Thursday, 21 May 2015

Kamelot's 'Haven' - Album Review

Kamelot are one of my favourite bands. While I might sometimes go for months without listening to one of their albums, they always remain high on my list of favourite bands. I first got into the band in 2009 when I first heard their 2005 album The Black Halo and was blown away. There was something about their unique melancholic, dark power metal sound that spoke to me. At that point, I had not heard anyone that mixed the up-beat, melodic nature of power metal with a darker, gothic progressive nature. I gradually got the rest of the band's back catalogue (besides their 1997 album Dominion which seems to be very hard to get!) and they quickly became an enduring favourite of mine. From their humble beginnings on 1995's Eternity where they emulated Crimson Glory and Queensrÿche; to 1999's The Fourth Legacy which really was the start of the Kamelot sound that we know today; to the epic album pairing of 2003's Epica and the aforementioned The Black Halo with their Faustian storyline; Kamelot went from strength to strength. With founding member and guitarist Thomas Youngblood and former frontman Roy Khan spearing the band's direction since 1998, the darker side of the music really came to a fore on 2007's Ghost Opera and 2010's Poetry for the Poisoned. The latter was the first album of Kamelot's that I heard new, and it blew me away. It has never been one of the band's most popular works, but I loved it from the off and still play it regularly. Khan left the band soon after, and Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder) joined the band in 2012 with the release of Silverthorn which proved their was life after Khan. That album harked back to their earlier work slightly, losing some of the darker trappings to emphasising the power metal elements again. It was another excellent piece of work, and one that proved to be very successful for the band. Roll forward three years, and we have Haven - the band's second album with Karevik. I would describe this album as a mix of Ghost Opera, Poetry for the Poisoned, and Seventh Wonder's Mercy Falls - as Karevik branches out vocally much more on this release. The darkness is back here, and in some respects, this is probably the heaviest album of the band's career. In some respects, the band have outdone themselves here, and I have a feeling that this album is going to be very successful indeed for them.

Foregoing the usual orchestral intro for a gentle piano/vocal combination, Falling Star soon really takes off with a soaring guitar lead from Youngblood and some powerful drumming from long-time drummer Casey Grillo. The verses carry a heavy groove and sees the guitars lock in well with Sean Tibbetts' basslines to give the song a modern vibe. Subtle orchestrations surround the piece, and occasionally break through with a dramatic chord or melody. The chorus is quite understated, but is all the more powerful for it, with Karevik crooning the melodies with real intent. Fans of the Ghost Opera album will love this song, as it picks up where that album left off. Insomnia is the album's lead single, and it follows the mould for Kamelot singles past. Oliver Palotai's keyboards and orchestrations dominate the intro as they swirl around the solid rock foundation from the rest of the band. The verses are bass-heavy, with Tibbetts' pulsing instrument standing out with a real growl. It is an extremely catchy song, but loses none of the darkness established on the first song. A demented guitar solo adds to this vibe. It goes for the crazy rather than the melodic, but this works well within the song's theme. Citizen Zero is a really dramatic song. Starting out with a dark, clean guitar line; the song soon morphs into a mid-paced heavy number that is similar in some respects to March of Mephisto. Again there is a distinct groove in the guitar riffs, but the chorus really explodes with a flurry of gothic strings and choral arrangements. There's a lot of Poetry for the Poisoned in this song too, and fans of that album will love this song. The symphonic mid-section is also great, with a huge choir piece, before Palotai takes over with an enjoyable keyboard solo. Veil of Elysium reminds me more of the more upbeat sound found on Silverthorn. It is a fast power metal song with lots of double bass drumming and uplifting guitar playing, as found in the song's intro. This is an instantly accessible piece with a very memorable chorus that has vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along with. It is a very uncomplicated song, and is one I am sure will be included in the band's live set for quite some time. It also has a very nice guitar solo from Youngblood that takes the chorus melody and plays with it. Under Grey Skies is the album's first ballad, and features both Charlotte Wessels (Delain) on vocals and Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish) on whistles. Karevik and Wessels trade vocal lines throughout, and the result is spellbinding. I have always loved her voice, and she shines here. Karevik also sounds amazing, as he opens his voice out a little from the Khan mould. This joins the list of great Kamelot duets, and is well placed after four hard rocking numbers. My Therapy is up next, and this is probably the only song on the album that does not really resonate. It is another fairly upbeat number, but the melodies just are not as interesting. The heavy verses are good, but the chorus fails to live up to expectations. The lyrics are rather clunky, and it makes the melodies come across as forced. It is the only real misstep on the album however, as things pick up again soon after. 

