Sunday, 22 September 2013

DevilDriver's 'Winter Kills' - Album Review

California's DevilDriver have been big stars in the metal world for quite a few years now, but it is only recently that I have started to gain a proper appreciation for them. I always saw them as a poor man's Lamb of God, but now I realise that that was an unfair judgement and that they are an excellent band in their own right. Winter Kills is the band's sixth album, but the overall formula has not changed. This is heavy, yet reasonably accessible, music with plenty of solid grooves and some melodic lead guitar. Dez Fafara's vocals are as raw and gut-wrenching as ever, and he really drives the band with his recognisable style and uncompromising lyrics. While the music is angry it still maintains a sense of fun, so it is no wonder that many a disaffected teenager is a fan of the band. This is no bad thing though and Winter Kills is likely to reinforce their love of DevilDriver, but I feel it is unlikely to convert any sceptics. The band do what they do and they do it well (and often, as this is their sixth album since 2003 - one every two years!), and are not ones to change that for anyone. Their attitude is typically metal, and because of this have been taken into the hearts of moshers everywhere. Winter Kills sounds massive. DevilDriver keep the sound simple and just turn it all up to eleven. Mark Lewis has done a great job with the production and the album sounds very heavy while still holding onto a certain clarity that stops it from becoming just a wall of noise. This is also the band's first album with new bassist Chris Towning who officially replaced Jonathan Miller earlier this year after touring with the band on a session bassist for a time.

A spooky intro heralds the album's first track, the ferocious Oath of the Abyss. The initial melodic intro soon gives way to a cliché yet satisfying verse with some big vocals from Fafara and tight riffing from Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer. The chorus revisits the melodic intro and helps it to stand out from the rest of the song. While not being a band known for their melody, DevilDriver seem to understand the power of an earworm and the lead work is very memorable. The madness continues with Ruthless. John Boecklin displays some fast footwork in the intro, and despite not being the most inventive drummer out there, he does what is required of him and still manages to sound interesting. This song is more of a mid-paced chugger with some big guitar notes accenting the groove nicely. The chorus is a little faster and helps to keep the song varied. Desperate Times is up next and really takes the album into extreme headbanging territory. The main riff is perfect to headbang (and probably mosh) to, but the chorus is surprisingly catchy and I can just see the crowds fist-pumping and singing along to this one live. The album's title track follows and features one of the best intros on the album. The distant leads add just enough flavour to the heavy riffage and the Fafara seems extra vitriolic here. This is a definate pit-anthem, and I can only imagine what fury would be unleashed at one of their shows if this was played. A couple of nice changes in rhythm towards the end of the song go a long way to making this a very dynamic track. The Appetite (which has a rather terrible video it must be said - although I would not take it seriously) is typically metal. However, the lead work is excellent and overall the song sounds pretty fresh. The video features the things that all metal kids supposedly love (skateboards, beer etc.) and this song seems like a bit of a tribute to that - even if the lyrics do not suggest so. It is a good song, but I cannot help but picture generic metalheads when I hear it, which does ruin it slightly.

