Saturday, 31 May 2014

Edguy's 'Space Police: Defenders of the Crown' - Album Review

As I said in my Music of 2013 write up, Tobias Sammet is probably one of the most consistent songwriters in metal today. Last year, he put out The Mystery of Time with his side-project Avantasia (which was one of my favourite albums released in 2013), and this year we have a new Edguy album! Space Police: Defenders of the Crown is the band's tenth studio album and contains all the hallmarks that have made them so popular in the metal world. Their last couple of albums have not been as well received as their older work. It is true that they are not as strong as the previous albums, but there is still a lot to enjoy - particularly on 2011's Age of the Joker. Nevertheless, Space Police: Defenders of the Crown has the feel of a true return to form, despite the fact that - in my opinion anyway - Edguy never lost any form! There is a definite back-to-roots vibe about some of the songs here. Some of the songs are heavier and more riff-orientated, similar to the material found on 2004's Hellfire Club and the preceeding albums. There are still plenty of keyboard melodies woven throughout the material to remind us of the band's more recent work though. Some of the songs also have an Avantasia-light feel to them, which is no bad thing in my opinion. Space Police: Defenders of the Crown does not have the scope that The Mystery of Time has, but then it was never supposed to. Avantasia and Edguy are totally different beasts, despite having some crossover in sound. While Avantasia are about epic arrangements, Edguy are more about focussed, tighter metal songs. Sammet's fine voice and distinctive songwriting style is the connection between the two bands, and he delivers again on this album. He sounds as strong as ever vocally, and his songwriting has not let up one bit. His bizarre sense of humour is present on many of the songs as always, and this will no doubt annoy many of the serious metalheads who like everything to be deadly serious. The album is well produced and sounds nice and heavy. Sascha Paeth and the band have done a good job making this album sound the way it does. I usually do not like Paeth's production choices, but I have no complaints here. The drums are punchy and the guitars have a good crunch to them without losing any tone. The keyboards, when they do appear, are just retro enough to sound good and never fall into parody territory.

The album gets off to a good start with the riff-heavy Sabre & Torch which is in a similar vein to Mysteria from Hellfire Club. Jens Ludwig and Dirk Sauer's riffing is solid and tight and Sammet gallops his way through the verses, before the 'woah woah' type chorus takes hold and manages not to sound stale. It is not one of Sammet's better choruses, but it works and the song is a solid slab of melodic heavy metal that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The next song, Space Police, really steps it up a notch. The mid-paced riff, complete with a tasty keyboard accompaniment (think Dio's Rainbow in the Dark), leads into a spacy, atmospheric verse. I like this song's tongue-in-cheek lyrics too, just read them, they are hilarious! The song's chorus is the high point though, and it is one of Sammet's best ever in my humble opinion. It is one of those melodies that, even after one listen, is ingrained in your brain. If this song does not get played on the ensuing tour, then I will be very surprised! Defenders of the Crown follows (yes, the album has two title tracks!) and it is a real driving rocker. The intro has some excellent lead guitar lines from Ludwig and drummer Felix Bohnke trots out all the classic power metal rhythms. It follows the Gamma Ray and modern Helloween blueprint pretty closely, but sounds powerful and the fist-pumping chorus is likely to go down well live. Ludwig solos well, and overall this is another solid metal piece. The light hearted Love Tyger is up next and - complete with a silly cartoon video - it is a lot of fun. It is a real hair metal anthem and sounds like it belongs in the 1980s. The chorus is catchy and the lyrics are silly, but if this song does not put a smile on your face then you take your metal far too seriously. I would say that it is typical Edguy, but in all honestly there are not really any other songs by the band that sound like this. It has the typical Edguy spirit and sense of fun though, and that makes it feel at home on the rest of the album. The Realms of Baba Yaga is another speed-metal workout with a really excellent riff and some Dio-esque choruses. I assumed this was going to be another joke song, until I read that Baba Yaga is a demon in Slavic mythology - so perfect power metal subject matter then! It is not a standout track overall, but it is solid and enjoyable none the less. It is the sort of song Sammet probably writes in his sleep, and has been Edguy album fodder for years.

