Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Music of 2013 - Part 1

2013 has been another excellent year for new music. With each passing year, my musical palette widens slightly and I find myself buying more and more new albums. Since I have started reviewing albums on this blog, I have taken more care when listening to new music and I think this has benefited my overall listening experience. I have enjoyed writing these reviews and, from the modest viewing figures my blog gets, it seems that a few people out there also enjoy reading them. The figures are never huge, but they are enough to keep me writing them. My Top 10 albums of the year will be posted tomorrow, but this year I thought it might be nice to do a more general post first that sums up 2013's music a little bit and gives me a chance to talk about some albums I never had time to review. When deciding whether or not to review an album there are a few things I take into account. How long the album has been out is a major factor. If an album came out in March and I finally got around to buying it in September, I will not review it as it has been out too long for my review to really mean anything. Also, some albums I just do not really have anything to say about them. Albums that fall into this category are usually pretty average releases with nothing either very good or very bad about them. Those kind of albums are very hard to review and it is easier just not to bother as they will only end up being either: very short; or pointless waffling about nothing in particular. However, there are some albums that I never got a chance to review, for whatever reason, and would like to briefly talk about here. They will not be proper reviews, but little tasters of the albums and why I like them. There are five I am going to talk about and they will be done in alphabetical order by band name.

Amorphis' eleventh studio album Circle is the first of these albums. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, Amorphis have really found their sound and Circle is a culmination of everything that has been great about the Joutsen era so far. Their mix of progressive, folk and melodic death metal is extremely unique and is showcased well on this album. As always Esa Holopainen's guitar leads are the focus of the music, and they are the main source of melody in what can sometimes be a dense and heavy sound. Amorphis always use light and shade well and on Circle this is no exception. Anthemic, melodic moments like The Wanderer mix well with the heavy Nightbird's Song to create an album with plenty of depth and variety. Their use of traditional folk instruments, particularly flutes, in places just adds an edge of authenticity to their sound that some similar bands lack. This is an excellent album that any prog fan is sure to love, as well as any serious metalhead.

Moving to much more traditional hard rock territory, Burning Rain's third album Epic Obession is a real throwback to the 1980s when rock ruled the world. The songwriting team of frontman Keith St. John and guitar legend Doug Aldrich (Lion; Hurricane; Bad Moon Rising; Dio; Whitesnake) has produced a solid rock album of memorable riffs, big choruses and fluid guitar solos. While it does not live up to Aldrich's last couple of albums with Whitesnake there is still plenty to enjoy here. St. John's bluesy voice is perfectly suited to ballads like Heaven Gets Me By and Aldrich's slightly sleazy riffs make Ride the Monkey and My Lust Your Fate some of the best pure hard rock songs to be written outside of a major band in years. It suffers from being slightly overlong but the production and general performance is excellent. Anyone who likes good, old-fashioned hard rock should check this out, as well as those who are a fan of Aldrich's guitar playing.

It is the turn of symphonic metal now and ReVamp's second studio album Wild Card. This was released around the time that frontwoman Floor Jansen (After Forever; Nightwish) was annouced as the full-time replacement for Anette Olzon in Nightwish so there was a fair bit of interest surrounding this release. The self-titled release from 2010 felt more like Jansen's solo album but this one has a real band feel with good contributions from guitarist Jord Otto and keyboardist Ruben Wijga in particular. It is heavier than your average symphonic metal release, focusing on big guitar riffs and furious drumming. Jansen's massive vocal range is used well here, and sees her even delivering some excellent harsh vocals on occation. Well placed guest vocals from Mark Jansen (After Forever; Epica; MaYaN) and Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad; Devin Townsend Project) mix things up nicely and songs like the Anatomy of a Nervous Breakdown suite and the bombastic Precibus show that Jansen is an excellent songwriter as well as an excellent vocalist!

Melodic death metal is as popular as ever and Soilwork have always been one of the leading and most accessible bands in the genre. In 2013 they released their ninth album The Living Infinite which was advertised as the first double album in melodic death metal history. New guitarist David Andersson filled the songwriting shoes of Peter Wichers perfectly and has created a monster of an album along with frontman Björn 'Speed' Strid and the rest of the band. For a double album, it is extremely consistent with very little filler to be found. As usual, the songs are full of massive, anthemic choruses that are made to be heard live. Songs like Spectrum of Eternity and This Momentary Bliss are classic Soilwork but there are a few more experimental moments such as the haunting closing track Owls Predict, Oracles Stand Guard and a few little instrumental interludes break up the pace slightly.

The final album I am going to talk about is the traditional heavy metal stylings of White Wizzard. 2013's The Devils Cut is their third album and probably their best up to this point. Frontman Joseph Michael's powerful voice and the twin lead guitar attack of Will Wallner and Jake Dreyer evoke everything that was great about the NWOBHM movement while bassist Jon Leon's songwriting was tight and melodic. Lightning in my Hands and Kings of the Highway are the best of the bunch while songs like Strike the Iron are solidly enjoyable. It is just a shame that, yet again, the band spectacularly imploded while on tour here in the UK leaving only founding member Leon still left as a member of the band. However, without dwelling on the ins and outs of what was a very ugly and vitriolic split, this remains a great piece of retro metal for the 21st Century.

And now, as a little bonus, I would like to give a shout out to my favourite live release of the year. I do not normally talk about live albums/DVDs but I think it would be nice to mention this in my round up of 2013's music. The release I am talking about is Iced Earth's Live in Ancient Kourion which is 2CD/DVD release that is also avaliable on Blu Ray. This documents a mammoth two and a half hour set performed in Cyprus on the band's world tour promoting 2011's Dystopia. The band were on fire that night and fronman Stu Block shows us exactly why he is the band's current singer by effortlessly making the band's extensive back catalogue his own. The songs from Dystopia stand up strong against their classics from the past and sees a few rarer songs pulled out of the vaults like oldie When the Night Falls and the 16 minute epic Dante's Inferno. This an excellent document of an excellent tour and shows that new blood really can make a band raise it's game!

Talking of Iced Earth, this is a perfect moment to briefly talk about what albums I am looking forward to in 2014. This will round off the first part of this blog, with the Top 10 albums of 2013 coming tomorrow. Plagues of Babylon, Iced Earth's eleventh studio album is due next week and I am very excited to hear it. At the moment, I would say that it is my most anticipated album of 2014 and hearing clips of it have only reinforced this opinion. Another album I have pre-ordered is Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes. Springsteen is always hugely consistent so I expect this album will be as enjoyable as all his others. It is interesting in the fact that he is going back and revisiting old tracks that he never properly recorded or were only ever b-sides so it'll be nice to finally hear these songs properly. Grand Magus' Triumph and Power is also promising to be very good. The Swedish heavy metal titans have been on a great run of form recently so I expect their new album to be unashamedly heavy. Panic Room are also releasing their fourth album Incarnate which I am sure will be excellent. Having not seen the band since June, I have not heard any of the new songs live so will be going into the album totally blind. I am sure it will be very enjoyable and varied as always though! At the moment, these are my most anticipated albums of 2014, but there are plenty more on my radar and plenty more I am sure to be announced during the course of the year. Thank you for reading my reviews this year and come back tomorrow for my Top 10 albums of the year!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock's 'Bridge the Gap' - Album Review

Briefly, before starting this review, I would like to do a little bit of blog housekeeping. For anyone who regularly reads my blog (if there are any) and wondering when my Top 10 albums of 2013 list will be written I have decided that, like last year's list, it will be published on 1st January 2014. I know that this is later than most lists, but I wanted to get this review done first and give plenty of time to a couple of December releases incase they made late bids to be part of the list. Also, on the final day of 2013, I will write a post that will: sum up 2013 as a musical year from my perspective; give me a chance to talk about a few albums I did not get chance to review; and outline a few musical hopes for 2014. I hope that people have enjoyed reading my reviews over the past year, and this will be the final one of 2013!

