Thursday, 30 June 2016

Grand Magus' 'Sword Songs' - Album Review

Despite starting out as a doom band back in 1996 under the name 'Smack', Sweden's Grand Magus have become mainstays in the modern heavy metal world. While they have never really managed to break through into the big time, their consistent album releases and strong live shows have garnered them a good-sized cult following - especially in Europe. Last month saw the release of the band's eight studio album which is titled, rather blatantly, Sword Songs. Since the band's formation, they had been gradually moving away from their doom metal roots to a more 'heroic' sound that flies the flag for traditional metal from the past. This sound was fully realised on 2010's Hammer of the North and Grand Magus have not looked back since. 2012's The Hunt and 2014's Triumph and Power (the latter of which I reviewed here) contained the retro heavy metal vibe the band are now known for, and this continues on in Sword Songs. Take one part of Manowar's battle imagery and epic vision, one part of Judas Priest's razor-sharp metallic attitude, and one part of early Rainbow's slightly mystic atmosphere and you have something similar to Grand Magus' now-well established sound. This is not complex, and not overly original, but it is solid, enjoyable modern heavy metal that carries the torch for the classic sound of the genre. Some versions of the album even come with a cover of Deep Purple's Stormbringer (which is not as strong as it could be in truth!) that features Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars; Opeth) on keyboards. Keyboards are not the usual fare for the band however, as the classic power trio line-up of Grand Magus rely more on the sheer power of their riffs and in-your-face vocal melodies. Founding members Janne 'JB' Christoffersson and Mats 'Fox' Skinner, and newer recruit Ludwig Witt, are doing what they do best on this album. JB's teutonic guitar riffs and his powerful voice drive the band. While his voice does not have the range or individuality necessary to become a legend, he possess power which Grand Magus capitalises on. He may not be the most dynamic vocalist, but when he cranks up the power, there are few that can compete with him when singing this kind of music. He clearly tries to channel the late great Ronnie James Dio in places, and does not come far short of achieving this aim. Fox and Witt lock in well to form a tight and heavy rhythm section that suits JB's guitar style. The raw and uncomplicated production job from Nico Elgstrand, who has produced all of the band's albums from Hammer of the North onwards, really brings out the best in the rhythm section. Witt's drums, with their booming hollow sound, really benefit from Elgstrand's work and the album is all the better for it.

Opening with an Accept-style riff and a furious drum roll, the album gets off to a cracking start with Freja's Choice - a song which really sums up the band's modern sound perfectly. JB's voice rumbles in the verses, with plenty of gravitas. He seems to use a slightly lower than normal part of his voice here, and it works well with the heavy riffing. The song is not as anthemic as some of their more well- known numbers, but it packs a punch with Witt's dominant drums and plenty of strong riffs. The guitar solo even has a neo-classical tinge to it, while never becoming a speed-fest that so usually befalls that style. Varangian, which was released online prior to the album's release, opens with a heavy, but slightly folky, guitar melody that draws you in from the off. This song is much more immediately catchy than the previous song, and possesses one of the best choruses on the album. While the lyrics and style of the fist-pumping chorus are very close to Manowar's patented style, it is still hugely enjoyable and is sure to put a smile on the face of many a metalhead. Despite the very 'metal' themes throughout Forged in Iron - Crowned in Steel, the song opens out with a delicate acoustic guitar motif, but it is not long before a fast, steamroller of a riff takes over as Witt's simple drums lead the charge. While not being as instant as the previous song, this is still a very enjoyable tune and one that sticks out on first listen. While the song is mostly quite fast, with another singable chorus, there is a slower, doomy section part-way through which is definitely a throwback to the band's early sound. The Sabbathy feel of this part adds some variation to the song, and the album, and keeps things from becoming stale. Born for Battle (Black Dog of Brocéliande) opens with a strange guitar sound that sounds like the droning of a wasp, but this does not last long before another slab of retro metal starts up. The song's verses are the high point here, with two distinct parts coming together to create something powerful. They start off faster, with a pacey riff, before slowing down and injecting a bit more doom with JB's vocals rumbling along with Fox's bass. The chorus, which like the last song relies on the repeating of the song's title, does not grab the attention as it should. Some of the choruses on this album can all roll into one after a while, and a little more variation would be welcome. Master of the Land is one of the heaviest songs on the album, and relies on more dark Sabbathy flourishes fused with Accept's speed metal tendencies. Despite another simple chorus, this one actually hits the spot as JB delivers some stellar vocals, and Fox harmonies well to create a surprisingly big sound. It is songs like this that see JB channeling Dio, and this is the sort of song I can imagine the great man singing! There is also a memorable guitar solo, with some lovely harmonies and strong melodies.

After the more epic nature of the previous song, Last One to Fall gets back to the more straight ahead metal the band are known for. It has a good headbanging pace, and the guitar harmony opening is very strong (although how they would recreate it live is anyone's guess). This song feels like a back-to-basics bit of metal, but it still feels fresh. The chorus is more inventive here than on the last few songs, with unique melodies and some more excellent vocals from JB. The song does slow down as it progresses, and some subtle keyboards (particularly on the choruses) provide a moody atmosphere. Again, the song possesses a memorable guitar solo, and helps to complete it. The song has a very individual feel to it, and that makes it stand out and interesting. Frost and Fire will please those who were hoping for another anthemic number. While this is not as overt and obvious as the Manowar-inspired Varangian, this song still has the potential to become a future live staple. The chorus is genuinely excellent, with lots of soaring vocal melodies and lovely little breaks of lead guitar to fill the gaps. It is an action-packed song, and one of my favourites on the album. As with all Grand Magus albums, Sword Songs has a strange instrumental interlude on it. It is titled Hugr and is actually more memorable than usual. The swirling effects really help to bring out the best in the acoustic guitar melodies, and the two together actually makes for quite a foreboding atmosphere. I am not sure why Grand Magus always include these songs, but maybe it is to create some light and shade with their lack of ballads! Hugr leads into the album's final song Every Day There's a Battle to Fight which is a slow burning song with a grinding riff yet a big atmosphere. This is not a particularly heavy number, with exception to the riff, and the chorus has an almost mournful feel without the fist-pumping attributes the band usually employs. This works well and, when mixed with the subtle orchestrations added to the song, makes for another memorable song that is something a bit different from the band's norm. Some versions of the album have a couple of bonus tracks: In for the Kill and the aforementioned cover of Stormbringer. Both of these songs are decent, and add some length to the album (which is short as just over 34 minutes long, not that that is a complaint - so many albums are too long these days!). There are definitely better covers of Stormbringer out there though, and I must admit to being slightly disappointed with this rendition. Overall, Sword Songs is another album from Grand Magus that establishes them as one of the best bands out there that play this sort of metal. While this band will never be superstars, they have found their niche and are very good at what they do.

