Saturday, 31 December 2016

Music of 2016 - Part 1

As has been the case with all the years since I started this blog, 2016 has been another great year for new music. Those living in the mainstream Radio 1 bubble are missing out on so much great new music, and I hope my writings have helped a few people out there discover something new and interesting. There has been so many great new releases that I have not been able to review everything that I would have liked to. Unfortunately life just gets in the way sometimes, and with a full-time job and my concert reviews some albums unfortunately have to be missed off. I try to keep my reviews as close to the album's release date as possible. No-one wants to read a review of an album that is months old, so I often have to rush them out and choose which albums I feel I have the most to say about. I run this blog as a hobby in my spare time, and all of the albums I review I own because I wanted to hear them. There are no free promos here sent by record labels (as nice as that would be!), so this blog is a deep and honest look into my personal music collection. I hope those that have read my reviews over the last year have found them to be informative and interesting, and they are something I shall continue long into the future. As has been the tradition of this blog over the last few years, I shall do five mini reviews of albums I did not have the time to review earlier in the year. This means that I at least get to share a few thoughts on these albums, that for various reasons were not given the full treatment nearer to their release. I shall present these five bands in alphabetical order:

Up first is the Swedish pop/metal act Amaranthe's fourth album Maximalism which is, on the surface at least, more of the same from the genre-bending band. The mix of razor-sharp metal guitar riffs, poppy synths, and the vocal talents of three distinct vocalists is back in force, but the songwriting overall just feels much cleverer and more interesting; and the album seems to be a step up from 2014's Massive Addictive which definitely felt somewhat stale compared to the band's other two albums. More focus here seems to be given to frontwomen Elize Ryd, who has taken a greater part in the writing of both the music and the lyrics for the vast majority of the songs here. The closing ballad Endlessly seems like it is to become her signature tune. Elsewhere, the pop/rock strut of That Song shows that the band should be troubling singles charts the world over, and the Gothenburg-esque thrash of Fury sees the band at their heaviest yet. Intriguing and instantly memorable, Maximalism is an album that sees Amaranthe fully back on track.

Despite their 1980s heyday being well and truly over, Bon Jovi are still one of the biggest bands in the world. 2013's What About Now was easily the band's weakest effort to date, and a period of turmoil followed with co-founding lead guitarist and key songwriter Richie Sambora leaving to pursue a solo career which left Jon Bon Jovi free to pursue his own vision. Guitarist Phil X, who has previously played with Triumph and Alice Cooper, was brought in and the result is This House is not for Sale. A huge step up from What About Now, and arguably 2009's The Circle, This House is not for Sale has a similar vibe to 2005's Have a Nice Day with organic rock arrangements and an excellent vocal display from the man himself. The hard-rocking title track is as anthemic as the band have sounded for a while and the songs like Scars on This Guitar and Come On Up to Our House are packed with genuine Springsteen-esque emotions that have been lacking from the more sterile recent works. While this is more of a Jon Bon Jovi solo album than a true band effort, producer John Shanks played much of the album's guitar and co-wrote most of the songs, this sees the band sounding fresher and more real than they have for a good few years.

When prog rockers Touchstone split three ways there was always the potential for lots of great music to come from this particular parting of the waves. Two out of three camps (former singer Kim Seviour is yet to show her hand) have laid out their stalls, and the band's founder and keyboardist Rob Cottingham was the first do to so with his new band Cairo and their debut album Say. Comparisons can clearly be drawn to Touchstone's early sound, particularly their 2007 debut album Discordant Dreams, and Cottingham's solo work but Cairo are a much riffier and more progressive outfit. While I think the album tries a little too hard to be progressive at times (there are preludes, reprises, and 'part 1's galore) which leaves the album feeling somewhat disjoined, the core songwriting is strong and is classic Cottingham. He has brought his vocals back to the forefront too, duetting with Rachel Hill (who sounds remarkably like Sevior!), and his keyboards are unsurprisingly the dominant instrument. While not perfect, Say shows that Cottingham has lots of great new ideas and I look forward to seeing where Cairo will go from here.

While British retro-style psychedelic rockers Purson have sadly ended 2016 by announcing what seems to be an indefinite hiatus (see their 'Thank you and goodnight.' post on Facebook), it was certainly a good year for the band which saw extensive touring and release of their second album Desire's Magic Theatre. While not as strong as their 2013 debut album The Circle and the Blue Door for me, Desire's Magic Theatre has more of an upbeat vaudeville circus sound with more prominent guitar riffs and a greater 'rock' feel. Bandleader Rosalie Cunningham played the vast majority of the instruments herself, so this is more of a solo album than a true band effort, but her vision and mindset has always driven Purson since day one. Electric Landlady, clearly a tribute to Jimi Hendrix rocks hard, while the playful Mr. Howard shows the band at their playful best. I was late to the Purson party, but I got to see the band twice this year and have enjoyed both their albums immensely. If this is to be the end of the band, then I am glad I got to share some good times with them and I will look forward to Cunningham's next adventure.

As mentioned earlier, last year British prog rockers Touchstone endured a three-way split. Guitarist Adam Hodgson, bassist Moo, and drummer Henry Rogers elected to carry on the Touchstone name and have recruited Polish singer Aggie, along with keyboardist Liam Holmes, to usher in a new era of the band. The result is a four-track EP, Lights from the Sky, that caries on the streamlined approach of 2013's Oceans of Time but with vastly superior songwriting. Aggie proves to be a much more diverse singer than Seviour, which allows the band to try a few new things, and Hodgson cuts loose on the guitar in a greater way than previously. He seems to now be the driving force behind the band's songwriting, with heavier riffs and flashier solos than ever before. Despite only being an EP, Lights from the Sky is a taster of what is to come for Touchstone, and I look forward to hearing their fifth album once it has been written.

As I have also done for the last few years, I also like to highlight a live release that I have been enjoying this year. There have been many great ones this year, but Nightwish's mammoth release Vehicle of Spirit is easily my favourite. My gig of the year last year was Nightwish's spectacular sold out show at London's Wembley Arena, and that show is presented in full in this package, along with another full show from Tampere in Finland and a whole other concert clips filmed around the world. Nightwish are at their most powerful at the moment, and current album Endless Forms Most Beautiful could well be considered their greatest achievement in years to come. The vast majority of that album is presented throughout both of the full concerts, along with plenty of excellent songs from the band's diverse and majestic back catalogue. This is the defining Nightwish live collection yet, and portrays a band that are one of the best live acts on the planet and untouchable within their genre.

As great as 2016 has been in terms of new music, of course there have also been lots of tragic deaths in the rock and metal world. It was Eagles co-founder and songwriter Glenn Frey's death that hit me the hardest back in January, but unfortunately I fear this will be the norm from now on. The hard-hitting lives our favourite musicians have led are now starting to catch up with them, along with age, and I think that 2017 will sadly bring even more tragic passings of our favourite musicians. At least there is a lot more great music to look forward to, with a few albums scheduled for January and February already that sound great. I am really looking forward to Firewind's return with Immortals, as the couple of songs they have released so far sound fantastic, and my all-time-favourite band Mostly Autumn will be back at some point with their next opus Sight of Day. I am sure this will just be the tip of the iceberg, so here is to 2017 and lots of great new musical experiences. My top albums and gig lists will be published here tomorrow!

Friday, 30 December 2016

Nine Inch Nails' 'Not the Actual Events' - EP Review

Trent Reznor is a true musical maverick, and is one of the few left who does exactly what he wants when he wants. While the industrial/alternative rock project Nine Inch Nails has always been his primary vehicle for presenting his diverse and visceral music to the world, recent years have seen his interest turn to film soundtracks, something which has earned him both an Oscar and a Grammy. This is hard to believe from a man who brought an album as raw and graphic as 1994's The Downward Spiral into the world, but that just goes to show Reznor's diversity and creativity. Nine Inch Nails were officially put on hold in 2009, but he did return to the name in 2013 for Hesitation Marks (which I reviewed here), an album that sounded fresh and vibrant, and quite different from anything else Nine Inch Nails had put out. While not exactly a classic, Hesitation Marks remains an enjoyable and rewarding listen and reminded the rock world that Reznor was still a force to be reckoned with. The tours that followed (Tension 2013 and NIN 2014) were regarded as some of the best Nine Inch Nails concerts ever, although the promised live DVD that was partially released on YouTube (which can be watched here, and I recommend that you do) is sadly still unreleased. Following the conclusion of touring activities in 2014, Nine Inch Nails has seemingly been on hold again. Reznor has found other thing to keep him interested in the meantime, including more film soundtracks and working on Apple Music. An interview he did in December 2015 said that there would be new Nine Inch Nails music released before the end of 2016 however, but many seemed have forgotten this comment. He was true to his word however, and earlier this month he announced that a new Nine Inch Nails EP, Not the Actual Events, would be released on 23rd December. To keep thing interesting, as Reznor tends to do, the EP was released on vinyl and on all digital platforms, but orders of the digital version of the EP through the Nine Inch Nails website would also come with a 'physical component' which will ship in January 2017, so it is unknown what that means currently. Not the Actual Events is as different from Hesitation Marks as Hesitation Marks was from 2008's The Slip, and shows Reznor again continue to change the Nine Inch Nails goalposts. When listening to Not the Actual Events I actually feel quite nostalgic. This is a collection of songs that contains little bits of Nine Inch Nails' past, and revisits lots of the sounds the band has been built on over the years. Each of the five songs here has it's own identity, but many parallels can be drawn between them and moments from the band's history. It has also been made in collaboration with Atticus Ross who, despite being involved in all Nine Inch Nails releases since 2005's With Teeth in behind-the-scenes capacities, now seems to have been made a full member of the band along with Reznor.

