Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Temperance Movement's 'White Bear' - Album Review

When The Temperance Movement burst onto the scene in 2013 when they released their self-titled debut album (which I reviewed here) that climbed into the UK Top 20 and made the band rather popular. While an EP called Pride had been released the previous year, it was the hype surrounding the album - and their excellent live reputation - that made the band an instant success. Since The Temperance Movement was released, the band have pretty much been on the road constantly. The hard working band has been all over the world, including a lengthy US trek with label-mates Blackberry Smoke which I am sure helped to boost their popularity overseas considerably. Three years on, and the band have just released their second album, which I am sure will help to build on the good work they have already done. Their first album was apparently recorded in just four days, working live like many of the best old classic albums were recorded. That led to a very loose album, that captured the band's live, blues-based swagger perfectly. Traces of bands like the Faces, The Black Crowes, and The Quireboys could be found in their sound; and The Temperance Movement were the next in line when it came to British blues rock. The band's second album, White Bear, took a little longer to record, but the results are similar. Overall, the style of White Bear is very similar to The Temperance Movement, and the second album seems like a perfect continuation of the first. That is not to say that there are not subtle differences however. While the debut album had a brash, in-your-face, feel - helped by the live recording process - the second feels a little more calculated and produced. While there is not a lot studio trickery going on here, there has certainly been more thought put into the production, with studio effects used here and there to change the band's sound. Frontman Phil Campbell uses a more diverse range of vocal styles here. While his trademark gravelly style is prevalent as you would expect, he also uses his quieter, 'ballad' voice (as he did previously), but he also sings in a more melodic style in places, which transforms the sound of the band. The band's line-up on White Bear is the same as previously. Campbell is joined by guitarists Luke Potashnick and Paul Sayer, bassist Nick Fyffe, and drummer Damon Wilson. After the album's completion however, Potashnick announced he was leaving the band. He has been replaced on tour, and for all future activities by Matt White.

Opener Three Bulleits (not really sure what is going on with the spelling there..) recalls the bluesy sound of the band's first album perfectly, and sets the listener at ease right away. Palm-muted guitar rhythms and a melodic bassline drive the song, and the big, strident chorus is an instant hook with some excellent wordless vocal sections. Songs like this recall the best of The Black Crowes, and show that the band have a love of the classics, despite looking like, and being marketed to, the modern young trendy crowd. There is even a short guitar solo, something that was not used that much on the first album. Campbell uses the melodic side of his vocals on the uplifting Get Yourself Free which has a slight gospel feel in places, and instantly sticks out as a song that will be amazing to hear live. The Eagles-like vocal melodies in the verses have something of Don Henley's unique phrasing about them, before the band really rocks out during the soaring chorus. Squealing slide guitar and huge harmony vocals characterise this section of the song, and it is an immediate standout. A Pleasant Peace I Feel opens with a rolling bass melody, before Potashnick and Sayer join with some delicate, twinkling guitar melodies that fit nicely over the bass notes. Campbell's deliver is very understated here, with his voice barely being raised above a murmured whisper, but this works really well - especially when the band ramps up and the big, rocking comes in which seems him unleash his usual gritty howl. There is even a guitar melody here that sounds a lot like Coheed and Cambria's You Got Spirit, Kid which throws me every time! Modern Massacre is a slab of pure, dirty blues rock with a riff that sounds like something from an early ZZ Top album. It is a very short song, but it packs a real punch with it's driving energy and raw, live feel. Again, this song recalls the sound of the band's debut album perfectly, and would fit there perfectly. It is brash, with big dirty guitar chords, and a short solo that sees the guitar screaming. The chorus is a real headbanging moment, and probably the most energetic moment on the album. Battle Lines opens with some real bluesy guitar, which seems Campbell matching it note for note which sounds excellent. It soon becomes another strong rock track however, with a tasty staccato drum beat from Wilson that gives the song a slightly funky feel; something that is accentuated by Campbell's strange vocal melody. There is a good guitar solo here too, which shows the band have some chops - something that was not really displayed previously.

After a couple of big rocking songs, the album's title track is a little more laid back. The verses are very understated, with some gentle guitar patterns accompany Campbell's voice perfectly. Things do pick up during the chorus, as big ringing power chords are the order of the day, but it still manages to feel quite laid back and relaxed. There is a really strange guitar solo, with some ringing notes that are not unlike something Trent Reznor might like the sound off, but it seems to work quite well. The songs fades out with a strange hollow-sounding drum beat that slowly fades into the distance. A country-sounding bit of guitar opens Oh Lorraine, but that is soon replaced by one of the most infectious verses I have heard in a while. Campbell's gravelly voice and Wilson's drums sit nicely together, and it almost sounds a little like hip-hop but with that bluesy touch. The country guitar riff then forms the basis of the chorus, and this fails to live up to the excitement of the strange verses. Towards the end however the band seem to jam out a little bit, with a lovely bass run from Fyffe that the band seems to thrive on as they all play together well. Magnify is another song that sounds like something that could have been on the band's first album, although with added lead guitar. It sounds a little like a more chilled out version of Midnight Black, with a guitar and vocal pattern that is quite similar to that song. This is another song that sticks out as a highlight of the album, as it just sums up the band's sound and ethos perfectly. The addition of more prominent lead guitar to the sound has improved songs like this, and gives them more a classic rock bite. The Sun and the Moon Roll Around too Soon is a bit of real old-school blues, and it comes as a bit of a surprise but sounds fresh. The opening sounds like a modern version of something that would have been written in the 1930s, and the song that is build around this riff also has a real old-school vibe. It does rock, but with a really organic feel with some really warm-sounding rock guitar sounds. After a mostly pretty rocking album, the album's closing number I Hope I'm not Losing my Mind is a really beautiful ballad that actually really hits the spot and is the perfect way to the end the album. Campbell almost sounds like a totally different singer here, which shows his diversity and that he is not a one-trick pony. It is a very simple song, with a very slow drum beat, and very little going on musically, but that seems to work pretty well. Overall, White Bear is a very good second album from The Temperance Movement. While I think their debut album packs more of a punch, White Bear shows the band branching out in new directions and helping to keep their sound fresh. I imagine this will be a big success for them.

