Sunday, 26 April 2015

Karnataka's 'Secrets of Angels' - Album Review

Of the current crop of UK progressive rock bands, Karnataka are easily the grandest. Over their last couple of albums, they have built a reputation for having a lush, and sometimes bombastic sound that goes beyond the realms of their peers. Things have not always been easy for Karnataka however, with many line-up changes that has halted their momentum and resulted in long gaps between studio albums. The band's original line-up - consisting of the sole-remaining founding member Ian Jones, the majority of the current line-up of fellow Welsh rockers Panic Room, and singer Rachel Jones (now Cohen, formerly of The Reasoning) - produced three albums between 1998 and 2003 and gained a lot of fans for the Celtic-tinged progressive rock sound and powerful live shows. 2003's Delicate Flame of Desire, showcasing the band's classic six-piece line-up (multi-instrumentalist Anne-Marie Helder had joined by this point) at it's best, was easily the band's most accomplished work to date. After the touring cycle for that album was finished however, the band went their separate ways and little was heard from the band for a few years. Ian Jones resurrected the Karnataka name with a new line-up including singer Lisa Fury and Italian guitarist Enrico Pinna among others, and this line-up recorded the band's fourth album, The Gathering Light, which finally saw the light of day in 2010. This was another fantastic work, that definitely featured a larger classic progressive rock influence than previously, thanks in part to Pinna's extended beautiful guitar passages, and saw the Celtic influence of old take more a back seat. It was not long after the album's release though that Karnataka went through it's second major line-up change that saw only Jones and Pinna left in Karnataka. They spent the next year or so recruiting new members for the band, namely Turkish keyboardist Çağrı Tozluoğlu and frontwoman Hayley Griffiths. The band's two tours in 2012, and the ensuing live album/DVD New Light, were a huge success and they settled down to write and record their fifth album. Three years later, we see the result of that work. Secrets of Angels was officially released last month and, with the addition of drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi, Karnataka are once again poised to take the world by storm! This album builds on the progressive elements of The Gathering Light, but adds in a huge symphonic side to the sound that, although flirted with previously, is fully realised here.

The album starts with some dramatic strings, that soon morphs into the solid mid-paced rocker Road to Cairo which introduces Griffiths to the Karnataka fans for the first time in the studio setting. She showed her skills on the road and on the New Light live album, but this is the first time she has been able to sing material written for her. The way she holds those notes in the song's gentle chorus is a testament to her ability, and she is probably the purest singer to ever front the band. She might not quite have the emotive quality of either Cohen or Fury, but her range and tone is perfect for the band. The Eastern-tinged melodies of this song soar, and it is the perfect way to introduce the new Karnataka line-up to the fans. Because of You, built around a nice piano hook, has the feeling of a ballad but when the guitars crash in midway through the verses, it becomes a powerful rocker with some breathtaking vocal melodies from Griffiths and plenty of excellent keyboard work from Tozluoğlu. Coming from a progressive metal background, Tozluoğlu's style is more full-on than previous keyboardists the band has employed. His orchestrations are in-your-face, and really lift the song's chorus along with Griffiths' vocals. Pinna gets a chance to solo too, and the semi-shredded section is a far-cry from the extended workouts on the last album. Poison Ivy is probably the heaviest song the band have ever recorded, and there are more than a few shades of Within Temptation in the song's crunchy riffing and staccato orchestrations. That being said, the band's trademark melodies are still present with Griffiths accessible vocal stylings and a poppy chorus that is a contrast to the more aggressive verses. Karnataka have never sounded like this before, and it is great to see the band's sound evolve. The symphonic/gothic influence remains for the next song Forbidden Dreams. The verses have a rather sombre feel, with delicate piano and gentle orchestrations accompanying the vocals well, before the song's chorus comes in and changes the scene. The band have never had a chorus this infectious and obvious, and it works well. The melodies are perfect, and stand out despite the heavy guitar and string backing. Most of the songs on Secrets of Angels are much more immediate than the majority of the band's back catalogue, focusing on big melodies rather than atmospherics. Borderline is another mid-paced rocker akin to the album's opening two numbers. I really like Griffiths' vocal attack here, and she dominates this song. The melodies here are very uplifting, and the song's final chorus - which takes place after a beautiful piano section - really is joyous.

