Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Harmony - Theatre Of Redemption (2014)

I'm always nervous when a band comes off a really strong release, and then for whatever reason, makes a big change in the line-up.  These changes are often necessary, either due to stability (or lack thereof) within a band, or sometimes, a member needs to leave a group for various personal and/or professional reasons.  Whatever the impetus for change, fans of the band in its previous incarnation either have to hope that the band will carry on and be as good (or better) than they were, or perhaps even fold, since they'll have little chance to match what they've done in the past.

I'm a big Harmony fan.  I dug the End Of My Road EP, and the subsequent album Chapter II: The Aftermath.  I'd say more than enjoyed, because Chapter II is one of my favorite power metal albums of all time, and I rather thought vocalist Henrik Bath was a perfect fit for the band's sound.  Truth be told, I preferred his work with Harmony to what he's done on the flipside with Darkwater.  I've always felt as though Darkwater is just shy of greatness, but the songs just haven't quite hit me the way that Harmony's material did.  So if Henrik left Harmony to focus on Darkwater, let's just hope that he brings his "A" game on the next album, because his departure from Harmony hurt my heart a little.

Having said that, Harmony scored a major win with Henrik's replacement, former Lost Horizon vocalist Daniel Heiman.  It's not clear whether or not he'll be joining as a permanent member or just provided session vocals, but it's no secret that in the early 2000's, Lost Horizon set the power metal world on fire with both "Awakening the World" and "A Flame to the Ground Beneath".  They were to be the "next big thing" in the power metal scene, after Hammerfall helped to resuscitate the genre in the mid-late 90's.  Twas not to be, however, and Daniel lent his vocal talent to both Heed and Crystal Eyes in the mid 2000's.  He's been relatively quiet since then, doing an occasional guest vocal, but without a major project to attach his name to.  After hearing his performance on this latest Harmony album, I'd recommend he stick with these guys.

Immediately, the recognizable guitar sound of Markus Sigfridsson is present.  He has cultivated a great guitar tone that perfectly combines a heavy, crunchy sound, while retaining a clarity that allows the riffs and melodies to really shine.  It also gives his solos a great sound that hearkens back to the golden age of metal (I'll say that's the 1980's).  He also employs a nice acoustic guitar sound in "You Are" as well, and uses a couple other textures throughout the album where there's less distortion (or at times none), for a nice effect.  Thundering bass is handled by Raphael Dafras (Almah), and he's solid as always.  Harmony's production (handled by the band, as well as Fredrik Nordström & Thomas Johansson) doesn't lend itself to overly audible bass lines, and relegates it to more under the radar, but there are moments (like during the post-chorus section of "Hands Of Time") where the bass takes more center stage.  Drumming is handled by one Tobias Enbert, and as usual, he brings solid drumming that stresses rhythm over technicality and speed, but he ramps up the pace when necessary, and provides consistency throughout the album.  Newcomer John Svensson does a fine job on keyboards, adding the symphonic bits here and there where they make sense, and adding that additional melody line in places where the guitar is spending more time on driving riffs than establishing the base melody.  He does a fine job here with the material.

Vocally, Daniel Heiman is on point, though noticeably more reserved than we heard him on either Lost Horizon album.  I doesn't sound as though his voice has lost a step, so perhaps he (and/or the band) didn't feel the material here called for quite as flamboyant a performance as before.  He sounds excellent here, however, with a fair degree of dynamics, range, and emotion on display.  He goes up quite high on several occasions, and his smooth voice really blends well with the material on this album.  He's no stranger to Harmony, having contributed some backing vocals to the previous album, as well as a guest spot on the Chapter II song "Inner Peace".  Daniel's vocals are a different breed than Henrik's, so it will take some getting used to, but he really does a good job of putting his own stamp on the Harmony sound with his performance here.

