Thursday, April 27, 2006

Interview: Shooter Jennings

With his debut album in 2005, Shooter Jennings attempted to bring back the outlaw sound his father Waylon was famous for and "Put the O Back in Country." With his new release, "Electric Rodeo," he just wants his albums to show up under country in the record store.

"We stripped the whole Americana thing out of it, and I love that," Jennings said. "It's not that I have anything against Americana, it's just not my style. We got grouped in with a lot of the Texas music and a lot of alt-country, and I just wanted to be as far away from all those genres as possible — really confuse them and make them say, 'the only place this will really work is country.'"

To that end, he's mixed his outlaw country heritage with his rock roots.

"We tried to push the limits as much as possible by trying to make it loud and rocking when necessary and as old school country as we could, then try to mix the two," Jennings said.

Jennings also recruited a local product, Oak Grove native Tony Joe White, to work with him on the song "Alligator Chomp." Jennings said White was good friends with his father, and he grew up around White's son Jody. Jennings and his band had written the music and wanted White to come up with the lyrics, but then guitarist Leroy Powell, who wanted the tune to have a message, presented them with lyrics they liked.

"It's a satire of what the real world is, based around this little swamp," Jennings said. "We thought it was great, so we called Tony Joe and he came in. He was nervous, and we were nervous, but it came off good. It's actually one of my favorites on the album."

Jennings grew up listening to rock 'n' roll and left Nashville at a young age for Los Angeles, where he performed with the band Stargunn. When his father died in 2002, Jennings took a break from music. He emerged from that break with the collection of songs that would become "Put the O Back in Country" and would bring him back to country music. But Jennings says he was headed in that direction before his father's death.

"I got a little older and got a little sorrow under my belt — I heard somebody say that the other day, and I thought that was a great expression, to understand country music, you have to get a little sorrow under your belt," he said. "The lyrics just stand so stronger, and it's a much more personal, kind of journalistic way of writing as opposed to an avant garde rock way, where you're enigmatic or something.

"I think him dying had the effect on me that I really wanted to grasp on to his roots and figure out where he came from more than I did before, but I don't think it was necessarily just that."

Though rock is still a heavy influence in Jennings' music, he said he never really felt at home in front of the rock crowd. He's much more comfortable playing to country audiences.

"I walked in front of an audience of rock fans and I did the 'woop-woop-woop' thing that my dad used to do, and nobody would get it," he said. "In front of a country audience, they'd all laugh. It's like that audience understands where I'm coming from better. When I speak to them, no matter what the music sounds like, they get it."

Jennings' style has often found him sharing the stage with strange acts. He recalls opening for California punk rockers Social Distortion and the reaction the band got.

"It was really weird," he said. "Our audience that was there loved it, but then there was this massive group of greasers that were totally like, 'what?' We won them over by the end of it, but you definitely know when you walk in if it's your crowd."

He may be more comfortable sharing the bill with Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and 3 Doors Down on this summer's Double Trouble tour. It's a big tour, but just a small part of what Jennings and Co. have planned for the summer.

"That's going to be great, but it's only 12 dates," he said. "We're headlining all year, and we've got all these great festivals we're playing. We've got a lot of fun. We keep working and working, and we've got another good four or five years in us before we take a break."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Review: Hank III, "Straight to Hell"

After putting out two fairly sanitized and safe records, someone finally decided to let Hank Williams III do what he does best. The result is his latest album, "Straight to Hell," a collection of rabble-rousing, hell-raising, old school country tunes, many of which he's been playing in his live shows for years.

The music on this record owes more to his grandfather's honky tonk style, but the attitude comes from the rebellious streak in his father's country rock. Of course, Hank III has to be louder and more obnoxious than either of his forebears. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though.

The best numbers on this album are the uptempo, rockabilly-style partying tunes, such as the title track, "Smoke and Wine" and the infectious "Thrown Out of the Bar." But III does show that he's not a one-trick pony, taking a dark turn on one of the strongest songs on the album, "Country Heroes." The song pays tribute to country legends George Jones, David Allan Coe, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash. It's an eerie number that stays with the listener longer than many of the other songs here.

In a way the whole album serves as a tribute to those artists, and you can hear the influence heavily in places. "Drinkin' Problem" definitely has the feel of a Jones song, while "Louisiana Stripes" serves as his tribute to Cash (though in all honesty, III's reedy voice can't carry the song the way Cash's bass would have.)

