Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chicago is Burning - American Outlaw (2010)

Music is an interesting beast.  You can do all kinds of crazy things with music that you can't do with other things.  Some animal species can inter-breed to produce a new animal with qualities and genetic traits of both parents, and you can cross-pollinate some plats and even cross-breed some species (I have an apple tree in my yard that will produce 4 different varieties, go science!), but there are limitations to what we in the physical realm can do to "inter-mingle".  But music is an area that you can really go all out with, in terms of "cross-breeding" musical styles and sounds.  The trick is to mix stuff that sounds good together.  It's not always going to be a successful melding of sounds, but the fact that you can do so without harming anyone or causing lasting problems means you can really experiment.  Some musical genres, however, have just never been mixed for some reason, either because no one thought they could, or perhaps no one was brave enough to try.

That's not the case with my man Ash, however.  He has taken the already amalgamated styles of hardcore and metalcore (in quite modern forms) and mixed them with what we know as industrial music.  Now, to be fair, industrial music has long had an affair with the heavy, distorted  guitar sound.  Bands like Ministry, kLank, Circle of Dust, Industry Eleven, Nine Inch Nails, Foetus, etc. have been toying with this formula for over over 20 years now.  The difference here is that rather than mixing either a distinctively hard rock or aggressive metal sound with electronics, as has been done before, this mixture is decidedly slanted toward the modern hardcore and metalcore styles, but with a slightly broader palette of what constitutes the techno-industrial sound.  Thus, Chicago is Burning was born.

"American Outlaw" is the second overall release under the CiB moniker, though this review covers what is the 2nd release of the "American Outlaw" EP, this being the physical CD iteration, which has different (and better) cover art than the original digital-only release.  This is the 3rd release from Iron Guardian Industries (ironically from Australia, despite the album's title and origins), and so far it's the most professional product they've released.  The artwork is fantastic, the booklet is great with interesting art, layout and feel, and the whole thing just reeks of professionalism, so hats-off to my buddy Rowland for picking this one up and making it a real quality package.

Musically, this release has a lot going for it.  Guitars are heavy and crunch with authority, mostly staying in the metallic hardcore vein, sometimes with drumming and riffing that leans more toward the metalcore world in terms of both style and heaviness.  At times, I'm reminded of the one-off industrial project Generation, as that was a heavier, almost thrashy industrial sound at times, but this definitely leans toward the hardcore musical realm more.  However, there is a lot more going on here than the typical hardcore record.  This almost seems to be like a "marriage" between hardcore and industrial.  What I mean by that is, at times you can hear the individual elements or stylistic conventions as dominant within a song (or portion of a song), but other times it's a near-perfect melding of the two styles, utilizing pieces of each to create something new and more unique.  Unlike the small crop of industrial death metal bands that came out in the late 90's and early 2000's, this is its own beast, not just the 2 styles slapped together to make a cool-sounding combination.  This actually feels more like a cohesive stylistic statement than much of the "extreme industrial" that came before it.  Drums are, of course, all programmed, but they work well within the construct of the material and don't sound too fake or odd w/in the mixture.  There is a bit of 808 machine work going on, but not so much that it becomes annoying or distracting.  There aren't a lot of breakdowns here, either, which could be the selling point to casual fans of hardcore who feel the style gets too marred by constant and/or uninteresting breakdowns.

Vocally, Ash is mostly in the high-pitched impassioned scream mode, though he does occasionally sing clean vocals here and there.  The clean vocals aren't his strong suit yet, but when he uses them they make sense in the song and work fine.  I'd encourage him to keep developing that, because if he developed his singing voice to be as strong as his screams, he could have a real one-two punch combo.  There are also a couple instances where he goes into a throatier, almost death metal type of growl for effect, though those are very lightly sprinkled into the mix in just a few brief moments for effect.  Lyrically, the album is split almost in half between militant lyrics with somewhat violent imagery, to more deeply personal lyrics involving love, loss, and personal struggle.  The one possible exception to that is the final track, "Anne Boleyn" (about the Queen of England circa 1533), though the way it's written it appears to be as much a song of love lost, or rather, the lack of love in a relationship.  So despite the historical context, it's applicable to any relationship where it's all give by one party, and take by the other.

While this is a definite improvement over the "Murder City" EP/demo and a worthy release, I still  feel like Ash hasn't quite hit his stride yet with this project.  For that reason alone, I will be highly curious to see what's next for Chicago is Burning.  In the meantime, this is a great little EP that is well worth your time.  The songs aren't as memorable as they could or probably should be, but for its few faults, there's plenty to love here.  That, and the fact that the style he's playing is quite niche, interesting, and isn't really something anyone is doing at this point.  That, too, makes this EP worth adding to your collection.  Recommended.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

"The Gamut" is back tonight!!!

The Gamut is finally back again tonight!  Sorry for the long hiatus, and sorry for the lack of updates, but with all the personal, family, and holiday stuff happening the last few weeks it has been quite crazy.  However, we are back on track this evening.  I've got a great set of new and classic music for you tonight, so tune in at 9 PM EST to hear The Gamut back "on the air"!

