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."