Williams has a great reverence for old-school outlaw country and is outspoken in his dislike of the current country scene, which he calls "pop country." That thread runs throughout the album in songs like "Not Everybody Likes Us," where he sings about crossover artist and friend of Hank Jr., Kid Rock. "Just so you know/so it's set in stone/Kid Rock don't come from where I come from," III sings. "It's true he's a Yank/ he ain't no son of Hank/ and if you thought so, (expletive) you're (expletive) dumb."

He also drives the point home, pulling out a favorite live tune with an unprintable name that states in no uncertain terms his disdain for pop country. Fans will know the song.

Unlike his previous two records, "Straight to Hell" will probably make some country music fans cringe with the language, attitude and drug references (the parental advisory sticker is well earned). But it's par for the course for III, whose live shows include a set of country and a set of punk and metal and who spends his spare time playing bass for New Orleans metal band Superjoint Ritual.

Love him or hate him, III probably embodies the outlaw spirit more than any other singer out there today. If you love him, that's great. If you hate him, well, he just doesn't give a damn.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Interview: Pat Green

It took him nearly a decade, but these days Pat Green feels like he's sitting on top of the world.

"I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I've been a happy boy for a long time."

In the past few years, the work has started to pay off for Green and his band, earning hit records with "Wave on Wave" and "Lucky Ones," picking up Grammy and ACM nominations and touring with a couple of CMA Entertainer of the Year winners in Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. He's sold out the Houston Astrodome multiple times, the Smirnoff Music Center in Dallas and Rabb's Steakhouse in Ruston, where he'll play on Wednesday.

"I've never met anybody that stood in front of the mirror with a tennis racket and wanted to be the bouncer," Green said with a laugh. "Everybody wants to be the guy under the spotlight, and it feels great. It feels like all the work that we put in as a band is starting to pay off, and it's just getting a little easier to come out and do a show and make a mess of things."

The latest coup for Green is a move to RCA Records, which will release his new album "Cannonball" in August. He sees big things ahead with the deal.

"As much as I wanted to try to impact country radio from the outside, it's just too difficult to get it done," Green concedes. "I don't have the ability to just walk into any radio station in the country and say, 'here's my song, play it.' You have to have the weight of a reputable record label behind it. So why not sign with the biggest, most powerful label in the world?"

As far as the new record goes, Green said he approached it with the same honesty that he's recorded all his albums with.

"I try to always write and record what comes out of me honestly," he said. "I don't fight the songs, but I danged sure don't want to put out the same record every time. I get tired of bands that do that."

Though it's only been in the last three or four years that Green has started to garner mainstream attention, he's had a following in Texas and the surrounding areas for much longer, and much of that has come from college campuses — not places you normally associate with country music. But playing colleges is part of Green's formula for success.

"I think the college campus is where those indelible and unforgettable relationships with everything in the world start — your friends, the kind of music that you like, the people that you run around with," he said. "That's where I try to get in the door. If you can get in to people when they're in college and forming those ideals, you're going to be a lot better off than five years down the road when they get a little bitter with the world."

Even with his popularity on college campuses, his summer co-headlining tour with the Dave Matthews Band may seem like a strange pairing to some, but not to Green.

"To me, there's no music that doesn't go together; it all matches to me," he said. "I will say it to the day I die, if music is done properly, if it's performed right, if it's done with a little bit of pride, music communicates louder than anything else in the world. If you get a band like mine up there with a band like Dave's, it's going to be a loud night."

Green's not the least bit concerned about perhaps having to try to win over fans that come to see Matthews.

"You know what? I've played for 10 people in DeKalb, Ill., before, so 50,000 people, I don't care where they're at, they're not going to scare me," he joked.

For those who haven't seen Green's live show yet, he assures them that they'll get their money's worth.

"You're going to see a train wreck in slow motion," he said. "I don't leave anything out there. You're going to get everything I've got. You're going to see a big, sweaty mess, like you would at maybe a Springsteen show. You're going to know I did some work for you."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review: Amorphis, "Eclipse"

The evolution of Amorphis, for me, has been one of the most disappointing musical turns in recent memory. I was a latecomer to the band, only discovering them with "Elegy," an album that completely blew me away. It was exactly the kind of music I was searching for at the time, melodic and moody, yet still satisfyingly heavy. But things started to unravel from there, and instead of becoming one of my favorite bands, they fell off my radar with progressively weaker albums, culminating in the snooze-inducing "Far From the Sun," which, to my ears, is almost unlistenable.

