Sunday, 26 January 2014

Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes' - Album Review

Bruce Springsteen is one of the biggest names in rock music and a new album from such a legend is always an event. He has been remarkably consistent throughout his long career and has been an influence to many musicians who have followed after him. His 2012 album Wrecking Ball was extremely well received (as were pretty much all of his albums) and it was going to be hard to top that, at least commercially. So High Hopes, his eighteenth studio album, takes a slightly different path. This album sees Springsteen revisiting some of his old songs - both released and unreleased - as they "deserved a home and a hearing" as he says in his liner notes. Most of the songs here were written for previous albums that, for whatever reason, were not included or finished at the time. Sometimes songs, no matter how good they may be, just do not fit with the overall themes and sounds of the album and get left behind and often forgotten. It is good that Springsteen has gone back through some of his unreleased material as some of the songs here are real gems. There are also a couple of covers of songs that he likes and, prehaps most interestingly, some reworkings of old songs to give them a whole new feel. Given that this album is, on the surface, a collection of odds and ends; you would be forgiven for thinking that it might be patchy and the material might not sit well together as a collective body of work. Luckily, in my opinion at least, this is not the case. High Hopes feels like a complete album and if I was not aware of the songs' histories I would not ever guess that this was a collection of old songs. Like Wrecking Ball, this is not a pure E Street Band album. Many members of the E Street Band appear on all the songs but Springsteen also utilises the talents of many guest musicians, particularly Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine; Audioslave) which has been a big part of the way the album has been marketed. Morello's contributions are good, and he performs many of the album's guitar solos. He is more restrained here than on Rage Against the Machine's material but a few moments of weird guitar noise let you know it is him playing. The delux edition of the album also comes with a bonus DVD that features the entire Born in the U.S.A. album performed live in London last year. This is one of the reasons I pre-ordered the album from Amazon and is worth watching.

The album starts with the title track which is a cover of an old Tim Scott McConnell song that Springsteen initially released on the Blood Brothers EP in 1996. This is a new version however and features most of the E Street Band and Morello ripping through the song with ease. It has a slightly Caribbean feel, especially in the choruses, with extensive use of horns and tribal percussion. Springsteen's voice is as good as ever. He has not lost any of his power as he has grown older and his performances throughout this album are excellent. Harry's Place is the first of the older songs and is a dark, groovy little number that features the late Clarence Clemons on saxaphone. A pulsing bassline from Garry Tallent drives the song and Springsteen's unusal lyrics create an interesting and strange atmosphere. The subtle but key saxophone lines that really drive the gentle melodies hark back to classic E Street Band albums before Clemons' short solo takes the song to smokey jazz bar territory. A great song, one I am glad that Springsteen plucked from his vaults. American Skin (41 Shots) is another re-recording. A live version originally appeared on the Live in New York City album but a rare single track promo CD was also released with a studio version of the song around the same time. This is a new version though and it is great to finally have a definitive version of it. Charlie Giordano's swriling organ and some distant snare drum backs up Springsteen on the first verse before the band gradually builds up the song's sound over the rest of the song. The lyrics are very poignant and highlights Springteen's talent for making a serious point within a song. Morello's guitar solo here is fantastic. It really fits the mood of the song and does not go overboard with fretboard pyrotechnics. Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons, who now tours with Springsteen, gets a short saxophone solo. It is nice to see things are being kept in the family! Just Like Fire Would is another cover, originally by Australian rockers The Saints. Ironically, this is probably the most traditionally E Street Band-sounding song since Radio Nowhere on 2007's Magic. Roy Bittan's trademark piano cuts through the sound like the days of old the big, anthemic chorus is classic Springsteen. Stevie Van Zandt's nasally backing vocals can be heard throughout which is another thing that makes it sound like a classic E Street Band number.

