Monday, 29 February 2016

Dream Theater's 'The Astonishing' - Album Review

When it comes to progressive metal, there are no bigger bands than Dream Theater. They are probably the only band in the genre that can fill arenas around the world, and have always been hard workers. They generally release a new album every couple of years or so, and they always tour heavily to promote their new releases. Dream Theater's last album, the extremely melodic self-titled album (which I reviewed here), was released in 2013. It was more instantly accessible than usual, and saw the band writing much conciser songs (the 20 minute plus Illumination Theory aside!). Three years later (breaking their recent two year album cycles), Dream Theater have pushed that concise songwriting style even further on their thirteenth studio album The Astonishing. There is a catch however, The Astonishing consists of 34 tracks!!! I am sure by now that you all know the basics behind Dream Theater's latest mammoth album, but for those that do not I shall go over them briefly. The Astonishing is a two disc concept album (or, more accurately, a rock opera) that tells the story of a dystopian fictional future for America where conventional music is no longer created by humans. Gabriel, an ordinary man with a beautiful singing voice, is seen by the people as a saviour, but Emperor Nafaryus sees him as a threat to his rule. Yes the story is as generic and cliché as it sounds, but it develops convincingly over the album's two hour plus length, and actually draws you in quite deeply as it moves forward. Tales of love, betrayal, and murder pour from the 'pages' as the story moves on, and guitarist John Petrucci's lyrics (while sometimes slightly embarrassing) tell it clearly. While songwriting is usually a fairly collaborative effort in Dream Theater, The Astonishing has been written entirely by Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. This has probably added to the concise, musical vibe of the album as the songs flow into one another seamlessly. This is probably the band's least progressive release for some time. That seem strange to say about a double album that is over two hours long, but the music has more in common with a heavier version of something from the West End rather than 1999's Metropolis - Part 2: Scenes from a Memory, the band's other celebrated concept album. There is very little musical showboating here too. Petrucci and Rudess and uncharacteristically restrained, with frontman James LaBrie stealing the show with his dynamic and commanding vocal display. He has created a slightly different singing style for each character from the album, which makes the story easier to follow. Bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Mangini are pretty restrained too, playing for the song and never really getting a chance to really cut loose and play something challenging. This review will be slightly different than usual, as a track-by-track breakdown of a 34 track album is almost impossible. I shall instead to a paragraph on each 'Act' of the story, and talk about the highlights of each. As a warning, there will be story spoilers included in this review!

After a metallica, industrial intro, the instrumental Dystopian Overture introduces us to many of the musical themes found throughout the album. In many ways, this is the most classic-sounding Dream Theater song on the album, with plenty of Petrucci's emotive playing, and some excellent classically-inspired piano runs. Petrucci and Rudess play off each other in classic Dream Theater style before The Gift of Music, the album's first 'proper' narrative song, gets underway. It is a simple rock song, that recalls the recent Dream Theater shift away from their technical metal sound of the noughties towards a more melodic one. A staccato, pacey guitar riff drives the song as LaBrie uses his smooth voice to introduce the story. Gabriel's brother Arhys has the breathy, but strong side of LaBrie's voice; and there are some nice high notes hit here. Petrucci's guitar solo is short by his standards, but still employs many of the techniques he is known for, before a keyboard-driven griding riff takes over. A Better Life is an early highlight, with a delicate string and piano introduction. This soon gives way to a heavier, mid-paced riff; but Rudess' piano still creates flowing melodies underneath. Mangini's drumming actually drives the song however, with some prominent bass drum work, that forces Petrucci to play a heavy riff over the top of it. The song has an excellent anthemic feel however, especially towards the end when a really catchy section comes in. The circus-style Lord Nafaryus, which has some excellent keyboard playing, leads into the soaring A Savior in the Square and When Your Time Has Come combination. The first part is heavier, with some really big riffs. LaBrie's vocals sit well with Rudess' pomp keyboards, and the song has a real metal edge to it. The second number is very keyboard-driven, and has some Rudess' best playing on the album. It is a piano-led rocker, and LaBrie nails it with a voice that sounds like something he would have used on much older Dream Theater albums. Act of Faythe is another beautiful song, with some of LaBrie's most fragile-sounding vocals ever. The story takes a menacing turn here as Nafaryus was Gabriel to surrender to him in the spiky rocker Three Days. The next highlight, A Life Left Behind, has some more of the old progressive feel Dream Theater are known for. An excellent bassline from Myung, pulsing organ from Rudess, and a dancing guitar riff form the song's intro, although the main song is much gentler. This fits within the album's overall style though, and LaBrie's vocals are once again excellent. Ravenskill, a varied song that mixes heavier moments with gentle piano sections, has real a rock swagger to it; something that much of the rest of the album lacks. It packs a real punch, and is quite a pivotal moment in the album's story. The last few numbers of Act 1 all seem to blend into one another a little, and it does seem to lack the spark and variety of the early part of the story. It is not without merit however. Chosen has a wonderful Petrucci guitar solo, and A Tempting Offer has some great heavier riffs and drumming. The lengthy A New Beginning does standard out toward the end however. The orchestral arrangements are excellent, and LaBrie's varied vocals portraying a conversation between Nafaryus, his wife Arabelle, and his daughter Faythe is something to behold. There are some excellent technical riffs throughout the song, and an excellent guitar solo is the icing on the cake. Act 1 ends with The Road to Revolution which is a moody semi-anthemic piece that rounds out the album's first half perfectly, with a certain West End charm.

Act 2 opens with 2285 Entr'acte, which acts as another mini-overture, before another beautiful piano line heralds the arrival of Moment of Betrayal, which is a faster, heavier song that has a real classic Dream Theater vibe. This is one of the crazier songs, with some spectacular Mangini drum fills and some excellent guitar and keyboard interplay that would be right at home on the band's earlier work. The song really gets Act 2 off to a bang, and contains some of the best virtuosic playing on the album; with both Petrucci and Rudess nailing their parts as only they can. The mostly-instrumental Heaven's Cove is largely an atmospheric keyboard number, but really ramps but with the arrival of the vocals. For this second part of the album, the story takes many dramatic twists and turns. Gabriel is betrayed by his brother (to save his son), and Crown Prince Daryus goes out to ambush him. Begin Again is a beautiful ballad however that is Faythe speaking about how her hopes and dreams have changed since meeting Gabriel, unknowing that her brother plans to kill him. The West End cheese comes out on songs like this, but it has a certain charm that does not make it sound twee. The moody The Path that Divides is another key moment in the story. Arhys regrets his decision to sell Gabriel out to Daryus and goes off to confront him, the two fight and Arhys is killed. This tale is told over a dramatic metal backing, with an excellent use of gothic choirs and retro-sounding organ sounds. LaBrie lays down another really heartfelt performance on this song, and cements my view that this album is his crowning achievement as a singer. The Walking Shadow continues the heavy dramatic feel of the previous song, and has some really pounding riffing that is backed up by some church organ sounds for extra drama. This song also contains Daryus' accidental stabbing of his sister, which is probably the key moment in the story - one that leads to the eventual happy ending and redemption. The next three songs are quite downbeat, as Gabriel realises what has happened, and is joined by Nafaryus who all try to save Faythe. Once again, the piano work here is excellent, as the crazy keyboard solo that bursts out in the middle of My Last Farewell. The acoustic Losing Faythe is an emotional number, with some really lovely acoustic guitar playing from Petrucci, which shows his diversity as a guitarist. If anything, Dream Theater do this lighter sound more convincingly than the really heavy stuff they have done in the past. Whispers on the Wind and Hymn of a Thousand Voices also display this more stripped-back sound, which help to build up to the ending double salvo of One New World and Astonishing. Both of these songs are strong mid-paced rockers, driven by LaBrie's excellent singing and simple musical motifs. Astonishing reprises melodies from previous songs from the album, and brings everything to an understated but still powerful climax. Overall, The Astonishing is, in my opinion, a triumph. Reviews of this album have been extremely divisive, even from hardcore Dream Theater fans, but this is such a melodic feast of an album that I cannot help but love it. The band have done better, but this ambitious concept album will no doubt become a huge part of their legacy going forward.