After the short instrumental Ecclesia, we come to End of Innocence. Again, the Silverthorn sound is present here, and after a dramatic but upbeat orchestral metal intro - the song a real melodic feast with powerful verses and a soaring chorus. Songs like this are bread and butter for Kamelot, but they are still enjoyable. I really like the way Karevik's vocals float above the rest of the music in a way that Khan's never would. It is songs like this that he distinguishes himself from the band's former singer and makes the position his own. Beautiful Apocalypse is up next and is my favourite song from the album, and possibly one of my favourite Kamelot songs ever. Karevik channels his Seventh Wonder vocal stylings here, and this is extremely evident in the chorus. The Kamelot of old would never have written a chorus with such contrasting melodies; and the way Karevik sings this is fantastic. I could listen to that chorus over and over and never get bored, constantly marvelling at the originality in the melodies. Not to be overlooked, Youngblood also plays a blinding guitar solo - before another reprise of the chorus really hits home how amazing this song really is. Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy) is a heavy piece. Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist; Arch Enemy), making her second appearance on a Kamelot album, lends her diverse vocal talents to this song and makes her presence known. Her harsh vocals add to the orchestral epic-ness of the bombastic chorus, which is one of the more powerful moments on the album. The verses are extremely dynamic too, with lots of varied drumming from Grillo; and the gentle pre-chorus sees Palotai rattle off some delicate piano lines. Youngblood really shreds here too, and lets rip with an explosive solo that is one of his best. Palotai follows this up with a fantastic keyboard solo of his own, and even tried to outdo Youngblood for speed in places! This is a real band effort, and brings out the best of everyone involved. White-Gluz dominates the song's end, firstly with a grinding harsh vocal section that is at her demonic best; before singing the chorus alone clean. She is a real enigma, and Kamelot have done well to include her again here. Here's to the Fall is a bit of a breather, and features Karevik singing alone with a beautiful orchestral and piano backing. Sandwiched between two heavy pieces only improves it, and it showcases a great 'less-is-more' attitude. Karevik sounds fantastic, and shows why he was picked to front the band. The final 'proper' song Revolution is one of the heaviest the band have ever done. White-Gluz is featured again, adding some harsh vocals here and there. The industrial riffing and furious drumming makes this song, and the energy never lets up throughout. An instrumental section mid-way through has the feel of a melodic death metal band to it, with dense riffs and pounding double bass drums. Kamelot have never sounded like this, but it works well for them and proves that older bands can still evolve. As the instrumental title track plays out, you reflect on what you have just heard. Haven is another winning album from the band, and one that stamps out a new, heavier path for Kamelot to take going forward. It is a real winner, and I think this album will be getting a lot of plays here in the future!

The album was released on 4th May 2015 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Insomnia.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

FM's 'Heroes and Villains' - Album Review

Since their 2007 reunion, FM have been a busy band. With a stable line-up since 2008 (newest member, guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick, joined the band then), the band have released three albums and toured rather a lot. While 2010's Metropolis was never a favourite of mine, it remains a popular album among the band's fanbase. The success of that album really kick-started their reunion proper; and three years later the band released the two Rockville albums to widespread critical acclaim. These two albums were much more to my taste, and brought back lots of the things that made FM great in the late 1980s. Releasing two albums together is always a bit of a risk, as the chance of some filler being on their albums is greatly increased, but luckily both Rockville and Rockville II are both very enjoyable albums - with a few excellent AOR anthems between them. Last year, FM were celebrating their 30th Anniversary of forming in 1984. It was also the year when I actually got into the band, having never really checked them out previously. I saw the band twice in 2014: once supporting Foreigner in April; and once headlining the Cambridge Rock Festival in August. Both of these performances were excellent, and made me a big fan of the band. All of these things meant that I was actively anticipating the release of ninth album Heroes and Villains. For the release of this album, the band have signed with the now-famous melodic rock label Frontiers Records, who seem to have the market on melodic hard rock and AOR music pretty much sewn up these days. Despite releasing two albums' worth of material in 2013, it only took the band two years to write and record a follow up. You could be forgiven to thinking Heroes and Villains would be an album of off-cuts, but thankfully this is not the case and this could be the band's best album since getting back together in 2007. The band's original members: frontman/guitarist Steve Overland; bassist Merv Goldsworthy; and drummer Pete Jupp; plus Kirkpatrick and long-time keyboardist Jem Davis (he originally joined the band in 1993 and appeared on 1995's Dead Man's Shoes, the only FM album I cannot seem to get anywhere for a sensible price!) have created another great melodic rock album that picks up where the previous Rockville albums left off. Expect plenty of soaring melodies throughout!

