Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Stryper's 'God Damn Evil' - Album Review

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 19 May 2018

FM/Dare - London Review

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

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

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

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

Despite Dare being a tough act to follow, FM were more than up for the task and seemed up for the evening as soon as they took their position at around 9:40pm. I had last seen the band at Castel Roc at Chepstow Castle last August where early technical issues seemed to knock them off guard a bit, but this 90 minute set saw them running on full power from the first number to the encore. Black Magic, from the new album Atomic Generation, proved to be a powerful opening number and Steve Overland (vocals/guitar) prowled around the front of the stage singing the lyrics while Jim Kirkpatrick (guitar/vocals) handled all of the guitar parts himself. Only two numbers from the new album were played, and the set acted as a bit of an FM history lessen with songs from throughout their career, including some lesser-played numbers, featured. The ever-present I Belong to the Night, with Jem Davis' keyboards perfectly cutting through the mix, got everyone going early on before the early single Let Love be the Leader only heightened the party atmosphere. For the most part the set was built around the band's rockier material, which ensured that the energy was constantly at a high level. It only took a few numbers for the crowd to be totally on board with FM, and everyone was singing along with the band in no time. The rarely-played smooth AOR of The Dream That Died was an early highlight. Overland commented that the band had not played it since the late 1980s so it was great to see the song brought out the vaults for a much-deserved airing. It was great to hear the catchy Over You, preceded by Kirkpatrick's guitar showcase Metropolis, again too and it saw Overland, Kirkpatrick, and Merv Goldsworthy (bass guitar/vocals) harmonising well during the poppy chorus. The soaring ballad Closer to Heaven was a rare change of pace, and saw Overland taking on the lead guitar duties for a tasteful solo. By this point it was clear just how excellent the live sound mix was. Much like a recent Marillion show I attended, the mix was just about perfect. There was a great separation between all of the instruments, enough backing vocals to re-create those famous harmonies, and Pete Jupp's drums had just enough punch to give the band a slightly heavier feel. This was particularly evident towards the end of the band's set when many of their best-known songs were wheeled out. Tough it Out sounded more powerful than ever as Overland belted out the anthemic chorus and Kirkpatrick nailed the snaking riff. The Desmond Child-penned single Bad Luck might have been the best-received track of the night, with everyone around me singing along, before That Girl received a similar reception which brought a big smile from Davis as he hammered away at the chorus' riff on his stack of keyboards. Killed by Love, the only other song from Atomic Generation featured in the set, brought the main set to a close. It seemed like an odd move to end with a new one, but plenty in the crowd seemed to know it already and gave up a huge cheer as the band left the stage. It was past 11pm by this time so I assumed it was all over, but the band defied the curfew and came back for a couple more. The bluesy romp of Burning My Heart Down got everyone's feet stomping and hands clapping before Overland brought Wharton back onto the stage for a fiery rendition of Thin Lizzy's The Boys are Back in Town. FM seem to enjoy covering songs with their touring partners as part of their encore, and it worked well providing one last chance for everyone to sing-a-long with Wharton, who took the lead vocals, and the band. The setlist was:

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Blackberry Smoke's 'Find a Light' - Album Review

When the Atlanta-based southern rock five-piece Blackberry Smoke finally secured a deal with extreme metal label Earache Records (a strange pairing if there ever was one) to release their music in Europe in 2014, it seemed that the band would make big waves. The band's third album, 2012's The Whippoorwill, was released here in the UK in 2014 and it was an instant hit in the rock world. The band had played small venues in the UK prior to The Whippoorwill's eventual release over here, but were soon catapulted to much more prestigious mid-sized halls when they returned later that year. The band's mix of southern rock, blues, and country music certainly struck a chord with a lot of people, with hints of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, and even occasionally Status Quo in Blackberry Smoke's organic rock sound. The show I saw in London on the Winter 2014 tour was excellent, and The Whippoorwill became one of my most-listened to albums of the time. Despite releasing two albums either side of The Whippoorwill however, their 2012 release remains their high water mark - for me at least. That album contains the songs which best represent their sound, with rock, blues, and country represented in almost-equal measure. Since then however, maybe in an attempt to really make a big name for themselves in their native America, Blackberry Smoke have really been pushing the country in their sound to the fore - often at the expense of everything else. 2016's Like an Arrow (which I reviewed here) was the culmination of the push towards this country-above-all-else sound, and it really suffered as a result. Re-reading my review of that album reminded me that Like an Arrow contained only three real rock tracks, with country blandness permeating many of the remaining tracks. I have not listened to the album since I wrote that review in December of 2016, and I cannot see myself returning to it any time soon. When I saw that the band were releasing a follow-up a mere 18 months after Like an Arrow I really hoped that this time they had decided to be a rock band again. An early listen to a single did not fill me with confidence, but when the album dropped through my letterbox last month and I gave it a listen to I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Find a Light, the band's sixth studio album, still has a lot of country DNA in its blood, but the band has also remembered that they are allowed to let their hair down sometimes! The rock and blues sounds that made The Whippoorwill, the two albums before it, and even 2015's raw Holding all the Roses (which I reviewed here) so enjoyable. Bandleader and songwriter Charlie Starr seems to have regained some of his mojo here, and plenty of dirty bluesy, southern riffs are to be found throughout which sees the band sounding, thankfully, more like their old selves.

