Thursday, 28 August 2014

Alestorm's 'Sunset on the Golden Age' - Album Review

Alestorm are probably one of the most popular bands in the folk/power metal world at the moment. Since releasing their debut album Captain Morgan's Revenge in 2008, they have released two more studio albums, a live album, and a smattering of stand-alone songs/EPs - all of which have been consistently solid. They never release anything classic, as most of their works have patchy moments, but they are always good fun and write sickeningly catchy tunes that have won over many a serious metalhead. Earlier this month, the band released their fourth studio album Sunset on the Golden Age and it continues on more or less where their last album, 2011's Back Through Time, left off. Anyone expecting any big changes in sound or style (was anybody seriously expecting this anyway?) will be disappointed, as this is more of the same from the pirate-themed metal band. That being said, there are a few slight changes in sound that are noticeable. Firstly, frontman/keyboardist Christopher Bowes seems to have experimented with harsh vocals on a few of the tracks, and these really work a treat. It helps to add a new dimension to the band's sound and gives the album a much heavier feel in places. Secondly, this is the band's first studio album as a five-piece as keyboardist Elliot Vernon has been added to the band's line-up. His addition does not seem to make a huge difference to the band's recorded sound, but he has certainly helped improve and tighten up their live sound. Still, he has co-written a couple of songs for this album so he makes his impact known in that respect. Overall though, the sound is largely the same. Lasse Lammert has once again produced the album, and it sounds as big and lush as all their previous works. I do think however that the overall quality of the songs are not as good here as on previous albums. There are some excellent stand-out songs here, but some of the filler songs just seem to a lack a certain spark when compared to the band's previous albums. I have always preferred Alestorm's more serious songs (and I use the term 'serious' very loosely here..), but this album has too many of their jokey, throwaway drinking songs for my liking. I am aware that there will be lots of fans who love this side of the band, but I have always preferred the epic power metal anthems that do not descend into self-parody.

The album gets off to a ridiculously strong start with Walk the Plank (how did it take the band so long to write a song with that title?). Right from the outset, the big keyboard melodies fill up your speakers before guitarist Dani Evans lays down a huge riff that is the foundation for the verses which Bowes shouts over with his usual over-the-top vocal style. The chorus is a real winner though, with plenty of big keyboard lines and some fist-pumping vocal hooks that is sure to go down well live. Drummer Peter Alcorn deserves special mention. On this second album with the band, he really lays down excellent beats throughout this album, and his performance on this song stands out. Single Drink follows and this is one of the album's sillier songs. It pays tribute to many of their previous songs in its lyrics and has a really nice 'accordian' (keyboard) line that makes up the song's main riff. It is not their best song, but it certainly is not as bad as Rum from their previous album (oh dear!). The chorus is pretty catchy and the verses have a really nice rhythm with some good drum patterns from Alcorn. It is not a bad song, I just wish they decided to make a video for Walk the Plank instead - but I do understand the appeal that this song will have! Magnetic North is better. The song's introduction sounds like something from a Leaves' Eyes album, until Bowes starts singing over it that is. Still, this song has some really nice folky soundscapes underneath the mid-paced chugging metal riffs. The chorus is good. Bowes' harsher vocals mix well with the epic keyboard lines in and give it the feel of a true sea shanty. There is also a passage with some true harsh vocals that give the song a very menacing feel. 1741 (The Battle of Cartagena) follows on nicely from the previous song and keeps the standards high. The opening folky melodies borrow a lot from bands like Eluveite and the song has an epic feel to it like some their best songs released previously. It is a relatively long song, but never feels boring as it goes through many sections that all tie together nicely. Like the previous song, there are sections that contain pure harsh vocals and that creates an excellent contrast with the folky melodies intertwining with the rest of the song. Evans, who is not the world's greatest guitarist, plays a blinding guitar solo midway through the song too, and really elevates my opinion of him as a player.