Michael Schenker is one of rock's original guitar heroes. From his early days in the Scorpions, to finding huge success as a member of UFO, and to braching out on his own with the Michael Schenker Group (MSG); he has always been praised and held in high regard for his playing and songwriting abilities. Life has not always been easy for Schenker however, and long battles with both alcohol and drugs has led to some mediocre mid-career albums and sloppy live performances. Over the last few years though, he has cleaned up his act and is back to his best. The most recent MSG album, In the Midst of Beauty released in 2008, attracted mostly positive reviews and his solo album Temple of Rock from 2011 also was well received. The Temple of Rock tour has probably been his most successful in a long time. Rather than going out as MSG and being restricted to material from those albums, he decided to go out under his own name and play an anthology set covering his whole career. The band he established to play on that tour appear on his new album Bridge the Gap which is released under the name Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock - so this could be seen as the debut album of a whole new band rather than a continuation of MSG or his solo work. Handling the vocals and lyrics we have Doogie White (Rainbow; Cornerstone; Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Tank) who does a really solid job. I have always been a fan of his voice, and in my opinion he is one of the most underrated vocalists in rock. The rhythm section is made up of members from the classic Scorpions line-up and sees bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell play on their first album together since the Scorpions 1990 release Crazy World. Rounding out the band is Schenker's faithful rhythm guitarist and keyboard player Wayne Findlay who's 7 string guitar work helps to bulk out some of the album's more metal moments. The album has been produced by Michael Voss who actually handled most of the lead vocals on Temple of Rock and has done a good job with the production here. The mix is very balanced, giving equal attention to all of the instruments when necessary. I would have liked to have heard a bit more keyboard in the mix but when it is used it is used effectively.

After the short instrumental introduction Neptune Rising, the album proper gets underway with Where the Wild Winds Blow. It is clear that in White, Schenker has found another good songwriting partner. While some of the lyrics and melodies are a little too close to Ronnie James Dio's style to be called original, it fits in with the overall mood of the album. The crunching verses and epic pre-choruses are the perfect set up for an extremely melodic chorus that sees White make good use of his powerful voice. Towards the middle of the song there is a short acoustic guitar solo that is unexpected but works well before a more traditional Schenker-style solo takes over and shows us that the great man can still play after all his problems! Horizons was debuted on the Temple of Rock tour and went down well with the crowds. It is a much faster pace than the previous song and is more reminiscent of Schenker's work with the Scorpions. White's vocals in the chorus are, once again, very powerful and Rarebell's traditional double bass drumming gives it quite a NWOBHM feel in places. Lord of the Lost and Lonely is not quite as good as the previous two songs but still has it's moments. The tasteful guitar intro is catchy and memorable and the verses have a really good vocal melody that is backed up by some great organ work from Findlay. The chorus is a bit of a let down however and seems a little forced. The melody White sings works for the guitars but does not really suit his voice in my opinion. The next highlight is To Live for the King. There is a massive Rainbow vibe here with a very Ritche Blackmore-esque guitar line driving the verses and lots of vintage keyboard sounds to fill out the song. Those who are fans of Rainbow's final album, 1995's Stranger in Us All, which featured White on vocals will love this song. It is moody and powerful, and is probably my favourite on the album. The only thing that gives it away is the song's solo is definitely in Schenker's signature style as opposed to Blackmore's! Land of Thunder is another faster tune with a tasty main riff and tight drumming from Rarebell. In an album that is largely a mid-paced affair, it is nice to have the odd fast song to vary the pace a bit. It is always good to hear Schenker tackle a nice, fast riff which, after all, is what his career was built on!

Temple of the Holy has another great riff that seems to have some slightly Eastern influences in it's melody and phrasing. This is furthered by the swirling keyboards that back up the chugging verse and big chorus. It is songs like this that make me wish that the keyboards were slightly more prominent in the band's sound as they can really create a great atmosphere. The solo on this song might be one of Schenker's best on the album too. The Eastern melodies continue on into it and it just fits the mood of the song perfectly. The next highlight is Bridges We Have Burnt (which seems to be in direct contradiction with the album's title, intentional?) with it's chugging verse. Chugging verses seem to be a trend here, but White's vocals sound so good over them that I am not surprised Schenker included so many here. The chorus is also good and the short, occational breaks for clean guitar work help to make the song interesting. After the rather average Because You Lied, the album comes to a close with two really stellar tunes. The first of these, Black Moon Rising, is another that has a Rainbow feel about it. The verses definitely could have been sung by Dio as Buchholz's big bass and the organ create an eerie atmosphere before an epic chorus takes off. Schenker gives himself an extended solo section here too to show off his impressive skills. He is not considered a guitar hero for no reason after all! It all comes to an end with the upbeat Dance for the Piper that makes sure the album ends on a melodic note. The melodies in the chorus have an almost folky feel, you could almost jig to them! I really like the subtle change of pace that heralds the guitar solo and the song's last chorus seems to round out the album nicely. Overall, Bridge the Gap is an album that fans of Schenker's playing and songwriting will enjoy. It may not be a classic in the vein of UFO at their peak or those early MSG albums but it shows that Schenker is still a force to be reckoned with in the hard rock world. Anyone who enjoys good old traditional hard rock and metal should definitely give this a go as there is a lot to like here.

The album was released on 2nd December 2013 via In-Akustik. Below is the band's promotional trailer for the album Bridge the Gap.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Leaves' Eyes' 'Symphonies of the Night' - Album Review

Symphonic metal has always been a favourite metal subgenre of mine, and one that is pretty popular across the greater metal fanbase. Bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation are always very popular, and for good reason, but there are plenty of other great bands that do not get quite the same amounts of hype or exposure. Leaves' Eyes are one such band, and they have been releasing consistently good albums since their formation in 2003. Symphonies of the Night is their fifth album and their first since 2011's Meredead. In my opinion, Meredead was a great album that took the band to new places musically. It was a very diverse album mixing light and shade well and utilising many different languages throughout. The band's folk elements were very prominent on Meredead and overall it was not as heavy as their previous work. In that respect, Symphonies of the Night is more similar to 2009's Njord than Meredead. The big guitars, drums and harsh vocals are the emphasis here, and they create and excellent backdrop for frontwoman Liv Kristine's delicate vocals. The one thing that I felt Meredead was lacking was Alexander Krull's big presence. His distinctive growls were only heard on one song, the excellent Sigrlinn, so the 'beauty and the beast' vocal partnership the band are famous for was not really in force. Although he delivered some effective clean vocals on Empty Horizon, I felt that Meredead did suffer slightly from not utilising more of his vocal talents but, despite that, it is still a great album. Thankfully, on Symphonies of the Night, his vocals are back in full force! As usual, he has also handled the songwriting, production, programming and orchestration of the album which makes him a key player in the band's sound. Overall, the production is very good. The orchestrations are lush and everything sounds big, as it should on a metal album. My only complaint on this front is that the guitar tones used on the album are a little stark. While this sounds great for Leaves' Eyes' brother band Atrocity (check out their very good July 2013 release Okkult to see what I mean) it sounds a little bleak for Leaves' Eyes. In my opinion, a much warmer tone would have suited the songs a bit more. Guitarists Thorsten Bauer and Sander van der Meer return and, this time, van der Meer has been more involved with the songwriting which is nice to see. Once again, as on the band's last two albums, Bauer also handles the bass guitars. Symphonies of the Night also marks the debut of drummer Felix Born who has been playing with the band since 2012.

Hell to the Heavens gets the album off to a very strong start. With an accompanying video, this song is similar in style to Leaves' Eyes 'singles' of the past. It starts gently before the big guitars and Krull's vocals come in to kick off the album properly. The chorus is very bombastic and Kristine shows off the classical side of her voice to dramatic effect. It does not really break any new ground for the band, but it is the sort of song that fans of the band will greatly enjoy - which is probably why it was chosen as a single. Fading Earth is next and this is a much more basic song that focuses on the melodies. There are some nice guitar leads in the song's intro (something which the band do not use as often as others) and chorus really shows off Kristine's voice. She is a very underrated vocalist in my opinion and her performances on this album are brilliant throughout. There is a short guitar solo in the song too which, again, is something the band uses sparingly. Maid of Lorraine is one of the album's highlights in my opinion. The 'beauty and the beast' vocal partnership is used to good effect here with Kristine and Krull trading off sections of the song. Folky melodies weave their way in and out of the song and sees uilleann pipes and other traditional instruments mix with the guitars to create a really nice atmosphere. Heavy sections and dreamier sections blend together so well to create a mini epic and one of the best songs of the band's career so far. The folk elements are pushed further to the front on Galswintha and it sounds more like the materian found on Meredead. The acoustic-based intro has a distinct Celtic vibe to it, and this continues even once the heavy guitars and drums join in. Kristine's vocals really shine on this song. During the gentler acoustic sections she sounds playful but during the heavier sections she unleashes her full power to compete with Krull's backing vocals. She has never been as powerful as singers like Floor Jansen or Tarja Turunen but she has her own strengths and in my mind is just as good as those ladies in her own way. Symphony of the Night is another song that really makes good use of her extensive vocal styles. As the song's title would suggest, this is the most overtly symphonic song on the album. The chorus really is beautiful with Kristine's vocals floating easily over the metal elements and the tight orchestrations. Although the band do rely on the song's chorus a little more than perhaps they should (it is repeated maybe a couple of times more than necessary), it is so good that it barely seems to matter.

