Sunday, 31 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 1

As another year comes to an end, I find myself thinking just how much great music we have seen in 2017. I always wonder if the onslaught of excellent new albums coming from the rock and metal worlds will slow each year, but it never seems to happen. I have been running this blog since 2012 now, and each year has seen me make probably around a hundred new music-related purchases (including live DVDs etc.). While the mainstream media and the big music corporations keep stating that the 'album' (be it streamed/downloaded, a CD, or a vinyl record) as a format for releasing and consuming music is dead, the many bands that I follow continue to defy this mindset. In my world, the album is still the primary method of music consumption and I hope this continues to be the case. A point that I like to reinforce each year is the fact that his blog is purely a by-product of my own personal music fandom. I am not a professional music journalist, and all of the albums that I review here are ones that I have purchased purely because I wanted to listen to them. The reviews come later and gives me a chance to be creative and share my love of music with those who wish to read them. Finding the time to write my reviews is always a challenge, especially as I started a part-time Masters course back in September, but I will continue to find time throughout 2018 to write about the music I love. I just wish to say thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read my musings throughout the year, and also to those who have shared my writings on social media. It always great to see people enjoying and engaging with my work - it is why I keep it up! For the last few years, prior to publishing my top 10 Albums of the Year, I have taken some time to shine a light on a few albums that I did not get the chance to review throughout the year. I shall do the same this year, as there are few releases that I have enjoyed a lot throughout 2017 that I never had the chance to review. I shall also highlight my favourite live release of the year, as I do not usually cover live albums in my usual writings.

Up first is the ninth studio album from progressive metal project Ayreon, the brainchild of Dutch composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Those familiar with the Ayreon sound will immediately take to The Source with it's melodic guitar lines, organic retro-sounding keyboards, and Jethro Tull-like folky sections. What makes The Source stand out however is the sheer wealth of vocal talent found within. Lucassen has assembled his best cast of singers yet, with Dream Theater's James LaBrie, Kamelot's Tommy Karevik, and Nightwish's Floor Jansen being just three of a twelve-strong cast. As with all of Lucassen's work, Ayreon and beyond, there is a lot to digest here which makes repeated listens a necessity. The melodies and concept are captivating however, and fans of progressive metal will revel in the musical riches that are found within The Source's many layers.

Almost in direct contrast to Ayreon's progressive bombast, The Dives' tight power pop is just as satisfying. This young American band impressed when I saw them open for Kiss back in May, and their debut four-track EP Everybody's Talkin' was purchased at the merchandise stand after their set. Despite only being short, this has been a regular on my iPod since with each of the four songs oozing class with the tight melodies and strong energy. Shades of Cheap Trick and The Beatles are found within, but all wrapped up in a distinct rock 'n' roll blanket that makes this such a joyous listen. The only complaint I have is that many of the best songs that the band played live are not featured here, but this certainly bodes well for the future and I look forward to what The Dives will do next.

British rock 'n' roll vagabonds The Quireboys' second wind is still blowing strong as the six-piece released their fifth album in as many years in September. This latest outing, dubbed White Trash Blues, is a covers album which sees the band tackling a collection of their favourite blues songs in their own brash and high-energy style. Blues has always been a big part of The Quireboys sound, so they sound at home sinking their teeth into some of the genre's best-known standards. Muddy Waters' Crosseyed Cat sounds fresh and urgent, Willie Dixon's much-covered (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man has rarely sounded so powerful, and Taj Mahal's strutting Leaving Trunk is pulled into the modern day thanks to frontman Spike's Whisky-soaked vocal. The Quireboys are one of the best pure rock 'n' rolls bands going in 2017, and this album showcases another side to the band who's reputation has been enhanced greatly by releasing four excellent albums of original material since 2013.

October was a very busy period for new rock and metal releases, so it was inevitable that a few were going to fall through the cracks. Austria's Serenity were one of the victims of this hectic month, and their sixth album Lionheart has only recently been added to my collection. A concept about Richard the Lionheart's deeds is perfect fodder for a power metal act, as Serenity's love for all things historical once again drives their songwriting. Frontman Georg Neuhauser has the perfect voice for this type of epic storytelling, and his relatively new songwriting partnership with guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer has improved massively since the release of 2016's Codex Atlanticus. While Serenity will always be one of power metal's second division acts, and will probably never better their 2011 opus Death & Legacy, Lionheart is a strong entry into the band's catalogue and one that shows they continue to be a creative and impressive force.

Another victim of the October glut was Sons of Apollo, the new progressive metal supergroup formed by former Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian. This was always going to be a technical album, and of course it was with all of the bombast and intelligence that often comes with progressive metal. The band's debut album, the nine-track Psychotic Symphony, is a heavy effort that allows Portnoy plenty of time to shine behind his drum kit, and allows guitarist Bumblefoot to demonstrate why he should be considered one of the generation's very best players. Frontman Jeff Scott Soto and bassist Billy Sheehan make up the rest of the band, and all five pull together to make an album that sounds familiar, but at the same time is not too derivative of anything any of them have done previously.

Those are five albums which I thought deserved a mention here, and I am glad that I have at least been able to highlight them in some way before 2017 ends. As mentioned I will also briefly discuss my favourite live release of the year, and this happens to be Delain's new double live album and DVD combo A Decade of Delain: Live at Paradiso. Filmed at Amsterdam's Paradiso venue in 2016 to celebrate the band's ten year anniversay, A Decade of Delain shows the Dutch six-piece symphonic metal band at their very best. Delain have always been a powerful presence in the live arena, and this first official live release showcases this with a good selection of songs from their five studio albums and a host of special guests that make appearances throughout the concert. Despite Delain being a tight and talented band, it is frontwoman Charlotte Wessels that truly steals the show throughout. She is one of the most likeable frontwoman ever and showcases her excellent voice and infectious charisma throughout the night. Delain's music has always been harder-hitting and more concise than many of their symphonic metal peers, and it is this that makes them such a captivating live band.

Well that does it for Part 1 of my round-up of 2017's new musical releases. My Albums of the Year list will come tomorrow, but until then there are a couple of other things I would like to discuss. 2016 saw the real start of many of our favourite rock and metal stars passing away. 2017 has, sadly, been much the same and I am sure this will carry on into the future. There were a couple of deaths that came as a shock however, the first of which was former Mostly Autumn guitarist Liam Davison who sadly passed away in November. I had seen Davison with Mostly Autumn many times over the years and, although he had not been a part of the band since 2014, has left a lasting legacy on one of my very favourite bands. His 2011 solo album A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels is a fitting representation of his skills as a songwriter, vocalist, and a guitarist; while his wealth of material with Mostly Autumn over the years shows him more restrained but always part of something greater. He will be sorely missed. The other death that came as a shock was that of Sanctuary and former Nevermore frontman Warrel Dane. By all accounts, Dane was a very troubled individual but his power vocals and idiosyncratic lyrical style was a big part of what made both Sanctuary and Nevermore such powerful and vital bands in the metal world. There is no-one else out there quite like Dane, and his passing leaves a big hole in the metal scene.

Moving on from those sad thoughts, I would briefly like to look forward into 2018 at some of the albums that we already know are coming out. January and February already look to be extremely busy months for new releases with Magnum, Orphaned Land, and Saxon (among others) all releasing albums during the first months of the year. The first new album of the year for me will be Leaves' Eyes Sign of the Dragonhead which drops on 12th January. Looking further on into the year we will be treated to a new album from British hard rock legends Whitesnake who will be releasing their first album of original material since 2011, provisionally titled Flesh & Blood, at some point during the first part of the year. Another legendary British rock band Uriah Heep will be entering the studio soon to record a new album for release during the back end of the year, as are the rejuvenated American progressive metal band Queensrÿche. 2018 will also see the release of the video of Marillion's stunning concert at the Royal Albert Hall this past October, which is another release I am gleefully anticipating. 2018 is already promising to be another excellent year for new music, and I am sure I will be finding myself listening to all sorts of goodies throughout the next twelve months. Check back here tomorrow for my Albums and Gigs of the Year lists, and have a great 2018!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Quireboys - Plymouth Review

It seems tradition now for The Quireboys to undertake an unplugged tour of the UK each year. For the past two years I have caught the stripped down four-piece version of the popular British rockers at a Working Men's Club in the Northamptonshire town of Rushden (one of which was a spur of the moment trip after a football match in Luton), both of which proved to be memorable nights. While The Quireboys truly excel in their all-out hard rock mode, which has brought them plenty of success all over the world since forming in the mid 1980s, their acoustic shows are still something special. Stripped down to the bare bones, the band's songs shine in their beautiful simplicity. This formal also allows the band to relax somewhat, with frontman Spike often taking the time to tell the crowd various stories from the road and joke around on stage with the other members of the band. Joining Spike in these unplugged jaunts are fellow classic-era Quireboys member Guy Griffin (guitar/vocals), and longtime members Paul Guerin (guitar/vocals) and Keith Weir (keyboards/vocals). The chemistry between these four musicians, who have been working together since the early 2000s now, is clear they clearly enjoy these more low-key shows as much as they enjoy the high-octane rock of their usual gigs. Luckily this time I did not have to travel far to see the band, as they opted to come down to the South West for a show at the underused Hub in Plymouth. This was The Quireboy's first trip to Plymouth for quite some time, and there was a good-sized crowd gathered in the venue for the entirety of the evening which helped to create a good atmosphere throughout.

