Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Panic Room's 'Incarnate' - Album Review

After a brief flirtation with Cherry Red Records for 2012's Skin, the band have returned to their self-released roots for their fourth album Incarnate. When talking about this album, 'returning to their roots' is generally a pretty good description as it seems to have more in common with their 2008 debut album Visionary Position than any of their others. Perhaps the core song-writing duo of Anne-Marie Helder and keyboardist Jonathan Edwards were buoyed by the relative success of their acoustic side-project Luna Rossa, who's delicate album Sleeping Pills & Lullabies was released last year. Incarnate sounds like a mix of Visionary Position and Luna Rossa, and sees the band move away from the harder edge of 2010's Satellite and the vivid experimentation of Skin. It is easily the band's most introspective release yet and, as a result, it has a certain cohesion and flow that the others possibly lack. This album certainly has it's own unique sound and that sets it apart from the rest of their impressive catalogue. The phrase 'this album is a grower' has been used to death, but I cannot think of another suitable term to describe this album. At first I was slightly overwhelmed by the album and missed the clearer melodies of their previous work, but after repeated listens I can now appreciate all the work that was gone into crafting these songs. Each song sees layer upon layer of sound build up to an understatedly epic conclusion. Edwards really shines on this album, and his jazzy piano lines are prominent on many of the songs. Incarnate also sees the debut of the band's new guitarist Adam O'Sullivan who joined the band last year. His playing on this album is different to the way previous guitarist Paul Davies would have approached things, but I like his style. In fact, I would probably say that the 'lead guitar' element of the band's sound is much more prominent here than on any of their previous albums. Panic Room have never been a band for extended solos or endless instrumental passages, but there are a few moments on this album where O'Sullivan really impresses with his delicate lead lines. The slightly murky heart on the album's cover is the perfect visual representation for the music found within. At times it is quite dense and slightly confusing but, with patience and the knowledge that Panic Room almost always deliver, I am sure that this will be and album that brings them even more success.

The album starts with Velocity which seems to be a bridge between the old and the new. It is the only real riff-based song on the album and seems to be closer to the material found on Satellite and Skin than the rest of the songs here. O'Sullivan's melodic guitar line and Edwards' grand organ help to create great backdrop for Helder's voice. She sings as well as always throughout this album, injecting plenty of emotion and feel into her performance. The way O'Sullivan and Edwards link up together in the verses is excellent. It is hard to tell where the guitar ends and the keyboards begin which is a testament to a great arrangement. The main guitar riff repeats often throughout the song and is probably one of the catchiest single pieces of music the band has come up with. Even when the song builds up around it, that riff is still present - keeping the foundations secure. Start the Sound does just that, and sets the tone for the more laid-back tone going forward. Gavin Griffiths lays down an interesting beat on his drums while Edwards' keyboards sparkle and play a similar role to the riff in the previous song. The chorus is really just a continuation of the verse with more musical layers added. Later on, the beat continues while O'Sullivan delivers some excellent swells of volume-controled lead guitar that really compliment the airy feel of the piece. The album's title track is up next and is built around a fluid guitar lead before some excellent staccato keyboards provide the main melody. The chorus is really an epic one. A big string arrangement with a slightly Eastern feel backs up Helder's expressive vocal delivery. Panic Room started using strings more prominently on Skin, and it is nice to see them used and integrated even more here. Towards the end of the song, Edwards' organ and O'Sullivan's two riffs meld into one and create an excellent sound while Griffiths experiments with different drum patterns over the top, giving the song a really progressive feel. It even contains a distant guitar solo and gives us a chance to see what O'Sullivan is made of, even if it is not exactly the focal point at the time as it is just part of the ensemble of sounds. The next highlight is Waterfall. Appropriately, the sound of running water heralds the start of the song before some pulsing organ and a tidy guitar line create the base of the song. It is quite an upbeat, inspiring song that gives you a break from the denseness of the previous numbers. It has a slightly hippy-esque vibe to it, but there is still plenty of grandeur with more washes of strings.