The next highlight is the dynamic Hymn to the Lone Sands. The first, more acoustic part, is sung in a different language (I apologise, I am not very good with languages so I do not know which one it is) but they return to English for the more bombastic remainder of the song. Again, it is a proper duet between Kristine and Krull. It has a slightly progressive feel with lots of different distinct musical sections and tempo changes. There are also a few nice instrumental sections which see lead guitars duelling with uilleann pipes, and both instruments get their own solos. The guitar work throughout this album is much more inventive than on previous Leaves' Eyes albums. Angel and the Ghost is a much more simple affair but the melodies are once again forced right to the front of the song. Krull's demonic vocals really make this song what it is, and it shows that his growls are just as key to the band's sound as Kristine's classical stylings. After a dramatic spoken word section from Kristine, we are treated to another guitar solo before the song's choir-backed chorus draws it to a strong close. Éléonore de Provence is another beautiful piece of music that Kristine transforms into something special with her angelic vocals. Again, Krull also has a prominent role in the song's delivery. I know that I keep talking about this, but I think that Symphonies of the Night is the album that he has sung on the most. I am glad that the band are finding more ways to integrate his growls into the music. Born's furious drumming during the chorus combined with Kristine's beautiful vocals are a contrast from heaven and it is one of the album's standout musical moments. The next highlight is the album's closing number Ophelia. Like Maid of Lorraine, it has that mini epic feel to it and is second only to Frøya's Theme from Njord in the band's best album closers list. The vocals are as powerful as we have come to expect and a Thin Lizzy-esque twin guitar section towards the end just gives the feeling of an excellent climax. It is a fitting end to what is overall a very consistent album. In my opinion, out of the five studio albums they have released so far, this album is my favourite of theirs. It has everything that you would want from a great symphonic metal album and the folk elements are done with true love and respect for the genre. Plus, the expansion of Krull's role as a vocalist and some more inventive guitar parts throughout the album just take the songs to the next level. This is definitely an album that I can recommend highly!

The album was released on 18th November 2013 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hell to the Heavens.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Dead Daisies' 'The Dead Daisies' - Album Review

The Dead Daisies are a relatively new rock band centred around the songwriting partnership of frontman Jon Stevens (Noiseworks; INXS) and guitarist David Lowy (Red Phoenix; Mink). During their fairly short time together, depending on who is free at the time, various other musicians have toured with them to make up the numbers; but Steves and Lowy are the constant force behind the direction of the band. Their self-titled debut album was released last month and features songs that the duo have written together over the years. It is a back-to-basics hard rock album that mixes the soulfulness of Bad Company with the melodies of Foreigner to create a simple yet catchy album that is sure to interest many people. They decided to give the album away free with Classic Rock Magazine which, in my opinion, was a great marketing move. It is hard for new bands to get noticed, but now the entire readership of one of the UK's biggest rock magazines has had the chance to hear the album and I am sure that many of those will have stood up and taken notice. Due to the fact that the album only came in a small cardboard sleeve, the information I have about the album is limited. Apart from Stevens and Lowy, it is unclear which of their many touring partners actually played on this album. I would have liked to have known a little more about the musicians that featured on the album, but I understand that it is tricky to get lots of information on a small piece of card. As well as recently releasing their debut album, The Dead Daisies have also been on a pretty extensive tour of the UK as special guests to Black Star Riders which will have brought their music to more people. The current touring line-up of the band features guitarist Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love; The Psychedelic Furs, Guns N' Roses; Thin Lizzy), bassist Darryl Jones (The Rolling Stones), keyboardist Dizzy Reed (Guns N' Roses; Johnny Crash) and drummer Charley Drayton (The X-Pensive Winos; The Cult) - but, as I mentioned earlier, I am not sure whether or not these guys also played on the band's debut album.

The album gets off to a good start with It's Gonna Take Time which definitely has a big British rock 'n' roll vibe about it. Stevens has a very strong rock voice and sounds a little bit like a less gravely Paul Rogers. There is nothing fancy about this song, it just pairs a pretty reasonable riff with a nice, melodic chorus to good effect. Bands have been doing this for years, so why do anything different? The band's lead single Lock 'n' Load is up next and this is co-written by and features the guitar legend Slash (Guns N' Roses; Slash's Snakepit; Velvet Revolver) - which they do not keep quiet about, unsurprisingly. It is one of the album's best songs and has a massive chorus and lots of excellent lead guitar throughout. There is a lot of nice, understated keyboard work during this song that fills in all the gaps and really completes the song. Again, this is just simple rock music, but really enjoyable. Washington is a nice upbeat song that mixes acoustic and electric guitars in the into to create a really good groove. Short lead breaks and really retro keyboard sounds intertwine to really take the listener back to classic rock's 1970s heyday. Yeah Yeah Yeah has that early AOR vibe about it, when it was still very much firmly rooted in classic rock. I could imagine this appearing on one of Foreigner's very early albums with it's massive chorus and delicate slide guitar in places. This one is a real ear worm, and you will be singing the 'yeah yeah' bit for ages after hearing it! Yesterday is a piano-led ballad with a very slight bluesy overtones. Lowy's guitar work on this song is restrained but really emotive. Throughout this album his playing is very tasteful and the tone he gets out of his guitar is delicious. It is the piano however that is the main driving force of the song. Again, the sound is very rooted in the 1970s but it is all the better for it. Some might say that this is an album that is stuck in the past, but sometimes it is nice to hear something new that pays tribute so well to all the old favourites. There is nothing wrong with openly acknowledging your influences and having fun playing music that you love.

The next highlight is the very catchy Miles in Front of Me. It has easily the biggest chorus on the whole album and the staccato main riff is full of energy. It is not heavy by any stretch, but it is the most rocking that the album gets - you could headbang to it! The chorus is just so melodic that anyone who hears it is likely to get hooked. For me, it is definitely the best song on the album. If, in the future, the band carry on down this route then I will be very happy indeed! Bible Row is a good song even if it does not seem to quite fit in with the rest of the material. The verses are quite bluesy but the choruses have quite a Celtic-punk vibe similar to The Pogues. I like the way the song pays tribute to Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode in a few spots. This song has grown on me quite a lot since I first heard it, and now I really like it even if it is the black sheep of the album. After this song, the album's quality fades slightly. Tomorrow is very enjoyable however. It has a really nice chorus that is backed up by lots of big keyboards. The main riff is pretty unoriginal though and actually sounds like things they have used earlier on in the album. If I had a criticism of the album it would be that, Bible Row notwithstanding, lots of the songs are very similar. In the future, I hope that the band try a few new sounds so that they do not become too constrained by the limits of the genre. Can't Fight This Feeling is also pretty decent. It is a bit of a power ballad that would work well live with a crowd that was well versed in the material. There is a really nice slide guitar solo towards the end of the song and, again, the piano tends to drive it. The album comes to an end with Talk to Me which picks up the pace a little and ensures that the album ends on a rocking moment. There are some nice bluesy lead breaks throughout that, again, pay tribute to many excellent guitarists from the past. It's a solid end to what is mostly a very solid album. Overall, I have enjoyed listening to this album a fair bit over the past month. Seeing them live with Black Star Riders was also good and, hearing some of the even newer songs in their set, I do not think it will be too long before we see another album. If you like your 1970s rock, this is definitely something you should check out, but do not go into this expecting anything new or groundbreaking!

