Sunday, 19 November 2017

Deep Purple - Birmingham Review

I have been going to gigs regularly for over 10 years now, but this year has been a particularly special one as I have managed to cross many of my 'must see' bands off the bucket list. In May I saw both Iron Maiden and Kiss live in the space of a week, both of whom I had wanted to see for quite some time, and two days ago I finally caught Deep Purple! Deep Purple are of course one of the founders of the hard rock and heavy metal genres, and have been pioneering all things heavy since forming in 1968. While the band have released many excellent and influential albums throughout the years, it is the three studio albums released between 1970 and 1972 - 1970's In Rock, 1971's Fireball, and 1972's Machine Head - that probably did the most to forward the development of the rock genre. Throw in the seminal live album Made in Japan too, which was also released in 1972, you have a collection of albums that few are able to rival! It is fair to say however that the Deep Purple of today are different from the band they were then. Age certainly has a mellowing effect, but with three of the people who were responsible for those genre-defining works still in the band today - frontman Ian Gillan, Roger Glover (bass guitar), and Ian Paice (drums) - Deep Purple still mean business. After an eight year hiatus from recording any new material, the band released their nineteenth studio album Now What?! in 2013, an event which really seemed to give Deep Purple a new lease of life. The album was very well received, and many of it's songs were featured in the band's live sets over the next few years. Now What?! was followed up earlier this year by Infinite, another strong release, and the band announced a tour to support it. This tour included a fairly substantial UK leg, so I snapped tickets up as soon as they went on sale. I opted for the show in Birmingham, at the newly-re-branded Arena Birmingham (formerly the Barclaycard Arena), as it is always good to return to the Midlands city. The fact that Europe would be accompanying Deep Purple on this UK trek as special guests made the prospect even more exciting, as the Swedish rockers always put on an excellent show. As expected with a bill as strong as this, the large venue was full throughout, although not completely sold out. Despite the large crowd, and excellent performances from all the bands that performed, I felt that the atmosphere throughout was pretty flat. This could be down to the fact that the venue was all-seated for this show, but it was a shame to see some of the best rock bands still out there treading the boards have to work so hard to elicit a reaction.

Melodic rockers Cats in Space were faced with the task of opening the show however, and made their half an hour on stage count with a collection of memorable rock songs. The band clearly take inspiration from the 'golden age' of British pomp rock, and there was certainly a lot of ELO and Supertramp in their music. While certainly not original, they were a lot of fun and helped to entertain the growing crowd as people were still filling into the venue. Frontman Paul Manzi, who also fronts the prog act Arena, displayed some excellent melodic vocals throughout, but it was keyboardist Andy Stewart that really impressed with lots of excellent retro synth and piano playing in every song. Despite their short set, I enjoyed what Cats in Space had to offer and will make an effort to check out their studio recordings in the future.

Europe were up next, and they had around an hour on stage to make their mark. The band's recent material definitely has a tougher sound, influenced by the likes of Deep Purple, which is different from the 1980s pop metal sound that made the band famous in the first place, so it was fitting that their set was dominated by their more recent work. Two songs from their brand new album Walk the Earth, the title track and The Siege, got things underway in fine fashion. The former definitely impressed, with Mic Michaeli's (keyboards/vocals) Hammond organ driving the band forward as frontman Joey Tempest posed for the cameras. Tempest is, in my opinion, one the best frontmen in the business currently and he led the band through their set passionately with a strong vocal performance. The classic Rock the Night was wheeled out early in an attempt to get the crowd going, but it seemed that few were in the mood to party with the Swedes. Despite this the band soldiered on with the symphonic Last Look at Eden and the anthemic stadium rock of Superstitious both standing out in particular. Not only do Europe have one of the best frontman in the business, they are also blessed with one of the best guitarists in John Norum. His heavy bluesy style really suits the band's modern sound, and his driving riff and perfectly-phrased solo really defines the song War of Kings. The last two numbers definitely saw the energy levels raised a little however, which was good to see. The fast and heavy Scream of Anger certainly gave the dormant crowd the kick up the ass that they needed, before the band's signature anthem The Final Countdown actually managed to bring some of the crowd to their feet! Overall, this was a typically excellent set from Europe on my fifth time seeing them live which was sadly hampered by a crowd who seemed largely uninterested in the band's efforts. The setlist was:

Walk the Earth
The Siege
Rock the Night
Last Look at Eden
Election Day
Superstitious
Firebox
War of Kings
Scream of Anger
The Final Countdown

There was a half an hour or so's break between Europe and Deep Purple's sets, which gave the last few stragglers time to find their seats, and when the lights went down a cheer erupted from the crowd. While the crowd were certainly more awake for Deep Purple's set than they were for Europe's, the energy levels were certainly less than I would have expected which was a shame. The band opened with Time for Bedlam, the first song from Infinite, which saw Gillan standing alone on the stage reciting the spooky opening few lines of spoken word, before the band joined him for the driving rocker. While Deep Purple are certainly a lot older and more laid back now than they were in their glory days, there is still a smouldering power behind their performances. Following Time for Bedlam, the band dug deep into their back catalogue for a couple of rarely-played older numbers in the form of Fireball and Bloodsucker, both of which unsurprisingly went down well with the crowd. Fireball in particular was a person early highlight. It is one of the band's heaviest songs, and one that really showcases the drumming skills of Paice. Paice is, in my opinion, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time and it was him that I often found myself watching throughout the night. I feel he is better than his contemporaries John Bonham and Keith Moon, and it was great to finally see him live. After that, the next portion of the set was largely dedicated the band's newer material. The laid-back and jazzy All I Got is You went down well, but it was Uncommon Man from Now What?!, that was dedicated to the late Jon Lord, that really impressed me. The band's newest recruit Don Airey (keyboards), although he has already been in the band for over 15 years, really shone here with a fantastically varied keyboard performance featuring organ, piano, and synths. In truth, it was Airey that was the star of the whole show in my opinion. He is one of the best keyboardists in the business and dominated nearly every song with his enveloping playing and growling solos. This was highlighted particularly during Lazy, which saw him introduce the song with a dawn-out keyboard intro and then trade off riffs and licks throughout with Steve Morse (guitar) as Gillan played the harmonica. The last third of the set was made up of some of the band's real classic tracks, although it was here that Gillan's current limitations as a singer were made all the more obvious. It is no secret that his voice has deteriorated greatly over the years, but he still soldiers on and does the best that he can. Knocking at Your Back Door really seemed a bit too much for him now, but on Perfect Strangers that followed (after Airey's solo spot) he sounded like his old self. It is clear that some songs suit him more than others now, but he is still an engaging frontman and has certainly fared better than some other singers I could mention! Space Truckin' and Smoke on the Water, both from Machine Head, brought the set to a close with plenty of singing from the crowd. By this point nearly everyone was on their feet, and the energy levels had increased greatly. An encore section followed which started off with an extended version of Hush, which also saw plenty of singing from the crowd, and, after Glover's bass solo, a tough version of the all-time classic track Black Night. This was also drawn out, with Gillan sounding very strong vocally here, and Morse taking over at the end for a blistering and powerful guitar solo to bring the evening to a close. The setlist was:

Time for Bedlam
Fireball
Bloodsucker
All I Got is You
Uncommon Man
The Surprising
Lazy
Birds of Prey
Knocking at Your Back Door
Keyboard solo
Perfect Strangers
Space Truckin'
Smoke on the Water
-
Hush [Joe South cover]
Bass solo
Black Night

I had been waiting for years to see Deep Purple live, and I am pleased to say that they did not disappoint. While they certainly no longer posses the power they had in their early days, this was a performance from a band that have nothing left to prove and are out there for the love of it. The whole band performed with beaming smiles on their faces throughout the set, and this is always great to see. Deep Purple are legends for a reason, and it was great to see them in action after many years of trying.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Robert Plant - Plymouth Review

Robert Plant really needs no introduction as he is, rightly, considered one of the best rock frontmen and singers of all time. His work in the late 1960s and 1970s with the pioneering rock band Led Zeppelin is nothing short of legendary and he is one of the individuals who made rock music what it is today. Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980, and ever since Plant has been doing his own thing musically, and has released new albums regularly over the years. While Plant's early solo work carried on his hard rock sound, more recently he has mellowed a fair bit exploring acoustic and blues music in more detail. Of course, these sounds are nothing new for Plant, as Led Zeppelin's extremely diverse sound contained plenty of both, but it is these areas where Plant's heart truly seems to lie now. Last month Plant released his eleventh solo album Carry Fire, his second with his current backing band the Sensational Space Shifters, which emphasises the blues, acoustic, and world music elements of his sound, with a little rock thrown in for good measure. In support of the album, Plant announced a fairly extensive UK tour, which included his first ever visit to Plymouth, so of course I snapped up a ticket as soon as they went on sale. The Pavilions has never been the best venue in the world, and it is also criminally underused, which makes evenings there a rare and special occasion. Sadly the South West is more often than not missed off tour schedules, so it was great to see an artist of Plant's calibre kicking off his new tour in Plymouth! Unsurprisingly the venue was full throughout the evening, and the crowd were clearly into the music from the off.

Local folk hero Seth Lakeman had the task of kicking off the evening and warming up the crowd. Despite him being a big name locally, this was the first time that I had seen him live and he impressed from the off with his confidence, vocal skills, and multi-instrumental prowess. Lakeman, who is also currently an honourary member of the Sensational Space Shifters and appeared onstage with Plant during a number of his songs, only had half an hour onstage but he made it count with a short but powerful set. It is my understanding that he is usually accompanied by a band, but this show saw him taking the stage alone armed with violins, guitars, and a lute. Many of his songs are inspired by the West Country, so it was fitting that he received a good reception from the crowd. He ended his set with Kitty Jay, a song which brought him quite considerable success a few years ago, and he walked off to a big cheer.

