Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Devil's Heaven - Heaven On Earth (2014)

Devil's Heaven is an interesting collaborative of musicians.  According to the Press Release I received, you have 2 guys that are in AOR bands, 1 who has worked with Prog Metal/Rock titans and is in a well known prog band himself (Flower Kings), 1 from a fully prog metal background, a guy who has dabbled in jazz, pop, and metal, and a dentist who apparently plays guitar.  I think perhaps Mötley Crüe needs to give up their name and find a new moniker, because these guys might be more suited to it.  To be fair, it would seem that, because of some of the members other, more full-time commitments, this would be a side project, so perhaps Vince and company can keep the name after all.  Still, an odd bunch of players to get together.

With a name like Devil's Heaven, you could go just about anywhere lyrically or musically, but this project kind of walks the line between sleaze metal and a melodic, traditional 80's heavy metal approach.  I can only assume this is a side project for the talent involved, so this is most likely a batch of tunes that these guys couldn't necessarily have recorded (or have wanted to record) with their primary bands.  Chief among those I would say would be Jonas' Flower Kings, as there would be little or no place for this material on a Flower Kings record.  That's not to say this material isn't musically sound, because it is, but based on the fairly straight-forward hard rock and metal sound here, we won't be hearing any of these songs show up at a Flower Kings gig any time soon.

Musically, this is solid stuff, and with the players involved, it ought to be.  The instrumentation is all quite good, and the riffing is heavy enough, if not always that memorable.  The guitar sound is somewhat modern without being overproduced, and sounds appropriate for a band of this type updating an older hard rock and metal sound.  Solo work is also quite good, with a lot of good leads and licks over the course of the whole record.  As expected, bass guitar is well done here, though it's not as high up in the mix as you'd think it would be, given the band he hails from.  Still, he's audible and you can hear him doing his thing.  Drumming is also pretty good, with dynamics where the songs call for them.  His performance is solid overall, and he occasionally cuts loose with real fiery double-bass work (especially in the opening track, "Welcome II the Show") and rolls.  One thing about the drums is that I didn't think the bass drum sound was loud enough, as sometimes it seemed to get buried by the bass guitar.  Keyboard work on the album is quite good, with organ sounds, piano, and the usual keyboard tones in place where you'd expect them.  They don't take center stage much, but they add a nice layer of interest to the songs.

Vocally, Marcus Nygren sounds quite good.  His accent makes some word pronunciations a bit odd, but overall, he makes things relatively easy to understand with his lightly gravelly tone.  For a guy that sings in a couple AOR bands, you'd think his voice would be smoother, but then again, I haven't heard his other material.  His voice works well for the material in question, however.  One thing I'll mention is the lyrics - some of them are pretty good, well thought out narratives about various topics, but there are a handful of songs where the lyrics are PAINFULLY bad.  Chief among them are the single "Demerital Action, "Hot Sex" and album closer "Wine Me", which tries to be clever with its story, but ultimately falls flat.  Another song that doesn't quite work is "Mean Street City" - it just seems to try too hard to sound like it's being sung by a real tough guy, but I don't buy it.  Other lyrics are surprisingly meaningful and emotional, such as the short poem used for "Stillborn", "Touched By An Angel" about death, or the heavy track "Riders In The Sky".  All in all, the lyrics on the album are a mixed bag.

Listening to this album, it occurs to me that this is exactly the kind of record I'd expect to hear from a group of guys, mostly from other bands, that want to put out something that doesn't fit into the scope of music they'd normally be writing or playing.  It's all well constructed and reasonably enthusiastic, with good performances and fairly good production.  My biggest gripe is that the album feels uneven, stylistically.  It doesn't bother me that they did 3 or 4 "sleaze metal" tracks, 2 or 3 emotional ballads, and a handful of "barn burner" type songs.  What bothers me is that it doesn't necessarily flow together that well while listening to the album.  There's nothing technically wrong with the material, but as an album, I don't think it gels the way it should.  Add the inconsistency of the lyrics and the fact that it feels like the album has been pieced together from 2 or 3 different bands' material, and it's just not as cohesive as I'd like it to be.  It's a solid debut, but I can't say it's anything more than that.  I'd encourage the band to write more songs next time and really work on choosing the best material before they compile the album and record it all.  If you can't get enough 80's styled hard rock and metal with a modern feel, give this a listen, it just might be for you.  Otherwise, this is definitely a try before you buy kind of CD.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Voyager - V (2014)

