Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: Various Artists, "We Wish You a Metal Xmas"

Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier every year. I've been seeing decorations in the stores since, it seems, the end of August, and I've had my tickets to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra in December in hand for nearly two months. Still, with Halloween not even having arrived yet and it being at least a month earlier than my TSO CD's normally find their way into my truck, it was a bit tough to get into the spirit.

Then the first Christmas record of the season, Armoury Records' "We Wish You a Metal Christmas and a Headbanging New Year" arrives on my desk, and despite my misgivings about the early timing, I can't resist the list of participants.

What we have here is a collection of metal renditions of Christmas songs both classic and campy with a lineup that features some legends of the genre. The compilation was put together by Wendy Dio, wife of legendary metal singer Ronnie James Dio, and features performances by Lemmy Kilmister, Billy Gibbons, Alice Cooper, John 5, Billy Sheehan, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo, Geoff Tate, Doug Pinnick, George Lynch, Tim Owens, Steve Morse, Vinny Appice, Chuck Billy, Scott Ian and many others. Oddly, Wendy Dio says her husband was one of the toughest stars to convince because "he doesn't sing Christmas songs."

The performances here are remarkably good, beginning with the second track, a rowdy version of "Run Rudolph Run" featuring perhaps one of the strangest pairings here in Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl on drums. A similar turn comes on the excellent version of "Santa Claus is Back in Town," where ex-Judas Priest and Iced Earth vocalist Tim Owens teams up with Steve Morse to show a rawer hard rock vocal that we haven't heard from him before.

Some play it straight, some put their own spin on it. Alice Cooper is most notable among the latter with his Christmas horror tale "Santa Claws is Coming to Town." In his hands, it transforms from an innocent children's song into something more than a bit disturbing. Dio and Iommi essentially turn "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into a fairly dark Sabbath number. They're not all as strong as those two, though. Geoff Tate turns "Silver Bells" into a hard rocker, which might have worked, but his normally impressive voice sounds really, really bad here.

Of the songs that stick with the script, so to speak, one of the strongest is the grooving version of "Little Drummer Boy" featuring King's X vocalist Doug Pinnick, George Lynch, Billy Sheehan and Simon Phillips. Phillips throws a little groove on the beat, and Pinnick's vocals are just perfect. It's easily one of the strongest offerings here.

There are a couple of head scratchers as well. "Silent Night" featuring Chuck Billy of Testament, Scott Ian of Anthrax and John Tempesta of Exodus, Testament and White Zombie sounds like a train wreck on paper, but the death metal take is, in truth, kind of interesting in an odd way. The strangest choice here, though, has to be "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" featuring Stephen Pearcy of Ratt and Tracii Guns. Yeah, it's pretty much as bad as it sounds.

Of the other tunes on the album, none are bad but none stand out as much as the previously mentioned ones. Joe Lynn Turner's take on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is lively and energetic, and "Deck the Halls," featuring Oni Logan is enjoyable. Aside from "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and the off-kilter "Silver Bells," the only other miss is Tommy Shaw and Steve Lukather's take on "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," which is more or less note for note and a bit bland.

It's a bit of surprise, but this is actually a really, really good record. I'd recommend it for any classic metal fan looking for a little Christmas cheer early in the holiday season.

Get "We Wish You a Metal Xmas."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween soundtrack

Though we’re actually starting to get quite a few decent Christmas records, if there’s a holiday for metal, it would have to be Halloween.

As with movies, I prefer my Halloween music creepy and perhaps disturbing rather than filled senseless gore, so Alice Cooper trumps Cannibal Corpse every time.

If you’re putting together a metal soundtrack for a Friday party, here are a few suggestions. Beyond the first two, they’re in no particular order except the way they came to mind. By no means is this list comprehensive. Please feel free to add your own.

"Black Sabbath," Black Sabbath. I don’t know that there’s a better song out there for Halloween, those three bell-like notes of ringing out over a barren wasteland and Ozzy’s moaning about figures in black really set the mood.

"Welcome to My Nightmare," Alice Cooper. Let’s face it, you could probably do a whole list of Alice Cooper tunes and have a bunch left over. I’ll go with the obvious one.

"Trick or Treat," Fastway. You may or may not remember the really bad horror movie of the 1980s about a deceased rocker back for revenge. The only redeeming points of the movie were Ozzy Osbourne hamming it up as a TV preacher and the soundtrack by Fastway. The title track is a great, rocking tune.

"Bark at the Moon," Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s another obvious one, playing to the campy side of Halloween. Visions of Ozzy in a werewolf costume dance in your heads.

"How the Gods Kill," Danzig. There are also no shortage of Halloween tunes in Danzig’s catalog. When it comes to creepy, though, I’m going with the title track of his third record.

"The Thing that Should Not Be," Metallica. It’s based on Lovecraft, it’s an awesome song. It makes the list.

"Scared," Dangerous Toys. Not really creepy or spooky, but a great song nonetheless. And as a tribute to Alice Cooper, it gets him on the list a second time. He deserves it.

"Fear of the Dark," Iron Maiden. So the obvious choice here is "Number of the Beast," but I’m going to break from the pack and pick one of Maiden’s later tunes. To me, it has a slightly more Halloween feel.

"Tourniquet," Marilyn Manson. Say what you want about Manson, but this is a great song. Definitely creepy and definitely fitting.

