Sunday, 21 September 2014

Halcyon Way's 'Conquer' - Album Review

Despite the band still being relatively small, Halcyon Way are starting to make a name for themselves in the metal scene. The Atlanta progressive metal quintet already have plenty of high-profile support slots under their belts and more on the horizon; most notably, supporting Saxon and Skid Row throughout Europe later this year. It was a support slot that originally made me aware of the band, as I saw them touring with Delain in the UK back in 2012. I bought their EP IndoctriNation after the show having been impressed by their short but powerful set. I have since got their previous two studio albums and was equally impressed with them, particularly 2010's Building the Towers; their second release. Conquer is the band's third full-length studio album and sees the band perfect their heavy brand of melodic metal even further. While Building the Towers was definitely more progressive in terms of songwriting and arrangements, this album is catchier and packs a greater punch because of the tighter songs. The band's main trio of vocalist Steve Braun, guitarist Jon Bodan, and drummer Ernie Topran have had four years since the last album (not including IndoctriNation which was released on 2011) to perfect their craft and it shows. Joining the band for the recording of the album was bassist Max Eve, but he has since switched to rhythm guitar with the addition of bassist Skyler Moore to the band's ranks, bringing the band back up to their usual five-piece line-up. The album was recorded with just the four members though, with Bodan handling all of the guitar parts. Sound-wise, this album is still very much in the same vein as the band's previous work despite the tightening up of the arrangements that I mentioned previously. Halcyon Way still sound like a great mix of Rage for Order-era Queensrÿche and Nevermore with the odd passage of harsh vocals thrown in. Braun's vocals have got much stronger between this album and the previous one, and his delivery is excellent throughout. I had read some comments previously about some fans not really enjoying the tone of his voice, and I could understand their concerns to a point; but I think all that has been rectified here.

The album's title track gets things off to a heavy start with some drumming from Topran that slowly builds up before a huge guitar riff kicks in and the verse storms off with Braun's powerful vocal delivery and plenty of pinch harmonics from Bodan. Catchy choruses are all part of Halcyon Way's sound, and this song has an excellent one, with Braun being backed up by Bodan's harsh vocals to create a heavy, but infectious sound. The latter's lead guitar work is also strong, with a short solo before a reprise of the melodic chorus and harsh vocal-led section that follows it. Web of Lies, and it's video, have been on Youtube for quite a while now, and it is a very strong track that encompasses all that is good about the band. I particularly like the discordant riffing throughout the verses which sounds suitably evil. The chorus sees the pace slow slightly, taking on a more cinematic edge with Braun sounding really melodic, before an anthemic section led by Bodan's vocals is sure to get fists pumping when the song is played live. Conceived in Torment is another heavy song that has some jarring keyboard sounds throughout the intro that only help to add to the heavy atmosphere, giving the song a slightly industrial edge. The pre-chorus of this song is epic, with Topran's frantic drumming and Braun's extended vocal notes really standing out. Bodan's harsh vocals dominate certain sections of this song, and this makes it one of the heaviest numbers of the album. Home sees the pace drop slightly and allows Braun to use a slightly gentler side of his voice backed by some nice arpeggiated guitar lines from Bodan. Bigger riffs do come in throughout the song, but it still feels much more laid back than what has come previously. The chorus has a slight AOR feel about it too, which works surprisingly well. Militant is the album's next highlight. The main riff of this song has a real Queensrÿche vibe to it, but the double-bass drumming that is introduced soon kills this off and the heaviness returns. The verses see great use of call-and-response vocals between Braun and Bodan; and the song's chorus makes good use of the song's opening riff to create something that sounds like it is straight from the 1980s. Braun's vocals soar and the off-kilter rhythms provided by Topran's drumming gives the song a progressive edge.

Hatred is my Cause is one of the catchiest songs on the album. It is an angsty little song, with Braun snarling the verses out with real vim. The chorus is a melodic feast, with more hooks than anything heard on the album so far. It is still heavy though, with a section towards the end that ramps up in that respect, just before a short guitar solo. The Poisoned Apple is much more of a mid-paced affair which again makes good use of electronics to create a fuller atmosphere. The 1980s vibe is quite prevalent here again, with some nice arpeggiated lead guitars sitting just behind the main riffing and some added lead guitar lines compete with Braun's chorus delivery towards the end, adding a nice harmony. Save Your Tears is another more mid-paced song with a really powerful chorus and possibly the album's best guitar solo. Bodan really lets rip here and does his best to keep up with Topran's fast footwork. The second half of the solo is much slower and more melodic however, showing that he can do both the faster and more expressive soloing just as well. The next highlight is the penultimate song King of Ruin. The song opens with a rather progressive main guitar riff that gets through many notes in a short space of time. It is another heavy number with plenty of harsh vocals and on-point drumming from Topran. The dual-lead guitar solo is also very impressive, and has hints of traditional heavy metal about it. The progressive vibe is most obvious here though, with the technical guitar riffing and the song's very distinct sections that all mesh together very well. The album's closing number Eviscerate the Morning Sun ensures the album ends on a high with a furiously fast metal tune. The chorus manages to soar, despite the really fast drumming of Topran and Braun's piercing cleans rise above Bodan's harsh vocals to dominate the track. It is a great closing song, and is definitely one of my favourite songs on the album. Overall, Conquer is a real statement from a metal band that is looking to really go places in the scene. They have potential for an awful lot of cross appeal as their music is hard to categorise and has it's feet in many camps. I do not think it will be long before we start hearing a lot more about Halcyon Way in the music media, as they are the sort of band that should be being promoted a lot more than they are!

