Monday, 29 January 2018

White Wizzard's 'Infernal Overdrive' - Album Review

As far as modern bands recreating the sounds of the early 1980s NWOBHM movement goes, there are few better examples out there than America's White Wizzard. Despite many of their songs being blatant Iron Maiden worship they have delivered the goods, and since their 2009 debut EP High Speed GTO they have made a name for themselves in the metal world for their melodic, and slightly progressive brand of traditional heavy metal. It is a shame then that despite their continuous success in the studio, the band have also made a name for themselves for the huge turnover of band members and more than one public meltdown - including a particularly embarrassing one which happened on their 2013 UK tour which saw the band members slinging mud over social media accusing each other of allegedly stealing a fan's handbag. That incident left bandleader, bassist, and main songwriter Jon Leon the only man standing in White Wizzard (not for the first time!). Not too long after this explosion, the band were dropped by their then-label Earache records and it looked like White Wizzard were dead and buried. Over the next couple of years Leon released a couple of stand-alone singles under the White Wizzard name which were essentially solo efforts, but towards the end of 2016 he announced that a new line-up of the band was to be put together and writing was underway for their fourth studio album - their first since 2013's The Devils Cut (which I briefly reviewed here). In an attempt to clearly make up for past indiscretions, Leon invited back a couple of members from the band's past who have always been popular with the fans. Wyatt 'Screaming Demon' Anderson, who is often rightly thought of as the true voice of the band, was invited back into the fold for his fourth(!) tenure as the band's frontman. He performed on the band's first two studio albums: 2010's Over the Top and 2011's Flying Tigers; and has the perfect voice for this kind of music. He can hit some impressive high notes, but has a voice that is still packed with plenty of grit to allow the band's music to have some bite. Also returning is guitarist James J. LaRue who last performed with the band on the High Speed GTO EP. This trio of musicians, along with new drummer Dylan Marks (Fermentor; Eukaryst), have put together another strong collection of retro-sounding heavy metal anthems which was released earlier this month as Infernal Overdrive. Marks however, who only joined the band last year, is only featured on a couple of tracks with German Moura performing on the rest on a session basis. A successful crowdfunding campaign financed the album's creation, which shows there are plenty of people across the world who still love the band despite all the drama and uncertainty they have created for themselves over the years. Sound wise Infernal Overdrive is not hugely dissimilar to the band's established sound, but with a greater emphasis on the progressive side of their songwriting. While some of the songs could have easily had some fat trimmed from them, this is an ambitious album from White Wizzard and one that is probably closest to Flying Tigers in sound.

Opening with a furious drum flurry from Marks, then a piercing scream from Anderson, and finally a flurry of shredded notes from LaRue; the album's title track gets underway in style and sets the band's stall out early on. While much of the material found throughout this album is fairly mid-paced, this song mostly keeps things moving along quickly with an excellent drumming performance and some tight riffing. With Leon handling the album's rhythm guitars; demonstrating he is more than a capable guitarist as well as a busy, melodic bassist; this allows LaRue to focus on his leads. There are plenty throughout this song, with lots of Middle Eastern-inspired lines which help to create a strong atmosphere which is different from what you would usually expect from traditional heavy metal. If anyone was doubting that Iron Maiden has been a big influence on Leon's songwriting over the years, than the twin-lead guitar opening riff to the album's lead single Storm the Shores should set those non-believers right! Despite being pure Iron Maiden worship, the song is so well written and performed that is hard not to enjoy it. The guitar lines ooze pure melody, and Anderson's captivating vocal performance - particularly during the big choruses - really grips and takes hold. Much like Iron Maiden's sound too, Leon's bass is often high in the mix and usually provides the main musical backing for the song. The bass in White Wizzard is often busier than the rhythm guitars, and it is that that really helps to drive everything forward. Pretty May is the album's shortest song, at just over three minutes in length, but is no less interesting as it opens with some bouzouki chords before transitioning into an instantly catchy little number with some excellent vocal melodies from Anderson. Despite it's short length, there is a lot crammed in to Pretty May - including an excellent guitar solo that ends on some great screaming notes. With the album's first three quick-fire efforts out of the way, the band's progressive streak takes over for the vast majority of the rest of what is to come. Chasing Dragons builds it's foundation on a sweeping mid-paced guitar riff that is backed by some excellent staccato drumming from Moura. Songs like this move away from the obvious Iron Maiden influences and start to see the band stamp their own true identity on the material. Anderson turns in a great vocal performance here, often harmonising with himself to create a rather spooky delivery, which is backed by the more tougher overall sound that relies more on big guitar chords rather than lead melodies. LaRue does throw in a few leads, including a particularly excellent solo about two-thirds of the way through, throughout however, often at choice moments to spice things up a bit, but this song is dominated by Leon's excellent guitar and bass performances.