Tonight's playlist!
Tortured Conscience - Modern Day Pharisees (Brutal Death Metal)
Legacy - Salvation is Law (Classic/Commercial Metal)
the Human Flight Committee - The Five Second Saga (Indie Rock/Post-Hardcore)
Joy Electric - The Ushering In of the Magical Era (Synthpop)
Innermeans - Bloodguilt (Hardcore)
Hortor - Blasphemy of the Old Pagan Times (Black Metal)
Holy Soldier - Tuesday Mourning (Hard Rock/Ballad)
Seven Kingdoms - Somewhere Far Away (Female-fronted Power Metal)
Patriarchs - Wasteland (Metalcore/Hardcore)
Under the Sun - Divinity (Stoner/Doom Metal)
Orphan Project - Empty Me (Progressive Hard Rock)
Krig - God Is Alive (Death Metal)
Circle of Dust - Demoralize (Industrial)
Emery - The Cheval Glass (Post-Hardcore)
Jamie Rowe - Beautiful (lo-fi version) (Pop-Rock)
Poems of Shadows - Thoughts of Insane in the Dark (Black Metal)
SinBreed - Dust to Dust (Power Metal)
Essence of Sorrow - Trail of Tears (Progressive Metal)
Templar - Greenback Nation (Gothic Metal/Hard Rock)
Dogwood - Everything Dies In Time (Punk Rock)
Crosswire - This Richman (Hard Rock)
Crimson Moonlight - Embraced by the Beauty of Cold (Melodic Black Metal)
Narnia - Inner Sanctum (Neo-classical Metal)
Passafist - Love-e900 (Industrial)
Swine Suicide - End to Seduction (Black Metal)
Zao - Ember (Metalcore)
Into the Oceans - Doom (Experimental Metalcore)
Jeff Scheetz - Lone Wolf (Guitar Instrumental)
Morella's Forest - 30 Sec. Wheely (Female-fronted Shoegazer/Alternative)
Pax 217 - Engage (Rapcore)
Rage of Angels - Somebody's Watching You (Classic/Commercial Metal)
Ultimatum - Deathwish (Thrash Metal)
Vector - Be Undone (New Wave/Rock)
Diamoth - The Valley of the Shadows (Black Metal)
Onward to Olympus - The Lost Generation (Metalcore)
Woe of Tyrants - Like Jasper and Carnelian (Melodic Death Metal)
Soul Shock Remedy - Killing Words (Hard Rock/Alternative)
Seventh Avenue - Future's Dawn (Power Metal)
Gorilla Warfare - No Way Out (Hardcore)

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Under the Sun - Man of Sorrow (2010)

I enjoy albums that have range.  As much as I like a good album that's highly consistent from start to finish, I also enjoy albums that have some degree of experimentation or just "toying around" with the style to try new things and do something a bit outside the norm.  You can write, perform, and play a style to perfection, but if you're just aping everyone else in your chosen field, you're only going to go so far.  Bands who do things differently, even if they don't tread off the beaten path too far, generally are well-remembered for being different and for taking the road less traveled in order to put their own stamp on a particular genre.  If their debut is any indication, Under the Sun may just be remembered for this approach.

That's not to say that there isn't plenty of "follow the leader" kind of stuff going on here, as there is.  Under the Sun works very much under the framework of the doom/stoner metal vibe here, having both a reliance upon the early 80's Trouble-esque doom metal formula, as well as a penchant for a heavy, fuzzed-out distortion and melodic sense that in some ways recalls early Black Sabbath, but often more in spirit than in sound.  The thing that sets them apart is that there are other influences and touchstones at work here, some subtle, some not so subtle, that give an interesting "blended" feel to the band's sound that gives it that little something extra to differentiate them from the hordes of doom bands that have come and gone since the early 1980's post-Ozzy Black Sabbath explosion took place.

The 1st track "Stride", despite suffering from some editing issues (which the band eluded to in an interview on, is an interesting slice of doom metal with two traditional doom metal bits interspersed with some lighter, more 70's-influenced clean guitar parts that bookend a nice rootsy sounding doom number.  "Divinity" has a different vibe to it, which has a real heavy 70's fuzz vibe and almost sounds like an homage to Fu Manchu at times.  Indeed, this track could have been on their "The Action Is Go" album and fit nicely among those tracks.  Both "Bruised" and "To Sleep With Anger" are meaty traditional doom metal tracks with plenty of muscle, while "Joy" is a unique song with some nice clean guitar riffing and a lazier pace that is a nice addition to the album.  "Forgiveness" is another clean guitar song with an interesting sort of alt-rock vibe that hearkens back to a late 60's, early 70's kind of lazy psychedelia that I like.  It almost sounds like the lighter, trippier stuff Trouble may have done if they'd have pursued a more psych-rock direction after Plastic Green Head.  The title track is a reading of Isaiah 53 over more trippy, psychedelic rock until around 3 minutes, then the last 4 minutes is a bit of a slow burn of down-tempo, lightly psychedelic rock.

