Thursday, 31 July 2014

Night by Night's 'NxN' - Album Review

I find it strange when people say that there are very few decent new rock bands out there. Just because something is not all over the popular media does not mean that it does not exist, and the search for new bands can be very rewarding. Night by Night are the latest new hard rock band to really excite me and their debut album NxN was released earlier this month. Counting Def Leppard's Rick Savage among their fans, Night by Night create extremely catchy and melodic hard rock songs with a heavy 1980s vibe. Founded by guitarist Ben Christo (The Sisters of Mercy), Night by Night are a far cry from what should probably be considered his 'day job'. There are no synthesisers, gothic overtones or drum machines here - this is guitar driven hard rock with strong vocal melodies and plenty of big vocal harmonies provided by Christo and bass player Jonny Thornton. Henry Rundell (Voodoo Six; Goddass) handles the lead vocals and it is awesome to see him back in a band. I am a huge fan of his work on Voodoo Six's debut album First Hit for Free and their headline gig in Plymouth in 2008 was one of the best 'small' gigs I have ever been to. Obviously Rundell and Voodoo Six parted ways not long after that tour finished and not much has been heard from him since, so it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered Night by Night last year. Looking at the album's writing credits, it looks as if all the material was written before Rundell joined the band, with previous frontman Daniel Rossall credited with co-writing the majority of the songs on this album, but I feel that Rundell has still managed to put his stamp on this album. His distinctive voice sounds as good as every and his performance here is very strong. I like the fact that despite this album is very melodic in a 1980s hard rock way, the production is still very raw. There are not layers of keyboards to add extra depth to the songs; this is just three voices, two guitars, one bass guitar and one drum kit working well together to create solid tunes. Sometimes a huge production works, but this album proves that you can strip things down and still create music that sounds lush but also retains the hard rock grit. Romesh Dodangoda should be applauded for getting this sound out of the band, as his production job is excellent. It really gives the album a unique feel and sets it apart from their peers.

Time to Escape kicks things off in true hard rock style with a heavy riff and Rundell's slightly angsty vocal delivery. This a real heads down rocking number and gets the album off to a really good start. Rundell really soars in the catchy chorus helped out by Christo and Thornton's excellent harmony vocals. The riffs that follow the choruses are just technical enough to be interesting and Christo and fellow guitarist Tom Daniel impress in a short instrumental section. This is probably the heaviest song on the album, and it works well to grab your attention right from the outset. Holding Onto Holding On opens with a solid, groove-based riff that leads into a powerful verse with subtle guitar leads that sit just underneath the vocals to add extra colour. The chorus is another melodic one with some really simple drumming from Damien Diablo adding a slight swing to the proceedings. Can't Walk Away sounds like early Def Leppard. There is a huge Pyromania vibe running through this song with plenty of tight harmony vocals and really simple guitar leads that say more with a few notes than some more complex pieces. Rundell sounds excellent as always here and the choruses are once again big and the centrepiece of the song. A short guitar solo adds flair with plenty of shredding before the heavy AOR returns for the end. Everywhere Tonight slows things down a little but retains that Def Leppard vibe. This time it is more Hysteria than Pyromania though as the slow burning guitar leads and gentle verses recall the 1980s legends at their chart-topping best. There is still a raw swagger about it though, and a  stomping middle eight section helps keep the song from becoming to sweet. The guitar solo here is probably the best on the album so far and retains plenty of melody. It is a really excellent ballad that still manages to retain the rawness of the rest of the album. Siren gets back to the rock with a pumping riff and some more sinister edges with sparing use of samples. There is definitely a metal vibe about this song but every so often a nice guitar lead cuts through the crunching chords to remind you which band you are listening too. This is definitely a song that grows on you over repeated listens as when I first heard this album it did not really do anything for me at all. It is infectious though, and over time you will grow to like it.