The album starts with the hard-rocking number Digging Up the Dirt, which has a similar feel to parts of the Metropolis album. A chunky guitar riff and stark keyboards characterise the song, but it is Overland's vocal melodies that really draw you in. The verse melodies have quite a unique rhythm to them, which helps them stand out. The choruses are much more standard, but the wealth of big harmony vocals and keyboards helps it to become very memorable. Kirkpatrick's guitar solo in the song is quite bluesy, which fits well with the tough overall sound. You're the Best Thing About Me is a much more overtly AOR number with some nice Def Leppard-type guitar patterns that sound like they came from the Hysteria sessions, but the chorus is pure modern FM. FM's newer material is not as in-your-face or obvious as their 1980s heyday, but they are infectious in another way. I really like the keyboards here, they have a rather playful sound and melody that helps to back up Overland's voice nicely. Life is a Highway continues in this vein nicely with a bouncy, uplifting opening musical motif that makes great use of soaring guitar leads and a tarted up Status Quo-like rhythm. It has the smoothness that makes AOR great, and focuses on Overland's tight vocal melodies. This is especially evident during the song's chorus. Layers of harmony vocals help to bulk out the sound, and create probably the catchiest moment of the album so far. I recently saw the band for the third time at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire, and this song came across really well live. Fire & Rain creates a laid-back groove and sits back on it for the entire duration of the song. Little bursts of lead guitar help to spice things up a little, which eventually culminates in a really enjoyable solo that is the flashiest moment of the song. It still works well however, and does not feel contrived as a result. I really like the overall vibe of this song, and how it effortlessly catchy. Incredible is the album's first ballad, and opens with some gentle strings and acoustic guitar riffing. All the hallmarks of a great 1980s ballad are present here: from the purposeful but restrained rhythm section; to the slightly dramatic chorus backed up by the strings. You will have heard this type of song hundreds of times before, but despit that this is still an enjoyable addition to the album. Call on Me get back to the business of rocking, and does so with a true AOR modern classic. If you imagine the verses of Tough Love from the band's previous album mixed with a chorus that could have appeared on their 1986 debut album Indiscreet, then you will have a good idea what this song sounds like. It is an upbeat, summery song that will be one of the overall favourites from the album by many people I expect.

Up next is Cold Hearted which has been around for a while as it was also on last year's Futurama EP. It is a good song that has a similar feel to Digging Up the Dirt actually, with some chunky guitar riffs and some dark-sounding keyboard arrangements. There are certainly better songs on the album than this, but it packs a punch mid-album which wakes us up again after the previous ballad. Shape I'm In has been played on Radio 2 quite a bit recently, which is unsurprising because it is a really big tune! Wordless gang vocal sections add to the overall memorability of the piece, while a soaring chorus with a huge retro keyboard really makes the song a sing-a-long must. This is one of the songs that really stood out to me on first listen, and it just gets better with each listen. Big Brother is another slightly darker number, but this is the best of the bunch. It is quite keyboards driven as Davis lays down some really tight patterns while the guitars crash around above them. The song's chorus is quite anthemic with lots of harmony vocals and melodies that you might not expect. Despite the song's slight heaviness - the band still manages to put some excellent AOR melodies into the chorus. Davis again dominates the sound with some really potent keyboard surrounds. Somedays I Only Want to Rock & Roll is probably my favourite song on the album however. Imagine The Quireboys playing a song written by Journey's Jonathan Cain and this is probably what you would get. All the staples of British bluesy hard rock are present here, but forces through an AOR filter that works surprisingly well. The instrumentation here is quite bluesy, with lots of big guitar chords and a rock organ sound that has a very 1970s feel. Overland's vocals however retain that 1980s smoothness and remind you who it is playing the song. There is even some saxophone lines towards the end of the song courtesy of George Boxley which adds to the feel of the song immensely. After that, the final two songs on the album feel somewhat anti-climatic. I Want You is enjoyable, but a little plodding. The synthesised horn section is a nice touch though, but the chorus reminds me a little too much of Burning My Heart Down is it has that same blues stomp to it. The album comes to a close with the acoustic ballad Walking with Angels which has a nice string backing but seems to fail to really go anywhere. Overland sings the song beautifully however, and it does act as a little coda to the end of the album. It does highlight the fact that, to me anyway, FM are at their best when they are rocking! Overall, Heroes and Villains is another really solid album from the band. A couple of blander songs aside, this is an album that I am sure will be enjoyed by their large fanbase, and goes to show that the band are still extremely relevant in the 21st Century.

