Friday, December 12, 2008

My new radio show - "The Gamut"

I wanted to let all my readers know that I will am hosting a weekly radio show, starting this Sunday, December 14th from 9 to midnight Eastern Standard Time on Blabber Jesus Radio. It's called "The Gamut", because the musical styles presented will "run the gamut" from early "Jesus Rock" to the most extreme & obtuse metal I can find, nearly everything in between, and some stuff outside that box (like Joy Electric :)

It's going to be a good time, and there will be lots of great music for all. Here's the playlist for the first episode:

Tourniquet - Spectrophobic Dementia
Jerusalem - Dancing on the Head of the Serpent
Angel 7 - Power of Belief and Love
Angelica - Keep Pushin' On
Guardian - Saints Battalion
Grave Robber - Burn Witch, Burn (7" version)
Mankind - Alpha
Mortification - Grind Planetarium
Leviticus - I Shall Conquer
Six Feet Deep - Front
Spot - One of Hazy Days
Staple - Rise of the Robots
Joy Electric - Burgundy Years
Stavesacre - Threshold
subseven - Free to Conquer
Sweet Comfort Band - Runnin' to Win
One Bad Pig - I Scream Sunday
Our Fathers Were Blind - Banner Bedsheets
Plague of Ethyls - Weasel
The Prayer Chain - Sky High
Extol - Reflections of a Broken Soul
Whitecross - Down
Focal Point - Broken Bonds
For Today - Infantry
The Way - Do You Feel the Change?
Vengeance Rising - Fatal Delay
Uthanda - Shadow Play
Asher (CA) - Exhortation
DivineFire - Live or Die
Eloi - Looking Christian
Embodyment - Religious Infamy
Eternal Mystery - Eyes Torn From the Sockets
Jetenderpaul - Seapoon's Kasket
Fear Not - Mr. Compromise
xDisciplex A.D. - Christ Shaped Vacuum
X-Propagation - Cyber Nation
GeistkrieG - Spiral of War
Wrench in the Works - Dust Over Time Test
Haven - Divination
Deliverance - Bought By Blood
Demon Hunter - Turn Your Back and Run

Of course, I'll "blabber" a bit in between some songs, and I hope you'll all appreciate some of the other interesting stuff I'll throw in there. I hope everyone can come check it out, and if you have time, pop into the chatroom & say hello!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Miseration - Your Demons, Their Angels (2007)

Death metal is an interesting animal. From the very first bands that began to cross over from thrash into heavier territories to something heavier, to the melodic death metal bands littered about the metal landscape today that some deride as "weak" or "wimpy", one thing is certain: metal fans have strong feelings about death metal. I myself have strong feelings about death metal, having been introduced to the style in the early 90's via latter-day Vengeance Rising, Mortification's seminal "Scrolls of the Megilloth" album, and through the secular realm by bands like Bolt Thrower and Carcass. Feeling as though I'm well educated enough about the style to present an informed opinion of the various subsets, I can safely say that my favorite death metal is the kind where all elements are present: speed, power, crushing heaviness, melody, and vocals which sound like the vocalist's throat is about to fall out on the floor.

Being that everything I enjoy about death metal is present on Miseration's debut, "Your Demons, Their Angels", it's natural that I would enjoy it. More than that - this is arguably my favorite album of 2007. It has the crushing heaviness I have come to expect, nay demand from death metal. It has melodic elements that enhance the music without overpowering it, and it has varied vocals that aren't so throat-ripping that you can't make out what they are saying, but harsh enough to let you know you are indeed listening to death metal. The drumming is ultra-powerful, the riffing is heavy, driving, and accomplished, and the solos (where present) add to the songs just enough without becoming the focal point. The tempos also vary here, providing some slower & mid-tempo material, without forgetting to ramp up the speed for sections that sound like a freight train is heading down your street.

"Thrones" starts of the album in fine form, with pounding drums and biting rhythm. An interesting rhythmic pattern starts off the intro and has some timely double-bass drumming. Vocally, the verse opens with Christian Älvestam sounding quite menacing, bringing a vocal that is somewhere in between the Jeff Walker-esque rasp of
Carcass and the guttural low-end growl of one Karl Willets (Bolt Thrower). He also incorporates a higher-pitched vocal that is harder to pin down, as well as low-end growls and a more spoken word growl that sounds really cool. There is a bit of vocal layering going on as well with a more hardcorish vocal toward the end that gives the song even more variety. The bass guitar isn't so much audible as an underlying roar, which gives the music an even more bottom-heavy sound to it. There's some atmospheric effects work going on in the background between the 2nd chorus and the bridge. Things slow down a bit for the bridge, with some nice cymbal work and the aforementioned spoken word vocals and a bit of extra guitar work. The solo here is great, utilitizing a nice guitar tone, and an awesome layered/harmonized part at the middle. The song transitions at the end with an atmospheric effect right into "Perfection Destroyed". The song has a killer intro with great guitar sound & speed, as well as a nice lick over the top. The chorus has melodic vocals with layering, showing off Christian's abilities as a vocalist, and Jani's affectation for melodic choruses. The death vocals here range from the mid-range growl to a lower-end growl, and the occasional embellishment here and there. The rhythm in the pre-chorus is excellent, and the chorus riff with it's circular guitar riff and speedy undercurrent just rips through with power. The song throws listeners for a loup at around 2:48 with a (very) short acoustic ditty, then back into the heavy guitars and double-bass pounding. The intro riff comes back in about 3:37 to signal the transition into the final chorus, which then fades out with a cool pitch-shift effect. "Seven Are the Sins" pulls no punches, immediately pummeling the listener from the start. The keyboard backing in the chorus is a nice effect, adding a bit of atmosphere to the relentless onslaught of death metal. Vocally, Christian makes more use of high, mid-range, and higher death growls, mixing things up nicely. There's a cool section half-way through that has an echoed cleaner guitar and a whispery death vocal with some effects on it, and more spare drumming. That doesn't last long, however, before a rhythm section that recalls "Perfection Destroyed" somewhat comes in before transitioning back to the chorus section. "World Lethality" starts off much different than the rest of the album - a clean guitar intro & some spare, layered lead playing that is quite reminiscent of early Testament. After about a minute of this, things pick up a bit with a hushed vocal and distorted riffing, along with a slow, persistent drum rhythm. The cool spoken word vocal reappears here, sounding very much like Lord Byron of Bal Sagoth. All at once, the fast tempo picks up and Christian's layered, clean vocals come in & are offset by his death vocals, creating a nice interplay. There's varied guitar work in this song that makes it melodic, yet it retains speed & heaviness where necessary. Drum work here is great too, providing the power when appropriate, and having more dynamics when the song calls for it.

"The End Designed" starts off heavy right away, with some traditional death metal riffing and a nice layer of keyboards underneath, but remains melodic. When the verse kicks in, so does the speed, and the occasional keyboard flourishes add to the atmosphere. Jani proves his salt as a drummer here, with nice rolls, tight rhythms, and good dynamic cymbal work. "Chain-Work Soul" is very possibly the most melodic song on the album, starting with a nice mid-paced melodic riff & layered guitar. The riff is less heavy than some of the others, but that's mostly due to the notes being higher on the scale & less overall crunch. Once again, Christian shows what a good singer he is in the chorus, with a nice harmonized vocal that shows a bit of range. He also utilizes an array of death growls as well, mixing things up a bit during the verses. There's an ultra-low growl during the bridge that sounds like a lot of early brutal death vocals, which is a nice touch. There's a bit of buried solo work that serves the song well, but sounds great underneath the mix. The clean guitar & atmospherics at the end of the song hardly prepare you for the assault of "Noctivigant", one of the heavier tracks on the CD (though with a CD as heavy as this, that's not saying too much!). There's a sort of distorted vocal that sounds like it came straight from an industrial CD thrown in there, which is a neat effect against the wall of sound, along with some other vocal variation that keeps things interesting throughout. Drum rhythms here are nice, and a couple little keyboard flourishes thrown in for good measure add a bit of atmosphere to the song. This track moves along at a pretty good clip, with very little breathing room or nary a respite moment. "Foul Invective" starts off with a complex, melodic riff and transitions into a faster, thrashier riff for the verse. After the first chorus, there's a moment where the music stops on a dime for a split second, then back into the fray, a cool device metal bands often use for effect. Ther'es also a moment during the bridge where an effect is used that would be at home on a blues record, or an early roots-rock record, but fits in here well, despite not being heavily used by metal bands. The solo here is great; a good combination of skill & talent, but also melody & serving the song. At just over 30 seconds left, you think the song has ended, but it comes roaring back to finish out with one last chorus. The final track, "Scattering the Few" blazes into action with a fast double-bass rhythm and fast riffing, and a nice groove-laden riff during the verse. Christian really shows his vocal range here, with a layered clean vocal that shows him well into tenor territory. There's a cool vocal effect in the chorus that's hard to explain, but it sounds like a fade-in, but more dramatic. The short solo is a nice addition to the song, helping to transition into the heavier bridge section with it's pummeling riff & drum rhythm. Then the song slows down a bit for a slightly melodic passage with some riffing and some picked rhythm. A bit of guitar harmonic transitions into another solo, which helps draw the song toward it's closing moments.

