Thursday, December 15, 2005

Review: Trans-Siberian Orchestra live show

Even if you hate Christmas and Christmas music worse than Ebenezer Scrooge, you should still catch Trans-Siberian Orchestra, just for the sheer spectacle of their live show. And if you have an appreciation for outstanding musicianship, there's twice as much reason to catch the band's annual holiday tour.

Though the flash is what catches your eye, the true beauty of the TSO show is in the musicianship. I've rarely heard a rock band play more note-perfect renditions of their songs in the live setting, and though the original group is split in two for the two legs of the tour, they've stocked the bands with outstanding musicians.

I caught the western version at the CenturyTel Center in Bossier City with the incredible dual guitar attack of Al Pitrelli and Angus Clark and the string work of Anna Phoebe. Phoebe's performance, was, I believe, the first time I've ever seen such a roar from a rock crowd after a violin solo. And, of course, it goes without saying that there were remarkable vocal moments from Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier and Jill Gioia.

The band opened the show with a run-through of the first album, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories." Though a few bits were dropped, probably due to the personnel required to perform them, the show hit all of the high points, including "First Snow," "A Mad Russian's Christmas" and of course, the song that brought the house down, "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24."

The second set was a bit more of a laid-back production. The band members took some time to have a little fun with the crowd. Also impressive here was the great spontaneous crowd interaction, and the lively crowd helped. Trans-Siberian Orchestra ran through songs from "The Lost Christmas Eve," "Beethoven's Last Night" and even jammed out a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."

High points of the second set were the band's version of Carl Orff's "Carmina," scheduled to appear on their forthcoming non-Christmas album "Night Castle," and an absolutely stunning version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, complete with sparklers, fire blasts on the big familiar notes and the same impressive laser show that accompanied most of the evening.

The show closed with a memorable keyboard battle between Jane Pitrelli and Carmine Giglio (and that's saying something considering my usual disdain for keyboard.) The battle culminated in a performance of the theme song from "Peanuts" leading into "Wish Liszt" from "The Lost Christmas Eve" and finally a reprise of "Christmas Eve Sarajevo" with Clark and Phoebe circulating through the crowd, ending up ... well, I can't give away all the surprises, can I?

Almost as interesting as the show was the crowd. There were long-haired guys in Savatage and Megadeth T-shirts rubbing elbows with perfectly groomed senior couples in suits and party dresses - that's something you don't see everyday. It's actually a little funny to see a grandmother bobbing her head to what is, essentially, Savatage with a string section and a huge production budget. But it's kind of cool, too.

This was my first TSO show, and I was so impressed that I'm making plans to see the band again before Christmas and to travel wherever I have to in order to catch the show next year. I've seen a lot of concerts, and a lot of great concerts. Simply put, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is one of the most incredible shows I've ever seen.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Interview: Al Pitrelli of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

When it comes to rock resumés, guitarist Al Pitrelli's is pretty impressive. He's played with shock rock king Alice Cooper, thrash titans Megadeth and power metal masters Savatage. So what's he doing in a tuxedo on a classical Christmas tour playing to crowds that range from young children to senior citizens? Even he's not sure.

It started back in 1995, when he was hired to play on Savatage's "Dead Winter Dead" record, a concept album about the war in Bosnia that featured the song "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," a blend of rock, classical and "The Carol of the Bells."

The song was a surprise hit on rock radio during the holiday season, and it wasn't long before O'Neill, Savatage founder Jon Oliva, Pitrelli and Robert Kinkel were working on a full project in the same vein, mixing rock, classical and traditional Christmas music. The result, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories," was released in 1996. Even then, Pitrelli wasn't convinced.

"I said, `Nobody will buy it but your mother and mine, but we'll have a whole lot of fun recording it,'" he said with a laugh. "Lo and behold, we're here, nine years later, and I can't believe what it's grown into. I'm so proud of it."

What it's grown into is a holiday phenomenon. The band has released two other Christmas albums - "The Christmas Attic" in 1998 and "The Lost Christmas Eve" in 2004 - and a non-Christmas album, "Beethoven's Last Night" in 2000. They also have a live DVD, "The Ghost of Christmas Eve," and are currently working on another non-Christmas album, "Night Castle."

Trans-Siberian Orchestra started touring for the holidays in 1999, and now, due to demand and the time constraints of the holiday season, it's grown into two full tours - one for the eastern half of the United States and a second for the western half.

For the first half of the concert, TSO plays "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" and for the second half, they mix things up with numbers off their other albums and even a few surprises.

"We're all just a bunch of barroom rock `n' rollers from back in the day, so we'll always pull out a cover tune or two and just have some fun," Pitrelli said. "It's a long show, and we'll cover a lot of ground over the course of two and a half hours."

And there's also a stage spectacle for audiences to enjoy, with plenty of lights, fire and smoke pulled from the band's rock roots.

"It will be bigger than last year, but not as big as next year," Pitrelli joked about the stage show. "That's the Paul O'Neill way of doing things."

Pitrelli also sees the tour as a way to break the stereotypes that surround musicians - the stiff-necked classical musician and the primadonna rocker. He admits that it gets challenging at times to get rockers and classical musicians on the same page, but in the end, they find a lot of common ground.

"What we try to do is dispel the clichés," he said. "The six or seven rockers in the TSO band are very well-educated musicians with a wide vocabulary, and the string section that we have, I think they're all closet headbangers."

But what would some of the older members of the audience think if they knew the guy directing this classical Christmas show played with Alice Cooper?

"You'd be surprised how many of those 70-year-old grandmothers are wearing Alice Cooper T-shirts under their sweaters," he joked. "I don't think music has a demographic age-wise anymore. When you look out in the audience, there are 80-year-old women who are just banging their heads, and there are 8- or 9-year-old kids listening closely to the poetry and ballads. You never know, good music is good music."

Still, he admits his resumé does occasionally raise some eyebrows.

"When some of the older folks hear about Megadeth, they say `oh, my,' but we play with them a little bit and have some fun," Pitrelli said. "We're light-hearted about it, and we poke fun at ourselves. By the end of the evening, everybody gets it, and we keep them in on the joke so to speak."

The annual holiday tour keeps growing, and Pitrelli admits that he would like to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra last beyond the musicians involved.

"As a musician, one of the things that you dream about is that your music lives a lot longer than you do," he said. "To be part of someone's Christmas tradition long after I'm gone, yeah, I'd be real proud to know that was happening."

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Review: Exodus, "Shovel-Headed Kill Machine"

Ah, now this is more like it. A lot of my old thrash-loving friends went crazy with last year's release of "Tempo of the Damned." I just couldn't get into it the way they did. The sound was there, but I didn't hear the energy of Exodus. I definitely hear it on this album.

Before anyone points it out, I realize that it's hard to really consider this an Exodus record. It's basically Gary Holt and four other guys at this point. But based on what I'm hearing, maybe fresh blood is what was needed. The most obvious change, of course, will be new vocalist Rob Dukes, who replaces Steve "Zetro" Souza. Correction, who blows away Steve "Zetro" Souza. I grew up on Exodus with Souza vocals (I was a latecomer to the band), but Dukes offers a voice that can easily pull off Souza and Paul Baloff vocals, but has a little more rage in it. Of course, no one was concerned about Paul Bostaph taking over the drums. We all know what he's capable of. The third lineup change, Lee Altus, provides a seamless complement to Holt's guitar work. I was a little bummed at the loss of Rick Hunolt, but Altus fills in nicely.

