Monday, December 31, 2007

Best of '07: 5. Exodus, "The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A"

Since the time I would scream along the lyrics to “Deranged” while I mowed my grandmother’s yard as a kid, I’ve liked Exodus. I own most of their records and like most everything they’ve done, but, for some reason, I never really crossed over from liking them to becoming a hardcore fan. So, it’s funny that 20 years later, with most of the original members gone, I’m beginning to make that transition.

The new blood they’ve gotten in recent years has been good for them. Their 2004 record, “Tempo of the Damned” was hailed as a comeback by many fans, but I found it kind of bland. The 2005 follow-up, “Shovel Headed Kill Machine” was anything but. It topped my year-end list and set the stage for this record, which in a different year might have topped my list again.

Simply put, this is the heaviest Exodus record to date. New vocalist Rob Dukes (who debuted on “Shovel Headed Kill Machine”) continues to bring aggression that the band has never had on the mic. Guitarist Lee Altus and founder Gary Holt are locked even more tightly together on this record than on the last. Original drummer Tom Hunting returns for this record, which should please long-time fans, even if it doesn’t quite equal the work of Paul Bostaph on the last record.

The riffing throughout the record is brutal, cutting and memorable, beginning with the blast of “Riot Act” which clocks in as the shortest track on the record, but packs plenty of punch into that running time. Most of the songs, in the thrash tradition, are longer numbers which allow the band to stretch out a little, but they never let up in intensity through, arguably the best song on the record “Children of a Worthless God” and to the crushing closer “Bedlam 1-2-3.”

There is a little respite from the brutality at the end of the record if you care to wade through 10 minutes of silence (one of my pet peeves – just give me the other song already) with “Bonded by Banjo,” a bluegrass version of “Bonded by Blood.” Sure, it’s kind of goofy, but it gives the listener a little laugh after the heaviness and seriousness of the rest of the record and shows that no matter how pissed off they may be, the band still has a sense of humor about things.

With thrash rising among younger bands and a new generation coming around, it’s nice to see that some of the old guys can still kick their asses.

Read my review of Exodus' "Shovel Headed Kill Machine."

Get "The Atrocity Exhibition: Exhibit A."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Best of '07: 6. Megadeth, "United Abominations"

Here's a pleasant surprise. Yeah, I know a lot of people called Megadeth’s last record The System Has Failed a return to form, but personally I didn’t hear it. I thought that record had about three really good songs and a bunch of mediocre stuff that sounds like what Dave Mustaine’s been pushing for the past decade or more. This one, on the other hand, I would call a return to form, if that form is Countdown to Extinction.

I had my doubts going in, as I’d heard only the boring “Gears of War,” easily the most banal song here, and the remake of “A Tout Le Monde” with Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil. To be completely honest, I like this version of the song better than the original, but I end up wishing that Scabbia was singing more (or perhaps even all) of it. Of course it does seem a little sad that Mustaine has to keep revisiting old songs to try to mine a big song (as he did with “Return to Hangar” a few years ago). It’s almost like he’s admitting he doesn’t have another great song in him.

With those two songs and the fact that I haven’t really liked a full Megadeth record since Cryptic Writings in mind, I was fully prepared for another record with a few exciting moments (a la “Kick the Chair” from The System Has Failed) and a lot of Dave jerking off his inner artiste. There is some of that here, but not as much as I’ve come to expect in recent years. The album opener “Sleepwalker” sets a good tone for the record. It’s an old-school thrasher that wouldn’t have been at all out of place on any of the band’s first four records.

After that track, this record settles into Countdown to Extinction territory -- a slower and simplified version of the frenetic riffs of the band’s earlier efforts, relying less on technical mastery and more on hooks and catchy bits. The best examples are “Never Walk Alone” and “Burnt Ice,” which are not nearly the heaviest songs on the record, but they will be the ones, along with the chorus of the title track, that you’re still humming a few days later.

There are a few failures here aside from “Gears of War.” There’s “Blessed Be the Dead” which has some really awkward lyrical moments as Mustaine describes the four horsemen. (You’d think Dave might shy away from writing a song about the four horsemen, wouldn’t you?) “You’re Dead” has a similar problem when he tries to make this weird melodic shift from the verse to the chorus that probably would have been really cool if it had worked. Falling in between is “Amerikhastan” that features a really annoying and preachy spoken word verse, but also has one of the strongest hooks on the record, reminiscent of “Architecture of Aggression” from Countdown...

There are a few blasts of thrash glory scattered here and there throughout the songs, but by and large this is the early 1990s version of Megadeth, a bit more restrained and perhaps a bit tamer, but still a potent force. A big point in the favor of this record is that the songs here seem just a little angrier than most of the songs Mustaine has done in recent years. He has that snarl back that’s been largely missing, at least to my ears, for a long time. The Drover brothers of Eidolon fame, and, strangely, former White Lion bassist James Lomenzo, form the backing band for Mustaine on this outing and handle the duties well.

It's always nice to be surprised by a band, particularly a former favorite that you’ve practically written off. No, United Abominations isn’t in the same league with Rust in Peace or Peace Sells... but it is the best complete effort that Megadeth has released since 1992.


Second opinion: This is one of those occasional records that I actually like better than my original review. Since the review ran, I've grown to like the title track, "Blessed Be the Dead" and "Amerikhastan" a bit more than I did when writing this review. ("Gears of War" still sucks, though.) This is a really, really solid album from an unexpected source.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best of '07: 7. Slough Feg, "Hardworlder"

Critics rave about them, in-the-know fans on message boards sing their praises, but for some reason it seems that no one in the wider music world has heard of Slough Feg, and that's a shame. This is some of the best pure, unadulterated old school metal going. With one foot in the 1970s, the other in the 1980s, a hand in the future and one finger firmly extended toward the current musical trends, it's hard not to like them and it's even harder not to respect what they do.

Perhaps you could call their music a little old-fashioned, but I'd prefer to call it timeless. Remember the first time you heard Number of the Beast? Hearing a Slough Feg record is like that. Know how much you still enjoy Number of the Beast when you pull it out on occasion? In 25 years, I suspect a Slough Feg record will be just like that. Great music doesn't go out of style, and that's what makes this "old-fashioned" sounding record far superior to other retro bands that just copy the sounds. Slough Feg has the heart, soul and depth those bands lack. It's almost as if they were a band formed in the same moment as bands like Maiden and somehow transported through time - which would also fit right in with the themes of some of their songs.

Hardworlder blends traditional metal, power metal, doom, folk metal and 1970s hard rock into a potent cocktail that leaves the listener not quite knowing what might pop up next. There are epic folk-influenced numbers like "The Sea Wolf," where you can picture the salty dogs on deck waving a bottle of rum and almost hear the waves slapping against the boat. From there, you're transported to the futuristic jam session, "Galactic Nomad," which is heavily influenced by Thin Lizzy.

The real power here is in the guitar work of Michael Scalzi (who also handles vocals) and "Don" Angelo Tringali. The pair work the twin guitar attack like few before them - guys named Murray and Smith or Tipton and Downing. The band also manages to capture the spirit, feel and warmth of a late 1970s, early 1980s record without sacrificing the clarity or production values of modern recording.

After listening to numbers like "Tiger! Tiger!," "The Spoils" and the galloping "Insomnia," I have no doubt the band could do excellent covers of obvious tunes by Maiden and other big bands of the time, but that leads to another thing I love about this record. They do a couple of covers, but instead of trotting out the obvious, they go for more obscure songs that most listeners won't know. Here, they cover Irish rocker "Dearg Doom" by the Horslips, which is one of the best numbers on the record, and "Streetjammer" from Manilla Road.

Hardworlder is metal as it was meant to be played. If you're among those who aren't familiar with Slough Feg, do yourself a favor and check out the Try Before Buy feature at Cruz Del Sur's Web site to listen to the full record. You won't be sorry.


Get Hardworlder.

Second opinion: I still love this record. It's like a band that formed around the time of the NWOBHM and was transported through time to 2007. Great stuff.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best of '07: 8. Dethklok, "The Dethalbum"

It could be a sad statement when a cartoon band puts out a record that’s a lot better than much of the output of “real” bands in a given year. In the case of Dethklok, though, it’s not so bad. See, this band — the stars of Cartoon Network Adult Swim’s series “Metalocalypse” and self-proclaimed most brutal band in the world — has metal cred that most fictional bands don’t.

The flesh and blood musicians on the project are series creator Brendan Small, who handles vocals and most instruments, and veteran metal drummer Gene Hoglan, known for his work with Dark Angel, Strapping Young Lad, Death and Testament.

Hoglan’s resume brings credibility to the project, but Small is no slouch. While he pokes fun at the seriousness that metal fans and bands take the music with in “Metalocalypse,” Small obviously has a great affection for the music and a certain reverence for it that shows in the songs on “The Dethalbum.” Fans of metal will hear traces of other bands scattered throughout the songs on this record, the most notable and blatant being the Amon Amarth sounds of “The Lost Vikings.”

