Thursday, April 28, 2011

Saint - Hell Blade (2009)

I love how art can be so subjective that folks can see things differently depending on their vantage point or their musical ear, in the same way that some can see a Jackson Pollock painting and see a brilliant work of art, while I look at it and see a bunch of paint splattered on a canvas with no apparent form or reason.  Some art meets the listener where they are at, and some forces the listener to open their mind and think about what it is they're seeing or hearing.  I also love how music reviews can be so polarized.  Consider the album I'm reviewing here, Saint's 2009 album "Hell Blade".  My esteemed reviewer colleague Iron Guardian was quite disappointed with this album, and he stated his opinions on the subject well, given the small space he had in print to do so at the time of his review.  I, on the other hand, hold a totally different view of this album.

I've been a fan of Saint for quite a number of years, but due to my age I just missed their legacy in the beginning of my "metal education" because their 2nd full-length album was their last before their partial reunion over 10 years later.  Other than the excellent "Primed and Ready" on the 2-CD Heaven's Metal boxset, I'd not heard any Saint material since early high school until a couple years after I was married.  I happened across an original CD copy of "Too Late For Living" in a pawn shop near my apartment building, and at the meager price of $6 (compared to the over $200 the old Rad Rockers catalog was reporting for used, scratched copies on auction), I eagerly snapped it up and purchased it without delay.  That CD quickly became a metal classic favorite to me, and I still hold it in high regard for its consistency, songwriting, performances, and just how high-quality the whole package was.

Fast forward years later and the band reunites, sort of, to record a hard rock-oriented EP with a different vocalist.  Decent music, but not really what Saint fans (including myself) were hoping for.  5 years later, we are treated to the excellent "In the Battle" which sounds as though it could have been recorded in 1989, a year after Saint's original swan song, as it carries on the sound and spirit of that record well, despite being over 15 years later.  Following that up 2 years later with "The Mark", the band got heavier and sounded even more hungry than it had been since probably their earliest recordings.  However, I still feel like the band hadn't quite lived up to the promise of their early work.  2008 saw the release of "Crime Scene Earth" which lacked Josh Kramer's vocals in several songs and had some production woes.  the 2.0 re-issue of this album fixes the mastering and puts Josh back at the vocal helm, which pleased fans (including myself), but I still felt like the songwriting on that release was a tad clumsy for a band who had come back so strong just a few years earlier.  Enter "Hell Blade", the band's most recent full studio effort.

One thing that must be mentioned is that soundboard wizard J. Powell has said he produced this album like a 70's metal album because that's how it sounded to him.  I agree, and though it has a modern edge to it, this is a major throw-back to the late 70's where Judas Priest was producing very strong material and really defining what became the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).  Having said that, this album pulls out all the stops.  Guitars are crunchy and punchy, with a near-perfect tone for this style of metal.  They recall the halcyon days of NWOBHM but have the polish and professional feel one would expect from a band this seasoned.  The dual-guitar work from Dee Harrington and Jerry Johnson is rife with melody, power, precision, and flair.  Not since the early days of the band have they sounded this tight.  Richard Lynch's bass word thunders along underneath it all, content to be part of the scenery, rather than the main attraction.  However, the thumping basslines add the appropriate low-end to the mix and give the songs pack an even greater punch.  Drum work is also very well done, with steady beats and rhythms augmented, when appropriate, with good rills, rolls, and breaks that serve the songs without getting in the way.

Vocalist Josh Kramer is in fine form here, belting out lyrics in his trademark fashion, with that nod to Rob Halford without aping him or sounding like a copycat.  Some have complained that he doesn't do the high-pitched screaming stuff enough on this release, but truthfully, I don't think that's a huge issue.  Yes, it's part of his style, but he shouldn't be obligated to utilize that portion of his vocal range all the time, or some arbitrary percentage of the time.  If it makes sense within the song, great.  If not, don't force it.  My thoughts on this album are that while there are moments where he might have augmented the song a bit more with the high-pitched wails, what he has done here makes sense and works with and for the material, so that's the most important aspect.  Lyrically, the band continues with their "straight out of Revelations" themes, with songs about the New World Order, hell, and the continued fall of mankind.  But it's not all doom and gloom here, either.  "SinnerPeace", "You and Me", and "Crying in the Night" offer the hope of Christ as the alternative to all that negativity, so the band strikes a good balance between traditional darker metal themes and more hopeful material.