Progressive Metal has become a crowded field.  In order to stand out, you really have to do something special, unique, or just be so insanely talented that people sit and listen to your album with their jaw on the floor, much like most of us did when Dream Theater first hit the scene and were wowing us with their level of playing talent.  Now that they've spawned a generation of copycats and gone toward a sound increasingly concerned with solos and individual playing, but have forsaken actually writing great songs about 50% of the time, other bands have more opportunity to showcase their talents and get noticed.  While Voyager has been releasing albums since 2003, I've only become aware of them recently, and "V" is my first exposure to their sound.

Upon first listen, I was taken aback at how much I felt their sound was at once unique and also quite familiar.  They remind me of some other recent semi-progressive bands playing a vaguely modern hard rock/metal sound with a unique vocal approach.  LA's Clandestine comes to mind, especially since their single "Disappear In You" has a similar hard-hitting yet melodic approach that opening track "Hyperventilate" has.  If you can imagine Orphan Project making an album immediately after listening to a couple Halcyon Way albums, that might give you a small idea of what this sounds like, but only hints at what you can expect on this record.  Their sound isn't that far removed from the likes of Souljorners or Ascension Theory either, though with a focus on songwriting and pop sensibility, perhaps a bit like Mehida.  One-time Canadian outfit Asher is another audio touchstone.  If you like progressive metal of the highly melodic and subtle variety, you're in for a treat.

It must be said immediately that this record sounds very "clean".  Those who like some level of grit, grime, and dirt in their metal will find almost none of that here, save for the distortion in the guitar tone, which is bassy and heavy.  Even so, the heavy, distorted guitar lines still sound "clean", in that they're processed and produced to get the sound and tone without any aural artifacts.  Don't think that diminishes the heaviness factor, because it doesn't.  The riffs sound meaty, and the solos have some bite to them when need be, and a real smooth feel to them at other times.  There's a fair bit of clean guitar work present, and it often creates a good balance between achieving a melodic center to the song and providing the listener something they can sink their teeth into before ramping up the heavy and knocking them around a bit.  The solo work also has a balance between complex runs and licks, and melodic lines that make them more memorable and tuneful.  I'm not sure who does more soloing, Scott or Simone, but hats off to whomever takes the reigns on that front, because the solos on this record are interesting and highly listenable.  Alex's bass work is good throughout, though he doesn't often get the opportunity to shine like some prog bassists do.  And drumming by Mark Boeijin is quite good, with a lot of niceties here and there, and it sounds like he gives the drums a solid pounding.  The bass drum sound is also nicely up front, with that satisfying thump you expect out of a modern sounding record.  Keyboards aren't overdone, and there are some songs where they aren't included at all, but used as an accent in some areas, and a focal point in others (especially the piano work in "Summer Always Comes Again") they work really well and are an integral part of the sound of "V".

I can't describe Daniel Estrin's voice without first stating that it's just so stinking smooth.  A lot of vocalists have an ability to transition seamlessly from gritty, gravelly vocals to a "smooth as butter" kind of sound, but the latter is Daniel's default setting.  There are a couple moments where his voice gets just slightly raspy, but on the whole, his performance is really even.  That doesn't diminish the emotional impact, either, because he has a nice sense of when he needs to be loud and frantic, and when things should get quiet and be a bit more plaintive.  He has a real nice tone to his voice, and his annunciation and phrasing have a bit of a unique feel to them.  Per the press kit, Chino Moreno of the Deftones likened Daniel's voice to that of Simon Lebon from Duran Duran, and I can hear a resemblance and similarity in the richness of their voices, though I'd say Daniel's voice has a richer, "thicker" tone to it.  All in all, this guy can sing and sing well, and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance throughout the record.  I also really liked in "A Beautiful Mistake" where guest vocalist Zemyna Kuliukas and Daniel were layered together harmonizing, because they really fit with the pop-infused progressive metal vibe on this CD.  Whoever she is, her voice is lovely and needs to be heard by more people.  I also enjoyed the occasional light sprinkling of mid-range growls, because they add just another minor ingredient to the mix.

