Monday, 27 February 2017

Black Star Riders' 'Heavy Fire' - Album Review

It is rare that a new rock band comes along in the 21st Century and makes an impact quite like Black Star Riders have. Since releasing their debut album All Hell Breaks Loose (which I reviewed here) in 2013, the band have gone from strength to strength and are now certainly one of the most talked-about modern hard rock bands. In fairness, Black Star Riders certainly had a head start. The band are a supergroup in the truest sense of the term, and were formed out of the ashes of a very successful Thin Lizzy reunion. Frontman Ricky Warwick and guitarists Scott Gorham and Damon Johnson wanted to write music together, but were wary of doing so under the Thin Lizzy banner. Black Star Riders was the result of this wish to write new music, and over the course of the past few years the band has been embraced with open arms by the rock community. Warwick, Gorham, and Johnson; joined by original drummer Jimmy DeGrasso and long-time bassist Robbie Crane; have really made their mark. The band's second album, The Killer Instinct (which I reviewed here), was released in 2015 and only helped to cement the band's reputation. The year was a successful one too, with plenty of touring. 2015 ended with the band supporting Whitesnake and Def Leppard on a large run of UK shows, ensuring the year went out on a high. 2016 was an uncharacteristically quiet year for Black Star Riders, but the down time was spent wisely working on what was to become their third album. This latest opus, titled Heavy Fire, was released earlier this month and has impressed the band's fanbase in the same way that the previous two records did. As with their previous two albums also, Heavy Fire received some mainstream attention and managed to reach number 6 in the Official UK Album Chart. All Hell Breaks Loose made it into the top 30, and The Killer Instinct made it into the top 20, so for Heavy Fire to reach the top 10 is an excellent achievement for the band and shows that rock is still very much alive and well in the UK. Granted, the charts are nowhere near as important or representative of the UK public's music consumption habits as they once were, but is still a great PR coup to get a high placing! Following the success of The Killer Instinct, the band once again worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz at his studio in Nashville to record Heavy Fire. Soundwise, Heavy Fire is very similar to the previous two albums and shows that the Warwick/Johnson writing partnership is as fruitful as it has been over the past few years. Despite the familiar sound, there are a few new ideas thrown in here and there. A few tracks feature female backing vocals, which adds a gospel/soul element to the band's patented twin-guitar hard rock sound, and this helps to ensure the songs here sound fresh while still staying true to the sound the band have established over the previous two albums.

The album wastes no time in setting out it's stall with the muscular title track, complete with a heavy mid-paced riff and a driving verse propelled along by a raw-sounding drum beat. Warwick's voice, that sits somewhere between the storytelling tones of Phil Lynott and the rough edge of Bruce Springsteen, really excels in environments such this this and, although the song's lyrics and melodies are sometimes a bit of a mouthful, shines. The song eschews traditional structure, with one chorus-type section coming toward the middle with the rest of the song being made up of various riff-driven parts with lots of excellent slide guitar. When the Night Comes In is more of a traditional Black Star Riders rocker, and the first of two songs to feature the vocal talents of Wendy Moten, Gale Mayes, and Drea Rhenee. This is a very vocally-driven song, without much of the twin-lead guitar style that the band's sound is founded on, and is more reminiscent of the slightly punky singer-songwriter style found on Warwick's recent solo efforts. The female backing vocals really help to add a certain degree of class to the chorus, and in turn help this album to stand out from the previous two recorded by the band. The simplicity of the song is sure to make it a future live favourite, and it is hard to see it leaving the band's setlists any time soon. Dancing with the Wrong Girl, the first Black Star Riders to be co-written by Crane, is the first on the album to really hark back to the classic Thin Lizzy sound. The understated, fuzzy power chord riffs, and the short bursts of wah-drenched lead guitars scream that band's 1970s heyday, and Crane's prominent bassline is one Lynott himself would have been proud of. As with Thin Lizzy too the song is never in-your-face heavy, but content to sit back on a groove and just let the rhythms and riffs do the heavy lifting. There is also a short, but extremely sweet, dual-guitar solo which show that Gorham and Johnson are a guitar pairing to be reckoned with. Who Rides the Tiger is a faster, heavier song with more of Warwick's punky influences thrown in. A strong call-and-response chorus, drenched in subtle keyboard melodies, is the song's centrepiece; but strong riffs and bouncy rhythms contribute to the song's overall power. More than anything else however, this is a real guitarists dream with plenty of chances for both Gorham and Johnson to shine with flashy lead breaks. There is a relatively lengthy instrumental mid-section which sees the first real shredding of the album, which is a change from the more calculated soloing seen elsewhere. If Heavy Fire has a ballad, then Cold War Love is it. Another song co-written by Crane, Cold War Love mixes downbeat verses, with guitar notes that really remind me of a ticking clock, with smooth choruses with subtle guitar leads and some beautiful vocals from Warwick. Blindsided from The Killer Instict is still the band's best ballad, but this one runs it fairly close and provides a great mid-album respite from all the rock.

Those who want a bit more of the classic Thin Lizzy sound need look no further than Testify or Say Goodbye which, right from the outset, is full of the band's patented twin-guitar leads and drumming packed full of swing. The chorus is probably the album's best, and sees Warwick ably assisted by the powerful rock voice of Pearl Aday which certainly helps to add some weight. Hammond organ, played by famed session musician Fred Mandel, also helps to add some real 1970s-style feelings to the song despite only ever sitting comfortably in the background. It is the guitarwork that shines the most here however, and the main twin-guitar riff is easily one of the most memorable moments of the entire album. Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed opens with a potent bassline from Crane which drives the entire song. The verses are all about this snaking melody, while the two guitarists add colour with ringing, clean chords. Sadly, the chorus is a little weak and fails to live up the laid-back vibe that is created during the sparse verses. I think the main problem is that the lyrics are just a little wordy and you feel Warwick is struggling a little to make them fit. That is something that crops up occasionally throughout this album, and it seems a little strange as I have never noticed this before from him. True Blue Kid is another riffy song, with some really great guitar melodies throughout with Gorham and Johnson constantly playing something different but remain perfectly in tune with each other. Despite this however, the song just does not really stick with me. The vocal melodies just are not that memorable and fail to really resonate. The use of wah on the guitars throughout is great however, and the guitar solo is in classic Thin Lizzy style that you can almost hear the guitar singing! After a couple of weaker numbers, Ticket to Rise really comes along and gives the album the kick it needs! A massive, bluesy riff drives the song; and the strong grooves of the verses are just so infectious with the band's two guitarists and bassist really locking in perfectly. The three ladies who added their vocal skills to When the Night Comes In return here and it is on this song that they really shine. The gospel/soul-style that their vocals add really compliment the heavy blues of the rest of the song. Warwick's voice really mixes well with them too, and the effect is pretty special. Along with this, the song's guitar solo is one of the best on the album too. As the song moves towards it's climax, it gets even more powerful with lots of freestyle vocals from the three ladies as they sing over the song's fantastic riff. After the more mid-paced groove of Ticket to Rise, the album has one more fast-paced number left in the tank to ensure the album ends with some energy. Letting Go of Me is the first Black Star Riders song to be solely credited to Warwick, but it still has all the trademarks of the band's sound. The surprisingly laid-back guitar style, despite the song's obvious energy, actually ends up making it sound more powerful; and the simple but strong chorus helps to provide one last hook. It is a good song to end the album on, and ensures the energy remains until the end. Overall, Heavy Fire certainly carries on the good work established on the band's first couple of albums while adding a few subtle new ideas into the Black Star Riders canon. With their sound and style now well and truly established, Black Star Riders are one of the most exciting bands in rock and this album only cements that feeling.