So what does all this add up to?  Well, to some it may seem like a workmanlike metal album from a band who has been in the game a while.  To me, based on the songs, production, performances, and the whole vibe, it sounds like a band at their best, just as hungry as they were in their younger years.  "Hell Blade" sounds more vital and fresh than anything the band has done in 20 years, and it's been in heavy rotation for me for about the last year and a half since I first got it.  That's the highest compliment I can pay to this album - the fact that I took it with me as one of about a dozen CDs that accompanied me on a business trip, and during that week away, I probably spun it some 10 times, after having already listened to it exhaustively months earlier.  This album has the staying power that their other recent releases just haven't quite mustered.  I'd go so far as to say this album is on par with "Too Late For Living", and is perhaps just shy of being a masterwork for the band.  Highly recommended.


Loudflower - Happy Now? (1997)

"Alternative" music has always been somewhat ambiguous and elusive.  What, specifically, is it an alternative to?  Corporate rock?  "Regular" rock 'n roll?  Music that sounds "typical" or "uninspired" in some way?  I've always felt like the term "alternative" has been somewhat inconclusive, and yet, it's hard not to use it.  There are some bands that just defy categorization or description, so "alternative" is the only appropriate way to discuss their stylistic endeavor.  All too often, however, music gets lumped into the "alternative" category when it's just a different distillation of the basic constructs of what rock music has become since the mid-1960's, so  the term begins to lose its weight and meaning.  It's rare when a band comes along that embodies what "alternative" should mean.  All when a band comes along that embodies that meaning, the cruel joke is that they're often completely ignored for being too "alternative" or different.

Such is the case with Loudflower.  The name alone probably throws people for a bit of a loop, given the juxtaposition of the 2 words in the name, but it is 100% appropriate for the band's style.  Loudflower plays a form of driving rock music that can be quite loud at times, but they also encompass loads of melody and include more plaintive moments.  They have the 90's "alternative" rock loud/soft convention down pat.  While their basic rock style isn't terribly original (despite being very well written), they throw an added element that changes the dynamic greatly: a brass section.  Given the band's arrival in close proximity to the somewhat short-lived ska revival, one might accuse them of riding the bandwagon.  I say to those scoffers that they need to listen again, because nothing on this album remotely resembles ska, and the brass implemented here is much more textured and organic in context.

 Musically, this album is an interesting ride.  Loudflower plays a form of "Alt Rock" in the sense that they use the traditional loud/soft conventions with loud verse, soft chorus, or vice versa.  In terms of guitars, while not reaching Nirvana or Soundgarden heights of crunch, are still fairly muscular.  Guitar solos are also present here, which means the band is probably more derivative of the 70's guitar rock that birthed Pearl Jam more than the punk and post-punk that the bulk of the 90's rock heroes were spawned from.  Riffs are both catchy and driving, but there's plenty of variety going on with some more atmospheric bits, quieter passages, and some songs/spots that just flat-out rock hard.  Bass guitar thumps along nicely in the background and provides the driving force behind some songs, like "I Guess I Need You" where it becomes the focal point more than the guitar, which slinks into the background more to provide a more atmospheric approach.  The aforementioned brass section gives a nice addition to the album.  The already potent mix of guitar, bass, drums and vocals makes for a nice layer in the music, sometimes going along with the rest of the melody, other times providing either a good contrast or counterpoint to the more traditional rock instrumentation.  Drumming is quite nice as well, with plenty of power, dynamics, and enough interesting stuff going on to keep it from being stale, but not so much that the drums take away from the focus of the material as a whole.  Overall, this is very well constructed rock and roll.

Lyrically, Rob trudges through sufficiently angsty material as one would expect, but the lyrics are interesting and talk of personal responsibility, being dissatisfied with society, and the normal breakdown in relationships most people experience as they enter adulthood and make their first moves toward total independence from their parents.  The lyrics aren't overblown, however, and don't fall into the same traps many bands from the same era did by keeping it personal and by keeping them grounded.  No hyperbole about lost love or broken hearts, just a fairly real perspective sprinkled with some imaginative wordplay at times.  Vocally, Rob Groover is in the zone, his combination of quiet crooning and gravelly yelling providing the emotional touchstones generally called for with music this diverse and stylized.  His vocals match the lyrics well and he gives them plenty of emotional resonance.