The band's cover of Falco's Rock me Amadeus is where the album gets truely silly, and I must say that I do not really care for it. To be honest, I never liked the original version of this song, so it was highly unlikely that this was ever going to float my boat. It suits Sammet's wacky personality down to the ground though, and I do like the fact that it will probably annoy a lot of people who take music too seriously! Before I heard it, I thought Do Me Like a Caveman was going to be a dirty, Steel Panther-esque song, but instead it is just another solid rock song. The verses are a little more restrained than others, with Tobias Exxel's big bassline driving it, mixed with some nice stabs of piano. The chorus is another melodic feast, with plenty of memorable lines that Sammet sings with ease. Ludwig's solo here is a little more restrained (seems to be a theme here..) but it fits the mood of the song and adds to it melodically. Shadow Eaters gets back to a fast rock of the earlier songs with a massive Helloween vibe that encompasses the whole song, but especially on the chorus where Sammet actually sounds a bit like Andi Deris at times. I would imagine that Helloween were a big influence on Sammet growing up so it nice to see him pay tribute to them, even if it was not intentional. Alone in Myself is the album's obligatory ballad which is enjoyable enough, if a little throwaway. Sammet has certainly written better ballads, but this ticks all the boxes and is pleasing if not anything else. All metal albums seem to need a slower song, and this is it. The album's final song, The Eternal Wayfarer, is definitely a moment of Avantasia-light that I mentioned earlier. Sammet does longer songs better with Avantasia, where the full orchestra, guest vocalists and grader scope helps to flesh them out - but Edguy have their share of good long songs too. This is a good example and provides to be an excellent end to the album. I like the fact that the orchestras of Avantasia are replaced by some really dated sounded synth orchestrals, but it suits Edguy's tongue-in-cheek attitude very well. The chorus is very good, and overall it is just another good Sammet song - one of many! Overall, this album is a winner. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it is really good, solid heavy metal that is lots of fun to listen to. Whilst Sammet seems to get more plaudits for Avantasia these days, I am glad he still keeps his original band going, and still releases excellent albums with them.

The album was released on 21st April 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Love Tyger.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Winger's 'Better Days Comin'' - Album Review

Despite their 1980s heyday being long over now, Winger still remain very popular. They were always one of the more interesting bands to come out of the hair metal genre, and in recent years have strayed away from the hairspray slightly into much harder, tougher territory. I have never really bought the 'progressive' tag that some people apply to them, but there is no doubt that they were always more diverse and musically gifted than many of their contemporaries. Winger's line-up still contains most of their original members too. Frontman/bass guitarist Kip Winger, guitarist Reb Beach and drummer Rod Morgenstein - joined by long standing guitarist John Roth - are a tight unit, and their years of playing and writing together really shows. Ever since their third album, 1993's Pull, Winger have been moving away from the big keyboards and soaring melodies that characterised their early, commercially successful albums. When they reunited in 2006 and released IV, they continued with the more stripped-back heavier sound that was introduced on Pull. 2009's Karma also followed down this route and brought Beach and Roth's guitar playing to the front of the band's sound. This style continues on Better Days Comin' and the guitar riffs and solos are now the main focus point of Winger's music, but of course Kip Winger's vocals are as good as ever, and there are still plenty of big choruses to sing a long with. I like the fact that, with each album, Roth is becoming more and more integrated into the band. On IV he just played the guitar, on Karma he co-wrote a song and contributed a bit of lead guitar, but on Better Days Comin' he has co-written three songs and solos on four. Beach is an excellent guitarist, but I am glad that Roth is getting more chances to shine as he clearly has a lot to offer too. Kip Winger also produces the album, and for the most part it sounds very good. There is a good balance between all the different instruments, with plenty of bass for a big sound. However, in places it does sound a little flat and a lusher production would have helped. I understand that they are going for a heavier sound these days, but a few more keyboards here and there, along with more backing vocals in some of the choruses would have enhanced some of the songs. It is also interesting to note that this album is a partial reunion of the IV-era line-up as former keyboardist Cenk Eroglu is credited with additional keyboard parts throughout.