The production here is pristine, making this one of the most well-produced death metal albums I've heard this side of Carcass' "Heartwork". All the instruments are heard (except, in part, the bass guitar, though that's typical of extreme metal productions), and everything is balanced nicely, with dynamics throughout where applicable. There are a couple spots where the spoken word or quiter vocals are buried a tad in the mix, but I suspect that was on purpose, for effect. This CD has nearly everything I want from a death metal release, just not quite enough of it. The 2 minor knocks against this album? It's a tad too short (only 9 tracks?!), and the artwork of Par Johansson, while fitting, is just a hair on the cheesy side. His work in designing the band's logo, however, is exceptional. These are only minor complaints, however. This is a landmark release.

Lyrically, one might wonder what to think, given that
Christian Älvestam is not a professed born-again Christian. However, Jani wrote the lyrics, and despite any ambiguities in the songs to accomodate Christian's beliefs, they definitely lean in the direction of a Christian world-view. This may not be a "Christian" album in the traditional sense, but "of interest to Christian metal fans" would be how I would classify it. The lyrical themes deal with personal struggles from the perspective of one's faith in God, so they are completely relevant to Christians, and in some ways are actually more bold than a lot of so-called "Christian" bands in today's music landscape. Whatever your belief system, this is a fine death metal album that no one should overlook. Now with the band signing to Life Force Records, this album will FINALLY get it's due & have North American distribution so guys like me don't have to scrape around & pay heavy import prices to find a copy. I have Jason with Nokternal Hemizphear to thank for hooking me up with my copy at a reasonable price - I don't know how he does it! In any case, this is the death metal album of 2007 in my book.


Mehida - Blood & Water (2007)

"Supergroup" can be a dirty word, or it can be a thing of beauty. Either way, faboys generally salivate over the possibility of their favorite musicians joining to collaborate on a musical project. Sometimes it works out (Tobias Sammet's Avantasia) sometimes it does not (VH1's "Supergroup" that included Sebastian Bach, Scott Ian, Ted Nugent, Jason Bonham, and Evan Seinfeld). However, when a group of prolific musicians get together in a concerted effort, they have the potential to create something beautiful.

Such is the case with Mehida. Before purchasing this album, I had no idea that it was supposed to have been the followup to Wingdom's debut. Nor was I aware that it was a "supergroup" of sorts. After doing some research on the band, I realized that I had struck gold. Just taking a brief look at the list of bands these 5 gents have been in, you know they're already quite experienced. Scanning the list of band names, you also see a handful of reknowned bands in there: Candlemass, Sonata Arctica, Kotipelto, Therion, and DivineFire all come to mind. There are also quite a few high quality bands that are newer or not quite as lauded as the others, such as 7 Days, Essence of Sorrow, Random Eyes, Templar, and the classic Kenziner. With a musical pedigree that good, it has to be good, right? Not necessarily so: thankfully, it is with this band. Let me first get off my chest that this is simply one more project involving Jani Stefanovich that is pure gold. Everything that man touches or is involved with ends up being top draw, and this is no exception.

Right away, the album starts off on a high note. "Unchanging" comes in with an interesting sort of vaudville type intro, then blows right into a keyboard line & simple riff. When Thomas Vikström starts singing, the riff changes up a bit with some double bass & underlying bass work. Thomas' vocals shine right away, with strength and confidence, and a nice falsetto in one spot. The chorus is anthemic, and provides an interesting melodic divergence. The 2nd verse changes things up a tad with a slight change in the guitar sound & riff. The vocals here have an interestic rhytmic effect over the rest of the music as well, adding an interesting element. The guitar & keyboard solo work here isn't over the top, but fits the song well. Markus Niemispelto provides a really interesting drum/cymbal rhythm at the end of the song that caps it well, and shows the progressive element of this band. "Wings Of Dove" is highly melodic from the word go, and is well constructed with it's subdued guitar and keyboard lines throughout, as well as the plodding bassline. Thomas' layered vocals show off nice harmonies. The extra vocal layering in the chorus is excellent, producing a choir-like effect that is quite anthemic. It's no wonder Thomas marked this as one of his favorite songs off the album on the band's official website. The riffing in this song is fairly simplistic, allowing the vocals to carry the melody nearly all the way through, but it's very effective. The keyboard solo here again is not over done, but just right. "Burning Earth" brings the heaviness level up a bit, providing an interesting guitar intro with a fast, near blast beat rhythm that intros the song. The riff here is heavy yet atmospheric. The verses are even more atmospheric, with a more subdued riff, bringing guitar back to the fore by the chorus. Keyboards are here, but are quite understated, bringing an atmospheric element to the band without dominating. The vocal effect used toward the end of the verses is interesting, but slightly hampers one's ability to make out the words, though it's only for a few seconds. The song fades out with a repeat of an earlier passage. "Multitude" has a bunch of voices at the beginning speaking the opening words of "I have never done anything wrong..." until the riff comes in and a gruff vocal (I'm assuming Thomas didn't provide this, perhaps Jani?) repeats the line sevearl times. This song has a nice underlying keyboard sound, a plodding bass & guitar rhythm, and a solid drum beat. This song also employs some really nice group vocals and layring, showing off Thomas' range a bit. Thomas' phrasing in this song is also a bit unique, adding to the semi-progressive nature of this CD. Again, the guitar solo here isn't insane, but fits the material well. "Stronghold" begins with an understated guitar riff that could have made it's home on a mid-90's industrial rock album. Instead, it's here, followed by a much heavier riff and rhythmic section. The keyboard work here is very understated, with little piano plinking underyling the understated portion of the riff during the verses and a faster rhythm atop that. The chorus is simple and anthemic, but very catchy, with the keyboard provies a nice backdrop. The solo is really good, with keyboard & guitar interchanging a bit, and providing slightly more flash than in previous tracks. The lyrics speak of God being the "stronghold", the fortress and shield as told in Psalm 31.

"Guilty" opens with an ominous keyboard intro, then blows into a heavy riff coupled with lots of double-bass in the rhythm. Thomas is in fine form here, providing nice vocals, and a good harmonized vocal in the pre-chorus, as well as layering in the chorus. Once again, the chorus is quite anthemic. Lyrically, the song talks of the weight of sin on a person's conscience and soul, noting that we're all guilty of sin. Great layered keyboard here with an excellent keyboard solo to boot. "A Letter From Home" opens with some nice electric piano work, as well as an electronic rhythm that would feel at home on an Enya CD. This doesn't last, however, and the heaviness comes in shortly, with the rest of the instruments coming in. The verse sections employ the electric piano nicely, and the segue between verse & chorus has some nice choral vocals in the background. The song talks of God's love for us, and how He hurts when we hurt, and how He cares for us no matter what. The bridge toward the end has a nice female vocal effect and dissonant piano which plays on the understated guitar nicely. "Dry Bones" has a cool keyboard effect intro, followed immediately by one of the heaviest rhythms on the CD, a fast drum rhythm and driving guitar riff with bass in tow. Keyboard effects here are spare, but work well within the context of the material. The chorus employs a lot of double bass & one of the more complex guitar parts found on the CD in a couple spots. The song talks about how we as humans have "dry bones" without knowing God's word, and how hearing His word brings us to life through knowledge & acceptance of Him. There are a couple operatic vocal effects in the bridge which remind me of the opera scene in the PlayStation game Parasite Eve, though that's mostly because of the way they're processed. Great keyboard solo work here as well. "Lost Ones" starts off with a tempto, picked rhythm and keyboard line that makes it sound like it might be the power ballad here, but when the heavier riff & ominous keyboard sound comes in, it belies that though. Instead, we get a nice dark feel to it, with an interesting lower-end vocal from Thomas that makes its only appearance in this song. The effect on the vocals is interesting, and adds to the atmosphere. The chorus has a nice choral effect to it, helping to make it more anthemic than the darker atmosphere would normally lend itself. I like the solo work here - very understated, but quite fitting to the song, with nice keyboard & guitar layering at the beginning, then allowing the guitar a few seconds to shine. Lyricaly, the song confirms that "we all like sheep have gone astray" in that we're all sinners. It is sung in the verses from God's perspective - He has called us, but we haven't answered. It's quite chilling to think that He has called many of us, and many of us have ignored Him. "Grace" is a powerful song, written from the perspective of the thief on the cross next to Jesus who asks Him to remember him in Heaven, only to hear from Jesus that he would be joining Him in paradise. It's one example of God's unending grace; no matter what we've done, He will forgive us for our sins & we can be with Him in eternity. Musically, the song is understated, with nice electric piano & keyboard effects, a simple but effective riff, solid drumming & bass work, and some nice layered vocals. The lyrics really shine here, with the thief saying he isn't worth a penny, but God gave him the opportunity to turn away from his past life and accept Jesus. Nice vocal layering toward the end of the song that gives a slight choral effect. "End of the World (Outro)" is an interesting pastiche of clean guitar picking, keyboard effects, samples, organ music, and disharmonic instrumentation. If it weren't for the keyboard solo work in there, I'd say this would have fit perfectly on a Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus album, with it's "apocalyptic folk" feel. An interesting cap to the album, to be sure.