The album was released on 29th January 2016 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Gift of Music.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Avantasia's 'Ghostlights' - Album Review

I am now about to use what is probably my most-used phrase on this blog: Tobias Sammet is one of the most prolific and consistent songwriters in metal today! Since I started writing album reviews on this site, he has released two albums: one with his main band Edguy in 2014, the excellent Space Police: Defenders of the Crown which I reviewed here; and one with his epic side project Avantasia the year before, the equally great The Mystery of Time which I reviewed here. Both of those albums ended up in my Top 10 Albums lists for their respective years, and both left me looking forward immensely for Sammet's next outing. Whether writing succinct songs for Edguy in the band's trademark hard rock/power metal fusion sound, or writing sprawling symphonic epics for multiple singers for Avantasia, Sammet always makes memorable music. Melody is a big part of his songwriting style, and the vast majority of his songs have stadium-sized choruses and plenty of soaring vocals. After The Mystery of Time Sammet had hinted that he was done with Avantasia, but it did not take him long to change his mind. Carrying on the story started in The Mystery of Time, Ghostlights (Avantasia's seventh album) is very much a continuation of the sound established on the 2013 release, albeit with a heavier overall sound. Much of the team that worked on The Mystery of Time return here. Guitarist and producer Sascha Paeth and keyboardist and orchestral arranger Michael 'Miro' Rodenberg are both involved again, as are singers Michael Kiske (Helloween; Place Vendome; Unisonic), Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids; Nordic Union), and Bob Catley (Magnum; Hard Rain). Sammet seems to have a knack for recruiting the very best musicians and singers for Avantasia's albums, and this one is no exception! Jørn Lande (Ark; Masterplan), who has appeared on Avantasia albums in the past, is featured again here, and we see Avantasia debuts for legends like Dee Snider (Twisted Sister; Desperado) and Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche; Operation: Mindcrime) among others. Sammet's Edguy bandmate Felix Bohnke plays drums on the album, and he is no stranger to Avantasia having played on some of the band's previous albums and on all of the band's live appearances so far. Ghostlights is the first Avantasia album that will be supported by a full headline tour. Avantasia have usually only played at festivals and a few selected headline performances, but this time Sammet has decided to pull out all the stops and take this mammoth beast on the road properly for the first time!

Opening with the very Jim Steinman-esque piano-led rocker Mystery of a Blood Red Rose, Ghostlights gets off to a fantastic start with this explosive little number. I can imagine this song sitting nicely on Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell album, and it seems Sammet wanted Meat Loaf himself to sing on the song, but talks between the two parties fell through. Sammet handles the vocals himself and does fantastically. The albums first chorus is a winner, and the huge choral arrangements emphasise his melodic songwriting style. Miro's piano really drives the song, evoking the great Roy Bittan's style, and Paeth lets rip with plenty of fluid lead sections. After the rather upbeat album opening, the epic 12 minute plus Let the Storm Descend Upon You kicks off with a dark riff and plenty of gothic strings to back it up. I shall right away that this is probably one of the best songs Sammet has ever written. It moves through several sections, but it is never long before the next earworm section arrives. Sammet, Lande, and Atkins trade vocal sections during the early part of the song, with Lande adding his trademark melodramatic style to really push the song to new heights. After a lengthy verse section, with some of the best theatrical vocal melodies ever written, the song's bombastic chorus invades with Lande's over-the-top vocal delivery to drive it. Avantasia newcomer Robert Mason (Lynch Mob; Warrant) adds his smooth 1980s-inspired vocals to the song too, which adds as a nice contrast as the gritter tones of Lande and Atkins. As the song progresses, all four singers trade off parts between each other in a downbeat slower section with doomy drums and overpowering orchestrations. Regular Avantasia collaborator Oliver Hartmann (At Vance) also contributes a guitar solo. After that epic song, The Haunting comes along and brings you back down to earth with it's creepy piano intro and strange vocals from Snider. This song is a little different from the type songs Sammet usually writes, but it works well in the context of the album. It reminds me a little bit of a heavier, more gothic version of Alice Cooper's Welcome to my Nightmare, with Snider really sending chills down the spine with this howling vocals. It still has a strong chorus however, which explodes from the rather sparse verses. I was quite apprehensive when I heard that Geoff Tate was going to be a part of this album, as his vocal performances recently have been pretty poor. I was pleasantly surprised then when I heard the song Seduction of Decay and Tate actually sounded really strong! This is easily his best vocal performance for years, and shows he can still hit some pretty high notes when he puts his mind to it. This is another fairly downbeat and moody song, but it really works. There are a few really strong riffs, excellent orchestration, and a great effects-drenched solo from Paeth. One of my favourite songs on the album, and gives me hope that maybe one day Tate can do something great again. After that semi-masterpiece, the generic power metal of the album's title track feels a little flat. Kiske puts in a fantastic vocal performance though, with his naturally high range used to the max. He has never been a favourite singer of mine, but he really nails it here. The chorus has more Meat Loaf-isms too, with plenty of backing vocals and a good sense of drama. The song is still pretty strong, just does not feel as creative as what has come before. Creativeness returns in Draconian Love a gothic rocker featuring the deep vocals of Herbie Langhans (Seventh Avenue; Beyond the Bridge; Sinbreed). This is another song that has quite a different to feel to anything Avantasia has released before, and it works well. The combination of Sammet and Langhans' vocals works well, giving a dark feel to the piece.

Master of the Pendulum is the album's heaviest song, with a muscular speed metal riff and an excellent vocal performance from Marco Hietala (Tarot; Nightwish). His work with Nightwish was clearly an influence for Sammet here, as the circus-style vocal melody sounds like something from Nightwish's 2011 release Imaginaerum. Hietala has an instantly recognisable voice, and always nails whatever it is he is singing. This is no exception, and the song contains the most frantic chorus of the album that fits well with Bohnke's fast drumming. Sammet always seems to find a way to get the best out of the singers he uses on his Avantasia albums, and each brings their unique personalities to the songs they are on. From the album's heaviest song, to the album's lightest one. Isle of Evermore, a ballad featuring Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), is nice but a little tepid. We all know that den Adel can rock, listen to Within Temptation's earlier albums, but these days she seems content to hold back. Her performance here is no different, although she is fairly limited within this piano ballad setting. I wish Sammet had written a song for her to rock out on, as she seems somewhat wasted here. The excellent Babylon Vampyres gets the back on track, and sees Sammet and Mason rocking out on this upbeat power metal song. This song would not have sounded out of place on an Edguy album, and shows that Sammet's simpler songs can be as good as him more complex creations. There is an excellent guitar solo section here too. Paeth, Hartmann and Bruce Kulick (Kiss; Union; Grand Funk Railroad) all trade licks, and the result is an excellent cacophony of heavy metal guitar playing. It is the highlight of the song, but the song's fast-paced chorus delivered by Mason gives it a run for it's money. Lucifer, opening with a beautiful piano melody, is another showcase for Lande's excellent vocal talents. Earlier he showed his rock credentials, and here he gets to show us his gentler side. Midway though however the song picks up with an explosive Kulick guitar solo, and Lande leads the charge with his serious vocal power. He is easily one of the best traditional modern metal singers, and he shows his diversity here. Unchain the Light is a fairly understated song, but Sammet, Atkins, and Kiske all deliver vocally throughout. The song's verses are fairly unmemorable, but as soon as Kiske's ridiculously high vocals some in and drive the chorus, the song picks up. I really like Miro's keyboard riff that sits atop the heavy rhythm guitars between the chorus and the verses as it contains real melody. The album's final song, A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies, is a great one to go out on. As always Catley's magestic vocals are used well by Sammet, and adds some real class to Ghostlights as a whole. After Let the Storm Descend Upon You, this is the most epic song on the album, and the huge choral arrangement in the chorus to back Sammet and Catley's voices up is breathtaking. This is not a heavy song, but it contains all of Sammet's songwriting hallmarks and is the perfect song to close the album with. Overall, Ghostlights is another triumph of songwriting and performance from Sammet and his band of merry men. He has proved that my most-used statement on this blog is correct, and I sure he will keep continuing to do this in future!

