and continue to make their somewhat quirky brand of hard rock work. While the rawer production might not be to everyone's taste, and definitely stops a few of the numbers from sounding as good as they could do, this is an album that flows very well and contains plenty of very enjoyable numbers that sit well alongside the more famous numbers from the band's past.

The album was released on 21st July 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Everybody Needs a Little Trouble.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Ten's 'Gothica' - Album Review

Ten are one of those bands who have been putting out solidly enjoyable albums on a regular basis for many years now but continue to fly under the radar of many rock fans. Their sporadic live appearances have done nothing to help their profile in their twenty-plus year career, but their large and impressive back catalogue is certainly one that all rock fans should delve into every so often. Sound wise, Ten are firmly in the 'melodic rock' camp, and comparisons can be drawn between them and British rock stalwarts Magnum. The band's founding member, songwriter, and lead vocalist Gary Hughes certainly has the ear for a catchy melody and has been writing strong melodic rock songs, with surprisingly hard-hitting riffs and subtle keyboard textures, since the band's 1996 debut album X and he rightly should be heralded for his efforts. 2014 and 2015 saw plenty of studio activity from the band, with two albums released in a six month period. 2014's Albion (which I reviewed here) and 2015's Isla de Muerta (which I reviewed here) were both typical of Ten's signature sound, but ended up providing mixed results. The former is one of my favourite albums in the band's catalogue. While I admit that I have not heard many of their albums, Albion is certainly one of the best of those that I have heard. The songwriting was strong, and the melodies carried by Hughes' vocals proved to be extremely catchy. Isla de Muerta on the other hand was a much weaker effort, and definitely felt like the poor relation of the former. While a few songs stood out, the majority of the material just failed to really excite me. Both of those albums were released through the small British rock label Rocktopia Records, but since then the band have returned to their long-time home, the Italian label Frontiers, for their thirteenth studio album Gothica. Hughes, who has written about 95% of the band's catalogue himself, definitely overstretched himself on the Rocktopia Records project, and what is instantly clear from listening to Gothica is how much stronger the material is than Isla de Muerta. This album has clearly had a longer gestation period, and the songs have definitely benefited from this. Sound wise Gothica is classic Ten, although there are moments that are definitely heavier than the norm, with a few meaty riffs for the band's three guitarists to get their heads around. The band's current seven-piece line-up returns from the previous couple of albums, with guitarists Dann Rosingana, Steve Grocott, and John Halliwell; bassist Steve McKenna; keyboardist Darrell Treece-Birch; and drummer Max Yates joining Hughes again to refine his creations and create another strong album of atmospheric melodic hard rock that fits well within the band's established sound. I do not think this album is quite as strong as Albion overall, but there are a couple of really stunning songs here that are worth the price of admission alone.

Ten have never been a stranger to writing lengthier numbers, and this album gets underway with The Grail, a song that pushes eight minutes in length and contains all the hallmarks of the band's sound. Fitting in with the album's title, Hughes starts the song with a simple gothic choir before Treece-Birch's keyboards add a modern electronic sound. The song mostly moves along at a steady mid-pace, with tough power chord riffing and a subtle keyboard backing to help provide a backing for Hughes' voice. He has always been a great singer, and his performance here is no different, with his slightly low vocal style fitting in well with the lush sounds the rest of the band create. Bursts of shredded lead guitar mix well with more delicate piano-led sections to make an interesting and diverse song that ensures the album gets off to a strong start. The lusher sounds of the previous song give way to a heavier riffing in Jekyll and Hide, and there are some grooves throughout that bring to mind early Whitesnake at times. The heavier, bluesy riffs throughout helps the song to move along at a good pace, and the keyboards utilise less-convention sounds to add a little bit of a sci-fi feel at times. The song's chorus is a pretty strong one, and sees Hughes use his expressive voice to good effect as guitar leads cut through the tough rhythms. Travellers is the first real winner on the album however, with a spiky keyboard intro that soon gives way to lush synth textures and Hughes' mournful vocal performance. The song initially seems as if it is going to be a ballad, but it builds up slowly towards a slower, heavier verse section before exploding into one of the album's best choruses. The keyboards are always prominent throughout and really help to create the song's excellent atmosphere. Hughes' vocals here are stunning, and he shows again here why he is one of the most underrated rock singers ever. I have compared his style to that of Roy Khan's in the past, and this is a song that definitely shows that that comparison is valid. He does not have the mysticism of the former Kamelot frontman, but his voice definitely has the same tone. While Ten are usually fairly consistent, every so often they have the ability to really pull it out of the bag and craft a really excellent song. A Man for all Seasons is one of those, and it tells the tale of Henry VIII and his disillusion of the Monasteries. It starts with a renaissance-inspired instrumental section that sounds like something you might find on a Blackmore's Night album, before taking off with a keyboard-heavy riff and a driving drum beat from Yates. The verses are slower, and full of McKenna's snaking basslines, and these are the perfect backings for Hughes' historical lyrics. Again, the song is quite lengthy and really makes use of the guitarists' skills with lots of excellent bursts of prog metal soloing that sits perfectly atop the pomp rock backing. The chorus is the album's best, with twisting vocal melodies that are very easy on the ear and stick immediately in the brain. This is easily my favourite song on the album, and one of my favourite Ten songs ever. Sadly In My Dreams is almost the opposite, and shows that Ten are just as capable of writing a bit of a howler as they are a classic! The music is decent enough, with some heavier riffing, but the lyrics are a collection of lust clichés that even David Coverdale would steer well clear of! The less that is said about this song the better I think, so we shall move on!