So I didn't have very high expectations for "Eclipse" despite some of the return to glory hype that I was hearing about it. I don't quite know if it's a return to glory (and of course there are some fans who would argue they never fell from grace), but the record is surprisingly enjoyable. New vocalist Tomi Joutsen seems to have injected a little new energy into Amorphis, not to mention bringing back the death vocals, albeit in a minor role. One of the things I loved about "Elegy" was the interplay of clean and death vocals, and it's nice to hear it again at least a couple of times here. Joutsen's voice is a good fit with the style of the album, with the clean vocals having a bit more of a modern rock sound than his predecessor Pasi Koskinen.

As they have frequently before, Amorphis turns their attention to Finnish mythology for inspiration, taking the story of Kullervo from the epic "Kalevala" as the concept for the album. Kullervo is a tragic figure, somewhat akin to Oedipus in Greek mythology. His father is killed by his brother Untamo, who then sells Kullervo as a slave. When he escapes slavery, he finds his family alive, but his sister missing. He later, unkowingly, meets and seduces his sister, who kills herself out of shame. Out of revenge, Kullervo kills Untamo and his family and later kills himself.

OK, this is about music, not Finnish mythology, but I explain the story so that I could say that the music on this album is very fitting for such a dark and twisted tale. It's overall somber and melancholy, but with occasional roars of anger and rage. At times, I am reminded of "Elegy," but at others, it's a much more ethereal and moody, occasionally reminding me a little of fellow Finns Sentenced or some of Opeth's mellower work.

The album opens solid with "Two Moons," showing the band locked into a groove and announcing to the world there's a new vocalist in the mix. The goth influence starts to come in on "House of Sleep," which mixes a commercial-sounding opening with a verse and chorus that evokes Sentenced. We welcome the death vocals back into the fold with the third track "Leaves Scar," which opens with a folky, acoustic intro leading into a nice heavy riff and the first Amorphis growls in a long time. "Perkele (The God of Fire)" provides the heaviest track on the album, showcasing the death vocals more than any other. It's certainly not as heavy as anything from "Tales from the Thousand Lakes," but it does approach "Elegy." On the other end of the spectrum, but equally impressive, is "The Smoke," which opens with a surprisingly upbeat acoustic strum and a guitar lick that reminds me of one of the few electric licks on Opeth's "Damnation." The brief death vocal bits on the song are used to perfection and provide a great punctuation on the clean vocals.

Fans looking for the more complex structures of the band will appreciate "Born From Fire," a mid-tempo number with some cool layered guitar themes and nice slower interludes. There are also plenty of folk and traditional influences throughout the album to appreciate. You won't really find any big epic numbers on this album like you might expect for the style of music. Most check in around 3 1/2-4 minutes, with only the final track, "Empty Opening," reaching the 7 1/2-minute mark (and then, two of that is tacked on silence).

"Eclipse" marks a return to a heavier form of music for Amorphis while maintaining the atmospheric, ethereal sounds they've experimented with on the past few albums. Fans of those records may be a little disappointed with what is, in some ways, a step back toward an older style, but there's enough experimentation here to keep it fresh. I personally like the record better each time I listen to it, as I discover some new small touch that I missed the last time through. For the first time in a long time, this album has made me look forward to what Amorphis will do in the future.

Get "Eclipse."

Review: Edguy, "Rocket Ride"

Listening to Edguy's "Rocket Ride," I can certainly see why fans of the band's Maiden-worshipping power metal past may not like it. As the cover art suggests, this is a new band, one that likes to have fun and, on occasion get a little goofy. Personally, I kind of like this new version of the band.

"Rocket Ride" completes an evolution begun on 2004's "Hellfire Club" and continued on the EP "Superheroes," the title track of which made its way onto this album. This record represents a shedding of the band's previous power metal skin, revealing a new traditional hard rock layer. There are, of course, still some remnants of their past here so it's not a complete shift of directions, but it is significant. To me, the songs here are a bit more original than some of the band's past work, though.

