Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Review: Brainstorm, "Soul Temptation"

Where has this band been hiding from me?

This album has that perfect blend of prog and old school power metal that usually makes me stand up and pay attention. From the lead song "Highs Without Lows," it drew me in.

"Soul Temptation" mixes galloping riffs and powerful vocals, with just a taste of mystical moodiness. It's a potent combination.

The songs on the album range from blazing speedsters to the dramatic "Fading." One of the most impressive turns on the album is the trilogy of songs "Trinity of Lust," which includes "Shiva's Tears," "Fornever" and the title track. The songs switch from exotic middle-eastern flavors to full-on metal grooves.

The only weakness the album has is in the lyrics, which are often awkwardly constructed. To be fair, English isn't vocalist Andy Franck's first language, and these lyrics are much better than anything I could produce in German. So I guess I really can't complain.

Brainstorm has two previous albums out on Metal Blade that I somehow managed to overlook. I don't intend to miss them again.

Get "Soul Temptation."

Review: Nevermore, "Enemies of Reality"

If you're not familiar with Seattle's reigning kings of melodic metal, it's time to get acquainted.

Nevermore's last two albums "Dreaming Neon Black" and "Dead Heart in a Dead World" set a high standard for the band, so they took their time crafting "Enemies of Reality." It was time well spent.

While this album isn't incredibly different from Nevermore's previous offerings, it does seem to have a little more depth. "Enemies of Reality" has all the speed the band's fans expect on songs like the title track and "I, Voyager" and the progressive rock flair on "Noumenon." But there's also a mellower side that comes out on this album, it's a side that fans may have only caught glimpses of before. The most obvious manifestation of this is "Tomorrow Turned Into Yesterday," which is perhaps as close to a ballad as Nevermore has ever come.

Warrel Dane's distinctive vocals warble between dramatic, soaring singers like Geoff Tate and Bruce Dickinson, but also occasionally drift into the snarls and growls of extreme metal. The rest of the band follows his lead, alternatively offering up spacey interludes, crushing riffs and ferocious bursts of speed. It's that versatility that sets them apart from other bands in the genre and makes Nevermore one of the best bands out there.

Get "Enemies of Reality."

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Interview: Brian Fair of Shadows Fall

So what do you do as a band, when you've already accomplished all your goals?

That's the question Massachussets thrashers Shadows Fall are currently faced with, but it's not a bad problem to have, said vocalist Brian Fair.

"When we originally got this band together, we just wanted to play some local shows and then maybe get out and tour a little," he said. "At this point, we've already been to Japan, all around Europe and played Castle Donnington with Iron Maiden. After this, it's all gravy."

The show at Castle Donnington in England, one of heavy metal's most hallowed venues, was the pinnacle of the band's young career so far, said Fair, allowing them to open for two metal legends and putting them in front of tens of thousands of fans.

"It was unreal," Fair said. "To be able to play with a band as amazing as Iron Maiden on their classic home turf was just unreal. Then, the next day Metallica showed up and did a surprise set, so within the same weekend, we covered two metal dreams, which was opening for both Iron Maiden and Metallica."

Next up on the heavy metal hit parade, the prince of (bleeping) darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, as Shadows Fall is set to rip up the second stage on this summer's Ozzfest tour. Fair said the band has already played with most of the other bands on the second stage, and they're looking forward to seeing old friends like Killswitch Engage, Sworn Enemy and Hotwire. Fair said it's nice to be playing with people you know, but even nicer to be able to bring your music to masses of new people.

"It's cool to be part of something that huge and also to play in front of a lot of people who have never heard of us before," he said. "That's always a fun thing - it's a challenge. If you keep playing to the same kids over and over, you really don't have to try as hard. With this, it's going to be a lot of faces we've never seen, and we just want to go out and try to make as many new fans as possible."

Every year at Ozzfest, there's usually a second-stage band that really breaks out and creates a tremendous buzz among fans. Could it be Shadows Fall this year? Fair hopes so, but he's not going to get cocky.

"We've got a lot of competition on the second stage this year," he said. "There are a lot of great bands, and there are a lot of high energy bands. I think it's going to be non-stop brutality on the second stage."

Whether or not they emerge from Ozzfest the champions of the second stage, a buzz is already building around Shadows Fall. Other musicians constantly cite them as one of the best up-and-coming bands and their videos for "Thoughts Without Words" and "Destroyer of Senses" are mainstays of MTV2's resurrected "Headbanger's Ball" and Much Music's "Uranium." Fair said the renewed interest in metal on television has been a big boost for Shadows Fall and a lot of other bands.

"Even just a few years ago, any band on an independent metal label, if you made a video, the most it was going to end up on was probably a VHS compilation that would get seen by 100 or 200 people," he said. "Now they're actually giving airtime to some of these underground bands, and it's really amazing. We're pretty much a grass roots, word of mouth kind of band, so to have that mass exposure, with that many people we normally wouldn't be able to reach, is a huge help."