Thankfully The Wild King of Winter is an improvement. The song builds up slowly from a synth and clean guitar intro, and soon bursts into one of the heaviest riffs on the album with a bit of a prog metal feel and storms along at a decent pace. Treece-Birch's keyboards stab in and out of the mix in a dramatic way to help give the song some urgency, but overall this song belongs to the guitarists. The song's chorus is a bit more overtly melodic, and less heavy, but most of all this song relies on the strong metal atmosphere that it creates with the fast riffing and the booming drums. As is fitting for a song of this nature, there is a great neo-classical guitar solo towards the end, which then morphs seamlessly into a keyboard solo, which is a nice change as this is something that the band do not employ too often. Paragon is a gorgeous piano-led ballad that really brings the best out of Hughes' voice, and lets his deep tones really ring through with a the dense piano and synth backing. Guitars and drums do join in for the chorus, and naturally as a result the song becomes somewhat heavier, but the darker mood never leaves the the piano always remains a strong presence throughout. Effects-heavy lead guitar passages are employed throughout and these helps to add some emotional weight. This song is another of the album's best moments, and shows Hughes' songwriting and vocal style at their best. Opening with some circus sounds, Welcome to the Freak Show is a strong up beat rocker that even seems to pay a little tribute to the hair metal scene in place. The main riff borrows quite a bit from Michael Jackson's Beat It, which is slightly jarring when you first hear it, but overall this is another very good song with plenty of overt melodies and a great energy created by the riffing and the plentiful bluesy rock soloing. Based on Mary Shelley's famous vampire novel La Luna Dra-Cu-La is another heavier, more upbeat piece that is based around a twisty riff and some standout drumming from Yates - especially during the instrumental sections where he breaks loose far more than he does usually. The keyboard backs the guitar in a way that brings to mind classic Deep Purple, and everything is held together by another strong vocal performance from Hughes. The song's guitar solo is one of the best on the album too, and contains lots of flashy runs. Into Darkness is another piano-led piece with some truly stunning vocals and a slightly theatrical feel. While many parts of the song have the feel of a ballad, there are still plenty of heavier bits to make the song have quite a dynamic overall feel. Like the album's opening number, this is a song that contains many of the things that really define Ten's sound, so is a good one to round the album out on. Overall, Gothica is another enjoyable album from Ten that includes a few really stand-out songs. There are low points, but this is an album that gets more right than it gets wrong, and is worth hearing for A Man for all Seasons alone.