First, let's get "Trinidad" out of the way, the song that seems to be enraging fans and reviewers alike. To be honest, it's not nearly as bad as I expected. After reading comments and reviews, I was expecting a reggae number, when in fact, it's still a pretty rocking song, just with a little island flavor. In all honesty, I don't really care for the track either, but it's certainly not the abomination that some people are making it out to be. The other low point for me is the ballad "Save Me," which plays like a 1980s hair band ballad. Outside of those two songs, there's not really a bad track on the album to my mind.

There's a very simple reason why you should own this album, though, and it's the sixth track -- "The Asylum." This is, quite honestly, the absolute best traditional metal song that I've heard in a long, long time. It's one of those songs that I catch myself repeating four or five times on the drive to or from work. I can't get enough of it. There's great power in the riff and chorus. A close second is the title track, which has a 1970s arena rock feel on an addictive chorus, complete with a Maiden-like "wooahohoh." "Wasted Time" and "Out of Vogue" are also solid, catchy tracks that stay in the listener's head.

"Return to the Tribe" is a track that I've heard declared one of the best songs on the album, but to me it plays like a pretty standard power metal number. It's not a bad tune, but I feel like I've heard it a thousand times before.

Then there's the goofiness I mentioned earlier, which comes through in two testosterone-laden tracks, "Catch of the Century" and "Fucking with Fire." "Catch of the Century" is a fun song from an arrogant rocker to the girl who left him that ends in a rant that may or may not give you a chuckle. "Fucking with Fire" is pure 1980s cock rock. Fortunately for Edguy, I like pure 1980s cock rock. It's a fun song, not to be taken too seriously, as is much of this album.

If you come to this album wanting to hear Edguy's familiar power metal sound, you'll probably be disappointed. On the other hand, if you've got an ear for classic hard rock and approach it looking to have a little fun, you'll probably like it.

Get "Rocket Ride."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Review: Annihilator, "Ten Years in Hell"

Sometimes it amazes me how the music industry has kept itself alive this long. Think about it for a minute. Think about all the great bands you know that have been left to languish in obscurity, and then think about all the crap that gets pushed on listeners by the record companies. I pondered this often while watching Annihilator's latest DVD, a retrospective of the band's early years from "Alice in Hell" through the reunion of three-fourths of that band for "Criteria for a Black Widow."

As I watched Jeff Waters shred his ass off for a couple of hours, I kept wondering why didn't this band ever reach the status of, say, a Metallica, Megadeth or Slayer? It certainly wasn't for lack of talent or, at least in the early going, originality. Maybe they arrived on the scene too late. Maybe it's because Waters is Canadian, not exactly a metal hotbed. Maybe they just weren't promoted right. Whatever the reason, it's a shame.

That's not to say that everything Waters has recorded has been gold. He's done his share of crap, and there's a testament to it here with the video for the ballad "Only Be Lonely." But there's no way you can sit there and watch him play and not be impressed.

The more interesting disc of this DVD, to me, is the first one. It follows the band from the release party of "Alice in Hell" through various TV appearances, live bootlegs and official videos. It takes you through the whole saga, with Waters changing personnel more often than Spinal Tap changed drummers. In fact, it's funny to listen to the early interviews from around the time of "Alice" and "Never, Neverland," where Waters is talking about how it's been basically a one-man show up to that point, and he's excited about getting other band members involved in the next album. Now, 15-plus years later, we know it's always been just him doing his thing. So much for those plans.

The TV interview clips provide a great deal of comic relief on this DVD, as we see time and again interviewers who have no clue who this band is trying to discuss their music. The absolute funniest moment comes from a Canadian morning show where the interviewer is completely clueless and obviously can't even understand why anyone would listen to the music. He asks some classic questions like "Why do you have to play so loud?" and, in introducing the video for "Alison Hell," "Why do your song titles have to be so mean and nasty? Why not 'Alice in Wonderland?'" Though Waters handles it professionally, you can see in his eyes that he'd like to choke the guy.