The album was released on 15th January 2015 via Earache Records. Below is the album preview that contains samples of all the songs featured on the album.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Rhapsody of Fire's 'Into the Legend' - Album Review

If there is a band that straddles the line between symphonic metal and power metal better than Italy's Rhapsody of Fire, then I have yet to hear them! The band's modus operandi has always been 'more is more', and their string of over-the-top metal albums have made them household names in the metal world. Five years since the amicable split that saw founding member and guitarist Luca Turilli leave the band with bassist Patrice Guers to form Luca Turilli's Rhapsody, Rhapsody of Fire are back with their eleventh studio album and second without Turilli's input. Rhapsody of Fire's other founding member, keyboardist Alex Staropoli, and long-time frontman Fabio Lione got their new era of Rhapsody of Fire off to a bit of a stumbling start with 2013's hit-and-miss Dark Wings of Steel. This was a very stripped back album, and lacked some of the hallmarks that make Rhapsody of Fire so identifiable. The trademark orchestrations and choral arrangements took a back seat to muscular guitar riffing; and the result was an album that was enjoyable in places, but lacked the magic of the band's epic back catalogue. I suppose the band wanted to try something different, as 2011's From Chaos to Eternity had concluded The Dark Secret Saga (the storyline that had run through all of the band's studio albums up until Turilli's departure), but I am not sure that their experiment really worked. That being said, the album has grown on me quite a bit in the three years since it's release, but it is not an album I reach for often. Into the Legend, the band's eleventh studio album, sees Rhapsody of Fire getting back to doing what they do best - writing epic-sounding symphonic power metal! The guitar-heavy sound of Dark Wings of Steel has not been totally abandoned however, but is mixed well with the band's prominent orchestrations to create a hybrid sound that works very well. Long-time drummer Alex Holzwarth plays like a man possessed throughout after this rather restrained previous outing, and this helps to propel the band forward and he drives the pace of the album. Guitarist Roberto De Micheli, on his second studio outing with the band, really stamps his mark on the band and really comes out from behind the shadows left by Turilli. His technical riffing and neo-classical solos are all over the album, and he really impresses here. This is also the band's first album with bassist Alessandro Sala, who joined the band last year. Into the Legend is a real step-up for the band after the lacklustre last outing, and an album that I imagine is a blueprint of the sound the band wish to pursue going forward.

After opening with the obligatory cinematic opening instrumental In Principio (these intros all really do sound the same!), Into the Legend gets underway properly with the fast and furious Distant Sky. The simple guitar riff and staccato orchestral stabs bring the band's Dawn of Victory era to mind, and ensures the album gets off in a suitably dramatic way. Lione, who has been busy with Brazilian prog metal masters Angra recently, shows that he still a hugely over-the-top operatic vocal attack, and he uses his huge range and precise power to great effect throughout this album. Distant Sky features an extremely memorable chorus, with plenty of choral backing, and a solo from De Micheli that is straight from the Yngwie Malmsteen handbook. It is probably the simplest song on the album, but it has the band's trademark anthemic feel that makes you feel right at home when putting this album on. Single and title track Into the Legend is another track that grabs you by the throat from the opening keyboard melody and never lets go throughout. This is a little slower though, with a nice chugging riff that sits perfectly alongside the gothic choral arrangements present. The verses speed up, with a relentless Holzwarth drum beat that showcases his fast footwork perfectly. Lione's harsher vocals give the song a more aggressive edge than the opening number, and this fits the heavier feel of the song. The song's chorus is probably the strongest on the album, and recalls the band's early power metal days when every song contained a soaring chorus that was the song's focal point. After two old-school sounding songs, Winter's Rain - with it's slow-burning, almost doomy, feel - recalls the sound the band tested on Dark Wings of Steel. Lione's vocals and the epic orchestrations really drive the song, but De Micheli's technical, but understated heavy riffing acts as the perfect foundation. The chorus sees some very high notes from Lione, which is contrasted nicely by the booming male-voice choir that backs him up. This songs showcases the band's progressive side of their songwriting, as there are many occasions where the band drops out, and lets the orchestra lead the way - to great effect. A slow, spacey guitar solo - a far cry from the band's usual style - is one of the song's high points, and helps to add variety to the album. After a folky intro, A Voice in the Cold Wind opens with a big keyboard riff that recalls the band's old classic The Village of Dwarves - probably deliberately. Lione sings the verses over a delicate renaissance instrumental backing, but this is fairly short-lived as the band comes back with a driving musical motif, that soon leads into a soaring chorus that, again, recalls the band's early days. After a couple songs that left the speed element of the band's sound behind somewhat, Valley of Shadows comes roaring out of the gate with a speedy riff and spiky orchestrations. This is a rather simple song that has a nice fluidity to it, and the vocal work of soprano Manuela Kriscak to add some extra drama. While enjoyable, it is probably the least interesting song on the album up to this point as it lacks any real standout melodies.