Small delivers lyrics that are sometimes cleverly satirical and sometimes just plain silly in the most serious growl of Dethklok vocalist Nathan Explosion. (He also takes a hard rock turn providing the vocals for Pickles the drummer on “Hatredcopter.”) While the lyrics are, for the most part, tongue-in-cheek takes on some stereotypical metal themes, the music is as solid as it comes. Check out the groove of “Bloodrocuted” or the massive slab riffs of the brooding “Go Forth and Die.”

Those who believe metal is a matter of life and death probably won’t get this record. For metal fans with a sense of humor about themselves and their favorite music, it’s great fun.

Get "The Dethalbum."

Get "Metalocalypse: Season One" on DVD.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Best of '07: 9. Candlemass, "King of the Grey Islands"

So, here’s the second record in Candlemass’ comeback bid, following up the excellent self-titled record from 2005, and not surprisingly considering the band’s history, already there’s a problem. Singer Messiah Marcolin is gone again. But you know what? If I’m being completely honest, that’s not really a problem. Enter Solitude Aeturnus singer Robert Lowe, exit the campy, mad monk, and this record actually gets a boost.

As much as I like Candlemass’ previous efforts, King of the Grey Islands, while not their best overall work, definitely has the best vocals of any of their records. Surprisingly, considering that he’s replacing a guy that wore monk robes, Lowe brings a little more of an unbalanced and manic energy to the songs. It's much less operatic and perhaps just a little more sinister at times. Then again, I’m probably a little biased, since I happen to love Lowe’s work with Solitude Aeturnus.

The record starts on a surprising note with an almost power metal feel on “Emperor of the Void.” It features a little of what we heard on the self-titled record, a little of those 1990s records when Candlemass was really Leif Edling and some other guys and a little of the classic sound all blended together. It also allows Lowe’s vocals to shine early in the record and gives listeners a hint of what they’ll hear later on. After that, King of the Grey Islands settles back into the gloomy and doomy goodness that we’ve come to expect from Candlemass’ best work -- sludgy Sabbath-influenced riffs that crush and groove, lyrics that tell a story and just a solid overall performance. Despite the lineup shift, there’s not a big change in the sound.

The riffs of Mats Bjorkman and Lars Johansson are great, trading off between sparse quiet reflections and undeniable power. Lowe’s influence shows up here and there on tracks like “Destroyer,” which have some Solitude Aeturnus leanings. It should be very interesting to see what happens when Lowe has a little more input on the songs. There are still plenty of doom epics here, perhaps the best being “Clearsight,” which after a galloping opening riff moves into more dramatic territory. Fans should also be pleased with the final track on the record, “Embracing the Styx.” Hell, fans should be pleased with just about every song here. It’s a great album, and it’s sure to be high on a lot of end of year lists, mine included.

Get "King of the Grey Islands."

A second opinion: The addition of Lowe on vocals was a great move for the band. This ranks right up there with their best.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best of '07: 10. Arch Enemy, "Rise of the Tyrant"

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, I'll count down my favorite records of the past year. For each I'll repost my original review if I wrote one, or write one if I didn't. Then, for those with a previous review, I'll offer a second opinion after time has passed.

When Arch Enemy signed on Angela Gossow to provide vocals, a lot of fans wrote them off. Whether it was just the idea of a “girl” fronting a death metal band, or if they truly didn’t like her vocals, I don’t know, but it’s even hard for those folks to deny the power of their latest release “Rise of the Tyrant.”

Admittedly, I thought “Wages of Sin” and “Anthems of Rebellion” were pretty good records, too. But this one destroys both of those, as well as the mediocre “Doomsday Machine.” For me, it’s probably their best record ever. Gossow’s vocals have improved (though I was not one of those people that had a big problem with them to begin with), and drummer Daniel Erlandsson continues to provide a solid base. But the real strength here is in the guitar work of the Amott brothers, which offers a little more depth and melody than on previous releases.

Michael and Christopher Amott manage to do something on “Rise of the Tyrant” that’s truly unusual. This record is filled with huge hooks, but none of them are in vocal form and none of them make the music seem any less heavy. Instead, the Amotts lay down some incredibly catchy guitar riffs that will play over and over in your head well after you finish listening to the album. Just listen to the lead single, “Revolution Begins,” and see if you can get that guitar lick out of your head. Similarly, as much as I hate keyboards and synthesizers, I have to admit that the synth line on “I Will Live Again” is completely infectious.

There’s a nice mix on this record of songs that will appeal to fans of Arch Enemy’s Gotheburg death roots, like “The Last Enemy,” and much more melodic songs, like “Vultures,” which pulls in elements of traditional metal and straight up hard rock. A very nice touch running throughout the record is a trend toward thrash, heard particularly on songs like the title track and “Night Falls Fast.”

After the disappointing “Doomsday Machine,” “Rise of the Tyrant” is a fantastic comeback and points the way to a brighter future for the band.

Get "Rise of the Tyrant."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Best of '07: Honorable mentions

These are my favorite records from the past year that didn't make it into my top 10. A couple of them were there until the end of the year, when a surge of good records pushed them out. Where applicable, there's a link to my original review of the record.

Annihilator, “Metal”: Since the official U.S. release of this record comes in 2008, I could hold it in reserve for next year’s list, but I’ll burn it here. It’s a fun, catchy record filled with top-notch guest performances. Certainly not among the band’s best, but not bad, either.
Read my original review.
Get "Metal."

Blood Tsunami, “Thrash Metal”: I honestly thought this would end up in my top 10, but a rush of good albums late pushed it out. They’re some of the best purveyors of modern thrash out there.
Read my original review.
Get "Thrash Metal."

Ted Nugent, “Love Grenade”: Another one that got pushed out of the top 10. Some great old school, raunchy, in-your-face Uncle Nuge fun.
Read my original review.
Get "Love Grenade."

Machine Head, “The Blackening”: After a few disappointing years, this is the second straight really good release from Machine Head, proving that it is possible for bands to return to form. (Maybe there’s still hope for Metallica.)
Get "The Blackening."

Dimmu Borgir, “In Sorte Diaboli”: I’m not a big fan of black metal, and perhaps it’s a little trendy to like Dimmu at the moment, but I’m a sucker for a good melding of classical and metal into a big, epic song, and they do it as well as anyone out there.
Get "In Sorte Diaboli."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best of '07: Best EP

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, I'll count down my favorite records of the past year. For each I'll repost my original review if I wrote one, or write one if I didn't. Then, for those with a previous review, I'll offer a second opinion after time has passed.

Best EP: Iced Earth, "Overture of the Wicked"

Jon Schaffer offers fans a nice little teaser for Iced Earth’s upcoming album Framing Armageddon coming in the fall. Since 1998’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Schaffer’s promise to expand on the “Something Wicked Trilogy” fans have been waiting for him to follow through as he delivered a horror-themed record and a very personal historical piece. Finally, fans will get to hear the first installment of what was promised nearly a decade ago.

If this EP is a taste of things to come, I can’t wait. The new song here from Framing Armageddon is “Ten Thousand Strong.” The song, to me, blends the sound of The Glorious Burden with just a little taste of some of the band’s earliest work. It’s got everything Iced Earth fans want, high speed galloping guitar riffs and a catchy as hell chorus.

The remainder of the album is a re-recording of the original trilogy, “Prophecy,” “Birth of the Wicked” and “The Coming Curse.” I had low expectations for this, thinking it would just be a new version of the songs with Tim Owens’ vocals in place of Matt Barlow’s. But the two versions are night and day. Of course, there aren’t any major melodic changes to the songs, but this version is by far heavier, meaner and nastier than the original. The synth ambience on “Birth of the Wicked” was left on the cutting room floor and the piano pieces of “The Coming Curse” are stripped away, and they’re most definitely not missed. The guitar has more bite and it’s more in your face than on the originals.

That brings us to Owens, whose vocals shred the original Barlow vocals. I sincerely hope Schaffer’s game of musical chairs is over and Owens is in the band to stay because, as much as I like the old records, he’s never had a vocalist that did justice to his songs this way. The way Ripper snarls the vocals of “The Coming Curse” makes you believe it’s actually the antichrist speaking in a way that Barlow’s voice never could.

I usually hate it when a band messes with songs that I know and love, but this is a very big exception to that rule. I’m pumped to hear the rest of the record now. The only bad thing about this EP is that I’ll have to wait four or five months to hear more.

Listen to a sample of "Ten Thousand Strong."

Buy Overture of the Wicked

Read my reviews of past Iced Earth albums
.