The album starst well with the fun Midnight Driver of a Love Machine which definitely sounds more like something they would have released in the 1980s. It starts off sounding quite odd with just Kip Winger's vocals and some strange sounding guitar lines before Morgenstein's drums come crashing in and the song turns into a sleazy rocker with catchy 'woohoo'-type lines throughout and a really catchy chorus that is up there with anything the band has produced so far. Beach's trademark guitar tapping skills are used well in the fluid solo, and it is the first of many excellent guitar moments on the album. Queen Babylon is more what I was expecting going in. It is quite similar to the music found on Karma, although the subtle keyboards behind Beach and Roth's riffing helps to bulk out the sound. There is an excellent groove throughout the verses here, but the chorus is as melodic as it is understated and after a few listens really imprints itself in your brain. The bass guitar plays a big part in this song and it really drives the pre-chorus, giving it a heavier feel. Rat Race is another riff-heavy number that steams along at a good pace. Now this is a rock song! A pulsing bassline propels the song and some simple, but flashy riffs provide the main meat on the bones. It is a real headbangers' song, and features some truely excellent twin lead guitar work from Beach and Roth. The solo that they perform together is something right out of the 1980s and is sure to impress anyone who likes good guitar work. The album's title track is up next and is one of the more left-field songs that Winger like to write. The verses are quite bluesy, based around a slightly funky bassline; but the chorus takes that funk element further with plenty of big backing vocals and slightly strange rhythms. It sounds like something Extreme might write if they were doing an album of laid back rock songs. It's enjoyable however, and after a few listens it really opens out and you realise how good the song is. Tin Solider gets back to the heavier riffing, although the keyboards in the introduction might fool you the first time you hear it. The verses show how good the rhythm section of Kip Winger and Morgenstein are. They are locked in tight and create a big sound without much help from any other instruments. The choruses have some excellent guitar lines in them though, and keyboards remain throughout - despite this song sounding very different from their keyboard-heavy early days. This sort of song contains everything that Winger are about these days though, and it rocks!

Ever Wonder is a classic Winger ballad with a real 'lighters in the air' chorus and plenty of layers of delicate keyboards to create a relaxing atmosphere. Winger have always written excellent ballads, and while this might not be as good as things like Heading for a Heartbreak, it is still a beautiful song that is heartfelt and interesting. Appropriately, there is also a slow solo from Beach that contains lots of sustained, bended notes for that classic ballad sound. So Long China is another song with a very 1980s sound to it. The main guitar riff is excellent and it actually has a keyboard accompaniment that sounds like something original keyboardist Paul Taylor might have done. The verses are tougher though and are more like the Winger we know today. I like the contrast in sounds and styles though, and shows that both eras of the band can sit together well. Storm in Me is another heavier piece. The guitars have a real crunch on this number and a few little dissonant stabs help to create an strange atmosphere. There is an odd effect on Kip Winger's voice throughout the chorus but it works and adds to the modern, weird overall sound of the song. We also get an nice guitar solo from Roth that sounds different to something Beach would have done in the same situation. It is always good having two guitarists who can solo well in a band, as you get to hear lots of different guitar styles and it keeps things from becoming stale. Be Who You Are Now is another ballad but a bit more 'odd' than your traditional one. It is hard to explain, but it sounds quite creepy in places with a hypnotising combination of bass guitar and drums that just gets under your skin and keeps up a tight groove throughout the song. It is a hard song to describe, but I like it and it adds something new to the Winger cannon. It also has another excellent solo from Roth! The album comes to an end with Out of this World which is classic modern Winger. Again, it is another slower song but there is something about it that is infectious. It gets heavier as the song progresses though, with some big guitars supporting Kip Winger in the soaring, yet simple chorus. Beach's solo on this song is long and full of many different sections. It starts out slow, but builds up as the instrumentation builds up around him and finishes when another chorus starts. From this album, it is clear that Winger still have a lot to say. This might be their most diverse collection of songs to date, and it is great that a band that has been around since 1987 still has the courage to experiment.

