Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sonata Arctica's 'Pariah's Child' - Album Review

Sonata Arctica have always been one of the more inventive and interesting power metal bands out there. Not content to continuously plough the same furrow, frontman Tony Kakko and his band have always strived to reinvent their sound and keep things fresh from album to album. Of course, this has earnt them praise and criticism in almost equal measure. Those who appreciate the more progressive element of their sound have found much to like throughout the band's impressive catalogue; whereas the flat-earthist end of the metal community generally struggle with anything released after 2004's Reckoning Night. I would consider myself as a member of the former category and have found plenty of enjoyment out of Sonata Arctica's music over the years. The only album that I struggle with is 2007's Unia, and even that has a few good songs on it. This brings us to Pariah's Child, the band's eighth studio album. In some respects, it is a return to their older sound. Certain moments definitely do sound like Reckoning Night and the preceding albums; but bother moments continue down the more progressive and experimental path of their more recent work. Some songs here are downright wacky and have a brand of humour that only Sonata Arctica can produce. This is also their first album since 2001's Silence to not feature bassist Marko Paasikoski who left the band amicably last year. He has been replaced by Pasi Kauppinen who also produced the album. On that note, the production here is top notch. It is big and lush, and compliments the complex song arrangements perfectly. The mix is perfectly balanced, giving each instrument a chance to shine when necessary and never sounding claustrophobic and hard on the ears. I know that it is a cliché, but this album really is a summation of their career and sound so far. It might not be their best album, but it is certainly faithful to their sound evolution and shows that sometimes you have to look back to move forward. I like the way that the band has paid tribute to their old image and sound on the album's cover. The return of the wolf to the band's imagery was a conscious decision to bring back something from their past, as was using their old logo again. I just hope that this was done for the right reasons, and not done to pander to the section of their crowd that only like the 'old stuff'.

The album gets off to a good start with the melodic The Wolves Die Young which definitely harks back to the Reckoning Night days with it's big keyboards and signature vocal harmonies from Kakko. There is even a short bass solo from Kauppinen towards the beginning which was a nice way for the band to introduce their new bassist. Drummer Tommy Portimo alternates between double-bass drum patterns and more groove-influenced drumming to keep the pace and rhythms interesting. The chorus is trademark Sonata Arctica and full of singable melodies. Running Lights definitely has a more modern vibe. The motorcycle sound at the start of the song, along with Portimo's fast drumming sets the tone and Elias Viljanen's guitar leads really cut through and force melodies on you. The verses are driven by a very fast bass riff which is something new of the band. The bass guitar has never been used prominently in the band's sound before and it is nice to see Kauppinen expanding the instrument's role since joining the band. The song mixes faster, heavier sections with epic, almost soundscape choruses to excellent effect, and Viljanen's speedy guitar solo is the icing on the cake. The more modern sound is expanded further on Take One Breath. The guitars have a certain crunch to them that is atypical of Sonata Arctica's sound but the melodies that Kakko has created are definitely right out of the top drawer. The song really races by before you have really had a chance to understand exactly what you have heard, but repeated listens reveal it to be a real gem. Cloud Factory is probably the exact opposite, as it only takes one listen for this song to get seriously stuck in your head. The chorus is one of the catchiest things that I have heard this year, with it's seriously poppy overtones. I would imagine this song will become a live staple for the band, and it is melodically up there with anything else they have ever written. Blood is one of the more experimental songs on the album. Slightly strange spoken word sections mix well with Kakko's sung vocals, and the crunch returns to the guitars. Certain riffs have a very big Dio vibe about them, and the very fast, epic chorus soars above the rest of the song. Henrik Klingenberg's keyboards play a big role in this song. Piano sections and more broad soundscapes mix well to create an excellent song.

