Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Circus Maximus' 'Havoc' - Album Review

Norwegian band Circus Maximus, once the up-and-coming darlings of the progressive metal world, are back with their fourth album Havoc, which further continues to develop their own unique sound and identity. Since forming the 2000, the band have had a slow and steady career, with albums and tours coming relatively infrequently, only making them more special when they do. Their debut album, The 1st Chapter from 2005, was Dream Theater worship as they borrowed elements from the American band's songbook to create an enjoyable piece of work. Two years later, Isolate was released. This one was more streamlined and atmospheric, with big doses of Kamelot's melodramatic sound. Both of these albums are very good, but they are also quite derivative. I often find it funny that things classed as being 'progressive' are actually very similar to other bands. Five years later however, Circus Maximus realised their true progressive potential and released Nine, an album that sounded like no other band. Circus Maximus had taken the progressive metal sound of their influences and turned it into something that was truly their own. Mixing the twisting, heavy instrumentation of progressive metal, with spacey synthesisers and floaty song structures, Nine was an album that really stood out. Ironically, the flat-earthist end of the metal world did not like Nine as it was 'poppy' and 'not like their old stuff' - showing the attitudes of some prog fans can be anything but progressive. It is safe to say that Circus Maximus are no longer the up-and-coming darlings of progressive metal but, in my opinion, this is only a good thing. The world does not need another Dream Theater or another Kamelot; but it does need a Circus Maximus! Four years after the impressive Nine, Havoc has been released. Those who hated Nine, will also hate Havoc as the band has developed that sound and taken it even further this time. Those who loved Nine, and there are thankfully quite a few, will be interested to see how that sound has evolved here. If anything, Havoc moves further from the band's earlier sound than Nine did, and showcases the band truly standing on their own two feet. Christer-André Cederberg, now known for his production work with Anathema, mixed the album and I believe his influence has rubbed off on the band. There is definitely something about Anathema's approach to melody and song structure here, but with Mats Haugen's snaking guitar riffs and Michael Eriksen's super-smooth vocals driving things. Keyboardist Lasse Finbråten also has plenty of chance to shine, with some stunning synth work throughout that relies more on atmosphere and mood than the usual prog showboating.

Opening with a pulsing heavy guitar pattern and synth backing, The Weight picks up right where Nine left off with a good mix of crunch and atmosphere. The song's verses have a slightly strange rhythm, but the twinkling piano lines that cut through Truls Haugen's restrained but still frantic drumming provide excellent, subtle melodies. Eriksen owns the song though, with his soaring vocal display, especially during the slightly dramatic chorus which is a bit of a throwback to the Isolate album. A simple, atmospheric guitar solo is well-placed for maximum effect. It starts out with some long, sustained notes but it does get more technical and traditionally progressive as it moves along. Mats Haugen is a very underrated guitarist and songwriter, and his unique approach to his craft is well demonstrated throughout this album. Bassist Glen Møllen starts the heavier Highest Bitter with a growling bass melody, which sets the tone for the rest of the song. It is quite a downbeat number, with Eriksen using the lower register of his voice for the slow verses that are backed by some off-beat drumming. The chorus is more typical of the band however, with some driving power chords and big vocal notes. The downbeat vibe continues throughout, including a moody instrumental section that sees guitars and keyboards working in perfect harmony over some more inventive drumming. The album's first real curve ball comes with the short, hard-hitting title track which has a real alternative metal vibe, and a riff and vocal melody that could have sat quite easily on an early Marilyn Manson album. On first listen, I really was not sure about this song, but over repeated listens I have grown to enjoy it. It is packed full of energy, and Møllen's bass playing really stands out. It is totally different to everything else on the album, which makes it stand out. I think this song will be quite divisive, and lots will probably hate it, but I think it serves to add some energy and simple riffing to a complex and atmospheric album. Pages is a slow number, with more excellent bass playing, and a grinding, doomy riff that really oozes out of the speakers perfectly. Eriksen's vocals take on a howling quality for parts of the song, but the floaty chorus actually sounds a little like HIM which adds a level of accessibility to the song. Mats Haugen's solo in the song is really impressive too, with lots of twists and turns. He can do the traditional prog metal shredding so well, and the solo in this song demonstrates that many times over. This is very effective song, and the foreboding atmosphere it creates mixes well with the subtle melodies to make something extremely melodies. After a few heavier tracks, Flames returns to the more atmospheric rock of the opening number. Swirling synths lines characterise the song, and Eriksen's playful vocal melodies really captivate the attention. It is another quite simple song, but it works well as a good mid-album break with some AOR-tinged rock.

