Monday, October 6, 2014

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.


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