The next highlight is the upbeat and rocking Heaven's Wall. It has a similar feel to the album's title track but with a more anthemic chorus. There is nothing fancy about this song, it just rocks and would go down a storm live as all the crowd could get involved in the chorus. Frankie Fell in Love is another fun little song. Again, this is another very traditional Springsteen song that would have fit on any of his early albums. Van Zandt again helps out with the vocals and it makes you realise how key his backing vocals are to that E Street Band sound. That sound continues on with This is Your Sword but it has slightly folky overtones with use of uilleann pipes and whistles. Again, it is uncomplicated but is a catchy little song that all the hallmarks of Springsteen's songwriting. The next highlight is the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad. Originally the title track of Springsteen's 1995 acoustic album, here it is reimagined with a full band arrangement similar to the one played live on the Wrecking Ball tour. Morello is featured heavily on this song, sharing vocals with Springsteen and playing a great solo mid-way through the song. I am not really a huge fan of the sparse original version, but this one really rocks; I love it! Bittan's paino and Soozie Tyrell's violin help to give the song those E Street Band hallmarks, but Springsteen and Morello steal the show with their passionate singing and stellar guitar work. This song is probably the highlight of the album and I am glad that Springsteen decided to revisit it and fulfil it's potential with this new arrangement. The Wall is a very mellow and reflective song that gives you a break after the epic and draining previous one. It is another old song recorded a while ago as it features another late E Street Band member Danny Federici on organ. Stylistically, it reminds me of the ending of Jungleland with added folk courtesy of some delicate accordian and solitory coronet. The album comes to an end with another understated number, a cover of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream which rounds out the album nicely. It fails to live up to the strength of the previous couple of songs but it still sounds nice and it is a fitting closing number. Overall, this is another really strong collection of songs from one of the biggest giants in the music industry. It might not be an out and out classic like some of his previous albums, but there are more than enough great songs here to interest even the most casual of Springsteen fans. The new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad is worth buying the album for alone!

The album was released on 13th January 2014 via Columbia Records. Below is the promotional video for Just Like Fire Would.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Iced Earth's 'Plagues of Babylon' - Album Review

In my opinion, Iced Earth are one of the most consistent and enjoyable heavy metal bands of the past twenty-odd years. Despite numerous personnel changes, the band has stayed true to their sound and their discography contains plenty of gems. 2011's Dystopia is one such gem. It marked the debut of frontman Stu Block (the band's fifth vocalist) and pulled a lot of fans back in who had been slightly disillusioned with the Something Wicked Parts 1 & 2 albums. I never had a problem with the sprawling concept that spanned those two releases but I can understand why some fans did not enjoy them. The fact that the first part, Framing Armageddon (which is brilliant), had Tim 'Ripper' Owens on vocals and the second part, The Crucible of Man (which is decent but nothing special), had Matt Barlow on vocals spoilt the flow of the albums and was a case of a band pandering to public pressure to bring back the legendary frontman which ended up to be a pretty lukewarm reunion. However, getting Stu Block into the band was probably the best decision that leader Jon Schaffer has made in a very long time. His voice is very versatile and can easily handle the diverse range of styles used throughout the band's history. As a result, Dystopia was an exellent album that went back to a much simpler song-based format that brought the band much success such as on 1996's The Dark Saga. Their new album, Plagues of Babylon, continues from where Dystopia left off but is slightly darker in tone overall. The grisly artwork is in stark contrast to the more cartoonish covers the band have had in recent years and lets you know that this is going to be a no-holds-barred slab of heavy metal. If you are a fan of Iced Earth and know their sound well then you will probably have already bought this album and are enjoying as you read this; but for those who have not, this might not be a bad place to start - especially if you like music at the heavier end of the spectrum. This is not a death metal album by any means, but the overall tone and aesthetics might have more in common with that side of the coin than more traditional metal. Interestingly, this is the first studio album in the band's history to not be recorded at Morrisound Studios and be produced by either Tom or Jim Morris. Schaffer has handled all the production duties himself this time around but the sound does not really differ at all from any other of the band's recent albums.

