Monday, December 30, 2013

Desert Island 500 - Guardian's "First Watch"

For any music lover, there are some albums which are so ingrained in the mind that impartial judgment as to the album's true artistic merit and potential flaws becomes an exercise in futility.  All but the most ardent of logicists have a handful of releases that escape the microscope and are listened to proudly and without abandon, despite perhaps not containing material that marks the zenith of the artist's career, or even of the style of music present.  I'm guilty of this phenomenon just like the next guy, and while I know it's not logical, it's just the way it happens.  Some albums introduce us to music that becomes the "gateway drug" to the style as a whole, or opens up our world to something new and exciting, and those albums usually escape the harsher judgment we heap upon releases of the same style years later because they hit us at the right time in our lives so that their influence trumps their merits.  Such is the case for me with Guardian's debut, "First Watch".

I cannot understate how important this album is for me, personally, in terms of my introduction to proper heavy metal, or how it helped to shape my perception of what the style was, was supposed to be, and potentially could be.  Indeed, there are few albums in my collection more important and vital to me than this largely forgotten gem of a release.  For me to sit down constructively and try to write an impartial review of the album based solely on the music would be like building a skyscraper out of cheese puffs - an impossible task.  I may take that on one day, in the hope that my education in the ways of music has advanced enough that I could see this with more critical eyes, but for now, I can only heap praise upon the album for all it did for me as a fan of music.  Simply put, this was the first album of heavy metal music I heard from beginning to end with no preconceptions, no concept of what it was or was supposed to be, and no idea what my ears were to behold.  It was a glorious experience.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1991 when this album first graced my ears.  I was a silly kid, dorky and nerdy, uncomfortable in my own skin, perhaps more so than most kids my age.  I had very few friends, and my options were limited.  Thankfully, one of the kids in my church who was a year younger than me latched on to me and we became fast friends.  After all, he had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and his mom's boyfriend had a Sega Master System, so we spent plenty of time together playing video games.  But one thing we sort of discovered together was music.  Another guy in our church, many years older than us, had been following the edgier side of the "Christian Contemporary Music" scene for about a decade, and had gone from the early alt rock of The Seventy Sevens, Steve Taylor, and The Choir to the hard rock and metal stylings of Stryper, Whitecross, and similar artists.  Of the bands they had already "graduated" from was Guardian, and the band's debut came into the hands of my friend Casey in the form of an original Enigma cassette, sans sleeve.  Little did this older guy know that this cassette would become one of the most frequently listened to albums for the two of us geeks.

I had previously been exposed to the idea of "Christian rock" by a long-time friend and former school mate.  I used to hang out at her house after school sometimes while my mom worked part-time, and we'd often listen to an album called "Who Do You Love?" by the group Glad, who later became far more well known for a cappella recordings.  That sparked my interest in the electric guitar, in part because of a handful of skillful solos present on that record.  But when I heard Tony Palacios burning up the fretboard on "First Watch", my love affair with heavy metal was first ignited.  Even on Casey's cheap boombox, the guitar riffs came screaming out of the speakers at me, as if they were meant for my ears.  Paul Cawley's vocals spoke directly to me, because they were easy to understand and I could relate to the lyrics.  I didn't appreciate bass guitar then like I do now, but David Bach's bass work helped bring a bit of power to the sound that would have been absent otherwise.  And though Rikk Hart's drumming wasn't out-of-this-world incredible, it was solid, and helped to tie the whole thing together.

This picture just makes me want to go buy a denim jacket and leather chaps.

I dubbed that cassette from my friend because, by that time, Enigma Records had been swallowed up by EMI, and most of the bands either flowed over to Restless Records, or went their own way.  I couldn't get a copy via the local Christian book and gift shop, and I never saw it in the store anywhere, so that was seemingly my only option.  I listened to that dub countless times, and practically memorized every note.  Some time later, I had the opportunity to get the actual cassette from Casey, and sort of "borrowed it forever" from him.  I haven't seen Casey in years, but based on the last few conversations we had, I suspect he hasn't missed it much.  That's okay, because I have held on to it all these years, so if he ever wants it back he just needs to ask.  Needless to say, the cassette is probably nigh unlistenable due to the years of use and abuse, having quickly become a personal favorite.

Fast forward five years.  I'm in college, my musical tastes have expanded to where I like everything from Poison to Mortification, and I've branched out even more the first couple months in college.  I found out that Guardian themselves were re-issuing "First Watch" via their own independent G-Man Records label, and I had to have a copy.  I knew that this might be my one and only opportunity to score a copy on CD, so I ordered 2 copies.  When they arrived at my dorm room, I turned into that dorky kid again, and as I popped one into my CD player and began listening, a revelation overtook me - there were 2 songs on here that I didn't have on my cassette copy!  With the internet still in its infancy, I didn't have access to the boundless musical databases that we have now, so I had no idea that the CD version had 2 bonus tracks, "Hyperdrive" and "Marching On".  So I listened to the whole thing to hear the CD quality tracks, eagerly awaiting the "new" songs I hadn't heard yet.  While they didn't completely blow me away at that point (I had discovered bands like Dream Theater and Tourniquet by this point), they fit in perfectly with the rest of the material, and it was just one more reason for me to continue to love "First Watch".

Fast forward a few years later, and I'm married, working full time and living back in my hometown again.  I had been casually collecting vinyl for a number of years, having started during my senior year in high school.  My younger brother bought me a vinyl copy of the album (same track list as the cassette) as a Christmas gift.  It was awesome to finally have an original copy of the album that was my own and had the sleeve and everything.  And a couple years later, I nearly scored an original Enigma CD copy when my brother and I were browsing a used CD store, but he found it first, so he got it instead.  But it didn't take me long after that to finally have an original Enigma CD copy in my collection.  In 2009, RetroActive Records re-issued the album in a digipak format, with 2 bonus tracks, "Spiritual Warfare" and the 1987 version of "Marching On", both of which were culled from the classic "California Metal" compilation.  This features a remaster by J. Powell, which just gives the album a slightly "bigger" sound to it, but doesn't mess with the mix or feel of the record.  Save for CD and LP issues out of Europe via RoadRunner Records, and possibly a Japanese pressing via Enigma/EMI, I have at least 1 copy of each major issue of the album.  Yes, I'm a fanboy, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Now more than 20 years from when I first heard the album, it's not overly difficult to put my finger on exactly why it thrilled me so much that first time, and why I still enjoy listening to the album frequently.  Sure, Paul Cawley is a bit of a Don Dokken clone, but honestly I think I like his voice a bit more, because I feel that his combination of gritty and smooth is so good.  I wish I knew who wrote which riffs on the record, because with Paul playing rhythm guitar, it would be interesting to know whether some of my favorite riffs on the album were written by him or by guitar whiz Tony Palacios.  My guess would be, Tony wrote most of the riffs, because his Nuno Bettencourt type of style is all over that album.  Tony has always been one that wrote and played riffs that did more than just chug away, often incorporating small licks and such.  As for recording, it would also be interesting to note whether Paul played the rhythm parts, or whether Tony tracked most (if not all) the guitars in the studio, and whether or not producer Oz Fox (Stryper guitarist extraordinaire) contributed any of his guitar magic.  And while Oz's production sounds a touch thin in places where either 70's full analog big budget production, or modern Garage Band methods would give the album a more "full" sound, it fit what other bands were doing at the time, and takes nothing away from the record's overall presence.

Now, if I had to pick a version to take with me, it'd probably be the 2009 remaster, if only because it includes all the tracks, the remaster, and the "California Metal" tracks as a bonus, but even the original Enigma version would be a perfect companion to a lonely man on a desert island.  I can think of few records I'd want with me more than this one.  I can't say it's my absolute favorite at this point, nor can I say that it'd be the one I'd take if I had to choose only one (I'll speak to that topic more in later posts), but certainly for a personal top 5 or top 10, this would most definitely make the cut.  And that is reason enough for me to add it to my list, and make it one of the first records I thought of when coming up with this Desert Island 500 idea.  I encourage all fans of melodic 80's metal and hard rock to seek out this one and give it a try.  You really can't go wrong with this quality platter.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Theocracy - Theocracy re-issue (2013)

Anyone who has read through a number of posts on this blog over the last few years knows I'm a big Theocracy fan.  Their last 2 albums, "As the World Bleeds" and "Mirror of Souls" are both excellent examples of progressive power metal, and I own both the CD and vinyl issues of both, as well as the 7" vinyl release for the "Wages of Sin" single.  Needless to say, I'm a fan.  That wasn't always the case, however, as I didn't discover them right away when Matt Smith debuted the project a decade ago.  And after I did listen to samples online and heard some of the material, I wasn't immediately taken with it like some were.  I bought the debut, listened to it and shelved it, having been somewhat unsatisfied with Matt's vocal performance and the lack of overly memorable material.  2008's "Mirror of Souls" was a completely different story, as it hit me hard when it came out, and was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Now that Matt and company have established themselves as one of the front runners of the power/prog scene in the US and abroad, Ulterium records has seen fit to re-issue the debut and give it a bit of a proper release.  On the original, the mix was a bit weak, and didn't give the material enough weight.  In addition, Matt used a drum machine for all the drum parts, which didn't really bother me, but compared with what followed, it sounded quite out of place.  This re-issue seeks to fix that by doing 3 things.  First, drummer Shawn Benson re-recorded the drum tracks so the album could have proper drums.  Second, the whole thing has been remixed so that the instruments sound better alongside and in conjunction with one another.  And third, the remaster has given the whole thing a more "full" and "big" sound compared to the original.