The album opens with Flesh and Bone, a fuzzy bluesy rocker that packs much more of a punch than the majority of Like an Arrow's songs combined. A simple riff drives the song, which leads to an organic verse which sees the band's two guitarists settling into the groove of the riff while drummer Brit Turner lays down a hollow beat. Starr's vocals are as drenched in southern drawl as always, which fits the sound perfectly, and he really lets rip as the song reaches the chorus which is totally enveloped by Brandon Still's Hammond organ. The pace of the song remains the same throughout, at a speed slightly slower than the traditional mid-pace, but this suits the bluesy feel of the song perfectly and really allows the keyboards to shine during the chorus sections. The song fades out on a smooth guitar solo atop the bluesy riff, which instantly brings back memories of the band's earlier work. Run Away from it All has a brighter sound, mixing blues rock and country perfectly to remind the listener of some of the songs found on Holding all the Roses. It is one of a few songs here that Starr co-wrote with former Buckcherry guitarist Keith Nelson and the partnership seems to have been a fruitful one. The mix of a country bluesman and a sleazy rocker seems like a strange mix, but the songs the two have written together are great additions to this album. This one has all the classic Blackerry Smoke hallmarks, with subtle guitar leads throughout from Starr and fellow guitarist Paul Jackson, a strong chorus, and a mixture of electric and acoustic instruments. Like the previous number, this song features a long closing guitar solo that is packed full of great bluesy phrasing. It is good to see the band letting their hair down again here as they were awfully restrained throughout their previous outing. The Crooked Kind is a slightly heavier piece, with booming hollow drums and a fast-paced pre-chorus that really packs a punch. Throughout the song the guitars, which have a raw bluesy tone to them, continue to intertwine perfectly mixing in subtle leads among the rhythms. The main draw of this song however is the southern rock riffs that are constantly peeled off here. After the laid back approach taken on the previous album, it is great to see the band channelling their inner Lynyrd Skynyrd again with some proper rock riffs to drive their songs. After three rockier pieces, Medicate my Mind is the first acoustic-led piece. It is not a country ballad however, but a mid-paced country rocker with a strong percussive backing and acoustic guitars that sound like they are being played in the same room as you. Hammond organ is used throughout to add a bit of depth, but it is the guitars that drive everything here as Starr croons the lyrics. The song does build up as it moves along, with electric guitars and proper drums being thrown into the mix towards the end, but it is the early acoustic sections that stick most in the memory.

I've Got This Song is another country piece, but this has more of a ballad feel with a slower pace and a mournful chord sequence that forms a darker backing for Starr's lyrics. Songs like this filled Like an Arrow, but fewer placed in the context of a more varied album such as this one make them more palatable and interesting. Session player Levi Lowrey adds some violin to the piece, which helps to add to the sorrowful feeling with some twisting lines that work well alongside Starr's vocals. There is even a violin solo instead of the traditional guitar solo which helps to reinforce the song's country kudos. Best Seat in the House returns the rock to the album, and plays out as a mid-paced country rocker that sounds like the sound crafted on The Whippoorwill. As a result the piece is one of my favourites on the album as it really reminds me of why I fell in love with the band in the first place. The chorus is packed with hooks, and has a vocal that you can easily sing while the band settles into a southern groove. Those who loved the band's early work will certainly find plenty to enjoy in this song, and could turn heads of a few of those who have been turned off by the band's other recent work. This is modern country rock at its best, and shows that Blackberry Smoke can still write top quality songs. This level of quality is maintained on I'll Keep Ramblin', which is probably the best cut here. Starr wrote the song with famed pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, who is featured throughout, and it is a powerful southern rock piece in the Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet mould, but with a little more of a county twang. The riffs throughout are excellent, and sees the band jamming well with Randolph for a melodic and soulful sound. Still plays the piano, and attacks it in that barroom style that the late Billy Powell made a career out of. Further on in the song a gospel choir is used to great effect to create a really upbeat vibe that is sure to see some movement if the band choose to play the song live. This leads into a choppy guitar solo which fits in with the kinetic energy created throughout. Seems So Far is another country ballad that ticks all the boxes but fails to truly hit the spot after two excellent rockers. The piece is acoustic-led as is to be expected, but some occasional slide guitar breaks help to add some additional melody where required. Sadly the song just fails to really lodge itself in the brain due to a lack of real hooks. Starr mostly croons the song without really injecting a lot of character into his delivery, and there is no real chorus as such to hang everything around. It was an abundance of songs like this that made Like an Arrow fall so flat, but luckily here these kind of songs are few and far between.

Lord Strike Me Dead is a bluesy piece that has plenty of Hammond organ from Still and choppy riffing that allows Starr to sing with his drawl. The keyboards actually form the basis of the song's main melody, and it is great to see Still brought the front here. Sadly Blackberry Smoke seem to have underused Still's talents throughout the majority of their discography and it is great to here him driving everything with a John Paul Jones-esque organ riff here. The best southern rock bands make liberal use of keyboards, and I feel that this is an area that Blackberry Smoke could improve to vary their sound up a bit. Lay Me Down Easy is another country piece, but this one is more upbeat with punchy percussion and the occasional organ riff shining through. Starr sings the song passionately, and is backed up nicely by session vocalist Amanda Shires who harmonises well with Starr to create an honest, old fashioned country sound. Despite the over-reliance on country in their recent works, songs like this are perfect for Blackberry Smoke and are still packed with enough melodies to make them able to hold their own against the rockier pieces here. Speaking of rockier pieces, Nobody Gives a Damn is a raw rocker that really harks back to the band's early albums. The song is blessed with a great chorus and some excellent bluesy guitar tones that really crash out of the speakers. The short guitar solo that comes in after the first chorus really comes out the blue and slices its way through the mix perfectly. Moments like this show Blackberry Smoke channelling some of the best southern rock bands of old and is another reminder of what good me so hooked on The Whippoorwill a few years ago. In fact this song probably contains the best lead guitar display on the album, with a few solo sections sprinkled throughout the piece for plenty of bluesy goodness. Till the Wheels Fall Off has a similar sound, but slows things down a little to make something which is somewhere between a rocker and a ballad. There are some great southern riffs here, and it is also good to once again here Still's organ positioned quite high in the mix for washings of retro sounds. While not as powerful as the previous song, it still fills the speakers nicely as the album beings to wind down. The album's closing number Mother Mountain is another piece of true country with twangy vocal harmonies and dense acoustic guitars. It is only a relatively short song, but it works well to close out the album with something that sounds like it could have been recorded 50 or 60 years ago. After two big rock pieces, this soothing song helps to end the album on a bit of a calm note and allows everything to relax a little after the previous blues workouts. There is something much more interesting about songs like this than say songs like Seems So Far, and shows that pure country can be good when done right and mixed in with other sounds. Overall, Find a Light is a bit of a return to form for Blackberry Smoke and is easily their strongest album since The Whippoorwill. It is great to see the band returning more to their rock roots here churning out some powerful riffs alongside more gentle acoustic pieces.

The album was released on 6th April 2018 via Earache Records. Below is the band's promotional audio clip of I'll Keep Ramblin'.