"Cemetery Gates," Pantera. Very dark, great imagery and an incredible screaming riff when the heavy guitars kick in. You can’t go wrong with it.

"Hell’s Bells," AC/DC. Perhaps the most obvious choice on my list. Still got to get it in there, though.

"Melissa," Mercyful Fate. Another band with no shortage of appropriate tunes. "Melissa" would be my first choice.

"The Dungeons are Calling," Savatage. Being a devoted fanboy, I’ll try to get a Savatage tune in just about every list I make. This creepy little tune would be a nice intro to a Halloween haunted house.

"Captain Howdy," Twisted Sister. Disturbing in an entirely different way, especially if you’ve seen Dee Snider’s horror flick "Strangeland," this song is easily creepy enough for a Halloween mix.

"I Am Legend," White Zombie. While my first Zombie Halloween choice would be a creepy little number from the "House of 1,000 Corpses" soundtrack with a title I can’t print here, I’ll go with this musical take on the classic Richard Matheson horror tale instead.

"The Ripper," Judas Priest. What’s a Halloween party without a tune about Jack the Ripper?

"Mary Jane," Megadeth. Spooky isn’t a word I’d often use to describe a Megadeth tune, but this one fits the bill.

"Seasons in the Abyss," Slayer. There’s plenty of horror imagery in Slayer’s music, but since we’re going for dark and creepy instead of gory, the title track to their 1990 record is a winner.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: Into Eternity, "The Incurable Tragedy"

After three progressively more interesting records from Canadian prog/power/death metal outfit Into Eternity, "The Incurable Tragedy" became one of my most anticipated records of the year. Over the years, the group has morphed from a primarily prog band with some death metal leanings into a true amalgamation of styles, getting better with each record. That's why this one is a bit of a letdown.

It's not that "The Incurable Tragedy" is a bad record, it's just that it's not as good as the previous three and doesn't live up to the standard those set.

The biggest problem the record has is in the vocals of Stu Block and guitarist Tim Roth. Early on, Into Eternity used a lot of clean, proggy vocals with blasts of death growls. Over the past two records, they've added more growls and on 2006's "A Scattering of Ashes," Block introduced a Rob Halford-like scream that met with mixed reviews. Here, there's a black metal rasp and a Geddy Lee-type vocal in the mix. It seems the band throws everything they've got at the wall, and it's just too much. The screams are often annoying as Block takes them to almost chipmunk-like levels, and there's no consistency from song to song, or even verse to verse. It turns into a chaotic babble of voices that undermines the excellent musicianship on display.

The second problem is that the album, a concept piece about the loss of his father and two friends to cancer, is very bleak and morose. That's not always a bad thing, but here, it's somewhat draining. The songs also lack the big, undeniable hooks that the band has delivered in the past, perhaps because the subject matter didn't lend itself to that.

One surprise is the short melancholy piano ballad "The Incurable Tragedy I (September 21, 2006)." Lyrically, it has its challenges, being very straightforward and not very artistic, but it's a very strong piece that I found a real connection with due to recent circumstances in my personal life. It's an emotionally draining piece of music for me personally, but may not have the same effect on others. The other two installments of the title track have a similar effect, if not quite as much impact, though the Kirk Hammett-like lead work on "The Incurable Tragedy III (December 15, 2007)" is definitely a welcome element.

Not surprisingly, the album fares well with the rage and anger aspects of the storyline, as songs like "Diagnosis Terminal" and "A Black Light Ending," one of the stronger pieces on the record, bash away at the listener, unleashing pent up frustrations.

Musically, "The Incurable Tragedy" is as solid as the band has ever been. Roth and Justin Bender shred like crazy, and the rhythm section is tight. But someone really needs to rein in and tone down the vocals since the chaos in them undermines some otherwise solid songs.

Get "The Incurable Tragedy."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Review: Iced Earth, "The Crucible of Man"

Let’s say you’ve got a car. It’s a nice car. It looks good, it’s dependable, it’s comfortable, it gets good gas mileage. You really like it. Then, let’s say, you get your hands on a sleek sports car that’s loaded with options. It’s faster, more powerful, has a little something extra. Then gas hits $4 per gallon and you have to put the new car in the garage and go back to your old one. You probably still like it, but you find it’s just not quite as nice as you used to think it was.

That’s sort of the way that I feel about the latest record from Iced Earth. It’s like that old car - it’s comfortable and dependable, but I’d still love to have that little extra bit of horsepower that Tim Owens injected.

The Crucible of Man isn’t a bad record. In fact, in places it outshines the first part of the saga Framing Armageddon. Guitarist Jon Schaffer delivers a few more memorable riffs and melodies here than on that record, and it moves a bit quicker as it covers less ground. Returning vocalist Matt Barlow shows just a little more range and a few more dynamics than in past efforts and really shines at times. There’s certainly an effort made here to appease fans of the Owens years with a more aggressive vocal style in many places. On the other hand Barlow’s Paul Stanley voice comes out - a lot.

It doesn’t help Barlow either that the best tracks on the record seem to have been written with Owens’ voice in mind. The lilting, exotic verse of “Minions of the Watch” and the snarls and highs of “Crucify the King” are handled well by Barlow, but fans of Owens won’t be able to avoid imagining what might have been.