But Fair is quick to point out that metal fans can be a finicky bunch and don't buy into a lot of hype. He said the band won't buy into it, either.

"We're trying not to really think about it too much, but to live up to it by playing everywhere we can and as hard as we can every night," he said. "Sometimes the metal kids are looking to knock you off the high horse when you have too much hype going on. We don't want it to be hollow praise. We want it to be because we're out there playing and kicking as much ass as possible."

Friday, July 18, 2003

Interview: Johnny Solinger of Skid Row

Even though he joined the band more than 3 years ago, vocalist Johnny Solinger is still "the new guy" to many Skid Row fans. These days, he doesn't mind it so much, though.

The group is currently crossing the country with Poison and Vince Neil of Motley Crue, and they've got a new album and DVD on the way in August. For a band that hasn't released an album of new material since 1995's "Subhuman Race," it's a whirlwind of activity, and Solinger can't wait for it to reach a fever pitch.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time," he said. "With all the touring we did to keep food on the plate, we had to work on it in between, so it was a long time coming. We finally got it right, and we finally got the record we want to put out. I just can't wait."

After more than three years of singing someone else's songs, Solinger said it will be nice to have a Skid Row record that he's played a part in making. But the worldwide release of "Thickskin" means even more to him.

"I'm an old hat at making independent records and trying to sell them to make a living, but to be able to go to the four corners of the Earth, wherever you buy records, and have me on a record, it means the world," he said. "It's like finally I've arrived. That's awesome."

Solinger was fronting his eponymous band in Dallas, which had attained moderate regional success, when he got an e-mail from Skid Row founders Rachel Bolan and Dave "Snake" Sabo in late 1999. They were looking to put the band back together and needed a replacement for departed singer Sebastian Bach (real name Sebastian Bierk). Solinger auditioned in January 2000 and about six weeks later he found himself opening for Kiss on a worldwide tour.

Though most fans of Skid Row consider Solinger's predecessor to be one of the best singers in rock, he said the challenge of filling those shoes never bothered him. He said the fans saw his confidence and warmed to him quickly.

"Everybody was kind of nervous about that, thinking there were going to be picket lines and sit-ins," Solinger joked. "But you know what? That just didn't happen. I'd say 99 percent of the fans are really cool with it, and if they're not, they don't come. It was actually a pretty easy transition."

He also looks forward to returning to the Smirnoff Music Theater in his hometown of Dallas on every tour. He said the homecomings are always fun.

"The audiences are always great in Texas, and I love that venue," he said. "I saw concerts there when I was in junior high and high school, so playing there means a lot to me."

Skid Row will play two songs from the new album, "Thick is the Skin" and "New Generation." Solinger said they've been playing them for the entire tour, and fan reaction so far has been good. People are even singing along with "Thick is the Skin," which is available in MP3 format on the band's Web site.

"I think it's cool, and the crowds are responding well to songs they haven't really heard before," he said. "We're the only ones out here playing new material, so it's really working in our favor."

Not every song is pleasing every fan, though. The new album also includes a punked-up version of the band's hit "I Remember You." Solinger said the song does signal a changing of the guard in a way, but it really comes down to doing something fun. They began playing the version in rehearsals, then tried it out live before putting it on the new album.

"It was never meant to be a part of the record, it just kind of worked out that way," he said. "I think it takes a lot of cojones on the original members' part to do something like this. I know Rachel has gotten some flack, someone e-mailing him and saying `how dare you mess with my high school song.'"

Solinger said on days when they play headlining shows with a longer set, the band plays both versions.

These days, it's common for bands from the same era as Skid Row to throw together a subpar album quickly and go out on tour, but Solinger said a lot of love and crafting went into their upcoming album. In the end, he's proud Skid Row didn't take the easier route.

"We kind of did everything backwards," he said. "We toured and started really getting the chemistry together before we made the record. There's a lot of pride involved in this record. I just can't wait for everybody to get a chance to hear the whole thing, because it's really, really good."

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Review: In Flames, "Trigger"

Rather than just toss out a single for the song "Trigger" on the eve of their U.S. tour, In Flames has decided to treat their fans to an EP with a couple of new tracks.

The disc starts out with the single edit of "Trigger," but what I find odd is that they didn't include the album version as well. The song plays smoothly enough, but chunks have been carved out.

The new original song, "Watch Them Feed," is an aural assault that will please fans of the band's older work. This song eschews the more melodic touches of their "Clayman" and "Reroute to Remain" albums for old school Gothenburg-style metal.

An interesting, and kind of funny, twist is their cover of Genesis' "Land of Confusion." In Flames gives the song a good thrashing, and I think it's a vast improvement. Then again, I didn't like the original all that much. Fans of Genesis will probably be horrified by it.