A Thousand Lies is more akin to the album's first three songs. The chorus is a real sing-a-long moment with all three vocalists harmonising well to create a big sound. The guitar tone and patterns here have a very sleazy hair metal sound to them giving this song more of an edge than the Def Leppard-esque ones previously. This sound continues into the next song It's Not Faith which opens with an almost AC/DC-style riff with some big pounding bass from Thornton. The chorus is more of anthemic fist-pumper than a melodic sing-a-long fest which helps to mix things up a bit and create some variation. This is a real ballsy rock song that will satisfy those who prefer things a bit more primal. The Moment was the first full song I heard by the band when the video was released last year and it was one I often returned to on Youtube while waiting for this album to released. The verses are quite a downer before the big choruses picks up the pace again. The mix of emotions works well and Rundell sounds different but still very strong here. It is probably one of the most distinctive songs on the album and might confuse at first but the infectious tight melodies will get to you in the end. If Only has another Def Leppard-esque opening with some simple, repeating guitar leads and it features a really lush chorus. There is a really simple guitar solo too that slowly builds over a really rhythmic backing and never once loses sight of the song's main melody. The album's closing number, Never Die Again, is probably the most interesting song on the album. It is not as big of a tune of many of the preceding numbers, but there is something haunting and quite original about it. The song builds up slowly with Rundell's echoey vocals over some distant clean guitar patterns before exploding into another really solid rock number that is built on a few really good riffs. A really big chorus is the centrepiece of the song and the riff that follows it is probably my favourite on the whole album. This is the closest that the band have to an 'epic' but it works very well to bring the album to a close and show off slightly more advanced songwriting and arrangement than some of the more catchier material. Overall, NxN is an excellent album that is sure to get a fair bit of attention in the hard rock world. I hope the band will get some good support slots off the back of this album as it deserves to be heard by as many people as possible. I look forward to hopefully seeing them live one day!

The album was released on 14th July 2014 via Sun Hill Productions. Below is the band's promotional video for A Thousand Lies.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Chicago's 'Chicago XXXVI: Now' - Album Review

Chicago, the legendary 'rock band with horns', has been making music for well over 40 years now. Over their long career they have tackled many different genres of music, from the jazz/rock fusion of their early days, to the soft rock/AOR that characterised their late 1970s/early 1980s output, Chicago has touched many bases and made a huge army of fans that come from a wide range of backgrounds. Although I have heard the odd song on the radio throughout the years, Chicago XXXVI: Now - the band's twenty third studio album, is the first full album of theirs that I have digested. It is always hard to get into bands with large back catalogues, but the couple of songs that were posted on Youtube to promote the album grabbed me so pre-ordering the album seemed like a good idea. The album itself is not as openly melodic as I thought it would be after hearing those two songs. It is definitely much more progressive than expected, but repeated listens prove to be rewarding as more and more layers of sound are discovered each time. There is definitely a more progressive vibe to the pieces here, and this will please the fans of the band's early material who perhaps were turned off by their more radio friendly years. That is not to say that traces of that era are not prominent too. There are plenty of big vocal melodies throughout this album and certain choruses beg to be sung along to. While Chicago are pretty unique sound-wise, I would say that the band they can most be compared to is Toto. In fact, certain comparisons sound-wise can be made between this album and Toto's most recent studio offering, 2006's Falling in Between - despite the fact that Toto are catchier and embrace the AOR elements much more than the current version of Chicago. Those jazzy-prog undertones are present in both releases though which gives the songs more substance than on some other, simpler albums. This is also the band's first album with vocalist and keyboard player Lou Pardini and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. Vocals have always been handled by many different members of the band, but Pardini contributes quite a lot of lead vocals throughout this album and sounds strong throughout. Reyes' percussion helps to augment Tris Imboden's drums nicely and create those strong grooves that are essential in all fusion music.