The album was released on 29th January 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Mystery of a Blood Red Rose.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Thunder - London Review

The problem with going to gigs on consecutive days, especially when the first one is truly fantastic, is that the second one runs the risk of being somewhat of an anti-climax. I must admit, after Symphony X's masterful gig in Islington the night before, I was worried that Thunder would come off a poor second. I have been a Thunder fan for a long time and know of the band's excellent reputation as a live band (despite the fact I have always felt that the real die-hard Thunder fans do over-glorify the band somewhat. I would also add Marillion into this category, and they are one of my favourite bands - go figure!). I had seen the band live twice before this show at London's premier venue Wembley Arena: once at the High Voltage Festival in 2011; and once supporting Journey and Whitesnake in Nottingham in 2013. Both times Thunder really rocked, and demonstrated why they are so well loved. I had wanted to see the band perform a headline-length set for quite a while. I almost went to see them at the Hammersmith Apollo last year, but then Kamelot announced a London show on the same day before I had bought the Thunder ticket, so Kamelot won! Thunder were then, and still are now, promoting last year's excellent album Wonder Days, the first album from the band since 2008. It is a really solid, rocking piece of work which reaffirmed the fact that Luke Morley (guitar/vocals) can write some ridiculously catchy rock songs. When this UK arena (yes, arena! I was surprised too!) was announced, I got a ticket almost instantly. Tying it in with Symphony X the day before meant I could have a full weekend in London, which was not an opportunity to pass up. I am not sure if Thunder have ever headlined arenas before this tour. The Hammersmith Apollo is usually their venue of choice, so I wondered whether they would be able to fill Wembley. The answer to that is no, but they gave it a really good go! The back portion of the arena was curtained off, but the floor was pretty packed until about two thirds of the way back, and the seats were nearly all full. My fears were unfounded, and it is great to see a band like Thunder in a venue like Wembley.

Before Thunder however, the crowd were treated to two other bands. Scotland's blues rockers King King were the first on, and impressed me with their highly melodic and polished take on the blues. They were not on stage for long, but their concise and melody-driven songs were pretty memorable, and seemed to avoid falling into many of the traps that snare a lot of new blues bands. There was even a slight hint of 1990s Toto in their sound, with some funky rhythmic guitar playing from Alan Nimmo (vocals/guitar) and driving keyboards from Bob Fridzema (keyboards/vocals). Fridzema actually stood out the most for me. Most of his playing was seated at the hammond organ, but some uses of the electric piano also helped to add some variety to King King's sound. King King are never going to set the world alight, but their set and sound was enjoyable.

1990s rockers Terrorvision, making some live rare appearances this year, were the main support to Thunder however, and their 45 minutes or so on stage was simply a bundle of energy. I had seen frontman Tony Wright on an acoustic tour with Ricky Warwick back in 2013, but that was my sole exposure to Terrorvision before this show (and having heard hit single Tequila, which they did not even play, previously a few times). I must admit, I felt slightly confused after their set and am not quite sure what to make of them. Wright is certainly a captivating frontman, although he is not much of a singer, but the music seems to have it's feet in a lot of camps. Rock, punk, and 1990s alternative can all be found in their sound, which makes for an odd mix of styles. Some of their songs were pretty catchy and fun, and others lacked the quirky charm that the band clearly thrive on. That being said, there were clearly a lot of Terrorvision fans in the crowd, and the reaction to their set was very good. I just do not think Terrorvision are for me in all honesty, but I may give them a Youtube at some point!

With stage turnover times at big venues being extremely slick, it was not long after Terrorvision's set that Thunder hit the stage. Opening with Wonder Days and Black Water from the new album showed that the band are not just here for a nostalgia trip, and new material was featured heavily throughout. The core due of Morley and frontman Danny Bowes were understandably the centre of attention for much of the evening. Bowes has always been a fantastic frontman, even if he as a tendency to drag out the crowd interaction sections for far longer than necessary, and he owned the stage all night. He still has a fine voice too, and raced with ease through oldies like River of Pain and the ballad Like a Satellite, which both came early in the set. Not to be outdone, Ben Matthews (guitar/keyboards/percussion/vocals) - who is back fighting fit after battling cancer - took every opportunity he could to shine. While he does not solo as often as Morley, he shines when he does, and his excellent keyboard work on numerous songs really adds another dimension to the band's sound. Black Water would not be the same without the driving boogie blues piano, and atmospheric songs like Empty City would lose a lot of their impact without his keyboard playing. Elsewhere the band really rocked. Backstreet Symphony, the title track from their smash-hit 1990 debut album, really had the crowd dancing and singing along, as did the Faces-like new number The Thing I Want. A couple of more epic songs were wheeled out towards the end. When the Music Played, another new number, contained plenty of excellent Morley soloing; and the top 40 hit Love Walked In was extended with plenty more soloing and extra reprises of that catchy chorus. The band ended the set with I Love You More Than Rock 'n' Roll and the cries for an encore nearly took the roof off the place. The venue has seen bigger crowds, but I think it could be hard-pressed to find a louder one! The crowd were treated to two more songs. The dirty blues of new number Serpentine (with a suitably dirty video being shown on the screens behind the band!) was a song that really got hips shaking, but it was an extended version of the band's most famous song Dirty Love (a rather dirty encore all told!) that saw some of the loudest cheering and singing of the evening. Thunder left the stage triumphant, their place in rock history more than secured. The setlist was:

Wonder Days
Black Water
River of Pain
Resurrection Day
Like a Satellite
The Devil Made Me Do It
Empty City
Backstreet Symphony
I'll Be Waiting
The Thing I Want
When the Music Played
Love Walked In
I Love You More Than Rock 'n' Roll
Dirty Love

Despite the stiff competition from Symphony X, Thunder held their own and put on a fantastic show at Wembley Arena. It made for an excellent weekend of live music, and getting two gigs together always makes the trip from Devon to the capital all that more worth it. With talk of another Thunder album next year (rumours anyway!), I think we will be seeing and hearing more from the much-love English band in the near future.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Symphony X - London Review

When it comes to progressive metal, Symphony X have always had a great reputation as a live band. They were probably the first progressive metal band I got into actually, even before Dream Theater and Queensrÿche if my memory serves me correctly! In all the years that I liked them however I have never had the chance to see them live. They have never been a band to undertake particularly extensive tours, at least since I have been keeping my eye out anyway, and the previous times they have come to the UK I have not been able to make it work. Since the Iconoclast touring cycle ended, the band had been fairly quiet too with the members working on various side projects. This all changed last year with the release of the excellent Underworld album, which I have listened to a lot since it came out. A fairly extensive US tour followed, with the announcement of the European shows coming later in the year for 2016. I knew I had the take the opportunity, as another chance might not come around for a good few years! The gig was at the Islington Assembly Hall, an excellent London venue that I had been to once before. The queueing system was awful however. I opted to collect my ticket on the door, which had a separate queue, which took at least ten times longer than all the queues. We all had to stand in the cold watching everyone else stream past us, all because we had elected to save a few quid on the postage. There may have been a problem with someone's order who was ahead of me in the queue, but I did not feel this length of time stood outside was acceptable! Luckily the actual venue itself is really nice, with a good-sized stage a great sound system that sounded very clear and loud all night.