The album's second half contains the most epic songs on the album starting with Loved Ones. The big guitar/keyboard intro is extremely majestic, and gives the song a very traditional prog metal feel. Melody is the order of the day during the song, and everything about this song is catchy or memorable. The keyboard work throughout this song really stands out, with plenty of traditional leads and riffs to make a change from the band's usual guitar-driven sound. There a few little homages to their past sound and their influences in this song, with a very Dream Theater-like instrumental section where the guitars and keyboards play off each other in a melodic but technically challenging way. This is the sort of song that could push Circus Maximus into the big leagues of progressive metal, as it has all the hallmarks that are great about the genre, including a soaring chorus and a delicate piano-led outro. After the Fire is another lengthy song, and the synthy intro gets it off to a good start with some 1980s-sounding keyboards that fit well with Eriksen's staccato vocal delivery. This song is similar to the previous one in the sense that it is more traditional prog metal than the rest of the album, and uses lots of excellent, overdriven guitar sounds to create a heavy sound. Not to be outdone Finbråten's keyboards are also dominant in places, with plenty of speedy melodic arpeggios and sweeping orchestrations. Mats Haugen steals the show again however with an absolutely barnstorming solo that starts off with an Eastern flavour, before exploding into one of the most technical workouts on the whole album, and possibly of the band's whole catalogue so far. Remember, which the band shot a strange but captivating video for, is the song that probably best sums up Circus Maximus' unique and atmospheric sound. Finbråten's driving piano melodies are excellent here, and the swirling verses are packed full of the band's trademark floaty feeling. The song's chorus is a real winner with Eriksen showing why his one of the best vocalists in the genre. He never really hits and stupidly high notes or falls into many of the generic traps of other melodic metal singers, he just uses his natural smoothness and emotion to deliver stunning results. The album's final song Chivalry opens with a very Pink Floyd/Anathema-esque atmospheric section, with just the right amount of effects on Eriksen's vocals to make them stand out without ruining his natural sound (there's even a spoken work section that could be from either of those bands' work!). The song does pick up however, and there is still plenty of 'metal' to be found here. This song really emphasises the band's progressive and atmospheric sides however, and the Anathema vibe continues into the latter part of the song, which sees everything slowly build around a simple, repeating guitar melody. It ends the album on a true high. Overall, Havoc is easily Circus Maximus' strongest work yet, and will probably be the album that defines their career going forward. There is not a bad song to be found here, and the band can be proud of creating something original and forward-thinking.

The album was released on 18th March 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Remember.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Treatment's 'Generation Me' - Album Review

The Treatment, from Cambridge, were one of those bands I really thought would make it big. I first encountered the band at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2010. The Thursday night of the festival is traditionally a warm-up night, with local bands and tribute bands making up the majority of the bill. I think I was avoiding a rather average Pink Floyd tribute band that play the festival every year, as I wondered down to the smaller second stage to see what was going on. A few minutes later, five young guys hit the stage and ran through a high-energy set of original material that just blew me away. I was clearly not the only one, as by the time their set was over, the marquee was packed, and the band had to play one of their songs twice to act as an encore as they had no other material! The following year, the band's debut album This Might Hurt was released on the short-lived Powerage Records, a label run by Classic Rock Magazine, but was eventually re-released on Spinefarm. A huge American tour with Kiss and Mötley Crüe followed and I really thought things were looking big for The Treatment. Unfortunately they never seemed to take off. The band's second album Running with the Dogs was released in 2014, but by then guitarist Ben Brookland had already left and a couple of short-term solutions were sought in the form of Jake Pattinson and Dee Dammers. Neither worked out for whatever reason and, when frontman Matt Jones left the band last year, things were not looking good. The band's fresh and energetic hard rock sound should have really caught on, and plenty more support slots with the like of Status Quo, Alice Cooper, and Slash failed to reap the rewards that could have been had. The band re-grouped however, and a new line-up was cemented last year. Joining original members guitarist Tagore Grey, bassist Rick Newman, and drummer Dhani Mansworth, are guitarist Tao Grey, and new frontman Mitchel Emms. A new record deal with the Italian rock label Frontiers and a tour supporting W.A.S.P. filled the back end of 2015 and things were looking up for The Treatment again. The band's third album Generation Me was released last month, and the fans of the band who had been holding their breath since the line-up changes were announced let out a sigh of relief. From the opening number, Generation Me builds upon the sound the band had established over their previous two albums and closely sticks to the same template. There are plenty of big riffs here, and Emms' vocals are a little smoother than Jones' but he lacks none of his predecessor's power. There are a couple of deviations from the norm in places but, on the whole, Generation Me is The Treatment we have all come to know and love.