After a fairly quick changeover, the lights went down and Plant's band shuffled onto the stage against a backdrop of rhythmic chanting, and immediately went into the bluesy rock of Led Zeppelin's The Lemon Song. Despite Plant's more mellow outlook these days, he still showcases his past in his sets, and the heavy blues of this song kicked things off perfectly. Guitarists Liam Tyson and Justin Adams seemed to relish the chance to riff and solo like rock stars, before the song morphed into New World... from Plant's new album. Despite this being the Carry Fire tour, only four songs from the album were showcased in Plymouth, with the set drawing from throughout Plant's long career. The tough Turn It Up, from his last album Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar, was an early highlight that proves that Plant can still rock out when he wants to. The sparser The May Queen, from the new album, was a change of pace with Lakeman's violin dominating; as was the delicate Led Zeppelin track That's the Way. What was clear throughout the set is just what a great bunch of musicians Plant has surrounded himself with recently, and this was showcased on a drastic re-working of Gallows Pole which took on a certain country bent. Carry Fire, the title track from his new album, was a real showcase for the skills of Adams as he peeled off those Middle Eastern melodies with ease. Another highlight was Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, which was a staple of Led Zeppelin's early shows, which showed that Plant's voice has always been best suited to singing the blues. The emotion that he can inject into his delivery really shone through here. After a few more predominantly acoustic numbers, the main set came to an end with a re-working of Led Zeppelin's Misty Mountain Hop. While I prefer the original arrangement, this new version worked well for this current band, and he left the stage to a standing ovation. He came back on for a couple more. The first song was a version of the old traditional number Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, and the second was a loose arrangement of the Led Zeppelin classic Whole Lotta Love, which unsurprisingly brought the house down. The setlist was:

The Lemon Song [Led Zeppelin material]
New World...
Turn It Up
The May Queen
That's the Way [Led Zeppelin material]
All the King's Horses
In the Light [Led Zeppelin material]
Gallows Pole [Traditional American folk song]
Carry Fire
Rainbow
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You [Anne Bredon cover]
Little Maggie [Traditional American folk song]
Bluebirds Over the Mountain [Ersel Hickey cover]
Funny in my Mind (I'm Believe I'm Fixin' to Die)
Misty Mountain Hop [Led Zeppelin material]
-
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down [Traditional American folk song]
Whole Lotta Love [Led Zeppelin material]

Overall, this was an excellent night of live music from one of the real legends of the business. While Plant certainly does not rock as hard now as he used to, this was still a consummate performance full of beautiful songs.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Helloween - London Review

I think it's fair to say that if Helloween did not exist, then neither would the power metal genre that we know today. While there were other bands active around the same time as Helloween that helped pioneer the sound, and elements of the sound can even be traced back to songs like Queen's Ogre Battle in 1974 and Rainbow's Stargazer in 1976, it was the German band formed in 1984 that really brought everything together and really defined the genre. Originally a four-piece act fronted by Kai Hansen (vocals/guitar), that took their influence from classic heavy metal and thrash, the Helloween as we know it really came to being in 1986 when the eighteen year old singer Michael Kiske was brought into the band's ranks. The following year the band released their second album, Keeper of the Seven Keys - Part I, an album which really broke the band into the big time and basically birthed the modern power metal genre. The following year saw the released of the second part of that album duology, but Hanson left the band after the first leg of the tour for Keeper of the Seven Keys - Part II and the band's classic line-up was over. After a couple more album, which failed commercially and paled in the shadow of the two Keeper albums, Kiske was fired. This move, along with the firing of original drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg during the tour for 1993's Chameleon due to his erratic, drug-fuelled behaviour, left only two of the band's original members in Helloween. Michael Weikath (guitar/vocals) and Markus Großkopf (bass guitar/vocals) were left to pick up the pieces, but the hiring of former Pink Cream 69 vocalist Andi Deris proved to be a winning move, and Helloween has continued under his leadership ever since. While many fans lamented the loss of Kiske, there is no denying that Helloween has continually flourished under Deris, leading to a string of successful albums that have kept the band in the spotlight. While they have never released anything as classic or as defining as the two Keeper albums since, the band's expansive back catalogue with Deris contains more than enough excellent albums. Helloween has now had a stable line-up for over ten years, with drummer Daniel Löble joining the band in 2005. He joined Deris, Weikath, Großkopf, and Sascha Gerstner (guitar/vocals) who has been a Helloween member since 2002, and this current incarnation of the band has gone from strength to strength with regular album releases and plentiful touring. Last year however, it was announced that both Kiske and Hansen would be rejoining the band's current line-up for an extensive world tour entitled Pumpkins United, which would feature material from throughout the band's career. This is the reunion that many had wished for for years, and with the seven musicians involved this promised to be something special. Only one UK show was announced as part of the tour, at the O2 Brixton Academy in London, but as soon as the tickets went on sale I knew that I had to go! Tickets were purchased and this was one of my most anticipated shows of the year.

With no support band, and Helloween scheduled to be playing a three hour show, the lights went down in Brixton just after 8pm. By this time, the large Academy was full and the atmosphere throughout the night was great. When the lights went down and the opening strains of Halloween could be heard from behind the curtain, the place went wild and the energy never let up throughout the entirety of the lengthy opening number. With both Kiske and Deris in tow for this tour, the evening was divided up fairly evenly to give both frontmen equal stage-time and chances to catch their breath. Some songs, like the opening number Halloween, saw the two duetting, and others saw them singing alone. Halloween was followed with the bouncy Dr. Stein which, like the first number, saw the crowd often drowning out the band with their singing. Kiske, who's voice still sounds as smooth as ever, shone during these early numbers, but Deris' raspy voice complimented him well and the two played off each other successfully. The situation of having the two frontmen on stage at the same time could have been awkward, but both men seem to have embraced the challenge and the two seem to have already struck up a good chemistry; and it was this relationship which helped to make the show so enjoyable. I'm Alive saw Kiske singing the song alone, with the band's three guitarists really helping to bulk out the sound and make those fast-paced riffs shine. While having three guitarists did not really enhance the band's sound much, there were a few times during the set which saw three-part harmonies, and the addition of extra rhythm guitar during the band's classic twin-guitar solos definitely helped to make things sound tougher. Despite many of the biggest cheers coming for the band's classic late 1980s songs, there was still plenty of time for the Deris-era to get a look in. Are You Metal? in particular was an early highlight, with Deris conducting an audience participation section with ease that saw everyone in attendance screaming the song back at him. Given the nature of this tour, it was unsurprising that a few songs that had not been played live for years were pulled out of the vault. Kids of the Century was one such number, and the poppy metal anthem was sung perfectly by Kiske before Deris came back out for a couple more which culminated in an excellent version of Perfect Gentleman. As an aside, it was great to see Hansen on stage for the band's whole set. I had assumed that he would only play on the songs from his time with the band, but he was up there all night and giving just as much of himself for the Deris-era numbers as for the songs which he wrote. This was great to see, and he even took a few of the solos and helped out with the backing vocals. His true moment in the spotlight came next however when a medley of the band's really early songs from when he was the lead singer were played. While it was a shame that a full version of Ride the Sky was not played, it was great to hear snippets of these old songs, with the thrashy Starlight standing out the most. This medley came to an end with Heavy Metal (Is the Law) and the crowd really showed their appreciation.

The second half of the show kicked off with a couple of ballads including the classic A Tale That Wasn't Right, before the only weak number of the night I Can proved to be a little disappointing. There are plenty better songs from the Deris-era that could have been played, and this song just fell a little flat compared to what it was being surrounded by. Löble's drum solo followed, which then turned into a tribute to the late Schwichtenberg who committed suicide a couple of years after being fired from the band. There was some great footage of Schwichtenberg shown on the big screen behind the band, before Löble began to play along with the video for a fitting tribute to a great drummer. Kiske then had another chance to shine with A Little Time, one of the few songs that he wrote during the band's classic years, before it was time again for Deris to dominate. The two frontmen sang Why? together, before Sole Survivor and Power really wowed the crowd. Power in particular was another overall highlight as the song's extremely catchy chorus is always a great one to hear live and the crowd took hold of the melody and ran with it, often drowning out the band in the process. The main set then came to an end with How Many Tears, which saw all three singers trading lines off with each other which made for a really powerful end. By this point the band had been on stage for over two hours, and they left the stage to huge cheers. A two-part encore followed, made up of four songs from the Keeper-era. Kiske stood alone for Eagle Fly Free, but the real highlight was the rendition of the 13 minute-plus epic Keeper of the Seven Keys which really shook the place. While I am sure that many expected songs like this to be wheeled out for this occasion, I do not think anyone was prepared for quite how powerful it would be. Kiske started the song off, but was joined by Deris for the song's second half, and the lengthy instrumental section saw all three guitarists taking turns to solo, with the song's writer Weikath particularly stealing the show here. It is safe to say that this song was the overall highlight of the evening, and the crowd reaction when it finished was telling. A short break off-stage then saw the band come back for the final two numbers of the evening. Future World was the penultimate song, but everything came to an end with I Want Out, which saw pumpkin balloons thrown into the crowd and confetti sprayed over everyone at the end. The 11pm curfew had been reached at this time, but the roar from the crow told the band that they had done the job well. The setlist was:

Halloween
Dr. Stein
I'm Alive
If I Could Fly
Are You Metal?
Kids of the Century
Waiting for the Thunder
Perfect Gentleman
Starlight/Ride the Sky/Judas/Heavy Metal (Is the Law)
Forever and One (Neverland)
A Tale That Wasn't Right
I Can
Drum solo
Livin' Ain't No Crime/A Little Time
Why?
Sole Survivor
Power
How Many Tears
-
Invitation
Eagle Fly Free
Keeper of the Seven Keys
-
Future World
I Want Out