Although it starts out sounding like something Andrew Lloyd Webber might write, Fairytale Lies actually ends up being the closest thing on the album to those early Celtic-influenced albums. There is a large chunk of Delicate Flame of Desire here, with keyboard-led verses and a dynamic chorus that packs more of an emotional punch than a rock one. I could actually see Cohen singing this song with ease and, if it was not for the powerful strings, this would fit well on one of those early albums. Pinna's guitar solo evokes that era too. It is more like what we found plenty of on The Gathering Light, but also contains a little of former guitarists Paul Davies' tone. If this was deliberate, than it was a great decision; and if it was not then it is an interesting and pleasing coincidence. The penultimate song Feels Like Home is a soaring ballad that feels like the antidote to Forsaken from the band's previous album as it has a similar musical feel initially. This soon dissipates however, and we are left with a really powerful chorus that has few rivals in terms of melodic power. It is extremely poppy, the poppiest the band have ever been, but it works well and never sounds trite. This influence has clearly come from Griffiths, and her more mainstream sensibilities have added a great pop sheen to the band's sound. There's also a section that reminds me a little of the ending of Heart of Stone from Delicate Flame of Desire with it's really catchy and ethereal wordless vocals. Anyone reading this who is worried that the band have abandoned their progressive nature in favour of a more in-your-face pop rock one needs to check out the album's final song. The twenty minute epic Secrets of Angels definitely takes a leaf out of The Gathering Light's book and is an excellent song that goes through many sections - all of which are great. Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish) lends his unique talents to the song, and adds greatly to the folky opening few minutes that would have sat well on second album, 2000's The Storm. This is the most ambitious song the band have ever recorded, and lots of music is crammed in throughout. From folk, to progressive rock, to full-blown symphonic metal - this song has it all. In some respects, this song sounds a little like a trip through the band's history. There are plenty of reminders here of the band's rich musical palette, and anyone who has every enjoyed a Karnataka song should check this out; from the Nightwish-inspired orchestral metal sections (with the most aggressive drumming of the band's career) to the early Marillion tribute with a 1980s keyboard riff. It is a lot to take in, but it is a triumph, that shows Ian Jones is one of the best songwriters in progressive music today. Overall, Secrets of Angels is another fantastic album from Karnataka. The new line-up has gelled together really well, and the live reports from the ongoing tour are all extremely positive. This is an album that could really gain the band some new fans, and I hope there are those out there are willing to sit up and take notice, as this deserves to be heard.

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Immrama Records. Below is the band's official trailer that they released to promote the album.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

We are Harlot's 'We are Harlot' - Album Review

This is one of those albums that I happened to stumble upon. I forget quite how I did, but something made me take to Youtube to listen to a couple of their songs - and I was impressed! I rushed out buy the album the next day, and I am glad I did as I have been enjoying a lot over the past couple of weeks. We are Harlot were formed in 2011 by Danny Worsnop (Asking Alexandria) and Jeff George (Sebastian Bach) but nothing ever really came of the band until last year when the band performed live for the first time and released the single Denial. Due to frontman Worsnop's previous employment, I am surprised that I even gave this band a chance. I detest the world of screamo/deathcore that Asking Alexandria occupy, and their core sound is a far-cry from the 1980s-inspired hard rock that We are Harlot play. Some delving however reveals that I might have been a little harsh on Asking Alexandria. I remember quite liking their 2014 single Moving On, which was a power ballad of Bryan Adams proportions; and some research shows they have released EPs where they covered songs by bands like Skid Row and Whitesnake. The hard rock influence was clearly always present with Asking Alexandria, even if they chose not to show it very often. In We are Harlot however, that 1980s influence is brought right to the fore. Worsnop and George, joined by bassist Brian Weaver (Silvertide) and drummer Bruno Agra (Revolution Renaissance), have created a fresh rock album that takes the best from all those classic 1980s bands and brings it into the 21st Century. This self-titled album does not sound dated at all, it sounds modern, but it keeps the spirit of the 1980s alive within. I wonder how Worsnop's existing fans will take to this band, as it a big change from Asking Alexandria - who he has now left. He does use some harsh vocals throughout this album, but they are used very sparingly. When he does however, they are always to good effect and really benefit the song as a whole. He is certainly the biggest name in the band, and will probably bring in many fans from his Asking Alexandria days. It will be good for these people to hear a band so clearly influenced by the great bands of the 1980s, and it is great for people like me to see new bands fully embracing that style and spirit.