The album was released on 20th April 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Digging Up the Dirt.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Jettblack's 'Disguises' - Album Review

In the rising crop of new British hard rock bands, Jettblack were one of the first to get attention. Their debut album Get Your Hands Dirty was released in 2010 and received good reviews across the rock world. All the elements that make hard rock music great were present: heavy riffs, big choruses, and flashy solos; all wrapped up in a contemporary, sleazy package. Touring with bands like Heaven's Basement around this time helped to increase their fanbase, and rockers started to take them to heart. Their second album Raining Rock came in 2012. Whilst there are some great songs on that album, I felt it paled in comparison to Get Your Hands Dirty. Generally though, the album was again pretty popular within the rock community; and a tour at the time with Crashdïet showed that they were still a great live band. The last couple of years have been quiet for Jettblack however, and it was easy to forget about them. By then bands like Heaven's Basement, Glamour of the Kill, and others have taken over as leading bands in the new British hard rock and metal scene and it seems that Jettblack had failed to capitalise on their early momentum. Even with a Pledge Music campaign set up to help fund the band's third album, I often forget about the band despite ordering a copy of the upcoming album. Seemingly no longer supported by Spinefarm Records, the band decided to crowdfund their third album, which appears to have worked well. Although it probably took them longer to record and produce the album this way, the results have been very good. I was reminded of the band again last year when I saw the band support Winger, and I was seriously impressed with them again. Apart from the sporadic email updates from the Pledge campaign, this was the first thing I had heard from the band since seeing them with Crashdïet - I do not think I had even listened to their albums since. They played two new songs that night with Winger, and it really got me in the mood for their upcoming album. Well, many months later, that album - now called Disguises - is finally here! While I was initially disappointed in the apparent change of sound, I have grown to really enjoy this album over the repeated listens. Albums often get called 'mature', which sometimes translates to being 'less fun', but there is something about Disguises that is mature, and it actually benefits the overall sound. This album still rocks hard, but leaves some of the sleaze trappings behind for a more grown up and adult rock sound.

The album kicks off with the hard-rocking Slaves that, after a slow-burning intro, is a riff-heavy piece that harks back to the heavier side of the band's debut album. The dual-vocal attack of Will Stapleton and Jon Dow is as strong as ever. I have never been versed enough in the band to tell the difference between the two singers, as they often trade off vocals mid-song, but both have strong voices and sound great together. Slaves has a solid feel to it, with a melodic hard-hitting chorus and an energetic breakdown towards the end that builds and builds until exploding into another excellent riff and vocal refrain. Explode was the song the band chose to film a video for, so has been available online for some time now. It is atypical for the band, opening with a very simple vocal/guitar combination that lacks the brashness the band is known for. By the time the band reaches the chorus however, the song opens out some more into a bigger beast that features a grinding riff and a powerful vocal delivery. There is some really excellent riffing later on in the song that sees Stapleton and Dow locked in together well while drummer Matt Oliver lays down an off-kilter beat. Poison Rain is more typical of the band. A mid-paced, groove-focused song; it really takes off after a moody intro. Tom Wright's bass guitar leads the verses with some tight basslines that weave around the simple chugging guitar, and the chorus has a real Aerosmith vibe with some snaking riffs and expressive vocals. Midway through the song, we get the first real taste of the band's lead guitar skills on this album, with some subtle shredded lines, and an atmospheric section that has quite a progressive feel to it. Evidence builds on the moody nature of parts of the previous song and takes it further. There is more than a hint of Alice in Chains in this song; from the punchy bassline in the song's intro, to the swirling harmonised vocals in the verses. It is a slower, doomier song than the band are used to writing, but it works fantastically. The chorus ups the energy a bit with some robotic vocal lines, but the strength of this song lies in those atmospheric verses. The album's title track follows which again features some prominent bass guitar work and a hooky chorus that is definitely reminiscent of the band's earlier work. It is a simple song, but it works well mid-album to bring back the 1980s influenced hard rock after a couple of more experimental pieces. Broken Bones follows in a similar vein and was one of the songs played on that tour with Winger. It is a simple, riff-based rocker that does not deviate hugely form the band's historic template. The chorus here packs a real punch, as does the shredded guitar solo towards the end of the piece, that reminds us what great players Stapleton and Dow are.