The album was released on 13th May 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official lyric video for Varangian.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Birmingham Review

Ritchie Blackmore has long been one of my favourite guitarists. His work with both Deep Purple and Rainbow helped to define what a hard rock lead guitarist was, and has written many extremely memorable riffs and solos. Despite building his career on hard rock music, for the past twenty years, along with this wife, he has been playing renaissance-inspired folk rock music which has always been a passion of his. Blackmore's Night showcases another side to Blackmore's playing and writing style, and has been extremely for successful for him. There were always calls for him to return to rock and, despite numerous refusals to do so, last year he announced to re-form Rainbow for three special gigs for, as he called it, some nostalgia. When I say re-form I should actually say re-create, as this version of Rainbow is totally different to any to have come before, with only Blackmore returning. Rainbow has always been a glorified Ritchie Blackmore solo project however, so this news came as no surprise. While this disappointed some, I knew that Blackmore, being the perfectionist that he is, would have made the right decisions. The bulk of the band was made up of Bob Nouveau (bass guitar/vocals) and David Keith (drums), both who have played with Blackmore's Night over the years, and Jens Johansson (keyboards) who is famous for being one of the original members of Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force and has since played with the Finnish power metal band Stratovarius for many years. Fronting the band was the Chilean vocal sensation Ronnie Romero, who fronts the Spanish band Lords of Black, and is set to be a big star in the future. Candice Night and Lady Lynn, both also of Blackmore's Night, also appeared with the band provide some extra ethereal backing vocals. This show at Birmingham's Genting Arena was the final show of three that Rainbow is currently playing. The previous two were in Germany, a favourite place of Blackmore's to play, so this exclusive UK show was not to be missed. Luckily a friend of mine managed to get some tickets through a pre-sale, so this is something I have been looking forward to since November! The seats we had turned out to be excellent too, on the level with the stage but quite far back up the side wall. This actually gave us a great view of the stage, and the sound never suffered from the slightly strange position.

Before Rainbow hit the stage however, the growing crowd was treated to 40 minutes of rock from Mostly Autumn. Regular readers of this blog will probably be sick of hearing me talk about Mostly Autumn but they, like Rainbow, are one of my favourites and I have seen them many times over the years. An acoustic version of Mostly Autumn have supported Blackmore's Night in the past, so their connection with Blackmore goes back somewhat, but it was still a big surprise to see them announced for this show! This too was a slimmed down version of the band, with four of the band's current seven members appearing, but this was a rock arrangement as opposed to the acoustic version I assumed would appear. Despite the truncated line-up Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar), Olivia Sparnenn-Josh (vocals/percussion), Iain Jennings (keyboards), and Alex Cromarty (drums) put on a stellar show and probably made themselves a few new fans in the process! The first half of their set really rocked, with the spiraling riff of In for the Bite from Josh's new solo album getting things going. This was a new live song for me, and it worked well with Sparnenn-Josh's vocals gradually building as the song went on. Drops of the Sun and Deep in Borrowdale from the band's more recent albums followed and ensured the energy remained high. The second half was more 'epic' with Evergreen being reintroduced after being left out of the sets so far this year. It was wise to play the song here though, as it contains everything great about Mostly Autumn, especially Josh's extended guitar solo outro. The delicate Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts followed, before the set came to an end with their signature song Heroes Never Die which Josh sung with plenty of emotion. Despite not sounding as big as usual due to being three members down, Mostly Autumn did themselves proud and held their own against one of the giants of hard rock that followed them. I hope they sold a few albums and shirts after this set! The setlist was:

In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
Deep in Borrowdale
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Heroes Never Die

Despite the fact this show was billed as Rainbow, the show was more of a Richie Blackmore rock anthology, with the set fairly evenly distributed between his times with both Deep Purple and Rainbow. After the legendary Over the Rainbow intro, which saw the band getting warmed up, the Deep Purple classic Highway Star started the show off with a bang, and introduced the crowd to Romero. Despite this show being all about Blackmore, Romero often stole his limelight with a breathtaking vocal display. He had to sing material originally sung by six different singers throughout the show, and he showcased his diversity, vocal control, and power from the off. Highway Star was a real crowd pleaser, and saw plenty of singing and cheering, especially as Blackmore ripped into that trademark solo. Despite a few wobbles here and there, he played flawlessly throughout, and played with plenty of passion and energy. The mid-era Rainbow AOR rock of Spotlight Kid followed, and this was the only song I felt was not right for Romero's voice. His hard rock grit was so different from Joe Lynn Turner's smooth voice that is clashed somewhat, but he still did a sterling job singing it. There were so many highlights throughout the set, but the bluesy Mistreated, which contained some of Blackmore's best guitarwork of the night, and the hard rock of Man on the Silver Mountain were highlights of the early part of the set. The crowd had a bit of a breather with the beautiful ballad Soldier of Fortune, before the instrumental and band showcase Difficult to Cure (Beethoven's Ninth) took the roof off. Keith, Nouveau, and Johansson all had a chance to solo. While this was impressive, I did feel this section went on for a little too long (especially the keyboard solo) but then Blackmore shows have always contained plenty of extended soloing. Catch the Rainbow was the first highlight of the second part of the show, and things only got better from then on. Romero's vocal display during the song was stunning, and his harmonies with Night and Lynn made for a massive sound. Long Live Rock 'n' Roll saw the first, and biggest, crowd participation moment of the night, as the capacity crowd at the Genting Arena screamed the chorus back at the band with gusto. A rare outing of Deep Purple's Child in Time was truly stunning and saw Romeo own the beginning and end, while Blackmore showed why he is one of the most respected rock guitarists in the instrumental mid-section with some fluid soloing. Romero's wordless screams were jaw-dropping, and were almost as good as Ian Gillan's on the original recording. The real highlight of the night however was Stargazer with Romero sounding almost as good as the late great Ronnie James Dio throughout. That song has been such an influence on many of the progressive and symphonic metal bands that I love, so to hear it live was fantastic. Blackmore's gothic riffing and neo-classical soloing, and the soaring chorus just all came together perfectly, and it all added up to one of the greatest individual songs I have ever seen live. After that gargantuan tune, the main set ended with the more light-hearted Black Night and the crowd sung the main riff long after the band had left the stage. There was time for a couple more however, with two more Deep Purple songs wowing the crowd. Burn was dusted off for it's first appearance on this mini tour, before Smoke on the Water (with arguably the most famous guitar riff of all time) finished the evening in hard rocking style. The setlist was:

Highway Star [Deep Purple cover]
Spotlight Kid
Mistreated [Deep Purple cover]
Since You Been Gone [Russ Ballard cover]
Man on the Silver Mountain
Solider of Fortune [Deep Purple cover]
Difficult to Cure (Beethoven's Ninth)
Catch the Rainbow
Perfect Strangers [Deep Purple cover]
Long Live Rock 'n' Roll
Child in Time [Deep Purple cover]
Black Night [Deep Purple cover]
Burn [Deep Purple cover]
Smoke on the Water [Deep Purple cover]