The album was released on 11th November 2013 via Spitfire Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Lock 'n' Load.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Stryper's 'No More Hell to Pay' - Album Review

For a cult band, Stryper have always done remarkably well. Their unique brand of 1980s hair metal with Christian lyrics was always going to alienate people, but they have always maintained a level of modest success throughout their career. The fact that I personally am not religious does not diminish my enjoyment of Stryper's music at all. For me, the tune comes first - before any message or cause - and Stryper have always had plenty of tunes. No More Hell to Pay is the band's seventh album of original material and the first since 2009's Murder by Pride. In between those two albums, the band have released a covers album and a compliation of re-recorded songs from the their past. It seems that looking back at the songs that made them popular in the first place has greatly influenced the songwriting on No More Hell to Pay and it certainly sees the band return to their classic sound found on 1985's Soldiers Under Command and 1986's To Hell With the Devil. It is also the first album to contain all four of the band's original members since 1990's Against the Law. Frontman, guitarist and main songwriter Michael Sweet also took on the production duties on this album and overall it sounds excellent. It has a slightly more stripped-back sound than some of the band's earlier works and focuses much more on the standard guitar, bass and drums set up rather than layering on tonnes of keyboards or over-processed backing vocals. However, all the hallmarks of the classic Stryper sound that we know and love are still present. Sweet's melodic vocals are as good as ever, and he still occasionally breaks into the odd high-pitched scream to great effect. The guitar riffs and solos from Sweet and Oz Fox are also strong. They have always been very respected musicians and were head and shoulders above every other hair metal band (apart from maybe Winger) on a technical level; and on this album they demonstrate that. What this album is not though is a throwback to the 1980s or a nostalgia trip. It sounds like Stryper, but a little more grown up and well produced. The most important feature of the album though are the songs. It might seem obvious to say, but you can have all the talent in the world but if the songs are not very good then you will not find success. Luckily, the songs on No More Hell to Pay are generally very enjoyable and Stryper fans will not be disappointed.

Revelation gets things off to a solid start with some nice lead guitar work from Sweet and Fox before it becomes a good mid-paced rocker with a decent chorus and enough guitar work to remain interesting. Despite the fact that Stryper have been going for 30 years now, Sweet's voice is still very strong and melodic. He has clearly looked after himself well over the years! The album's title track follows and, while it is similar to the previous song, it is still catchy. The main riff sees the two guitarists harmonising well and Sweet unleashes his screams at choice moments throughout. The chorus is pretty infectious and the first memorable solo of the album is delivered without too much fuss. The band also made a video for it which features them playing in the desert. Saved by Love picks up the pace somewhat and is much more 'metal' than the previous two songs. It races by and is extremely enjoyable. 1980s-style backing vocals do make an appearance here and sound fantastic - they just make the song sound so much bigger! Also, prehaps rather unsurprisingly, there is a pretty flashy guitar solo with lots of speedy runs. Their cover of The Art Reynold Singers' Jesus is Just Alright is slightly odd though. I have not heard any previous versions of this song before, but I must say that I not too keen on it. The lyrics are very repetitive and the song outstays it's welcome. There are some nice keyboard flourishes towards the middle of the song though that sound very retro and the main guitar solo is excellent. Overall, it is a little too gospel for me. The One is seriously good though! It is a hard song to describe but it definitely more of a ballad than anything else. The verses are driven by a nice fat bassline from Tim Gaines and some swirling guitars before this delicious chorus comes in where Sweet's vocals follow the guitar lead that introduced the song. I assure you that if you listen to this song, that particular melody will be swimming around your head for days. It is one of the album's best songs, and possibly one of the best in their entire catalogue. Legacy returns to the more traditional hard rock sound that the album started with. This is no bad thing though, and it is another solidy enjoyable song. Robert Sweet's drums sound particularly punchy here and his simple beat keeps up a good groove. The production on the drums throughout the album is pretty good, but they sound very powerful on this song.

However, there are some poorer songs on display and Marching into Battle is one of them unfortunately. It is another mid-paced song that plods along without ever having any real hooks. The workmanlike chorus is not as catchy as many of the other songs here and overall just sounds a little laboured. Luckily, this low point is short lived as Te Amo is much stronger. The song's main riff is pretty strong and is probably the most 1980s sounding song on the album both from a melody and production standpoint. The backing vocals could have come off one of their earlier albums and there are some weird phasing effects in the pre-choruses that sound a little dated, but still fun. The chorus is strong though, helped out by those cheesy backing vocals; and the guitar solo has a real sense of melody before really running away with some speedy arpeggios. Sticks & Stones continues on in a similar vein. Again, it has a really big chorus but the lyrics are a little cliché. It almost sounds like something that would be played in schools to try and get kids to ignore bullying..! That being said, it does have it's good points. As I have already said, the chorus is very catchy, but you might want to avoid singing it in public so that you do not get mistaken for some kind of new-age social worker. Water into Wine is another solidly enjoyable rock song. The Christian lyrics are very prevalent here so if that sort of thing bothers you then I would avoid listening to this song. Those willing to look past that though will find a decent song with enough melody to go around. Now, if The One was not the best song on the album then Sympathy most certainly is. It is the second song from the album to have a video made for it and, if this was in the 1980s, it would be getting played to death on MTV. It takes a little while to build up but when the chorus kicks in it grabs you hard and never lets go! It is just such a massive tune. I am glad that Sweet, after all these years, can still put it out the bag when it matters and give us a chorus like this one. Melodic rock at it's finest! Sadly, the album's final song Renewed is a little underwhelming and forgettable. It is another in the mid-paced plodding variety without too many hooks. It is not horrible though and does not take the sheen off some of the excellent songs that have come before it. Overall, this is a very solid album. It is certainly no classic, but I think the band achieved what they originally set out to do, which to was to create a good rock album and having a couple of real corkers in there certainly helps!

The album was released on 4th November 2013 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional vidoe for Sympathy.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Motörhead's 'Aftershock' - Album Review

Everyone who is into hard rock and heavy metal music will at some point encounter Motörhead. While the band have never been wholly comfortable with being labelled as 'metal', there is no doubt that their sound and energy influenced many bands to come, particularly in the NWOBHM genre that emerged in the late 1970s. Aftershock is their twenty first studio album and one of the few that I have heard all the way through. I must admit, I am not the world's biggest Motörhead fan. I have seen them live and own some of their classic albums but I have never really been interested enough in them to go out and buy their whole catalogue. As far as I can tell, Aftershock is business as usual for Motörhead. Their sound has been established now for many years and, despite a few little tweaks here and there, has remained pretty much the same on every album. I always think that it is amusing how people seem to have a double standard about bands who released consistently similar albums year in year out. People think it is great when AC/DC, Status Quo and indeed Motörhead keep writing material that sounds very similar to their classic sound; but when bands like DragonForce do it they are accused of not moving forward in any way. I am probably one of the few people who wished that Motörhead would take a few more risks here and there, but I totally understand why they do not. When putting a Motörhead album on, people already have a pre-conceived idea of what it is going to sound like and diverting too far from that sound is likely to ruffle more than a few feathers. In that respect, Aftershock is a winner. Right from the outset, it sounds exactly like you would expect it to. There are plenty of big riffs, pounding bass lines and lots of Lemmy's signature gruff vocals. To it's credit, there are a few moments that do deviate from the norm slightly and, to me, these are the most interesting moments of the album; plus there are some genuinely enjoyable classiclly Motörhead-sounding songs that really rock. The rest of the album however, is a little uninspired and fairly unremarkable. I would say that Aftershock is a mixed bag. About half of the album is very enjoyable with the rest of it being fairly forgettable. The production is excellent however, and Cameron Webb has done a great job of making the album sound huge.

The album starts with one of the strongest songs Heartbreaker, which persuaded me to give the album a go in the first place. The main guitar riff from Phil Campbell is simple but catchy and Lemmy's vocal melodies are pretty inspired. There is a nice guitar solo too that borrows heavily from the traditional classic rock way of soloing. Coup de Grace is another solid track but it is let down by some pretty awful lyrics. I know that Lemmy is not exactly known for his insightful lyrics, but these are pretty hard to take when the accompanying magazine that came with the album (I bought the Classic Rock Magazine Fan Pack) tried to claim multiple times that his lyrics were fantastic. Despite that, it is a perfectly enjoyable song. Again, the main riff and solos are pretty memorable but it is nothing we have not heard before. Lost Woman Blues however is very interesting. It is a much slower song that borrows, pretty clearly, from the blues. Campbell's guitar is very tasteful and stays faithful to the traditional blueprint of blues music by keeping a nice groove down and breaking out occationally into little leads. Lemmy's bass line is also nice and compliments the guitar work very well. It picks up the pace towards the end and rocks out hard, just to remind you who wrote the song! End of Time is a nice punky track that is led by some fast drumming by Mikkey Dee. When you see the band live, Dee's drumming really stands out, but on the albums he never sounds that big or powerful. This is one of the few songs where he really gets to shine. It is hearing songs like this that make you realise how much of an impact Motörhead had on the trash metal movement. Fans of the faster and heavier end of the band's music will enjoy this one a lot. The next highlight is another slower number called Dust and Glass. The guitar work in this song is, again, very good. I really like the main riff, as it has a really smoky sound to it with just the right amount of effect. I really like the way Lemmy sings these slower songs. His voice really suits the mellower sound. The main focus point however is the guitar solo. I think Campbell is a pretty underrated player and his work on this album is very strong. His solos are always full of melody and stays away from too many speedy runs. The song ends rather abruptly though which is slightly odd and does spoil the effect a little.