For those who were fans of the original, this is going to be a treat.  There are albums that are "remastered" and re-issued to cash in on fan fervor, but often those fall into the "make it louder" category where no real tidying takes place, only volume levels are adjusted.  Some remix/remaster projects legitimately improve the release on multiple levels, and I believe this is a good example of what a little TLC can do to really improve upon something without taking away from what the original was or was trying to accomplish.  When listening to the original and this re-issue back to back, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the mix was in this new version, and you notice a lot of background flourishes, like acoustic guitars, symphonic bits, and keyboard backgrounds that you may not have heard before unless you cranked it up full blast.  In addition, though Matt's vocals are still the original recordings, they sound a lot more like the Matt Smith that Theocracy fans have come to enjoy.

The guitars don't crunch as much as latter Theocracy material, but there's a lot going on here, as the album is a bit more layered because it was just Matt writing, recording, and performing everything on his own, so he could afford to go all out.  Bass guitar is present, but still not very noticeable in the mix, so aside from the low rumble you hear under the guitar and keyboards, you don't get much of that coming through outside of parts where there is no guitar (like during an early portion of "Twist of Fate").  There is a lot of keyboard work on the album, which is more prominent than the 2 albums that followed, and Matt makes good use of the instrument here.  There are a lot of keyboard layers going on, and he makes use of all kinds of effects like bells, a harpsichord sound, and various other symphonic instrument sounds to try and flesh out the sound of the record.  And of course Shawn's drumming on the album is far superior to the original drum machine parts, and makes the album sound so much more vital than it did in its original incarnation.

I'm going to be in the minority here and say that I don't think this is Matt's best work for a number of reasons.  Matt was still developing as a vocalist here, and there are spots where he doesn't show as much control over his vocals as he came to demonstrate on this album's follow-up.  The songs all sound great to me, and the melodies are nice, but I don't feel as though they're quite as catchy or memorable as those on either of the next 2 records.  I liken it to the "Wages of Sin" single - that is a good song, but I understand why it was left off "Mirror of Souls" because it's not as memorable as any of the songs on the album and may have come across as merely filler.  The guitars don't have the authority or presence they ought to, and that takes away slightly from the power the record should have based on the style and sound of the music.  Not to say they don't sound good, but when I crank this album up loud compared with the other 2, it just doesn't hit me as hard.  Even with the remix/remaster, which sounds a lot better than the original, I feel as though the mix is still the tiniest bit claustrophobic at times, in that there are bits that should have a bit more separation.  I know I'm nitpicking here, but Matt set the bar pretty high with "Mirror of Souls" and this re-release still hasn't met that, even though it's still exceedingly good.

Ultimately, fans of Theocracy like myself are going to want to have this in their collection, especially those who missed out on the original CD release and aren't willing to pay a premium on eBay for the original release.  I would say that's a smart move, because this just sounds so much better than the original version.  Folks just discovering Theocracy would do well to wait on this and give either of the band's other 2 albums a listen first, as I feel those records better represent what Theocracy has become as a full band effort.  There's no denying that 10 years on, however, this is still a powerful album that deserves much of the praise lauded upon it.  I just don't personally feel that it's the absolute apex of the style as some fans have tried to assert.  Your mileage may vary, but I still recommend this highly to anyone looking for a quality prog/power metal album.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Carcass - Symphonies of Sickness (1989)

Carcass is a band that, to fans of the large umbrella known as "extreme metal", certainly needs no introduction. The band has been credited for starting at least one musical style (goregrind, via their debut, "Reek of Putrefaction"), and contributing heavily toward the start or refinement of at least 2 others (melodic death metal via "Heartwork" and the 'death and roll' style played on "Swansong").  Their 3rd record, "Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious", is often the subject of much praise and is generally lauded as their best, though my vote has always gone to "Heartwork" for that honor.  So with all of those accolades and recognition, one Carcass album is often forgotten, or at the very least, not mentioned in the same breath with the rest.  That's a shame, because "Symphonies of Sickness" is every bit as important as its brethren in the historical context of death metal, a style the band ultimately became synonymous with.

It seems to me that when it comes to early death metal, and the progenitors of the style, Carcass were among the most vicious-sounding and brutal of the lot.  They weren't the fastest, nor did their riffs have the tightest attack.  What they had, however, was a brilliant combination of heavy, muddy production, groove, riffing that could speed up or slow down to fit the mood being created, powerful drumming that alternated between creating cacophony and maintaining the aforementioned groove, and vocals that did more than just showcase some guy growling behind a microphone, but really set the bar for brutality and versatility within the style.  Despite all of this, "Symphonies of Sickness" is often left out of the conversation when talking about ground breaking albums at the beginning of the death metal movement, and is not mentioned alongside other brilliant records like Death's "Scream Bloody Gore" or perhaps "Leprosy", Bolt Thrower's "Realm of Chaos", Morbid Angel's debut "Altars of Madness", Pestilence's "Consvming Impulse" or early works by Obituary, Autopsy, and labelmates Napalm Death.  It should be, however; let me explain why.

In 1989, death metal was still a style in development.  The rise of death metal was inevitable, as bands like Death, Celtic Frost, and Possession had been pushing the boundaries of thrash metal for a number of years in the underground, but most of what is considered the earliest death metal is still grounded very much in thrash, like Pestilence's "Malleus Maleficarum", Bolt Thrower's "In Death There Is No Law", or even Death's debut "Scream Bloody Gore".  Many of the early records still had very much a thrash metal base, only taken to new extremes.  It wasn't until the sound became less focused on super-fast playing and precision riffs that death metal began to really come into play as its own style.  As vocals became more throat-ripping, guitars began to be tuned down, and tempos had a bit more leeway to speed up or slow down as necessary, death metal began to shed its thrash roots and become its own entity.  This can be seen with an album like "Realm of Chaos", which is every bit as punishing as its thrashier predecessor, but begins to turn up the brutality past 11, and sounds distinctly different than what came before.

Carcass wasn't born of thrash metal, however, they were forged in the fiery pits of hardcore punk, and their take on grindcore was so massive and brutal that it would have been nigh impossible to follow it up with another record as blistering as "Reek of Putrefaction".  Instead, they followed up that bullet train of an assault with something more akin to a fleet of Sherman tanks cruising down the road.  Yeah, they can still go fast if need be, but they're far more menacing and imposing than the train is, because the tank can slow way down and target something specific, or stop altogether and bring a full-on assault.  Such is the case with "Symphonies of Sickness", which takes the heavy nature of its predecessor and while turning down the speed knob, cranked the intensity and brutality knobs up to the max and broke them off in the process.  What they developed by doing so is arguably the heaviest and most insane record of 1989.

Musically, "Symphonies" is a monster.  I'm not sure how Bill Steer's guitar tone was so thick and chunky in 1989, but the band deserves some kudos for both their choice of equipment and their production technique (or perhaps lack thereof) in achieving the sound of this album.  Bill's guitar has such a grind and grit to it, completely forsaking the razor-sharp sound that thrash metal bands aim for, instead, sinking into the murky depths of what became the signature of the death metal guitar sound throughout the Florida scene.  Jeff's bass rumbles confidently alongside Bill's riffing, and often underneath his solos, giving the album a lot more weight than many of Carcass' contemporaries lacked until years later when they had bigger budgets and a producer like Scott Burns at the mixing board.  Jeff's bass sounds truly menacing with that thick, dirty and distorted tone.  Meanwhile behind the drums, Ken Owen sounds a whole lot more in control this time around. He still has a bit of fine tuning which will become evident across the rest of the band's discography, but compared to the hyper fast, barely-on-the-rails drumming of "Reek of Putrefaction", this is a lot more precise an attack, no doubt from the years of playing the "Reek" material and building up stamina, as well as a better handle on the timing needed to pull off this kind of material.  And while dynamics aren't normally something you would think of when discussing death metal, when the music slows down to groove a bit or let the song catch a quick breath before ramping up again, Ken follows suit and the drumming matches what's going on elsewhere.

Vocally, this is some pretty raw and intense stuff.  For death metal in the late 1980's, it was common for vocalists to employ a real throaty yell/scream or a mid-range growl, not unlike John Tardy of Obituary.  So the dual vocal attack of Jeff Walker's high-pitched growl/shriek and the much lower-end growl of Bill Steer was both new and exciting at this stage of the game.  Death Metal hadn't reached that stage where everyone was playing playing the vocal limbo, i.e. "how low can you go", so this kind of guttural sound was still relatively untapped, save for a handful of other bands.  Personally, I think had the band employed only Jeff's higher pitched growls, while the album would have still been unique and innovative, it would have been less so, because this kind of vocal trade-off and layering didn't become a major component in the style until better, more experienced producers came along and added the layering/overdubs for maximum effect.  Lyrically, this treads the same medical journal-infested waters as the band's debut, requiring medical textbooks and a thesaurus handy to understand all that's going on, but as most fans know, the early lyrics were all about bodily processes, such as rotting, intestinal disease & other ailments, and additional, similarly appetizing topics.  Not the stuff of emotionally charged debate, but from their vegetarian perspective, pertinent, and certainly years head of its time, culturally speaking.

