Friday, April 11, 2014

Azoria - Seasons Change (2014)

Power metal is a vastly overcrowded field.  If you're going to get noticed, you have to do one of two things.  Either do something unique and bring your own flavor to it, or do it very, very well.  When you can't do one or both of those things, chances are, you're going to go largely unnoticed.  There are a lot of groups that become nothing more than a footnote in metal history, if they make enough impact to even accomplish that.

Where does Azoria fit into this spectrum?  At this moment, they're in the minor footnote category.  To be fair, this is only their debut, and they can only go up from here.  Still, it's disheartening to hear bands with talent and skill that just can't rise above the mediocrity of the material.  It's even more disappointing when you have a talented host of vocalists guesting on the album that should elevate the material.

First and foremost, I must talk about the guitar tone.  I'm not sure if it's Alex Oriz, or Simon J, but the riff tone is kind of flat.  This is an album that mixes traditional and power metal styles, so I can understand why they're not going for an overly crunchy sound, but this just isn't as heavy as I would expect from an album like this, especially in the year 2014.  It's got some weight to it, but I just don't get the same satisfaction from the guitar sound/feel as I should.  It sounds fine, but I want more than "fine".  I want the guitar to grab me, because that's the crux of the metal sound, but this just doesn't.  I'm not sure whether the guitar is just over processed or over produced, or just what the issue is, but it bugs me.  Guitar solos sound good, generally, and are reasonably well done, but they're not resonating with me much, either.  Bass guitar by Christopher Davidsson is, thankfully, not buried in the mix, and it does its job, but not much more than that.  Drum work by Emil Eriksson is solid and well played, but like most metal drummers that serve the songs and don't branch out much, his work is mostly indistinguishable from a dozen or so other trad/power metal drummers.

Vocally, the album should be an exciting prospect because there are 6 different vocalists that lend their talents here.  Unfortunately, this is a mixed bag.  Tommy ReinXeed's performance feels "phoned in", like he did his quick take in the studio a couple times and called it good, so for the 1st 2 songs on the album, it's vocally a bit weak, considering the guy handling much of the singing.  Mark Gunnardo brings a lead vocal to "Inside My Heart", but when you take a weak power ballad and add vanilla vocals singing relatively banal lyrics, you don't get much back.  Mikael Dahl sound reasonably good here, but the title track doesn't do much for me, though it's perhaps a bit more anthemic and memorable than the rest of the material.  "Prophecy" and "To The Land of Glory" have Mike Andersson (Fullforce/Cloudscape) on vocals, but the songs aren't lighting a fire under me like they should.  "When You Sleep" brings things up a notch, both because the song is more well written than previous tracks, and because vocalist Matilda Eriksson sounds pretty decent here.  Mark Gunnardo sounds a bit more commanding on "Love It Loud", and as a typical "hail metal, metal rules" kind of anthem, it works, even if it's a bit too Manowar-esque.  Snowy Shaw provides vocals on the final 2 tracks, "Starlight" and "Peace of Mind".  I like the unique sound of Snowy's voice and his odd timbre, so at least vocally he closes the album out with something a bit more exciting than before, and it sounds as though he put some effort into the performance, which helps the relatively mediocre material rise above a bit.

Sadly, Azoria are in danger of being swept under the rug.  There's nothing inherently "wrong" with "Seasons Change" as an album, but the songs just don't stay with me at all.  I expect that from brutal death metal and some black metal, because those genres can get by at times on sheer heaviness, atmosphere, and attitude.  Traditional heavy metal and power metal require a bit more effort in the songwriting, because when you have someone singing words that will generally be discernible with a cursory listen, the songs need to be strong, the vocals need to have passion and power, and the performances need to resonate.  I don't feel that at all with this album.  Other folks may disagree, but I didn't get a kick out of this at all.  I'd consider it sub-standard metal, from a band that is obviously talented, but needs to put a lot more effort into the songwriting, performance, recording, and overall feel of their material before it will really leave a mark.  If you can't get enough metal and have to have everything you can get your hands on, you may enjoy this, but certainly don't add it to your list over anything that the heavyweight bands are releasing this year, and certainly not over past releases that have garnered praise that you just haven't picked up yet.  Not recommended.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

ForChristSake - Apocalyptic Visions Of Divine Terror (2013)

It's always exciting to get a new album from a relatively new band that has started strong and has room to grow.  One always hopes that the band has wisely used the time in between releases to strengthen their sound, tighten their approach and songwriting, and generally improve.  When they do, it's gratifying for fans who have expected great things from the band.  When they don't, it's equally frustrating for fans who feel they know the band is capable of more.  What is, perhaps, more frustrating, is when a record comes out that shows the band has grown in ability or talent, but issues outside the songs make the new record a less than fulfilling experience.

That's my take on the new ForChristSake release, "Apocalyptic Visions Of Divine Terror" (quite a mouthful!).  It's a quality record, from the standpoint that the band is branching out a bit from the extreme death/thrash of the debut EP and including some black metal elements that weren't as present on the EP.  They also add even more keyboard work, including some nice flourishes here and there that give the album a lot of atmosphere as compared to the EP.  In addition, the album's dense sound and production give it a real "suffocating" feel to accompany the atmosphere, which just adds to the tension of the listening experience.  However, there are some elements of the production that make the album a frustrating listen, which I'll expound upon in the writing below.  Ultimately, it leaves me as a fan partially unfulfilled.