The title track, Now, opens the album and sees the majority of the band take on vocal duties. Although it is primarily led by bassist Jason Scheff (who also wrote the song), lots of the other members handle lines here and there, and they all harmonise well in the choruses. Interestingly, this song is mostly actually performed by session musicians apart from guitarist Keith Howland who gets to show off his chops during a really excellent guitar solo. The band's signature horn sound is prominent here and create many memorable, melodic moments. More Will Be Revealed follows and this is where the Toto vibe is very clear. Founding member Robert Lamm and Pardini take lead vocals on this song as Lamm's swirling keyboards and stabs of horn blasts helps to add a slightly dramatic side to what is otherwise a laid-back piece. Scheff's inventive bass playing helps to drive the song, and a subtle but enjoyable chorus acts as a good centrepiece to the song. America is a lovely smooth, jazzy piece that sees Pardini's strong, smokey voice to take the centre stage over some delicate piano and some offbeat guitar chords. The lyrics are the sort of chest-beating patriotism that only Americans will truly get, but the song is enjoyable and grows on you over repeated listens. Crazy Happy possesses more of a 1980s summer vibe but has a slight minor key overtone with some rather mournful horn lines that feature during the downbeat verses. Lamm's vocal delivery fits them, before Scheff takes over for the choruses which are much more openly melodic. It is an easy going song that would be perfect for summer prime-time radio play. Free at Last is a more of a mid-paced fusion piece with some really soulful vocals from Lamm and a chorus that almost has a big band swing feel about it. Midway through the piece, the song descends onto a more progressive path with plenty of horn passages and some distant, almost crooned vocals before the swing-y chorus returns. The final part of the song is guitar driven with Howland once again bringing some more tradition classic rock to the proceedings with a really fluid guitar solo that is backed up really well by the horns. Love Lives On is a really 1980s throw back. It is a power ballad sung by Scheff that would have probably been a minor radio hit in about 1985. The synth-heavy verses are cliché as anything, but the chorus is a real melodic treat. Scheff is an excellent singer, and has the perfect voice for this type of ballad.

Something's Coming, I Know gets back to the band's signature fusion sound with some really funky grooves from Scheff's bass guitar and some excellent keyboard rhythms from Lamm. The horns really drive the melody here though, as they pretty much fill every gap in the song that is not filled by vocals. Howland gets another short solo before the funky rhythms return and see the song out to a upbeat finish. Watching all the Colors is a strange semi-acoustic piece sung by Pardini that has quite and ominous vibe to it despite the initial feeling of relaxation. Again, the horn section provides a perfect backing to the song as Imboden and Reyes lock in really well together to form a really solid rhythm section. Nice Girl sees Howland take lead vocals and what we have is a poppy tune that would be perfect for a driving scene in an 1980s police programme. The horns give it that vibe and the simple vocal melodies will stick into your head, even if Howland is not the best singer in the band. Pardini's organ helps to add to a retro vibe to the song and Reyes' simple percussion works well to add to the rhythms and grooves here. The guitar solo section becomes a little more prog however with really prominent bass guitar riffs and some speedy, almost shredded guitar licks. Naked in the Garden of Allah is an ambitious piece that crams a lot of music into a short space of time. The Eastern elements of the verses work well, with lots of subtle keyboard textures to create this vibe and Howland's guitar works in an almost percussive way throughout the song, helping more with the rhythmic qualities than the melodic ones. Some excellent fiddle lines from session player John McFee works well to create melody before the horn section really takes over in a progressive wall of sound. Another Trippy Day is the album's final song and makes sure the album ends in a nice, upbeat way. It is a simple song but it works well as a closing number with both Lamm and Pardini handling the lead vocals. While some of the songs on this album have been slightly darker, this one is much more light-hearted and is a good way to end the album. With this album, Chicago do not really break any new ground, but the manage to fuse lots of different eras of their sound together to create a cohesive album that will be enjoyed by fans old and new. It has certainly persuaded me to go back and check out some of their older albums, and I am sure it will be a journey I enjoy!