The album was released on 3rd February 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Testify or Say Goodbye.


Saturday, 25 February 2017

Xandria's 'Theater of Dimensions' - Album Review

Despite being around in some form or another since 1997, German symphonic metal band Xandria still seem to be confined to the genre's edges and have always failed to compete with some more the established giants of their field. Founding member and guitarist Marco Heubaum has been the band's leader and principle songwriter since the band was formed, and he has been joined by a variety of others during the band's history. Guitarist Philip Restemeier and drummer Gerit Lamm have appeared on all of the band's albums to date and have formed the band's core along with Heubaum since 2001. The band's early career, which co-indices with frontwoman Lisa Middelhauve's tenure with Xandria, was characterised with an ethereal, gothic-inspired sound that certainly set them apart from the crowd. More similarities could be drawn with bands like The Gathering and Stream of Passion than bands like Nightwish and Epica. This changed in 2010 with the arrival of frontwoman Manuela Kraller, and the album released two years later Neverworld's End. It had been five years since 2007's Salomé - The Seventh Veil, and the change of vocalist and the passing of time had clearly influenced Heubaum to take a new direction. Neverworld's End saw Xandria enter the world of symphonic power metal, with more than an early nod to early Nightwish. With Nightwish long moving away from their synth-heavy early sound, Xandria clearly felt they could fill that void. To some extent they did just that and Neverworld's End was a success for them. Kraller and long-time bassist Nils Middelhauve departed the band in the intervening period after the album's release and tour, which seemed like it would halt any potential momentum the band had gained during the Neverworld's End tour. This was not to be the case however, as frontwoman Dianne van Giersbergen and bassist Steven Wussow were added to the band in 2013, and this line-up of Xandria has been rocking the world and gathering even more momentum since. Sacrificium, released in 2014, built on the symphonic power metal sound of Neverworld's End but it just seemed to feel more natural and less forced this time around. Quite a lot of touring followed, which is possibly why it took three years for the band's seventh album Theater of Dimensions to materialise, but it was worth the wait as this feels like the album the band have been working towards since Neverworld's End. van Giersbergen really comes into her own on her second studio album with the band, and co-writes half of the album here along with Heubaum and producer Joost van den Broek. As with all of van den Broek's recent production efforts, Theater of Dimensions sounds huge and heavy, and is a great representation of the band's sound. There are a few guests vocalists used at choice moments throughout the album too to mix things up a bit and give van Giersbergen someone to bounce vocal lines and ideas off.

The album's opener, Where the Heart is Home, wastes little time getting things underway. While van den Broek's orchestral arrangement in the beginning is certainly basic and follows melodies and rhythms heard countless times, it still works well to establish the album's mood. When the chugging guitar rhythms come in however, things really take off and the song transforms into a strong mid-paced rocker with van Giersbergen's operatic vocals really dominating the sparse verses. She has a very diverse voice, and can do the straight ahead rock vocals just as well as the classically-trained warbles, but in this song she sticks to the latter and really helps to give the song some class as the two guitarists riff away beneath her. Guitar solos are something rarely used in symphonic metal, but Xandria have always made roof for them in their sound. A short burst of shredding here really helps to mix things up, and give the song some true metal pedigree at the same time. Built on a strong rhythmic base from Lamm's drumming, Death to the Holy really brings the power metal element of Xandria's modern sound to the fore. The song picks up the pace from the previous one, and makes strong use of more upbeat melodies, especially those that van Giersbergen sings. The song's chorus is the first really catchy moment of the album, and the large choir gives van Giersbergen something to compete with, and it helps to really bring out her power. Lamm's drumming throughout the song is excellent too, with lots of little off-kilter fills and rhythms that sit well alongside the more tried-and-tested double bass attacks. Forsaken Love starts off as a ballad, with beautiful piano and uillean pipe melodies, the latter played by Johannes Schiefner, that act as a perfect backing for van Giersbergen's subtle vocals. While the song does get somewhat heavier as it moves along, it still retains the early beauty as the piano and pipes still dominate the mix. Wussow's bass is actually more of a driving factor than the guitars here, and helps to provide some weight below the folkier overtones of the song. Call of Destiny, chosen by the band to shoot a video for, is also full of all the power metal trappings that they have embraced really. The flashy keyboard run, set to a grinding guitar backdrop, in the song's opening comes out of nowhere to add a huge chunk of melody, and the chorus is a real winner with powerful hooks and an excellent vocal performance from van Giersbergen. This is an uncomplicated song, and one that screams single as soon as you hear it so it is no surprise that the band shot a video for it! We are Murderers (We All) is heavier and makes use of the vocal talents of Björn 'Speed' Strid (Soilwork) throughout to help with this vibe. The quasi-death metal riffing, backed up by doomy piano chords and some furious drumming, sets the tone for the song, and there is clearly a big influence taken from Epica's recent work here with dramatic orchestral sections and a huge choral arrangement. Strid's vocals are used sparingly, but his deep growls are a great contrast to van Giersbergen's clear vocals and the pair work well together. There is a fairly lengthy guitar solo here too, which helps to really add to the overall metal feel of the song. After the heavier overtones of the previous song, Dark Night of the Soul pairs things back somewhat and is a extremely beautiful piano ballad with some emotional vocals from van Giersbergen. The song is extremely well placed on the album, and works in perfect contrast to the previous heavier number. There is even a lengthy bluesy guitar solo which sounds so different to anything else on the album. The phrasing of the solo works perfectly within the context on the song and really seems like an extent of the vocal performance rather than anything else. When the Walls Came Down (Heartache Was Born) is one of my favourite songs on the album, and this is due to it's simplicity and big, catchy melodies. The chorus is easily the album's best, with playful melodies that really sink deep into your brain and stay with you after only one listen. There is nothing particularly fancy about the song, it is just packed full of great songwriting ideas and enough hooks to make it really stand out.