Mead from Hell is a simpler song that is built around a really cheesy keyboard riff that seems to carry on throughout the song, no matter what else is playing around it! It is a fun little song, that still manages to throw in a couple of excellent musical moments, like the excellent pre-chorus with a nice drum pattern from Alcorn and a short guitar solo provided by producer Lammert. Surf Squid Warfare is fairly similar to the album's previous song, but it is enjoyable none-the-less. Another good keyboard riff drives this song and Bowes' strange story about about zombie squids is strangely interesting. Still, it is the song's melodies that hold interest the most, and the shouty chorus is the highpoint of the song. Evans once again impresses with another good guitar solo, in a song he co-wrote. Quest for Ships is where the album starts to flag though. While I like Vernon's inclusion to the band generally, his lyrics on this song are pretty awful, but are just about saved by some half-decent music. This is the sort of song that stops Alestorm from being a real classic modern metal band in my mind. For every killer song they release like Walk the Plank or oldie Leviathan they also release questionable ones like this and the following number Wooden Leg!. Wooden Leg! is the album's real low-point however. There is some nice bass guitar playing from Gareth Murdock and some cool blast-beat drumming from Alcorn, but the pointless chorus that repeats the words 'wooden leg' no less than twenty times each go around is just so wearing. Hangover a modified cover from British rapper/producer Taio Cruz is surprisingly not awful. It is certainly better than the album's previous couple of songs and has some excellent lead keyboard lines throughout and a guest appearance from Phil 'MC Immobiliser' Philp (Lagerstein)! Luckily however, the album ends on a very high note, with the eleven plus minute title track that is possibly the most epic song the band have ever recorded along with Death Throes of the Terror Squid. Sunset on the Golden Age is like a mix between that song and the doomy The End of our Days from 2009's Black Sails at Midnight, and it works well to bring an epic, yet heavy end to the album. The chorus is rather catchy and the extended musical arrangement has a rather progressive vibe to it that shows a certain maturity in the songwriting department, which is welcome. Overall, Sunset on the Golden Age is a decent album that is let down at the end by a few poor songs. The high points of the album though really are excellent are likely to be present in the band's live set for years to come!

The album was released on 4th August 2014 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Drink.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Struts' 'Everybody Wants' - Album Review

The Struts have been making waves in the rock world this year and, now their debut album Everybody Wants has been released, I am sure those waves are sure to grow. The band is largely the collaboration of two songwriters: frontman Luke Spiller and guitarist Adam Slack; and their talents, plus a few outside writers, are the basis for this album. This is a band with their feet in two separate camps. On the one hand, there is a lot about contemporary indie rock in their sound. The instrumentation is fairly basic without too many frills with simple, catchy melodies that get stuck in your head. On the other hand however, is a huge dose of classic rock - particularly the glam rock scene of the early 1970s. Bands like T.Rex, Queen, and artists like David Bowie have clearly been a big influence on The Struts, and Spiller in particularly whose outfits and stage presence borrows a lot from this era. Imagine a mix of those bands with more modern bands like the Kaiser Chiefs, and you will not be too far away from what The Struts are about. Because of this mix of sounds, The Struts have the potential for a lot of crossover appeal. Fans of hard rock and metal will appreciate the influence of many of the genre's classic bands in their sound; while younger fans will enjoy the energy of modern indie that is retained throughout the album. The band have already been gaining a few high-profile fans in their short time together which is never a bad thing. Spiller provided all the lead vocals on Mike Oldfield's latest album Man on the Rocks which was released earlier this year; and the band have even supported The Rolling Stones in France. Such publicity and exposure so early in their career will hopefully spur them on to great success and this album will certainly help them along with that. As well as Spiller and Slack, The Struts also contains bassist Jed Elliot and drummer Gethin Davis - although this rhythm section barely appears on the album at all. I am not sure if this is because the majority of the album's songs were written and recorded before the actual band was properly formed, but the pair only feature on one song, the single Put Your Money on Me. Hopefully, in the future, these two will be properly integrated into the recording process of any new material as it is always nice to see a full band working in the studio rather than a host of hired guns!

The album opens with Roll Up which is the most flamboyant and overtly 'rock' song present. Spiller's vocals open the song before the music slowly builds up around him with some simple guitar lines from Slack to accompany him. Shortly after the drums kick in and Slack moves over to some nice chunky power chords while some bright piano cuts through the mix providing a good backing. The chorus is excellent and full of punkish energy while maintaining that glam sheen. It is an excellent intro to the album and gets things off to a rocking start. Could Have Been Me has been around on Youtube for quite a while and possesses more of an indie vibe about with some more jangly guitar sounds and an anthemic chorus. Spiller really owns this song and stops it from becoming a generic indie stomper. His is voice is far more distinctive than many of the bland, nasally indie frontmen out there, and he has a genuinely musical vocal delivery. Kiss This is another song that has been around for a while and was released on an EP of the same name earlier this year. Again, there is a big indie influence going on here, but the groovy guitar riffing and huge basslines give it a really danceable rhythm that makes it a great live number. The chorus is another catchy one, and some good use of obnoxious electronics during it work even though they probably should not! Put Your Money on Me is the main promotional single for the album and, as I said earlier, is the only song on the album to feature all four members of The Struts. If this is the sort of material the band is planning to make going forward then I am sure future albums will be excellent. The opening guitar leads have a slight country feel before it evolves into a soft-rock tune with a nice rhythm and a chorus with plenty of chances for audience participation live. Slack's subtle lead guitar throughout the song works well to create extra melodies, and he even gets a short, yet very simple, guitar solo towards the end that gives us a break from the usual strummed chords. She Makes me Feel was described by Spiller when I saw them live as 'this year's summer anthem', and I can see what he means. It is a little too saccharine for me, but you cannot deny the catchiness of the main melodies during the choruses. This song lacks the grit of the rest of the album so far and ends up sounding like the poppy indie songs that clog up Radio 1 these days. Catchy, but certainly the least interesting song so far.