Into Temptation moves back to the darker sound heard throughout much of the album's first half and sees Helder sing surrounded by swirling keyboards before O'Sullivan's tortured lead gives way to a chorus that is dominated by Yatim Halimi's funk-influenced bassline. Soon, a gentle keyboard riff lays itself on top of the bassline to create an excellent contrast and unique sound. As mentioned before, this album is full of layers upon layers of different sounds that, when mixed, create a really interesting sound. This song is probably the best example of this, and this huge mix of influences and musical styles rounds up to probably their most accomplished song to date. All That We Are is a piano-led piece that takes you to a smokey jazz club of the 1930s. Helder really has the power and finesse of the singers from that era and Edwards uses his skills on the piano to back her up. Again, the song slowly builds up throughout it's duration and the huge wall of strings that arrives about two thirds of the way through propels the song from the jazz club the soundtrack of a big budget film noir. It really has that feel, and this sort of variety is what makes Panic Room so good. O'Sullivan gets another pseudo-solo towards the end that brings the song to a beautiful finish. Searching is an acoustically driven song that brings to mind Reborn from Visionary Position or Chances from Skin. It has that vibe, but mixed with the darkness of the overall sound of this album. Helder really channels her inner singer-songwriter on this song and there is definitely a shade of her only solo release The Contact about it too. It is probably the most accessible and simple song on the album, and as a result would make a good single if the radio was more susceptible to songs outside of the mainstream. A lonely harmonica solo from Helder keeps the darkness in the song and O'Sullivan's fluid guitar work at the end is a real joy. The next highlight is the densest and darkest song of all - the closing number Dust. Some really bassy piano and Helder's distant vocals bring this song into being before a delicate drone and Griffiths' slow drums transform it into a swirling epic. There are more Eastern influences scattered throughout this song and really takes you back to the sounds of Endgame (Speed of Life) and Apocalypstick from the band's first album. It has the epic, slow burning feel of those songs and brings the album to an emotional conclusion. Overall, this is another excellent album from the band and one that sees the band find new cohesion and understanding. The sounds on this album gel so well, and it is probably the band's best to date in that respect.

The album was released on 10th March 2014 via Firefly Music. Below is the official trailer that was used to promote the album.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Sleeper Wakes' 'The Sleeper Wakes' - EP Review

It is not often that a local band comes along and blows you away, but is just what Plymouth's The Sleeper Wakes have done. Forming last year from the ashes of many other bands playing the local metal scene, the five piece are already making a name for themselves around these parts. A few well-placed support slots, including one with Every Time I Die, which saw the band hone their craft on stage went down very well. Earlier this month, the band released their debut self-titled EP and celebrated this with a free headline show at Plymouth's White Rabbit, which has always been the spiritual home for the Plymouth metal scene. By all accounts, this show went down a storm with plenty of people turning out to make it a night to remember for the band. Though short, the band's EP is full of quality. Considering that this is a totally self-released effort, the quality and the production values of the material is very high. Guitarist Adam McKay Smith, who has a growing reputation in the area for the technical side of music, handled the production and he has done a stirling job. The material here walks the line between rawness and being polished and this suits this style of metal down to the ground. Stylistically, The Sleeper Wakes are hard to describe. They are somewhere between metal and hardcore (yes, I know there's metalcore but in many ways this does not seem like a metalcore record), but they put emphasis on the tunes. The riffs are memorable and frontman Luke West sings with plenty of conviction and vitriol, without coming across as over-angsty. The melodies mainly come for the catchy vocal lines and riffs, but there are a few sections of nice lead guitar work from Smith and fellow guitarist Sam Fenney. Soloing is not the name of the game here, but certain chorus sections have subtle leads to back up the vocals and add great depth to the songs. Considering that most of the songs are under three minutes in length, a lot of music is packed into each and every one. This makes for an EP that never outstays it's welcome and one that you will want to play again and again, if only for the infectious energy of the whole thing!