Before The Quireboys took to the stage there was one support band however, and The Stretch Report has the task of warming up the crowd. It was strange having a set of electric hard rock supporting an acoustic headliner, but it would have worked well if The Stretch Report were actually any good. Sadly however, they were not. Despite a relatively promising start with a couple of generic but enjoyable enough three-chord rock songs, the set went downhill pretty quickly with derivative song after derivative song that showed little songwriting prowess and few interesting ideas. What made things worse was the fact that the band just were not very tight at all. The sound was often mushy, with some truly horrid guitar tones, which when combined with the sloppy playing just made for a fairly miserable set. Sloppy covers of Cheap Trick's Surrender and Slade's Mama Weer All Crazee Now could not save the set, and I was happy when the band walked off stage. There are so many better bands that could have filled this slot, including the excellent local act Departed, and The Stretch Report were definitely one of the weakest support acts I have seen for quite some time.

Luckily The Quireboys came on stage about 40 minutes later to wipe away all the memories of The Stretch Report. The show was delayed in starting for a while however as there seemed to be some problems with one of the monitors, but luckily this was sorted out and the band took to the stage at around 21:50. The band seemed fired up for the show from the start, and hit the ground running with three songs from their 1990 debut album A Bit of What You Fancy. There She Goes Again seems to be the band's go-to set opener for their acoustic shows, and it gave the crowd an early chance to sing, taking over from Spike in the chorus to fill the room with voices. Misled and the quieter Roses & Rings followed, before another oldie Devil of a Man was pulled out of the vaults. This song is a regular in their unplugged sets, and it is always special to hear it live. Spike always sings the lyrics with real passion, and it is clearly a fan-favourite. The band moved forward in time next for a couple of numbers from the late 2000s including a stunning rendition of another fan-favourite Mona Lisa Smiled. The unplugged format of the show reduces the guitarists chances to solo, but Guerin took a short solo section during this one. In fact, he handled the vast majority of the lead playing with Griffin often content to sit back on his stool and strum the chords in his usual laid-back, cool way. Another newer number Beautiful Curse followed, before Spike took a chance to plug their latest studio project - an album of their favourite blues songs called White Trash Blues. A couple of these songs were played during the night, in a stripped down acoustic form of course, with a powerful version of Slim Harpo's I'm a King Bee going down particularly well. Another staple of the band's unplugged sets is the old Spike solo number Have a Drink With Me, which always sees Spike, drink in hand, toasting the crowd and encouraging all drinks in the air. This always goes down well, and the heartfelt ballad is always a highlight of the night. Another blues track, Rufus Thomas' Walking the Dog, was another powerful wig out with plenty of excellent piano from Weir. Weir, who was really high in the mix throughout the night, played his heart out all night. His barroom style of piano playing has always been perfect for the band, but he really was on another level tonight with plenty of extended solo sections in many of the songs. There was still time for a couple more surprises late on, with a rare outing for the beautiful Late Nite Saturday Call wowing the crowd, before one of the band's biggest hits Hey You was wheeled out. This song would not normally be a surprise at a Quireboys show, but it is not one that is usually done acoustically. It worked well however, and made for a perfect end to the main set, along with the closing number 7 O'Clock which saw Spike armed with his trusty harmonica. There was still time for a couple more, despite it being well past 23:00 by this time, but it would not be a Quireboys acoustic show without a version of I Don't Love You Anymore. The heartbreaking power ballad is always an excellent experience live, but the version in Plymouth was particularly potent, with Spike dragging out the ending for quite a while to allow the rest of the band to jam somewhat. There was time for one more after this, with Sweet Mary Ann allowing the crowd to have one final sing along before the band finally took their bows and left to plenty of cheers. The setlist was:

There She Goes Again
Roses & Rings
Devil of a Man
Mona Lisa Smiled
Beautiful Curse
I'm a King Bee [Slim Harpo cover]
Whippin' Boy
Have a Drink With Me [Spike solo material]
Walking the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover]
Late Nite Saturday Call
Hey You
7 O'Clock
I Don't Love You Anymore
Sweet Mary Ann

This was my final gig of the year, and it was a great way to sign 2017 out in style. Out of the three Quireboys acoustic shows that I have now witnessed, this was the best in my opinion. The venue and the atmosphere were better, and the band really seemed on top form (even more so than usual). With the promise of another full electric tour next year, and most probably another acoustic run, I am sure it will not be too long before my next Quireboys outing!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Morbid Angel's 'Kingdoms Disdained' - Album Review

While I am a big fan of heavy metal, and have amassed a great deal of knowledge of the genre over the years, I will be the first to admit that my exposure to the extreme metal subgenres has been very limited. Despite liking lots of pretty heavy bands, a key factor in my enjoyment of any music is melody. Whether this comes from vocals, guitars, or keyboards is irrelevant, but soaring hooks and melodies are what draw me to certain bands and songs over others. That being said, over the years I have often tried - often in vain - to acquaint myself more with extreme metal. While I quite like the energy and atmosphere that black and death metal bands often conjure with their music, it is the often-lack of any true melodies or the extremely raw production that almost always ends up putting me off. When extreme metal acts become too polished with big production values, they often cease being true representations of the genre. Big productions often bring choirs or orchestras along with them, and the result it something more melodic than most of the purists can take. There have been a few 'truer' extreme metal acts over the years that I have managed to enjoy however. England's Carcass, despite being one of the founders of the 'melodic death metal' sound, are a true death metal act that just happen to utilise a lot more lead guitar passages than their peers; and Poland's Behemoth are a black metal band that are epic in scope and unforgiving with their music. These bands, plus a handful of others, have always excited me. My quest to add more extreme metal acts to my iPod brought me to America's Morbid Angel earlier this month, when I took a chance and picked up their new album Kingdoms Disdained after reading some good reviews of it online. Morbid Angel, formed back in 1983 by guitarist Trey Azagthoth, are true legends of the death metal world and are of course a band I have been familiar with for some time. The very positive reviews that I read, plus a couple of samples of the songs online, prompted me to pick this up and I am glad that I did as this is probably the first 'true' death metal album (excluding Carcass' more melodic offerings) that I have ever found myself enjoying. Kingdoms Disdained is the band's tenth studio album, and their first for six years following 2011's poorly-received Illud Divinum Insanus. I have no opinion on that album as I have never heard it, but by many accounts it seems to be one of the most-hated albums by any big-name death metal acts and that Kingdoms Disdained is a return to Morbid Angel's core sound and, as a result, form. Azagthoth is the only remaining original member left in Morbid Angel, and joining him on this album are vocalist and bassist Steve Tucker, who rejoined the band in 2015 once again replacing the outgoing David Vincent, and new drummer Scott Fuller (Abysmal Dawn; Annihilated). The former is performing on his first Morbid Angel since 2003's Heretic, and the latter is making his debut in the studio with the band. The production here, courtesy of Erik Rutan, is loud and full. The sound here is heavy and thick, without any of the tinny drums or buzzsaw guitars that make some extreme metal releases unlistenable to me.

The album's opening number, Piles of Little Arms, sets the tone for the entire album with a rolling blast beat-driven intro that is led by Azagthoth's abrasive guitar riff. While many portions of this song are fast, with Fuller's drumming really driving everything forward with much haste, there are moments that slow things down somewhat and introduce groovier elements. Tucker, performing on his first Morbid Angel album for quite some time, sounds excellent and really full of energy throughout. His deep growls are full of venom, and his performance on this song, atop the discordant riffing, really stands out. Guitar solos are not exactly forthcoming here, but the song ends with some wah-drenched guitar leads that lead nicely into D.E.A.D, the album's second song. D.E.A.D really takes things a step further with a progressive take on the standard death metal formula that mixes Behemoth-esque passages that use strident guitar chords and simpler drum beats, with twisted fast sections that really show off Fuller's skills as a drummer. His energy certainly adds to the overall feel of this album, and he should be commended on a strong performance throughout. There are lots of memorable riffs throughout this song and, while it is fairly short at just over three minutes in length, it stands out for it's originality and technicality. Garden of Disdain returns to the band's more typical formula with Fuller's fast footwork driving everything and a mid-paced verse that is packed full of venom with Tucker's bass guitar high in the mix to give the song depth. The bass is often lost in extreme metal albums, but thankfully that is often not the case here. Tucker's playing is often highlighted, which helps to really bulk out the songs and give the album a much heavier overall feel while still sounding well-produced. This is a song which never really reaches break-neck speed, but instead often relies on a more chugging feel despite some fast double bass drumming. The combination works well, and the song is a powerful one as a result. The Righteous Voice opens up with an unsettling guitar riff that always seems at odds with the more conventional drumming beneath it. This conflict works well however, and helps to create a unique atmosphere for the song. Azagthoth's use of pinch harmonics throughout also helps the song to stand out, and adds to the discordant nature of the piece. The verses are much more typical however, with Fuller's blast beats driving everything as Tucker bellows the lyrics. There's another strange guitar solo in this piece, and this one comes out of nowhere with some tortured leads that cut through the mix with an eerie feel. Architect and Iconoclast is one of my favourite pieces on the album, and this is partly down to the grooves that are packed into it. This is not a song that never really picks up the pace to a great extent, but instead makes use of the strong riffs and drum patterns to create interesting images that ooze out of the speakers. Fuller really shows off his skills again here with some excellent drumming displays that are packed full of inventive twists and turns. This is a track that shows that there is a lot in death metal that I can enjoy, and one that will ensure I continue to explore the genre. Paradigms Warped also opens fairly slowly, with some excellent guitar-led grooves that highlight the power of Azagthoth's playing. With many death metal acts utilising quite simple guitar lines, Azagthoth often goes beyond this to create much more involved soundscapes with his instrument. He has a progressive approach to songwriting, and that is showcased here with some choppy riffs and sections that allow Tucker's bass to take the lead for contrast.