The album's mammoth title track is the first song here and it builds up slowly layering on guitar harmonies and more atmosphere as it goes. The lead guitar work on this album is probably more prominent than it has been for a while and Troy Seele does a great job on that front. At nearly two minutes in, the song really kicks into a higher gear and turns into a powerful mid-paced rocker. As usual, Schaffer's riffs are extremely powerful and in his unique style. Block's vocals are even better on this album than on Dystopia as he grows more comfortable in the role. He uses more of his range and moves slightly away from the Barlow-isms that were on the previous album. After a sinister spoken work section, the riffing gets even better and Raphael Saini's drums (who recorded the album and played a few shows on a session basis) create a nice rhythm for some off-kilter harmony parts. Democide is a much more traditional Iced Earth song that could have easily been on Dystopia. It is catchy and heavy with subtle guitar harmonies in the riffs and an anthemic chorus. Again, there is some really excellent lead guitar work from Seele. It is great to see him becoming more and more involved with each Iced Earth album he is a part of and this is his best performance on record yet! The Culling is similar in style to the previous song but with a slightly slower pace. Iced Earth have always managed to write songs in a variety of speeds and I think that is one of the reasons why they interest me so much - not every single song is played at break-neck speed! It also has the best chorus of the album so far that you cannot help but sing along with! Among the Living Dead is a really creepy song that features Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian; Demons & Wizards) on vocals in a few places. His and Block's vocals mix well and create a demonic choir that really adds to the mood of the song. The lyrics of the song are also the perfect partner to the album's artwork! The next highlight is The End? which brings the first half of the album to a close. I should mention that the first half of the album is concept-based and the second is song-based. It opens with a nice clean intro with some excellent bass lines from new bassist Luke Appleton and Block uses the more melancholic end of his range to compliment them. It soon evolves into another mid-paced epic though with a very good chorus and works well to close out the 'concept' half of the album!

If I Could See You is the first of the songs not part of the ongoing and complex Something Wicked storyline and is a power ballad in the vein of I Died for You. It is predictable but very enjoyable with an excellent chorus that is made to be heard live. Block always manages to convey so much emotion during the slower songs which helps you to relate to the song's subject matter. Cthulhu is up next and this is one of the album's best songs in my opinion. It starts off with a clean intro (an real Iced Earth hallmark) before another big riff comes in and Block unleashes one of his falsetto screams. There many memorable riffs scattered throughout the song that sees Schaffer and Seele lock into an excellent groove together before Seele gets to show off on his own with a fluid and melodic guitar solo. As usual with Iced Earth's songs, there is another big chorus and I would not be surprised if this song became a live staple for years to come. Peacemaker shows Iced Earth treading some new ground of sorts. The riffs and overall style of this song are deeply rooted in southern rock but it still fits in with the rest of the songs on the album. Southern rock songs are usually based around a big groove and that is the case here. There is some great slide guitar work from Seele throughout the song that helps to reinforce that sound. In the end, it still sounds like Iced Earth, but little deviations like this just help to keep things interesting. The next highlight is Spirit of the Times which is re-worked song from Schaffer's side project Sons of Liberty. It is another slower song and Block's vocals are the highlight here. It is a slightly chest-beating patriotic song lyrically that probably only really appeals to Americans (a bit like Declaration Day or The Reckoning (Don't Tread on Me)) but musically it is good and still feels sincere. The album comes to a close with a fun cover of Jimmy Webb's Highwayman featuring Schaffer and Block on lead vocals along with guest spots by Russell Allen (Symphony X; Adrenaline Mob) and Michael Poulsen (Volbeat). It seems like everyone had a good time making this song and while it seems a little out of place on the album it still is fun to listen to. The only thing I would say is that Poulsen's voice seems a little weak compared to the others'. I am always surprised how good Schaffer's vocals are too, even though I have heard him so much now that I really should not be! Overall, this is another really enjoyable album from the band that follows on from the strong return to form that Dystopia was three years ago. It seems that Iced Earth have no intention of slowing down any time soon so I look forward to even more great albums from them in the future.