The album opens with, what is in my opinion one of the best songs the band have ever penned, Let it Begin. The AC/DC-esque main riff and classic rock swagger emitted by the song are easily the song's standout points, but it introduces the band's new line-up with a bang and shows that the changes have not hit them too much. Emms immediately shows that he is a great vocalist, and stamps his identity on the band during the song's killer chorus. A bluesy lead guitar section part-way through sees the band take it down a notch and gradually build up the energy again to great effect. It is a triumphant way to kick off the album, and shows the band have lost none of their power. Opening with a slightly discordant clean guitar pattern, The Devil soon bursts to life with a muscular riff (again, right out of the AC/DC songbook) as the song chugs along at a nice mid pace. The verses are a little more subtle, with the clean guitar pattern dominating, but the choruses are heavy with a good headbanging rhythm and that excellent main riff. The AC/DC similarities only really apply to the riffs however, with the rest of the band's sound being influenced by various 1980s hard rock acts. This is an anthemic tune, with a real fist-pumping chorus that will no doubt go down well live. Tell us the Truth kicks off with another killer riff and a drum pattern that brings to mind Motörhead at their prime. There is lots of energy in this song, and the pace very rarely lets up. There is still plenty of melody however, with some excellent vocal harmonies in the chorus and a great dual-lead guitar section that showcases the chemistry of the Grey brothers. This is quite heavy by the band's standards, and is the first little difference displayed on this album in comparison to their older material. The album's title track is classic Treatment however, with a strident riff and some staccato drumming from Mansworth. Emms shows off his vocal skills during the chorus. He can hold a note well, and unleashes some nice extended vocal notes that are impressive. It is a very memorable song, and adds to the excellent material already present on the album so far. Backseat Heartbeat, along with Let it Begin, is my favourite song on the album. This is another song that showcases a bit of a change in the band's sound, adding some power pop sounds reminiscent of Cheap Trick to their hard rock sound. The song's chorus is a real winner, with Emms showcasing a smoother side of his voice. The guitars have a nice cleaner tone throughout too, which makes the song stand out. The guitar solo section is excellent too, with some excellent harmonies and catchy playing. Cry Tough is more familiar territory for the band, with some gang vocal sections that pack a serious punch and another big riff. While not as inspired as other songs here, it has a simple energy to it that makes it infectious and a joy to listen to.

The second half of the album is not as strong as the first half, but there are still some good songs to be heard. Opening with a slightly weird guitar riff, We are Beautiful is a decent tune even if it does not stand up to what has come before. I love the song's rhythm however, and it never lets up throughout, with the verses and choruses following a very similar pattern - it gives the song identity. It also contains an excellent guitar solo, one of the best on the album, and shows that lead player Tagore Grey is a great player. I Know She Knows is easily the best song during the album's second half, as the chorus really stands out. It is built around an excellent guitar riff and some excellent heavy blues playing. For some reason the song just really stands out. The verses are slightly nondescript, but the chorus makes up for this with a bouncy rhythm and some infectious vocals. The slightly heavier Bloodsucker is one of the album's least interesting songs and, for whatever reason, it just does not stand out. It is quite clunky, with riffs in the verse that just do not seem to fit. It also contains a rather bland chorus that fails to excite. The Treatment have always been guilty of writing a couple of really forgettable songs per album, and this is one of them. Unfortunately, the next number Better Think Again is similar. The grungier guitar sound is quite good, but the song never really takes off and ends up wallowing in an early 1990s gloom. It does contain a rather good shredded guitar solo though, which does stand out, but the rest of the song lacks any big melodies. It is a shame that the end of the album sees a drop in quality like it does, because it makes the album seem very top heavy. Luckily however, the final number Light the Sun goes someway in righting the wrongs of the previous couple of songs. It is an upbeat number, with a summery feel, and some great clean guitar melodies that cut through the distorted rhythm guitar to good effect. There is some more good dual-lead guitar playing too, and the song works well to bring the album to a close and redeems things somewhat. Overall, Generation Me is another good album from The Treatment, and one that shows the band have moved on from their myriad of line-up changes. A couple of poor numbers aside, this a very solid album that builds on what the band have done previously while adding a couple of new ideas into the pot on occasion. Fans of the band will be pleased with this album, but I doubt it will do much to convert those who previously had not like The Treatment.

The album was released on 18th March 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Let it Begin.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Spiritual Beggars' 'Sunrise to Sundown' - Album Review

It is amazing how genre labels can sometimes make you avoid a band that you would like if you actually heard them. Swedish supergroup Spiritual Beggars are one such band, and one I only discovered recently. Despite being a huge fan of founding member and guitarist Michael Amott (Carnage; Carcass; Candlemass; Arch Enemy) and being aware of Spiritual Beggars for some years, the 'stoner rock' tag really put me off listening to them. I am not a fan of stoner rock music, often finding it boring and one-paced, without any real melodies or interesting songwriting. However, a link to one of their new songs from their latest album Sunrise to Sundown came up as a recommendation on Youtube so I took the plunge. To my surprise, what I found I was listening to was a strong rock song, comparable to Mk. III Deep Purple, and so unlike what I usually consider stoner rock to be. I have since bought the Sunrise to Sundown album and listened to it a few times. I cannot compare it to any of the band's back catalogue, as this is my first full exposure to the band, but I have been impressed by this album. Spiritual Beggars, at least on this album, play hard rock influenced by the 1970s greats. There are lots of big guitar riffs, played with plenty of fuzzy distortion, and lots of rumbling hammond organ to bring everything together. This is  not original music by any means, but the songs are well-written, well-played, and are very enjoyable. Spiritual Beggars are a true supergroup too, featuring many well known musicians from the metal community. Joining Amott are: frontman Apollo Papathanasio (Firewind; Evil Masquerade); bassist Sharlee D'Angelo (Mercyful Fate; Witchery; Arch Enemy; The Night Flight Orchestra); keyboardist Per Wiberg (Opeth); and drummer Ludwig Witt (Shining; Grand Magus) who is the only person other than Amott to play on all of the band's albums. You can see from the band's the other members of Spiritual Beggars are (or have been) in, that the 'supergroup' label is actually valid in this instance, even if Spiritual Beggars was actually formed before many of these musicians found success elsewhere. The songs are mostly written by Amott or Wilberg (or in collaboration together) which is probably why the guitars and keyboards really dominate the mix. Papathanasio's vocals sometimes get a little buried, which is a criticism I have of the album's overall sound, but it is not a huge problem. The album was produced by Staffan Karlsson, who has worked as an engineer with many of the band's listed above. My complaint about the vocals aside, the production job is good and sounds very retro. The simple, booming drums have a great 1970s hollow sound to them, and the guitars have just the right amount of fuzz.

