Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: Susperia - Cut From Stone

It's a bit surprising that a band formed by former Dimmu Borgir drummer Tjodalv and Satyricon guitarist Cyrus has little or no black metal leanings. Instead it’s very much a classic thrash sound with some interesting compositional choices that add a dark, moody flavor to what could otherwise be easily written off as Metallica/Testament worship based on the pure thrash parts.

A perfect example of those choices working is “Release,” one of the strongest tracks here. It opens with a nice driving bass line and dark verse that leads to a melodic chorus that puts me in mind of Sentenced. It’s the first time the band really treads into that territory on the record which through the first four songs very much stayed in the thrash realm. They revisit the sound frequently in the last half of the album with doomy choruses reminiscent of Sentenced or Paradise Lost. “Under” is another great example opening with an almost-commercial clean, bouncy guitar lick leading into a nicely flowing, catchy song, even if it’s probably the least heavy on the record. I could really hear this being a breakout kind of song for the band.

That's not to say that the straight thrash stuff is weak. Quite the contrary. Album opener “More” and “Brother,” which features a nice screaming chorus that reminds me of early Sepultura, are solid thrashers that put a modern spin on a classic sound. Susperia gets something that a lot of the new breed of thrash bands don’t, and that’s that even though you play the same kind of music as other bands, you have to have your own unique character and sound. So while a song like “The Clone” reminds the listener of Testament, it doesn’t sound like a band trying to copy Testament.

Still, it’s the doomy stuff that really works for the band and gives vocalist Athera a chance to show the versatility of his voice, from deathish growls to thrash barks to more melodic bits. Those are the songs that are really going to stick in your head and make you want to return to the record.

Though Susperia caught my attention with their last record, Unlimited, Cut From Stone is really the first Susperia record that I’ve spent any quality time with. I may have to go back and dig into the catalog a bit.

Get "Cut From Stone."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review: UDO - "Mastercutor"

I never was a big Accept fan, largely because the vocals of Udo Dirkschneider grated on my nerves. So it should go without saying that I didn’t give much thought to Udo’s solo albums at all after the first one or two. I still find Dirkschneider’s vocals one step this side of nails on a chalkboard, but I also have to admit to actually enjoy this record. It reminds me a little of Rob Halford’s Resurrection, solid, driving traditional metal that sounds more than a little like Judas Priest.

Let’s just skip the silly game show intro and get right into the title track, a catchy tune that reminds me a lot of Priest’s “Night Crawler,” at least on the verse. That’s followed up with “The Wrong Side of Midnight,” featuring the same kind of head-bobbing riff as the Accept classic “Balls to the Wall,” though the choral “aiaiaiaiaiai” bits get a little old. In fact the biggest strength of this record is not Udo’s voice, it’s guitarists Stefan Kaufmann and Igor Gianola boldly riffing like it’s 1984, with a slightly better guitar sound. Though they still do maintain that slightly mechanical sound that Accept had, particularly on songs like “The Instigator.” There’s not an old school metal fan out there that can’t listen to the main riffs of “We Do – For You” (despite its lyrical challenges) or “Master of Disaster” without bobbing a head.

Then there are some things that a guy like Udo should never try. Chief among those things is a ballad. Here he tries two. “One Lone Voice” is OK. It’s got a really cool chorus melody with a just slightly distorted vocal that sounds almost a little goth metal-ish to me, but the verse vocals are flat and lifeless. The other, “Tears of a Clown,” is really, really bad. As annoying as Dirkschneider’s vocals are when he’s doing his best Halford imitation, just wait until you hear him trying to be a crooner.

The other thing he shouldn’t try is disco. No, there’s no outright dance track here, but the last song on the record, “Crash Bang Crash,” might as well have a mirror ball spinning as it starts. The song gets better, but it’s hard to get past the goofy opening and chorus.