The next highlight is Curses and Epitaphs. It is another crushing riff-fest but one that contains many different sections and often changes when you least expect it. The chorus is the best part of the song. Boecklins fast feet beneath a pretty slow guitar riff gives it quite a disorienting feel and Fafara's vocals sit on top of this nicely. There is also a really memorable guitar solo, that makes sparing use of some nice wah effects - something which is not often found in this sort of music. Haunting Refrain is the next song worthy of mention. It has a cool atmospheric intro (as do a few other songs on this album), and not being too familiar with their back catalogue I am not sure if this is a new thing for them or not, but it works very well. Not much about the song really stands out, but it still manages to be enjoyable. I think it has an excellent groove throughout with some nice guitar work from Kendrick and Spreitzer that uses slightly unconventional patterns to create something very interesting. There is an excellent guitar solo too that borrows lots from traditional classic rock/metal phrasing. Tripping Over Tombstones is up next replete with it's angsty lyrics and big riffs. This is vintage DeviDriver and their well-worked formula is recognisable. The band have certainly carved out their niche and have become very successful and popular as a result. The final track on the album, Sail, is a cover of indie band Awolnation. DevilDriver have made it their own though, and while it will probably cause controversy amongst the flat-earthists that make up quite a large portion of the metal community, I think it works well here. Some female vocals performed by Mary Whitman add something different to the song, and give it a certain haunting atmosphere. I have not heard the original version of the song, but I am sure that DevilDriver have changed it into something much heavier and sadder. Overall, Winter Kills is more of the same from DevilDriver. The band are not known for their experimentation or progressive thinking, but they deliver exactly what their fans want which is refreshing in it's own way - and it would be worth a bet that 2015 will bring another DevilDriver album that follows the same successful blueprint as this!

The album was released on 27th August 2013 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Appetite.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Avenged Sevenfold's 'Hail to the King' - Album Review

It has been an uncharacteristically good year for metal albums in the Official UK Album Charts. Black Sabbath's 13 topped the chart way back in June (which I failed to mention in my review of that album), and now Avenged Sevenfold have done the same with their sixth album Hail to the King. This is their first album in three years and their first without the enigmatic songwriting contributions of deceased drummer Jimmy 'The Rev' Sullivan. It also marks a slight change in style for the band, although I feel the band were always destined to produce an album in this vein. Gone, mostly, are the large theatrical pieces of previous albums and what we have instead is a more stripped-back sound that relies heavily on groove and simple melodies. Imagine if you will an even rawer version of their 2007 self-titled album combined with the early 1990s sound of bands like Metallica and Megadeth and you can probably imagine what Hail to the King sounds like. While some fans might not approve of this change, I feel that they have pulled it off and could go a long way to increasing their fanbase even further. It will certainly help to turn around those that might have been put off by the band's metalcore beginnings. The production is excellent and Mike Elizondo has done a great job getting this more streamlined approach from the band. This is an album that really focuses on the basics of songwriting and relies on well-crafted hooks and grooves as opposed to the big sound some of their earlier work had. It also feels like an album created in tribute to the band members' original musical influences. While this works in the band's favour, it has also brought them some criticism as a few moments of the album are not so much tributes but near-plagiarism. I think the band have gotten away with it here, but they should be careful in the future as having too many more incidents like this could start to erode at their reputation. That being said, this is still a great album and one that is likely to bring a smile to the face of many a metal fan. This is also the band's first album with drummer Arin Ilejay who aquits himself well here.

The album gets started with one of my favourite tracks Shepherd of Fire. After a classic build-up of pounding drums and simple riff, things get going at a nice headbanging pace with a snaking riff backed up by some occational double-bass patterns from Ilejay. M. Shadows sounds great as always. His voice has always been very distinctive and he works hard on the chorus here to make it sound huge. There is also an excellent solo from Synyster Gates, a future guitar legend in the making! The album's title track and lead single follows and this is another groove-fest with an excellent guitar lead throughout and some huge bass from Johnny Christ. The solo here is one of the song's best assets. It is neo-classical in style and very memorable. I also like the simple guitar and vocal part that follows the solo that mimics the song's intro. Doing Time is up next and picks up the pace slightly. This is very similar to songs from the band's self-titled album. It is another highlight of the album with some Axl Rose-esque vocals from Shadows during the verse. This Means War follows and this is where the plagarism accusations come from. It is clearly very similar to Metallica's Sad But True, both musically and structurally. I can understand why this annoys lots of people, but I still feel that This Means War is a good song. It's a shame it will always be shrouded in controversy. Requiem seems a little like the album's black sheep. The latin choir in the intro just sounds out of place on this album and sounds poor compared to the things Epica and their ilk create. The song itself is pretty good, but the choir just sounds tacked on and silly.

