Saturday, 24 September 2016

Delain's 'Moonbathers' - Album Review

Delain have really grown in stature in the past few years. Starting with their third album, 2012's We are the Others, Delain really found their niche in the metal world and established a sound that set themselves apart from other symphonic metal bands. Their riff-focused, heavier take on the genre has made Delain different from the rest of the more over-the-top bands in the symphonic metal world and has made them very popular in their own right. This heavier, streamlined sound was refined on 2014's The Human Contradiction (which I reviewed here) which was probably their most complete work to date. A slight over-reliance on guest vocalists gave the album a slightly disjointed vibe at times, but the songwriting, performance, and production was spot on throughout. I have to say that it took me a little while to really get into The Human Contradiction's heavier sound, but now I love it and it is the Delain album I reach for the most. Two years on, and plenty of live shows later, Delain's fifth album Moonbathers was released last month. It was preceded by an EP called Lunar Prelude back in February, which contained two new songs (both of which appear Moonbathers), a re-working of a The Human Contradiction bonus track, and some live recordings from the 2015 European tour. It worked as a good taster for Moonbathers, despite not being an essential release to own. Moonbathers is the band's first full-length album to feature guitarist Merel Bechtold (Purest of Pain; MaYaN) and drummer Ruben Israel, who have both been playing with the band for a while now. Both started as session musicians on tour with the band filling in for existing members, and gradually wormed their way into the band's permanent line-up. Israel replaced outgoing drummer Sander Zoer in 2014, and Bechtold was added last year after subbing for lead guitarist Timo Somers on a few occasions. Bechtold's addition makes Delain a six-piece for the first time since early supporting line-ups for the debut album Lucidity. While the twin guitar attack has not made a big difference to the band's studio output, something which they probably have not made the most of yet - some harmony leads and dual solos would be a great addition to their sound going forward, but live it helps to beef up the sound. Moonbathers could be described as a beefy album too, with the heavier side of Delain's sound emphasised with Somers and Bechtold's guitars dominating the mix, with founding member and songwriter Martijn Westerholt's keyboards taking more of a backseat. The star of the Delain show on this album however, as always, is singer Charlotte Wessels. Her strong, clear voice is the true heart of Delain and that has not changed here. Like The Human Contradiction, this album takes a few listens to get into, but there are plenty of strong songs here which will please fans.

The album starts with a bang as the chugging guitars and double bass drumming heralds the start of Hands of Gold which is a real symphonic metal anthem with dramatic orchestrations and the album's only guest vocal spot. Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist; Arch Enemy) adds her trademark growling vocals to the album which is a great contrast to Wessels' soaring cleans. This is one of the heaviest Delain songs to date, and includes a excellent chorus where Wessels showcases her impressive vocal range as Westerholt's swirling keyboards and orchestrations provide colour. White-Gluz's section is the album's heaviest moment, and then everything drops out leaving just Wessels' voice with some subtle drumming - a great contrast in styles. The Glory and the Scum follows with a groovy riff and soon descends into a solid mid-paced verse led by Otto Schimmelpenninck van der Oije's driving bassline and a commanding vocal display from Wessels. The chorus is the song's strongest moment however. Wessels even provides the growled backing vocals during this part of the song, showing even more vocal range than I thought she possessed, and the rest of the vocal melodies are extremely catchy. Somers even gets a short guitar solo to show off his skills, something which is a rarity in the band's music. Suckerpunch, one of the two songs to appear on Lunar Prelude, opens with some atmospheric synths and morphs into a soaring rocker that relies more on Westerholt's keyboards than many of the other songs here. The verses are very rhythmic with some great drumming from Israel, and the chorus is an explosive one with lots of catchy backing vocals. The song's instrumental breakdown is also worth a mention, as it is more Nightwish than Nightwish! It shows that Delain can do the over-the-top style symphonic metal too, and this short section really adds something extra to an already great song. After three great songs, the album sees a slight drop in quality with The Hurricane. It is a slow song, but without any real standout melodies and it never seems to really go anywhere. It is a bit of a plodding song really, and Delain have done much better songs of this ilk in the past. The next song, Chrysalis - The Last Breath, is also a slow number but this is much more a ballad than The Hurricane. Opening with delicate piano and Wessels' voice, it starts off strongly and continues well throughout. I particularly like the strange chorus during the song, with some very floaty vocals from Wessels that sounds different from anything she has recorded before. It works well and you can see her love of Muse shining through. While the last third of the song is a bit gritter, it never really becomes a rocker. That works well however, and shows a different side to Delain's songwriting.