Opening with a delicate classical guitar and cello combination, ballad Shining Star is a nice break from the epic metal we have been subjected to up until this point. Lione's breathy vocals are always very effective when it comes to ballads, and he carries a surprising amount of emotion. The song is easily the simplest on the album, but it is no less enjoyable for it. The orchestra is used fairly traditionally to back up the band, and there are plenty of melodic piano lines throughout to drive the song. De Micheli also manages to lay down a very restrained and emotional solo that compliments Lione's vocal delivery perfectly. After that little break, Realms of Light comes on with an old-school sounding metal riff and layers of simple keyboards to create a big atmosphere. It is not a speed-fest, and uses slower, more precise rhythms to create something more powerful. Again, the Dark Wings of Steel sound is used here and it works well. I think the more guitar-heavy, stripped-back sound works well when used sparingly, but failed to stand up over the course of a whole album. A very traditional keyboard solo followed by a nice guitar solo also reinforces that old-school feel, and this song is a far cry from the band's usual bombastic speed-fests. For those who are by now having withdrawal from the band's classic sound, Rage of Darkness comes along as an antidote to those symptoms. There is plenty of fast footwork from Holzwarth to be found here, and a classically-inspired riff that mixes guitar and orchestra perfectly. It is less crazy than other Rhapsody of Fire songs however, and gives Lione's voice plenty of space to breathe, so he is not lost in the mix. The vocal melodies he uses here are some of the album's strongest, and his smooth tones is a joy to listen to. There is an incendiary instrumental section too, that sees De Micheli and Sala duel with their respective string instruments which climaxes in a fantastic, shredding guitar solo. Not to be outdone, we also have a speedy keyboard solo from Staropoli which recalls the band's power metal past. Old-school Rhapsody fans aught to love this one. The album's closing sixteen minute-plus epic, The Kiss of Life, is a real tour-de-force of the band's skills. While it is not as strong as some of the band's previous lengthy offerings, it is a great demonstration of progressive songwriting and orchestral arrangement. As is often with songs this long and complex, it moves through many movements and is quite difficult to summarise and take in. The opening sections is quite simple actually, with a driving classic rock drum beat and some big vocal melodies from Lione. It then transitions into a lovely classical guitar-led section, with Lione's vocals sitting comfortably in his lower register as he sings the Latin lyrics. The song gradually builds back up to a full-band number, with some really epic choral and orchestral work that brings out the best in Staropoli's songwriting and arranging. Lengthy guitar and keyboard solos, but a reprise of the song's early chorus help to bring the epic number to a close. Overall, Into the Legend is a really strong release from Rhapsody of Fire that is a big improvement on Dark Wings of Steel, and is comparable to the band's early work in terms of quality and songwriting in some respects. It is a good fuse of old and new, and will probably be a big success for the band.

The album was released on 15th January 2016 via AFM Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Into the Legend.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Threshold - London Review

Since picking up the band's Dead Reckoning album on whim a few years ago, Threshold have become one of my favourite bands. Their melodic and accessible approach to progressive metal is what makes them appeal to me, as they constantly serve up albums that are musically interesting, but also full of huge tunes. There are very few Threshold songs that do not posses a strong chorus, and that makes them easy to like. My only gripe with the band is that they do not seem to tour that often, with usually only an obligatory London show in the UK when they do. For a British band, that is rather odd, but promoters always seem to be fairly conservative over here when it comes to melodic metal - with London often being the only stop. That being said however, the trip from Devon (or Sheffield as it was this time) to London to see the band is worth it, as their shows are always excellent. I had seen the band live before once, at the horrible Underworld in Camden in 2013 when the band was promoting March of Progress. The band put on a good show, but were plagued with technical difficulties throughout, and the sound was pretty muddy. The Underworld is one of my least favourite venues so I was glad to see that this time (and last time, but I could not make the last tour unfortunately) the band had upgraded to the superior O2 Academy in Islington, which seems to be the venue of choice for melodic metal acts these days. The sound there is generally pretty good, and the room is a good size that can accommodate a decent crowd. With this being the only UK show of the tour, the band managed to pull a pretty decent crowd with people filling the venue almost to the back. I was down near the front for the majority of the show, but had to move back towards the end thanks to a call of nature, and could see the extent of the crowd much better. The crowd were pretty vocal all night, and created a great atmosphere which the band, and particularly frontman Damian Wilson, seemed to feed off.

Before Threshold graced the stage however, there were two support bands. Up first was British symphonic metallers Damnation Angels who I have been a fan of casually for some time. I have had both of their studio albums for a while, but I feel that it is only while listening to those albums again in the run up to the show that I have fully come to appreciate them. Despite only having a short, five song, set; the band really impressed me live and the growing crowd seemed to enjoy them too. The band's second album, The Valiant Fire, was released last year, but this run of dates with Threshold is the first time the band have been able to present that material live. A rather large line-up change in the meantime ensured that Damnation Angels were out of action for a while, but the new line-up and performance made up for the wait. Four songs from The Valiant Fire made up the bulk of the set, with the opener Closure and the Kamelot-esque This is Who We Are standing out the most. Founding member and songwriter Will Graney (guitar/vocals) was a man possessed on stage, and sang along to every song while he shredded his way through some fast solos. Frontman Ignacio Rodriguez, who was joining the band on this tour for an extended audition, absolutely nailed the material with his hugely powerful voice. He hit some extremely high notes throughout, and had a huge grin on his face throughout. As I am writing this, I have just read on the band's Facebook page that they have made Rodriguez an official member of the band, which I have to say I think is the right decision - the man is amazing! The set ended with the epic Pride (The Warrior's Way) from the band's debut album, and the whole crowd was cheering for more at the end. This was one of the best support slots I have seen in a while, and I hope they tour again soon! The setlist was:

Icarus Syndrome
This is Who We Are
Finding Requiem
Pride (The Warrior's Way)

In contrast, second support act Spheric Universe Experience fell flat in comparison, although they did seem to improve somewhat after a dreadful start. The French band's first song sounded like a complete mess, with clunky riffing and nasty harmony vocals; but the songs after this did improve. I never felt that the songs were that melodic really, with the vocal melodies never really standing out or sticking with me. Musically however, the band had their moments. A few excellent guitar and keyboard duels helped to build some excitement, and the riffing generally was pretty solid. While I did enjoy the set more as it progressed, I could not help but feel that the band could really work on writing some more memorable songs in future. They certainly had the chops, but the songs just were not that memorable.

After clearing away all of the support bands' gear from the stage, Threshold came on and played a lengthy set that contained all of their latest album For the Journey played in full, plus a selection of older songs and favourites. The band's current line-up is probably their strongest ever, and they all seem to have a lot of fun when performing on stage. Oldie Freaks opened the show, with Richard West's (keyboards/vocals) washes of retro-sounding organ helping to back up the song as Wilson sung the lyrics with ease. The epic Mission Profile followed, which was one of four longer songs played throughout the evening. This seems to be a staple in the band's set these days, and it is easy to see why as it contains all the hallmarks of the band's sound, with plenty of excellent instrumental sections thrown in. The For the Journey album followed, and it contained many highlights - rather unsurprising as I feel it is one of the band's strongest releases. The catchy Watchtower on the Moon saw Karl Groom (guitar/vocals) and Pete Morten (guitar/vocals) trading flashy guitar solos, while the epic, piano-led The Box was a treat to hear live with the epic orchestral arrangement. Autumn Red features one of the album's best choruses, and some excellent drumming in the middle from Johanne James, who was as flamboyant as ever behind his drum kit. My personal favourite song from the album however, Morten's Siren Sky, was possibly the highlight of the show. Wilson sings the strange lyrics with extreme emotion, and the off-kilter riffing came over well live. Songs like this show why Morten is invaluable to the modern Threshold sound, and I hope he writes many more great songs for the band. His solo during the song was also very special. After the For the Journey portion of the show, oldie Oceanbound, with some excellent bass parts from Steve Anderson, got a rare outing, before two modern staples: Pilot in the Sky of Dreams and the hugely catchy Ashes rounded out the main set in style. There was time for an encore, and it contained another epic and finished with a real crowd-pleaser. The Art of Reason was the epic, and it went down really well as it progressed. It is a song that takes a little while to get going, but when the chorus rolls around it is impossible not to love it. It was good to hear it live, as I have always enjoyed it. Slipstream was the crowd-pleasing closing number, and this was probably the song sung loudest by the crowd all evening. It ensured the show finished on a high, and the band received a huge cheer at the end. The setlist was:

Mission Profile
Watchtower on the Moon
The Box
Turned to Dust
Lost in Your Memory
Autumn Red
The Mystery Show
Siren Sky
Pilot in the Sky of Dreams
The Art of Reason

With only four songs repeated from the last time I saw Threshold live, it made for an extra enjoyable evening of live music with one of my favourite bands. I hope it is not too long before they play live in the UK again. After the show I bought a copy of Damnation Angels debut EP Shadow Symphony, something which I have been meaning to pick up for a while. I also got the majority of Damnation Angels to sign my ticket for the show, which was cool. I also mentioned to Graney about keeping Rodriguez on permanently and, while I am sure his mine was already made up, I would like to think my comments helped him make the decision he did!

Monday, 25 January 2016

COP UK - Sheffield Review

Sheffield's Crimes of Passion (or COP UK as they seem to be going by these days..), have been in my radar for quite some time now. I first saw the band in 2009 at the Cambridge Rock Festival, and was blown away by their confident performance and striking original songs. I bought their self-titled debut album at the festival, and have been a fan ever since. I have seen the band twice since: at the Cambridge Rock Festival again in 2011 (I think it was!), and supporting W.A.S.P. in Nottingham in 2012. Both performances were great, and featured material from second album To Die For which refined their sound and was a big step forward for the band in terms and songwriting. Third album, No Place for Heaven, was released last week (there will be a review of it here in time) and the band decided to celebrate this with a hometown show at the Local Authority in at Sheffield's Corporation. I had already planned to travel from Devon to London to see Threshold the next day, so going via Sheffield to also catch my first COP UK headline show seemed like a good thing to do. Since I last saw the band, founding members Dale Radcliffe (vocals) and Kev Tongue (drums); and long-time members Charles Staton (guitar/vocals) and Scott Jordan (bass guitar); have been joined by Andrew Mewse (guitar) and Henning Wanner (keyboards/vocals). Both of the band's new members add a lot to the sound and style of COP UK, with Wanner's excellent harmony vocals actually being the greatest change. It had been nearly four years since I last went to Sheffield, and the smaller Local Authority part of the Corporation was a new venue for me. By the time COP UK hit the stage, there were quite a few people inside the venue.