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Dead Daisies' 'Burn it Down' - Album Review

I am not quite sure how the 'supergroup' The Dead Daisies, formed in 2013 by guitarist and songwriter David Lowy, have suddenly become unavoidable in the UK rock press. Over the past few years the band's stock has grown immensely, so much so that recently the band completely sold out a UK tour that took in some good-sized venues across the country - a feat which many real classic bands fail to achieve these days. I would not be so surprised at this achievement if The Dead Daisies were a genuinely interesting band but, being totally honest, they are fairly one-dimensional and generic. I first came into contact with the band back in 2013 when I saw them supporting Black Star Riders in Bristol, and I had also been given a copy of their self-titled debut album (which I reviewed here) by a friend as they had got it free with an issue of Classic Rock Magazine. The album itself was fairly enjoyable, with basic hard rock songs with an AOR tinge, but really paled in comparison with other rock albums released that year. Their live show was a similar experience, despite the incredible talent on stage, and were promptly blown away by a fiery performance from Black Star Riders. Lowy has always managed to recruit great sidemen for the band, which seems to be his project, and on the stage in Bristol that were, among others, two members of Guns N' Roses and a long-time sideman to The Rolling Stones. None of these three guys are a part of The Dead Daisies now, but Lowy seems to have found a settled line-up in the last couple of years with frontman John Corabi, guitarist Doug Aldrich, and bassist Marco Mendoza now seasoned band members. These are three very experience and well-travelled musicians, who certainly bring a lot to anything they are a part of, but something about The Dead Daisies still does not really work for me. This core four-piece has been recently joined by the equally-seasoned drummer Deen Castronovo (Cacophony; Bad English; Hardline; Ozzy Osbourne; Steve Vai; GZR; Journey; Revolution Saints) after Brian Tichy announced his departure from the band last year. That means that the band's newly-released fourth album Burn it Down is the first to feature the current Dead Daisies line-up and, incidentally, it is also the first of their albums which I have bought on release. Both 2015's Revolución and 2016's Make Some Noise are albums I own, but both I picked up cheaply long after their release. Neither has made much of an impact on me, as the band's fairly generic brand of bluesy hard rock just does not really stand out from the crowd - especially given the considerable songwriting talents of people like Corabi and Aldrich (Whitesnake's 2008 masterpiece Good to be Bad this ain't!). I will be seeing the band later in the year however at Steelhouse Festival, so I thought it was only fair that I gave Burn it Down a fair hearing. Saying that this is a bad album would be unfair, and fairly ignorant, but it is just pretty unremarkable. There is definitely more that has grabbed me here than on either Revolución or Make Some Noise however, which is an encouraging sign, but there are just so many better examples of the genre being put out by bands that do not contain the 'named' musicians that The Dead Daisies can boast.

The album opens with the drawn out riff of Resurrected, before the song explodes into a strong mid-paced rocker driven by a snaking bluesy riff from Aldrich and Lowy while Corabi's whiskey-soaked drawl snarls the lyrics. Songs like this, while basic, show The Dead Daisies to be a fun outfit. The raw production, courtesy of veteran studio hand Marti Frederiksen, helps with Castronovo's drumming having a booming, hollow quality to them which helps to drive the song forward - especially during the verses. Sadly however, listening to the album through headphones, reveals some quite bad clipping on the drums at times which is a shame. An album of this nature should not really suffer from issues like that, and the distortion that comes from the drum compression can be distracting at times. When playing the album through my stereo this is far less noticeable however. Rise Up is similar to Resurrected, but it has a much greater emphasis on groove with Mendoza's bass cutting through the mix and Aldrich throwing in some occasional bluesy note bends. The chorus is quite a memorable one, with Mendoza and Castronovo harmonising nicely with Corabi for some big notes, but does not pack a really heavy punch. That is probably my main complaint with the band's overall sound, as many of the songs here just lack that real hook to take them to the next level. The guitar work is excellent here, with Aldrich unleashing his inner blues demon, and showing a different to side to his work with Whitesnake. He has always been one of my favourite modern guitar players and it is great to hear him doing something different throughout this album. The album's title track opens up as a raw bluesy stomp, with the guitars sounding like something from a 1960s American blues album with a punchy percussive backing, and this sound dominates the verses. The stripped-back sound works, especially in contrast to the powerful chorus which is one of the album's best. Corabi's snarl works particularly well here, atop a swinging groove of a beat, as he delivers some of the album's best vocal melodies. The song contains a great guitar solo too, which ensures this is one of the best offerings found on the album. There is a looseness to this song which just works perfectly, which is encapsulated in the song's instrumental outro which is led by a huge bass riff from Mendoza. Aldrich solos atop this twisting melody, and it is moments like this which show The Dead Daisies at their best. Judgement Day has a more organic sound, with acoustic guitars dominating the verses with a simple percussive backing. The band are definitely taking a few cues from Led Zeppelin here, with the warmth of the acoustic instruments contrasting well with the bludgeoning choruses that see Aldrich and Lowy cranking their electric guitars up to eleven. The guitar tones throughout the album are great, which fit in perfectly with the raw sound described earlier, but it does lead to a rather dense feel at times. There is no brightness to the guitars at all which, although fitting in well with Corabi's deeper voice, certainly makes the album feel more one-dimensional.