The album is not without its flaws, however.  Being a self-produced album with such a dirty, grungy sound to it means that sometimes the clarity of the guitar is lost unless you're cranking it up to the max.  As such, the complexity of the riffing can sometimes be muted a bit, and the songs are a bit less memorable when you don't have those key riffs playing in your head for hours after you've spun the album.  "Symphonies" has less a problem than some of its contemporaries in this regard because it's not all about break-neck speed, so sometimes the groovier passages will stick with you a bit longer, but it's a valid concern.  As with a lot of metal albums from this time as well, the drums should be more powerful and sound larger than they are, so obviously the band didn't spend as much time in post-production adjusting the volume on the drums to bring them up in the mix enough to give them a bit more weight.  This is a minor complaint, as the drumming is generally always audible, but as compared to latter-day Carcass efforts, I'd like to be able to hear Ken more as he's pounding away.  Also, while they all sound good, many of Bill's solos are still quite primitive and show that he hadn't yet come into his own in that area.  All the solos here fit the songs and work well enough, but compared with what he provided over the course of the 2 albums that followed, his work here is a touch sloppy and almost apprehensive, as if he's afraid to cut loose too much.  When he does, it sounds good, but you can tell that the precision he later achieved was still absent.

These minor complaints are spoken in hindsight, of course, as this whole release was completely ground breaking and unprecedented upon its release in 1989.  Save for labelmates and countrymen Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death, arguably fellow European death metallers Pestilence, and quite possibly Florida's Morbid Angel, Carcass had a corner on the market in 1989 with "Symphonies of Sickness" in terms of sheer heaviness, as well as employing the unique dual vocalist approach, which gave them an element their peers lacked.  The band modified this approach with their next album 2 years later, which propelled them into legendary status within the scene, but this album should have already cemented that place on its own merits.  This is a landmark release that doesn't always get the credit it deserves in context with other albums of its time, and that's too bad, because it's a powerful statement from a group who showed the metal world that the best was yet to come, alongside a set of peers that never quite escaped the shadow of the albums they released the same year.  Essential, if not for the music alone, for the historical significance.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Extol - Extol (2013)

Music is always evolving.  Music is ever changing.  Music doesn't sit still and rest on its laurels, because music is a constantly moving target, with a new generation of musicians coming up and making waves, writing music and distilling their influences in new and interesting ways.  Not everyone understands this, however, and some people decry a musician (or collective thereof) for changing styles, sounds, aesthetic or production values, or even minor elements that aren't to the liking of said fan or critic.  Music is, however, art, and whether or not the changes that take place are ultimately positive should not be gauged by how much fans buy a new record, but whether an artist or band sees the shift as artistically successful.

Extol is a band that has seen its fair share of complaining fans due to a shift in style or approach.  Some fans didn't like the slight shift from "Burial" to "Undeceived" from a somewhat melodic black metal focus to a more progressive death metal one, even though the stylistic differences between the albums are relatively few.  A bigger shift occurred from that record to "Synergy", a conscious move toward a highly technical thrash metal style with harsh vocals that mirrored the band Believer, one that Extol had long been known to be fans of.  Even greater change came when guitarist Ole Børud left the band in 2004 and the sound changed again to a post-hardcore influenced alternative metal sort of vibe that, though still dark and brooding, was too much a change in sound for many fans to swallow.  Less than 2 years after the album's failure to catch fire and the fan backlash surrounding the change in styles, the group went on indefinite hiatus, and the possibility of Extol regrouping became more slight with each passing year.

A glimmer of hope was offered when a teaser for a documentary about Extol (subtitled "of light and shade") appeared online, and fans began to speculate whether this was a hint that Extol was reuniting or that it was indeed just a documentary.  The latter turned out to be the case, but little did most fans know that the band had actually reformed (sans a couple members) and had begun writing new music.  Vocalist Peter Espevol, Drummer David Husvik and Guitarist Ole Børud were writing music together once again, and once word got out that a new album was in the works, Extol fans wondered if the album would be a continuation of the dark & broody post-hardcore rock/metal of "The Blueprint Dives", a return to the earlier technical melodic death metal of early albums, or perhaps somewhere in the middle, like what Ole and others did with the Mantric project.  Thankfully, the answer is none of those, and instead, we get the eponymous "Extol" album to answer the question definitely on its own merits.

I would say that, musically, this is still Melodic Death Metal in form and scope, though it sort of rides the line between what I would call melodic death metal and what I would instead constitute as either extreme progressive metal, or some hybrid of progressive and death metal styles.  There are fast double-bass sections, heavy and driving guitars, death growl vocals, and plenty of up-tempo rhythms to bang your head to, but there are more layers to this new album that make it difficult to pin down by simply calling it "melodic death metal", because that tag doesn't do the sound of this album justice.  The heaviness factor is there, but the sound is so melodic, and at times so "clean" sounding that it's almost a misnomer to call it death metal at all.  It reminds me of Monolith's 2 albums (especially "Voyager") or the lone In Grief album "Deserted Soul" because it successfully marries a very modern, heavy death metal sound with progressive structures and other elements in such a way that it's hardly death metal at all, yet there's no denying how heavy the record is.  The interplay between heavier elements and sparser bits is part of what makes the album so exciting.

In terms of instrumentation, there's no mistaking the guitar presence of Ole Børud at the helm again, and this is a good thing.  His highly melodic playing is very recognizable, and with his departure after "Synergy", it was obvious on "The Blueprint Dives" that he was absent, both due to the tone of the material, as well as the guitar sound.  While the guitars on "Extol" may not be quite as brutal as the 1st 2 albums, they come pretty close, having that sound that blends the thick and meaty tone with the clarity and precision that Extol's sound had become known for.  Ole's solos are also here in some quantity, and they're as melodic and tuneful as ever.  Bass guitar is also present in the mix and audible as much as it can be alongside the guitar, though it's pretty deep and "boomy", in that it is less recognizable as an individual element as it is backdrop.  Since Ole plays both, it makes sense that he'd want the guitar at the forefront and bass in behind a bit, and it works well here.  There are times when the bass guitar does have a bit more tuneful presentation, like in some of the more nimble passages where there are more notes being played, but often during faster sections, the bass is relegated to the back.  Drumming by David Husvik is excellent as always, incorporating necessary dynamics, and keeping the tempo where it needs to be to propel the music forward.  The drum sound here is especially good, with very clear, yet powerful drum hits and a reasonably strong snare drum sound that isn't too high pitched but remains "punchy".

Vocally, the album has 3 different styles.  Primarily, you have Peter Espevoll's mid-range growl which occasionally creeps up toward the higher pitched shriek he employed early on, and sometimes it will dip a bit lower into a more low end growl, but never so high or low that it sounds like someone else.  Ole Børud continues to provide the clean vocals as he did on the band's 1st 2 albums, and here it's a bit different approach.  He layers the vocals here multiple times, and there's a bit of a "sheen" over top of them that gives them a very modern, processed feel.  Not so much where they sound auto-tuned, but just more produced than before.  This has been a complaint from some fans about the new album, but honestly, I think it sounds great, and I'm just glad to have Ole back in fine form.  The 3rd, less often used vocal is more of a Kurt Bachman-esque throaty yell (ala Believer), which shows up in a couple tracks and is used to great effect.  Overall, the vocals on the album are well done and definitely sound like the Extol most fans are familiar with.

The thing that makes this record so listenable is just how it's all so pristine and produced.  For those that like their death metal "dirty" and "filthy" sounding, they'll need to look elsewhere, because this is nothing of the sort.  Instead, like a lot of modern death metal, this has a nice polish and shine to it, to the point where the heaviness is slightly diminished, but not so much as to make the album sound "wimpy".  Rather, it allows the full spectrum of elements to be heard clearly, so between the heavy guitar, thumping bass, crisp drums, layered vocals, and keyboards sprinkled about, everything is clear and present.  Nothing hides in the mix, which makes the whole thing sound really big and full.  The melodies are also very memorable in comparison to a lot of other bands that play a melodic death metal style.  If you're going to sacrifice grit, grime, and overall heaviness for the polished sound, make sure it's memorable, and these guys do just that.  Apart from the overly simplified melody of the instrumental track "Dawn of Redemption", this album has no shortage of sharp melodicism.