The album was released on 7th July 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Now.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Quireboys' 'Black Eyed Sons' - Album Review

Less than a year after releasing their sixth album, the critically acclaimed Beautiful Curse (see my review here), The Quireboys are back with Black Eyed Sons. 2014 is the band's 30th Anniversary, and they celebrated by playing two gigs at the Half Moon pub in Putney, which was the first venue the band ever played in 1984. To further celebrate this milestone, the band have released a three disc package with plenty of music to enjoy. The first disc is the new studio album Black Eyed Sons, which also gives it's name to the whole package. The second disc contains the band's full acoustic set at last year's Sweden Rock Festival, and the third disc is a DVD of a full show filmed at the O2 Academy in Islington last year. This review is only going to focus on the first disc of the package, but the other two are also excellent and must haves for any fan of The Quireboys. The main core of the band: frontman Spike, guitarists Guy Griffin and Paul Guerin, and keyboardist Keith Weir; have been playing together for ten years now, and their chemistry is excellent. The new album Black Eyed Sons is typical Quireboys, and anybody expecting a radical departure in sound is going to be disappointed. Where Beautiful Curse was more reflective and featured quite a few ballads, this album is shorter, brasher and more in-your-face. That is not to say that there are not some quieter moments here, as there are, but from the outset this album just seems to rock a little harder. Perhaps the decision to involve current touring rhythm section: bassist Nick Mailing (who, incidentally, produced 2004's Well Oiled) and drummer Dave McCluskey (The Union); has helped to beef up the sound a little. On the previous album, Griffin and Guerin played all of the album's bass guitar and a session player, Simon Hanson (Squeeze) played the drums. I commented in my review of that album that the drums sounded a little too quiet for a rock album, and that has been fixed here. McCluskey does a great job on this album and adds to the hard rock feel with his relentless skin-hitting. Chris Tsangarides once again handles the production, and it sounds fantastic. All the slight issues with Beautiful Curse have been rectified here and the rawness oozes out of the speakers helped on by Spike's trademark husky vocals.

The opening number, Troublemaker (Black Eyed Son), highlights the brash hard rock sound I described above. An AC/DC-type riff opens the album before Spike's crooning joins the fray. The song really gets going when the chorus arrives and he belts out the vocals while some excellent slide guitar lines and subtle boogie piano add a surprising amount of depth. This is a classic Quireboys rock song, and gets the album off to a foot-tapping start. What Do You Want From Me? is a little more bluesy and laid back, and gets into a good groove with McCluskey's drum patten and some excellent organ from Weir. Short stabs of lead guitar are present during the intro and return during the choruses, but otherwise the song is definitely organ-driven with guitar playing second fiddle. That said, there is a really short melodic guitar solo about two thirds of the way through that carries on underneath Spike's vocals. Julieanne carries on with the laid back vibe of the previous song and is an acoustic-driven rock song that really sinks into your brain. The main driving force of this song is some simple acoustic guitar chords, but there is plenty of embellishment from electric lead guitar to add extra melody and big keyboards to create an atmospheric backing. This song also contains the first true guitar solo on the album and it expands on the leads used throughout the rest of the song. Spike's voice is made for these kind of songs, and I have no doubts that this will become a firm fan favourite. Double Dealin' sees the return of the rock! There is definitely something of early Whitesnake here, with a slightly funky guitar riff and driving rock organ, it is one of the album's highlights. I especially like the part in the chorus where all the instruments drop out and leave McCluskey's frantic drumming alone for a couple of seconds. This works really well to highlight his playing and gives the song an fantastic feeling of groove which is further built upon during the bluesy solo. Stubborn Kinda Heart is another acoustic-lead piece that benefits from some rock solid bass playing from Mailing and some excellent acoustic slide guitar work that gives the song a slight country feel in places. It is an extremely chilled out number, but the slightly tortured sounding guitar solo changes the mood slightly. Again, this is classic modern Quireboys and it works very well.