The album was released on 7th July 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Travellers.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Stone Sour's 'Hydrograd' - Album Review

In the modern world of big, arena-filling hard rock bands, Stone Sour are one of the bigger names of the genre. Stone Sour are of course famous for being the 'other' band of nu-metal pioneers Slipknot's frontman Corey Taylor, but Stone Sour's genesis actually pre-dates his joining the Slipknot family. Stone Sour was formed in 1992 by Taylor, but was placed on a hiatus without releasing any material when Taylor joined Slipknot and that band started to gain traction. The songs written during this initial period of Stone Sour's history were eventually expanded upon and released on the band's self-titled debut album in 2002. The grunge-based alternative rock was significantly different to Taylor (and, at the time, guitarist Jim Root's) work with Slipknot; and Stone Sour allowed Taylor to show off a different side to his songwriting and vocal talents. Despite Stone Sour's success, they have always had to play second fiddle to Slipknot's heavy touring schedule. This was especially true during the early 2000s when Slipknot were at their real commercial peak, but Stone Sour's second album, 2006's Come What(ever) May, really made people sit up and take notice. Come What(ever) May introduced a more streamlined hard rock sound that, despite still containing influences from metal and grunge, managed to attract a large new fanbase. People like me who never got into Slipknot were exposed to a whole new side of Taylor and his melodic songwriting style. Since the success of Come What(ever) May, Taylor has dedicated roughly equal time to both Slipknot and Stone Sour, with Stone Sour releasing three more studio albums since which have all received critical acclaim. The band's most recent couple of albums, the two-part House of Gold & Bones albums that were released separately in 2012 and 2013, in particular were well-received. The band's songwriting matured greatly on those albums, and the concept running between the two really helped them feel like one complete work. Much is made of Taylor and his songwriting for the band, but Stone Sour is much more than just Taylor. Since the House of Gold & Bones albums however, Stone Sour has undergone some fairly major line-up changes. Root, who was seen as one of the main songwriters alongside Taylor, left the band in 2013 to focus on writing songs for Slipknot and was replaced by Christian Martucci - a relative unknown who had played guitar for Dee Dee Ramone during the early 2000s. Johny Chow (Cavalera Conspiracy) is Stone Sour's other newest recruit, having joined the band in 2012 for the House of Gold & Bones touring cycle. Despite both Martucci and Chow playing with the band for a few years now, and appearing on the two Burbank cover EPs, the band's latest album Hydrograd is the first full-length effort to feature both of their musical and songwriting talents. Hydrograd is the band's sixth overall album and carries on the grungy hard rock sound the band have been working on throughout the last 15 or so years. The melodic songwriting style of the band's recent efforts remain, and this is an album that continues their impressive legacy.

The album gets underway with the instrumental intro YSIF, which is largely built around a strident chord pattern played on the guitar, but some Japanese-esque melodies swirl around underneath to give the piece a unique feel. The atmospherics build up as the piece moves along and soon explodes into Taipei Person/Allah Tea - the album's first true song. The song is built around a riff that sounds like something a NWOBHM band might have come up with in the early 1980s, and Martucci makes his presence instantly felt with a doomy guitar lead. Taylor mostly uses his clean vocals on Stone Sour's songs, but this one makes use of his rougher edge at times as he barks through the energetic verses, which are backed by some unconventional drumming from Roy Mayorga. Big choruses are often a part of Stone Sour's identity, and there are a few on this album. This one soars with strong melodies, before Martucci launches into his first shredded solo on the album. He is joined in his venture by fellow guitarist Josh Rand, who has been a part of the band since the re-activation in the early 2000s, and he makes a rare appearance on lead guitar here sharing the stage with Martucci. Knievel has Landed is a less interesting number, but opens with a strong bass riff from Chow. There are definitely some strong musical moments throughout the song, with a tough guitar riff that resurfaces often throughout the verses, but the chorus is a little weak for the band's usual standards and this fails to let the song really take off. Some of the rawer moments, like the pre-chorus sections, are a little too much akin to Slipknot's style for my liking which hampers my enjoyment of the song somewhat. The album's title track follows, and showcases some of the band's grunge influences nicely with a raw, booming drum sound and sludgy guitar riffs that make their impact through slow power. While Taylor still sings in his usual anthemic style, and does not adopt the usual drawl that is key to that genre's sound, his strong vocal performance shines through and sits well with the heavier riffing. The song is chorus-less, which works quite well with with the main guitar riffs taking centre stage. The guitar playing throughout is strong too, with another big solo from Martucci towards the end that showcases his shredding style. Song #3 is one of the album's singles, and features soaring melodies and a more accessible overall sound. Fans of the bigger anthems on Come What(ever) May will lap this song up, as it is built around a strong vocal performance from Taylor, with the music purely serving as a backing for the lyrics. The chorus is one of the album's best, with a 1980s stadium rock feel as he belts out the lyrics. A small guitar solo provides the one flash of musical virtuosity in the song, but this is definitely one made for hearing and having the crowd sing along passionately. Despite some heavier riffs, Fabuless is another song that is built around a big chorus that is sure to become a live favourite. Taylor's harsh vocals are brought out more here, and there are some sections that benefit from a large gang vocal choir for extra power. While Stone Sour's songs are mostly slightly lighter than this song in tone, it is good when they break into heavier territory once in a while to give their albums extra weight. The Witness Trees is another slower, grungy song with ringing clean guitar melodies that sit nicely atop a snaking bassline. The chorus sees the song ramp up somewhat, and the melodies are quite strong, but mostly this song has a more restrained tone than most of the rest of the album. There's an expressive solo from Martucci too that works well in the slower context of the song.