I don't really have any complaints of the album, other than I understand why some don't care for Ole's "super clean" processed vocal approach, and it would have been nice if the sound of the album could have been just a teensy bit heavier to match the heaviness factor of the 1st 2 records.  Save for those minor wish list items, this is quite possibly Extol's finest hour.  I've spun this album countless times over the last several weeks, and if I had a CD player in my car at this point, it'd still be in heavy rotation there as well.  This is one of those albums that will continue to play in my head for days after I've listened to it, and that's a sign of a well written album and batch of songs.  So while it may not be as heavy or blistering as either "Burial" or "Undeceived", I find myself going back to this album even more often than the previous works, and that's coming from a guy that has purchased much of their material as new releases.  This is a triumphant return for Extol, and I look forward to hearing what they do next, assuming this regrouping is more than just a one-off album.  Let's hope so, because this is far too good not to expound upon with future material.  Highly recommended.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Voivod - Target Earth (2013)

Bands don't often get a second chance at glory.  In fact, most bands don't even get a first shot.  They record material, get signed by a label, get a few accolades (if the music is solid), then fade into relative obscurity.  Very few bands rise above their peers to make their mark.  Voivod did just that in the late 1980's with 3 progressively (pardon the pun) more exciting albums in a row.  First was "Killing Technology", which kept the thrash aesthetic of the previous releases but added more technical, angular riffing.  Next came "Dimension Hatross", which tightened the new approach and expanded upon its predecessor.  Finally, there was "Nothingface", which took the ideas of "Dimension Hatross" and created an atmosphere all its own, combined with an excellent melodic approach that birthed what is arguably the band's best album.  So when original vocalist Denis "Snake" Belanger" left the band after 1993's "The Outer Limits" release, some thought that would be the end of Voivod.  But they emerged as a 3-piece with new bassist/vocalist Eric Forest and re-visited the more aggressive thrash days of yore, while keeping much of the sci-fi element and not forsaking the progressive elements that brought them to the front of the scene.  When "Snake" came back to the band and they put out their eponymous 2003 album 10 years after his departure, it seemed as though they were moving in the right direction.  Tragedy struck the band, however, when original guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour was diagnosed (a 2nd time) with cancer, and after battling with it a few years, finally gave up the ghost in 2005.  He left his band-mates enough guitar tracks and song ideas for 2 albums worth of material, but fans once again feared the reinvigorated band would die.

Enter guitarist Dan "Chewy" Mongrain in 2008 to help the band along during a number of live shows in support of the "Katorz" and up-coming "Infini" album material to pay tribute to the band's fallen comrade.  Something happened during his time with the band, however, and he gelled with them more than I suspect any of them would have guessed.  Dan's style was modeled after Piggy's playing, and his playing fit the band like a glove.  A live album in 2009 solidified Chewy's playing as a component of a once again revitalized Voivod, and now 4 years later we have what should permanently cement Chewy as a full-fledged member of the Voivod family in the album "Target Earth", the band's first release of truly new, collaborative material since 2003's self-titled release.

There was a bit of buzz leading up the album's release, hailing it as a triumphant return to form, a return to the "classic" Voivod sound, and the best thing they'd done in years, etc.  That kind of talk gets thrown around a lot when an old band makes a new album, and it's usually just shop talk.  When the rubber meets the road, however, the old dogs don't often deliver on the promise of "returning to their roots".  Voivod, however, has recorded one of the most fulfilling and listenable albums of their career without sounding as though they're repeating themselves too much.  It's a sort of return to the "golden era" of the band's sound and style, without sounding like a rehash, also without forsaking the other material they've released.  So what you get is a decidedly heavy Voivod album that sounds a whole lot like the triumvirate of "Killing Technology" through "Nothingface" with doses of the thrash from the first 2 albums and later Eric Forest material, as well as some of the more groove-oriented stuff present from "Voivod" forward.  It's an excellent summation of the total Voivod sound.  Need more to whet your appetite?  Read on.

For me personally, as a long-time Voivod fan and proponent that "Nothingface" is the band's strongest work, what had been missing for a long time was the angular, jazz-inspired riffing that used interesting time signatures and unique (for metal, anyway) chording.  That was part of what separated Voivod from the rest of the pack, and helped put them in a league all their own.  After E-Force's tenure with Voivod ended and Snake returned to the fold, I never quite felt that they recaptured that approach.  That doesn't mean they didn't have some good riffs, because they did.  "Voivod" was a strong record, and "Katorz" had some interesting ideas, but the overall feel of Piggy's riffs didn't match the strange sci-fi atmosphere the band had created years before.  And though Jason Newstead provided solid bass work during his time with the group, it didn't match the more nimble and interesting playing of original bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Theriault.  So with the band back together in its original form, save for Chewy in place of Piggy, the sound has come much more full circle and recalls a more atmospheric and "spacey" feel that the band had lost somewhat in the last 15+ years.

Unlike the occasionally sparse atmosphere of "Nothingface", "Target Earth", by contrast, is far more dense and immediate.  This record is never suffocating, but the almost constantly pulsing bass and propulsive drumming of Michael "Away" Langevin provide a slightly more evenly paced affair than "Nothingface".  The guitar sound has been brought into modern times as well, recalling and touching on the sound of previous albums, but having a nice weighty tone to it.  Chewy's riffing sounds like a late 1980's Piggy with modern production, which I'm sure is what he was aiming for, and the whole band sounds hungry, as if they know they're not going to be around forever and the amount of time they have left to bring the metal is limited.  In short, Voivod sounds as if they know this is the best set of songs they've recorded in years, and they're strutting their stuff because they know they have a winner on their hands.

As I hinted at in the last paragraph, instrumentation sounds great here.  Chewy's guitar sounds a lot like Piggy did on "Nothingface" but with a bit more beef to it, and Blacky's bass has that nice rumble we've come to expect from him, just with a bit more presence due to the production.  Away sounds as good as ever behind the drums (how is he so nimble at his age?), with lots of powerful double bass drumming, snappy snare hits and fills, and crashing cymbals when need be, but his usual dynamics present when the song needs something a bit more subtle.  And Snake is in near top form here, with a good combination of his more gritty approach utilized on recent records and on the band's early material, and the more melodic singing/droning he developed in the mid-late 80's and beyond.  The production itself is spot-on as well, with good separation of instruments and giving everything just enough room to breathe without sacrificing that dense atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

With everything that they've done right, what's not to like here?  My concerns are mostly minor, honestly, so mileage may vary with others.  The final track, "Defiance" feels like a bit of a throwaway, because it's basically a 1-minute instrumental intro, followed by the start of something that fades out shortly after, resulting in a minute-and-a-half track that closes out the album fairly clumsily.  My only suspicion is that Voivod is "pulling a Marvel", essentially giving us a hint of how the next album is going to start by giving us a taste at the end of the current release.  Be that as it may, it's still a bit distracting after an album of such great material.  The cover art has also been a source of frustration for many fans.  Away has done all the Voivod art over the years, and while it hasn't always been top-shelf ("Phobos" or "Kronik" come to mind), this feels quite amateurish.  My final gripe is far more personal, in that, I wish Snake utilized a bit more of the melodic approach to his vocals than the grittier voice, but the heavier nature of the material on the record suited the grittier approach throughout much of the album, so that's simply a preferential thing for me as a fan of his voice.

All in all, this is a very strong record, and indeed, statement from Voivod that they're not going to just go away now that Piggy is no more.  Piggy's memory lives on in the minds of fans like myself, and Voivod has done him proud by making a record worthy of his legacy.  Chewy should be awful proud of himself for striking that balance between aping Piggy and providing his own take on the Voivod sound.  "Target Earth" is a clear victory for the band, and it's my hope that enough fans took notice of this album that the members of Voivod are invigorated and energized so they can go back and write more material for us.  If "Target Earth" is any indication of the caliber of material we can expect from them in the future, we're in for a treat.  If it wasn't already evident, let me be perfectly clear.  Voivod is back, and are here to stay.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Signum Regis - Exodus (2013)

Whether you believe in the Bible or not, or put any stock in the historical accounts it contains, it's an interesting book filled with many stories that have captivated people for centuries.  Among the more famous and interesting is the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, with the familiar story of people in slavery to Pharaoh Ramses, and the various miracles performed by God via Moses, the humble Hebrew who grew up in the lap of luxury with the Egyptian Pharaoh, having been found by Pharaoh's wife and raised as his own son.  Upon receiving a revelation from God, however, Moses rejects his life with Egypt to go back to his Hebrew people and culture.  God then calls Moses to the task of forcing Pharaoh's hand to free the Israelites from slavery, only to confront his former "brother" Ramses and continue to beg for freedom as God ravaged the Egyptian land and people with several plagues designed to coerce Ramses into relenting, and allowing the Israelites to come out of bondage.

Various parts of the Exodus have been fodder for metal lyrics in the past, most notably Metallica's "Creeping Death", an interpretation of the final of the 10 plagues; the plague involving painting the door frames of each house with lamb's blood to avoid the angel of death claiming the life of the firstborn son of each household.  Their excellent one-off track notwithstanding, the only other example of a full concept album involving the Israelite Exodus I'm familiar with is the debut of Amaseffer, a band actually from Israel and steeped in the stories of the Exodus from a cultural perspective.  Their album, "Exodus - Slaves For Life" is purportedly the first in a trilogy of albums about Moses' life, the Exodus of the Israelites, and their entry into the Promised Land.  Having released the album in 2008, however, there has been no follow-up, and I'm beginning to wonder if chapter 2 (currently titled "When the Lions Leave Their Den") is ever coming out.