Crimson Day is up next and starts off slowly with nice clean guitar before evolving into a power ballad. Shadows has a great voice for ballads I think, and sounds very heartfelt here. Delicate strings in the background help to create a nice atmosphere and there is an extremely melodic solo from Gates. He is so much more than just a shred-machine and proves it in spades here. Heretic follows and this another real belter. The grooves are back up front and it has another very catchy chorus. Some nice keyboards make their presence felt here and add something to the song. There is some excellent duel guitar work too between Gates and Zacky Vengeance. Coming Home is up next and this speeds up the pace again a little. This is a little more 'epic' than much of the material on this album and seems to be a nod to their past. It would not have sounded out of place on 2005's City of Evil. Again, the guitar work is stellar with some more twin-leads before an explosive break from Gates. Speaking of guitar, Gates' Dad makes his traditional cameo in this song's outro with a melodic solo of his own - like father like son! I feel overall that Planets is the album's weakest song. It is not bad per se, but certainly the least memorable. Still, it is a solid metal track that sounds chunky enough to be enjoyable. There is another incendiary solo from Gates, that seems to make good use of the whammy bar, and some big riffs. Hail to the King really is a guitarists album and Gates has excelled himself on it. He should be proud of his skills and his work here! The album closes with Acid Rain which is a piano-led piece that has a haunting yet slighty upliftng atmosphere. The strings make a welcome return and again have a lot to offer. Avenged Sevenfold have always made good ballads and this up their with their best in my opinion. Despite the fact it seems to be slighty in contrast with the stripped-down heaviness of the rest of the album, it still remains a fitting closing track for the album. Overall, Hail to the King is a really great album that will appeal to lots of people. Die-hards might accuse the band of selling out, but I feel that this is an album that band were always going to make. A worthy addition to anyone's collection who likes their metal basic and groovy!

The album was released on 23rd August 2013 via Warner Bros. Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hail to the King.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Newsted's 'Heavy Metal Music' - Album Review

Back in January, former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted made his mark as a solo artist with the EP Metal (my review of which can be found here). Seven months on, he and his band - who go under the name Newsted, have released their debut full-lenth album entitled Heavy Metal Music. Stylistically, the album follows on from where the EP left off and gives us a good solid slab of back-to-basics heavy metal with a little dose of thrash on the side. The EP promised a lot but I am not sure if this album quite lives up to that potential, which is somewhat of a disappointment. Two of Metal's best tracks - Soldierhead and King of the Underdogs - are present here and it is prehaps telling that these two songs are still among the highlights of Heavy Metal Music. While the album is certainly enjoyable, quite often it feels formulaic and extremely unoriginal. Being unoriginal is not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel that if this was released by a band that did not contain a metal legend then not that many people would take any notice of it. Newsted's name definately sells the product but sometimes I believe the album falls short of expectations. Still, Newsted's voice still impresses me. His gruff, but clear, delivery helps to drive the songs along and can easily hold his own against many other more recognised vocalists. Also, the production is nice and big and the instruments have lots of space to be heard. It is quite raw, but still very tight, and I think that is in it's favour. While I seem to have been somewhat negative about the generic nature of this album, I still think there are plenty of memorable riffs and catchy vocal melodies to enjoy. This is not a bad album by any stretch, it's a perfectly good one in fact, but I just felt it could have been so much better! It is worth pointing out the the band have now become a four-piece with guitarist Mike Mushok (Staind) having been added to the line-up.