Ship of Doom is more of a mid-paced rocker, with the vocal talents of Ross Thompson (Van Canto) used throughout. I have to say, his strange vocal sections stick out like a sore thumb however and add very little to the song. van Giersbergen's parts are great, but his almost rap-like vocal patterns just clash with the orchestral metal of the rest of the song and I fail to see what Xandria were attempting to add with this strange vocal sections. I feel this is one of the album's weakest moments, and the strange vocals play a big part in this. Céilí is the album's shortest song at just over three minutes long and it is also the album's only instrumental. Metal guitar riffs are mixed well with folky instrumentation to create a jig-like piece of music that is uplifting and extremely catchy. Flutes and violins drive the piece, while the guitars, bass, and drums provide a solid backing. There are plenty of short bursts of lead guitar too, highlighting the talents of the band's two guitarists. Song for Sorrow and Woe, despite sounding more like a My Dying Bride song title than a Xandria one, is surprisingly uplifting and full of epic orchestration than you might expect from a song with that title. van Giersbergen relies heavily on the operatic side of her voice here, and it works wonders as she competes with the large choir and gigantic symphonic arrangements. She owns the song's mid section too, where she sings with only a subtle symphonic backing, and demonstrates what a powerful and diverse vocalist she is. Burn Me features the excellent vocals of Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), and his Eastern-tinged vocals help to influence the entire direction of the song. There are quite a few melodies here that have that Middle Eastern tint to them, which makes Zorgati's unique vocals feel right at home, but there is enough bombast here to appeal to anyone who likes early Nightwish too. The pomp-inspired synths and huge choral backing make the song feel huge, and the vocal interplay between van Giersbergen and Zorgati is great. He even gets a section to himself where he sings what sounds like an Arabic chant, and it works really well. Despite a slow start, Queen of Hearts Reborn is another Epica-inspired song. While the comparisons might be a little too close for some, van Giersbergen's melodies are very similar to Simone Simons' phrasing, the song is packed full of strong performances that is barely seems to matter. Slower paced, heavy sections with crushing guitar riffs and dramatic spoken word sections mix well with more upbeat, orchestra driven sections with a wall or choral vocals to add extra drama. The album's final song is the 14 minute plus epic title track, which, like all long song certainly takes quite a few listens to fully appreciate. It moves through many different sections, heavy and mellow, throughout it's run time. Guitar solos, strong vocals, epic orchestral atmospherics, over-the-top spoken word sections, and guest vocals from Henning Basse (Metalium; Sons of Seasons; MaYaN; Firewind) all add together to make for a great progressive symphonic metal song that is a great way to end this strong album. Basse's vocals, right off the back of his excellent debut with Firewind on last month's Immortals, really hams it up here and his dramatic vocal delivery really fits the mood of the song. Overall, Theater of Dimensions is another strong album from Xandria what has been a bit of rebirth for the band since 2012's Neverworld's End. The band has never been as experimental or forward-thinking as they have on this album (despite some close similarities to Epica and Nightwish in places) and hopefully they continue this trend on their next album.

The album was released on 27th January 2017 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Call of Destiny.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Firewind - London Review

Firewind have been on somewhat of a self-imposed exile over the past few years. Founding member and guitarist Gus G. has been busy with other things; namely touring with Ozzy Osbourne, and releasing and touring behind solo albums; and the departure/firing of longtime frontman Apollo Papathanasio seemed like a good reason to put the Greek power metal band on ice for a few years. Despite having been associated with many different bands over the years, it is with Firewind that G. has found the most recognition and respect from. His heavier, more guitar-orientated take on the well-trodden power metal path certainly sets Firewind apart from the pack, and has allowed the band to become the primary vehicle for G.'s guitar pyrotechnics and songwriting abilities. Journeyman metal vocalist Henning Basse, who had been working with G. on his solo tours, was finally announced as the band's new frontman back in 2015, and a few festival shows introduced the band's new line-up last year. It took until last month however for a new studio album to see the light of day. It marked Basse's recording debut with the band and the result, Immortals, is an extremely strong piece of work. It is easily the band's best album since 2008's The Premonition, and possibly before that, and harks back to the band's heavier earlier albums. A UK tour to support the album was always going to be a tour that had to be attended, and a trip to London's Underworld venue to catch the band in action was planned. Camden's Underworld is certainly not my favourite venue in London, but it does seem to have had a bit of a makeover of late (especially the toilets which used to be truly awful), and I have to say my opinion on the place is softening somewhat. The sound is usually very good there at least, and it does seem to be one of those places that manages to generate a good atmosphere.

Before Firewind however, the growing crowd was treated to two support acts. Greece's Scar of the Sun were up first and played for around 30 minutes that was growing all the while they were on the stage. Sadly however, the band did very little for me and churned out a set that after a couple of numbers really did all begin to sound the same. The band had all the ingredients that should make for a good band, and some of their riffs were pretty good, but the songs just lacked any real hooks for my liking. Sadly I find this is often the case with unknown support acts, especially in the metal world, so Scar of the Sun will be added to the long list of bands I have tried but just cannot get into.

Sweden's Manimal were much better. Presumably named after the obscure W.A.S.P. song, the band were clearly influenced by metal from the 1980s. The strange corpse paint-esque make-up was clearly a tribute to bands like Mercyful Fate, and frontman Samuel Nyman certainly had the voice to suit that type of music as he let out plenty of high-pitched screams throughout their set. While not exactly classic or original, Manimal were certainly enjoyable during their time on stage and they are probably a band I will look into more at some point. Those who enjoy vocalists like Tim 'Ripper' Owens and the late Midnight will probably appreciate Manimal's style, and I am sure they made a few new fans at the Camden Underworld - many were even chanting their name as they left the stage!

Firewind were the main draw however, and by the time they hit the stage the place was pretty full. I was glad that the band decided to throw so much new material into the set, clearly showing how proud they are of Immortals. I always feel that bands should stand behind their new material live, and it was great to see Firewind do just that. All eight of the band's albums were represented in the set too, which certainly helped to provide some depth of material and familiarity to long-time fans. Ode to Leonidas was the perfect way to start the evening, with the cheesy spoken word intro playing as the band members took to the stage. Basse, on his first full headline tour as an official Firewind member was on fire all night and proved why he might just well be the band's best frontman yet. He excellent on the new material, for obvious reasons, but managed to take the older songs and make them his own with ease too. We Defy and Head up High followed and the upbeat, fast nature of these songs allowed for a bit of movement from the crowd and the atmosphere really started to build. G. is of course the star of any Firewind show however, and he soloed his heart out all night. I like the fact that he never drags any of his solos out, and they are always there to serve the melodies of the overall song. Bob Katsionis (guitar/keyboards) is just as worthy of the 'star of the show' mantle too, with his constant switching between his two instruments and his fluid keyboard solos which can more than match G.'s guitar solos for incendiary note runs and exciting melodies. He especially shone on Hands of Time which features on of his best keyboard solos. My personal highlight of the night was the power ballad Lady of 1000 Sorrows, which featured and lengthy guitar/keyboard intro. Basse showed that he could deliver and emotional, 1980s-style performance with ease and it was the only song in the set that saw the pace slow down somewhat. This style suits Firewind really well, and I hope they write more songs in this style in the future. The set was rounded off with some real classics, including the shredding instrumental showcase The Fire and the Fury, which of course is G.'s signature song, but Katsionis also impressed with a section where he shredded on both his keyboard and guitar at the same time! The poppy single Mercenary Man and the thrashy anthem Tyranny saw the main set come to a close. There were plenty of 'Firewind' chants as the band left the stage, and of course there was time for a couple more. The epic new number Live and Die by the Sword went down well, before the bouncy Falling to Pieces, which seems well-entrenched now as the band's final song at shows, saw some jumping from the faithful towards the front and plenty of singing from everyone else. The band left the stage to huge applause from a group of fans who are pleased the band are in business! The setlist was:

Ode to Leonidas
We Defy
Head up High
Few Against Many
Between Heaven and Hell
Back on the Throne
Hands of Time
Wars of Ages
Lady of 1000 Sorrows
World on Fire
The Fire and the Fury
Mercenary Man
Tyranny
-
Live and Die by the Sword
Falling to Pieces

Overall this was a great night from a band that have probably never got the recognition they deserve, but are currently on top form and out there promoting a really strong new album. I hope Firewind are back for good now, and G. puts all of his efforts back into writing and touring with them!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Trivium - Nottingham Review

I have been a Trivium fan since around the time The Crusade was released in 2006, and have enjoyed their rise from the original melodic metalcore scene that dominated the mid-2000s to a polished and heavy modern metal band with a large global fanbase with seven well-received albums to their name. I first saw Trivium on the touring cycle for The Crusade at the Plymouth Pavilions in 2007, and from what I remember it was a great show. It was the first gig that I went to on my own, and it therefore was a very important step on the road which I am now miles down. Despite regular UK tours since, I have been unable to make a Trivium headline show since for a variety of reasons. They always seem to come at bad times, when the gig calendar is already pretty full and other life events need more attention. This was rectified two years ago when I saw the band headline Bloodstock Open Air Festival in 2015. The was the first show of the Silence in the Snow touring cycle, although the album would not be released for a couple more months, and it was a triumphant show that demonstrated that Trivium are capable of stepping up the plate and pulling out all the stops. Sadly this set was not as well-received by many of the Bloodstock faithful (reading the Bloodstock forums would lead you to believe that Trivium's 2015 performance was one of the festival's worst) but then Trivium have for some reason always been on the receiving end of a large amount of stick from portions of the metal community - probably due to their association with the metalcore scene all those years ago; or for deviating somewhat from their successful early sound with various tweaks and experimentations. I was glad then when the final leg of the Silence in the Snow touring cycle was announced and contained a few UK shows, one of which I could easily make. Nottingham always feels like a bit of a second home to me having spent so much time there when I was at University, and I have seen many great bands at Rock City over the years.