Overall this was stunning gig from the band that is responsible for much of the modern melodic metal that I love today. I had seen Helloween before previously, on the Straight Out of Hell tour in 2013, which was an excellent show, but this was something very special. I will be interesting to see whether or not this collaboration can grow into something more permanent, as I would love to see an album of new material from these seven guys, but with a live DVD from a show filmed earlier in the tour due out next year, that will at least be a memento of this excellent evening.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Trivium's 'The Sin and the Sentence' - Album Review

Despite their early history being heavily intertwined with the American metalcore scene in the mid-2000s, Trivium have grown to become one of the very best mainstream metal bands in the world. Their potent mixture of thrash, classic heavy metal, and even elements of extreme metal has helped them to forge a powerful and distinct sound, despite seeing plenty of tweaks and different emphasises over the years. Trivium are one of those rare bands where you really feel that each album the release has it's own identity and style. While the differences between the albums are not vast, subtle adjustments in direction and presentation help each new album to form a distinct new chapter in the Trivium story. This, combined with their regular album releases and heavy touring schedule, has really helped the band to rise through the ranks of metal to somewhere near the top of the tree. There are a few modern metal bands that hold higher statuses than Trivium, but these bands are few and far between. Two years ago the band released Silence in the Snow (which I reviewed here), an album which saw Trivium making a deliberate effort to strip back and streamline their sound. Silence in the Snow saw the band push their classic heavy metal influences to the fore, which as a result created probably the most accessible and melodic Trivium album to date. Frontman Matt Heafy was the star of the show and showed off a much improved vocal range throughout. The decision not to feature any harsh vocals at all on Silence in the Snow definitely ruffled a few feathers in the traditionally conservative metal community, but in truth none of the songs on Silence in the Snow would have been enhanced at all by the presence of them. Silence in the Snow went for a very specific sound, one that the band achieved with aplomb, and as a result some sacrifices from the band's usual arsenal were needed. Fans of the band's heavier side should fear not however, as the band's latest effort The Sin and the Sentence definitely sees Trivium re-connecting with all things heavy. There are two elements that really add to this change in my opinion, and the first is the addition of drummer Alex Bent (Dragonlord; Underling; Battlecross) to the band's line-up. Bent joined the band earlier this year, and his fast, powerful drumming style really propels Trivium forward on this album. He is also easily the band's most diverse drummer since founding member Travis Smith. The other element that really contributed to the sound of The Sin and the Sentence is Josh Wilbur's production. This is the first Trivium album that he has produced, and he has brought his years of experience with working with bands like Lamb of God and Gojira to the table. His clear, but heavy, production is a big part of what makes The Sin and the Sentence such an enjoyable listen, and Trivium really made the right decision working with him. Given the album's heaviness, it is unsurprising that the harsh vocals are back here - although in a more limited capacity than some might expect or desire. Heafy's clean vocals still dominate here, and his performance here might even be better than his work on Silence in the Snow.

After a slightly spooky intro, the album gets underway with the blistering title track that showcases the band's rediscovered heaviness from off. Immediately the impact of Bent can be seen with some creative drumming reminiscent of the great Mike Portnoy, but the lead guitar melodies are firmly rooted in the band's recent obsession with traditional heavy metal. This continues during the verses, which slow everything down somewhat with a simple chugged power chord pattern that allows Paolo Gregoletto's bass to dominate. This is a song which contains many different vibes throughout, and a thrashy chorus with a strong harsh vocal presence only adds to the song's diversity. It really seems that Trivium have used this song to introduce all the elements that are present throughout the album, and as a result this title track really is a microcosm for the whole. The instrumental section is typical of the album's diversity, with melodic Yngwie Malmsteen-esque neo-classical guitar leads atop Bent's blast beats. Opening with an ultra-modern, almost Fear Factory-esque pummelling riff, Beyond Oblivion really puts the band's heaviness back in the spotlight. The verses alternate between slow, murky sections and uptempo ones lead by Heafy's powerful harsh vocals. It is clear that Heafy has really worked on his harsh vocal delivery over the past couple of years, and his voice carries much more venom than previously. This is contrasted well with the chorus, which is highly melodic and definitely showcases the band's love for artists like Dio. Lovers of 2006's The Crusade will likely enjoy Other Worlds, which seems like a real throwback to the melodic thrash sound showcased on that album. The verses in particular really could have been lifted directly from that album, with their simple anthemic sound, but the slightly ethereal chorus sets the song apart from that part of Trivium's career with Corey Beaulieu's subtle guitar leads adding real atmosphere behind Heafy's uncharacteristically high vocals. The Heart from Your Hate sounds like a song that could have been left over from the Silence in the Snow sessions, as it features the same stripped back, overtly melodic sound that characterised that album. The song mostly moves along at a mid-pace, which is aided by a strong groove coming from Gregoletto and Bent's interlocking rhythms. Beaulieu's simple guitar leads are instantly memorable and provide the song's main hook. This hook resurfaces in the chorus, which is a real winner with Heafy's excellent vocal display. Betrayer is another instantly heavy song with Bent's ridiculously fast drumming driving the intro. The harsh vocal barks are perfect for this sound, but the song is not a pure speed fest with another highly melodic chorus and there are sections of the verses which are deliberately low key. Structurally this song is similar to Beyond Oblivion, in a style which seems to define this album overall. Despite the song's more melodic tropes however, the parts of this song that really stick in the mind are the heavy ones which shows how powerful they are. The Wretchedness Inside is another heavy song, but one that mostly drives along at a solid mid-pace with plenty of groove to the riffs. There is definitely a strong Lamb of God influence here, with plenty of riffs that sound like something they might have come up with, so I wonder if that is Wilbur's influence rear it's head here? It works well for the band though, and gives song a distinct identity from anything else presented here. The chorus is typically Trivium however, with Heafy's soaring clean vocals, but the rest of the song sees him screaming over the mechanical riffs.

Endless Night is the album's shortest song, and the only one here under four minutes in length, but it is still a memorable slab of melodic metal. Instead of having any traditional riffs, Beaulieu's lead guitar melodies drive the entire song with their chiming quality. The most obvious point to make about this song however is how it really does not sound like a Trivium song at all. None of the band's usual trademarks are present at all really, but it does not feel out of place here - which goes to highlight how diverse this album is. The spacey guitar solo is the highlight however, which sees the band in a more laid back mood than usual. Sever the Hand puts the heaviness back in spotlight with another song that mixes fast verses with a stadium-sized chorus. While fairly typical of the album's overall sound, the song still stands out due to some pretty mean Sylosis-esque instrumental sections that, although are sometimes simply chords played really fast, really pack a punch due to the tightness of the band and the strength of the production. There are more dynamic instrumental parts too, with plenty of guitar soloing throughout from Heafy and Beaulieu. In fact, if it was not for the clean vocals in the chorus, this really could have been a Sylosis song and shows that Trivium is tapped into modern metal veins too. Beauty in the Sorrow opens with a more melancholic clean section, before one of the band's trademark riffs kicks in and sets the tone for the rest of the song. Despite this, this is a varied song, with short sections that are reminiscent of the opening moments to help break up the pace. This, combined with one of the most memorable guitar lead hooks on the album really makes this number stand out and as a result it is probably the strongest number in the album's second half. There is a really great guitar solo too, that starts off fairly slow, showcasing lots of precise note bends, before speeding up as it moves along to a shredding climax. The Revanchist is the album's longest effort at just over seven minutes in length and, unsurprisingly, there is definitely a bit of a progressive leaning here. A bit like the album's opening title track, this feels like a song that attempts to define the whole album's sound with a multi-part make-up that sees the band throwing everything that they have at it. The slower chorus mixes well with the heavier verses to create a song that contains a little bit of everything that has helped make Trivium so great over the years. The lengthy instrumental section is great too, and really allows all four of the band members to flex their muscles and pull together to make something powerful. The album's closing number Thrown into the Fire is another heavier song that ensures the album packs a punch right to the end. The song's tricky riff is one that is sure to get the blood pumping right from the off, and the dominance of Heafy's harsh vocals throughout makes the song a really potent listen. While the chorus is still mostly melodic, the vast majority of this song really is heavy and is probably exactly the sort of thing that those who were not too keen on Silence in the Snow wanted to be hearing from Trivium. Overall, The Sin and the Sentence is another excellent album from Trivium that really sees the band taking the best bits from throughout their previous seven albums and putting it all together into a diverse and dynamic set of songs. This is probably the band's best release since 2008's Shogun and will certainly bring a lot of fans who have been disillusioned with the band's other more recent work back on board.

The album was released on 20th October 2017 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Sin and the Sentence.