The Led Zeppelin influence can also be seen throughout What Goes Around. With a riff that sounds a little like a slowed down version of Black Dog, and a song structure to match, it definitely sounds like a song I have heard many times before. Originality is certainly not The Dead Daisies' strong point, and songs like this one fall down by never truly standing on their own. Again there is no real hook to hang the song off and it pales in comparison to the two strong songs it follows. Bitch is a cover of The Rolling Stones' classic, and the band have the chops and sound to do it justice. Aldrich and Lowy wrap their fingers around the song's muscular riff with ease, and Corabi's voice is more than up for the task of standing in Mick Jagger's shoes. Corabi is a very underrated singer in my opinion, and while his voice certainly lacks any king of subtly or variety, he is very good at what he does. His bluesy snarl is perfect for a song like this, and he really shines here. Set Me Free is the album's ballad, and it is actually one of my favourite songs here. Producer Frederiksen contributes some subtle organ sounds throughout, which helps to add depth to the piece, and the guitar work really helps to enhance that atmosphere - rather than attempting to dominate proceedings with a big riff. Corabi is the star of the show here easily, with a passionate vocal display that sees him sing slightly cleaner than usual which works given the song's context. There is less of a snarl from him here, instead letting the melodies shine through nicely. I think the reason this is one of my favourite pieces on the album is because there is much more depth here than on many of the album songs. The more prominent keyboards help, and provide a break from the dirty guitar tones, and the melodies seem to have been pushed the fore as a result. Dead and Gone is another strong effort, with a choppy riff driving everything, and the keyboards once again getting a bigger role with some Hammond organ washes throughout for that classic 1970s hard rock feel. The Dead Daisies have not had a keyboard player since Guns N' Roses' Dizzy Reed stepped down from the band in 2015 and I feel this is something they have been missing. Most of the band 1970s bands had creative keyboard players to ensure a variety and depth of sound, and The Dead Daisies really need that at times. Bludgeoning bluesy riffs are great, but the novelty can wear thin after a while, despite my fondness for Aldrich's playing. It also helps that the song has a cracking chorus, packed full of classic rock swagger, which ensures the song sticks in the mind. Can't Take It With You carries on this string of strong songs, by ramping up the pace a little and turning in an energetic piece with Castronovo's drums really driving everything forward. It is great to see him back in a touring band after his personal issues in recent years, and the raw rock 'n' roll of The Dead Daisies is different from his usual AOR sound. This is not a subtle song, and in fact it is over almost as soon as it starts, but the energy that it creates gives a bit of kick to an album which mostly sticks to the mid-paced feel.

Leave Me Alone, the album's last original song, is definitely my favourite cut here. Songs like this show that the band can write anthemic rockers, which is also frustrating as there are too many songs here that just pale in comparison to it. The chorus is great, with a proper vocal hook to latch onto, and the energy the song creates feels like that created by some of the all-time great classic rock tunes. An excellent bluesy guitar solo, with lots of wah, presumably from Aldrich is the icing on the cake makes up for the rather simple guitar riff - but with an attitude like that that is presented here, the chugged riff manages to work. One final cover closes out the album, with a decent version of The Beatles' Revolution bringing The Dead Daisies' fourth album to a close. It has never been a favourite song of mine, and the band's tough blues rock sound is a bit ham-fisted for The Beatles' more intricate and layered sound. They certainly sound more comfortable covering The Rolling Stones than they do covering The Beatles, but it rounds the album off nicely all the same. Overall, Burn it Down is a bit of a mixed listen. Many of the best songs are pushed towards the end of the album, which certainly makes the album's first half a bit of a chore to sit through. There are some excellent songs here, but there are also some bland, uncreative efforts that fail to hit home. I am still struggling to understand the band's sudden popularity, but with many of the band members being particularly interactive with their fans (my Twitter feed is often full of fawning tweets by a handful of the same few women who have been retweeted by Mendoza and Castronvo) on social media so it is easy to see why people can get sucked in! I think the fact that every song on this album has such a generic name does not really help the memorability of them either. How many songs are there called Set Me Free or Rise Up? I just feel the band need to be more creative, but in truth only Corabi and Aldrich are true proven songwriters - and even then as part of bands who had already made their impact a long time prior to their arrivals. As much as Mendoza and Castronovo are recognisable figures in the rock world, they are not known for their songwriting. The Dead Daisies seem to lack that real creative vision that great bands have, often through one main songwriter who drives everything, so have to rely on a more basic and generic sound. On the whole I enjoy this album, despite the slow start, but I feel there are plenty of similar hard rock albums released by lesser-known bands in the past couple of years that deserve the sort of credit this album, and band, are currently getting.

The album was released on 6th April 2018 via Spitfire Music/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's official visualiser for Rise Up.


Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Kamelot's 'The Shadow Theory' - Album Review

Kamelot are one of my favourite symphonic/power metal bands, and I have been listening to them on a regular basis since first discovering them back in 2009. Their mix of upbeat power metal with dark gothic melodrama makes them stand out from the crowd, and I think it is fair to say that no other band truly sounds like them - despite a few trying over the years. One of the reasons that I rate them so highly is their consistency. Prior to last month, the band had released eleven studio albums - only one of which has never really grabbed me (1998's Siége Perilous). Even their first couple of albums, which featured vocalist Mark Vanderbilt who has since totally disappeared from the metal scene, are enjoyable, if derivative, pieces of work. Crimson Glory and Queensrÿche were being channelled there but, despite moving on and creating their own sound, those influences are still present today. The introduction of enigmatic frontman Roy Khan, who incidentally has just announced his return to music with his pre-Kamelot band Conception after a lengthy hiatus, in 1998 started Kamelot down the path that we know them for today. The influences from bands like Queensrÿche can still be found, but mixed in with plenty of darker moods, helped by big symphonic backings and darker guitar riffs. Now, well into their third decade as a band, Kamelot are well into their third era - which began in 2012 when current frontman Tommy Karevik joined the band. Karevik's introduction did little to change the Kamelot formula, and the albums they have released with him at the helm certainly follow the same blueprints as the last few albums to feature Khan. 2012's Silverthorn was an epic concept album that played it quite safe; focusing on big choruses and hooks throughout. It was a big success for the band, and is one of my more regularly-played Kamelot albums. 2015's Haven (which I reviewed here) was similar, but there seemed to be a conscious attempt from the band to inject a little more darkness into the songwriting. It contained some of their heaviest material to date, and is another real favourite of mine. Fast forward three years and we now have The Shadow Theory in front of us - the band's twelfth studio album that was released last month. This album is the third to feature Karevik, and sees the band once again delving into the darker depths of their sound. Founding member Thomas Youngblood's guitars dominate the album, with Oliver Palotai's keyboards sometimes taking on a bit more of a supporting role. Fans of Palotai's playing will still find plenty to enjoy here, as the German still manages to fit in plenty of keyboard solos throughout - as well as some industrial-sounding synths at times which give the album a modern edge when compared to Kamelot's traditional sound. Despite these tweaks in sound, this is still very much a Kamelot album, and fans of the band's work will find lots of familiar tropes alongside these new additions. I do not think that this album is as overtly melodic as the previous two, but there is still something enchanting about the songs here. Incidentally, it is also the first Kamelot album to feature drummer Johan Nunez (Nightrage; Firewind; Meridian Dawn), who was officially announced as the band's new drummer earlier this year as long-time member Casey Grillo had decided to leave Kamelot to pursue other ventures.