Before Trivium graced the stage however the crowd was treated to a couple of support acts, the first of which was British modern metalcore act Shvpes. While this sort of music will never my favourite, I liked the Killswitch Engage/early Trivium-style metalore but everything else since has left me cold, Shvpes put on a good show for the half an hour or so they were on stage and managed to create quite a bit of energy in the room. The mix of heavier verses with pseudo-harsh vocals and more melodic choruses has been done to death now, but Shvpes managed to make it sound fresher than many others who have attempted the style recently. I think this was helped by frontman Griffin Dickinson's stage presence and he danced around the stage, and even got into the crowd at one point, whipping up energy as he went. While Shvpes will never really be my thing, and let's be honest their name is awful, they gave a good account of themselves in Nottingham and doubtless made themselves a few new fans in the process.

Tech metal pioneers SikTh are a band I have always struggled with, and seeing the band live on their reunion tour in Plymouth in 2014 did little to alter my opinion of them. The whole tech metal, and eventual djent, scene does absolutely nothing for me at all and SikTh were an integral part of getting that movement off the ground during the early part of the 2000s. That being said, their set at this show was more enjoyable than anything I have heard/seen from the band before. It might be that it was condensed and shorter than usual, but some of their songwriting seemed to make more sense this time around. Frontman, emcee, and all-round weirdo Mikee Goodman has one of the strangest and most versatile voices in metal as he screeches and croons his way through SikTh's caustic and technical music. Despite being a guitarist down, which oddly was not acknowledged at all by the band, SikTh managed to make more sense to me than they ever have. I will never be a SikTh fan, but I think I am slowly beginning to see why they are held in such high regard.

Despite SikTh getting a great reaction from the crowd, it was no secret that everyone was there to see Trivium. By this point, Rock City was packed out and when the houselights went down and the band took to the stage with Rain from 2005's Ascendancy the energy levels in the crowd really ramped up and this did not let off for the entire length of the band's 90 minute set. Despite being part of the Silence in the Snow touring cycle, only three songs from that album were played with the band opting to play a good mix of songs from across their back catalogue with all seven of their albums represented at least once. While it was somewhat disappointing not to hear more of the newer material, what was played went down so well that it seems churlish to complain. From the outset it was great to see that Matt Heafy (vocals/guitar) was in such great form vocally. He has had more than his fair share of vocal issues in recent years, which has seen Corey Beaulieu (vocals/guitar) taking the lion's share of the lead harsh vocal lines live, but this time around Heafy took back on much of the harsh vocal responsibilities, still ably assisted by Beaulieu, and sounded great for it! This allowed songs like Forsake not the Dream, which was also a showcase for new drummer Alex Bent, to sound more like the original recorded versions with Heafy back on (mostly) full vocal duties. Rise Above the Tides, from the latest album, was an early highlight and showed that the new material can easily stand up alongside the older classics despite being much more stripped-back and melodic in tone overall. Strangely enough it was a song from The Crusade, an album that was dismissed by many when it first came out, that saw a lot of movement early on in the set. Entrance of the Conflagration saw a rather large mosh pit open up on the venue's floor and it was great to see so many really getting into the music. The only song I feel that should be permanently retired now is the rather twee Dying in Your Arms, which definitely feels like an offshoot of the emo culture that was big at the time in 2005 and does not sit well alongside the modern, slick, heavy songs that Trivium have crafted since. It was the only weak point in an otherwise strong setlist that showcased the best of the band's history. The second half of the show was best however, with the pseudo-prog metal of Throes of Perdition kicking the action up into the next gear, before Silence in the Snow saw one of the biggest crowd sing-a-long sections of the evening with the large Rock City crowd drowning out the band at times. This song was also one of the few where Paulo Gregoletto (bass guitar/vocals) was clearly audible, as sadly he was often burried in the mix. The band even celebrated the re-release of their 2003 debut album Ember to Inferno, which was out of print until late last year, with a rendition of the crushing opening track Pillars of Serpents which has aged surprisingly well, and certainly felt more at home in the set than Dying in Your Arms! The last three songs were real crowd pleasers with A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation, newbie Until the World Goes Cold, and Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr all following in quick succession to cap off a fantastic set of metal anthems. There was of course time for one more, and In Waves followed. This seems to have become the band's traditional finishing song now, and the strong groves of the song make for an excellent display of crowd movement live. It ensured the night ended on a high, and displayed why Trivium are held in such high regard by many. The setlist was:

The End of Everything
Rain
Forsake not the Dream
Down from the Sky
Rise Above the Tides
Entrance of the Conflagration
The Deceived
Dying in Your Arms
Strife
Dusk Dismantled
Throes of Perdition
Silence in the Snow
Pillars of Serpents
A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation
Until the World Goes Cold
Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr
-
Capsizing the Sea
In Waves

Overall this was a fantastic evening of live metal in Nottingham from a band that really is part of furniture now in the modern world of heavy metal. Trivium have more than earned their place in this canon, and I am sure they will continue to impress for many years to come.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Kreator's 'Gods of Violence' - Album Review

2016 was the 'Year of the Thrash' with many major thrash bands releasing great albums that all added to their legacies. Megadeth, Anthrax, Death Angel, Testament, and Metallica (plus others I am sure) all released excellent albums last year. Megadeth's excellent Dystopia was even afforded a well-deserved place in my Top 10 Albums of the Year list for 2016. It seems fitting that this monumental year for thrash should be book ended by two other excellent thrash releases. Slayer released Repentless towards the back end of 2015, and 2017 has started with a bang for the genre as German teutonic thrash giants Kreator have released their long-awaited fourteenth studio album Gods of Violence. Since forming back in 1982, Kreator have been a hugely influential band and are rightly revered in the metal world. The German teutonic thrash scene, which Kreator pioneered along with bands like Destruction and Sodom, was always heavier and more aggressive than their American Bay Area counterparts. While all thrash music is heavily influenced by classic heavy rock/metal and punk, the German bands certainly took more from punk attitude than their American peers. The NWOBHM movement was also a big influence on all thrash, but where Metallica took influence from Diamond Head and Saxon; Kreator took influence from Venom and Tank. This put the German bands on a much heavier path than the Americans, and created a sound which is actually closer to extreme metal than anything else. Early Kreator albums were certainly touchstones for the European black and death metal bands that followed in the following years, with founding member, guitarist, and vocalist Mille Petrozza's raspy, aggressive vocal style certainly forming the blueprint for all black metal screechers to come. As influential as early albums such as 1985's Endless Pain and 1986's Pleasure to Kill are, the past fifteen years or so have seen the band settle down somewhat into a slightly more accessible sound that relies heavily on the Gothenburg melodic death metal scene for influence. The Kreator of 2017 are far less punky and extreme as the Kreator of 1985, but that is not to say they are less powerful. The sound is cleaner, mainly due to better production facilities and budgets, and the songs are more hook-driven, but the same thrash attitude and song are still there. Gods of Violence is the band's fifth album to feature the band's current line-up, made up of founding members Petrozza and drummer Ventor ; bassist Christian Giesler who joined the band in 1994; and Finnish guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö who joined in 2001. It is the band's second album released through the giant metal label Nuclear Blast, and second to be produced by revered metal producer Jens Bogren. As is Bogren's style, Gods of Violence sounds extremely heavy and aggressive but the material here still sounds very clear and powerful. This is an album that definitely follows the band's blueprint of the past 15 or so years, but still manages to add something positive to their legacy with strong songwriting and performances.