The album opens with snappy single Dancing on Nails which is cloaked in a swathe of synthesisers and simple rock riffs. It is a catchy little song which sees Worsnop display his slightly gravelly vocal talents with ease as he negotiates some poppy vocal melodies. George's guitar work is solid throughout, and includes a small solo towards the end. At just over two and half minutes long, the song is over quickly, but it pulls you in and leads nicely into the next tune. Dirty Little Thing has a slightly punky feel, with a certain urgency in the verses that lead into a stellar chorus that Worsnop owns with his melodic voice. This song reminds me of another modern rock band, The Treatment, who's material is similar in vein to this with a punky attitude tied up in melodic hooks. Agra never stops throughout this song, thrashing his kit as if his life depended on it; and George lets rip towards the end with a fluid solo. Someday is more of a mid-paced number, something that is noticeable after two fast songs. The verses are based around a simple clean guitar line and Worsnop's pop-friendly vocals. I would say that this song is a ballad, and the chorus packs quite an emotional punch with some heartfelt vocals and a solid instrumental backing from the rest of the band. This song is perfectly placed in the album, and breaks up the frenzy after the first two songs, and shows early on that We are Harlot can do more than just one thing. Denial is the first song the band released, and gets back to the hard rock of the opening couple of numbers. Despite a mellower intro, the song really rocks with a strong verse that sees Worsnop use his harsh vocal talents sparingly, and a soaring chorus which has a very strong glam rock feel with big melodies and plenty of harmony vocals. More of the harsh vocals come back later on for a breakdown, which leads perfectly into an explosive solo from George that shows he is a great player for this sort of band. Easier to Leave has driving piano throughout the main riff (there are keyboards all over this album but it is not clear from the CD booklet who plays them!) which gives it a great feel. This song is very summery, with an extremely bright-sounding chorus that eases out of the speakers. It is quite a poppy song, and would probably make a good single in the future to bring in new fans from outside the obvious rock spectrum. This is quite a contrast to One More Night which has a very strong Mötley Crüe feel with a grungy riff and a snarling vocal. I would not be surprised if this song was influenced by George's time with Sebastian Bach, and I can imagine him singing this song too. People who like ballsy 1980s hard rock are sure to like this song, and it brings the album back on the rock track after Easier to Leave's poppier tones.

Never Turn Back is not the album's best song. It opens with a half-screamed section that sounds like it should have been on an Asking Alexandria album, and the rest of the song just does not inspire like the rest of the material here. Even the guitar solo has a strange sound to it, almost like something Trent Reznor would include on a Nine Inch Nails album to shock. For me this song just does not really work, despite a few strong vocal melodies during the sung parts. The One is an improvement. Opening with a heavy, bluesy riff, the song is based around a slightly funky rhythm which is helped by some subtle keyboard lines that sit well underneath George's guitar. Again, this is quite a summery song with lots of catchy wordless vocal sections that get suck in your head for days. Love for the Night gets the album back onto it's early rocking track. A simple piano riff helps to drive the song, and the song boasts an explosive chorus which shows Worsnops vocal talents perfectly. This a really good example of what the band is about, and is a great slab of modern hard rock. Flying too Close to the Sun is a heavier tune, but it works just as well. Opening with a powerful bassline from Weaver, the song races along with some mechanical riffing from George and some really raspy vocals from Worsnop. Despite the heavier overall mood of the song, it is still very catchy with plenty of soaring vocal melodies and powerful harsh vocals in places. It also has probably the album's best guitar solo, and sees George really show off with some fast licks. This is one of the album's best songs in my opinion, and it shows that the band can be heavy without losing any of their 1980s feel. The album comes to an end with the ballad I Tried. The vocal performance is strong here, and the keyboard/acoustic guitar backing is the perfect accompaniment. It is probably the only true 'lighters in the air' moment on the whole album, and it works nicely to close the album. While this is not the best ballad you will ever hear, it certainly has the right feel to it and helps give the album a certain level of dynamics, and breaks up the barrage of rock riffing. Overall, We are Harlot is impressive debut album from a new band and one that I will be enjoying a lot in the coming months. It is always great to see a modern band playing this type of music well, and it is even better seeing a musician come out of the screamo scene and create something this good. One to watch out for!