The short, punky intro Branches/Bones gets the EP up and running, with growling synths and driving bass that allows Reznor to deploy his patented talk-singing over the top which really brings back memories of the Nine Inch Nails of old. The dry sound of 2008's The Slip is referenced quite a bit, but the song is under two minutes long and soon transitions into Dear World, (the comma is part of the title). Dear World, is based around a slightly funky programmed drum beat with electronics that swirl around with surprisingly strong melodies. The song is fairly low-key however, without exploding into the rage that characterised much of the band's early works. Reznor's vocals are pretty melancholic here, which suits the synth-heavy sound perfectly. The centrepiece of the EP is the lengthy She's Gone Away, which is a classic Nine Inch Nails drone driven by a fuzzy bassline which is punctuated with bursts of heavily-overdriven guitar which is a great contrast to the controlled pulse of the rest of the song. Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig (West Indian Girl; How to Destroy Angels), provides some subtle vocal harmonies throughout the song, mostly during the chorus, which adds a haunting feel to the song, while the wind-like atmospheric bring in that horror even more. The main, hypnotic bassline never really lets up throughout the song's six minute length, but the song gradually builds around it and gets louder as it moves towards a strange ending section with some wordless vocals from Reznor and crashes of dry synths. In contrast, The Idea of You is much more traditionally 'rock' with real drums courtesy of Dave Grohl (Nirvana; Foo Fighters; Them Crooked Vultures). He performed drums on many of the songs on With Teeth, so unsurprisingly this song has quite a bit in common with that album with more obvious guitar riffs and ringing piano melodies. Again, the punky feel returns, which is driven by Grohl's fast drumming, and Reznor's angry-sounding fast-paced vocals are extremely catchy. The EP's last song, Burning Bright (Field on Fire) is another droning number, but this time with more guitar courtesy of Dave Navarro (Jane's Addiction; Red Hot Chili Peppers). It is a strange song, with Reznor's rambling vocals often consigned to the background of the piece, but it has that chaotic and claustrophobic feel that characterised the band's early work. It does get more melodic as it goes through, with airy synths cutting through the mix as Reznor's ranty vocals take it up a notch. It ends in a mess of feedback, which is typically Nine Inch Nails, and this latest short taste of Reznor's work is extremely satisfying. While Not the Actual Events feels traditionally Nine Inch Nails and relies heavily on some of the band's more classic sounds without really pushing things further, it certainly feels like the start of a new era for Nine Inch Nails with more activity promised for next year.

The EP was released on 23rd December 2016 via The Null Corporation. Below is the band's promotional soundclip for Burning Bright (Field on Fire).

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Metallica's ' Self-Destruct' - Album Review

It may come as a surprise as readers of this blog, especially given the sheer amount of hard rock and metal loving that goes on here, that I have never really been the biggest fan of Metallica. It pains me to say that, as it has become something of a trendy opinion for metal fans to have, but I can honestly say that Metallica have never really resonated with me. There are caveats to this of course. There are few out there who will seriously deny that both 1984's Ride the Lightning or 1986's Master of Puppets are absolute stone cold classic metal albums, and these are the two Metallica albums that I reach for when I feel like a dose of the thrash titans. I have heard every Metallica album at least once too, with the exception of 2003's St. Anger although judging by the vast majority of the reviews for it I am not missing out on much, so I have a good understanding of what the band have been about during their 35 year career so far. 2016 is the band's 35th anniversary since forming in 1981, and in that time they have managed to become one of the biggest bands in the world. Their popularity and recognition transcends the metal world, and they are one of the few bands from this world that have become truly mainstream (in a commercial sense at least, not the meaningless way the word is used in a negative way to describe music you do not like). In recent years however, it seems like Metallica have going out of their way to not release any new music, despite endless interviews online claiming the contrary. 2008 was the last time the world saw a Metallica album (ignoring Lulu, the collaboration album with Lou Reed that was released in 2011 which is, by all accounts, truly horrible) when Death Magnetic was released. This album was heralded as a return to form by large sections of the band's fanbase, but received a lot of criticism for it's harsh production style. Death Magnetic showed that Metallica were happy to play good old fashioned heavy metal again, but since then the band had been procrastinating hugely, seemingly doing anything if it means they did not have to enter the studio and record something new. Earlier this year however this all changed when the band's tenth studio album, Self-Destruct, would be released in November. A new Metallica album is always an event in the metal world, and the accompanying lead single Hardwired certainly did a lot to pique fans' interests. The news that the album was going to be a double album pleased a lot of people, but it did also trigger some alarm bells. Metallica have never been good at self-editing, with most of their albums clocking in at well over an hour. Self-Destruct is over 77 minutes long, but is still a little shorter than 1996's Load. I am not sure why the album needed to be a double album really, as Load fits nicely on one disc, but it does make it a bit more listenable as you can play it in two smaller chunks if you wish. This is easily the best-sounding Metallica album for sometime too, with none of the weird production quirks that plagued Death Magnetic. Self-Destruct sounds huge, so producer Greg Fidelman should be applauded on the job he has done here.

Disc one, which is easily the strongest of the two, gets underway with a bang with lead single Hardwired. The song is only just over three minutes long, and it is a great slab of old-fashioned punky thrash metal. The star of the song is frontman James Hetfield who has not sounded this furious and angsty in years! The snarl that filled the band's first few albums is back in force here, and fits in well with the fast riffing and the double bass drumming from Lars Ulrich, who also turns in his best drumming performance for quite sometime. This is the only song on the album that clocks in at under five minutes, but is a real statement of intent and shows Metallica can still thrash out with the best of them. Atlas, Rise! is next and this is more typical to the sound found throughout the rest of the album. While not up to the same speeds as Hardwired, the song still steams along at a decent pace with a classic Hetfield riff to drive everything. Classic Metallica was always packed with plenty of groove, and this song sees this return. Rob Trujillo's bass rumbles away beneath the riffs, really adding to the groove, and the much-maligned (in recent years anyway) Kirk Hammett adds plenty of melodic, shredding bursts of lead guitar throughout. The chorus is a strong, anthemic section and sees Ulrich's marching drum beat and Hammett and Hetfield's dual guitar leads weaving around each other as Hetfield barks out the lyrics. There is more than a big hint of the band's classic sound here, and the modern-sounding production really brings the best out of everyone involved. Those who like their metal with a lot of groove will love Now That We're Dead, a great mid-paced rocker that would have sat quite comfortably on 1991's self-titled album. Hetfield uses the more melodic end of his vocals, something that has been more prevalent in recent years, which works well over the restrained chug of the song. It is not as riff-heavy as many Metallica songs, but instead just sits back on a great groove as Ulrich's metronome-like drumming holds court. The chorus has a bit of an modern alt-rock vibe to it, but it works well and is a pretty catchy and memorable moment. Hammett's solo is a bit of let down however, and relies too heavily on the wah-pedal and tuneless shredded sections that he has often resorted to in recent years. Moth into Flame is easily my favourite song on the album, and from the ominous guitar lead in the intro to the melodic chorus, this song contains everything that made those early Metallica albums so classic. Hetfield has a unique was of phrasing his vocal melodies, and this is on display here with his staccato delivery dominating the verses, even as they speed up with some surprisingly tight drumming (Ulrich is also famously much-maligned these days). The chorus is where the song is at it's strongest however, with subtle vocal harmonies to bring the best out of the strong melodies before it all leads back into the pacey main riff. Hammett's solo here is great. The firsts section is wah-heavy, and then it explodes into a melodic shred-fest that goes through many distinct phases - all with great effect. With the Cthulhu mythos returning to the band's lyrical canon again, it seems fitting that the song it is used in, Dream no More, is a slow, heavy, lumbering beast. There is something of Alice in Chains in the song's verses, with subtle grungy vocal harmonies and a grinding main riff. The song never really picks up pace, but this only makes it heavier and more effective. The chorus is very memorable, with a slight anthemic vibe, but the real star of the song is Hammett who includes some of his most restrained and tasteful playing in years throughout. The solo in particular is great, with ominous phrasing and tone. The disc comes to a close with the album's longest song, Halo on Fire, which is probably the least interesting song on the disc. It is not a bad song at all, the chorus in particular is very strong and memorable, but it just fails to make the impact the rest of the songs so far have. That being said, the last third of the song is great. It begins with an atmospheric clean guitar section before leading into a lengthy outro section built around a folky guitar lead that Hetfield sings over before Hammett takes over with a solo that sees the disc end strongly.