This was a gig that I never thought I would see, so to finally see Blackmore rocking again was a bit of a dream come true. I am sure many had doubts as to whether this new line-up of Rainbow could compete with history, but they more than held their own as the packed Genting Arena crowd will tell you. Blackmore has unearthed a star in Romero too, and I really hope this is not the last we see of this line-up of Rainbow!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Skarlett Riot's 'Sentience' - EP Review

While Scunthorpe's own rockers Skarlett Riot might not play the sort of music that I usually go for, I have to say that I have become quite a fan of theirs over the past couple of years. Despite being familiar with the name for a few years, it was not until seeing them supporting Edguy in 2014 that I finally heard them. I must admit however, I was not initially impressed. I found their music a little too influenced by all things 'emo' for my tastes, and wrongly dismissed them. The band's debut album Tear Me Down was released in 2013, and definitely showcases a band-in-progress. The elements of what were to come are visible, but the strength in songwriting was lacking. Since seeing them in 2014, I saw them twice the following year (once with Gus G. and once with Kamelot) and these times they really impressed me. The We are the Brave EP was released last year too, and this release saw the band come into their own. Everything that was good about Tear Me Down was amplified here, and the songwriting was much improved. The five songs on the EP are all excellent, and show a band that is confident in their own abilities. The step up in quality from Tear Me Down is staggering, and the two shows I saw in 2015 made me a Skarlett Riot fan. Just over a year later, the band have followed We are the Brave up with another EP, this time titled Sentience. Apparently a new, full length album is in the works and that this is a little taster of things to come. If the eventual album is as good as the new songs presented here, then we are in for something special as Sentience is on a par with We are the Brave and is packed full of quality hard rock songs with that special Skarlett Riot edge. Frontwoman Skarlett's voice does have a slight pop-punk twinge, but when put against the backdrop the band create - especially Danny Oglesby's guitar riffs - it sounds great. Sentience is definitely in the same vein as We are the Brave, but is a little heavier overall and packs more of a punch. While I would say that the songs are not as instantly memorable and catchy as those on the previous EP, these new songs have a little more depth. Both EPs show different sides to the band's songwriting, and if the new album contains a mix of the two styles then it will be something special!

Kicking off with the lead single Voices, the EP opens up with a catchy guitar refrain that soon transforms into a heavier section, with some tight double bass drumming from Luke Oglesby. The song is really well written, with a more restrained verse that really brings out the best in Skarlett's voice and sees her use some of her lower register for added power. The song ramps up as it progresses too, and really explodes when the chorus takes over. It is one of the most instantly memorable moments on the EP and is packed full of melody. Skarlett Riot have never been about virtuoso playing, and soloing is rare. Instead we have an excellent breakdown section, with some more captivating vocals before a final go-round of that soaring chorus. Scream at Me is one of the most in-your-face songs the band have written yet, and opens with a really strong riff that sets the tone for the rest of the song. The energy never lets up throughout, and the chorus really packs a punch and sees Skarlett hitting some pretty high notes with ease. The spoken-word breakdown section is a little too much like Paramore for my liking, but the instrumental section that follows it is great. There are a few great riffs packed in together, and it shows that you do not have to shred to make an instrumental break interesting. Empty Inside is next and is my favourite song form the EP, and quite possibly my favourite song from the band yet. Again, the song opens powerfully but the verses are definitely deliberately sparse with a slightly moody feel. While this changes throughout, it gets the song off to a solid start, and makes the chorus seem much more powerful as a result. The melodies in the chorus are irresistible, with the use of subtle vocal harmonies to give it a huge sound. The breakdown is also really enjoyable, with more excellent vocals and a heavy riff that soon leads back into the chorus. Feel is my least favourite of the five offered here, but it is still a solidly enjoyable tune. Skarlett's vocals are at her best here, especially during the strange chorus. The range she displays throughout is very impressive, and shows she has come a long way as a vocalist since the band's beginnings. The song lacks the energy of the rest of the album, which is why it is my least favourite, but you cannot help but be moved by the vocal display, and the rare guitar solo is perfectly executed. For me, Skarlett Riot are at their best when they are really rocking out and they get back to that on the final song The Wounded. The opening riff is probably the best on the album, and the booming bass of Martin Shepherd dominates the song. The verses have a great staccato feel with bursts of double bass drumming that punctuate the slightly metalcore-style verse lead guitar line. The song comes alive with the chorus however, which is less overt than usual, but has real class about it. The vocal melodies in it remind me a little of modern Kamelot, so maybe the band picked up a few tips when they supported them last year! Overall, Sentience is a fantastic release from a band that are improving all the time and seem ready to break into the next level. If the upcoming album is as good as the two recent EPs, the we are in for a real treat!

The self-released EP was released on 29th April 2016. Below is the band's promotional video for Voices.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Sixx:A.M.'s 'Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1' - Album Review

Despite being around since 2007, it has only been in the last year or so that Sixx:A.M. has really been seen as a 'proper' band. Formed by the Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx, the originally wrote and recorded The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, which was a companion piece to a book that Sixx released at the same time. The book contained excerpts from Sixx's diaries at the very turbulent time for him personally, and is a very eye-opening account of the dangers of drug addiction. With sporadic live shows scheduled in between Mötley Crüe's activities, Sixx:A.M. were definitely seen as a side project rather than a fully fledged band. Along with Sixx, Sixx:A.M. contains guitarist DJ Ashba and vocalist James Michael, both of whom also were extremely throughout the majority of Sixx:A.M.'s existence to this point. Ashba was a part of Guns N' Roses between 2009 and 2015 (the whole of the Chinese Democracy touring cycle) and Michael has a busy behind-the-scenes career in music producing and mixing albums, and writing songs, for a variety of bands including HammerFall, Papa Roach, and Halestorm. Two more Sixx:A.M. albums followed. This is Gonna Hurt was released in 2011, and Modern Vintage saw the light of day in 2014. Both albums were well received, but the band was definitely still seen as a side project by all at these points. Things have changed for Sixx:A.M. recently however. Since Mötley Crüe has 'blown it's brains out' (their words, not mine) Sixx now can dedicate all of his creative mind and time on Sixx:A.M.. Ashba left Guns N' Roses last year (clearly the current Guns N' Roses reunion had been bubbling away in the background for some time) which also gave him more time to dedicate to Sixx:A.M.. With this in mind, the trio started working on their fourth album, which was released in April and is titled Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1. With enough material for a double album, the band decided to release the two volumes separately, which I think is a good idea. Double albums often appear more bloated than they actually are, and releasing two separate albums will ensure more light gets shined on each song than is otherwise possible. Drummer Dustin Steinke has also been added to the line-up, and he makes his studio debut with the band on this album. Previous albums have either featured a session drummer or programming by Michael. Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 sees the band full unleashed from the shackles of it's members' schedules, and is easily the best thing the band have done to date. The album is a great collection of classy modern hard rock songs, and shows that Sixx has reinvented himself after decades of playing sleazy hair metal.