My biggest hangup with the album is going to be the loss of Henrik Bath as vocalist for the band, because I really felt as though his unique voice was one of the strengths of Harmony that set them apart from the rest of the power metal pack.  Adding Daniel Heiman gives them the band a boost of name recognition, and he does a great job, but I'm left wondering what this material might have sounded like with Henrik singing atop the songs.  In addition, the delineation of sound between Darkwater and Harmony has always been that Darkwater was the band for the more mid-paced, progressive material, and Harmony was the band for the more straight-forward, European power metal material.  The lines are slightly more blurred here, as this material leans ever so slightly back in the prog direction, though only as compared to its predecessor.  This is either a good thing or a band thing, dependent on whether you like Harmony best as a prog/power band, or a straight up power band.  For me, I lean toward the more power side, as their progressive leanings have not been a draw from my perspective.  In addition, the songs here just don't hit me the way those on Chapter II: The Aftermath have.  Of course, that album came at a time when I was seeking out power metal in quantity, and it stood out from the pack.  Having reviewed a number of albums in the genre in the last several years, and purchased several, as well as receiving review copy of nearly that many, I've been deluged somewhat by the genre.  That may be coloring my opinion of the album as well.

At the end of the day, this is a high quality release from Harmony that just misses the mark for me personally, but should please fans of the genre.  Power metal aficionados should already be familiar with the Harmony name, and with the addition of Daniel Heiman at the vocal helm, that additional name recognition should help boost the band's profile beyond its current reach.  The songs are all well done, though they're not sticking with me quite as quickly as the band's previous material has, though admittedly that's partly my own disappointment in the vocal changes.  Still, Harmony's 3rd album is one they can and should be proud of, and will continue to draw accolades and expand their listener base.  As a fan of the band, I'll continue to follow what they do.  They just need to shore up the vocal side of the house and either get Daniel to stick around, or find someone who fits their sound & style who can carry the band into the future.  Recommended.


Black Fate - Between Visions & Lies (2014)

I like a challenging, or even frustrating listen once in a while.  I like for a release to give me something other than what I was expecting, even if it's not what I wanted.  We need to be challenged in life from time to time, or we don't grow and learn from our own insular, and often myopic perspectives.  To be able to glean something new from something you thought you already knew is a sign of maturity.  I can safely say that Black Fate's "Between Visions & Lies" was not what I was expecting, or even hoping for.

Truth be told, I was only mildly excited for this release.  Ulterium Records hasn't really let me down yet, though a couple releases haven't quite met expectations (I'm looking at you, Ivory Moon and End of September).  For that reason, even with a band like Black Fate, who I had not heard of, prior to seeing "coming soon" posts on the Ulterium Records Facebook page, I had to be at least a little excited, if not just intrigued.  After all, this is the label that brought us Harmony's "Chapter II: The Aftermath" (one of my favorite power metal albums EVER), Theocracy, and a slew of other great bands and releases over the last several years.  That said, Black Fate challenged me more than I wanted, but it's my own fault: sometimes I get in my own way a bit too much.  Having only heard the teaser stuff, I was expecting a middle-of-the-road metal album with hard rock influence, some power metal influence, and perhaps a hint of prog metal for good measure.  What I got was nothing like that.

Because I've not heard any Black Fate material prior to this, their 4th album, I have no reference as to the sound or quality of their earlier albums.  If they're anything like this, however, I'd describe them as vaguely Savatage-inspired prog/power metal with a penchant for vocal harmonies.  The first few spins of the album were uneventful, because I thought maybe it was going to be faster, perhaps a touch heavier, and was expecting the vocals to be a bit more "soaring" than what Vasilis brings to the table.  Truth be told, I had already made my mind up as to what the album was likely going to sound like, so when it didn't grab me right away, I kind of dismissed it as perhaps less than what it was.  I count that as a mistake, however, because after about 10 or 12 listens, something started to click with me, and I started to hear this album for what it actually was: a solid, semi-progressive metal album with some power metal stylings injected in, and a fair bit of personality under the hood.

Musically speaking, this is solid stuff.  Guitars, provided by Gus Drax (briefly a part of metal legends Paradox) are driving and interesting.  He provides a riff-oriented style that is melodic enough without losing its edge, but not so intent on "chugging" that variety is sacrificed.  "Lines In the Sand" is a good example where it's not all bar chords and chugging.  It's a combination of that and alternate chording, providing a nice balance between an aggressive, heavy feel, and a melodic base that keeps the songs listenable beneath the surface.  There are a few nice touches here and there, like a couple pinch harmonics, some good solo work that isn't too flashy and retains tunefulness.  Bass guitar is provided by Vasilis Liakos.  His work isn't overly audible in the mix, but it's present and serves more as a driving force underneath the guitar to help propel the sound.  What I'm hearing sounds good, though it's nothing groundbreaking.  Still, it sounds good alongside the guitar work.  Drumming by Nikos Tsintzilonis is quite good, with a good sense of when to speed up and go nuts, and when to slow down and let the song breathe.  Very seldom does Nikos go full-bore with double-bass and fast rhythms, however, because the material's more medium-pace doesn't call for that much.  Instead, he keeps time, injects the occasional fill, and creates interest in subtle ways.  He does a fine job matching the material's feel and level of aggression well.

