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.