After the orchestral intro The Mission, a typical symphonic metal album trope, the album gets underway properly with Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire) - which also served as the album's first true single and had a music video filmed for it. It is one of the more immediate songs on the album, opening with a driving double bass drum pattern from Nunez that backs a dramatic gothic orchestral motif. This is typical Kamelot, but the pace seems initially more urgent than many of the band's previous singles. The verses are murky, with Karevik using his lower register to croon the lyrics while Youngblood's snaking riff provides some groove. The chorus is one of the album's best, and uses the intro melodies as its basis. Karevik really shines here, and uses his powerful voice to really push the vocal melodies home. Lauren Hart (Once Human) provides some guest vocals, both clean and harsh, to a bridge section - carrying on the band's tradition of finding great female guest vocalists to add colour to their songs. Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire) is a powerful opening song that gets the album off to a strong start, and recalls some of the best moments of the band's recent work. RavenLight definitely has more of an old-school Kamelot vibe, and seems to hark back to albums like 2007's Ghost Opera and 2010's Poetry for the Poisoned. Youngblood's guitar drives the entire song, with his juddering riffs locking in perfectly with Nunez's precise footwork for an almost mechanical sound. Palotai's keyboards mostly sit in the background, but help to enhance the song's dark atmosphere without ever really dominating the sound. This works well however, and allows Karevik to really shine with a dynamic vocal performance. His use of falsetto at choice moments throughout the song is great, and shows off his diversity. Amnesiac is quite a schizophrenic song, with lots of sounds being merged together to create an interesting mix. The intro is quite chaotic, with some speedy synth melodies, while the verses follow a more straight forward pattern with Sean Tibbetts' bass really holding everything together. Pop metal bands like Amaranthe seem to have influenced the chorus, as the synths are pushed to the fore once again and they are used to create quite a trippy, electronic vibe. This, coupled with Karevik's poppy high vocal sections, creates something which does not sound like a traditional Kamelot chorus, but works through a good use of melody. Burns to Embrace starts off slowly, with distant percussion and synths creating a sparse backing for Karevik's low croons, before the song explodes into a mid-paced rocker complete with folky melodies during the main riff. There are no additional musicians credited for providing the folk instruments, so I assume that these sounds are courtesy of Palotai's keyboards. It works well however, and helps to create a bit more of an organic sound after the electronics-heavy previous song, despite the fact that synths still play a big part here. The chorus, while not as catchy as others here, is still a good one. The mid-pace helps to create a strident rock feel - with Nunez's drums really driving everything with his powerful, crashing style. The song also contains one of the best guitar solos of the album, with Youngblood really letting rip with a lengthy exercise in melodic metal soloing. A children's choir sees the song to a hard-hitting close, which is not something featured on too many metal albums.

In Twilight Hours is the album's obligatory ballad, but it is one of the better ones the band have written in recent years. Jennifer Haben (Beyond the Black) adds her gorgeous voice to the song, and her voice mixes in perfectly with Karevik's throughout creating the perfect duet. Despite being a ballad, there is still a lot going on musically. Palotai plays the piano as might be expected, but there is a strong pulse from the drums throughout which helps to keep the song moving to a metronomic beat rather than being a simple piano piece. The song does build gradually as it moves along, and the last chorus in particular is excellent as both Karevik and Haben push their voices to turn in an emotional final section. Kevlar Skin is a mid-paced rocker, but is the first piece on the album that fails to really excite. Youngblood's guitar simply chugs through the verses, and Karevik does little to make his voice stand out. The melodies here are quite basic, and fail to really sink into the brain. This is the same for the chorus, which does see things speed up for a bit more of an energetic kick, but the vocal melodies just do not do the job which they are supposed to. Kamelot can certainly do better, and the hookless chorus ends up just representing the whole song, as sadly there is little here that stands out. Static is better, but still falls a little short of the excellent opening run of songs. The song is a little slower, and features a strong keyboard melody during the opening sections but it is actually Tibbetts that turns in the most interesting performance here. The verses are totally dominated by his excellent bass playing, and he makes the most of this rare time in the spotlight. The bass has rarely been used in a dominant role in Kamelot's songs previously, so hearing him play here is great. The chorus is decent too, with moody overtones that allow Karevik to deliver an emotion and melodramatic performance. The orchestrations dance around behind him, which adds to the gothic atmosphere, and help to bring the album to life again after the weak previous song. MindFall Remedy gets things properly back on track however, as the pace is once again raised for a much-needed injection of energy. Palotai shines during the intro section with some excellent orchestral keyboards, but it is Youngblood that drives the verses with a cutting guitar riff complete with squealing pinch harmonics for that modern touch. The chorus again sees Karevik utilising his falsetto vocals, which is extremely catchy, and he is joined again throughout by Hart who adds some of her powerful harsh vocals during the chorus - which works as a great contrast to Karevik's falsetto. Kamelot's continual sparing use of harsh vocals has always served them well, and it works in their favour again here. Hart adds a lot to the song, and fits in with the heavier mood created by Youngblood's riffing.