Vocalist Vasilis Georgiou is not what I was expecting.  Generally, with Ulterium bands fronted by a man, you get a fairly powerful male voice with highs, occasional lows, and a fair sense of drama.  Not that I was expecting a clone of any of the label's other vocalists, but for some reason, Vasilis' voice just struck me funny after listening to the record the first time.  It took me a bit to warm up to his voice for some strange reason.  He's a talented singer with a sense of dynamics, he makes good use of vibrato here and there, has a good tone, and uses inflection in places where it fits.  I'm not sure what my hang-up was initially, but I like what he's bringing to the table here, even if he doesn't have the presence of some of his label-mates.

My biggest issue with the album is that, while the songs are all well-constructed, and reasonably memorable, they still took a long time to take hold for me.  Yes, part of this may be my issue, but still, I'm looking for something a touch more immediate in a band of this type.  I'd prefer the band pull a bit of a "bait and switch" and give me a meaty, anthemic opening song to get my attention, and then weave the more complex songs in as the album goes along to help solidify what's going on.  It all sounds good while it's playing, but other than the chorus of "Call of the Wild", or bits of "Lines in the Sand", I'm not humming these songs after listening to them.  When I play the album 3 or 4 times in a row, I expect to have some of the material stuck in my head several hours afterward.  I'm not getting that here, and it speaks somewhat to the material itself.  It's not vanilla, by any means, but it's not something that has stuck with me at all.

Mileage on a release like this is going to vary.  If you're a big fan of the semi-progressive latter Savatage material, you'll probably get a big kick out of this record.  At the very least, you'll appreciate the musicianship at work, like I did.  If you prefer your progressive metal a bit more grand, you'll find this lacking.  Either way, I would encourage the members of Black Fate to tighten up their songwriting so that the next album has a stronger batch of material with more of an immediacy to it.  That will help the songs grab hold much faster, and get ingrained in the listener's consciousness that much more effectively.  As it stands, they've crafted a solid, highly listenable, and enjoyable release that just misses the mark in the songwriting department.  I'll tentatively recommend this to prog metal diehards who have to have everything in the genre, or Ulterium Records devotees like myself who have enjoyed everything the label has done thus far.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Neonfly - Strangers In Paradise (2014)

When metal leans toward the super-melodic, it can often result in sounding watered down or just lack that element of heaviness that gives metal much of its appeal, and not be much more than just really syrupy sounding hard rock.  There's nothing wrong with that, per se, because there have been a number of heavier metal bands lately that have taken that ultra-melodic, hard rock-influenced metal sound and made it successful.  Most of those bands tend to wear thin, however, once the novelty of the sound combo wears off, unless the songs are really good and stay with you.  The melodicism helps, but ultimately, the songs need to be memorable or make an impact to stay with you beyond the few minutes after listening to the album.  How does this apply to Neonfly?  Read on, gentle reader.

I'd not heard of Neonfly prior to receiving a review copy of Strangers In Paradise, but upon first listen, I enjoyed what I heard.  It reminded me immediately of the most recent material by Random Eyes, in that it's highly melodic metal that has some crunch to it, but has a bit of a hard rock bent without leaning too far in that direction.  Vocalist Willy Norton reminds me a bit of Random Eyes vocalist Christian Palin as well, because he rides that line between silky smooth and reasonably gritty and can transition between the two seamlessly.  Random Eyes is also a touchstone as to the band's sound, because Strangers In Paradise sounds a fair bit like Random Eyes' latest album, Light Up, due to its overt melodicism, and the way it straddles the line between hard rock, melodic heavy metal, and power metal at times.

