Sunday, 25 August 2013

James LaBrie's 'Impermanent Resonance' - Album Review

With Dream Theater's new self-titled album due next month, it was either genius or misguided for frontman James LaBrie to release a solo album in the preceding couple of months. My money is on genius as all the buzz surrounding the progressive metal titan's new release will surely bring lots of attention Impermanent Resonance's way - at least I hope so, as this album deserves to be heard! This is LaBrie's third bona fide solo album and the first since 2010's Static Impulse which was very well received by the metal community. LaBrie, and writing partner Matt Guillory, have stuck to the same style here fusing melodic, almost AOR-influenced, metal with big chunks of the Gothenburg sound to create something heavy yet catchy that will appeal to a wide audience. Crucially, the same musicians that appeared on Static Impulse return on Impermanent Resonance. Joining Guillory on keyboards is guitarist Marco Sfogli (Creation's End), bassist Ray Riendeau (Machines of Loving Grace; Halford), and drummer Peter Wildoer (Arch Enemy; Darkane) who also provides the album's excellent harsh vocals. The only real difference to the set-up was that ex-Soilwork guitarist Peter Wichers chipped in with some songwriting contributions and production, plus he also recorded some additional guitars for the album too. Talking of songwriting, there is something that I need to address before getting on with reviewing the album. LaBrie, whose name is on the front cover, only co-wrote five of the twelve songs here. On his other two solo albums, he co-wrote every single song, so it seems odd that his contribution to his own solo work has diminished. I would be interested to understand why that is the case, but the most important factor about this album - at least for me - is do the songs stand up? The answer, happily, is a resounding yes!

Things get off to a fine start with Agony. Immediately we are greeted by a fine guitar riff that drives the song's verses. Initially, it is sung as a duet between LaBrie and Wildoer who's gut-wrenching screams are a great contrast to LaBrie's iconic voice. LaBrie's solo work is always more immediate than the work of his day job and it is nice to hear him sing some more conventional metal songs too. Still, there is plenty of technical prowess on displace with an short but excellent solo from Sfogli keeping things interesting. Undertow follows and this is one of the album's best songs. Great keyboard atmospherics and pounding drums hail a groovy verse before Wildoer's vocals in the pre-chorus act as a storm before the excellent melodic chorus. This album is all about light and shade and the balance is near-perfect here. The keyboard/guitar duel between Guillory and Sfogli is impressive but not over-the-top - adding to the track rather than being there for it's own sake. Another excellent song in Slight of Hand is up next with it's keyboard-led verses and anthemic choruses. The most obvious thing when listening to this album is just how underrated Guillory is as a musician and as a composer. We need to hear more of his work! The power ballad Back on the Ground follows and offers a slight change of pace. It is very poppy, but some heavy guitars in place stop it from becoming too clichéd, and sounds like something Amaranthe would write. As a lover of all things 1980s and AOR, I really like the song but I can see some more traditional metal fans having trouble getting their head around this one. The poppiness continues with the extremely catchy I Got You. Pretty clunky lyrics aside, this song is melodic metal heaven. It perfectly fuses big guitars and crashing drums with delicate keyboards and hook-filled vocal melodies. This seems a good time to bring up the album's production. It sounds massive! LaBrie, Guillory and Wichers have done an excellent job to make this album sound fantastic. The guitars are always big and the keyboard subtleties are never buried. A perfect balance!

The next highlight is Lost in the Fire. LaBrie makes excellent use of the soft-side of his voice in the song's verses backed up by a wall of keyboards. He really soars in the choruses though and the slower pace really brings out the best in him. He really is one of the best singers in metal today. After the slightly more generic Letting Go we are greeted by the epic Destined to Burn. It has a similar feel to Lost in the Fire but slightly heavier with prominant guitars. This song has the grandeur of Dream Theater condensed into a four minute song and it works fantastically and bears resemblance to songs in their catalogue like Another Day. Another poppy ballad by the name of Say You're Still Mine follows which is short and sweet. It is the sort of thing that, if marketed right, could wind up getting a fair amount of radio play outside of metal stations. Unfortunately, this will not be the case I fear! Amnesia is up next and, in places, gets back to the heaviness of the earlier songs. Plenty of flourishes of double bass drumming and harsh vocals can be found here, and the song possesses another monster chorus. Plenty of the songs on Impermanent Resonance are instantly memorable and this is a big bonus for it. Music like this needs to have plenty of big hooks to keep the listener interested and this album has them in spades. The album comes to a close with the heavy I Will Not Break which features blast beats! Despite the overt riff-based nature of the song, the keyboards are still very clear and add something constructive to the song as opposed to just being background noise. This confirms my earlier point about the album's production, it really is very good! Overall, this album sees LaBrie carrying on the fine form established on his previous solo outings. Like a fine wine, his voice only seems to get stronger with age! His performance on Dream Theater's last album A Dramatic Turn of Events was stellar and this is excellent too despite the simpler nature of the material. I just hope that eventually he gets to do a solo tour to showcase some of this material, and some of his previous work, live!