The video focuses mainly on the first two albums, "King of the Kill" and the 1999/2000 reunion with "Alice" vocalist Randy Rampage and drummer Ray Hartman. Precious little time is spent on "Set the World on Fire" and almost no time on the first disc is given to "Remains" or "Refresh the Demon." I suppose that's fitting since they're probably the weakest three albums. "Set the World on Fire," with its more commercial sound, was a great waste of the talents of both Waters and drummer Mike Mangini, in my opinion, and the other two were OK, but not really up to par with the rest of the Annihilator catalog.

The disc also contains seven official videos for "Alison Hell," "Stonewall," "Set the World on Fire," "King of the Kill," "21," "Only Be Lonely" and "Syn.Kill 1." I would have liked to see more high-quality live footage, as well. The bootleg stuff is cool, but it really doesn't do the music justice. But I suppose there's only so much space on a disc.

The second disc features interviews with Waters and various other past members of the band, offering an in-depth retrospective from Waters' early years through the Annihilator demos, the official recordings and the future.

Of course, at this point, there are six more years of band history that aren't discussed on this DVD, but it's still a must-have for fans of Annihilator and technical thrash in general.

Get "Ten Years in Hell."

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Review: Degree Absolute, "Degree Absolute"

Since I have to come up with Top 10 lists for several outlets at the end of the year, I keep a running list of candidates. I hear so many records during the year that, in December, I often forget albums that I really liked in January. In the first month of this year, I've been fortunate enough to add two records to the list of potential candidates, the latest from Seven Witches and this album.

I went into the debut from Degree Absolute expecting a pretty standard collection of wannabe Dream Theater songs. Guess you shouldn't judge an album by its cover and the fact that some of the members graduated from Berklee.

What makes this album a breath of fresh air in the progressive metal genre is its noted lack of overpowering keyboard lines. I didn't know that was even possible these days, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any keyboard at all on this offering. Certainly, Degree Absolute does fall into a little Dream Theater worship here and there, but what progressive album hasn't since Images and Words was released?

The fact is that there's just as much thrash and jazz as progressive in the band's sound, and they get a nice mix of fast and aggressive, slow and melodic and some very cool jazzy interludes. There are even some odes to classic metal, like the Iron Maiden-meets-Rush breakdown on the opening track "Exist."

Formed in 1999 by singer/guitarist Aaron Bell, the band was an attempt to marry the sounds of Watchtower and Fates Warning. With more than six years between the formation and their debut album, you can still hear that inspiration. There's plenty of both bands in this album, but the result is music that sounds like neither band.

Bell's guitar riffs are tight and catchy, and he and drummer Doug Beary create some dynamic heavy moments. The slower songs, while given some cool, spacy guitar pieces, tend to rely more on Bell's voice, which is a fairly standard prog voice. It's not bad, but doesn't blow you away, either. Still, even a ballad like "Confessions" is lifted well above the mundane by some
great musicianship and smooth guitar work.

The only weakness on this record is really when the band turns to more ambient pieces, like "Half-Man, Half-Biscuit." It may be a great example of the ambient genre, but to be honest I just don't get it. To me, it sounds like a bunch of white noise with the occasional guitar riff, and I'd much rather hear some incredible riffs and runs, as on "Pi," which is a beautiful mix of the jazzy and heavy. There's also the untitled six and a half minutes at the end of the record that's completely white noise, which I find a bit annoying. Give me another song or just end the record.
Putting those two pieces aside, 47 of the 57 minutes on this album are incredible and should excite any fan of great musicianship.

Get "Degree Absolute."

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Review: In Flames, "Come Clarity"

On their past two albums, In Flames have searched for a sound that seems to be just out of their grasp -- something between their melodic death metal past and a more modern style of melodic metal. It started with "Reroute to Remain," which took the experimentation of 2000's "Clayman" even further, throwing more clean vocals and more keyboards into the mix. A lot of fans didn't like it, but I personally thought it was a daring move on their part, and I still think it's a very good album.

Then came "Soundtrack to Your Escape," which seemed to try, at the same time, to fuse the sounds of the previous two albums and simplify the music even further. I initially gave it a decent review on a quick turnaround, but after listening to it for a week or two grew bored with it and now consider it by far the band's worst effort. Given only a couple of days to listen to "Come Clarity" before writing this review, I hope I don't make the same mistake here. I don't think I will.