The rocking Heroic Dose ensures that the album gets off to a good start. The main guitar riff has an excellent groove to it and is backed up by some huge bass from Newsted. It is mostly a mid-paced tune, but some nice double bass drumming from Jesus Mendez Jr. helps add a little speed and thrash influence to certain parts of it. There is a lengthy, fluid guitar solo too. Soldierhead is up next. My views on this have not changed since reviewing the EP, Metal, so check that out to read my thoughts on it - it's still an excellent song! ...As the Crow Flies follows and this is another strong one. Again, it ticks along at a mid-pace but the strength of this song lies in it's chorus. It is surprisingly catchy and no doubt is one to sing along with live! The guitar solo is another highlight. It starts off with some traditional classic rock phrasing before entering into a speedy run, the complete contrast of the first part. It is one of the album's best songs. Ampossible is the first of the album's more average tracks. Yet another mid-paced rocker, it plods along without really containing anything too memorable. I think that the album suffers from being pretty one dimensional as most of the songs, with the obvious exception of Soldierhead and sections of a few others, are mid-paced so overall the album feels like it never quite gets going properly. For me, Ampossible seems to embody that. It is certainly not a terrible song, but it is unremarkable in almost every way. Also, what does 'Ampossible' even mean..? Things get back to a better place with Long Time Dead. It is a little faster with a pretty anthemic chorus and some good guitar interplay between Mushok and Jessie Farnsworth. The pace varies nicely within the song, mixing fast sections with some more groove-oriented sections to good effect. Newsted's voice also sounds particularly strong on this one.

Above All is up next which boasts a nice catchy guitar lead over the song's main riff. This riff helps the verse to be interesting and the chorus is simple but works very well. It is another one of the album's highlights and brings the best out of the band, particularly the guitarists. There are lots of lead lines here to sink your teeth into and the rhythms have great patterns that stray just far enough away from the norm to be considered different. King of the Underdogs follows and this is the album's best song. Again, my views on this song have not changed since reviewing the EP so seek that out for my views on it. The grungy Nocturnus follows and goes a little way to creating a bit of light and shade that the album as a whole is sorely missing. There is a Sabbathy feel to the main riff but some slightly mellower sections stop the song from becoming a doom-fest. Twisted Tail of the Comet is up next and this is probably the last decent song on the album. It has a great feel to it and an excellent bridge that contains a bit of the previous song's grunge. The whole song is driven by some massive bass work that helps to keep things sounding big. Kindevillusion (again, what's with the weird titles?) and Futureality round out the album and are quite uninteresting, which is a shame as it the album seems to tail off without ending on a high. Overall I have mixed feelings about Heavy Metal Music. On the one hand, I enjoy a majority of the songs on it and like the no-frills approach to the songwriting and production; but on the other hand, I find this album to be lacking any real dynamics. As mentioned before, most of the songs are mid-paced rockers and I can't help but feel that more changes in pace would make things more interesting. Having come from a thrash background, a couple of really fast songs played at break-neck speed would have really helped the album have a bit more variety. A ballad or slower song would not have been a bad idea either. I know that not everyone likes ballads but it would have offered yet something else different to the pot and created some light to go with the shade - and in return we would have a more balanced album. Hopefully, Newsted will explore these kind of ideas on his next album as I am sure he has it in him to make a really special album in the future!

The album was released on 5th August 2013 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Above All.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Maschine's 'Rubidium' - Album Review

The Cambridge Rock Festival has always given me plenty of opportunities to discover new up and coming bands, and in 2012 one of those bands was Maschine. Having formed at the Brighton Institue of Modern Music in 2008, the band are the primary outlet for songwriter Luke Machin's compositions and 2013 sees the release of their debut album Rubidium. Machin and bassist Daniel Mashal have previously recorded and toured with established progressive rockers The Tangent but decided to go at it alone, and with the help of The Tangent mastermind Andy Tillison, landed a record deal with InsideOut Music. Joining Machin and Mashal we have keyboardist Georgia Lewis, guitarist Elliott Fuller and drummer Douglas Hamer (who has since left the band to be replaced by James Stewart). Rubidium is the fruits of their collective hard work and sits firmly in the progressive metal genre where comparisons can be drawn to rising stars Haken. It is no means a perfect album, but it showcases some huge talent and is an indication that Maschine might be a band to contend with in the future. It is very clearly a debut album, and sometimes tries a little too hard to be 'progressive', but as a bag of ideas and as a statement of intent from the young musicians it has to be admired. My main overall gripe with the album is Machin's voice. It is quite weak and sometimes gets lost in the mix as it fails to stand up against the technical riffs, thankfully Lewis' harmony vocals help to rectify the situation somewhat and add some clout to that department. Machin's guitar work is anything but weak however and his big riffs and solos are some of the highpoints of the album. Another thing to note, is that while the production on the whole is pretty good, it does seem a little thin in places. I suspect a larger budget (providing the label step up) for the next album would help with that though!