After the percussive orchestral guitar intro Apocalypticon, a staple of many metal albums, the album gets underway with the fast and heavy World War Now. We expect thrash to be fast, but the song's main riff still manages to catch the listener off guard as it steams in in all it's Gothenburg glory. While some thrash vocalists loose their edge and anger over the years, Petrozza sounds as good now as he has ever done, he native German accent adding a heavier and more menacing edge than many of his peers. The song mixes extremely fast, almost hardcore punky, choruses with barked lyrics, with more methodical verses that are built on a solid and memorable riff. Drummer Ventor has lost none of his dexterity either, with the drumming during the choruses in particular being punishing. World War Now certainly sets out the band's thrash stall, but the next song, Satan is Real takes a much slower route. It is not just the tolling church bell in the song's intro that brings Black Sabbath to mind, and some of the slower moments here bring to mind the doom of the British legends. Petrozza and Yli-Sirniö's twin-lead guitar melodies help to add plenty of hooks throughout, and the slow, repetitive chorus just buries itself in your head. Not all thrash has to be played at break-neck speed, and these more crushingly heavy songs often help to provide variety on thrash albums. The guitar solo, presumably played by Yli-Sirniö but the album's booklet does not specify, is excellent too with plenty of technical but melodic runs. Totalitarian Terror brings another injection of speed to the album, and opens with a flurry of double bass drumming and Gothenbury-style riffing. This riff and drum pattern also forms the backbone of the chorus, which is easily one of the album's best, The melody and power in the riff, combined with some slightly left-field vocal melodies, makes for a strong combination that has a classic heavy metal feel but with an extreme metal bent. Some of the vocal melodies are almost Dio-esque! This vibe continues with the guitar solo, which much less of a shred-fest than many of the others on the album. It is the clear the band still continue to take influence for classic heavy metal and hard rock. The album's title track is one of the best songs here, and it opens in beautiful style with acoustic guitar and harp melodies that offer a little respite from all the heaviness that has gone on so far. The slightly Asian-inspired melodies are different from the sort of thing the band would usually do, and even when the opening guitar lead kicks in the melodies persist. Unsurprisingly, this gentle period does not last long, and the song proper soon comes with another furious riff that certainly has elements of early black and death metal about it. It is clear to see why Kreator had such an influence on the emerging extreme metal scenes of the late 1980s, and those elements are still very much present in the band's sound. This song is packed full of memorable riffs that constantly surprise, and the gang vocal section in the chorus is really made to be played live! Army of Storms leaves behind the extreme elements of the band's sound, and instead takes more cues from classic heavy metal with a less claustrophobic and more basic sound. Not many thrash songs are truly 'sing along' classics, but this one certainly is. Petrozza's vocal melodies throughout are extremely memorable, and the catchy guitar leads that often sit just beneath the vocals certainly helps the accessibility of the song. There is even a bit of a breakdown here that is similar to things the metalcore scene was doing in the mid-2000s!

This more accessible theme is something that is carried on in Hail to the Hordes. I read a review of this album where someone compared this song to Alestorm, and I know what they mean, but they were using it as a bit of an insult whereas I like this song. A thrash song and a fun catchy song do not have to be mutually exclusive, and this is easily one of the catchiest Kreator songs for a while. This song is clearly meant to be heard live, and I can just picture a large crowd really singing this song back at the band during a concert. The chorus does have a slight sea shanty vibe to it, and the guitar leads that are used throughout only help to cement this feeling; plus there are even bagpipes in the mix, although they can be quite hard to hear! It is certainly a song that is quite different from most of the rest of the material found here, but bands are allowed to have a bit of fun occasionally. Lion with Eagle Wings opens with a rather haunting whispered vocal section before the rest of the song comes crashing in and dispels any notions that the band had gone 'soft' all of a sudden with the previous song. The classic metal feel is still very present however, with some big power chord stabs that sit nicely alongside the true thrash sections with ease. The chorus actually sounds like a heavier version of Iron Maiden, with similar guitar leads and vocal melodies to that band's trademark style. A chugging riff heralds the opening of the crunchy mid-paced rocker Fallen Brother which returns to the vibes that Satan is Real promoted earlier on in the album. In fact, the songs' choruses are quite similar, with similar uses of repetition for maximum effect. I would say however that this song does not quite reach the heights of the former as it does not have the menace or bite of Satan is Real. A German spoken-word section towards the end does help to ramp these thing up a little however. The German language always sounds so menacing to non-speakers! Side by Side is the last true out and out thrasher on the album, and steams along at break-neck speed for most of it's short run time. As with the previous song, this is one that does not reach the heights of other songs on the album. It has a great energy however which certainly helps to remain an enjoyable listen - especially during the chorus which is again boosted by a strong guitar lead. It is one of the album's shorter numbers too, so it does not outstay it's welcome despite not being counted among the album's best pieces. The album comes to a close with the seven minute-plus Death Becomes my Light. a song which is book ended by clean guitar sections with mournful vocals from Petrozza. This is not something the band does very often, but it is used to good effect here. Petrozza's true clean vocals are not exactly that great, but they just about work, and a heavy galloping riff soon takes over and the song becomes a real headbanger's dream. This is a song that reveals more about itself the more you hear it, and the chorus here could be the jewel in the album's crown. The effects-driven clean guitar melodies that cut through the heavy mix while Petrozza howls the choruses make a real difference, and make the song sound like nothing else on the album. While not as fast and thrashy as many of the songs here, Death Becomes my Light is a really excellent piece of heavy metal that fuses many different riffs and passages together with ease and makes good use of light and shade. It is a fitting end to a strong album, and a song that transcends many of the usual thrash clichés. Overall, Gods of Violence is another very strong album from Kreator in a run of good albums that does not appear to be coming to a halt any time soon. While other thrash bands are bigger and get more plaudits, Kreator are one of the most reliable and consistent, and I am sure they will continue to impress.