The Pillars Crumbling is much more riff-driven, with an opening figure that contains some true classic rock strut before the drums come in properly to bring true death metal elements to the track. This is a song that is much less 'busy' than many of the other pieces here, with Azagthoth's guitar playing simpler riffs and leaving most of the more abrasive soundscapes behind. As a result the song stands out and actually becomes somewhat catchy in places, with the riffs really getting stuck in your brain. For No Master puts the speed back into the album, and is packed full of blast beats throughout. This is a real death metal anthem that showcases all of the hallmarks of the genre that Morbid Angel really helped to forge back in the 1980s. It really is a relentless piece of music. Many of the band's songs slow down in parts for some light and shade, this one really carries on the energy throughout and takes no prisoners with the lightning-fast riffing and drumming. Declaring New Law (Secret Hell) is another more groove-based piece with Tucker's bass taking on a prominent role throughout to add real depth and grit. It also features a guitar solo from Vadim, who has since joined the band as a second guitarist. The solo is his only contribution to the album, as Azagthoth handled the rest of the guitar work throughout the album, but he makes an impact with this twisted creation. As mentioned, the song is one of the albums slower offerings with a mechanical grinding sound throughout that is caused by Tucker's precise bass playing. Vadim's solo is the opposite of this, and comes out of nowhere with more melodic phrasing than would normally be expected on a death metal album. It sounds good, if a little out of place, and this helps to the song to stand out somewhat. From the Hand of Kings is more of the band's trademark death metal sound, but one that also showcases the band's progressive side a little too. The riffing throughout is excellent and mixes fast and slower sections with ease. Out of all of the songs on the album, this is one of the most powerful pieces as everything here is just really heavy. It is songs like this where Rutan's production job really shines, as it really boosts the sounds made from the rhythm section to give the song that big bottom end. All too often these instruments sound tinny on death metal albums, but that is not the case here as everything sounds tight and heavy. The album's closing number, The Fall of Idols, is another premium slab of death metal that again showcases all of the hallmarks of the genre. It is probably one of the least-interesting pieces here however, as it lacks the standout riffs or drumming of many of the preceding songs. This may be down to my own lack of knowledge of the genre, but for whatever reason this song just does not stand out as a much as the others. It still has a great driving energy however, which helps the album to end strongly despite the lack of standout features. Overall, Kingdoms Disdained is a really enjoyable album from Morbid Angel and one that has helped me further my quest to understand and appreciate extreme metal a lot more than I currently do. I shall certainly go back and explore some of the band's older works now.

The album was released on 1st December 2017 via Silver Lining Music. Below is the band's promotional soundclip for For No Master.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Extreme - Birmingham Review

There was obviously something in the American water during the late 1980s that meant that some rock bands started incorporating funk influences into their music. Two of the main exponents of that style of music, Extreme and the Dan Reed Network, teamed this month for a tour of the UK. While not exactly the calibre of band that they once more, Extreme still remain a popular draw in the UK. This, coupled with the fact that they tour over here relatively infrequently, means that their shows are always well-attended. Extreme's last UK trek was back in 2014, which was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band's most well-known album Pornograffitti. The tour was a big success, with the multi-platinum album being performed in full each night, and most of the tours sold out. Despite regular mentions and promises of a new album in the media, the band have not been forthcoming with releasing any new music. This has not deterred the band from returning however and, after a successful headline slot at this year's Ramblin' Man Fair, Extreme returned to these shores for another series of headline dates across the country. Without a new album, or any major anniversaries to celebrate, the format of the band's show this time around took the form of a more traditional greatest hits set with songs from all five of Extreme's studio albums featuring throughout the night. The venue of choice for me was the decent-sized O2 Academy in Birmingham. This venue has never been a particular favourite of mine, in fact I had not been to the venue since seeing Extreme there last time in 2014, due to the low stage and often unreliable sound. I sat up in the balcony last time, which improved the experience somewhat, but this time I opted to try the floor again. I found a decent spot near the back which actually afforded me a pretty decent view throughout, and to my surprise the sound was also pretty good. Both bands sounded clear and everything was nice and loud.

As mentioned previously, the Dan Reed Network were the evening's opening act. Dan Reed (vocals) and his band are quite well-known in their own right however, and received a strong reception from the crowd throughout their 45 minute set. I had only started listening to the band recently, and I have to say I was truly blown away by their show. From the opening grooves of the cinematic Cruise Together, to the closing dancey beats of Get To You, Reed held the crowd in the palm of his hand. Despite only being casually familiar with the band's four studio albums, I recognised each of the nine songs played and revelled in the layers and grooves packed into each song. Reed himself is an excellent frontman and singer, but Brion James (guitar/vocals) often stole his thunder with plenty of slinky riffs and powerful shredded solos that saw him come across like a more rock-orientated Nile Rodgers. All of the songs played were excellent, but personal highlights included the uptempo hard rock of Baby Now I and the more reflective and low-key Champion, from their 2016 come-back album Fight Another Day, that made great use of Rob Daiker's (keyboards/vocals) soundscapes. The real highlight of the set however was a potent version of Ritual, one of the band's best-known songs, that really saw the crowd come alive with plenty of dancing and singing. While I had been aware of the Dan Reed Network for some time, it is only over the past couple of months that I have really started to listen to their music in earnest. Having now seen the band perform this excellent set in Birmingham, I will make an effort to see them on their next headline UK tour as I have no doubts that their own show will be a special experience. After their set, the whole band went to one of the merch stands in the venue to sign autographs and take picture with fans. I managed to get my copy of Fight Another Day signed by the whole band which was a great addition to the evening. The setlist was:

Cruise Together
Under My Skin
Forgot to Make Her Mine
Baby Now I
Rainbow Child
Make It Easy
Get To You

Some band's would have struggled to follow Reed's energy and songcraft, but Extreme are no ordinary band and, once they hit the stage, wowed the capacity crowd with over two hours of bona fide hits, fan-favourites, and deep cuts from their back catalogue. Opening with three numbers from the much-loved Pornograffitti was a wise move, and this helped to set the mood early on. It ('s a Monster) was a high energy opener, before the groovy Li'l Jack Horny and the smash-hit Get the Funk Out really established that this was a rock 'n' roll party. The latter proved to be the first real sing-a-long of the night, conducted by energetic frontman Gary Cherone, and the atmosphere throughout was excellent. Cherone proved during the night why his often considered one of the best rock frontmen of all time, but it was often guitarist Nuno Bettencourt that stole the show with his jaw-dropping fretboard theatrics. He really is one of the best guitarists of all time, and seeing him strut his stuff up on the stage once more was something to behold. The first half of the show was packed full of fan favourites, with Rest in Peace and Kid Ego impressing early on, before an extended version of Play With Me, with a great drum solo from Kevin Figueiredo in the middle of it which also saw Bettencourt join in with his own small percussion set, brought the first part of the show to an end. A short acoustic-led section followed with a rare outing of Tragic Comic impressing before another big hit in the form of Hole Hearted prompted another big sing-a-long. After Bettencourt's acoustic guitar showcase Midnight Express, the second 'electric' portion of the show kicked off with the raw rock of Cupid's Dead before the band played a few lesser-known tracks. Newer numbers like Take Us Alive, from 2008's Saudades de Rock which actually went down surprisingly well with it's pseudo-country trappings, and older deeper cuts like Stop the World set the mood for this second portion and it was great to hear some songs which do not always make the cut. It was during the second portion however that some of the crowd seemed to get a little bored, which was a shame. It is always hard for bands to choose setlists that will keep the majority of fans happy, and it seemed the inclusion of some of these lesser-known songs caused the minds of some of the more casual fans to wander. They were soon brought back around however with a couple more tracks from Pornografitti to close out the main set. He-Man Woman Hater, with Bettencourt's impressive guitar intro, went down well, but as soon as the band hit Decadence Dance the place erupted and Cherone did not even bother to sing the first couple of lines of the song as the crowd did that for him. It it one of my favourite Extreme songs, and it was a powerful way to end a set that by this point was well over the 90 minute mark. After much baying from the crowd, the band came back out for a four-song encore. The acoustic mega-hit More Than Words was first up with the crowd often singing louder than Cherone once more, but it was the high-energy rock of Warheads that stood out for me during this section. It is another personal favourite, so it was great to finally hear it live. The relatively more relaxed Peacemaker Die and a rousing cover of Queen's We are the Champions ended the show in style, with the band rocking on high energy to the end and taking the crowd with them. The setlist was:

It ('s a Monster)
Li'l Jack Horny
Get the Funk Out
Rest in Peace
Hip Today
Kid Ego
Play With Me
Tragic Comic
Hole Hearted
Midnight Express
Cupid's Dead
Everything Under the Sun - Part II: Am I Ever Gonna Change
Take Us Alive
Stop the World
He-Man Woman Hater
Decadence Dance
More Than Words
Peacemaker Die
We are the Champions [Queen cover]

Overall this was a great evening of high-energy funky rock from two of the best exponents of the sound. Extreme are legends for a reason and their diverse set was excellent, but the Dan Reed Network more than held their own and provided the perfect opening act for the high-octane Extreme.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Fish - London Review

The last few years have found Scottish singer Fish in a nostalgic and reflective mood. After releasing one of his best ever solo efforts A Feast of Consequences in 2013 and touring heavily off the back of it, his last couple of tours have seen him take a look back into his Marillion past. While Marillion material has always featured in his setlists over the years, the last couple of tours have seen it dominate. 2015 saw Fish take Marillion's seminal 1985 release Misplaced Childhood on the road for the last time to celebrate the album's 30th anniversary, and this year sees him giving 1987's Clutching at Straws the same treatment. Both albums are huge milestones in Fish's long and successful career, and it seems fitting that he should give them both some more time in the spotlight again before he retires. His Farewell to Childhood tour was a huge success and it seems like this current run will also prove lucrative. So far he has only covered the UK with this show, but I would assume that 2018 will see Fish and his band venturing further afield. Speaking of Fish's band the line-up is the same as the majority of the Farewell to Childhood tour, with John Beck (keyboards/vocals) back in the band after his broken arm incident to join forced again with Robin Boult (guitar), Steve Vantsis (bass guitar/vocals) and Gavin Griffiths (drums). There is an addition to the band on this tour however, as vocalist Doris Brendel has been added to the line-up to provide backing vocals and occasional wind instruments when required. The addition of female backing vocals really added to the overall sound of the band, and Brendel's presence certainly helped Fish out with some of the more demanding vocal sections. That being said, Fish sounded very strong vocally throughout the show which was probably aided by him having a fairly quiet year on the music front. The show in question that I saw was at the lovely Islington Assembly Hall in London, which seems to be a real haven for mid-sized rock acts these days, and was the second of a three night residency. As expected, the show was sold out so there was a large crowd gathered in the venue throughout the night and the atmosphere was excellent.