Right away, it's evident that these guys can play and have major talent.  Guitarists Frederick Thunder and Patrick Harrington have the chops, and interweave a real interesting web of riffs, rhythms, licks, and leads throughout the course of the album.  The guitar sound is, what I would describe, as "semi-heavy" through much of the album.  Other than on the barn-burner "Highways To Nowhere", the riffs and rhythm playing don't get super heavy, but do contain a sufficient amount of crunch when the songs maintain a heavier feel.  Other times, clean playing, such as on the ballad "Rose In Bloom", or during the intro to "Aztec Gold", propels the songs in a way that belies the band's metal roots a bit, but not sacrifice the overall feel.  As for the leads, they're the expected melodic fair, but there are some nice bits (like in "Aztec Gold" where the guitars veer slightly away from the melodic, and into mere soundscape, which is a nice touch.  Bass work by Paul Miller is competent and sounds good here, though a tiny bit low in the overall mix.  Drumming is handled by Boris Le Gal, and he does a standout job of providing propulsive rhythms, dynamics, and really has a handle on how best to serve the song with his playing.  The review copy didn't include any info as to who provided the keyboard work on the album, but it's also quite good at times, with some nice symphonic elements here and there.

As I said before, vocalist Willy Norton reminds me of Christian Palin from Random Eyes, and that's a good thing, because Palin's voice is one of my favorites in recent years.  He can be heavy and menacing when he wants to be, such as with "Highways To Nowhere", and he can be super melodic and nimble as well, as with "Chasing the Night".  He has a nice tone, and just a real smooth sound to his vocals that complement the material well.  I do like it when he goes for a grittier approach, and I'd like to hear more of that from time to time, but honestly, his performance here can hardly be faulted, because it's very exact, while maintaining an emotional component.  In other words, he's on point when he sings, but it doesn't sound as though he's rehearsed the material too much for it not to sound as though he's putting himself into the songs.  It's a balanced performance that does him proud.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this record when I initially listened to it, because at first blush, it seems a bit unfocused and disjointed.  After repeated listens, I think it's just a band with many strengths, and they're trying to play to all of them as much as they can.  I'd caution against doing that too much on future records, if only because the songs have to be really good in order to ensure that they can back that ambition up with the material to match.  Still, aside from a few less than memorable moments, it's a solid record that truly shows a band with multiple personalities, and yet, those personalities all meld into one another much more completely than a band who might try their hand at varying styles or sounds and can't seem to get a handle on them.  The symphonic elements are a nice touch, and give the record a slightly progressive feel that the band should maybe try and capitalize upon, and yet, when they go straight-ahead and just rock out, they also sound excellent.  If the band can find their direction a tad more specifically and continue to hone their songwriting craft to make things even more memorable, they'll be a contender in the melodic metal field.  As it stands, this is still a really solid and highly listenable effort that deserves some attention, and should be heard by fans of the genre.  Recommended.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Sarea - This Is Not Goodbye (2014)

Metal fans can be a finicky bunch.  Metalcore is often decried by anyone who feels that the style has no business being associated with heavy metal.  Those fans sometimes go so far as to take offense to said metalcore bands being classified as "metal" in any fashion.  I understand this viewpoint, though I disagree with it in most cases.  I think "metal", as an over-arching genre, is far more vast and diverse than some folks would like to admit or recognize.  Sarea is a good example of a band that skirts that line and makes a case for something that stays within those boundaries while pushing at them pretty forcefully.

If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Killswitch Engage is a good comparison, but then that doesn't do this band's sound justice.  The most melodic of KSE songs is where we find the closest match to what Sarea is doing, but their sound is more expansive than what that description would lead one to believe.  I also hesitate to compare them to Five Finger Death Punch, mostly due to the combination of clean and screamed/growled vocals, and the tendency of the material to sound heavy while giving off a modern hard rock vibe.  Think of post-metalcore stuff that rides the line between modern hard rock and semi-progressive modern metal.  Add a healthy dose of keyboards and vocals that vacillate between a more rock-oriented style of singing, and a layered vocal that combines a deep, relatively throaty growl and a higher-pitched hardcore/metalcore styled yell/growl, and you get something that begins to defy genre tags just enough to be annoying.  This combination of elements generally serves Sarea well.

Right away, it's obvious that the album owes a great debt to modern hard rock, because many of the melodic touchstones take cues from other bands who have taken the metalcore and/or modern screamo sound and moved in a more rock direction, and the keyboards just exemplify that shift.  There are still spots where the faster tempos and riffing cling to the heavier side of the metalcore coin, however, and the addition of a few well-constructed guitar solos and the lack of traditional breakdowns make it hard to label this metalcore.  Instead, it falls somewhere between a modern, melodic hard rock, and a modern, melodic metal sound with extreme metal elements.  If I can be cheesy for a moment, can I call this "rockcore"?  That would best describe the sound in a single term.  That's not to say that there isn't plenty of metal moments present, because there are.  In particular, "The Catch 22" has a nice dual-guitar lick and some heavy riffing alongside a speedy tempo, a fast drum rhythm, and mostly shouted/growled vocals, and a real nice solo half-way through.