Rose Red Violent Blue (This Song is Dumb & So Am I), despite having some really interesting guitar passages, is probably one of the album's least interesting moments. The slower verses have a slightly strange rhythm, but this clashes with the punky energy the rest of the song seems to want to promote. It just comes across as a bad mix, with the song's two elements not really meshing well together. Thank God It's Over is a mid-paced rocker with a great in-your-face guitar riff that moves along at a bouncy pace and acts as a strong backing for Taylor's vocals. Despite the relatively simple nature of the song, it still manages to create a really strong groove that carries the song throughout and gives it a slightly addictive feeling with the consistency of the song's rhythms. St. Marie is a ballad, and has a bit of a country feel with some lap steel provided by Joel Martin which creates a floaty atmosphere throughout as the bands two guitarists strum their acoustic guitars. This is a song which is definitely different to the norm for Stone Sour, but it works really well and Taylor's emotional vocal delivery helps to give the song the band's signature sound. The addition of the lap steel playing really adds a lot here. Most bands would have probably added a subtle piano backing instead, but I like the country feel the lap steel gives the song as the lengthy note slides cut through the mix. Mercy is a strong up tempo rocker and this works well when coming straight after the album's gentlest number. The riffing throughout is also pretty strong here, and contains another very singable chorus that is sure to be a hit live if the band choose to play it. It also contains a pretty technical guitar from Martucci that starts off with some basic shred but moves through a few almost neo-classical licks before a heavier riff kicks in and it is not long before the song's chorus is once again taking centre stage. A piano intro gives the listener the impression that Whiplash Pants might be another slower song, but it is quite the opposite and soon takes off at a fast pace with a hard-hitting riff and vocals from Taylor which boarder on a harsh delivery in places. The decent chorus is the song's most melodic part, but mostly this is a heavier piece which definitely takes a lot from early 2000s nu-metal, with some almost Machine Head-esque parts at times. It is quite an enjoyable song, but the nu-metal elements may put some people off. Friday Knights starts off with a chaotic main riff, but soon descends into a murky verse with chiming clean guitars and a mournful vocal delivery. The song is strange one, with lots of different vibes crammed into a short space of time, but it actually works quite well with a good mix of heavier riffs and more sparse clean sections. It shows that Stone Sour have quite a broad writing style and do not wish to always restrict themselves to the same basic song structures or templates. Somebody Stole my Eyes is another faster, heavier song which definitely takes influence from the more melodic end of Slipknot's more recent material. This works well in this song, and it manages to create quite a bit of power as the album winds down towards the final song. That final song is another slower number, When the Fever Broke, with murky piano lines and a subtle string section that adds colour throughout. Despite this extra instrumentation, it is quite a sparse song but this helps to pack quite an emotional weight and is a great contrast the frantic previous number. Stone Sour have done better ballads in the past, but this is still a fitting end to this varied album. Overall, Hydrograd is a another really enjoyable album from Stone Sour that throws a few new sounds into the band's established template. While it could have done with having a bit of the fat trimmed, as it is probably a couple of songs too long, it still contains plenty of very good songs that will satisfy the band's large fanbase.

