Thursday, October 30, 2014

Neonfly - Strangers In Paradise (2014)

When metal leans toward the super-melodic, it can often result in sounding watered down or just lack that element of heaviness that gives metal much of its appeal, and not be much more than just really syrupy sounding hard rock.  There's nothing wrong with that, per se, because there have been a number of heavier metal bands lately that have taken that ultra-melodic, hard rock-influenced metal sound and made it successful.  Most of those bands tend to wear thin, however, once the novelty of the sound combo wears off, unless the songs are really good and stay with you.  The melodicism helps, but ultimately, the songs need to be memorable or make an impact to stay with you beyond the few minutes after listening to the album.  How does this apply to Neonfly?  Read on, gentle reader.

I'd not heard of Neonfly prior to receiving a review copy of Strangers In Paradise, but upon first listen, I enjoyed what I heard.  It reminded me immediately of the most recent material by Random Eyes, in that it's highly melodic metal that has some crunch to it, but has a bit of a hard rock bent without leaning too far in that direction.  Vocalist Willy Norton reminds me a bit of Random Eyes vocalist Christian Palin as well, because he rides that line between silky smooth and reasonably gritty and can transition between the two seamlessly.  Random Eyes is also a touchstone as to the band's sound, because Strangers In Paradise sounds a fair bit like Random Eyes' latest album, Light Up, due to its overt melodicism, and the way it straddles the line between hard rock, melodic heavy metal, and power metal at times.

Right away, it's evident that these guys can play and have major talent.  Guitarists Frederick Thunder and Patrick Harrington have the chops, and interweave a real interesting web of riffs, rhythms, licks, and leads throughout the course of the album.  The guitar sound is, what I would describe, as "semi-heavy" through much of the album.  Other than on the barn-burner "Highways To Nowhere", the riffs and rhythm playing don't get super heavy, but do contain a sufficient amount of crunch when the songs maintain a heavier feel.  Other times, clean playing, such as on the ballad "Rose In Bloom", or during the intro to "Aztec Gold", propels the songs in a way that belies the band's metal roots a bit, but not sacrifice the overall feel.  As for the leads, they're the expected melodic fair, but there are some nice bits (like in "Aztec Gold" where the guitars veer slightly away from the melodic, and into mere soundscape, which is a nice touch.  Bass work by Paul Miller is competent and sounds good here, though a tiny bit low in the overall mix.  Drumming is handled by Boris Le Gal, and he does a standout job of providing propulsive rhythms, dynamics, and really has a handle on how best to serve the song with his playing.  The review copy didn't include any info as to who provided the keyboard work on the album, but it's also quite good at times, with some nice symphonic elements here and there.

As I said before, vocalist Willy Norton reminds me of Christian Palin from Random Eyes, and that's a good thing, because Palin's voice is one of my favorites in recent years.  He can be heavy and menacing when he wants to be, such as with "Highways To Nowhere", and he can be super melodic and nimble as well, as with "Chasing the Night".  He has a nice tone, and just a real smooth sound to his vocals that complement the material well.  I do like it when he goes for a grittier approach, and I'd like to hear more of that from time to time, but honestly, his performance here can hardly be faulted, because it's very exact, while maintaining an emotional component.  In other words, he's on point when he sings, but it doesn't sound as though he's rehearsed the material too much for it not to sound as though he's putting himself into the songs.  It's a balanced performance that does him proud.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this record when I initially listened to it, because at first blush, it seems a bit unfocused and disjointed.  After repeated listens, I think it's just a band with many strengths, and they're trying to play to all of them as much as they can.  I'd caution against doing that too much on future records, if only because the songs have to be really good in order to ensure that they can back that ambition up with the material to match.  Still, aside from a few less than memorable moments, it's a solid record that truly shows a band with multiple personalities, and yet, those personalities all meld into one another much more completely than a band who might try their hand at varying styles or sounds and can't seem to get a handle on them.  The symphonic elements are a nice touch, and give the record a slightly progressive feel that the band should maybe try and capitalize upon, and yet, when they go straight-ahead and just rock out, they also sound excellent.  If the band can find their direction a tad more specifically and continue to hone their songwriting craft to make things even more memorable, they'll be a contender in the melodic metal field.  As it stands, this is still a really solid and highly listenable effort that deserves some attention, and should be heard by fans of the genre.  Recommended.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Sarea - This Is Not Goodbye (2014)

Metal fans can be a finicky bunch.  Metalcore is often decried by anyone who feels that the style has no business being associated with heavy metal.  Those fans sometimes go so far as to take offense to said metalcore bands being classified as "metal" in any fashion.  I understand this viewpoint, though I disagree with it in most cases.  I think "metal", as an over-arching genre, is far more vast and diverse than some folks would like to admit or recognize.  Sarea is a good example of a band that skirts that line and makes a case for something that stays within those boundaries while pushing at them pretty forcefully.