What else can be said? This is a stellar release. I'm intrigued at how the musicians on this album can put aside the usual over the top methodology they have employed on other releases they've been involved in to create an understated, yet incredibly anthemic and cathcy release such as this. I would never have thought this to be a melodic metal album by looking at the cover, the logo, or the album title - I had considered it was probably a goth-rock album. I'm glad I was wrong, and I'm glad I didn't let that initial thought sway me from buying this album. This is a top-notch release by a group of highly skilled musicians; more importantly, this is a triumph of songwriting, and proof that metal doesn't have to be overly heavy to be immediate, nor does a metal band with progressive tendencies and uniqueness have to sacrifice the songs for the sake of being as technical as possible. This album strikes a near-perfect balance of technical prowess and songwriting restraint. Sadly, this album will probably be overlooked by many due to the overt faith-based lyrics, and by the cover art & album title. If you are reading this review and still aren't convinced, head over to the band's Myspace & listen to a couple tracks. You won't be sorry!


Friday, October 3, 2008

For Today - Ekklesia (2008)

In the world of rock and metal, the vocalist is almost always the focal point. The vocalist is usually the most visible member of a band on stage, on the CD, and in the media. Drummers, bassists, and musicians of various employ come and go, but the core vocalist is always a consistent element. In the world of hardcore, metalcore, and more extreme metal, this isn't always the case. Some bands falter when the lead vocalist steps down (Bolt Thrower, for example), whereas some go on to greater critical and/or commercial success when a vocalist is replaced (Arch Enemy is a good example of this). For the most part, unless the vocalist is the front man, or unless the style the vocalist brings is so unique & different that the band can't overcome that association, most bands in the more extreme forms of metal tend to soldier on and survive. What do you do when a favorite vocalist jumps ship and moves to another band? Do you stick with the band you love, hoping the replacement will work just as well? Do you follow the vocalist to the new band, in hopes that the music will match their charisma or style? Or do you just follow your "musical heart" and listen to whatever rings your bell? For me, it's the latter. However, I must say that following a vocalist to their next project can be a rewarding experience.

Enter For Today. I had only briefly heard about this band when I heard that Mattie Montgomery had jumped ship from Besieged (after laying down killer work on their "Atlantis" album) and joined For Today. I think I had probably heard a couple of their EP tracks on their Myspace page, and sent them a friend request not 2-3 weeks earlier, liking what I had heard. When I heard about Mattie leaving Besieged, I was understandably concerned. They had recorded what was one of my favorite albums of 2007, and now the vocalist who had worked magic on that record was gone. What was I to think? Then, when I heard about him joining For Today, it hadn't occurred to me that I had friended just weeks earlier until I visited their Myspace page again. Thoughts raced through my head like, "He joined THESE guys?" or "Why the sudden change?" I didn't know what to make of it. Thankfully, my fears were quelled when I saw the band perform at a CD release show (in my home state of Nebraska no less!), and I realized that this band was as special as the one I had been fauning over a year before.

The CD starts off with the obligatory "Intro" track, a nice display of bottom-heavy breakdown-style riffing, standard metalcore drum rhythms, and a nice lead guitar pattern. "Infantry" comes in right away, with a nice dual-guitar riff, and some Weyandt-esque vocals from Mattie. There's a good lick during the intro as well. The riff, drum work, bassline, and vocal work is fairly elastic, showing great flexibility & a fair amount of skill. It's not overly melodic, but it does the job. The song moves quickly from one structure to another, not content to follow a verse-chorus type of mentality, but transitioning from one idea to another. Thankfully, these ideas work well, and the song doesn't sound disjointed. Mattie goes from nice raspy highs to guttural lows (though not quite into brutal death growl territory), and some nice harsh vocals in between for effect. The group yells here are not completely typical, having a bit more high-pitched sound than many group yells opt for. The double-bass work here is nice, as is the light cymbal touches that slightly accent the rest of the music here & there. Lyrically, it's very much a call to spiritual warfare, and shining a light by being bold in a stance for Christ. "Redemption" starts off with a really catchy lead sort of rhythm, with the other guitar providing the lower end harmonizing part. Immediately it transitions into a cool dual-guitar lead/rhythm piece that channels some of the early Iron Maiden dual guitar work. After the "ride 'em cowboy" yell that cuts the song down the middle, it transitions into another nice melodic guitar line with a subdued yell vocal , then into a low-end chunky riff section with more of Mattie's lows. The dual-guitar lead/riff comes blazing in again & shows the skill these guitar players obviously have, and shows how nice a harmonized lead can sound when played properly. "Agape" (the first single) pulls no punches at the start, firing on all cylinders with sweeps in tow, and a bottom-heavy breakdown almost immediately after some highs & lows by Mattie. The riff in the main verse sections moves along with the drum rhythm well, and has an August Burns Red feel to it. Lyrically, the song is essentially about agape love, and how God loves us more than anything, and how we are to respond in kind by loving Him with our whole heart, soul, body, and mind. The breakdown about 3:00 has some good double-bass work. The breakdown-heavy end has a group yell that echoes the "all your soul, all your mind, all your strength!" while Mattie fills in the lows. "Never Lose Sight of the Goals" immediately fires up with a good riff with melody and heaviness. The drum work in this song is excellent, with fast & hyper-accurate double-bass work, solid riffing, and interesting cymbal fills. The clean vocals here almost sound like Stephen Christian of Anberlin. They're quite well done. The riffing after the clean vocal section is fast & tasty, despite it's relative simplicity compared to much of the rest of the material. The band moves in many different directions here, and keep things interesting throughout by not dwelling in one place too long, or allowing a riff to become stale. "Instrumental" is just that - a quiet, plaintive instrumental track with underlying clean & acoustic guitar, a guitar feedback hum underneath that swells slowly, and spare but effective cymbal & bass work. It provides a transition between the 1st and 2nd halves of the album.

"Words of Hope" comes in guns blazing after the break with low vocals, heavy guitar and bombastic drums & bass. Again, August Burns Red is channeled here a bit. The interesting rhythms and interplay between the guitar & drums make for fun listening. Lyrically, the song sounds like a plea to a friend or acquaintance not to give up on life, but to embrace all that God has to offer. The clean vocals here recall Stephen Christian again, with a nice harmonized layering effect halfway through. More dual-guitar interplay accompanies a rumbling bassline & solid drum work through the end of the song. "Ready For the Fight" starts off with Mattie bringing the low vocals, growling out the song title. In comes a low-end riff that is content to dwell on the bottom string while the bass & drums rumble along. That doesn't last for long, however, and a melodic & interesting riff w/ dual-guitar harmony comes in, carrying the verse along. This song, like some of the others, doesn't follow a verse-chorus format, but moves in varying directions throughout it's cycle, picking up cool riffs, lead/riff combinations, and remaining interesting throughout. Mattie switches it up a bit by throwing in some higher, raspy vocals along with his low-end roar. "A Higher Standard" opens up with a cool dual-guitar rhythm, and some excellent double-bass, drum, and cymbal work. There is a slight ode to southern hardcore about a minute in, with just a hint of the vocal stylings & guitar sounds many of the current crop of southern hardcore bands are bringing. Quickly transitioning back to a melodic metalcore sound, however, the song isn't content to keep a southern flavor, but rather keep changing the course that's on the table. Lyrically, this song is a call to arms for Christians, letting us all know that we are not to be lukewarm, but rather bold in our stance for Christ and that we are called to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Some nice higher-pitched yells interspersed throughout with more of Mattie's raspy vocals. Again, the guitar work here is great, with loads of dual-guitar harmonies & lines that don't just riff here or there, but move around and make things more complex than just 3 and 4 chord riffs. It's also the longest song on the album, allowing the complexity that much more time to play out with the different riff & rhythm structures the band has to offer. "With a Passion Burning" starts with a riff that almost sounds old-school metal, except when against the backdrop of the rest of the instrumentation & production. This song recalls thrash metal quite a bit with the speedy double-bass, fast riffing, and complexity in later sections. Lyrically, this is the only point in the album which isn't a bold evangelical of "call to arms" kind of statement of Christianity. It's a more general statement of encouragement to the listener to follow their dreams by finding something they're passionate about & going for it. While that might not jive with some traditional conservative Christian thinking, following one's dreams is one of the ways we can seek & find God's will in our lives. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, but hopefully we will learn from it & grow along the way. Again, this song flows from one portion to the next, only occasionally repeating a riff or rhythmic element. The song fades out as the last words are growled.

This album is very good, but I do have a couple minor qualms. I don't like the fade-out at the end. Loads of bands have done this, where they fade out a song while singing the last lines of the song. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. It all depends on the effect you get when you do it. Unfortunately, at least for me, it doesn't work in this instance. My other issue is that as much as I like to listen to the dual-guitar rhythms and harmonizing, I'd like to hear some actual guitar leads. I know, metalcore isn't known for lead guitar playing, but these 2 guitarists have so much talent, and it's obvious. I think that's an element that is lacking from this release, and should be at least considered as an element they could add in future songwriting. If they don't feel it, and it doesn't become a part of the song that melds well, so be it. There are spots in the songs, however, that leads would work well to extend the songs slightly and give it a little something extra. All in all, however, this is a fine debut that these Iowa boys should be proud of. I look forward to seeing them live again in a few weeks, and to their next record.