Clean guitars sound great, with the right amount of reverb, and distorted guitars have a real heavy "fuzz" feeling to them.  They don't crunch, necessarily, but are sufficiently heavy when they need to be, lending a real weight to the heavier songs.  Bass work blends in nicely with the mix, but is audible when it needs to be, such as in the songs where there is less (or no) distortion in use.  Overall, the bass guitar sounds good here, never overpowering anything, but being in harmony with the rest of the sounds.  Drum work is good as well, dynamic and varied when need be, always serving the songs with just the right beats, breaks, and touches here and there.  Despite the somewhat minimalist approach (being just a 3-piece), there is enough variety throughout to show more range than what one might expect up front.

Vocally, Dennis Cornelius reminds me a lot of Dale Thompson from Bride.  Not the mad, screaming Dale of Bride's early metal days, or the highly melodic yet still screaming Dale from the mid-period hard rock stuff, but from the later alt-rock stuff the band did, like "Drop", "The Jesus Experience", or "Oddities".  Dennis keeps things in the lower register, never venturing far from the baritone range.  His voice struck me as a bit odd upon first listen, but subsequent spins have proven that he fits the material well.  He's not a great singer, by any stretch, but he gets the job done and sounds good in context.  Lyrically, the band moves from subtle expression of faith and general positivity to full-blown Christian overtones and scripture in the final couple tracks.  Fans of doom metal in general are accustomed to "religious" lyrics, so this will be no change for the initiated.  Fans who enjoyed Trouble's early quasi-Christian lyrical approach will find this to be similarly affecting.

So what's the verdict?  The obvious issue mentioned before is the editing, which isn't necessarily the band's fault, but does bring down the score a few notches because it does detract from the listening experience somewhat.  This is most evident in "Stride", though the title track does have a bit too long a pause between the spoken word section and the portion of the song that closes the album.  Some kind of logical segue there, and in Stride would have made a lot more sense.  Honestly, that's the album's biggest flaw right there.  Some might say the disc is a bit too heavy on the lighter stuff (sorry, pun intended) and not enough muscular doom metal peppers the disc.  While I agree to an extent, I wouldn't say it's a detriment to the album on the whole, just something that listeners should be aware of, that the album is at least 50% heavier fuzzed out doom riffing, and around 50% quiet psychedelia.  It's not an issue for me, but some might find it less appealing.  Otherwise, this all sounds good and should make a fine addition to the doom/stoner metal fan's collection.  It's my understanding, as of this writing, that there is to be a vinyl release of this album to include 3 tracks not on the CD version.  I'm hoping that this vinyl edition will fix the editing and give the band a chance to remedy "Stride" and possibly "Man of Sorrows" so they flow a little better, and I look forward to hearing the other tracks.  Either way, it's easy for me to recommend this CD to any doom-heads out there looking for new tunes that will challenge their perception of what doom metal is and can be.


Letter 7 - Follow the Light (2008)

Once in a while an album comes along that just "sticks".  I'm not talking about one that the mainstream eats up, or that is fodder for mass public consumption.  I'm talking about a much more personal kind of thing.  Sometimes, you buy an album and the more you listen to it, the more you like it.  Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it just really "sticks" with you and you seem to enjoy it all the more.  Even when you don't listen to it for a while, when you come back to it, that album is again fresh and new, even when you've spun it countless times before.  Albums like this are precious, because no matter how much you listen to them, they're still likable and easy to come back to.  This is a quality often lost in the "here today, gone tomorrow" pop music world - the days of big sales on albums (in the truest sense of the word) are over.

However, the recent shift in the music industry due to the advent of the internet has given much of the power back to the artists, if they're willing to work a little harder or focus on their own affairs.  Through a website, Myspace, Facebook, Reverb Nation, or other type of site, bands can interact directly with fans and sell their product direct.  No longer are bands forced to give up 35% of t-shirt and merch sales to labels, promoters, and other folks - bands have a choice to handle that themselves at their shows.  What's the use of a platinum album when you only have 4 points on the record?  Your band is only going to earn $40,000 for that album you spent toiling in the studio over for 4 months, and that take is probably already eaten up in studio fees and promotional costs because the labels won't generally pay for it.  Now bands can sell direct to fans, hire competent producers to make a low-cost but still quality product and reap most of the profit.  A band can make a lot more money selling 1,000 copies of a CD when they can take home some 80% of the sale price.  So while this shift has occurred, regardless, there are still bands out there who get it right and make great albums, regardless of the music buying climate.  Letter 7 is one of those bands.