The second disc, which is overall much less interesting than the first, starts with Confusion. The song is built on some great riffing, but Hetfield's vocals sound really strange throughout. The grit and angst he used throughout most of the first disc is largely absent, and he even sounds a little auto-tuned during the verses here as his voice has an odd synthetic quality. The song is another that is fairly slow, but there are some great riffs throughout that have Hetfield's classic stamp all over them. The band have done better however, and this ends up being on the album's weaker moments. ManUNkind is the only song on the album with a writing contribution from Trujillo. Much has been made of the total lack of songwriting credits from Hammett (something which he has not even bothered to hide his disappointment about) and Trujillo (apart from this song), but Metallica's songwriting has always been driven by Hetfield and Ulrich since day one. Hetfield's riffs are what Metallica are all about, so I would prefer the songwriting to be more focused, as is largely the case here, than more diverse and disjointed as on other more recent Metallica albums. The melodic, Sabbathy bass intro is clearly Trujillo's doing however, and it does work well, but the rest of the song is a classic Metallica mid-pace chug. Again however, it fails to live up to the stronger material on the first disc as the melodies are just not as memorable. All the ingredients are there for a good Metallica song, they have just been done better elsewhere. Here Comes Revenge is better, and includes a really great riff that mixes thrashy chords and tight guitar leads together perfectly for a strong opening melody. The song has quite a few murky sections, with grungy clean guitar melodies that fit well with Hetfield's slightly fragile delivery. I tend to prefer his gruffer vocal style, but this cleaner feel works well here with the atmospheric music. The song is just overall much more memorable than the previous two, with an anthemic chorus and a decent guitar solo from Hammett and speeds up as it goes along. Am I Savage? is a bit of a plodder and never really seems to get going, despite some decent riffs that evoke early Black Sabbath's sound. Hetfield's howls in the chorus are pretty great, but overall the rest of the song just seems to lacking in any solid ideas. A few strong sections creep through, like a lumbering heavy section towards the end that leads in a decent guitar solo, but these are few and far between and the song ends up feeling a little bland. Murder One is the band's tribute to Lemmy, and it starts off sounding like it might be a bit of a ballad (something this album is sorely lacking), but it turns out being another fairly decent mid-paced rocker. This seems a strange choice for a tribute to Lemmy, should it not be fast, furious, and to the point - something Lemmy built his career on? That being said, the song is clearly heartfelt, with lots of gambling clichés thrown in other lyrical tributes to many of Lemmy's classic songs and ethoses. A decent song, but not a classic. Disc two, and the album, really does end strongly with Spit Out the Bone which is a proper thrash song that recaptures some of the energy of the early songs on the album. This song is pure venom, and easily the best song on the second disc. It is one of the album's fastest too, and sees a great angsty vocal display from Hetfield. About half way through Trujillo has a chance to shine with a great bass-led section that allows him to riff away and show us what a great player he is, before Hetfield and Hammett lock in well for an intricate section of tight riffing that is the best the band have sounded for years. The album ends with a bang, and the memories of some of the lesser moments during disc two are well and truly banished. Overall, Self-Destruct sees Metallica sounding as fresh and inspired as they did in their early days. Despite a long running time that could have been solved by cutting some of the weaker moments from disc two, this is the band's best album for quite some time and sees them embracing their thrash roots once again.

The album was released on 18th November 2016 via Blackened Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for Moth into Flame.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sixx:A.M.'s 'Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2' - Album Review

2016 has been the year that has seen Sixx:A.M. tranformation from a side project into a fully-fledged band. Freed from the heavy touring shackles of Mötley Crüe and the legacy that that band has, bassist and band leader Nikki Sixx seems to a man reborn. He has made it clear in numerous interviews since Mötley Crüe's final show last December that is happy to see the back of the band that made him a household name (although I am sure he is not unhappy about the presumably large royalty cheque that is deposited in his bank account each month!) and enjoying the creative freedom that Sixx:A.M. offers. His interviews do come across as a little strange however, since he was the driving force behind everything Mötley Crüe did throughout their 30-plus year career, although I am sure this over-egged pseudo-derision of his own legacy is all part of the Sixx:A.M. PR machine. In fairness however, Sixx:A.M.'s music is different from the raw, punky, sleazy music that Sixx made with Mötley Crüe. While Mötley Crüe's ethos was always to shock and hit you between the eyes, Sixx:A.M.'s music has more of an epic classic rock quality to it with slick production values and a bigger overall sound. For a band that will be celebrating their ten year anniversary next year, Sixx:A.M. still feel like a new band. Core members Sixx, vocalist James Michael, and guitarist DJ Asbha have always had other priorities. Sixx and Ashba were nearly always on the road (with Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses respectively) and Michael's career as a record producer helped to keep him busy. With Sixx and Ashba's commitments now gone, and Michael's production work being naturally a more transient occupation, Sixx:A.M. have really ramped up their activities over the past year or so. The band's fourth album, Prayers for the Damned - Vol. 1 (which I reviewed here), was released back in April and, as the name suggests, was part of a planned double album. I assumed that they would hold back on releasing the second part for a while so as to give people plenty of time to digest the first part, but last month Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2 was released. Seven months between albums is a split second in today's climate where bands might only release new albums every 4-5 years or so, so it is great to see Sixx:A.M. capitalising on what has probably been their busiest year yet with another strong album. Vol. 2 was clearly recorded at the same time as Vol. 1, as the overall vibe is very similar, and this new album definitely feels like a extension of the first one rather than something totally new - which, in effect, is exactly what it is. The band's three core members, along with drummer Dustin Steinke, have delivered again here. With double albums (even ones sneakily released as two separate albums) there is always the chance for a fair bit of filler to creep in. Thankfully that does not seem to be the case here, as Vol. 2 is almost as good as Vol. 1.

The familiarity sets in immediately with Barbarians (Prayers for the Blessed), the album's opening number. The noise of the rabble soon gives way to a high-energy guitar lead that slowly emerges from the crowd noise, and soon explodes into a heavy riff. The song's verses are heavy for the band, with a strong groove helped by Sixx's bassline and Ashba's choppy riffing. As soon as the chorus kicks in Sixx:A.M.'s signature sound is back with Michael's slightly melodramatic vocals easily carrying the strong melodies. Sixx:A.M. can still often drift into slightly earnest territory throughout this album, but it is always done convincingly. Ashba also plays some of his best solos yet, with a great one in this song that starts off fast and soon descends into a strange effects-drenched cacophony of noise. We Will Not Go Quietly opens in a similar fashion to how the previous song finished off, with a strong mid-pace groove, but the song soon takes on an alt-rock vibe that owes a lot to nu-metal. Michael's half-rapped vocals in the verses are a little strange, but it still manages to work while the rest of the band lock in beneath him with a real tight rhythm. The chorus is standard fare however, with soaring melodies and plenty of backing vocals courtesy of Melissa Harding to aid Michael. This song has the feeling of a real anthem and will probably become a live staple for the band. Wolf at Your Door has a much rawer classic rock feel, with a growling opening guitar riff and verses that see Michael adopt more of a sinister vocal style, something which is different from his usual expressive delivery, which suits the sparser arrangement. The song builds towards the chorus which, while not as a strong as the previous two, still manages to be memorable. Ashba's guitar solo is great here however, foregoing most of the shredding licks he is known for and instead using a more atmospheric, spacey sound with long drawn-out notes. Maybe It's Time slows things down somewhat, with strong acoustic foundations and a mournful intro guitar lead. Sixx:A.M. have always done ballads well, and this is another strong one with a good acoustic presence throughout and a emotional vocal performance from Michael. The chorus is very reminiscent of all of the classic power ballads of the 1980s, with a subtle string arrangement too add colour and class,  which then leads into a fantastic guitar solo that takes the emotional vocals and runs with that feel and really builds upon what Micheal has been doing throughout. The Devil's Coming gets back to the band's heavier sound, with a driving double bass drum pattern from Steinke that drives Ashba's riffing and a high-energy urgency. Despite this intro, the verses are pretty laid back, with chiming clean guitar melodies and surprisingly melancholic vocals. The choruses pick up the pace somewhat, with more of a double bass drumming and tight riffing, but still feel a little more restrained. The instrumental sections focus more on that speed, with the intro riff being reprised throughout, but Michael's sections are much more low key. The mix works well, and the song is another memorable one. The album's middle song, Catacombs, is an Ashba guitar solo with no other instrumental backing. It does seem a little out of place on the album, but it is an explosive couple of minutes of guitar playing from someone who really deserves more recognition.