Second opinion: While a lot of fans didn't like the rerecordings of the original "Something Wicked" trilogy with Tim Owens, I stand by what I said in the initial review. This is a great EP, featuring arguably the best song from "Framing Armageddon" and a lean and mean rethinking of those original songs that I believe at least equals, if not surpasses the originals. In a lot of ways, I think this is better than the full-length that came out later in the year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best of '07: Biggest Disappointment

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, I'll count down my favorite records of the past year. For each I'll repost my original review if I wrote one, or write one if I didn't. Then, for those with a previous review, I'll offer a second opinion after time has passed. Here's the first of the series, my pick for the biggest disappointment of the year.

Ozzy Osbourne, "Black Rain"
So, I'm willing to admit that the circus that has surrounded Ozzy for the past eight or nine years probably colors my thoughts on this record, but after a six year wait for new material, this record is a serious disappointment. What we have here is a collection of three or four really good songs and a whole lot of mediocrity. For me, this record is more in the vein of Ozzmosis. I don’t hate it, but I’m not likely to listen to it very often.

I was excited after hearing a few of the 15 second clips scattered around Ozzy’s Web site, but clips can be deceiving. A lot of those clips were heavy on the big guitar riffs from Zakk, but his guitar is notably underutilized on a number of the songs on the record. If you’ve heard the bouncy, dance-flavored lead single “I Don’t Wanna Stop,” you’ll know there are some departures on Black Rain. Some work, some don’t.

Let's go ahead and get the two ballads out of the way, “Lay Your World on Me” and “Here for You.” They're bland and they’re boring. These are perhaps two of the worst songs Ozzy’s ever recorded. To put it bluntly, in the early 1980s, Ozzy could have farted and made better music than these.

“I Don’t Wanna Stop,” for all its danciness, is strangely addictive after a couple of listens. Another dancy tune “11 Silver,” doesn’t fare so well despite a very nice solo from Zakk that reminds me of Randy Rhoads’ solo from “Over the Mountain” – one of my favorite solos of all time. It’s one of the few shining guitar moments on the record. Likewise, the blues harmonica on the title track is really cool, but the cheesy 1980s harmonies on the chorus kind of ruin the effect.

So that covers half the songs on the record, and my response to all of them is “meh.” Now for the other half, which in all honesty are pretty good. Easily the strongest song here is “The Almighty Dollar,” which opens with a very Sabbath-like riff, fades into a nice funky bass line for the verse and has a huge chorus that’s absolutely the strongest musical moment on the whole record. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this may be the best song he’s recorded since No More Tears. A close second is “Civilize the Universe” which offers up the best guitar riff on the record and also has one of those big choruses. It really puts me in mind of Sabbath for some strange reason, even though it really doesn’t sound at all like a Sabbath tune.

The remaining three songs, “Not Going Away,” “Countdown’s Begun” and “Trap Door” are all solid additions to the catalog. I particularly like the gritty beginning of “Countdown’s Begun,” with another big in-your-face riff from Wylde. (Wish there were more of those here.)

Now, the other big negative – the packaging. While I appreciate Ozzy’s environmental statement with this plain, brown, recycled slipcase, the reason that you buy a CD, as opposed to just downloading the songs, is for the packaging. I’m old enough to remember the cool packaging on LPs and realize those days are gone, but I at least expect a few liner notes. (Not to mention the much cooler artwork from the European edition -- pictured above.) Admittedly, the reserved Ozzfest tickets are a very nice addition, but for those like me, who can’t really use them, you’ll probably end up feeling just a little screwed after plopping down 15 bucks for a glorified promo slipcase with a flap.

Just to clarify, I am an Ozzy fan. I’ll always be an Ozzy fan, and even if he decides to put out an album of dance music, I’ll still be right up front when he comes to town (though I’ll head to the bathroom or something when he starts doing the dance music). I’d just really like another great record from him – one of those with no throw-away songs. Maybe he doesn’t have another one in him, but songs like “The Almighty Dollar” certainly suggest that he might. Though I hate waiting six years between albums, I’ll wait a few more for a whole record full of those.

I’d also much rather hear about Ozzy’s music than about his kids or whatever crap his wife is starting with other famous people this week. I'd really like to hear that he's finally going to quit waffling and giving fans what they really want -- a new Sabbath record. But I don't expect that anytime soon -- or anytime at all, if I'm being honest.

Ultimately, Black Rain is just a huge disappointment. I wish I had saved the $15 and spent $3 or $4 to download the songs that I’ll probably still care to listen to a couple of weeks from now.

Buy Black Rain Limited Edition (with Ozzfest tickets).
Buy Black Rain (without Ozzfest tickets).

Second opinion: I actually think I took it too easy on this record. It hasn't been in my CD player since the week after it came out until I got ready to write this. It's a dreadful record. If not the worst of Ozzy's career, then very close. The biggest disappointment of the year by a long shot.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

RIP Kevin DuBrow

Even though I'm a little late on it, due to a busy week, I feel like I should still say something about the passing of Quiet Riot singer Kevin DuBrow earlier this week.

To a lot of folks, Quiet Riot will be remembered only for their hit cover of Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize" or, perhaps, as the first metal band to log a No. 1 record. After that, they slid quickly into obscurity. But the band will always hold a special place in my heart.

I was 12-years-old in 1983 and just reaching a place where I was beginning to discover my own music and move away from the music that my parents were listening to. One of the first bands that I discovered was Quiet Riot, and it was due, in no small part, to that memorable cover of "Metal Health" -- the guy in the leather straightjacket with the metal mask. It played right into the sensibilities of a 12-year-old kid, and even to this day, I believe there are few "more metal" album covers than that one.

So, while the world remembers "Cum on Feel the Noize" and maybe the title track from that record. I remember other songs. I remember the fun "Slick Black Cadillac." I remember the semi-ballad "Love's a Bitch," which seems a bit juvenile today, but at the time, I sang along with feeling, over and over. I remember "Thunderbird," their tribute to Randy Rhoads. I also still enjoy the cheesiness of their second record, full of would-be party anthems, and even the mainstream but catchy "The Wild and the Young" from the otherwise pretty dreadful "QRIII." (Though you certainly wouldn't have told me it was bad at the time.) In fact, they didn't lose me until they released the truly awful self-titled record in the late 1980s without DuBrow.

Quiet Riot was the first band that I ever labeled as "my favorite band," and they held that distinction for quite a while despite their fade. DuBrow will never be mistaken for one of the greatest voices in metal, but it fit the music. If you don't believe that, just try listening to that aforementioned self-titled record.

Though I never caught them live at the peak of my fandom, I was fortunate enough to see them at an ampitheatre show opening for Ted Nugent shortly after they reformed in the late 1990s and again in a local club a few years later. Though I no longer followed their recordings, I enjoyed hearing the old songs played, and both times they put on a high energy show. DuBrow, despite the obviously bad wig he wore both times, was just as flashy and flamboyant on stage as he had ever been and I enjoyed both shows immensely. I was also lucky enough to have the chance to interview DuBrow, who came across as just a normal, friendly guy, and meet the entire band after that club show. Though it didn't mean as much to me as it would have in 1983, it was still a great experience.

Perhaps in the larger metal landscape, where Quiet Riot never quite made the impact that they should have, DuBrow and the band may be viewed as just a footnote -- the band that scored the first No. 1 metal record. But for those of us who, at one time or another, sang along to Quiet Riot songs with great gusto, he will be missed.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Review: Prong - "Power of the Damager"

The latest release from Prong is in some ways refreshing. They’ve dropped most of the industrial, mechanical influence they adopted on Cleansing and have gone for a return to the sound of Beg to Differ or Prove You Wrong. In other ways it’s disappointing – mainly that it’s not as interesting as any of those records.

If there’s one thing that Tommy Victor has always been able to produce, it’s big, heavy riffs. Power of the Damager has those in abundance, but once you get beyond those riffs, there’s really not much left. When you hear the big riff of a song like “Looking for Them” or “No Justice,” which open the record, it’s hard to dislike it. Once the song is over, though, it’s difficult to remember much about it. Certainly, there aren’t any really infectious hooks like “Prove You Wrong” or “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” to be found here. The songwriting is lacking and leaves some really good riffs trying to fight through a muddle of mediocrity to be heard.

Though Victor’s vocals range from melodic, hard rock-style offerings to hardcore shouts, they’re basically the equivalent of musical wallpaper. I never get that gut-punch feeling from his delivery and never really get the feeling that he believes in what he’s singing. To be fair, that’s often been a problem I’ve had with Prong in the past.

There are some interesting moments here and there. “The Banishment” reminds me a lot of “Prove You Wrong” and delivers one of the better riffs on the record and an almost funky verse melody that hangs around longer than most here, but it’s hardly a sticks-in-your-head moment. The clean guitar backed by big distorted notes at the beginning of “Spirit Guide” is nice, but the rest of the song just blends into the background.