A couple other positive notes are that the album is nicely broken in half by the title track, a slow, introspective number that belies the more muscular rock the bulk of the album has to offer.  This gives a nice break from all the rocking before getting back to more of it for the last half of the album.  A couple other nice touches are the last 2 tracks; "Comfortable Bed" has a different lead vocalist at the helm and provides a bit of a different flavor, and "Don't Say Goodnight" has a fanciful, almost 70's Chicago vibe to it, with its infectious melody and bouncy feel.  This helps the album from becoming totally stale, as some albums can get by the end.  Fortunately, the songwriting here is strong enough to keep things interesting throughout, despite the album's sprawling 15 tracks - quite a lengthy release for its time, outside of a Dream Theater album.

I don't really have anything negative to say about the album overall - I picked it up some 12 years ago and it has become a frequent companion on the road, on the iPod, and whenever I needed a familiar friend to accompany me through whatever I was doing.  It's too bad this band broke up after this release; Gray Dot did something right when they signed this band and released this album, as it needed to be out there for people to hear.  All too often the rock landscape is littered with bands that all start to sound the same after a while.  There's no danger of that with Loudflower - truly a diamond in the rough.  Highly recommended.


InnerWish - No Turning Back (2010)

There's something to be said for reliability and consistency.  As much change as we experience in life, and as averse to that change as we often become, having something or someone you can rely on is not only important, but also offers a sense of security.  Regardless of the circumstances, there are some things that never change.  As the adage goes, the two constant things in life are death and taxes.  I'd posit a third constant: the existence, henceforth, of melodic power metal.  This style, now well into it's 3rd full decade of existence, has proven to be a stalwart of metal music.  While some lament this style for it's overly "happy" or "positive" sound, I would say to those detractors that another adage applies - "it takes all kinds".  Thankfully, the detractors haven't killed off the movement, because some truly excellent music has been released under this banner over the last 20-25 years, much specifically in the last 15.  As the years have passed, bands waving the power metal flag have either become increasingly talented and stand out from the rather large contingent of artists in this genre, or they retread territory so completely that they make themselves completely irrelevant in the process.  The former is true of Greece's InnerWish.

Where many bands adopt an "also ran" approach of interpreting their influences to the point of nearly plagiarism, InnerWish takes pages from the volumes written by the greats of the genre and injects enough of their own personality and style to where it becomes much more their own affair, solidifying themselves as a legitimate force in the scene, versus just another "me too" outfit.  While they occasionally wear their influences a bit too proudly on their sleeves, they also prove that they have enough tricks up said sleeves to make their music their own.  This brings us to the band's 4th overall studio album, "No Turning Back".  Having not heard the band's previous material, I can only speculate that this is an improvement over what's come before, but instead must compare this to other bands of the same ilk.

Musically, this album packs a major punch.  Guitars crunch with authority (thanks for axe-slingers  Thimios Krikos and Manolis Tsigos)and cut a clear path through each song as strong riffs are abundant in nearly every track.  As mentioned before, while some power metal is accused of being too light, this stuff is sufficiently heavy and driving to avoid that pitfall.  In addition, the guitar solos scream and move effectively in each track they are employed, sometimes played at full speed, other times utilizing much melody and feeling instead, striking a nice contrast between the two soloing styles.  Bass guitar (provided by Antonis Mazarakis), the usual casualty of metal, is audible here, though still not totally discernible in the mix.  However, the thumping bass lines work with the material and don't detract from the rest of the instrumentation.  Drumming is excellent as well, adding the right combination of driving beats, flashy rolls and breaks, and double bass driven fast rhythms.  While Fragkiskos Samoilis' drumming could be accused of being somewhat rote for this style, it's still executed well and does exactly what it needs to do in context with the material at hand.  Vocally, Babis Alexandropoulos does a great job.  He is gritty when it makes sense, ultra-melodic when needed, and flows nicely between the two.  He also harmonizes well with himself, with multi-layered harmonies recording in various chorus sections in several tracks.  Atmospherics and keyboards by George Georgiou are used tastefully and don't dominate the record, ala Sonata Arctica.  Instead, keyboards become an atmospheric element, occasionally adding a piano or background choral flourish that just gives the songs that extra element.  While keyboards could have been employed a bit more, such as with bands like Wingdom or Mehida, they competently add a nice element to the mix.

Of course, InnerWish trudge through all the typical power metal cliche's, but at least approach some of the material with a slightly fresh perspective, so not all the songs come across as complete retreads of past power metal themes.  Instead, songs like the lead-off single "Burning Desires" offer a perspective on the "be careful what you wish for" type of mentality.  However, the majority of songs on the album don't stray far from the power metal lyrical path, as evidenced by songs like "Sirens", "Lawmaker", "Welcome To My World" and "Kingdom of Our Prime".  The thing to note, however, is that the lyrics are mostly well-written within that context, so you won't feel like you're listening to a 3rd or 4th rate power metal band going through the motions.  No, it's not Rhapsody, but it's not Hammerfall either.