"Follow the Light" is the band's 2nd album, coming just one year after their debut "Salt the Earth".  While the debut was a strong record with good vocal performances, good songs, and a reasonably good recording, it didn't quite reach the heights that a band performing a more classic hard rock/metal style should reach to make you want to reach for that record versus an actual classic.  Having said that, "Follow the Light" does everything better than the debut, and should give discriminating listeners reason enough to look into this band above and beyond the classics they're used to spinning on a regular basis.  This release is chock-full of hard rocking melodic metal that hearkens back to the "glory days" of metal in the mid-late 80's, and yet doesn't feel entirely dated.

One thing that I really like about this release is the guitar tone.  It just has that nice balance between metal crunch and melodic quality.  It cuts enough to where you know this is a metal band, but not to the point of beating you over the head with just how heavy they are.  This is an essential quality to any melodic metal band, and these guys do it well.  Guitar sounds are all very well done here, with nice sounding clean guitars, crunchy distorted guitars, and great ripping solos that have just enough attitude to counter the flashiness.  Bass guitar is a bit more audible here than in many metal releases, in part because of the extremely clean and well-proportioned production.  While bass isn't doing anything outstanding or out of the ordinary, it does the job and makes for the right mix with the rest of the instrumentation.  Drum work is quite good, though nothing will "knock your socks off".  Instead, the drums become part of the musical landscape, adding the right touches here and there and never taking over.  There are a couple spots where the drums feel a bit "stiff" like the cymbal pattern could have been played a bit more "loosely" (the high-hat riding on "Lifeline" is a good example), but otherwise this is very competent and well-played work.

Vocally, this CD is a couple notches above its predecessor.  Not that "Salt of the Earth" wasn't a solid release, but this just takes it to the next level.  It's not that the previous vocalist didn't sing the songs well, but Steve Young fits the band's sound and material better.  The previous singer executed the melodies well, but his voice wasn't as well-suited to this melodic metal sound as Steve's is.  He sings with authority and sounds great doing it, but doesn't go out of his way to emulate any of the traditional metal vocal heroes - he retains his own voice and sound while still meeting many of the metal vocal touchstones fans like to hear, such as the high-pitched screams, smooth ballad crooning, and occasionally gritty bits for added effect.  I didn't hear Steve go off-pitch at all during the course of the CD, which is a major plus, though there were a handful of spots where it sounded as though he could have been reaching for those notes.  Still, a worthy vocal performance.

On the negative side (or the positive side, depending on how you look at it), the lyrics are a tad heavy-handed in spots.  As a Christian myself, this doesn't generally bother me.  There's room in my mind for the really obtuse lyrics that hint at God, the "turn or burn" lyrics, and everything in between.  Regular metal listeners who aren't believers in the Bible may turn their noses up here, and that's a shame.  Steve's vocal performance and the music played here is good enough for anyone to love this CD, regardless of lyrical content.  For those who love bold, up-front Christianity in their lyrics, there will be much to like here.  Having said that, as with the vast majority of traditional metal bands espousing a Christian faith, there are moments of lyrical clumsiness and awkwardness.  I would say, however, that even this area is an improvement over the debut.
As of this writing, I understand that Steve Young is no longer with the band.  That disappoints me, because he has a great voice and brought so much to this album.  I am hopeful the band will find the right fit in a vocalist who can bring the same level of talent (or greater) that Steve displayed, and get back on track to record another record.  There's so much to like about this band, that if they tightened up their songwriting and lyrics even more, and had an even stronger vocal performance, they could be contenders for having a metal community largely indifferent about "Christian metal" think twice about writing them off.  As it stands, this is a quality band, a quality album, and something that's easy for me to recommend to the music fan who either misses the heyday of metal, or perhaps never left.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Patriarchs - Emerge (2009)

As a music lover with wide-ranging and eclectic tastes, it becomes nearly a requirement to seek out and support the underground.  This is partially because there just isn't enough variety on mainstream radio, and because oftentimes the underground produces as many (if not more) great artists or bands who have a vision for their art and while many of them are trying to break into the mainstream, a large majority of those can claim that they are still being true to their art with what they're doing, at least until the record companies get a hold of them and have their way.  However, the hardcore scene is one of those insulated things that doesn't often get polluted by the mainstream, even when they are vying for more money.  Sure, there are hardcore bands that "sell out", but every genre can claim that.  More often than not, however, hardcore bands can safely say that despite being on a major label or even a big indie, they often stick to their guns and stay with the same basic sound they've developed, even if they're still growing as a band or expanding their sound based on the direction they were already heading.

The great thing about the underground is that you can often find hidden gems littered among the rubble.  Hardcore bands these days are a dime a dozen, as are metalcore and deathcore bands.  As much as I enjoy each of the aforementioned styles, I must admit that the last few years have produced an absolute glut of bands jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.  So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?  Well, you can rely on labels like Victory, Rise, Facedown, Solid State, Blood & Ink, etc. to do the job for you, if you're content on just digesting what's readily available at your local Hot Topic.   If you're like me, however, you earnestly seek out good music and wish to hear the best of the best, even if some of that is tucked away in a corner somewhere, far below the radar.  That's how I discovered Patriarchs.  They sent me a friend request via my Myspace account (yes, I still use it), and after sampling their stuff briefly, I knew I had struck gold.