Going to Mexico gets us back to more traditional Motörhead territory and serves up fast song with a very catchy chorus. The bass is very prominant here and drives the song along with Dee's powerful drumming. Again, Campbell gives us another great solo (with a little wah) and Dee backs him up nicely with some 'around the kit' drum work. Silence When You Speak to Me is a good mid-paced rocker with another good chorus. The riff is chunky and dominates the whole song, but the chorus is the most melodic part. Lemmy's voice rarely changes but there are some moments when it seems a little more melodic - and the chorus in this song is one of those. The next highlight is another speedy song Queen of the Damned. It has another very strong riff (similar to Ace of Spades actually..) but it soon descends into proper headbanging territory. I think, on the whole, I prefer Motörhead's faster songs than their more mid-paced ones. They tend to be fast, furious and never outstay their welcome. This is why Queen of the Damned is one of the best songs on the album. I think every self-respecting metalhead will love it! The last two songs on the album are also pretty good. Keep Your Powder Dry is a mid-paced song but one of the better ones. Again, the bass really cuts through the mix here and sounds obnoxiously fat - I love it. The chorus is also good. The guitar work under Lemmy's voice almost sounds like a tribute to 1960's rock 'n' roll music and the chanting of the song's title is likely to go down a storm live if the band decide to play it. The album comes to an end with another furious song called Paralyzed. While the song is nothing special, it ensures the album ends on an upbeat note and contains some nice tight drumming from Dee. Overall, Aftershock is another solid and enjoyable album from Motörhead but, as I said earlier, contains it's share of unremarkable songs. Fans of Motörhead will already have, and love, this album and those that have never liked the band are unlikely to find anything here to change their mind. However, having the slower moments like Lost Woman Blues and Dust and Glass definitely makes this album more interesting than your average Motörhead album and I think people should go and listen to these songs if nothing else, as these are different - in a good way.

The album was released on 21st October via UDR GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Heartbreaker.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Trivium's 'Vengeance Falls' - Album Review

Of all the metalcore bands to come out in the early 2000s, Trivium were always my favourite. In my opinion, they were always head and shoulders above their peers both musically and lyrically. Combining all their influences together, Trivium have an instantly recognisable sound that is much classier and technical than other metalcore bands; and, especially on their more recent albums, have much more intelligent lyrics that are often based around real-world events or mythology. While I believe that 2008's Shogun is their creative peak, I have enjoyed all of their albums and each has a recognisable sound and style. 2011's In Waves moved away from the more progressive elements of Shogun and went back to basics. What we got was a much more straight forward modern metal album with a healthy dose of thrash and the band's new album, Vengeance Falls, sounds a little like a continuation of the sound forged on In Waves; but with a slightly more clinical and polished approach. Much has been made in other reviews and online about David Draiman's (Disturbed; Device) involvement with this album. In my opinion, his production job here is excellent. The album sounds massive! The guitar tones throughout are really good and there is plenty of space in the mix for the all instruments to be heard clearly. Melody has always been a big part of Draiman's ethos, and on this album the melodies are front and centre. This is not a complex album by any means, but it is pretty heavy and full of good tunes. Matt Heafy's vocal performance here is very strong. He has always been a good singer, making use of both clean and harsh deliveries, and his work on this album is no exception. If I had to pick one word to describe the sound of Vengeance Falls I think I would choose 'refined'. There are no major stylistic changes to the band's sound but I think a little bit of fat has been cut here and there, and a little more focus has gone into making good melodies throughout the songs. This is probably the first Trivium album that sounds very similar to their previous one, but I think that is an indication of the type of music they want to make going forward. I do not see that as a bad thing at all, and I think that Vengeance Falls is probably a blueprint of what Trivium's sound will be like in the future.

The sound described above is evident right from the outset. Brave this Storm is unmistakably Trivium, but a little more polished. Heafy's snarling vocals on this song hark back to 2006's The Crusade with the musical style of In Waves backing it up. Harsh vocals are used sparingly during this song - mostly in the pre-choruses - letting Heafy show off his diverse range, but it is in the choruses that he really shines. He also also performs the song's main guitar solo and it is the technical feast that we have come to expect from the band. If Draiman's influence can be heard anywhere on the album, then it is on the title track. Heafy's delivery has that staccato aesthetic to it that Drainman is famous for but that is as far as it goes. The song is nothing really that special though. It has a decent chorus and Corey Beaulieu's short solo is flashy, but everything else is pretty average. Luckily, most of the rest of the album is better! Single Strife is much stronger. Nick Augusto's punchy drums drive the song and the verses are so infectiously catchy. I think that Augusto is a bit of an unsung hero in the band. Replacing Travis Smith cannot have been easy but he is just as good as Smith and his fast footwork in this song is enjoyable. If this album has an anthem, then this is it - which is probably why they made a video for it. It has the first real guitar duel between Beaulieu and Heafy. Having two good lead guitarists in a band can be a blessing as well as a curse, but I think Trivium's music manages to get the best out of both of them. No Way to Heal is definately a throw-back to the sound the band had on The Crusade but with added harsh vocals. Heafy's barks sound really strong and Augusto's drums make certain parts of this song sound really monstrous. It really highlights just how strong the production is on this album too, as Paolo Gregoletto's bass really stands out despite the big dual guitar riffing and drums. To Believe is another really melodic piece. I will say at this point though, that the lyrics on this album are a little hit and miss, and certainly not as strong as they have been in the past. Still, when the melodies are strong enough this almost makes no difference as you are likely to find yourself singing along with them anyway. The overly melodic nature of this album leaves little to be discovered on repeated listens which maybe affect it's longevity but it certainly makes it instantly enjoyable.

At the End of this War is a little more underwhelming. Opening with an acoustic guitar line and delicate vocals is a new thing for Trivium, and it works well, but the rest of the song is more standard. I would have actually liked to hear more of the acoustic elements of the song. The band have yet to do anything like that and a fully acoustic Trivium song would probably be quite good. Still, the chorus is perfectly enjoyable and saves the song from being otherwise mediocre. Through Blood and Dirt and Bone on the other hand is probably the best song here. As soon as it starts, you are struck by a brilliant riff that is full of groove and some really delicate harmonies. The verses are a little slower but the great riff returns for the pre-chorus which leads to some really inventive vocal melodies from Heafy in order to compete with the guitar excellence. If I was to pick a top riff of 2013, then this song's main riff would probably be number 1, it is just so good. The icing on the cake though is a really melodic solo from Heafy before Beaulieu takes over and shreds all over the song - excellent stuff! Villainy Thrives is another really strong one. Augusto lays down an almost Chris Adler-esque drum pattern in the verses; which is high praise indeed as, in my opinion, Adler is one of the best drummers in metal today. The chorus is, once again, excellent and has Draiman's signature melodies all over it. After the second one, there is a vicious passage of harsh vocals followed up by an equally vicious dual guitar solo. Incineration: The Broken World feels a little bit flat after two such great songs. It is not without it's highlights though and Heafy's harsh vocals sound really strong, probably the strongest that they ever have. Also, there is a cool bit towards the end were Gregoletto's bass becomes really high in the mix and he performs a short but fun little bass solo! He clearly has some skills and I would like to hear more prominent bass work from him in future. The album comes to an end with Wake (The End is Nigh) which is easily the most varied piece here and sounds a little like something that could have been on Shogun without the spark that made that album such a classic. Still, this songs fits the sound of this album very well and is a very fitting closing number. There are a few tasty riffs dotted throughout the song but some of the lyrics are pretty silly and takes the sheen away a little. Overall, Vengeance Falls is a good album from a band that are now well established in the metal scene. If this is the sound that the band want to pursue in the future, then I would be happy with that. It is good to see a modern band putting so much emphasis on melody and I am sure they will continue to release quality material going forward.