Guitars have a nice tone to them - not too heavy to take away from the rock influences, but heavy enough that when the riffs are hanging out on the lower string and in the lower chords, there's plenty of bite to them.  The guitar solos sound good as well, with enough grit to them so they sound more metal than hard rock.  Overall, Johan Alexsson and Alex Dzaic do a good job on the album.  Bass is handled by Johan Larsson, and is solid throughout, though I didn't recognize anything overly complex coming from his neck of the woods.  Still, he provides the necessary thump and bump in the mix.  Drumming by "Charlie D" is good, alternating nicely between simple rhythms and fast-paced, more metal-oriented playing.  He certainly has a handle on rolls, because he uses them quite a bit throughout the album.  Special mention should be made of the keyboard work by Martin Persson, because he shines quite a bit throughout the album.  The additional atmosphere he provides gives the album much more personality than it would have without his presence here.

Vocals are handled by Chris Forsberg, and seeing as he handles both the singing and screaming, he does a pretty good job switching between the two styles.  His singing voice appears to have improved between "Alive" and this new release, and while his ability to scream and growl is by no means top-tier, he does a good job expressing the energy of the material.  I'd put him on par with someone like Howard Jones, though perhaps he has a bit more range (if you want to call it that) with regards to his screaming, in part because he can get slightly guttural at times, and has an element of that "sing-scream" at times, too.  His singing is competent, and improved over the previous release, though he lacks the power and emotion of someone like Howard Jones in the clean vocal category.  Still, he does a good job overall.

I have to be honest about two things.  First, my initial reaction to This Is Not Goodbye was very mild.  It sounded good on the surface, but I wasn't sure if I was going to like it long-term.  Second, Metalcore as a style has become very watered down, and many bands trying to move past the style either sound utterly wimpy, or they become bad imitators of either the deathcore scene, or the Gothencore style.  I wondered whether or not Sarea could weather that downturn in the credibility of their chosen sound/style.  Upon repeated listens, Sarea surprised me with some level of range, a sound that wasn't too devoid of heaviness so that it still piqued my interest, and a good enough range of songs that I feel like the band has a real future with what they're doing.  Doolittle Group has an interesting road ahead with this signing, because it departs significantly with what they've done thus far.  I hope they can do well by the band and get them marketed properly so they can have some impact, because I think they have a solid thing going.  Recommended for the melodic metalcore and post-metalcore fan-base.


Here's the official video for Sarea's song "Downfall".

MindMaze - Back From the Edge (2014)

Female-fronted metal is a growing field, as I mentioned previously in my review of Vandroya's debut.  In fact, with bands like Benedictum, Kobra and the Lotus, recent output by White Skull, Epica, Serenity, and the solidification of Floor Janssen as Nighwish's new vocalist, one might say the future is bright for bands taking that direction.  One might also say that since women fronting metal bands has become so trendy that the field is quickly becoming crowded.  Standing out from the pack is essential for an album to really go anywhere or make any kind of impact.  MindMaze is well poised to get some positive attention, at the very least.

Having been unfamiliar with MindMaze prior to receiving review copy, I did just a bit of research to find out more about the band.  According to the press release, the band had already received acclaim for their previous album, "Mask Of Lies", and so far, the reviews I've skimmed over seem to solidify that claim.  Jeff and Sarah Teets, along with drummer Kalin Schweizerhof were apparently also in an earlier incarnation of the band called "Necromance", dating back to 2005, so these guys have toiled in the underground for quite some time trying to make a name for themselves.  I'd have to say that MindMaze is a more fitting moniker for the band, given the lyrics, musical style, and overall feel of the music.