I guess that’s what could be said of most of the album. It’s not awful, but it just blends into the background. Hardcore fans of the band may or may not laud this as a comeback record, but I just don’t find anything exciting or invigorating about it at all. The casual fan will be better served by digging out a copy of Beg to Differ.

Get "Power of the Damager."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Review: M.O.D. - "Red, White and Screwed"

Though they were never one of my favorite bands, I grew up listening to M.O.D. in the 1980s, and I got a good chuckle out of their last record, 2003’s The Rebel You Love to Hate. You see, that’s the M.O.D. that I like – the tongue in cheek, bordering on goofy band that made fun of the 1980s obsession with image, that makes fun of white kids who think they’re from the ’hood, that makes fun of bands that take themselves too seriously. Here, though, on a few occasions it seems to me that Billy Milano is taking himself a little too seriously.

There's still some fun to be had with the name-dropping “Alphabet City Stomp” and “The Greatest Lie Ever Told,” which opens with a Tenacious D-like intro then takes shots at Metallica and King Diamond (and features Milano doing a pretty funny almost spot-on King Diamond impression.) Other humor numbers, like “Jose Can You See?,” a tirade against illegal immigrants, don’t work quite so well. There are also plenty of nods to other bands scattered around the record, most notably a tip of the hat to early Suicidal Tendencies on “Bullshit Politics.” It makes me want to go back and pull out that first ST record.

M.O.D. has always brought a good mix of thrash and hardcore. For this record, though, Milano leans more on the hardcore side, and it has the same problem that I’ve always had with hardcore: To me, it all sounds the same. I readily admit that I’ve never really gotten hardcore, and I don’t understand it. To me, it’s all a chuggy riff and a guy yelling. Maybe what’s here is good, maybe it’s not, (though I do suspect real hardcore fans would find it a little too derivative) but there’s not much for a thrash guy like me to grab onto.

Red, White and Screwed isn’t a bad record, but I’m not likely to revisit it very often. I miss the fun of the band’s previous records, and the songs, for the most part are just mediocre. Still, you have to admire the fact that Milano speaks his mind, even when what he’s saying may turn off potential listeners. There’s something to be said for that.

Read my review of M.O.D.'s "Rebel You Love to Hate."

Get "Red, White and Screwed."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Tesla, "Real to Reel, Vol. 2"

Tesla turns in a second round of cover tunes in less than six months. Being a Tesla fan from their early days, I took a look at the first volume and passed. There just weren't enough songs there that I cared about. This one interested me more -- at least until I heard it.

The band offers up pretty much note-for-note copies of the original songs that are usually not bad, but not at all exciting either. For the most part, the band makes it sound like the original, but there are some stretches here that singer Jeff Keith's voice just isn't right for, most notably ZZ Top's "Beer Drinkers and Hell-Raisers" and Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." Though I love Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes," I just can't get into this cover. It's not as bad as the Ozzy cover a few years back, but definitely not as good as the Bruce Dickinson cover, which for me is the best version of the song.

Keith is more in his element on Aerosmith's "Seasons of Wither," the best performance here. The band also handles Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special," Montrose's "Make It Last" and Bad Company's "Shooting Star" well, if not excitingly.

Ultimately, this record is what it is -- a karaoke exercise with no real fire behind it. Like the first volume, this one's for hardcore fans only.

Read my review of Tesla's "Into the Now."

Get "Real to Reel Vol. 2."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Review: Down -- "Over the Under"


I'll admit it took me a little longer to come around to New Orleans supergroup Down's latest record than it did for their first two. Initially, I missed those big hooks from their second record (the ones that some fans thought were a little too commercial.) Then, there was the mix on this record, which at times is as muddy as the bottom of the southern Louisiana bayous the music crawled out of. After a week or so of listening, though, I couldn't help but like it.

At its best "Over the Under" delivers exactly what fans have come to expect since the band's 1995 debut "NOLA" - a very organic record that's part stoner rock, part doom and heavy as hell. The sound here is equal parts Southern-fried groove, ominous Black Sabbath slab riffs and psychedelic Jimi Hendrix fuzz. Blues influence crops up throughout the record in the grooves and lead guitar licks, and you'll even hear a touch of country twang on the song "Never Try" - where Phil Anselmo paraphrases Yoda in the lyrics with his "Never try, never try/ you either do it or don't waste your time."

The heart of this record, as with the first two Down offerings, are the monster riffs and head-bobbing grooves of guitarists Pepper Keenan and Kirk Windstein layered over the solid rhythm section of Rex Brown and Jimmy Bower. Anselmo brings a world-weary, often agonized delivery that reflects the darkness of much of the subject matter. His lyrics are very personal on this record, if on occasion a bit incoherent - take, for example, the line "Partake no tangible out in tomorrow" from "On March the Saints." Huh?

Despite the occasional head-scratcher line, though, the album delivers lyrically perhaps a little more than the previous two records. There's a more real and gritty feeling to Anselmo's approach to the lyrics, and truth rings through, particularly on the song"Mourn," which seems to address his feelings at being blocked from former bandmate "Dimebag" Darrell Abbot's funeral due to a feud with the guitarist and his brother Vinnie Paul. "Hotel room of doom/ I can't find a clue/ confusion, broken hearted woe/ sheets and pillows soaked/ telephone seems broken/ I'm calling crucified/ blacklisted, no reply..."

It's also a record that tracks both the misery and resilience of the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Most notably "On March the Saints" and "Beneath the Tides," two of the stronger offerings on the record.

There are misses here and there on the record. The "Planet Caravan"-sounding "His Majesty the Desert," which serves as more of an intro to "Pillamyd" than an actual song just doesn't quite capture the same atmosphere of the Sabbath classic, despite some spacey guitar work. And "Pillamyd" itself, despite being the fastest track on the record, sounds kind of out of place among the other work here. Still, the bouncing, undeniable grooves of songs like "The Path" and "N.O.D." more than make up for the few misses.

Despite my initial misgivings, after a few weeks of listens, I can say Over the Under easily ranks as one of, if not the best record of the year, and it also ranks as Down's most honest and frank offering to date. Perhaps with the upheaval and challenges of the band's previous years in the past, we'll start to see more frequent offerings from the band. I, for one, would welcome it.

Hear a clip of "On March the Saints."

Hear a clip of "Mourn."

Read my review of Down "II."

Get "Over the Under."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Review: Ride the Sky, "New Protection"

Ordinarily, I’m not a big fan of the “supergroup” concept. No matter how good the musicians are, I don’t think a month in the studio together can bring the tightness and spirit to a band that playing together for years, busting your ass to make it and living together in a van down by the river does. That said, occasionally one of those “supergroups” manages to make a pretty good record. That’s the case with Ride the Sky.

The band is a project of drummer Uli Kusch – a veteran of bands like Masterplan, Helloween and Gamma Ray – vocalist Bjorn Jansson of Beyond Twilight and Tears of Anger, and studio guitarist Benny Jannson. Later they added keyboard player Kaspar Dahlqvist who has played with Stormwind and Circle II Circle and bass player Mathias Garnas of XsavioR. The result is a pretty solid set of melodic metal.

Admittedly this record is a little heavier on the keyboards than I would prefer, but there are enough nice biting guitar lines from Benny Jannson on tunes like “Silent War” – one of the best tracks here – to hold my interest and make me overlook it. The songs on the album cover a wide range of styles and emotions. There are shiny, happy tunes like “A Smile from Heaven’s Eye,” which reminds me a little of Lillian Axe, then there’s the driving power-prog blend of “The Prince of Darkness” and the spacey synth lines on “The End of Days.” Of course, they do deliver up the prototypical power metal song that I was expecting with “Far Beyond the Stars,” but that’s really the only one here.

The soaring melodic songs like “Corroded Dreams” and “A Crack in the Wall” are really good, but Ride the Sky is at its best when they depend on Jannson’s guitar work. The best tunes here all have that in common. “Break the Chain” offers up a nice, chunky, almost thrash-like riff, and “Black Cloud” delivers up the heaviest number on the record with some very aggressive riffing at the opening.

If there’s one complaint it’s that they overuse the vocal-bass combination where the rest of the band drops out for the verse and there’s usually some effect on the vocals. They use that at least four or five times, and it occasionally gives the songs a feeling of sameness.

Overall, this is really solid stuff, though. It’s great melodic metal with occasional hits of symphonic, prog and power. I highly recommend it for people who like music that’s melodic, but not wimpy.

Get "New Protection."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Review: Iced Earth, "Framing Armageddon"

Albums with expectations are always interesting, and this one has plenty. First, fans have been waiting for it since 1998 when the original trilogy of songs appeared on "Something Wicked This Way Comes," regarded by many as the band’s best record. The expectations were boosted over the summer when the band released the first single “Ten Thousand Strong,” packaged with a stripped down, heavier re-recording of the original trilogy. So does this project meet expectations? I’m going to reserve judgment on that for the time being.