The album open in dramatic fashion with some theatrical vocals as the first song Rise gets underway. The song is in the band's now-established sound, but possess a really great riff from Ashba that has plenty of swagger and leads into a verse that showcases Michael's vocal talents. While he is not the most diverse or unique vocalist around, his delivery throughout this album is very strong, especially on this song's chorus, which has plenty of bursts of the theatrical backing vocals from the song's intro. Ashba lets rip part-way through with a really lengthy and explosive guitar solo that shows he is a real talent. You Have Come to the Right Place is a real foot-stomping song, and opens with a riff that is probably the closest to Mötley Crüe that Sixx:A.M. will ever come. The song is packed full of groove too, with Sixx's bass dominating the grinding verses, as Michael almost croons over the top of it. This is an instantly catchy song, and has a soaring chorus that showcases Michael's knack for crafting a catchy vocal melody. Another guitar solo also stands out here, with lots of screaming high notes from Ashba in a solo is more about atmosphere than fast playing. Taking the groove to the next level, I'm Sick opens with another excellent guitar riff that has a heavy, almost southern rock, vibe to it. This leads into a sparse verse with a snaking bassline and some chiming clean guitar that occasionally cuts through the rhythm section to create some mournful melodies. A highlight of this song for me is the section later on where everything drops out and Michael's voice is left, with some strange effects on it, to repeat the chorus before the whole band comes back in and Ashba launches into another standout guitar solo with some really bluesy licks. Prayers for the Damned is more of a downbeat song, and definitely seems to take some influence from post-grunge bands like Creed. The verses are quite grungy, with a murky guitar tone and Michael's voice sitting in the lower register. The choruses are a bit more upbeat, with a subtle orchestral arrangement that creates a surprising amount of depth to the song. Despite not being as catchy as the other songs here, it is still memorable, and does a lot towards creating a strong atmosphere for the album. Better Man is something of a ballad, with plenty of acoustic guitar in the mix and some emotive vocals from Michael. Michael's vocal style, and Sixx:A.M.'s general style, is fairly melodramatic but it is done well and never seems too earnest. This song is a good example of that, and it does a lot to draw you in to the song's emotional feeling. Ashba's guitar solo helps too, with some catchy repeated licks that ends with a powerful crescendo.

Can't Stop returns to the harder rock of the opening songs with a simple riff, that is backed up by some synthy orchestral sounds that really work well to add melody and make the song stand out the from the rest. Bass-driven verses take over, but it is the song's powerful chorus that is the highlight. The gang vocal sections that chant over the song's intro riff are extremely memorable, and Michael waves his lyrics in between these hypnotic chants. I can imagine this song going down really well live, and becoming a highlight of the band's set with plenty of chance for crowd participation. When We Were Gods opens out slowly, with subtle keyboard melodies, before a verse takes over with some strange industrial sounds which gives Michael a strong backing for his mournful vocal delivery. The song builds and builds until it reaches the chorus, which in my opinion is one of the best on the album. Michael really unleashes the full strength of his voice here with some almost tortured screams that work really well. The post-chorus riff is one of the best musical moments on the album too, which makes great use of some crazy industrial sounds to create an electric atmosphere. This is one of the album's best songs, and showcases the best of the trio's writing and chemistry. Belly of the Beast opens with more electronic sounds, which end up dominating the song. While I like the band's use of synths and programming, I think it was taken a little too far here. Ashba's fantastic guitar skills are under-utilised on this one, and it ends up sounding rather sterile as a result. That said, the song's chorus is strong, with some good vocal melodies but the rest of the song relies too heavily on the programming for my taste. Everything Went to Hell gets the album back on track with a really strong riff, that has a slight boogie feel to it, which helps to drive the fun verses. The song's chorus is very different to the rest of the song, which initially seems jarring, but it is still strong so the transitions do not seem to bad after you have heard the song a few times. It also contains a fantastic neo-classical guitar solo from Ashba that really showcases him at his very best. I think his role in Guns N' Roses has unfairly demeaned him in the eyes of many rock fans (the negativity against Guns N' Roses over the past few years was frankly ridiculous) and I hope people start to re-evaluate his skills with this album. The Last Time (My Heart Will Hit the Ground) is a decent tune, but definitely up to the strong standards of much else that is on display here. It is not unmemorable, but there is little that can really be said about it. Unfortunately it is sandwiched between two strong songs, and this definitely takes the spotlight away from it. Rise of the Melancholy Empire is the album's last song, and it is the album's longest too. It is a very varied song, with delicate piano-led sections and soaring hard rock sections - all tied together with Michael's strong vocal display. The dramatic chorus vocals from Rise are reprised here to great effect, and the song ensures the album ends strongly. Overall, Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 is a great album from Sixx:A.M., and one that sets out their stall as a 'proper' band for the first time. I look forward to where they go on Vol. 2 when it comes.

The album was released on 29th April 2016 via Eleven Seven Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Rise.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Tremonti's 'Dust' - Album Review

Mark Tremonti is one of this generation's best guitarists, and he is back with his third solo album Dust less than a year after releasing Cauterize (which I reviewed here). The two albums were recorded together, and released separately for maximum impact. I am glad that Tremonti decided to release the albums separately, as opposed to releasing a double album, as I feel this gives the music greater exposure and gives the fans more time to digest the songs. It is rare that anyone has time to sit down and listen to a double album all the way through, so treating the two albums as totally separate releases was wise. That being said, the two albums are definitely companion pieces, and you can tell that they were recorded together. The albums have very similar sounds, and the excellent production from Michael 'Elvis' Baskette is heavy and powerful. There are differences between to two however. While Cauterize was more diverse than 2012's All I Was, Dust is more focused on the heavier side of Tremonti's playing and has more in common with his debut solo release than Cauterize, while still feeling connected to it's brother album. Cauterize is the light, and Dust is the shade - both albums going hand in hand to create one big body of work that oozes classy songwriting and a tonne of technical ability. The thing that sets Tremonti apart from many other guitar heroes is that he is, first and foremost, a songwriter. He never sets out to be the fastest player in the world, or fill his albums up with meandering and tuneless instrumentals that show off his unbelievable playing; no, Tremonti writes good quality hard rock and metal songs, and has been doing so since he first hit the scene when Creed released their debut album in 1997. Tremonti rose to fame with Creed, but it has been with Alter Bridge that Tremonti has really been accepted into the arms of metal fans as a true guitar hero. The band's heavy, anthemic, and often slightly progressive songwriting gives Tremonti plenty of chances to spread his wings. During the band's downtime however he works on his own albums, which also showcase him as singer as well as a guitarist and a songwriter. While his voice will never be as good as either Scott Stapp's or Myles Kennedy's, it has power to it that suits the heavier material he writes for his own solo albums. Tremonti's solo material is clearly influenced by his fan of thrash and other heavier subgenres of metal, but still retains the sense of melody that his songwriting has always possessed. Backed up once again by guitarist Eric Friedman, bassist Wolfgang Van Halen (although Tanner Keegan is currently touring with the band), and drummer Garrett Whitlock, Tremonti has created another heavy album that will only reinforce his status as a modern guitar hero.