Admittedly, Barlow’s voice does give this record a little more connection with the original “Something Wicked” trilogy, but it also makes it a little difficult to judge the concept as a whole, particularly since you switch vocalists halfway through the second act. The Crucible of Man probably fares a bit better as a standalone work than Framing Armageddon simply because it’s the wrap-up of the story rather than the set-up, and as the tale hits its climax, so does the record with tunes like the aforementioned “Crucify the King” and “Divide and Devour.”

In the end, I’m left feeling much the same way about The Crucible of Man that I felt about Framing Armageddon. There are some very good moments, but, like Judas Priest’s Nostradamus earlier this year, it really doesn’t live up to the grandness of the concept. It’s an ambitious idea stretched just a little too far, scattering the really good songs like the human race running from the story’s Set Abominae. If you compare the two records with the three original songs they’re based on, those first three songs are by far the stronger work.

There are certainly some songs that showcase Barlow, primarily slower numbers like “Crown of the Fallen” and “Harbinger of Fate,” and he does at least sound like he’s into the music again, unlike Horror Show where he just seemed to be going through the motions. Still, I can’t put aside my own personal disappointment in the lineup change enough to really get into this record. I’m sure there are legions of fans out there who will love it simply because of Barlow’s return, but personally, I think I’ll just wait for their next record and go for a fresh start.

Get "The Crucible of Man."

Interview: Randy Rogers Band

The members of the Randy Rogers Band feel right at home in a college town. It's largely where they've made their name, and the frontman isn't surprised by that.

"I think it's progressive," Rogers said of the band's music. "I think it's a little bit different from the norm, mainstream Top-40 music, and I think there's a hunger for that type of sound amongst college kids."

The proof that the college crowd is catching on comes from iTunes, where the Randy Rogers Band's last record passed country super group Rascal Flatts to debut as the No. 1 most downloaded country record.

"I think that was one of the most surprising things, just being No. 1 overall," Rogers said. "I think it's a testament to our fan base and how they access music. I think we have a younger fanbase, and downloading is how they're getting new stuff."

The number raised eyebrows in the industry and led to the Randy Rogers Band being named one of the "must-see" tours by Rolling Stone. Despite the overnight acclaim, Rogers definitely doesn't consider the band an overnight success.

"For me, nothing's happening quickly or overnight," he said. "I think that I've been working hard, and I'm real proud of how far we've come. Eight years is a long time to be on the road. I made four records before I signed a major record deal, and now I'm on my second record with the major label. That's something to be proud of."

Rogers' second album on Mercury Records is simply titled "The Randy Rogers Band," and it's a personal album for the band.

"It's very much a record about our band," he said. "The bass player wrote a song, the guitar player wrote a song, and I wrote nine of the songs. I think, very much, it was a statement. Taking ownership in what we've created was important to us."

They also moved their operations to Dockside Studio in Maurice, La., where Dr. John and B.B. King have recorded, to get away from their home base of Austin. They spent two weeks there, working into the wee hours of the morning.

"We wanted to get away from Austin, and we didn't want to go to Nashville with all the distractions," Rogers said. "We've played Louisiana several times, and we like the vibe. It was an attempt to get away from the rest of the world and not answer your cell phone for a while."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review: Metallica, "Death Magnetic"

I know there are people out there who will hold a grudge against Metallica until the day they die. Over the past couple of decades fans of the band, as the song on Death Magnetic says, have been broken, beat and scarred, and a lot of them still have a lot of anger. To be quite honest, though, I’m too old for that. I don’t have it in me to hold that kind of grudge anymore, and no matter what you’ve done in the past, if you deliver an album I like, bygones are bygones. That’s just what Metallica has done.

First thing’s first. This isn’t the ’80s and Death Magnetic isn’t the second coming of Master of Puppets. It does, however have more in common with those 1980s records than anything Metallica has done since. Early reviews that called it a cross between …And Justice for All and The Black Album are, for the most part, pretty accurate. A closer listen, though will reveal snippets of just about everything Metallica’s ever done - good and bad.

Perhaps the best thing about this record is the return of Kirk Hammett’s wah pedal and the shredding he unleashes here. Frustrated after being told by producer Bob Rock that solos would make St. Anger sound “dated,” he takes those frustrations out here, wailing away at will.

The impact of bassist Rob Trujillo is felt early and often on the record, his first effort as part of the creative team. It’s the first time in a long time that the bass on a Metallica record has been memorable, and he brings a welcome groove on songs like “End of the Line” and “Broken, Beat and Scarred,” which despite being one of the less thrashy offerings is perhaps the best with the most memorable riff and hook on Death Magnetic.

And the thrash does indeed make a return here, as announced earlier with album opener “That Was Just Your Life.” It has a nice galloping rhythm from James Hetfield, reminiscent of …And Justice for All. Admittedly, Hetfield still struggles a bit vocally, trying to sing too much rather than barking the lyrics, but occasionally he does hit a note that reminds you of old times.

To say the thrash is back, though, is not to say it’s a return to their old style. There are a couple of nods to The Black Album with the hook driven “Cyanide” and “The Judas Kiss,” which echoes “Holier than Thou” in places. There are also a few notable misses. “The Unforgiven III” is just as bad as you’d expect when looking at the title, and the instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” is pretty much a snoozer. While I don’t mind a new Metallica insturmental, they set a high standard in the 1980s, and this one simply lacks the complexity and elegance of an “Orion” or “To Live is to Die.”