The last two audio tracks, I'm not so sure about. I don't know if they're joking or not by doing a club mix of their last single "Cloud Connected." While the melody of the song lends itself well to the treatment, I'm not really sure I'm ready for Gothenburg dance metal. Likewise, a version of their song "Moonshield" done on a Commodore 64 is a fun lark, but not something I'd listen to regularly.

In addition to the audio tracks, the disc also features the videos for "Trigger" and "Cloud Connected." I had to open up Windows Explorer and rummage around a little to find them, but they're there.

The band have already begun work on their next album, but won't be able to complete it until touring is done. This is a nice nugget to hold the fans over until then.

Get "Trigger."

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Review: Circle II Circle, "Watching in Silence"

Nearly four years after his last performance with Savatage, singer Zak Stevens returns with a vengeance.

On "Watching in Silence," Stevens debuts his new band and gets by with a little help from his old friends. Savatage founder, vocalist and keyboard player Jon Oliva helped produce the album and also co-wrote many of the songs with Stevens. Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery also contributed to the writing process.

The result is something that sounds a whole lot like the symphonic metal masters, but at the same time Stevens tweaks the sound enough to make it his own. While songs like "Into the Wind" and "The Circle" obviously evoke his former band, the music is perhaps a bit less complex than his later work with Savatage. It's also very strongly influenced by Queen.

The album has a nice mix of heavy, symphonic blasts and soft piano-laced interludes, and Stevens, who has one of the finest voices in the business, is in top shape here. On "F.O.S.," he even provides the layered vocal breakdowns that became a highlight of Stevens-era Savatage.

Though it's uncredited, and I'm not 100 percent certain, I believe the menacing whispers on "Forgiven" may be Oliva. If so, it's a bit of a letdown for me. I've been waiting a long time to hear those two magnificent voices swapping vocals the way they do on the live versions of some songs - maybe one day I'll get it.

In the meantime, I've got a great album from Zak Stevens, with a new Savatage album in the works for later this year. What more could I ask for?

Get "Watching in Silence."

Friday, July 4, 2003

Interview: Bjorn "Speed" Strid of Soilwork

When two bands are constantly compared to each other in the media, why not take the show out on the road and prove to the fans which one is actually the best?

That's just what Swedish acts Soilwork and In Flames decided to do with the In Flames vs. Soilwork tour, which is currently winding its way through the U.S.

The two bands have also fanned the flames of their rivalry with their dueling videos, which debuted on MTV2's "Headbanger's Ball" a few weeks ago. The Soilwork video for "Rejection Role" and the In Flames video for "Trigger" feature members of each band heckling the other as they perform. There are also cutaway scenes which show some street meetings and a water balloon fight between the bands.

"They're pretty funny and different from most metal videos," said Soilwork vocalist Bjorn "Speed" Strid. "We're always getting compared to each other in reviews and so on, so I think it's a pretty cool thing that we're acting like rivals in the videos."

In fact, the bands are friends. The idea for the videos was born when the members of In Flames came to visit Soilwork in the studio. They were both planning videos with the same director, who pitched the idea. Strid said both bands thought it would be fun.

"Metal videos are always supposed to be five angry guys standing in a warehouse with chains hanging all over the place, so we're kind of making fun of the whole thing," he said.

The two bands are also following a similar path with their recent albums and venturing into a new, more melodic brand of metal. So far, Soilwork's "Figure Number Five," has received positive reviews. Strid says the changes aren't intentional, it's just the natural direction the band's writing has taken in recent years.

"The main elements in Soilwork's music are melody, atmosphere and intensity, and I think we've got a perfect balance between those elements on this album," Strid says.

"Figure Number Five" also finds Strid again stretching his vocal abilities from the typical screams that were one of the hallmarks of the "Gothenburg sound" to more melodic, clean vocals.

"I've rehearsed a lot on my vocals, sometimes six hours a day singing to a lot of different kinds of music," Strid said. "Just like the other guys in the band, I want to develop as a musician."

But, as always in the metal world, with a more melodic sound comes a certain number of unhappy fans. Strid thinks most of the fans will come around in the same way they did for the band's last album "Natural Born Chaos," which was panned by metal fans and critics at first, but later ended up on most 2002 year-end "best of" lists.

"We get some angry e-mails about `sellout,' but it's always like that," he said. "I think most of the Soilwork fans are growing with the sound, and I think most of the people who liked `Natural Born Chaos' will like this one as well."

Once the In Flames vs. Soilwork tour is done, the band still has plenty to do. Strid said they'll be heading to Germany, Japan and Australia, before they land back in the states for a second U.S. tour. Strid said it's all about getting their music in front of the fans.

"It's going to be hectic," he said. "But it's great."