I was pleasantly surprised by the album, and frankly, quite shocked that I'd only heard of the band before and hadn't heard their music.  Having gone back and listened to the previous 2 releases to get a frame of reference, I can safely say this is the best of at least the last 3 albums, and if the band continues in this vein of a hyper-melodic, pop-tinted semi-progressive metal sound, I see great things ahead.  Both singles thus far (opener "Hyperventilating" and "Breaking Down") exemplify the core sound of the band, and represent the album well, but only tell a small portion of the story that is "V".  I probably listened to this album 40 or 50 times in preparation for this review, and was honestly dreading writing the review.  Not only can I not put into words how excellent this slab of music truly is, but it also means having to move on and listen to other, likely less worthy music for a while until the next truly awesome album comes my way.  Until then, I'll have to pull this one out again on occasion, because the songs have been stuck in my head for weeks.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.


Blog Update - I'm on Mach Riders!

I just wanted to give a short update that I will now be contributing to the Mach Riders retro game review website.  All reviews will be posted in full here at MetalFRO's Musings, but I'll be linking to those reviews from Mach Riders and will have entries there that link back here.  It's exciting for me, because I'm inspired to branch out more and do more writing about video games, and Mach Riders is a nice, open platform for me to do more of that.  Because of my love of old video games, Mach Riders is a great place for me to link any retro-themed reviews here, which will hopefully drive additional traffic to the blog in general.  It is my hope that through playing and reviewing retro games for this purpose that I can begin to tackle the giant backlog of games I have.  I've been seriously collecting for the last 15-16 years, and have WAY more games than I realistically have time to play, so this should be some level of motivation to seriously play through some of them that have languished in my collection for years.

As for general game reviews, I'll be doing more than just retro stuff, so those posts will remain here exclusively at this blog.  Being the proud owner of a shiny Wii U console, and already having built a nice small library of games for the console, I'll be working my way through that batch of games (including my take on Duck Tales Remastered, which I already did here a few months back).  That doesn't include my small PS3 game collection, or my growing library of Wii games, so there will be more modern games I'll be looking at.  I may tackle a handful of PC games and/or indie titles as well.  I may do some newer game "retrospective" write-ups based on newer games I played through a while ago, and offer my thoughts months (or even a year or so) after having played them.  I think it could be an interesting read, to go back and play a game after not having touched it for months or years and see if my initial impressions still hold true, or if I've changed my mind as to what I think of the game.

I may also dedicate a few reviews as Mach Riders exclusives, and simply link to them from this blog as well.  In addition, I'll have to determine whether or not I want my 6th gen console reviews (GameCube, Xbox, PS2) for the Mach Riders site, or if I should stop at 5th gen (Saturn, PlayStation, Dreamcast) for that site.  Because my Xbox and PS2 collections have become quite sizable, and my GC collection continues to slowly grow, those reviews could end up being exclusive to this blog as well for the time being, which just means more content on this site for everyone to enjoy.  I'll make that determination as I go along, and may make an announcement here prior to posting my first review specific to that line of thought.

In any event, please enjoy my blog as always, and I hope you'll enjoy reading about my gaming experiences and some of what I've had fun playing over the last 30+ years.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review a Bad Game Day - Contra Force (1992)

If you press the Power button, you go back to sleep and 
forget all about this game.  If you press the Start button, 
you see how deep the rabbit hole goes and find out 
just what a nightmare you're in for.

Konami had a good thing going with the Contra franchise in the late 80's and early 90's.  They had 2 successful arcade titles, a pair of wildly successful (and critically lauded) conversions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a solid Game Boy iteration of the Contra formula, and had just celebrated the release of Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super NES console, which was both an excellent game and a technical marvel on the platform, showcasing the hardware's abilities.  In development was the Sega Genesis follow-up, Contra Hard Corps, which ended up being another excellent entry in the series.  As many already know, the franchise would go completely off the rails a couple years later with 2 rather poorly designed (and poorly received) PlayStation titles that Konami saw fit to outsource to an outside team.  It wouldn't be until years later with Neo Contra on the PlayStation 2 and Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS that the series would find its footing again in some meaningful fashion by getting back to its roots.

