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.

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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)"