In the meantime, bass guitarist and band leader Ronnie König (also of heavy/prog metallers Vindex and power metal band Symphonity) has put together the 3rd album under the Signum Regis moniker and has decided to employ several guest vocalists to give the album range and breadth for telling the tale of Moses and the Exodus.  Given the scope of Moses' story that Amaseffer is tackling with their trilogy, it was wise of Ronnie to focus more specifically on the key parts of the story - Moses' call from God and subsequent mission, the struggle for freedom from slavery, the demand to Pharaoh, the exodus and escape from Egypt, and the resulting freedom and life outside of the clutches of Egyptian tyranny.  What is evident from the opening guitar chords of "Enslaved" is that this will be a much different journey than what Amaseffer presents.  Namely, rather than a lengthy progressive metal epic told with a lot of Hebrew language and cultural reference, this will be a succinct power/progressive metal album with a more straightforward retelling of the story.

I'm not familiar with Signum Regis' material prior to this release, but if this album's quality is any indication, it may well be worth looking into.  The use of multiple vocalists is always a gamble, as sometimes it works brilliantly, and sometimes it falls flat.  Here, I'm happy to report that the tactic works pretty well, for the most part.  The songs all have a bit of a different feel, and each vocalist brings a certain tone and feel to their respective track(s), which helps give the album a lot more diversity and makes for an interesting listen.  Had the album been full of more high-profile vocalists, I think the focus would have been too much on those voices, and not on the whole package, so drafting the talent he did was a smart move from Ronnie.  It also means that the sound varies a bit from track to track, with some tracks asserting a more aggressive, heavy style, while some have a bit more sheen and come off as purposefully more epic in sound.  As for the selection of vocalists themselves, they all add something to the album and all fit well within the framework.

As mentioned before, the guitar sound varies somewhat on the album, from the heavier, chunky riffing in "Let Us Go!" to the slightly more restrained tone in a track like "Song of Deliverance".  Guitar work by Filip Koluš and Ado Kaláber is generally excellent throughout, with a handful of solos really shining (like the bendy, effects-laden solo in "Wrath of Pharaoh").  The riffing is more interesting here than in your typical substandard power metal fare, with some interesting riff work that twists about in places, and is more than just power chords strummed fast and furiously.  If you hadn't already heard their work in Vindex, there's no doubt these gents have chops and technique to spare.  Keyboards are provided by Ján Tupý, also of Vindex, and for the most part, they're quite subtle, content to keep the background to provide atmospherics, though he occasionally gets to break free from the scenery and add flourishes here and there that make them more than just wallflowers.  Bass guitar is, of course, handled by Ronnie, and he does a good job propelling the tunes, with his bass in the mix where it's audible and able to be part of the proceedings.  Ronnie doesn't show off too much, and often keeps time with the guitar lines, but occasionally (like in "Last Days of Egypt") he gets to provide the bulk of the rhythm while the guitars go off into whiz-bang mode.  Drumming is courtesy of fellow Vindex alum Jaro Jančula, and is handled solidly.  As with his work in Vindex, he does a good job of providing what the song needs and not getting in the way.  He keeps time well and blends nicely with the group.  His drum sound here is good as well, having a nice combination of well produced, yet still sounding organic.  The drums have some oomph to them as well, so they don't sound overly "clicky" or hollow.

Vocally, the album is quite strong with all the various singers on here.  In the list of vocalists that lend their talents are existing Signum Regis vocalist Göran Edman, Matt Smith of Theocracy, Michael Vescera (Obsession), Lance King (you name it, he's sung for them), Daisa Muhnoz (Vandroya & Soulspell), along with Eli Prinsen (Sacred Warrior, The Sacrificed), Samuel Nyman (Manimal), Thomas Winkler (Gloryhammer & Emerald, neither of which I'm familiar), and Mayo Petranin.  The only vocalists from the list I have real familiarity with are Daisa, Matt Smith, and Eli Prinsen, so I can only guess who sings on the other tracks, but all vocalists sound good on their respective songs and bring a nice blend to the sound.  As for the lyrics, they convey the story of the Exodus from both a personal perspective, as well as simply a storytelling bent, so it's nice to get things from both angles.  The production here is good, as the instrumentation has enough separation so you can hear what's going on with each instrument, though I will say due to the number of sessions it took to record this album, there are some songs that have slightly less polish to the final product, and others that sound as though time was spent sanding off the rough edges to give it that butter-smooth feel like latter day Blind Guardian, where the heaviness is slightly diminished by how shiny it all is.  It's not overly distracting, but still noticeable.

At the end of the day, this is a quality album that will please fans of power metal and especially those who like these kinds of collaborations, because it allows the vocalists to do their thing in their own way.  One almost wonders if the songs were written with some of these specific vocalists in mind, because they come off sounding as though they were designed for a certain vocalist's talents or approach.  Specifically, "Wrath of Pharaoh", "The Ten Plagues", "Song Of Deliverance", and "Sole Survivor" all sound as if they were tailor-made with the vocalist in mind, because they blend so well into those settings.  I'd say too well, in the case of Matt Smith, as his performance sounds just a bit more restrained than he normally is with Theocracy.  "Mountain of God" being the bonus track is a bit strange, as it fits in with the theme (Moses on the mountain receiving the ten commandments), but this is a small thing.  The melodies on the album may not be quite as memorable as I'd like, but the enthusiastic performances, quality playing, and overall great sound partially make up for that.  I'd recommend this for fans of power metal who like more than just speedy, double-bass ridden fodder, and especially to enthusiasts of history and Hebrew culture, and metal fans in general looking for something a bit outside their comfort zone.


Sleeping Romance - Enlighten (2013)

Metal music with women handling vocal duties is nothing new, as bands dating back as far as the late 1970's boasted either women as lead vocalists, or even some all-female line-ups, such as Girlschool or Rock Goddess.  In the last 10-12 years, however, women fronting metal bands has become a bit of a trend, if not an outright phenomenon.  From the rise of Nightwish right around 2000 (then helmed by Tarja Turunen), to the popularization of "gothic metal" by bands like Lacuna Coil (Christina Scabbia), Xandria, and Within Temptation, metal bands sporting a woman lead singer have become commonplace.  The formula is simple: take a talented set of musicians of any gender and pair them with a reasonably attractive woman who can sing, sprinkle in plenty of melody and give the guitars some grit, and you have yourself a female-fronted metal band.  Now in reality, it's not quite that simple, but when looking at the sheer number of bands that have been formed and introduced in the last 4-5 years alone, it seems like all of a sudden, metal bands with women as lead vocalists have come out of the woodwork tenfold.

The problem with this sudden glut of metal bands with vocalists of the feminine persuasion is that, like the glut of "glam metal" bands of the late 80's and early 90's, or the long running glut of European-styled power metal bands, most of the bands don't stand out enough to do more than become part of the landscape, rather than being a hill or mountain that fans of the genre might want to scale to discover more than what's on the surface.  To really make an impact, a band must either have ea unique sound and approach that separates them from the pack, or they have to have songs that really hit home and connect with audiences.  If a band can bring both to the table, they have the best chance to break free from the "scene" and garner a larger listener base.  Is Sleeping Romance positioning themselves to do just that?  Read on!

First things first: the name Sleeping Romance is kind of cheesy, so I want to get that on the table right away.  Not that half the names of half the metal bands on the planet aren't in some way cheesy, silly, or downright awful, but that is a first impression which may deter some listeners.  If the name doesn't put you off to listening to the band, then you're likely to hear a lot of touchstones you've heard before from other groups.  Punchy, bass-heavy guitar sound that shifts back and forth between muscular metal and groovy hard rock vibes?  Check.  Thick, full production that gives the proceedings weight and volume?  Check.  Talented players cranking out reasonably good tunes?  Check.  Vocals that range from Evanescence rocking to Nightwish-lite Tarja Turunen style operatics?  Check.  Is this all starting to sound a little too familiar?  Check.

In defense of the album, it all sounds really good.  The guitar sound is nice, with a real weight and depth to the tone.  It's not overly heavy, though there are a few chugging portions where the heaviness factor goes up just slightly, and it feels a bit more aggressive than it all really is.  When the solos come, you can hear that guitarist Federico Truzzi is a talent, and has some fretboard skill.  I will say that bass guitar is a highlight here, especially in "Soul Reborn" where the bassist does all kinds of runs up and down that provide a more interesting backdrop than the standard "follow the melody" sort of playing that tends to be the case.  Drum work is solid, if nondescript, though there are dynamics here and there which help make things less rote, notably during the softer sections of ballad "December Flower".  Otherwise, the drumming doesn't stand out as much, though that's typical for this style.  Vocals by Federica Lanna are the focal point here, and really, they are quite well done.  She has a voice and style that lands somewhere in between Tarja Turunen's highly operatic style and Christina Scabbia's more laid-back, sultry sound.  She vacillates between the 2 approaches, often within the same song.  This usually looks like a laid back verse vocal, and then a higher register, more urgently sung chorus with more of that overdubbed, operatic feel.  I'd like to hear a bit more emotion and inflection from her, but honestly, it's difficult to overly fault her performance here, because she sounds great and brings plenty to the table.  The male background vocals sprinkled throughout also sound good.