Before COP UK however, we were treated to forty or so minutes from hard rockers Fahran who did a pretty good job in warming the growing crowd up. Their guitar-driven sound was not unlike COP UK's really, but without the gritty, dynamic vocals. That is not to say that singer Matt was in any way bad, as I did like his higher-pitched style. As far as support bands go, Fahran were pretty good. They did not outstay their welcome, and they were tight with some pretty decent material to back it up. Their first couple of songs in particular were very strong, and I will probably check them out in greater detail when I have some time in the future.

Coming on stage to Star Wars' Imperial March, COP UK seemed poised to deliver an epic hometown show, and they did just that. It was no secret who the large crowd were here to see, although I must say I was disappointed with the crowd throughout. There was a lot of talking, people standing in odd places not really getting into the music, and pushing back and forth to the bar. The crowd was fairly quiet throughout too, which seemed strange considering many people in the crowd seemed to be friends of the band members. That aside, COP UK really delivered and owned the stage for the 75 minutes or so they played for. The majority of the newly-released No Place for Heaven was played throughout the evening, and despite not knowing most of these songs I found them easy to enjoy live. It seems the band have really pushed the melodic end of their songwriting here, and Radcliffe's vocals and Staton's lead guitar stood out constantly. Opener The Core had an infectious chorus that impressed right from the off, as did My Blood which was another early highlight. Older songs like Body and Soul and Love is to Die For fit in well, and the whole set felt very natural, with the new material being a progression from the older songs. The AOR-influenced Kiss of an Angel proved to be a big sing-a-long number, and the slightly thrashy Halo was a good headbanger. Another highlight was the keyboard-led Stranger than Fiction, which sounded a little like the lighter end of Edguy's music, and showed what Wanner brings to the table. New single Catch Me if You Can was the last of the new songs to be played, but it went down well. It has been available on YouTube for a little while, so plenty in the crowd seemed to already be quite familiar with it. COP UK ended to show with two old favourites from To Die For. The heavy Accidents Happen, Even Here was excellent as always, with Wanner's strong back vocals helping to bulk out the chorus, before the old single Blown Away had nearly everyone singing along, before the band took their bows. The setlist was:

The Core
Body and Soul
I Think I Could Save You
No Place for Heaven
Kiss of an Angel
Love is to Die For
My Blood
No Man's Land
Stranger than Fiction
One in a Million
Catch Me if You Can
Accidents Happen, Even Here
Blown Away

COP UK played a fantastic show to launch their third album, and was a good warm-up for their upcoming tour with Helloween. I, of course, purchased a copy of No Place for Heaven at the show (which I am listening to now as I write this) which was signed by the whole band. It is shows like this that prove that small club shows can be as good as huge arena spectacles. I hope it is not long before is see COP UK live again.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

David Bowie's 'Blackstar' - Album Review

There are few artists out there who can boast a career as lengthy or as varied as that of David Bowie. He released his first self-titled debut album in 1967, and has been releasing new music pretty regularly ever since. Despite a rather quiet last decade, Bowie constantly transcended trends and expectations to produce music that was always original, always striking, and always interesting. During his near 50 year career, Bowie dabbled in just about every single music genre there is. Mixing rock, folk, soul, new wave, avant-garde, and electronica music was his key to success. He knew how far to take things too, and always reinvented himself before he got stale, and this ensured that he was always relevant to the popular music scene. This is why his death last week was such a big event. Bowie was so ingrained in popular culture that his passing has left a serious void that will never be filled. Despite being a fan of his work, I realised when he died that I only actually owned one of his studio albums: the legendary 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It is an album I enjoy a lot, but I think I am somewhat guilty of taking Bowie for granted. I never felt the need to explore his catalogue further, something which I intend to rectify as soon as possible. Bowie's twenty fifth, and sadly final, studio album Blackstar was already getting excellent reviews before his death. I had made a bit of a lazy mental note to check it out, but it was not until I saw the spooky video for single Lazarus the morning that I learnt of his passing that I decided to order a copy - making Blackstar the second Bowie album that I own. Despite not knowing his back catalogue intimately, I am still pretty familiar with large chunks as many of his songs are so well-known. Even with this fairly rudimentary knowledge, Blackstar still sounds like something completely new for Bowie, something which he continued to do right until the end. While listening to the album I hear chunks of Gary Numan's more modern albums, slices of Trent Reznor's more ambient and atmospheric work, and comparisons could even be drawn to Marilyn Manson's latest album The Pale Emperor. Blackstar is not an easy listen, and anyone expecting the glam-pop of his famous 1970s output will be disappointed. This is a haunting piece of work, and one clearly influenced by Bowie's impending death and his acceptance of his illness. It is likely that he knew this would be his farewell to the world, something which makes listening to Blackstar more powerful and emotional.