The album was released on 27th January 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Gods of Violence.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Epica/Powerwolf - London Review

In the world of symphonic metal, Epica are one of the biggest and most popular bands. They are also one of the heaviest and most dynamic, with a sound that is as epic and orchestral as it is brutal and heavy. Since 2014, and the release of sixth album The Quantum Enigma which really pushed the band's sound and production style forward, Epica have been playing bigger venues when touring the UK. The past two London shows (in 2014 and 2015) were at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town which seems to be the venue of choice for the bigger European metal bands at the moment. Crowds at both shows were great, and bringing strong special guests with them each time (DragonForce in 2014 and Eluveitie in 2015) would have certainly helped the turnout. Unfortunately I could not make the 2014 show, which eventually sold out anyway, but the 2015 show was excellent and showed the benefit of building a bill to fit the audience. The show with Eluveitie was almost a co-headline one, with Eluveitie getting a good length set of their own and many of their fans were present too. Since then, Epica have released The Holographic Principle album which carries on the great work started on The Quantum Enigma. As part of a wider European tour, a one-off stop in London was scheduled in promote the new material. The slightly smaller O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire was chosen as the venue this time, which is not quite as good a place to watch music as the O2 Forum, but the capacity is pretty similar. It was not a sold out show, but it was certainly as good as with a good vocal crowd in the venue all evening. Carrying on the tradition of bringing strong guests with them, Epica this time teamed up with German power metal band Powerwolf who are a band who's stock is certainly rising. In fact, this was more of a co-headline tour, with the two bands swapping who would close the show depending on who was the bigger draw in each city. London is clearly Epica's territory, so they headlined this show and had a longer overall set, but Powerwolf still had a good length set and treated the show as if it was their own!

Before either of those bands played however, the crowd were treated to half an hour or so from German up-and-coming symphonic metal band Beyond the Black who I was previously familiar with in name only. Led by frontwoman Jennifer Haben, the six piece band are not as grandiose or experimental as bands like Epica but instead focus on writing tight and memorable songs. I would compare them to Delain in this respect, as the songs are very melody driven and focus on strong vocals and more basic arrangements than an over-the-top production. Despite their short time on stage, they made a big impression on me. Haben herself proved to be an excellent singer and frontwoman who interacted well with the crowd and led her musicians through the highly-polished set with ease. I was impressed with the band's songs, so I will definitely be getting one of their albums soon and having a proper listen.

Despite not headlining, Powerwolf still had over an hour on stage and made it count with a high energy set of fun power metal anthems with plenty of opportunities for crowd interaction. Frontman Attila Dorn really is a master of his craft, and his booming voice is perfect for the over-the-top music the band create. Nothing about Powerwolf's music is tricky, but the driving guitar rhythms, the horror-themed organ backing, and the fantasy-based lyrics make for a sound that fits the band's spooky but fun image perfectly. Blessed & Possessed and Army of the Night got things off to a great start, and both songs were well received by the crowd who helped Dorn sing the lyrics with plenty of enthusiasm. The Greywolf brothers both play guitar live which means there is no flesh and blood bass player live on stage which is always an odd thing to see. This, coupled with the fact that Falk Maria Schlegel (keyboards) seemed to spend as much time running around the stage getting the crowd going as he did actually playing his keyboards, did make me wonder how much of the band's live sound relied on backing tapes, but the atmosphere was so good that this did not seem to matter. Powerwolf are a band that does one thing, but they do it very well. It is safe to say that they have a distinct sound, and this gave the set a complete and unifying sound. Highlights for me were the upbeat Sacred & Wild and the doomy and slower-paced anthem Let there be Night which could have been on the soundtrack to a classic Hammer film. The set came to an end with two really memorable anthems in the form of Sanctified by Dynamite and We Drink Your Blood, both of which really got the crowd going. While Powerwolf will never be a favourite band of mine, they certainly put on an entertaining live show and are extremely good at what they do. I am sure there were many in the crowd who thought that they were the band of the night, and I can totally understand this view while not agreeing with it. I shall have to get some more Powerwolf albums at some point, and I would like to catch them live again one day. The setlist was:

Lupus Daemonis
Blessed & Possessed
Army of the Night
Amen & Attack
Coleus Sanctus
In the Name of God (Deus Vult)
Sacred & Wild
Armata Strigoi
Dead Boys Don't Cry
Let there be Night

Resurrection by Erection
Werewolves of Armenia
Sanctified by Dynamite
We Drink Your Blood
Wolves Against the World

Powerwolf and Epica could not be more different in terms of presentation. The former relies more on a high-energy show and lots of interaction to make their live show have more impact, whereas Epica rely more on the power of their music to wash over the audience. Both of these approaches are equally valid, it was just interesting to see the two methods employed one after another. While Powerwolf were very good, it was Epica I was here to see and thankfully they did not disappoint. With the new album receiving good reviews around the world, it was good to see the new material dominating the set and a few ever-present set choices getting a rest. Two new songs, Edge of the Blade and A Phantasmic Parade, made for the perfect opening duo. Frontwoman Simone Simons was in fine voice throughout, and powered her way through both as the band, as tight as ever, backed her up perfectly. The second of the two in particular impressed with Coen Janssen's (keyboards) synth melodies really cutting through the staccato guitar rhythms. The piano-led rocker Sensorium, a song which would probably benefit from a break from being played live, brought some energy to proceedings, but it was Universal Death Squad, another new number, that really got everyone going. This is probably one of the most complete Epica songs yet and manages to pack everything that is great about the band into it's heavy but melodic walls. The groovy chorus is one of the catchiest, and the riffing from Isaac Delahaye (guitar/vocals) is so progressive but still very memorable. There is a lengthy death metal section too for Mark Jansen's (vocals/guitar) harsh vocals to shine. It was great to hear The Essence of Silence from the last album live again as it is such a powerful addition to any setlist. The rest of the set was mostly new material again though which was great. One of the latter highlights was the Indian-themed Dancing in a Hurricane which has such a progressive opening that builds towards and anthemic and extremely memorable chorus. They keyboards and guitars work so well together in this song, and the Arabic melodies are strong and work well within the symphonic scope of the band's traditional sound. A small amount of crowd participation was encouraged at the start of Unchain Utopia, but it was the end of this song that impressed the most with a lengthy drum outro from Ariën van Weesenbeek that acted as a mini solo and brought the song to a dramatic end. In a slightly strange move, the set ended with a power ballad, Once Upon a Nightmare from the new album, that really showcased Simons' soaring and powerful vocals. Being the headline act, Epica had time for an encore. Sancta Terra, another song that could do with a rest, got this three-song segment going, but it was the new number Beyond the Matrix that really got the crowd going. The slightly funky, danceable song is something different for Epica and it works really well live driven by Rob van der Loo's (bass guitar) snaking bassline. The epic closing number Consign to Oblivion, which often ends the band's shows, is still as powerful now after hearing it live four times as it was the first. The heavy riffing and Jansen's soaring growls ensured the evening came to a strong close and the wall of death at the beginning was the first such thing I had seen at an Epica show. The setlist was:

Eidola
Edge of the Blade
A Phantasmic Parade
Sensorium
Universal Death Squad
Storm the Sorrow
The Essence of Silence
The Obsessive Devotion
Ascension - Dream State Armageddon
Dancing in a Hurricane
Unchain Utopia
Once Upon a Nightmare
-
Sancta Terra
Beyond the Matrix
Consign to Oblivion (A New Age Dawns - Part III)

Overall, this was an excellent evening of live metal in London, with all three bands playing strong sets that impressed the near-sellout crowd. While Epica were the band of the night for me, the other two bands impressed too and it is bills like this that make getting out and travelling to gigs worth doing.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Black Sabbath - Birmingham Review