Now, to the music. It kicks you in the head from the first song and never lets up. I popped the CD in, and before I was a minute into the first song, "Raze," I was already grooving. It remains one of my favorites on the album, possibly because I can visualize my office when Dukes rages "Light this motherfucker like a roman candle, burn this bitch straight to the ground." (Note to any overzealous law enforcement types who might be reading: It's called releasing frustration. I have no plans to burn my office. I need the job). Personal feelings aside, this is a beautiful, blazing thrasher to get the album going. It lets you know upfront what's to come.

Clocking in at over eight minutes, "Deathamphetamine" offers up a slab of pure, unadulterated Exodus, a sound from the glory days of the band. The same goes for most of the songs on the album. If "44 Magnum Opus" doesn't get your blood pumping, then you should probably go to your nearest funeral home and make arrangements. Easily one of the strongest songs on the album is "Going, Going, Gone," which adds the hooks of "Fabulous Disaster" into the mix. In fact, the whole album reminds me a great deal of a cross between "Fabulous Disaster" and "Pleasures of the Flesh." It's got a nice mix of the hooks and the faster, more aggressive early sound of the band.

The only place that the band misses on this album is by occasionally focusing on tired subject matter, see pedophile priests in "Altered Boy." But when the music is this solid, who cares what the songs are about?

Go get this album. It's a true thrashterpiece, the likes of which we haven't heard in a while.

Get "Shovel-Headed Kill Machine."

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Review: Fear Factory, "Transgression"

With 2004's Archetype Fear Factory surprised fans with a return to the vicious cyber metal of their first two albums, Soul of a New Machine and Demanufacture. A year and a half later, they’re back to the mediocre music of their middle albums.

For a frustrated 20-year-old kid angry at the fact that his favorite bands seemed to be going soft, Fear Factory’s Soul of a New Machine was a swift kick in the pants. It had the intensity of the old-school thrash I craved mixed with clanking industrial noises, just a touch of death metal and these cool melodic passages that seemed to be out of place, yet at the same time perfectly suited for the sound. The follow-up, Demanufacture, was just as good. But then, they started doing techno remixes of their albums. That was the first clue this band was over. The next was the uninspired third album Obsolete. After that Fear Factory quickly fell of my radar. I was vaguely aware that they were still out there and having some internal strife, but every time I heard something by them, I found it fairly boring.

Then came Archetype, and the return of the familiar sound I remembered from those two early albums. It was perhaps a bit more melodic, but I had high hopes for a return to glory. Until now.

Transgression features the trademark mechanical-sounding drum lines and guitar riffing that Fear Factory’s known for, and the heavier parts of songs like “540,000 Degrees Fahrenheit” and the title track are as tight as anything the band has ever done. But here, those trademark sounds are perhaps a bit too mechanical. At times they sound almost as if someone took all of Fear Factory’s previous albums, plugged them into a computer and told it to spit out something that sounded similar. The riffs are solid, but there’s no real passion, anger or any emotion at all. None of the songs are particularly memorable. The alternating melodic and gruff vocals from Burton Bell are still there, but he doesn’t use them as effectively. The entire album seems devoid of the melodic hooks that have marked the band’s best work.

The lightweight turn toward the middle of the album doesn’t help. The lethargic “Echo of My Scream” is enough to put the listener to sleep for a few songs, and the upbeat, Southern California pop-punk sound of “I Will Follow” wakes you with a jolt and an urge to puke. Really, the only song on the album that sticks with me is “Millennium,” which has a nice old-school thrash feel on the verse. Even it’s not really something that I’d listen to for long, though.

I had a lot of hope for this album, but I come away from it disappointed once again. The band and label have been comparing the album to Obsolete, and I’d have to agree with that comparison. I felt the same way about that album. It sounds like Fear Factory, only boring and uninspired. The real Transgression here is against the fans that bought into the comeback.

Get "Transgression."

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Review: Alice Cooper, "Dirty Diamonds"

Popping in the latest album from Alice Cooper is a lot like entering a time warp. The first thing I noticed when I picked this record up is that the cover looked a lot like one of his 1970s albums. When I put it in the CD player, it sounded a lot like one of those albums as well.

Alice Cooper has shown a chameleon-like ability to keep his music in line with the current trends, while managing to put just enough Alice Cooper into the music to not sound like a trend-chaser. (Well, there was the awful Hey Stoopid, but I’ll forgive him that – even though it took me about 10 years to do it.) So in the 1980s, he flirted with the hair band sound, gaining his most commercial success with Trash. Then in the late 1990s, he absorbed the nu-metal sound, producing the heaviest, and in my mind one of the best, albums of his career with Brutal Planet. Then, he came full circle with his last album, The Eyes of Alice Cooper. Much of that album echoed his original sound, which also just happens to be the sound of the current garage rock trend. (You know, all those “The” bands.)

Dirty Diamonds takes the concept of "Eyes" one step further and immerses the listener completely in the 1970s sounds, bringing Cooper back to the gritty Detroit rock that brought him to the dance. “Woman of Mass Distraction” and “Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)” would be right at home on any of his 1970s albums. A strong Stones influence comes through on “Perfect” and there’s a feel-good, bubblegum feel to “You Make Me Wanna.” But this is still an Alice Cooper record, and things turn a bit nastier on the title track, which sounds like a cross between the Misfits’ “Where Eagles Dare” and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.”

Cooper’s legendary black humor is still in full effect on this album, on songs like “Own Worst Enemy.” Perhaps the best example, though, is on “The Saga of Jesse Jane,” a twisted take on a Johnny Cash-style storytelling ballad that offers the chuckles for the record. There’s also a surprise here and there, like the funky “Run Down the Devil,” the bluesy number “Six Hours” and even a duet with rapper Xzibit, “Stand.” (Though I do have to say I could have lived quite happily without ever hearing an Alice Cooper duet with any rapper, but that’s just my personal musical tastes.) Through it all, Alice is still at his best when he’s rocking out, as on the driving (no pun intended) “Steal That Car” or the rollicking “Sunset Babies.”

There are also a couple of trademark slower, dark tunes a la “Welcome to My Nightmare.” “Pretty Ballerina” really doesn’t do much for me, but “Zombie Dance” works quite well, evoking a voodoo feel.

In the end, Dirty Diamonds certainly won’t rival Cooper’s great 1970s albums like Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome to My Nightmare, but it proves that he can still rock. This is a fun record for both the long-time Alice Cooper fan and fans of the current garage rock scene.

Get "Dirty Diamonds."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Review: Arch Enemy, "Doomsday Machine"

When Angela Gossow joined Arch Enemy for 2002's "Wages of Sin," she not only kicked down the door for women in the male-dominated extreme metal genres, she stomped it into splinters.