The EP kicks off with the introduction-come-song Should the Day Come which sets the tone nicely. It's bassy tone, courtesy of Billy Suter's heavy basslines bring other modern metal bands like Heart of a Coward to mind. It is not long before the first 'proper' song Hours Pass starts which is full of headbanging riffs and excellent vocals from West. The chorus is the high point of the song, with gang vocals to bulk up the sound and some of those guitar leads that I mentioned above. Leon Deeley's drum sound throughout is really excellent. He punches through the music well and his double-bass drumming is excellent. The song is over almost as soon as it has begun but the energy continues on into the next song Rise and Fall. The band filmed a video for this song, which can be seen below, and it is probably the best song on the album. The riffs have a really nice groove to them and it is worth mentioning here that none of the songs on this album are really all that fast. This is not a speed-fest, but instead an exercise in pounding rhythms that you can headbang to. Hadley's Hope has a nice distant-sounding effect in the intro before the metal resumes full throttle. The riffs in this song have a really nice stop-start rhythm to them, which helps it stand out from the rest. This EP manages to avoid being a constant chug, and breaking up the pace with slightly off-kilter riffing sections helps this. Lifeless is probably the catchiest number here and would probably be the highlight of their live set. West really sings his heart out on this one, and the catchy gang vocal sections are made to be sung live by a sweaty metal crowd. The bass really shines towards the end of the song, and a few pinch harmonics keep things interesting. After the short instrumental Ambition, the album's final number For All of Us brings things to a close nicely. It is the album's 'epic' track, which leads on nicely from the melodic sheen of Ambition, and builds up from a slow pace to a fast number with plenty of huge gang vocal sections to get the crowd involved. Again, the subtle guitar leads are excellent in helping to enhance the song's melodies and West uses plenty of emotion in his voice. Some higher, almost spoken, vocals which are in great contrast to the usual deeper growls, sung by Fenney, are a highlight towards the end. The song fades to a close with some nice harmonised lead guitars and anthemic drums. Overall, this a really solid debut release from a band which have the potential to do great things. They are definitely ones to keep an eye on!

The album was released on 8th March 2014. Below is the link to the band's Bandcamp page, where you can hear the whole EP for free, and their promotional video for Rise and Fall.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

House of Lords' 'Precious Metal' - Album Review

As far as melodic hard rock goes, House of Lords are probably one of the most established names in the genre. While they have never been all that commercially successful, they have been releasing albums for years and have made a name for themselves on the AOR circuit. Their late 1980s/early 1990s work is probably their most famous, but since getting back together in 2000 the band have released six studio album with Precious Metal being their most recent. Only frontman James Christian remains from the band's original line-up but, since 2005, guitarist Jimi Bell, bassist Chris McCarvill, and drummer B.J. Zampa have been ever-present and have contributed to five of those recordings (although McCarvill did have some time out of the band during 2008 and 2009). House of Lords are a fairly new band for me and, although I have heard a few of their songs over the years, Precious Metal is the first full album of theirs that I have listened to. I bought it on a whim after watching the video for current single Battle on Youtube and loved it from the outset. Sometimes, these impulse purchases can backfire but thankfully, with this album, that was not the case. As it was on Frontiers Records too, I was a little worried about how it was going to sound. Now I love Frontiers Records, and many excellent albums have been released under their name but some of their 'projects' are a little sterile as the same songwriters, musicians and producers seem to be involved all the time. I knew that House of Lords was a band with a history that pre-dated Frontiers Records but I was a little worried that this album would just be another vehicle for the songs of Erik Mårtensson, Alessandro Del Vecchio, etc. (as good as much of their material is). Again, thankfully, this is not the case. Christian and Bell write the majority of the band's songs and the sound of Precious Metal is a little harder overall than the 'meat and potatoes' of Frontiers' key projects. If you like melodic rock, this well produced (mostly) collection of songs is sure to impress you. The legendary Bob Marlette also assisted the band in the mixing of the album so the balance of the instruments is just right. While the focus of the band's sound is Bell's guitar, there are also plenty of lush keyboard textures courtesy of Jeff Batter.

The aforementioned Battle is the album's first song and sets the tone with a gritty guitar riff that is in contrast with the very 1980s keyboards sounds. The whole album is a great mix of old a new with a wide range of sounds being used. Christian's voice mostly sits within the mid-range and, although he never really hits any especially exciting notes, he has a lot of depth and power in his voice. The song's chorus is the main strength as the melodies really grab you and sink into your brain. Bell's solo has something of a young Yngwie Malmsteen in the phrasing and tone and it makes me wonder why I have not heard much about him before. I'm Breaking Free follows and it is another slab of melodic goodness that once again mixes guitars and keyboards well to get the best of both instruments. It is hard not to think about bands like Danger Danger or Winger while listening to this song. The chorus is anthemic and definitely has a hair metal vibe about it, but the song is much more thoughtfully put together than the more sleazy end of the spectrum. Epic gets started with some twinkly keyboards before Christian's voice and Bell's simple riff take over. Again, the chorus is a real AOR treat with soaring melodies and lines that are easy to remember and sing a long to. Bell really shreds in this song. His arpeggiating guitar lines in the chorus are subtle but his solo is flashy and fast, like the rest of the song. Live Every Day (Like it's the Last), despite it's cliché sentiments, is another excellent song. It plods along at a crunchy mid-pace, but the melodies and vocals are what makes this song memorable. The huge wall of backing vocals in the chorus make it infectious even if the song's music is not as interesting or memorable as the ones that have come before. Still, I defy anyone to listen to this song and not have the chorus stuck in your head! The next highlight is the beautiful title track. Opening with just an acoustic guitar and Christian's full-bodied voice, the stripped back atmosphere really works for this delicate ballad. Gentle strings soon join in and it is not long before the chorus arrives. This song's chorus is one of the few moments when Christian moves outside of his 'normal' vocal range and uses some nice high notes to convey emotion. In classic ballad format, the rhythm section join in after the first chorus and there is a very slow, melodic solo from Bell. Christian, however, is the star here and his vocal performance on the song is amazing.