Right away, it's evident that this is a tight production with talented players.  Guitarist Jeff Teets does a great job with his axe, playing interesting riffs and choosing chording that strays from the usual power chord-only chugging you often get in standard, off-the-shelf power metal.  Dare I say, there's a progressive metal vibe all over this CD, and the riffs exemplify that by keeping things interesting.  Of course, some chugging is present, and helps with the heavy factor at times, but overall, Jeff's riff writing skills are impressive.  Drummer Kalin Schwezerhof is proficient as well, with a good sense of rhythm, and a feel for playing in a way that enhances the material without hogging the spotlight too much.  The album's production by Brian J. Anthony helps this as well, because the drums are at the right place in the mix.  Bass guitar is handled by none other than Symphony X bassist Mike LePond.  He does a great job here, as can be imagined, and his bass work is a treat on this album, especially in tracks like "Moment of Flight" where he gets to take the spotlight during the intro and at various points throughout the track where you can hear him doing more than just keeping pace with the riffs.  The same can be said for his work in "The Machine Stops" - he really shows that the bass guitar is an instrument unto itself and not just part of the rhythmic feel of the music.

Vocalist Sarah Teets has a great voice, and utilizes it well throughout the album.  She has good range, though she generally sticks to the alto and lower soprano areas for the bulk of the album.  She apparently knows her voice and limitations, and does well to shine within that framework.  One thing I'll note is that while I enjoyed the tone of her voice immediately, the subtlety of her performance was something that I didn't latch on to right away.  Power metal is usually rife with inflection and overwrought vocal manipulation, and there's very little of that with Sarah's performance here.  Granted, the material doesn't suffer much because of it, but I would suggest she have a listen to some of the current female metal vocal powerhouses like Liv Kristine or Floor Janssen and take some cues from what they're doing for future reference.  Her most spirited performances are probably album highlights like "Dreamwalker", the epic, progressively tinged "The Machine Stops", or "Consequence of Choice".  She also does a great job with the vocal harmonies she records for the overdubs, and the background vocals she records to accent the material.  That stuff all adds quite a bit to the overall sound and feel of those songs.

Overall, this is a solid album of progressively-minded power metal that is a bit of a grower.  I enjoyed this from my first listen, but like Vandroya's debut, I felt like it sounded a touch generic at first blush.  Repeated listens have broken that opinion down, however, in part because I've grown to appreciate Sarah's voice, as well as Jeff's penchant for interesting riffs and solos that combine melody and technique so as to make them more memorable.  Unlike a lot of power metal bands who try and make long songs that meander and never go anywhere, or are just painfully repetitious, both examples of longer songs on this album are well done, and are highlights.  I'm not asking for a full album of said material, but if the band continues to write longer tracks of this caliber, they will certainly be welcome additions to future albums, and should be considered a strength.  I do feel that the songwriting could still use a bit more work, if only because only half of the songs were playing repeatedly in my head hours after listening to the album.  That's no slight, either; most bands are lucky if they get 1 or 2 tracks that you remember after spinning the album.  My only production gripe is that the cymbals sometimes sound a bit muffled in the mix.  I noticed this mostly sitting at my desk at work playing this CD over and over, but even listening via headphones, I felt like cymbal crashes especially sounded a touch weak.  As I mentioned before, Sarah should try and diversify her vocal approach a bit, and keep pushing her instrument to achieve the most from it.  Those 2 elements, along with her perhaps a talented permanent bassist, would help this Pennsylvania collective rise to the top of the female-fronted prog/power metal heap.  For now, I'd say this is recommended to all fans of progressive power metal looking for a good album to sink their teeth into.  Inner Wound Recordings was smart to snap this band up - they should have a bright future ahead of them.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Repossession: A Christmas Album (2014)

Christmas music is one of those things that you either love or hate, there's generally no middle ground.  Some people, like my boss, can't wait for the day after Thanksgiving, because they can break out the vast array of Christmas-themed CD's and play them to their heart's content without anyone thinking they're strange because of it.  Playing those CD's in the middle of June, however, will usually elicit strange looks.  But for those who love Christmas music, there are hundreds of albums and compilations to choose from to whet the appetite.  For the metal fan, however, there's very little Christmas-themed metal, aside from the occasional single, some Trans-Siberia Orchestra, or the occasional full album of metal by an artist, like Rob Halford's "Winter Songs".