The album gets off to a good start with one of the most memorable tracks on it: The Fallen. A nice chunky riff gets things underway but the verse highlights what I mean about Machin's voice - Lewis' totally dominates him and I would not be surprised if in the future she started handling more of the lead vocals. Despite this, the first real guitar solo is fluid and fast and shows where Machin is at his strongest. He also attempts some harsh vocals, very well in my opinion, but these bursts come very infrequently. There is some good John Petrucci-style riffing throughout the song and a nice extended keyboard solo from Lewis. Dream Theater comparisons are inevitable and almost meaningless now when reviewing progressive metal bands but a couple of moments of instrumentation could have come from that legendary American band. The album's title track comes next and is very Haken like with it's eerie-sounding clean passages and odd vocals. It ramps up though and we are treated to some very speedy guitar/keyboard runs underneath the singing. Infact, this whole track is very clearly Haken-influenced. There is another excellent guitar solo that shows off some nice tricks. Cubixstro follows with a really tidy little intro that is extremely catchy. Machin and Lewis' vocals mix really well here and sound really strong. Overall, this song has quite a funky feel with some excellent bass work from Mashal that stands out despite everything else that is going on. The ending almost has a trance feel to it with some excellent atmospherics, jangly guitars and whispered vocals - all backed up by the fat bass.

Invincible is up next and this is the album's 'ballad'. It opens beautifully with some picked acoustic guitar patterns that eventually become more and more dischordant. Machin's strained vocal delivery actually works really well here and reminds me of things Trent Reznor sometimes does to create an odd feeling. Soon, things turn out very folky with a nice flute line, played by Marie-Eve DeGaultier that recalls something Mostly Autumn might have done in their early days. Lewis holds the song together with some very traditional piano work that is full of warmth and melody, a contrast to the eerie opening of the track. There is also a very traditional less-is-more type guitar solo from Machin too that sounds like something Steve Rothery might play - not a lot of notes, but a lot of feeling - but it is not long before the shredding starts again and both methods work well and add something to the song. The next highlight is the final piece, the two part epic Eyes. Delicate piano work and clean guitar herald it's arrival and the vocal interplay once again works well. The big keyboard riff is full of melody and has the sound of a classic prog synth. Things like this seem to be a nod to their influences and giving parts of the album a retro feel. There are moments here that sound like Opeth too with jarring distorted guitar parts, big bass lines and harsh vocals, but the electronia-influenced keyboards help it from becoming a direct copy of the Swedes' sound. The song's second part reprieses the intro of the first part before going off into a guitar-led piece that is a joy to listen to. This is just pure talent and ability! I would say overall, that the Eyes suite is the best piece of music on the album. It is very typically 'prog' with lots of different parts and technical instrumentation but it still holds together well as a song. It ensures the album ends on a bona fide high and hopefully is an indication as to the band's future direction. Rubidium is a solid album that fans of progressive music will definately enjoy. I think if they can tighten up the songwriting a little, as there is some fat that could be trimmed, and use a more meaty production then their next album could be something very special indeed. In the meantime, the band need to tour this album a lot and really hone their craft on the road as I think doing so will help to address some of the small issues I have with what is otherwise a very good album.

The album was released on 29th July 2013 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional soundclip of and edited version of The Fallen.