The album was released on 29th July 2013 via InsideOut Music. Below is his promotional lyric video for Back on the Ground.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Children of Bodom's 'Halo of Blood' - Album Review

Finnish melodic death metal masters Children of Bodom are back with a bang with their eighth album Halo of Blood and prove once more why they are one of the best and most inventive bands of the genre. Children of Bodom have always been more than your average melodic death metal band. Beneath their grisly exterior and angst-filled songs lies serious natural musical talent and a desire to constantly move forward. Their last few albums, particularly 2008's Blooddrunk and 2011's Relentless Reckless Forever, have been enjoyable but nothing special and Halo of Blood rectifies this by going back to what made the band great in the first place and expanding on it. Therefore, in some respects, this is a 'back to their roots' album for Children of Bodom and the musicial virtuosity, which has been rained in slightly of late, is back up front where it belongs. The emphasis on creating melodies has also been brought back full on. The majority of the riffs, lead lines and solos (both guitar and keyboard) are instantly memorable and a lot of thought has clearly gone in to creating hooks to draw the listener in. I must also add the production sounds huge and mostly very clear. A lot of similar bands go for a very dense sound to make the album seem heavier and more brutal overall but doing this loses space for the music to breathe. On Halo of Blood producer Peter Tägtgren has done an excellent job giving each instrument the space it needs to really shine. The album still sounds heavy and angry, but there is a certain clarity about it that other bands could learn from. A massive, uncompromising wall-of-sound approach does not always work and this is an example of an alternative that does.

The album gets underway with Waste of Skin that instantly recalls the band of old. Guitar and keyboard fuse well in the intro to create a memorable lead before Alexi Laiho's trademark raspy vocals take over. His vocals sound better than ever on this album and he sounds much more menacing than before, making greater use of his lower register then previously. Of course, there is a technically brilliant guitar solo in the middle of the song and, despite the heaviness, the chorus is catchy. It ends with a sample from an old horror film, which again brings back memories of the band's old albums. The album's title track follows and this follows the more riff-based approach of the more recent albums. Some excellent blast-beat drumming from Jaska Raatikainen in the chorus shows that the skill here goes beyond flashy guitar/keyboard pyrotechnics but also does cloud the clarity of the song slightly. Thankfully, as mentioned earlier, the production on this album is mostly excellent and this sort of thing is few and far between. Scream for Silence is up next which is a melodic mid-paced rocker with a snaking riff replete with pinch harmonics and backed up by some excellent keyboard work from Janne Wirman. It is the most tuneful song of the album so far with lots of melody in the instrumentation and even in Laiho's vocals. This proves that the band do not have to be playing at break-neck speed to be interesting! First single Transference follows (with an excellent, creepy video - see below) with a slightly more commercial sound. The verses are simple, yet heavy and backed up by some doomy keyboards before the catchy chorus comes in. The keyboards that follow Laiho's vocals here are very 'power metal' and create and excellent contrast with all the overt heaviness going on. Children of Bodom have never been afraid to sound cheesy and it works to great effect here. The guitar/keyboard duel in the middle is excellent too, with lots of talent on display.

Bodom Blue Moon (The Second Coming) is up next (it seems each album has to have a song that contains the word 'Bodom' in the title!) and it again is more reminiscent of the recent albums. The power metal-style keyboard runs are still out in force however which helps the song to remain catchy and the trademark gang vocals are back in force here during certain parts of the song. The next highlight is Dead Man's Hand on You which introduces something new to the band's sound - clean vocals! Do not worry, the band is not turning soft, as they sound excellent and really fit the dark mood of the song. The clean guitar, piano and atmospheric intro really suits having clean vocals sung over the top of it but it does not last long before the usual harsh vocals take over. This is a slow song, and if you have ever wondered what a melodic death metal ballad would sound like then I think this is it! There is also an excellent keyboard solo in the song. I have always liked the way that Children of Bodom use the keyboard as a lead instrument instead of just relegating it to create an atmospheric backing. Damaged Beyond Repair follows with a metalcore-style main riff/drum pattern. Lots of double bass drumming help this song along and the guitar interplay between Laiho and Roope Latvala is tight and clever. While Laiho is always the star of the band, Latvala's rhythms and occasional extra leads are just as important for the overall sound. A couple of moments in this song in particular highlight this for me. The next, and final highlight, is the closing track One Bottle and a Knee Deep that is another really solid track full of melody and aggression. I really like the main verse riff in the song, plus the lead guitar line underneath the chorus is also excellent. Overall, this album could be called a return to form for the band. While their past couple of albums have some excellent songs between them, this seems to possess a certain urgency and energy that those albums lacked. Once you're the champions, you need to keep proving your worth among the competition and Halo of Blood should raise Children of Bodom back to the top of the melodic death metal tree.