Let's get to the good first and foremost.  While the EP had a split focus of thrash and death metal that was nicely blended, this release has more of a death metal attack with some thrash mixed in, as well as some black metal elements peppered in for good measure, mostly in some of the layered vocals and atmosphere.  The album's dark, foreboding tone is palpable, and it makes the whole thing work more effectively with the heavy lyrical bent.  There's some interesting guitar work going on, with some nice harmonized licks and leads here and there, and some oppressively heavy riffing at times.  Vocalist Ben does a nice job continuing to expand his vocal approach with nice variation on his mid-range growl, plus a couple spots where clean vocals are utilized ("Deliver Us From Evil" in particular), and then the higher-pitched growl/shrieks and awesome "throaty yell" which brings a thrash element.  The album barely slows down to take a breath from a few seconds after hitting play until roughly half way through, as many tracks flow directly into the next, so if you're looking for maximum punishment from your death metal, this CD delivers that through the bulk of its material, only stopping to smell the roses a couple times near the end.  Ben and Simon on guitar sound good overall, with a heavy, crunchy tone that emphasizes the low end without sounding too modern, and the keyboard bits come through nicely in most instances, giving that little extra element to the sound.

Unfortunately, the production makes things very muddy, and also creates some real issues with the drum sound and rhythm.  Anyone who listens to the EP knows Ignatios can drum and provide a solid, time synchronized attack.  My guess is, something happened with the production and or mix/master process to cause some of the drum tracks to be off-time or out of sync, because there are spots where it sounds as though he is going off the rails, or where his playing is just slightly out of time with the rest of the music.  As well, the drum production sounds as though the drums weren't mic'd evenly, so some bits have slightly loud cymbal and snare parts, the toms sound hollow and empty on occasion, the bass drum sometimes feels like it's being hit quite limply, and one place where the cowbell is used is hard to hear unless you crank it up or wear earphones.  The production buries the bass so far in the mix that it's like white paint on a blank white canvas.  You know it's there, and there's evidence of its place in the mix, but you really have to listen closely to pick it out.  Some places where there's a lull in the guitar riffing you can pick out the bass much more clearly, but even then it's such a low-end, dense and muddy tone that it's difficult to hear what it's doing.  That's a shame, because as evidenced by the EP, Mark can play pretty well.  The mix itself is muddy, and as I mentioned before, quite dense and oppressive.  That feel works well for the material, but doesn't do the material any favors, as at times, it feels as though the songs are barely held together when things get too fast or go into more complex territory where the band is using odd time signatures, or layering the instrumentation to include multiple guitars, multiple vocals, or a lot of snare hits in short succession.  It just sounds real messy from time to time.

Reading the last paragraph, it would be easy to get the impression that I dislike the album, but that's just not the case.  I've listened to this CD a lot over the last several weeks, hoping to glean more of a real understanding of the album's focus and feel.  I stand by my opinion that the EP overall had better production, because the separation of instruments is more pronounced there, providing for a listening experience not fraught with the kind of frustration this CD brings.  There's nothing wrong with a dense, oppressive production.  Carcass' "Heartwork" and Paramaecium's "Exhumed of the Earth" both have oppressively heavy guitar tones, and dense, heavy production that makes the albums sound artificially heavier than they might be if they were played live.  With that dense production, however, came separation of instruments to allow each to be heard more clearly and specifically.  This CD doesn't afford the listener that chance, however, so it requires repeated listens to get a real sense of what is going on.  That, coupled with the troublesome drum production and timing mean that while the band is obviously growing in the songwriting space, it's difficult to hear that full potential when the songs aren't done justice.  Though there are more tracks here than I might have anticipated, coming off a 4-track EP as the previous release, the pacing of the album doesn't feel like it drags on forever because of the songs.  The production hampers the listening experience enough to make the longer songs a bit of a chore to listen through, which is unfortunate.  I also feel as though the album's title track should have been the album's centerpiece, but it gets tacked on nearly at the end of the release.  A minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but one that warrants mentioning, given the nature of the album's production woes.

All in all, I'm pleased with the album from the standpoint of the band showing that they're growing as an entity and with their songwriting.  They're expanding their horizons a bit, adding more elements, as well as making the longer songs more interesting with transitions, breaks, and enough twists to keep me engaged.  Where I'm let down is the drum production and sound, and the overall production which keeps the bass buried so far that it's not satisfying, and the uneven production that gives the guitar riffs a dense, oppressive sound but does so in such a way that it makes things sound muddy.  I really wanted to love this album, because I really enjoyed the EP, despite its flaws.  I do enjoy the album, and have had fun listening to it multiple times over the past 2-3 months in preparing for this review.  I just can't give the album as a whole a score that is as high as I would like, because the album on the whole doesn't quite live up to its potential.  ForChristSake fans will likely enjoy this, and I did too.  I just wish the album had better, more consistent production that played to the band's strengths rather than creating issues that make it sound as if their not ready for prime time, because I believe they are.  This CD just doesn't highlight that the way it should.  Recommended, with caveats.