Friday, 10 November 2017

Europe's 'Walk the Earth' - Album Review

A new album Swedish hard rockers Europe is always, quite rightly, a hotly-anticipated event. Since forming in 1982 the band have consistently put out great albums, filled with melodic rock songs in their own instantly-recognisable style. While there are no real stinkers in the band's discography, since 2009's Last Look at Eden the band have been on a rather staggering run of form. While the band's commercial heyday was in the late 1980s, particularly around the release of third album The Final Countdown in 1986, the past few years have possibly been the band's best yet in terms of touring effort and critical success. Having mostly left their synth-heavy late 1980s pop metal sound behind, the Europe of today is a meaner, tougher beast. Wearing their early 1970s classic rock influences on their sleeves, Europe have been reborn as a bluesy hard rock band. This sound has always been a big part of Europe's output of course, but it is now the band's sole focus. Last Look at Eden was the band's first album for quite some time to really receive a lot of critical success and attention; and the band took this success and ran with it. 2012's Bag of Bones and 2015's War of Kings (which I reviewed here) followed and only cemented this new-found success further. It has been great to see the band grow in stature again over the past few years, something which culminated for me personally last year when I witnessed the band at the Roundhouse in London celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Final Countdown with a special concert that featured that whole album in it's entirety. However, that concert also featured the entirety of War of Kings, a brave move on what was otherwise an evening of nostalgia, but one that showcased how proud the band are of their recent work. All to often older bands will barely feature any new material in their live sets, so to see Europe consistently defy this trope is excellent. This all leads to Walk the Earth, the band's eleventh studio album, which was released last month. After the success of War of Kings, which is my favourite of the band's 'reunion' albums, Europe looked to make the same formula work again by once again enlisting the help of producer Dave Cobb. His raw production was part of the success of War of Kings, and I am glad that the band decided to continue down this road. As a result, Walk the Earth definitely feels like a continuation of War of Kings, which is both a strength and a weakness. Sometimes this album sounds a little too close to it's predecessor to really stamp it's own identity on the band's discography, but the strength of the songwriting here is high throughout which makes the album an enjoyable listen. As with War of Kings, this album is dominated by the fuzzy blues guitar riffs of John Norum, Mic Michaeli's droning Hammond organ playing, and the powerful vocals of talismanic frontman Joey Tempest.

The album's title track gets things afterway with a subtle orchestral intro that soon morphs into a powerful guitar riff from Norum which is backed by Michaeli's majestic keyboards. Tempest's voice sounds as good as it ever has, and his performance really drives the verses as the guitar and keyboards snake around beneath him. This song is very similar to the sound of the last album, and really sounds like a continuation from the success of War of Kings. This works well however, and helps to transition the listener into this new album. It is also one of the most immediate songs here, and makes a strong impact right away. The chorus is a really powerful moment, and shows the band's knack for creating infectious melodies. The Siege picks up the pace a bit, and showcases Norum's guitar playing right away with a heavier guitar riff. The keyboards take a bit more a back seat here, allowing the rhythm section of bassist John Levén and drummer Ian Haugland to really push to the fore with their deep, hollow sound. The Deep Purple comparisons that have been levelled at the band recently are relevant again here, with a slightly experimental feel with the use of some Middle Eastern melodies mixed in with the band's usual hard rock formula. Kingdom United has a similar feel, with Haugland's shuffled drum beat driving the fairly uptempo song and Tempest's political lyrics carrying quite a bit of weight. The real highlight of the song for me however is Norum's guitar solo, which is quite lengthy and shows off much of his bluesy acumen. I feel Norum has never really received the respect that he deserves from the guitar community, and he is an extremely underrated player. Pictures is a slower piece, initially dominated by some sparse acoustic guitar chords and Michaeli's melancholic piano lines. While the song does gain a little more weight as it moves along, it remains a fairly gentle ballad throughout which really helps to showcase Tempest's emotional vocal delivery and allows the band to relax a little more. Ballads have always been a big part of Europe's sound, and the slower, bluesy numbers the band have worked on in recent years all have a touch of class about them. This song is no different and delivers something different from the band's usual tougher sound. It fades out with another Norum solo, and again it is packed full of perfect bluesy phrasing. Election Day is another song that stands out on first listen with a powerful chorus and a groovy, keyboard-driven main riff. Songs like this really are a staple of Europe's modern output, and it is always great to see them rock out with such urgency. Europe's spirit and will to rock has not diminished one bit over the years, and this song shows that they still have plenty left to say.

Wolves is another slower song, but this is no ballad as it is led by a somewhat doomy guitar riff and some enveloping keyboards. The brooding song definitely borrows a little from Black Sabbath's songbook, and even reminds me a little of Alice in Chains during the verses with some strange harmony vocals. This sound is not something that Europe have really experimented with before, but it works well and fits into the band's rawer, heavier modern sound. Norum's guitar solo here is quite slow, but it is is still as potent as ever as he cuts through the mix despite competition from Levén's prominent, ringing basslines. GTO picks up the pace again with another fast riff that is definitely inspired by Deep Purple. Tempest really shows off his vocal prowess here with some impressive high notes throughout. While his voice is definitely lower now than it was in the 1980s, he still has an impressive range and a certain melodic quality to his voice that makes him very easy to listen to. This song is just pure unadulterated hard rock that is not trying to be anything complicated, but just revelling in the simple formula of the genre. There is always something very satisfying about music like this, and Europe do it so well. Haze is more of a mid-paced affair, with a riff that sounds like something Michael Schenker would have come up with for one of his early MSG albums, but the song's fuzzy atmosphere really carries it. While Europe's big hits from the 1980s all featured a very polished production, the rawer feel of the band's more modern sound really suits where the band are. The use of retro keyboard sounds really helps too, and this song features liberal use of organ throughout which growls along perfectly behind Norum's guitar. There is a very Led Zeppelin-esque instrumental break towards the end too, which features Haugland's speedy drumming and some excellent guitar atmospherics. Whenever You're Ready is a short burst of fast hard rock that passes by in a flurry and is over almost before it starts. The energy throughout the song never lets up, with Haugland's drumming keeping pace as Tempest leads the troops through their paces with a dominant vocal display. There is not much time for showboating here, and this is mostly a team effort with big riffs being the order of the day. The album's closing number Turn to Dust has the majestic feel of the album's opening number but takes on a more epic feel with a longer running time and a more diverse sound. The verses here are much quieter, with Michaeli's keyboards dominating, but the choruses pack more of a punch with some tough guitar tones and crashing drums. The guitars snake throughout, with plenty of little lead breaks thrown in to break up the mood which helps to add to the overall feel of the piece. In what is otherwise a fairly concise album, this is a song that sprawls a little and adds a little experimental feel to the album's end. Overall, while probably not as strong as War of Kings, Walk the Earth is another excellent addition to Europe's expansive canon. It continues on the hard rock path that the band have been treading for a few years now and is sure to be well received by the fans.

The album was released on 20th October 2017 via Hell & Back Recordings/Silver Lining Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Walk the Earth.


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert Plant's 'Carry Fire' - Album Review

Being the big consumer of all things rock that I am, I really hate to admit that my knowledge of Robert Plant's work is very minimal. Obviously I am familiar with the majority of his work with Led Zeppelin, and enjoy listening to their albums on occasion, but Led Zeppelin have never featured as highly in my listening habits as their peers Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep. Led Zeppelin's influence on music, and not just of the rock variety, cannot be understated however and as a result Plant, as the band's legendary frontman, is genuinely one of the biggest rock stars ever. Since the band came to an end in 1980 however, Plant has maintained a prolific and highly successful solo career and truly transcends his rock roots. Led Zeppelin's music was always incredibly diverse, often incorporating blues and folk influences into their core hard rock sound, and that willingness to experiment is something that Plant has carried forward into his solo career. Very rarely does Plant sit still, and in truth he has mostly left his hard past long behind him. When Plant announced a new UK tour which included a show in my hometown of Plymouth, my interest in his solo work took off. It was getting a ticket for that show that prompted me to purchase a copy of Carry Fire, his latest and eleventh studio album. I knew that Plant's solo work was often diverse, so I was not really sure what to expect, but I was not quite expecting what I ended up getting! Carry Fire is the second album in which Plant is backed by his current backing band The Sensational Space Shifters, a five-piece group of true multi-instrumentalists. When flicking through the accompanying booklet that comes with the CD, this fact is reinforced when you read about the staggering amount of instruments that feature throughout this album. Justin Adams, Liam Tyson, Billy Fuller, John Baggott, and Dave Smith really are a talented bunch, and their diverse playing really helps to create the rich tapestries over which Plant delivers his strong vocals. 'Rich' really is the perfect word to describe Carry Fire, as it is not easy to characterise these songs in terms of conventional genres. Some of the songs here are quite whimsical, with lots of acoustic instrumentation; whereas others are quite dark and make use of plentiful keyboard textures to create various moods. What this is not however is a hard rock album and, therefore, is definitely something outside of my comfort zone. While I do like a diverse range of music, much of what I enjoy can be broadly shoehorned into the genres of rock and metal. Something like Carry Fire is definitely something out of the norm for me, but it is always good to challenge yourself and try new things. It is also great to see a legendary rocker doing something that is so far removed from what made them famous initially, but still containing the same heart and ethos.

The album opens in very sparse fashion with The May Queen, a mostly acoustic song that mixes almost-dark sounding acoustic guitar chord passages with a strong percussive backing. The guitars are fairly abrasive, and this works well in contrast to Plant's fairly delicate vocal display. He still possesses and extremely strong voice, but this soon sees him adopt a bit of a blues croon which recalls the blues music of the 1930s. Folk musician Seth Lakeman, who contributes his viola and fiddle skills to a few songs here, dominates the latter part of the song with some tasteful and prominent melodies that cut through the murky guitars with ease. New World... has a bit more of a rock feel with a prominent bassline from Fuller that intertwines well with Smith's dense drum sound. Plant's crooning vocals once again stand out, along with some delicate ethereal harmonies added at choice moments to help add an extra dimension to the piece. The guitar work is a little more expansive here, with electric guitar chords fitting in nicely alongside some spiky lead lines. There is even a laid back guitar solo around two thirds of the way through that really mirrors Plant's vocals. Season's Song is another acoustic number, but much floatier and easier on the ear than The May Queen. Comparisons here can be drawn between Led Zeppelin's work on Led Zeppelin III, but with a greater emphasis placed on Baggott's keyboards which provide the song's summery feel. Despite the song's simple exterior, there is actually a lot going on here. The guitars intertwine throughout to add plenty of textures, and Fuller's fairly prominent bass playing creates some deep-seated weight. Dance With You Tonight is based around a distant percussion pattern and it is this that really drives the song. Plant's vocals almost feel as if they are alone with the percussion at times, as the guitars are deliberately mixed into the background along with the keyboards to create something which sounds rather offhand. This changes as the song moves along however, as Plant's vocals take on more purpose. With this rise in vocal volume, the guitars become more prominent, with plenty of jangly chords to give the song a bit more of a sense of urgency. The rock vibe returns with Carving Up the World Again...A Wall and not a Fence, which has more of an upbeat feel with Smith's drumming and Plant's instantly memorable vocal lines. This is not an album that has too many anthemic choruses, but this song certainly possesses one that instantly grabs you with it's playful melodies. A fairly lengthy guitar break does change things up a bit however, as the strange guitar tone and style seems at odds with the more carefree feel that the song establishes. This works well however, and certainly challenges the listener. A Way With Words is a very different song, and instantly introduces a dark tone with Baggott's melancholic piano melodies and Plant's almost-mumbled vocals. While guitar and percussion also provide a lot to the song, this is one that really belongs to Baggott and his excellent playing. It is not just his skills on the piano which are showcased, but the ominous keyboards that fill all of the spaces between the rest of the instruments really contribute to the ominous mood of the piece.