Black & White is the album's first and only proper ballad. Like some of the previous songs here, it has quite a moody overall feel but with the slightly anthemic vibe that all good power ballads have. The chorus is very catchy with a hypnotic vocal melody and guitar backing that creates real atmosphere. It is quite a short song, but it helps to break up the pace of the songs mid-album and gives us a bit of a rest from all the heavy rocking. Kick in the Teeth is the other song I heard the band play on the tour with Winger, and it is probably the best pure rock song showcased on this album. It has some great harmonised riffing, and a furious verse that steams along with some gritty vocals. This is a real rock song, that has real attitude behind it and enough catchy melodies to get you singing along. There is some great, squealing hard rock guitar throughout and a brilliant solo that will take the roof off a live venue. If the band want to film another video for this album, then this song has to be the one! Enemy again makes a bit of a return to the moodier feel of the album's early songs. The mid-paced rocking intro soon gives way to a gentler verse with some excellent clean guitar arpeggios. The song's smooth choruses are also very good, with some solid vocal lines; and there is another good solo here, but this one focuses on melody rather than speed. The album's penultimate track Human is another real winner. The song's main riff is absolutely huge, and the chorus is quite possibly the best on the whole album. The way the tortured guitar leads cut through the lead vocals throughout the chorus also reminds me a little of Alice in Chains, but the song's faster pace gives the overall song a much greater hard rock feel than that. Mid-song however, the song does descend back into that slightly progressive sphere with an atmospheric and some spacey effects on the vocals. I really hope this song becomes a live staple for the band, as it really rocks and has a chorus big enough to pack out stadiums. Smoke & Mirrors is the album's final song, and it has a slower epic tempo that brings out the best of the vocals. Once again, the band have written a really solid chorus for the song, that forces it's way out the speakers as jangly guitars sit nicely behind it. The song becomes a bit of a riff-feast towards the end as the song builds around an ascending guitar pattern and some big chords. The final go around of the chorus is triumphant and brings the album to a powerful close. Overall, Disguises is a great album from the band. I quickly got over my initial disappointment and have grown to love this new, mature style from Jettblack. Hopefully their other fans will agree, and I hope the band will tour it extensively in the future.

The album was released on 6th April 2015 via Cherry Red Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Explode.


Monday, 4 May 2015

Nightwish's 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful' - Album Review