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Dancing on Nails.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Toto's 'XIV' - Album Review

When it comes to AOR and melodic rock, no band has pushed the boundaries of those genres more than Toto. Since forming in 1977, the group of famed session musicians have been creating unique music and have toured the world over many times. While, on the surface, the band's music is very catchy and full of accessible melodies; Toto's songs have always been more complex and had more about them than contemporaries like Foreigner, Styx, or Journey. Due to the members' backgrounds as session musicians, they are well-versed in a number of different styles of music. Strip back the AOR sheen that coats the majority of the band's material, and you will find hints of jazz, blues, funk, and progressive rock to name but a few. As a result, Toto's sound has always been hard to define.  The band's early years fronted by Bobby Kimball, Fergie Frederiksen, and Joseph Williams (in that order) were their most successful. High charting singles like Hold the Line, Africa, and Rosanna helped to keep the band on the radio and filling large concert halls. Toto were always about more than just the singles however. The rhythmic interplay between original drummer Jeff Porcaro (RIP) and bassists David Hungate and later brother Mike Porcaro (also sadly no longer with us) created a groove which few bands could match. On top of this the duelling keyboards of David Paich and Steve Porcaro created rich soundscapes, while the restrained virtuosity of guitarist Steve Lukather held the band together and gave them that trademark hard rock edge. The band has gone through many evolutions: from the polished, melody-led original line-ups to the stripped-back bluesier Lukather-led line-ups of the 1990s; Toto has continued to evolve and create great music. The band's last album, Falling in Between from 2006, was a perfect mix of all the band's distinct eras, and was the last to feature Kimball and long-time drummer Simon Phillips. After a short hiatus, the band regrouped in 2010 with Williams back at the microphone, and Steve Porcaro back as a full member for the first time since 1987. XIV is the album resulting from this reunion, the first with Williams since 1988's The Seventh One. Keith Carlock (Steely Dan) fills the drum stool on this album, and does a good job recreating the groove the band is famous for. XIV is the perfect successor to Falling in Between and continues with the sound established on that album.

Running Out of Time gets the album off to a good start with a trademark Lukather riff. It does well to reintroduce Williams to the Toto fans with a dramatic vocal melody and plenty of excellent harmonies during the song's chorus. The slightly funky guitar patterns here make the song sound like a dark cousin of I'll Supply the Love, and pulsing electronic synths swirl around the guitars and cut through nicely on occasion.  The song's spacey guitar solo brings the prog side of the band's sound to the fore, and creates for a nice instrumental section that fuses guitars and keyboard well together. Burn, built around a sombre piano hook, is a dynamic rocker that shows the best that the current Toto line-up can do. The verses are slower, with Williams' smooth voice leading the way over Paich's repeating piano; but when the chorus explodes through the speakers the song really changes tone. The percussive sound, led by Carlock's drums and session player Lenny Castro's tight percussion, makes for a dramatic tone and showcases the band's harder side. Holy War is a good antidote for the previous song's darkness, and takes you back to the band's lighter 1980s sound. While Williams once again leads this song, Lukather steps up with some vocal support and the first taste of the band's trademark vocal interplay is present on this album. This song would have sat nicely on The Seventh One, and the slightly gospel elements present during the chorus makes for an extremely catchy and uplifting moment. Steve Porcaro's presence is felt with some stabs of powerful synths, something that has been sorely missing from the band in his absence. 21st Century Blues sees Lukather take the lead, and the result is something similar to his recent solo output - particularly 2013's Transition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a bluesy number with lots of nice lead guitar, and laid-back organ courtesy of Paich. Subtle horn arrangements encase the track, adding to that bluesy feel. This side of Toto has always been my least favourite, but this is still an enjoyable song with plenty to enjoy - particularly Lukather's excellent guitar playing. Orphan has 'single' written all over it. Out of all the songs here, this is probably the closest to the band's early stadium rock sound, with some really expressive vocals from Williams and some big power chord rocking from Lukather at times. It has a smooth chorus, as you might expect, and that helps it to be one of the more immediate songs on XIV. Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey), dedicated to their late drummer, is another Lukather moment. Starting out with a great acoustic guitar/piano combination, the song soon morphs into a sophisticated semi-ballad with plenty of emotion coming from Lukather's vocal delivery. This is one of those songs that proves Toto are not all about those 1980s hits, and that Lukather can sing more than just the obligatory blues number!