So are there any downsides to this album?  Just a couple minor quibbles, really.  A couple of songs wear the bands' influences perhaps a bit too comfortably on their sleeves.  Namely that "Save Us" reminded me a bit too much of Keepers-era Helloween, and "Last Breath" would have fit comfortably on Hammerfall's "Legacy of Kings" album alongside the other anthemic tracks on that release.  In addition, "Live For My Own" (the ballad at the end) has a bit too much of the patented Hammerfall ballad cheese that seems to be prevalent on a lot of albums of this type.  It's not a bad song, by any means - actually it's quite strong - it's just that this kind of overwrought, emotional ballad has become as much a staple of the genre in the way that the power ballad became a near-requirement on every "hair metal" album in the late 80's and early 90's.  My only other complaint is that the album's title is so cliche, and I don't feel as though "No Turning Back" is as encompasingly representative of the band's sound and capabilities as, say, "Lawmaker" or "Welcome To My World" (admittedly as cliche).  Again, that's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

I must make special mention of the packaging and the booklet - Ulterium Records has gone the extra mile with a beautifully laid out booklet with easy to read lyrics, nice artwork, and just a really professional package.  In these times of cheap downloads and budget-priced titles, it's the effort put into something like this that truly makes purchasing the physical CD still worthwhile to more than just collectors and audiophiles like myself.  That, and the fact that this CD is so immaculately produced that owning the CD (or the picture-disc vinyl, which I have yet to nab as of this writing) is worth the price.  I spun this disc for weeks on end during my original preparation for the review, and having put it away and come back to it several times, it still sounds fresh.  This is the hallmark of a great album, and one that will have staying power.  I hope that InnerWish can break free from the droves of power metal bands vying for your hard-earned dollar, because this is power metal done right, plain and simple.  Highly recommended.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Deliverance - Camelot in Smithereens (1995)

There's a song written & recorded in 1964 called "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood".  This song is most widely known due to the version that The Animals recorded in 1965.  There's a lyric in the song so well-delivered that goes, "But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good.  Oh Lord!  Please don't let me be misunderstood."  This song, lyrically, is about a somewhat rocky love relationship where the man is laying his faults on the table and pleading with his love to understand that he's not perfect and that he is trying to do the best he can.  While contextually, this back story may not fit what I'm about to segue into, this lyric, in particular, so perfectly describes what Deliverance front-man & visionary Jimmy P. Brown II has gone through over the years.

Without going into a complete history of the band, the short version is that Deliverance started as a thrash metal band (an excellent one, at that), and morphed over the course of about 10 years from that original stylistic approach into something quite different, taking on a much more groove-oriented approach that become more progressive and intricate as more albums were recorded.  This shift away from thrash metal was disdained by a large contingent of the band's fan base, and prior to the original dissolution of Deliverance in the mid-90's, the die-hard fans who wanted the band to return to their thrash roots became ever more disenfranchised with their sound.  To avoid stepping in a veritable tar pit of hyperbole, let's just say that the Deliverance fan community was fairly split by the end of the band's initial run in terms of the quality and validity of the later releases.

So what camp do I belong to?  I'm of the artist mentality, whereby I don't make art to please other people, but to edify myself & please my own artistic exploration, as well as to please my Creator.  As such, I don't pay much attention to what people might want when I create art.  If I am happy with the finished product and I feel that it sufficiently glorifies my God, I don't concern myself with what other people are going to say, and how they are going to judge me.  If they dig it as well, that's icing on the cake.  I suspect the artist in JPB2 feels this way, but sometimes the musician & businessman in him goes the other direction, fretting over what his fans are going to do or how they will react to his latest output.  I think this force pulling him in both directions simultaneously is part of what makes his art so vital, which is why I hope he never completely loses that quality.

Musically, this album is both a tour-de-force, as well as a quite studied affair.  The guitar crunches with authority, but has a melodic quality to it that really helps the album to be more listenable & memorable than some of the band's earlier "groove" oriented works.  Solo work is well done here, but not overdone - it's flashy & tasteful at the same time, which is a nice balance.  There's some cool echo effects on some of the clean guitar portions, like in "Anymore", adding to the atmosphere of the song.  The album's centerpiece (ironically titled "Books Ends") combines highly melodic soloing, crunchy riffing, interesting structure, and a varied approach that works well.  I like how the album shifts between up-tempo numbers with a lot of guitar muscle to more laid back numbers that utilize other textures to great effect.
Vocally, Jimmy has never sounded better, and I mean that literally.  As a vocalist, he was always strong, but the early thrash works lacked a melodic approach that didn't show his true talent as a vocalist.  Here, however, he's in full singer mode, pulling off interesting melodies, some slightly disharmonic bits here & there that work well, and far more range & emotion than he had previously displayed on an album.  Jimmy doesn't have the level of aggression in the material here than he did before, but this material doesn't really need that - instead, his somewhat Bowie-esque approach is right on for the music.