Rounding out the record are the requisite power ballad “The Day That Never Comes” which offers a nod to the band’s better ballads of the 1980s, and the thrash ‘n’ roll of “All Nightmare Long” with its fast riffing and hard rock vibe. The show closes in good form with what, for many, will probably be the star of the record, “My Apocalypse.” It’s the shortest track on the record and gets straight to the point, offering a tip of the hat to Master of Puppets.

Death Magnetic delivers a solid set of songs that features a nice blend of the entire Metallica catalog. No, it’s not the much ballyhooed return to their classic sound. Those first four records are classics that continue to shape metal, but that band is not likely to return. They’re older and they’re mellower, and I guess, so am I. I suppose, to make a bad pun, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but I like it.

Get "Death Magnetic."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The 12 Pack: Mandatory Metallica

On the eve of the release of Metallica's latest effort, "Death Magnetic," (come back tomorrow for my review) I thought I'd take a look back at some of the highlights of the band's career. So here's the setup, I've got one CD, 12 songs, to cover the band's essentials. It may not sound that tough, but you're talking about a guy who doesn't think there's a bad note on the band's first four albums.

The 12 Pack

1: "The Four Horsemen" ("Kill 'Em All," 1983). This was Metallica's first attempt at the epic metal song, and the appropriately galloping riff is still one of their best.

2. "Whiplash" ("Kill 'Em All," 1983). Raw, fast and wildly energetic, this song encapsulates everything that Metallica was at this point in time.

3. "Seek and Destroy" ("Kill 'Em All," 1983). Arguably the band's first brush with "commercial" songwriting, this song has one of the most memorable opening riffs of Metallica's career.

4. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ("Ride the Lightning," 1984). The main riff of this tune is simplistic and practically plodding for Metallica at the time, but that doesn't lessen its power.

5. "Creeping Death" ("Ride the Lightning," 1984). The biblical epic has, oddly, become one of the band's signature songs. Fast, precise riffing and that huge live sing-along bit just before the guitar solo.

6. "Battery" ("Master of Puppets," 1986). A great pummeling album opener for the record that many fans consider Metallica's best. Competing for a spot on my list with "Damage, Inc." from the same record. Today, "Battery" wins.

7. "Master of Puppets" ("Master of Puppets," 1986). Again, it's all about that classic opening riff and that barked "Master, Master" hook.

8. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" ("Master of Puppets," 1986). You have to include one of the band's dark power ballads from the 1980s, and while "Fade to Black" and "One" are favorites, this twisted tune wins the spot.

9. "Orion" ("Master of Puppets," 1986). Again, any list of Metallica's best has to include at least one instrumental, and this is the band's best.

10. "Blackened" ("...And Justice for All," 1988). This is a showcase for those lightning fast, precise riffs that were Metallica's trademark in the 1980s. Not only the best song on this record, one of the best of Metallica's career.

11. "Sad, But True" ("Metallica," 1991). Again, a simplistic riff on a simplistic record that turned many fans off, but despite it's lack of technical prowess, it's a monster riff that can't be denied.

12. "Stone Cold Crazy" ("Garage Inc." 1998, originally a 1992 B-side). Metallica has always delivered some great covers, so you have to include one on the list. This take on the Queen classic narrowly beats out a solid stable of covers dating back to the band's earliest days.

The Limited Edition Bonus Disc:

Yes, I'm cheating. These are the songs that were close, but not quite.

"Motorbreath" ("Kill 'Em All," 1983). Galloping, punk-influenced, high octane blaster.

"Am I Evil?" ("Garage Days Revisited," 1984, later added to the re-release of "Kill 'Em All"). Metallica's first top-notch cover song, takes Diamondhead's original to a new level.

"Fade to Black" ("Ride the Lightning," 1984). Still a haunting piece of music.

"Damage, Inc." ("Master of Puppets," 1986). A theme song of sorts for Metallica, a great galloping thrasher that came the closes of any of the songs here to cracking that top 12.

"The Thing That Should Not Be" ("Master of Puppets," 1986). One of my absolute favorite Metallica tunes. Love that detuned riff and, hey, it's based on Lovecraft.

"Last Caress/Green Hell" ("Garage Days Re-Revisited," 1987). A great, catchy reworking of two Misfits tunes.

"Crash Course in Brain Surgery" ("Garage Days Re-Revisited," 1987). Metallica brings the groove on a Budgie cover. Surprising and solid.

"One" ("...And Justice For All," 1988). A huge epic power ballad scorned by some fans at the time for being Metallica's first breakthrough track, but still a great song.

"Dyer's Eve" ("...And Justice for All," 1988). Arguably Metallica's fastest, heaviest track ever.

"Of Wolf and Man" ("Metallica," 1991). James Hetfield's ode to hunting, great riff, great imagery.

"Nothing Else Matters" ("Metallica," 1991). It might surprise some people that this song makes my list, but I think it's the most honest of the commercial ballads that the band did. Heck, I played it at my wedding.

"Fuel" ("Re-Load," 1997). If I have to pick one song from the "Load" era that I can stomach, this would be it. It's catchy, and I actually kind of like it in retrospect.