The riff that leads the album's title track is very typical of the style used throughout the rest of the album, and the song acts as a good gateway to the album. The song is full of 1970s classic rock swagger, with Wiberg's keyboards smothering everything else with that excellent, dense hammond organ sound. The song definitely has something of early Whitesnake about it, with Papathanasio sounding quite different to how he used to sound with Firewind. He has a rich voice that suits this sort of material well, and he leads the chorus section with ease. There is even a great keyboard solo, of the like rarely seen these days! Diamond Under Pressure, despite ripping off Deep Purple's Woman From Tokyo quite spectacularly, is the song I heard that persuaded me to buy this album. Again, Papathanasio's Coverdale-esque vocals stand out well, as the hammond organ growls around him. Another Deep Purple/Rainbow-type mid-section follows, with pulsing keyboard work, before Amott unleashes a great bluesy solo, something that is very different from his work with Arch Enemy. With a faster tempo, What Doesn't Kill You channels Uriah Heep (they are ticking off the classic rock influences here!) with plenty more big keyboard work and a fast guitar full of bluesy goodness. It is a very memorable song, with an excellent chorus full of neo-classical guitar motifs and some excellent vocals. Hard Road, the heaviest song yet and one of two written by drummer Witt, has a great doomy riff and is driven by some very hard hitting drumming. The keyboards growl around everything else, not taking the lead, but providing great backing to the pile driver guitar and bass combination as they rock out around the song's main riff.  This is a song that really grabs you from the outset and never lets go throughout. This is the sort of song that I imagine will sound huge live, and makes me hope for some Spiritual Beggars UK dates in the near future. Opening with a subtle bassline with some percussive drumming, Still Hunter sounds like a song that David Coverdale might have written around 1978 and then lost down the back of his chest of drawers. It is full of all the things that made that early period of Whitesnake so great; including a simple, yet powerful riff; and a seriously infectious chorus with silky-smooth vocals. Papathanasio was probably never 100% suited to Firewind's power metal, but he really shines here. I would love to hear him sing some old Whitesnake songs! No Man's Land slows things down, but this is no ballad as the sledgehammer main riff quickly explains. That being said, the song is more minimalist in places, with a very paired-back verse that lets Wiberg's keyboards take centre-stage, but the chorus really takes off with Papathanasio's howls and the sludgy guitar tones of Amott. A gentle, piano-led section later in the song helps to break up the non-stop riffing however, and works well to add some dynamics to the album overall. There is a lovely, effects-heavy guitar solo after it too that carries on in the same quieter tone, although it is not long before the song ramps up again, and Amott launches into another, more traditional rock solo.

I Turn to Stone opens with some prominent, round-the-kit drumming from Witt, as Papathanasio sings fairly gently over the top with a keyboard backing. The mix of the two sounds is strange, but it works quite well and the whole song has a slightly disjointed and psychedelic feel to it. Acoustic guitar often cuts through the dense mix to add another layer to proceedings, which adds to the late 1960s sound this song seems to emulate. There is a swirling, building instrumental section that takes up the latter half of the song, that has a Doors-like grind to it, and gives Wiberg and Amott both chance to fuse their instruments together in a wall-of-sound approach. Dark Light Child gets back to a more standard song structure, although it fails to have the impact of the early part of the album. That being said, the song's chorus is still very memorable, with some prominent vocal melodies. Amott's guitar solo is one of the album's best too, with lots of shredding and it breaks away from the bluesy mold that many others here follow. Lonely Freedom has a really excellent guitar riff to it, that makes it mark through solid groove rather than raw power. It has a very calculated feel to it, but works in song's favour as the riff dominates. The song sits back on the established groove for its duration, with the bass guitar constantly providing a slightly dancy feel. The vocals are not that interesting here, but the song makes up for it with interesting instrumentation, and another stellar guitar solo. It is quite a long solo, and uses all of Amott's skills and styles. Penultimate number You've Been Fooled is probably the album's weakest song, as it contains none of the melodies and memorable moments that the majority of the rest of the album has. The chorus is very underwhelming, and the riffing is generally less-inspired than the other songs found here. After that sole weakness, the album comes to and end with Southern Star, which brings the quality back again. The second song written by Witt, the song features prominent piano rhythms and a meaty bassline that weaves around Wiberg's striking chords. It has a slightly laboured feel, but that works in the song's favour, especially during the effects-heavy lead guitar sections and the stomping chorus that Papathanasio nails. It is a good end to an album that is very strong and full of highlights. Overall, Sunrise to Sundown is an impressive piece of work. Spiritual Beggars clearly wears their influences on their sleeve, but this ends up working in the band's favour. Fans of 1970s classic rock are sure to find a lot to love here, and the songwriting is generally of a high standard.