In the world of metal, there is arguably no band more important and iconic than Birmingham's Black Sabbath. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1970, truly was the birth of a genre and the world of music has not quite been the same since. I, and many many others, owe everything music-related to Black Sabbath and I do not always think people realise just how important the band have been over the years. Despite this, classic Black Sabbath is something I have only really embraced in the last few years. The release of 2013's 13 was the turning point for this, and I finally began to really digest the classic early Black Sabbath albums and look beyond the obvious classics. Before this, my love of Black Sabbath really only extended to the Ronnie James Dio eras of the band, and parts of the Tony Martin era, but getting 13 opened my eyes to the early classics in a way that I had not seen them before. I saw the band for the first time on that tour in Birmingham in 2013, and it was fantastic. I was right at the front and the band played for 2 hours with a set that was packed full of classics and new songs from 13. Since then I have bought every Black Sabbath album and have really embraced the influence and sound of the original, and certainly most iconic, line-up. Black Sabbath have had so many different members and eras over the years and, while my heart will always remain with their 1980s output, I have a real appreciation and respect for their early 1970s classics now and I listen to them regularly. When it was announced that they were going to call it a day, unsurprising given Tony Iommi's (guitar) recent health issues, I knew I had to make one of the dates. Birmingham was always going to be my preference, giving it is the band's hometown, and two shows at the Genting Arena were announced as the final two Black Sabbath shows ever. I opted for the first of the two as it fit in better with other plans I had and I thought it would be easier to get tickets for! I got tickets easily, and was looking forward to it from that moment on!

I was initially disappointed when Californian bluesy hard rockers Rival Sons were announced as the support act for the entirety of 'The End' tour. I had seen the band at the High Voltage Festival back in 2011 and thought that they were quite bland, but in fairness that was six years ago and the band has since become pretty popular and well-liked in their own right with five full-length albums to their name now. I was open to giving them another shot however, and from the off they really impressed. Since that High Voltage slot they have grown into a tight, confident, and powerful live band who were easily louder than Black Sabbath during their entire set and really seemed to win the crowd around by the end. The addition of keyboards to their sound since 2011 really helped, as Todd Ögren-Brooks (keyboards/percussion/vocals) washings of retro-sounding rock organ really added to the band's early 1970s hard rock sound. The focus of the band however is clearly the duo of frontman Jay Buchanan, who has a fantastic bluesy voice, and guitarist Scott Holiday. Holiday's playing incorporates lots of tasteful slide solos, which again adds to that 1970s sound. I really like it when a band proves you wrong, and it does make me wonder what I have been missing out on gig-wise over the past six years! It would appear that I have some serious catching up to do!

Despite that set from Rival Sons, it was of course Black Sabbath that everyone was here to see. As the lights went down a suitably cheesy video was projected onto the curtain, and it rose as the band launched into the self-titled track, the opening song from that defining 1970 album. The demonic tritone riff, and Geezer Butler's (bass guitar) occult-themed lyrics sung from frontman Ozzy Osbourne's haunting voice set scene for the rest of the show perfectly as fire was ablaze atop the guitar amps. I have to say however that the atmosphere during this opening number was ruined somewhat by an endless stream of people ambling up the stairs with tonnes of drinks trying to find their seats and just generally acting like mindless drones. It really is not hard to find seats in these venues, they are all clearly numbered, and I find it rude when people leave it until literally the last second to make it to them and talk to their friends loudly disrupting everyone else while doing so! Anyway, this soon calmed down and the rest of us were left to enjoy what proved to be a masterful evening of heavy metal from the Godfathers of the genre. The set was packed full of classics, as you would expect on a farewell tour, with all but one song (and a short instrumental medley) coming from the band's iconic first four albums. Early highlights for me were the foot-stomping Fairies Wear Boots, with that excellent psychedelic instrumental intro, and a personal favourite in the form of After Forever, a song not played on their 2013 tour. Much of the set was the same as the last show, but the songs are all so classic that this hardly seemed to matter. The opening riff of Into the Void is still one of the most metal things of all time, and seeing Iommi play it again, despite being quite near the back of the venue this time, was a treat. The crowd was easily at their loudest of the evening during War Pigs where Osbourne often held out the microphone to allow the crowd to sing for him and they more than answered the call into service. There was a bit of an off moment when Osbourne was announcing Beyond the Wall of Sleep that they are only playing the classics as 'no-one gives a shit about the new album'. While this might be true of many fair weather Sabbath fans, I am sure there were many in the Genting Arena that bought and enjoyed 13 very much. It topped the album charts after all so someone must have bought it! It is a shame that many older bands feel they have to just play the classics over and over to appease the casual fans. A song or two from 13 would have been a really welcome addition to this current setlist in my opinion. Plus, it is not as if Beyond the Wall of Sleep is particularly a stone cold classic anyway! N.I.B. is however. Butler's wah-drenched bass intro is legendary and when the band launched into the song proper the crowd were singing the riff along with Iommi. After Hand of Doom got a rare outing, there was a chance for Osbourne to have a bit of a break as the band ran through a short instrumental medley of Sabbath riffs, that ended with the instrumental Rat Salad and a monster drum solo from Tommy Clufetos. While of course it is a shame that founding drummer Bill Ward has not been with the band since the very early days of their recent re-grouping due a number of well-publicised financial reasons, there is no denying that Clufetos is an absolutely monster drummer. On the subject of session musicians, we cannot forget keyboardist Adam Wakeman who plays his limited role (keyboards were never a big part of Sabbath's early sound) from the side of the stage - although he did nip on briefly for a wave when Osbourne was introducing the band. Iron Man followed the drum solo, and again saw the crowd singing along with Iommi's riff, before Dirty Women, the one song played not from the first four albums, brought about a bit of a proggy change of pace with a lengthy Iommi solo. The heavy classic Children of the Grave brought the main set to an end which saw plenty of headbang and movement to what is probably the heaviest song in the early Sabbath canon. There was of course time for one more as the crowd went 'fucking crazy' at Osbourne's instruction and they all trooped back out for Paranoid which became the band's unexpected big 'hit' back in the early 1970s. The setlist was:

Black Sabbath
Fairies Wear Boots
Under the Sun
After Forever
Into the Void
Snowblind
War Pigs
Behind the Wall of Sleep
N.I.B.
Hand of Doom
Supernaut/Sabbath Bloody Sabbath/Megalomania/Rat Salad
Drum solo
Iron Man
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave
-
Paranoid

Black Sabbath's influence on the world of music cannot be overstated. They really did change the world and all the bands I love today would not be around if it was not for them. I am glad that I got to see them do their thing one more time before they call it a day, and in their hometown in front of a sell-out crowd to boot! Thanks for all the music.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Firewind's 'Immortals' - Album Review

