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.