I would best compare Patriarchs to scene peers like Bringing Down Broadway or Gray Lines of Perfection, though I would say Patriarchs is overall a bit heavier than both, has catchier songwriting, and out of the three has the best use of clean vocals, not to mention the best clean vocalist.  Also of note is that their sound leans a bit more toward metalcore perhaps than the other two bands, and is slightly less breakdown dependent than the others as well, which some may view as a good thing.  Guitars move nicely between heavy riffing and chunkiness, to a more melodic tone that is still driving and has weight to it.  In addition, there is an interlude track and an outro track that utilize a much more ambient, totally clean guitar sound as well that sounds great within the context of the material.  As usual, bass gets buried in the mix somewhat, though it rumbles nicely along with the guitars to give added weight and heaviness to the overall sound.  Nothing earth shattering going on here, but really solid and on point.  Drumming is quite good as well, perfectly fitting the music and adding nice little touches here and there.

Vocally this is a good release.  While the hardcore/shouted/gruff vocals don't stray too far off the beaten path, in terms of how they're executed and that there's little variation, but what they do they do well.  They are up front, in-your-face, and provide sufficient evidence that the band believes what they are communicating.  Clean vocals are a cut above the norm for this genre and style - they are well executed and don't sound like a 14-year old boy trying to sing before he's hit puberty.  That's the sad reality of a lot of heavier bands implementing clean vocals these days; the honesty of the vocal sound is good, and I applaud that, but as a vocalist myself one can only listen to that so long before it grates.  But when one is singing as well as is done here, it's a much more welcome thing.

Overall, I would have to say this is my favorite melodic hardcore/metalcore record in the underground right now, and certainly of 2009.  Either this band is not trying to get signed (may be a smart move in these times of self-marketing), or the right folks haven't heard them yet, because they deserve the attention.  To be clear, there's absolutely no new ground broken here, so if you're looking for something a little different, this is not the place.  But if you crave a really solid, well played melodic modern hardcore/metalcore album with inspirational lyrics and passion to spare, "Emerge" is more than worth your time, because they pack a punch and leave the listener both satisfied and wanting more at the end of the CD.  Recommended.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Joy Electric - The Otherly Opus (2007)

It's often funny how life throws curve balls at you.  We find inspiration in the most unlikely of places sometimes, and when we reflect on the source of that inspiration, we often are left to wonder just what happened or why such inspiration was triggered.  No matter the reason or source, inspiration is a key ingredient in all art, and something we all need in our daily lives as we strive to make our way in the world.  Inspiration helps us see and endgame to the goals we are struggling to achieve, and gives us hope in times where we feel helpless in changing whatever it is in our lives we wish to change.

Being a long-time Joy Electric fan, I have purchased nearly the entire CD discography.  There are a couple pieces missing, but I consider myself to be a fairly devoted fan.  Having listened to all the releases, I can kind of see a course charted from "Melody" through to the various other albums, Ronnie Martin always sort of pushing himself from album to album to do new things, never content to rest on his laurels.  I have seen this as a good thing, even when the results of that artistic exploration have left us with an album or two that are a bit less listenable, or perhaps something that requires a bit more studied listen.  But listening to a Joy Electric release is nearly always an enjoyable experience, with a couple possible exceptions.

So what does inspiration have to do with Joy Electric, and more specifically, this review?  I had listened to and enjoyed "The Otherly Opus" several times, but hadn't yet regarded it as highly as other JE fans until recently.  Earlier this year, my wife and I took in a couple kids via foster care. In the process, I introduced one of them to Joy Electric when they were looking for new music.  Because I had recently listened to it I pulled out "The Otherly Opus" and played it.  The kid was hooked from the first few bars, and suddenly all I heard around the house over the next few weeks was this kid singing along to songs on the album.  I knew it was a strong JE release, but this sudden addiction gave me pause and encouraged me to get back to the album and dig deeper.  So I did.

Over the next several weeks, I listened to "The Otherly Opus" almost non-stop in the van and at various other times.  I marveled at how fresh it sounded at that point, despite having played it a lot earlier.  It also reminded me of just how balanced it was.  Early JE releases focused on pure pop songcraft, while some later releases were a bit more "artsy", expanding upon the JE sound palette and exploring various other textures and sonic elements.  But starting with "Hello, Mannequin" the focus shifted again back toward more traditional pop structure.  After the experimental (and excellent) "The Ministry of Archers", this album takes the experimentation of mid-period JE and tempers it quite well with the pure pop of the early material.  This includes both the bouncy fun "Melody" or "Robot Rock" stuff, and the more somber "We Are the Music Makers" type of material.  Nothing here is as upbeat as "CHRISTIANsongs", but there are plenty of songs with a more major chord feel than the previous release.