What Did You Do in the War, Dad? is another odd song, but it turns out to be another winner. It seems quite muted in tone despite being quite upbeat in places, it is an odd combination that somehow works. I really like the piano that runs throughout the verses, and the constant changes in pace are slightly jarring, but again they work oddly well. It is a song that is hard to be described, go and listen to it yourself and see if you enjoy it! Half a Marathon Man starts off with some gently flute and slow drums while the sound builds up around it. You would be probably be expecting a ballad, but soon enough a nice, fat bassline comes in and a really retro rocker starts off. Hammond organ is all over this song, and more Dio-like riffing drives it. There is a keyboard riff after the chorus that really sounds like something from a classic Deep Purple album. This is such a fun song that seems to pay tribute to lots of great bands from the past. The chorus also has a very 1980s AOR vibe about it, with lots of excellent backing vocals to make Kakko's voice sound huge. The end of the song is strange though. A slightly ominous atmospheric section closes out the song, but it still works. X Marks the Spot is probably the only song on the album that I really do not like. A really cheesy narrator keeps butting in, and all in all it just seems very silly. Now, silly can be a good thing, but it does not really work here and ends up just being a little embarrassing. I am guessing that this will be a love or hate kind of song, and I am verging towards hate! Love is better. It is the only thing on the album that counts as a ballad, and gets off to a good start with some lovely piano work from Klingenberg. He is probably one of the best pianists in metal, and his work on the band's ballads always pleases me. It is no Tallulah or Shamandalie (the latter of which is probably my favourite Sonata Arctica song) but it is really enjoyable and heartfelt. Viljanen gets the chance to show off with a nice slow, melodic solo. The album comes to an end with the ten minute epic Larger Than Life. Again, I am not really sure what I think about this song. Certain sections of it are excellent, and the chorus really stands out; but other parts seem to not be as well realised. I really like the fact that Kakko uses lots of his impressive vocal range throughout the song though. He has a very strong low voice, as well as his usual higher tone, and both are used to good affect here. It is another song that is hard to review, as people will take different things away from it. Overall, this album is a success for the band however, despite a couple of not-so-good moments being present. Most of the songs here are very strong, but it is a shame that the album tails off towards the end. The first five songs are all stone-cold Sonata Arctica classics, and with that they should be proud!

The album was released on 31st March 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Wolves Die Young.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Gamma Ray's 'Empire of the Undead' - Album Review

Kai Hansen is probably the single most important person in the power metal genre. As a founding member of Helloween, who were probably the first true power metal band, he wrote two albums that would define the genre. The Keeper of the Seven Keys albums are bona fide classics and still hold up today, despite the fact that the genre has evolved and become hugely popular since. After leaving Helloween in 1989, Hansen formed Gamma Ray which has been his main project ever since. With Gamma Ray, Hansen took a heavier path more akin to Helloween's 1985 debut album Walls of Jericho than the more polished Keeper... albums - although, ironically, Helloween's last couple of albums have been even heavier still! Empire of the Undead is the band's eleventh album, and their first in over four years. Musically, it is trademark Hansen and everything you would expect from a Gamma Ray album is present. Hansen's raspy voice might not be the best, but it is extremely distinctive and suits the rawness of Gamma Ray's material. There is nothing groundbreaking about this album but fans of the band, and anyone who likes good melodic metal, will find plenty to enjoy here. Despite the rawness of Gamma Ray's sound, Hansen has always been able to craft a memorable tune. There are always plenty of rousing choruses to enjoy, and Hansen and Henjo Richter are a formidable guitar duo. They trade riffs and solos all the way through this album and always remember to inject plenty of melody into their playing. This is also the band's first album since 1995's Land of the Free to not feature long-time drummer Daniel Zimmermann who retired from the music business in 2012. Michael Ehré (Metalium; Firewind) takes his place and acquits himself very well. His playing style suits the band down to the ground and makes a good impression on his first studio outing with Gamma Ray. Losing Zimmermann has meant that the band have not only lost a drummer, but also a key songwriter. While Gamma Ray has always been Hansen's band, the other three members have always contributed excellent songs and Zimmermann was no exception. I think his songwriting is missed on this album, and a couple of great songs from him would have alleviated a couple of the more average songs here. It does feel that in a couple of places, Hansen was spread a little thin trying to make up for his absence.