The album opens in fine fashion with the heavy My Last Mistake, which has a riff that sounds like Tremonti has been listening to some classic Iced Earth recently. The furious palm-muted bursts of galloping that lock in Whitlock's precise drumming really help to build up the energy as the song leads into a fast verse which has an extremely commanding vocal performance from Tremonti. His voice is getting better all the time, and this song probably showcases him at his best. The song's chorus is memorable without overshadowing the song, as the whole piece flows nicely with a strong coherence. The Cage is a much more riff-based song, with a memorable lead hook that is reprised throughout, and some fantastic drumming from Whitlock. His beats are almost blast-like in places, and gives the song an extremely heavy and thrashy feel which suits Tremonti's playing. While this is definitely a solo project, the other three musicians on the album all add to the overall sound and are key parts of the album's feel. This song is instantly memorable with a rather epic chorus with catchy vocal lines, and an really explosive solo that showcases why Tremonti is so revered by guitarists. Once Dead follows, and continues on with the fast metal vibe with another thrashy riff that almost contains some tremolo picking at one point. While the majority of the song is fast, it takes a slower turn in the chorus to produce something extremely memorable . Slower choruses often work well, and help to emphasise the vocal lines, which here are very catchy. This song, and the two preceding it, do a great job to get the album off to a relentless and high-energy start. Things take a slower turn in the album's brooding title track, which leaves the thrash energy behind for something that would not sit out of place on one of Alter Bridge's albums. From a chiming clean guitar intro to the wall-of-sound chorus - which makes good but subtle use of vocal harmonies from the other musicians - this song is full of emotion, which stands in stark contrast to the metal of the opening numbers. It works just as well however, and gives Tremonti to show off his slower, more progressive guitar style with bursts of bluesy lead and effects-heavy chords. This is one of the strongest songs on the album, and one of the strongest songs Tremonti has written for his three solo albums. The heavier vibe returns with Betray Me, but the speed of the opening number is replaced with a more mid-paced groove that adds another dynamic layer to the album. As with most of Tremonti's compositions, the vocal lines are very memorable, and this song is no exception with another strong chorus that oozes melody from the heavier surroundings. This song also makes me realise how powerful the guitar tone that Tremonti and Friedman have used for this album is. It takes no prisoners and they, along with Baskette, should be congratulated for the powerful sound.

Tore my Heart Out has a slightly doomy feel, as Van Halen's bass often rings through, and the moody clean guitar melodies in the song's intro also enhance this feeling. It does not always remain this way however, as the song soon evolves into another strong mid-paced rocker with a really memorable riff mid-way through that comes out of the blue and knocks the song out. The song's chorus is another winner, with lots of strong vocal harmonies. The lyrics and delivery is a little earnest, but the guitar playing is very strong, with some really atmospheric playing that sits well beside the harder riffs. Catching Fire is another stand-out number, and a song that stood out to me the first time I listened to the album. The chorus is easily the best on the album, with very strong melodies and some high vocal harmonies which I assume are from Van Halen. The song is less heavy than many of the others here, but benefits from being extremely catchy and the fact that it whips up plenty of energy. That being said, the song's breakdown is possibly one of the most furious metal moments on the album, and comes out of the blue to great effect. This is another songs that ranks up there as one of the best from Tremonti's solo catalogue so far. Never Wrong is the first song on the album that fails to make any big impression on me. It is a little dirgy, without any real standout melodies. It has a dark atmosphere to it, with some nice clean guitar sounds, but the song just is not as catchy as the others found here. The song itself is not that bad, and I think it speaks more for the quality of what else surrounds it rather than the song itself. That being said, it is not great, and definitely fails to hold it's own on the album. Rising Storm is stronger, and gets the album back on track with a fast riff that has a slightly unusual rhythm that works well. The song's chorus has a strange, bouncy feel to it that does not really fit in with the vibe created on the rest of the album, but it still works quite well. The album's final song, Unable to See, is another slower song, but it works well with a strong emotional vocal delivery After a couple of songs that see the album's quality dip somewhat, this song comes along and ensures the album ends on a high. Tremonti does the heavier thrash material well, but he also excels at these slower numbers. The subtle lead guitar playing that Tremonti adds to this song really enhances the mood, and really brings out the best in his vocals. It also contains a really strong guitar solo that starts slow, and then explodes into flurry of shredding at it's climax. Overall, Dust is another strong album from Tremonti that shows a different side of his playing and songwriting from his day job. With a new Alter Bridge album around the corner, it may be sometime before we hear another Tremonti solo album, but with two in quick succession we have more than enough to enjoy for now.

The album was released on 29th April 2016 via FRET12. Below is the band's official lyric video for Dust.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Josh & Co. Limited's 'Transylvania - Part 1: The Count Demands It' - Album Review

Since forming Mostly Autumn in 1995, Bryan Josh has become extremely respected in the progressive rock world and his band enjoy a healthy following at home and abroad. Throughout the band's history, many members have come and gone (and come again etc.), but Josh is the sole constant force. He has written (either by himself or with other members of the band) the vast majority of the band's material over the course of 11 studio albums and has been, rightly, described as 'The Heart and Guitar of Mostly Autumn'. His rough but emotive vocal style, that always compliments the polish of his leading ladies, has become a part of the band's trademark style; and his soaring lead guitar style, influenced by David Gilmour and Ritchie Blackmore, is even more of a staple. Despite his prolific writing skills, the vast majority of his musical life has been (and will continue to be, I am sure) dedicated to Mostly Autumn. During a lull in the band's activities back in 2008 when then frontwoman Heather Findlay was on maternity leave, Josh decided to record his first solo album Through These Eyes under the name 'Josh & Co. Limited'. It was a surprise announcement, with little fanfare, but it was a welcome addition to Josh's excellent collection of work, and an album I still play quite a lot to this day. Sound-wise, the album was not too far away from where Mostly Autumn were at that time. 2008's Glass Shadows was still fairly new, and Through These Eyes had the more restrained, modern feel of that album (apart from the lyrically bizarre title track). It definitely focused more on Josh's guitar skills than Glass Shadows however, with plenty of emotional guitar solos throughout. A few shows were played to support the album in 2009, which were well received, but it was then back to the big ship Mostly Autumn and he has not looked back as the band have gone from strength to strength releasing arguably their best album yet in 2014 (Dressed in Voices, which I reviewed here). Obviously at some point over the past year or so, Josh has been inspired to write and record his second album and the result, quirkily titled Transylvania - Part 1: The Count Demands It, is a very different beast from Through These Eyes. Where that was a soaring, emotional prog rock album; this is a carnival, tongue-in-cheek concept album about Vampires (what is not to like?). This is a very diverse album, covering all from gentle acoustic ballads, to balls-out rock and everything in between. Long bombastic instrumental sections and over-the-top spoken word parts (Hammer films anyone?) punctuate the more traditional songs, to make an album that sounds nothing like Josh has been a part of before. Josh handles the vast majority of the vocals and instruments himself, with the most notable other contributor being current Mostly Autumn drummer Alex Cromarty who plays throughout the album. Other guests add their magic throughout, and their contributions will be detailed further on.