In terms of how I feel about the album, I can say that at first, I was somewhat ambivalent.  The music sounded good, but didn't do much for me, as I felt like I'd heard it all before, and generally done better elsewhere.  As I've continued to listen to the album, however, it has sort of grown on me slowly, with Federica's voice slowly beginning to worm its way into my heart a little.  Not to the point where I feel she's in the top tier of female metal vocalists (she's no Tarja, Simone Simmons, or Floor Jansen), but she has a good voice that she uses well on the record, and that's enough to take this debut up a notch.  Part of my problem here is that musically, they sound an awful lot like label-mates Darkwater with more symphonics and a woman at the vocal helm.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I already have both Darkwater albums, and generally prefer that band when they're playing power metal under the Harmony moniker.  Still, this is a competent album with well constructed songs that eventually begin to stick with you, despite the melody lines being less catchy than they ought to be for this style.  As this is the band's debut, it's hard to give them too much flack, since this is a respectable first effort, and one that I've enjoyed spending time with.  More time spent writing songs that have catchier melodies, or that flex the band's muscle more will help them get ahead.  They're at their best when they're making things more epic, like the excellent "Devil's Cave" at the end of the album, as well as "The Promise Inside" or perhaps "Free Me".  I just don't know how much I'll go back to it now that this review is written, and that's what the band needs to know going forward.  I will recommend this to gothic/symphonic metal diehards, and to those who simply cannot get enough metal with female vocals.  Otherwise, I'd recommend listening to this one first.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

ReinXeed - Swedish Hitz Goes Metal Volume II (2013)

Metal bands covering pop music is nothing new, as the lines between metal and pop have always been a little blurred, at least in some circles.  Some ardent metal fans refuse to accept any semblance of "pop music" in their metal, in part because the "pop" part means popular, and metal was never truly meant to be popular, at least not in the minds of the de facto metalhead.  If I'm over-generalizing, I apologize, but I think any of us heavily into metal can safely admit at some point or another in our musical journey that there are lines we've refused to cross, only to later realize that we were, perhaps, either short-sighted, or just not willing to let go of our own pre-conceived notions of what metal is or was.  The truth of the matter is, traditional forms of metal music are often based around many of the same melodic touchstones that "pop music" is, though with a decidedly more aggressive or energetic bent, and arguably less approachable subject matter.

So while pop elements aren't likely to creep into goregrind or bedroom black metal any time soon, anything rooted in more traditional heavy metal sounds and styles will have a pop underpinning at the very least, due to the reliance on catchy melodies and specifically structured songwriting.  As such, it should be no big deal for metal musicians to pay homage to pop music.  Helloween covered ABBA's "Lay All Your Love On Me" via their "Metal Jukebox" release, and while not every pop songwriter is as brilliant as Benny and Bjorn of ABBA, the fact remains that catchy melodies, sing-along choruses, and verse-chorus songs are a staple in this genre we love so dearly.  I, for one, don't think that's a bad thing, as many a classic metal song over the years would have suffered greatly if not for a quality melody carrying it along.

So with that in mind, Tommy Johansson (or Tommy ReinXeed, if you prefer) has put out a pair of albums, the first in 2011, and now this 2nd volume in 2013, which exemplify that relationship between traditional heavy metal and pop music.  And while the 1st record concentrated solely on 3 Swedish groups, that being ABBA, Roxette, and Ace of Base, this 2nd volume branches out just a bit further.  So while over half the material here is still ABBA (who had a wealth of excellent pop songs), Tommy brings some newer material to the table as well, and most of it works pretty well.  The record occasionally dips under the weight of its ambitions, but never falters so much that it stumbles and falls down.

If you've heard a ReinXeed record, you know what to expect musically: a crunchy, yet clean-sounding rhythm guitar sound, sharp lead guitar, lightly rumbling bass, and time-keeper precision drums, along with keyboards where appropriate, and pristine production that gives the proceedings an almost "too shiny" sheen.  That's not to say that things don't occasionally get aggressive, because "Don't Stop the Music", "Rock Me" and "My Favorite Game" all have sufficient weight to them, but overall, you know you're getting a juicy pop nougat wrapped in a crunchy metal shell.  Since Tommy has a respectable handle on the ballad side of the coin, his interpretation of a song like "One of Us" works well.  Mid-tempo stuff like "Does Your Mother Know" and "Voulez-Vous" also work well, as does his interpretation of non-single ABBA track "Tiger" (a personal favorite from ABBA's "The Arrival" album).  Some of the non-ABBA tracks are quite effective as well, though I must confess I'm less familiar with the other artists.  I will say that Tommy's choice of "My Favorite Game" by The Cardigans was a good one; had he chosen to do "Lovefool", I'm not sure he would have pulled it off.  And I was surprised how well Loreen's "Euphoria" (2012 Eurovision songwriting contest winner) translated - Tommy wisely kept the basic keyboard line as part of the song, and just give it some metal muscle to beef it up a bit.

With as much success as Tommy has here in translating songs, there are only a couple misses.  Sadly, his take on "Dancing Queen" lacks the charm, punch, and soul of the original, and ends up sounding somewhat flat and lifeless by comparison.  Perhaps I'm too big an ABBA fan, and perhaps that particular song is just far too iconic, but Tommy's interpretation just doesn't do anything for me.  And because it opens the album, it brings down the album ever so slightly because it doesn't begin on a high note.  "All About the Money" is a good listen, but as a song it doesn't stand out as much as most of the other material here, so it ends up sounding a bit like a filler track at the end of the album, which is what it becomes.  These minor missteps aren't enough to drag the record down that much, but I just didn't feel that they reflected the quality of the rest of the covers, or the quality of the 1st volume for that matter.

At the end of the day, there are 2 types of people who will buy this album: ReinXeed die-hards, and power metal fans who are also partial to material that showcases a highly melodic pop or rock sensibility.  If you're in either camp, this is a CD you at least should hear, if not own.  For those who haven't discovered ReinXeed yet, start with either "1912" or "Welcome to the Theater", or even their most recent album "A New World" for quality melodic power metal that remains consistently good throughout.  For those looking for something different, or metal fans who enjoy covers albums or interpretations like this (especially of non-metal material), then this is a good CD to show the relationship that exists between pop music and metal.  I would recommend this if you liked Volume I and are looking for more, or if you are willing to entertain something other than tried and true, dyed-in-the-wool metal.


Drottnar - Stratum (2013)

When I was a kid, it was common to see a new record from many bands each year.  With the music industry in what was probably the height of its reign, bands almost had to do so in order to keep themselves relevant, keep new product available, singles on the radio, and keep the tour buses rolling.  Artists who spent years away in between albums either had to rely on a rabid fan base, or just be THAT GOOD, where it didn't matter how long they'd been away - fans were going to eat up whatever they put out.  Today's modern music "industry" landscape is much different.  With the internet allowing bands to connect directly with and market to fans, long stints between albums is no longer a factor, other than the usual "Musical ADD" that some folks have.

I don't think Drottnar has that problem, in part because their music is niche enough to escape the attention of the crop of folks that would suffer from that "Musical ADD".  And to, Drottnar's music has become a unique enough beast that, even if others were copying what they were doing, there's still no substitute for the genuine article.  So while fans who dug the limited release "Anamorphosis" EP (good little release) may have thought 3 years was a long time to wait for the unexpected shift toward the self-dubbed "bunker metal" of "Welterwerk", imagine how much agony those same fans were in during the 6-year wait between that album and this new release, "Stratum"!  Suffice to say, I think the wait was worth it.

Much like its predecessor, "Stratum" is a difficult album to penetrate at first.  There is the standard instant gratification of much metal, in that it's an immediately visceral and intense experience, with grinding guitars, pounding drums, fast riffing, thumping bass, and vocals that could peel the paint off your house.  But beneath the surface, there's a lot going on, and if you're not listening closely enough, you'll miss it.  That's because this is no longer the primitive black metal sound the band was playing on early demos, or even the slightly more tuneful stuff on "Anamorphosis".  No, friends, this is music that requires time and attention to appreciate fully.  And it's time you'll want to invest, because this is a worthwhile conquest.

Right away it's evident that the album, on the whole, is a bit more straightforward than "Welterwerk", at least in terms of the songs.  There are fewer bits that seem to meander, and most of the songs are well constructed and get to the point soon enough, and then don't wander off into aimless territory toward the end like a couple tracks on "Welterwerk" that went on too long.  This is a more refined Drottnar, and for the better.  You may also notice that this album hits harder immediately and sounds heavier, in part because it's louder.  This album isn't going to win the "loudness war" going on in modern metal, however, because it's still easy to get separation of instruments and hear what's going on.  You just won't have to crank up the stereo quite as much before you get the "Memorex" effect of being blown away by it all.