For those uninitiated to the JE sound, think 80's video game music on steroids with vocals that are at once emotionally affected and also disaffected.  That's an overly simplified explanation and I'm sure I'll get email from a couple dozen JE devotees who loathe that description.  But as much as that's a less than accurate description, it's accurate enough a touchstone for those unfamiliar with the sound.  But really the answer is, in this day and age of the internet, go listen to some tracks on any website that will stream them.  It's 80's styled synthpop mixed with sort of a laid back euro-dance feel at times, but it's so much more complex and layered than that - I can't do justice to the sound with mere words.  While Ronnie isn't exploring as many sound effects and sonic palettes here as on some previous releases, he does interesting things with what he uses here.  I find this semi-retro approach with a slightly more minimalistic "instrument" set to be quite effective.  It hearkens back to the beginnings of JE without sacrificing the progress he's made as a composer or arranger, nor does it bely the improvements he has made in the overall JE sound construction in that time.  Some of Ronnie's trademark sounds are here, and the lightly thumping bass lines underneath are indicative of a JE record.

The other thing that stands out with this release is just how much variation there is in Ronnie's vocals.  Not as much as on some of the more experimental releases, but he uses a lot of varying effects and techniques here.  You have quiet, tender moments like on "Write Your Last Paragraph", and outright yells on "Red Will Dye These Snows Of Silver".  There are other interesting vocal things going on here, though nothing as unique or different as what he does on this album's follow-up, "My Grandfather, The Cubist".  But it all works, none of it sounds out of place or "weird" (at least not in the Joy Electric sense), and contextually within the various tracks it makes sense.  There's also some interesting layering going on, as well as a couple spots where Ronnie uses a nice "tunnel" effect.

Ultimately, what I think I'm trying to say here is that this album is so well constructed you have to hear it for yourself.  If you're a Joy Electric fan, you most likely already have this album and it's likely already a favorite.  If you're a JE fan and don't have it yet, you're doing yourself a disservice, because it's one of Ronnie's finest outings.  I still believe my personal favorite JE album is "We Are the Music Makers", but that's partially because it has stuck with me for so long.  But in terms of sheer balance, songwriting, and all the various elements of Joy Electric that Ronnie has cultivated over the years, this may well be his most well rounded and complete album.  If you like synthpop, electronic music, pop music, or just really good music of any kind, you owe it yourself to at least hear this record.  I can't recommend this album enough.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Timesword - Chains of Sin (2010)

I like being pleasantly surprised.  When I discover bands out of the blue and realize they're pretty talented and may have something to offer me as a listener, I usually sit up and pay attention.  Sometimes that gamble pays off, and sometimes it doesn't, but sometimes the process of discovery is half the fun.  Learning about new music and giving bands who are just starting out and trying to make their mark can be a rewarding experience, especially when said bands do indeed have talent and their music has a quality that makes it worth coming back to for more than just a cursory listen.  Such is the case with Timesword.

Despite the somewhat cheesy artwork of "Chains of Sin", I was intrigued by the "progressive metal" tag and checked out the sound samples.  Being duly impressed with what I heard at first blush, I ordered the album.  After receiving it I didn't listen immediately, due to having received it with about another 30 or 40 CDs (I was on a music buying binge at the time), it did make its way into my CD player within the first few discs of the order, after a handful of established artists whose new material I was itching to hear.  While my initial listen was positive and I felt like the band had talent, I didn't come back to it immediately.  After a few weeks of digesting other material, I came back to the album and spun it a few times.  And after a few months of purchasing and digesting other music, I came back to this disc again with the intent to write a review.  So I spun it constantly in my van for a couple weeks to and from work, and as I was driving.  I think I've sufficiently listened to the album far more than I would any other in the normal course of music purchases simply for this review.  Having said that, how does it stack up?

Musically, this is square in the "progressive metal" camp with the highly melodic guitar lines, interesting drum work, intricate solo interludes and occasional time signature changes and adjustments, along with the ever-present keyboards providing that extra layer.  The guitar sound on this album is good overall, though there are moments where the dynamics seem to be too far apart, in that the guitar almost gets too quiet in the mix.  It's a minor complaint, but was noticeable while listening.  Otherwise, guitar riffing is good, solos are good, playing is solid but not ultra flashy.  Overall, the guitar is competent and solid, though many of the riffs aren't quite as catchy or memorable as I would have hoped with this level of talent.  Bass work is present and in the mix, but as usual gets buried with the guitar much of the time, merely following the guitar lines quite a bit.  But bass guitar certainly doesn't get in the way of the rest of the instrumentation.  Drum work is quite good, utilizing a lot of cymbal work, interesting breaks here and there, and sometimes a small roll or transition that shows off an interesting use of the instrument.  Special mention must be made about the keyboards - there are several textures used, from traditional "keyboardy" sounds to more Hammond-style organs that sound great as a backdrop for this melodic metal sound, and sometimes provide the perfect accent to what is going on elsewhere.