My Machine sees the welcome return of the rock. It is a real driving rock song with some excellent pulsing synthesisers and discordant guitar tones. There is something about very early Queen that rings throughout this song. Imagine Stone Cold Crazy with a bigger chorus and you will get the idea what this song sounds like. It's an energetic number that you cannot help but really enjoy as it grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. You & I is a slower track with an excellent acoustic guitar-driven verse and a gentle chorus that works well to get under your skin. Again, this one is a little too close to true indie to be a real favourite of mine, but helps give the album a slight change of pace, and is surprisingly moody for a song so melodic. Dirty Sexy Money is another foot-tapping track that relies on a funky bassline to drive the song, but the choruses are much more guitar-driven and bring the classic rock element back to the sound. There is more use of electronics throughout this song to give it a nice modern feel, and a short guitar solo backed up by some pounding piano chords helps to take us back to the 1970s with it's Queen-like tendencies. It is a sleazy little song that is sure to get people dancing. Let's Make it Happen Tonight is the only song on the album that does not really do it for me on any level at all. The main guitar riff is quite nice, but the rest of the song is pretty dreary and has very little about it that stands out. It plods along without ever amounting to anything and is, in truth, the album's only real dud. Luckily, Black Swan follows it and it is one of the album's best songs! It starts with some frantic clean guitars while Spiller almost croons over the top of them, but you just know that the energy is going to build up. Drums come in after a short while and the song just builds and builds and climaxes with a really doozy of a chorus! Again, it is simple but the melodies are so catchy and Spiller sings with powerful conviction. This song should be released as a single, as I reckon they could catch a lot of hard rock fans with this gritty little tune. The album comes to an end with another good song: Where Did She Go. This is proper anthemic rock 'n' roll with a huge sing-a-long chorus and some tight riffing from Slack. Songs like this make excellent album (and indeed set) closers as the energy and fun vibes just work in that respect. Overall, this is a really solid debut album from a band that I suspect will go far. I hope that they do not get chewed up too much by their label and forced to go in certain, poppier directions - as it is the rock influence here that makes them unique and interesting.

The album was released on 28th July 2014 via Virgin EMI Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Put Your Money on Me.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Judas Priest's 'Redeemer of Souls' - Album Review

Despite the Epitaph tour (and subsequent live DVD) was supposed to be their farewell, it does not look as if Judas Priest are going away any time soon. Buoyed by the success of the tour, and the new-found energy supplied by new guitarist Richie Faulkner (Voodoo Six; Lauren Harris), the legendary heavy metal band went into the studio to record a new album. The result of this is Redeemer of Souls and the album contains a collection of songs that spiritually come from all eras of the band's history. Their last studio album, 2008's sprawling double concept album Nostradamus, seemed to confuse as many people as it won over. The orchestral interludes and slower songs were not what fans of the Priest expected, although there is still plenty to be enjoyed there. Fans of the more traditional elements of the band's sound will be pleased with Redeemer of Souls however, as the band have gone back to the more song-orientated approach that made them famous. There are plenty of big guitar riffs on here and Faulker has worked well with fellow guitarist Glenn Titpon to keep the Priest sound alive, despite the departure of one of it's key parts. This is the band's first album without founding member K. K. Downing and, of course, his absence is felt. Faulkner more than steps up to the plate however and I am sure that fans will enjoy his playing style and his contributions to the songwriting here. As far as the rest of the band go, they all deliver as you would expect. Frontman Rob Halford still posses a strong voice, even if he cannot quite wail as effectively as he used to. Still, he manages to hit a few high-octane screams throughout the course of the album, but nothing compared to what most modern power metal singers can do with ease. The rhythm section of bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis are solid without ever really standing out. Hill has always taken a back seat with Priest, but I am surprised that Travis did not let rip a little more throughout this album. His performance on Priest albums past, particularly 1990's Painkiller, has always been excellent but here he seems uncharacteristically restrained. Still, the production does not help in this respect, as the drums are oddly low in the mix. Overall, the album sounds pretty good, but I do wish the drums had more punch and were higher in the overall mix.