I'm a bit picky when it comes to Christmas music.  If I'm in the mood for it, I really like it and enjoy listening to it, even if it's kind of cheesy.  But I gravitate toward either classics like Mannheim Steamroller's 1st 2 albums, some good old Bing Crosby, or some of the other Christmas-themed music I grew up with.  The idea of hard rock and metal Christmas music is one that I like, but very few bands have done much with the idea, other than a few modern acts like Theocracy or August Burns Red.  There have been some attempts at gathering this material together in the past, like the 2002 Sound of the Dead Records' "A Brutal Christmas - The Season In Chaos" compilation.  That was a good collection of songs, but this new collection takes things to the next level by further diversifying the mix of genres and bands, as well as offering two full-length, long CD's chock full of fun tunes.  We have Metal Blessing Radio to thank for bringing all this goodness together.

This compilation brings together a number of familiar metal Christmas songs, as well as a handful of relatively obscure tracks.  In part, a large percentage of the tracks from "A Brutal Christmas" appear here, as well as tracks previously released as free downloads or EP/album tracks like Theocracy, Grave Robber, Paramaecium, Frost Like Ashes, and Deliverance.  Then there are some bands/artists I've never heard of, like Derek Close, Jonathan Simpson (who gets to open and close the album), Anschluss Amor, and Forfeit Thee Untrue.  Stylistically, this is fairly diverse.  We have everything from shredding hard rock/metal like Pastor Brad or Derek Close, to the gothic rock of Leper, the horror punk of Grave Robber, and the grooving sounds of Faithbomb, to the more extreme, such as the doom death metal of Paramaecium, the melodic death metal of Immortal Souls, the brutal death metal sound of Tortured Conscience, the metalcore of Second Thief, or the black metal of Erlosung or Flaskavsae, or the grindcore of The Right Wing Conspiracy.  There's some more experimental stuff here as well, like Kekal's awesome take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", Amelioration's "Redirection Christmas", Anschluss Amor's industrial "Christ's Mass", or the always bizarro Frank's Enemy with "Coventry Carol".  You certainly won't be bored listening to this release.

One thing I noticed immediately is that the volume level is quite low.  That's probably due to the various volume levels these tracks were recorded and mastered at from various sources, so it was a smart decision to "normalize" the songs to a lower volume to accommodate that divergence, and make the listening experience a bit more even across the board.  If you want to crank it, just turn he volume up a little higher and jam out.  One thing I'd suggest to anyone thinking about assembling a compilation of this type in the future - mix up the tracks a bit more if you have multiple tracks by a single band.  It's a bit distracting to hear all 6 Erlosung tracks all in order, even though I know they're all quite short and similarly constructed.  It would have been more interesting to hear those songs interspersed throughout the entirety of the compilation.  Same goes for Second Thief or Pastor Brad - they only had 2 tracks, but it might have been nice to have 1 of each from both respective bands on each disc, just to help improve the flow and keep things interesting.  It's a minor complaint, however.  Also, I have to mention the packaging for the limited first edition digipak - it's a quality double-fold digi with nice hard cardstock as its base, and a nice matte finish.  The cover artwork, as you can see above, is a nice parody of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, and doesn't overwhelm the original work with changes, just subtly gives it a humorous Christmas theme.  The first pressing is hand-numbered, and limited to 300 copies.

The other nice thing here is that the proceeds from the sale of these CD's will go to benefit an organization called MPact Events.  They will be using the money (100% of it, according to the press release I received) to purchase Christmas gifts for kids via the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate) - so these gifts will be going to foster kids who may not get any gifts from their birth parents.  Being that my wife and I spent several years doing foster care and have a heart for kids, I'm on board with this, and this worthy cause is dear to our hearts.  I was blessed to get a review copy of this compilation, but I would encourage anyone out there who is a metal fan and wants some Christmas-themed metal to jump on this, because it's a good cause, and a great deal.  You get 37 tracks of awesome Christmas music for $13 in a stunning digipak that will no doubt become a collectible in the years to come.  I'm not one to push my readers into buying stuff, I just try to give my opinion on a band when I review their CD.  But this is the exception to the rule - fans of metal should be checking this out post haste, and anyone else looking to support a good cause and/or for a Christmas music curiosity for their collection, go buy a copy from the Metal Blessing Radio website.  Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bloodwork - World Without End (2014)

Death metal has changed quite a bit since its formative years in the mid-late 1980's.  What started as a more extreme extension of thrash metal quickly developed into its own form in the early 1990's, and has taken on a number of iterations in subsequent years.  The early-mid 90's saw the rise of technical death metal like Gorguts, Atheist, Cynic, and latter-day Pestilence, as well as more brutal death metal like Suffocation or Dying Fetus.  Death metal mixed with doom metal became prevalent as well, with acts ranging from My Dying Bride, early Paradise Lost, and early Anathema to Paramaecium and Orphaned Land.  The 2000's and beyond have spawned more modern distillations of the death metal sound with ever-improving production values, which sometimes make the music sound more "in your face", but sometimes take away from the raw, unadulterated sound of what death metal was in the beginning.