Vocally, Mark Pastorino provides a great voice to this album.  While he doesn't have the perfect voice, he sings very well and gives the disc a nice vocal range.  His quieter, more plaintive moments (like in the beginning of "A New Way") are great, while his mid and high-range vocals are impressive as they soar.  His more gruff, throaty style is also great, with just the right amount of gravel in the mix without losing the melodic quality.  His Italian accent does occasionally get in the way of understanding the lyrics being sung, but no more than any other thick European accent.  He does a great job of providing the right sound to complement the band's sound.  Lyrically the album is fairly bold in its proclamation of Christianity, but that shouldn't deter those who aren't listening for that message because the whole package is well done enough to overlook that if you're not a member of the faith.

So what's not to like here?  My chief complaint with the album is the final track, "Real Mystery".  It's broken up into 5 parts, but the problem is that it doesn't flow well together.  These individual pieces of the song don't necessarily go together thematically either, so it sounds very much like a handful of songs sort of thrown together instead of a cohesive piece.  With 25+ years of progressive metal to draw upon as inspiration, it's a pretty big mistake to make, even for a band's rookie outing.  It's not that the last song is bad, by any stretch, it's just not as quite interesting as the material that precedes it and is a weak way to end an otherwise solid album.  Mark has a few spots where he sounds as though he's "under singing" notes, as well as spots where he is dissonant where it doesn't make sense or sound good with the context of the material.  In addition, the woman who sings in the last "movement" of the piece has a good voice, but doesn't entirely fit the material either, and her performance could have been a bit stronger.  When you make this your last statement before the CD is done, and this statement is 2/5 of the whole length of the album, it better be a great track.  With Theocracy's brilliant "Mirror of Souls" album, they did just that.  Sadly, that's not the case here.  It just doesn't work, and the band should have probably used the 1st 5 tracks as merely an EP.  That would have made a much stronger debut for this group, and shown off more handily both their strength as songwriters and as performers.  This misstep costs the band quite a bit of leverage and momentum at a critical juncture early in their career.

The other thing that hurts the band, though no fault of the CD specifically, is the loss of vocalist Mark Pastorino to go play in Secret Sphere.  While there are likely no shortage of Fabio Lione wannabes who will be ready to step into place as the next vocalist, Mark's performance here on this debut is strong overall, and really shows what a band can do when they're firing on all cylinders.  That's not to say they can't bounce back from this, but they will in some ways have to prove themselves all over again; doubly so, since the debut doesn't make quite as strong an impression as one might hope.


War of Ages - Eternal (2010)

It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  What about plagiarism?  That's usually frowned upon, in contrast.  While the debate over what constitutes plagiarism in writing a high school or college paper are pretty well defined, the lines are far more blurred when it comes to art.  For years, bands sharing a similar stylistic approach have all been lumped together into various genre and sub-genre categories, and often those bands are accused of ripping each other off.  It happens with every style, and generally the fans look past that due to the various nuances each artist brings to the table to differentiate them from the others in their "scene".

So what does that have to do with War of Ages?  Well, some have accused the band in the past (myself included) of perhaps sharing a little too much in common with As I Lay Dying, a band that War of Ages has shared the stage with a number of times.  Indeed, Tim Lambesis produced their previous album "Arise and Conquer", which I thoroughly enjoyed (as evidenced by my review of the album).  With Tim at the production helm again, and the band's sound shifting in the same melodic direction as their brethren in AILD, once again these accusations are both expected and warranted.  But I think it's unfair to label WoA a clone, as they have enough of their own vibe to separate them from the band that is often seen as the pinnacle of their stylistic paradigm.

As with previous WoA releases, the guitar sound is heavy without being overly punishing, and the playing is quite good.  Layering of riffs and atmosphere is good, and solo work is also appreciated when it pops up, due to the competence at which the players command their instruments.  The biggest change here, as opposed to the previous release, is that the guitars sound like they're slightly more in the background than before, but only slightly.  Just enough to allow the more melodic bent of this material to really shine, so the guitars don't feel as though they're the only game in town.  Bass work is solid, no frills and does the job well.  It doesn't detract from the mix, nor does it take over; it's part of the whole package.  Drum work is good as always, and though Alex doesn't quite possess the same caliber of talent as AILD drummer Jordan Mancino, he gets the job done and proves himself to be more than capable of pulling off the necessary tricks to keep things moving and interesting along the way.  He probably isn't given as much opportunity to shine here as on the previous album.

Vocally, Leroy is stuck in the same gruff hardcore shouting mold as he has been in the past, and he's as emotional and emphatic as on previous albums, though perhaps a touch less than on the previous release.  However, the vocal monotony is broken up more by the addition of a lot more "clean" melodic vocals, and also the guest appearance by POD's Sonny Sandoval.  He does a great job here, and the music playing in the background of the title track w/ Sonny vocalizing over the top reminds older listeners like me of what he was doing back in the early-mid nineties when POD was still this little underground band toiling in Southern California to make their name.  But most of the album is Leroy yelling over the music, and he's as full volume here as ever, which is a good thing.  If his vocal approach lacks the variety of some of his metalcore peers and brethren, his volume and "in your face" vocal delivery make up for it somewhat.