That's Gonna Leave a Scar is another heavy number, with a slightly thrashy riff and a fast drum beat. Steinke's performance on the album is not flashy for the most part, but he does get the opportunity to cut loose a bit more here with some excellent double bass drumming and a few explosive fills. The chorus is one of the album's best too, with a big symphonic arrangement to really bulk out the sound, and plenty of great vocal melodies for Michael to sink his teeth into. Dramatic choruses really are his forte, and this is a perfect example of his style. Without You, originally by Badfinger, has to be one of the most covered songs of all time and Sixx:A.M. now add their name to the long list of people to take it on. Their version of the song is in their own style, and as a result it fits well with the rest of the material on the album. The chorus is timeless, and Michael's dramatic vocals are perfect for it as the string section and piano melodies dance around behind him. While this will not stand out from all the other covers of this song that exist, it does add something to the album and it has been done in a way that it does not feel out of place. Suffocate starts out as a bit of ballad, based around a simple set of acoustic guitar chords with Michael's sparse piano backing, but it soon explodes into another groove-laden riff with Sixx's bass guitars cutting through the mix perfectly to really beef everything up. Despite this heavier overall feel, the acoustic guitars and piano are ever-present, which helps to give the song a real warmth that would not be the case if it was more of a basic rocker. Sixx:A.M. sound has always been subtly grand, with lots of layers that add up to more than the sum of the parts, and this song is a perfect example of that. Riot in my Head also starts off slowly, with a bit of a murky tone, but again it picks up with a big vocal arrangement that recalls Rise from the previous album, and a chorus that really delivers with a strident guitar lead throughout from Ashba. The song is quite theatrical throughout, but none more so than the ending which has real shades of Queen from the big vocal choir to the guitar leads that take their tone right from Brian May's signature sound. It works well however, and Asbha's extended guitar solo is strong. The album's closing number Helicopters is quite unlike anything else on this album, or indeed in the rest of the Sixx:A.M. discography to this point. There is something of pop rock bands like U2 and Coldplay here, with a commercial sheen, but this disguises quite a dark song with lots of emotional vocal lines and guitar swells that really add to the dark feel. The uplifting wordless vocal sections that constantly reappear throughout the song bring the pop element to the song, and the contrast with the darker moods works well. Ashba's guitar solo is great too, with a slow, deliberate feel that works well with the slower groove the song and brings the album, and in fact the Prayers duo, to a strong conclusion. Overall, Prayers for the Blessed - Vol. 2 is another strong album from Sixx:A.M. and one that perfectly sits alongside it's companion piece to create a strong statement for 2016. I do wonder where Sixx:A.M. will go from here, as these two albums certainly feel like the pinnacle of the band's established sound up to this point. For now though it is great to have these two albums come out so close together, and great to see Sixx still so creative after 35 years in the industry.

The album was released on 18th November 2016 via Eleven Seven Music. Below is the band's promotional video for We Will Not Go Quietly.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Pretty Maids' 'Kingmaker' - Album Review

Denmark's Pretty Maids are one of those bands who have been remarkably consistent since forming in 1981. Since their debut album Red, Hot and Heavy from 1984, which is a bit of a minor classic in the metal world, the band have been releasing albums at a fairly regular rate ever since without making any drastic changes to their sound or releasing any albums that are noticeably weak (not that I can say I have heard them all, but their discography does not seem to contain any infamous releases). Soundwise, I have always thought of Pretty Maids as a bit of a less-heavy version of Saxon. They have a greater melodic rock influence, with a more prominent use of keyboards, and often place more prominence on vocal melodies rather than guitar riffs. Their career seems to parallel Saxon's a little too, with success in the 1980s, followed by a bit of a commercial slump throughout the 1990s, only to see their star rise again over the past few years with interest in the band once again growing. 2010's Pandemonium was certainly a big success for the band, and Pretty Maids capitalised on this with the excellent Motherland in 2013. A compilation of new material and re-recorded songs from the band's lesser-known albums Louder Than Ever followed a year later, but the new album Kingmaker is the first true Pretty Maids studio album in three years. Kingmaker is the band's fifteenth studio album overall, and one that certainly carries on the quality established since their resurgence at the turn of the decade. Driven as always by founding members vocalist Ronnie Atkins and guitarist Ken Hammer, Kingmaker is an album that emphasises the heavier end of the band's songwriting and style. The departure of keyboardist Morten Sandager after ten years of service almost certainly contributed to this heavier feel, as Pretty Maids were effectively a four-piece when they wrote and recorded the album. Kim Olesen (Anubis Gate) recorded the album's keyboards on a session basis, but they are far less prominent giving more roof for Hammer's guitar to dominate the sound. Chris Laney (Randy Piper's Animal) has since joined the band as their new keyboardist and has been touring with the band in support of this album. As has been the case with all of their albums since at least Pandemonium onward, Jacob Hansen (Invocator; Beyond Twilight; Anubis Gate; Pyramaze) has produced Kingmaker. He is one of the most in-demand producers in melodic metal today and it is easy to see why with this album. The sound throughout is great, with the rhythm section of bassist Rene Shades and drummer Allan Tschicaja sounding strong and powerful throughout. While the melodies are often not as strong on Kingmaker as they have been on other Pretty Maids albums, the great metal energy more than makes up for this, and the result is the heaviest Pretty Maids album for a while.

Opening with some subtle Eastern melodies and a strong percussive feel, When God Took a Day Off soon becomes a heavy rocker, with a simple melodic guitar lead to act as a main riff, and sets the tone for the whole album. While much of the verses are somewhat laid back, with a chiming clean guitar melody, the rest of the song is a wash with crunching power chords and punchy drums. Atkins transitions easily between melodic singing and a more gruff delivery, something which is used to a great effect in the song's chorus with a call-and-response style used making use of both types of singing. It is a very instantly memorable chorus, with the gruff vocals acting in the same way that other bands use gang vocals to emphasise power, with strong melodies that stick in the mind with ease. The album's title track is another winner with a driving double bass rhythm from Tschicaja, who actually dominates the song with his heavy playing. His rolling drum beat that sits behind the catchy main guitar lead is great, and he adds real power to the chorus with his hard-hitting style. Keyboards come to the fore more in the chorus, which adds a subtle halo to the heaviness that is the rest of the song. Again, it is a very melodic moment, with Atkins showing why he is one of the more underrated frontmen in the genre. Those who like the more melodic rock end of their songwriting will love Face the World, which opens with a bouncy riff and this vibe continues throughout and culminates in a joyus chorus that is one of the most upbeat moments on the album. Keyboards again make their presence felt here, adding a lot to the verses while the guitars and bass are happy to chug away in the background. There is a great guitar solo here too which takes cues from many of the classic AOR guitarists with lots of slow melodic phrasing and little shredding. Opening with a murky guitar line, Humanize Me gets back to the heavier vibe of the early couple of songs. When the song really gets going, there is a great muscular riff that really drives everything and is packed with plenty of groove. As is common with Pretty Maids songs, there is another strong chorus here that makes great use of a wall of backing vocals that makes it very powerful. This is a great contrast from the sparse, murky sections that are scattered throughout the song. After four proper rock songs, Last Beauty on Earth comes along as the album's first ballad with clean guitar chords and heartfelt vocals. Pretty Maids have always been able to write convincing ballads, and I think this is partly down to Atkins' voice, as he has a gentler side that is perfect to convey the emotions needed to make ballads work. There is a great guitar solo here too, which is a little faster than you would expect for a ballad but it still works well. The key change in the final chorus is a classic 1980s-style ballad trick too, and it is used to good effect here.

After that little rest, the band get back to rock next with the crunching Bull's Eye. The fast, muted power chord rhythms manages to create plenty of energy and Atkins really stands out here with a strident vocal display. Again, there is a strong chorus here and one that is potentially the album's catchiest. The high-energy guitar pattern is a great contrast to the smoother vocals, helped up by plenty of subtle backing vocals, and this creates something which showcases all of the reasons Pretty Maids are such a great band. King of the Right Here and Now initially portrays itself as a fast song. The frantic drumming in the intro hails the arrival of what is easily the thrashiest riff on the album, but once the vocals kick in the song dials back to more of a mid-pace which allows Atkins to shine. The song mostly remains at this pace throughout, exploding into the thrashy riff every so often to give the listener a bit of a shock. The chorus, despite being slow and grinding, is still surprisingly catchy and is helped by a big keyboard arrangement. Heaven's Little Devil is a bit more laid back, with some spacey keyboard sounds and guitars that are less in your face. The verses sound like they could have been influenced by Atkins' time working with Tobias Sammet in Avantasia, as they have that slightly theatrical feel, and the chorus is actually has quite a modern feel with wordless backing vocals and big open guitar chords that are a change from the band's usual rock approach. The song works well though, and has a bit of a different vibe to everything else on the album. The more relaxed approach is really aided by the keyboards, and shows what an asset they can be to the band's sound. Civilized Monsters is another song that opens with a murky guitar line, and the intro works really well with Atkins' smoother vocals and the chiming guitar melodies. This soon changed however, as the song's main riff kicks in and a swirl of electronics join it for a heavy, claustrophobic sound. The clean melody from the beginning is often re-used however, especially in the verses, and the marriage of the two sounds works well. Some of the riffing in this song has a very modern metal feel, with lots of staccato rhythms that brings to mind the metalcore scene a little. Sickening sees the band back in more familiar territory with more crunch and melody. Most of the song is driven by very simple power chord rhythms, with Atkins' powerful vocals to really act as the focal point. His vocals take on more of an aggressive feel here, which suits the lyrical themes perfectly, and gives the song real grit. The end of the chorus almost borders on harsh vocals, and it sounds great! The album's closing number, Was That What You Wanted (Look What You've Got) opens with a flurry of synths and riff that is packed full of groove soon takes over. While not overly different to anything else found on the album, it is a high-energy song that works well as a closing number. The chorus in particular packs a punch, and ensures the album ends on a high. Overall, Kingmaker is another solid album from Pretty Maids that helps to ensure their recent resurgence will continue. This is their most 'metal' album for sometime, and is sure to be a hit among their fanbase.

The album was released on 4th November 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Kingmaker.