The start of the show was tinged with disappointment however as the scheduled support act, the excellent French progressive rock band Lazuli who I was looking forward to seeing again, had to pull out of the rest of the tour due to illness. I had assumed that there would be no support band as a result, but this was not to be the case as singer/songwriter David Ford took to the stage at around 7:45pm. Being a single individual without a backing band I expected this to be your generic acoustic guitar-wielding act, but Ford was certainly a lot more than that. Throughout the set he turned his hand to guitars, keyboards, harmonica, and percussion which led to a diverse set. Many of his songs involved looping, which allowed him to give the impression of having more musicians on stage without the use of a backing track. Seeing this done well is always impressive, and it seems that Ford is a master of his craft. While the songs themselves were not always the sort of thing I would usually listen to, they were enjoyable and performed with plenty of passion. It was clear too that a Fish crowd was not the usual sort of people he would perform to, but by the end of the set he had seemed to win quite a few in the audience around and he received a healthy amount of applause as he left the stage at the end of his set.

By the time Fish took to the stage at 9pm the place was packed and he received a warm welcome as he walked out to the electronic beats of The Voyeur (I Like to Watch), a rarely-played number from his debut solo album Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors. The song is quite an upbeat number, which ensured the evening kicked off with a bang. Beck's keyboards really helped to drive the song, and Fish was clearly enjoying singing the song again after so long. As with the Return to Childhood shows, the evening opened up with four solo cuts before delving into the Marillion material. Another song that has not featured in the set for a few years, Emperor's Song, was a welcome addition with it's poppy atmospherics, before the industrial-tinged Circle Line helped to inject some attitude into the proceedings. Fish was uncharacteristically quiet during the early part of the set, and only stopped to talk to the crowd after the third number where he introduced the politically-charged ballad State of Mind, which saw Boult strap on an acoustic guitar as Fish spat out the lyrics. The rest of the main set was made up of the material found on the Clutching at Straws album, although it was not played in the original running order. At first I thought that this might hamper the experience somewhat, but I did not find that to be the case. Misplaced Childhood required it, as the songs all run into each other, but this is not the case with Clutching at Straws and Fish often stopped to talk about the songs and tell little stories about how they came to be. The opening trilogy of songs, with the personal favourite Warm Wet Circles occupying the middle spot, remains one of the greatest album openings of all time and it was great to hear Fish sing them once again. There were a few of the songs here that I had not heard him perform live before, including the bouncy Just for the Record, which featured more excellent keyboard work from Beck, and the gorgeous ballad Going Under with Boult's atmospheric guitar playing. Songs which feature in Fish's sets more regularly like Incommunicado and Slàinte Mhath still hit the spot however, with the latter in particular really getting the crowd going with plenty of clapping and singing. Sugar Mice is still one of Fish's best ballads, and the lyric is packed full of excellent imagery. It was also a bit of a guitar showcase for Boult who, despite being quite a different style of guitarist to Marillion's Steve Rothery, took his own take on the legendary guitar solo. With that little breather passed, the set ended with two of the album's heavier pieces. White Russian is lead by a great groove, which saw Vantsis really driving the song with his bass, and the lyrics are some of Fish's more potent. It is a heavy song thematically, and one that still rings relevant despite being thirty years old now. The album's closing number The Last Straw brought the main set to an end, and the band walked off to a huge round of applause. There was time for more however, and there was one more rabbit pulled out of the Marillion hat with a performance of the B-side Tux On, a song which had not been performed live prior to this tour. This led into the second half of the song Perfume River, one of the highlights of the excellent A Feast of Consequences album. After another quick walk off stage, the band came back once more for a devastatingly powerful version of The Great Unravelling, again from Fish's recent solo album. This turned into one of the evening's highlights for me, and really highlighted the skills of all six of those on stage and it was a fitting end to an excellent evening of live music. The setlist was:

The Voyeur (I Like to Watch)
Emperor's Song
Circle Line
State of Mind
Hotel Hobbies [Marillion material]
Warm Wet Circles [Marillion material]
That Time of the Night (The Short Straw) [Marillion material]
Just for the Record [Marillion material]
Incommunicado [Marillion material]
Torch Song [Marillion material]
Slàinte Mhath [Marillion material]
Going Under [Marillion material]
Sugar Mice [Marillion material]
White Russian [Marillion material]
The Last Straw [Marillion material]
Tux On [Marillion material]
Perfume River
The Great Unravelling

As Fish moves ever-closer to retirement, any opportunity to see the big man live has to be taken. This was another excellent concert from the Scottish singer, and one that showcased some of the best material, both past and present, that he has ever been a part of.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Santa Cruz's 'Bad Blood Rising' - Album Review

Of all of the Scandinavian hair metal revival bands that have been active over the past decade or so, Finland's Santa Cruz have always seemed to be the ones who are least-comfortable with that tag. Since forming back in 2007, the four piece have been honing their craft and have started to create a sound which is their own. Santa Cruz have always taken more influence from bands like Skid Row and Guns N' Roses than from Poison and Ratt, but there has always seemed to be a desire from the band to create a much heavier and ballsier take on hair metal. The band's debut album Screaming for Adrenaline, released in 2013, was a fairly standard but perfectly enjoyable hair metal album. The band's look; blonde hair, cowboy boots, vests etc.; fitting in perfectly with their fun-loving sound, but for my money could not really compete with similar efforts from bands like Reckless Love and Crashdïet. It seemed that maybe the band sensed this, so for their second album Santa Cruz opted to shake things up a bit. The self-titled album (which I reviewed here), which was released in 2015, was markedly heavier than Screaming for Adrenaline and seemed to feature a large nu-metal influence with tough guy-esque lyrics and weird electronics. While I quite enjoyed the Santa Cruz album at the time, it is not an album that has aged well for me. There is nothing wrong with the vast majority of the songs on the album, and when I have seen the band live the songs from the second album have always sounded great, but the production choices on the album itself really seem questionable. The rawer live sound does so much for these anthemic songs, and it is a shame that the album versions are somewhat hampered by a band's attempts to stand out from the crowd. Two years on from Santa Cruz and the Finns are back with their third album Bad Blood Rising, and it goes quite a way to right the wrongs of the previous effort. Santa Cruz still clearly have a desire to sound tougher and heavier, but that has been approached in a much more organic way here. Instead of relying on tropes that sounded out-of-date in the early 2000s, Santa Cruz have just opted for a heavier, punchier overall sound that works well for their melodic hair metal songwriting style. There is still plenty of double bass drumming here, and some of the lyrics are still quite angsty, but this album just feels much less forced and more 'real' than the previous one. The band's image and core songwriting style will always be rooted in the late 1980s, but with Bad Blood Rising it feels that Santa Cruz have managed to successfully forge this original influence with a more modern sound. There are a lot of different styles to be found on the band's new album, which shows the depth of their songwriting and also that Santa Cruz are a forward-thinking band who are unwilling to repeat the same things over and over again.

The album opens with one of the lead singles, the anthemic Young Blood Rising which definitely sees the band channelling their inner Skid Row. Driven by a meaty riff from guitarist Johnny Cruz, the song is packed full of energy and attitude with Archie Cruz's call-to-arms lyrics. The modern influences rear their heads throughout, with breakdowns that would not sound out of place on your average metalcore album and an extremely fast guitar solo which is certainly of a higher octane than many hair metal bands could muster. That being said, this is an 1980s stomper at it's core and features a chorus that is made to be heard live. River Phoenix has more of a modern sound, with poppier vocal melodies, but still contains plenty of grit with slightly dirty riffing and a strong bass presence. Despite this, the song is extremely accessible and has possibly the best chorus on the album with plenty of gang vocals and soaring melodies. Johnny Cruz shines throughout too with lots of fluid guitar leads that cut through the mix at every opportunity to give the song more depth and musical intrigue. Fire Running Through Our Veins is a faster song that opens with a powerful guitar riff before moving into a strong verse that moves along at a good pace. Despite the heavier feel, there is still plenty of melody throughout, and a wordless vocal section that follows the chorus is full of pop sensibilities that is sure to go down well live. Drag Me Out of the Darkness is similar, but takes on more of darker tone with slower verses that are lead by mournful piano melodies and a strong bassline. Archie Cruz's voice is better suited to the heavier, ballsier songs in my opinion but he still does well here when things get a little less full-on. Despite the slower verses, the rest of the song is still pretty powerful and everything ramps up during a sing-a-long chorus which culminates in some excellent twin-lead guitar melodies. After three songs that focus on the higher-energy end of Santa Cruz's sound, this is a nice diversion and shows the band doing something a little different. This vibe is continued during Breathe, but it is taken to a next level. The song is an acoustic number, with whistled melodies that instantly bring Guns N' Roses' Patience to mind. It is not a rip-off however, as the song has a much more modern feel with poppy vocal melodies and a simple piano backing to add depth. Further depth is added towards the end with some simple strings that really elevate the last portion of the song. Voice of the New Generation hits hard after two fairly quiet songs with some riffs and melodies that would not sound out of place on a pop-punk album, but with enough 1980s influence to make it sound like Santa Cruz. While the lyrics are extremely stock, with rallying cries to the youth that we have all heard plenty of times before, it still comes across well and re-establishes the band's heavier sound after a breather.