"All Within My Hands" ("St. Anger," 2003). Perhaps the strongest track on this much-maligned record. Not many people like it. I do.

The Song that Should Not Be

Here's the one track that will never make any list of my favorite Metallica tunes.

"Enter Sandman" ("Metallica," 1991). Overplayed and overrated.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review: Soulfly - "Conquer"

One of the most anticipated records of the year for me was Cavalera Conspiracy, reuniting Sepultura vocalist/guitarist Max Cavalera and drummer Igor Cavalera. Though it’s been eclipsed in my mind by records released since, it was an outstanding effort, and I thought it would be tough for Max’s other band, Soulfly, to compete. So I find myself a little surprised with how much I’m enjoying this record.

No, Cavalera doesn’t try to reinvent the band in any way. Most of what you’ll hear here you’ve also heard on previous Soulfly releases. Take for example, the second track, “Unleash,” which reintroduces the tribal sounds and rhythms. Sure, we’ve heard it before, but it’s still really good. That’s kind of what I’d say about the whole record.

One of the big differences between this record and the Cavalera Conspiracy record is in the guitar work. This record is loaded down with big, memorable guitar riffs that stand out in your memory after the record is over. The loping opening riff of “Warmageddon” and the bouncing, squealing riff of “Doom” stand out. After a nice movie soundtrack opening, “Blood, Fire, War, Hate” also gets the album started off on a good note with a nice riff.

The best tunes on this record, though take a slightly different path. Cavalera has long experimented with world music on Soulfly records. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. When it does, it’s great, as on the opening of “For Those About to Rot,” where we get an unexpected blast of almost Primus-like sound to open, a nice, chunky bass line and then world music sounds scattered throughout. The best track on the record, “Touching the Void,” however, delves back into metal history, drawing inspiration from Sabbath for the slowest, yet most interesting song. The breakdown section here is spectacular, plodding, heavy and just catchy as hell.

The record also ends on a high note with the instrumental “Soulfly VI.” I’m normally not a fan of instrumental intros and outros, and there’s nothing particularly heavy about it, but there is something strangely calming and soothing, particularly after the violence of the previous tracks. It’s a good song to chill out with.

Cavalera continues to have some lyrical challenges. Yelling “scream motherfucker” five or six times doesn’t really constitute a chorus in my book, but lyrics have never been his strong suit and after this long, it’s tough to ding him for it.

Musically, this is a solid record, perhaps one of the best in Soulfly’s catalog. Certainly it contains some of the more memorable tunes they’ve done, and it just comes off as a little tighter and more cohesive than the earlier Cavalera Conspiracy release. Perhaps that record was a little more rushed, or maybe it will take a little time for the songwriting chemistry to return after the years apart. Whatever the reason, I’m surprised to say that I actually think Conquer is the better record. Both are well worth having in your collection, though.

Get "Conquer" (standard version).

Get "Conquer" (CD and DVD version).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: Extreme, "Saudades de Rock"

I was still in the throes of my rock star dream when Extreme released its sophomore effort, "Pornograffitti," in 1990, and I spent months with guitar in hand trying to copy Nuno Bettencourt's licks. I never did get all the licks down, and probably never will. But, putting aside the simplistic overplayed megahit "More Than Words," it remains one of my favorite guitar records ever.

Now, a reformed Extreme (minus drummer Paul Geary who now manages the band instead of playing with them) has delivered its first record since 1995's "Waiting for the Punchline," and there's good news and bad news.

First, the good news. The shred is back. I've been quite disappointed by Bettencourt's work since the breakup of Extreme, and I've often felt his talent was wasted in more recent projects. Here, he delivers up licks likely to keep me trying to twist my fingers into pretzels for months to come. Vocalist Gary Cherone and bassist Pat Badger also deliver fine performances. Cherone shows great range on the variety of sounds here and proves himself to be a better singer than I ever gave him credit for.

Then, there's the bad news. After a strong first five tunes, you'll be hitting the skip button -- often.

"Saudades de Rock" lacks the flash of "Pornograffitti," but it also lacks the pompous artiste turns of "III Sides to Every Story," so I guess it balances out. What it delivers is a pretty good collection of 1970s influenced rock, playing up to the influence of Queen ("Star") and Aerosmith (just about every tune on the record.) As mentioned above, the first five songs on "Saudades de Rock" are solid, ranging from the poppy "Star" to a hard rock groove on "Comfortably Dumb" to the country-flavored "Take Us Alive." After that, the better performances are scattered. There's an overabundance of ballads here, as you'd sort of expect, and only the U2-influenced "Ghost" makes an impact. The rest are just sort of there. Track 10, the Aerosmith-meets-James Brown funk rocker "Slide," is one of the best on the record, but after that you can really skip back to album opener "Star" without missing much.

Still, when it rocks, it rocks, and when Bettencourt cuts loose, he's as impressive as ever. It's definitely worth a listen for fans of the band or great guitar.

Get "Saudades de Rock."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review: Alice Cooper, "Along Came a Spider"

For the past few years, Alice Cooper has been trying, with limited success, to recapture the sound and feel of his 1970s heyday. Those records, "The Eyes of Alice Cooper" and "Dirty Diamonds," had a little problem, though. While some of the tunes hit the right note, both albums had several songs that sounded like they were written by Vincent Furnier, the aging 50-something rocker who spends more time on the golf course than on the stage.