If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Killswitch Engage is a good comparison, but then that doesn't do this band's sound justice.  The most melodic of KSE songs is where we find the closest match to what Sarea is doing, but their sound is more expansive than what that description would lead one to believe.  I also hesitate to compare them to Five Finger Death Punch, mostly due to the combination of clean and screamed/growled vocals, and the tendency of the material to sound heavy while giving off a modern hard rock vibe.  Think of post-metalcore stuff that rides the line between modern hard rock and semi-progressive modern metal.  Add a healthy dose of keyboards and vocals that vacillate between a more rock-oriented style of singing, and a layered vocal that combines a deep, relatively throaty growl and a higher-pitched hardcore/metalcore styled yell/growl, and you get something that begins to defy genre tags just enough to be annoying.  This combination of elements generally serves Sarea well.

Right away, it's obvious that the album owes a great debt to modern hard rock, because many of the melodic touchstones take cues from other bands who have taken the metalcore and/or modern screamo sound and moved in a more rock direction, and the keyboards just exemplify that shift.  There are still spots where the faster tempos and riffing cling to the heavier side of the metalcore coin, however, and the addition of a few well-constructed guitar solos and the lack of traditional breakdowns make it hard to label this metalcore.  Instead, it falls somewhere between a modern, melodic hard rock, and a modern, melodic metal sound with extreme metal elements.  If I can be cheesy for a moment, can I call this "rockcore"?  That would best describe the sound in a single term.  That's not to say that there isn't plenty of metal moments present, because there are.  In particular, "The Catch 22" has a nice dual-guitar lick and some heavy riffing alongside a speedy tempo, a fast drum rhythm, and mostly shouted/growled vocals, and a real nice solo half-way through.

Guitars have a nice tone to them - not too heavy to take away from the rock influences, but heavy enough that when the riffs are hanging out on the lower string and in the lower chords, there's plenty of bite to them.  The guitar solos sound good as well, with enough grit to them so they sound more metal than hard rock.  Overall, Johan Alexsson and Alex Dzaic do a good job on the album.  Bass is handled by Johan Larsson, and is solid throughout, though I didn't recognize anything overly complex coming from his neck of the woods.  Still, he provides the necessary thump and bump in the mix.  Drumming by "Charlie D" is good, alternating nicely between simple rhythms and fast-paced, more metal-oriented playing.  He certainly has a handle on rolls, because he uses them quite a bit throughout the album.  Special mention should be made of the keyboard work by Martin Persson, because he shines quite a bit throughout the album.  The additional atmosphere he provides gives the album much more personality than it would have without his presence here.

Vocals are handled by Chris Forsberg, and seeing as he handles both the singing and screaming, he does a pretty good job switching between the two styles.  His singing voice appears to have improved between "Alive" and this new release, and while his ability to scream and growl is by no means top-tier, he does a good job expressing the energy of the material.  I'd put him on par with someone like Howard Jones, though perhaps he has a bit more range (if you want to call it that) with regards to his screaming, in part because he can get slightly guttural at times, and has an element of that "sing-scream" at times, too.  His singing is competent, and improved over the previous release, though he lacks the power and emotion of someone like Howard Jones in the clean vocal category.  Still, he does a good job overall.

I have to be honest about two things.  First, my initial reaction to This Is Not Goodbye was very mild.  It sounded good on the surface, but I wasn't sure if I was going to like it long-term.  Second, Metalcore as a style has become very watered down, and many bands trying to move past the style either sound utterly wimpy, or they become bad imitators of either the deathcore scene, or the Gothencore style.  I wondered whether or not Sarea could weather that downturn in the credibility of their chosen sound/style.  Upon repeated listens, Sarea surprised me with some level of range, a sound that wasn't too devoid of heaviness so that it still piqued my interest, and a good enough range of songs that I feel like the band has a real future with what they're doing.  Doolittle Group has an interesting road ahead with this signing, because it departs significantly with what they've done thus far.  I hope they can do well by the band and get them marketed properly so they can have some impact, because I think they have a solid thing going.  Recommended for the melodic metalcore and post-metalcore fan-base.


Here's the official video for Sarea's song "Downfall".