Due to the queueing issues, the first support band Melted Space were already on stage by the time I got in. Despite my annoyance at having to stand in the cold and rain longer than was necessary, I was not too upset about missing some of Melted Space's set. I learnt, by looking on their Facebook page during their set, that they are a one-man project - led by keyboardist and songwriter Pierre Le Pape - who is joined by various guest musicians live. Melted Space's touring ensemble consisted of no fewer than four singers(!): a clean male singer, a harsh male singer, and two female singers. Lead vocals were shared between the four, and the whole thing came off as an extremely poor man's Avantasia. The gothic/symphonic metal the band played was fairly generic, without any real hooks to latch onto. I found the whole thing to be pretty forgettable and I cannot see myself checking them out further in the future.

Tunisia's Myrath had everything about them that Melted Space did not. They had great onstage charisma and the songs to back them up, with the majority of the set coming from their newly released fourth album Legacy. I have liked Myrath for quite a while, so it was great to finally see them live. Despite being unfamiliar with most of the set (my crowdfunded pre-order of Legacy is yet to arrive!) I enjoyed the band's performance, and was impressed with many of the new tunes. Zaher Zorgati (vocals) owned the stage, moving around a lot and belting out the lyrics with real vigour. The new songs seem to be much more instantly memorable than some of their older, more progressive, work, which made their set easy to enjoy. New single Believer was one of the set's highlights. The melodies throughout that song are very memorable, and Malek Ben Arbia's (guitar) solo was excellent. Only two older songs were included, including an excellent rendition of older single Merciless Times which has an excellent chorus. The set came to an end with Duat, another new song, which was one of the best ones played I think. I look forward to hearing Legacy when it finally arrives (probably just should have ordered from Amazon..). The setlist was:

Storm of Lies
Get Your Freedom Back
Wide Shut
Nobody's Lives
Merciless Times

When the stage was cleared, it was not long before Symphony X hit the stage, and delivered one of the best live performances I have seen for quite some time. It is very rare to see a band perform with such sustained energy, while nailing a whole set packed with technically challenging material! A bonus came in the shape of the setlist, which contained every song from the excellent Underworld album played throughout the evening - mostly in order too. Nevermore and Underworld prove to be an excellent opening double salvo, and as Michael Pinnella (keyboards/vocals) played Underworld's lead keyboard riff I knew the evening was going to be something special. This was because the sound was near-perfect, with this keyboards always being perfectly clear and not being drowned out by the band. Frontman Russell Allen was in excellent form throughout. He is the perfect frontman, with a huge vocal range and the stage presence to go with it. He was constantly on the move, acting out the lyrics and really getting the crowd going. Kiss of Fire was one of the set's highlights, with that big riff from Michael Romeo (guitar/vocals), the almost-black metal drumming from Jason Rullo, and the dynamic vocal performance from Allen. Another highlight was the progressive epic To Hell and Back, which again has excellent keyboards and plenty of chances for Romeo to solo. He is one of the most impressive guitarists I have ever seen live (up there with John Petrucci and Nuno Bettencourt), and his playing was spot on throughout as he nailed those complex solos. Another epic in the form of Swan Song closed out the Underworld section of the set (apart from the encore of Legend) in fine fashion, with Pinnella's piano lines really standing out. After the short but explosive instrumental The Death of Balance, two older numbers were played. Romeo channelled Yngwie Malmsteen on these songs, and they were both excellent. Sea of Lies was an excellent closing number, with plenty of moments for the crowd to join in during the wordless vocal sections. The sold out crowd (impressive feat with Dream Theater playing across London - also sold out!) was excellent thoughout, and seemed to be having the time of their lives. They were loud all the time, and the band seemed to feed of the energy. The band came back for a couple of more. The anthemic Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies) probably garnered the best reaction of the night, with some extremely loud singing from the crowd, before the epic aforementioned Legend closed out the evening. The setlist was:

Kiss of Fire
Without You
To Hell and Back
In My Darkest Hour
Run with the Devil
Swan Song
The Death of Balance
Out of the Ashes
Sea of Lies
Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)

Overall, this was one of the best metal shows I have seen in quite some time. Symphony X certainly lived up to their reputation as an excellent live band, and the capacity crowd certainly went away happy. I think I shall be thinking about this one for quite some time!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Serenity's 'Codex Atlanticus' - Album Review

The Austrian symphonic power metal band Serenity, while never rising to the heights of many of their peers, have been releasing solid albums since releasing their debut album, Words Untold & Dreams Unlived, in 2007. While I have enjoyed most of their albums on a casual basis, most of their work has never blown me away. The exception to the rule was 2011's fantastic Death & Legacy album, the band's third album, which featured in my Top 10 albums of 2011 list and contained plenty of extremely memorable and bombastic metal anthems. As is with many bands, line-up changes really ruined Serenity's momentum. Keyboard player and songwriter Mario Hirzinger left the band in 2012, and 2013's War of Ages seemed to lack the spark of the previous album. The addition of Clémentine Delauney as a permanent female vocalist did not help either, as Serenity seemed to shoehorn vocal parts in for her were they were not really necessary. Despite her being a good singer, I think her departure from the band last year was for the best, as now frontman Georg Neuhauser's voice once again takes centre stage where it belongs. Guitarist and songwriter Thomas Buchberger also left the band last year, leaving only one of the main songwriting trio remaining. Serenity seemed over, but the band have bounced back with a more condensed four-piece line-up and a really stellar release in the form of fifth album Codex Atlanticus. Joining Neuhauser, founding member and drummer Andreas Schipflinger, and long-time bassist Fabio D'Amore, is new guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer (Visions of Atlantis). Hermsdörfer has jumped on board the Serenity ship with both feet, as he has co-written the entire album with Neuhauser and producer Jan Vacik - and the three have formed a formidable spngwriting team. In writing Codex Atlanticus Serenity seemed to have attemped to push the melodies forward and make them stand out. While the bombastic symphonic arrangements are still there, they take a backseat to solid songwriting. Some of the band's catchiest songs appear on this album, and for that reason I can see myself listening to this one quite often. Style wise, this album is typical Serenity fare, but just more memorable and melodic than usual. There are a few subtle changes however. One of them is the fact that D'Amore has expanded his role a little and now contributes vocals occasionally. He does not sing lead often, but his grittier tone works well in contrast to Neuhauser's soaring smooth delivery and the two play off each other well. The album is a concept album of sorts, with all the songs being based around the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci.