I’ll admit that my initial reaction to "Framing Armageddon" was a slight disappointment. It doesn’t have those big stand-alone songs that a record like "Something Wicked This Way Comes" or "The Glorious Burden" had. Sure, “Ten Thousand Strong,” “Order of the Rose” and some of the other songs can stand on their own, but this record is a different kind of beast. It took a few listens through for me to come around. This isn’t a record that can be carved into bite-sized pieces for mass consumption. It’s one that, to really appreciate, you have to listen to from beginning to end. Even the weaker moments on the record, like “Infiltrate and Assimilate,” add to the work as a whole.

"Framing Armageddon" is a rock opera in the truest sense of the phrase, meaning not only that it tells a musical story, but also that the sound of the work is, well, operatic. Many of the vocal harmonies and melodies on the song choruses owe more to musical theater than to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It’s particularly true on songs like “When Stars Collide (Born is He)” and “A Charge to Keep,” with their choir-like choruses. The album covers a lot of ground from tribal percussion to plodding hard rock riffs to the 1970s-style organ on “The Domino Decree.”

Though there are moments that don’t sound like Iced Earth, the basic feel of the band is there in the galloping riffing of songs like “Ten Thousand Strong.” As with most things that Jon Schaffer does, there’s a great attention to detail and a show of respect for fans that have followed them. There are some nice Egyptian/middle eastern themes that run throughout the record, and fans will pick up on quite a few links to the past. Most appropriate are the melodic elements that recall songs from "Something Wicked," particularly in the instrumental “Cataclysm.”

I continue to be impressed by the way that Tim Owens’ voice meshes with the music, and as much as I like the older records, I really think this is what the band was always meant to sound like. Here, Owens gets to stretch his vocals and be a little more expressive, from angry snarls to soaring, exultant high notes. Though the Halford-like screams are still there, on this record he finally manages to break away from his image as a clone of the legendary singer he replaced in Judas Priest and emerge as a dynamic vocalist in his own right.

In these days of disposable single-song downloads, it’s always refreshing when a band releases a record that demands to be taken as a whole. "Framing Armageddon" certainly does that. If you take the pieces apart, you lose the thread that makes the whole a great album. It’s easily one of the best releases of the year. So why am I reserving judgment? Because I haven’t heard the work as a whole yet. I look forward to hearing the second half, so that I can experience the story as it was meant to be heard.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review: Annihilator, "Metal"

The name of this album pretty much says all it needs to say, right?

I still remember the first time I heard Annihilator. I was a senior in high school when a friend of mine popped "Alice in Hell" into the tape deck of my truck. When the soft, classical strains of "Crystal Ann" came out of my speakers, I was impressed. When the schizophrenic riffing of "Alison Hell" started, I was sold. It was some of the craziest stuff I'd ever heard, manic time and melody changes, but it all seemed to work. By the end of the day, I owned the album and I still consider it one of the greatest (and most underrated) thrash records of all time.

The band followed with "Never, Neverland," which was still a solid record despite being slightly less aggressive and having a new vocalist. Things began to unravel with the third record, "Set the World on Fire," which featured yet a third vocalist (who was not particularly appealing) and the band's least aggressive songs. Some were practically radio-friendly.

Since then, Waters and the revolving door of musicians have been hit and miss, but certainly he's hit more than he's missed. With this record, he goes for the Santana approach, bringing in guest stars from some of the biggest metal acts out there today. Including Jeff Loomis from Nevermore, Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom, Anders Bjorler from The Haunted, Michael Amott and Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy, Jesper Stormblad of In Flames, Corey Beaulieu from Trivium, Willie Adler from Lamb of God.

To me, it's kind of strange that Waters brings in guest guitarists when he's one of the best out there. But after hearing the album, I think he probably should have stuck with guitarists. Make no mistake. This is an Annihilator record. Waters wrote all of the songs, and none of the guest musicians really make an impact on the sound. The guest singers on the other hand have a big impact.

In the early going of the record, the vocals are just not aggressive enough for an Annihilator album. As much as I like Nevermore, Loomis just doesn't do it for me on "Clown Parade," and Danko Jones is almost enough to ruin a good tune on "Couple Suicide." Then there's the kind of cheesy "Army of One," with its name-dropping and a chorus I just can't bring myself to sing along with: "We are an army of one." Ummm... OK.

But from the fourth track on, this record is pure Annihilator. It starts with "Downright Dominate," featuring Laiho. Dave Padden, who has provided vocals for the past few Annihilator records, moves back to a more aggressive sound and we start to get those snarled choruses I expect from the band. Waters himself takes a turn on vocals for "Operation Annihilation," which recalls the band's early work, and there are also some nods here and there that fans will appreciate, particularly little snippets reminiscent of "The Fun Palace" from "Never, Neverland" and "Criteria for a Black Widow" from the record of the same name. Waters is still one of the greatest technical thrash guitarists to ever strap up, and he proves it again with these riffs.

While it gets off to a rough start, over the second half, "Metal" transforms into a serious contender for my end of the year Top 10 list. It's the second killer album from Waters in a row. Maybe he's finally getting back on track. Now, how about getting this thing released in the U.S. so we don't have to shell out for the import?

Get "Metal."

Read my review of Annihilator's "10 Years in Hell" DVD.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Review: Ted Nugent, "Love Grenade"

When it comes to Ted Nugent, there's not a lot of middle ground. People generally love him or hate him, and he wouldn't have it any other way. It's why he brags about graduating "magna cum loudmouth" in "Funk U."

On his last record "Craveman," Nugent really got back to what he does best. He skipped the boys choir vocals of Derek St. Holmes and gave us a blast of full-on, rowdy Uncle Nuge. The result was a raucous and raunchy rock record that rivaled his best work. True, I like a few of the songs that St. Holmes sang, but what I really want from Ted Nugent is "Free for All," "Cat Scratch Fever," "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." With the exception of "Dog Eat Dog" and "Stranglehold," all of my favorite songs are ones that Nuge sang himself. It's sort of like the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar situation in Van Halen. Sure St. Holmes and Hagar are better singers than Nugent or Roth, but they lack the character and charisma. And which one would you rather pay to see live?

Nugent also handles all the vocals on this record, and as you'd expect, it's huge, raw and bombastic. Nugent cranks out riff after riff in a celebration of sex, hunting and political incorrectness with few snoozers. The title track is a fairly generic 1980s-sounding Nugent tune. The softer, more reflective tune here, "Spirit of the Buffalo," also misses the magic he achieved with the similar "Fred Bear," despite some nice bluesy guitar runs. Beyond that it's full on, goofy Spinal Tap goodness.

Nugent hits his stride on the loud, out of control "Funk U." He cranks up his classic "Journey to the Center of the Mind," originally recorded with the Amboy Dukes, for the 40th anniversary of the song. He takes potshots at political figures in "Stand," and he breaks out the funk on the chorus of "Bridge Over Troubled Daughters." One of the strongest performances here, though, is also one of the more subdued, "Broadside." (That's right, I used the words subdued and Ted Nugent in the same review.) The song opens with a soaring riff that's not quite as raw and in your face as the rest here, and the Motown-style harmony vocals on the chorus are a nice touch. Of course, Nuge can't resist a bout of screaming insanity at the end of the song - it really wouldn't be a Nugent song without it, would it?

The Motor City Madman even manages to make the listener feel icky for singing along with a song in the special way that only he can on "Girl Scout Cookies." The song itself is just plain wrong, but damn that's a sweet groove.

If you go into this record thinking Nugent is an arrogant, loudmouth, sexist pig (and who doesn't?), "Love Grenade" definitely does nothing to change your mind. If you're looking for some greasy, rough around the edges rock 'n' roll that shoots from the hip, to borrow a line from a classic Nuge tune, this is just what the doctor ordered.
Read my review of the "Full Bluntal Nugity" DVD from a couple of years back.

Get "Love Grenade."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stuck in my Head: "Payback," Slayer

It was this day in 2001 that Slayer’s "God Hates Us All" arrived in my mailbox. It was late that night before I actually had the chance to hear it, for obvious reasons. I had been called into work a couple of hours early for an all-hands-on-deck day that lasted well into the night.

On any other day, the vitriol of the final track on that record, "Payback," might have gotten a chuckle out of me. On this day, I was right with Tom Araya when he was screaming out "I’m going to tear your fucking eyes out, rip your fucking flesh off, beat you ’til you’re just a fucking lifeless carcass." Though unnoticed in the mainstream, which latched on to artists like Alan Jackson, in the days and months that followed Sept. 11, 2001, Slayer’s "Payback" was a song that expressed the anger and frustration that many people felt.

Obviously, "Payback" was written prior to the attacks and without knowledge of them, but there’s an eerie resonance between the lyrics and the events of that day and those that followed:

No matter what you think you’re gonna see/ You never wanted this barrage of fucking pride

When you draw first blood you can’t stop this fight

And of course,

Payback’s a bitch, motherfucker.