Bass work isn't overly audible, but Manny Morales (when you can hear him) does things competently and helps move things along.  Drum work by former Betrayal skins-man Jeff Mason is excellent, with loads of rolls & interesting things going on.  Jeff has quite the sense of dynamics, which wasn't apparent in his previous position, being that full-on thrash generally requires you to practically annihilate the drum heads during each song.  Rather, Jeff's work here goes from "pounding the skins" to tasteful cymbal and drum work, with dynamics that keep up with the songs and make the perfect accent to the mood being created by the music.  The other thing that some may find interesting, and others will find annoying is the little "segue" bits at the end of some tracks.  These are semi-industrial bits with ambient noise, "found sounds" and so forth that work well when you're totally immersed in listening to this album, but when you're jamming it in the car or at the office, they just interrupt the flow.  I get why they did this, and it foreshadows the more industrial feel of the "reformation" album "Assimilation". 

Lyrically, this is a bit of a challenging album.  I think Jimmy may have been going for a psuedo-concept album approach, not unlike Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" release.  It's been said over the years that Jimmy was quite the Queensryche fan, and while he doesn't reach those heights (very few bands can boast that!) with this release, he does a sufficient job of tackling some difficult subject matter, like depression, sexual misconduct, questioning of one's faith, and seeking God.  The songs sort of have an emotional ebb & flow that begins with posing the question of "Where are you?" to God, followed by a recounting of some negative things going on in the protagonist's life, followed by a series of songs talking about the daily struggle between purity & sin, and wrapping up with a hopeful ending that takes the approach that no matter what comes in life, we are to look to God for hope, answers, and ultimately salvation.  It may take a few read-throughs to fully grasp the whole story, because it's written from a much more base-level emotionally, so it doesn't flow like a traditional story-based concept album would.  However, I think this quality is what gives the album more emotional weight than it would have if it was simply recounting a tale & having a "moral of the story" attached at the end.  It feels more like you're listening to the song from the perspective of the person(s) involved, which makes it hit home more.

Does this album have any flaws then?  Yes, a couple.  The quasi-industrial transitions aren't always very clean, and until you either get used to them or ignore them, they can be somewhat obtrusive.  If I come back to this album after having not listened to it for a while, and forget that they are in the mix, I sometimes get a little annoyed at their presence.  I realize it's part of the art as a whole, but I don't particularly feel they were as well thought-out as they could or should have been.  Jimmy's industrial experiments were much more completely fulfilled in the next album, "Assimilation".  Also, I think there are a couple spots where the lyrics are a touch clumsy.  It's not a major complaint, but with someone of Jimmy's capability I feel as though had just a bit more time been taken to hammer out the lyrics, those 2 or 3 bits may have come out stronger.  On the flipside, most people I know who enjoy this album don't care for (or vehemently dislike) the David Bowie cover, "Beauty and the Beast".  I'm not sure what everyone's hang-up with this song is, I think it's great!  Of course, I'm guessing most of these folks are the ones who disliked the song "Map" from the previous album as well, since it's enough of a departure from the rest of the material that they may not feel it gels with the rest of the album.  I say nay; the song does what it intends to during the course of the album, from a lyrical, musical, and emotional perspective.  All the naysayers need to listen again with fresh ears, because it's perfectly placed in the track list.

Overall, this is a high quality release that ultimately has been shunned unfairly by the metal community and Deliverance fan-base over the years.  To those who own the album & haven't spun it lately, I'd suggest they give it another chance.  To those who aren't into the earlier thrash metal releases and may be interested in something more progressive, I'd say definitely give this a whirl.  It's a deep, expansive album that reveals itself in layers, with subtlety enough to not lay all the cards on the table upon first listen.  I myself loved it the first time I played it, but grew to love it even more upon repeated listens, and over the years it has become an "old friend" of sorts, giving me listening pleasure here & there when I need something a bit more cerebral in my metal.  Highly recommended.