When it comes to symphonic metal, no band has been as influential or as successful as Nightwish. Since being formed in 1996 by keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen, Nightwish have been a true force to be reckoned with, constantly evolving and improving their sound with each album. From the low-key folk metal of their 1997 debut album Angels Fall First; through the full-on power metal of following albums Oceanborn and Wishmaster; the Nightwish we recognise today arguably 'began' in 2002 with fourth album Century Child. While the symphonic elements of the band's sound had always been present, on Century Child they were emphasised further, leaving behind some of the power/speed metal trappings of the past. This was further developed on 2004's Once which was the band's first album to make use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After the spectacular firing of original singer Tarja Turunen at the conclusion of the following tour, Nightwish went quiet for a while, until the release of Dark Passion Play in 2007 with new singer Anette Olzon. Her rockier voice was different to Turunen's quasi-operatic delivery, something which made Dark Passion Play stand out from previous Nightwish albums. Dark Passion Play is probably still my favourite Nightwish album, and this is partly down to Olzon's honest delivery and Holopainen's angrier, heavier songs. Olzon shined once more on 2011's Imaginaerum which is probably the band's 'greatest' album. The orchestral elements of the band's sound now take real preference and dominate the sound. It is still probably the band's most ambitious work, with an accompanying feature film, and a diverse range of sounds. However, Olzon left/was fired (delete as appropriate) mid-tour and Floor Jansen (After Forever; ReVamp) was brought in to finish the dates. The band liked her so much that she was made a full-time member in 2013 which makes Endless Forms Most Beautiful the first album to feature her vocals. Long-time sessions player Troy Donockley (Iona) has also been made a permanent member of the band, although he already contributed his magic to both Olzon-era albums. His role has been greatly expanded here, and he has added vocals and bouzouki to his arsenal. While possibly not as initially impressed as Imaginaerum, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is another fantastic album from the band. Once again, the orchestrations are stunning and come to dominate the end of the album in a way they had not done previously. It should also be pointed out here that original drummer Jukka Nevalainen decided to take some time off from the band to recover from his insomnia, so the drums on this album (and on the ongoing tour) are handled by Kai Hahto (Rotting Sound; Swallow the Sun; Wintersun).

After opening with a spoken word section from biologist Richard Dawkins, the album's first song Shudder Before the Beautiful gets underway with a dramatic string-led riff that brings back memories of the overall style of Dark Passion Play. Jansen's delicate vocals also evoke that album here, and she eases into this album with her trademark class and control. This song is classic Nightwish, with crunchy guitars from Emppu Vuorinen and a really melodic chorus that sees a large choir employed to back Jansen up. The song's middle sees a great instrumental duel between Vuorinen and Holopainen, as the two swap solos with ease which harks back the band's power metal roots. While this song breaks no new ground for the band, it does well to introduce Jansen officially to the Nightwish fans and contains enough melodies to make the song instantly memorable. Weak Fantasy is heavier and is the first time bassist Marco Hietala is heard vocally on the album. His vocal contributions are always excellent, so it is disappointing that he is used less throughout this album. However, his songwriting contributions have increased significantly here, which maybe adds to the overall 'metal-ness' of the album. The verses here are a little more laid-back with Donockley's bouzouki taking the lead, but the song's intro and chorus are seriously powerful with heavy guitars and gothic orchestrations. It does well to merge the metal and folk elements of the band's sound together too, and shows what a great asset Donockley is to the band. Lead single Élan is a much gentler song. Again, Donockley weaves his magic with his whistles and Jansen uses simple vocal melodies that actually evokes Olzon's style in places. It is a catchy, folky song that shows the band doing something a little different. Yours is an Empty Hope gets back to the metal of the opening two numbers and features a really groovy riff from Vuorinen that is in his recognisable style. Despite the fact the song sounds a little like Dark Chest of Wonders in places, this is still a powerful song that has a furious energy. Jansen's slightly gritty verse vocals fit well with the riffing, and Hietala's howls during the slower chorus are equally fitting. The instrumental section about two thirds of the way through shows of Holopainen's skills as a composer, as the song builds up towards another riff and some seriously heavy vocals from Jansen - which shows how diverse she is. Our Decades in the Sun is a beautiful ballad with hints of bluesy lead guitar and mournful piano that cuts through the delicate strings to add some excellent atmosphere. This song is a grower, and only shows all it's beauty on repeated listens. The swirling instrumentals towards the end are perfect, and just show what the band can do when not relying on huge metal arrangements. My Walden opens with some vocals from Donockley, and soon opens out into another folk rock number like Élan. Uilleann Pipes and guitars mix well throughout, and the jaunty chorus will put a smile on your face. Donockley is all over this track, from his gentle backing vocals to extended pipe sections. He brings a lot to the band, and it is great to see him being used so liberally.