The album was released on 30th June 2017 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Song #3.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Styx's 'The Mission' - Album Review

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, American rockers Styx were ever-present features of radio stations across the world. While many bands become big stars after only a couple of big singles, Styx are one of those bands that built their reputation up over years of touring and regular album releases. Styx's early 1970s sound definitely took a lot of influence from progressive rock, but as time went on they moved towards a more streamlined hard rock sound that had an accessible and theatrical sound. The arrival of singer, guitarist, and songwriter Tommy Shaw in 1975 proved to be a turning point for the band and their sixth album, released the following year as Crystal Ball, was the start of the Styx we know today. Shaw's smooth melodic rock compositions mixed well with the diverse songwriting styles of the band's two founders James Young and Dennis DeYoung, and the pomp rock sound that the band became known for was born. The run of albums released 1976 and 1983 is a very strong one, and contains the two bona fide classics The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. Styx then broke up in 1985 following the tumultuous tour following 1983's divisive rock opera Kilroy Was Here. Luckily for rock fans, the band reunited five years later for a brief spell, and then permanently in 1995. There has been a version of Styx out on tour ever since and, despite quite a few major line-up changes in this time, they still remain a popular live act. Guitarists Young and Shaw remain from the band's classic era, and they are joined by keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan (who replaced DeYoung in 1999), drummer Todd Sucherman (who has been with Styx since the 1995 reunion), and bassist Ricky Phillips (who has been in the band since 2003). Despite being maintaining a heavy touring schedule over recent years, the last new Styx album of original material was released in 2003. The patchy and fairly forgettable Cyclorama never really took hold, and recently the band have been content to tour the nostalgia circuit playing their most well-known songs to crowds all over the world. This all seemed to change a couple of years ago and the band began writing and recording a new album in secret. This new album was announced earlier this year as The Mission, and the band promised a return to their classic sound; mixing some of their early progressive rock influences with their trademark pomp rock sound. I have to admit I was not expecting a new Styx album to be released this year, but it was a welcome surprise. Shaw remains a fantastic songwriter and it seemed a shame for this talent to be put onto the back-burner, and Gowan has never really had a chance to make his mark on the band's catalogue with only a limited role in the Cyclorama songwriting. The Mission, a concept album about a mission to Mars, really makes the best of Shaw and Gowan's talents. With a story line written by Shaw and producer Will Evankovich, Shaw and Gowan's songs (as well as contributions by Young) really come to life and make The Mission the most interesting thing Styx have put their name to for quite some time.

To set the scene for this epic tale of space adventures, the mostly-instrumental Overture really digs back into Styx history for inspiration with Gowan's flurry of retro-sounding keyboard melodies and a few effect-heavy vocal sections. It is quite short, but segues perfectly into Gone Gone Gone, the album's first true song. Gowan takes the vocals on this song as the song is driven by Shaw and Young's tough guitar rhythms and the odd burst of progressive organ playing from Gowan himself. One thing that is clear right away is how similar the sound of this song is to the band's classic late 1970s sound. The vocal harmonies in the chorus are spot on, with plenty of high notes, and the 'pomp rock fused with progressive influences' sound sound as fresh as it did when The Grand Illusion came out in 1977. Gone Gone Gone is a short but explosive piece, but it really makes it mark. Hundred Million Miles from Home is sung by Shaw, and is a more mid-paced affair with Beatle-esque vocal melodies and a snaking groove throughout which is partly provided by founding member Chuck Panozzo's bassline. Panozzo has not been a full member of the band now for quite a few years for health reasons, but his talents are used well on this song and it is great to see that he can still cut it. The song's chorus is another catchy moment, but is less overt than the previous number. It is no less powerful however, and is a strong effort. Young takes the lead on Trouble at the Big Show which has a Hendrix-esque main riff that is drenched in wah and attitude. Young has always been the weakest vocalist of the band for me, but he does well here with his low voice which contrasts well with Gowan's soaring backing vocals during the atmospheric chorus. The lead guitar work, presumably also courtesy of Young, is great too and really cuts through Sucherman's bluesy shuffle with ease. Locomotive is another Shaw number and it really takes the listener back to the 1970s with an atmospheric intro with lots of retro-sounding keyboards and a prominent acoustic guitar pattern. Shaw's voice has not deteriorated at all throughout the years and he sounds as great as he did when he first joined the band. Many singers' voices suffer over the years, but Shaw sounds as clear as he always did. The song gradually builds up over it's five minute length and slowly adds layers with tougher bursts of bluesy guitar riffing and Hammond organ. The guitar solo is excellent too, and has real classic prog feel to it with lots of carefully constructed phrases and emotional note-bends. This song draws comparisons with the Styx oldie Man in the Wilderness, and it is easy to see why. If any listener was not already convinced that this new Styx album was a winner, then the awesome Radio Silence should be all that is required for someone to form that view. Shaw takes the lead again, and the song starts out slowly with spacey keyboards and a somewhat mournful vocal performance that gradually builds up towards a stratospheric chorus with some of the band's trademark vocal harmonies. The mix of acoustic and electric guitars throughout is also something that Styx employed a lot in the past, so this touch really helps to turn the clocks back. Towards the end the song moves into a tougher hard rock section with a earth-shaking Hammond organ backing and some Queen-esque lead guitars. A final reprise of the chorus really hits home just how good the song is, and this could well be the best individual song the band have done since the efforts on 1978's Pieces of Eight.