Walk the Sky - Walk the Sky (2005)

There's an old adage that most of us have heard more than once: "They don't make 'em like they used to."  There's a lot of truth to that, as is evidenced by a number of products that have been on the market for years.  I'm in Information Technology, so indulge my example of the floppy disk.  Does anyone even really use them any more other than in specialty markets?  Most of us use USB flash drives or various large capacity portable devices.  I remember playing computer games & booting up to MS-DOS on my family's first home computer, the trusty IBM PCjr.  The floppy disks that we purchased with or for that machine were expensive, but they were trusty.  I still have that old computer, and it still works.  Plus my old games & disks mostly still boot & are usable.  The same can't be said for other 5 1/4" or 3 1/2" disks I purchased in years since.  I don't think even the most recent batch of 3 1/2" floppy disks I purchased a few years back are even working - most of those have since failed after FAR fewer uses than my old King's Quest game or trusty MS-DOS 2.1 boot disks.

So it goes with music, in a way.  When a style is new on the scene, it's vibrant & fresh, with lots of exciting things going on.  You have bands that play with wanton abandon and make music that is crazy good somewhat on accident.  Then there are bands that study their craft & take this new style to heart, playing it with absolute precision & technical prowess.  Still, you have bands that inject as much melody as possible into whatever style to increase its marketability and commercial appeal.  And the list goes on.  However, once a style falls out of favor, a much smaller contingent of artists continue to play that style out of a love for the music.  Sometimes the vibrancy and energy of the original movement can be preserved, but often as bands (and their membership) age, something gets lost in that aging process, which is why rock & roll is often considered to be a "young man's game".  However, there are bands that withstand the test of time, or come out of nowhere to capture a moment in time that reflects the peak of a style's success, whether commercially or musically.  Walk the Sky is a good example of the latter.

Walk the Sky is a project lead by former Regime and Soldier guitarist/song-writer Rick Hunter-Martinez.  For those unaware, both of these bands sort of flew "under the radar"in the late 80's and early 90's, being mostly known in "Christian music" circles for their commercial hard rock and metal sounds, but without making too big of a splash nationally.  Regime's "Straight Thru Your Heart" was a solid album of commercial metal and hard rock, and the recent re-issue on RetroActive Records exemplifies the quality of the material that Rick and company were capable of.  This album (complete with 2 Regime tracks re-done) is a shining example of another adage that a learned skill is never forgotten, "like riding a bike".  While it may have been 25 years since Regime and Soldier were active, Rick certainly hasn't forgotten how to play, nor has he lost his touch for writing great songs.

Musically, this stuff is excellent.  It screams "old school" but doesn't sound dated from the standpoint that the production is clean & sounds like it was recorded in 2005 versus 1988.  Guitars scream when they need to, riffing is diverse and catchy, melodies abound, and Rick's fingers fly when he plays solos that are at once flashy and tasteful.  Never does he dive headfirst into the murky waters of guitar solo overkill, instead content to showcase his talent in ways that make sense within the songs.  Bass work by Tom Young is competent, though as with much metal, not overly up front, so it's difficult to pick out from time to time, but there's nothing wildly unique going on here, just competent bass work that does the job without being too wild.  Vocally, Rob Bonstin is on-point and sounds great.  He sounds like he's about half-way between King James vocalist Jimi Bennet, and Stryper's Michael Sweet in terms of both his tone and range.  He fits the material well, and brings a good overall feel to the songs.  He delivers both Regime remakes with great aplomb, and the rest of the material he really shines on as well.  As for the drumming, Jeff Lemas does everything you expect from the standpoint of the songs - tasteful drumming that doesn't go too far off the beaten path, knowing when to add fills and bits here & there for effect, but not showboating.

My biggest complain about the album is not in the sound, but the consistency of the material.  Pretty much all the songs are great, but there are some tracks that don't immediately feel like they belong here: "Snake Eyes", "Make Up Your Mind", "What You Need", and to a lesser extent, "Touched By You".  These have a much more laid back, bluesy feel, and don't feel like they were written as part of a whole album, but feel like they're more just tracks that Rick & company wrote when they got together to just jam stuff out, versus feeling like they're a cohesive part of the album.  They're quality tracks, no doubt; matter of fact, I'd be interested in hearing an entire album of this bluesy hard rock style from this group of musicians, because they play it well and the songs are tight.  However, in the context of this album, they feel a bit out of place.  It would be like taking 3 or 4 random tracks from Cinderella's "Heartbreak Station" album (heavy on the blues rock) and inserting them into the band's debut, the somewhat heavier & more metal-oriented "Night Songs".  It's the same band, but it doesn't always feel like a natural flow from track to track.  Otherwise, this is all quality material.

