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."

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: Masterplan - "MKII"

I enjoyed Masterplan's last record, "Aeronautics," and was looking forward to hearing the follow-up. Perhaps its because of the loss of vocalist Jorn Lande or perhaps its because I'm listening to it shortly after I've been impressed by the chances taken on Sonata Arctica's latest record. Whatever the case, I'm underwhelmed with what I'm hearing here.

Band leader and ex-Helloween guitarist Roland Grapow still provides top-notch guitar work, particularly on tracks like "Lost and Gone." The vocals of ex-Riot singer Mike DiMeo are not bad, though I do prefer Lande's. But I'm just not finding anything that excites me among the 12 songs on this record. It's very well done, but it's exactly what you expect - no chances taken, no unexpected moments.

There are plenty of good songs to be found, like the aforementioned "Lost and Gone" and "Take Me Over," which opens with a nice dark acoustic piece before exploding into a raging, squealing riff. The exotic melody of the main riff of "Call the Gipsy" is nice, too, making it probably the best song here. There's a nice variety of songs from fast-paced power metal tracks such as "Watching the World" to more progressive numbers.

I'm struggling for more to say about this record, particularly after the glowing review I gave their last record, but I can't find it. Bottom line, it's a good record, melodic metal fans should like it, but it won't blow you away.

Get "MKII."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: Danzig - "The Lost Tracks of Danzig"

So, the question is should you drop 25 bucks on a double album of unreleased stuff by Danzig? If you had asked me that in 1992, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye before saying yes. I would have found a way to get my hands on what, at that time in my life, would have been a hell of a lot of money for a record. At that point, the first three Danzig records were among the favorites in my collection ("Lucifuge" would still be on my desert island list). It’s been 15 years, though, since the release of "How the Gods Kill," and the records that have come since haven’t exactly inspired my confidence.

"4p," is considered a masterpiece for some fans, but for me it was just OK. The same goes for "Satan’s Child," though when it was released after the techno-industrial "blackacidevil," it seemed like a great record by comparison. "I Luciferi" had some of the elements of his early records, but couldn’t come close to capturing the same dark mood or menace. And to be honest, I’ve never heard "Circle of Snakes" because after his publicist at the time decided that I could review the record from short snippets of each song and didn’t need a full copy of the album, I just never got around to picking it up.

So, long story long, I had to be convinced to go out and give "The Lost Tracks of Danzig" a try. I’m glad I did. Is it a masterpiece? No. Is it worth $25? For a real Danzig fan, yes. If you’ve been craving that old school, basic drums, bass, guitar and vocal approach of Danzig’s early records, that blend of punk, metal and bluesy hard rock sensibilities, the first tracks on this record will be a welcome blast from the past.

The opener “Pain is Like an Animal” was reportedly written for Samhain, but would have been a damned fine addition to the first Danzig record. Fans of the old Danzig style will find a lot to like on the first disc, which digs back into tracks left over from those albums. Nearly every one is built on a great riff, though the overall results are mixed. Some seem a little unformed or unfinished, like “When Death Had No Name,” which we’re treated to twice here. The first version starts cool, but seems to drone on too long. The second is slightly better, but still not great. The weakest by far, though, is “Cold, Cold Rain” a run at one of those slow songs like “Sistinas” or “Blood and Tears” that just comes off as a really bad Elvis impersonation.

More uptempo numbers like “You Should be Dying” and “Angel of the 7th Dawn” catch that nice groove that Danzig’s best work always had. They’re not perfect tracks, but then that’s why they were unreleased. One of the more interesting tracks here is the racially-charged “White Devil Rise,” a song supposedly aimed at controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. It’s not a great song, and with lyrics that seem to support a race war, it’s easy to see why it wasn’t released. But it’s an interesting song to ponder on several levels.

There are also a couple of "blackacidevil" outtakes at the end of the first disc. “Deep,” like most of that record does nothing for me, but “Warlok” is kind of an interesting dark and droning tune that’s a bit better than most of the stuff on that record.