Stand Your Ground - Open Eyes and Beating Hearts (2008)

Sometimes a band comes along that doesn't necessarily innovate, so much as reinvent. That may even be a stretch in this case, but bear with me. Tennessee's Stand Your Ground hasn't innovated melodic hardcore, nor have they reinvented it. What they have done, however, is incorporated enough elements of various strains of metallic & melodic hardcore to create a sound that is reminiscent of other bands in the genre, but retains a "semblance of self" if you will - a stamp that is indelibly their own.

Before I get accused of treading the murky waters of hyperbole, let me say that this record was not one I was highly anticipating. As a music collector, I had ordered the entire Harvest Earth Records back catalog in an attempt to fill in my collection with a number of releases I didn't have, including a couple key releases like the first Of the Son EP, as well as the Winter Solstice EP and a couple other minor releases. Through my desire to continue to obtain all forthcoming Harvest Earth releases, I ordered the Saving Grace debut & simultaneously ordered the full-length HE debut by Gray Lines of Perfection, as well as the Stand Your Ground album from Interpunk, due to a pre-order deal where you could get a free Stand Your Ground t-shirt if you were one of the first handful that pre-ordered. I pre-ordered both the Stand Your Ground album, as well as the Gray Lines of Perfection disc. I was actually looking more forward to the GLoP album because having heard their EP, I figured the debut would be just as solid. I didn't get the GLoP shirt as I was hoping, only a lame button. However, I got the SYG shirt, which I ended up loving. I'm not quite as divided about the records themselves, however. GLoP's debut full-length is indeed solid, and worth the pre-order for sure. However, SYG's debut I just keep coming back to.

"Coup De Main" begins with some "vinyl noise" ala pops & a light hiss, followed by a clean guitar rhythm that has an interesting time signature to it. When the distortion kicks in, it creates a nice contrasting rumble to the clean guitar. The gang vocals that open the main part of the song's intro let you know this band is passionate and means business. I like the vocal layering in the yells as well, mixing a couple different styles of hardcore & extreme vocals. After about 2 minutes, the tempo picks up and changes to a real melodic hardcore kind of thing, ala latter-day Stretch Arm Strong, some Jesus Wept, or the lighter side of Inked In Blood. The song transitions from a layered clean vocal up-tempo section to a slower-paced hardcore breakdown section that retains heavy riffing, hard vocals, and some spoken word. This song can be broken up pretty cleanly into 3 sections, almost "movements" if you will. "Our Time" changes things up a bit, opting for a more traditional song structure. Beginning with some heavy riffing and solid drumming, the song incorporates some nice traditional hardcore vocals and melodic riffing in the background, with heavier riffing up front. There's also some vocals that sound like death growls, which is a nice touch as well. One thing I notice w/in the first 2 songs is that the drumming is more dynamic than most hardcore bands can boast. Not only does the drummer have a greater sense of dynamics than most hardcore drummers, but he keeps things interesting w/o hogging the spotlight. The layered clean vocals work well here - they're not spectacular, but most melodic hardcore bands who incorporate clean vocals don't always have the most adept singers, so it works well in this context. The song moves nicely between heavy sections & melodic sections. The breakdown sections work well. They're not groundbreaking (what is in hardcore/metalcore these days?), but they function well w/in the structure of the material & serve the song. "A Final Plea to Fallen Hearts"Begins with some nice layered guitar work; a light distorted strummed rhythm below a clean picked rhythm. Again, the drumming here is great, without showboating. Vocally, this song is all over the place. Clean vocals, screams, spoken word, melodic sung vocals w/ layering, you name it. Guitar work here is solid as well, with nice transitions between melodic, less heavy parts, and heavier, more chugga-chugga stuff. The breakdown section at about 3:20 sounds good in headphones, with a nice "back and forth" effect. More low death growls here as well. "Having Done All, to Stand" starts with a heavy riff and some great hardcore vocals & gang yells - very anthemic. More layered sung vocals accompany the more melodic parts of the song. These guys do pretty well at writing simple, effective harmonies. There's also some nice acoustic guitar mixed in, as well as a gang sung vocal that accompanies the music. The gang sung vocal section goes on probably a tad too long, but it's a minor complaint at best.
If you thought hardcore was one dimensional, the drama in this song should lay that though to rest. With about a minute left, the song ends abruptly, then comes back in a military-like snare rhythm and what I can only assume is the bagpipes selection on a keyboard. "In the Midst of Trepidation, Hope" begins with a clean picked guitar rhythm that is transitioned to from the previous track, followed by some nice heavy riffing. The layered vocal approach works well here as well - imagine hardcore sreams underneath a layered sung vocal that sounds almost like some indie-rock band. The verse sections are quite catchy, with some nice harmonized riffs and the vocal layering. The guitar work during the bridge has a nice harmonized effect to it. A couple more death growls thrown in for good measure, and back to the melodic part to end the song. Transitioning into "VI", we find one of the albums few truly plaintive moments, with a keyboard background, cleanly picked guitar rhythm, despite the guitar feedback that accompanies occasionally.

After that short respite period, we arrive at "A False Sense of Self-Reliance" with a heavy intro, followed by melodic vocal layering again. Moments of this song recall Beloved (US), with the mixture of nearly emo singing & riffing, with heavier, more hardcore moments that contrast well. I like the breakdown here as well - nice double bass that works well without taking over. I really like the guitar harmonies near the end of the song as well; they're not Iron Maiden by any means, but for a hardcore band, they sound fairly accomplished. "Renaissance" begins with another picked clean guitar rhythm, some slightly atmospheric keyboards, and a strummed rhythm that echoes out. When the 2nd guitar begins picking a clean rhythm as well, the layering just gets better with even more layers of guitar. It almost recalls the quieter moments of Radiohead's debut where the 3 guitarists all have their rhythms they play & it blends well. The song slowly builds to a point, then goes back to a more minimal sound at around 2:30. The drum & cymbal work here is spare, but fitting. The guitar picking & rhythmic work is quite well done, and quite adept. The rumbling underneath the building rhythm works well, as the bass and drums slowly build & grow louder & more urgent until the song dies down again to a near hush with a single guitar rhythm, and the atmospheric keyboards again. Around 4:30 is when the song picks up with distorted guitar, full-on drums, and keyboards flowing along. No vocals or lyrics on this one, but simply a beautiful instrumental that shimmers in contrast to the hardcore that this CD has to offer. "The Prodigal Cycle" has a cool guitar line intro that probably recalls more screamo bands than you can shake a stick at, but they do it well. Again, lots of switch-up between hardcore screams and layered vocal harmonies. The way the 2 guitars layer with a melodic rhythmic pattern coupled with a more traditional hardcore rhythm works nicely. Nice drum & cymbal work here in this song as well, with some unique sounds not normally associated with hardcore music. The bridge has a nice riff with harmonized guitar that sounds great with headphones. Immediately the song transitions at the end into "Monument" with a bombastic riff, bass, and drum combo, followed by a slightly more melodic guitar line. The layered singing here sounds great, and is complemented well by the hardcore vocals later on. At around 1:15, there's an interesting dissonant riff; almost "Voivodian" in sound and texture. I cannot stress enough how well the layering works here, with layered vocals, layering of heavy & melodic guitar lines, and just the overall construction of it all. Here is the first appearance of gang yells in several songs, letting you know these guys still bring the hardcore, not just succumbing to the melody completely, despite how overtly melodic the material is, and how well it works. The breakdown at the end of the song is quite passionate, and brings a really heavy section with a really bassy section, indulging in a little bit of extreme vocal layering with some death vocals, and the "Dan Weyandt" style in tow. In addition, they toss in just a hint of technical metalcore in one spot, letting you know they don't take themselves 100% seriously. "The Final Step" has a bit more groove than some of the other material, and incorporates a bit of an almost Maylene feel to it with a yelled, distorted vocal and a bit of southern hardcore melodic flair. The solo also lightly recalls some of the recent southern hardcore bands, along with having a nice melodic hardcore feel to it. The end of this song transitions into "A Call to Perserverance" which is an interesting experiment in melodic guitar, a near-techno beat, and what sounds like a recorded speaker reciting scripture. It's a nice cap on the album, and ends with the speaker alone, along with a bit more vinyl "snap, crackle, pop" for effect.

So, what to make of all this? I am slightly conflicted, yet I must say I love this album. I feel as though "Coup De Main" sets me up for disappointment, because nothing else on the album quite lives up to the promise of that song, with it's movement-like grandeur. However, I can't fault the rest of the album because it's so melodic yet heavy, driving yet pensive, and experimental yet grounded. These guys craft excellent songs that stick with you, not just content to pass by as you listen to them like many a hardcore band. Granted, the songs begin to sound similar toward the end, but even their melodic hardcore & screamo brethren can't touch what they've done here. If there's one thing I can't fault the band for here, it's the overly dark cover art and the hard to read layout in the sleeve, but those are minor complaints. It is unfortunate, however, that due to the somewhat dingy-looking album cover, some will pass them by ("Smell the Glove" anyone?). They're not the next Underoath because they've charted their own path. I feel like this album shows the potential of an album like Kingston Falls' "Crescendo of Sirens" did. Let's hope with the recent member changes they don't veer off course & write a bland, samey followup to this album as Kingston Falls did with "Armada on Mercury". This album is, as far as I'm concerned, the new benchmark for melodic hardcore, and I look forward to hearing other bands rise to the challenge. I hope they're prepared to bring their "A" game.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Leaderdogs For the Blind - Lemonade (1995)

1995 was an important year for music, and for me personally as well. My personal musical growth had been on a steady rise ever since I branched out from the country music, gospel, and oldies I grew up listening to (because that's all I was allowed). Indeed, ever since I ventured into pop, hip-hop (early 90's) and rock, the sky became the limit. I had already developed a sensibility where I didn't care about what others thought of what I listened to, which helped me greatly in my own path to musical fulfillment - I would not be bound by some rule or guideline that said I had to listen to what was popular. By the same token, if I did listen to what was popular, I wasn't going to let those who considered themselves "cool" and "underground" dissuade me from listening to what I liked. So, as someone who had plunged himself full-on into both the hard rock & heavy metal landscape, as well as the grunge & ever-growing alternative rock scene (as well as dipping my toe in the proverbial hip-hop water), I felt no pressure to succumb to the whims of anyone's musical tastes but my own.