The album was released on 18th March 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Diamond Under Pressure.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Heather Findlay - Leicester Review

Since leaving Mostly Autumn in 2010, Heather Findlay has been relatively quiet. Live appearances have been sporadic, but when they come around they really hit the spot. January saw the release of her full length album of original material since leaving Mostly Autumn. Titled The Illusion's Reckoning the album was a collaboration with American songwriter Dave Kerzner and released under the name Mantra Vega. Those eagerly awaiting some new material from Findlay lapped it up, as the album is excellent. To support the album, Findlay has assembled a new version of 'The Heather Findlay Band' (which there have already been a few!) to take the album on tour around the UK (with a date in the Netherlands to kick everything off). Joining Findlay this time around are: John Mitchell (vocals/guitar) from It Bites and Arena; long-time collaborator Chris Johnson (guitar/keyboards/vocals); Stuart Fletcher (bass guitar); Alex Cromarty (vocals/drums/harmonium); and Findlay's long-time friend Angela Gordon (keyboards/flute/whistles/recorder/vocals). With four of the six main Mantra Vega musicians forming part of Findlay's touring band, this current tour is as close to a Mantra Vega tour as you are likely to get. The show, the first of the UK tour, was also a reason for me to go back to Leicester for the first time in nearly two years. It was good to go back, even if some really late trains curtailed by time there somewhat. I will hopefully not leave it as long next time! I saw a few shows at The Musician while I was living in the city and, in fact, it was the last place I saw Findlay play a full-length show back in 2012. I saw her in acoustic mode at 2014's Trinity charity show in Leamington, but it had been four years since seeing her in her full glory!

Opening the show was harpist Sarah Dean, who played a handful of songs to the small crowd who had got to the venue early. This was the first time I had heard any harp played live, and she really brought the instrument to life. She sung beautifully too, and the harp and vocal combination worked really well. The solo singer/songwriter thing usually is not my thing but Dean brought something new to the genre (if you can call it that). She only played four songs, but the growing crowd seemed to warm to her, and she was well-received.

Johnson's alternative rock band Halo Blind were the evening's main support, which made sense considering three of the band (Johnson, Fletcher, and Cromarty) are also currently playing with Findlay. I last saw the band (under their former name of Parade) supporting Bryan Josh in Bedford, but that was quite a few years ago and Johnson is the only musician to still be in the band now. Johnson, despite sharing lead vocals with Andy Knights (vocals/guitar/keyboards), is the band's focal point as the songs have his unique approach to songwriting all over them. I struggle with the band's latest album Occupying Forces, but hearing some of the songs live (their debut album The Fabric did not feature at all) has improved my opinion of it somewhat. That is not to say that I do not like the album or think that it is bad, I just struggle to get into it. The band's 45 minute set was very enjoyable however, and the songs work well live despite their complex and atmospheric arrangements. Chris Farrell (guitar) stood out too, with lots of excellent ebow work and some strange, off-kilter soloing. I will see the band again at the Cambridge Rock Festival, so I shall make sure to give Occupying Forces some more spins in the meantime.

It was Findlay that everyone was here to see however, and her set was the perfect mix of old and new. As promised, she played the entire of The Illusion's Reckoning album first, before delving into her back catalogue afterwards. Dean joined Findlay and her band onstage for the show singing backing vocals and adding percussion, recorder, and harp occasionally when required. The new album came across really well live, with the large band able to replicate the warm, atmospheric sound of the album on stage. Lead single Island got things going, and was a perfect way to start the show with it's simple melodies and fluid Mitchell solo. Cromarty sung Kerzner's vocal parts from behind the drum kit, which worked well, and his voice really suited the haunting and dark Veil of Ghosts perfectly. The spiky, gothic chorus with the three voices of Findlay, Gordon, and Dean was extremely rousing, and one of the highlights of the night. Lake Sunday, Mountain Spring, and the album's soaring title track were also highlights of the early part of the set. The latter is a real prog epic, with plenty of chance for Mitchell to solo. The Illusion's Reckoning is one of my favourite albums released so far this year, so getting the chance to hear it live in full was a real treat. Another standout moment during the first part of the show was the acoustic I've Seen Your Star which featured some lovely harp playing from Dean. The second half of the show featured material from Findlay's past. It started with a powerful version of the Mostly Autumn classic Carpe Diem with Johnson seated at the piano and Gordon playing the flute. Mitchell really nailed the lengthy outro solo, and the whole band had really hit their stride by this point. Two Odin Dragonfly numbers also featured, newly arranged to suit a big band. Magpie really rocked, with Gordon's flute melodies at the song's centre, the epic Magnolia Half-Moon sounded like it was always supposed to be played by a large rock band. In between the two was Mona Lisa the sole offering from Findlay's solo EP The Phoenix Suite. Caught in a Fold was another highlight. Previous Heather Findlay Band line-ups have changed the arrangement of this song, but with Gordon and her flute present, the band played a version close to Mostly Autumn's original. Safe to say, the song rocked the house! There was a little surprise thrown in near the end, when the band played Why Do We Stay? a song Mitchell wrote for his Lonely Robot project. Findlay sung guest vocals on the song originally, so the song felt at home in the set. Closing the show was a stunning version of the old Mostly Autumn classic Shrinking Violet. I had not heard the song live since Findlay's last show with Mostly Autumn in 2010, so to hear it again was a real treat. It was easily the highlight of the whole show, and her band did a stunning rendition of it. The setlist was:

Every Corner [Mantra Vega material]
Island [Mantra Vega material]
Veil of Ghosts [Mantra Vega material]
Lake Sunday [Mantra Vega material]
Mountain Spring [Mantra Vega material]
In a Dream [Mantra Vega material]
Learning to be Light [Mantra Vega material]
I've Seen Your Star [Mantra Vega material]
Island (Reprise) [Mantra Vega material]
The Illusion's Reckoning [Mantra Vega material]
Carpe Diem [Mostly Autumn material]
Magpie [Odin Dragonfly material]
Mona Lisa
Magnolia Half-Moon [Odin Dragonfly material]
Caught in a Fold [Mostly Autumn material]
Why Do We Stay? [Lonely Robot cover]
Shrinking Violet [Mostly Autumn material]

Overall this was a stunning gig from Findlay, and easily the best I have seen her do since leaving Mostly Autumn. The current band she has assembled really bring her songs to life, and the current setlist is the perfect balance of old and new. I got her, Fletcher, and Cromarty to sign my copy of The Illusion's Reckoning after the show too, which was awesome.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Killswitch Engage's 'Incarnate' - Album Review

Reunions with old band members can go one of two ways. Either the reunion creates plenty of new sparks, and the band rises to even greater heights than previously; or the reunion fails to live up the hype, and everyone (including the band, maybe) are left disappointed. Luckily for Killswitch Engage the former scenario occurred when they reunited with original frontman Jesse Leach in 2012. Many fans had been calling for his return for years, even as the band continued to grow and strengthen with Howard Jones at the helm, so there were lots of happy fans out there when the announcement came. I was apprehensive, as I had always been a Jones fan. The man has an insane voice, and the band had reached new heights in the ten years he fronted Killswitch Engage. Upon hearing 2013's Disarm the Descent (which I reviewed here), the band's sixth album, and I heard the new Leach, I was instantly sold. I finally understood what the fans had meant about him. His improvement since 2002's Alive or Just Breathing was remarkable, and he showed why he is the singer for Killswitch Engage. The album was in my Top 10 Albums of 2013 list, and Leach's vocal display was a big factor in that accolade. Three years on, and plenty of touring later, Killswitch Engage are back with another album. Incarnate, the band's seventh album, was released last month and has already become a popular release with the fans. Disarm the Descent was written fairly quickly after Leach rejoined the band, and stuck fairly rigidly to the recognisable sound the band had established and honed during the Jones-era. While it is a great album, and probably my favourite from the band, it did not really do anything new (not that every new album has to!). Incarnate, having been written and performed by five people who have now spent more time together, does attempt to mix things up a little here and there. The established Killswitch Engage metalcore sound is still very much present, helped of course by founding member and guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz's stellar production job, there is a feeling throughout that the band had wanted to change things up little. The album has a much heavier feel overall, with more focus on the heavier riffs and the harsher side of Leach's voice. Drummer Justin Foley shines throughout, as the heavier songs bring out the best in his playing. The soaring, emotional choruses that fill the band's back catalogue are still very much a big part of the band's sound (as is melody generally), but they are now just one part of the song, rather than the sole focus. As a result, the album does not instantly hit you like much of the band's previous work. It is the archetypal 'grower' and requires a few listens before all the layers of melody and all the intricacies of the songwriting are revealed.