Some rather spacey piano melodies open the album as the near 10 minute title track gets underway. A collage of sounds mixes together well to create this dense soundscape, as a pulsing electronic drum beat cuts through the layers of keyboard and subtle guitar. Bowie's vocals throughout the album are unsurprisingly rather frail, but this only adds to the spooky, downbeat nature of the whole thing. The music of Blackstar is pretty restrained for the most part, with everything coming together in the service of a much bigger picture. Only Donny McCaslin's saxophone parts really stand out as a traditional 'lead' instrument, and his playing dominates the album. The second part of the song is quite airy, with lovely lush keyboard backing and a gentle drum pattern. The repeated lyrics of 'I'm a Blackstar' are pretty eerie though, and drag the song back from any upbeat zones it may seem to find itself in. Towards the end, the song reverts back to how it started, but even more haunting - in fact the song reminds me a little of classic horror soundtracks in places, it has that vibe. Despite it's length, the song never drags, and the gentle melodies stick with you for a long time after hearing it. 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore is quite different, and opens out with a big 1980s-sounding keyboard and drum combo, that has saxophone added to it for extra melody. This song is closest as the album gets to being upbeat and accessible, as Bowie croons the song in an almost lounge fashion. Tim Lefebvre's groovy bassline is pivotal to the new wave feel of the song, and he locks in well with Mark Guiliana's hollow-sounding drums. Bowie sounds like his old self here, showing off his unique vocal style, and hitting some rather impressive high notes in the process. With it's simple guitar pattern from Ben Monder, Lazarus starts out rather low-key, before some mournful keyboards and saxophone melodies swamp the sound. This is probably the album's stand-out song for me, as it has so much going on and Bowie's lyrics are excellent here. The contrast between the keyboard melody and the big, ringing, distorted guitar chords works well and is rather disconcerting. Lazarus is one of those songs that needs to be seen with the music video that was shot for it. I only saw it after I had learnt of Bowie's death, and it seemed to make perfect sense then. The spooky visuals really compliment the music and lyrics perfectly, and it forms a complete package.

Sue (or in a Season of Crime) has a bit of an old blues vibe, but played through the eyes of someone producing some electronica. The shuffle drum beat the drives the song has a very old-school feel to it, and the song's main guitar figure is quite old-school to in the way it is almost a traditional 'riff', something not really present on this album. The song never really changes that much throughout it's duration, and does start to get a little stale as it moves along. The keyboard sounds used as the song progresses though do change slightly, and it does seem to get slightly more oppressive as it moves along. Bowie's voice sometimes gets lost under the music too, which is annoying. Girl Loves Me almost sounds like it is influenced by hip-hop in some respects. The drum beat has that sort of rhythm to it, and Bowie's vocals are quite staccato in places, although not quite a rap. Other parts of the song are quite ghostly, with lots of effects put on Bowie's vocals to make him sound very distant - which works well. The two contrasting parts of the song do not seem to sit that well together though, and it does sound rather disjointed to me. There are definitely some hooks here, but it is not a song I would call a favourite. Jason Linder's piano opens Dollar Days, and it soon joined by simple acoustic guitar and drums. This is probably the most 'normal' song on the album, and sounds like a fairly typical ballad. It works well though, as Bowie's vocal melodies are interesting and strong, and the saxophone solos are very melodic. The saxophone is all over this album, and it really adds a lot to the sound. It is quite a mournful sounding instrument anyway, and is probably why it was used so much. Dollar Days segues nicely into the album's final song I Can't Give Everything Away as a fairly jaunty drum beat takes over with some floaty keyboards to accompany it. In some ways, the song is quite droney, as the music does not change that much throughout, but it seems to wash over you totally - and this works really well to close out the album. More bursts of saxophone and some effects-heavy guitar fill the gaps between Bowie's final lines, and it works well in a slightly haunting and understated way. Given that Blackstar will be Bowie's final studio album, that makes this a special album, even if it is not wholly to my taste. With Bowie's death, we have lost one of the true musical innovators of the past few decades, and many musicians owe a lot to him. He was creative and he pushed boundaries to the end, and for that he will ever have my, and many others', respect.

The album was released on 8th January 2016 via ISO Records. Below is his promotional video for Lazarus.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

New Device's 'Devils on the Run' - EP Review

I am easing into 2016's musical reviews with the new EP from British hard rockers New Device. With two studio albums and a live album under their belts, frontman Daniel Leigh and his band of young rockers are back with their first EP, titled Devils on the Run. New Device were one of those hard rock bands breaking through in the late 2000s/early 2010s, and seemed tipped to make a bit of a name for themselves. Their debut album Takin' Over, released in 2009 by Classic Rock Magazine's short-lived record label Powerage Records, was certainly a statement of intent. The songs were anthemic, catchy, and well-produced; and seemed a sign of thing to come. Unfortunately it was four years later, which included some fairly drastic line-up changes, that the band's second album Here We Stand was released. Only drummer Greg 'Rozzy' Ison remained in the band with Leigh from the Takin' Over days, and the result was a much more modern-sounding album that was less memorable, but still very enjoyable. Here We Stand has a very cohesive sound, which makes it a strong release despite the songs not being as hard-hitting as those from Takin' Over. A live album, called Takin' Over London, was also also released last year and contained the band's entire debut album performed live at London's famous Borderline club. After a successful PledgeMusic campaign run last year (crowdfunding seems to be the in thing at the moment!), the band's new EP Devils on the Run was released a couple of days ago. Sound wise, it is very similar to Here We Stand, and the songs here could have come from the same sessions as those for that album. Guitarist Matt Mallery and bassist Nick Hughes also return from that album, as New Device now seem to have a relatively stable line-up despite losing second guitarist Nick Jones in between releases. This is clearly the direction that Leigh and co. want to take, and this EP perfects it futher from the groundwork laid on Here We Stand. While New Device have never broken through like it looked like they might, this EP shows that they are still producing quality music.