So I guess all of this to say that War of Ages is succeeding admirably in their quest to become As I Lay Dying.  I say that, of course, partially in jest and partially in truth.  I do believe WoA's trajectory has been dangerously close to that of AILD's in the last few years, what with the slick re-make of their rather hardcore debut, followed by a heavily thrash-influenced album (like AILD's "An Ocean Between Us"), followed by a heavy yet ultra-melodic album in "Eternal", much like AILD's latest release "The Powerless Rise".  While AILD's influence on a number of bands is readily apparent, and AILD vocalist Tim Lambesis behind the soundboard for both this and the previous WoA album, it's hard to fault the band totally because copying AILD is a winning formula, much like copying Metallica back in the mid to late 80s worked well for a lot of up-coming thrash metal bands.  My only caution to the band is to make sure the next record has even more of a stamp of personality and originality on it.  I really enjoy this record, and I've spun it numerous times.  Moreso than AILD's latest record, truthfully.  But the next outing needs to be more original, more War of Ages.  But this record is still recommended, especially because it's just so catchy.


Cast a Fire - These Troubled Waters (2010)

I like finding out about new bands and discovering new music.  It's always a thrill to hear about new and up-coming groups ready to stake their claim on whichever genre or style they're adhering to, or even more so when bands forge ahead into new or relatively uncharted territory to do something new.  Either way, getting introduced to new artists making fresh music is enjoyable.  It's especially rewarding when you find groups that, even if they're not broaching new territory, have something worthwhile to offer.  Such is the case with Cast a Fire.

The style Cast a Fire plays is nothing groundbreaking or that hasn't been done before, to be sure.  The waters of gothic metal have been sailed so much the last 10 years that some might say every port is chock full of ships waiting to dock.  The bands that either do the best job at their particular subset of gothic metal get to dock their ship and offer their wares, while those that don't quite get the job done have to continue to sail along the shoreline, eager to catch the eyes (or ears) of a potential label, fan, etc.  So while Cast a Fire's approach isn't unique, they do a sufficiently good job with the style that they should have little trouble reaching port.

The guitar sound kind of rides that line between the heavier sounds of Paradise Lost and the more melodic sound of the heavier modern hard rock bands on the radio today.  In other words, there's definite crossover appeal for their sound.  But overall guitars sound good, with some nice layering going on at times between riffs and licks, and occasionally guitar atmospherics with riffs.  The guitar playing is generally understated, though the guitarist cuts loose once in a while with a nice solo.  Keyboard work is definitely important in the mix with this album, and it does a fine job of capturing that atmosphere you want in a gothic rock/metal release, utilizing electric piano, faux-choral effects, straight keyboard sounds, bells, and other elements quite well when necessary.  There are some nice folk elements present in the album's title track as well, which is a nice addition.  Acoustic passages have that nice clean sound but retain the "guitar slide" noise, which is always a nice touch if done right like it is here.  Drum work is great - plenty of dynamics throughout the material to prove the drummer here knows how to best suit the material without showboating.  However, he can really rip it up when the song calls for it, and he does just that on occasion.  Bass work is nice, suiting the songs just right and providing the right amount of extra thump during the heavier moments.  Vocally, the album is a nice mix of low-end traditional gothic vocals, some growling vocals in a couple spots, a handful of well-placed screams, and a more mid-range vocal which is where Bruno seems most comfortable.

So what's not to like?  Well, the first obvious thing is that it doesn't really innovate in any way, just does a nice job of treading through waters already traversed.  That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but for those looking for something new they won't find it here.  A somewhat glaring issue with this album is specifically with the song "Still Mystery" in that there's a bridge section with sort of a softly spoken faux-rap section.  It's not a "rap" in the strictest sense, but that's how it comes across, and it's quite cheesy overall.  The other issue is that for an album of this caliber, it's a little short with only 8 full songs.  "Prelude to Infinity" is just a short intro/segue into "Ash, Dust and Memories" (an album highlight), but "Vasto Negro Infinito" sounds like an unfinished song idea or intro just sort of tacked on at the end with no real purpose.  It is a nice simple piano melody, but it just feels like something that should have been further developed into either an extended intro for another song, their next album, or something else.  It closes out the album okay, but just feels unfinished.  Other than these minor issues, the album is strong on the whole, which is what will keep most listeners (like myself) coming back for repeated listens.  The memorable songs and good melodies definitely lend themselves to that.

From a style perspective, think heavier Evanescence melded seamlessly with "One Second" era Paradise Lost, and mix in a few minor prog rock-influenced time signatures, and you have a pretty good idea of what this band sounds like.  If that doesn't sound like your idea of a good time, then Cast a Fire may not be for you.  But to those who haven't had their fill of quality gothic hard rock and metal, then "These Troubled Waters" is a solid entry into the genre, and a CD that will undoubtedly open many doors for this young band.  With a bit more work on their songcraft, this band has the potential to do big things.  Recommended.