Back from the Dead opens with a great hair metal guitar riff, before descending into a more modern feel with a big bass presence and a swampy sound with Archie Cruz's vocals standing out. The song is quite a big mix of styles however, and possess one of the biggest choruses on the album with lots more gang vocals that really leap out of the speakers. It also contains one of the album's best guitar solos too. It is quite a long one, and sees Johnny Cruz really letting rip with some fast, bluesy shredding that fits in well with the song's tough riffing. Bad Habits Die Hard is more of a mid-paced piece, but it is another that mixes a few different styles together together successfully. The opening riffs are quite heavy, with an almost-industrial harshness at times, but this is mixed in with sparse poppy sections which feature a synthy backing before a really melodic chorus kicks in and takes the song to another level. This album features some of Santa Cruz's best chorus melodies yet, and shows that they are starting to work out to mix their melodic roots with a more modern sound successfully. Pure Fuckin' Adrenaline, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more of a high-energy song that actually has a bit of a mid-1990s Megadeth feel with a driving bassline, snarling vocals, and buzz saw riffing. The energy never lets up throughout, and this is thanks in part to some excellent drumming from Taz Cruz that mixes simple beats with more powerful double bass patterns when required. Santa Cruz's rhythm section mostly sticks to simpler ideas which help to prop up the songs, but there are moments when they really shine and help to define the song. This is one of those moments and it makes this song the last hard-hitting moment on the album. Get Me Out of California is another slower song which has a strong acoustic presence throughout. While a more involved song than Breathe, the gentle vibe is ever-present here and has the feel of a song to be sung around a campfire late at night. It works well though, and sees the band revelling in the more stripped-down environment. Things do pick up somewhat towards the end, and Johnny Cruz launches into a bluesy guitar solo that is worthy of the mighty Slash himself, bu the song's gentler heart is never too far away. The song ends on a long fade out, which sees the band singing the band's main melody over and over. This is where the album should have ended, as it would have been the perfect fade out to close everything out. Instead however, the band included one final track, River Phoenix (Part 2), which is a fairly insipid re-working/re-imagining of the excellent River Phoenix. It is such an odd sounding song, which is miles from Santa Cruz's usual sound, and it just seems stuck on at the end of the album without any real purpose of sense of place. It has the feel of a bonus track, and a bit of experiment that should not be considered part of the main album, but it is and it definitely harms the album for me. It was such an unnecessary inclusion on this album, and it makes the album end on a down note after the excellent proceedings songs. The bad final song aside, Bad Blood Rising is a very good album from the Finnish band and one that is a big step forward from the previous one. Santa Cruz seemed to have found their sound now, and I look forward to see where they take it going forward.

The album was released on 10th November 2017 via M-Theory Audio/Salem House Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Young Blood Rising.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Threshold - London Review

Threshold are one of my favourite British metal bands. Their concise and melodic take on progressive metal has gained them fans around the world and are a more palatable option for many when it comes to the genre. Given their highly melodic and accessible nature it is perhaps surprising that they are not more popular than they are, but the band seem to the comfortable with their relatively modest stature. The band have been around for nearly 30 years now, having formed in 1988, so it unsurprising that the band have settled into the groove of fairly frequent short European tours with festival dates often thrown in during the summer season for good measure. Earlier this year Threshold released their eleventh studio album Legends of the Shires, a double concept album which saw the band return to their more overtly 'progressive' sound after a few albums of a more straight ahead sound. This album saw the return of singing Glynn Morgan to the band after over a twenty year absence, and his smooth vocal performance is a big part of what makes Legends of the Shires so strong. This latest European trek, the first with Morgan since the touring cycle to promote 1994's Psychedelicatessen, took Legends of the Shires around some of the band's key fanbases and culminated with a home-country show at the O2 Academy in London's upmarket Islington. The Islington Academy is a popular spot for metal bands, so it is a place that I have visited regularly over the years. In fact I saw Threshold there last year, which saw the band perform the whole of their previous album For the Journey, but the Threshold of today is different to the one of January 2016. As mentioned previously, Morgan has replaced outgoing frontman Damian Wilson and Threshold have now slimmed down to a five-piece with the departure of second guitarist Pete Morten. While Morgan now contributes some extra guitar work live, on the whole Threshold are now a one guitar band - something which has it's pros and cons. With snow affecting large parts of the UK, I was worried that the turnout for the show might be quite poor. Luckily this was not the case however and the Islington Academy was pretty full throughout the night, especially by the time Threshold took to the stage at 9pm.

Before Threshold's set however the crowd were treated to two support acts. First up were Day Six from the Netherlands who impressed with half an hour or so of energetic progressive metal. Mixing powerful tech metal riffing with spacey vocal sections made for a dynamic sound, and one that was not too derivative of any of the big names in the genre. Robbie Van Stiphout (vocals/guitar) was the band's focal point, and he owned the stage with his energetic guitar playing, often throwing over-the-top shapes and pulling faces. For a progressive act, there was little in the way of soloing, with the riffs forming the basis of the songs. Any lead work came from keyboardist Rutger Vlek, who's retro-sounding synths helped to cut through the tough guitars. While Day Six's songs were not overly melodic, I enjoyed the band's slightly off-beat sound. I liked the fact that the band had an original take on the progressive metal genre, and they seem like the sort of band I should explore further.

Up next were symphonic metal rising stars Damnation Angels, who also supported Threshold on their last European tour. This time however they were upgraded to the 'main' support act, and as a result had a little longer on stage. The previous tour saw the band give an extended trial to frontman Ignacio Rodriguez, who passed with flying colours and has since become an official member of Damnation Angels. As a result, despite how good they were last time, this time around the band felt complete and they really owned the stage during their five-song set. The band came out to a symphonic backing, and opened with Finding Requiem from their most recent album The Valiant Fire. While still a four-piece, without a full-time keyboard player, which meant that most of the orchestral elements were part of a backing track, Rodriguez now handles some live keyboard work - usually piano parts - which adds to the show. This was evident early on during Bringer of Light, which saw him behind his keyboard for part of the song before coming out to the front to sing the epic chorus. The band seemed to treat the show as if it was their own show, and the energy coming from the stage was palpable. Founding member Will Graney (guitar/vocals) was particularly animated throughout, often posing for cameras and singing nearly all of the lyrics while peeling off his tough riffs and fluid solos. There were plenty of Damnation Angels fans in attendance, which was evident during the chorus for This is Who We Are which saw the crowd joining in at times. Despite all of their song impressing, it was the lengthy ending number The Longest Day of My Life that stood out the most. Rodriguez really owned the song with an piercing vocal display, and the lush orchestrations really filled the venue. It got me thinking how I wish that the band put on their own tour in the near future, as I would love to see a full-length set from the band. The setlist was:

Finding Requiem
Bringer of Light
This is Who We Are
The Longest Day of My Life

The lights in the venue went down again at 9pm, and Threshold took to the stage after a short intro and hit the ground running straight away with a powerful version of Slipstream, one of the band's most well-known songs. With the other four members of the band now being Threshold veterans, all eyes were on 'new' singer Morgan who proceeded to own the song. His smooth voice has more in common with the late Mac's than it does with Wilson's, so his performance of Slipstream was pretty close to the original album version. Morgan certainly had the most to prove out of everyone on stage and, for the most part, he acquitted himself very well. While there were a few moments during the evening where I thought he was struggling a little bit, which was probably the result of being near the end of his first tour in many years, overall he sounded great and really gave his all to the performance. Six songs from the impressive new album were featured throughout the evening, with the lengthy The Man Who Saw Through Time coming next to showcase the band's more progressive sound. Richard West (keyboards/vocals) dominates the song with his delicate piano melodies and cinematic soundscapes, but in truth it is a real band effort which showcases the current Threshold line-up at their best. A couple of older numbers followed; with the jaunty Long Way Home and the murky Innocent, a composition of Morgan's from his first stint with the band, providing plenty of light and shade early on. Innocent was the only song in the set which saw Morgan playing guitar for the entirety of the piece, which gave it a full sound. As mentioned earlier, having founding member Karl Groom (guitar/vocals) handling the vast majority of the songs alone on his guitar has it's pros and cons. On the plus side, the vocals and Steve Anderson's bass playing really have a lot of room to breathe. Anderson is a busy player, and it was great to be able to hear what he was doing more clearly. On the other hand however, there were times in the set that lacked crunch. Having two guitars really bulks up the band's sound and the moments when Morgan picked up his guitar too really proved this. It would be great to see him taking on more guitar responsibilities going forward, as Threshold's sound really is built for two guitars and he is clearly a more than proficient guitarist. Songs like Stars and Satellites actually benefited from the less-cluttered arrangement however, as it allowed the keyboards to really shine through and the vocal harmonies from the band during the chorus really filled the room. After delving back into the band's past once again for the heavy Sunseeker, the remainder of the set was mostly focused on the band's more recent work. The serene The Shire - Part 2 and the progressive metal of Snowblind contrasted with each other well, and showcased the variation of material found on Legends of the Shires. The latter in particular was one of the best songs of the night, with some excellent drumming from long-time sticksman Johanne James. Two of the band's setlist staples brought the main portion of the set to a close, with the lengthy pseudo-ballad Pilot in the Sky of Dreams and the driving, political Mission Profile both bringing big reactions from the crowd, who called for more after the band had left the stage. The was time for a couple more, and the band opted to play two more new songs as an encore which shows how much faith they have in their new material. Another lengthy number in Lost in Translation came first, which had some excellent slide guitar work from Groom towards the end in a Pink Floyd-inspired section, with the hard-hitting new single Small Dark Lines finishing everything off in style. The setlist was:

The Man Who Saw Through Time
Long Way Home
Stars and Satellites
The Shire - Part 2
Pilot in the Sky of Dreams
Mission Profile
Lost in Translation
Small Dark Lines

Overall this was another great showing from Threshold. It was my third time seeing the band and it was great to hear so many songs in the set which I had not heard them do previously. I am looking forward to hearing more from this line-up of the band, and I hope for another tour in the not-so-distant future.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Dark Element's 'The Dark Element' - Album Review

After being unceremoniously dumped mid-tour by the Finnish symphonic metal giants Nightwish in 2012, Anette Olzon's musical life has been fairly quiet. Despite releasing her debut solo album Shine in 2014, an album which came and went without any real fanfare or publicity, it seemed that Olzon had largely retired from the music industry to lead more of a 'normal' life. It seems however that she could not stay away from music for too long, as last year it was announced that she had teamed up with guitarist and songwriter Jani Liimatainen (Sonata Arctica; Altaria; Cain's Offering) to record a new album of melodic metal songs for the Italian label Frontiers Records. While Olzon is the face and voice of this new project, which was revealed earlier this year to be called The Dark Element, it is Liimatainen that is the real brains here. Liimatainen has been a fixture in the melodic metal world for quite some time now, and is renowned as an excellent guitarist and songwriter. He was a key part of Sonata Arctica's early success and the band has never truly been the same after his departure in 2007. Since then he has found success on his own terms with his Cain's Offering albums, and his songwriting contributions can also be heard on the most recent couple of Stratovarius albums where he has struck up a great writing partnership with Timo Kotipelto. Liimatainen has written the entirety of The Dark Element's new self-titled debut album, which was released last month, and those familiar with his previous work will certainly recognise his writing style here instantly. He also handles all of the album's guitar, along with most of the keyboards and some backing vocals. Joining Olzon and Liimatainen in this new venture are bassist Jonas Kuhlberg (Paul Di'Anno; Cain's Offering; One Desire) and drummer Jani Hurula (Cain's Offering; Silent Voices). With three of the people who were responsible for Cain's Offering's well-received 2015 offering Stormcrow, it is unsurprising that the songs contained within The Dark Element are of the symphonic power metal variety. While Liimatainen is used to writing for male voices, his style is perfect for Olzon. Also unsurprising is the Nightwish influences that can be found here. Olzon proved to be a diverse vocalist during her time with that band, and that has certainly been brought forward to this album. There are some songs here which share similarities with her former band, especially with the shorter, poppier songs that she was a part of. The Dark Element is not a particularly grand or progressive album, with most of the songs being fairly short, but each is packed full of great melodies - both from the vocals and from Liimatainen's instruments - that are sure to get lodged in many a brain. In a year which has not been blessed with a wealth of great new power metal albums, this is one that goes some way in addressing that balance.

The album's title track starts things off in style with some dark synths before exploding with a mid-paced grinding riff that sets the mood for the entire song. While portions of the verses are fairly laid back, with minimal guitar work and prominent synths, the majority of the song is heavier with Hurula's booming drumming really driving everything along. Despite this constant groove, the song is still highly melodic, with a stand out chorus that makes the most of Olzon's anthemic vocal melodies and the call-to-arms style that she brought to Nightwish. Liimatainen demonstrates why he is one of the best guitarists in power metal too with a guitar solo that starts off slow and atmospheric, before accelerating towards a shredded conclusion. Lead single My Sweet Mystery is very close to the type of music Nightwish put out while Olzon fronted them, and comparisons can be drawn between this song and the Nightwish single Amaranth. The mix of heavy, orchestral-driven guitar riffing and poppy vocal melodies is present here, and there are plenty of sparkly keyboard motifs that crop up throughout to really give the song that symphonic edge. Olzon's voice floats through the lighthearted verses, and she commands the chorus in her distinct style as the guitars crunch away beneath her. Fans of Nightwish's Dark Passion Play album will find a lot to like with this song, and it was a wise choice for the first single. After two fairly immediate rockers, Last Good Day takes a slightly more atmospheric approach which shows the album's depth and shows off a gentler side of Olzon's voice. This is no ballad however, as the song still contains a sold chorus with plenty of power metal bombast, but much of the song focuses on orchestrations and synths, with the guitars mixed more into the background. Apart from Olzon's gorgeous vocals, it is Kuhlberg's bass that actually stands out the most during the verses. Often bassists are barely audible in symphonic metal bands, so it is great to see the instrumental play a prominent role here with a snaking melody that pins everything together. Here's to You is a more upbeat number, with a jaunty keyboard melody that drives the song's intro along before everything is stripped back for a sparser verse. This contrasts well with the explosive chorus, which sounds more like Delain than Nightwish, with a strutting vocal display and walls of electronics to make everything sparkle. Someone You Used to Know is a slower song, and opens out with some delicate piano melodies which are joined by Olzon's vocals and some simple strings. While Olzon is a great out-and-out rock singer, I have always felt that it is on the ballads that she truly excels. That thought is as good as proved during the song's chorus, which makes the most of her crystal clear delivery and ability to inject plenty of emotion into the lyrics. Dead to Me is another song that really channels the Dark Passion Play-era Nightwish DNA with a dramatic orchestral arrangement and a snaking guitar riff. As with many of the songs here, the verses are somewhat sparser but the rest of the song really rocks with plenty of powerful drumming and little guitar fills. While Liimatainen is a great guitarist, he does not often hammer that point home here with the guitars often forming part of the rhythm section and the keyboards/orchestrations providing the main melodic focus. This is a song that makes more of the riffs however, and it is great to hear his tricky little fills throughout.

Halo is one of my favourite songs here, and it really grabs hold from the opening moments with a massive synth riff drives everything and brings to mind the Swedish band Amaranthe at times, but with more weight. The best part about this song however is the chorus which, although extremely simple, is a real stadium-worthy piece. The vast majority of the songs on this album were made with melody in mind, and they seem begging to be played live. The Dark Element do have a few shows booked for next year and, while it is not yet clear whether this will become a full-time band for all involved, this song is sure to become a real focal point of the live set with the dance-able grooves hooky chorus. I Cannot Raise the Dead, despite the title, is more of a low-key number with plenty of floaty melodies and atmospheric synths. While not exactly the ballad, this is certainly not a heavy song and there are even touches of AOR here - think 1980s Heart - to pushes the melodies to the fore. Despite this, there is an excellent guitar solo from Liimatainen that brings the metal showmanship back to the song. While the song is mostly spacier, the solo is a real shred-fest that still fits in with everything else despite being quite different. The Ghost and the Reaper once again mine Olzon's Nightwish past with lots of playful keyboard melodies and an upbeat feel driven by Liimatainen's chugging guitar riffs. This is also one of the few songs on the album which does not let up on the energy front throughout. Unlike most of the other cuts here, the verses are quite guitar-heavy which gives the song a heavier feel despite the plentiful soaring melodies. This is why the song is another one of my real favourites here, and shows that Olzon can really do the heavier songs justice, something which she often faced criticism for during her time with Nightwish. Heaven of Your Heart is another piano-led ballad. Unsurprisingly, Olzon really sounds fantastic here, with her slightly poppy voice having the necessary sweetness required to carry the melodies. For much of the song, Olzon is solely accompanied by the piano which really exposes her vocal performance, and she more than stands up to the scrutiny. Strings are added throughout the song at certain points to add depth, but mostly this is a simple song that acts as a good contrast to the bombast that dominates this album and provides a little light amongst all the shade. After that little respite, the album's final number Only One Who Knows Me comes along to add one last bit of rock to proceedings. While not a particularly heavy piece, the mid-paced number possess a strong cinematic chorus that definitely feels like it knows it's closing out the album. The whole song has that feeling actually, with wider soundscapes throughout the piece with plenty of excellent keyboards and an emotional guitar solo that plays as the song fades out and the album comes to an end. Overall, The Dark Element is a strong start for this new collaboration between Olzon and Liimatainen. While it does rely heavily on the previous work of them both, playing to their strengths has helped to forge a very memorable album packed with melodic metal anthems. If this project is to become a more permanent arrangement it would be good to see the duo trying some new things, but for a debut album this hits hard and is one of the most enjoyable symphonic/power metal albums released this year.

The album was released on 10th November 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for My Sweet Mystery.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Vandenberg's Moonkings' 'MK II' - Album Review

Despite never really becoming a household name, Dutch songwriter and guitarist Adrian Vandenberg has enjoyed a successful career over the past few decades. He debuted with his first band Teaser in the late 1970s, but it was with the band Vandenberg that he first really found fame. As the band's lead guitarist, songwriter, and namesake, Vandenberg was always the focal point. Vandenberg released three albums between 1982 and 1985 which were popular worldwide despite the band never really fulfilling their potential. The power ballad Burning Heart (which is not the same song that Survivor would release a few years later) even charted in a few countries, and remains a minor classic of the hard rock and metal genres. 1987 saw a big turning point in Vandenberg's life however, when he was invited by David Coverdale to join the new-look Whitesnake line-up that he was assembling to tour the new 1987, which would go on to become a smash hit and a real era-defining classic. While the album was largely finished by the time Vandenberg came on board, he did arrive in time to record the guitar solo on the iconic re-recording of Here I Go Again, which has arguably become Whitesnake's signature song. Whitesnake would become Vandenberg's home for the best part of the next ten years which saw him collaborate with Coverdale on two studio albums: 1989's Slip of the Tongue and 1997's Restless Heart. These albums could not be further away from each other - with the screaming, leather-wearing hair metal of the former being a stark contrast with the more reflective blues of the latter - but this only shows Vandenberg's versatility as a songwriter. Despite not contributing to the recording of Slip of the Tongue due to a hand injury, he co-wrote the entire album (with the exception of the old classic Fool for Your Loving which was re-recorded for the album) which should immediately showcase the man's talents. In amongst this, he assembled the short-lived project called Manic Eden which released a self-titled album of bluesy rock tracks in 1994. When Whitesnake split up, seemingly for good, in 1997 Vandenberg seemed to retire from the music industry. Despite making the odd guest appearance with the current incarnation of Whitesnake over the past ten or so years, nothing new was really heard from Vandenberg until 2013 when he announced that he was forming a new band called Vandenberg's Moonkings. Their self-titled debut album was released the next year, and showcased the heavy blues rock sound that characterises much of Vandenberg's work. Joined by singer Jan Hoving, bassist Sem Christoffel, and drummer Mart Nijen Es, Vandenberg showed the world that he could still rock and write memorable songs. Fast forward three years and Vandenberg's Moonkings are still going strong. Their second album, titled MK II, was released last month to strong reviews and contains another collection of powerful blues rock anthems featuring lots of excellent guitar work from the flying Dutchman.