The EP opens with Hollywood Radio, the single choice and easily the strongest song here. An anthemic pounding drum pattern combines with Leigh's soaring lead vocal performance, as the band adds plenty of gang vocals to give the song a powerful feel. Mallery's guitars have a great chugging quality to them here, while simple leads are added over the top for that classic rock feel. The chorus is very catchy, with some excellent wordless backing vocals to back up Leigh's singing. A short, but sweet guitar solo adds some extra class to the track. This shows what New Device can do, and is a reminder of the powerhouse band they can be. Strung Out follows, and is also very strong. A proper riff drives the song's intro, and the verses are a little more relaxed with some understated guitar chords. Melodic guitar leads break through occasionally, and these lead nicely into the song's chorus, which is probably the most memorable on the album. Leigh's vocals are excellent here, and the wall of harmony vocals certainly helps to boost the sound throughout. Mallery's guitar solo is longer here, and more traditional with lots of fast but precise playing. A great one-two punch to open the EP! Devil on the Run opens out with a frantic bass and drum pattern from Nixx and Ison, that is quite different from the rest of the EP so far. Mallery's guitar creates ringing sounds with delicate arpeggios, before exploding with a solid power chord riff throughout the chorus which is driven by Ison's double bass drumming and Leigh's strong vocals. I like the contrast between the strange verses and the more traditional chorus, and showcases the best of all four members of the band. Back to You is gentler, with a sunny acoustic guitar verse and some heartfelt lyrics. For a ballad it is still pretty upbeat, with a nice jaunty drum beat that compliments the acoustic guitar chords well while Leigh sings. It gets a little rockier as it progresses, but the song remains, at it's core, an acoustic rock number - and it works well. After that little diversion, Revolution comes crashing in a flurry of quick drum patterns, slightly abrasive guitar leads, and plenty of gang vocals. This is a fast number, and works well following the previous acoustic song. The chorus is another strong one, that has plenty of strong harmony vocals and melodies as Ison's drums rumble underneath. There is even some shredding during the guitar solo! Closing out the EP is Highway, another hard rocking tune. It is quite similar to Revolution, but it is no worse off for this fact. It is good that the EP ends in such a high-energy fashion, as that is what good rock music is about. It contains probably the EP's best guitar solo too, showing that Mallery is a very competent player that can inject some real quality here and there. Overall, Devils on the Run is another good release from New Device, and one that reminds us that they are capable of putting out some excellent songs.

The EP was released on 8th January 2016 via ND Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hollywood Radio.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Music of 2015 - Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote a blog that talked about some great albums that I had not had chance to review throughout the year. This was all in aid of building up to this post, my Top 10 albums of 2015! Every music blogger feels obliged to try and rank some of the best music that they have heard over the past year, and I am no different. I enjoy trying to decide which albums I have enjoyed the most, but it is never easy. Ask me in a week's time and this list could be quite different I imagine but I think, objectively, these are the albums I have been playing the most throughout 2015. Metal has been particularly strong this year, and it features in abundance. As usual, only studio albums of new material count; so compilations, live albums, and EPs do not count for the purposes of this list. For more information on each of the albums featured here, click on the album's title to see my original review of it. Without any further ado, here they are:

10) Sylosis - Dormant Heart
This is the first album that I reviewed this year, and it has stuck with me throughout 2015 and I return to it often. Reading's premier metal outfit have outdone themselves on their fourth album, reigning in the progressive arrangements slightly to make way for stronger songwriting that leaves an instant impression. It is crushingly heavy throughout, but there is still plenty of melody in Josh Middleton's stellar lead guitar sections, and tonnes of groove in the riffs. While Sylosis have not yet reached the level of acclaim that they deserve, this album will probably go someway in seeing them achieve that goal.
Listen to: Dormant Heart, To Build a Tomb & Leech

9) W.A.S.P. - Golgotha
While W.A.S.P. peaked a long time ago, and are well past their commercial prime, they have been remarkably consistent throughout their career. Their fifteenth album Golgotha is no different, and sees Blackie Lawless doing what he does best, and that is writing anthemic metal songs, with some aching ballads thrown in for good measure. Lead guitarist Doug Blair often steals the show though, and many of the songs here feature many extended guitar solo sections that just ooze perfectly from the speakers. W.A.S.P. are not about to shock you with a huge departure from their established sound, but Golgotha shows us that they are as potent as ever, and still a force to be reckoned with.
Listen to: Scream, Last Runaway & Slaves of the New World Order

8) Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror
This is another album that was released early on in the year, and another that I keep coming back to fairly often. After a five year gap between albums, Blind Guardian impressed us all again with Beyond the Red Mirror, an album that saw their unique brand of power metal fused even further with epic orchestral arrangements. While I feel the production is a little weak compared to the band's last album, the ambitious songwriting and overall scope makes it worthy of this spot. Many of the songs are long and progressive, with lots of intricate sections that take many listens to fully appreciate. This is an extremely impressive piece of work, and one that shows that Blind Guardian are one of the best bands in their genre.
Listen to: The Ninth Wave, Prophecies & The Throne

7) Symphony X - Underworld
Symphony X had been fairly quiet over the past couple of years as the band members all worked on their own projects, but July saw the release of their ninth album Underworld, and it was worth the wait! Returning to their fantasy-inspired lryics once again, the band seemed to be filled with new fire and have written some of their catchiest songs ever for this album. While not as complex and progressive as some past albums, Underworld is a heavy, melodic, and beautiful album that showcases the band at their best. It also proves that they have probably the best vocalist in the progressive metal world in Russell Allen, who uses his impressive range to convey many different emotions throughout the album.
Listen to: Kiss of Fire, Charon & To Hell and Back

6) Amorphis - Under the Red Cloud
Finland's multifaceted metal masters Amorphis have returned this year with one of the best albums of their career. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, the band have gone from strength to strength and this album seems to be a culmination of all that has come before, with a greater influence on the folk side of their songwriting. Extended guitar leads, organic keyboards, and Joutsen's dynamic vocals mix together well to create a varied album that mixes folk, gothic, and progressive metal together; with the emphasis being on melody and solid songwriting. There is even a real death/doom number that comes at you out of left field, but it sounds so right at the same time.
Listen to: Bad Blood, Sacrifice & White Night