The album was released on 14th October 2013 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Strife.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fish's 'A Feast of Consequences' - Album Review

Every so often, an album comes by that has a certain buzz surrounding it months and months before it's release. A Feast of Consequences, Fish's tenth solo album, is one such example. This is an album that had been in the works for some time, and the title A Feast of Consequences had been floating around on the internet for at least a couple of years before it's release. This is his first album in five years, since the excellent 13th Star was released in 2008. Lots has happened to Fish in the meantime, including a couple of vital operations on his vocal chords which probably saved his singing career. As far as two rock albums go, 13th Star and A Feast of Consequences could not be more different. The former had a stark, almost industrial production quality that really suited the bleak and angry material; whereas the latter feels much warmer and organic. The link between the two is the main writing partnership of Fish and bassist Steve Vantsis who has returned to the touring band after a few years away. The two of them seem to have an excellent chemistry and understanding and, between them, have created one of, if not the, best albums in Fish's solo career. Joining Fish and Vantsis we have guitarist Robin Boult, who has played with Fish a lot in the past; keyboardist Foss Paterson, who again has had significant stints with Fish throughout his career; and journeyman drummer Gavin Griffiths (Karnataka; Panic Room; Mostly Autumn). Boult's return to Fish's setup has really bolstered the band in the studio and live. No disrespect meant to Frank Usher, but I think Boult is the perfect guitarist for Fish. He has also made significant writing contributions to many of the songs on the album and I think this is one of the reasons for it's success. The biggest thing that strikes me about this album though is that it does not really feel like a solo project, it feels like a proper band. The five musicians really work well together and the songs they have created are tight, melodic and interesting. This will probably be quite a long review as I have quite a bit to say about A Feast of Consequences but the short version would be: it's brilliant! If you have not heard the album before, then stop reading this and go out and buy yourself a copy. Before talking in more detail about the music, I would quickly like to talk about the packaging. I do not normally do this in my reviews but, since I bought the delux version, I thought I should mention it briefly. The special edition comes in a 100 plus page hardback book full of excellent artwork by Mark and Julie Wilkinson and a DVD documentary by filmmaker Dave Barras called Preparing the Feast. This is a really insightful look at the songwriting process of the album and is well worth a watch.

The album opens with the slow-burning epic Perfume River that really sets the tone. The song has two distinct sections. The first part is an atmospheric, progressive piece with some excellent rhythmic drumming from Griffiths and swriling keyboards from Paterson; and the second part is a more up-beat rock section led by an acoustic guitar. Vocally, this is the best Fish has sounded in quite a while. He seems to have accepted the limits that his voice now has and has written material that showcases his remaining strengths. As usual, his lyrics are excellent. He is one of the best in the business at creating really vivid mental images with his words and this song (and album) is no exception. Perfume River is a hard song to describe. It reveals itself over repeated listens, so is a real 'grower'. It is just quintessential Fish! All Loved Up is much more straightfoward. It is a cynical look at the current culture of being a 'celebrity' and contains tonnes of Fish's trademark black humour. Based around a simple riff from Boult, the song steams along at a good pace and is catchy as hell! Seemingly, this song is doing well in the Polish charts and I am not surprised as this song screams 'single'. If only the UK radio stations played music like this instead of the types of 'musicians' that this song is ridiculing. It is just a really melodic song that does not take itself too seriously but makes a statement about today's society. Blind to the Beautiful is a really nice acoustic number in the same vein as A Gentleman's Excuse Me from his 1990 debut solo album Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors. This is also the first song on the album to prominantly feature Elisabeth Troy Antwi on backing vocals and her contributions to this album should not be underestimated. She harmonises well with Fish and is the icing on the cake. Towards the end, there is a really good violin solo from Aidan O'Rourke that personifies the melancholy of the song as a whole. The album's title track is up next and this is another straight ahead rocker based around a neat riff from Boult. All three main components of this song are excellent. The main verses have a nice groove, the pre-chorus backed by the piano is delicate and that leads nicely into the catchiest chorus on the album. Throughout his career, Fish has always been able to tackle many different types of song. He does the longer, more progressive songs well; but he also has a knack for much simpler, melody-driven songs and this is one of the best examples of that.

Following A Feast of Consequences we get to the centrepiece of the album: The High Wood suite. This is a five-part epic that is inspired by a trip Fish took to the World War I battlefields in Arras, France. Both of his Grandfathers faught in the war so these songs are based partly on their experiences, which he learnt about during his trip, and partly on more general military history. Paterson made significant writing contributions to these songs and they are, unsurprisingly, quite keyboard dominated. The first part, High Wood, which, after a gentle intro, is pretty dramatic with some spiky guitar work and almost orchestral keyboard parts. Fish sets the scene of the High Wood, which is a small wood in which many people died during a major World War I battle, in this song which leads beautifully into the second part Crucifix Corner. Atmospheric is a good word to describe the opening. Fish's voice and the piano intertwine well as the song slowly builds up and it is not long before Boult's big guitars come in. During this section, Fish's vocal melodies are possibly some of the best that he has ever come up with. When listening to his hypnotic voice, you really can imagine the scenes of the First World War that he is describing. My favourite part of The High Wood suite however is the third song The Gathering. It has a similar vibe to The Company from Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors and details how people from the towns and cities of the UK all signed up to the army together. It perfectly captures the pride and excitment that these men had, but it also describes a much more naive and carefree world where the horrors of war were largely unknown and unreported by the press. I dare anyone not to listen to this song and not feel slightly patriotic! From there, the album moves onto Thistle Alley which could not be more different from The Gathering. The horrors of war are now fully known to all serving and this heavy, murky song makes this clear. Musically and production-wise, this is similar to the style found on 13th Star. It is a very dark piece that pulls no punches and sees Fish almost approaching metal territory in places which suits the horrific subject matter perfectly. The fifth and final part The Leaving sums up the suite really well and seems to be more of a reflection on the war as a whole. It is very poignant and intelligent piece that, for me, has given some meaning back to things like Remembrance Sunday. It ends with a line repeated from The Gathering that seems to take on a totally different meaning out of context and set to different music. I have to congratulate Fish, as The High Suite is easily the best series of songs on the subject of war. It is similar in style and structure to that of Iced Earth's Gettysburg trilogy but better in every way, plus much more relevant to British listeners.

Luckily, the final two songs left on the album manage to stand up to the genius that has just been witnessed. Other Side of Me is a typical Fish ballad, and by that I mean that it is brilliant. Antwi's vocal contributions on this song are again excellent and features the first proper guitar solo from Boult on the album! It is strange to think that this album contains hardly any solos and does not suffer from it at all. I guess that Fish's music is primarily a vehicle for his excellent lyrics but it is nice to hear the odd solo on occation. The album's last song is The Great Unravelling which brings the album to a close very well. I really like the call and response vocals from Fish and Antwi and the really atmospheric keyboards. It also has the best instrumental break of any song on the album as Boult finally cuts loose for a really monster solo, which is the last thing you really hear before it ends. Overall, this is just a brilliantly written and contructed album. It is quite long, but it is so well paced that it just flies by without every feeling boring or contrived. Being that there was quite a big gap between this album and 13th Star the fans were expecting something special and they have certainly got that! When I get around to deciding my end of year top 10 albums list, this will come in at a very high place. This could very well be my album of the year, but I am not 100% sure which album will take that crown yet. 2013 has been such a good year for new music, but A Feast of Consequences is one of the highest of high points. I really love it, and you should too!

The album was released on 14th September 2013 via Chocolate Frog Records. Below are a couple of previews of the album released by Fish to promote it.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Dream Theater's 'Dream Theater' - Album Review

Dream Theater are one of my favourite bands and have been for a few years now. I enjoy all of their albums to a greater or lesser extent so was looking forward to this, their twelfth studio effort, simply titled Dream Theater from the moment it was announced. Unusually for a prog album, the feelings that I had during and after my first listen to it are pretty much the same as they are now. In short, I like the album. It is definitely their most instantly accessible album for some time and there seems to be a much greater focus on melody. With 2011's A Dramatic Turn of Events the band had something to prove. After the departure of drummer Mike Portnoy, the band had to show the world that they could continue on without his influence, and they did that in spades. A Dramatic Turn of Events was a brilliant album that put the band back on the map after a couple of seemingly average releases (this is the popular opinion, but I disagree as 2009's Black Clouds & Silver Linings is my favourite Dream Theater album). After finishing the huge world tour undertaken to support that album, and with new drummer Mike Mangini fully embedded into the creative processes of the band, Dream Theater went back into to studio full of confidence to write and record Dream Theater. When listening to this album, what you hear is a band who feel that they no longer have anything to prove. This is just Dream Theater doing what they do best by creating interesting and melodic songs that have feet in a number of musical camps. However, it does feel much more streamlined than the band's other more recent releases. It is shorter and sleeker overall with an excellent production throughout aided by a great mix from Richard Chycki. The 22 minute epic at the end of the album aside, Dream Theater does not feel as 'progressive' as usual (this is all relative of course..). To me, this is no bad thing. Songs do not have to be overlong or full of complex sequences to be good and it seems that this is the approach the band have taken on this album. That said though, this is still unmistakably a Dream Theater album. All the hallmarks of their sound are present but the overall package just feels slightly more polished than usual. This slightly more slimline approach to songwriting might disappoint those with very fixed ideas of what Dream Theater are meant to sound like, but those fans who are open to a well produced album of progressive but melodic material will find plenty to enjoy here. Another thing that I think about this album is that the songs seem to be made to be performed live and I hope that when the band take this album on the road that they play a good chunk of the material. 