Lullaby of London Town, with cowbell-led drumming, follows with one of the best riffs on the album. I have always liked the way Griffin and Guerin work together, often playing two totally different guitar parts that happen to work so well together. This song is extremely tight and has plenty of opportunity for Weir to add his signature organ licks. It has a rather anthemic chorus too, that is sure to go down well live if the band decide to play it. The Messenger kicks off with some beautiful apeggiated guitar lines before the main, strummed lines take over and as act as a good backing to Spike's emotionally-driven delivery. This is very similar to a lot of the material found on Beautiful Curse but it sits on this album very well. The extended, melodic guitar solo fits the song nicely, despite it largely being an acoustic piece. No good ballad is complete without a solo though, so this is probably why it fits so well! You Never Can Tell is a raw, mid-paced rock song that is welcome after the chilled out previous number. Is it probably the least interesting song here, but there is plenty of excellent organ backing and some sleazy guitar riffing that are almost hidden but just creepy out flirtily every so often to tease you. The final two numbers on the album get back to the more laid back sound, and are stunning. Firstly, Mothers Ruin sees Spike feeling reflective as acoustic guitars, organ and delicate drumming swirl around him. Although the song is short, it seems to be in two parts with one long extended chorus happening in the second half with the main bulk of the song coming first. I love the 'chorus' section of this song the most. The lyrics are brilliant and as Spike sings them, the arrangement builds, adding the odd guitar lead that really helps to bolster the emotional impact. Finally, Monte Cassino (Lady Lane) rounds out the album in pure acoustic fashion. This is similar to the material found on 2009's album of reworkings Halfpenny Dancer and it is amazing. The lyrics sound like something that Fish (Marillion) might have written, and Spike sings them with such emotion over the sparse musical backing. It is probably the simplest song the band have ever written, but is so much more powerful for that and works well to bring an excellent album to a close. With two albums in the space of a year, and two big tours to go with them, The Quireboys are showing us that there is a lot left in the tank, despite being around for 30 years! Here's to many more years of success!

The album was released on 16th June 2014 via Off Yer Rocka Recordings. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for What Do You Want From Me?


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Arch Enemy's 'War Eternal' - Album Review

Melodic death metal is a very popular sub-genre of metal, and Arch Enemy are one of the biggest bands to fit that description. Their mix of harsh vocals and tight, melodic guitar leads gives them a lots of cross-over appeal. War Eternal, the band's ninth studio album, sees a big change for the band as long-time frontwoman Angela Gossow announced her departure earlier this year. This obviously caused a lot of sadness in the metal community, but the fans should not have been worried, as new frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist) fills the void exceptionally well. There is not a great deal of difference between Gossow and White-Gluz's vocal delivery, so do not expect a big change of direction from the band. I will say however that I think White-Gluz has a slightly more musical voice, and her harsh vocals carry a little more melody than Gossow's. She possess and excellent clean voice too, but unfortunately does not get a chance to show it off on this album. This is also the band's first album to feature guitarist Nick Cordle (Arsis) who joined the band in 2012 replacing founding member Christopher Amott. Having two new members (and songwriters) on board for this release has definitely helped main songwriter Michael Amott up his game. The last couple of Arch Enemy albums, while containing some good songs, fell a little flat when compared to some of their previous work. With Christopher Amott's desire to play metal music clearly dwindling, Michael Amott's main co-writer was not as inspired as he had been in the past. It is always sad when a founding member of a band leaves, but I think in this case, it was for the best. Christopher Amott has contributed so much to this band, but if he feels it is time for him to move on and concentrate on other genres of music, then it was right for him to do that. Cordle has come into the band with a whole load of new, fresh energy and has totally rejuvenated Arch Enemy's sound. The overall style has not changed one bit, but the urgency and anger of some of their earlier work is back with a bang here. His joining the band is just as important as White-Gluz's and his contribution to the songwriting and flashy guitar leads should not be forgotten! In short, what we have in War Eternal is easily the band's best album since 2005's Doomsday Machine and is likely to revive some interest from people who were getting a little bored of the band.