The album's title track is one of the real standout cuts here, with a distinct Middle Eastern feel throughout with traditional instruments sitting alongside the guitars and percussion perfectly. The song actually reminds me a lot of Panic Room's Apocalypstick, as the tone and melodies throughout are quite similar, but it has it's own feel with Plant's distinct and husky voice. This is also a song that really showcases the talent and diversity of Plant's current backing band. They each play a myriad of instruments throughout this album, and have mastered the Middle Eastern sound perfectly for this song. I just love the mood and images that this song conjures up. Bones of Saints is a little more upbeat, and has an organic rock sound throughout that sounds a lot closer to the work that made Plant famous in the first place than the previous song! Smith's powerful drumming performance drives the song, but he knows when to be more restrained and this mix of styles works very well. The guitars also change between rock riffing and chiming clean melodies throughout as and when required, which is a key part of the song's appeal. A bluesy guitar solo helps to add some spice to the latter stages of the song, before Plant explodes back into the picture with a reprise of the song's simple chorus, which seen descends into some impressive wordless vocal histrionics that display the range he still possesses. Keep it Hid is a strange-sounding song with some fuzzy keyboard riffs dominating that sit atop a frantic drum pattern. The rhythms and sounds here remind me somewhat of sounds that a more commonly associated with industrial music, but with a much more organic sound that makes use of retro keyboards and real drums. I like this however, as it really sounds different from everything else on the album and sounds like something new for Plant. An abrasive guitar solo adds to the song's strange feeling and is the icing on the cake. Bluebirds Over the Mountain is a cover of the old Ersel Hickey song from the 1950s and features Plant duetting with Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders). Her voice mixes in well with Plant's, and the two play off each other nicely. Soundwise, this song is quite similar to the 'core' percussion-heavy sound found throughout, with lots of fuzzy guitar and keyboard work too. Lakeman's playing is also quite prominent again here, with lots of lead lines throughout that mix in well with the vocals. The album comes to a close with Heaven Sent which is an atmospheric, slower song that makes great use of the guitars to create moody textures while the bass and drums slowly propel the song forward. I really like the way that Plant's voice sounds here and shows that he has lost little of his magic over the years. As the song moves forward Baggott's keyboards take on a more prominent role, and a section that sees to recall Led Zeppelin's No Quarter is a nice little throwback. Overall, Carry Fire is an album from a veteran performer that sounds fresh and one that relies little on his previous work. It is great to see Plant still producing challenging and interesting material in 2017, and I look forward to hearing some of these songs performed live next week.

The album was released on 13th October 2017 via Nonesuch Records. Below is his promotional lyric video for Bones of Saints.


Monday, 6 November 2017

Y&T - Nottingham Review

After finally taking the plunge last November and going to see Y&T, I knew that I had been missing out all these years! Without fail, Y&T undertake a fairly lengthy UK tour around October/November time every year. While I had been a casual fan of the band for sometime, they were always a band that became victims of busy schedules. This time of year is always busy, with lots of bands touring, and the regularity of Y&T's schedule made them an easy one to pass up on knowing forwell that they would be back the next year. I finally decided to commit to a Y&T show last year however, and I am glad that I did as it turned out to be a fantastic evening out. While the crowd at the O2 Academy in Bristol was not as large or as loud as it could have been, the band still played around two hours of music from throughout their extensive back catalogue. As soon as the dates for 2017's UK tour was announced I bought a ticket, this time opting for the show in Nottingham as it was on a weekend. Rock City is one of my favourite venues in the UK and it is always great to go back to the Midlands city that I spend so much time in during my years at University. It seems that Y&T are a much bigger draw in Nottingham than they are in Bristol, and Rock City was pretty busy throughout the evening.

Support came in the form of the local Nottingham band Knives who hit the stage about 15 minutes after the venue opened and kept the growing crowd entertained for around 45 minutes. Given the dress and overall styles of some of the band members I was expecting a set of punk, but the band turned out to be a competent melodic rock act with some strong material. Being a local band, there were quite a few friends and fans of Knives in the audience and this helped to create a good atmosphere throughout their set. Most of their songs were quite simple, but were often built around melodic choruses that were easy to latch onto after only a couple of hearings. Knives gave a good account of themselves at Rock City and the cheer as they left the stage should tell them that it was a job well done.

It was Y&T that I was here to see however, and they hit the ground running with the hard rocking Black Tiger and the energy and class did not let up at all throughout their two hour set. Having only seen the band a year ago (almost to the day) I was surprised just how different the setlist was this time around, with only the real classic songs retained and others replaced by other deep cuts. Dave Meniketti (vocals/guitar) is one of the most underrated singers/guitarists/songwriters in rock, and he proved this over and over throughout the set, with pretty much every song containing a blistering guitar solo for him really to sink his teeth into. Lipstick and Leather and Straight Thru the Heart kept the energy going early on, before an extended version of the bluesy Dirty Girl allowed rhythm guitarist John Nymann a chance to share the spotlight with Meniketti with some soloing of his own. Mean Streak brought about some of the biggest cheers of the early part of the set, before a couple of songs from one of Meniketti's solo albums were featured. The highlight of the two was the muscular blues of Storm, which led nicely into the classic Y&T ballad Winds of Change. Meniketti dedicated this song to Joey Alves, Phil Kennemore, and Leonard Haze; who made up three quarters of Y&T's original and most-classic line-up; who are all now sadly no longer with us. Meniketti is the only original member of the band still alive, and he leads this current version of the band perfectly, and the musicians he has picked really help to keep the legacy of Alves, Kennemore, and Haze alive while keeping Y&T a hard-rocking unit for the 21st Century. From then on, the set was mostly packed full of more upbeat, rocking songs. Masters and Slaves saw a rare outing, before fan-favourite Hang 'em High was greeted with a huge cheer, with the chorus being sung back at the band with real force. I Believe in You was the last of the 'slower' numbers featured before a killer version of Contagious reinstated the party atmosphere. I mentioned in my review of last year's how in Bristol that the songs from the band's late 1980's AOR-inspired era felt a little flat live due to the lack of keyboards and big backing vocals, but thankfully this did not seem to the case this time. Contagious really rocked the place, before an extended solo section took over showcasing the skills of both Aaron Leigh (bass guitar/vocals) and Mike Vanderhule (drums/vocals). Summertime Girls had more power this time around as well, and was unsurprisingly given one of the biggest receptions of the night as it is one of the band's most well-known songs. The sloppy blues rock of both Barroom Boogie and Squeeze, the latter featuring Nymann on lead vocals, created a great atmosphere towards the end of the set, before everything came to an end with I'm Coming Home, sadly the only cut from 2010's excellent Facemelter featured this time around. There was of course time for a few more however, and Meniketti asked the crowd what they wanted to hear, and chose one of my personal favourite Y&T numbers Midnight in Tokyo out of the ones called out by those down the front. This was a triumph, and was followed aptly by the ever-present setlist staples Rescue Me and Forever to cap of a wonderful evening of hard rock. The setlist was:

Black Tiger
Lipstick and Leather
Straight Thru the Heart
Dirty Girl
Eyes of a Stranger
Mean Streak
Lay Me Down [Dave Meniketti solo material]
Storm [Dave Meniketti solo material]
Winds of Change
Masters and Slaves
Hang 'em High
I Believe in You
Contagious
Drum Solo
Rock & Roll's Gonna Save the World
Summertime Girls
Barroom Boogie
Squeeze
I'm Coming Home
-
Midnight in Tokyo
Rescue Me
Forever

In a few years time, after a taking in a few more of their shows, Y&T could well become one of my very favourite live bands. They have a no-nonsense approach to shows, and help to repay their regular fans by keeping the setlists fresh each year. It was great also to meet Nymann too at the merch stall after the show to get my copy of Facemelter signed, which was an added bonus on top of an already excellent night.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Michael Schenker Fest - Sheffield Review

German guitarist Michael Schenker is a real legend in the world of hard rock, and is one of the most influential players in the genre. He started his career in the early 1970s with the Scorpions, before joining British hard rockers UFO in 1973. His initial five year tenure with the band led to the band creating their best-known work and, as a result, Schenker was held in as high regards as his peers Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. After auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne's band and Aerosmith after leaving UFO in 1978, Schenker started a solo career the following year. The Michael Schenker Group, as this solo venture was called, would serve as Schenker's main creative outlet going forward and, despite a few more stints with UFO in the 1990s and 2000s, MSG is still going strong. While many different faces have graced MSG throughout the years, Schenker's brand of melodic, guitar-centric hard rock has remained intact. In recent years, Schenker has been touring with a new band, Temple of Rock, while allowed him to play material from throughout his entire career. This allowed him to revisit songs that he had not played for a while, but it seemed that the call of MSG was never far away. Last year saw a big announcement from Schenker that he was going to reunite with many of his old MSG bandmates to put together the ultimate setlist and show for the fans. The resulting Michael Schenker Fest was a hit and more shows were scheduled for this year throughout Europe. Joining Schenker on this trek were three of his most famous vocalists: Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, and Robin McAuley; which allowed Schenker to present the songs as they were originally heard on the albums. Forming the band were Chris Glen (bass guitar/vocals) and Ted McKenna (drums), who were both a part of MSG in the early 1980s; and Steve Mann (guitar/keyboards/vocals) who featured heavily during the Schenker's late-1980s output under the McAuley Schenker Group name. Four UK shows were announced as part of a larger European trek, and the show at the O2 Academy in Sheffield made the most sense for me logistically. Sheffield has never been a regular stop off of mine, but it was nice to get back to the Yorkshire city after nearly two years without a visit.