The album's title track gets back to the metal and reminds me of the simpler moments of Imaginaerum due to Jansen's playful vocal melodies. I really like Vuorinen's riff in the verses that has a real groove to it that sits well with the vocal melodies. The chorus has some really strong melodies that make this song one of the early stand-outs on the album. Towards the end, there is section that sounds like Pantera-meets-Therion with a really grinding riff and heavy orchestrals. This is a powerful, yet accessible song that is sure to stay in the band's live sets for years to come. Edema Ruh is another gentler song, that features lots of sparkly keyboard patterns and lots of melodic guitar lines. It is great to see Vuorinen given more chance to breathe on this album. Recently he has basically just been restricted to crunchy riffs, but on this album his playing is much more diverse and interesting. He even gets to solo here too, which is something that is rarely used by the band. The next song Alpenglow really screams single, and I am surprised the band have not made a video for it yet! The song's chorus is huge, and the almost clichéd orchestral opening is similar to songs found on Century Child. In fact, the whole song has a bit of that vibe with it's accessibility and stark melodies. Vuorinen and Donockley trade off instrumental sections well part-way through, with the heavy guitars mixing well with the delicate whistles to create something very dynamic. As I said before, the song's chorus is the best part of the song, and Jansen uses all of her power to make it so. The instrumental The Eyes of Sharbat Gula is the only song on the album that I do not really get. Maybe it is the fact that lots of the next song is also instrumental, but to me this song just drags a little. There are some good sections though, that feature some nice wordless vocals from Donockley, and Holopainen's piano throughout is really atmospheric. Perhaps if this song were to come earlier in the running order I might appreciate it more, but sat where it is it just seems to break up the flow of the album. The album's final song The Greatest Show on Earth is easily the most ambitious piece the band have done to date. At over 24 minutes in length, the song is a lot to take in. As I mentioned before, large portions of this song are instrumental. There is a band section in the middle, but it is bookended by two sections of orchestrations and (sometimes) narration - again from Dawkins. The song slowly builds; through piano, strings, and wordless vocals; to another great slab of metal that is surprisingly simple compared to the epic, extended introduction. The chorus is full of power however, and sees Jansen and Hietala mix their voices together well. A heavier section follows that is dominated by Hietala, and is the final full-band section on the album. The final, instrumental section as a kind of coda to the album as Dawkins' readings close out the album with surprising power. Overall, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is another fantastic album from Nightwish, who have survived another singer change with ease. Chock-full of memorable songs, and daring progressive instrumentation - this is a triumph.

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Élan.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Quireboys' 'St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul' - Album Review

The Quireboys have been well and truly on fire for the past couple of years. 2013 saw the release of their first album of original material since 2008, and last year they released another album Black Eyed Sons. Both that and it's predecessor Beautiful Curse were in my 'Albums of the Year' lists for their respective years, and both are fantastic albums that I listen to regularly. After putting out two great albums in quick succession, the band could have been forgiven for having a bit of time out to recoup and find more inspiration - but clearly that is not how they work. Originally planning to record a follow-up to 2009's album of acoustic re-workings Halfpenny Dancer, the band - in a studio in Klippan, Sweden - found new inspiration and instead wrote ten new songs for the album that would become St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul. The four official members of the band: frontman Spike; guitarists Guy Griffin and Paul Guerin; and keyboardist Keith Weir; along with producer Martin Ekelund (Bonafide), who handled all of the album's bass guitar and drums, wrote and recorded this album in less than a week. Compared to the brash rock 'n' roll of their high-charting debut album A Bit of What You Fancy, and all of the excellent albums they have released since - St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul is a different beast. While the band have always embraced the acoustic, gentler side of rock from the very beginning (and, indeed, Halfpenny Dancer was a celebration of this), they have never written and recorded an album specifically in that vein. This is The Quireboys at their most bluesy, and also their most exposed. There are no big, ringing power chords or powerful rock drums to hide behind; this really is a heart-on-the-sleeve record. That is not to say that the album does not rock. St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul is not full of drippy ballads, and The Quireboys' trademark rock energy still flows through the veins of the songs here. This album just shows a different side to the band, one that basks in the simple, rootsy arrangements of songs and is not afraid to sound a little rough around the edges. As with Black Eyed Sons, this album is released as part of an excellent package. Included is the original Halfpenny Dancer album, which has been out of print for a while, and the concert Halfpenny Live that was released in 2010 to fanclub member only and, again, has not been available for quite a while.