The album was released on 6th January 2014 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Plagues of Babylon.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Music of 2013 - Part 2

Part 1 of this post, which I wrote yesterday, was a bit more of a general blog about music in 2013 but this is what everybody has been waiting for, my Top 10 albums of 2013! As usual, it was very hard to narrow the many excellent albums that I bought throughout the year down to just ten albums, but I think I have managed it. As always, only studio albums of new material count towards this list therefore live albums, compilations, EPs or any form of re-recorded/acoustic albums do not count. For more detailed information about each album, click on the album's title to be taken to my original review of it where you can read about it in more detail and watch a video that is relevant to it. Anyway, without further ado, here is my list:

10) Killswitch Engage - Disarm the Descent
One of the original, and best, metalcore bands came back in 2013 with their sixth album Disarm the Descent. Original frontman Jesse Leach returned to the band in 2012 and they have been on fire ever since. This album perfectly mixes the rawness of the early albums with Leach and the melodic sheen of the more recent ones featuring Howard Jones. The production is excellent and the songwriting is laden with hooks as always. This is heavy, yet accessible, music with plenty of soul and fight.
Listen to: Beyond the Flames, In Due Time & Always

9) Saxon - Sacrifice
Saxon have been pretty consistent throughout their career but their current run of form is particularly excellent. 2011's Call to Arms was much more varied than many of their albums and Sacrifice gets back to what the band does best - metal! This is easily the best traditional metal release of the year and Andy Sneap's production just makes everything seem much heavier. The riffs are great and the songs are anthemic, just like heavy metal should be! Biff Byford still has a very powerful voice despite being in the game for nearly 40 years now. This album rocks, seriously!
Listen to: Sacrifice, Made in Belfast & Night of the Wolf

8) Heaven's Basement - Filthy Empire
I first got into this band back in 2008 when their self-titled debut EP came out but I had to wait five years to hear their first full-length album! Luckily, it was worth the wait and what we got is an album full of attitude and energy. The youthful cockyness of the band is infectious and only helps with the album's enjoyability. Like the Saxon album, this is an album with very little fuss or tricks. They rely on their songwriting and riffs to make an impression and they have with many people. Heaven's Basement have been on tour almost constantly this year, supporting so many different bands, so I am glad that they are finally getting the exposure that they deserve.
Listen to: Nothing Left to Lose, Lights Out in London & Heartbreaking Son of a Bitch

7) Leaves' Eyes - Symphonies of the Night
The band's fifth album is probably their best work yet. The beauty and the beast vocal partnership that the band is known for is back in full force on this album and the tunes are bigger and more memorable than ever. Just every aspect of the songwriting and performance has been slightly improved on this release with the guitar work in particular being much more interesting than previously. Frontwoman Liv Kristine uses many more sides of her voice to create her most dynamic performance on any album of her career so far. This is an album with a lot of scope that delivers on all accounts.
Listen to: Maid of Lorraine, Galswintha & Hymn to the Lone Sands

6) Dream Theater - Dream Theater
A self-titled album is always a statement of intent from a band and Dream Theater return with another powerful album full of technical prowess, huge melodies and complex song structures. When listening to this album, you get the feeling that the band realise they now have nothing to prove and are just writing songs that they enjoy playing. Having said that, the epic closing number Illumination Theory is probably their most complex composition yet which seamlessly goes from bona fide classical to funky drum and bass work in the blink of an eye. Plus, frontman James LaBrie is on fire!
Listen to: The Enemy Inside, The Looking Glass & Illumination Theory

5) Avantasia - The Mystery of Time
Tobias Sammet is probably the most consistent songwriter in modern metal at the moment. This is his fiftteenth full-length album since 1997 and it is just as great as anything else he has ever done. He has amassed another excellent array of guest singers for the sixth Avantasia album including Saxon's Biff Byford and former Rainbow frontman Joe Lynn Turner. As usual, it is over-the-top, bombastic and full of memorable songs. It might not be quite as good as some of the previous Avantasia albums, but I defy anyone to listen to this album and not have a few of the choruses stuck in their head afterwards!
Listen to: Black Orchid, Savior in the Clockwork & What's Left of Me

4) Black Star Riders - All Hell Breaks Loose
Black Star Riders rose from the ashes of Thin Lizzy and this, their debut album, was released with a lot of hype surrounding it but I think it managed to live up to the expectations. The songs have all the classic Thin Lizzy hallmarks without sounding too much like a rip-off of their greatest hits. Ricky Warwick has really established himself as a great songwriter on this album and the legend that is Scott Gorham plays his heart out throughout with many excellent solos and twin guitar leads with Damon Johnson. Great classic rock for the 21st Century.
Listen to: Bound for Glory, Kingdom of the Lost & Hey Judas