The Greater Good is a duet between Gowan and Shaw, and the former gets things off to a good start with a theatrical piano line and effortless vocals. Gowan has the rockier voice of the two, with a slightly gravelly tone, so he can conjure up more power, but the contrast between his voice and Shaw's lighter more melodic tone works well here with the two alternating parts throughout as the piano constantly providing a strong musical backing. There is another great guitar solo here too that really explodes out of nowhere and hits the spot. The album's second half has more of a progressive feel with little musical interludes and a more spacey feel. Time May Bend and Ten Thousand Ways seem to morph into one song, with Gowan singing the former in his melodramatic way as Sucherman's drums crash around him and he lays into his retro-sounding synths for a huge sound. A schizophrenic guitar solo adds to this feel perfectly, which sits atop the odd drum pattern to create a great contrast with the song's decent chorus. Ten Thousand Ways acts as a coda to Time May Bend, and is dominated by rolling piano and a repeated vocal line which is sung by the group in harmony. Red Storm is the album's progressive epic at just over six minutes in length. Shaw once again takes the lead and his songwriting style really shines through here with lots of tricky acoustic guitar melodies early on with a chiming piano backing. The band's progressive influences really shine through here as the song is much heavier on atmosphere and feel than riffing. The acoustic guitars are a constant presence, and Shaw's vocals constantly shine with his clean, high singing style suiting the song's vibe perfectly. Plenty of the Styx harmonies are used throughout, especially during the small choruses, but mostly Shaw is left to sing alone. The drumming towards the song's second half is excellent, with a section that almost includes a drum solo under the music before the song launches into a slightly heavier section that includes a dual-guitar solo and Phillips' rumbling bassline. Styx have not sounded this inspired for a while, and as the song fades out during Gowan's keyboard solo you really have to marvel at the band's sudden burst of creativity. All System's Stable is a tiny interlude which leads into Gowan's piano showcase Khedive which is a chance for him to show off his classically-influenced playing. The song is mostly instrumental, save for a few effects-heavy vocal lines, and is largely focused on Gowan. Some more of the Queen-esque guitar lines come in towards the end however, but this appearance is only fleeting and it is soon back to the rolling piano melodies which come to abrupt halt before the album moves into the penultimate song The Outpost. This is Gowan's last vocal effort on the album and again builds up slowly with his keyboards dominating, but soon the guitars kick in for what is probably my favourite chorus on the album. Styx have always written great choruses but this is a real winner with a triumphant feel and plenty of big vocal harmonies. Some of the heavier riffs here even have a bit of a Dream Theater vibe, which is fleeting but very fun. Shaw takes the lead on the album's closing number Mission to Mars which again makes good use of Beatle-esque melodies and plenty of acoustic guitars. Given the more atmospheric pieces that have filled the latter part of this album, this more carefree piece seems to make the come full circle which works really nicely. Overall, The Mission is easily the best Styx album for decades. No-one was expecting a new album from Styx after all these years and even when it was announced I doubt many were expecting it to be this good. It is quite rare that I am this surprised by new music, but this is one of my favourite releases of the year already and I can see myself playing this one to death!