The album starts with Gracie B, a song that is Quireboys through and through. The subtle boogie created by the chugging guitars carries the rock spirit the band are known for. Spike sounds better than ever on this release, and the space given to his voice really brings out the best in his gravelly delivery. Not willing to let their singer take all the plaudits, Weir impresses early on with a laid back keyboard solo, and there is a also a guitar solo later that cuts through the pulsing acoustic riffing. The murky atmosphere created by this song works well to set the tone for the album, and remind us that acoustic music can still be moody. Land of my Father dispels that murkiness and is much more upbeat. It is based around a simple chord pattern on the acoustic guitar, surrounded by gentle keyboards that envelop the sound and give the song a very summery feel. This is an extremely catchy little song, that will no doubt be included in the band's acoustic sets for years to come. I like the fact that different instruments were included on this album too, and you can hear a dobro cutting through the acoustic guitar chords on occasions to give the song a country vibe. St Cecilia is acoustic rock at it's best, and you could easily imagine this song being played electrically and it being a future Quireboys classic. The piano-driven song really rocks and contains a killer chorus that is a real trademark for the band. The verses have a nice stop-start feel with some aggressive acoustic stabs and staccato drumming; but the chorus really opens out with fluid piano lines and excellent vocal melodies from Spike. I hope the band decide to play this song live, even in an electric set, as it would set the room alight! The Promise is the album's first ballad, and it does not feel too different from the ballads included on the band's past couple of albums. It is a mournful song with melodic acoustic guitars and piano; but the highlight is the song's chorus that contains cello beautifully played by producer Ekelund. Spike has always had a knack for injecting plenty of emotion into his vocal delivery, and this song is a perfect example of this. His performance during the song's chorus is heartbreaking, and shows why he is one of the most underrated singers in rock history. Can't Hide it Anymore is a first for the band, as it features Griffin on vocals instead of Spike. Griffin's voice is quite good, and has a slight punk-twang to it that suits the song well. There is some really great lap steel playing here from Guerin, but the lack of Spike's voice (despite how well Griffin does) makes the song feel less like The Quireboys. Still, it was a good experiment to try, and it is still an enjoyable song.

Out of Your Mind is a piece full of blues boogie thanks to pulsing piano chords and subtle slide guitar licks. This is the sort of song that really highlights Spike's talents. His voice might be an acquired taste to some, but to me he sums up rock 'n' roll with this rough delivery and dynamic stage presence. Weir also gets a lot of time on this song to show off, with lots of ringing piano that stands out well and contests with Spike for the spotlight. The Hurting Kind is a more overtly-melodic piece withing a solid acoustic rock backing and some beautiful vocal melodies from Spike in the chorus that make use of some higher notes than he would normally attempt. There is a great guitar solo in this song too, something which is not common on this album, so when one does appear it stands out and makes you take notice. This song will be stuck in your head after listening to this album, and I hope the band decide to play it live. Adaline is another lovely song. Weir's piano riffing drives the song, with ringing acoustic chords adding colour where appropriate. There is another killer solo in this song, which highlights what great musicians Guerin and Griffin are. As a guitar duo, they are hugely underrated and the understanding they have is fantastic. I really like this song, and it could have easily fitted on another of the band's more recent works as it has a great upbeat feel that the band do so well. The Best are Not Forgotten is a slightly strange song that features quite a lot of prominent mandolin playing which gives it a unique sound within the album. It seems to be quite a sad song, and the all-encompassing keyboards the surround the song help to add to that mood. I cannot quite put my finger on what is odd about this song, but it just sounds so different from anything the band have done before, and it works well. Final song Why Did it Take So Long also pushes boundaries for the band. Over a cheap-sounding drum loop (which works far better than it should), Weir's very simple piano and Spike's vocals flow effortlessly. Leaving a pure ballad for the album's end was a good idea as it helps to make the album end on a quieter note which helps to emphasise the moods established throughout. This is an extremely simple song, with no guitars at all - just Weir's keyboards, Spike's voice, and that drum loop. Overall, St Cecilia and the Gypy Soul is a really solid album that celebrates another side to the band than the one we normally see. While I do not think it is as good as their last couple of albums, there is still something about this album that makes me reach for it often. The Quireboys can do no wrong, and this is a worthy entry into their discography.

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Off Yer Rocka Recordings. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Gracie B.