Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Review: Opeth, "Damnation"

It's not every day you get to invoke the name of James Taylor when talking about a death metal band, but I can think of no better comparison for Opeth's "Damnation." The companion piece to last year's moody masterwork "Deliverance" has more in common with the folksy singer-songwriters of the 1970s than Opeth's previous albums.

Unlike some of their counterparts, Opeth are no strangers to melody. For quite a while now, they've danced on the edge of an album like "Damnation" with dreamy acoustic passages and soft refrains. But they've never taken it quite as far as they do here.

Dark and moody, "Damnation" has no distorted vocals and very little distorted guitar. It's a bold album for a band associated with the more extreme subgenres of metal, and one that's likely to draw those dreaded cries of "sellout" from the hardcore stalwarts of death metal.

But a closer listen to the album will reveal the truth of things. It's a different approach, but the feel of the album is similar to "Deliverance." If anything, "Damnation" draws deeper emotions from the listener with its sparse arrangements and Mikael Akerfeldt's understated vocals.

Distorted guitars, one of the hallmarks of the metal genre, are used sparingly and only to provide depth, texture and ambience to the music on songs like "Closure." Other songs, like the powerful "Death Whispered a Lullaby" don't really need them at all. The dark lick under the Akerfeldt's crooning of "Sleep My Child" on the chorus are more than enough to get the mood across.

This album should silence critics that say extreme metal bands use distorted vocals and guitars to hide a lack of ability. While it may be true in some cases, it's certainly not in all - and especially not in the case of Opeth.

"Damnation" features some excellent guitar work and is as emotionally moving as any music being produced today. It may throw their fans for a loop, but those who listen with an open mind will find perhaps Opeth's best work to date.

Get "Damnation."

Review: Black Label Society, "The Blessed Hellride"

In a world where heavy rock bands are constantly trying to put a new spin on metal through the use of rap or techno elements, Zakk Wylde is a refreshing change of pace.

"The Blessed Hellride" is 11 tracks of Black Sabbath-fueled, straight ahead, no-nonsense heavy metal. Heavy riffs are punctuated by Wylde's trademark harmonic squeals on the rockers and his powerful voice takes over on the slower numbers.

Wylde's long-time metal mentor and partner in crime Ozzy Osbourne makes an appearance on "Stillborn," and Zakk himself has honed his Ozzy impersonation as evident on "We Live No More," which sounds as though it were originally written with the godfather of metal in mind.

And it's probably a good thing Zakk's tight with the Ozzman, otherwise he might have to pay some royalties on "Suffering Overdue," which is ripped straight from the Sabbath songbook. Put a young Ozzy on vocals, and it could have easily come off "Master of Reality" or "Sabotage."

Surprisingly, the real shining moments of the album are not the lightning fast rockers or the homages to Black Sabbath. Instead, they're the slower songs. The Southen rock twang of the title track and the dark and moody "Blackened Waters" really put the focus on one of Wylde's strongest attributes (after his guitar work, of course.) His gruff, soulful voice packs an incredible amount of emotion into the slower songs, making them, in many cases, outshine their heavier counterparts.

At the end of the day, though, BLS is all about metal, and they deliver it better than just about anyone out there right now. If you're longing for some no-nonsense metal grind, hop aboard "The Blessed Hellride."

Get "The Blessed Hellride."

Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Review: Godsmack, "Faceless"

Godsmack roared onto the nu-metal scene with their self-titled 1998 album, one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory. Their second effort "Awake" was a solid album, but lacked the individuality of the first. But with "Faceless," the band finally gives its fans a worthy follow-up to their debut.

Sound-wise, there's not much that's changed with Godsmack since 1998. They still blend the moody grind of Alice in Chains with the commercial crunch of Metallica's "Black Album," then throw in a little extra flavor of their own with singer Sully Erna's distinctive vocals. What makes "Faceless" superior to their last offering is the catchiness of the tunes.

"Faceless" is filled with solid rock grooves that will have listeners bobbing their heads and singing along. There are a number of strong performances, from "Releasing the Demons," with its funky bridge delivery, to the catchy riff of "Dead and Broken." Even though it got a little old last summer, "I Stand Alone" - originally from the "Scorpion King" soundtrack - is still a great song.

The vitriol-filled rant "I Fucking Hate You" will probably be soundly thrashed by critics, but it's a beautiful song to crank up after a rough day at work - and one of my favorites on the album.

The only disappointment on "Faceless" is the melancholy "Serenity," this album's answer to the band's hit "Voodoo." While "Serenity" is a good song, it lacks the mystique of the former.

Of all of the hard rockers to hit the scene in the late 1990s, very few have staying power for the long haul. "Faceless" proves that Godsmack is one of those.

Get "Faceless."

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Interview: Gary Allan

Soccer moms can stay at home when country artist Gary Allan comes to town.

You see, Allan has a problem with the direction of country music today. He said he thinks there's too much fluff and not enough honesty, too much production and not enough real-life.

"I keep hearing this demographic that everybody goes after called soccer moms, and I know none of my heroes ever cared whether the soccer moms bought their album," he said. "I don't think country music was meant to be politically correct. There was always a cool factor and an honesty to it, and I try to do that with my records."

There's certainly not a lot of political correctness on Allan's most recent offering, "Alright Guy." It features the title track, an ironic ditty about a clueless jerk, and "What Would Willie Do?" a decidedly un-PC ode to country crooner Willie Nelson. Allan had the opportunity to play that one in front of the country legend shortly after he recorded it, when he played a string of dates with Nelson.

"He got a kick out of it," said Allan. "I'm a big fan of his."

Like Nelson, Allan's not your typical country singer. He grew up in California, surfing and listening to punk rock. But he always had one foot in country.

"My dad played country music, and so did my brothers, so I've played bars and been in country bands since I was 12," he said. "A lot of my heroes were those California guys, you know, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Lefty (Frizzell), Dwight Yoakam. Although, I was on the West Coast, I definitely grew up in the thick of country music."

Though many people associate country with the South or middle America, Allan said there's actually a thriving scene in California. But there's a difference between the music that comes from Nashville and the music that comes from out West.

"We always wrote music to play live in front of people in a bar, to take them through a night of drinking," Allan said. "When I first got to Nashville - which wasn't until I was like 26 - that was the first time I'd ever heard the word radio-friendly when I was writing a song. I think it's just a little more raw and a little less polished, the stuff that comes off the West Coast."

Allan hopes to advance the cause of West Coast country more with an upcoming album. He just finished recording his fifth album and is waiting for it to be mixed and mastered. He thinks it's some of his best work.

"I'm way fired up about it," he said. "We've got some good stuff. It's definitely got some edge to it, but it's definitely different. I think with each record, you just get a different piece of me."

Fans can expect to hear some of the new tunes in his live show. Allan said he's currently throwing four or five of them into the set each night.

While Allan still may not be a darling of Nashville, his albums continue to perform well. It's music that appeals to people who are tired of the pop influences that have invaded country music. While Allan doesn't know whether country music will return to what it once was, he has a clear idea of what he'd like it to be.

"The music, to me, should be rootsy and reflect the heritage of country music, but still be modern at the same time," he said. "To me, country music was always about what happened Monday through Friday, and pop was about what happened on the weekends."