This, the band's third album with Gossow on vocals, completes an evolution begun on "Wages of Sin" from a Gothenburg-style death metal band to a melodic metal machine. The only blast-beats to be found are on the mediocre "Out for Blood," and the melodies on songs like "My Apocalypse," "Carry the Cross" and "Mechanic God Creation" are almost hummable. That's sure to make the heavier-than-thou death metal set foam at the mouth and scream "sellout," but it's also sure to open the band up to a wider audience that may not be comfortable exploring the most extreme fringes of the metal genre.

The band offers a nod to their influences, including British metal band Diamondhead on "Machtkampf" and Queen on the instrumental "Hybrids of Steel." Brothers Christopher and Michael Amott deliver biting guitar riffs, and the album contains some of drummer Daniel Erlandsson's best work to date, as heard on the first single "Nemesis."

Fans of the band's first two albums with vocalist Johan Liiva may not like it, but fans of old-school thrash bands like Metallica and Slayer will want to check this out.

Get "Doomsday Machine."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Review: Demons and Wizards, "Touched by the Crimson King"

Imagine it's the mid-1980s and a new album has just hit the shelves featuring Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing on guitar and Bruce Dickinson on vocals. So, neither Iced Earth nor Blind Guardian have had the incredible success or influence of Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, but for modern power metal fans the teaming of guitarist Jon Schaffer and vocalist Hansi Kursch is akin to that mythical pairing. It’s the best guitar riffs in the genre meeting the best vocals in the genre.

The two became friends as road dogs. Throughout the 1990s, the two bands toured Europe relentlessly, often together. Finally in the late 1990s, when Schaffer visited Kursch in Germany, the two sat down and jammed together. The result of that jam session was their first song, "My Last Sunrise," and eventually the 1999 self-titled debut from Demons and Wizards. It was a blazing album that rivaled the best work of their regular bands, but because of the schedules of Iced Earth and Blind Guardian, Demons and Wizards didn’t get to tour much beyond some European festivals. That’s also the reason it took six years for the two to get together and record another album – and again it doesn’t appear they’ll get to do more than a few shows in support of it.

"Touched by the Crimson King" opens with a nice operatic approach on the title track, which reminds me a bit of Carl Orff’s "Carmina Burana" or Jerry Goldsmith’s "Ave Satani." The rest of the song isn’t very different from what listeners heard on the band’s first album. It ranges from supercharged power metal runs to chugging traditional metal bits to haunting interludes to the operatic choruses. There are plenty of big, dramatic flourishes throughout the album, but they never cross over into the melodramatic as a lot of power metal bands do.

Schaffer and Kursch break from other power metal bands in other ways, as well. For one thing, there’s a great deal of variety on this album. "Terror Train" is a full-on power metal burner, with impossibly fast riffs from Schaffer, while "Beneath These Waves" is a mid-tempo tune that relies on some infectious melodic bits. The downside of that strategy comes on the melancholy "Down Where I Am." Lyrically, it’s a very dark song that requires a great deal of emotion, and I just never seem to get the full sadness from the vocals that should be there. It’s the only real misstep on the album, though. The other slow songs, "Seize the Day" and "Wicked Witch" both work incredibly well.

No Kursch album would be complete without literary references, and "Touched by the Crimson King" is peppered with them, beginning with the William Blake reference in the title. There’s also a nod to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series ("The Gunslinger"), "The Wizard of Oz" ("Wicked Witch") and Oscar Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray" ("Dorian"). Of the literary songs, the best is "Dorian," which has an irresistible traditional riff and an epic feel. The most interesting, on the other hand, is probably "Wicked Witch," which offers a sympathetic take on the character that’s one of the ultimate big bads in both literature and film.

If the album has one problem, it’s an issue shared by most power metal albums – the production is a bit thin. It’s not surprising in a genre that’s so focused on vocals and guitar. I can’t help but think how incredibly powerful this album would be if some of those super-fast double-bass lines were actually thumping you in the chest or if the punctuating drums on the title track or "Dorian" really thundered like they should. It’s not that the production is bad, just that it could have been more.

If you’re familiar with Blind Guardian and Iced Earth, the talent level on the album is exactly what you’d expect. Schaffer’s riffs are as fast, tight and precise as they come. I’ll admit that Kursch’s voice will probably be an acquired taste for some due to his thick German accent, but in terms of range and versatility, you won’t find a much better singer in the power metal genre. Both are in fine form here.

Kursch and Schaffer close the album solidly with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s "Immigrant Song." I’ve been waiting for a power metal band to take this song and really kick serious ass with it for a long time. It’s such a perfect song for the genre, from the riff to the lyrical content. Quite a few have tried, but Demons and Wizards are the first to finally nail it. Ultimately, I don’t think "Touched by the Crimson King" is quite as good as the 1999 album, which was a bit more fast-paced and had more of a medieval feel, but it’s still an outstanding offering. I only hope we don’t have to wait six more years for another one.

Get "Touched by the Crimson King."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Review: Kiuas, "The Spirit of Ukko"

It’s rare for an album to catch my ear on first listen. Usually I have to hear it three or four times before I can really form an opinion on it. But sometimes an album hits me like the bolt of lightning crackling from the sky on this album cover. If you’re a power metal fan, go get this album now. It’s that good.

Though Kiuas has been around since 2000 and recorded a number of EPs, this is their first full-length album – well, at eight songs and 42 minutes, it’s more like an extended EP by today’s standards. That’s a problem, since I wanted this album to keep going. At first listen, I thought this was a power metal outfit with a death metal fetish, as the title track breaks out in blast beats and some melodic death riffing. That in itself was interesting to me. Singer Ilja Jalkanen sounded a bit like Zachary Stevens with a heavy accent on the track – another point in the album’s favor in this Savatage fan’s estimation.

But that was just the beginning. Through the course of the album, the music takes sidetrips into medieval sounds, Viking metal, neoclassical and a few other styles. It’s all tied together with an old-fashioned hard rock sensibility, due in large part to Jalkanen’s delivery. That old school feel is particularly evident on “No More Sleep for Me” and “Warrior Soul.” Whereas most power metal bands feel the need to have a singer with a “pretty” voice, Jalkanen puts a little more grit and power into his vocals. He can pull off the traditional high-pitched harmonies, but he can also snarl and scream when the music calls for it. He claims bluesmen Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf among his influences, which seems a bit odd for a guy from Finland, but you can hear a bit of that blues tone in his voice and it puts him miles beyond the same-sounding vocalists that dominate the genre. It proves that you can sound like a man and still be a great power metal vocalist.

There’s a great deal of Manowar influence on the album, particularly on songs like “On Winds of Death We Ride” and “Warrior Soul.” If you’re not into the warrior metal schtick, don’t worry, it’s not quite as over-the-top as some of the acts out there. Besides this album is so musically solid, they could be singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and it would sound cool. In fact, the only weak song on the album is the semi-ballad, “Thorns of a Black Rose,” and even it’s not a bad song. Mikko Salovaara lays down some gorgeous acoustic guitar work on the soft parts that raises it above the melodrama of the rest. I was also impressed with Atte Tanskanen’s key work. It adds a great deal of atmosphere to the songs, but it doesn’t stick out, even when it plays a primary role in the song. That seems obvious, but if you’ve listened to a lot of power metal, you’ll know that not every keyboard player gets it.