There's a bit of a forgotten chapter in the Contra series, however, and that is 1992's Contra Force.  Released only in North America, this game saw Konami using the Contra name for a game that tried its best to emulate the Contra formula to a certain extent, while adding new elements and changing up the play stile a bit to add something fresh to the gameplay.  To be fair, this game was originally developed in Japan to be called Arc Hound, but was never released there.  Instead, Konami slapped the Contra name on it and released it in the US to cash in on the series' popularity and sales numbers.  It was a poor decision from a company that was usually pretty good about what games it localized.  Why couldn't they have skipped this and given us the excellent Crisis Force instead?  I digress.

The game starts out innocently enough, with the familiar Contra logo on the title screen, with the word "Force" directly underneath, conspicuously in a different font, a whole different feel, look, and aesthetic than the logo it's paired with.  Still, one can easily overlook such trivialities if the game behind the title screen is good enough.  The first problem is that the title screen is only available for about 2 seconds, possibly less.  If you don't "PUSH START BUTTON", as you're invited to, within that short window of time, you're immediately pushed into the "attract mode" for the game.  Rather than a couple looping examples of gameplay, we get what is supposed to be a snippet of back story for the game and its main character, Burns.  Unfortunately, even though the gist of the plot can be discerned quickly from the 2 or 3 screens displayed, it's very stilted and not well done.  Ninja Gaiden had better cinematics and dialogue 3 years prior, so Konami was obviously phoning this one in.  In addition, with what limited "story" we are presented with, we find that we're not controlling muscular Rambo types to take on a large alien horde, but are part of what appears to be a spy/special ops division taking on human terrorists.  Who cares that we've had 4 wildly successful titles in the series prior to this installment, all based on alien invaders.  No, let's throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the successful formula that has propelled our product to great accolades and sales by slapping this popular name on a game that has NOTHING to do with our franchise and tarnish its name and reputation.  Someone at Konami USA back in 1992 clearly needed to be slapped upside the head.  In any event, you can identify 3 flaws with the game within 30 seconds of powering up your NES console.  I wouldn't consider that a good start.

"This is the crack team that's going to take down my organization?
This is going to be easy, boys!" - Random Video Game Terrorist

The first thing you'll notice after you hit Start and begin the game is that you're presented with 4 different characters to choose from: Burns (the leader of the special forces squad), Smith, a typical 90's 'tude character, complete with manly 'stache and hip glasses, Iron, a tough looking dude who can wield what looks like a bazooka, given the right power-up, and Beans, a skinny fellow who also appears to have 'tude.  I mean, look at his cool hair!  All kidding aside, another minor issue crops up at the Player Select screen: rather than pressing Down on the D-pad to select the first character (traditionally the top-left), you press Up.  If you press Down, you get Beans instead of Burns.  In addition, rather than the ability to use the full D-pad to select characters by moving Left, Right, Up or Down, you simply press either Up or Down to cycle through the list, and it goes top-left to top-right, then bottom-left to bottom-right, assuming you're pressing Up.  Reverse that if you're pressing Down instead.  As I said, it's a minor issue, but since the game's stock is already plummeting at this point, it's a noticeable design flaw that becomes more glaring in context with the game's other flaws.

Once you select your character and press Start, the next thing I noticed was that the character walk animation is really goofy.  Kudos to the design team for at least trying to make something semi-realistic, but it really looks somewhat unnatural.  Not to be too cliche or gauche, but the walk has that "trying overly hard to pass gas" kind of look to it.  All 4 characters have that sort of walk animation, so you can't escape it.  It might seem to be nitpicking on my part, but it's noticeable enough to mention.  Here's a GIF animation to illustrate:

It might be hard to tell from this GIF, but the walk is
just kind of stiff and funny looking.