For the first time in their long career, Dream Theater have decided to open an album with an introductory piece of music. False Awakening Suite is short and sweet but gets the album off to a menacing start. The simple, fat guitar riffs could be taken straight out of a Symphony X song; and this vibe is aided by the demonic strings. It soon fades into the album's single, the heavy The Enemy Inside. It has a sound similar to that found on 2003's Train of Thought but as soon as James LaBrie starts to sing the melodies really take shape. Mangini really makes his mark on this album. He did well on A Dramatic Turn of Events but here, on songs he has helped write, he shines. He is a real beast and his technique is flawless. Jordan Rudess takes more of a back seat on this song and his keyboards create layers of texture that really enhance the mood. However, he does unleash his trademark nifty keyboard work in the instrumental section towards the end that sees him duelling with John Petrucci. The Looking Glass is up next and this might be my favourite song on the whole album. If I had to pick one song to sum up the themes and sound of the album, it would definitely be this. It demonstrates the more streamlined approach to songwriting that I was describing perfectly. The main riff is sublime and Rudess lets rip more here with some very 1980s sounding keyboards that would not have sounded out of place on 1992's Images and Words. The song seamlessly mixes strong rock passages with beautifully mellow sections to great effect. Petrucci takes an uncharacteristically basic approach to soloing that works well in this context, backed up by a beefy bassline from John Myung. Dream Theater have not included an instrumental on an album since Train of Thought but this changes now with the tour de force that is Enigma Machine (although they did write a piece called Raw Dog that was on the God of War: Blood & Metal soundtrack EP in 2010). I am not normally a fan of instrumental music, but this piece just flies by. There is so much going on that it is a little hard to focus on individual moments but it is safe to say that it is impressive. The solos from both Petrucci and Rudess are fast and intricate on the whole, but about two thirds of the way through it really slows down and Petrucci unleashes a section that David Gilmour would have been proud of! The Bigger Picture on the whole is a much gentler song. The verses are led by piano and acoustic guitar - backed by a delicate string arrangement - and give LaBrie a chance to show off his breathy 'ballad voice'. The song is built around an anthemic chorus though that is just classic Dream Theater, the second of which segues perfectly into a dreamy guitar solo. This approach is continued somewhat in Behind the Veil. The intro is pretty cinematic with some great keyboard textures mixing well with the strings but it is not long before a big Petrucci riff comes along and smashes through the wall of sereneness with a sledgehammer. The verses are a mixture of the mid-paced chugging that follows on from the main riff and clean passages that make good use of picked guitar lines. The only problem that I have with this song is that it's chorus is very similar to The Bigger Picture, but the solo is much more in Petrucci's traditional style though!

Surrender to Reason follows and the intro has a very clear Rush influence. However, the very 1980s keyboard sweeps and guitar riff soon drop out to be replaced with simple acoustic guitar and vocals. This, in turn, is soon replaced by a big riff with some Uriah Heep-esque organ - so within the short space of about 1 minute 30 seconds, we have had three distinct sounds used and nothing sounds contrived. The rest of the song is much more basic and driven by some excellent bass from Myung. Overall, he is much more prominent in the mix than on previous albums which can only be a good thing! He even gets a bass solo in this song, which Petrucci trys to outshine by soloing over the top of, but Myung's big tones win through. Along for the Ride again harks back to the band's early sound. It is a bit of a pseudo-ballad that is so catchy I am surprised it has not been released as a single. It reminds me slightly of Back on the Ground from LaBrie's recent solo album Impermanent Resonance (a review of which can be found here) as it has a similar AOR vibe. The chorus is massive, and so melodic. Rudess' keyboard solo is delightfully cheesy and shows that keyboards can be just as good as a guitar in the right context. The album's final song is the 22 minute epic Illumination Theory. Dream Theater have written many excellent epics over the years - I'm thinking specifically of Learning to Live from Images and Words and The Count of Tuscany from Black Clouds & Silver Linings which are probably my two favourites - and while Illumination Theory is not as good as either of those songs, it is still good in it's own right. As you would expect, there are many distinct sections and there is so much going on that this is probably the only song on the album that took me a few listens to really get into. Trying to describe it all would be fruitless, but there are some standout sections. About a third of the way in, the traditional instruments drop away to be replaced with gentle ambiance that soon morphs into some really excellent strings. This is not some gimmicky symphonic metal section tacked onto the song, this is the real deal. If you took this section of the song out and played it on Classical FM, people would be singing it's praises from the rooftops. The drum and bass bit that follows is also excellent. Myung lays down a great groove and locks in so well with Mangini that they feel like the perfect rhythm section. The remainder of the song is classic Dream Theater. LaBrie gives one of his best ever vocal performances in this part of the song and really helps it to stand out. Illumination Theory seems a little disjointed at first, but after a few listens really beings to make sense and is a perfect way to end the album as it is in stark contrast with the rest of the material. Overall, Dream Theater is another great album from the band. It's more immediate and melodic nature might curtial it's longevity somewhat (but I doubt it) but I do not think most fans will mind and, in fact, this will be a perfect entry point for new fans.

The album was released on 23rd September 2013 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Enemy Inside.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Glamour of the Kill's 'Savages' - Album Review

Back in 2009/2010, I loved Glamour of the Kill. While that statement is in the past tense, it still holds somewhat true today. I first got into the band in 2009 when I heard that they were going to support DragonForce on their UK tour, so I bought their self-titled EP which I enjoyed a lot. In 2010, I saw two gigs in two days on their own UK headline tour, where they previewed a few songs from their up-and-coming debut album, and had a great time on both occasions. That album, The Summoning, was finally released in 2011 and, while my initial excitement had worn off to a certain extent, I enjoyed the album immensely - and still do. I saw the band again on the tour supporing that album, which again was excellent, but a lack of any major UK activity after that tour started to errode at my love for them. As of November 2013, the UK has still not seen another Glamour of the Kill headline tour (apart from a few shows at the end of 2011 where The Summoning was played in full, something I sadly could not make) and this strikes me as odd. 'Why are you talking about all of this in a review of the band's latest album?' I hear you ask, and the reason is that I think this lack of any real UK activity (Yes, I know they supported Motionless in White along with The Defiled earlier this year - but their set was very short and sadly, again, I could not make any of the shows) has effected my enjoyment of the said new album. That album is called Savages and, on the whole, is a solid effort. Thankfully, the band have stayed true to the sound they crafted on their EP and The Summoning. I was worried that, due to the huge popularity of the genre, Glamour of the Kill would go down the quasi-screamo/deathcore route but this fear turned out to be misplaced. Savages is full of melodic metal songs that owe as much to the 1980s glam scene as they do to bands like Bullet for my Valentine and Escape the Fate but somehow it just feels much less inspired than their previous work. I am in two minds about this album, which is why it has taken me quite a while to get around to writing this review. On the one hand, I enjoy it for what it is. Most of the songs are catchy with good riffs and solos; but, on the other hand, I was expecting much more. When I got around to pre-ordering Savages I was instantly taken back to those gigs in 2010 in the company of great friends and great music. That nostalgia built my hopes up far too much, so I believe I only have myself to blame in finding this album a little underwhelming.