The album was released on 21st April 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Midnight Driver of a Love Machine.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Anubis Gate's 'Horizons' - Album Review

Anubis Gate were one of those bands that I had heard of and read about, but had never really given them a proper listen. I think I had heard a couple of their songs on Youtube in the past, but for whatever reason I had never bothered to buy any of their albums. I read a couple of reviews praising the band's most recent album Horizons and decided it was time to finally give these guys a proper listen. The only things that I knew about the band going in was that they play progressive metal and they come from Denmark. After listening to Horizons a few times, I knew that I liked their style. I have not yet had a chance to go back and listen to their back catalogue, so this review will be based purely on my experiences listening to this album. Usually, the albums are review are from bands that I am already very familiar with, but this time I am going in blind. Anubis Gate's brand of progressive metal seems to be quite dense, but also quite melodic. Some bits of it remind me of Haken, and others remind me of Circus Maximus - it is quite an odd mix of styles. Henrik Fevre has an unusual voice, and one that is as diverse as the material as the material he is singing over. Sometimes it is full-bodied and more akin to your average AOR frontman, and other times it is distant and takes on a pseudo Thom Yorke vibe. He also contributes bass guitar, and along with other long-term member Kim Olesen makes up the backbone of the band. Horizons also sees the debut of two new members of the band. Guitarist Michael Bodin (Third Eye) and drummer Morten Gade Sørensen (Pyramaze; Wuthering Heights) both put in good shifts here and fit in well with the rest of the band. Former frontman Jacob Hansen once again co-produced the album along with Olesen and the album sounds good. Sometimes though the sound becomes a little claustrophobic, particularly when the keyboards start to dominate the sound. I would have prefered a bit more space in the mix, so then I could focus more on the individual performances from time to time. That being said however, this album does not seem to be about individual performances. The cliché progressive metal extended solos are not as common here as on other albums in the genre - so maybe this production decision was deliberate. Still, a little more clarity in places would not have gone amiss.

The album gets off to a very strong start with Destined to Remember which is probably the most instantly memorable song on the album. Lush keyboards and chunky guitars make up the introduction, but the verses are much more paired back with Fevre's vocals taking centre stage. The chorus is very melodic piece of work, with plenty of nice vocal harmonies and soaring lines to enjoy. After the second chorus, the instrumentation seems to go off on a bit of a tangent. A simple guitar solo followed by a rather metalcore-esque breakdown are musically quite different to the melodic and traditional song structure that preceded them. It is not long though before the song returns to the epic chorus and shows us that progressive music does not have to be complex to be enjoyable. Never Like This (A Dream) follows with a nice, meaty riff before everything fades out to let Fevre do an excellent Matt Bellamy impression over some tight synthesisers. Things pick up as we get into the chorus. Fevre's lower register works well here and some heady guitar work backs him up as Sørensen's traditional metal beats help things along. Towards the end of the song, keyboards start to dominate the mix with a short, spacy solo - but a final repeat of the slightly strange chorus brings things to and end. Hear My Call! is a heavier piece with a really groovy verse that has some excellently paced guitar riffing and fluid bass. The song's chorus is right out of the top draw and Fevre reaches some excellent, sustained high notes. Things clam down in the middle, with an Eastern-influenced acoustic guitar workout while Sørensen plays some interesting drum rhythms behind it. A 'proper' guitar solo follows not long after and the song steams along to a heavy end. The next highlight is Revolution Come Undone. It has a slightly thrashy verse with lots of double bass pedal drumming from Sørensen and some emotional vocals from Fevre. This a real headbanging track with powerful drums and tight, interlocking rhythm guitar riffing. The light and shade is still ever-present however, with plenty of airy keyboards to help balance out the sound. Slightly more techy riffs join the fray about half way through the song, and they mix with cleverly programmed synths to emphasise the band's progressive tendencies. The heavier elements stay throughout the song though, and this is a song that will appeal to any open-minded metalhead.