The album gets back to rocking with Swimming Wih the Sharks. It is probably the first song on the album where the bass is nice and prominent and McCarvill's work in the chugging verses help to beef up the sound. I really like the main riff of this song and, again, the verses have that Winger-esque vibe. As is common with the songs on this album, the chorus is full of melodies, and the keyboards seem to harmonise well with Christian's voice to create a nice big sound. Bell again channels his inner Malmsteen on a tasty neo-classical solo that fits with the heavier feel of this song. The next highlight is the epic power ballad Enemy Mine which sees Christian dueting with his wife Robin Beck, herself a big name in the AOR world. The other thing which sometimes winds me up about Frontiers Records albums is the abundance of average ballads, but this one is a real winner. Beck has quite a ballsy voice, that fits song well, and her and Christian's voices blend together well. A really 1980s-style synth keeps cutting through the mix to play a short melodic lead that sounds a little dated, but it still sounds great. To be honest, most AOR sounds pretty dated, and that is why we love it! Talking of dated, Action has a very 1980s sound. Again, this song has that semi-hair metal sound with a hip-shaking rhythm and a snaking main riff. The chorus is another winner with plenty of harmony vocals to enhance the melodies and there is also a short, shredding solo from Bell. Turn Back the Tide is another very melodic treat of a song with just enough pomp to give it a big sound. However, there is a short part after the chorus that sounds like a part of Battle which is a little annoying as it is too similar to get away with, especially on the same album! The album comes to an end with You Might Just Save My Life. It might not be the album's best song, but it ensures the album ends on a good note with a big chorus that features some nice shuffle drumming from Zampa. Bell's solo is also very good. He aquits himself very well on this album and it seems that his songwriting partnership with Christian is very solid. He never overplays and his solos always fit well within the song. Overall, Precious Metal is a very good album from a band who I will be definitely checking out much more in future. The two main members of the band, Christian and Bell, are both awesome and I would love to hear more of their work. Anyone who likes melodic rock will love this album!

The album was released on 24th February 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Battle.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Within Temptation's 'Hydra' - Album Review

Within Temptation are probably one of the most commercially successful modern metal bands. Their albums always sell well and they tour around the world a lot playing to big crowds of their many die-hard fans. While I have always enjoyed their music, I feel that they are probably the least interesting when you compare them to their contemporaries. They have never been as bombastic or progressive as Epica; and bands like Delain do the more simple, poppier songs better; so Within Temptation, for me at least, have always been stuck between those two ends of the spectrum. Their last album The Unforgiving, released in 2011, seemed to be an attempt to move away somewhat from the symphonic metal sound that characterised their previous albums and focused more on the guitars and Sharon den Adel's powerful vocals. The Unforgiving was an album that I enjoyed a lot. The songs were good and I liked the more stripped-back sound as it allowed for the melodies to shine and not get lost in an over-produced confusion. Hydra, the band's sixth studio album, seems to be an attempt to continue the sound forged on The Unforgiving but it never seems to quite work. I find it hard to describe the feelings that I have when listening to Hydra but it seems that lightning has not struck twice for Within Temptation. Do not get me wrong, some of the songs here are very good, but overall the album feels a little bland and does not really have the bite that The Unforgiving had - nor does it have the epic orchestrations of 2007's The Heart of Everything so it is an album that seems to be caught in the middle somewhat. Long-time producer/collaborator Daniel Gibson's production is not bad but it does seem slightly congested in places, which is a shame considering how good The Unforgiving sounds. Much has been made of the numerous guest vocalists used on this album, and while none of the performances are bad, sometimes it all seems just a little redundant and a cynical attempt to try and pick up as much cross-over appeal as possible. Although, from a band that seems to have been more interested recently in covering famous pop songs than writing a new album, that is not really all that surprising! This is also the band's first album to feature drummer Mike Coolen (although he played on many tracks on the live album An Acoustic Night at the Theatre) and guitarist Stefan Helleblad as a full-time member of the band who has taken founding member Robert Westerholt's place on tour while Westerholt spends more time with his family and in the studio.