Savages gets off to a good start with the riff-heavy romp Break. From the outset the production is clear and crisp and the guitar work of lead guitarist Mike Kingswood is as impressive as ever. I am glad there are young bands that are genuinely passionate about good lead guitar and the work during the verses of this song is excellent. Frontman/bassist Davey Richmond's voice seems to have a little more grit this time around, which I like. The lead single, Second Chance, is probably the best song on the album. Opening with an excellent twin-guitar harmony riff, which really shows off their 1980s influences (along with the gang vocals in the chorus), the pace and quality does not let up throughout. As is expected from the band, the chorus is extremely catchy and, based around a simple melody, it works very well. Kingswood also delivers probably his best solo yet. It is quite long, proving that his solos are not thrown into the song as an afterthought and treads the line perfectly between melody and technicality. The Only One is another decent track. Again, the chorus is the stand out part of the song. It is full of melody and holds your attention well throughout. There is another good solo, but the lead work in the song's main riff is a little throw-away and struggles to be heard properly. Live for the Weekend however just does not sit with me. I have always hated hearing people say that they 'live for the weekend' (it always sound so juvenile and ignorant) so that, coupled with some pretty dreadful lyrics, just make this song a real dud in my eyes. It also reminds me too much of bands like Blink-182 (no idea why, as it's not really a pop punk song) so this is one I can leave. A Freak Like Me gets the album back on track. I really like the keyboards in the intro and the verses are extremely infectious. When the whole band seems to shout the lyrics at you it gets you really pumped up and the chorus does not disappoint either. The problem is that hearing this song also makes you realise that a lot of the album lacks the energy and 'balls' that it has. I wish the whole album was this inspired! Heartbreaker is another solidly enjoyable song but it feels very safe after the excellent previous track. Again, however, I do like the use of keyboards here. While The Summoning had keyboards in some places, here they are used a lot more. I like that experimentation with the band's sound and hope that they continue to use them in the future.

Rescue Me is another really good tune. It is much faster and akin to their previous work. Ben Thomson's drums in the intro are nice and speedy but he does not seem to get as much chance to show off on this album, which is a shame. Harsh vocals are also used sparingly on this song, to good effect, and the really mellow breakdown after the solo sounds like something Killswitch Engage would do and works very well. After that song however, the album starts to tail off. The next three songs are pretty unremarkable and fail to be memorable in any way really. If these songs had been spread out throughout the album, I do not think it would have been as noticeable but, the way it is, this portion feels weak. It all feels very safe and extremely unadventurous. I find it hard to believe that an album can contain songs of the quality of Second Chance and A Freak Like Me and then also have such average filler like Leave it all Behind and A Beautiful Day to Die. The thing is, none of these songs are really terrible, they are just so unmemorable which is almost worse in a way! The last of the three Tears of the Sun is a little better though as the band attempt a ballad and it works somewhat. I think the song would have worked better as a 'proper' ballad though, rather than mixing gentle verses with heavier choruses. On their next album, I would love to hear a real ballad as I think they are suited to that style. Luckily, the album ends on a good note with Welcome to Hell. A nice atmospheric intro with a weird spoken word part hails a nice big riff that ensures the previous few tracks are almost forgotten. It has a very epic and dynamic feel and mixes fast verses with a powerful but slightly more stripped back chorus. I like the variety here and I hope that this kind of song is a taster of things to come. Again, keyboards make a welcome contribution to the song, this time in form of some tasteful piano towards the middle that ensures the song remains interesting. To cap it off, there is an excellent shredding solo from Kingswood that is the icing on the cake! Overall, Savages is a perfectly enjoyable album. I have reservations about it which I hope I have managed to get across in an intelligent and constructive way. I almost decided against writing this review, but I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper and, despite my problems with it, there is still lots to enjoy. I really hope that the UK sees a full headline tour soon too, as hearing songs live can really help them to open up!

The album was released on 23rd September 2013 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Second Chance.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Temperance Movement's 'The Temperance Movement' - Album Review

It is always nice to see a new rock band doing well. Reaching number 12 in the Official UK Album Chart, The Temperance Movement's self-titled debut album did very well indeed which is a considerable success for a band that was only formed two years ago! They play a brand of blues rock that owes a lot to bands like The Rolling Stones and The Black Crowes but without falling into too many of the clichés that befall so many modern blues artists. The Temperance Movement are not original by any stretch, but they have a sound that is fresh and exciting so it barely matters. However the big thing about the band that really stands out for me is that everything about them seems so genuine. Far too many of the big indie/blues crossover bands, e.g. The White Stripes or The Black Keys, have never seemed 'real' to me. The blues has always been about real people singing about real things but those kinds of bands have always had an air of cynicism about them with their perfectly dishevelled hair styles and designer clothes made to look retro. Sure in interviews they might mention their love for many obscure blues guitarists from the 1930s, but it never comes across as anything other than contrived. In this respect, The Temperance Movement are a breath of fresh air and people are starting to realise that. They are attracting fans from all ages and walks of life and that proves they are writing good songs that transcend genre labels and boundaries. There is absolutely no pretence about them, which would be very hard to say about someone like Jack White. The Temperance Movement is just as much a rock album as it is a blues album which is another reason for it's huge popularity. Fans of the Faces, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Quireboys will all find something to like but it never feels like a copy of anything that has come before. British blues rock has been a musical staple for years and this is just another chapter in a long and diverse history. The band's debut release was the Pride EP which came out in September 2012 and all five songs from that EP (albeit re-recorded) also feature on this debut album. At first I was disappointed when I read about this, but when I heard the album and how well it flowed I no longer cared. In any case, the songs are excellent and it would be a shame if they were banished to obscurity on a now out-of-print EP.

The album gets off to a rocking start with Only Friend. The song is based around chunky riff that is present throughout but frontman Phil Campbell's gravelly vocals are the main focus. He really has the perfect voice for this sort of music. Luke Potashnick and Paul Sayer make for a a solid and unflashy guitar duo. Surprisingly for blues-based music, there is little in the way of extended soloing but their talents for melody and songcraft shine through. One of the highlights of the song is the slightly gospel section in the pre-chorus that makes good use of vocal harmonies from the whole band. Ain't No Telling is up next and has a distinctive American southern rock vibe. The riffs have a snaking, boogie feel to them and the laid-back verses with some nice snappy lead breaks under Campbell's vocals bring to mind The Allman Brothers Band without the overpowering organ. There is a solo in this song, and it is rooted deeply in the blues with choice phrasing and obvious melody. Pride follows and starts off slowly. Campbell channels his inner Don Henley here and shows that his voice is far more versatile than many of his contemporaries. Once the drums come in, the song is driven by a subtle bass line from Nick Fyffe that allows the guitars to intertwine on top of it. It is very chilled out but does pick up the pace a little towards the end, building naturally and unobtrusively. Be Lucky gets back to the pure rock 'n' roll sound of the first two songs and is the catchiest so far. The chorus is infectious and the rest of the song is supported by a simple riff that sounds raw and gutsy. It is one of the best songs on the album and will be stuck in your head for weeks. Single Midnight Black is up next and this is another really strong track. It has a real energy and sounds a little like a ballsier version of Status Quo. It has another excellent chorus and it is no wonder why they chose to release it as a single. It has a fun video (see below) to go with it that really encapsulates everything that the band are about - people having fun with good music! A nice solo is the icing on the cake and completes the picture, plus we even get a nice little drum outro from Damon Wilson!

Chinese Lanterns is the most stripped back song on the whole album. Campbell once again uses the delicate side of his voice and some understated slide guitar really enhances the mood of the piece. The Temperance Movement can really rock, but when it is needed they can also be gentle and their ballads are generally excellent. When they play this song live, they do it totally acoustically without any microphones or amplifiers. I can only imagine what a wonderful experience that must be! The next highlight is my favourite song on the album: Lovers & Fighters. If an Eagles influence is heard anywhere on this album then it is on this song. It is the most beautiful song on the album by a mile and opens with Campbell backed only by some acoustic guitar. Soon, some delicate keyboards help to fill out the fledgling chorus. Slide guitar really adds to the mood and the second chorus sees the whole band harmonising with Campbell to excellent effect. If Glenn Frey and Don Henley had written this song and put it on One of These Nights, it would have been a massive hit - that is how good this song is! After that melancholy, the album ramps it back up with the anthemic Take it Back. This is party rock at it's best with a catchy vocal refrain in the intro that is sure to go down a storm live. This also acts as a sort of chorus and it really is good fun. A real toe-tapper! The album comes to an end with two slow-burning epics. The first of which is Smouldering which is excellent. This song is sure to get many lighters (or phones) in the air with it's big chorus and laid-back guitar work. The thing that strikes me about Potashnick and Sayer is that there is always a lot going on in their playing but it never dominates the song. It is always adding something necessary and never turns into showboating. This is often my problem with some blues music, but The Temperance Movement do not fall into this trap. Serenity is the second of the two and, while it is not quite as good as Smouldering, it still brings to the album to an end and ends it on a high (not that there are really any lows here!). If I had a criticism of the album it would be that it would have been better to end the album with Smouldering and move Serenity somewhere else in the track listing - or maybe even have saved it for the next album as having two very similar songs together slightly ruins the effect of the second one. That is my only real issue with an album that is very enjoyable and a band that are surely destined for bigger things. With many sold out shows ahead and behind them, I am sure it will not be long before they are household names.

The album was released on 16th September 2013 via Earache Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Midnight Black.