A build up of distortion opens the album, and the strident spoken word intro of first number Alone I Stand leads into a heavy verse with some of Leach's trademark harsh vocals. The thrashy feel of the piece is accentuated by some deep growled vocals, and Foley's fast footwork. A slower, emotional chorus brings the classic Killswitch Engage sound to the fore, with Dutkiewicz and co-guitarist Joel Stroetzel wave snaking leads around Leach's vocals, and the strong melodies are extremely captivating. The song remains heavy throughout, with even a blast beat used in the second verse. A heavy bridge section is used too, and this riff-based heavy sound is a snapshot of what is to come throughout the album. Hate by Design, one of the album's singles, again opens with some deep growls, but the verse soon mixes clean and harsh vocals to good effect with some excellent bouncy guitar riffs and triplet drumming. This song has quite an old-school metalcore vibe, and has one of the album's best choruses. Leach is a very versatile vocalist, and the ease which he switches between vocal styles is always impressive. This song is very immediate, and will no doubt be a highlight of the band's live sets in the future. There is a good, old-school metal solo too (presumably played by Dutkiewicz) that uses plenty of fluid shredding and sounds a little like something recorded during the NWOBHM period. Cut me Loose with it's slightly discordant opening guitar melody, is a slightly haunting piece that focuses on Leach's clean vocals and the band's stranger side. Lots of clean guitar sounds are used throughout, which often act as a great contrast to the crunchy rhythm guitars that form the song's backbone. It does get heavier later in the song however, with a thrashy riff and some strong harsh vocals from Leach. Strength of the Mind, another single, has been available to listen to online for quite some time. It is another classic-sounding Killswitch Engage song, with heavy verses and a big, soaring chorus with more than a hint of melodrama. There is some excellent riffing throughout, as Dutkiewicz and Stroetzel lock in together with some melodic bursts of lead work. The dynamics throughout are excellent, with bursts of speed mixing well with more mid-paced sections to great effect. It is another very memorable song. Just Let Go has the uplifting feel that the band is known for, and from the clean intro to the slow chorus, the song is full of the band's trademark sounds. The rawer, heavier sound that characterises the album is present however, with some bursts of really fast riffing. This is a song that is continually changing, and not content to follow a basic song structure. As a result, there is a lot of different ideas packed into this song, which makes is very interested to listen to. Opening with a strange bass guitar riff from Mike D'Antonio, Embrace the Journey...Upraised has a big groove metal vibe, with southern-sounding riffs and a good mid-paced feel. There are faster sections too, including a rather extreme (by the band's standards) verse, but the rest of the song has plenty of strong grooves throughout.

Quiet Distress opens with a subtle acoustic guitar pattern, but this does not last long before another machine gun riff comes in. Leach's vocals seamlessly transition between clean and harsh styles in the fast verses; and the strong chorus is another album standout. This one is a real sing-a-long number, and the chorus has a really melodic feel with some excellent vocal harmonies and some growl vocals mixed just into the background. The sound of this song is huge, and a bit of a dark horse on the album. Until the Day is similar too, with a very old-school 1980s riffing style that again raids the NWOBHM sound bank, and a pacey chorus that mixes screams and soaring cleans with ease. This is a very short song (under three minutes in length) but it still manages to pack quite a punch. After a couple of faster songs, the mid-paced crunch of It Falls on Me is a welcome change of pace. In many ways however, this is heavier than most of what has come before on the album, with the raw guitar tone and the simple chugging rhythms providing excellent headbanging material. The song throws a curve ball part-way through however, with a bona fide gentle section with ringing clean guitars and some really touching vocals from Leach that lead into a strange wall-of-guitars section that has something of Anathema's recent sound to it, even if only for a short time. It is sections like this that make this album stand out from what the band have done before. The Great Deceit is another fast number, and the pace barely lets up throughout. Leach, screaming his lungs out throughout, is a man possessed throughout this song. Even his cleans during the fast chorus have serious grit to them, something that you cannot usually say about his clean vocals. While the song is not as strong as some of the others, the pure energy that is gives off makes it an enjoyable. We Carry On is one of the band's extremely earnest slower numbers (a bit like Always from Disarm the Descent) which has an over-the-top vocal performance, and some atmospheric guitar playing that works to make the song stand out. The heavy Ascension is the album's final song, and sticks closely to the band's established formula to make the album close on a familiar feel. It is quite a heavy song, with a big muscular riff, and it ensures the album ends on a pretty strong footing. Leach's chorus delivery has a certain heroic quality to it that makes this song perfect for an album-closer. Overall, Incarnate is another strong album from one of the founders of the metalcore genre. While it is not vastly different from what has come before from them, there are little additions to the band's established sound here and there that ensure this album sounds fresh.

The album was released on 11th March 2016 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hate by Design.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Reckless Love's 'InVader' - Album Review

The Scandinavian glam/sleaze metal revival is still in full swing and, with the Crashdïet seemingly on hiatus, Finland's Reckless Love are leading the pack. While there are plenty of heavier, grittier glam bands around, Reckless Love's love of poppy melodies, synthesisers, and dancy beats has made them very popular since 2010 when they released their self-titled debut album. Plenty of touring around the world had followed ever since, plus the released of two more studio albums. 2011's Animal Attraction was almost as good as the first album, although the band's love for modern pop music was starting to shine through in a big way. 2013's Spirit was a mixed bag (I reviewed it here). While there were some very strong songs on the album, overall it felt uninspired. The riff-led rock sections failed to excite as the previous two albums had, and the poppy/dancy songs felt contrived and unoriginal. While a couple of recent listens to Spirit showed me that time had been kind to the album, I did not hear enough to think of the album as anything more than 'average'. I mused at the time that the band could consider working with a different producer to shake things up for their fourth album, and that has not happened. Ilkka Wirtanen has again worked with Reckless Love to write and record their fourth album, InVader, three years on from Spirit. Saying I was apprehensive when putting InVader (I did not understand the capitalisation until I realised the capitals made 'IV' - the Roman number 4) on for the first time was a fair description of my feelings. I was worried that they had made another Spirit, but I was surprised to find Reckless Love had written and recorded another really good album! On the whole, InVader is on a par with Animal Attraction in my opinion, and the songs excite like they used to! When the band rock out, the songs feel genuine and full of energy again, with Pepe leading the charge with his solid guitar riffing and melodic soloing skills. When the band want to be poppy, the songs are well-crafted with excellent synth sounds and pulsing clubland beats. Both sides of the band's sound have been refined since Spirit, and the band seem to have their songwriting mojo back with the majority of what is on offer here being very memorable and catchy. Frontman Olli Herman has really upped his game vocally too. Nearly all of the vocal melodies on this album are hugely catchy, even if his lyrics are still pretty awful in places! With InVader, we find Reckless Love rejuvenated after the lackluster Spirit. The fun element of the band's sound is back in full force, and that makes InVader a very enjoyable album to put on at any time!