Monday, 19 December 2016

The Quireboys - Rushden Review

Last March, a spur of the moment decision to head from Luton to Rushden after a football match to catch The Quireboys perform an acoustic show made for an unforgettable night. As a result, the opportunity to head back to Rushden from Birmingham the day after the Status Quo concert there was a no-brainer, but this trip was better planned with accommodation secured just outside the town. The Quireboys are one of the best live rock 'n' roll bands on the circuit and while they are known for their high-energy electric rock shows, their stripped-down acoustic shows are not to be missed either. The band's simple, catchy songs work well acoustically, and the more relaxed format allows for a more fluid setlist and plenty of banter between the band and the audience. This was also my last gig of the year, capping off an excellent year of live music that started off in Sheffield with COP UK way back in January. It seems fitting that two smaller shows should bookend the year, as it shows that live music is about far more than just the big-name acts in stadiums, and shows the places and experiences that following smaller bands can take you to! The Athletic Club in Rushden is a strange venue, which takes up the first floor of a Working Men's Club just a short walk from the town's main drag. I think it is fair to say that Rushden is not the most exciting town in the UK, but plenty of people took the opportunity to see The Quireboys rock out at the Athletic Club. It is always great to see a smaller show so well attended, but then again The Quireboys are veterans of the touring circuit and their reputation precedes them.

Before The Quireboys' set however, the crowd was treated to a couple of support acts who both also performed acoustic sets. Leicester's The Midnight Dogs were first, and played around half an hour of enjoyable, up-tempo acoustic rock. While I was unfamiliar with the band, their music suited the acoustic format of the evening and they managed to whip up quite a storm with the growing crowd. Despite not being hugely original, the band impressed with frontman Rob Cass in particular standing out with his powerful voice and strong stage presence. The Midnight Dogs certainly made their presence on the bill felt, and they seemed to make a few new fans in the process with a few CDs from their merchandise stand being snapped up.

Sweden's The Gloria Story, the main tour support, were up next and delivered another half an hour or so of acoustic rock. The band were stripped down from their usual line-up, with only three members on stage including a female backing singer. Despite a few good songs, I found them less engaging than The Midnight Dogs. The simple sound with only two acoustic guitars (and sometimes a drum machine) just did not resonate with me like the full band sound of the previous act, and overall I felt that they fell a little flat. There was a good cover of Kiss' C'mon and Love Me thrown in however, which was nice, and they did not outstay their welcome which was also good.

The Quireboys have been treading the boards for over 30 years now, but these fairly regular acoustic shows are a relatively new addition to their touring schedules. The acoustic vibe does not suit all bands, but it works for The Quireboys and allows them to play different songs than they usually would in their full band electric shows. They also have one of the best frontmen in the business, the bandana-wearing Spike, and the acoustic format allows him to talk to the crowd more and tell some of his funny rock 'n' roll stories. Three songs from the band's acclaimed debut album A Bit of What you Fancy started off the evening, with There She Goes Again and Misled proving to be hits from the off. Both are huge crowd-pleasers, and the choruses of both were sung with gusto by the large crowd. Certain songs, like the laid-back Devil of a Man are only played on the band's acoustic shows, so it worth turning up to hear these back catalogue gems wheeled out. Mona Lisa Smiled is always one of the highlights of any Quireboys show, and it was no different in Rushden. Paul Guerin (guitar/vocals) even manages to play the solo on his acoustic, something that is not always as easy as it seems, and the whole thing went down a storm. While the band's latest album Twisted Love was promoted from the stage, Spike explained that they chose not to showcase any of it on this tour, waiting to play the songs properly on their full electric tour next year. I understand the decision, but I feel the ballad Midnight Collective would have fitted perfectly into this set! The only newer song played in Rishden was Beautiful Curse, the title track of their 2013 album, which works perfectly stripped down. It has one of the band's most infectious choruses, and there were plenty in the crowd singing along despite the song not being one of the band's true classics. A real surprise came in the form of Last Time, from the band's second album Bitter Sweet & Twisted, that received a rare live outing. Not many songs from that album regularly feature in the band's sets, which is a shame as it is full of cracking tunes, so it was a treat to hear this beautiful ballad. Guerin's mandolin-style guitar leads really fit with Spike's vocals, and the song was well received. Two more real classics brought the set to an end, with the band's most famous song 7 O'Clock bringing the house down with the usually reserved Guy Griffin (guitar/vocals) belting out the wordless backing vocals with gusto. There was time for one more, and the ballad I Don't Love You Anymore was the perfect encore. Keith Weir's (keyboards/vocals) piano melodies were perfect, and Spike really gave it his all to deliver one of their best songs with a huge emotional punch to bring their final gig of the year to an end. The setlist was:

There She Goes Again
Roses & Rings
Devil of a Man
Mona Lisa Smiled
Beautiful Curse
Whippin' Boy
Have a Drink With Me [Spike solo material]
Hates to Please
Last Time
Sweet Mary Ann
7 O'Clock
I Don't Love You Anymore

You can always rely on The Quireboys for a cracking evening of live music, and they rounded out my gigging year in style. Unfortunately however, there were a few in the crowd who thought it was a goo idea to talk throughout the show, which did hamper my enjoyment of some of the quieter moments. I still do not understand why people come to gigs and choose to do this, it is something that really annoys me! It did not ruin the evening however, and a chance to see one of my favourite live bands will always see me leaving with a smile on my face. I will be seeing the band again in April, this time plugged in and with a rhythm section, in Birmingham where I look forward to hearing some of the Twisted Love material live.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Status Quo - Birmingham Review

Status Quo were one of the first bands I ever saw live, and were a key band in my musical development. While they are not a band that I regularly listen to anymore, I still have a huge respect for them. Along with AC/DC, they are probably the perfect example of bluesy rock 'n' roll in it's purest form, and have been touring the world and wowing audiences for over 50 years now. All good things must come to an end however and this current tour, dubbed the 'Last of the Electrics' tour, is allegedly the last from the Quo as we know them. The tour has already been extended way into next year however, so it seems the Quo are not ready to hang up their trusty Telecasters just yet! The band have said that they will continue to tour in their acoustic 'Aquostic' mode after this tour is finished however. It seems like the right time for Status Quo to bow out however as Rick Parfitt, the main driving force of the band along with founding member Francis Rossi (vocals/guitar), had another heart attack earlier in the year and has permanently retired from live performances as a result. Different members have come and gone from Quo over the years, but Rossi and Parfitt have been ever-present. In some respects it does not feel right to continue with Parfitt, but the show must go on as the band felt it right to honour their extensive touring schedule. Parfitt's place has been taken by Irish musician Richie Malone (guitar/vocals). Both of my previous Status Quo gigs have been in Plymouth, but with the band opting to play bigger venues on this tour, I opted for Birmingham instead this time. The Barclaycard Arena was a new venue for me. Slightly smaller than the Genting Arena that forms part of the NEC, the city centre arena impressed. The place was still very big however, and the sound was pretty solid throughout. While some of the seats towards the back were curtained off, the rest of the venue was full. Status Quo can still pull a big crowd, of all ages, and it was clear that everyone was here for a party.

Opening the night were the comedy rock/lounge trio The Lounge Kittens, a group of three ladies who perform classic rock and metal songs in an almost a cappella style but with piano accompaniment played by one of the members. As support bands at rock shows go, this has to be one of the strangest ones I have seen. While what they did was not exactly bad (in fact a version of Toto's Africa was pretty spectacular) it just seemed to clash with all the classic rock that was to follow. They were only on stage for around 25 minutes however, so they did not outstay their welcome. At a wedding or some other sort of function, The Lounge Kittens would be fantastic, but as a support for a major classic rock band they just felt out of place.

The special guests were much more suited however, and rock legends in their own right. American AOR bands REO Speedwagon do not make it over to the UK that often, so their addition to this tour was a big reason for me buying a ticket in the first place. I have been a big fan for a long time, and have been waiting for an opportunity to see them live. Despite only getting an hour on stage, the band really delivered, playing hit after hit for the large crowd. I have heard reports that the sound on the floor was extremely poor, but where I was sat up to the side of the venue they sounded great, and the opening number Don't Let Him Go really rocked out of the speakers. Kevin Cronin (vocals/guitar/keyboards) really has not aged at all, and his voice sounds as strong and as smooth as it did in the 1980s. He was the star of the show, and interacted well with the crowd throughout with some good banter. While REO Speedwagon were never as popular over here as they were in America, there were still plenty of people in who seemed to know the songs. Take it on the Run was predictably well received, but it was Can't Fight This Feeling that was the highlight of the early part of their set, with founding member Neal Doughty (keyboards) seated at the piano to play the distinctive intro. Son of a Poor Man showed off the band's earlier more hard rocking sound. Doughty's honky piano drove the song, and there was plenty of opportunity for Dave Amato (guitar/vocals) to solo, and he did this with bluesy aplomb. All of the best songs were wheeled out at the end however, with the 1970s hard rock of Ridin' the Storm Out seeing quite a bit of movement from the fans down at the front, and then when Cronin seated himself behind the piano everyone knew what was coming. Literally everyone knows Keep On Loving You, it was a Top 10 single over here after all, and there were phones in the air and arms waving as the classic power ballad bled out of the arena speakers. There was time for one more song, and the suitably upbeat Roll With the Changes brought REO Speedwagon's set to a triumphant end with plenty more soloing and hard rock class. I hope the band return to the UK soon in their own right, as I would love to catch a full-length headline show in the future! The setlist was:

Don't Let Him Go
Take it on the Run
Keep Pushin'
Can't Fight This Feeling
Son of a Poor Man
Time for me to Fly
Back on the Road Again
Ridin' the Storm Out
Keep on Loving You
Roll With the Changes

Despite REO Speedwagon's classy performance, it was Status Quo that people were here to see. With so many classic tracks to cram into their set, Quo setlists are fairly similar tour to tour, but they are delivered with such conviction that it does not matter. Malone's riff to Caroline opened up the show, and he showed throughout that he is more than up for the task of filling Parfitt's shoes. His tough rhythms anchored the band throughout the evening, while Parfitt's lead vocal parts were covered by John 'Rhino' Edwards (vocals/guitar/bass guitar) and Andy Bown (vocals/guitar/keyboards/harmonica). An early highlight for me was Something 'bout You Baby I Like, which has such an infectious chorus, before Rhino sung Parfitt's Rain with ease. Softer Ride shows the band's blues roots perfectly, and shows that Rossi has not lost any of his vocal skills. His voice is still as strong as it ever was, and he is still a great showman. He handles much of the band's lead guitar parts too, and he solos his way through many of the songs with ease. Medleys are commonplace at Status Quo shows, and there was a lengthy one in the middle of the set that began with What You're Proposing and ended with Paper Plane. It was the second half of the show where most of the real classic tracks were, but there was time for a few lesser-known numbers too. The strange Gerdundula was one of these, and saw four of the band armed with guitars while Leon Cave (drums/percussion/vocals) came down to the front of the stage to play various percussion instruments. Songs like Gerdundula show that Status Quo are about more than just the three-chord boogie rock they are known for, and are more diverse musicians and songwriters than many often give them credit for. The band's cover of In the Army Now is also different from their classic sound, but was greatly enjoyed by the crowd who were really into the show at this point. A short drum solo from Cave followed, before four more classics to round out the main set. Whatever You Want and the piano-led Rockin' All Over the World were the real highlights, and the band left the stage to huge cheers. There was time for a couple more however, and the 1960s beat-style Burning Bridges (On and Off and On Again) went down well, before the band's customary Bye Bye Johnny ending saw one one of the biggest crowd sing-a-longs of the evening and ensured the evening ended on a real high. The setlist was:

The Wanderer [Dion cover]
Something 'bout You Baby I Like [Richard Supa cover]
Softer Ride
Beginning of the End
Hold You Back
What You're Proposing/Down the Dustpipe/Wild Side of Life/Railroad/Again and Again/Paper Plane
The Oriental
Creepin' Up on You
In the Army Now [Bolland & Bolland cover]
Drum solo
Roll Over Lay Down
Down Down
Whatever You Want
Rockin' All Over the World [John Fogerty cover]
Burning Bridges (On and Off and On Again)
Rock and Roll Music/Bye Bye Johnny [Chuck Berry cover]

Overall, this was a fantastic evening of classic boogie rock from the band that really started off that whole movement in the late 1960s. Status Quo may be beginning to wind down now, but their legacy will remain and they still are a force to be reckoned with live. Add in a great support slot from REO Speedwagon and you get a top night of live music.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

HammerFall's 'Built to Last' - Album Review

HammerFall are one of those bands who are always enjoyable but rarely spectacular. They have been churning out quality power metal albums since their 1997 debut album Glory to the Brave, with albums coming along regularly ever since. In my opinion, the band have never really released a bad album, with all of them containing enough strong songs to merit a purchase. This is helped by the fact that the band have stuck to the same musical formula since forming in 1993, with very little deviation since. When HammerFall are at their best, they are a great band. Fast-paced power metal, with an emphasis on the 'metal' aspect of the genre, with big guitar riffs, plenty of gang vocals, and catchy choruses to really sink your teeth into. HammerFall are at their best when they speed things up, and this is something that made their early work so strong. The band's first four albums are easily their best, but that is not to say that what has come since is in any way bad. The seems to favour the more mid-paced side of their sound these days however, and this does make their more recent work seem less interesting in some ways. After a short hiatus, HammerFall returned in 2014 with (r)Evolution (which I reviewed here), an album I enjoyed a lot at the time but have revisited it very little since. (r)Evolution was a deliberate attempt by the band to recapture their early sound, after many fans had found 2011's Infected, a gritty album that shook of the fantasy sheen that is the band's trademark, to not be to their taste. In truth, Infected is not all that different from any other HammerFall album, besides the zombie apocalypse album artwork and themes in some of the songs, but as usual a large portion of the metal community who are resistant to change dismissed it. Ironically, I think Infected is probably the band's most interesting and enjoyable album since 2002's Crimson Thunder, with a heavier overall sound that was a good change from the norm while still containing plenty of storming power metal anthems within. (r)Evolution served it's purpose however, and many of the fans that were turned off by Infected were back on board. Two years on and, after breaking with their long-time record label home Nuclear Blast, HammerFall are back with Built to Last, their 10th album. Like (r)Evolution, this is a conscious return to the band's trademark power metal sheen. While on the surface this seems like another solid HammerFall album, digging deeper reveals there is very little substance here and this is one of the biggest musical disappointments of the year in my opinion. I feel this is the band's least interesting album yet, and really just feels like a rehash of everything we have heard before, just without the soaring melodies and crunching riffs that have made all of the rest of the band's albums enjoyable spins.

The album starts off with the lively Bring It!, one of the album's better songs, to prove there are still moments worth digesting here. The song has a traditional muscular riff that races out of the blocks like a freight train, and frontman Joacim Cans is in typically strong vocal form. He is an extremely reliable power metal singer, and always turns in a quality performance no matter what. The chorus is extremely memorable too, with lots of gang vocals to bulk it out, and it is one of the album's catchiest moments. Founding member Oscar Dronjak, traditionally the band's rhythm guitarist, takes the bulk of the solo here, which is traditional power metal fare. This is a song that recalls the glory days of HammerFall, and is a great way for the album to start. Unfortunately Hammer High, which was chosen for the album's music video, is a real mid-paced plod that never really gets going. The opening drum beat, courtesy of new drummer David Wallin (Stormwind; Pain) who replaced long-time member Anders Johansson in 2014, is ripped straight out of Gary Moore's Over the Hills and Far Away, and the song lacks any true power. The chorus is extremely weak, with a chanted style that becomes nothing more than a drone, and the song's title and main refrain and taken right from Hector's Hymn from (r)Evolution. I heard this song before the album was released, and the seed of doubt was already sewn by the time I got Built to Last. Unfortunately this song is typical of most of the songs here. The Sacred Vow is better however. It opens with a lovely clean guitar melody, before a triumphant main riff kicks in that is backed up by some excellent bass playing from Fredrik Larsson. The verses are quite fast, with Cans' vocals having some grit to them that recalls the style he adopted on Infected. Despite the chorus slowing things down to a mid-pace, it is packed full of hooks and power that make it extremely memorable. It is one of the album's best moments, and sees Cans hit some pretty impressive high notes towards to the end - not something he is particularly know for. This has all the marks of HammerFall's best work, and is a shining light on a painfully average album. Dethrone and Defy is not bad either, and is a fairly decent fast-paced piece of power metal. I like the pre-chorus particularly, which has some excellent vocal melodies from Cans. There is also a pretty impressive dual solo between Dronjak and Pontus Norgren which is full of classic heavy metal energy. The chorus is a little lacklustre however, with far less power than is required for a song of this nature. Overall it is not bad however, and is certainly enjoyable. Twilight Princess is the album's ballad and this one is really weak. Joakim Svalberg (Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Opeth) provides keyboards for the song, but I am not sure why as the keyboards sound no different to the basic efforts that Dronjak and Norgren provide on the rest of the album's songs. There is a flute intro too, which is rather worthless, and the song overall just fails to excite. In fairness, ballads have never been HammerFall's strong point, but it is a metal tradition for at least one to appear on every album. Dronjak's solo is pretty good however, and is the song's best moment.

Stormbreaker regains the album some credibility, and opens with a surprisingly heavy riff that is held together by Larsson's bass rumble. It is the one of the album's catchiest riff, and the song overall is pretty strong. Cans' vocals are excellent as always, and I really like the way the rhythm section lock in together during the verses. Wallin's drumbeat is excellent, and is a little different from the norm, and he speeds up for the choruses with ease. Sadly, this is probably the last truly enjoyable song on the album, as the songwriting takes a bit of a dive after this and the album really starts to drag. The title track is next, and the over-reliance on gang vocals returns from Hammer High. Once again, the song crawls along at a mid-pace, with no standout riffs or interesting melodies. The chorus is a little better, but the call-and-response style using gang vocals has been used to death now, and just fails to excite me anymore. This song just generates no energy whatsoever for me and shows the band scraping the barrel somewhat. The Star of Home is better, and easily the most interesting of the album's closing sections. Norgren co-wrote the song, his only songwriting contribution on this album, and delivered a great solo towards the end. Most of the HammerFall songs that Norgren has co-written so far have been strong, so I feel Dronjak and Cans need to bring him into the band's inner circle more as he clearly has a lot to offer in that department. The song's chorus actually soars, with some excellent vocals from Cans, and the whole song is a showcase for Wallin who shows that he is more than a suitable replacement for Johansson. New Breed is just bland, and is let down even further by some really bad lyrics. The chorus lyrics are borderline embarrassing, sub-Manowar rubbish that really should have never got past demo stage. They just make me unable to take the song seriously, and the lacklustre music fails to spark much excitement anyway. File under 'best forgotten'. Second to None is certainly better than New Breed, but it does little to rescue the end of the album from tailing off into obscurity. The opening harpsichord melody is pretty good though, and shows that keyboards can really enhance the band's sound (they are not something the band use very prominently). You can tell that the band really tried to make this song into an epic, but it just fails to live up to the ambition. There are plenty of good ideas here, but for some reason they just do not seem to mesh together properly. The weak chorus does not help, and this is one of those songs that is almost impossible to remember even if you heard it a few minutes previously. Overall, Built to Last is a weak offering from HammerFall who can and often do much better. I cannot see this album getting many more listens from me in the future, which is a shame as a HammerFall album is usually something to celebrate - even if you know what you are going to get. A few really strong songs cannot stop this album from being a bit of a flop, and I hope they manage to improve things next time around.