MindMaze - Back From the Edge (2014)

Female-fronted metal is a growing field, as I mentioned previously in my review of Vandroya's debut.  In fact, with bands like Benedictum, Kobra and the Lotus, recent output by White Skull, Epica, Serenity, and the solidification of Floor Janssen as Nighwish's new vocalist, one might say the future is bright for bands taking that direction.  One might also say that since women fronting metal bands has become so trendy that the field is quickly becoming crowded.  Standing out from the pack is essential for an album to really go anywhere or make any kind of impact.  MindMaze is well poised to get some positive attention, at the very least.

Having been unfamiliar with MindMaze prior to receiving review copy, I did just a bit of research to find out more about the band.  According to the press release, the band had already received acclaim for their previous album, "Mask Of Lies", and so far, the reviews I've skimmed over seem to solidify that claim.  Jeff and Sarah Teets, along with drummer Kalin Schweizerhof were apparently also in an earlier incarnation of the band called "Necromance", dating back to 2005, so these guys have toiled in the underground for quite some time trying to make a name for themselves.  I'd have to say that MindMaze is a more fitting moniker for the band, given the lyrics, musical style, and overall feel of the music.

Right away, it's evident that this is a tight production with talented players.  Guitarist Jeff Teets does a great job with his axe, playing interesting riffs and choosing chording that strays from the usual power chord-only chugging you often get in standard, off-the-shelf power metal.  Dare I say, there's a progressive metal vibe all over this CD, and the riffs exemplify that by keeping things interesting.  Of course, some chugging is present, and helps with the heavy factor at times, but overall, Jeff's riff writing skills are impressive.  Drummer Kalin Schwezerhof is proficient as well, with a good sense of rhythm, and a feel for playing in a way that enhances the material without hogging the spotlight too much.  The album's production by Brian J. Anthony helps this as well, because the drums are at the right place in the mix.  Bass guitar is handled by none other than Symphony X bassist Mike LePond.  He does a great job here, as can be imagined, and his bass work is a treat on this album, especially in tracks like "Moment of Flight" where he gets to take the spotlight during the intro and at various points throughout the track where you can hear him doing more than just keeping pace with the riffs.  The same can be said for his work in "The Machine Stops" - he really shows that the bass guitar is an instrument unto itself and not just part of the rhythmic feel of the music.

Vocalist Sarah Teets has a great voice, and utilizes it well throughout the album.  She has good range, though she generally sticks to the alto and lower soprano areas for the bulk of the album.  She apparently knows her voice and limitations, and does well to shine within that framework.  One thing I'll note is that while I enjoyed the tone of her voice immediately, the subtlety of her performance was something that I didn't latch on to right away.  Power metal is usually rife with inflection and overwrought vocal manipulation, and there's very little of that with Sarah's performance here.  Granted, the material doesn't suffer much because of it, but I would suggest she have a listen to some of the current female metal vocal powerhouses like Liv Kristine or Floor Janssen and take some cues from what they're doing for future reference.  Her most spirited performances are probably album highlights like "Dreamwalker", the epic, progressively tinged "The Machine Stops", or "Consequence of Choice".  She also does a great job with the vocal harmonies she records for the overdubs, and the background vocals she records to accent the material.  That stuff all adds quite a bit to the overall sound and feel of those songs.

Overall, this is a solid album of progressively-minded power metal that is a bit of a grower.  I enjoyed this from my first listen, but like Vandroya's debut, I felt like it sounded a touch generic at first blush.  Repeated listens have broken that opinion down, however, in part because I've grown to appreciate Sarah's voice, as well as Jeff's penchant for interesting riffs and solos that combine melody and technique so as to make them more memorable.  Unlike a lot of power metal bands who try and make long songs that meander and never go anywhere, or are just painfully repetitious, both examples of longer songs on this album are well done, and are highlights.  I'm not asking for a full album of said material, but if the band continues to write longer tracks of this caliber, they will certainly be welcome additions to future albums, and should be considered a strength.  I do feel that the songwriting could still use a bit more work, if only because only half of the songs were playing repeatedly in my head hours after listening to the album.  That's no slight, either; most bands are lucky if they get 1 or 2 tracks that you remember after spinning the album.  My only production gripe is that the cymbals sometimes sound a bit muffled in the mix.  I noticed this mostly sitting at my desk at work playing this CD over and over, but even listening via headphones, I felt like cymbal crashes especially sounded a touch weak.  As I mentioned before, Sarah should try and diversify her vocal approach a bit, and keep pushing her instrument to achieve the most from it.  Those 2 elements, along with her perhaps a talented permanent bassist, would help this Pennsylvania collective rise to the top of the female-fronted prog/power metal heap.  For now, I'd say this is recommended to all fans of progressive power metal looking for a good album to sink their teeth into.  Inner Wound Recordings was smart to snap this band up - they should have a bright future ahead of them.