Kiuas pulls out a new surprise on almost every track, adding a variety of elements to their music without ever sacrificing their identity. Whether it’s the Malmsteen-like sweep arpeggios of “Warrior Soul” or the chugging Meshuggah-style riffs on “And the North Star Cried,” it’s obvious that Kiuas knows what their strengths are as a band and they use their influences well to accentuate those.

This is how power metal should be done, and if Kiuas doesn’t quickly rise to the top ranks of the genre, something is seriously out of whack.

Get "The Spirit of Ukko."

Monday, June 20, 2005

Review: Chris Caffery, "W.A.R.P.E.D."

I’m not a big fan of mixing politics and music. For one thing, I’ve got a lot of strong opinions, and I’ve had otherwise good songs ruined for me because I couldn’t bring myself to belt out lyrics that I disagreed with. For another, I think when artists start to promote an agenda with their music, the message becomes the driving force and the music suffers. I know it’s a long-standing tradition, and I suppose if you’re doing acoustic folk rock where the lyrics are the primary focus it’s OK. In metal, though, I just believe the music should come first.

That’s why I was a little nervous when I picked up this latest effort from Chris Caffery, an expansion of the God Damn War EP that came along with last year’s Faces. Being the Savatage fanboy that I am, I didn’t want to dislike a Caffery album. I was pleasantly surprised. While there are a few moments of political posturing, for the most part he stays away from the politics and focuses on war itself. The overriding theme here is “war = bad,” which I think everyone, no matter what their political opinions or affiliations can agree with.

The album opens with the mid-paced clunker “Home is Where the Hell Is,” but picks up quickly with the second track, the previously released “God Damn War.” Listening to the song now, I think the same thing I did when I first heard it – this would be one hell of a song with Jon Oliva on vocals. It’s still a pretty good song with Caffery doing his best Oliva impression. It’s got one of the strongest guitar riffs on the album and really has the feel of a Gutter Ballet-era ’Tage tune – say, fittingly, “Of Rage and War.”

The first surprise of the album comes on “Election Day,” an old school Megadeth thrasher, complete with Caffery doing a pretty passable Dave Mustaine impression. He returns to the Megadeth sound on “Saddamize,” which has some really nice middle-eastern guitar-work and reminds me of some of the stuff on Rust in Peace, despite a white noise intro that goes on far too long. Another mid-tempo number, “Erase” has a memorable chorus melody, but once again I find myself missing Oliva’s vocals, which would have put the song over the top. It’s got a real Doctor Butcher vibe to it. The same can be said of the frantic “Edge of Darkness.”

Quite a few of the songs on this album suffer from simply not being very memorable. Caffery turns in nice riffs on most of the songs, but nothing about the rest of the song stands out. Great examples of this are the forgettable “Fool! Fool!,” “State of the Head” and “I.” I won’t even mention the version of “Amazing Grace,” punctuated with bomb explosions and gunfire, which, while I understand the reasoning, seems incredibly out of place here.

I finally get the blast of Oliva that I’ve been longing for on “Iraq Attack,” a song originally written for Doctor Butcher during the first Gulf War. It’s appropriate that they pull it out in a similar situation. It’s a darker piece, complete with Sirens-style shrieks, that would have been right at home on the Doctor Butcher album. The lyrics, at times, seem a little forced, but it’s still one of the strongest songs here. Caffery follows that up with the addictively catchy title track, which has a bouncy hook that won’t get out of your head. “Beat Me, You’ll Never Beat Me” has a satisfyingly heavy verse and chorus, with an acoustic bridge that finds Caffery doing his best Geddy Lee impression.

Ultimately, I don’t think W.A.R.P.E.D. is nearly as strong as Faces. But out of the 15 songs on the album, 10 of them are pretty solid. That’s not a bad average. Then again, I could also be jaded a bit by my frustration at not having had a new Savatage record in four years while Caffery and Oliva keep pumping out solo projects. Here’s hoping that once they get the new TSO album finished, they’ll finally get around to getting back in the studio with Savatage.

Get "W.A.R.P.E.D."

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Review: Iced Earth, "Gettysburg (1863)"

Being the jaded listener that I am, it’s gotten increasingly difficult over the years for artists to wow me with their music. There are plenty of albums out there that I like, but it’s extremely rare for a piece of music to completely blow me away. It happens maybe once or twice a year, if that. It only happened once in 2004, and that was in January, when I heard Iced Earth’s “Gettysburg” for the first time.

The 30-plus minute retelling of the pivotal battle in the American Civil War is, to me, easily the most powerful and passionate piece of music that Jon Schaffer and Co. have ever put on tape. You can tell that Schaffer put his heart and soul into the music, and the three parts of the work are so strong that you can almost smell the smoking gunpowder and hear the cries from the battlefield. That’s why I was eager to see what he would put together visually to tell the story on this DVD, and to be honest, I was a little disappointed.

The DVD presentation of “Gettysburg” is mostly made up of still images with some digital effects laid over them. There are a lot of maps illustrating the points of the battle and photos of the generals involved in the battle. There are some very nice visuals, like the waving flags that overlay some of the stills, but after you’ve seen it done five or six times, it’s not as interesting anymore. There are also some very powerful images, like the photos of haggard soldiers from the battle or the photos of bodies strewn across the battlefield in the aftermath. I really felt that, to match the power and energy of the song, we needed to see some of the action that was happening. I understand they didn’t have the budget to re-enact the entire battle of Gettysburg for this DVD, but the video ended up feeling more like one of those video presentations you see before a tour of the battlefield than something worthy of the music.

That said, there are definite reasons to check out this DVD. There’s a lengthy battlefield tour in which Schaffer and a guide from the Gettysburg site take viewers around the battlefield to see the sites in the song and talk about the things that were happening in the battle at certain points in the music. Being a bit of a history buff myself (and not having had time to fully explore Gettysburg when I visited), I was quite interested in this portion of the DVD. I also applaud Schaffer’s effort to reach out to Iced Earth listeners who may not have as much interest in history and try to help them relate to it through the music. This sort of documentary is not the kind of thing you expect on a metal DVD. There’s also a piece with Schaffer discussing his historical collectibles store The Spirit of ’76. It’s a little less interesting than the documentary, as it comes over more like a sales pitch for his miniatures.

The second DVD of the set features an interview with Schaffer and a couple of videos. The interview with Schaffer is interesting, but doesn’t really break any new ground if you’ve heard or read (or in my case, conducted) interviews with him before. The first video is for “The Reckoning,” which most people have seen. The second video is really the shining star of the DVD, though.

Most people have probably only seen clips of the video for “When the Eagle Cries” from the commercial for Iced Earth’s The Glorious Burden album. Even in that case, the album cover was blocking out images that the video channels deemed “unsuitable” to air. These “unsuitable” images are actually very strong and moving images from Sept. 11, 2001 – the inspiration for the song. It’s a real shame that the people who run the video channels seem to want to forget this event ever happened, because they’re missing out on an incredibly powerful video – one with much more substance than most of the junk they play. I guess they’d rather have a mindless twit in a short skirt shaking her ass than something that honors the heroes that emerged in the wake of the terrorist attack, shows a diverse array of people coming together and actually gives viewers something to think about. (We at MTV don’t want our viewers to think, just consume mindlessly. That’s why we exist.) This video alone is worth the price of the DVD for American metal fans. It’s a crying shame that you won’t see it anywhere else.