3) The Quireboys - Beautiful Curse
I have never been more wrong about a band and I am glad that seeing The Quireboys support Saxon earlier this year finally made me give their back catalogue a go. This is British rock 'n' roll at it's finest and Spike and Co. lead us through another selection of excellent foot-stomping tunes. Heartfelt ballads and big rockers mix well to create a very balanced album. There is something for everyone on here and you would have to be very cynical (like I used to be..) to not enjoy this album. Gravely vocals, bluesy guitar solos and big organs in places, what more could anyone want?
Listen to: Too Much of a Good Thing, Mother Mary & Diamonds and Dirty Stones

2) Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche
Finally, Queensrÿche are back! New frontman Todd La Torre has given the band the shot in the arm that they needed and they are back to playing excellent metal with great guitar leads and soaring vocals. It is certainly no classic, but to hear the band back to what is very close to their signature sound that made them so popular in the first place is a joy to hear. The production is odd in places, and it does seem a little short, but the songs are all excellent. It has the feeling of a starter before a great main course to come, but anyone who likes metal is sure to enjoy this album.
Listen to: Where Dreams Go to Die, In This Light & Fallout

1) Fish - A Feast of Consequences
As soon as I heard this album I had suspicions that it would be my album of the year. In truth, it really is head and shoulders above every other album I have heard this year and might just be the best album that Fish has ever been a part of - and that says a lot considering all of his excellent work with Marillion and solo albums like Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors. The High Wood suite is probably the best series of songs he has ever done and is probably the best songs ever written about the horrors of war. It is not all doom and gloom though, as the cynical yet upbeat All Loved Up provides a little bit of comic relief. This album is a triumph, and all involved should be very proud of what they have achieved!
Listen to: A Feast of Consequences, the High Wood suite & The Great Unravelling

So, there you have it. Those are the albums I have picked as my favourites of the year. There are a few honourable mentions however, as always! Two of the bands that founded the hard rock and metal genres, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, have both released excellent albums this year in 13 and Now What?! respectively so it is great to see that the old favourites can still deliver. Elsewhere, Children of Bodom returned to form in explosive fashion with Halo of Blood and Megadeth put out the controversial but excellent Super Collider. Finally, the biggest surprise of the year was hearing Mutiny Within's Mutiny Within II: Synchronicity. Despite the fact they are not officially together anymore, they decided to finish and release their abandoned second album that was shelved when they were dropped by Roadrunner Records. I am so glad they did, as those songs are too good to be sat on someone's hard drive somewhere unreleased!

Top 3 gigs of 2013:

3) Uriah Heep, The Wharf, 24/02/2013
Legendary rock band Uriah Heep seem to spend most of their time touring Eastern Europe so it is important to catch them on the rare occation that they play some UK shows. They played a career-spanning set that included a few from their latest album Into the Wild as well as many classics from their 1970s heyday. For a band that has been around for over 40 years they have a huge amount of energy. The only downside of this gig was the fact that Trevor Bolder was not touring with the band at the time due to illness and has since passed away. R.I.P. Trevor, you will be missed by many!

2) Fleetwood Mac, LG Arena, 29/09/2013
I have become a huge fan of Fleetwood Mac over the last couple of years and thought that I would never have the opportunity to see them live so I jumped at the chance when some UK dates were annouced for 2013. They did not disappoint and played a greatest hits set with a few rarer numbers, including the magnificent Sisters of the Moon, thrown in. Seeing Lindsey Buckingham live was such a treat as he is probably the most underrated guitarists of all time, his playing style is totally unique.

1) Queensrÿche, Rock City, 17/10/2013
This was my first proper Queensrÿche headline show and I was right at the barrier as many of my all-time favourite songs were being played. Todd La Torre excels as the band's frontman and the setlist was excellent featuring a few songs that had not been placed live in ages. They also mixed in a few from their excellent new self-titled album to create a heavy set that die-hard fans of the band really lapped up.