As with most Arch Enemy albums, there is a short instrumental prelude to kick things off. Tempore Nihil Sanat (Prelude in F Minor) serves that purpose here and sets the tone with demonic choirs and dramatic strings before the album proper starts with the thrashy Never Forgive, Never Forget. From the outset, White-Gluz is out to impress and her impassioned vocal delivery grabs you right from the gate. Drummer Daniel Erlandsson blasts his way with ease through sections of the track and the angsty chorus sees White-Gluz compete with some lead guitar lines as both stick to the same melody. The album's title track is up next and it is classic Arch Enemy. Amott and Cordle's riffs are big and catchy and White-Gluz screams powerfully over the top, especially in the anthemic chorus. There are lots of excellent lead breaks in this song as Amott and Cordle track licks and riffs aplenty. The main solo section here is very strong, with plenty of changes in tempo and playing styles that shows the versatility of the players. As the Pages Burn is another fast, thrash metal track with some real gut wrenching vocals from White-Gluz that show her great range. She can tackle the low growls and the higher-pitched screams with equal ease which allows her to add plenty of emotion into her performance. It is a fast song that is over almost as soon as it has begun, but it sure to go down a storm live. No More Regrets continues on in the same vein but with plenty of added lead guitar. Te riffing during the choruses in this song is stunning, with the two guitarists playing at full tilt to ensure a stunning piece of work is delivered. It is not the band's most memorable song by any means, but it has a certain fury about it that makes it infectious and enjoyable to listen to. You Will Know My Name opens with a slightly atypical classic rock style guitar riff that soon evolves into a really solid mid-paced heavy metal song that has a very 1980s vibe about it. Subtle keyboard textures helps to augment certain sections of the song and makes it sound much more epic than it would without them. The guitar solo in this song is excellent too, and makes good use of fluid melodies before the chorus kicks back in and White-Gluz assures us that we will know her name - and many more people definitely will do after hearing this album, that is for sure!

After another short instrumental Graveyard of Dreams, we reach Stole Life which is probably my favourite song on the album. It is quite short but it packs so much excellent music into such a short space of time that you cannot help but bang your head and sing along. Short stabs of orchestration really help the overall mood of the piece and White-Gluz delivers the anthemic chorus with gusto that you are required to join in and shout the words back at her. I hope the band decide to play this one live and, being short, they should as it will not take up much time during the set! Time is Black starts off quite slow before a really excellent riff starts up that is the backdrop for some excellent drumming from Erlandsson. The strings from the previous couple of numbers return here and are quite prominent during the chorus and some of the instrumental breaks. Arch Enemy are not new to gentle keyboards or subtle orchestrations, but they seemed to have upped their game much more on that front here. This is not a symphonic metal album by any means, but there is certainly an element of that in some of the songs, and it works for the benefit of the album in my opinion. On and On is not as memorable as some of the songs on this album, but it still works well as an Arch Enemy song. Their albums always contain a little filler, and this is definitely an example of this. The chorus with what sounds like some oddly distorted piano works well with White-Gluz's very deep growled vocals and the short neo-classical style solo adds some Yngwie Malmsteen-like flair to the song. Avalanche is another really solid heavy metal song that relies on chugging riffing rather than the more thrashy aesthetics found on other songs. The strings are very prominent here, and really add an extra melodic dimension to the song. This is a song that really grows on you over repeated listens and is likely to become a classic in the future because of the overall power of the piece. Plus, it sounds like White-Gluz gets to use her clean vocals after all, as backing to her harsh vocals in certain spots of this song! Down to Nothing and the instrumental Not Long for This World bring the album to a heavy close. The former is thrashy with vocals that are pure death metal and the latter is a slow instrumental that focuses on guitar leads building up in an almost doom metal way. It works well as a closing number and it is akin to watching the credits slowly scroll up after watching an excellent film. Overall, War Eternal is a really enjoyable metal album that is likely to be enjoyed by many throughout the metal community. Arch Enemy are back with a vengeance, and I am very glad about that!

The album was released on 9th July 2014 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for War Eternal.