Once you get into the gameplay, things seem normal at first, as many of the usual Contra elements are present.  You can fire upward and diagonally, as well as downward and diagonally downward while jumping.  You walk from the left to the right and blast baddies.  You start with the usual single-shot "pea shooter" weapon and can collect power-up icons.  However, the first change you'll notice is that the screen can scroll back to the left, which should be a good thing.  However, one of the game's fatal flaws creeps in because of this new found directional movement.  Namely, that once you stop running to the right and go back left, sometimes it doesn't scroll correctly when you start running to the right again.  You'll need to backtrack to the left and move right again.  The screen's scrolling point of origin fixes on your character at whatever spot on the screen you're at, so if you're an inch from the right side of the screen, that's where it will scroll from and you'll be rushing into danger.  You can correct this by going left again to roughly the middle of the screen, then turning around and resetting this point of origin, but the fact that you have to do this at all is a major design flaw.  How did this issue get past beta testing?  Worse yet, if you're all the way to the right and you're on a small platform, you'll have no room to move back left, so you may have to jump or maneuver back across multiple platforms (which may or may not be available) in order to create enough area to reset the point of origin.  That, or you're forced to move left and right in tiny increments to keep resetting the position until you can feel safe enough to move on and have a larger area from which to reset it comfortably.  This is a huge design issue that should never have been included in a final product.

If that wasn't bad enough, the hit detection is also dodgy.  There were times in the first level where I was clearly shooting at a bad guy, but he didn't fall.  Sometimes it took 2 or 3 shots to take them down, even when the previous play through of the stage only took a single shot.  There's a spot in the first level where an enemy is on a moving conveyor belt (though he is conspicuously NOT MOVING), and if you shoot the belt underneath his foot level, sometimes you'll take him out, sometimes you won't.  3 of the 4 characters crouch when you press down on the D-pad, but Beans does the full lay on the ground maneuver like the previous installments in the series.  However, sometimes bullets that are CLEARLY travelling above his body will clear him, and other times it will register as a hit.  The lift truck in the first level moves normal at first blush, but if you get behind it, it does this bizarre thing where it moves toward you when you're walking toward it, but purposely moves away from you if you're walking the opposite direction.  That sounds strange, I know, but you can tell the truck is actually moving, not just that you're walking toward or away.  Some ledges cannot be trusted as well: I was standing near the edge of a ledge where some boxes were dropping from the ceiling, and though my character wasn't touched by a box, he slipped off the edge though I wasn't touching the D-pad.  This happened more than once, so I'm fairly certain it's another design flaw.

"Why is it that I gotta keep moving, but these two guys
can stand on moving platforms and not move? - Beans

Less a design flaw and more a casualty of innovation without careful planning, the power-up system in this game is somewhat uneven and problematic.  The Contra series has seen its share of less than useful weapons (the flamethrower from the 1st game comes to mind), but some of the weapon choices in this game just don't make sense.  Adding a Gradius-esque power-up system was a cool idea, but the secondary and tertiary weapon choices are a bit off in some cases.  Burns can power-up to either a hand grenade, or a machine gun.  Go for the machine gun, because the grenade can be difficult to use and not very handy against enemies some distance away.  Beans has a landmine you can use, but BE CAREFUL with that, and plan to use it for areas where it could be useful.  There are spots where you have to overcome landmines, and if you jump and shoot diagonally downward at the mine, you can destroy it.  Good luck taking out enemy mines by attempting to drop your own.  Some of the other special weapons are handy, but nothing as awesome as the original game's spread gun, or Operation C's cool homing gun.  Playing devil's advocate, I can see how managing the power-ups provide an element of strategy, but it becomes very easy to paint yourself into a corner when you have only one weapon available at any given time, and it's one with limited range.  Speaking of limited range, why would they make the bullets disappear at a certain range?  This is a projectile weapon, not an energy weapon.  Not to get too scientific, because this is just a video game we're talking about, but any 8-year old playing a video game should be able to discern that bullets fired from a gun don't just disappear into thin air after 12 feet, they keep going until they hit something.