Enter 1995. In the wake of grunge's demise, the aftermath of the Kurt Cobain suicide, and the continually growing popularity of industrial music, more and more groups began incorporating electronic influences into their music. 3 of my favorite albums from my youth are from 1995, and also include varying degrees of electronics and industrial influence/sound. Those being Leaderdogs For the Blind, God Lives Underwater, and Circle of Dust. GLU had been together for a short while, releasing a competent self-titled EP, then the same year releasing their full-length debut "Empty". Having first heard the single "No More Love" on an up-coming alt-rock radio station in my area, I initially thought, "This is like Alice in Chains with electronics." I was captivated by the sound. Similarly, Circle of Dust captivated me. I had purchased the 1995 re-recording of the 1992 debut album while on a date with my girlfriend, and it became one of my favorite albums very quickly.

The Leaderdogs album caught me by surprise as well. Where "Empty" had ultra-catchy melodies and catchy riffs, "Lemonade" preferred to pummel the listener with bottom-heavy, bombastic guitar & bass attack, a precise drum machine, and a decidedly goth-tinged vocal approach. That's not to say it's not a catchy record - far from it. It's just not a pop record disguised as a heavy rock record. This IS a heavy rock record, one that belies an underlying metal influence that is felt in the riffs. Of course, the scoffers dismiss this as simply a precursor to "nu-metal" or just an offshoot of the industrial music wave, just another rock band trying to get into the market. While it's true that many a techno-influenced rock band flooded the market at that time (The Almighty Ultrasound, Stabbing Westward, and Gravity Kills were only a few of the more notable acts in this vein), Leaderdogs were arguably the heaviest of the bunch, which was unique for a Christian band. Also unique is that Leaderdogs were a bit more "industrial" than many of their contemporaries, incorporating many of the samples, "found sounds", and aural experiments that other bands in the sme vein have shyed away from, or used more sparsely. As a result, Leaderdogs become a kind of group that sounds as though they're trying to bridge the gap between genres, even if it's totally unintentional, but I digress...

The album starts off in fine form with a sample, a John Cusak quote from Fat Man and Little Boy, "You oughta stop play God, 'cause you are not good at it, and the position is taken!" though the quote is heavily "effected" and the voice manipulated so it sounds lower. Immediately, the song blows into a heavy riff, solid drum rhythm (albeit on a drum machine), and a few other low-key samples. The bass rumbles along nicely underneath everything. The keyboard here is just a single note, provided mostly for effect, but in spots where the guitar is absent, it works well in keeping the tension up. I'm not sure what the significance of the song title "Yellow and Black Attack" is concerning the lyrics (perhaps just a send-up to Stryper?), but the song seems to address the plank in the eye vs. the speck in the eye kind of thing, or at least the subject that we've all fallen short of God's glory. "Ripple" fades in with a somewhat circular riff that fits the song nicely. The effected vocals & layering sounds good here as well, with the only possible weak point being the plain, clean vocals that sound a little low in the mix. The lyrics use a bit of hyperbole to counter the old adage of "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me." It's effective in communicating the "blow" one takes when being hit with a particularly negative stream of words or someone is just communicating to them very negatively. "Better Ways" starts with radio static, then a quietly distorted riff and some indistinguishable voices mixed in w/ the radio static. The quiet, lightly distorted vocal comes in, and sings the first part, then a slightly heavier riff transitions into the full-on song. There are some nuances that are hard to hear unless you're wearing headphones, such as some yells/screams going on in the staticy background during the transition riff. The bridge portion has a nice "tunnel" layered vocal sound in it that complements the riff. The lyrics speak of our relationship to God and how despite growing old & weary, God is still there with us, and will be there for us at our end to welcome us into His presence.

"Fighting Gravity" is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It starts w/ an interesting sound effect, then right into a nice riff and good cymbal/drum rhythm. The layered vocal in the song is great - a nice low-end vocal layered w/ a "tunnel" sounding vocal. This is one of the heavier songs on the album in that it keeps the guitar pretty heavy throughout most of the song, and has driving riffs. The harmonized vocal layering in the chorus is great as well. I'm not entirely sure what the lyrics are conveying - it could be any number of things that go against the nature of God, such as abortion. This is one of those songs that could be applied to a number of topics & interpreted thus. The title track slows things down a bit for a fun little tune about Perry's favorite beverage. It recalls a story like childhood, going to a neighborhood hot dog stand and purchasing lemonade. The riff is distorted, but subdued, and the drums keep a nice steady rhythm with lots of lingering high hat while the lightly slurred vocal lumbers along along with the low rumble. The lyrics are a bit humorous, which was undoubtedly the intent. The layering of acoustic & electric guitar sounds great here, and is a nice welcome addition to the electronic sounds that accompany the guitar, bass, and drum machine. The group vocals are kind of cool in the chorus, and the quote at the end of the song "I have just been singing that all day" is poignant, because it's a very catchy song. "Radiant Abyss" isn't so much a proper song, as a segue piece into "Supersaturated". The spoken words here are from C.S. Lewis, and is very effective against the interesting guitar & sound effects going on in the background. "Supersaturated" (another favorite) kicks in with a snare beat, and another heavy driving riff. The song isn't overly complex, but the riff is effective & has a nice rhythmic structure. The lyrics speak of being in situations where we feel overwhelmed and are perhaps trying to fulfill ourselves with things of the world, and instead realizing that only God can bring that fulfillment. The chorus speaks of feeling the presence of God, lending to the song's title. "Martin's Dream" is likely about Martin Luther King, and his dream of a racism free counry and world, where the color of a person's skin is not the measuring stick by which people are judged. The intro is the sound of a playground, with children playing and singing. The music starts in with a spare guitar line, solid drumming, and an eerie choir vocal that very slowly grows in volume. The riff during the verse sections is fast, but not overbearing to the rest of the song. The layered vocals sound great here & add to the effect. The chorus is anthemic, and has one of my favorite lines in "We did not end division, we only moved the line. It's still a dream to live in a place for every kind." The bridge section has sound effects and noise underneath that complements the sound. There are various distorted quotes throughout the song that can be hard to make out, but add to the atmosphere. "The Weather" is similar to Precious Death's song "Talk About the Weather" but from a different angle. The lyrics speak of Christians shutting out the world, or in some ways ignoring it rather than dealing with it, sort of the proverbial "bury your head in the sand" scenario. The lyrics are simple, but communicate this point effectively. The delivery is very rhythmic, though not quite hip-hop in nature. The verse vocals are quite distorted here, and are yelled, making them possibly the harshest vocals on the CD. The chorus is more of a whisper, contrasting nicely. The riffing in this song is also effective, keeping step with the rhythmic nature of the vocals. "Sprout" is a major departure. The intro is a winding sound, followed by the tinny music of a children's toy (like the stuffed animals many in my generation had growing up). The song is mostly acoustic guitar, and Lyndon
Perry (rather than Derek Cilibraise) on vocals. The song is about Perry's then unborn child, as exemplified by the ultrasound picture included in the sleeve, and as the portion under the CD tray in the tray card. It's a neat song about how he's anticipating the arrival of his child, and how he can't wait to teach his new child a myriad of things. As the song progresses, more effects & noise in the background swells (which is actually recorded sound from "Sprout's" Ultrasound), and the guitar moves from strictly acoustic to very lightly distorted. Perry's voice isn't great, but appropriate in context, and it is quite effective here because of it. The song ends w/ more of the music from the children's toy as it fades out. I liken "Sprout" with "Scared" from God Lives Underwater's "Empty" album from the same time - it was probably just an accident that the "ballad" songs were both at the end of the album, but it makes for a nice parallel between these to techno-rock bands.