The Little Things is Porcaro's only writing contribution to the album. While he has never been the most prolific songwriter, his contributions have added to Toto's variety over the years. He also sings the song, making it only the third Toto song to feature his vocals. Compared to his previous efforts, this is his best yet. His voice seems stronger than it was in the past, and it really suits the song's delicate mood. While he is ably assisted by Williams in the chorus he holds the tune well, and his gentle keyboard textures take centre stage, with Lukather's guitar taking a backseat. Chinatown is one of the album's best songs, and features vocals from Williams, Lukather, and Paich. This is classic Toto, helped by the addition of founding member Hungate on bass to really bulk out those jazzy instrumental sections. Paich's voice has never been the best but he does well here, and mixes well with Williams during a dynamic verse, before Lukather carries the laid-back chorus with ease over a tight Carlock groove. Paich and Porcaro once again prove a formidable keyboard duo, with patterns that could have easily appeared on the band's self-titled 1978 debut album. All the Tears That Shine sees Paich take the lead for the whole song, and the result is a beautiful, shimmering ballad that will definitely tug at the heartstrings. Paich's ageing voice actually really suits the song, and the vulnerabilities shine through and improve it. The song is piano-dominated, with some gorgeous synths joining in for the chorus that also sees Williams use his voice to help out Paich. Castro's percussion also makes itself heard throughout, adding to the overall atmosphere well. Fortune is probably the least interesting song here, but it is still a nice addition to the album. It has a great Toto feel with some excellent vocals from Williams and fuzzy riffing from Lukather; but the opportunity for a stadium-rocking chorus was sadly missed. The song teases you, building to a crescendo that should lead into a chorus to rival Hold the Line, but it falls a little flat; opting instead for a slightly jazzy feel that is a bit of a let down. All memories of this slight disappointment are soon quashed by the album's final number Great Expectations. Again, all three of the band's main vocalists take the lead here, and the result is spectacular, with some really frantic instrumental sections too that show the diversity of the musicians involved. This is a really dramatic song that encompasses all that is great about the band, and all of their evolutions. It is a true melodic feast to end the album with, and I think this is a song that will define the modern era of the band. Overall, XIV is a triumph. For the band's first album in nine years, it has really placed the band back on the map again after so long. Whether this is band's last album or not remains to be seen, but no matter how you look at it, this a great addition to their vast and excellent catalogue.