The album was released on 4th November 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hammer High.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Answer's 'Solas' - Album Review

I think it is safe to say that, commercially speaking at least, Northern Ireland's The Answer have never fulfilled their early potential. Touring with AC/DC throughout 2008 and 2009 should have been the springboard for much greater things for the band, but that potential momentum never really seemed to materialise. When it comes to the band's creative potential however, it is clear that this has more than been fulfilled. Despite still being a club-level band, The Answer have gone from strength to strength when it comes to songwriting. The band's last album Raise a Little Hell (which I reviewed here), which is only 18 months or so old let us not forget, was one that introduced a few new sounds to the band's tried and tested blues rock formula. Elements of soul and funk crept into the band's sound, and made Raise a Little Hell one of the band's more experimental works to date. It was hard to predict how The Answer would follow this album up. 2011's Revival, also a fairly experimental album, was followed up by the back-to-basics heavy blues rock of 2013's New Horizon, so it would not have been unreasonable to expect the band to do something similar as a follow up to Raise a Little Hell. What actually happened was Solas, the band's sixth album, and one that I doubt many people can honestly claim they saw coming. Solas is easily the band's most diverse album yet, and is as a far cry from their raw, hard rocking 2006 debut album Rise as is realistically possible - and shows just how far The Answer have come in ten years. Whereas Rise, and much of the band's catalogue, is brash in-your-face heavy blues rock, Solas is more reserved, delicate, and warm. Screaming rock riffs are often replaced with more organic guitar melodies, and the whole thing is held together by frontman Cormac Neeson's expressive and comforting vocals. Solas has divided the band's fanbase, and I have to admit to not being overly keen on it initially too. The Answer I was expecting, and have loved for many years, was largely absent from the album. This could be a recipe for disaster, and lesser bands would have crumbled under the pressure to add the myriad of acoustic and folk elements seamlessly in their sound - but not The Answer. In hindsight, this move is probably not all that surprisingly. Previous ballads have had this sound to some extent, and the band's Northern Irish heritage has always been worn on their collective sleeves. Despite the overall tone of this album being more organic and 'quiet', there are still moments that rock like The Answer of old, they are just used more sparingly than previously. Many of the songs also feature the keyboard talents of Keith Weir (The Quireboys; Joe Elliot's Down 'n' Outz), which help to add to the warm, organic sound the band were pursuing. There will be many who will dismiss this album after a single listen, but those who are more open minded and like bands to evolve and take risks with their sound ought to find plenty to enjoy here.

The album's title track gets things underway with a slow, snaking bassline from Michael Waters and a plodding drum beat from James Heatley. The overall sound is very dry, but it works well. Initially, Paul Mahon's guitars are more in the background, with the bass guitar driving the song with it's riff and the guitars adding colour instead. The song has a real hypnotic quality, with the bassline really getting stuck in your head and Neeson's vocals swirling around perfectly. The section towards the end, were the word 'Solas' is repeated over and over is excellent, with the band providing an atmospheric backdrop, and Fiona O'Kane's subtle vocal harmonies really adding depth. A short guitar solo is the only real link to the band's past, but it still fits in well here. Beautiful World starts out in a similar fashion, as Mahon's strum away gently in the background in a way that is more reminiscent of modern indie music than blues rock, but it is Neeson that really dominates. His mournful, delicate vocals are a far cry from the hard rock screams he is known for and this is a revelation. This really suits him, and he almost sounds like a totally different man. The song starts to rock out somewhat as it progresses, with strident power chord riffing from Mahon that is backed up by a great rock bassline. Neeson does sound more like his older self here, with some wordless screams in the background, and a more powerful delivery during the heavier moments. This is still the new Answer however, despite the rockier sound, and it shows this more organic sound can also produce rock anthems. With a beautiful acoustic intro, Battle Cry is one of my favourites on the album. Neeson's opening vocal melodies are extremely catchy, and they remain this way throughout the song. Heatley's drumming and percussion throughout is really interesting, and helps to add a real rhythmic quality to the songs that fits in with Neeson's melodies. This is one of the songs that features Weir's keyboards, and his subtle organ playing really fills out the song and adds another layer to create depth. Some of the lyrics are sung in Gaelic too, which is different. This is a joyous and upbeat song that I am sure will go down well when played live. Untrue Colour has a rather sultry, laid back blues rock vibe, with a catchy dry-sounding guitar riff and some vocals from Neeson which are more like we have come to expect from him over the years. Acoustic guitar helps to bulk out the sound, and a simple but memorable chorus proves to be one of those moments that really sticks with you. The late 1960s guitar sound really helps this song, and overall this is a strong number. In This Land opens with what sounds like a mandolin riff, and the whole song has a great acoustic rock vibe throughout. Waters' bassline holds the song together, while the mandolin, acoustic guitars, and keyboards all swirl around to create a beautiful mix of sounds. Apart from the short one in the opening song, this is the first song on the album to have a proper guitar solo, which cuts through the mix with a great warm fuzzy tone. Thief of Light is a slow song, with a bit of a droning murky tone that is a great contrast to the bright acoustic riff that drives the song. Something about this song reminds me of church music for some reason, I think it is the large choral section that sits below most of the song which, although only subtly utilised, is very effective.

The opening part of Being Begotten actually reminds me a little bit of Pink Floyd around the time of The Wall, with a ominous guitar pattern and some cutting lead sections that emulate David Gilmour's famous tone somewhat. These little bursts of lead guitar continue throughout the song, and it ends up moving away from the Pink Floyd sound and moves towards an old blues style, with some deep vocals from Neeson and aching lead guitar lines. It never really properly gets going, but the mood it creates is great. Left Me Standing is a rare piece of bluesy hard rock in an album that attempts to forge a new path. This makes the song stand out, but it also makes you realise that the band can still really rock. The fast-paced chorus would have fit on any on any of the band's older albums, and the whole song just feels like the raw rock 'n' roll that dominated New Horizon. Those fans who are not keen on The Answer's new direction on this album should still enjoy this number, as it contains all the hallmarks that made the band popular in the first place, albeit with a slightly more organic overall feel. Demon Driven Man sounds like a song that could have been left over from the Raise a Little Hell sessions. In fact it sounds like a distant cousin to I Am What I Am, one of the best songs from that album, with a big funky bassline and a extremely catchy chorus. There is a bit more rock here than is found elsewhere on the album, and a great guitar solo is thrown in to boot. This is one of my favourite songs on the album, as I love the slightly funky side to The Answer's playing, something which I would like to see more of in the future! Real Life Dreamers is a bit of low-key blues rock with some great slide playing from Mahon and a subtle keyboard display from Weir that really enhances the sound of the song. O'Kane's vocals, which have been used throughout the album in a backing and harmony capacity, are given more prominence here and the song is actually a duet between her and Neeson. Their voices mix well together, and the vibe ends up taking on a bit of a country feel as the song goes on well lots of picked acoustic guitar melodies and the subtle slide playing. The album's closing number, Tunnel, is a great ballad that is initially based around acoustic guitar, but it soon builds up to take on more sounds. The wordless backing vocals during the chorus are particularly powerful, and help to really elevate that section. Once again, Waters' bass playing really stands out. His playing throughout this album is excellent, and it is often his grooves that drive the song rather than the more traditional guitar riffs the band usually opt for. It works well however, and his melodic playing really stands out and helps this more delicate sound The Answer have gone for here still have some weight. Not to be outdone, Mahon adds another great solo to the song, and ensures the album ends on a high. Overall, Solas is an album The Answer should be commended for. The new sound suits them down to the ground, and the songwriting throughout is very thoughtful and memorable. Bands need to change and evolve to stay fresh and, while I am sure they will return to the blues rock they built their career on soon, this is an Answer album that is just that - fresh! This the band's Led Zeppelin III, with a similar warm vibe and rootsy feel.