So how does the album stack up against "Empty"? Pretty well, I'd say. I think it holds up today as well as it did then, so both albums are equally as captivating as I write this as they were when I first heard them in 1995. The biggest differences here are that "Lemonade" is a heavier, more driving record, and that the album as a whole is much, much more hopeful than "Empty". That's one of the things that always struck me. The catchier, poppier record was darker and cynical, while the heavier record is the one with hope. Either way, it stands the test of time & still sounds great today. If you're a fan of guitar-based industrial, electronic rock music, or just hard rock in general, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the tracks on this album. It was unfairly ignored in the market primarly because R.E.X. Records was in an "inactive" state during the time of this album's release, and very nearly on the verge of folding (which did happen shortly thereafter). Despite some "guerilla" marketing (notated in the Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook), this CD never truly got its due, and as a result, faded mostly into obscurity. Word on the internet is that Perry reformed the band around 2002 and was set to record another album. A "tribute" Myspace has tracks from Lemonade, as well as 3 tracks from an album called "The Resurrected Me" which I've never seen nor heard of until recently. Is this the lost Leaderdogs release? I'm unsure, as I've not been able to uncover any more info about it. The tracks present show a much more "organic" sound than is displayed on "Lemonade" which seem to work well, but it doesn't have the atmosphere that made "Lemonade" such a great record. In any event, this is an overlooked gem.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Angel 7 - Black and White (2007)

What's with all these bands from the Russian Federation just kicking copious amounts of butt? It seems like more bands from that part of the world are staking their claim on the Christian metal scene. First, Holy Blood from the Ukraine showed up and wowed everyone with their debut "The Wanderer", then blew everyone away even more with "Waves Are Dancing". Then, I heard about Blood Covenant, with their symphonic black metal sound that was quite accomplished in comparison to their early work as thrash outfit Iron Cross. Now, Angel 7 (also known as 7th Angel) comes along on Bombworks Records and does it again. This unique band is a hybrid of a number of metal styles. There are elements of NWOBHM, thrash metal, black metal, death metal, and even some neo-classical elements here and there. Imagine throwing Sonata Arctica, Frost Like Ashes, Narnia, and a random death metal band into a blender, adding a healthy does of keyboards, and making the song structures unique & interesting, and that will give you just a hint of what Angel 7 actually sounds like. The dynamic duo of Slava Malinin & Nikolay Kiriljuk certainly know what they're doing, and make quite a unique musical statement with "Black And White".

The first thing I noticed is that for a 2-man band, the sound is quite accomplished. Slava is very capable as a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and as an arranger. Nikolay is certainly no slouch on guitar, either. Secondly, there are a lot of symphonic elements here that, while done primarily on keyboards, fit well with the music and work within this setting so they don't sound cheesy or like they took shortcuts. There are times the symphonic elements remind me of PlayStation-era RPG music, like the Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete remake, or Final Fantasy VII (especially the title-track intro). This is a good thing, however.

"Black and White" kicks things off with a nice symphonic intro, before "New Heaven Above the New Land" kicks things into high gear with a driving guitar line & rhythm section. Vocals here are decidedly black metal in style, but Slava Malinin injects some degree of "melody" in them by kind of singing along with the rasp, which works much better in execution than it might sound on paper. The dual-keyboard lines sound great here, making the layering quite effective. Guitars are heavy, but retain more of a thrash or traditional/power metal sound (though modern, like Metalium). "The Price of War" has some cool low-end vocals that are reminiscent of Rammstein, though it's more of a layered effect with 2 or 3 layers of low-end harmonized vocals. It gives off kind of a Bal-Sagoth vibe, which I love. Solo work here is awesome with dual guitar & harmonized leads, and some nice trade-off work that sounds just like it was 2 guitarists "dueling" in a sense. "Power of Belief and Love" has an awesome keyboard intro with guitar underpinning it that works well, and sets up the primary melody line for the song. This song has some the quasi-black metal vocals as well as a few death growls thrown in for effect. I like the low-end spoken word vocals layered with the quasi-black vocals as well. This is a candidate for catchiest song on the album, for sure. "TV Antichrist" is the heaviest thing so far on the album, with great driving rhythm guitar and some nice harmonics to boot. The keyboards don't dominate this song like they tend to elsewhere. The combo of death growls and black metal rasp in a trade-off works well here, especially with the urgent delivery. The "spoken word" low-end vocals are a bit off-kilter here w/ the rhythm (though not quite syncopated), though I believe that was intended; it creates an interesting effect. "Jerusalem" begins with an almost Arabic feel, remding me of Almora a bit (their "Shehrâzad" album especially). This song is also quite heavy & has near blast beats coming at you after the short instrumental intro. There's also a quiet folky passage toward the end w/ harmonized vocals that sounds cool, & reminds me a bit of some of the folk metal bands I've heard, though none specifically. "Armageddon" has a cool intro with a lot of "whining" guitar harmonic work going on. This song is a tad slower paced than some of the others, employing less double-bass work overall, but still pulling it out for the chorus portion. "Spirit of Freedom" is a short, sort of ambient instrumental with nice keyboard effects. "Till I Die" picks things up again with heaviness, energy, and cool keyboard effects (you can hear the "90's fighting game keyboards" in there). More layered low-end vocals complement the quasi-black vocals well. "From Darkness Into Light" may have the fastest double-bass drumming on the CD in a couple spots, but overall it's a very mid-paced instrumental with nice lead work that is both flashy at times, and in others serves the song well. The ebb & flow melody structure is also quite nice. "Babylon Will Fall" closes out the album nicely with a speedy, heavy tune that mixes some more low-end vocal layering with the quasi-black vocals and some chunky guitar riffing.

All in all, this is a stellar release by a band that I can see going places. If the secular metal world takes them seriously, they have a shot at creating a nice niche for themselves with their unique sound & style. Here's hoping they are given that chance.


Rage of Angels - Rage of Angels (1989)

This is one of those "holy grail" albums that many Christian metalheads cite as both a perennial favorite, and an album that was part of their early diet of Christian hard rock & heavy metal. I can't say the same - I didn't acquire the album until sometime in 1998, nearly 10 years after its initial release. Quintessential Christian rock distributor Rad Rockers had hit their stride from a simple, basement-based photocopied catalog distro, to become a full-fledged, multi-paged catalog vendor, and was taking their first steps onto the new frontier that the Internet provided. Of course, many other distros & labels were still in their infancy at that point, some of which would become major players in the "Christian" rock & metal scene (such as Tooth & Nail Records, and their budding Solid State subsidiary, or Facedown Records with their early 7" releases), which made a distro like Rad Rockers fertile ground for new releases. One thing that RR excelled at, however, was retro releases. Back in the day, it wasn't uncommon to get the latest RR catalog with a note saying they had uncovered a stash of a certain CD that had gone OP, and had found the last known remaining stock. Or sometimes, the labels themselves will have a box of unopened CDs sitting in a warehouse somewhere, and when it's discovered, they know that RR was a reliable place to go, because fans who missed out on that album the first time would be hungry to snap up a copy. Such was the case with the eponymous debut of Rage of Angels. If memory serves, nearly 10 years after it's release, an unopened box of the band's debut CD was discovered gathering dust in a warehouse back room somewhere, and Rad Rockers had been tapped to be the distro for that last remaining stock. Having heard "Are You Ready For Thunder" years before on disc 2 of the Heaven's Metal CD boxset, I had been searching for a reasonably-priced CD copy of the album. I had basically sworn off cassettes at that point, choosing to focus primarily on CD and vinyl acquisitions, so despite the occasional Rage of Angels cassette coming available, I always passed it up for a CD copy, knowing that I wouldn't regret it. When the news hit in the catalog that a large number of Rage of Angels CDs had become available from original stock, I nearly hit the floor. Finally, my chance had come to own a copy of this album at a reasonable price! Without hesitation, I procured a money order within 24 hours & sent off for the Rage of Angels CD, as well as a couple other things I had been wanting (a victim of RR's then-policy of $50 minimum order, even for domestic US customers). Within 2 weeks, I had the disc in hand & franticly tore the plastic off the jewel case in anticipation of popping it in the CD player. My wife stood there rolling her eyes & wondering what all the fuss was about, but I knew I had just struck gold. Of course, I don't get that way with every purchase nowadays (I tend to buy a bit more often now than at that time), but there are certain purchases that are the kind that if you've waited for so long to take the plunge, you get that "kid in a candy store" feeling when you open the box or envelope from the mailbox & see that item for the first time in your hands.

Of course, I'm going somewhere with this, if it wasn't already apparent. After perusing the lyric sheet, and reading all the liner notes, I popped the CD in the player & proceeded to hit play. Lo and behold, my expectations were met & exceeded, as the first couple tracks were even better than what I thought they would be. They didn't sound like "Are You Ready For Thunder", but they didn't have to - they were even better. Being in my own band at that time & injecting a classic heavy metal sound into the modern rock/metal sound we were pursuing certainly helped fuel that fire, but this was a release I had looked forward to since I first heard of the band back in 1993. The moral of the story? My 5-year wait was definitely worth it.

So where does this leave things today? Well, still pretty good. Time hasn't been quite as kind to this album nearly 20 years after it's initial release as it was 10 years after. In today's "Christian" market, we have very good & consistent rock & metal releases from bands all over the world, and there is a lot of creativity in many of the underground acts. Even some of the more "mainstream" acts (if you can call them that) rival their secular counterparts from time to time, as is the case with Red and Skillet rivaling many nu-metal or modern hard rock bands, or As I Lay Dying dominating the metalcore landscape quite a bit. Back in 1989, however, only Stryper and Barren Cross had earned any real respect from the mainstream metal publications. Other bands like Saint and Bloodgood had received some coverage, but were usually written off as second-rate, even if they had plenty to offer. Rage of Angels was another band that was on the verge; their album had garnered some respect, which was well-deserved. Musically, this is a powerhouse album that so perfectly captures that line between hard rock and heavy metal (we'll call it "commercial metal") that it is nothing less than essential for completists and fans of the genre, as well as more than a curiosity for commercial metal fans in general.