Breach of Faith is a much more laid back number that makes excellent use of the piano. Even though big, distorted guitars are present throughout most of the song, it is the melodic piano lines that cut through the heaviness that really drive the song. The chorus returns to the soaring, melodic feasts that the first couple of songs on this album were and is likely to be stuck in your head quite a lot after hearing it. After a short, shredding solo we are treated to some delicate piano before a really beautiful, slow guitar solo reminiscent of the classic 1970s progressive rock bands takes the song to a whole new level. As I said earlier, this album is not really about individual performances, but every so often a solo like that comes along a blows you away. The album's title track is the next highlight. It is a much shorter song than most of the others here, but it still has plenty going on. Fevre's vocal melodies are very catchy here, and some rather traditional breaks of lead guitar (which are mostly absent in this album) are welcome. It might not be as complex as many of the other songs on this album, but it is a nice song that still contains all the band's hallmarks. Plus, it is a nice break before the epic 14 minute song that follows. A Dream Within a Dream is a bona fide progressive metal epic. Made up of lots of sections, the song is musically complex and engrossing. It starts off quite low-key though, with Fevre's Matt Bellamy/Thom Yorke vocals being backed up with some rather simple music. My favourite section comes a few minutes in. Some rather spacey keyboards and a rumbling bass line herald a really rhythmic piece where Fevre's vocals follow his own bass guitar in a strange, but brilliant harmony. The song takes quite a few plays to really get to grips with, as there is so much going on but it is worth persevering with as it is very enjoyable once you are more familiar with it. All good progressive metal albums have a big, long, epic song on it; and this is Horizons'. The album comes to an end with the strange and distant Erasure. It is an acoustically-led short song that is very different to everything that has come before. It sounds more like something that you would hear on the album of the latest trendy singer-songwriter, at least until the drums and swathes of keyboards join in. This only lasts for a short while though, as the song returns to it's acoustic roots to close out the album. Overall, this is an album that I have enjoyed listening to over the past few weeks. It is not a classic, but it has introduced me to a new band that I will be checking out in greater detail over the coming years.

The album was released on 15th April 2014 via Nightmare Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Never Like This (A Dream).

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Delain's 'The Human Contradiction' - Album Review

While symphonic metal might not be as popular now as it was a few years ago, it is still a genre that sees a fair amount of love. Once the up-and-coming darlings of the genre, Delain are now hardened, established veterans and their fourth album The Human Contradiction reminds us why they are so well liked. This is their first studio album released on new record label Napalm Records (not counting the compilation Interlude that was released last year) after the band were dropped by Roadrunner during a big takeover which saw them bought out by Warner Brothers. This meant that their excellent third album We are the Others was delayed for a few months, and some feared that it might never see the light of day at all. Luckily, it was finally released and received plenty of excellent reviews from lots of different corners of the metal world. The band toured it furiously, and helped build their reputation as an excellent live act. Now, two years on and the stress of their old record label behind them, Delain have returned with another really good album. The Human Contradiction continues with the sound forged on We are the Others but adds a much harder edge, which leads to a much tougher overall sound. The poppy elements that allow them to create such infectious melodies are still here in force, but they have been mixed with much bigger sounding guitars than previously. First and foremost, this is a metal record and anyone who views 'symphonic metal' as a light alternative to the real thing ought to give this album a go. Frontwoman Charlotte Wessels is not a classically-trained vocalist like many of her peers, but she has a strong rock voice and this helps the band have their own identity within the realms of symphonic metal. Their songs might not be as grand in scope or production of bands like Epica, but Delain never try and compete with that and focus on simpler arrangements and more overt melodies. They are the everyman's symphonic metal act, and those who are turned off by the pomp and grandness of other bands will warm to Delain's simpler take on it. It is also worth noting that guitarist Timo Somers plays a greater role this time around. His contributions to We are the Others were minimal, with much of the album being written and recorded before he joined; but this time around he is ever-present, which I suspect is why the album's guitar riffs are sound are much harder overall.