It has been a while since the world heard from Firewind. It has been five years since the Greek power metal band's last album, 2012's Few Against Many, and the band has largely been on hiatus since concluding the touring cycle for that album at the end of 2012. The following year longstanding frontman Apollo Papathanasio, who joined Firewind in 2006 and recorded four albums with the band, left citing the reason that he could no longer keep up with the band's touring schedules (although I would not be surprised if he was actually fired for similar reasons). While Papathanasio was never the genre's most powerful singer, he was a captivating singer with a distinct voice that added a certain bluesy element to Firewind's sound. There is no doubt that the band grew in stature with him at the microphone, and was certainly one of the reasons for the band's growing popularity during his 12 year membership. It was clear that Firewind had become stuck in a bit of a rut by this point however. Few Against Many, while containing some really excellent songs, was certainly weaker than much of what the band had put out before. I think part of the problem was that bandleader and guitarist Gus G. was burning the candle at both ends at the time. While G. was certainly used to being in a number of bands at any one time (he has been involved with Dream Evil, Nightrage, Mystic Prophecy, and Arch Enemy throughout his career), the demands of joining Ozzy Osbourne's band in 2009 was clearly taking it's toll. While this was a fantastic opportunity for him, and exposed him to a much greater audience, Firewind's activity was hurt in the process. Firewind has always been G.'s 'home', and the main output for his songwriting since 2002, and it was sad to see it put on the back burner. Ironically, a huge Black Sabbath reunion has limited G.'s involvement with Osbourne since 2012, but Firewind was still largely dormant. Some shows were performed in 2013 with Kelly Carpenter (Beyond Twilight; Adagio) taking the vocalist spot, but since then G. decided to focus on a solo career releasing two solo albums with a myriad of guest vocalists and touring under his own name. Both of these albums, while good, took on more of a modern alternative rock sound to the meaty power metal of his best-known band and reception to them was mixed. Fans were clamouring for more Firewind. Things started to look more hopeful in 2015 when Henning Basse (Metalium; Sons of Seasons; MaYaN) was announced as the band's new singer (he had previous played a few shows with Firewind in 2007 filling in Papathanasio), but it would take well over a year for some new Firewind material to surface. A few festival shows were played last year but the band's focus has mostly been recording Immortals, the band's eight studio album. Fans waiting with baited breath can rest east, as Immortals is excellent and exactly the sort of album the band should be making with a powerful frontman like Basse at the helm. It is easily the band's best work since 2008's The Premonition and harks back to the band's earlier, heavier sound with more emphasis on G.'s thrashy riffs and Basse's gritty vocal delivery. This is helped by a massive, guitar-heavy production courtesy of Dennis Ward, who incidentally also co-wrote many of the songs on the album.

Album opener Hands of Time gets the album off to a flying start as Firewind forego the customary dramatic instrumental intro and hit the listener square on with a soaring melodic guitar lead and a barrage of double bass drumming from Jo Nunez. From the outset it is clear that Basse is the right man to front Firewind. His vocals are more reminiscent of former frontman Chitral Somapala's than Papathanasio's, so comparisons to the band's underrated Forged by Fire from 2005 can easily be drawn. The song is your fairly typical power metal anthem, with a soaring chorus and strong melodies, but it really hits the spot in a way that much of Few Against Many failed to do. Unusually it is keyboardist Bob Katsionis that gets the first chance to solo, with a fluid and melodic run of notes that shows he is more than capable of keeping up with G.'s shredding (which soon follows) and that he is the perfect foil for the guitarists skills. We Defy opens with a muscular riff that reeks of G.'s trademark style, and soon turns into a dynamic metal song with a good mix of upbeat fast sections, and heavier slower parts. Basse's vocal howls really jump out of the speakers, but it is on the slower sections that form part of the chorus that he really shines with a menacingly gritty performance that really brings the song to life. A lengthy guitar solo dominates the middle of the song, and shows off G.'s knack for crafting solos that are technically complex but still packed full of melody. Ode to Leonidas, the song chosen to shoot a video for, opens with a dramatic and delightfully cheesy spoken word section performed by Paul Logue (Eden's Curse), where he seems to be trying to do an impression of Sir Winston Churchill's famous war speeches, which sets up the epic song that follows perfectly. This is easily my favourite song on the album, and it one of the best songs the band have written in quite a while. It contains everything that makes Firewind great: a tough guitar riff, a commanding vocal performance, and everything is all tied together with Katsionis' keyboard playing that provides a symphonic backing and melodic riffs throughout. It also helps that the chorus is the real winner, with some strong gang vocal sections which are guaranteed to go down well live, and soaring melodies that show Basse can belt out melodic tune as well as he can do grit and power. Despite the heroic keyboard intro, Back on the Throne sees Firewind channelling classic Megadeth with an overall thrashy feel and a riff that sounds like something Dave Mustaine would have come up with in the late 1980s. It works well for the band however, with bassist Petros Christo particularly standing out with a bulky and driving bassline that propels the song along nicely. Without a real chorus, the song really whizzes by as riff after riff drives the song with furious urgency. The highlight is the guitar solo, which is actually initially at a slower pace than the rest of the song but it gradually speeds up to a shredded climax. Live and Die by the Sword opens with a delicate acoustic guitar melody, and the song gradually builds up around it with some excellent vocals from Basse that range from gentle to soaring power as the song really hits the stride with a fist-pumping rhythm and a strong mid-paced groove. Elsewhere, an uplifting chorus proves to be a fun one with plenty of big vocal harmonies in true power metal tradition.

As Wars of Ages is one of only two songs on the album co-written by Katsionis, it is unsurprising that his keyboards are more prominent. The song opens with a keyboard riff, and they remain prominent throughout helping to boost G.'s guitar riffing with strong counter-melodies. The song is less heavy overall too, with more of a strong melodic metal feel, and boasts one of the album's best choruses which is driven by some very fast drumming. The guitar solo is excellent too, with some seriously technical neo-classical runs that even Yngwie Malmsteen might struggle to pull off! Power metal albums always need a ballad, and often they can be throwaway offerings, but Lady of 1000 Sorrows is anything but filler. I would go as far to say that it is my second favourite song on the album, and really brings out another side of Basse's vocals as he adopts more of an 1980s heavy metal singer vibe with hints of David Coverdale's bluesy delivery. The verses are laid back, with chiming clean guitar melodies and a subtle keyboard backing, but the choruses really take off with Basse's harmonised vocals and emotionally-drenched melodies. It is an absolute classic power ballad with a chorus that is sure to get stuck in your head for days and a true class that many power metal bands fail to achieve. In case anyone was wondering if G. had gone soft, fear not as up next is the blistering instrumental title track that showcases all of his riffing and shredding abilities. It is just shy of two minutes long, but it is packed full of as many riffs and moments of draw-dropping shredding as you will find on most average metal albums. Katsionis' ominous keyboards provide the perfect backing to G.'s demonic guitar pyrotechnics, and Nunez' drums provide the perfect driving force with his speed and diversity. This leads almost instantly into Warriors and Saints, which has a fast-paced shredded intro which is not far removed from the themes covered in Immortals. When the vocals kick in however, the song takes on more of a grungy feel with a fuzzy slower riffs and Basse's low vocals. This is similar to the style the band attempted to perfect on Few Against Many and this is a song that would probably sit quite nicely on that album. While that style started to grate after a while, it actually works well when used sparingly as it is on this song. It provides the album with some dynamics and works well in contrast to the razor-sharp production found elsewhere on Immortals. The main album comes to a close with Rise from the Ashes, a mid-paced rocker that clearly has aspirations of the epic. On first listen, this was one of those songs that just went over my head but on repeated listens it has grown on me with the melodies creeping through into my brain. The choruses in particular are very strong, with plenty of stabs of melodic keyboard and Basse's commanding vocals. There is also a great twin-lead guitar riff towards the end which is a real tribute to Iron Maiden! That is not the true end of Immortals however, as the bonus track Vision of Tomorrow feels integral to the album's journey as apposed to a tacked-on weaker effort that many bands offer up as a bonus. This the other song co-written by Katsionis, so his keyboard playing is all over it. This song packs a real punch, and feels like the real conclusion of the album and reaches the heights that Rise from the Ashes probably does not quite reach. Overall, Immortals is a real come-back for Firewind and cements their place as one of power metal's most vital bands. It is great to have them back, and this album is a real statement from a band that had been treading water for a little while.

The album was released on 20th January 2017 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Ode to Leonidas.