Stories Unheard opens with some simple acoustic guitar lines, fooling you into thinking that it will be a ballad, but the song does soon build up towards something more rocky - despite still resembling a ballad at times. The chorus certainly has the feel of a ballad, but the driving double bass drums make sure that there is still plenty of crunch. The way Karevik sings makes the piece sound more gentle than it actually is, and I like the way these different styles have been mixed together to create quite a dynamic piece. I would have liked more to be made of the acoustic guitar parts however, as it would have helped to add a different side to the album. It does close out with some more of the acoustic playing, but it would have been nice to have this incorporated more throughout the song. Vespertine (My Crimson Bride) picks up the pace again, and recalls the sound the band forged on Haven. This is a fairly simple, melodic song that plays to the band's strengths and adds a song that can easily be sung  along with to the closing third of the album. The chorus is instantly memorable, and sees Karevik singing the lyrics with his typical smoothness. There are few people out that there would not get this chorus in their head after only a handful of listens - which to me is the mark of a well-written song. Other songs on this album have played with the Kamelot blueprint a bit to include new sounds and feelings, but this one is happy to be fairly predictable. There is nothing wrong with the familiar if it has been done well, and this is a song that pushes all the right buttons for me. The Proud and the Broken is the last true song on the album, and makes for a truly epic closing piece. It is the heaviest song here, and makes good use of the industrial elements featured on the album's earlier songs. Youngblood's guitar tone here takes on a slightly darker tone, and his riffs really dominate despite the use of some quite cold synths throughout. The chorus is extremely memorable, and sees Karevik laying down some of the best melodies of the album. The band's long-time producer Sascha Paeth adds some harsh vocals throughout the piece, and his almost black metal-esque style adds to the drama, especially when his vocals are mixed with Palotai's dark, dramatic strings. There are plenty of opportunities for Youngblood and Palotai to solo throughout, with guitar and keyboard leads cutting through the mix often. This feels like a song where everyone is working at full pelt to make the most epic song that they can, and they certainly manage that. While the band have done longer, more progressive pieces in the past - this more contained effort packs a lot into a shorter space and ends up really shining as a result. The closing instrumental piece Ministrium (Shadow Key) feels relaxing after the heavy and varied previous song, and helps to add sense of calm to the album's end. Overall, despite a few weaker songs, The Shadow Theory is still a strong album from Kamelot. I like the fact that they have tried to shake up their established formula a bit here which, although this does not always work, makes the album stand out when compared to their other recent work. There is plenty here for the band's fans to enjoy, and it is a worthy entry into their excellent discography.

The album was released on 6th April 2018 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire).


Sunday, 29 April 2018

Leaves' Eyes/MaYaN - London Review

All too often I seem to find myself at The Underworld in Camden when going to see European melodic metal bands live in London. Symphonic/power metal has never been massively popular over here, and The Underworld is often their stop off of choice. I was pleased then, yesterday, to find myself somewhere new - The Dome slightly to the north in Tufnell Park. Going somewhere new is quite rare for me these days, but for whatever reason I had never had the need to go to The Dome. I was surprised how big it was, maybe too big for the show I was there to see, but I was impressed by the space and the sound which was, mostly, pretty good. I was there to see a co-headline show by Leaves' Eyes and MaYaN, the duo's only UK stop on a greater European tour which sees the former promoting their latest album Sign of the Dragonhead. Leaves' Eyes are fairly regular visitors to the UK, so I had seen them live three times prior to yesterday's show, but MaYaN are not a bad that regularly play live. I believe that this show might have been their first on UK soil, so that in itself was a reason to make it up to the capital from Devon for the night. Having the two headliners was probably what prompted the pairing to book the larger venue, and that was a good move. While the place was not full, there were certainly more people there than would have comfortably fitted inside The Underworld. The more confined space of the O2 Academy in Islington might have been the perfect venue for this show, but The Dome suited too. There was a good-sized crowd gathered for a Saturday night of melodic metal, but the place was not so full that you could not easily get to the toilet/bar/merchandise. This is always welcome, as being tightly packed together is not always very pleasant, but it still would have been nice if a few people had showed up!

Support came from Almanac, also performing their first ever UK show, who entertained the growing crowd to forty or so minutes of heavy power metal from their two albums. Formed in 2015 by Victor Smolski (guitar) after leaving Rage, Almanac take the no-nonsense approach to metal of Smolski's former band and mix it with more bombastic symphonic elements. Fronted by veteran metal frontman David Readman, along with Jeannette Marchewka, Almanac were strong vocally and I mostly enjoyed what they had to offer. Smolski's riffing drove everything, with the symphonic elements consigned to a tape in the absence of a keyboard player, with Readman and Marchewka, often singing in tandem, singing powerfully. My main issue with Almanac however was their choruses. Power metal songs should be built around big choruses, but most of Almanac's songs have simple choruses - which mostly consist of a single word or phrase repeated. This approach works for bands like Rage, but bands like Almanac need something more. As a result I feel like Almanac are still a bit of a 'work in progress', and need more time to develop. There are hints of a great band fighting to get out, and with some more emphasis on melodic delivery I think they could become something quite special.

Being a supergroup with a large amount of moving parts, it is unsurprising that MaYaN do not get too many opportunities to play live. I think this is probably their first full-length tour since forming back in 2010, and I had been waiting for a chance to see them for a while. They had about an hour on stage, and the ten-piece band managed to get through ten songs in that time - the bulk of which came from 2014's Antagonise. Devil in Disguise got things underway, with stand-in clean vocalist Adam Denlinger the first of the band's five vocalists to make it onto the stage. His powerful delivery was a great contrast to the harsh vocals of band-leader Mark Jansen and George Oosthoek, and the mix of styles is a big part of MaYaN's sound. An early highlight was the fast, death metal-influenced Bloodline Forfeit which saw Jansen and Oosthoek taking the limelight with  crunching vocal performance. Metal fans will know Jansen from Epica, but Oosthoek is not a regular on the metal scene anymore. He helped to pioneer this whole scene however with his old band Orphanage, so it was great to finally see him live. Vocalists Marcela Bovio and Laura Macrì also offered a lot throughout the band's set. At times they acted as backing vocalists, whereas during some songs they took the lead. The beautiful ballad Insano was a good example of this, and Bovio further shone during The Power Process - a new song from the band's upcoming album Dhyana. The two new songs played seemed a little more overly melodic than much of the band's work, with less of a death metal influence and more cues taken from power metal. MaYaN's sound is very diverse however, so I expect to see some heavier songs included on Dhyana too. Given the heavy nature of the band's songs, crushing riffs from guitarists Frank Schiphorst and Arjan Rijnen drove everything, with Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums) turning in a devilish performance behind his kit. I had only seen Jansen and van Weesenbeek a few weeks ago in Bristol with Epica, so it was great to see them again so soon performing with MaYaN. Despite the technical music on display, the crowd really seemed to get behind what MaYaN were doing, and by the time the set closer Bite the Bullet was played, it seemed that the vast majority of the crowd were MaYaN fans - even if they were previously unfamiliar with the band's work. When they finished, the band took their bows to large cheers and I even managed to catch Rijnen's plectrum - something I have not done for a while. The setlist was:

