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.