The album gets off to a very strong start with the epic Avalon. It starts off with some clean guitar and Hansen's melancholic voice before the rest of the band join in with some excellent mid-paced riffing. It is a song that slowly builds over time, as the verses retain the clean guitar and gentle atmosphere of the intro, while the choruses are real fist-pumping affiars where Hansen is backed up by a huge choir of backing vocals. The second half of the nine minute plus song picks up the pace and sees plenty of excellent soloing from Hansen and Richter. Excellent lead guitar and soloing has always been part of Gamma Ray's DNA, and the standard is maintained here. After a false ending, one final chorus is played and the song comes to a powerful, chanting end. Hellbent is a traditional Hansen speed metal song that gives us our first chance to see what Ehré has got to offer in the drumming department. His fast footwork propels the song along with some tight riffing. Hansen uses the harsher end of his voice, as opposed to the melodic side used on the previous song. The way he almost screeches the chorus is extremely powerful and reminds us that Hansen certainly has his moments as a vocalist, despite the fact he will never win any awards for his vocal talents. It is heavy, yet catchy and that has been Hansen's modus operandi for years now. Pale Rider is up next and this is one of the songs that does not really seem up to their usual standard. The slightly childish 'Burn Motherfucker...' chorus just does not fit with the band's usual style and the music is plodding and uninspiring. However, the solo section of the song is excellent and sees Hansen take a slow, melodic solo before Richter begins to shred. It is not the worst song ever, but it does seem weak compared to the rest of the material on offer her. Thankfully the next song, Born to Fly, gets the album back on track. Hansen's melodic snarl really suits the verses before the extremely catchy pre-choruses and choruses take hold, the latter being washed with plenty of keyboards. This is the sort of song that has dominated Gamma Ray albums for years and it is what the fans want and expect. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it really rocks and the melodies will be in your head for days. Master of Confusion follows and is probably the best song on the album. The main riff harks back to Hansen's Helloween days and the rest of the song just sums up everything that is great about his writing style. Just listen to the chorus and try to get it out of your head, it is almost impossible to do so!

After the melodic heaven of Master of Confusion, the album's thrashy title track hits you like a sledgehammer. It has a very old-school sound and Ehré's powerful, fast drumming shows us why he was chosen to replace Zimmermann. The big, uncompromising riffing is furious and nevet lets up throughout the song. The solo spot sees Hansen and Richter duelling furiously. Each of the two guitarists gets a turn to show off, but the highlight is the short section where they solo together. Dual solos are an key part of heavy metal, and they always sound awesome. You need a break after a song like that, and Time for Deliverance is just that. Good metal albums always have some light to go with the shade and a good ballad can be just as good as a relentless thrash tune. Hansen's moody lead breaks and the distant piano create an excellent mood and the chorus is a real 'lighters in the air' moment, and it has a natural swing to it. There are certain melodies here that really remind me of Queen's We Are The Champions though, which can be distracting. I am not sure whether this was intentional or not, but it does seem rather odd. Luckily, the song is strong enough for this not to be a problem, and gives your ears a rest from the heaviness of the rest of the album. Demonseed is another riff-heavy piece that steams along at a mid-piece. However, it is another song that never really gets going in the same way as many of the others. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but it just does not feel as good as the rest of the album. Again, it is not terrible, but it is not anything special either. Seven is another quality song however, and all thoughts of mediocrity are soon forgotten. I really like the song's main riff and, like Master of Confusion, it has that old Helloween vibe about it. However, it is the song's chorus that steals the show. It all comes together so well. Hansen's vocal melodies are instantly memorable, and Ehré's drumming accentuates them perfectly. It has an Iron Maiden-esque swagger, which is not faint praise at all! The album comes to an end with the modern-sounding I Will Return. The main riff has a whiff of the Gothenburg sound about it, but certain sections of the song are backed up by some hammond organ which gives it a bit of a retro edge too. It is another solid Gamma Ray song that brings the album to a memorable and enjoyable close. Overall, this album is another success for the long-standing band. They are very good at what they do, and fans of good metal will surely enjoy this!