After one of the many cheesy, short spoken word sections on the album gets things underway, the music begins with the bluesy acoustic guitar of The Back Lane. Josh's strange, narrative lyrics have an extremely catchy, bouncy rhythm to them - especially when Cromarty comes in with a heavy-handed drum beat. The song slowly builds up, adding bass, drums, and electric guitars as it goes on. There are plenty of short bursts of lead guitar throughout, which are far bluesier than Josh's usual style. It works well, but lulls the listener into a false sense of security, as the album takes on a vastly different turn towards the end of the song, which is rather spooky and atmospheric and transitions into In for the Bite, the album's next song. Josh's Eastern-tinged electric guitar riff, and Cromarty's percussive drums, have a sinister feel that leads into a soaring song that sees Josh's wife Olivia Sparnenn-Josh (Mostly Autumn; Breathing Space) take the lead for a dynamic and commanding vocal performance. The heavier feel of the song brings Mostly Autumn's 2012 album The Ghost Moon Orchestra to mind in places, and the walls of keyboards create a foreboding atmosphere. Sparnenn-Josh's vocals soar, and show a grittier side than she usually displays with Mostly Autumn. Far Away is more of a narrative track, with Josh's descriptive, spoken vocals working well over a subtle guitar and keyboard backing. The 'chorus' is sung however, with big acoustic guitar chords that sit well beside the fuzzy electric guitar sounds and hollow drums. Sparnenn-Josh also adds some spoken word to this song, and the song ends with a classic-style Josh guitar solo. The Castle of 1000 Dead starts a suite of mostly instrumental music with some spiky, heavy guitar chords and gothic chanting. The gothic theme continues throughout, with plenty of spooky organ sounds that sits really well alongside the heavy guitars. A short spoken section follows, before the epic Carnival of the Rotting Sun starts. Again, this is largely instrumental, and feels like a heavier cousin of all those folky instrumentals found on the early Mostly Autumn albums. It is a collaboration between Josh and Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish), and features many of the latter's unique skills. Donockley has been guesting on Mostly Autumn albums for years, but this is the first song the two have written together. Piano and a children's choir get things underway, before the evil folk music starts with uilleann pipes and bouzouki join the mix and whip up a mighty jig! Donockley even sings a little on the song, with his smooth Northern delivery a nice contrast to Josh's rougher voice. Rather unsurprisingly, the song climaxes with another soaring Josh guitar solo, that rises effortlessly above Donockley's folky magic. The Wolves of Kolkon is a more traditional rock song, with bursts of heavy organ and a strange vocal performance from Josh. He has never sounded like this before, and certain sections are even close to sounding like harsh vocals! The verses are quite fast, with a good boogie rhythm, and the choruses slower, with some anthemic drums and funny vocals. The twin-lead guitar section mid-way through is also excellent, which sounds a bit like classic Thin Lizzy.

The Dead Sun, a beautiful ballad featuring the talents of Anna Phoebe on the violin, is probably my favourite song on the album. It really harks back to the Mostly Autumn prog epics of the past like The Night Sky and The Last Climb, and it makes you realise how much violin Mostly Autumn used in their sound back when Bob Faulds was in the band. This song features the best of Josh's voice, and has an extremely emotional vocal delivery, over his strummed acoustic guitar and soaring keyboard backing. Phoebe adds a lot to the song too, with heart-wrenching violin lines throughout, that really add another dimension to the song. She seems to be the latest person to join to the extended Mostly Autumn family, I would not be surprised to see more collaborations together in the future. The song also contains an excellent guitar solo, one of Josh's best, which crams plenty of emotional moments into it. The extended violin outro is the icing on the cake however, and shows what a special player Phoebe is. The two combine again in the shorter Lonely and Cold, which is a lovely little acoustic ballad with Josh's slightly mumbled lead vocals that sound a little like Marillion's Steve Hogarth in places. This leads into a the upbeat acoustic rock of Rainbow, which has shades of the album's bluesy opening number. It comes as a bit of a shock in all the darkness that the album has now descended into, but it works surprisingly well and gives the album a bit of a kick. It is the last uplifting moment on the album, as things soon return to the narrative darkness that characterises the rest of the album with The Old Man which features lots more strange spoken word sections and sparse, atmospheric synth backing. Ulak the Gripper is another narrative song, featuring one of the stranger characters in the story. Once again, big synth sounds form the basis of the song, but this time you can hear lots of soaring guitar leads in the background that cut through at choice moments. The album's last proper song Beyond the Wall is another largely instrumental piece that is based around a huge keyboard riff that is clearly inspired by many of the current crop of melodic metal bands out there. It is a guitar showcase really, and sees Josh cutting loose with many strong guitar leads, including one that seems to deliberately reference something that will be familiar to Mostly Autumn fans! Phoebe's violin returns here too, and the song takes a darker turn when she arrives, with Josh's hard rocking power chords and Cromarty's heavy drumming forming the background for her slightly discordant playing. This leads into another Josh solo, that follows Phoebe's lead, and explodes into a strong, Eastern-tinged guitar work out that showcases all of Josh's skills. The album comes to an end, with the story on a cliffhanger, with another spoken word section. Overall, Transylvania - Part 1: The Count Demands It is an interesting album from Josh which showcases his writing and guitar playing in a different light. It is an album that definitely reveals itself over many listens, and impresses through it's diverse sounds and styles. I assume there will be a sequel at some point, but with Josh's attentions now focused on a new Mostly Autumn album, it may be a while before we return to Transylvania.