To be honest, those are the only two real missteps on the record, though. The other 10 tracks are about as solid as any fan of traditional metal could want. They’re crunchy, they’re catchy, and despite my personal aversion to Udo’s nasally snarls, I can’t deny the pure old school appeal of these songs. I can’t really say how Mastercutor stacks up against Udo’s catalog because I’m not familiar enough with his other work. But it’s certainly in the same league as his early work in Accept.

Get "Mastercutor."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Stuck in My Head: Amon Amarth - "Cry of the Black Birds"

If this song doesn't get you pumped up, it's time to cut your hair, retire the spiked wristband and hang up the horns. Though they've been doing Viking metal for as long as they've been around, this is perhaps one of the most Viking songs Amon Amarth has ever done in my mind.

It's all about that first verse. The guitar, drums and bass all join together on those hammering downbeats and Johan Hegg snarls out each word on the beat, holding out the last in a guttural war cry.

Raise your swords up high,
See the black birds fly,
Let them hear your rage,
Show no fear

There's just something so utterly primal about that short piece of music. It's the kind of piece that so many metal bands long to write, but few ever accomplish. It just makes you want to jump up and grab a sword and go out and kill something -- or it should.

Don't turn the sound down after that, though, because there's nice work elsewhere on this track. Guitarists Johan Soderberg and Olli Miikonen deliver up some tasty melodic work, and the entire band is tight, as is always the case with Amon Amarth. The rest of the track is a testosterone-raging battle hymn, as well, proving again that, despite what a lot of death metal bands think, you don't have to abandon melody to write a brutally heavy song.

But without that first verse, it's just a pretty good Amon Amarth tune. With that verse, it's a berserker battle cry that the metal gods can't possibly ignore.

Listen to a sample of "Cry of the Black Birds."

Get Amon Amarth's "With Oden on Our Side."

Stuck in my head is a regular feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my mind at the moment.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Review: Blood Tsunami - "Thrash Metal"

Name your record Thrash Metal and you’ve got my attention. Of course, you’d better deliver what you promise, too. Blood Tsunami does.

The band is firmly entrenched in the worlds of 1980s German thrash and the San Francisco Bay area style, which of course, produced thrash’s biggest names. So what you’ll hear here is tight, blazing drums from former Emperor drummer Faust and fast technical guitar work from frontman Pete Evil and rhythm guitarist Dor Amazon. OK, so their stage names could use some work, but it’s the musicianship we’re talking about here, and that’s not in question.

Blood Tsunami can rip out aggressive, almost melodic death metal blasts as on the opening track “Evil Unleashed,” and undeniable grooves as on the Exodus-influenced “Devoured by Flames.” Sometimes they do it in the same song – check out “Rampage of Revenge,” which is probably the strongest track on the record with one foot in each world. “Infernal Final Carnage” opens with a riff that could have been pulled straight from Metallica’s “Kill ’Em All,” but the band throws a curve when Evil unleashes a black metal rasp for the vocals. And that’s the real departure from the classic thrash sound. Pete Evil is screeching and rasping and occasionally bassist Bosse throws out a deep death metal rumble which serves as a nice counterpoint and adds that little needed punch in the gut to several of the songs.

Like most of the thrash bands of the 1980s, Blood Tsunami has to offer up the epic 10-minute number. For this record, it’s “Godbeater,” which clocks in at 10:01. It’s a surprisingly strong performance, as the band backs off on the throttle a little bit and goes for a chugging, heavier riff to open the song. The black metal influence comes through again on the atmospheric parts of the song, and you’ll even catch a stray death metal touch here and there. But this is true classic thrash, reminiscent of Metallica’s “Orion” (right down to a wah-wah-laden solo straight from the Kirk Hammett songbook), and probably the best instrumental thrash piece that I’ve heard since Metallica quit doing them.

True, there’s nothing really original or groundbreaking here. It’s more of an homage to a bygone era, but it’s a goddamned good one. It does an old thrasher’s heart good to hear the music played like this again. Long live thrash and long live Blood Tsunami.