Now that I've completely trashed the game, let me point out a handful of good things about it.  The graphics are actually pretty good, with interesting level graphics, some decent moving water in the background of the first level, and nicely animated stuff like the mashers in the first level.  Equally awesome is the fact that many of the background objects and things can be shot at and destroyed, which adds an additional element of realism.  Rather than having to try and run through the mashers (not possible), you can simply shoot them at the top and destroy them.  Partially broken pieces of scenery and be blown away, and even some other bits that look just fine.  It's a nice touch in a game riddled with so many flaws.  The music, while not very memorable, at least retains most of the Konami signatures such as the pacing, energy, as well as the general sound and feel.  In addition, despite the fact that it's not well implemented, the strategic element and augmented weapons system was at least Konami doing something different in this type of game.

"Now you see them.......now you don't!" - Iron

Perhaps my biggest issue with this game is not with the game itself, but the fact that Konami saw fit to localize it as a Contra title.  Before everyone cries foul and we get into an endless Doki Doki Panic! and Super Mario Bros. 2 debate, let's take a step back and remember that DDP began its development life cycle as a SMB title, and was changed to something different partway through.  This was never intended to be a Contra title, insofar as I've been able to discern through various Internet resources.  This was a shameless cash-grab on Konami's part, and unfortunately they only figured us stupid Americans would fall for it.  Thankfully, we responded in kind and the game didn't perform well.  I remember renting this game with a friend as a kid and being frustrated with it, and finding very little fun factor compared to Contra or Super C on the NES.  None of my other NES-owning friends rented or bought it, and I don't know anyone else who owned a copy as a kid, at least not that has told me they actually spent money (or their parents did) on a copy.  The existence of C: The Contra Adventure and Contra: Legacy of War tells us that Konami didn't learn their lesson here, unfortunately.  We can still take solace in the fact that poor sales of those titles helped to steer Konami back in the right direction with more recent Contra games, however.  Had this been released as anything other than an established franchise here in the US, it may have performed okay and been recognized as a game with good ideas marred by some bad design choices.  Or perhaps it could have spent more time in development and localization to work out those bugs before going to market.  We'll never know, and that's okay, because this game can stand as a good example of poor design and marketing choices.  This is most definitely a "try before you buy" kind of game, so take no shame in emulating it before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.  This one's not easy to find on the cheap.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dragon's Kiss - Barbarians of the Wasteland (2014)

Heavy Metal as a genre takes on many forms.  Add fast rhythms, start/stop dynamics, and chugging riffs, and you have thrash metal.  Intensify that even more with blast beats, faster rhythms, hoarse shouts or growls and you've got the makings of death metal.  Add speed, extra melody, soaring vocals and a bit of grandeur, and you may have some power metal.  But the sound that birthed the genre, "heavy metal" itself is often harder to define, simply because what constitutes the sound of heavy metal has changed since its inception, and isn't always agreed upon.  Though it sounds somewhat arbitrary, the sound of heavy metal is one of those things that seasoned listeners can discern, as in, "I know it when I hear it."

Despite the myriad sub-genres of this thing called heavy metal, the constants include distorted guitar riffs and rhythms, guitar solos that do more than just ape the base melody, and vocals that reach out of the speakers and slap you across the face.  Heavy metal also includes thumping bass lines, and hard hitting drum rhythms that make it obvious that someone is doing much more than just tapping the drum heads with wooden sticks.  To that end, Dragon's Kiss meet all the requirements for the essential Heavy Metal sound.  The question is, do they do it well?  That depends on your viewpoint of what real good heavy metal truly is.

Dragon's Kiss is a project by Dawnrider guitarist Hugo Conim and Adam Neal of The Hookers (formerly of about a half-dozen other bands).  Adam's pedigree is as much hard rock as it is metal, but Hugo seems to have been in the metal scene for a number of years.  Either way, I don't think anyone could deny this album's metal credibility, because this stuff sounds a bit like Motorhead crossed with early American metal and early NWOBHM.  There's a lot of energy on this record, and a fair bit of attitude as well.  Whether that energy and attitude carry the record will ultimately be up to the listener.