The album gets off to a very strong start with Dragonaut. It is a really solid mid-paced metal rhomp with some chugging guitar riffs and some razor sharp vocals from Halford. This is classic Priest and the snarling chorus has a lot of bite to it. While the riffs are fairly standard, there is an excellent guitar solo mid-way through the song that has plenty of shredding and melody to it. The second half of it even has a great neo-classical vibe! The title track is up next and this continues on in the same vein. The main riff throughout the verses is very catchy, as is the chorus. There is a very 1980s vibe about this song with some slow double bass drum rolls from Travis and very subtle effects on Halford's vocals during the choruses to enhance the melodies. This is the song the band released on Youtube before the album's main release to wet people's appetites and it seemed to be mostly quite well received. It is another really solid metal song that fits nicely in the Priest canon. Halls of Valhalla steps up the quality and what we have is a really epic, masterful metal number. Tipton and Faulkner's riffing is tight and heavy, and Halford delivers his best performance on the album with quite a few excellent screams. There is definitely a heavy Painkiller on this song as it has a more modern sound to it with the tight, dual guitar riffs and banshee screams. The guitar work throughout this song is really excellent with some great Iron Maiden-esque dual guitar lead sections mixed in well with the pummelling riffs. Towards the end, the song slows down with some really heavy, doomy riffs before eventually building back up again and breaking into an excellent guitar solo. Sword of Damocles is easily my favourite song on the album. It has a theatrical vibe similar to the heavier moments from Nostradamus, but it also contains the hefty dose of power metal. The chorus is something that could have come straight off a Blind Guardian album, and the main guitar leads that drive the song have that folky tint to them that characterise the genre. This is a truly fantastic song, and if it is not included in the setlist for their upcoming US Tour, then it will be a travesty! The next highlight is the simple and catchy Down in Flames. This is probably the sort of song that Tipton would write in his sleep, but the driving bass line and headbanging riff is just what the doctor ordered on a new Priest album and chorus is a really catchy one. Halfords vocals above a short dual guitar part mid-way through the song are really solid, and the guitar solo is enjoyable.

Hell & Back has a similar vibe to the opening two numbers on the album, but it is a little slower and heavier. The guitar work is very simple but the chugging power chords create an ominous feeling and Halford used the more evil end of his vocal range to create quite a bit of emotion on this relatively simple tune. Metalizer is the next highlight. It is a much faster song with some almost thrashy guitar patterns backed up by some good double bass drumming. It would be even better if the drums were more prominent though! Halford uses some excellent elongated notes in the chorus which sound great over the fast guitars. There are certainly better songs on the album, but this song's muscular riffing and almost bone-headed energy definitely has something appealing about it. Classic metal for the old school fans! Crossfire harks back to the band's early days with a focus on bluesy guitar patterns and some effect-laden bass playing that sounds like something from an early Black Sabbath album. The song's main riff has sounds like something Jimi Hendrix might have written if he wanted to move in a heavier direction and the guitar solos have just enough wah on them to sound a little like they have come from a Thin Lizzy album. There are lots of old school sounds going on throughout this song, and it works really well to tie them all together into a coherent piece of music. The next highlight is Battle Cry which is another Painkiller throwback. It contains my favourite riff on the album, as the guitar pattern during the chorus really is fantastic! The verses have a good amount of energy to them but the choruses, backed up by that excellent riff, are worth the price of admission alone. This is another of the album's songs that really stands out to me, and a really fast guitar solo is the icing on the cake. The album comes to an end in a slightly strange way with the slow and moody ballad Beginning of the End. Again, it has the bluesy elements of their earliest material, but there is something very dark about this number. After an album as full-on as this one, this song works really well to add a reflective coda to the end. It is a surprisingly strong song too, and actually is a very fitting closing number. Overall, Redeemer of Souls is an extremely solid album from a band that has done so much for the metal genre over the years. Last year, Black Sabbath's 13 was the must-have classic metal release, and this year Redeemer if Souls have that accolade!

The album was released on 14th July 2014 via Columbia Records. Below is the band's promotional sound clip for Redeemer of Souls.