The album was released on 29th April 2016 via Mostly Autumn Records.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - London Review

It took me quite a while to fully appreciate the genius of Bruce Springsteen. For quite some time I bought into the myth that his music is 'rock music for those who don't like rock music', but when I finally began to listen to him properly I realised that this was, of course, absolute rubbish. Springsteen will always be known for his lyric-writing, which often depicts realistic portrays of blue collar working America. As bleak as they are uplifting, Springsteen's lyrics are probably some of the best ever written. Lots of attention is often given to his lyrics, and many seem to forget that he can write an extremely catchy and memorable tune too. Without great music to back them, his lyrics would not hit half as hard as they do, and Springsteen has been writing great and memorable songs since his 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. I finally realised my love for all things Springsteen about three years ago, but missed out on his UK shows at that time due to the fact I was finishing my degree. When I saw this current run of UK shows announced a few months back, I knew I had to go this time. Getting tickets was not easy, even though I was at the computer ready for 9am the day they went on sale, but I managed to get through to the site after a few attempts and bagged a seat at London's Wembley Stadium. I had been to Wembley Stadium twice before, but both of those trips were for football. I had never seen a band in the stadium before, and that is something that has to be done at least once! In fact, my only stadium gig previously was Meat Loaf at Plymouth's Home Park back in 2008 (I think), and this was on a whole other level indeed! This current tour from Springsteen and the best backing band in the business, the E Street Band, is billed as The River Tour. I am not sure why his 1980 double album The River is getting lots of recognition at the moment, as it is not a special anniversary for the album this year, but I suppose it is a good opportunity to do a nostalgia-type tour while he does not have a new album to promote. The American leg of the tour featured the whole album played in full every night, but he has chosen not to do this for the European leg which I think was actually better. The River has plenty of good songs on it, and some were featured in the set, but there is also quite a bit of filler to be found. Given Springsteen's want for playing long shows, the stadium opened at 4pm with the show due to start at 6pm. He came on about 20 minutes late in the end, but this is no matter given the sheer quality of the show that was to follow.

The 33-song three and a half hour set started in a rather laid-back fashion. Springsteen took to the stage by himself, sat behind the piano, and treated us to a version of Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? from his debut album. This gentle intro was a stark contrast to the bombast that was to follow and, when the E Street Band was brought to the stage, two chugging blues rockers in the form of non-album track Seeds and Johnny 99 followed. Johnny 99 in particular was an early highlight, and saw Nils Lofgren (guitar/lap steel/vocals) waltzing around the stage creating bluesy licks with his portable lap steel. The dropping of the complete performance of The River brought Springsteen's trademark unpredictability back. You can never quite predict what songs will be played at one of his shows, and this one was no exception. The mixture of classics and rarities (some requests from the crowd - another Springsteen tradition) made for a very varied evening of music. There was a three-song suite from The River early on however, and the highlight of this was the AOR-tinged Sherry Darling which has one of the best choruses in his back catalogue. The first request, No Surrender, was the first song to really get people on their feet and the band delivered a rousing version. Steven Van Zandt (guitar/vocals) seemed to really enjoy this, and often joined Springsteen at the microphone to belt out the lyrics. I want to take a little bit of time here to raise something that did annoy me slightly about the show, although thankfully did not dampen my enjoyment too much. The set up included three big screens, one behind the band on the stage and one either side of the stage. These two at the side almost exclusively showed Springsteen throughout, while the one at the back was more varied, showing all the band members and shots of the crowd. Due to my position high up in the gods, it was hard to see this screen. This meant that the vast majority of video footage I saw was just of Springsteen. I would have liked to have seen more of the other members of the band, as they are just as important to the delivery of the show and set as Springsteen. I do not want to be negative, as this was one of the best gigs I have ever seen, but this practical change would have definitely improved things for me.

Candy's Room was another request, and Roy Bittan's (keyboards) distinctive piano intro over Max Weinberg's (drums) fast hi-hat beat made for another highlight. A funny moment came with another request, the newer I'll Work for Your Love, which Springsteen performed acoustically, and seemed to have half-forgotten initially. He tried it in a couple of different keys, before finally running through it to huge cheers from the crowd. It is moments like this that make Springsteen shows stand out. Another couple from The River, Out in the Streets and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) brought some much-needed energy back to the set after a few quieter numbers, and saw plenty of crowd interaction and singing. Throughout the evening, Springsteen made plenty of adventures into the crowd, collection sign requests and shaking hands with the fans. The song that was possibly the best of the main set was a spine-tingling and elongated rendition of American Skin (41 Shots), and song that finally found a home on 2014's High Hopes. The murky atmosphere and cutting lyrics were enjoyed by the whole crowd, and the huge cheer after it finished showed how popular it was. Springsteen even paid tribute to Mohamed Ali with Tougher Than the Rest, which he sung as a duet with wife and band member Patti Scialfa (vocals/guitar/percussion). The main 26-song set came to and end with a rousing performance of Badlands which, if Wembley had a roof, would have definitely have taken it off! There was plenty more to come yet however, including one final request - my personal favourite Springsteen song (and one of the greatest songs ever written in my opinion) Jungleland. This was definitely the highlight of the whole evening for me. From Soozie Tyrell's (guitar/violin/percussion/vocals) violin intro, to Bittan's final piano flourishes, the song was a masterpiece. The real highlight though was Jake Clemons' (saxophone/percussion/vocals) lengthy saxophone solo. He played plenty of excellent solos throughout the show, but this was the best of the bunch. This encore section also included some of Springsteen's biggest hits including Born to Run and Dancing in the Dark, and all came an end with a spectacular version of Bobby Jean. As the E Street Band trouped off to huge applause, the evening started as it began: acoustically. Springsteen, armed with a guitar and a harmonica, played a stripped back version of Thunder Road which was the icing on the cake of a fantastic evening of live music. The setlist was:

Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Johnny 99
Wrecking Ball
The Ties That Bind
Sherry Darling
Hungry Heart
No Surrender
Be True
Candy's Room
She's the One
My City of Ruins
I'll Work for Your Love
Spirit in the Night
Out in the Street
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
Death to my Hometown
American Skin (41 Shots)
The River
The Promised Land
Darlington County
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
Tougher Than the Rest
Because the Night [Patti Smith Group cover]
The Rising
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout [The Isley Brothers cover]
Bobby Jean
Thunder Road

During the rather long and slow trudge out of Wembley and back to the tube station with thousands and thousands of other people, I realised how fantastic this show really was. So many great songs were featured from an songwriter and performer who is still at the top of his game four decades after first bursting onto the scene. There is no doubt that this was one of the greatest shows I have ever seen, and maybe even the absolute best. I hope I get the opportunity to see him live again one day but, if I do not (tickets are not easy to get!), I will have had at least one opportunity to do so.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The 69 Eyes' 'Universal Monsters' - Album Review