The album was released on 7th June 2013 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Transference.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Voodoo Six's 'Songs to Invade Countries To' - Album Review

I first got into Voodoo Six way back in 2008 when I saw them supporting Blaze Bayley and I borrowed their debut album First Hit For Free (I have bought my own copy since!) from my friend. I enjoyed the swagger, the riffs and the shredding guitar solos but for me Voodoo Six were always more of a live band. Fluke? came along in 2010 and introduced a grittier sound, helped along by then-new vocalist Luke Purdie's growl that helped to capture more of what the band are like live in the studio. 2013's Songs to Invade Countries To follows on the in the same vein and develops the sound from Fluke? a little further. The bass-heavy, bluesy hard rock is still present but the songwriting seems a little more refined overall. Three of the songs were released digitally in 2011 on the Falling Knives EP along with three re-recorded songs from First Hit For Free so this album has been a long time coming. I am glad that it has finally been released though, as this collection of excellent rock songs needed to be unleashed into the rock world. Since releasing the album, the band have been supporting Iron Maiden on their European tour, so things are really looking up for Voodoo Six. This is also the first album to feature drummer Joe Lazarus although he has been playing with the band since 2011 and was featured on the Falling Knives EP.

Appropriately, the album kicks off with a huge bass riff from band leader Tony Newton before the big riff from Falling Knives starts. Voodoo Six have always used the bass much more prominantly than many other bands I like the extra dimsenion it adds to the sound. Purdie sounds excellent on his second outing as the band's frontman and his drawling vocals are very strong. Despite the fact this song has been around for a couple of years, it still rocks and I am glad it went on the album and not banished to iTunes obscurity. All That Glitters follows and features a nice chunky guitar riff from Chris Jones and Matt Pearce while Newton's bass growls along underneath. There is a nice chorus in the song and despite the fact the band rarely go for the big melodic chorus approach, their aggressive riffing and vocals always makes up for this. There is an excellent guitar solo too, which sounds like it came from Jones as apposed to Pearce, but that is just a guess! Lead Me On is up next and with it's clean guitar intro and more melancholic feel it almost has the air of a power ballad about it. Either way, this song rocks! It reminds me a little of Mistaken from the band's debut album, but if that song sounded like it was from the 1980s, this one sounds like it's 1990s equivalent. First single Sink or Swim follows and this is a real belter. It builds up slowly, adding layers before exploding into a big riff with yet more of the signature roaring bass rumbling underneath the guitars. This is one of the few Voodoo Six songs that has a massive chorus and it really works here, and works well live. I have always liked the band's guitar duo. The mix of Jones' more shredding metal sound and Pearce's bluesy grunge sound always creates excellent contrasts of style and the best of each player is always to be found somewhere.

The next highlight is second single Your Way. The nice acoustic intro that has a slight Alice in Chains feel to it soon gives way to what might be the best riff on the album and the energy in the song does not let up. The simple chorus works well, but the guitar work is the highlight of this song. Purdie really snarls this song, and it works famously. I like him best when he is really going for it and this is an example of where he puts everything into the song. Sharp Sand is up next and this is another one from the EP. I really like this song and I have ever since I first heard it live in 2011. It is a good mix of faster rock passages and mellower almost psychedelic passages which are something different for the band. Stop follows and this is the final song from the old EP to be on the album. The verses here are bass driven and the chorus is extremely catchy. It is just a great rock song that does not rely on any fancy tricks. The next highlight is Waiting in Line which again has a very 1990s sound. I like it that the band fuse lots of post-grunge influence into their hard rock. Grunge music in general is not something I am that keen on but sometimes in the right context it really rocks. The album comes to an end with Higher Ground that proves to be a solid and rocking end to a really good album. While Songs to Invade Countries To does not really advance the sound that the band developed on Fluke? much further, there are plenty of good songs here to make that a moot point. With the support slot with Iron Maiden, I hope that the band will reach a bigger European audience and we will see much more touring and more excellent albums from the band in the future.

The album was released on 29th May 2013 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Sink or Swim.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Cambridge Rock Festival 2013