If you are at all a fan of 80's-styled hard rock, commercial metal, or "hair metal" in any fashion, you need to at least hear this material, because no one is doing it quite like this these days.  Despite the disparity between some of the material, this is still a high quality album that I can't imagine anyone being into any of the aforementioned bands not liking or thoroughly enjoying.  Recommended.


Illuminandi - In Via (2010)

Sometimes I just love being wrong.  Mind you, I rather enjoy being right, and revel in the knowledge that I had the answer the first time, or that I knew something before others so I could have that joyous moment of "I told you so."  However, as a human being, I also recognize the importance of failure: growth and humility.  So as I stumble through my meager existence, I understand the need to fall on my face once in a while in utter failure so I can learn from those experiences and grow as a person, as well as grow in my faith.  It is these failures that shape & define us, ultimately helping us to grow closer to God in our walk with Him.

So how does that apply to Illuminandi?  I had first heard of them a few years back and checked out their Myspace page, as is the now standard way of looking into a band.  Even if a band sounds really raw up front, usually this is enough to see some potential.  For whatever reason, the demo tracks the band had up didn't impress me.  At all.  Despite some friends telling me that this was a good up-coming group, that first listen was discouraging and the band suddenly fell far enough off my radar that I didn't think about them again until I heard about the "Illumina Tenebras Meas" EP coming out.  Even then I recalled how unimpressed I was with the demo tracks, and didn't think much of it.  Fast forward to a year later, and I heard "Hymn Of All Creation" on a friend's radio show, and was blown away.  Was this the same band that had put out the somewhat poor quality demos I'd heard a year or so prior?  Surely not!  But after looking into it I realized the growth that they had from those early demos to the EP.

So after months of wrangling and sorting through my ever-growing CD "want list", I finally picked up the EP, and it's quite good.  Better than good, I'd say.  Thus, my initial fears were assuaged and I was delighted to find out how wrong I was.  Imagine my surprise, then, when a few weeks later I got an e-mail from the band requesting a review of their latest full-length release (yet to be released at the time of the e-mail) "In Via".  I was more than pleased to add it to my review queue, and even more excited once I started listening to the material and realize even more how wrong I was about the band initially.

What I find inspiring with this release is just how polished the whole package sounds.  The sound is crisp and clear, the instruments are all well produced and proportional (save for the bass guitar, the usual casualty in metal recordings), and the levels are also appropriate for instrumental versus vocals so that it's loud and heavy enough to please fans, but still allows the vocals to shine through.  Whereas their earlier material was more squarely in the gothic extreme metal genre, this branches out a bit more, including a lot more folk influence (with violins and other stringed instruments) to interplay with the more metallic backbone.  In addition, the band brings in other influences as well - there is some mild traditional doom in there, a sprinkling of hardcore and metalcore (some breakdown-like elements in a couple spots), and dare I say a bit of a mainstream-conscious smattering of influences from the likes of mid-period Paradise Lost.  It all adds up to a highly melodic, highly listenable mixture of folk, rock, metal, and gothic sounds melding together to form a fairly cohesive whole.  Nothing sounds out of place, even the aforementioned hardcore influences; it all blends together contextually to make sense.

Instrumentally, this album is a joy.  Everything sounds crisp and clear, the mix is really good, and the production values really shine.  Guitar sound is varied and interesting, ranging from crunchy riffing and thick guitar sounds to a less gritty tone in the high notes.  There is a fair amount of groove in many of the tracks, more so than many bands of this genre outside of the mainstream wanna-be "goths" playing in heavy rock bands that populate rock radio as of this writing.  Guitar solos are not ever present here, as with much gothic-styled metal, but rather the occasional accent.  There are a couple spots where a cleaner guitar sound is utilized, and it works well with the music, despite being a bit of a departure.  Bass is more apparent here than in much metal, having both that background rumble as well as having some definition and real audible notes.  On a good audio system, the bass really comes across well, adding a good layer.  The symphonic instruments sound great, giving that slightly folky feel to some of the material.  Drumming is varied as well, switching it up between slow and steady "rock" style drumming to a full-on attack when necessary, and being careful not to overpower the songs, but to instead be an integral part of the material.  Vocals often have a typical lower-end gothic metal sound, with a real "throaty" feel to them.  Some parts are nicely overdubbed to give them a more "full" sound as well.  Death metal growls are sprinkled throughout, sometimes being the dominant vocal style within a song, other times just providing additional texture or effect.  There are some times when a bit more of a spoken/shouted hardcore vocal is utilized (like in "Wejdz"), but it doesn't feel like the modern hardcore shouts, having more of a 90's groove metal kind of vibe.