The album was released on 23rd March 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Orphan.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Santa Cruz's 'Santa Cruz' - Album Review

Hair metal has been having a pretty large revival in the Scandinavian countries in recent years. Bands like Reckless Love and Crashdïet have been making names for themselves and getting a whole new generation into the joys and fun of hair metal. Santa Cruz are another one of these bands. Since forming in Finland in 2007, the band have been making a name for themselves in the ever-improving Finnish hair metal scene, and elsewhere in the world. The band's debut album, Screaming for Adrenaline, was released in 2013 to pretty good reviews. While the album itself was not anything new, it was an enjoyable slab of hair metal that fit in well with the rest of the Scandinavian scene without really ever threatening any of the bigger bands' crowns. Last month saw the release of the band's second album, and this time it is self-titled. On first listen, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were listening to a different band, such is the initial shock in the difference of the band's sound. Santa Cruz is much heavier than it's predecessor, clearly being influenced more by Mötley Crüe than say Poison. But it goes beyond that, and some of the songs here have a slight metalcore edge, showing that the band is as much influenced by modern metal than the 1980s. The initial shock soon wears off however, and your realise that, in fact, Santa Cruz is not that different from Screaming for Adrenaline after all - it just has more adrenaline (yes, I know..). This is an album that hits you between the eyes and makes sure you are listening. The big, hair-metal choruses are still present and they are still extremely catchy, but the music overall is much tougher. As I said before, while this album does sound different to the previous one, at it's core it is still very much an album full of fun, party anthems - they are just not as obvious as before. I wonder if the band wanted to make themselves stand out from a crowd a bit and, if this was the case, then I expect that they have succeeded. Anyone who was familiar with the now sadly defunct bands The Morning After and Blessed by a Broken Heart will find a lot to like here (minus the harsh vocals that both bands used), as the mix of hair and modern metal here is quite similar to the sound that these bands utilised, but it retains the rawness of classic hair bands like Mötley Crüe and fellow Finns Hanoi Rocks. Their image is much rawer now too, ditching the cowboy boots and perfectly backcombed hair for a more rugged overall appearance.

Bonafide Heroes is the album's first song and a sugary intro leads into an almost nu-metal-esque instrumental section with chunky riffing and powerful double-bass drumming from Taz Fagerström. The song's verses are powerful, with some serious riffing and angsty lyrics that are snarled by Archie Cruz. The lyrics are a little annoying on this album, lots of clichéd profanity, but it does not detract from my enjoyment of the songs. The song's is very catchy though, and is more similar to the sound on their first album. This is typical of the overall sound of Santa Cruz, and this song works well to get in the mood for the rest of the material here. The metalcore sound I outlined earlier is apparent on Velvet Rope. The main riff has a clear Zakk Wylde influence with some pinch harmonics thrown in for good measure, and the way the guitars lock in with the drum pattern brings to mind bands like Killswitch Engage. Vocally, this song is pretty punky with lots of powerful gang vocals and a gritty delivery from Archie Cruz. There is a really excellent guitar solo here from Johnny Cruz and he speeds through plenty of great licks with ease. My Remedy mixes the band's new nu-metal influence (what is with those weird 1990s style vocals in the intro?) with their classic 1980s influence with good results. It is easily the catchiest song on the album with an anthemic chorus (that has plenty of natural swing) and some excellent wordless vocal sections. The verses have an almost rap-like rhythm to them, without ever really sounding like a proper 'rap', which actually works pretty well in the context of the song. Purists may struggle with it, but I think it works. 6 (66) Feet Under takes that sound a little further however, and it starts it crack a little for me. The verses sound like early Papa Roach, which is not a good thing; but the song is slightly saved by a pretty melodic chorus that sounds more like their first album. This is a song that I quite liked on first listen, but each listen since has only made me realise that it one of the weaker songs on the album. The nu-metal vocals annoy me, and the silly chanted vocals at the end of the chorus are also weak. Bye Bye Babylon is another fairly weak number. It seems to straddle the line between a ballad and a rocker, and does not really seem to know which it wants to be. The vocals are quite gently throughout, but then some aggressive, atonal riffing stick out like a sore thumb and crash the nice atmosphere created by the vocals. This middle period of the album is certainly the overall weak point, but thankfully it does improve!