The album was released on 28th October 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the bands promotional video for Solas.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Avenged Sevenfold's 'The Stage' - Album Review

In the internet and social media ages, many bands are often guilty of gearing up the hype train with an endless series of announcements a drip-feedings new to their fans. 'Big news soon guys!' and other such non-announcements are common place on social media, and can actually work to jade the fans or run the risk of having actual important announcements buried in the sea of other such posts by other bands. Avenged Sevenfold, arguably one of the biggest heavy metal bands on the planet at the moment, said no to this mindset however and dropped their seventh album The Stage with very little fanfare at all. There was no endless marketing campaign that went on for several months with little pieces of the album artwork revealed over time and reviews that read more like press releases distributed to the major rock magazines and websites. The band dropped a few hints the day before release that something would happen, and then next day the album was out in stores. That was it! Granted, everyone knew the band were working on a new album, and the video for the album's title track was released earlier in October, but I do not think many people expected the full album to come so quickly. 2013's Hail to the King (which I reviewed here), which was a commercial success and debuted at number 1 on the UK Album Chart, was a bit of a transition album for the band. It was the first album without any writing contributions from the late James 'The Rev' Sullivan who had been a key contributor to the band's first five studio albums (despite 2010's Nightmare being recorded and released after his death) and the band knew it would be hard to replace his creative influence. Hail to the King was deliberately sparse. The bombastic sound that the band had been working towards that culminated on 2007's self-titled album, and the dark heavy sound that dominated Nightmare, were abandoned in favour of a simpler sound influenced by the classic hard rock and metal bands that the band members loved in their youth. Despite being a strong album, you could not help but feel the band were deliberately holding themselves back for some reason, focusing more on basic songwriting and groove-based riffs than being overly-creative. In some respects, The Stage is the antithesis to Hail to the King. There are very few moments on here that could be described as 'simple' as the band take on a much greater progressive metal influence than ever before. New drummer Brooks Wackerman (Suicidal Tendencies; Bad Religion) is really let off the leash on this album, in a way that was denied to Arin Ilejay on Hail to the King. I do feel somewhat sorry for Ilejay on here, as he seemed to be told exactly what to do on Hail to the King and then cast aside as soon as the tour was over. Wackerman has been publicly praised by the other band members quite a lot since he joined the band too due to his many contributions to this album, something that was clearly denied to Ilejay. Hopefully he can find a home somewhere else, as he is a talented drummer. That oddity aside, The Stage shows Avenged Sevenfold at their most creative. Not every song here is a classic, and the diversity of the material means this is more of a collection of a songs than a flowing album experience, but there is plenty here to show why the band are so highly regarded and that they have come a long way since their metalcore roots.

The album's title track, which opens proceedings, is a real melting pot of styles that sees various eras of the band's sound forged together. The opening keyboard drone is reminiscent of Critical Acclaim, and by the time Synyster Gates' clinical lead guitar melody kicks in it takes you back to Hail to the King's title track. For a song that is over eight minutes long, The Stage is really quite a simple affair and easily one of the least-progressive songs on the album. The riffing is pretty simple throughout, which again is similar to the band's last album, with M. Shadows' vocals carrying the song throughout. On the surface the song seems too long, but repeated listens have revealed more layers that add some real depth. The lengthy bluesy guitar solo that takes place two-thirds of the way through is fantastic, with Gates' phrasing filled with plenty of emotion. This then leads into a melodramatic vocal section with Shadows' vocals taking on more of a classic rock sheen than usual. This song is a real journey, without any real typical structure, but still manages to remain accessible. Paradigm is almost the antithesis to The Stage with a thrashy main riff and Wackerman's frantic drumming display. This is a heavy song, but is still packed full of the strong vocal melodies that the band have been developing on more recent works. Wackerman is the star of the song however, with an endless list of creative drum beats to drive things. Even during Gates' explosive, shredding solo, Wackerman's drums still manage to almost steal the show with a frantic metronome feel to them. Shadows lets rip here too with a raw vocal display, that really comes to a head during the fast choruses. He even uses harsh vocals here sparingly, something he has not done for a while, to good effect. Sunny Disposition carries on the heavier vibe, and presents an overall schizophrenic feeling with a big mix of styles. Gates and Zacky Vengeance prove to be a great guitar duo, with one taking on clean leads while the other thrashes away in the background with a solid riff. A fast, punky section comes out of nowhere, driven by Wackerman's fast double bass drum playing. This acts as the chorus, and then morphs into a slow, groove-based section with a horn section! It is a really strange transition, but it works well and shows that band's creative side coming to the fore. In contrast God Damn, the only song on the album under four minutes long, is a flat-out thrash number. The band's two guitarists team up with some guitar fluid riffing, that even seems to include some tremolo picking at times, as Shadows spits out the verse vocals with real venom. This is the heaviest the band have sounded for quite some time, and could potentially be the fastest riffing in any Avenged Sevenfold song. There are mellower sections however, with a Spanish guitar-led section towards the end, and the choruses see the intensity dialled back somewhat. These sections do little to hamper the almost-hardcore punk impact of the song, and I imagine this will become a live favourite. Creating God sounds like it could be a song left over from the Hail to the King sessions with a mid-paced groovy main riff that sits over a uncharacteristically simple drum pattern from Wackerman. Despite a few faster sections, the song mostly sits in this mid-pace groove throughout, which works well after two faster songs. The chorus is pretty anthemic too, with a subtle string section to add colour and help boost Shadows' catchy vocal lines. The lengthy guitar solo is great too, and shows that Gates really is one of the best modern guitarists. Angels is the least heavy song of the album so far and, while it is not a ballad, it provides a bit of a break from the thrashy elements that have been prevalent so far. The slightly epic songs are perfect for Shadows' voice, and his surprisingly soaring performance here is easily the song's best moment. I do not think that he always gets the credit he deserves for his vocal performances, and this song should show that he can do much more than just belt out generic modern metal vocal lines. Gates' Dad, a regular contributor to Avenged Sevenfold albums, provides the lengthy outro solo here too, and shows he can keep up with his son when it comes to excellent guitar solos!

Simulation opens slowly too, with some spacey guitar sounds and understated vocal lines. It soon speeds up however, with another big thrashy riff and some almost-spoken vocals that are extremely rousing. This is a song that often switches back and forward between two distinct sounds, the spacey prog section and the heavier section, with good effect. The two sounds compliment each other well, and it all comes to a head with a great headbanging section late on that is complete with military sound effects and evil spoken word sections. All of this culminates in a fast guitar solo that fits with the blood-pumping military sound effects that came before it. With it's odd percussive sound, Higher certainly stands out from the crowd. Wackerman's drums are augmented with percussion from Brian Kilgore which actually works quite well, even with big metal riffs slapped on the top. The song has a very memorable chorus, something which this album does not focus on as much as you would expect, and sees Shadows almost crooning the smooth vocal lines while Gates' guitar arpeggios sit perfectly underneath. The latter part of the song takes a bit of a strange turn, with wordless choral vocals providing strong melodies, before an atmospheric section takes away with Shadows' delicate voice and more of the drums/percussion combo. The transition works well however and feels natural. Roman Sky is the album's ballad, with a beautiful clean guitar melody that opens things out. The song is quite keyboard heavy, something which is not the norm for the band, but this helps to provide a great overall atmosphere. Soundwise however this is not hugely different from the ballads have done in the past. Comparisons can be drawn to songs like Gunslinger and Dear God, and this feels like a natural successor to those songs. Despite the song slowly building up to a more rocking overall feel, it never becomes heavy. When the rest of the band kick in, it is Johnny Christ's bass that actually stands out the most as he plays a groovy bassline. His bass work is not that prominent throughout this album, so it is good that he gets this small chance to shine. The opening to Fermi Paradox is a pure guitar workout, with Gates' neo-classical licks really impressing. This is a strange song overall however, with heavy drum beats mixed with more atmospheric music to create a sound that is quite different to anything the band have done before. It works well however, and manages to feel truly progressive. Wackerman's drumming once again stands out, especially during the strange verse sections, and he manages to throw in some great fills even during more pedestrian sections. Shadows' vocals are excellent throughout the song too, and it sounds like he has been listen to a lot of Dream Theater before recording this as his vocals have the smooth subtly and melodic phrasing of James LaBrie, just with more gruffness. The album's closing number, Exist, is the band's longest song to date clocking in at well over fifteen minutes in length. It has a great spacey keyboard opening that sets the mood perfectly, before one of Gates' trademark sweep-picking sections comes in to blow you away once again. Unsurprisingly for a song of this length, there is an awful lot going on. It is hard song to describe and it requires multiple listens to fully digest. The main riff that kicks in after about three minutes however is pure Megadeth, and this riff is then tortured and changed up over the next couple of minutes in a riff-heavy instrumental section that is full of power. It is a good seven or so minutes before any vocals kick in, and by this point the song is stripped back to a simple clean guitar melody which is a strong contrast to the thrashy bombast that came before. The vocal-led sections are extremely melodic, with a strong keyboard backing, and plenty of subtle vocal harmonies to beef up the sound. The ending section features a lengthy spoken word section from famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson which weaves in and out of a perfect cacophony of keyboards, guitars, and drums. His speech sums up the themes of the song, and indeed the whole album, and is a perfect way for this ambitious album to end. Overall, The Stage is an album that will probably come to define Avenged Sevenfold going forward. I think it is one of those albums that will take years to fully reveal all of it's secrets, but will come to be seen as a modern classic in the future. The band have never sounded this creative, diverse, or progressive, and I feel this album shows a band that are willing to try anything and refusing to recreate their past.

The album was released on 28th October 2016 via Capitol Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Stage.