After the obligatory orchestral intro, which also happens to be the album's title track, Codex Atlanticus gets under way with Follow Me. A gentle piano melody soon leads into a muscular metal riff with a dense orchestral backing that is in typical Serenity style. Relatively low-key verses ensue, with some excellent clean guitar playing to back up Neuhauser's breathy delivery. The song gradually builds up towards the song's chorus which, while memorable, is not the anthem it could have been. It still works well however, and you get the impression that the new-look Serenity mean business. Hermsdörfer impresses instantly with a myriad of styles, including a tasteful solo midway through. Sprouts of Terror opens out with a riff that would not be out of place on an 1980s Accept album, but the orchestral stabs soon dispel this illusion. D'Amore opens the vocals with his rougher voice, which fits the faster speed metal feel of the song. As soon as a more melodic section arrives, Neuhauser comes back in as the orchestral dances around his direct vocal melodies. The chorus is a real winner, with a slower tempo and some really soaring vocal lines. This song is something a little different from what Serenity has done in the past, and it works really well. Hermsdörfer's guitar dominates again, and D'Amore's vocals really help to add a harsher edge. Iniquity is classic Serenity however, and opens with a delicate xylophone line before exploding into a real symphonic rocker with a huge orchestral and choral arrangement which recalls the style the band used on Death & Legacy. Much like with Follow Me, the song has fairly low-key verses with Schipflinger's tribal drumming leading the charge while Neuhauser croons over the top. As is expected too, the chorus is an epic affair, with some extremely catchy vocal melodies that stick with you almost instantly. The orchestrations compliment the vocals perfectly, and the wall-of-sound metal approach used by the rest of the band proves to be the perfect backing. Those who enjoy the really bombastic end of Serenity's work will love Reason. The opening cacophony is a symphonic feast, with some fabulous orchestrations sitting over the fast metal riff. The energy is barely let up throughout, with crunching power chords in the verses and a bouncy chorus with striking vocal lines and tight drumming. Hermsdörfer's solo is excellent too, with a good mix of precise melody and shredding showboating. He seems to be a real asset to the modern Serenity vision. With a Celtic/folky intro, My Final Chapter is the first of the album's true slower numbers. Neuhauser's smooth vocals are backed by a booming piano line and some atmospheric strings. The song does gradually build up somewhat, but it never becomes anything other than a ballad. It works well however, especially the slow guitar solo, and helps to give the listener a break from the bombastic metal anthems found so far.

Caught in a Myth opens with some strange, almost industrial, sounds, but this mood is soon dispersed when the song's main riff comes on. The verse a stop-start affair, with bursts of deep bass guitar, and Schipflinger's hi-hat work. The chorus is another strong moment, with some great power metal vocals and subtle orchestrations. That being said however, the song does not feel as strong as others on the album, and probably suffers from being quite similar to much of what has come before. It is certainly enjoyable, but does not hit home like the first half of the album. Fate of Light, with another speed metal-esque riff, ends up sounding a little like a Rhapsody of Fire song with the layers of choral vocals plastered on during the intro. The end result is much smoother than the Italian band would ever be however, with Neuhauser's vocals dominating and having space to really breathe. It is songs like this that have caused Serenity to be compared to Kamelot in the past, and this sounds like something that could have been on their The Fourth Legacy album, before Kamelot really came into their own by adding various progressive touches to their songwriting. There is another great guitar solo in this song, with some very fast sections. The Perfect Woman, about the Mona Lisa, is another good slower number that features the vocal talents of go-to metal session singer Amanda Somerville. The song's piano, and overall mood of the piece, brings musical theatre to mind as it has that accessible quality. Despite it being largely slower number, there is still quite a lot of energy here, with some dramatic string sections and an emotional vocal delivery. Somerville's lead vocal sections only serve to enhance that theatre feeling, and it works really well - again sounding different from anything the band has done before. This is a song that did not really stand out to me at first, but now it has become one of my favourites on the album, despite how cheesy it is. Spirit in the Flesh is another old-school sounding Serenity song, with a great soaring guitar lead during the song's intro and some double-bass drumming. This song is my favourite on the whole album, because it contains all the hallmarks that made me love the Death & Legacy album so much, and it is chock full of memorable melodies. The chorus is easily the album's best too, with Neuhauser and D'Amore trading vocal lines and complimenting each other well. The band filmed a video for this song (and Follow Me) and I can see why, as it really hits you straight away. I think this song will be in the band's setlists for years to come. A moody piano motif heralds the arrival of The Order, the album's final song. It comes across as an epic, ambitious song, but deep down it is quite a simple beast. This is no bad thing however, and it works really well to close out the album with a piano-heavy rock sound and plenty of strong orchestrations. Neuhauser sounds fantastic here, and this could possibly be his best vocal performance on the album. Overall, Codex Atlantic is a strong come back album from Serenity after the weaker (in my opinion) War of Ages. This is already my second favourite work by the band, and in time even that could change. Excellent stuff!

The album was released om 29th January 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Spirit in the Flesh.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Mantra Vega's 'The Illusion's Reckoning' - Album Review

Since leaving Mostly Autumn in 2010, singer/songwriter Heather Findlay has been relatively quiet - at least publicly. Her only release of original material came back in 2011 in the form of an EP called The Phoenix Suite, which sounded quite different from what fans of her previous work were used to. That being said, I liked the EP from the off, and still play it pretty regularly to this day. The raw, stark production really gives Findlay's voice room to breathe, and is totally different from the epic wall of sound that characterise Mostly Autumn's sound. It was produced by Chris Johnson (Mostly Autumn; Fish; Halo Blind), someone who Findlay has worked with often over the years. Her other two solo releases, an acoustic live album with Johnson and a collection of acoustic reworkings with her touring band at the time, were both enjoyable; but it was the full debut solo album that we were really waiting for! Bits of news about Findlay's work kept coming out on social media, but nothing concrete was announced until the formation of Mantra Vega - a new project based around the songwriting team of Findlay and American keyboardist Dave Kerzner (Sound of Contact). Not having heard Sound of Contact's acclaimed debut album Dimensionaut I was unfamiliar with Kerzner's work, but I looked forward to the fruits of this labour. Last month, Mantra Vega's debut album The Illusion's Reckoning was released, and it proved instantly to be worth the wait! Joining Findlay and Kerzner in this venture are guitarists Dave Kilminster (John Wetton; Roger Waters; Steven Wilson) and Johnson; bassist Stuart Fletcher (The Seahorses; We Could Be Astronauts; Halo Blind); and drummer Alex Cromarty (Mostly Autumn). All four of these musicians have played with Findlay at some point during her career, and they all have a great chemistry, helping to bring Findlay and Kerzner's songs to life so well. Other musicians that contribute to the album include Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish), Angela Gordon (Mostly Autumn; Odin Dragonfly), and even the progressive giant Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon; Star One; Stream of Passion; Guilt Machine; The Gentle Storm) contributes a guitar solo to the album's epic title track. Soundwise, The Illusion's Reckoning is more what you would expect from Findlay, but with a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure. There are hints of the early, folky side of Mostly Autumn, but with added big atmospheric keyboard arrangements and a rock rhythm section to back them up. It has a retro, organic feel in parts, and a spiky rock feel in others. The combination works well, and despite the wait for something new from Findlay this album really delivers.