Buy "Thrash Metal."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Still Spinning: Aerosmith - "Aerosmith"

Most people would probably consider Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" the band's best record, and you could certainly make a case for that when you hear the mega-hits "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" in regular rotation more than 30 years later. For me, though, "Toys" is No. 3 on the list of Aerosmith records, behind 1976's "Rocks" (one of the finest rock albums of all time) and the self-titled debut from 1973.

I like debut records in general. Sure, most bands take three or four records to really polish their sound and get that big breakthrough, and that's exactly why I prefer the debut. The debut is raw. The debut is real. The debut has all of the energy and desire of the band packed into it, even if it doesn't have all of the talent they'll eventually display.

Aerosmith's debut is no different, though it did spawn a few certified classics. We'll go ahead and get those out of the way. There's never been a much better power ballad recorded than "Dream On" (though it took a few years before people caught on to it), and "Mama Kin" is quite simply one of the greatest raw, hard rock songs ever written. Those two songs alone make this a great rock record, but dig a little deeper, and you'll find a lot more to like.

No less powerful is the funky, bluesy groove of the opening of "Movin' Out," another personal fave. Joe Perry's twangy riff paired with Steven Tyler's countrified vocal inflection on the opening make it practically impossible to get out of your head once you hear it. The blues influence that would become more and more prevalent on their 1970s records really shines on "One Way Street," with Tyler at times going into falsetto hysterics over the laid back groove provided by the rest of the band.

Finally, there's the cover of Rufus Thomas' "Walkin' the Dog," which is one of the more interesting tracks here. It's a very funky number, almost a dance song, and Joe Perry's muted string rakes in the chorus are almost like a forerunner of the record scratching that arrived with hip hop in the 1980s.

Admittedly, much of this record was an effort in Stones worship, but there are strong flashes of what the band would become, with shades of blues and even jazz swinging through the songs here. As great a record as "Toys" is, given the choice between the two, I'll take this one every time. It's probably Aerosmith's most underrated effort.

Hear a sample of "Walkin' the Dog."

Buy "Aerosmith."

Still Spinning is an occasional feature about an older record that still gets regular time in my CD player.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review: Dream Theater - "Systematic Chaos"

We get it, already. Dream Theater is an incredibly talented band capable of writing and performing very technical and complex songs. Still, they feel that they have to keep proving it by writing 15-minute-plus epics that showcase their mastery of their instruments.

There's a reason that "Pull Me Under" from 1992's "Images and Words" was the band's biggest commercial success. It married the technical with the hummable, and its 8-plus minutes didn't feel like an eternity the way many of the songs on this record do. The best here are "Constant Motion," a thrashy tune with the only semblance of a hook on the album, and "Dark Eternal Night," which features one of the best grooves (and some of the worst vocals).

On the other end of the spectrum are the disco-like beat of "Prophets of War" and the elevator music ballad "Repentance," which will likely have listeners snoozing by the halfway point. In between, you'll find "Forsaken," in which a lifeless verse steals the power of its opening guitar riff, and "In the Presence of Enemies Part II," which has a great seven-minute song buried about six minutes into its 16-minute running time.

I'll admit that perhaps I'm no longer in the core audience for a band like Dream Theater as I was in the 1990s. I have drifted farther and farther away from prog as I've gotten older, and while there are some great moments scattered throughout the record, I find the majority of the songs on this album incredibly boring.

Ultimately, to me, it seems like a lot of "look what we can do," and very little real songwriting. True, you don't want a band like Dream Theater doing standard verse-chorus-verse constructions or playing to the lowest common denominator, but a hook every now and then wouldn't hurt anything, either.

Buy Systematic Chaos.

Buy the limited edition Systematic Chaos.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Review: 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 -- the second picture 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).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Stuck in My Head: Faster Pussycat - "Bathroom Wall"

For some reason, I've been hearing this song a lot lately. Caught the video on VH1 Classic, heard it on XM. Heck, it even popped up in a song shuffle on my computer. Before that, it had been years since I'd listened to this song, and I've got to say, regardless of how you feel about the 1980s hair scene, you've got to admit that some pretty good rock 'n' roll party tunes came out of it, and this is one of them.