I was not the only person to make the trek from Devon up to Sheffield, as the support band Departed also had. Departed are a fairly local band for me, and I had seen them a couple of times this year already. This was the best show that I had seen the band put on yet however, and they proceeded to tear the stage up for about 45 minutes as the crowd slowly filtered into the venue. The entirety of their debut self-titled EP was showcased, with the soaring Superstitious and the foot-stomping Don't Follow Me getting off things off to a great start. Frontman Mark Pascall is really growing into the role and prowled the stage, interacting well with the crowd as he went. Some newer songs were showcased towards the end of the set, with Soul Shaker in particular standing out with a tricky bluesy riff from Ben Brookland (guitar/vocals) and an infectious chorus. A strong cover of Queen's Tie Your Mother Down went down well with the crowd, before the band ended with the latest single from their EP, Are You Ready?, which features another anthemic chorus. While it seemed to take the crowd a little while to warm to Departed, as the band left the stage they received a healthy cheer from all in attendance that was the sign of a job well done. The setlist was:

Superstitious
Don't Follow Me
All I Want
Dreaming
Pretty Little Thing
Steal Your Crown
Soul Shaker
Come On
All the Way
Tie Your Mother Down [Queen cover]
Are You Ready?

After around half an hour, the lights went down a cheer was let out from the large crowd as Schenker and his band took to the stage. After the short Temple of Rock instrumental piece Searching for Freedom, Schenker introduced himself with gusto and the band went into another instrumental piece, Into the Arena, from the debut MSG album released in 1980. This got the band warmed up, before Barden took to the stage and proceeded to sing five of his songs from the first two MSG albums. The bluesy Let Sleeping Dogs Lie was a good starting tune, with Schenker's snaking guitar leads standing out, but it was Cry for the Nations where everything really seemed to come together. This was the first real singalong moment of the night, with Barden often holding out the microphone to allow the crowd to sing for him. One of Schenker's signature songs, Attack of the Mad Axeman, really hit the spot with Mann's swirling keyboards and Schenker's slide melodies really filling the hall. This portion of the set was completed with a barnstorming rendition of Armed and Ready, and the upbeat rocker was sung back at the band with real volume. To bride the gap between MSG eras, a rendition of the Scorpion's instrumental Coast to Coast was played, with Schenker and Mann teaming up well to provide the song's dual guitar leads, before Bonnet was introduced to sing three songs from the 1982 MSG album Assault Attack. Bonnet's original stint with MSG lasted precisely one show (in Sheffield as it happens) as he was fired after drunkenly exposing himself on stage. Bonnet made fun of this incident by producing a banana at a timely moment, but the highlight here was his extremely powerful voice as he steamed through the three tracks with ease. Desert Song was easily the best of the bunch, but Dancer (with Barden and McAuley on backing vocals) and Assault Attack were also excellent. Desert Song stood out the most however, and Bonnet's foghorn voice really carried the chorus through everyone in attendance. The shredding of Captain Nemo followed Bonnet's turn on the stage, but McAuley came on stage for four songs from the McAuley Schenker Group era. No Time for Losers was a high-energy start, but it was Save Yourself that really stood out during this portion of the show. The song was driven by McKenna's double bass drumming, and McAuley proved to be a hugely capable vocalist with a smooth yet energetic delivery. The chorus was one of the set's highlights too, with the band providing gang vocals to elevate the sense of power. The AOR-influenced Love is not a Game brought an end to the McAuley Schenker portion of the set, but there was one tune left in the tank. A monstrous version of UFO's Rock Bottom followed, with McAuley still on vocals, which evolved into a lengthy guitar workout for Schenker as he showed why he is such a highly-rated guitarist. The ending of this song brought perhaps the biggest cheer of the night, but Schenker had barely left the stage before coming back on for a couple more. Two more UFO songs made up the encore, and this time all three of the singers were on stage with him and the band trading lines. Doctor Doctor, another of Schenker's signature tunes, brought the house down, before the evening came to a hard-rocking end with a fantastic rendition of Lights Out, sung perfectly by the three frontmen. This capped of the near-two hour set perfectly, and the crowd made their appreciation known. The setlist was (N.B. all of the songs below, unless otherwise noted, are MSG songs):

Searching for Freedom [Temple of Rock material]
Into the Arena
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Victim of Illusion
Cry for the Nations
Attack of the Mad Axeman
Armed and Ready
Coast to Coast [Scorpions material]
Desert Song
Dancer
Assault Attack
Captain Nemo
No Time for Losers [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Save Yourself [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Bad Boys [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Love is not a Game [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Rock Bottom [UFO material]
-
Doctor Doctor [UFO material]
Lights Out [UFO material]

This was a truly special show that allowed Schenker to showcase many of his best-known songs, along with some that had not been played live for many years, with many of those that helped make them happen originally. The eight guys that are part of Michael Schenker Fest gave it their all throughout the night, and helped to showcase what a fine body of work Schenker has put together over the years. These eight guys are currently working on an album that is due out next year, and I cannot wait to hear the new material.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Revolution Saints' 'Light in the Dark' - Album Review

AOR is not always a particularly popular genre of music in this day and age, so it is always great to hear new albums of that style. 2017 has already seen quite a few excellent new AOR albums however, and there was a day back in March that saw new albums from Brother Firetribe, Eclipse, and Night Ranger - it was as if the clocks had been turned all the way back to 1985 for the day! Since then however things have been fairly quiet on the AOR front, at least for bands that are on my radar, so I was pleased earlier this month when Light in the Dark, the second album from AOR power-trio Revolution Saints, was finally released. Revolution Saints were put together in 2014 by Italian melodic rock record label Frontiers Records and is comprised of vocalist and drummer Deen Castronovo (Cacophony; Bad English; Hardline; Ozzy Osbourne; Steve Vai; GZR; Journey), vocalist and bassist Jack Blades (Night Ranger; Damn Yankees), and guitarist Doug Aldrich (Lion; Hurricane; Bad Moon Rising; Burning Rain; Dio; Whitesnake; The Dead Daisies). Frontiers founder Serafino Perugino had apparently wanted to put out an album that showcased Castronovo's vocal talents, and the work that was initially to be a solo album ended up becoming the self-titled Revolution Saints album. Castronovo is of course more known for him drumming skills, but during his seventeen year stint behind the kit for AOR titans Journey he began to take the lead vocally on a few songs in the band's set. His smooth, melodic voice was often compared to that of Steve Perry's and there were many fans out there that were as keen as Perugino to hear a whole album dedicated to Castronovo's vocal skills. When Revolution Saints came out however, I was initially disappointed with it. While the material always left a strong impression, I was disappointed that Revolution Saints had become yet another Frontiers 'project' with songs written by the label's in-house songwriters. Producer and songwriter Alessandro Del Vecchio single-handedly wrote most of the album, and the band just recorded the songs in the studio. It seemed a real shame not to use the writing skills of the band, all well-established musicians already, and to rely so heavily on Del Vecchio's plentiful material. Revolution Saints was consigned to the back of the pile after a couple of listens, and I assumed it would be another one-album project. I was surprised to see then that the band were working on a follow up, and that this time it would be a band effort. When I received my copy of Light in the Dark I was pleased to see that virtually the whole album was written by Castronovo, Aldrich, and Del Vecchio, and it is clear that the three have formed a strong writing partnership already. The material here is still AOR of course, but often with a meatier tone thanks to Aldrich's signature guitar playing. Fans of the band's first album, and of the work of any of the three main musicians involved, are sure to find a lot to enjoy here.