Fristly, let's get the negative out of the way. Time has not been kind to this album where the lyrics are concerned. Granted, this was a young band who was just finding their Christianity, so that has to be factored in, but if you're turned off by "rock for the rock" lyrics, you'll not find anything overly articulate here. That said, they're not quite as embarrassing as they could have been, and they do fit the themes well, if a tad trite. The other thing that is a very slight negative is Dan Marino's vocals. Now, I'm a fan, for sure. He has power, passion, and energy. Once in a great while, however, it sounds like he over-sings just a touch. It's probably more noticeable to me since I'm a vocalist, but that's only a minor complaint. For a young band recording their debut, these little quips are very forgivable.

The instrumentation here is nothing short of stellar. The dual-guitar work is great, with nice riffing, a heavy (for the style) guitar sound, and lots of great licks & lead work interspersed throughout. The bass guitar is audible, which is a welcome surprise, and rumbles along with the guitars and drums in perfect time. The bass work isn't going to win any awards, but it's very solid and fits well. The drumming is a high point of this release, as there's lots of little nuances that other more basic drummers playing this style wouldn't necessarily employ, so it gives it that pinch of uniqueness that helps keep this album fresh. There's also a lot of solid double-bass drum work, which is nice to hear in a more commercial metal record. Vocally, Dan Marino is all over the place, with super high-pitched screams and yells, as well as great mid-range & tenor vocals. Dan's voice has just enough grit in it to give this an edge, but is smooth when it needs to be, or in the lower range parts where appropriate so you can hear the words clearly. Dan is also one of those guys who multi-tracks his vocals flawlessly. When you can hear the harmonized spots in the choruses & such, many of those have 2 & 3 layers, sometimes more. Dan is nearly pitch-perfect in these spots, and sounds excellent. The blend of the instruments works well, though I'd say the double-bass drums tend to dominate a bit, and the tom-tom work is slightly muted as a result, but this lack of balance doesn't really hamper the listening experience much, if any.

Lyrically, as mentioned, the album is a sea of early Christian metal cliches, but there are a couple bright spots in the mix. Opening track "Leave You Or Forsake You" is nicely done, with some well-written lyrics that don't pander, but explain plainly about man's relationship with God and how, while not always perfect, God doesn't leave us high & dry. "It's Not Late For Love", despite it's simple approach, is effective in communicating that no matter how "down and out" you might feel, God is there with His love and is ready to accept you. "Somebody's Watching You" takes a more hard-line approach by saying that God is always watching what we do, and we'll have to account for our actions here on earth. The song is complete with the mandatory "spoken word" section that every commercial metal band employed at least once. "Hooked On a Good Thing" (my absolute favorite song on the album, with it's insane drum intro & monster riff) takes addiction and disease as metaphors for being filled with God's love and power upon salvation. It's a tad cheesy, but quite effective in communicating the message clearly.

At the end of the day, no matter what anyone's personal opinion of this album is, the reason it's still talked about nearly 20 years after its initial release has more to do with the albums merits & quality than it has to do with the band breaking up and some members going on to join Steelheart. If anything, time has only strengthened the album's position as one of the key late-80's releases in Christian metal that helped to legitimize the genre and show that there was quality to be found in places other than yellow and black spandex. That reason alone is enough to recommend this album, but the sheer quality of the material here (lyrical faux pas not withstanding) makes this album essential for the collector who wants a piece of Christian metal history, and for the metal fan who wants a piece of the pie that isn't replete with innuendos and nonsense.

I'd like to dedicate this review to the memory of original Rage of Angels drummer John Fowler, who passed March 21st, 2008 from an aneurysm, at the ripe young age of 42. Knowing that several members of Rage of Angels had only become Christians a short time before the recording of their debut, I'm hoping that John is with the Lord right now. May his family take rest in the knowledge that the album he helped create in 1989 went on to inspire a lot of people, and possibly even help plant the seeds that led some to Christ.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Afterimage - Codex: Triumph in the Eschaton (2007)

Originally posted on, January 2008.

I'm surprised no one has commented on this one yet. This band is fairly unique within the metalcore spectrum. I'd say they are definitely more 'metal' than 'core' for those curious. In fact, I'd say this band is unique in that, while they sound like an equal mixture of melodic death metal, and metalcore, they don't sound like a "deathcore" band because they have enough other influences that seep through to separate them from the pack.

One of the things that stands out right away is the metal tone of the guitars; it sounds more like a metal guitar sound than many metalcore bands normally boast. There is also some intricacy to the riffs, much like a melodic death metal or thrash metal band. Vocally, they incorporate some layered vocals sounds that include a mid-range scream/growl, and a somewhat deeper growl, as well as some harmonized clean vocals. There is some good drumming heard here that ranges from blastbeats to slow & deliberate. The bass is a little hard to hear in the mix, but what can be heard is competent and seems to keep time with the guitars and drums well enough.

Production on this indie disc is quite good. Everything sounds nice, and aside from the bass (which admittedly gets lost in the shuffle on most metal albums in the extreme side of the coin), there's plenty of clarity in the sound. There were spots on here that reminded me of The Showdown's "A Chorus of Obliteration" with its overt metal passages, energy, and the combination of clean singing and harsh vocals over tasty riffing. Don't take this to mean they're a clone, however; far from it. Afterimage carve out their own unique sound. They definitely have their own vibe, and don't sound quite like anyone else. You can hear bits & pieces that will remind you of other bands, but nothing stuck out to me as being a direct copy or rip-off of another group.

I really like the riffing on this CD. Where some metalcore bands are content to either riff really fast, or slow and chunky, Afterimage mix things up and do both, along with some nice change-ups now and again. "Forged In Perfect Design" has a nice echoed guitar passage that is only lightly distorted, with some nice accent guitar behind it. Also, there is some good solo work here. It's not overly flashy, but the kind that fits the songs well & works within the context of the material, content to be a part of the landscape rather than a showpiece. Another thing that sets Afterimage apart from their metalcore brethren is that the breakdowns don't have that "also-ran" sound to them. They aren't like other breakdowns in hardcore/metalcore; I can't really explain it, but they just have their own feel to them. Part of that may be due to the production & the guitar tone, but part of it is the breakdowns themselves just being different.

Another thing that separates Afterimage from the norm is their lyrics. While many "Christian" metalcore bands have those oh-so-tempting vague lyrics that only hint at Christ or Christianity (or such references are veiled in thick metaphor), Afterimage is quite clear in their lyrical approach. Completely ignoring the trend to downplay (or veil) their allegiance, the lyrics here are replete with references to God, Jesus, Christ, and Lord in varying quantities. Most of the lyrics sound as though they're directly inspired by passages of scriptures, and some appear to reflect the Psalms quite a bit.

"Soulmender" opens things with both barrels firing, and sets the tone for the first half of the album. Great riffing, nice transitions, and good vocal layering abound. "Forged in Perfect Design" continues and adds a little more clean vocal action, while having an overall different vibe than the opening track. "You Who Are Broken" is the longest track on the album, and has some nice stuff going on, including a nice unique breakdown toward the end of the song. "Immersed" opens with a cleanly sung verse & some lighter guitar (though still distorted & heavy), and blows into a fast heavy section in short order. "Burning Hands" has a nice odd-timed intro riff that reminds of semi-technical death metal or oddly timed thrash riffs of old. Once again, the transition/breakdown about a minute in sounds different than other bands and has its own feel. The vocals are SICK in this song, with a loooong scream, slightly reminiscent of Shawn Jonas in its incessant length. "Precursing the Final Millenia" sounds very "melodic death metal" in its intro, and has a nice "stop on a dime" spot that is sure to bring a smile to your face. This track has the most "deathcore" feel of all the tracks, with pinched harmonics abounding, loads of double-bass, and switch-off between higher pitched screams and lower, more guttural deathy growls. Still, it has its own sound to it that keeps it from sounding like run-of-the-mill deathcore. There's a nice transition about half-way through the song that gives you a chance to hear the bass a little, and has some nice echoed, layered solo work.

All in all, a stellar indie release from this band. I can't see why any fan of metalcore, melodic death metal, deathcore, or just any fan of extreme music that has an open mind wouldn't find something to like here. The packaging is nice, the print of the lyrics is well done & easy to read, the CD looks great, and the graphics are well done. This is a very professional product & the band should be commended for taking the time to put something together this nice.

My only suggestion for the band would be to improve upon the clean singing in 2 ways:

1. Put a little more variety in the clean singing so it's not just "straight"
2. Sing the clean vocals with as much passion and energy as the harsh vocals.

If the band can do that, their next disc could be absolutely stellar. Facedown, Blood & Ink, or one of the other indie Christian labels needs to snap these guys up.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Scourged Flesh - Bury the Lies (2007)

Originally posted on, October 2007.

I received 015 of 100. I must say, this is a change from their previous CD. While "Released From Damnation" was unapologetically evangelical in the lyrical approach, this is MUCH darker by comparison. Musically, the band still maintains the mid-paced thrashy death sound from the previous album, though I would say this release sounds more natural & the songs work better on the whole. I think this EP sounds more like it was recorded all in one session & mixed by the same person all the way through, where as RFD had more of a "Primitive Rhythm Machine" vibe that sounded like the album was recorded over several sessions with less regard for instrumental sound continuity.