5) Karnataka - Secrets of Angels
Five years after their last album, and after the second major line-up overhaul of their career, Karnataka return with Secrets of Angels. This is much more streamlined, rockier album than anything the band have done before, and it packs quite an unexpected punch. New frontwoman Hayley Griffiths has already formed an excellent songwriting partnership with founding member Ian Jones, and the result is stellar. While some people might be disappointed that the Celtic, atmospheric part of the band's sound has taken more of a backseat here, but this is made up for in spades with big guitar and keyboard epics that showcase Griffiths' powerful vocals. The twenty minute title track is something to behold too!
Listen to: Forbidden Dreams, Fairytale Lies & Secrets of Angels

4) Toto - XIV
Despite seemingly only reforming for a short tour five years ago, Toto have just kept going and that short reunion has turned into a new era for the band, capped off nicely by new album XIV. Joseph Williams returns to the fold and it is as if he has never been away, and joined forces well with Steve Lukather and David Paich to write some new AOR anthems. The album is very varied, fusing rock, blues, jazz-like sections, and progressive rock together seamlessly to create something that is classy, memorable, and packed full of soaring melodies. While XIV might not be as overtly catchy as their 1980s output, it is a very mature piece of work that impresses just as much but on slightly different levels. Melodic rock needs Toto to kick it up the backside every so often, and that is what they have done here.
Listen to: Burn, Holy War & Chinatown

3) Kamelot - Haven
On their second album with current frontman Tommy Karevik, we find Kamelot rejuvenated. The best sounds and styles from Kamelot albums past are present here, and this is one of those albums that only gets better each time you hear it. Thomas Youngblood and Oliver Palotai have really hit their songwriting stride again here, and there is not a song on here that is not memorable or catchy in some way. There is also huge variation in the material found here: from the most delicate and reflective they have ever sounded, to the heaviest and most angry. This is an album I can listen to anytime, and one that has been a big success for the band.
Listen to: Insomnia, Beautiful Apocalypse & Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)

2) Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful
With Dutch vocal giant Floor Jansen now in tow, Finland's biggest musical export Nightwish have really pushed themselves on Endless Forms Most Beautiful and have created one of the biggest-sounding albums of all time. It took me quite a while to fully appreciate it, and I think it has only been in the last couple of months that some songs have really hit home for me. This is quite a heavy album that makes use of Jansen's gritter vocal style, but the enormous orchestral arrangements and delicate piano sections are still here in abundance too. The 24 minute closing number The Greatest Show on Earth the easily the most epic and ambitious song written and produced all year, and it rounds out the album perfectly.
Listen to: Weak Fantasy, Alpenglow & The Greatest Show on Earth

1) Queensrÿche - Condition Hüman
This was probably inevitable for anyone who knows me well! While the previous two albums here are probably superior in some respects, the smile on my face while hearing one of my favourite bands rock hard again says it all. The 2013 self-titled album was good, but this one blows it out the water and contains some excellent songs by the band that put progressive metal on the map in the first place. It is not as technical as older albums, instead focusing on the metal end of the band's sound and creating something that hits you hard and fills your head with melody. I am not sure that there has ever been a band rejuvination on the scale of Queensrÿche since Todd La Torre's introduction, and I really hope it carries on long into the future!
Listen to: Guardian, Toxic Remedy & Eye9

There you go, my list for this year! I doubt that many of these albums will come as a surprise for those that follow this blog or know my music tastes, but it is still great to get it down on paper. As I said before though, ask me again in a week's time and things could be different! It is always hard to whittle the list down to 10, and I hate having to leave some albums out. Some honourable mentions this year are Black Star Riders' sophomore album The Killer Instinct which rocked, Europe's bluesy War of Kings which showed their continual development and reinvention, and Pyramaze's classy power metal outing Disciples of the Sun which is an album I never thought I would hear. 2015 has been another great year for music, and I am already looking forward to what 2016 will bring!

Top 3 gigs of 2015:

3) Toto, Hammersmith Apollo, 26/05/2015
After releasing the excellent XIV, Toto were on a high and came to London to impress. The long, career-spanning show was hugely memorable, and featured a good portion of the new album plus classics and lesser-played songs from the band's back catalogue. Joseph Williams is probably the best frontman the band have ever had, and it was great to finally see guitarist Steve Lukather live, and he played many an impressive solo throughout the evening. They were one of the bands I had been wanting to see live for ages, and they did not disappoint.

2) Mostly Autumn, The Assembly, 13/12/2015
I have seen Mostly Autumn plenty of times, but they still know how to pull all of the stops out every so often and really impress. The show featured the best live rendition of the album Dressed in Voices I have seen, plus rarely-played epics and a set of excellent Pink Floyd covers which were expertly performed by the band and a collection of special guests, including violinist Anna Phoebe who added a lot to the band's sound. It was a really long night of music, but it flew by and the Christmas-themed encore was hugely fun for everyone in the room, including all the musicians on stage.

1) Nightwish, Wembley Arena, 19/12/2015
I have seen Nightwish live three times now, and this was easily the best of the bunch. The band's current line-up is the best the band have ever been, and it showed throughout this epic and ambitious night of live music. A lot of material from the latest album was played, as well as choice cuts from the band's back catalogue. Floor Jansen stole the show with her commanding vocal display, and showed why she is the best choice to front the band. The show has been recorded too, so I hope to be able to relive this on DVD one day!