The album was released on 23rd August 2014 via Massacre Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Web of Lies.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

DragonForce's 'Maximum Overload' - Album Review

DragonForce are one of those bands that have always divided opinion. On the one hand, there are those who love their overblown, break-neck speed version of power metal; whereas there are plenty of other people who find them boring, generic, and futile. I place myself firmly in the former camp and have enjoyed listening to DragonForce's music for years. It is fun, never takes itself too seriously, and is hugely catchy - all of which are good things in my book. Critics of the band have always pointed out that their songs are too long and all sound the same which, to a certain extent, are fair criticisms. Early material did tend to be a bit on the long side with lots of time dedicated to indulgent instrumental passages that focused on guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman's furious fretwork. Granted this could get annoying sometimes, but it was a trademark of the band's sound and it is nice to see a band put a lot of effort into guitar solos in a time when they are not as popular as they once were. I criticism I always had of the band was the production on their albums. They were always hugely claustrophobic with too much going on at a time to really enjoy the individual moments of skill. It was just like a wall of noise that sometimes proved tiring to listen to. Thankfully, all of these things were changed on the band's last album: 2012's The Power Within - which was also their first album with frontman Marc Hudson. The songs were much more concise, and the production was much clearer. All the band's trademark sounds were still present, but it just seemed more polished and it was a lot easier on the ear. While the band have better individual songs on older albums, I find myself returning to The Power Within more than any other DragonForce for those reasons alone. Maximum Overdrive, the band's new album released last month, follows on from the 'new' sound forged on The Power Within but improves it even more. Hudson, now fully settled into his new role, really lets rip and sounds fantastic; while the rest of the band fire on all cylinders to create an excellent metal record. Overall it seems heavier too, with more discernible riffs throughout as apposed to the metal soundscapes of before. It is also the band's last album with long-time drummer Dave Mackintosh who left the band after recording was complete. He has since been replaced by Italian drummer Gee Anzalone (Kill Ritual).

The Game gets the album off to a melodic start with a nice chunky guitar riff and a trademark DragonForce chorus that soars with plenty of high notes. Matt Heafy (Trivium) adds some occasional harsh vocals to this song (and a couple of others on this album) and it just adds to the overall heaviness of the song. Sections with blast beat drumming also add to this vibe, and the nice thick guitar tone used adds a certain edge. This pure DragonForce, just shorter and easier to digest, and is sure to impress many a metalhead. Tomorrow's Kings opens with a lead guitar melody that harks right back to the band's early days, yet the song still retains that concise arrangement that the band works to now. The over the top speeds return though, and this song speeds along without ever really stopping to catch it's breath. The chorus is the best example of this, and how Hudson manages to get all the words out so clearly really is impress. This is like one of the band's early classics cut down to a length that is under four minutes. Shredding solos are interspersed with Vadim Pruzhanov's fluid keyboard runs, yet it is over in no time and leaves you wondering what quite happened! No More follows and it is probably my favourite song on the album. The opening riff is more traditional metal than anything the band have done before, but the huge lead guitars soon kick in to bring it back to a more familiar sound. The chorus is ridiculously strong though, and the pre-chorus that makes good use of gang vocals gives the song a more anthemic traditional metal feel. It all fits together nicely and will have you singing along in no time! Three Hammers sounds like the sequel to Cry Thunder, the lead single from the band's last album. It has a similar structure and the same strident, fist-pumping rhythm. Hudson hits some ridiculous high notes during this song. He really is making the DragonForce microphone is own now! Towards the middle of the song however, some really thrashy riffing takes over and Hudson duels with bassist Frédéric Leclercq's harsh vocals before a huge solo section sees Li and Totman trade flashy lead lines. Symphony of the Night opens with some keyboard lines before the metal takes over as you would expect. This song has an old-school DragonForce vibe to it, and the chorus vocal melodies are certainly like something previous frontman ZP Theart might have come up with. It slows right down in the middle however, and some swirling keyboards, delicate clean guitar passages and sorrowful leads help to create a great atmosphere.