My first impression of this album is pretty damned good. It retains a lot of the melodic elements that were found on "Reroute to Remain" and, at times, also dips back into the band's early sound that many fans long for. For those of you hoping for a return to the sound of "Jester Race" or "Whoracle," stop reading this review and move on. You won't get it here, and unless I miss my guess, you likely never will.

One thing's obvious about this album, from the switch to Ferret Music to the overall sound of the record, everything's been designed to open the band to a new and wider audience. There was a time in my life when I would have gotten mad and screamed, "you should make music for the love of it and not worry about the money." I'm older now and less idealistic. I've got no problem with them trying to make a couple of bucks, especially when the music isn't compromised, and here, I don't believe it is. While there are some commercial touches here and there, you're still not going to be hearing this on FM any time soon (and if you do, let me know because you've got a cool station and I'll take it into consideration if I ever think about relocating.)

"Come Clarity" grabbed me with the head-bashing opening riff of "Take This Life," also the first single, and I immediately noticed the return of guitar solos to the album. That's something I sorely missed on the previous record. "Take This Life" is easily better than anything on "Soundtrack to Your Escape," and it's actually one of the weaker songs here. The following tracks, "Leeches" and "Reflect the Storm" are where you'll start hearing some of the older sound. In fact, to me, "Reflect the Storm" is, structurally, almost like a return to the old style, as is "Pacing Death's Trail." There are also a few shots for fans who liked the last two albums. "Crawl Through Knives," another of my favorites, features a heavy vibe from "Reroute to Remain."

My current favorite track on the record is "Dead End," which features female vocals by Lisa Miskovsky, who I found out, with a little research, usually sings folksy acoustic music and has co-written a song for the Backstreet Boys. Sometimes it's better not to know too much. That almost made me rethink how much I like this song. Suffice it to say that this song is a far, far cry from her normal work. While her voice does lend a certain mainstream aspect to the song, it's not a bad thing at all. It puts me in mind of a heavier Lacuna Coil, with a little more emphasis on the male vocals (though I'd take Cristina Scabbia over Miskovsky any day).

Cruising the Internet, I've read a lot of complaints about the song "Scream," but I don't think it's that bad. It's got a cool thrashing opening riff, and while I'll admit that the chorus is a little weak and the lyrics perhaps lack some creativity, I don't quite get the hatred that some fans seem to have for the song. Certainly "Scream" is one of the more commercial-sounding tracks, but again, the obvious theme here is reaching a wider audience. I can't really fault them for that -- and the song's better than most of the stuff in the same vein.

The weakest tracks for me are the title track, which with Anders Friden's slightly digitized vocals, comes off sounding like a bad Marilyn Manson ballad, and "Your Bedtime Story is Scaring Everyone," which unfortunately hits a pet peeve of mine -- the pointless, elevator-music like instrumental (or in this case, semi-instrumental) to close an album.

"Come Clarity" isn't just a big step up from "Soundtrack to Your Escape," it's miles beyond it. It's certainly the band's best effort since "Clayman," and possibly since "Colony." The guitar work of Jesper Stromblad and Bjorn Gelotte here is more along the lines of what fans of In Flames expect, as is the drumming of Daniel Svensson, with perhaps a couple of exceptions. As for that sound the band's been looking for, I won't say with certainty they've finally found it with this album, but if not, they're damned close.

Get "Come Clarity."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Review: Seven Witches, "Amped"

I've always had an appreciation for guitarist Jack Frost's blend of traditional and power metal, and Seven Witches' latest effort is no exception. The first thing you'll notice, as with any Frost release, is the in-your-face guitar riffs. "Amped" certainly has more than its fair share of them, from the opening track on.

Seven Witches have often been compared to Iced Earth, and there are certainly similarities beyond being among the few U.S. purveyors of this style of music. Both are led by an outstanding guitar player with a knack for cutting riffs, and new vocalist Alan Tecchio certainly fits into the mold of past Iced Earth wailers at times. Despite the similarities, Seven Witches is certainly no Iced Earth clone. Actually a closer comparison for me would be Chris Caffery's 2005 release "W.A.R.P.E.D.." It's got the same style and feel as this record, particularly on songs like "Fame Gets You Off."