Shallow? Definitely. There's not enough depth here for a wading pool. Heck, there's not enough depth for a good bath. But it's hard to keep from nodding your head when that driving bass line kicks in, and then comes that familiar wailing guitar lick. Simplistic? Absolutely. But try getting it out of your head once you hear it. And that opening solo just oozes laid back cool.

Besides that, when I was growing up the first three digits of the phone numbers in my town were 281. The person who had 281-7668 had a couple of rough years when this song came out. (It was changed to the generic 555 in a later version of the song.) Ah, the simple pleasures of youth, spoiled by the advent of caller ID... Of course, I never called it myself. I wouldn't have ever done anything like that.

No, it's not a song that's going to change your world (unless your phone number happens to be 281-7668, I guess.) It's not going to make you think about anything or offer any redeeming qualities whatsoever. This song is all about having fun and escaping from everyday concerns, and on that point, I often think perhaps the hair band guys got it right. Isn't that, in a way, what rock 'n' roll is all about? If you're cruising down the highway with the top down on a summer day, just looking to get away and have a little fun, it would be tough to beat this song blaring out of the radio -- even if you feel compelled to turn it down when you stop at a red light so no one hears you listening to it.

Listen to a sample of "Bathroom Wall."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Review: 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.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stuck in My Head: Danzig - "Come to Silver"

When most people think of Danzig, they think of a musclebound, snarling lovechild of Elvis and Jim Morrison that sings about the devil and monsters. (Well, except those who think about a city in Poland, of course.) The truth behind the skull-painted face of the Misfits’ frontman and his brooding lord of evil metal persona, though, is that Glenn Danzig has never really been the one-trick pony he may seem. Over the course of 20 years in music, he’s recorded two classical albums – one surprising fans at the height of his metal popularity – and he’s written decidedly unmetal songs for music legends like Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

In fact, he wrote a couple of songs for Cash. The Man in Black recorded the first, “Thirteen,” for the American Recordings album, and by all accounts, liked the second one, “Come to Silver,” though he never put it on tape. It’s understandable why Cash would like “Come to Silver.” After all, it sounds like something he himself would have written, a song about the temptations of riches and how giving into that temptation can corrupt the soul and destroy lives. The first verse seems a perfect lyric for Cash, especially considering the blend of sacred and dark influences in the songs from the American albums.

Come to silver,
Come to gold,
Come to do anything,
Sell your body and soul,
Make you kill a man,
It’ll ruin your soul,
Come to silver,
Come to gold

Danzig recorded the song himself for his 1996 techno-industrial flop blackacidevil, and it was one of the better songs on the record, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The version that appears on his recently released double album, The Lost Tracks of Danzig, is a far different song. “Come to Silver” here is the song as Cash might have done it. Danzig breaks out the acoustic guitar to strum a few chords and present a sparse, quiet version of the song that’s as dark as anything he’s done in his career.

Though Danzig’s voice certainly can’t capture the world-weary, haggard sound that Cash delivered on his last recordings (who could?), his distinctive bass does share Cash’s ability to stand on its own with little instrumentation needed. The guitar is understated, putting the focus squarely on the vocal, but the western-tinged lope of the strumming does further the connection to Cash, making the track seem a heartfelt tribute to a man who certainly displayed as much or more attitude and intensity than any heavy metal hero.

Fans of Danzig will have heard him sing slow, dark songs before, but never quite like this one. The songs on most “lost tracks” collections were usually lost for a reason. It’s an easy way to put out an album by just copying and pasting a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough to put on past records, throwaways. But sometimes you find a gem. There’s certainly nothing disposable about this performance.

Buy The Lost Tracks of Danzig.

Read my reviews of past Danzig records.

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

Review: 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."