The album was released on 28th March 2014 via earMusic. Below is the band's official lyric video for Hellbent.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Magnum's 'Escape from the Shadow Garden' - Album Review

Magnum are one of Britain's premier and most consistent rock bands. Despite never hitting them heights of bands like Deep Purple and Whitesnake, Magnum have armies of dedicated fans around the world and continue to impress with solid new releases. They can never be accused of resting on their laurels either. Since getting back together in 2001, Magnum have released six studio albums. That means that Escape from the Shadow Garden is the seventh album since their reunion, and their eighteenth overall. Main songwriter and guitarist Tony Clarkin reportedly started writing this album only a month after their last album, 2012's On the 13th Day, was released. That album was very successful for the band, and fans hailed it as one of their best albums - at least since their reunion anyway. It is true that that album, along with 2007's Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow, are easily their best since coming back together. While they have all been good, those albums had a certain class and sparkle about them that the others seem to lack. Escape from the Shadow Garden does not quite reach those heights, but it certainly is as good as 2009's Into the Valley of the Moonking. It has already brought the band a fair bit of commercial success as it debuted in the Top 40 of the Official UK Album Charts, which is the band's highest chart position since 1992. Musically, this album carries on with the riff-heavy sound forged on the last two albums. Mark Stanway's keyboards are less prominent now than they were in the band's 1980s heydey, and he seems happy to play a supporting role to Clarkin's simple, yet power riffs and frontman Bob Catley's timeless voice. There is no doubt that Catley's voice is ageing, and he sounds much rougher than he used to - but the more guitar-orientated sound seems to bring out the best of his lower register. The result is a much tougher, almost heavier, sound that is not as instantly memorable as their melodic 1980s output. The trademark melodies are still there, however they are just not as blatant and in-your-face as before. It must be said too that the artwork for this album is incredible. Rodney Matthews has outdone himself here, drawing many crazy creatures and scenery to create quite a sinister looking piece of work. It would make an excellent poster!

The album kicks off with the muscular Live 'til You Die which features a riff that is characteristic of Clarkin's recent style. Flourishes of keyboards of almost orchestral quality add to the grandeur of the piece, and Catley's gritty vocal brings it all together. The chugging chorus is full of hidden melodies and Catley sounds excellent. After the second one, the song drops out, leaving a lonely guitar lead that soon evolves into a full-blown solo. Clarkin has never been a flashy player, but his simple solos are always enjoyable. Up next is Unwritten Sacrifice that begins with some understated piano playing from Stanway, with some nice retro synths and Catley's slightly strained vocals to back it up. It soon becomes a mid-paced rocker however, but the keyboards remain to add a grand edge to the material. Throughout the song, the band often return to the piano of the intro, giving it a good amount of light and shade. Modern Magnum albums to tend to be rather one-paced, so it is nice to see the band mixing things up a little on this song. It speeds up towards the end too, with a nice 'woah woah'-type vocal chant that will go down well live. Falling for the Big Plan is a little more upbeat, and sounds like something from Princess Alice and the Broken Arrow. Again, the song opens up with just piano and vocals but the rest of the band make their contributions count and the chorus is the best on the album so far. It has that 'bouncy' aesthetic that 1980s Magnum is full of, and Catley really nails the vocals. Clarkin's solo is also really good. The first half of it is backed up by some deep, ringing piano chords before the second half really rocks out. This is a really good song, and one of the album's best. Crying in the Rain follows and builds slowly around a nice drum and bass pattern while Clarkin's guitar follows in a slightly strange rhythm. The second verse has some really dirty synth breaks from Stanway to add to the almost industrial feel of the song. This is only during the verses though, as the chorus is trademark Magnum and Catley soars above the rest of the band. This song is a perfect fusion of modern and retro sounds, and shows that the band is willing to try new things to stay relevant. Too Many Clowns is the simplest song on the album. Built around a catchy riff, this slightly bluesy tune is tough and made for headbanging to. It is a real heads down rocker, which is a nice change of pace after all the more lengthy songs that precede it.