The first thing that hits you right away with the album is that although it has a classic heavy metal sound, the production is fairly dense.  Bass guitar pulsates quite a bit in the mix, and the guitars have a good crunch, and have a feel to them that is at once modern and classic at the same time.  It's hard to describe, really, but one listen to the album and you'll likely pick up on it.  One thing's for sure, Hugo plays with gusto, and is no stranger to a classic metal riff sound and feel.  The drumming on the album also merits some mention, because it's quite solid.  Other than the cool roll during the intro, it's not overly complex or notable, but certainly gets the job done.  Vocally, Adam is all gravel, sounding like he's channeling Udo Dirkschneider, if Udo was channeling Lemmy.  Adam lacks the tunefulness of Udo, but his enthusiasm and attitude do give his performance a bit of charm it would otherwise lack.

My biggest problem with the record is that it's just not very memorable.  I appreciate the classic sound these guys are bringing to the table.  I think them covering two relatively obscure bands (Marquis de Sade's "Somewhere Up In the Mountains" and The New Order's "Rock 'n' Roll Soldiers") is a good thing, and will help bring additional recognition to some songs that perhaps never got their due.  But when the covers are the most memorable tracks on the album, that's a problem for me.  If you can't write melodies that will get stuck in the listener's head, it diminishes your music's ability to become a regular part of their listening experience.  At best, the album is a solid batch of tunes that sound great while you're spinning them, but are relatively forgettable unless you're listening to the album over and over and over again.  I make that kind of investment to write reviews, but the average listener may not be willing to, even a seasoned NWOBHM fan who has separated the proverbial wheat from chaff among the countless bands from that era.  Dragon's Kiss need to step up their game and write more memorable material that has staying power, and Adam should try and develop his vocal approach just a little, to try and include a bit more melodicism in his singing.  If they could do that, it would go quite a ways in helping their next record have more staying power.  These guys are talented, and this CD shows that.  Now they need to hone their song craft and give us a release with tunes that get stuck in our heads.  If they can accomplish that, they'll be on their way to securing a place in metal Valhalla.  As for now, they're toiling in Purgatory.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Fallen Angel - Crawling Out Of Hell (2010, 2014)

Traditional heavy metal has had a bit of a resurgence in the global music scene in recent years.  Anyone who has paid attention to trends in metal over the last 20 years or so knows that power metal has enjoyed a long, relatively healthy surge in popularity ever since bands like Hammerfall, Rhapsody (et al) and Blind Guardian have made the style more popular again, along with somewhat newer sensations like Sonata Arctica, Kamelot, Firewind, and Evergrey.  But more traditional "heavy metal" has stayed a bit more underground, toiling in relative obscurity through the last 2 decades.  More recent bands like 3 Inches of Blood, Wolf, and White Wizzard have exemplified the return of the genre's core sound at some level of commercial significance in the modern age.  With any resurgence in a classic sound takes place, there will be casualties; bands who simply don't have the talent to make an impact, despite having the right ingredients in the formula.  Thankfully, Fallen Angel is positioning themselves to avoid that pitfall.

Fallen Angel is an interesting band, consisting of 5 individuals who use pseudonyms instead of their real names.  All the band members paint their faces and clothe themselves in a manner vaguely reminiscent of King Diamond.  They also play a style of heavy metal that reeks of that King Diamond, Mercyful Fate kind of early speed/power metal, without the usual trappings of the European power metal set.  A more modern comparison would be Iced Earth, though they're definitely not clones.  Their music has a real early-mid 1980's throwback feel to it, in a good way.  Utilizing modern production techniques without sacrificing the classic sound and feel, Fallen Angel have struck a good balance between staying true to the genre's roots and bringing a modern touch to the style.