Lyrically, the band makes no mention of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit like the previous release, which I find interesting. Instead, the lyrics are much more personally focused. For example, "Washed In Blood" seems to infer that because we're washed in Christ's blood, no one on earth can take that away, and Satan can't touch us. We become our own worst enemy because of the mistakes we make & the sins we still commit after salvation that show the world that we're still human. "Burnt Alive" sounds as though it's written from the perspective of a soul in Hell. "Judgement Returns" (from what I can gather from the lyrics) seems to be a song about the Crucifixion. "Ashes To Hell" has that "turn or burn" feel to it, though much less obvious than early Christian metal. It implies that we are all destined for Hell (the wages of sin is death, after all), and comes from the perspective that we can do something about that (though it never offers a solution), and if we don't we end up in Hell. "Death Is Silent" might spark *minor* controversy over use of the word "crap" in the song ("You believe the crap that it's just a body in the ground") but taken in context it's a strong way of saying "there's more to death than a corpse". It feels as if the band made a concerted effort to go away from the evangelical lyrics - I'm not sure if they see "Bury the Lies" as a concept piece or not, but it definitely works that way from a "Hell is real, here's my perspective" vantage point. I think in the future if the band can find a balance between the "so evangelical it hurts" lyrics & the darker, more obtuse lyrics found here, they will have a winning combo.

One thing I have to say is that the packaging on this is excellent. Troy Dunmire's work here is better than on RFD - a nice, stark black & white picture with the basic SF logo & a nice red & silver title at the bottom. It reeks of old-school underground metal, & that's basically what this is. I like that the cover speaks that & makes no apologies for it. Inside, we have a full-color layout w/ black backgrounds, shiny silver lyrics, red titles in a gothic font, and CG flames at the bottom of each page of lyrics. the full-page photos of the band live (which each member graciously signed for my copy, thanks!) are nice, and the various other photos in this booklet are an improvement over RFD's more basic layout. I also like the inlay artwork better than RFD's - I think it's fitting for the project. Also, if the subtlety in the lyrics didn't clue people in that this is a Christian band, the Hebrews 9:27 reference on the tombstone picture on the inlay should do the trick. It's a nice way to not beat people over the head like RFD did.

All in all, I think this is a winning package. While I think the lyrics are a tad to ambiguous in spots for their own good, the music is solid, the production is consistent, and the packaging is outstanding for an indie release, especially one as limited as this. I'm a happy camper that I ordered this when I did - I certainly would have regretted it down the line had I seen the quality of this product years after its release w/ no way to get a copy.


Some months after the original review was written, the band had sold out of the EP & demand was still there, so they issued a 2nd pressing through Soundmass to meet the demand. The 2nd pressing is not numbered, and is branded with Soundmass logos & such. I am looking for a copy of the Soundmass release as well (yes, I'm a collector bordering on addiction). As such, this release may still be available via the Soundmass webstore.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

War of Ages - Arise and Conquer (2008)

This album has been long-awaited by fans, at least from the standpoint that they've been waiting for a new album since 2006's "Pride of the Wicked". 2007's "Fire From the Tomb" was a solid stab of metalcore, but it was a re-recording of the bands eponymous debut with one new song added, rather than a proper new album. "Pride of the Wicked" is an album that metalcore fans have embraced & lauded, with many in the "metal" camp who don't embrace metalcore even enjoying it due to it's strong riffs and solo work. In a way, "Arise and Conquer" has a lot to prove, as much as "Pride of the Wicked" has been praised. Do they live up to this promise? Read on!

The CD pulls no punches & immediately begins with a shout of "All consuming fire, burn!" followed by the primary riff of the song. There's good guitar work here, with melody woven into the heaviness. It's not bone-crushing, but it's heavier than your traditional tough-guy hardcore. Actually, it's reminiscent of As I Lay Dying's latest stuff from the standpoint that it is heavy & driving without losing its sense of melody. "When Faith Turns to Ashes" has a great fast riff that recalls AILD even further, with it's fast drum beat & the degree of complexity in the riff work. The dual-guitar harmonizing is also a nice addition, giving the sound some depth. The "bridge" riff has some thrash feel to it; matter of fact, the whole song has a bit of a thrash feel to it. The song is incredibly short, however, and feels like it's over too fast. "Through The Flames" starts with a nice double-bass rhythm, some nice harmonized guitar work, and a hefty scream. Again, the dual-guitar work here works well and the players complement each other well. The gang vocal in the chorus shows the group wearing their hardcore influence on their sleeve a bit, and is a nice melodic bit. The breakdown in the song is a tad also-ran, but that's forgivable considering the rest of the guitar work is well done. The solo here is also good, serving the song well but showing the talent of the guitarist as well. "Salvation" begins with a nice riff that echoes a bit of thrash, and has a bit of dual-guitar work. The opening solo work totally screams 80's heavy metal, which is a nice nod to the progenitors of the genre that this is leaning toward. The verse riff is interesting with a nice minor chord progression that isn't typical. Again, the center section wears the hardcore influence firmly on the band's collective sleeve with the spoken-word vocal bridge, but the riffs come back in shortly thereafter to re-affirm the metal influence that is definitely felt here. This isn't Bay Area thrash, by any means, but it is certainly leaning in a more thrash-oriented direction than many of their metalcore brethren. "Sleep of Prisoners" starts with a more typical metalcore riff than anything thus far, though the dual-guitar work at the end of the riff pattern certainly throws a dash of spice in the mix. The melodic segue between verse portions is well placed, and the vocal layering here works well. The pinch harmonics nearly half-way through sound great as well. The drumming here is solid, nothing spectacular, but sounds good in the context of the song. The breakdown toward the end is again, nothing special, but it does the job well enough. "Wages of Sin" begins with a guitar sound that makes one think it might be from a different era, but when the vocal yell kicks in, it brings you back to today. The riff sound here really conveys a "metal days of yore" feel. The drumming here is well matched to the material without being showy. The guitar work is solid, and there's some nice licks going on, even if they're not overtly technical. The section that might have been called a short breakdown is filled with a cool higher-pitched riff that offsets the "hang out on the low string" thing that breakdowns often end up being, making it unique. The riff before the slowed down bridge section (with actual singing!) is nice, and has a nice classic metal feel to it, but with a modern sound. "Yet Another Fallen Eve" begins with a nice semi-technical guitar intro that becomes a nice harmonized piece for a short time. The main verse riff echoes this harmonized pattern with a crunchier sound. Again, the band opts for some nice harmonized semi-technical guitar work during the "breakdown" section, making more than just a standard breakdown. The slower pace of this song lends itself to the more hardcore feel, but the double-bass drumming & faster pace of the segue bits help break this up nicely so it doesn't sound like they're slipping into the "sameness" that many a hardcore band easily do. The bridge riff has a good sound - they're not relying completely on power chords here; there's a bit more texture to it than normal which works well, giving it a quiet dissonance. "Generational Curse" ups the tempo again and brings back a more thrash-influenced riff, followed by a nice melodic metalcore bit segueing between verse sections. Good double-bass work here in the beginning of the pre-chorus as well. The short breakdown works in context here without being too long. Great solo here toward the end of the song, which has a nice classic metal feel to it. "The Awakening" (which was the song the band first briefly previewed on their Myspace page prior to the album's release) opens with a fast riff that is reminiscent of some of the band's older material, and is probably the song that sounds the least like the rest of the material on the album. It has a bit of the As I Lay Dying melodic metalcore sound to it, but it's not a carbon copy. It just has that vibe throughout, without the pacing that AILD drummer Jordan Mancino would normally employ. The drumming here is tasteful and works well within the song, however. The guitar work here isn't quite as intricate or interesting as many of the previous songs, opting for a more "reserved" approach. The screamed vocal brought to the fore 3/4 of the way through the song helps break up the song a tad, and foreshadows the breakdown & the end of the song well enough. Closing track "The Deception of Strongholds" opens with a clean guitar riff & some cymbal work before bringing in a heavier guitar sound & some nice solo work to get things going. The pace picks up with a nice lick, and some harmonized guitar work in behind. The song travels along at a good clip, with plenty of melody in tow. The solo work here is tasteful, and doesn't take over, merely serving the song while providing a nice brief centerpiece. The song closes with the last note slowly fading out into the background.

Lyrically, this is very bold. Many passages are taken directly from scripture, and there's absolutely no question who this band serves. Lyrics are well written & easy to follow, but they're not childish or simple either. They are "just right" for this album. The artwork by Dave Quiggle is great, and continues the style he started with "Pride of the Wicked" in fine form. Production is strong, and while reminiscent of As I Lay Dying's latest album (thanks to AILD front-man Tim Lambesis), doesn't sound like AILD-lite, but retains the band's own sound & feel.

This is a winner, and no fan of metalcore should be without this album. I would go so far as to say any open-minded metal fan who isn't tired of the "core" aspect of metal or is willing to branch out should also own this - it brings some classic metal touches into a modern framework & does it with panache & style. Definitely a worthy follow-up to both "Pride of the Wicked" and "Fire From the Tomb". I look forward to their next album with even more anticipation, and hope that they find a way to make it to Nebraska on one of their next tours.