After two slower songs, Fire with Fire picks up the pace with a simple, but heavier metal tune which is instantly catchy and has a very old school Delain vibe. This would not have sounded out of place on 2009's April Rain. I imagine this song will become a live favourite, especially with the anthemic gang vocal chanting section that comes after the melodic chorus. There is another bombastic symphonic instrumental section part way through, which climaxes with some ringing piano chords and a huge, rousing gang vocal section. This is a rocking tune that stood out from the off, and is one of the best tracks on the album. Pendulum is another heavier track with some barking growls in the song's intro (and also used elsewhere throughout), but it soon becomes a smoother song with a keyboard-driven verse with van der Oije's rolling bassline proving some great rhythm. There is another strong guitar solo here, and shows that Somers is a pretty capable player. Flashy guitar parts have never been a big part of the band's sound, so it is good to see the guitar work a bit more varied and explosive in parts throughout. I would like to see the band do more of this in the future, especially with Somers and Bechtold in the band now. Bechtold is a real shredder too, so I would love to see her cut loose! Danse Macabre is a strange song, but it is great with some catchy Eastern-inspired melodies and some dancey synths in places that bring Amaranthe to mind. The chorus is classic Delain though, with Wessels' high vocals taking the spotlight as Westerholt's keyboards ring out with some extremely melodic lines. Overall, the song feels very different to what Delain have done in the past, despite some familiar sounds coming through, and it is good to see the band pushing themselves on this album. A cover of Queen's Scandal follows, which might actually be better than original. Scandal is not exactly a classic Queen song, and sounds more like Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet than Queen, but Delain have taken it and made it into a real rocker. The chorus is bombastic and powerful, and Wessels holds her own against the inimitable Freddie Mercury. There is a proper guitar solo here too, with a bit of shredding and what sounds like some lead keyboards thrown into the mix. This is a really strong cover, and merits it's inclusion on the album. Turn the Lights Out, the second song to appear on Lunar Prelude, the is the last 'proper' song on the album. I was one of the first people to hear this song when they debuted it in Bristol on their European tour last year, and I liked it from the off. It has a great atmospheric feel to it, as the big layers of keyboards dominate. Wessels sounds absolutely gorgeous during the floaty chorus and shows why she is one of the best vocalists in symphonic metal. It ends the album on a strong note, as it merges into the largely instrumental closing number The Monarch. Overall, Moonbathers is another strong album from Delain. It does take a few listens to get into, but it is an album worth sticking with as there are some real gems on here.

The album was released on 26th August 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Suckerpunch.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sabaton's 'The Last Stand' - Album Review

While the power metal genre on the whole is slowly in decline, it's glory years behind it, one exponent of the genre continues to go from strength to strength. I am of course talking about Sweden's Sabaton, who's career continues to blossom despite releasing their eighth album, The Last Stand, last month! There are many bands out there who have never reached their eighth album, let alone see their star rise at the same trajectory as Sabaton's still is, so this is achievement is something not to be understated. Despite having their feet firmly rooted in the power metal camp, Sabaton have always worn their love for traditional heavy metal on their sleeves. Foregoing the traditional power metal clichés of high-pitched vocals and lightning-fast guitar solos, Sabaton have much more in common with bands like Judas Priest and Accept than they do with bands like Helloween. This is probably one of the secrets of their success, and as a result they appeal to a wide range of metal fans. The lyrical niche the band have carved for themselves has always played a part in their success. The historical themes are not unique to Sabaton, but few bands have done it with as much passion. Founding members and main songwriters Joakim Brodén and Pär Sundström really know their stuff, and their keen interest in military history is infectious and instills a thirst for knowledge. There are few bands that will have you flicking through Wikipedia articles after listening to their albums! Sabaton are survivours too, having survived a major line-up overhaul in 2012 that would have crippled a lesser band. The Last Stand is the second album with the post-2012 line-up, and follows on nicely from 2014's Heroes (which I reviewed here). Heroes reigned in some of the over-the-top theatrical and cinematic elements that the band had experimented with on 2012's Carolus Rex in favour of a more guitar-driven metal album that saw the band return to their roots somewhat. It was well-received, so the band have wisely followed a similar path on The Last Stand. That being said, Brodén's keyboards are much more prominent this time around and that gives the album a strong 1980s vibe at times, with some pretty retro synthesiser sounds used at times! As a result, The Last Stand sounds like a bit of a mix of Heroes and Carolus Rex which works well and the songwriting style used here is pretty typical of the band's past work. It is also the last Sabaton album that will feature the guitar skills of Thobbe Englund who left the band amicably after the album was fininshed. Tommy Johansson (Golden Resurrection) has joined the band as his replacement, but does not feature at all on The Last Stand.