The Sun is Dead opens with a very Iron Maiden-esque dual guitar lead, but this does not really set the tone for the rest of the song as it goes through many different sections in a relative short space of time. The choruses are slower and more epic, whereas the bouncy main riff and the high-energy pre-chorus are in stark contrast to that. It is almost like a mini progressive metal epic scaled down into a more accessible power metal rhomp. Defenders has been available online for quite a while now, allowing people to get a taste for the upcoming album. The gang vocals from No More return and once again Hudson uses his big range to hit some excellent high notes. However, it is a bit like DragonForce by numbers and does pale a little in comparison to the songs that have already come on this album. It lacks a certain spark that they have and feels a little more generic. Extraction Zone is better however. It has one of the album's best choruses and the video game noises that were scattered throughout the band's early material make cameo appearances here too. I really like how the song drops out in the middle and makes way for a rather spacey, chilled out moment with delicate piano in the background and some almost Trent Reznor-ish electronic beats. However, normality is soon returned with some almost bluesy guitar soloing that slowly speeds up and becomes more DragonForce-ish over time. City of Gold is another really solid slab of melodic power metal that is in character with the rest of the album's material. Hudson even manages to inject a good dose of emotion into his chorus delivery, as it seems to have more feeling than the pure melody of the rest of the album. The heavier vibe appears again midway through the song with some of the more traditional metal riffing shining through. Again this song is not as good as some of the earlier numbers on this album, but the chorus is strong and it is enjoyable to listen to. The album ends with a cover of Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire (!) which sounds surprisingly good. I was worried that it would sound terrible, but they have arranged it well and it does not come off sounding too trite. There are songs I think would be better choices for them to cover, but this is more a triumph than it should have been. It is an oddity, but mark it down as enjoyable if a little throwaway! Overall, Maximum Overload is a really good album by the most controversial power metal band out there. Fans who have been turned off by them in the past should definitely give this album a go, it might surprise you!

The album was released on 18th August 2014 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for The Game.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Skid Row's 'Rise of the Damnation Army: United World Rebellion - Chapter Two' - EP Review

Last year, Skid Row returned from a recording hiatus with the five track EP United World Rebellion - Chapter One, a review of which can be read here. It was the band's strongest release for quite a while and saw a return of the 1980s-style hard rock that made the band so popular in the first place. It was the first in a series of three promised EPs, and the second of which Rise of the Damnation Army: United World Rebellion - Chapter Two (snappy title..) was released earlier this month. Soundwise, the new EP is very similar to the previous one, retaining the big guitar riffs and frontman Johnny Solinger's powerful vocal performance. It is even structured in the same way as it's predecessor, with a more relaxing ballad slap-bang in the middle of the EP between four heavier tracks. Bassist Rachel Bolan and guitarist Dave 'Snake' Sabo have once again written all the songs, and their writing partnership once again proves to be successful. The songs are not quite as strong as on the previous EP, where there is nothing quite as anthemic as Let's Go or Kings of Demolition. The songs here are still pretty strong however and contain the spirit of Skid Row through and through. Being the second release in a series of three, I suspect that the final installment will be released around this time next year. Along with Solinger, Bolan and Sabo; the band also consists of guitarist Scotti Hill and drummer Rob Hammersmith.

We are the Damned gets things off to a good start with an urgent hard rock riff and a chunky riff that Solinger owns with his thick vocals. The music here is simple, but effective with a nice, pumping chorus that sticks in the brain easily. There is a nice heavy blues style guitar solo midway through the song too, that helps to raise the melody levels. This sort of song is bread and butter for Skid Row, and that is why their fans love them. Give it the Gun is the best song on the EP by far. A chugging bassline and some excellent bluesy riffing gets the song going before the verses get going with a really solid and catchy main riff. There is a big early Mötley Crüe vibe going on throughout this song and the punky chorus is a real fist-punching moment. Solinger really owns this song, as his gritty vocal delivery really fits the angsty riffing and punk attitude. Catch Your Fall is the EP's ballad. The 1980s vibe continues here and sounds like the power ballads of old. I do not think Solinger's vocals fit with the quieter songs as well as they do with the heavier ones, but he does admirably and puts enough emotion into his delivery to make it convincing. The mix of acoustic and electric guitars works well to create a good atmosphere. No ballad is complete without a guitar solo, and a few fluid note runs help Sabo and Hill to shine. Damnation Army gets back to the rock with a nice distorted bassline and some good early Guns N' Roses-esque heavy blues riffing. The chorus is the song's strongest moment as Solinger manages to keep up well with the fast pace and deliver a rousing vocal. There is also an excellent guitar solo in this song that mixes extreme note bends with faster moments. It is another high point on the EP, and is my second favourite song after Give it the Gun. Zero Day is the EP's last song and it is a much more mid-paced rocker that focuses on a big, grinding riff which seems heavier because of the slower pace. It is probably the least interesting song on the EP, but it is still enjoyable as the main riff just sounds so good! Overall this EP, the second in the series of three, is a solid release from a much-loved hard rock band. I am sure it will not convert many new fans to the band, but existing fans are sure to enjoy it.

The EP was released on 6th August 2014 via UDR GmbH. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for We are the Damned.