This time around, though, he nails it. A concept record revolving around a serial killer in love, "Along Came a Spider" is pure Alice, a guy who Vincent Furnier would be quick to tell you has never held a golf club unless he was clubbing someone over the head with it. This is perhaps one of Cooper’s more twisted creations. It’s a much darker record than his last two, and is filled with his trademark black humor, not the least of which is the often bouncy and happy-sounding melodies that accompany dark turns in the storyline.

I’ll be honest and say that, in the lead up to this record, I was hoping for something more in line with the heavier sounds of his 2000 record "Brutal Planet." He only delivers that on one song, “Vengeance is Mine,” which features guitar work from Slash. The lack of that heaviness, however, is not a disappointment. Most of the songs on this record are firmly rooted in Cooper’s classic 1970s blend of punk and garage rock with the occasional bit of metal or Broadway thrown in.

The only real misses on the record come in the form of the ballad “Killed by Love,” the latest failed attempt to recreate “Only Women Bleed,” and the showtune-influenced “Salvation,” which seems a bit out of place and doesn’t connect with the rest of the story.

The remaining songs on this record are all rock solid. Cooper delivers catchy garage melodies and memorable hooks on tunes like “Catch Me If You Can,” “(In Touch With) Your Feminine Side,” “Wrapped in Silk” and “The One that Got Away.” Perhaps the best example of the blending of twisted thoughts with happy-go-lucky, bubblegum rock comes on the track “I’m Hungry.” There are some less tongue-in-cheek dark moments scattered around the album, most notably the maniacal “I Am the Spider,” which closes the record.

This is easily Cooper’s best work since "Brutal Planet."

Get "Along Came a Spider."

Friday, July 25, 2008

You Gotta Hear This: Helion, "Bad Dreams | Broken Shadows"

When last I heard Helion, on their 2006 EP "Mercury Rising," they were a damned solid, but pretty straightforward power/prog outfit. It was one of the better records that I heard that year in the style. Two years and a lineup change later, I could almost be listening to a different band. The good news is, it’s a better band. "Bad Dreams Broken Shadows" is a bit heavier and a bit more modern than their previous effort, but still keeps the melodic elements that made Mercury Rising so good.

What immediately slaps you in the face about this version of the band is the vocals. Newcomer Simo Autio has not only brought some welcome melodic death vocal stylings to the mix, he’s given the band a chance to create a completely different atmosphere from their last outing. The riffing of Autio and primary songwriter Jaako Kunnas is a little faster and heavier and Lauri Heikkinen’s keyboards have more in common with Children of Bodom or Soilwork than Dream Theater here. In short, Bad Dreams Broken Shadows sounds a bit like what might happen if members of Soilwork, CoB and In Flames got together for a proggish side project - and that’s a very good thing.

The new direction becomes immediately apparent on opener “Dreamcatcher” with its Bodom-esque synth lines and some nice melo-death screams on the chorus. “Liquid Veil” blends the new and old, with the growls on the verse and a catchy, melodic chorus more reminiscent of those on Mercury Rising. A little Opeth influence begins to creep in around the edges on the third track, “Blood of Phoenix.” Perhaps the most progressive track on the record, it showcases the versatility of the band and makes a lasting impression. “Tell No Tales” is another strong number, opening with some NWOBHM inspired leads before settling into a galloping melodic death snarl for the verse and returning to a Bruce Dickinson-inspired bridge. The record closes with the ballad “Broken Mirror.” Ballads are not my favorite thing in the world, but this one is nicely done with some cool guitar leads and the best clean vocal lines on the record, proving that, despite the heavier tone of Bad Dreams Broken Shadows, they can still do the straightforward prog ballad if they want.

I continue to be impressed with Helion, particularly listening to tracks like “Blood of Phoenix” and “Tell No Tales,” and wonder how they’ve managed to fly under the label radar. Maybe this record will get them some attention. I said it about Mercury Rising, and I’ll say it again about this one, the self-released "Bad Dreams Broken Shadows" is a better record than a whole lot of the stuff that I get from labels. While I don’t think Helion has quite reached its full potential just yet, you should remember the name. You’ll hear it again.

(Editor's note: Unfortunately, since the original writing of this review a couple of months back, vocalist Simo Autio has decided to leave music altogether, leaving Helion once again without a vocalist. It's a shame because there's a lot of talent here, and I'd like to see them get it together and get some exposure. This EP is still well worth checking out, though.)

Visit Helion'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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Todesbonden, "Sleep Now Quiet Forest"

Female-fronted bands, especially the soprano-style, haven’t fared very well in my reviews recently. By and large, I’m a little tired of that style, but just as I’m ready to write it off completely, along will come a record that really connects with me. That’s the case with the latest from Todesbonden.

This is how the style should be done. Rather than layering those vocals over typical power metal riffs as so many bands do, Todesbonden bonds the music and the vocals beautifully. There are Celtic influences, Middle Eastern influences, classical, medieval balladry, and, of course, metal.

Rather than simply trying to impress the listener with her vocals, singer Laurie Ann Haus uses her complete range to complement the songs here. Though she’s the creative power behind the band, the focus is not always on her vocals either. On songs like “Surya Namaskara,” her chant is but one instrument in an instrumental that builds to a nice, crunchy metal crescendo.