Get "Gettysburg (1863)"

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Review: Brand New Sin, "Recipe for Disaster"

Ever wonder what it would sound like if Molly Hatchet’s music were as heavy as their album covers? Here’s your answer.

Take equal parts Molly Hatchett and Black Label Society, throw in a dash of Pantera and a pinch of Lynyrd Skynyrd, batter it up and drop it in the deep fryer. What comes out is a tasty Southern-fried treat known as Brand New Sin. But there’s a twist to this recipe. You see, despite the obvious Southern twang in their music, these boys don’t hail from Alabama or Georgia. They’re from Syracuse – yeah, as in New York. You’d never know it, though. They even have their own dirt-track race car. And it may be sacrilege for a Southern boy like myself to say this, but these Yankees can rock.

On this, their sophomore album and first for Century Media, Brand New Sin delivers up a collection of beefy hard rock guitar riffs that should please metal fans and big infectious hooks that could find some commercial success. I defy any fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock to listen to a song like “Brown Street Betty” and not walk around with the chorus stuck in your head for days. The band has toured with everyone from metal stalwarts like Slayer and Black Label Society to commercial bands like Breaking Benjamin and Saliva, and they’re one of those rare bands with the opportunity to be embraced by both camps of fans.

Guitarists Kenny Dunham and Kris Wiechmann are obviously disciples of Zakk Wylde. Their riffs are often punctuated by the pinch harmonic squeals that are Wylde’s trademark, and the first single, “Black and Blue,” seems ripped straight out of the BLS songbook. But the band brings enough of its own flavor to the table to avoid sounding like a cheap rip-off. Their influences are obvious in the music throughout the album, but they never sink into imitation.

The band does run into trouble on occasion when they stray into the slower end of the spectrum. “Running Alone,” which is actually more of a rocker played acoustic than a ballad, works well for them, but “Once in a Lifetime” sounds a bit too generic and drones on a bit too long. It’s an attempt at a Lynyrd Skynyrd-style ballad, but plays more like Nickelback or one of the other same-sounding rock bands you’d hear on the radio these days. The remaining slow song, “ Wyoming” is the longest on the album at just over six minutes, but doesn’t seem to have a lot for the listener to latch onto, especially compared to the rest of the album. The only thing that partially saves these songs is the strong voice of singer Joe Altier. He sounds like the bastard offspring of Ronnie Van Zant and Corrosion of Conformity’s Pepper Keenan. It’s a perfect blend with the band’s sound.

Where Brand New Sin really shines, though, is when they catch a good groove. One of the best examples is the aforementioned “Brown Street Betty,” which features an irresistible blues-rock guitar lick and a memorable hook. “Freight Train,” with its solid bottom end from bass player Chuck Kahl and drummer Kevin Dean, is another good example. They’re songs that will make even the most stoic rock fan want to bob his head and sing along.

In the end, this album is everything a good pure hard rock album should be. The songs are tight, short and punchy, and the album sounds good. They don’t chase trends or try to fit into a niche, but rather come out and do what they do – mow over listeners with songs that range from commercial ballads to traditional metal romps. It’s one tasty recipe.

Get "Recipe for Disaster."

Monday, May 30, 2005

Review: Doctor Butcher, "Doctor Butcher"

When the Doctor Butcher album originally came out 10 years ago, I ordered the import because I just couldn’t wait for a U.S. release. At the time, Jon Oliva had been all but absent from Savatage since the Edge of Thorns album, and even though I liked Zachary Stevens, I was really missing that old school Savatage sound. With Oliva and Chris Caffery, I knew it had to be good.

For the 10th anniversary, Black Lotus gives us not the follow-up album that Oliva and Caffery promised shortly after the original release, but a repackaged version of the original album with a few new songs thrown in for good measure. The good news is that they promise once again in the liner notes to do a follow-up. (But not before we get a new Savatage record I hope.)

When the album originally hit 10 years ago, I absolutely loved it. I was starved for that old school Savatage sound, something along the lines of Sirens, Hall of the Mountain King or Gutter Ballet. That wasn’t exactly what I got, but the album played enough on the darker side of the band to please me. Having not listened to the album in quite a few years, I wondered how it would hold up. As I said, then I was starved for that sound. Since then, I’ve gotten Savatage’s Poets & Madmen, with Oliva back at the helm. I’ve heard solid solo efforts from Caffery that evoke the Savatage sound, and of course Oliva delivered the excellent ’Tage Mahal under the Jon Oliva’s Pain moniker earlier this year. I’m not missing it quite so much these days.

I shouldn’t have been concerned. As soon as Oliva’s voice cut across the music in “The Altar,” I remembered how much I liked the album. It’s a bit grittier and less refined than the average Savatage album. With Savatage, you often feel like you’re listening to the metal version of symphony, but Doctor Butcher has a more balls-out rock ‘n’ roll feel, particularly on numbers like “Don’t Talk to Me” and “Reach Out and Torment Someone,” which still voices frustrations that most of us can relate to even in the days of the Do Not Call list. I still catch a little groove on the chorus of “Season of the Witch,” and I still love the childhood taunt chorus of “I Hate, You Hate, We All Hate.” So, yeah, 10 years later, I still really like this album. There are a lot of records I can’t say that about.

Though the information that came with the album claims that it was remastered, I can’t really tell a lot of difference. Perhaps the bottom end is beefed up a bit, but to my ears it’s still pretty much the same album from 1995. The thing that people who already have the album will be most interested in is the bonus disc with four tracks from the original Doctor Butcher demos, as well as a newly recorded song “Inspecter Highway” (and no I didn’t misspell “Inspecter,” it’s about a haunted highway.) Though it’s freshly recorded (and has better production values than many of the other songs) “Inspecter Highway” was written in 1993, so it still has the same feel as the rest of the album, with perhaps just a few tweaks. If not for those production values, I’d have trouble believing this was recorded recently because Oliva’s voice sounds better on this track than it has in a long time. It sounds like a Mountain King or Gutter Ballet era vocal line, complete with some Sirens shrieks.

The remaining tracks on the bonus disc have been available in varying quality via bootleg and the Internet for a while, but this is a chance to get them in CD quality format. Based on previous copies I’ve had, these do seem to have been remastered a bit. For the most part, they are weaker songs than those that made the album. “Born of the Board” is the most Savatage-like of any of the 16 Doctor Butcher songs, starting with a piano ballad and building to a crashing crescendo. But probably the best of the bunch is the full-blast rocker “Help! Police?” Lyrically, it’s not on par with Oliva’s usual work, but that adds to the feel of Savatage’s earliest work. Think Power of the Night.

If you missed this one the first time around, you should definitely check it out now.

Get "Doctor Butcher."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Review: Bruce Dickinson, "Tyranny of Souls"

As the frontman for Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson has provided the vocals for dozens of bona fide metal classics. His forays into a solo career, however, have produced music both beautiful and horrible.