The album was released on 16th June 2017 via Universal Music Enterprises. Below is the band's promotional video for Gone Gone Gone.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Iced Earth's 'Incorruptible' - Album Review

Iced Earth are definitely one of the most dependable and consistent bands in the metal world. Since forming in 1985, and especially since releasing their self-titled debut album in 1990, Iced Earth have been one of the standard bearers of traditional heavy metal. While elements of thrash, power, and even progressive metal have been woven into the band's core sound at various points throughout their 30-plus year career, Iced Earth have mostly stuck to the same musical template on each of their previous eleven studio albums. Famed for having a lengthy list of former band members, this consistency is down to the songwriting style of band leader, guitarist, and lead-songwriter Jon Schaffer. While many other excellent musicians have added their magic to the band over the years, it is Schaffer that has written the lion's share of the band's back catalogue and who's instantly recognisable riffing style defines the band's sound. In my opinion, Schaffer is the best rhythm guitarist is metal, and is certainly one of the best riff-writers in the genre. It will surprise no-one then to learn that the band's latest effort, which is titled Incorruptible, is another classic Iced Earth release that is backed with a good mix of faster, thrash-inspired numbers and more emotionally-charged mid-paced rockers. Even given the band's heritage, it is fair to say that Iced Earth have been on a real run of form of late. The band's current (and fifth overall) frontman Stu Block joined the band in 2011 and Iced Earth have been a reborn force since. Dystopia, released in the same year as Block's arrival, is a real modern classic and is one of my favourite Iced Earth releases. The lengthy world tour that followed was the longest the band had undertaken for quite some time and made up for a few quiet years previously. The follow-up album, released in 2014 as Plagues of Babylon (which I reviewed here), was not quite as strong but still contained plenty of winning numbers. Another lengthy tour followed that year with the band really re-cementing their status as a fantastic live act. A couple of quieter years followed while Schaffer recovered from some much-needed surgery and the band worked on the building of their new headquarters and studio Independence Hall. The songwriting for this new album took place during this downtime too and the album was recorded at the new HQ towards the back end of last year. Being an Iced Earth album there is of course some new blood represented on Incorruptible. Schaffer, Block, and bassist Luke Appleton all return from the previous album, and they are rejoined by long-time drummer Brent Smedley, for his fourth stint in the band, who sat out of the previous album cycle because of family reasons. Long-time lead guitarist Troy Seele left the band last year due to pressures taking care of his autistic son, and was replaced by Jake Dreyer (White Wizzard; Witherfall) who has contributed many memorable leads and solos throughout this album. Schaffer's compositions once again dominate the material here (the past couple of albums have been some of the more collaborative in the band's history) but Block and Appleton have also made choice songwriting contributions here to help diversify the album.

While not packing quite the same punch as the opening numbers of the band's past couple of releases, Great Heathen Army gets Incorruptible off to a strong start. The song builds up slowly over the course of an atmospheric intro, which makes good use of a Gregorian-style choir, as a orchestral and percussive backing creates somewhat of a gothic feel. It is not long however before a stomping guitar pattern kicks in which leads into a thrashy riff with some high-pitched vocal screams from Block and the first shredded lead from Dreyer. The song is a pretty fast effort, with lots of Smedley's trademark double bass drumming and an impassioned vocal performance as Block delivers his Viking-inspired lyrics. While the chorus is not as powerful as it probably should be, the harmony guitars make it stand out and Dreyer impresses immediately afterwards with his first proper solo. Block shows here that he is constantly improving as a vocalist and continues to forge his own sound within the band. A section after the first solo that focuses on his falsetto is extremely powerful and contrasts well with his deeper vocal stylings elsewhere. Black Flag, the first of two songs co-written by Appleton, is a tale of swashbuckling piracy. This is not packed with Alestorm's humour however, but is instead a true Iced Earth classic packed full of high-energy riffs and guitar melodies. The bass-heavy intro is somewhat reminiscent of the Iced Earth oldie Damien; and the Iron Maiden-esque twin guitar harmonies that follow show that Schaffer often still wears his influences on his sleeve. The song is at first a bit of a slower-paced chug, but soon speeds up following a scream from Block. While the song builds towards a chorus that never really comes, the song proves to a be a grower with a few distinct sections and some folky guitar leads that fit in with the lyrical themes. While Iced Earth have always done the faster, heavier songs well; I believe it is their more mid-paced emotional songs that they are the most known for. Raven Wing is one of those, and is a great example of a style which has served the band well. From the acoustic intro to the heavier choruses, this is a song that brings back memories of the band's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes era and allows Block to inject some real emotion into his vocals. While he is still prone to unleashing his best Matt Barlow (who is, of course, the band's most well-known frontman) impression on these kinds of songs, he still manages to sound convincing and this allows the band to carry on one of their traditions. Dreyer also really impresses here, with lots of great guitar playing, including a gorgeous bluesy solo that sits atop Schaffers' acoustic playing. This the explodes into a heavier, faster solo which shows the diversity of the man's playing and the talent he brings to the band. The Veil is a similar song with some vocal parts from Block which almost sound like pure cries of anguish. While Raven Wing has it's heavier, faster moments; this song mostly moves along at a much slower pace with plenty of Schaffer's chiming clean guitar arpeggios and Appleton's prominent bass playing. After two slower numbers, Seven Headed Whore ensures the album does not get too bogged down in the darker emotions of these songs with three minutes of pure thrash. Block turns in possibly his best vocal performance on an Iced Earth song to date, with some banshee screams that rival the style of the other famous former Iced Earth frontman Tim 'Ripper' Owens. This is an instantly catchy song, with an anthemic chorus and a hard-hitting pre-chorus with Block's falsetto vocals and Smedley's extremely fast footwork. Dreyer's extremely fast bursts of shred in the middle of the song are the icing on the cake, and help to round out one of the band's most energetic efforts yet.