The album's title track, and lead single, kicks things off in familiar fashion mimicking the sound from the band's debut. Aldrich's choppy riff drives the whole song, and Del Vecchio's keyboards provide that AOR sheen. While Castronovo is the vocal focus on this album, as with the debut Blades also contributes vocally here too and this song is sung as a duet between the two. It works well as the two play off each other perfectly, and this especially comes to a head during the melodic chorus. On the whole, this album is more varied and less immediate than the band's debut, but this song really helps to draw the listener in with an stadium-sized chorus and a lengthy, flashy Aldrich guitar solo. Freedom immediately showcases a much tougher sound, with Aldrich's heavy riff driving the intro along with a haunting keyboard backing. The verses are fairly slow, with the riff remaining along with Blades' snaking bassline, and sees Castronovo singing in a uncharacteristically restrained way which fits with the dryer sound. The chorus sees the song expand somewhat with a strong keyboard presence and choice uses of harmony vocals. The instrumental section of the song starts with a retro sounding keyboard solo, before Aldrich explodes into one of his trademark guitar solos that ends in a flurry of notes. I have always thought that Aldrich has such an instantly recognisable guitar tone and style, so it is great to hear him playing with so much freedom throughout this album. Ride On is an instantly more upbeat track, with Del Vecchio's jaunty keyboard melodies following the guitar riffs perfectly which really encapsulates that mid 1980s sound. The energy that this song creates is infectious, and it retains a good pace throughout with Castronovo's double bass drumming to drive everything. The chorus is pure Journey, with plenty of melodic harmony vocals, the guitar solo is a demonstration of Aldrich's virtuosic ability. I Wouldn't Change a Thing is a cover of a song by Mr. Mister's Richard Page that appeared on a solo album he released in 2012. It is a power ballad that is led throughout by Del Vecchio's sombre piano playing. It is a fairly sparse song and never really ramps up with any power, instead letting the piano and vocal melodies dominate. Cleaning guitar arpeggios and a few heavier power chords are introduced after the first chorus but this never really changes the energy of the piece. This is a song that really is all about Castronovo's vocal performance, and really highlights that he has a genuinely excellent voice that can carry real emotional weight when needed. Don't Surrender, which was written in conjunction with Simone Mularoni (DGM; Empyrios), is another slab of pure AOR and is easily my favourite piece here. It opens with a frantic riff, before turning into more of a mid-paced rocker with a tight drum groove that dominates with the other instruments weaving in and out when required. It is the song's chorus that really makes it a winner however with stadium-ready melodies, the likes of which have not been heard for a while. The song has a real feel-good factor to it, something which is common with most AOR, and it never fails to put a smile on my face. Take You Down is the first song here that fails to really connect. After an excellent start to the album, and a particularly excellent preceding number, this song just struggles to match up. Despite having a pretty strong chorus, it is just a song that comes and goes without ever really making any kind of impact.

The Storm Inside is better and opens with a heavy riff that draws you wandering attention back in. Despite this, the song is not a particularly heavy one, with a pretty low-key verse but it works well by using lots of subtle vocal harmonies to create a hypnotic sound along with an excellent bassline from Blades. The chorus is the opposite what is expected as the drums drop out and leave Castronovo singing atop a simple guitar line. This does ramp up in power in subsequent reprises of the chorus, but this comes as a bit of a shock initially despite working quite well. A lengthy guitar solo from Aldrich is the song's highlight however, and showcases him in a more restrained mood than usual, with longer melodic note choices instead of his usual busy style. Can't Run Away from Love is another ballad, which again is led by Del Vecchio's melodic piano playing. This song is a bit more direct than the album's previous ballad, with a heavy percussive base throughout with some excellent mid 1980s-style booming drums. The impact is not lessened by this however, and Castronovo's voice still dominates with his unique fragile power. Aldrich one again proves his modern guitar hero status with another excellent guitar solo. This one is a really emotional moment, with lots of soaring note choices that really compliment the song's mood perfectly. Running on the Edge picks up the pace a bit and opens with a big keyboard melody, something which resurfaces throughout the song to help add an extra dimension. The verses are quite sparse, with Aldrich's guitar mixed into the background, but the song really explodes and comes alive during the chorus. The song's upbeat energy carries it, as there are not as many stand-out melodies here as there probably should be, but the grooves remain infectious as they are played at the speed that they are. Another Chance opens with one of Aldrich's powerful riffs that comes roaring out of the speakers and immediately grabs the attention. This is another song that really plays up to the AOR stereotypes but it does it really well. The song's chorus is another winner, and one of the album's best. It is another moment that really helps to lift any mood and the walls of harmony vocals just make it sound huge. The album comes to a close with Falling Apart, a slower song that builds in power as it moves along. It is built around another massive chorus that really sounds like something Journey would have written in the early 1980s. It is clear that Castronovo's years with that band have rubbed off on him. The fact that much of the song is fairly slow, as portions of the verses are, only helps to amplify the power of the choruses. This is also reflected in Aldrich's guitar solo, which is somewhat slower than usual but helps to enhance the song's melodic nature. Many albums of this nature would have chosen one of the faster songs to end on, but I think this song is actually a perfect album-closer and helps to bring thing to a tight and melodic end. Overall, Light in the Dark is a really strong second album from Revolution Saints and one that shows this can be something more than a one-off project. That fact that these songs have been self-penned too shows this band has a future and I will be interested to see where they go from here.

The album was released on 13th October 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Light in the Dark.


Friday, 27 October 2017

Power Quest's 'Sixth Dimension' - Album Review

As I have said on here many times, power metal really is not much of a British thing. It is something that has never really caught on over here, with most of the European exponents of the genre playing token London shows in small venues as part of much larger European tours. There are a few well-known power metal acts from these shores however, and Power Quest are probably one of the most famous. The band was formed in 2001 by keyboardist Steve Williams after leaving the genesis of what would become DragonForce and an album, Wings of Forever, was released a year later. Due to his DragonForce connections, members of that band have appeared on Power Quest albums over the years along with a revolving door policy of official members with many people coming and going from Power Quest over the years. Williams is the sole-remaining original member of Power Quest, but it really is his band in every sense of the word as he has single-handedly written the majority of the band's songs over the years and his signature keyboard playing is a huge part of the band's upbeat sound. Fans of the band were sad however when, in 2013 and after five studio albums, Williams decided to end Power Quest for financial reasons. It seemed that the band were truly over for good, and Williams went on to join the multi-national melodic rock band Eden's Curse and played on their 2013 studio album Symphony of Sin and their 2015 live album Live with the Curse. It seemed that this time with Eden's Curse forced him to reconsider his decision to put Power Quest on ice, and last year he announced that he was putting the band back together with a new line-up and an album in the works. Joining Williams this time are bassist Paul Finnie and drummer Rich Smith, who had both previously been members of Power Quest and contributed to 2011's Blood Alliance, along with new members frontman Ashley Edison (Dendera), and guitarists Glyn Williams (Triaxis) and Andy Kopczyk (I AM I). A three-track EP called Face the Raven was released last year, featuring twins Gavin and Dan Owen on guitars who were originally part of the revived Power Quest before being replaced earlier this year, to excellent reviews and it only heightened people's interest in the band's upcoming sixth studio album. This album, titled Sixth Dimension, was finally released a couple of weeks ago and it is the band's first album for six years. In contrast to the heavier, more progressive Blood Alliance, Sixth Dimension definitely sees the band return to the more pure power metal sound found on their earlier albums, with a little of the AOR tinges found on 2008's Master of Illusion. As far as power metal goes, this is a great example of the genre, and shows that top quality melodic metal can come out of Britain. As is usually the case with a Power Quest album, there are quite a few guest musicians that contribute their individual skills to certain songs.

The album opens with the fast-paced power metal anthem Lords of Tomorrow, which is led by a jaunty keyboard lead that sits atop some crunchy guitar rhythms. All of the tropes of the power metal genre are present here, with soaring melodies provided by the keyboards and Edison's vocals taking centre stage, with a tough rhythm beneath led by Smith's varied drum performance. As suspected, the song's chorus is the centrepiece of the song and is where the biggest hooks can be found. Edison's vocals soar, and the mix of slower and heavier riffs really helps to create a memorable atmosphere. The majority of the guitar solos here seem to be played by Glyn Williams, and he impressed here with a lengthy solo section which also sees him trading licks with his namesake Steve Williams (no relation). Starlight City opens with Smith's powerful drumming, before a heavier guitar riff kicks in that is instantly memorable. Despite the overall slightly heavier feel, this is one of the songs where the band's AOR influences can be heard. While the guitars chug away throughout the song, the keyboards are always high in mix and help to provide a melodic sheen at all times. The song's chorus again reflects that AOR influence, with simple but extremely catchy vocal melodies that really jump out of the speakers. While there is some excellent guitar work in the instrumental mid-section, it is Steve Williams' keyboard solo that really stands out for me. Keyboards are always a big part of any power metal album, and it is great to hear so many fluid leads throughout. Kings and Glory, one of the album's singles along with the opening number, picks up the pace again despite a slower, keyboard-heavy intro. The verses steam along at a good pace, with some excellent drumming from Smith and Edison really racing to get the vocals out in time! Edison is a real find for Power Quest, as he has a very slightly lower voice than average for the genre which fits in with the type of vocalists the band have had in the past but he can still unleash plenty of extremely high screams when necessary. His performance on this song is excellent, as he sings the fast-paced vocals extremely clearly before fully expressing himself in the melodic chorus. It is on the next number, Face the Raven, however which really allows Edison to really showcase his abilities. This a new version of the song that appeared on last year's EP and it is easily the heaviest song here with tough guitar riffs and some ear-splitting vocal screams. The keyboards are less dominant here, instead letting the guitars really fill the speakers which is definitely the right choice to allow the song to pack the punch that it does. This is the song that really got me hooked on Power Quest after being a casual fan for a few years, and it is still my favourite song on this album. The chorus is truly potent, and shows that Edison really is an extremely powerful vocalist. No More Heroes is another AOR-inspired piece with a really smooth overall sound, and an even smoother vocal performance. Steve Williams' keyboards really dominate the song, including contributing a playful melody during the song's intro, and just help to aid the atmospheric feel. Even the guitar solos, which often are speed-fests in power metal, are much slower and more melodic on the whole here which again just helps to contribute to the overall mood perfectly.