Sabaton albums always start with a bang and this one is no exception. The mid-paced anthem Sparta, which is set to be a live favourite for years to come, opens with a majestic keyboard-driven motif with ringing power chords and Hannes van Dahl's rolling drums. The verses are quite sparse, with Sundström's growling bassline taking the lead as Brodén's low voice tells the first of many epic tales told on this album. While never a fast song, Sparta packs a serious punch throughout, and especially during the chorus which sees good use of gang vocal sections, and soaring vocal melodies that have become the band's trademark. It is one of the most instantly memorable Sabaton songs from the past few years, and is an instant classic. Last Dying Breath picks up the pace, but the keyboard-heavy sound remains as the guitars intertwine underneath. The verses have a classic Judas Priest feel, with a simple, driving rhythm that makes the most of Brodén's deep vocal style. While not possessing much of a chorus, the reprise of the song's intro riffs serves as such, as the pulsing keyboards rolls back time into the 1980s. Chris Rörland's guitar solo is quite lengthy too, with a good mix of fast shredding runs and slower, atmospheric sections. Blood of Bannockburn is a song that I did not like when I first heard it. It was released online prior to the album's release and it sounded very weak compared to Sabaton's older songs. While my opinion on the song has improved somewhat since, it is still the weakest song on the album for me. The fact the song was written in a major key makes the song stick out terribly with a strange, upbeat vibe to it, and the bagpipe melodies clash with the guitars. That being said there is a good, but short, Hammond Organ solo from Tomas Sunmo that adds something different to the established Sabaton sound. After the sombre spoken word piece Diary of an Unknown Soldier, which features the voice of fellow military history enthusiast Jon Schaffer (Iced Earth; Sons of Liberty), comes The Lost Battalion which is a good old-fashioned Sabaton romp. Much has been made of the gun samples used to make the drum sounds on this song and it sounds great, giving the song a rhythmic pounding feel that helps to bring the story in the lyrics to life. Englund's mournful guitar solo fits the song really well, and the chorus is one of the most memorable on the album. Sabaton have a great knack for using backing vocals to their advantage, and the huge choir amassed for this purpose really shines here and helps bring the song to life. Rorke's Drift is less keyboard-focused and sounds like a song left over from the Heroes sessions. As a result it has a heavier overall feel, with some great speedy guitar riffing and drumming that allows van Dahl to cut loose somewhat. It is a high energy song, which sits well after the mid-paced power of the previous song. It always features a great dual-guitar solo which sees the band's two guitarists trading leads and peeling off each other perfectly.

The album's title track is up next and it is my favourite song on the album. It contains all the classic Sabaton traits, and is based around a fantastic mid-paced piece of music with a great story about the Swiss Guard to match. Brodén sounds even more inspired than usual on this song, and delivers what could be one of his greatest vocal performances ever. The religious imagery of the lyrics, and the story they tell, gives this song a unique feel, and Rörland's neo-classical solo is the icing on the cake. If someone was to ask me what was so great about Sabaton's music, I think this is the song that I would play them as it really contains everything that has made them so successful. After the majesty of the album's title track, the metallic Hill 3234, comes in like a steamroller with a thrashy main riff. This is another song out of the Heroes mould, and features some more technical guitar work than is usual on this album. The two guitarists mix intricate passages together well, and dominate the song with little interference from the keyboards. Most Sabaton songs feature quite simple guitar passages which help to emphasise the power of the melodies, but sometimes it is great to see them cut loose with more technical lines. Shiroyama features some of the most parp-tastic keyboards in the band's whole career and makes you wonder if Brodén has been listening to lots of Survivor recently! The song's verses are fairly non-desrcipt, as the whole song is built around an extremely powerful chorus that dominates. It is one of the more memorable moments on the album, and is sure to be a highlight of any future live show. Winged Hussars is another masterful display of mid-paced metal from a band who do it so well. Structurally this is similar to Sparta, with bass-driven verses and an extremely powerful chorus that makes good use of strong gang vocals. The main keyboard riff is ridiculously cheesy, but works well in the context of the song, even if it sounds like something Europe would have written around the time of The Final Countdown! The song is pure power however, and shows that metal does not always have to played at break-neck speed to achieve this. The album's final song, appropriately called The Last Battle, opens with a guitar/keyboard combination that is sure to get anyone pumped up, and the rest of the song does not disappoint. It is a simple song that really just plays to the band's strengths and has the feel of a victory lap after an album that is packed full of classic power metal anthems. Overall, The Last Stand is another great addition to the strong Sabaton discography and, the weaker Blood of Bannockburn aside, will probably be seen as one of the band's better albums in the future. This album will almost certainly appear in my Albums of the Year list come January, and it will more than deserve it's place. As a final note, the delux edition also comes with a couple of extra songs (including a good cover of Judas Priest's All Guns Blazing) and bonus DVD featuring a full live show filmed in France earlier this year. This is one delux edition that is well worth the extra few quid!