After the beautiful atmospheric spoken word number Every Corner, which really helps to set the tone for the album, single Island comes on and wows with it's smooth vocal melodies and gentle keyboard lines. There is something about late 1970s Fleetwood Mac about this song, as the mix of accessible melodies and fairly dense atmospherics  recalls that legendary band. Findlay sings the song, but Kerzner backs her up with some great vocal harmonies, and even takes the lead sometimes. He does not sing very often on this album, but he helps to add a little diversity when he does. One thing is clear, and that is that this album contains possibly Findlay's best vocal performance to date. There is lots of variation in her delivery, but her trademark warmth shines through often. There is a lovely guitar solo from Kilminster too. The floatiness of Island then leads into the slightly gothic rock of Veil of Ghosts, which actually reminds me a little of the Mostly Autumn song Ghost ironically. Donockley adds his deep vocals to the song, which adds to the slightly haunting feel. The song really comes alive in the chorus however, which is the album's heaviest moment, with soaring harmony vocals from Findlay, Gordon, and Irene Jansen - Findlay's The Theatre Equation colleague. Donockley's contribution extends to adding a really effect-heavy guitar solo to the song also, which sounds like something from an old Pink Floyd album. It works well within the slightly dark, murky mood of the song. From spiky rock to a gorgeous ballad, the album then moves onto Lake Sunday, which is the sort of song we have come to expect from Findlay over the years. It is a really beautiful, with some playful vocal melodies that stick in your head as soon as you hear them. It is quite a hypnotic song, with lots of repeating themes that make the song so memorable. Johnson's subtle guitar patterns ring through, especially during Findlay's wordless vocal sections. There is also a nice keyboard-led atmospheric instrumental section towards the end of the song, where Fletcher's bass also shines through with some inventive riffs. Mountain Spring is another rocky number, but with an organic feel with hollow-sounding drums and driving acoustic guitar. Findlay has a fair amount of grit in her vocals, and Kerzner's growling organ helps to create a early 1970s rock vibe. The dry sounding electric guitar chords in the chorus are reminiscent of the sound developed on The Phoenix Suite, but added to the organic feel of Mantra Vega's established sound - it works well however. Gordon contributes some solemn recorder lines throughout too. The album also contains an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track.

In a Dream, co-written by Kerzner's Sound of Contact bandmate Matt Dorsey (who also plays mandolin and some extra guitar on the song), is a lovely folk number that really recalls those early Mostly Autumn albums. Findlay plays low whistle on the song, and it is that instrument that brings about that comparison. The song is piano-led however. although the low whistle does play a key role in shaping the main melody of the piece. The song does build up as it moves along however, with a gang vocal choir leading the way as Cromarty's drums point the way to something big, but the crescendo never comes, instead giving way to Findlay's two sons singing the song's main melody which works really well. What could have been an anti-climax turns into something really strong, and that is the mark of a well-written song. Learning to be Light has quite a dry, sparse feel with Cromarty's drums actually dominating the mix. Again, this song recalls the sound Findlay used on The Phoenix Suite, and it is good to see that vibe has not totally been discarded. There are lots of great subtle guitar flourishes from Johnson however. There is one moment where he lets rip with an explosion of bluesy lead guitar, and others where his rhythmic playing almost sounds like a solo in itself. I have always felt that Johnson is a very underrated musician, so it is great to see him getting in he spotlight more on this album. Another classic Findlay ballad, I've Seen Your Star, follows and showcases her gorgeous voice in the best possible way. Only acoustic guitar, harmonium, and bansuri (a type of flute played by Remko de Landmeter) accompany her vocals, and it works as a good contrast to follow the percussive Learning to be Light. Findlay rocks well, but I have always felt her real strength lies in ballads and the gentler end of music. Her naturally warm voice really shines on this type of song, and this is as good an example as any. After a short reprise of Island, we reach the albums epic title track which is also the album's final song. Johnson's ringing guitar riff heralds the song's arrival, but Findlay soon demands with a commanding vocal delivery, that uses her higher register more for a floaty effect. It is not a heavy song, but there is a certain rock class to it. Kerzner's dramatic keyboards and piano add to that feel, and Cromarty's precise drumming drives it. Despite it being nearly ten minutes long, the song never feels long or outstays it's welcome. Johnson's guitar work is excellent again, and Kerzner even shows off with a short keyboard solo. The standout musical moment however is Lucassen's shredding guitar solo that is probably the craziest moment on the whole album. He really lets rip, and it fits the song perfectly. Overall, The Illusion's Reckoning is a great debut from Mantra Vega and an album that puts Heather Findlay back on the map. She is touring the album with her solo band (which includes many of the musicians that contributed to this album) later in the year, so I urge you all to make the effort to go and see her play this excellent album live.

The album was released on 22nd January 2016 via Black Sand Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Island.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Megadeth's 'Dystopia' - Album Review

As one of the Big 4 of Thrash, Megadeth really have nothing left to prove. Their first five albums (at least!) were genre-defining for the burgeoning thrash metal scene. It is mostly agreed that 1990's Rust in Peace, the band's fourth album, is their true masterpiece. That is a fact that is hard to deny. It was the first to feature former guitarist Marty Friedman's awesome neo-classical shredding solos, and was probably the album where founding member and lead songwriter Dave Mustaine began to strike the right balance between fast-paced thrash metal and infectious melodies. 1992's Countdown to Extinction, another bona fide classic, streamlined the band's thrash style somewhat, taking more cues from hard rock and the NWOBHM, but it proved just as successful. Unlike many other thrash bands, Megadeth have never been too content to rest on their laurels. Various tweaks have been injected into the band's sound over the years, mostly to the outcry of the notoriously closed-minded metal world. The band have always remained popular despite this however, and Mustaine has been putting out albums fairly regularly since, despite the fact band members have come and gone. Since reforming in 2004, Megadeth's output has been, in my opinion, pretty strong and consistent. 2009's heavy Endgame, which proved the then-new guitarist Chris Broderick was a revelation, is my favourite of the band's recent catalogue. It had everything that was great about Megadeth's classic output included, but sounded fresh, modern, and hungry. The only recent album that never stuck with me was 2011's TH1RT3EN. The songs just never stuck with me, but I do feel it is probably time for a long-overdue personal reappraisal - I have not played it for quite some time! I even liked 2013's much-maligned Super Collider (which I reviewed here) as it contained lots of memorable and melodic tunes. Three years since Super Collider's release and the band have released Dystopia, their fifteenth album. Yet more line-up changes have occurred in the intervening period, something which Megadeth is no stranger to. Mustaine and fellow founding member bassist David Ellefson have been joined by guitarist Kiko Loureiro (Angra) and drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God). On paper this looked as if it could be the greatest Megadeth line-up ever, even rivalling the legendary Rust in Peace line-up, and the performances on Dystopia could indeed prove that statement to be true! Dystopia is a fantastic piece of work, and one that could unseat Endgame as my favourite recent Megadeth album, and could even end up rivalling some of the band's older albums.

Opening with the furious The Threat is Real, which shows Megadeth at their most aggressive for a while, gets the album off to a fine start. The fast picking intro guitar line, mixed with a fluid Eastern-sounding lead, soon leads into a solid mid-paced rocker with Mustaine's trademark snarling vocals sounding better than ever. Ellefson's bass booms out of the speakers and drives the song, as Adler's restrained but heavy drumming provides an excellent backbone. After each chorus, Mustaine and Loureiro trade endless guitar solos that show that this pairing is an excellent one. This song sounds like classic Megadeth, and I am sure hearing it will ensure many people check this album out. The album's title track follows, and the riff reminds me a little of a laid back version of the band's classic song Hangar 18. It is quite understated, as subtle keyboards surround it, but the melodic guitar lead is extremely catchy and memorable. The chugging verse has some excellent vocals, which are backed up by a cutting guitar lead that constantly punches through the mix to dominate. The chorus features more excellent guitar work, as Mustaine howls 'Dystopia' repeatedly as the shredding goes on around him. This is a real guitarists song, as it features a tonne of excellent playing from the band's two guitarists. After the solo there is a great riff and drum combo, which is the first drumming section on the album that really sounds like Adler's playing. He has such a unique style when playing with Lamb of God, but that is not as apparent so often here as he plays the more traditional Megadeth material. Fatal Illusion, which has been floating around online for some time now, is a great heavy tune. The slow, doomy intro soon gives way to a fast-paced bass guitar riff which then ends up driving the rest of the song. Adler's double bass drumming lock in well with this bass pattern, and the guitars build on this with a succinct riff. This song makes use of Mustaine's half-spoken style of vocals which he employs now and again, and it works well as with the simple and heavy nature of the song. It is short and sweet, but it packs a real punch. Death from Within goes back to the groove-based mid-pace of the first couple of numbers with some chugging power chords and little breaks of explosive lead guitar. The chorus is classic Megadeth, with a call-and-response vocal style that makes use of Mustaine's strange voice. The song does not make as big of an impact as the opening three numbers, but it works well and is still an enjoyable song. Bullet to the Brain is similar, but has a slight doomy gothic vibe with some darker vocals and some really grinding guitar riffs. This is contrasted well with the more overt chorus, with the two different sounds sitting well together. To fit the darker tone, there are some excellent slower guitar solos that really ooze out of the speakers. It is a nice change from the usual speed-fests that fill Megadeth songs.