Voyage of the Wolf Raiders is similar, but opens out slowly with some dancing clean guitar melodies which are backed up by some organic sound effects. Anderson is not hugely convincing when singing over a more mellow backing, but unsurprisingly sounds great when the song proper kicks in - after another excellent twin-lead guitar riff. Despite the slightly wobbly intro, this is definitely one of the best songs on the album as it really showcases everything that is great about White Wizzard. The song's epic chorus is made to be heard live, with a crowd of loyal fans belting it back at the band, and the occasional diversions into Middle Eastern-inspired instrumental sections; backed by LaRue's synths; really drive that progressive streak home perfectly. Critical Mass sees the band hitting back at their critics over the years, which given the way the band has behaved at times seems somewhat rich but in fairness there is little negative that one can say about White Wizzard's music! This is one of the rare moments on this album which sees the band really put their feet down and unleash a real speed metal epic with probably Anderson's best vocal performance yet. Some of his screams in the verses are extremely high, but he always manages to sound strong and in control despite this taxing performance. The choruses see him singing in his more usual register, which is then followed by an explosive guitar solo. This is a song that is just 'all out, all the time' which is refreshing after a couple of longer, more mid-paced pieces. Despite this however, the song is still fairly long and I cannot help but feel it would have been more effective if it was trimmed down somewhat. The mid-paced songs just seem to work better when stretched out, and I feel a more to-the-point arrangement would have benefited the song.

Cocoon is another fairly lengthy song, but with more variation throughout which helps to keep things interesting. There is a heavier use of keyboards here than the band have typically made use of, which helps to reinforce the progressive influences on show. The enveloping synths that back up some the instrumental sections sound great, and this is something I would like to the see the band develop further in future. Keyboards add a depth that other instruments just cannot, and it shows here and really adds something to the song - especially as they sounds used have quite a retro 1970s sound. Plentiful guitar lead breaks, and a somewhat mournful vocal performance help to give this song a really unique feel in the band's catalogue and is a song that reveals itself over many listens. The song slowly fades out and transitions into Metamorphosis, which opens with an off-kilter bass and drum intro that gradually builds up with strange, tortured guitar leads being added to the mix in layers. This song does not have the band's typical sound, but it works really well and helps to add some diversity to the album. I like the way that this album opens with a handful of songs that are very similar to what the band has done previously, before hitting the listener with lots of new ideas in the following numbers. While I do not feel that all of the new sounds work, and some of the songs are definitely too long, I think it is great that White Wizzard are showing ambition here. Leon clearly has a diverse range of influences and it is great to see him incorporating them all here. Metamorphosis is a key example of this, and is a song that allows LaRue to experiment with some new lead styles too and really shine as a guitarist. The album's final, and longest, song is the eleven minute-plus The Illusion's Tears. The song is in three parts, and even sees the band's long-time producer Ralph Patlan contributing some additional guitar leads throughout. The progressive elements in the band's sound are at their most obvious here, with mellotron mixing in with the guitars in the early stages of the song and subtle orchestrations used throughout. Mellow sections sit side by side with heavier sections to create what is easily the band's most ambitious song to date. Some of LaRue's guitar work here even recalls the style of David Gilmour at times, with some spacey, bluesy leads that really cut through the mix as Leon's bass guitar provides a laid back melody. It is a great way to end the album, and feels like a culmination of everything else found on this disc. Overall, Infernal Overdrive is an ambitious album from White Wizzard and one that sees them scream emphatically that they are 'back' after a rough few years. The songs are largely excellent and memorable, and has allowed Leon to really stretch his wings as a songwriter and take the band down a few new paths.

The album was released on 12th January 2018 via M-Theory Audio/Riffs of the Rose. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Storm the Shores.

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