It didn’t hurt that it was one of the heaviest, fastest, most aggressive Slayer tracks in years. Though not intended for that purpose, the song was incredibly cathartic after the days of dealing with a constant barrage of news, rumors and body counts in the after math of the attacks. It offered a way for this metal fan to vent his frustrations by cranking it up on the way home from work and screaming along, imagining that, just maybe, the song described exactly how bin Laden’s end would come. In a perfect world, maybe it would have.

Hear a sample of "Payback."

Get "God Hates Us All."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review: Widow - "Nightlife"

Man, what a difference a few years can make. When Widow’s 2005 release "On Fire" landed in front of me, I thought it was great. It was this campy, horror-themed traditional metal with just enough of a modern touch to make it interesting. It was definitely on the cheesy side, but the band seemed to embrace that cheesiness. I came away pretty impressed with what was a cliché-filled, but fun record that was hard to resist, sort of like Dream Evil’s last album.

With the 2007 version of Widow, the cheesiness is still there, but much of the fun is gone. There have been some lineup changes, most notably frontwoman Lili is gone, leaving guitarist John E. Wooten IV as the primary vocalist, with guitarist Chris Bennett offering up the screams. If you liked "On Fire," you’ll miss her. The middle of the road male vocals on that record are the majority of this record, and for the most part they’re bland. The songs fare better when Bennett starts screaming, but occasionally he veers too far into a screamo style that’s an instant turn-off, at least for me.

Granted, it’s tough to put any power in your vocals when you’re singing lyrics like “Teacher wants to see me after class/Always winks and shakes her ass/The teacher’s pet/I’m so good.” Sung with a little flair and fun, say the way David Lee Roth delivered “Hot for Teacher,” it could be pretty good. Sung the way Wooten sings it, not so much.

The covers here, Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” and Kiss’ “I Stole Your Love,” are hardly worth mentioning. Both are butcher jobs. They try to speed them up into power metal songs and add some screams, I guess to make them heavier, but most of us like the songs just fine the way they were. If all you can bring to the song is a faster drumbeat and a few screams, just play it straight.

The production is another issue. It sounds somewhat amateurish given the technology available. Being so obviously influenced by early 1980s metal from bands like Maiden and Priest, maybe they were going for that early Maiden feel. At times, though, the drums sound paper thin and hollow and some songs that are not bad suffer from the rough mix. The title track is a great example, with the vocals too far out front, giving it a really cheesy '80s sound.

The record’s not all bad, though. With a more in-your-face production, there are a few songs on here that could be pretty good. I really like “We Will Meet Again,” one of the heavier songs on the record. It reminds me of something off Into Eternity’s "Dead or Dreaming." Musically, I like the riffing on “The Teacher’s Pet,” but I just can’t get past the lyrical challenges. “I’ll Make You a Star” reminds me of some of 3 Inches of Blood’s better stuff, and “At the End” has one of the better openings on the record. It’s one of the few songs where the low end really makes an impact.

Widow's last record was a pleasant surprise for me, but Nightlife is a real disappointment. Though there are some bright spots, by and large it’s just a big mess. I think I’ll stick with Dream Evil for my cheesy fun.

Get "Nightlife."

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Stuck in my Head: "The Saints Are Coming," U2 and Green Day


For every music fan there are those bands that seem to surround you. They're critical darlings, everyone seems to love them and it seems that if you're not a fan, you're somehow disconnected from the rest of your generation. For me, one of those bands is U2.

I've never disliked U2. In fact, I really like a few of their songs, but overall, I'm indifferent. If they come on the radio, I won't switch the station, but neither am I likely to turn up the volume.
But my perception of U2 changed on Sept. 25, 2006, when before the Saints' triumphant return to the Superdome, they took the stage with Green Day (a band that I truly do not like) and pounded out a modified version of The Skids tune "The Saints are Coming."

I wasn't one of the ones in the stands that night, but even through my television the energy and spirit in that building came through. It made me want to stand up off my couch and jump up and down and scream like I was in New Orleans. It was the perfect choice - the kind of high energy song that could pump a crowd up to an even higher level, with lyrics that just about everyone filling the Dome that night could relate to. Sure, the night would have been special and probably just as electric without U2's performance, but it provided the icing.

It provided a triumphant beginning to what was a year of many triumphs in New Orleans, a year where Louisianans love of football really did matter in the wider world and a year where a sports franchise really did make a difference, on and off the field. Every time I hear the song, I'm taken back to that night and a little of that feeling returns.

With the Saints set to kickoff the regular season Thursday night against the Indianapolis Colts, I guess it's only fitting that "The Saints are Coming" should be running around in my head. I've got more excitement about this season of Saints football than I've ever had in my entire life. Prediction? Tune in Thursday to see a preview of this year's Super Bowl.

Stuck in my Head is an occasional feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my head at the moment.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Review: Sixx A.M. - "The Heroin Diaries"

I'll admit it, I'm a Motley Crue fanboy. I own every record they've ever put out, even the really horrible stuff from the late 1990s, and "Shout at the Devil" would still make my list of top metal records. I've also at least checked out all of the solo attempts by the band's members. I've listened to Tommy Lee's laughable attempts at rapping and his pathetic attempts at showing his sensitive side. I've listened to Vince Neil try in vain to keep making Motley Crue records on his own. I've listened to Nikki Sixx's forays into punk with Brides of Destruction (which actually had some decent moments.) Ultimately, though it seems that every time I hear one of them, I have a lot more respect for Mick Mars.

So the latest is Sixx: A.M.'s self-indulgent "The Heroin Diaries," a soundtrack to Sixx's self-indulgent book of the same name. I heard "Life is Beautiful" on the radio, and thought it wasn't too bad in a radio-friendly rock sort of way. Sure beats the hell out of Nickelback. Then I took a listen to the album, which opens with "X-mas in Hell," basically Sixx rambling on about his drug abuse with, to borrow a phrase from the forums at Digital Metal, "a hackneyed use of Carmina Burana." He returns to that a couple of times during the record, mixing spoken word with a take on some classical piece.

To be honest, the Nickelback-like stuff on this record is really the best stuff here, and that's sad. The rest is Sixx trying to be the artiste that he's always wanted to be, but never really had the talent to be. Outside of "Life is Beautiful," the 1980s alternative rock-influenced "Pray for Me" isn't bad and a few of the other songs like "Dead Man's Ballet" and "Heart Failure" have their moments. But Sixx's attempts to channel Bowie and weave classical into the songs really just don't work. I mean, you just have a hard time buying the kind of depth this record is trying to sell from a guy that's been selling us sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll for 25 years or so.

I'm sure there are some devoted followers of the cult of Sixx (and yes, sadly enough, it does exist, I've met them) who will believe this is a masterpiece, and if I'm being honest, it is an ambitious project. Unfortunately, I don't think most people really want depth and introspection from Nikki Sixx. They want the kind of three-chord, fun rock 'n' roll that he got rich writing. The bottom line is that I'd much rather be holding a new Crue record filled with tunes like "Sick Love Song" from their best of compilation a couple of years ago, and that's the problem. Sixx and Lee can try to distance themselves from Motley Crue and try to prove that there's more substance to them musically, but at the end of the night the people in the audience really just want to hear "Shout at the Devil."

Get "The Heroin Diaries."

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Stuck in my Head: "Long-Haired Country Boy" - Charlie Daniels

It's been my long-time habit, that when I'm working on a story by an artist that I like, I listen to a good bit of that artist's music. So, with Charlie Daniels coming to town for a festival, I find myself listening to his music to get into the right frame of mind to write the story.

Of course, it's not like I have to go out of my way to hear this song. Every time my cell phone rings, I hear Daniels sing the words, "If you don't like the way I'm livin'/You just leave this long-haired country boy alone." I've kind of taken the song on as a personal anthem, since, well, I do have long hair (what's left of it) and I am a country boy. More than that, though, I do really relate to the lyrics. No, I don't get stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon (and neither has Daniels in a whole lot of years), but you could certainly find some people who think I'm no good and crazy as a loon.

But the drug reference lines that people remember - "I don't want much of nothing at all, but I will take another toke" - belie the real message of the song, which is about living a simple, honest life and not trying to be anything but what you are.
For me, the chorus of the song is a great philosophy of life:
I ain't asking nobody for nothing, if I can't get it on my own; If you don't like the way I'm livin', you just leave this long-haired country boy alone.

I first heard the song as a child and was reintroduced to it in the late 1980s when it was covered by a hard rock act called Every Mother's Nightmare. I still like that version, but nothing really compares to the original. Daniels himself even revisited the song on his record "Blues Hat" with a bluesy take. Most recently, Daniels did a hybrid blues-country version of the song on his "Live from Iraq" record that came out earlier this year, and it was one of the highlights of that record. I still have trouble getting past the changed lyrics on newer versions, though.