We are the Ones to Fall, which has been around on the internet for quite a while now, raises the bar again after a couple of weaker songs. The big melodies return here big time, and from the opening guitar riff to the end this is a winner. The song's chorus makes great use of backing vocals to make it infectious and catchy. This is one of the album's best songs for this reason, as it really captures the spirit of hair metal while fitting it well in a slightly heavier and modern setting. Wasted & Wounded is similar, and is another great track. It is not as heavy, but the melodies here are so strong that I think anyone would have a hard time not to sing along. Anyone who is worried that the band's heavier sound has made them lose the 1980s spirit needs to give this a song a go, as it fully captures that vibe perfectly. There is no surprise that videos were made for this song and the previous one, as they are two of the best songs here and perfectly capture what the band are about these days. Let Them Burn carries on the good work started by the last couple of tunes. This is a bit heavier though, with a speedy, punky verse that mixes well with the gang vocal-led chorus. It is quite an angsty song, but this is fine as it is done well. The vibe throughout this song is excellent, and the cherry on top is the excellent, shredding guitar solo that fits so well with the rest of the song. Vagabonds (Sing With Me) is another good one. This is a very energetic song, with a very catchy chorus and some great stop-start riffing that epitomises the modern influences found on this album. It is not a complicated song, and I am sure this would work really well in the live arena with plenty of opportunity for crowd interaction and clapping with the standout rhythms. The album's final song is Can You Feel the Rain which, although is a bit of a comedown from the last few songs, is still enjoyable. It is a still a bit slower and tries to go for that 'epic' album closer feel without quite making it. That being said, it is still a good song, it just fails to live up to the power of the past four songs, all of which are excellent. The song's solo is very strong, and the melodies are very catchy, so it rounds the album out nicely with a slower song free from angst. Overall, despite some weaker moments, Santa Cruz is a good follow up album from the band and one that clearly shows the band's desire to branch out and make a sound that is their own. While I think that work still needs to be done to hone this development, this is a step in the right direction, and will help to set Santa Cruz apart from other hair metal acts.

The album was released on 9th March 2015 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for We are the Ones to Fall.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Answer's 'Raise a Little Hell' - Album Review

When it comes to bluesy hard rock, no modern band out there is doing it better than The Answer. Since forming in 2000, and releasing their debut album Rise in 2006, the Northern Irish band have been working relentlessly: releasing five great studio album and touring all over the world. Despite the fact the band have never really broken through into the big time like they threatened to at one moment (supporting AC/DC on their Black Ice world tour never really paid off for them), they have remained true to their roots and continued to rock. Given the smiles on the faces of the band, and audience, every time they play live in the smaller rock clubs, the fact that they are not a bigger band does not seem to bother them one bit. The fifth of their studio albums, Raise a Little Hell, was released last month and was lapped up by their fans as is to be expected. The band's last album, 2013's New Horizon, was a back-to-basics hard rock record. It was short and to the point, focusing again on big riffs and foot-stomping rhythms - which was a contrast to 2011's Revival which came before it. Revival was a more experimental album, featuring more songs and a more diverse musical pallet. Well, diverse in a limited sense, there was no free-form jazz to be found; but the music seemed to branch out more than previously. In some respects, Raise a Little Hell seems to be the natural successor to Revival, and sees the band once again branch out slightly and try a few new things. No matter what it is they do, The Answer almost always seem to get it right. I love the Revival album and I love New Horizon; and I also love Raise a Little Hell - this is a band that can rarely do wrong by me. Those who struggled with Revival (and I know there were some people) might also struggle with this album but, given a chance, I am sure this album will impress. The big riffed, blues rockers are still here in spades, but some songs have a slight funk or psychedelic influence which helps to keep the album interesting and the band's sound from becoming stale. I recently saw the band live in Exeter and, judging by the reaction the large crowd gave the many new songs that were played, it seems that Raise a Little Hell has already been accepted by the fan base as a future Answer classic. Unfortunately, I cannot see this album as being the one that makes others stand up and take notice, but as long as the fans enjoy it then that is all that matters!