Up next are three songs co-written by Loureiro, who has clearly taken to life in Megadeth with real ease. Post American World is the best of the bunch and could well be my favourite song on the album. It has some real snaking guitar riffing that really create a great sense of groove, and Adler mixes it up quite a bit with a lot of different drum beats. One minute he is following the groove with a simple beat, and the next he unleashes a flurry of double bass drumming in his inimitable style. Mid-paced Megadeth is my favourite type of Megadeth, and this song highlights why. Downbeat guitar sections give a spooky vibe to the song, while the chorus, packed full of subtle harmony vocals, instantly sticks in the brain. Oh, and there's an excellent guitar solo to boot! The next song, Poisonous Shadows, is another excellent number. An acoustic intro soon leads into a fairly progressive riff section that is backed up by a stark orchestral arrangement. Adler's drumming here stands out, with some amazingly tight playing, and the whole song is a joy to listen to. It is not an explosively heavy song, but it has an epic quality to it through the inventiveness of the riffing and the constant presence of the orchestra. Loureiro has been a huge asset to Megadeth since joining the band, and he even plays the piano part during the song's beautiful outro. After the shredding instrumental Conquer or Die! (although the classical guitar intro is just as impressive!) we reach Lying in State. This song ups the pace considerably and is a really strong piece of thrash metal. Those who love to headbang will love this song, as Adler's fast footwork and the simpleness of the guitar patterns make this song perfect that for activity. The guitars really wail during the tortured lead sections, and Mustaine's voice is unusually expressive here as he snarls over the fast riffing. Not exactly a stand-out song, but a good fast number to rock out to. The last original song on the album, The Emperor, has a really muscular and memorable riff that hits you from the off and never lets go. This song emulates the band's Countdown to Extinction sound perfectly, and sounds like it could have been recorded during the sessions for that album. Old-school Megadeth fans will probably really enjoy this one, as it really taps into the old way Mustaine used to write and the subtle melodies are trademark. The album should have ended on this song really, as the shredding outro would have been a perfect way to close out the album. Instead we have a slightly throwaway cover of Fear's Foreign Policy. It is not bad, but it does not really seem to serve any purpose and sounds more like a bonus track. Overall, Dystopia is a really strong Megadeth album and one that will probably draw back a lot of fans who had been underwhelmed by the band's more recent direction.

The album was released on 22nd January 2016 via Tradecraft/Universal Music Group. Below is the band's promotional video for The Threat is Real.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

COP UK's 'No Place for Heaven' - Album Review

Sheffield's Crimes of Passion (or COP UK as they seem to be going by these days) impressed me from the first time I ever saw them, which was at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2009, and I bought their self-titled debut album from them after their set. Their old-school brand of hard rock and heavy metal, with plenty of big hooks and melodies, spoke to me and it is always good to discover new bands playing this sort of back-to-basics rock. The band seem to have done pretty well for themselves since, attracting the attention of some big names in the rock and metal worlds. Saxon's Biff Byford is known to be a big fan of the band, and he appeared on their second album To Die For which was released in 2012. Helloween's Andi Deris also appeared on that album, and it was produced by Charlie Bauerfeind who has worked with both Saxon and Helloween; as well as Blind Guardian among others. To Die For was a big step forward for the band, emphasising the metal end of their sound, with big riffs and shredding solos taking centre stage along with frontman Dale Radcliffe's soaring vocal performances. More support slots, including a lengthy one with W.A.S.P. where I caught the band, followed but it would be nearly four years before another album would materialise. Recorded throughout 2015 No Place for Heaven, the band's third album, was finally released last month. Swapping one big-name producer, this album was produced by Sascha Paeth who has worked with a whole host of big metal bands including Kamelot, Epica, and Avantasia (where he also plays lead guitar). His right-hand man Michael 'Miro' Rodenberg was brought in to master the album, and also contributes some additional keyboard parts to the album, as Paeth does also. COP UK have never been a stranger to line-up changes, and this album is no different. Joining Radcliffe, guitarist Charles Staton, and drummer Kev Tonge, are long-time bassist Scott Jordan, as well as guitarist Andrew Mewse, and keyboardist Henning Wanner (White Lion; Circle II Circle) who brings a new element and years of road experience to the band. I recently saw the band live for the first time since 2012 (which I reviewed here), and heard the majority of this album live for the first time. I bought the album at the show, and have been listening to it a lot since. Like To Die For was a step up from Crimes of Passion, No Place for Heaven is a step up from To Die For. There is no question that this is the band's best work to date, and I hope their current tour with Helloween will expose them to even more new fans.

Opening with a great bouncy riff The Core, one of the album's strongest tracks, shows that COP UK mean business. While overall less heavy than their previous work, the strong melodies and tight musicianship shines through. That said, Tonge still unleashes some speedy double bass drumming during the pre-choruses which adds a sprinkling of metal to proceedings. The verses are instantly memorable, with some excellent vocal melodies that sit atop the muscular guitar chords. The powerful chorus recycles the intro melody, and makes an instant impact. The whole album is build around great choruses, and this is one of the best. Staton also impresses with a fluid, melodic solo that shows his credentials as a guitarist. My Blood follows in similar fashion to the opening track, making a great double salvo to open this great album. This is a little heavier though, with a driving verse riff and a chorus that could come from a modern Helloween album with a lots of big harmony vocals. There is also a heavier breakdown, with some chugging power chords and distorted vocals, but this does not last long and soon explodes into another precise but melodic solo. After two driving rockers, Kiss of an Angel comes along and injects a little AOR-feeling into the album. A lovely clean intro soon builds into an anthemic rock out with soaring wordless vocals from Radcliffe. The verses are gentle, almost ballad-like, and brings to mind the best of the 1980s hard rock scene - think Native Tongue-era Poison or something similar. The chorus is a little more upbeat however, with more excellent harmony vocals, and melodies that are hugely infectious. This song is melodic hard rock at it's very best, and this seems to be the style that COP UK are trying to perfect these days. It works well for them, and they seem to be more natural doing this than some of the more heavier songs. Speaking of heavier tunes, Take it to the Grave is up next and it boasts the album's best riff. It is a really groovy piece of songwriting, and the rhythm it creates is just perfect. A quite dark-sounding verse follows with some gritty vocals from Radcliffe as the guitars ring around behind him. The chorus continues the darker vibe, but the band's trademark big melodies still shine through. It ends up sounding a little like modern Magnum, which is no bad thing! If you like big 1980s ballads, then the album's title track is for you. Radcliffe's vocal performance here is commanding, and he is joined by an unknown female vocalist for a chorus duet that works really well. Like all good ballads, the song really ramps up during the chorus for maximum power, as Wanner's keyboards envelop the whole song with their sparkle. Stirring stuff - if a little clichéd!