The album starts off gently with the piano-driven introduction of Here Come the Vultures where Wessels' voice and Martijn Westerholt's keyboards mix well, but it is not long before the song really takes off with the help of some huge distorted guitar from Somers. The sparkly keyboards continue to cut through the wall of guitars however, and help to accentuate Wessels' vocal lines. She sounds fantastic throughout this album, and I would say that she really comes into her own here. A catchy chant about two thirds of the way through the song helps to bring the poppy elements out, before a bona fide symphonic section preceeds a short, speedy solo from Somers. It is an excellent song that sets the tone for the rest of the album, and introduces a heavier, sleeker Delain. Your Body is a Battleground continues down the heavier path of the previous track, and sees Wessels duet with Marco Hietala (Tarot; Nightwish) who added his unique howls to their first two albums, but was absent on We are the Others. Their voices mix well together and hearing him sing is always a treat, as no-one else really sounds like him. The verses have a really nice, sleazy rhythm that sees Wessels and Hietala trade off vocal lines before a delicious chorus reminds us of the soaring melodies from their 2006 debut album Lucidity. Somers gets another chance to show off his skills with another excellent solo, and Hietala backs up Wessels on the final, epic chorus. Stardust is the poppiest song here. Electronics and muted drums are employed at the beginning, but the song's chorus is another winner that sees Wessels employ uncomplicated vocal melodies. The song is not as interesting as the preceding two, but it is catchy and likely to become very popular for that reason. My Masquerade starts in quite an unconventional way for the band, and there is a hint 1980s new wave/goth about it which becomes more apparent in the chorus where some Carl McCoy-esque backing vocals are employed to help create a dark atmosphere. The song is very catchy though, especially the chorus; and it gets heavier as it goes along with some good work from Somers and drummer Sander Zoer who's punchy rhythms help the dark sound. Tell Me, Mechanist is another heavy song (after the introductory piano anyway) and uses the harsh vocal talents of George Oosthoek (Orphanage) that were last used on Lucidity. His deep growls really add to this song, and the contrast between the melodic death metal sections that he sings on and the airier verses sections that belong to Wessels. Light and shade is important in metal, and this song has it in spades.

Sing to Me sees Hietala return to the fold again, as do the big symphonic elements that are sometimes utilised by the band. Epic strings help to create a counter melody to the palm muted guitars and Wessels sings the song's title repeatedly while a big droning choir echoes her with wordless utterances. Hietala then takes over, and his powerful voice really helps to make this song. Everything he sings over turns to gold, he is just a fantastic vocalist. He does not outshine Wessels however, and the two of them combine so well that he becomes part of the band, rather than a tacked-on guest appearance. Army of Dolls gets back to the toughness of the first part of the album, although the chorus brings a certain delicacy to the proceedings. Wessels uses all of her rock grit during the verses, but the floatiness of the chorus shows us just how much range she has. The second half of the song descends into a slightly electronic (almost dancy) section led by a huge bassline from Otto Schimmelpennick van der Oije (yes, that is his real name..) that is something new for the band. It works though, and the contrast between the big riffs in the early part of the song and the electronics in the second part is interesting. Lullaby is probably the only song on the album that has not really clicked for me. It is an enjoyable song, but after the heavy and inventive songs that come before it, it falls a little flat in comparison. It chugs along at a fairly steady pace, without ever really shaking it up creating any infectious melodies. I suppose nearly every album has to have one song that does not quite make it, and this one is it for me. The album comes to a very strong end though with The Tragedy of the Commons which features another guest in the form of Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist; Arch Enemy) who lends her guttural vocals to the song. A huge choir, that also includes Georg Neuhauser (Serenity), helps to bulk out the sound - and creates one of the most epic songs that Delain have ever written. Despite not being classically-trained, Wessels still sounds beautiful here and the choir help her to sound even bigger. White-Gluz has a very unique-sounding growl and it really adds something to the song. The song slowly fades out with the sound of the choir filling your ears, and that is a fitting end to a lush, and melodic album. Overall, Delain have produced another excellent album that will no doubt appeal to a wide number of people. It is great to see that they are now an establish and well-respected band. They deserve it!

The album was released on 7th April 2014 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Stardust.