Midnight Angel is the total opposite of Too Many Clowns. It opens with some delicate acoustic guitar before things are left to Catley and Stanway once again. The latter's synths sparkle around Catley's voice. The song has a definite progressive vibe to it and, like Unwritten Sacrifice, keeps returning to the simplicity of the intro. The rest of the song has a big sound to it, but the mixture of big and small keeps it interesting despite it's length. The second half of the album is definitely not as strong as the first, but the next highlight is the moody Don't Fall Asleep. It is a slow-burning piece that focuses on some excellent piano from Stanway. It is a great ballad that is pretty moving, and the effects on the piano really work well. Of course, the chorus is another excellent one and Catley really delivers on this song. I like the fact that Stanway has lots of room to show his skills on this song - especially as he mostly plays a supporting role these days. His keyboard work has always been a big part of what makes up the Magnum sound, and his piano playing on this song is something of beauty. The next highlight is Burning River which definitely harks back to the AOR sound the band utilised a lot in the 1980s. The bouncy vibe described earlier returns here as Clarkin's guitar and Stanway's keyboards link up well to create an excellent AOR-type riff. While Catley's voice might not really be suited to this sort of material anymore, he does a sterling job. We even get treated to a short keyboard solo before Clarkin lauches in a fluid guitar solo. This song could have easily been on 1986's Vigilante, and shows that Magnum can still rock like they used to! The album comes to an end with The Valley of Tears which again features lots of excellent piano work and a reflective vocal from Catley. Despite the quiet intro, this song is actually quite uplifting and is an excellent end to an album that is not at many points. Songs like this really show that Bob Catley still has an excellent voice, even if he does not soar quite like he used to. It is all about playing to your strengths, and with this song Clarkin has written something that Catley can really own. Overall, Escape from the Shadow Garden is another album that Magnum can be proud of. It will certainly please their many fans, even if it does nothing for those who have never been convinced by the band. Magnum continue to deliver, and that is why we love them!

The album was released on 24th March 2014 via Steamhammer/SPV GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Too Many Clowns.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Asia's 'Gravitas' - Album Review

Since the band's original line-up reconvened in 2006, Asia have released three solid studio albums that built upon the fomula created on their 1982 self-titled debut album and 1983's Alpha. Musically, they sit somewhere between AOR and progressive rock; focussing on melody but always making them more subtle and intricate than say Journey or Foreigner. Last year however, founding guitarist Steve Howe decided to leave the band to pursue other musical endeavours leaving the core duo of vocalist and bassist John Wetton and keyboardist Geoff Downes to find a new guitarist. They chose the relative unknown Sam Coulson to fill the void and the three, along with legendary drummer Carl Palmer, began to work on what would become Asia's fourteenth studio album (even if the band seem to like to pretend that the long John Payne era never existed). Originally titled Valkyrie, the band finally settled on the title Gravitas. Stylistically, Gravitas is very similar to their previous three studio albums, showing that they have not really lost anything through Howe's departure. The reformed Asia has always been the project of Wetton and Downes anyway, but Howe always contributed a couple of excellent tracks per album even if his jazz-influenced playing was always a little at odds with the quasi-stadium rock that Wetton and Downes produce. Thankfully, Coulson does well even if he never really gets a chance to properly shine. Downes' keyboards dominate the mix and we never really get to hear Coulson cut loose and show us his skills apart from in a few tasteful solos. Possibly when he is more established in the band he will get the odd bone thrown his way, but at the moment he seems to be playing it safe. In fact, Gravitas generally has an air of 'playing it safe' about it. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as Asia doing what they do best is always going to be enjoyable, I do feel that Wetton and Downes could have maybe branched out a little to utilise the talents of Coulson better - after all he has worked with Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big; Racer X) and Walter Trout before! A little shake up in sound and formula would have been nice, but in reality Wetton and Downes are always going to stick to what they know best. The result is Gravitas which is another enjoyable album in their long and sucessful discography.