His first solo outing, 1990’s "Tattooed Millionaire," was a bit surprising as he tripped into classic rock mode. I actually quite liked the album – and still do – even though it was nothing like I expected. He followed those up with the too commercial "Balls to Picasso," which sounded like a hair band record, in 1994, and the too strange "Skunkworks" in 1996. He rebounded in 1997 when he was joined by another Iron Maiden alum, guitarist Adrian Smith, for "Accident of Birth." The album was more Maiden-like than the music Maiden was making at the time, and the album remains Dickinson’s strongest solo effort in my mind. He followed that up with the equally impressive "The Chemical Wedding" in 1998, again with Smith at his side.

A reunion with Iron Maiden produced two very good albums, 2000’s "Brave New World" and 2003’s "Dance of Death," but put his solo career on hold until now. This time out, he doesn’t have Smith as a collaborator. Instead, he turns to long-time producer Roy Z, who also played guitar and co-wrote those early albums. The difference is immediately noticeable. Roy Z’s guitar sound is somehow softer around the edges than Smith’s, even on a thrashing riff like the opening of “Soul Intruders” it doesn’t seem to attack the listener in the same way. It doesn’t make the album bad, just different.

“Abduction” opens the album with a sound that’s not too different from "Accident" or "Wedding." “Kill Devil Hill,” a song about the Wright Brothers, has a classic, epic Iron Maiden feel to it – think “Flight of Icarus.” It would have been right at home on their classic "Piece of Mind" album. Dickinson works out his well-documented David Bowie fetish on the mostly acoustic “Navigate the Seas of the Sun.” The song starts out OK, almost reminding me of “Taking the Queen” from "Accident," but it gets old pretty quickly.

If the first half of the album sounds a lot like Dickinson’s last two albums, the second half gives listeners a taste of the early albums. “River of No Return” has the kind of commercial hard rock bent of "Picasso," and “Believil” has the weirdness of "Skunkworks." It’s almost like getting an overview of his career in one album. But the star of the second half is “Devil on a Hog,” a straight ahead hard rocker, not unlike something from "Millionaire." It recalls the classic hard rock bands of the 1970s, and it has an infectious hook.

Perhaps the song on the album that’s most recognizable as Dickinson is the closing song and title track “A Tyranny of Souls.” It draws upon Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” specifically the three witches, to tell a tale of the supernatural. It has that powerful, dramatic sound heard on so much of his last two albums.

Lyrically, Dickinson explores all the old familiar haunts. There are metaphysical themes, science fiction, history and flight – subjects that have been favorites of his throughout the years. He also shows his penchant for artistic depictions of good and evil by using a 15th century Hans Hemling depiction of hell that brings to mind "Chemical Wedding," which was largely based on the art and writings of William Blake.

"Tyranny of Souls" is yet another strong effort from Dickinson, who has excelled in recent years with or without his Maiden bandmates. With all that he’s got going on – from writing novels to getting a pilot’s license – it’s no wonder it took him seven years to give us a new solo album. It makes me wish he’d just concentrate on music and deliver a few more albums like his last three.

Get "Tyranny of Souls."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Review: GZR, "Ohmwork"

Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler said he didn’t want his GZR project to sound like a knockoff of his main band. To be honest, a steaming slab of Sabbath-style doom metal wouldn’t be a bad thing right about now. Instead, Geezer signed up three young guns, guitarist Peter “Pedro” Howse, singer Clark Brown and drummer Chad Smith, to deliver a mixed-bag of wannabe nu-metal (which is actually kind of old at this point, isn’t it?) that leaves me with a couple of questions. First, why would you want to be nu-metal, when you’re part of the rock that all metal is founded on? Second, why worry about sounding relevant when you’ve created so much music that is timeless? I don’t have the answers, and they’re definitely not apparent on this album, which without the presence of Butler probably wouldn’t have gotten a second listen from me.

To be fair, not everything about the album is bad. The opening track “Misfit” features a catchy riff and rocks in an almost prog mode with some nice hooks. The few rapped lines were easy to overlook for a Sabbath freak like me that really wanted this to be a good album. Throw in a little Sabbath-meets-Alice in Chains groove on “Pardon My Depression,” and I was actually starting to think they might have something here. The excitement ended when the third track, “Prisoner 103,” began. At best this song sounds like a bad Rage Against the Machine ripoff. At worst it sounds like Limp Bizkit. Neither is going to win points with me. While no other song on the album sinks to the execrable depths of that tune, nothing else on the album really excites the listener, either. The ballad “I Believe” and the pseudo-hardcore influence on “Pseudocide” are OK, but every time you begin to get interested in the album, they pull out a rap-metal number that ruins the mood. It’s almost as though the band can’t really decide who they want to be. By the time the only true Sabbath-style tune, “Alone,” arrives, you will probably have lost interest.

This album sounds less like Geezer’s project and more like a young band that hired him on for the name recognition. Butler’s bass, which was arguably the bedrock for Sabbath’s sound, is relegated to a minor role on most of the tracks. It’s solid, but unremarkable. The same could be said of every part of the album. Howse’s guitar riffs are OK, but with perhaps the exception of “Misfit,” I can’t remember them when I eject the CD. Brown’s vocals are pretty vanilla. They sound like a dozen or more other singers in the current commercial hard rock/metal scene, and there’s nothing that makes them stand out. Lyrically, it’s more of the same. They’re serviceable, but they don’t stick with you.

It’s not that "Ohmwork" is a bad album. It’s just plain and forgettable. If it came on the radio and the dial was stuck, I wouldn’t run screaming from the room (well, maybe if it was “Prisoner 103”), but it’s also not something I’m going to seek out.

Since Ozzy has said in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested in doing another Sabbath album, I suppose that the members of the band have to vent those creative urges elsewhere. I’d love to hear a new Sabbath album, but if this is the best that one of the principal songwriters has to offer, then maybe it’s better they don’t do another one. This isn’t the work of one of the godfathers of metal. This is a rambling attempt to chase current musical trends, many of which have already passed them by. A metal icon like Geezer Butler shouldn’t have to stoop to that.

Get "Ohmwork."

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Review: Candlemass, "Candlemass"

It’s been more than 15 years since this classic lineup of Candlemass last entered the studio to record “Tales of Creation.” It’s been six years since any incarnation of the band entered the studio. But now, they’ve reunited and signed to Nuclear Blast looking for a new beginning, as evidenced by the eponymous title of this album.

In the years since this lineup split, a lot has happened. It started with the standard in-fighting and money troubles and progressed into a full-blown breakup of the band from 1993 to 1998, during which time founder Leif Edling worked on some more experimental power metal. Those sounds would eventually find their way into the late 1990s albums from a resurrected Candlemass with a host of new players. As often happens, the changes didn’t sit well with some fans. The early lineup finally got back together in 2003 for some reunion shows, but even then there were still problems. In May of 2004, Edling announced on the official Web site that the band was done for good – “finished … zero … nada … out” – citing internal problems and disagreements over the direction of the music.