Descry
Devil in Disguise
Drown the Demon
Bloodline Forfeit
Burn Your Witches
Insano
The Power Process
Human Sacrifice
Faceless Spies (National Security Extremism - Part 2)
Tornado of Thoughts
Bite the Bullet

Leaves' Eyes are a well-established band now, but this was their first show in the UK since former frontwoman Liv Kristine's rather messy departure from the band in 2016 so they seemed to know that they had something to prove. Elina Siirala (vocals) has been fronting the band since then however, and her performance on the recently-released Sign of the Dragonhead assured me that she was the right woman to take the band forward. Unsurprisingly many of the songs from the new album were performed, with older numbers thrown in fairly sparingly. Sign of the Dragonhead and Across the Sea got the set off to a good start, and Siirala immediately showed that she is a real talent. Kristine, although possessing a great voice, was not what you would call a consistent live performer - and it seems that in Siirala the band have found a reliable hand who will continue to deliver. The first song in particular really stood out, with Siirala really belting out the chorus, ably backed by Alexander Krull (vocals) who chipped in with his harsh vocals as and when required. An early highlight was a stunning version of My Destiny which proved, if it needed proving, that Siirala could handle the older material. Guitarists Thorsten Bauer and Pete Streit churned out the choppy riff with ease, and the band were cruising. Despite some great older numbers being played, the standouts were often the newer songs. Jomsborg was another highlight, which saw Krull encouraging the crowd to join him during the gang-vocal heavy chorus and, while I feel the crowd could have been louder, he mostly succeeded. Krull also did most of the between-song talking too, with Siirala only doing this occasionally - usually for the songs which did not feature Krull's vocals such as a dramatic oldie Farewell Proud Men. The set focused on their catchier material, with older singles Hell to the Heavens and set-closer Edge of Steel mixing in well with bouncy newer tunes like Riders on the Wind. The grindingly heavy Fires in the North proved to a be a good chance of pace towards to the of the main set however, and allowed Krull to bark out the chorus while the atmospheric strings swirled around him. Two encore sections followed the fun Edge of Steel, and the first was the more symphonic epic Spirits' Masquerade, which saw Siirala singing alone as the band played through the dynamic, progressive piece around her. This vibe was continued with Blazing Waters, the last song of the night, but this time Krull - dressed in full Viking garb - was included too as he took the lead during the heavy verses and Siirala sung the choruses. It was a powerful song to close on, and the crowd let out a big cheer as it came to an end and the band took their bows. The setlist was:

Sign of the Dragonhead
Across the Sea
Take the Devil in Me
My Destiny
Swords in Rock
Jomsborg
Shadows in the Night
Farewell Proud Men
Like a Mountain
Hell to the Heavens
Riders on the Wind
Fires in the North
Edge of Steel
-
Spirits' Masquerade
-
Blazing Waters
Haraldskvæði

Co-headline tours are always good ways for bands like Leaves' Eyes and MaYaN to play bigger venues and reach more fans by sharing costs, and it seems to have payed off for both on this tour. The London show seemed to be a success, and I am sure the rest of the shows on the tour have been too. I will be seeing Leaves' Eyes again in October as they have been announced as one of the support acts for Kamelot's London show, but who knows if and when I will get to see MaYaN again. MaYaN were probably the band of the night by a small amount, but that should take nothing away from a passionate and powerful performance from Leaves' Eyes.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

FM's 'Atomic Generation' - Album Review

While it is sad that British AOR band FM never really received the respect that they deserved during their 1980s heyday, they have nevertheless carved out a niche for themselves in the modern melodic rock touring circuit since reuniting in 2007. Their initial run, which included 1986's Indiscreet and 1989's Tough it Out - both great examples of the AOR genre and some of the best examples of that music put out by a non-American band - saw them start to build some real momentum. Support slots with the likes of REO Speedwagon and Bon Jovi, along with working with the likes of Desmond Child and Neil Kernon, ought to have counted for more than it did; and as the 1990s rolled around it seemed that FM were unable to truly capitalise on their early successes. Line-up changes and a handful of less-successful albums saw the band through the first half of the 1990s before they decided to call it a day in 1995. FM would be dormant for twelve years, before a one-off reunion for the now-defunct Firefest in Nottingham turned into a permanent reconvening that has seen the band touring fairly regularly, both here in the UK and elsewhere, and releasing four new albums. These new albums, all of which have been of a pretty high quality, have built on the AOR sound the band made their own in the 1980s. Bluesier elements that relied less heavily on keyboards crept into their 1990s albums, and this slightly more guitar-orientated sound has remained on their newer work. Keyboard-heavy AOR is certainly something of its time, and when modern bands do not really nail the sound it can came across as being very dated and twee. FM have always avoided these traps however, with a bluesier sound that incorporates AOR tropes into a slightly tougher sound. The adjective 'tougher' is used loosely here, as FM have never been a heavy band, but their more guitar-centric sound is certainly rockier than that found on their earlier, pure AOR releases. 2015's Heroes and Villains (which I reviewed here) was probably the band's best album since their 2007 reunion. It contained a good mix of melodic and bluesier numbers, with a couple of the album's songs become setlist staples since its release. We are three years down the line now however, and last month the band released their tenth album Atomic Generation. Sound wise, Atomic Generation represents what we have come to expect from a new FM album. The band's trademark melodic songwriting, all fronted by Steve Overland's stunning vocals, is present and correct here - but there definitely seems to have been an effort here to go back to their roots somewhat. Maybe their recent celebrations of Indiscreet 30th anniversary have put them more in an 1980s mindset, but there is definitely a stronger keyboard presence here than there has been on any of their post-reunion albums. While I feel like Heroes and Villains is probably still the stronger of the two albums, it is great to hear the band turning back the clock on Atomic Generation to include a little more of their history.