The album gets off to a strong start with Let Us Burn. It is very similar to the material found on The Unforgiving which is why it works very well as an album opener. The chorus is very memorable and den Adel's voice really soars during it. She might not have the most unique or original voice out there, but there is no doubting her power or the conviction in her delivery. The orchestrations are subtle and do not overpower the simple melodies, and overall it all just comes together nicely. The song even features a short guitar solo from Ruud Jolie which is something not often used by the band. Dangerous is probably the album's best song for me and is one case where the guest vocalist really brought something to the song. Howard Jones (Blood Has Been Shed; Killswitch Engage; Devil You Know) uses his smooth clean vocals to duet well with den Adel and the guitars lock in well with Martijn Spierenburg's keyboards to create a memorable riff and Coolen's simple double-bass drumming keeps the song steaming along. It has another very strong chorus that uses the best of both voices. I would have liked to see Jones use the harsher side of his voice somewhere in the song though, as I think that would have been awesome. And We Run is an interesting song but I am not 100% sure if it quite works. Rapper Xzibit lends his talents to the song, and his sections are good, but it does seem a little jarring. It is not a disaster however, which let's face it, it could have easily been! I am not sure what this is trying to achieve though, as I cannot imagine many Xzibit fans being converted to being Within Temptation fans on the strength of this song. It is the during the next song however that the wheels start to come off though. Paradise (What About Us?) is a pretty twee song that features Tarja Turunen (Nightwish) that really does not make use of her excellent voice. This song just stinks of the band pandering to the section of their fanbase that did not like the shift away from symphonic metal. The video was released long before the album was released in a clear attempt to get those fans back on board before the album was finished. The song is average at best, but the seeming cynicism that surrounds it is hard to take. The mediocrity carries on into Edge of the World which is a pretty dreary ballad that never really gets going. I do like the way that den Adel sings it however, using lots of good high notes, but overall the song falls flat.

Silver Moonlight sees things pick up a bit. It moves back to the riff-based sound of the album's first two songs and picks up a bit of metal credibility after the last two. Westerholt's harsh vocals, not really heard since their 1997 debut Enter, make a return in the chorus of this song which is an unexpected surprise and they fit with the rocking guitars and the gothic orchestrations. It is probably the heaviest song that they have written in a long time, and Jolie's fluid guitar solo works well. However, the up-turn only lasts a single song before Covered by Roses comes along and spoils it somewhat. The bland chorus and 'woah woahs' by den Adel are not very exciting at all and seem to be another attempt to appeal to the pop community. The short spoken word section really does sound like something from an early Nightwish album and does not really fit in with the rest of the song. Dog Days is not much better, and keeps well within the 'average' category. It plods along again without really ever getting going but has very little emotional hooks or amazing musical moments to make up for it. It is an unremarkable song that will appeal to those are like their music safe and dull, which for all I know is what the band were aiming for in attempt to further widen their fanbase. The album's final two songs do improve on the general poor quality of the previous couple however and ensure that the album ends on a relative high note. Tell Me Why has another decent riff but it is the chorus that is it's real strong point. It is similar to Let Us Burn's one in a way, but it still feels good and den Adel does what she does best, belting out a good tune. The rhythms are much more traditionally metal too, which gives the song a heavier feel and it keeps a good pace throughout. The album comes to an end with Whole World is Watching which is a good ballad that features Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) dueting with den Adel. He has a good voice and they work together on what is a pretty laid back number. The chorus is very strong, with Pirner actually out singing den Adel in places which is nice to see. Overall, the album ends strongly and helps to slightly wipe away the mediocrity of some of the songs here. It is full of too many unremarkable moments to ever really be considered anything other than 'good' but some of the songs here are very enjoyable. It is just a shame that the rest were as dreary as they were as there was potential in some of them and Hydra could have been a great album.

The album was released on 3rd February 2014 via WT Recordings/Dramatico Entertainment. Below is the band's prmotional video for Dangerous.