After opening with an album AC/DC-esque guitar assault, the album's first song Tightrope explodes into with strong, mid-paced bluesy riff that drives the verses as Hoving shows from the outset that he is a good singer. While there are times when it sounds like he is trying a bit too hard to sound like Coverdale, he still impresses throughout with a decent amount of power. This is not a flashy song, but one that really establishes the band's sound early on. The chorus is a memorable moment, with some higher vocals from Hoving and some real classic rock melodies. Vandenberg's short, but bluesy, guitar solo shows his skills too and shows that he has lost none of his chops over the years. Reputation is a faster song and is built around a riff that sees both Vandenberg and Christoffel really looking in well together for a tight and heavy sound. This riff really helps to keep the energy levels in the song at a high level which helps to give the album a real shot of adrenaline. This is a song that is more about the riffs and the energy than the vocals, and is capped off by a shredding solo from Vandenberg that matches the song's kinetic feel. Angel in Black is another mid-paced stomping rock track, and one that really seems to take a lot from the early Whitesnake songbook. It opens slowly, with moody clean guitar melodies before transitioning into full-blown rock mode with a strutting chorus characterised by an excellent vocal. From then on, the song is mostly a hard rocking one driven by Es' hollow drumming. While the band's rhythm section largely only play the basic rhythms here, the big sound on both the drums and the bass really helps this album to sound as good as it does. This is not a complicated or cluttered album, and Es' big drum sound really helps to carry the album. The Fire is the only lengthy song here, with a running time of just over seven minutes. Keyboards are not a big part of this album's sound, but they are used here to help create a bit of an atmosphere early on as Hoving croons the opening few lyrics atop another clean guitar melody. You would be forgiven for assuming that this song was going to be a ballad, but it does not take too long to open out again into another mid-paced rocker with similarities in sound to Led Zeppelin with a juddering main riff and high vocals. That being said, given the song's length it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a certainly amount of light and shade here. The more relaxed intro does resurface later on during the song's length, which is a great contrast to Vandenberg's fiery guitar solo that happens just before it. Walk Away opens with some bluesy acoustic guitar playing which, although the song does open out somewhat as it moves along, comes to dominate. This is definitely the album's first ballad, and showcases a slightly gentler side of Hoving's voice that demonstrates his ability to carry a fair amount of emotion in his delivery. Vandenberg's emotional guitar solo fits perfectly into the song, and the stakes are raised towards the end with a subtle but effective string arrangement that helps to add serious depth. After a couple of more 'involved' songs, All or Nothing strips the album back to the bare bones with a bluesy riff that sounds like something Free might have come up with in the early 1970s and some true classic rock strut. While this is not a song that really makes much of an impact, it helps to remind the listener of the band's core principles after deviating from these somewhat in the previous couple of songs.

What Doesn't Kill You is, in my opinion, one of the album's best moments. The slightly jangly opening sounds different from what you would expect from the band, but the song's power cannot be denied. The chorus is a real winner, with a dominate string arrangement that stabs through the rock instrumentation as Hoving's voice sings the lyrics. The mix of more acoustically-dominated sections, and grand almost-pomp rock sections makes the song stand out and shows the diversity of Vandenberg's songwriting. This is another song that contains plenty of light and shade, which is something that is important for creating a varied and dynamic album. Ready for the Taking opens with a dirty blues feel with a swampy riff and downbeat vocals. This murky intro does not last long however as the song soon opens up into another mid-paced rocker, although there is still a swampy feel throughout with some slightly grungy guitar work. Hoving clearly does not get the memo for this however, as his vocals still soar as they do elsewhere on the album. It would have been interesting to see him approach the song with a more downbeat style, much like his vocals during the intro, as this would have fit in well with the rest of the band and would have created something a bit different. After a slightly spacey keyboard-heavy intro, New Day kicks the album's energy levels into the higher gear again with some staccato guitar riffing and punchy drumming. Despite this higher energy, the song actually has quite a poppy feel. The chorus feels like a bit of a party anthem, and the cleaner guitar tones throughout set the song apart from the heavier blues that dominates the album. This all works well however, and helps to bring some fun back to the album after the murkier preceding number. Hard Way has a bit of an AC/DC vibe throughout with a riff that sounds like something the Young brothers might have come up with, but Hoving's strong vocal performance keeps it from sounding like a clone of that band. The chorus especially sees him shine, as he unleashes song pretty impressive high notes which fit well with Vandenberg's ringing guitar chords. The combination of the raw guitar playing and Hoving's excellent vocals make this song really stand out, and it is another of the album's highlights for me. The guitar solo here is memorable too, as it is more schizophrenic than Vandenberg's usual cleaner style, which helps add another dimension to the song. Love Runs Out is a cover of the hit song by the American pop group OneRepublic. This is a strange song for a band like Vandenberg's Moonkings to cover, but it still works well when forced into the band's blues rock formula. It is clear when listening to the song that the band were having a lot of fun when arranging and recording their version of it, and it helps to bring a bit of a party vibe to the album's end. If You Can't Handle the Heat is the album's closing number however, and is another solid slab of blues rock that seems to deliberately showcase the band's main sounds to round out the album in style after the slightly off the wall cover. There is another strong Led Zeppelin feel here too with some Jimmy Page-esque guitar playing which really helps to end the album on a high. Overall, MK II is a solid follow up to a solid debut album. While there is nothing on this album that we have not heard before, there is still plenty to enjoy and the quality of the songwriting remains high. It is always good to hear something new from Vandenberg, and it seems this band is now in it for the long run.

The album was released on 3rd November 2017 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Tightrope.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Temperance Movement - Plymouth Review

Blues rock revivalists The Temperance Movement have been making a name for themselves since forming back in 2011. With influences ranging from classic bands like The Rolling Stones and The Black Crowes, as well as more contemporary acts like The White Stripes, the band's high energy brand of blues rock is easy to enjoy and their reputation as a live band is where they have really made their fans. I first came into contact with the band at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2013, a month before the release of their self-titled debut album. Despite getting and enjoying the Pride EP in preparation for their festival appearance, it was their show to a packed out Main Stage marquee on that day that really convinced me that this was a band that was going to go places. The release of their album was successful for the band, and their star has been on the gradual rise ever since helped by plentiful touring. Despite a few opportunities to see the band in the UK since that appearance at the CRF, the band's tours have never matched up with my availability. They always seem to come around at busy times when lots of other bands are touring and I already have a lot in the diary. This changed this year however when the band announced an extensive UK tour of smaller venues than they would typically play to allow them to road test some new material for their upcoming third album. A show at the underused Hub in Plymouth was announced, so tickets were bought for this immediately. Sadly however, when the day finally came around, the band were forced to cancel due to an illness affecting frontman Phil Campbell. This was, of course, very disappointing but it only took the band and venue a couple of days to announce a replacement date. This was yesterday, just short of two weeks after the original date, which meant that there was not long to wait. The original date was sold out, but some tickets were returned by those who could not make the rescheduled date. I am assuming then that the second date did not end up selling out, despite some probable take-up on the door, but despite this there was still a large crowd in The Hub throughout the evening.

Support came from the punky two piece Naked Six who played for around 40 minutes and entertained the growing crowd with their fairly abrasive sound. Naked Six's sound was packed full of energy led by Seb Byford's (vocals/guitar) riffs. Many of the band's riffs were typical blues rock-style riffs, but played with plenty of distortion and energy while drummer Tom Witts punished his kit. While the band certainly had plenty of genuine energy, the band's material is very samey. After three or four numbers it became fairly obvious what the next song was going to sound like. That said, I did quite enjoy what the band were doing, as they had a kinetic stage presence and a tough sound, but I feel a little more variation in their material would really help them to stand out.