Easily the two strongest songs on the first disc, aside from “Pain is Like an Animal,” are his cover of T. Rex’s “Buick McKane” and the acoustic version of “Come to Silver.” I was quite surprised with the “Buick McKane” cover since the kind of happy-go-lucky song seems so different from Danzig’s usual fare. “Come to Silver,” though, is easily one of the best performances on either disc. Originally written for Johnny Cash, Danzig recorded a version of the song on blackacidevil. It was one of the best songs on that record, but that’s not saying much. This is a completely different song. Here, he breaks out an acoustic guitar and performs the song as Cash might have. It’s an understated, yet powerful performance that seems at least in part a heartfelt tribute to a man who displayed just as much attitude and intensity as any heavy metal great. If you only listen to one song on this record, make it this one.

The second disc covers the more recent years of Danzig’s career. I thought I’d be less interested in it, and overall, I am, but there are some surprisingly strong moments scattered throughout it. Chief among them is the song he’s chosen as the lead single, “Crawl Across Your Killing Floor.” The tune is a dark, blues-inflected song that blends some of the best elements of past and present. It would have been a great song to build an album of new material around. “I Know Your Lie” and “Who Claims the Soulless” also catch good grooves, even though they seem nu-metalish at points, and there’s another surprising cover to be found in David Bowie’s “Cat People.”

The big riffs pop up again later in the second disc with the straight-up hard rocker, “Soul Eater,” which is infectious despite not having the greatest lyrics on the record. And I even have to admit to liking the 1960s-influenced groove of “Lick the Blood Off My Hands.”

“Lost tracks” records are often just an excuse to make a buck off of stuff the artist has laying around, and it’s usually easy to see why the tracks were lost in the first place. While that’s certainly the case with some of the songs on this record, there are also a lot of gems here, too, though admittedly some are in the rough. For casual fans of Danzig, I’d probably recommend picking and choosing what you like, but for the real Danzig fan, I’d say this record is a must-have.

Read the Stuck in My Head feature on Danzig's "Come to Silver."

Read my reviews of past Danzig records.

Get "The Lost Tracks of Danzig."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Stuck in My Head: Iron Maiden, "Hallowed Be Thy Name"

There's no question that Iron Maiden's 1982 album "Number of the Beast" stands as one of the greatest heavy metal records of all time. It's a great record from start to finish and produced the band's signature tune, "Run to the Hills." But there are two much more powerful songs, both slower numbers, on the record that often get overshadowed by that song, "Children of the Damned" and my personal favorite, "Hallowed Be Thy Name."

In my opinion, this is a perfect metal song. It's got all the elements for greatness. It opens with this dark, moody lick with the doom bell tolling in the background. The combination of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith's guitars and Steve Harris' bass harmonics sounding a bit like bells themselves. Then come the powerhouse vocals of Bruce Dickinson, still one of the best in the business, but toned down, low and dark, as he takes on the role of a condemned man waiting for his trip to the gallows. You can almost visualize the sands running through the hourglass. Then Dickinson hits that long note on "running looooow," that everyone else runs out of breath trying to sing along with, leading into the heavier parts of the song.

Here, Murray and Smith take over the show with their trademark dual guitar harmonies belting out licks that you can't ignore and can't get out of your head. Harris, too, tones down his usual lightning bass rumble to a slower gallop that adds weight to the song. Dickinson's voice is meanwhile going through all the emotions you'd expect of someone awaiting death -- sorrow, then anger and finally a reluctant acceptance of his place. Finally, you get the aggressive ending of the tune where the tempo picks up, guitar solos blaze and Dickinson unleashes some air raid siren-worthy notes as, the listener assumes, the execution time has arrived. And don't forget those final drum strikes, like the kicking legs of the hanged man.

"Run to the Hills" and the title track may get more airplay, but "Hallowed Be Thy Name" is the true masterpiece of Iron Maiden's masterwork.

Hear a sample of "Hallowed Be Thy Name."

Get "Number of the Beast."

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

Thursday, July 12, 2007

You Gotta Hear This: Dell Conner

I don't like a whole lot of country, but I know what I like when I hear it. So when I heard Dell Conner's "Runnin' Shine" rumbling out of my TV speakers, I had to hear more.

If you've been reading this blog, you already know I love Charlie Daniels. This song struck me as a harder-edged version of a great late 1970s, early 1980s Daniels number -- think "Stroker Ace" with a rock guitar instead of a banjo. So I headed over to his Web site, where you can see the video for "Runnin' Shine" and get 30 second clips of the other songs on his record "Knee Deep in the Blues."