Like several of Daniels' songs, it's been a long time since he sang the lines that reference drugs and alcohol. He now gets up in the morning and down in the afternoon, and he tells another joke as opposed to taking another toke. It's understandable that a Daniels in his 70s, who is just as likely to break out into a gospel song as one of his hits, would want to distance himself from some of the foolish things he did in his past. Still, I've always hated when people mess around with the songs I love.

Though Daniels has changed and the song has changed, the fundamental message of the song still rings true - keep it simple, be yourself and don't let the bastards get you down. The world would be a lot better place if we could all live like that.

Hear a sample of "Long-Haired Country Boy."

Get "The Ultimate Charlie Daniels Band."

Get "A Decade of Hits."

Get "The Essential Charlie Daniels Band."

Stuck in my Head is an occasional feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my head at the moment.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Review: Slough Feg - "Hardworlder"

Critics rave about them, in-the-know fans on message boards sing their praises, but for some reason it seems that no one in the wider music world has heard of Slough Feg, and that's a shame. This is some of the best pure, unadulterated old school metal going. With one foot in the 1970s, the other in the 1980s, a hand in the future and one finger firmly extended toward the current musical trends, it's hard not to like them and it's even harder not to respect what they do.

Perhaps you could call their music a little old-fashioned, but I'd prefer to call it timeless. Remember the first time you heard Number of the Beast? Hearing a Slough Feg record is like that. Know how much you still enjoy Number of the Beast when you pull it out on occasion? In 25 years, I suspect a Slough Feg record will be just like that. Great music doesn't go out of style, and that's what makes this "old-fashioned" sounding record far superior to other retro bands that just copy the sounds. Slough Feg has the heart, soul and depth those bands lack. It's almost as if they were a band formed in the same moment as bands like Maiden and somehow transported through time - which would also fit right in with the themes of some of their songs.

Hardworlder blends traditional metal, power metal, doom, folk metal and 1970s hard rock into a potent cocktail that leaves the listener not quite knowing what might pop up next. There are epic folk-influenced numbers like "The Sea Wolf," where you can picture the salty dogs on deck waving a bottle of rum and almost hear the waves slapping against the boat. From there, you're transported to the futuristic jam session, "Galactic Nomad," which is heavily influenced by Thin Lizzy.

The real power here is in the guitar work of Michael Scalzi (who also handles vocals) and "Don" Angelo Tringali. The pair work the twin guitar attack like few before them - guys named Murray and Smith or Tipton and Downing. The band also manages to capture the spirit, feel and warmth of a late 1970s, early 1980s record without sacrificing the clarity or production values of modern recording.

After listening to numbers like "Tiger! Tiger!," "The Spoils" and the galloping "Insomnia," I have no doubt the band could do excellent covers of obvious tunes by Maiden and other big bands of the time, but that leads to another thing I love about this record. They do a couple of covers, but instead of trotting out the obvious, they go for more obscure songs that most listeners won't know. Here, they cover Irish rocker "Dearg Doom" by the Horslips, which is one of the best numbers on the record, and "Streetjammer" from Manilla Road.

Hardworlder is metal as it was meant to be played. If you're among those who aren't familiar with Slough Feg, do yourself a favor and check out the Try Before Buy feature at Cruz Del Sur's Web site to listen to the full record. You won't be sorry.


Get Hardworlder.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Lillian Axe - "Waters Rising"


I grew up in Lillian Axe's Louisiana stomping grounds, checking them out regularly at local clubs once I was old enough to get in (and, truth be told, a few times before). So, even though it's been a lot of years since they've released a new record, and even more since they've really been relevant, I still have a soft spot for the band. They were always great live, and still are. I last saw them about four years ago, and there was just as much energy in the room when they launched into the opening riff of "Misery Loves Company" as there was when I was an 18-year-old in the front row in 1990.

I've waited a while on this record. When I interviewed guitarist Steve Blaze in 2003, they were working on it. Later that week, when I saw them live, they played two impressive songs from it, "Waters Rising" and "Become a Monster." I expected to have the new record in hand by the end of the year. Instead, it took four, but for the Lillian Axe fans that are left, it will be worth the wait.

Though the title track has been written since at least 2003, it's a little more meaningful these days in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as many people in their backyard know what its like to see their lives "slip right through the cracks as I watch it wash away." It makes what was probably already the strongest number on the album from a musical standpoint even more poignant.

In truth, not much has changed with Lillian Axe over the years. The songs are a bit darker, a bit more serious here than songs like "Misery" or "My Number" from their first couple of albums. This one falls somewhere between the sound of Love and War and the heavier, more progressive Psychoschizophrenia, arguably the band's strongest effort. While you can still look for the catchy hooks like the aggressive chorus of "Waters Rising" and the bouncing "Become a Monster," there are also more numbers here like "Antarctica" that go for an epic, story-telling feel.

The biggest change that fans will note is the absence of long-time vocalist Ron Taylor. Taking over the vocal duties on this record is newcomer Derrick LeFevre, who admittedly sounds more than a little like Taylor, but fans who have been with the band since the early days will still likely miss the voice of Lillian Axe. That said, LeFevre does an admirable job on this record, and I have no doubt that he can do justice to the older material live. The focus, of course, has always been on the fretwork of Blaze, and that's as good here as its ever been, as evidenced on the instrumental closer "5" which finds him plying those trademark lightning licks.

As on Psychoschizophrenia, Blaze and co. attempt to stretch their boundaries without breaking from the sound that fans know and love. You'll find little flourishes like the almost reggae-ish opening of "Quarantine" and the cello sounds that begin "Fields of Yesterday." The very dark turns on this record, including "The 2nd of May" and "Deep in the Black," will rank among the band's best work. "The 2nd of May" features a mocking, fairy-tale like lilt in the melody that still manages to be sinister, and "Deep in the Black" is probably the grittiest tune the band has ever done, very brooding but with some nice classical undertones in the heavier parts.

There are of course, a few ballads here, which are hit and miss. "I Have to Die, Goodbye," doesn't quite reach the sense of hopelessness it should, but "Fields of Yesterday" has some interesting melodic elements that raise it above the average ballad. Semi-ballads like "Until the End of the World" are very reminiscent of numbers like "World Stopped Turning" from the band's early years and may take you back a bit.

In all, fans of the band should be pleased with this new, more grown-up version of Lillian Axe. While I don't mind waiting for a quality record like this one, here's hoping we don't have to wait another eight years for a new studio album.

Get "Waters Rising."

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review: Candlemass - "King of the Grey Islands"

So, here’s the second record in Candlemass’ comeback bid, following up the excellent self-titled record from 2005, and not surprisingly considering the band’s history, already there’s a problem. Singer Messiah Marcolin is gone again. But you know what? If I’m being completely honest, that’s not really a problem. Enter Solitude Aeturnus singer Robert Lowe, exit the campy, mad monk, and this record actually gets a boost.

As much as I like Candlemass’ previous efforts, King of the Grey Islands, while not their best overall work, definitely has the best vocals of any of their records. Surprisingly, considering that he’s replacing a guy that wore monk robes, Lowe brings a little more of an unbalanced and manic energy to the songs. It's much less operatic and perhaps just a little more sinister at times. Then again, I’m probably a little biased, since I happen to love Lowe’s work with Solitude Aeturnus.

The record starts on a surprising note with an almost power metal feel on “Emperor of the Void.” It features a little of what we heard on the self-titled record, a little of those 1990s records when Candlemass was really Leif Edling and some other guys and a little of the classic sound all blended together. It also allows Lowe’s vocals to shine early in the record and gives listeners a hint of what they’ll hear later on. After that, King of the Grey Islands settles back into the gloomy and doomy goodness that we’ve come to expect from Candlemass’ best work -- sludgy Sabbath-influenced riffs that crush and groove, lyrics that tell a story and just a solid overall performance. Despite the lineup shift, there’s not a big change in the sound.

The riffs of Mats Bjorkman and Lars Johansson are great, trading off between sparse quiet reflections and undeniable power. Lowe’s influence shows up here and there on tracks like “Destroyer,” which have some Solitude Aeturnus leanings. It should be very interesting to see what happens when Lowe has a little more input on the songs. There are still plenty of doom epics here, perhaps the best being “Clearsight,” which after a galloping opening riff moves into more dramatic territory. Fans should also be pleased with the final track on the record, “Embracing the Styx.” Hell, fans should be pleased with just about every song here. It’s a great album, and it’s sure to be high on a lot of end of year lists, mine included.

Get "King of the Grey Islands."

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Stuck in My Head: White Lion - "Radar Love"

I don't like White Lion. I got so sick of "When the Children Cry" that I felt like puking every time I heard it. Mike Tramp's vocal inflections - "I never had a chance to laave you" - often annoyed me. And while I respected Vito Bratta's abilities as a guitarist, I never found his licks overly inspiring.