In November 2004, they reconsidered. Apparently they had a lot of great songs written and decided it would be stupid not to put them out there. Fans of the early Candlemass albums will be glad they decided to give it another shot. If you recall those albums, you’ll remember they were plodding, doom and gloom metal owing heavily to Black Sabbath. For this album, the band returned to those roots, but also kept a little of the other incarnations of the band. While there are still plenty of slow, crushing riffs and haunted vocals to be found, there are some faster songs on the album as well, with touches of power metal and traditional metal. That comes through from the opening song “Black Dwarf,” which reminds me a lot of early Iced Earth.

As always, Candlemass delivers the big, sinister guitar riffs you’d expect from Sabbath disciples. Singer Messiah Marcolin is in better form than ever on this album, sounding like a cross between Bruce Dickinson and some of King Diamond’s lower registers. His vocals seem to have a little more power than on the earlier albums. I’m sure that’s due partly to production advances since those albums, but he’s also got a little more grit in the vocals now.

There are still moments where I think they might owe some royalties to Black Sabbath. The main riff of “Born in a Tank” echoes the classic “Children of the Grave,” and the chorus reminds me of early Iron Maiden. The verse on “Copernicus” also sounds an awful lot like the ominous three-note riff of “Black Sabbath.” But there are some unexpected bits. The opening riff and drums of “Copernicus” reminds me melodically, oddly enough, of some of Morbid Angel’s slower stuff – although certainly not as brutally heavy.

For a band that seems to be constantly on the edge of implosion, this album is pretty damned tight. If you like epic doom metal with lyrics that tell a story, you’ll definitely want to check out the newly reformed Candlemass. They’ve returned in grand fashion, albeit about 15 years later than most fans would have liked. Enjoy it while you can. Based on the history of this band, you never know if you’ll get another chance.

Get "Candlemass."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Review: Corrosion of Conformity, "In the Arms of God"

It's been a long trip for Corrosion of Conformity from hardcore heroes in the mid-to-late 1980s to the premier purveyors of Southern sludge rock today.

Their latest album opens with a blast of Jimi Hendrix-style fuzz on the first single "Stone Breaker." That sets the tone for the rest of the album, which draws heavily on influences like Hendrix, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but puts a Southern spin on them.

The most interesting track on the album is the jazzy groove of "Dirty Hands, Empty Pockets/Already Gone." It's a little jarring among the other grungy tunes on the album, but also makes for one of the best moments.

"In the Arms of God" takes the listener on a roller-coaster ride from the anger of "Paranoid Opioid" and "War," which channel the band's hardcore roots, to the hopeful and optimistic acoustic number "Rise River Rise."

It's been five years since CoC unleashed an album on the world, but this album was worth the wait. It features the best of both sounds of the band and should please new and long-time fans alike.

Get "In the Arms of God."

Friday, April 8, 2005

Review: Black Label Society, "Mafia"

I'm getting pretty used to my annual spring fix of Black Label Society. With "Mafia," Zakk Wylde and Co. deliver their fourth album in as many years, and the sixth since 1999. They also deliver one of their best.

This album may be the most solid all-around offering from the band to date. Gone are the production problems that have plagued them in the past – for example, the paper-thin sound of "1919 Eternal" or the busted speaker sound of "Sonic Brew." "Mafia" sounds good, and it’s loaded with good tunes.

The album gets off to a strange start with the talk box riff of "Fire It Up," one of a few new guitar surprises on this album. Another is the use of a whammy bar on a couple of tunes courtesy of his new Randy Rhoads look-alike flying V. By the third track and first single "Suicide Messiah," Wylde has hit full insanity mode. His diatribe against blind followers of all stripes, "Suicide Messiah" is one of those songs you just can't crank up loud enough. Lyrics haven’t always been Wylde’s strong point, but these are pretty pointed. "Bow down you chose your maker/he never gives, he’s always a taker/the electric burns that fuel the fire/it’s just your suicide messiah." Coupled with a chugging detuned riff, it should rank high for the Black Label faithful. Not far behind are other berserker anthems in the typical Black Label style like "Say What You Will," "Electric Hellfire" and "Been a Long Time."

Among the rockers, the only misstep on the album is perhaps the robotic-sounding chorus of "You Must Be Blind." After what seems like the thousandth time he sings the line in the song, it gets a little old. Though I normally detest the slower songs on most records, I've always been partial to the Black Label ballads. They pick up a rougher edge from the Southern rock that Wylde loves, and "In This River," his tribute to slain guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, is no exception. He draws on Dime's guitar style to create one of the strongest songs on the album. For the morbid "Dirt on the Grave," Wylde breaks out the talk box again to deliver a memorable lick that sounds strangely like the melody line from a medieval ballad. He closes the album with an even stronger nod to the Southern rock influence by covering Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "I Never Dreamed" and doing it well.

Vocally, this album finds Wylde sounding more and more like a testosterone-fueled version of his mentor Ozzy Osbourne. I personally prefer the gruff, throaty vocals of his earlier recordings, like 2000's "Stronger than Death." The vocals on this album are a little less ballsy by comparison, but the style still serves him well on more Ozzy-style numbers like "Forever Down."

In the end, Black Label Society isn’t really about the vocals or lyrics. It all comes down to Wylde's guitar work, which is solid as always. In that department, he hasn't disappointed fans yet. As I mentioned earlier, he does try a few different tricks, mostly by way of effects, but the guitars on this album are undeniably Zakk Wylde. The chunky riffs, trademark harmonic squeals and take no prisoners attitude of "Mafia," makes it easily Wylde's best work since "Stronger Than Death," perhaps ever.

Get "Mafia."

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Review: James LaBrie, "Elements of Persuasion"

Surprisingly, the first thing you notice about the latest solo album from Dream Theater frontman James LaBrie is not the vocals. In fact, it's the huge guitar riffs of Marco Sfogli.

While the album is LaBrie's opportunity to pursue some things that wouldn't fly in the Dream Theater setting, it's Sfogli who steals the show with chunky riffs that are the stitching for this progressive metal Frankenstein. For a guy who, on his Web site, claims to be influenced by Toto, the Police and (unfortunately I’m not kidding) Winger, Sfogli lays down some pretty solid heavy licks.

As is often the case with solo albums, "Elements of Persuasion" doesn't fall too far from the Dream Theater tree. In general, it's a bit heavier with a bit less emphasis on the prog elements. Think about the heavier parts of a song like "Pull Me Under," and you've got a pretty good idea of the tone of the album. While not exactly Dream Theater-style songs, numbers like the chugging "Freaks" and "Undecided" certainly wouldn't turn anyone's head if they showed up on a Dream Theater album.

But LaBrie has a few tricks up his sleeve, starting with the opening tracks of the album. "Crucify" gets things going with a blast of classic Metallica-style thrash. It’s a good song, though LaBrie’s voice isn’t ideally suited to the style. On the second song, “Alone,” LaBrie veers into a techno-metal romp that, despite the use of drum machines and turntables, will still appeal to fans of Dream Theater’s style of prog metal.

The band even strays from the rock path completely on the fusion-inspired "Lost," which shows off the rhythm section of Mike Mangini and Bryan Beller.