So all this sounds like a winning combination, right?  For the most part, yes.  Obviously for me not knowing the Polish language, some of the lyrics will always elude me until such time that an English translation is made available online.  While the songs are catchy and enjoyable, they're not quite as memorable overall as I had hoped.  That said, this is still a fine album that fans of the band will readily enjoy, and fans of the gothic/folk metal genres in general will also have plenty here to love.  With such skilled instrumentalists I would have liked to hear the band branch out even further, with a few more guitar solos, as well as perhaps even more folk influences here and there.  But as it stands, "In Via" is successful in melding gothic and folk metal with a decidedly accessible bent, and they will likely grow their audience as a result.  Recommended.


Review format change, sort of...

So I'm sure anyone who is an avid reader of this blog (does such a person exist?) will notice that the last several months have been nothing but posts related to my radio show rather than new reviews.  I'm hoping that will change with this adjustment to the blog.  That adjustment is that I'm no longer going to be recording a video review to accompany each written review.  I feel the quality of the videos has taken a dip of late, mostly due to the fact that I haven't had a lot of time to record and edit them properly.  As a result, I've not been totally satisfied with how they have turned out.

So it is with both a heavy heart and a renewed spirit that I must temporarily put the video portion of my blog on temporary hiatus.  I have several reviews in queue that I will post immediately, and some others I have been working on that I will finish and post soon.  I have a couple reviews I had promised to bands months ago that I haven't been able to deliver because of sticking to my video review format.  Now that I am going to put that on hold, I can finally make those obligations.  I won't stop recording videos completely, I will just reserve that for when I have time, and when I feel like I have enough to say in addition to the written review to make the video worth making.  I may return to recording videos for all reviews at some point, but for now it will just be as I have time.  Hopefully this will spark new life into this blog!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Gamut - Episode 95 playlist!!!

No giveaways this evening, just loads of great music, so tune in tonight via at 9 PM EST for all the great tunes!

Tonight's playlist!!!
Becoming the Archetype - Path of the Beam (Progressive Death Metal)
Hemotheory - Lift (Groove Metal)
Leper - In Love With the Fall (Gothic Rock)
Vision - Mountain In the Sky (Progressive Rock)
Hawthorn - Master of Lies (Symphonic Black Metal)
Crumbacher - Crashlanded (In Another Time Zone) (80s Rock/Pop)
Ransom - Break Into Darkness (Female-fronted Hard Rock)
Arch of Thorns - The Bright Morning Star (Black Metal)
Dana Angle - The Time Is Now (Rock/Contemporary)
Onward to Olympus - The War Within Us (Metalcore)
Undercover - The Fight For Love (80s Rock)
Rob Rock - Garden of Chaos (Power Metal)
Fire Born - Hell Bent (Heavy Modern Rock)
Callisto - Rule the Blood (Post-Metal)
Crosswire - This Richman (Hard Rock)
Bride - Hot Down South Tonight (Hard Rock/Metal)
Bedeiah - Of the Lord (Black Metal)
Lordchain - Hiding Place (Groove Metal)
Crystavox - Stand (Metal/Hard Rock)
A Hero Remains - Attempt #2 (Metalcore)
Extultet - I Soldati della Croce (Folk/Black Metal)
Men As Trees Walking - Seal Upon My Heart (Alternative/Pop)
Harvest Bloom - Natural Compulsion (Female-fronted Hard Rock)
A Hill To Die Upon - The Chant of Mighty Offspring (Black Metal)
Hope of Glory - Back In the Woods (Jesus Music)
Rick Cua - Can't Stand Too Tall (80s Rock)
Last Battle - Choose Life (Black Metal)
Sion - To Take Pleasure In Freedom (Metalcore)
Kekal - Tabula Rasa (Avant Garde Post-Metal)
Under the Sun - Stride (Doom Metal)
Hguols - Epitome of Threnodies Abided (Hlodyn)
Lanny Cordola - Livin' In Spin (Singer/Songwriter)
Eisley - The Valley (Female-fronted Indie Rock)
Emery - The Cheval Glass (Post-Hardcore)
Nomad Son - Can't Turn the Tide (Doom Metal)
Holy Blood - Shining Sun (Folk/Black Metal)
Benevolence - Retribution (Death Metal)
Death Poems - Apocalyptic Visions (Black Metal)

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