The album gets off to a good start with the powerful Micky Waters bass line that opens Long Live the Renegades. The song is pure Answer through and through, and focuses on frontman Cormac Neeson's gritty but melodic vocal lines and Paul Mahon's organic bluesy guitar riffs. The pounding bass in the song's chorus will get heads nodding and hands clapping, and Mahon's solo that plays with the chorus vocal melody is really strong and soon becomes a fluid blues workout that will please the guitarists in the band's fan base. The Other Side is a real riff-based song. The song's opening is more gentle some clean guitars, but when Mahon really gets going it becomes a real melodic treat. Waters' bass playing stands out again, and his tuneful bass lines drive the song as Mahon and drummer James Heatley lock in well together. I love the song's summery chorus that brings out the cleaner side of Neeson's vocals. Opening with some effects-laden guitars, Aristocrat is another strong song. The opening might fool you into thinking this is going to branch out a little, but it is another great slab of heavy blues rock that follows on perfectly from the opening couple of songs. Neeson's raspy vocals and harmonica playing are the highlight of this song, and he is given plenty of chance to show his harmonica skills - even duelling with Mahon's guitar leads at one point! It is only short, so whizzes by, but really grabs your attention as it does. Cigarettes & Regret is the first real change of pace on the album. While not quite a ballad, the song has that feel of it, with some nice acoustic playing from Mahon in the verses and the summery feel from The Other Side returns in the twangy, melodic chorus. The talk-box driven guitar solo is pretty interesting, and gives the song a classic blues feel for a time. This is quite a varied song, and shows the band is willing to try something a little different at times. Last Days of Summer is a heavy, psychedelic rocker that brings to mind artists like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Waters' bass guitar dominates the song, giving it a very deep tone that makes it stands out from the rest of the album. Part-way through however, Mahon really lets rip with some killer guitar work, and the song has a real jam feel to it during these sections. Again, this shows the band are willing to deviate somewhat from their usual formula. Strange Kinda' Nothing is an acoustic-led ballad. It is a beautiful song with some lovely guitar work from Mahon and Neeson really delivers in the vocal department with some excellent lyrics and melodies. The band harmonise with him well, and despite being only an acoustic number - the song still has a big, full sound.

I Am What I Am is next and it is probably my favourite song from the album. It is a true rock classic with an AC/DC-esque riff and some real earth-shattering bass lines. The song's real catch however is the huge chorus, that employs a slight funk influence with lots of big backing vocals and snaking bass guitar. This is in contrast to the real swagger of the verses, which creates a dynamic and interesting song. When I saw the band in Exeter they opened the show with this one, and it really worked well to get the crowd moving! Whiplash is another back-to-basics rocker that would have fitted nicely on New Horizon or the band's debut album. It is quite a punchy little song, which helps to keep the album moving along at a nice pace. There are certainly better songs here than Whiplash, but the Eastern-sounding guitar solo does stand out somewhat, and the vocal melodies are still pretty catchy throughout. Gone Too Long is another song that I really like. It has a slightly more commercial feel to it than many of the band's other songs, and the highly melodic nature of it makes it stand out. It has the feel of a classic 1980s power ballad which, again, is something new for the band. The Answer have always been rooted in 1970s blues rock, and have never really had a song that sounds like it could have come out of the 1980s before this one. I would be interested to know how popular this one is, as it really does not sound that much like The Answer, but I love it! Red gets back to the classic blues grooves the band are known for. Apart from I Am What I Am, this is my favourite on the album and it was a great choice to release as a single. It is a real hip-shaking number with some seriously tight grooves and an infectious chorus that will not leave your head for days after first hearing the song. This song epitomises everything that I love about The Answer, from great vocals to excellent lead guitar - this song has it all. I am Cured is one of the more forgettable songs here. I really like the flourishes of slide guitar throughout the verses, but the song's chorus is a bit of a dirge that does not contain any real hooks or big melodies. It feels like a distant cousin of Last Days of Summer, but it fails to reach the bluesy heights of that tune. The album's title track brings the album to a close, and the big chorus is really memorable despite the fact the song is a bit of a sludgy blues number. As a whole though, it just seems to work much better than I am Cured, maybe helped by the lashings of excellent blues harmonica and the aforementioned soaring chorus. Overall, Raise a Little Hell is a great album from a band that are always consistent. I am sure they will continue to impress me, and I am sure this will not be their last great album.

The album was released on 9th March 2015 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Red.