InVader opens with a bang, as the anthemic rock of We are the Weekend fills the speakers with Pepe's big guitar stabs and Hessu Maxx's booming drum sound. Herman owns the song however, with a powerful verse vocal, and a sugary sweet pre-chorus that sounds like something from your average Top 40 pop tune. The 1980s rock chorus is what seals the deal however, and shows that the band have rediscovered their writing chops again. It is instantly catchy, and designed to be heard live. The song gets a little heavier as it moves on, with a short guitar solo and some big riffing that is a contrast to the party feel of the rest of the song. Those who like the harder rock end of the band's sound will like the next number Hands. This is one of the rawer songs on the album, without too many prominent electronic elements. Pepe's guitar riffing leads the way here, and he often breaks into a lead section that shows off his skills. The song's big chorus, with plenty of gang vocal sections, is a standout moment as Herman races through the lyrics at a break-neck speed that recalls some of the band's early material. Pepe's shredding guitar solo also stands out, and really is a throwback to the 1980s. Lead single Monster, with it's Lady GaGa inspired video, is up next. Despite some hilariously bad lyrics, the song is so hugely catchy that it does not matter. Herman's voice sounds strange throughout the song, almost a growl, which sounds different to his usual style. It gives the song some grit that it would otherwise lack, which is also helped by Pepe's really groovy guitar playing. While the electronics dominate, his guitar (and Jalle Verne's bass), help to provide the dancy rhythm the song has. Those who love some serious cheese will enjoy Child of the Sun, and the it is some cheese of the smelliest variety! I must be honest and say that this side of Reckless Love's sound mostly leaves me cold, but the song still has some extremely catchy melodies. The song is a wall of big synth sounds, and Varne's bass dances around them with a tight groove. The chorus, full of all it's autotune glory, is the sugariest thing on the album but it still manages to stick in your head! There is actually a surprising amount of good guitar work on this song too, and Pepe unleashes his inner Nile Rodgers with some tasteful and subtle funky playing throughout. Just when the album needs a kick, the hard rock of Bullettime comes on with a driving riff and a raw-sounding drum beat to act as the antidote to the synths of the previous song. It is one of my favourite songs on the album, because the 1980s hard rock sound is perfectly captured here, with a massive chorus and some excellent vocals from Herman.

With a big keyboard intro, Scandinavian Girls is another very poppy song - although this one has a bigger dose of 'rock' than Child of the Sun. Pepe's guitar still plays a big part driving the song, with some great overdriven riffing, but Herman's vocals are the song's lead instrument with the band supporting him. That is, until we get to a strange, slow guitar solo that comes in to cut through the mix unexpectedly. This is another song with rather awful lyrics, but the catchy melodies make up for this. Herman does not write great poetry, but then I think I would be disappointed if he did. Pretty Boy Swagger, which is collaboration with Finnish producer/musician Jurek, is another pop number. The opening vocals have an almost rap feel to them, which sounds a little forced, but when Herman starts singing properly, the song really becomes enjoyable. Again, Pepe makes his force felt with some excellent riffing and lead playing, as the electronics and the rhythm section provide more clubland beats. After an electronic explosion, Pepe lets rip into one of his best ever guitar solos, which is a feast of shredded goodness. Rock It is a tale of two songs, one good and one bad. The verses of this song really are not very good at all, with Herman almost talking his way through them with an uninspired musical backing, but the song contains a really strong chorus that is extremely memorable. It is just a shame that the rest of the song is so poor, because the chorus really is a winner. Destiny fuses the band's rock and pop sounds together perfectly, and actually ends up sounding like something Def Leppard might have come up with in the 1980s. The verses are quite low key, with a bouncy guitar riff and a rumbling bassline, before the chorus comes in with a feast of harmony vocals and big melodies. While the band have stronger songs elsewhere on the album, this sort of song is meat and potatoes for the band and showcases all of their strengths. The album's final song Let's Get Cracking (TWHP) is another excellent fast rock number with a really good guitar riff and a dynamic vocal performance from Herman. This song sounds like something Poison forgot to write, and really sounds like the best of the 1980s Sunset Strip sound. There is more excellent shredding throughout the song, and it works well as an album closer. There is even a hidden acoustic ending which sounds like how Reckless Love would sound sitting around a campfire at night, which is nice! Some versions of the album come with the bonus track Keep it Up All Night, which is another strong song. Overall, InVader is a strong return to form from a band who looked like they may have run out of ideas. Luckily this was not the case however, and this album of mostly excellent songs will no doubt be a big success for them.

The album was released on 4th March 2016 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Monster.