Add to that the fact that covers rarely come anywhere close to matching the original, and it would have been a safe bet that White Lion's version of Golden Earring's "Radar Love" would never get anywhere near my stereo. Surprise. It's the reason that I actually own a White Lion CD today.

Sometimes things that shouldn't work just do, and this is one of those times.

I still enjoy the Golden Earring version of "Radar Love," but it's always seemed a little stiff to me. After all, Golden Earring was among the wave of 1970s prog acts that took their music very seriously, and I just don't think they found the fun in the song. White Lion, on the other hand, came from the decade of excess where the primary goal of a hard rock band was to get paid, get drunk and get laid. They got it, and the result is a much looser and smoother rock 'n' roll song than the original.

For some reason, Tramp's voice isn't as nerve-grating to me on this track, and the smooth fills by Bratta between lines are some of the few he produced that would make me give a good guitar face when I'm playing air guitar along with the song (or the version of the song on the latest "Guitar Hero" game).

The White Lion version of the song has all but been forgotten by radio, which after the demise of the "hair band" scene of the 1980s, reverted back to the original. But for me, it remains the best version of the song. In any form, though, "Radar Love" is a near perfect rock 'n' roll song.

Hear a sample of "Radar Love."

Get White Lion's "Big Game."

Get "The Best of White Lion."

Stuck in my Head is an occasional feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my head at the moment.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Review: "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s"


With the exception of the "Madden" football series, I rarely find a video game that comes anywhere near an addiction. (I'm in the 20th or so season of my Saints franchise in Madden '05, the most recent version I own.) Usually I get a game, play it a good bit the first week or two I have it and either finish it or hit a dead end. Then it goes on the shelf, and I may pull it out occasionally and give it another shot.

When I received "Guitar Hero II" as a Christmas gift, I'll admit, I got addicted. I lost hours of my life to this game. For those who are unfamiliar, the game comes with a plastic Gibson SG with five fretting buttons, a picking button and a whammy bar. You follow along with the songs in the game by hitting the appropriate fret buttons and the picking button. The whammy is used to pick up power-ups. The most surprising thing to me, being as I could play many of the songs in the game on my real guitar, was that, often, the songs are tougher to play on the game than in real life.

So, when "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s" was announced, I had to get it as soon as possible. After all, I love the game, and I'm a child of the '80s. The song list covers most of the bases of the 1980s. There's the new wave sound with Oingo Boingo and Flock of Seagulls, the pop of The Go-Gos and Scandal, arena rockers such as Billy Squier and The Police and metal masters like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. There are even a few off the wall choices, such as the fictional band Limozeen. (Then again, Spinal Tap and Dethklok, the band from Cartoon Network's "Metalocalypse," were featured in GHII).

The first thing you should know is that this isn't really a new game. With "Guitar Hero III" due out for the next gen consoles in October, this is more like a supplement to "Guitar Hero II" to hold fans over. The story arc of the game is the same as GHII, there aren't any new characters or twists, and the guitars you win by mastering the different levels are the same as GHII. I also miss the ability to buy more songs that you have in the last installment and there are fewer characters and costumes, but none of those are fatal flaws.

If there's one thing that's most disappointing about "Rocks the '80s," it's the brevity of the game. There are only 30 songs here. I breezed through the easy and medium levels in two nights. True, there were only 40 songs in GHII, but there were many more available to purchase with the points you earn through performances.
Though a few songs, like Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and Judas Priest's "Electric Eye," are originals, most of the songs, as in the first two games, are done by a cover band. That means a few of them are really bad. The vocals on this version of Dio's "Holy Diver" are cringeworthy, though to be fair, it's a bit tough to compete with Ronnie James Dio in the vocal department. Most of them are at least passable, and one or two (usually songs I didn't really like to begin with) I actually like a little better.

So, it sounds like I didn't like the game, which isn't true at all. It was just a little disappointing after the great GHII. It is what it is, an add-on to the game to give fans 30 new songs to play to hold them over until GHIII arrives. As far as gameplay goes, it's just as much fun as its predecessors and if you enjoyed them, you'll enjoy this installment. Here's hoping for a few more bells and whistles in October.

Get "Guitar Hero Encore."

Get "Guitar Hero II" with guitar for PS2.

Get "Guitar Hero II" with guitar for Xbox 360.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Review: Metalium - "Nothing to Undo"


Whatever it was that I once liked about Metalium has apparently left my system. I don’t dislike the band, it’s more like a pleasant wallpaper pattern to me these days. While it’s in the CD player, I might remark on how nice it sounds, but once I’m no longer listening to it, I quickly forget it.

For one thing, the shtick is getting a little old after six albums. It’s time to retire the Metalian theme (their metal hero who has been fighting injustice or whatever for the past six records). And it’s definitely time to get rid of the silly spoken word pieces. Rather than sounding cool and cryptic as the band hopes, they sound goofy and break the flow of the music. On “Mental Blindness,” for example, the eye roll over the spoken word opener takes away from the nice guitar riff that follows.

Riffs are something this record has in abundance. I’ll give credit where it’s due to guitarist Matthias Lange for bringing some solid traditional metal guitar to the project. All of the best tracks here – “Spirit,” “Heroes Failed,” “Follow the Sign” – are built on a solid riff. Unfortunately, the band can’t craft a memorable song around those riffs. There’s not really a weakness here. Henning Basse’s voice is solid and the rhythm section is not bad. It’s just that I’ve heard every song on this record hundreds of times.

Even the best song, the slightly Egyptian-flavored “Follow the Sign,” is forgettable. In fact, the song that really stands out here – for the wrong reasons – is actually one of the worst, the mandatory, overly melodramatic ballad “Way Home,” which finds the band in Queen worship mode. Oddly enough, as slow songs go, Metalium fares much better on their cover of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” which closes the record. It’s a faithful version that isn’t half bad.

In 1987, I might have sung the praises of this record. In 2007, it’s tired and overdone and doesn’t really offer the listener anything to latch on to.

Get "Nothing to Undo."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still Spinning: W.A.S.P. - "W.A.S.P."


In the 1980s, metal was largely divided between the more commercial glam and hair band fans and the jeans, leather and T-shirt guys who were banging their heads to bands like Metallica, Maiden, Megadeth, Slayer and Priest. Very few bands managed to cross those lines and appeal to some fans from both sides, one of those was W.A.S.P., and with one listen to their 1984 debut, it's pretty easy to see why.

The image that W.A.S.P. brought to the stage was bizarre. They latched on to the over-the-top theatrics of Alice Cooper, drinking blood, flaming codpieces and a spinning rack with a person stretched across it. Though in recent years we've seen singer Blackie Lawless sans codpiece and saw blades and know he's a relatively normal guy, in those days, he was the terror of mothers around the world.

But putting aside the image, what W.A.S.P. delivered on record was a solid, if perhaps simplistic, product. They took a base of Chuck Berry-style rock 'n' roll and fed it steroids (and perhaps a few mind-altering substances) until it turned into a Frankenstein monster of rock, hooks and metal with enough edge to please the hardcore metal fan and enough catchiness for fans of the more commercial.

The record opens with a metal explosion on "I Wanna Be Somebody," which, in its time, was a pretty damned heavy song. That's followed by the huge, sing-along hook of "L.O.V.E. Machine." Why this song wasn't a monster hit at radio still boggles my mind. Hear it once, and it's tough to get out of your head.

To be fair, there are a few duds here. While I thought "School Daze" was a great song when I was 13, I just can't get into the spirit of it at 34. Likewise there are lyrical challenges in songs like "B.A.D." which mixes lyrics I really like - The tears that you cry leave a bloodstain/ They fall to the ground like a sweet rain - with ones that kind of make me cringe - B - A -D, bad/ Make your mom and daddy sad.

Still, there's no denying the staying power of the more solid songs here. I'll still crank "Hellion" up until it threatens to blow out the speakers in my truck, and it still has one of my favorite "rock rules" lines - The gods you worship are steel/ At the altar of rock 'n' roll you kneel. Likewise, "Tormentor," "The Flame," "On Your Knees" and "The Torture Never Stops" still hold up after all these years. There's even a nod to the times with the ballad "Sleeping in the Fire," though with lyrics that invited fans to Taste the love, the Lucifer's magic, it wasn't likely to be a radio hit.

In the years since this record and "The Last Command," Blackie seems to have fallen victim to what I often call the "inner artiste." He's gotten lost in lofty concepts and records that put story before music and largely sound the same. It would be nice to see him throw concept out the window and make a return to the kind of fun and raunchy rock that still makes those albums so enjoyable.

Listen to a sample of "Hellion."

Get "W.A.S.P."

Get the 2-in-1 record with "W.A.S.P." and "The Last Command."