The album opens with the dense, yet melodic Valkyrie that is built around trademark Wetton vocal performance with plenty of spacey keyboards from Downes. It is a mid-paced song that is held together by some delicate, chugging guitar from Coulson - which is probably different to something Howe would have done - and a simple beat from Palmer. The huge harmonies in the chorus are typical Asia fare and sound as lush as always. Asia albums always sound beautiful and the production and mix here is no different. Towards the end of the song, we do get to see a little of what Coulson is made of with a tasteful guitar solo. It is simple, but the phrasing and bending of the notes is pitch perfect and when it links back up with the chorus the song really sounds fantastic. The sprawling title track is up next and this harks back to the more progressive moments of their 2008 reunion album Phoenix which also had a couple of songs written as mini-suites. Opening with an almost orchestral vibe, the song then drops out to some dramatic piano from Downes. The strings carry on in the background and give the whole thing an epic feel. It is a shame then that the main 'meat' of the song does not really live up to the grand beginning. We get a nice riff from Coulson before it becomes another mid-paced chugging song that feels very similar to Valkyrie. The song itself is enjoyable, with plenty of retro keyboard sounds and a solid vocal from Wetton, but after the huge introduction I expected something a little more. The ending of the song is better though. Coulson again gets to solo while Downes' huge organ gives him an appropriate backing. The next highlight is Nyctophobia, which starts out sounding a little like Supertramp's Dreamer before becoming a traditional Asia rocker that sticks in your head and refuses to be moved. Asia always have written the odd quirky number and this is Gravitas' one. The Supertramp-esque keyboards continue throughout the whole song and Wetton follows their pattern with his vocals. Coulson shines on this song. His groove-influenced riffing backs up the entire song before a speedy solo quickly sets him apart from Steve Howe. We know he can shred, and it is nice to see him get a little more freedom in this song.

Russian Dolls is a really nice ballad that has a really 1980s vibe to it, with some twinkly keyboards that mix well with some arpeggiated acoustic guitars. The chorus is pure Asia. Wetton's bassline really helps to emphasise the melodies and rhythm and some excellent rock organ gives it a certain droning quality that works well. There is even what sounds like a short bass solo after the second chorus that shows that Wetton is a great musician as well as a good singer. Heaven Help Me Now is another traditional Asia song, although the symphonic work at the beginning is a nice change of pace. Again though, like with Gravitas, the introduction does not really seem to fit the rest of the song. I would have liked the dramatic nature of the intro to continue into main melodies, but instead we are treated to another mid-paced rocker. That said though, the song's chorus is very good. The epicness of the intro does return here somewhat with some some big pulsing keyboards and plenty of vocal harmonies for Wetton to compete with. It is just a shame that two excellent orchestral introductions are effectively wasted on this album. They are not musically similar to the songs they go with, and it just seems like an opporunity that was not full taken advantage of. Joe DiMaggio's Glove is the album's next highlight. It is an excellent slow number that is full of excellent melodies. I particularly like Coulson's guitar work towards the end of the song. He has a subtle effect on his guitar that almost gives him a tone similar to something Slash might use. The chorus is of course a real killer and probably the best one on the album overall. This is a great song that ranks up there with the best that Wetton and Downes have ever written. The album comes to an end with the acoustic-driven anthem Till We Meet Again. It might be a little cliché, but it is certain to go down a storm live. It sounds quite different to the rest of the songs on the album, but it is a fitting closing number. Coulson brings the album to a close with a nice, short guitar solo over Palmer's marching drums and the chorus vocal harmonies. Overall, Gravitas is another solid album from Asia that continues with the successful formula that they have built up over time. It is missing a really killer track, like An Extraordinary Life from Phoenix, and there is some wasted opportunities with some of the track introductions, but on the whole this is a very enjoyable album.

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