Finland's goth rockers The 69 Eyes have been around nearly thirty years. That is hard to believe, especially for a band that has only really reached their commercial peak in the past decade, but it is true. Ever since their 1992 debut album Bump 'n' Grind, the band have been putting out high quality rock music to fans all over the world. While the band started out as a sleazy rock band, that borrowed a lot from fellow countrymen and glam rock pioneers Hanoi Rocks, it is the band's later gothic rock sound that they are more known for. 1997's Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams saw the first real transition to the more gothic sound, and by 1999's Wasting the Dawn is was the band's modus operandi. Frontman Jyrki 69's voice really came into it's own as the band moved to a darker musical territory. His low, rumbling voice was never suited for the band's sleazier early material, and his love for classic singers like Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley shines through now. When the band started working with producer Johnny Lee Michaels in 2000, the band embarked on their best run of albums. 2000's Blessed Be to 2007's Angels are easily the band's best work, and really showcase the band's now-trademark goth 'n' roll sound perfectly. The mix of simple, razor-sharp guitar riffs from Bazie and Timo-Timo, and the atmospheric, keyboard-heavy production was the perfect background for Jyrki's gothic crooning. The energy of the band's early work was never lost though, and this stopped The 69 Eyes' goth music become a dirge like so many others. Two more albums, 2009's Back in Blood and 2012's X, have been released since, but without Michaels at the helm. Both of these albums are excellent, but they lack the overt goth trappings of the Michaels quadrilogy. Both are more guitar-focused rock albums, that owe themselves more to the band's early work, but with more refined songwriting and production. Last year however, The 69 Eyes announced they were once again planning to work with Michaels on their next album. This was released back in April and is titled Universal Monsters. This, the band's eleventh studio album, is a return to that classic sound that made them so popular in the first place. This album is like a mix between the atmospheric sound of 2002's Paris Kills and the heavier rock of 2004's Devils. It is the best of both worlds, and really makes the most of Jyrki's unique vocals. There are some throwbacks to the band's early days too, but they still fit in within the context of the album. Those who have ever liked The 69 Eyes, in any form, should find plenty to like here. This is a finely crafted and produced album, by a veteran band who still have plenty to give.

The album starts out with the two songs that were available online before the album's release, and helped to generate quite a bit of excitement. Dolce Vita is classic The 69 Eyes, with buzzsaw guitar riffing and a dark atmosphere created with a subtle keyboard arrangement. Jyrki's voice is the star of the show here though, as the two guitarists create a fuzzy backing for his gothic crooning, which is at it's best during the playful chorus. Bazie does let rip part way through for a wah-drenched solo that has a real classic Thin Lizzy vibe to it, adding some real rock swagger to proceedings. This is the heavier end of the band's work, and ensures this album starts with a real melodic punch. The first song made available Jet Fighter Plane comes right from the Paris Kills school of songwriting. A delicious piano hook creates the main melody in the song's intro, and this leads into a verse that is more stripped back. Clean guitar chimes over Archzie's rumbling, simple bassline. Dark and brooding in the first song, Jyrki's voice is cracked and vulnerable here, but it works well with the subtler arrangement. The melancholic gang vocals in the chorus work really well too to create a repetitive hook that is hard to get out of your head. Blackbird Pie is a sweeping, classy piece of rock, part based around the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence which is somewhat featured in this song's chorus. It is the album's longest song, and also the most lush, with plenty of epic orchestrations and a really commanding vocal display from Jyrki. It is quite a varied piece too, with a lovely acoustic instrumental break part-way though which shows the diversity of the band's guitarists. When I first heard this song, I thought the chorus was quite clunky with the borrowed lyrics, but the more I heard it the more I love it. It is now one of my favourite songs on the album, and I hope the band include it in their future live sets. Lady Darkness is next, and has a really laid-back, chilled out vibe to it that you can almost imagine the band absentmindedly jamming this one out acoustically in a pub! The slightly sloppy guitar riffing and sound works in the song's favour, and give it real charm. Archzie's melodic bassline really drives the song, and provides very subtle melody throughout. The chorus, with some bluesy piano undertones, is another very catchy moment on the album. Miss Pastis picks up the pace, and we are transported to the streets of Paris with accordion sounds woven throughout the song, which fit in surprisingly well with the raw-sounding guitar riffing. This song returns to the sleazy song matter of the band's early days, with some leery lyrics, but the song is very memorable with the French chorus and the high energy riffing. Shallow Graves recalls the band's early attempts at the goth sound, with Jryki's cracked vocals and a sound that mixes 1980s-sounding riffs and a doomy chorus with plenty of vocal harmonies. Again, the bass really stands out, with an almost dancey rhythm to it. There is plenty of good guitar work here, with plenty of soaring bluesy leads throughout and a short but impressive solo.

Jerusalem is another stand-out track, which again comes right from the Paris Kills style. The sparkly synth riff at the beginning leads into a melancholic verse which is extremely atmospheric, despite the slightly funky drumming of Jussi 69. It is songs like this that bring out the best in Jyrki's voice, and he really dominates here. No-one else comes close when it comes to this kind of vocal style I think, and this is him at his best. None of the other band members attempt to steal his thunder here, with the ringing chords of the verse, and the slightly lumbering chorus riff, that has more than a little Judas Priest about it, only serving as a backing to his melodic vocal lines. Stiv & Johnny, a tribute to the punk legends Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders, is less raw and in-your-face as you might expect given the subject matter. It still possesses a strong melancholic feeling, but Jyrki reverts back to the scratchy vocal style he used in the band's formative years to give the song some grit. That being said, the song does come alive in the chorus as Jussi ramps up the pace and the two guitarists lock in with a simple, but ringing riff. It is definitely not the best song here, but the retro feel of the song will definitely appeal to long-time fans who have been around since the beginning. Never gets the album back to the established high standards with a real gothic rocker with plenty of excellent keyboard work from producer Michaels. The intro melody, that also serves as the chorus' backing, has some excellent orchestral and keyboard work, and makes an instant impression. The bass guitar again dominates the verse, where it proves the main melody while the guitars just play long, ringing chords. The chorus is catchy, with Jyrki almost barking out his vocals with some venom. Elsewhere, the two guitarists plays some short, but tasty dual lead sections - something which is rarity for the band and should maybe be explored more often! Blue sounds a bit like a distant cousin to Red from X as, aside from the obvious colour theme, both songs are ballads with a gloomy feel. There is definitely something of Fields of the Nephilim here, with a really murky atmosphere and not much traditional 'rock' music to be found. The drums are percussive and rarely play a recognised beat, apart from during the song's short and tortured guitar solo and a final reprise of the song's depressing chorus. Not the album's best, but certainly an interesting song that stands out. The album's final song, Rock 'n' Roll Junkie, again harks back to the band's sleazier, punky beginnings with an upbeat, energetic feel throughout. The song has quite a low-fi production which works well. Jussi's drums have a hollow sound to them, and the guitars chime like on the best 1970s punk albums. The chorus is very memorable too, with Jyrki's scratchy vocals and some subtle slide guitar which adds colour and another dimension to the song. Overall, Universal Monsters is a fantastic piece of work from the Helsinki Vampires. While they never lost their stride in my opinion, this album stills feels somewhat like a return to form. This is the sort of music the band does best, and it shows throughout this very memorable album.

The album was released on 22nd April 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Dolce Vita.