Opening with a punchy drum beat and sparkly synths, Black Magic represents the modern FM sounds perfectly as it mixes hard rock guitar rhythms with an 1980s keyboard backing. Catchy wordless vocal sections surface throughout to draw the listener in which fit in well with the anthemic quality created by the gated drums. Pete Jupp's drums on this song really sound like something from the 1980s, with that slightly electronic twinge to the punch, and that fits the mood really well. The only thing missing from the song is a killer chorus, as sadly what passes off a chorus here just does not grab hold as it should - despite the wordless vocal chants. The lack of a true chorus aside, Black Magic is still a strong opening number, and the punchy song makes an instant impact. Too Much of a Good Thing sounds like it could have been written during the Indiscreet sessions and features lots of excellent keyboard work long-time FM member Jem Davis. What is instantly apparent when listening to this song is how little Overland's voice has aged over time. He still sounds as good as he did in the 1980s, and why is not rated as one of the best melodic rock vocalists ever continues to mystify me. Is the star of this song, and the way he sings the smooth chorus is almost spine tingling. Elsewhere clean guitar arpeggios help to bulk out the song, but it is the keyboards that dominate the musical landscape. A short guitar solo from Jim Kirkpatrick puts the instrument in the spotlight, but the mix of vocals and keyboards takes the listener back to the AOR heyday of the late 1980s and, as a result, this is one of my favourite pieces on the album. Killed by Love feels like a bit of summer anthem, complete with 'Yeah yeah...' sing-a-long sections and a great stomper of a guitar riff during the verses. Songs like this shows that FM learnt a lot from their time supporting Bon Jovi, and the upbeat vibe of that band has been mixed with FM's native British blues-based rock influences to create a fun hybrid of styles. The chorus is smoother than the punchy verses, and it has melodies that would have probably been on constant rotation on rock radio stations during 1980s. Sadly this song will not be a hit, but it feels like a future setlist staple, and shows FM letting their hair down. In it for the Money is a tougher rock song, and more akin to the sound the band have been cultivating on their other recent albums. Kirkpatrick lays down a great riff that drives the song, which is perfectly backed up by Davis' pulsing organ washes. Kirkpatrick's riff crates a strong groove throughout, which is particularly evident during the verses. He teams up well with founding bassist Merv Goldsworthy to create a powerful rhythm, and also demonstrates his bluesy rock credentials later on with a great solo. The chorus is smoother than the main portion of the song, but still packs a punch with plenty of organ to fill the speakers.

Golden Days, appropriately, feels like another throwback to their early sound. The guitars play a popping rhythm as the keyboards once again take centre stage, with Davis creating a big soundscape with his synths that is occasionally pierced with a twinkling little riff. If you imagine a more upbeat version of Love Lies Dying from Indiscreet then you will have a good idea of how this song sounds, and fans of the band's early albums will absolutely love it. Davis has had few chances on the recent albums to really demonstrate his creative side, with his keyboards often playing second fiddle to the guitars, but here he really shines with a variety of styles and moods. If you had ever wondered what FM would sound like with a horn section, you will find themselves channelling their inner Chicago on the excellent Playing Tricks on Me. This is a slightly jazzy rock piece that makes good use of session player Scott Ralph's horn skills, and some of the most infectious backing vocals I have heard for a while. If Killed by Love could be a summer anthem, then this is definitely a summer anthem. Chicago filled the radio with song like this during the 1970s, and it is sound that works really well for FM. The playful horn melodies really bring the best out of Overland's voice, and the ending section which sees Kirkpatrick soloing in between the horn melodies makes for a great audio treat. Make the Best of What You Got cranks the guitar up somewhat again, and is a more riff-driven piece that recalls some of their early 1990s work. Kirkpatrick peels off great riffs and leads throughout,as a sparser verse allows Jupp's drumming to shine through and really take the lead, with some added cowbell for good measure. While the chorus is not as catchy as it probably should be, this is still an enjoyable song. With less guitar leads throughout this album than previously, Kirkpatrick seems to let himself go a bit here. The solo is very good, with lots of fast licks, something which is often repeated throughout to good effect. With a pulsing keyboard riff driving the whole song, Follow Your Heart definitely feels like something from the past when compared to FM's more recent work. I love keyboard work like this however, and it is great to hear the band revisiting that style here with synths that are really given space to sign. The staccato keyboard riff is the feature of the verses, and allows the rhythm section to follow it for a punchy overall sound. Everything builds towards the chorus, which is more guitar-led and works as a good contrast to the keyboard dominance of the rest of the song. Keyboards like this are often shunned in modern rock music, and admittedly can sometimes sound very twee in the wrong hands, but here they sound great and sees FM turning back the clock a bit.

Do You Love Me Enough is one of the only songs on this album that does not really make much of an impact. The verse is acoustic-led, with acoustic guitar chords filling the gaps to make a nice, organic sound; but overall the song just does not contain the melodies that it needs to really take hold. The chorus is decent, but pales in comparison to many of the others on the album, and the acoustic warmth of the piece does not really fit in with the rest of the album. It is not a particularly bad song, just one that is hidden by greater songs around it. One of the those greater songs is Stronger, which is another anthemic piece with strident guitar riffing and plentiful keyboards. Davis shines early on, with an extended keyboard intro, and continues to dominate throughout with an enveloping performance. The chorus is a real foot stomper, and would be great to hear live. Overland really belts the lyrics out, with the rest of the band harmonising well with him, while the keyboards and tough guitar rhythms create a powerful sound. This is a great song that gives the end of the album a little injection of energy, and it leads nicely into the calm of Love is the Law that follows. Ballads are commonplace on AOR albums, but Love is the Law is the only true example of one here. With the acoustic-based rock of Do You Love Me Enough not really hitting the spot, this song which is almost entirely acoustic fares much better. Overland's voice is made for singing ballads, and he delivers an emotionally-charged performance here that sees him shine once again. The rest of the band's contributions here are quite understated, with acoustic guitars, subtle keyboards, and percussion forming a gentle backing for Overland and the lyrics. While it may have been better to end the album on a harder note, this song works well in a different way and brings everything to a gentle, serene close. Overall, Atomic Generation is another really strong album from FM and one that contains some of their best songs since reuniting. I still feel that Heroes and Villains is a slightly better album overall, but this one sees the band going back to their roots a bit more, which has to be a good thing.

The album was released on 30th March 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Black Magic.