The album was released on 19th August 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Sparta.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Blackfoot's 'Southern Native' - Album Review

While the first wave of southern rock arguably died in 1977 with a tragic plane crash, the genre as a whole was not dead. With harder rock and metal growing more popular all the time, southern rock needed a heavier band to drag it away from it's country roots and into the 1980s. That band was Blackfoot. Despite originally forming in 1969 it was not until 1979, when their third album Strikes was released, that the band really started making waves. In fairness, the band had been on ice for some of that ten year period, with founding members Rickey Medlocke and Greg T. Walker both joining a fledgling line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd moved on without Medlocke and Walker however, which led to a revival of Blackfoot that set them on the path to become the southern rockers of the 1980s. Their rawer, bluesier, and heavier take on the genre was made for the 1980s, at a time when NWOBHM and glam bands were starting to get really popular. Lynyrd Skynyrd's more laid back country vibe would never have fitted in with these scenes, but Blackfoot proved they could rock as hard as any metal band, as is proved on their 1982 live album Highway Song Live which is a true classic. Like many bands however, Blackfoot's time passed and internal strife, line-up changes, and record company pressure caused the band to deviate from their established sound, and eventually split up in 1997. By this time Medlocke was the only original member left in the band, and his career took a decidedly upward turn from the depths Blackfoot had sunk by this point when he rejoined Lynyrd Skynyrd as a guitarist (he played drums during his first stint with the band), a position he still holds. Walker, Charlie Hargrett, and Jakson Spires (until his death in 2005) reformed Blackfoot in 2004 without Medlocke, and various incarnations continued to tour until 2011 when legal wranglings with Medlocke brought their version of Blackfoot to an end. The following year Medlocke unveiled a new version of Blackfoot. I had expected him to front a new band under the name, but instead he created a totally new band of unknown musicians under the Blackfoot name with himself acting as producer and manager for the group. This was a strange, and fairly unpopular move, but the new Blackfoot has been touring ever since. Last month saw the release of the first album of original material from this new version of the band, and the first Blackfoot album since 1994's After the Reign. At the band's core now are singer and guitarist Tim Rossi, bassist Brian Carpenter, and drummer Matt Anastasi.  Singer and guitarist Rick Krasowski joined the band earlier this year, but does not seem to be featured much on this new album (which is a shame, as watching recent live footage of the band paints him to be a better singer than Rossi), which is called Southern Native. It is produced by Medlocke, and the vast majority of the songs are a collaboration between him and Rossi. Medlocke also adds guitar to the album throughout, which helps to add some legitimacy to the recording. Despite the questions that this album raises (i.e. is this really a 'Blackfoot' album?), there are still songs to enjoy here.