The guitar sound is quite similar to "Welterwerk", in that it mirrors that slightly thinner black metal sound and feel, having more in common with dark thrash than death metal.  The distortion isn't as chunky as you might expect, but the effect is no less scathing, as the riffing and guitar tone still combine to create a heavy experience.  The riffs employ a lot of dissonant and dis-harmonic sounds, much like the previous album, so that adds to the overall atmosphere of the album.  Bass guitar is evident, and provides a nice thump behind the guitar tone, occasionally doing enough of its own thing to prompt you to listen specifically to the bass.  Drums sound great here, with a nice "thumpy" bass drum sound (as opposed to the overly "clicky" sound on many albums), and a snappy snare tone.  Between the slow, groove-based drumming, the blast beats, and the various fills and rolls provided due to the use of odd time signatures, the drum work rarely gets stale or uninteresting.  Vocally, Sven-Erik Lind sounds much as he did on "Welterwerk", with that piercing, raspy black metal styled shriek he has employed.  For those that think there isn't much expression or range in a vocal like that, this album is a good example of how that's just not true - plenty of inflection, emotion, and "vocal shaping" are employed here to great effect.  There are also a handful of moments where choir vocals are used for a bit of atmosphere - it's subtle and not overdone, so it works well here.

In terms of the album as a whole, it's a frenetic experience, from the opening chords of "We March" and the twisting, winding guitar lines of "Cul-De-Sac" (an ironic song title, to be sure), through the album's centerpiece tracks "Soul Suburbia", with its almost movement-like structure, and "Seven Suns Shining" with its odd timed groove and excellent riffing.  On the back side of the experience, the intensity of "Ersatz" and winding sound of "Wolves and Lambs" cap things off nicely.  There's barely a respite moment between songs, either, as many tracks flow right into each other (best exemplified by the lack of a pause between "Lucid Stratum" and "Ersatz"), so aside from a couple spots where the tempo slows for effect, the album doesn't really let up until the final moments of "Wolves and Lambs".  The experience of listening to the album is intense, and after just 38 minutes, you feel as though the journey was longer than that, because it's exhausting and exhilarating at once.

My biggest complaints with the album are minor, but worth mentioning.  As I just mentioned, the album is only 38 minutes long.  A 6-year wait and only 38 minutes?  This is partially muted because the quality of the material is high, and because it means the transition to vinyl is easier (which I plan to take advantage of), but still, it's a little thin.  In addition, the aforementioned lack of transition between tracks can occasionally be confusing, because unless you're paying attention to what track is playing, you may not even realize that you've just listened to 3 songs in a row, rather than 1 really long song.  After repeated listens, this diminishes some, as you begin to learn the songs as slightly more individual entities versus one large blur, but it's still a minor complaint.  Perhaps also worth mentioning is the artwork - the gas mask trope has been overdone in modern metal and rock, and while it's more relevant with Drottnar (because gas masks are a part of their stage presence), it still feels a little "phoned in", like they should have done something a bit more creative than a simple black and white photo with somebody wearing a gas mask, even if it does slightly illustrate the stark and cold nature of the music.

Even with those complaints, I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album over the last several weeks, and imagine I'll come back to it more than "Welterwerk", which I think is the indicator that matters most.  "Welterwerk" at times left me cold, not wanting more, but a little confused as to what they were doing.  "Stratum", on the other hand, is a much more focused and effective distillation of the so-called "bunker metal" sound Drottnar have developed, and these songs have thus far impacted me more than any on its predecessor.  That's progress, and that's why I think this is not only the best thing they've done so far, but also a great jumping-off point for the band to really go places.  Bravo to the band for their best album so far, and here's hoping the next one doesn't take 6 years to make.  Recommended.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ReinXeed - A New World (2013)

So here we are with a new ReinXeed album, the 6th release in so many years.  You'd think, with all band-leader Tommy Johansson is involved in, he'd eventually run out of ideas, but apparently that's not the case, at least not yet.  The last 2 ReinXeed albums have been very strong, thematically speaking, as well as both being musical high points for the band.  This new release returns to a bit more of a traditional approach, that being self-contained songs that aren't part of a larger concept or cohesive theme.  After all the grandeur of an album about the sinking of the Titanic, followed by an album celebrating the movie theater experience with references to comic book characters, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and the like, how will a more "hum drum" approach stack up?  Pretty well, all things considered.

Tommy and company have always had a knack for catchy melodies, and as was eluded to none so subtly via the "Swedish Hitz Goes Metal" CD, Tommy has received much inspiration from pop song craft masters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (the 2 B's in pop superstars ABBA).  This does not come as a detriment to the band, however, as this kind of buoyant melodic approach is part of what gives ReinXeed a reasonably fresh sound in contrast to many of their neoclassical and power metal peers.  While many bands have a "too cool for school" vibe and try to be "dark" when they're really not, Tommy embraces the more major chord melodic bent, generally to great effect.  That's not to say their sound is one-dimensional.  As anyone who has listened to several ABBA albums in their entirety can attest, there's more to things than what the radio singles tell you.  Such is the case with ReinXeed, whose more "happy metal" approach is more layered and nuanced than may be evident at first blush.

As with the last several ReinXeed albums, the music here is brimming with energy, with mid-tempo and galloping numbers leading the charge.  The guitar sound is essentially the same as you've heard on the last 2-3 ReinXeed albums - it's not discernibly heavier, but has about the same amount of sufficient crunch as before.  The heaviness quotient is near perfect for an album of this type - plenty of distortion so there's no question this is metal, but clean and crisp enough so that it doesn't distract from the quality of the overall production.  Tommy, Mattias Johansson, and Calle Sundberg all provide an excellent guitar foundation for the music here.  Of note also is Tommy's keyboard work, which adds a nice touch here and there.  He's no Eddie Vedder on the ol' ivories (insert "Jump" joke here), but the occasional melodic bits and flourishes help give a little more dimension to the sound.  Bass is provided competently by Christopher Davidsson, and is audible in the mix.  He's not doing anything spectacular here, but he provides that good rhythmic propulsion along with drummer Alfred Fridhagen.  Alfred plays well here, providing the usual double bass and snappy snare drum sound that one expects from an album of this type.  In other words, you've heard this all before, but it's well executed and generally well written.

Vocally, I think Tommy is nearing that apex where he can't improve much more, but I do believe with each of the last 3 albums he continues to sound better and better.  I hear less improvement from "Welcome to the Theater" to "A New World" as I did between "Majestic" and "1912", but he's definitely achieved greater control of his instrument, and has branched out a bit here to be perhaps more expressive at times than on past albums.  As for the lyrics, since these don't follow a cohesive theme, we have the typical metal themes of fantasy and magic, as well as songs about being a rock star and a Guitar Hero (or not one, if you're playing the game of the same name, as the song decries).  It's all "business as usual" from a metal lyrics perspective, so for those who enjoyed the more focused direction of the previous 2 albums like I did, this will be a bit of a letdown, as there are more cliches present here than I'd like to see after such quality work.  Still, none of the lyrics are painfully cheesy, and they can be overlooked if you're so inclined.

By the time the album's 49 minutes and change are up, it seems like the album came and went quickly, which is always a plus.  Rather than dragging on for that time, "A New World" doesn't overstay its welcome.  My biggest gripes with the album are from the perspective of what the music is and does, versus what Tommy says about the style of ReinXeed.  He describes it as "symphonic, OST inspired melodic power metal" which sounds fine at the core, until you realize that Rhapsody (pick your version) has been doing that since 1997 with their so-named brand of "Epic Hollywood Fantasy Metal".  ReinXeed are considerably less "epic" sounding than Rhapsody et al., and that's okay, but it seems to me that the music should be more epic than what is presented here, much like what was on "1912" and "Welcome to the Theater".  Personally, I think Tommy should perhaps explore a more story-based approach on future albums and save the one-off type songs for EP's, singles, and his work with Golden Resurrection.  Don't get me wrong; the material here is of high quality, is very listenable and enjoyable, and over the 25-30 times I spun this in preparation for the review, I've enjoyed that time quite a bit.  But the album's melodies, lyrical approach, and overall presentation isn't as memorable as the previous 2 releases, and for that, I have to factor in that where ratings are concerned.  I'd like to see Tommy explore more story-based work and keep with a theme or concept based approach, because his best work thus far has been in that realm.  That caveat aside, if you've heard and enjoyed ReinXeed in the past, you'll likely get the same kick out of this.  Recommended.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

I thought I'd share my 2 most recent YouTube videos, since I've gone back to doing those again, so here they are - 1 vinyl collection update, and 1 "retro gaming" unboxing of a Sega Saturn 3D Control Pad!

Vinyl Collection update - New Arrivals, Old Favorites

Sega Saturn 3D Control Pad "Retro Gaming" Unboxing


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cinema Fancy - Man of Steel


The first time I saw a teaser for Man of Steel was during the previews for seeing Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises in the theater.  I knew the teaser was coming, because I'd heard rumblings about it and had seen something on the Internet prior to going to see it, but otherwise I had little to go on, other than Nolan was involved.  For those that saw the teaser, you know that it wasn't very enlightening, and indeed, had barely any information in it that gave the viewer any real clue as to what the movie was going to be about, or be like, other than hinting via imagery that it would be a re-imagining of the Superman character in a sense.  This would not tie into the previous Superman movie franchise, but would be a new take on the property, and would likely be an origin story.  That much fans were relatively certain of.

