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."