Burn Hell has another amazing riff, but the rest of the song fails to fit in with it. It is not a bad song by any means, but it is a little downbeat and is quite different than what you may expect after hearing the riff. I quite like the haunting vibe the song has, with subtle keyboards and ghostly backing vocals, but the riff just feels a little out of place. There is a great guitar solo in this song too, which really has elements of Slash's style, and it fits the downbeat vibe nicely. Halo is the album's heaviest song, with some excellent fast drumming and a ringing twin-lead guitar riff. This song reminds me quite a lot of the material found on To Die For, as it has that old-school COP UK sound. The harsh-sounding guitars match the production on that album, and metal side of the band's sound is pushed to the max. It does stick out a little because of this, but luckily the song is strong enough to stand up to that. The album's lead single Catch Me if You Can follows, and it is clear why the band decided to shoot a video for this one. The chorus is a rousing success, with Wanner's big harmony vocals making it sound huge. It is an energetic song, with a riff-heavy pre-chorus and a driving verse that makes it instantly memorable. The song screams 'single', and I can imagine this song getting a lot of plays on MTV if it was released in the mid-1980s. Hopefully this song will be shared a lot online, as I think it would turn a lot of people onto COP UK if they heard it. No Man's Land is another ballad, but there is another really excellent riff after the initial mellow introduction. COP UK's riffs are packed full of melody, and are not just there for the sake of it. Another really strong chorus is included here, and it has quite a melodramatic feel that suits the mood perfectly. Radcliffe has a pretty dynamic voice, and can hit some pretty high notes - which he does here. It has a great solo too, which is really the icing on the cake here. It starts of slow, but then Staton starts to shred a little while helps to build up excitement for the final run-through of the chorus. The penultimate song, One in a Million, is a little strange. There is a great power metal keyboard flurry, but then the rest of the song sounds a little laboured with a bass-heavy chug that sounds like it is trying a little too hard. The chorus is pretty strong however, but it then turns into a quasi-industrial grind with some shouted vocals that just comes across as a bit forced. This is the only song on the album that does not really work for me, but it is easily forgotten when surrounded by so many other excellent numbers. Closing song Stranger than Fiction is a bit more laid back, with an excellent keyboard riff and a theatrical chorus - the whole thing sounds like a bit like Edguy! It is a really strong song that ends the album perfectly, as it has that anthemic 'arms waving in the air'-type feel to it that makes it great for a closing number. Overall, No Place for Heaven is a real breath of fresh air for both the hard rock and metal genres. It is well written, played, and produced and brings the ideas of the 1980s into the modern day without sounding forced. I really hope they gain some new fans with this release, as it is extremely strong!

The album was released on 22nd January 2016 via Blown Away Music/UDR GmbH. Below is the band's promotional video for Catch Me if You Can.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Coheed and Cambria - Cardiff Review

With their feet in many camps, New York's Coheed and Cambria are a big of enigma, but their music has gained them legions of fans worldwide. Taking influence from progressive rock, alternative music, hardcore punk, and metal; the band have an eclectic sound that has evolved naturally over the eight studio albums they have released so far. Their latest, The Color Before the Sun (which I reviewed here), is the first album from the band not to be part of their epic, sprawling Sci-Fi storyline; and sounds more simple and song-based as a result. It has an album that has grown on me quite a bit since it was released, and the simpler sound is quite refreshing. Despite being a fan of the band for a number of years, I had never had the opportunity to see them live before. Every time the band has toured previously, I have either had other plans booked in already, or I just could not make the dates due to studies or work. When three UK shows were announced a few months back, I knew I had to really make the effort this time to go and see the band. Cardiff seemed like the most realistic option, and it is a place I have always wanted to return to anyway. It had been about six years since I was last year, so it was nice to return. The show was in the Great Hall, which is part of the University's Student's Union. I got a little lost on the way and, when I eventually found the building, walked through nearly every part of it until I found out where I was supposed to be - which was outside behind the building! When I got into the venue, I found that it was a good sized room, that was pretty much full throughout. The stage was a little low however, which made the view a bit dodgy at times - but overall it was good. I will say that the sound was pretty muddy throughout the evening, but not to the point that it ruined the show.

Before Coheed and Cambria came on, there were two rather dull support bands (in my opinion anyway). Crooks, the first band on, started interestingly with some gentle vocals set to an atmospheric backing but when the rest of the band came in it all went downhill. The songs were all very loose, with little in the way of stand-out melodies, and it was all so abrasive that it got quite hard to listen to after a while. I thought the band's singer had a strong, distinctive voice, but he seemed to get buried by the rest of the band far too often. I was quite glad when their set finished, as they really were not my thing at all. Main supports Glassjaw were not much better (again, in my opinion). Their disjointed, post-hardcore sound is really  not my thing at all, and I did not really enjoy much of their set at all. The band's guitarist was quite interesting however, and quite a unique style that I enjoyed - he manged to get some crazy sounds out of it! Much like with Crooks however, I could not really find any catchy melodies to latch onto, and found their set quite a chore to sit through. They seemed to go down well with the crowd however, and they seemed to have quite a few fans in attendance. Coheed and Cambria have always seemed to want to associate themselves more with the punk and post-hardcore scenes than anything else, which is a shame as they would also go well on bills with rock and metal acts.

After sitting through two supports that I did not enjoy, Coheed and Cambria came onstage and reminded me why I was there. Their 90 minute, high-energy set was excellent, and contained songs from throughout their whole discography - including four from the new album. The first two songs from that album opened up the evening nicely, with Island in particular standing out. It is a bouncy, up-tempo number that really works well live. Claudio Sanchez (vocals/guitar) sounded excellent all night, with his distinctive voice carrying the band throughout. His guitar was a little buried however, which meant that many riffs were hard to hear which was a shame. Travis Stever (guitar/vocals) made up for it though, with his fluid, restrained lead playing complimenting the vocals perfectly. I really like his style, and he really adds a lot of every song. Old material like the anthemic Devil in Jersey City sat well alongside newer songs like Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant, showing the band's natural musical progressive perfectly. There were plenty of highlights throughout, including the industrial rock of World of Lines and the band's latest single You Got Spirit, Kid which was made to be played live and received a bigger reception than some of the old classics. As I said before, this was a very high-energy set and the atmosphere throughout was very good. The room was packed and there lots of die-hard Coheed and Cambria fans singing along to everything. It was probably the most audible crowd I have seen in a while, and when Sanchez directed the crowd to sing, they did so loudly! Lots of classics were wheeled out towards the end, including the perfect pop-metal of A Favor House Atlantic, with that big chorus sung by everyone there, and the set ended with the lengthy In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, which is a great piece of modern prog. That was not the end however, and the band came back for a couple more fan-favourites which really pleased the large crowd. Ten Speed (Of God's Blood and Burial) was the first, but it was the epic, brooding Welcome Home that received the biggest cheer. Sanchez and Stever exchanged solos during this song, and it ensured the evening ended on a high point. The setlist was:

Devil in Jersey City
Key Entity Extraction V: Sentry the Defiant
Blood Red Summer
World of Lines
No World for Tomorrow
You Got Spirit, Kid
Here to Mars
A Favor House Atlantic
The Camper Velourium III: Al the Killer
In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3
Ten Speed (Of God's Blood and Burial)
Welcome Home

Overall, this was a great set from a band I have been wanting to see for quite some time, and they did no disappoint. The selection of material played was strong, and the atmosphere was excellent throughout. I hope the band comes back to the UK again soon, as I would love to see them again!