Album opener “Surrender to the Sea,” is more akin to what you may be used to hearing from this style of music, but it has much more in common with Blackmore’s Night than Nightwish. That’s the key on Sleep Now Quiet Forest - everything here comes off as more authentic than other bands in the style. The mournful gypsy fiddle that pervades tracks like “Trianon” and “Fading Empire” is striking. The keys are at times mournful, at times playful. There’s a real reverence for the classical instruments and styles that they weave into their music. In fact, I might go so far as to call this a world music record that happens to have metal influences rather than the other way around.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The record still rocks on tunes like the aforementioned “Surrender to the Sea,” the dramatic “Sailing Alone” and the epic “Battle of Kadesh.” Todesbonden just knows when to use the metallic emphasis and when not to try to force it into a tune.

Certainly, Todesbonden won’t be everyone’s pint of ale, but those who enjoy true traditional folk sounds with their metal should be pleased.

Get "Sleep Now Quiet Forest."

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review: Testament, "The Formation of Damnation"

I'd like to call this a comeback record, but the truth of the matter is, Testament never went anywhere. Sure, it's been quite a while since they've put out a new album, but unlike many of their contemporaries, their 1990s output -- records like "Low" and "The Gathering" -- were every bit as solid as the early works. Of course, I guess it could be termed a comeback since it's a reunion of four of the five original members of the band (drummer Louie Clemente bowed out for health reasons.)

Though often overshadowed on the 1980s thrash scene by the bands referred to as "the big four" -- Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax -- Testament produced some high-quality music that matched, and at times surpassed the bands that grabbed the spotlight. They continue that trend here. It's almost as if no time has passed since guitarist Alex Skolnick left the band in 1992, and they pick things up with a lineup of songs that sound like a cross between their early work on records like the (IMO) classic "The New Order" and later albums like "Low."

After the expected instrumental intro "For the Glory of...," the band launches into the first true song, "More Than Meets the Eye," which will take fans back to Testament's glory days -- and it's actually not one of the strongest moments here. There's a nice range from very melodic pieces like "Dangers of the Faithless," which features the most memorable hook on the record, to full-on assaults with even a little touch of death metal, like the title track.

Check out "Henchmen Ride" for an all-out old school thrasher with a great squealing riff, or "Killing Season" for a great thrash groove.

Get "The Formation of Damnation."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Disturbed, "Indestructible"

While I do think that metal fans owe some amount of gratitude to the nu-metal movement of the late 1990s for bringing the genre back to the forefront, the truth of the matter is that it didn't produce a lot of music worth listening to. There were a few exceptions, however, and one of those is Disturbed.

I first came across Disturbed as the opening act for Pantera on a now defunct late night concert series on HBO. I was struck by vocalist David Draiman's unique vocal style and the tightness of the band and immediately went out and found their first record, "The Sickness." Unfortunately, they drifted into more generic rock territory on their second record. With "Indestructible," the band has finally found a way to integrate the two styles seamlessly. While the crazed vocalizations that became Draiman's trademark on the first record are scattered throughout the album, there are also some strong melodies that balance it out and make it seem less cartoonish.

The perfect example of this is first single "Inside the Fire," which really showcases the blending of the band's unconventional early work with amore melodic smoother sound. "Criminal" is another strong point, with a hook that's hard to get out of your head. My personal favorite is "The Curse," one of the darker tunes on the record. I don't know that it's one of the best songs on the record, but it's certainly one of the most relatable for me personally.

Draiman's manic vocals are, admittedly, still the star of the show, but it's also nice to see guitarist Dan Donegan getting a bigger chance to shine on this record. The guitar comes to the forefront on a few songs, and Donegan takes a solo on every tune. It further underscores the musical maturation process of the band from chunky detuned riffs and edge-of-madness squawks to a legitimate, well-rounded hard rock machine.

Get "Indestructible."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith"

To hold fans of the “Guitar Hero” series over until the fourth installment arrives this fall, Activision delivers what could be the first in a series of artist-based titles, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.” (Rumor has it that “Guitar Hero: Metallica” is already in the works for a 2009 release).

While it’s still more of an expansion pack for “Guitar Hero III” than a new game, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” does manage to bring a few new twists to the table, unlike last years “Guitar Hero Rocks the ’80s.” While the game follows the basic pattern and rules of “GH III,” in career mode players must first perform two songs as an opening band before they unlock Aerosmith for that level and get to rock out on the band’s classic tunes.

The opening band numbers include classic songs from bands like Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Joan Jett, The Clash, Run DMC and more, all hand-picked by the members of Aerosmith. Most of them are the actual songs, rather than the covers that have dominated past installments of the game (though there are still four or five of those.) Once you get past those, there are two Aerosmith tunes and an encore to unlock a video of the band discussing its career and move to the next level.

The venues here are integral to Aerosmith’s history from the high school where they played their first gig, to Max’s Kansas City where they were discovered to the Orpheum Theatre where they reunited in the early 1980s to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and halftime of “the big game.”

Perhaps the best part of this game is the playlist in career mode. Notably absent are overrated and oversaturated tunes like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and the “CryinAmazaCrazy” trilogy. Instead, we get some underappreciated gems from the catalogue, like “Movin’ Out,” “No Surprize,” “Uncle Salty,” “Nobody’s Fault” (my personal Aerosmith fave) and the Joe Perry vocal on “Bright Light Fright.” I was disappointed in the decision to use the Run DMC version of “Walk This Way,” but the real version is included as an unlockable extra and that’s a minor quibble for a set list that’s heavy on hard-rocking classics and light on the newer hits.