Musically speaking, the band has really solid and energetic performances that showcase some degree of range.  Guitars provided by "The Man In Black" (aka Robb Lotta) and "The Dark Lord of Democales" (aka band mastermind John Cruppe) are very well done, and hearken back to a bygone era of metal where the performances oozed passion and energy.  The guitars are heavy and crunchy, and have some real presence to them, without the overly bass-heavy tone you would expect from a modern metal album.  So while the album sounds modern because of the production, the guitars don't sound like they were played through a bass amp and recorded through a vocal mic membrane.  Guitar solos are excellent throughout, with loads of energy, but without forsaking a melodic sensibility.  They are just what you would expect from a band playing a style of metal that recalls the genre's glory years.  Bass guitar is also suitably present but not so high in the mix it overpowers everything.  It sounds good alongside the guitars, and works especially well during acoustic and/or clean guitar sections where it provides the right amount of weight underneath.  Bass is provided by Sodominous - The Lord of the Flesh (aka Joe Surace, recently replaced by Bob Embury).  Drumming by "The Darkness" (aka Frankie Quaggs) is quite well done as well.  He has a real sense of dynamics, and knows when to go full-blast versus when the songs need something more nuanced, and when to change that up within the song.  A good example of that would be transitioning from the verses to the chorus in "Sad Wings".  All in all, the instrumentation on the album is very well done.

Vocals are provided by Caleb - The Teller of Tales (aka Steve Seniuk).  I'll get it on the table right away so folks can make their judgments, as I'm sure they will: Steve sounds an AWFUL LOT like former Iced Earth vocalist Matt Barlow.  He's not a copycat, because his slower passages and screams differ a fair bit, but his mid-range to high vocals sound more than a little like the famed singer.  Of course, Matt himself often bore more than a passing resemblance to Paul Stanley, so take that as you will.  Personally, I think he sounds great on the record, with impassioned screams, suitably dynamic quieter passages, and loads of emotion in his delivery.  He sings the lyrics convincingly, and really conveys that he cares about the story being told within the album.  If you're a fan of any of the recent Iced Earth vocalists, i.e. Matt Barlow, Tim "Ripper" Owens, or Stu Block, you'll feel right at home with Caleb, er, Steve's vocal work.

Speaking of story, apparently this album is the 1st in a trilogy of concept albums that follow along with related novels.  I wish I knew what novel(s) this trilogy is based upon, and whether it's a work of fiction by Cruppe himself, or another series of novels already out there.  While I didn't have a lyric sheet or copy to go by, the lyrics themselves aren't hard to discern.  The story is one of war and sacrifice, and the protagonist seems to go through a lot of emotional turmoil as a result of all the chaos.  The album's multitude of segue tracks are apparently also integral to the story within the album, as they're based in some fashion on the story being told, as much as instrumental interludes can be.  Being able to read the novel might help give me additional context based on the titles of those tracks, or where the story is moving in between the main narrative from each song with lyrics.

Other reviews have stated that the album is a bit too "busy", and while I can see that, I don't know that I necessarily agree.  Yes, there is dual-guitar action, often with dueling solos or layering, and there are various keyboard effects and accouterments here and there, as well as a handful of sound effects to aid in presenting the story, but I don't think those things are very obtrusive.  If anything, listening via headphones gave me a bit more clarification as to the context of some of those sounds, but the experience was quite similar to that of jamming the album through my desk speakers.  I initially thought the mix was a bit weak, but after several listens, I believe it perfectly suits the sound the band is trying to achieve.  Some have said that Steve screams too much and relies on that too heavily, but if you compare what these guys are doing to Iced Earth or Mercyful Fate, you'll find that they're quite similar and in that context, I don't believe it's overdone.  Most criticisms I've read of the album focus on these items, along with the inclusion of too many interlude tracks.  I was initially put off by them, and found them distracting, since they don't all perfectly transition one track to the next, but upon multiple listens, they make sense within the framework of the album and now I think I'd miss them if I nixed them from the album playlist.

I was quite surprised, and honestly taken aback at the sheer quality and force of "Crawling Out Of Hell".  The musicianship is top-notch, the performances are all spirited and high quality, and the idea of a trilogy of concept albums, while not entirely original, is not something that has been done before in metal, at this level.  The songs all have catchiness and staying power (with the possible exception of the repetitive "On and On") that makes for good replay value, and ensures that many of the tracks will be playing in your head long after the CD has stopped spinning.  Killer Metal Records has done quite a service to metal fans everywhere by re-issuing this album, originally self-released by the band in 2010.  I would love to see a vinyl issue of this release as well.  I look forward to the album's forthcoming follow-up, "Crawling Out Of Heaven", and wish guitarist/band leader John Cruppe a full recovery from his recent health issues, which you can read about on the band's Facebook page.  Highly recommended!