Revolution Fighters starts off quite gloomily with some swirling keyboards and delicate acoustic guitar melodies, but this peace is soon shattered with a muscular riff and the soon morphs into another mid-paced slab of melodic metal. As with many of the band's songs, the keyboards provide the main melodic focus during the intro sections. In many bands, the lead guitarist fills this role, but Steve Williams often uses his keyboards to lead the charge. This makes a Power Quest song stand out, as the keyboards have such a specific sound that Steve Williams likes to make use of. There is another really excellent chorus here, which again relies on simple melodies to really soar, and the band's former guitarist Andrea Martongelli, who was a member of Power Quest between 2003 and 2009, contributes the song's shredded guitar solo. Pray for the Day opens with quite a bouncy main riff, but this soon gives way to a fairly sparse verse which allows Edison's vocals to really shine. Far too often, vocalists in metal get drowned out by claustrophobic productions that are packed to the hilt with layers and layers of guitars, so Power Quest, and producer Alessio Garavello (who also was the band's original frontman), should be congratulated on the streamlined and clear production job throughout this album. Edison is always the appropriate chance to shine in each song, and this one is no different as his extremely melodic vocals really are front and centre. Power Quest have not gone for the choral effect when it comes to backing vocals either, instead opting for more subtle harmonies, and I feel this works well and really allows Edison to stamp his authority on the songs. That being said, there is still plenty of crunch in this song, with Smith's drums and Finnie's bass really cutting through the mix with powerful precision. Coming Home is the second song reworked from last year's EP, and it is one of the album's more instantly memorable pieces with a hugely anthemic chorus and a dramatic keyboard-led intro. Another guest, Lars Rettkowitz (Freedom Call), contributes the song's guitar solo, but this is a piece that is all about the chorus. Not since the band's early days have they had a chorus which is this memorable and this really is a piece that is meant to be heard live. This is truly what power metal is supposed to sound like, and it is great to hear a song like this coming out of Britain! The album's final number is the lengthy title track, which harks back a little to the more progressive feel found on Blood Alliance. Steve Williams wrote this song with Richard West (Threshold), which may explain the lengthier, more progressive feel, but it is still packed with plenty of Power Quest's signature sounds. A synth-heavy intro soon gives way to a slower, crunchier guitar-led section and then a downbeat verse with chiming clean guitar melodies and Edison's vocals. The song moves through a few different sections during it's lengthy run time, with heavier choruses with plenty of harmony vocals interspersed within the quieter moments. Towards the end the song really picks up however, and features some guest vocals from Anette Olzon (Alyson Avenue; Nightwish; The Dark Element) who puts in a strong performance as always. In amongst all of this, there are soaring guitar solos aplenty, and the song really feels like one of the band's true masterpieces. Overall, Sixth Dimension is a great comeback from Power Quest after a few years away. The band's new line-up seems to have gelled together already, and I hope these six guys and stick together as I would love to hear more of what they have to offer.

The album was released on 13th October 2017 via Inner Wound Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for Lords of Tomorrow.


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Darkness' 'Pinewood Smile' - Album Review

The Darkness are a band that never fail to put a smile on my face. Their back-to-basics brand of hard rock, which fuses the simplicity and groove of AC/DC with the theatrics and melodies of Queen, is instantly memorable and their carefree attitude is refreshing. The Darkness live in a world where rock music ruled the airwaves, and the world is a far better place for that. During their original run, which lasted between 2000 and 2006, the band truly conquered the world. The early 2000s was a time in which traditional rock music was enduring a bit of lull, something which had been going on for quite a few years. The big names in the rock world at the time were all part of the vaguely-defined 'post-grunge' movement with bands like Foo Fighters and Creed really gaining traction. These bands lacked the flamboyance and soaring melodies of old, and failed the scratch the itches of many fans of traditional hard rock. On the other side of the coin, Britpop was still a thing, with Blur and Oasis dominating the musical landscape. In amongst all of this seriousness, a little album called Permission to Land in 2003 reminded the world that rock music is at it's most glorious when it is also somewhat silly. The Darkness' larger the life sound was an instant success, and the band were catapulted into the big time almost immediately. While The Darkness cannot be single-handedly credited with the rise in popularity that classic rock music has once again enjoyed over the past decade or so, I genuinely feel that Permission to Land's release and success played a big part in reminding people that that kind of music still existed. It also introduced lots of younger people to that style of music, and The Darkness really are the classic rock act of the modern generation. Since reforming in 2011 after their big fall out in 2006, the band's trajectory has been much more modest. I doubt The Darkness will ever return to the arenas that they filled on the tour supporting 2005's One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back, but they are still a force to be reckoned with in the rock world. The mid-sized clubs and theatres are the band's homes now, but they seem more than happy with this existence. 2015's Last of Our Kind (which I reviewed here) was a success for the band, and introduced a slightly rawer sound. Two years on and The Darkness have released their fifth album Pinewood Smile, and it is very similar soundwise to Last of Our Kind. It is the first album to feature drummer Rufus Tiger Taylor (Queen + Adam Lambert), which is some kind of ironic wish-fulfilment, but acquits himself well here with a strong drumming performance throughout. Unsurprisingly, Pinewood Smile has been another success for the band, with the album cracking the top 10 of the Official UK Album Charts, finishing off at number 8 the week it came out. It is always good to see some hard rock in the charts!

The album opens with All the Pretty Girls, an upbeat song that carries a tongue-in-cheek message about all of the attention you can get when you are famous. Driven by one of guitarist Dan Hawkins' meat and potatoes riffs, the song's jaunty nature is instantly likeable. This is enhanced with Justin Hawkins' flamboyant vocal performance, which contains a lot of his trademark falsetto during the high-energy chorus, and witty lyrics. Despite his humorous approach to songwriting, I have always thought that his lyrics were always deeper than what they initially seem, and this seems to be the case again here. It is a strong start to the album, and a song that epitomises the band's sound. Buccaneers of Hispaniola is next and continues the fast-paced action of the opening song with a frantic drum beat from Taylor which is accompanied with some hurried guitar chords. The guitarwork throughout here is much busier than the previous song however, with plenty of cheeky little leads thrown in at regular intervals. The song's guitar solo, presumably handled by Justin Hawkins, is a strong moment with plenty of melody and Queen-like sensibilities towards the end. Solid Gold, one of the album's singles, is more of a mid-paced rocker with a great AC/DC-esque riff that drives the entire song as the rhythm section of Taylor and bassist Frankie Poullain form a solid foundation. This is another song about fame, but this time dealing with the music industry itself all wrapped up in the band's trademark humour. The song's chorus is one of the album's most memorable moments, and is sure to become a staple of the band's set. This is also probably the song on the album that is closest to the band's really early sound, with a muscular production and a flashy guitar solo towards the end. Southern Trains is the shortest song here, at just under 3 minutes in length, and it is essentially an expletive-filled rant at the infamous train company that are well-known for their terrible service and numerous lengthy strikes. This is something that reminds me more of Hot Leg, the band that Justin Hawkins fronted while The Darkness were not together at the end of the 2000s, than The Darkness' traditional sound, but it works well with plenty of vocal histrionics and angst-filled lyrics. This is the sort of song that many other bands would include on albums as bonus tracks, if at all, but The Darkness have just slapped it right in the middle of this album's tracklist and they should be commended for always having a good laugh! Why Don't the Beautiful Cry? is one of the band's trademark ballads, with plenty of Queen-esque guitar leads and lyrics which seem to poke fun at the typical power ballad formula that was so successful in the 1980s. While more famous for their anthemic stadium rock, The Darkness have always excelled at slower numbers too, and this is another great effort. While much of the guitarwork here is taken straight from the Queen songbook, the first half of the song's guitar solo actually mimic's Slash's tone so perfectly that you could believe that he had dropped by the studio for a quick jam session!

The band return to their more usual hard rock sound on Japanese Prisoner of Love, which opens with a pretty heavy riff which is certainly more in-your-face than the band's usual style. This does not represent the song as a whole however, which is a real mixed back of styles included verses that have a bit of a folk rock feel with strong drumming, and more melodic sections with twin-guitar harmonies and plenty of choral backing vocals. The band's Queen influence is once again extremely evident here, and fans of that band's early work will love this. Hints of the frantic-ness of Ogre Battle are definitely present here with a good mix of heavier sections of falsetto vocal-led passages. Lay Down With Me, Barbara is another spoof love song, which mixes slower sections with choppy rock sections with some strange guitar riffs. It is not really a ballad however, despite some slow parts, because the choruses really ramp up with some strong power chord riffs. The guitarwork throughout this song is pretty special and really showcases the Hawkins brothers' skills. There are lots of intertwining riffs and leads throughout that are quite different from the band's usual simple riffs. I Wish I Was in Heaven is a light-hearted ditty with an upbeat feel led by Taylor's drums. It steams along at a pretty fast pace throughout, but features an excellent chorus with some of Justin Hawkins' highest vocals on the album. Thin Lizzy-esque guitar leads are also featured in the chorus which helps it to stand out, but the rest of the song has something of a country/folk rock feel throughout which a strong acoustic presence alongside the rockier guitar sounds. Happiness is another jaunty 'love' song, but this time with a very sugary vibe with an almost Top 40 pop chorus which works surprisingly well with the band's more usual style. This is the sort of thing that would sound hideously twee if another band tried it, but The Darkness have always had a way of making this fairly awful concepts work surprisingly well. While I prefer the band's more traditional hard rock sound, it is always good to see them trying out new ideas. The album's closing song Stampede of Love has a strong acoustic presence throughout and features Taylor delivering some of the vocals. His voice is different to Justin Hawkins', but it works well; especially when the two harmonise together. The acoustic guitars throughout give the song a strong country feel, which again is something new for the band. It works quite well however, with some slide guitar parts throughout to emphasise this. It does start to rock harder towards the end however, with a power chord-heavy section with gang vocals and a strident guitar solo. Overall, Pinewood Smile is an album that follows the sound the band have been pursuing since their 2011 reunion. While not as strong as their early albums, this is still an excellent listen packed with great riffs, solos, and plenty of fun lyrics.

The album was released on 6th October 2017 via Canary Dwarf Limited/Cooking Vinyl Limited. Below is the band's promotional video for Solid Gold.