The clips blend rock, blues, country and political incorrectness into a pretty tasty mix of aggressive and raucous noise that's equal parts Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top and Kid Rock. The only song that I didn't really find appealing out of the samples was the straight country ballad.

If you like catchy blasts of redneck noise, check this guy out. He deserves your attention.

Visit Conner's site.

You Gotta Hear This is an occasional feature about a band you probably haven't heard, but should. If you have a band you'd like featured here, drop me an e-mail. If I like it, I'll write about it.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Review: "Unia" - Sonata Arctica

I'm big enough to admit that Sonata Arctica got a bit of a raw deal from me on their last record, 2004's Reckoning Night. It landed on my desk at a time when I was really burned out on power metal in general, and I just was not in the mood to hear it. So three years have passed, and I haven't been beaten over the head with quite as much bad power metal lately, so I figure I can approach this record with a clearer view. To my surprise, what I'm faced with is not really a power metal record.

Of course, there are still elements of Sonata Arctica's past, the occasional lightning riff or gang vocals, but this album is slower, more melodic and darker than what fans may expect of the band. The first thing I notice about Unia is that the guitar sound on this record seems to be a little more biting and dynamic. That's a good thing. The second thing I noticed is that the keyboard is much more pervasive. That's generally a bad thing. It works on songs like "Caleb," which opens with a nice little piano intro and then uses the keys for a symphonic effect, but there are several times on the record when it's way too much.

Sonata Arctica's results from the new approach are mixed. Generally, when they throw some of their old power metal influence in, as on "It Won't Fade," one of the better tunes here, they fare better. Another really good moment is the opening of "Fly With the Black Swan," which juxtaposes a bouncing metal riff with a bluesy slide guitar underneath. It's an interesting choice, but a definitely cool sound. Sometimes the slower songs, such as "For the Sake of Revenge," that go for the brooding effect, just end up boring.

I keep getting a really heavy early Queen vibe off of this record, maybe Queen II, which certainly could be considered a forerunner of power metal. After listening to "The Vice," hands down the best song on the record, my mind keeps drifting toward "March of the Black Queen." It's got that same cool, operatic and medieval feel to it. I'd love to see them do more stuff like this. The Queen influence is all over the record in both melodic choices the band makes and the vocal inflections of Tony Kakko.

For hardcore fans of Sonata Arctica, this could well be a disappointing record. It's very different from anything the band has done before. To me, though, it's one of the more interesting records of their career. Sure there are some moments that fall flat, but there's also a great deal of creativity and experimentation - things that I believe are way too scarce in power metal these days.

Get "Unia."

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Review: Charlie Daniels Band - "Live From Iraq"

Some readers may be a little surprised to see this review here among the Amon Amarths and Danzigs, but despite my love for metal, I'm a country boy. I grew up redneck, I'm still redneck and I'll always be redneck. While I could care less for most of the country music out there, I do have great respect and admiration for many country artists. One of those is Charlie Daniels, and others you'll probably read about here as the months go by. Now that the explanation's out of the way, on with the review:

At the age of 70, Charlie Daniels shows no signs of slowing down on his latest record, "Live From Iraq."

The ever-patriotic Daniels has always been vocal in his support of the troops, and on this record, he takes the stage like a fire-and-brimstone preacher delivering the gospel. It's perhaps one of the most animated and energetic performances that Daniels has given in a long time, and you can tell he's in his element waving the red, white and blue.

The record showcases his multiple talents, ranging from the Southern rock of "The Legend of Wooley Swamp" to the gospel tune "How Great Thou Art," to the Cajun-flavored fiddle lines of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye" to the free-flowing jazz jam of "Floreeda Road." Daniels has never been a one-trick pony.

The best performances here are his theatric version of "Wooley Swamp," the controversial "Simple Man," a bluesed up version of his classic "Long-Haired Country Boy" (a personal anthem of mine) and of course, Daniels' signature song and finale, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." He also caters to the crowd of soldiers with a couple of verses of a new tune called "Iraq Blues." Rarely do live albums really excite me, but this is one heck of a performance that will make you feel like you're there.

The CD also contains a DVD that features interviews with soldiers, a look at the everyday lives of soldiers in Iraq and footage from Daniels' visit.

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

Get "Live From Iraq."