After a change over,  9:30pm rolled around and The Temperance Movement hit the stage and played right through until the 11pm curfew. With this tour being all about debuting some new material, it was fitting that two new numbers opened up the evening. New single Caught in the Middle and the bluesy The Way it Was and the Way it is Now both went down really well, and showed that the band have come on in leaps and bounds since that show in 2013. A couple of personal changes have happened since then, and it was one of the 'newer' members, Matt White (guitar/vocals), that impressed during these songs with some excellent guitar soloing. Improvisation and soloing has been given greater preference in the intervening years it seems, with both White and fellow guitarist Paul Sayer impressing throughout with their fast, bluesy licks. A few old favourites followed, with Magnify from last year's White Bear album impressing, before a couple of the band's debut album really got the crowd singing and moving. Ain't No Telling was the pick of the bunch with a strong groove, helped by Nick Fyffe's bassline, and containing a strong chorus for everyone to sing. Talking of singing, whatever it was that had been bothering Campbell a couple of weeks previously was now long gone and he often stole the show with his gravelly vocals and his erratic stage presence. He sure likes to dance, and he spent much of the set flailing around and generally looking like he was having a wail of a time. A few more new songs followed, including the excellent Another Spiral which started off fairly slowly before exploding in a huge rock workout including a lengthy and jaw-dropping solo from Sayer. Despite really enjoying the band's previous show in 2013, I had felt that the band were a little stayed and could have done with cutting loose sometimes. This solo from Sayer was exactly what I was hoping from from the band, and shows how powerful they can be when they really get going. This was followed by two more proper rock tracks from the debut album, Only Friend and Take it Back, the latter of which had everyone singing the wordless chorus back at the band. A few quieter numbers were included towards the end, including the lesser-played B-side Time Won't Leave and the title track of the upcoming album A Deeper Cut. Both featured Campbell strumming on an acoustic guitar and singing the more delicate tracks beautifully. The main set came to an end with a powerful version of Get Yourself Free, which left the crowd baying for more thanks to it's high energy. A couple more followed of course. The first was another new one, Backwater Zoo, which saw Campbell sat at a electric piano to lead the band through the jaunty, boogie-orientated piece, before the evening came to a close with the hard and heavy Battle Lines, a song which really sums up the band's sound and ethos. The setlist was:

Caught in the Middle
The Way it Was and the Way it is Now
Ain't No Telling
Higher Than the Sun
Another Spiral
Only Friend
Take it Back

Time Won't Leave
Built-In Forgetter
A Deeper Cut
Get Yourself Free
Backwater Zoo
Battle Lines

Despite having to wait a couple of extra weeks, this show was more than worth the four year wait! The band have come far in that time and, judging by the quality of the new songs on display, A Deeper Cut is going to be one of the albums to watch out for in the early part of 2018.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Cyhra's 'Letters to Myself' - Album Review

As a music fan, I am always on the look out for new bands to get my teeth into. Having consumed so much music over the years, this quest for new things to enjoy can often be harder than it was a few years ago but there still seems to be enough out there to keep me on the hunt. One such band that I have recently stumbled upon is the Swedish group Cyhra who formed earlier this year. I suppose that it is fair to label Cyhra as a 'supergroup' as the members of the band are all well-known names in the metal world. The core of the band is frontman Jake E (Dream Evil; Amaranthe) and guitarist Jesper Strömblad (In Flames; Ceremonial Oath; HammerFall; Dimension Zero; The Resistance) who apparently put this new band together after inviting each other to work on their respective proposed solo projects. Instead of undertaking two separate projects, the two decided to join forces and create a new band that incorporated many of the sounds that the two had become well-known for throughout their careers. E and Strömblad have written all the songs on the band's newly-released debut album Letters to Myself together and the album's sound is a real meeting of minds. Strömblad, being one of the founding members of the seminal melodic death metal act In Flames, is known for crafting heavy but melodic guitar riffs and leads. Those instantly-recognisable sounds are all over Letters to Myself but melded with E's soaring melodic clean vocals and more pop sensibilities. E's work with Amaranthe is also well-known. The pop metal act has grown in popularity over the past few years, partly due to E's strong vocals and melodic songwriting, and there are certainly similarities that can be drawn between Amaranthe and Cyhra when it comes to the melodies. Letters to Myself is a fairly poppy album overall, which is something that is largely different to what Strömblad would usually be a part of, but let us not forget that he co-wrote much of the material on the first three HammerFall albums so he is no stranger to a more melodic sound. His iconic riffs and guitar leads are very prominent here though, so his style has fitting in with E's more poppy approach perfectly. Joining the core pair are bassist Peter Iwers (In Flames) and drummer Alex Landenburg (Annihilator; Axxis; Luca Turilli's Rhapsody) who have formed a tough and heavy rhythm section which is a perfect backing for the more melodic toppings created by E and Strömblad. Interestingly, this is the first album that Strömblad and Iwers have performed on together since In Flames' 2008 album A Sense of Purpose so it great to see this two old comrades working together again. Letters to Myself also featured the guitar skills of Euge Valovirta (Godsplague; Shining), who played most of the album's guitar solos, who has now been added to the band as an official member going forward which will allow the album's twin-guitar leads to be recreated live perfectly.

After an electronic and percussive intro, Karma kicks the album off with one of Strömblad's signature guitar leads. It is fair to say that the metal world has been missing his guitar playing, and this opening riff reminds us exactly why he is held in such high regard. E's voice is certainly poppier than anything he has ever worked with in the past, but the mix works well. E is a modern star in his own right, and it is Amaranthe's loss to lose him, and it is great to hear him handle all of the vocals in this band without having to compete with two other singers. The verses have a strong Amaranthe vibe with electronics and less guitar work, but the choruses are melodic metal gold with some strong vocal harmonies atop that intro riff. The song sums up Cyhra's sound perfectly, and it is a great number to open with. Heartrage is more overtly metal, with a tougher opening and faster, more guitar-heavy verses. Despite Strömblad's influence over the sound, Cyhra probably has more in comparison with Amaranthe than In Flames. Cyhra are certainly heavier than Amaranthe, but the melodies are just as infectious and the synths and electronics are just as prominent. This comparison might put some people off, as Amaranthe are often seen as quite a divisive band, but the melodies here are so memorable that I am sure they will be hard to resist. Here to Save You opens with an acoustic intro, but slightly thrashy riff soon kicks in to drive a strong verse. Most of the songs here have quite basic structures, but contain plenty of light and shade to keep things interesting. This song for example mixes slower and quieter sections in the verses, with heavier sections as things move towards the chorus. As expected too, the chorus is the song's focus with E's soaring vocals really standing out and carrying a fair amount of emotion with them. Muted Life opens with a slightly symphonic feel as Landenburg's staccato drumming drives everything as the keyboards stab away behind him. Most of the synths here are programmed by E and Strömblad, but some of the keyboard parts throughout the album are played by Jonah Weingarten (Pyramaze; Echoterra). The synth work dominates here, with the guitars and bass creating tough rhythms beneath. There are still moments for Strömblad to shine however, with some excellent harmony guitar leads that lead into a fantastic, but short, solo from Valovirta. Closure is a bit of a ballad with a slower intro that sees acoustic guitar chords mixed in with dense piano notes and subtle guitar leads. E's vocals are made for faster, more expressive songs, but he still does really well when it comes to ballads. His voice is instantly likeable and he sounds great when slowing down to sing something with a little more emotional weight. While the choruses here are a little heavier, with a stronger guitar presence, the song remains in the ballad category. Letter to Myself picks the pace up a bit after the slower previous number and returns to the melodic metal sound that characterises the album. The riffs here really sound like something that could have been found on an old In Flames album, but mixed with something overall more melodic. While the vocal melodies here are not as instantly memorable as those which have come previously, the song still impresses with a really smooth sound. E his some impressive high notes here too, something which he is not exactly known for, and that shows off his extensive vocal range.

Dark Clarity, with a title that sounds like it should have been an old In Flames track, opens with a great twin-lead guitar riff before everything drops out for a sparser verse that is based around an off-kilter drum pattern from Landenburg. The music on this album does not exactly provide too many opportunities for Iwers and Landenburg to really shine, as the rhythms and grooves are fairly basic throughout, so it was great to hear something different during this song. The chorus here is really poppy, with lots of synths and electronics sitting above Strömblad's basic, tough guitar rhythms. Holding Your Breath opens out like an Amaranthe song with a collection of synth sounds and a strong groove provided the drums. This vibe dominates the song for the most part, with the verses featuring relatively little guitar work as E's voice dominates. Things change for the chorus however which actually sounds a little like modern Kamelot! The slightly dark vibe that characterises that band's work is present here and it works well in contrast with the synth-heavy verses. E unleashes some more really high vocals here too which helps the song to stand out. Rescue Ride is built around a piano motif which drives the verses. Despite a more upbeat chorus, this song is mostly a fairly low key affair with verses that are content to almost boil under the surface. The chorus however is very close to the Amaranthe songbook with overtly poppy melodies that will definitely appeal to fans of E's previous band. Black Wings opens slowly, but soon builds up as Landenburg takes over with some machine gun drumming that helps the song build towards the chorus. The slightly choppy verses have a slightly emo feel about them, something which is not often found in metal, but it works well. The standout moment of this song however is the chorus. The pace slows a little here and E takes over with a really expressive and powerful vocal performance. I feel that more people will be aware of how good a singer E is after hearing this album, and this performance shows that he is more than capable of leading a band on his own. Inside a Lullaby is another slower song and one that prominently features the piano playing of Weingarten. The keyboards throughout this album are often used in a more atmospheric or rhythmic capacity, but they take the lead here as the classically-inspired melodies roll through the song as E croons atop them. Weingarten's work with Pyramaze has gained him a lot of plaudits recently, and this beautiful performance really reinforces that. It makes this song what it is, and it is a perfect ballad. The album comes to a close with Dead to Me, which features rather awkward spoken word sections that sound more like something that should be on a Five Finger Death Punch album. This is the band's only real misstep on the album in my opinion, as this chest-beating monologue really does not fit well in the song, or with the band's overall sound. Despite that, the song is still strong with a delicate acoustic build up that culminates in another excellent chorus. Cyhra really have a knack for writing memorable catchy choruses, and this could be one of the most interesting of the bunch. If only those awful spoken word sections were not a part of this song, as it would probably be one of the album's best songs otherwise! Overall, Letters to Myself is a really strong debut from Cyhra and a great reintroduction into the metal world for E and Strömblad, who have both been without bands of late. The songs here are instantly memorable and I really look forward to seeing where they go from here.

The album was released on 20th October 2017 via Spinefarm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Karma.