It’s when things slow down that the album falters. Ballads like “Smashed” and “Slightly Out of Reach” drift a little too far into commercial waters for my tastes, with the latter sounding almost like it could come from a Winger album (with better vocals, of course). The slower songs suffer from a serious lack of the album’s strongest element — Sfogli's guitar. Better to skip them and blast “Oblivious” or “Invisible” as loud as the stereo will crank.

What LaBrie does well on this album is tap into the pure rock elements of his main band while scaling back on the artsy parts. He leaves just enough of the progressive sound to please Dream Theater fans, but also opens the door for listeners who are fans of traditional metal. This is an impressive solo effort for LaBrie, who shows that he’s capable of breaking out of his regular band. But when all is said and done, it's Sfogli that you’ll really want to hear more from.

Get "Elements of Persuasion."

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Review: Overkill, "ReliXIV"

In the 1980s thrash scene, you had the "big four" - Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax - and you had a ton of smaller bands that were also pretty good, but didn't get the press. One of those was Overkill.

Unlike some of the others, Overkill has survived, and even thrived over the years. Their 1999 album "Necroshine" was perhaps the best of their career, putting the focus on big riffs and memorable hooks instead of the raw speed and aggression of their early albums.

On "ReliXIV," the band tries to serve both masters, with some success. While some of the speedsters like "A Pound of Flesh" fall flat, old school thrashers like "Keeper" show the band locked into its groove. While other thrash bands tried to evolve into something else over the years, the members of Overkill, like Slayer, know what they do well and they deliver every time. The strongest songs on the album, "Loaded Rack" and "Bats in the Belfry," provide a blueprint for what thrash should be.

But the band also takes the chance to have some fun on the campy "Old School," which sounds like a cross between Motorhead and the Ramones. I defy anyone to listen to this song twice and not get it stuck in their head.

As usual, Overkill doesn't deliver anything new, but they also don't disappoint fans of classic thrash. All I can say is, "Here's to the old school/didn't matter if you looked cool..."

Get "ReliXIV."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Review: Kamelot, "The Black Halo"

In the power metal genre, there are few bands that have been as consistent as Kamelot over the course of the past 10 years. They entered the scene with a solid debut, "Eternity," in 1995, but they became one of the top bands on the scene with the addition of vocalist Roy Khan for 1998’s "Siege Perilous." Since then, each album has been better than the one before it, and that’s something I don’t say about too many bands.

"The Black Halo" continues their adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s "Faustus," which began on their last release, 2003’s "Epica." On this album, the story takes a darker turn, and so does Kamelot’s music. The mood hits immediately on the opening track “March of Mephisto,” which features the snarls of Dimmu Borgir vocalist Shagrath, who appropriately provides the voice of Mephisto. Stratovarius keyboard player Jens Johansson also lends his talents to the track in the form of some ethereal Rush-like synth work. Other guests on the album include Simone Simons of Epica and Mari of Masqueraid.

Unlike so many power metal bands, Kamelot is not obsessed with speed. If they need the speed, it’s there, as you can hear on tracks like “When the Lights are Down” and “Nothing Ever Dies,” but those are really the only two tracks on the album that you’d consider traditional power metal. The rest are a combination of more traditional melodic metal and prog stylings. In fact, the middle portion of the album rarely gets above mid-tempo, beginning with the moody “The Haunting (Somewhere in Time)” and continuing through the eighth track “Moonlight.” Most striking in this stretch is perhaps the piano ballad “Abandoned,” with its soft orchestration. It’s a very understated performance for a genre known for its bombast.

The album returns to the power metal realms with a huge riff on the title track. But the centerpiece of the album is the epic “Memento Mori,” which finishes the concept, though it’s not the last song on the album. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, it’s the longest song in the history of the band. The track takes the listener on an emotional journey from the bleak, melancholy passages through angry thrashing riffs and finally into resigned acceptance.

The most impressive thing about the album, though, is not the incredible guitar work, the atmospheric keys or the amazing vocals. It’s the sound quality. So often, power metal albums sound thin and reedy, with too much focus on the guitar and vocals and not enough on the music as a whole. Kamelot draws heavily on classical and symphonic sounds, and it shows in the production of "The Black Halo." The album sounds just like a well-mixed and produced symphony with the emphasis all in the right places. Even if you’re not a fan of power metal, this album sounds so damned good it might make you one.

Kamelot may not be one of the most recognized names in the metal world, but when it comes to melodic metal, there are few bands out there right now that do it better.

Get "The Black Halo."

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Review: Original Soundtrack, "Alone in the Dark"

By all accounts the movie stinks, but for metalheads, the soundtrack is worth the price of admission.

"Alone in the Dark" is the first big Hollywood production to boast an all extreme metal soundtrack, and this is no collection of throwaway tracks. It's got some of the heaviest hitters in the business.

If you're looking for an introduction to the metal world, this two-disc set is your best bet. It covers all the bases from the goth metal of Lacuna Coil and Nightwish to the classic thrash of Death Angel and Exodus, the Gothenburg style of In Flames and Dark Tranquillity, the hardcore of Agnostic Front, the black metal of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, the stoner rock of Fireball Ministry and the experimental metal of Meshuggah and Mnemic.

The album takes a look back at some of the best releases of the past couple of years. High points include tracks from Fear Factory ("Cyberwaste"), Machine Head ("Imperium"), Diecast ("Medieval"), Shadows Fall ("What Drives the Weak"), God Forbid ("Gone Forever") and Arch Enemy ("Dead Eyes See No Future").

The album also offers fans a preview of Soilwork's latest album, due in early March, with the title track "Stabbing the Drama." (Take my word for it, the new Soilwork is killer. Watch for my review in a couple of weeks.)

The bottom line on this soundtrack is that if you like metal, there's something here for you.

Get "Alone in the Dark."

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Review: Jon Oliva's Pain, "'Tage Mahal"

For an old Savatage fan like me, it's an embarrassment of riches - a new Trans-Siberian Orchestra album for the holidays, followed by an album from Jon Oliva's new project (not to mention another TSO album promised in the coming year.)

The debut from Oliva's Pain is practically a chronicle of Savatage's progression from the power metal band of the early 1980s to the symphonic metal experience of their more recent music. Each song on the album seems to fit a specific era in the evolution of 'Tage. The point is driven home on "People Say - Give Me Some Hell,"in which Oliva tosses off Savatage titles and lyrics with every breath, and seems to be having great fun doing it.

That's not to say these are throwaway 'Tage songs - far from it, despite the album's title. In some instances they're just a little outside the Savatage sound, like the jazzy strains of the intro to "The Dark" or the blues-influenced riffs of "Outside the Door." Other songs would have been right at home on Savatage albums. One of the album's best moments, "The Non-Sensible Ravings of the Lunatic Mind" would have been a welcome addition to the "Gutter Ballet" album, while "Walk Alone" will likely remind fans of the classic concept album "Streets."

In the end, Oliva's Pain comes a lot closer to reaching the musical level of Savatage than some of his previous side projects. It's always great to hear new music by the Mountain King, but what I really want to hear is a new Savatage album. Four years is too long to wait.

Get "'Tage Mahal."