The album starts off pretty strongly with two good songs. Need my Ride is a high-energy opening number that certainly channels the old Blackfoot spirit. The bluesy main riff and explosive short opening solo ensures the album starts off strong, and this is one of the album's best tunes. Rossi proves himself to be a pretty strong vocalist here, with some solid vocal melodies, but lacks the grit and character of Medlocke himself. Rossi and Medlocke play all of the album's guitar solos, and the one in the middle of this song is great with plenty of bluesy shredding that fit in with the fast pace of the song. A simple but strong chorus also adds to things, and overall the new era of Blackfoot gets off to a fine start. The southern strut of the title track follows and keeps up the good work. Despite sounding more like Medlocke's recent work with Lynyrd Skynyrd than classic Blackfoot, the song fits the canon well and packs a punch with another good chorus (aided by some great backing vocals from Stacy Michelle). Rossi proves himself in the guitar department too in the country-influenced guitar solo. An issue that these first couple of songs throw up however is the weak production. Both of these songs are out-and-out rockers, but the thin production holds them back somewhat. Neither of these songs come roaring through your speakers like classic Blackfoot would, and that definitely has an effect on the overall feeling the album gives you. Another issue is the drop in quality that the songwriting takes sometimes. Everyman is an example of this, and is shown up even more following two genuinely good rockers. The song is a bit of a ballad, but lacks the emotional impact or melodies that make those kind of songs great - this is no Diary of a Working Man or Highway Song, that is for certain! That being said, there are some nice bursts of bluesy lead guitar, and Carpenter's basslines are surprisingly melodic, so there are redeeming features. The dirty blues rock of Call of a Hero gets the album back on track with a big riff that sounds like something Black Stone Cherry might have come up with. This a proper southern rock song, with big guitars and a sing along chorus that is memorable from the first listen. Again however, I just cannot help but feel that the sterile production holds the song back from reaching it's full potential. A rawer, heavier overall sound would certainly help here. Take me Home, which is written by Marlon Young (who plays guitar for Kid Rock), opens with a great murky clean guitar pattern, that continues throughout. This is a much darker song than has come before on this album, and it stands out for that reason. This is a real guitarists' song, with loads of excellent lead and slide guitar lines which help to enhance the murky blues feel of the tune. Subtle keyboards (played by Lynyrd Skynyrd's Peter Keys) also add to the atmosphere, and make this into one of the album's best songs.

Another standout is a great cover of the old Procol Harum song Whiskey Train which seems much louder and in-your-face than anything else here. The song's riff, matched by some creative drumming from Anastasi, has serioud boogie to it, and the song is sure to get people moving when it is played live. There are also two distinct and excellent guitar solos here too, which again show that Medlocke has not lost his touch, and that Rossi is more than up the job of playing guitar in the true Blackfoot style. Satisfied Man gets back to the band's new original material, and is another good song built around a strong mid-paced guitar riff that drives the song throughout. Like Whiskey Train, this song sounds much louder than the rest of the album, and it makes you wonder if these songs were recorded over a long period of time in different batches. It is a shame the rest of the album does not sound as good as these two songs, as it would certainly have improved the impact of songs like Need my Ride. Ohio, a cover of the old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, is the album's last cover. While being listenable too, with a great twin guitar opening riff, it is certainly not a patch on Whiskey Train. Rossi turns in a pretty weak vocal performance on the song too, which is a shame as he does pretty well elsewhere, especially during the chorus where there are some really strange vocal harmonies that just seem out of place and grate on the ears. Love This Town is the last 'proper' song on the album, and this seems to be a deliberate attempt to create a feel-good party song similar to modern Lynyrd Skynyrd, but it falls short. For one, the chorus is weak without any big backing vocals to push it, and the lyrics are cheesy as anything. Medlocke lays down some excellent slide guitar however, which helps redeem the song somewhat. There is much better on this album however, and that is fairly evident when listening to this song. The album closes with a country/flamenco rock instrumental workout called Diablo Loves Guitar, which is quite good but seems a strange choice as a closing track. It would have been better placed as a mid-album change of pace in my opinion, and just seems tacked on in it's current position. Overall, Southern Native is a pretty solid album and has turned out better than most people probably thought it would. When listening to it however, despite having some songs that certainly channel the classic Blackfoot spirit, I do not feel like I am listening to Blackfoot. I am not quite sure what Medlocke is hoping to achieve with this 'new' band. They are all good musicians, but listening to Southern Native just makes me wish he was singing these songs rather than Rossi. My guess is that he feels Lynyrd Skynyrd's days are numbered due to Gary Rossington's failing health, and will properly re-join Blackfoot in the future, but creating this whole new, younger Blackfoot in the meantime seems a very strange decision. It just sets a bit of a dangerous precedent going forward where other bands could end up carrying on without any original members long into the future. I hope this is not the case, and Medlocke actually does re-join the band like I think he will, but until then we have 'Blackfoot' and Southern Native. A decent album, but certainly a strange turn of events!

The album was released on 5th August 2016 via Loud & Proud Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Southern Native.