One thing here that's a little different than the past is an obvious turn toward a classic traditional metal sound. The riffing is not always high speed or highly technical. For example, "Sunnydale High" features a prototypical, fairly simple, old school metal riff, and Tecchio's vocals get a little bit of a gruffer hard rock edge to them. The band also explores some electronic sounds on "Dishonor Killings," which has one of the catchiest melodies on the record. There's also a nod to prog in the opening of "Red," and a classic arena rock approach that leads into a galloping "Powerslave"-era Maiden sound on "Widows and Orphans."

A clear difference from Iced Earth comes in the area of songwriting. While most of the songs are not bad, some leave you scratching your head. "GP Fix," an ode to Moto GP racing, is one of the weaker premises for a song that I've heard. It's otherwise a good song, but I guess since I can't relate to the band's passion for the sport, it really doesn't connect with me. Likewise, "West Nile" is a little weird for me, perhaps because I'm from an area that gets hit pretty hard by the disease every summer, and it hits close to home.

There are a few middle grounders here, too. While I don't dislike the ballad "BE," it is a little vanilla when compared with the rest of the album. And I really just can't make up my mind on their cover of Billy Idol's "Flesh for Fantasy" because I'm such a fan of the original. The Seven Witches version is essentially the same, only crunched up a bit, but to me, the song seems to lose some of the nuances in translation. Tecchio also doesn't pull off the dark, mocking tone that Idol gave the song. That said, I don't hate it, and in fact, with Idol singing over this music, I might like it better than the original.

Frost's production here is solid, and almost perfect for the style. Ultimately, "Amped," like most of the other releases involving Frost, is pure, unadulterated top-shelf traditional metal.

Get "Amped."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Review: Eddie Ojeda, "Axes to Axes"

When you think of great guitarists, Twisted Sister's Eddie Ojeda isn't the first person you think of - or even the 15th. In fact, if his name does come up, it's probably in one of those late-night, drunken naming sessions that's gone on way too long. I'm not knocking him as a player, just pointing out that he's not someone you usually think about.

That's why I was a little surprised when I got a copy of Ojeda's solo album "Axes to Axes." But Ojeda doesn't go in for the instrumental wankfest that you expect from a guitarist's solo album. There are a few showpieces here, but for the most part, he sticks to his strength, and that's writing punchy, undeniably catchy hard rock and metal tunes. It also doesn't hurt that the album gets some heavyweight help on the opening track from Ronnie James Dio. Rudy Sarzo, Joe Lynn Turner, and of course, Twisted Sister bandmate Dee Snider also put in appearances.

The guitar work here is solid, if not awe-inspiring. The riffs are great and the melodies hook you, but there's nothing lead-wise that makes me want to run grab my guitar and say, "man, I've got to figure out how he did that." Ojeda does cover a lot of territory here. "Please Remember" is a great 1970s hard rock song, and Ojeda's voice works very well for that style. He also flirts with funk on "Love Power" and Spanish stylings on "Senorita Knows." But by and large the biggest sound here is that of early Twisted Sister.

The shining moment on the album is his collaboration with Snider on the surprisingly menacing cover of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." It's a galloping cover with Snider delivering the vocals in a mocking tone that fits perfectly. The funk-rocker "Love Power" is another strong moment, and of course Dio's appearance alone makes "Tonight" a memorable tune.

While most of the songs here are quite good musically, lyrically it's another story. Ojeda isn't very strong in that department, and it shows on songs like "Evil Does (What Evil Knows)". This is a nice, old-school Dio-style song that would have been great if they lyrics weren't so painfully awkward. It was intended to be a historical epic, and it comes closer to being a hysterical epic. Take the first verse: "In the minds of ancient leaders/only power rules/the only thing worth fighting for was gold and jewels/as they learn from their sins and mistakes, they become rich fools/now all their people will die cause they must rule." The fact that Ojeda delivers the vocals with such grave seriousness and drama only serves to make it more cringeworthy.

I make fun of "Evil Does" because the lyrics are easily the worst of the album, but other songs don't fare much better in that department. Dio helps out by putting his golden pipes to work to improve "Tonight" by giving the lyrics more gravity, but other songs don't benefit from the stateliness of a Dio.

If Ojeda finds a good lyricist to work with and just focuses on the guitar work, I think he's really got something to build a solo career on. Lyrics aside, the songs are otherwise strong, and "Axes to Axes" is a pretty damned good album from a surprising source.

Get "Axes to Axes."