The Relic - Part 1 is another mid-paced number with a really hypnotic rhythm guitar melody throughout and some great bluesy leads from Dreyer. This song is one of Block's lyrical efforts, and given the it's title it seems this could be the first part of a new epic song sequence. Iced Earth has always done concepts and lyrics bridges between albums very well, and this song could easily be the start of another saga. While there are certainly stronger songs here, the relentless, hard-hitting style keeps the song interesting despite a lack of any real stand-out melodies. The atmospheric closing section is excellent however, and I really hope the themes explored here are expanded upon in the future as the song's title would suggest. Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors), a lengthy instrumental piece, is easily the album's weakest cut for me. Iced Earth have never been one to excel at instrumental pieces, as they lack the virtuoso players to truly make them work, and this effort is no different. It goes on for a good couple of minutes longer than it should and is made up of riffs which really are not any of Schaffer's best. I do like the quieter sections which make use of traditional Native American pan-pipes however, as this is something the band has not really explored previously, but overall I feel this the one real blemish on what is an otherwise strong album. Despite a deceivingly mellow intro, Brothers turns out to be a real anthem and is the antidote the lengthy instrumental that preceded it. Schaffer's crunching power chords really drive the meat of the song, and the chorus is one of the album's best with Block's lyrics of camaraderie and unity. I can see this song becoming a real live staple with it's unifying message and singable melodies. The riffing is a little simplistic compared to the band's usual style, but it works well in this instance to create a great headbanging rhythm and a true traditional heavy metal feel. The guitar solo echoes this too and does not rely on the shredded speed that many of the other solos here utilise, instead opting for more old-school phrasing. Defiance, which is Appleton's other songwriting contribution, opens with a burst of neo-classical shredding before a weighty riff kicks in that sounds a little different to anything the band have done before. Despite this, the song is mostly classic Iced Earth that grows over multiple listens as the subtle melodies and slightly downbeat chorus really sink in. I like it that Appleton has made some strong songwriting contributions on both his studio outings with the band now. While I love Schaffer's songwriting, it is always great when other members of the band take up some of slack as this helps to keep things fresh. While Dreyer joined the band after the bulk of the songwriting for this album was complete, I hope he sticks around long enough to contribute to the next album as I imagine his efforts will be as strong as Appleton's. The album's final song, Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862), is a nine-minute plus epic and the first lengthy song the band have done in while. Iced Earth have always excelled at longer, more progressive efforts and this one is a real winner with a great gang-vocal led chorus, atmospheric sections, and a lengthy folky instrumental mid-section that often recalls Thin Lizzy's Black Rose. The song tells the bloody story of the Irish Brigde at the Battle Of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War. Schaffer has always been a real student of American military history and his passion for that really shines through in songs like this. Comparisons can obviously be drawn to the Gettysburg trilogy on 2004's The Glorious Burden, but this is less progressive and more out-and-out heavy metal. It is a real future classic than ensure the album ends on a true high. Overall, Incorruptible is a really strong album from a band that have been delivering the goods now for many years. Iced Earth's style is instantly recognisable and this album proves again why they are held in such high regard across the globe.

The album was released on 16th June 2017 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Seven Headed Whore.