This short teaser sparked quite the conversation between myself and my friend Aaron, who I went with to see The Dark Knight Rises that day.  He had previously gone with me to see The Avengers, and we had both loved that, after all the build-up of the characters via several previous Marvel movies featuring the cast of characters.  Being that Aaron has been somewhat of a DC aficionado over the years, his interest in this forthcoming Man of Steel movie was palpable, even then.  We talked about how we felt Nolan and Snyder should do things, given the dark tone of all 3 Nolan-directed Batman films, and how Superman as a character is a much more balanced, and emotionally "even keel" type of guy.  We also discussed the possibility of how great it would be for Nolan and/or other directors involved in recent DC properties to collaborate on a future Justice League type of project.  Regardless of whether that's a real possibility or not, at least they have a good place to start with this Man of Steel.

Now I must first come clean and say that I'm not a Superman fanboy.  I've always loved the Christopher Reeve films, and felt like Superman Returns was better than most give it credit for.  But as I've stated elsewhere on this blog, I've only become a comic book person in the last few years, never truly having the money as a child to spend on comics, and concentrating more on video games and then music.  Be that as it may, I have some familiarity with the character of Superman, including the meat and potatoes of Superman's origin on Earth.  I'm not sure what level of liberties Nolan and Snyder took with this particular origin story, but I suspect the reason some have labeled the film "meh" or have been unhappy with it is the way in which Superman's origins were handled.  Personally, I don't find this to be a problem, and actually appreciate the increase in back story and how it was fleshed out to give viewers a real sense of where Kal-El came from.  I also like how Krypton was shown as an incredibly advanced society, despite being a society fully in collapse.

One thing I felt about the film as a whole is that it was well cast.  Henry Cavill was a good fit as Superman and Clark Kent because he has that chiseled look that echoes the many years of comic book interpretations, as well as recalling Christopher Reeve qualities like the cleft chin, muscular appearance, and generally unassuming good looks.  With only a brief appearance of Cavill in the "Clark Kent, news reporter" capacity, only time will tell whether or not he is as convincing in that role as Reeve was, but the dynamic set forth between him and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) takes the narrative a different direction than previous efforts - namely, that Lois knows Clark is Superman this time around.  I thought Lawrence Fishburne was an interesting choice for Perry White, and as good an actor as he is, I hope we get to see more of him in future Man of Steel movies.  I enjoyed Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and I felt as though Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent was appropriate and didn't feel like he had been "shoehorned" into that part.  His performance was understated, but fit the scope of his character in relation to the origin story being told.

Russel Crowe brought his usual quality to the role of Jor-El, and look forward to the possibility of seeing more of him in future Man of Steel films, assuming that some Kryptonian technology survived for Kal to use.  If not, at least we saw more of him in this one film than we did of Marlon Brando during the entire run of Reeve films.  I also felt like Michael Shannon was well cast as General Zod, a stark contrast against Terrence Stamp's 1980 version.  Shannon's Zod was not bent on revenge, but was fulfilling his destiny as the savior of Krypton by attempting to seize Earth and rebuild Krypton in his image.  This is much different than Stamp's Zod, who was primarily bent on conquest and destruction, as well as revenge against Kal-El for the imprisonment that was inflicted upon he and his cohorts.  And unlike Ursa in Superman II, Antje Traue as female counterpart (and Zod's wife) Faora-Ul is the same kind of single-minded, purpose-driven warrior that husband Zod is in the film.  I suspect that, despite her few lines in the movie, her stoic performance and iconic "A good death is its own reward" line will become iconic over time.

The big topic that I've seen a lot of chatter about is all the mindless destruction, and I guess the way I address that is to examine the film against other superhero action films in context.  Superman is all about saving people, right?  So when a lady is falling out of a 30-story window, he's the guy who flies up and catches her, gently bringing her back to earth.  So why is Kal busting up half of Metropolis to defeat Zod and company?  Don't forget Nolan's Batman films, willing to flip a few police cars and cause general mayhem and destruction from time to time when it meant a cleaner getaway.  And while The Avengers made an effort to reduce the amount of collateral damage during the Chitauri attack, there was certainly some mayhem caused, particularly by the Hulk.  And let's not forget that some damage occurred during the Reeve-era Superman films as well, including during the fight with Zod.  I agree that perhaps a "less is more" approach might have made the film breathe a bit more, I still think it works and the amount of property destruction is commensurate with what one might expect in a situation involving beings wielding super-human strength and superior weaponry.

The film does have a few flaws, which are worth noting.  The scene(s) involving Perry, Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen, perhaps?) trying to escape the impending doom of the destruction caused by the "World Engine" were somewhat unnecessary, other than to set up the characters for future films.  They didn't add much to the movie, and with its extended length of two and a half hours, those few minutes could probably have been left on the cutting room floor.  Again, though I explained the mass destruction away before, I do agree that perhaps it could have been tempered just a bit.  A friend described it to me after seeing it as, "once it gets going, you don't breathe until the end", and that's a good way to put it.  Pacing is perhaps a bit too frenzied at times, and you just go from one action sequence to another with no time to ruminate on any of it.  Granted, this is probably the first time anyone has done a Superman movie with the kind of major action in it that the comic books have only been able to show in still images, and animated depictions have only been able to hint at.  That doesn't mean we need to have so much non-stop action in this film that it either sets up the sequel for failure if it can't match it, or feels like a letdown because it has to focus more on story, since Lex Luthor (who nearly all Superman fans would presume to be in the works as the next major villain focus) is a far more studied foe than the destructive Zod.  I think everyone needs to prepare for a more cerebral sequel, because I can't think of any way to to the amount of wanton destruction as is present in this film.

Something I also want to touch on is all the messianic imagery and references in Man of Steel.  With the success of recent Christian-themed films like "Courageous", "Fireproof", and the intense "Passion of the Christ", it's no secret that people want that kind of content, despite what the liberal media might have us believe.  As such, it's interesting the parallels that exist in Man of Steel that echo many Christian and messianic touchstones.  Clark was 33 years old when he came forward to protect humanity from the impending threat of General Zod, in the same way Jesus was 33 when He began His ministry.  Up to that point, Clark mostly laid low, keeping a low profile, much like Jesus working with his father doing carpentry.  Jor-El specifically says to his wife in reference to Kal that "He will be a god to them."  Kal-El was sent to Earth by his father, much like Jesus was born a human to a human family at the behest of God the Father.  Indeed, Jor-El also acts in some ways as a reference to the Holy Spirit, a non-corporeal entity offering guidance in situations when hope is seemingly lost.  The US government and military distrusts Kal, and don't understand him, trying to shackle and control him, much like the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to reign in Jesus during his ministry, and arresting him for no real crime.  Superman's role in stopping the Kryptonian invasion was to become the savior of the human race, if in a far lesser capacity than Jesus' being the savior of humanity from an eternity separated from God.

These references are not lost on the populace, as much ado has been made of these similarities.  I wasn't aware of this until researching this after the fact, but apparently Warner Bros has been marketing the film to Christians in particular.  I no longer have cable or satellite TV, so other than the teaser trailer and one or two trailers on YouTube, I didn't see the kind of aggressive marketing that was done for the film.  They even employed a company called Grace Hill Media in these efforts, and have even set up a website for Pastors to go and get info on the film so they can preach on the subject.  It's an interesting approach, that I think will ultimately split the evangelical community, drawing ire from those suspicious of any kind of pop culture involvement in spirituality, and uplifting those that embrace modern culture and wish to communicate messages of Christian spiritual truth via modern methods.  I'm not sure if the messianic parallels were an integral part of the original script, or if they were added later to garner the Christian audience, but both times I saw the film I didn't think these references were a contrivance, and felt that they made sense in context of the character of Superman, as well as in the context of this particular reboot.

There has been some resistance to the reboot from the fan community, specifically in the way the introduction of the character was handled, and in some of the choices made as to how things progressed.  Liberties were taken from the usual Superman origin story, such as the death of Johnathan Kent in the tornado as opposed to him having a heart attack.  Some disagree with how Krypton was depicted, and all the time spent there and with General Zod's handling.  Some people probably disagree with the messianic references, though one could say those elements were present in some form in the original Superman mythos.  Some people feel like the rampant destruction in the film goes against what the character of Superman is about, and while I see that point of view, I think there is room for multiple interpretations of a character.  Ultimately, fans will have to decide if this iteration of Superman is worthy of their time and energy, and I think the response to the film has been strong enough that we will be seeing more of Cavill as the Man of Steel.  Indeed, there is already talk of a sequel to include the character of Batman.  I'm not sure how that will shake out, given Christopher Nolan's strong Dark Knight trilogy, or who they might tap to play the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it will be interesting to see how that develops, and if it's successful enough a pairing to continue to develop toward a Justice League type of scenario.  Whatever the case is, I thoroughly enjoyed this film for what it is and what it accomplishes with the character, but would caution the filmmakers to perhaps tone down the wanton destruction aspect a bit in the sequel so we can have a slightly more cerebral Superman film next time.  As it stands, though, this is a solid first outing.