The last 5 or 6 years has seen a major resurgence in the sound of early death metal, now referred to by most as "old school death metal" or OSDM.  A fair number of indie and underground music labels are putting out cassettes and vinyl releases for a number of bands, and many are retreating from over-produced, sterile sounding records to something more raw and organic, recalling the early 1990's where good production was possible, but the raw sound of the music wasn't compromised by the production, mixing, or mastering.  Endtime Productions has wisely snapped up UK death metallers Bloodwork, and given the vinyl (and CD) treatment to their full-length debut World Without End.  It stands as a shining example of OSDM done right in the modern age.

Right away, I hear many hallmarks of early death metal in the sound.  The guitars are downtuned, like most albums from that early period, but not so far that there's no definition in the guitar tone or in the riffing.  The guitar sound isn't so deep and sludgy that it forsakes some level of bite; indeed, this record's guitar sound is heavy and has plenty of teeth.  There isn't much in the way of solo work on the record, but lots of fast-picked rhythms and segues that really show off the abilities of all 3 guitarists in the band, James, Jeff, and Michael.  There are some nice spots, particularly in the title track, where dueling guitar lines are used to great effect to produce a layered sound that works well.  Other times, it sounds as though 2 or 3 guitars are playing the same rhythm so as to pummel you into oblivion as you listen.  Bass, as provided by relative newcomer Ben, is well played and is prevalent enough in the mix that you feel the rhythms, but can also hear what he is playing, and he chimes in alongside the riffing quite nicely.  Drummer Jon Rushforth has quite an impressive number of bands he has provided drumwork for, and he shows considerable skill here on the album, with lots of blast beats, groove-oriented bits, and really solid, accurate rolls and fills.  Some death metal drummers sound like they're barely keeping pace with the music, but Jon doesn't miss a beat (sorry, pun intended).

Vocally, the album has a lot going on.  Much of the vocal work is a high-pitched, almost rapsy growl that sounds more like black metal than the typical raspy death vocals of Jeff Walker or similar growler.  But similar to an early Carcass album, you also have a deeper, more mid-range to low guttural growl that is layered in with the higher-pitched rasp, creating a good contrast.  Sometimes the vocals are relatively understandable, other times the layering obscures them enough to where it's difficult to make out the lyrics, but it's not overly distracting.  Both sets of growls are quality, though, because there is some inflection and variation throughout.  I didn't get a lyric sheet with the review copy, but based on the band's previous material, it's not hard to guess that the lyrics are based on Christianity, and in a couple spots fairly obvious cries to God for help/deliverance.

There are 2 distinct qualities at work here that keep me coming back to this release.  First and foremost, the album has some level of variety in the songwriting.  There are the usual blast-fest songs that go at full speed throughout, but there are moments of real atmosphere (like the outro of "Shadow Aspect"), as well as slower-paced moments interspersed throughout that give the songs additional flavor.  Also, there are spots where some real groove is present, which keeps the album from veering too far into brutal death metal territory, and help it identify with some early death metal pioneers like Obituary, while surpassing them with a heavier, more brutal overall sound.  Secondly, the album is short and sweet.  Despite the variety present, there's only so much aural pounding one can take before an album wears out its welcome, and this release is long enough to feel like you've been sufficiently been kicked in the teeth when it's done, but not beaten to a pulp and feeling like you need to chase it with something far less heavy or insane.  It's well balanced, well produced, and well constructed overall.  It's also a major improvement over the band's earlier material.  I had previously heard the "Insufficient Flesh" EP, and this sounds like a whole new band, in a good way.  While that EP had the typical markings of a demo-quality band in the studio for the first time, this sounds like a group of seasoned professionals, staking their claim on the metal landscape and putting out a quality album with no filler.  Hats off to Endtime Productions for scoring this release, as well as for making it available on vinyl.  The vinyl has made its way to my short-list, and that says something, especially given the limited income I have to purchase music with these days.  Highly recommended for the death metal enthusiast.