All in all “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” is a short, but enjoyable add-on that should whet your appetite for “Guitar Hero World Tour,” due out just in time for Christmas, of course. More of these artist-based titles would be welcome.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for Wii.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for Wii.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for Xbox 360.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for Xbox 360.

Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" for PS3.
Get "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" bundle for PS3.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: Opeth, "Watershed"

Here's one of the few bands left in metal that can, seemingly, do no wrong. Easily the most creative band in the genre, Opeth can release anything from a full-on death metal record to a soft, acoustic record with no metal at all, and fans won't bat an eye. They've done both.

"Watershed" finds the band at the top of its game, blending all the facets of its music into a product that is, honestly, like nothing else that you'll hear (outside of a couple of bands that have tried unsuccessfully to copy them in recent years). Soft balladry is followed by pummeling metal, interrupted by a shimmery jazz guitar run, some nylon-string classical guitar and capped off by some bluesy Hammond organ riffing. Sometimes all of that comes in the same song, and it's all brought together by the tremendous musicianship of the band members and the versatile vocals of Mikael Akerfeldt. Even those who don't like metal should be able to appreciate the musicianship on a song like the 1970s prog rocker "Burden," on which you'll find no metallic sounds whatsoever.

It's really hard to single out one or two songs on this record, because if you don't take the piece as a whole, you're missing out, but I'll give it a shot. "Heir Apparent" is the heaviest number on the record, opening with one of the most crushing open chords you'll ever hear, made all the more heavy coming out of the acoustic opener "Coil." Add to that a great, heavy riff on the death metal verse, and you've got perhaps the best song on the record. "Burden" shows the band's progressive leanings to full effect, while "Porcelain Heart" walks the middle ground, blending in a bit of folk, classical and metal.

I've heard Opeth described as death metal, progressive, extreme progressive, forest metal, art metal and several other variations. The truth of the matter is that they're a band that defies description, and that's a rare thing in this age of metal.

Get "Watershed."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: King's X, "XV"

I'm much later than promised on this one, but it's still well worth noting.

Anyone whose read my reviews knows that I love bands that break the mold and do something a little different. King's X was one of the first of those I discovered. I was watching Headbanger's Ball (the original) back in the late '80s when the video for "Over My Head" came on. Here was this lanky, mohawk-sporting black guy (a rarity in itself in those days of metal) with an incredible voice, wailing over music that drew as much influence from gospel and soul as it did from Black Sabbath.

It's been almost 20 years since that discovery, and I've had my ups and downs with the band from the outstanding first five records to the hit and miss experimentation of the late 90s and this decade. The band's latest, "XV," though, stands as perhaps its best since 1994's "Dogman." Those tight Beatles-like harmonies that the band has always been known for, here become more like the harmonies of an energetic gospel choir, and that change is announced early on the chorus of record opener "Pray." It also signals that, perhaps, there's a little more anger here than in the past, a point proven later in the record on the charging "Move" and the dark "Love and Rockets (Hell's Screaming)."

That's not to say it's all anger. The record is varied with songs like the bubble-gum "Rocket Ship," the joyful "Go Tell Somebody" and the sardonic "Broke." Drummer Jerry Gaskill also takes a turn on the mic for the first time in a number of years for "Julie." It's a strong comeback for King's X, without a bad song to be found. The song here requests "If you like what you hear, then go tell somebody." Consider somebody told.

Get "XV."

Review: Volbeat, "Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil"

I love offbeat stuff, and when this record was pitched to me as “Elvis metal ‘n’ roll,” I just couldn’t resist taking a listen to it.

I’ll start with what could very possibly be my favorite song of the year so far, “Sad Man’s Tongue,” the band’s tribute to Johnny Cash. It opens with a country flair and that patented Cash beat. Vocalist Michael Poulson comes in with his Elvis vocals and a melody and lyric that owes more than a little to “Folsom Prison Blues.” After the first verse, it explodes into some hillbilly chainsaw rock, with a thrash interlude and a little bit of groove metal thrown in on the breakdown. It’s an absolutely perfect piece of redneck rock ‘n’ roll that’s right down my alley. I really wish there were more songs like this one on the record, where they just let go and rock.

The rest of the record is heavily influenced by Danzig, Black Sabbath and thrash. It’s good stuff, but, by and large, lacks the character of “Sad Man’s Tongue.” They’re at their best when they blend in the countrified sounds, like the slide guitar that opens “The Human Instrument,” or the blues-based riffs, as on “Soulweeper, Part 2.” The punkish, heavily Misfits-influenced “Devil or the Blue Cat’s Song” and the Sabbathian riffs of “River Queen” are other standout moments on the album, and it closes strong with the groove of “BOA (JDM).”

The only true miss on the record is “Radio Girl” which has a bubble-gum feel and seems a bit out of place with the darker material found elsewhere on the record.

For the most part, Poulson lives up to the Elvis comparisons, although there’s a lot of Glenn Danzig and at least a touch of Peter Steele and James Hetfield in his vocals. Poulson and Franz “Hellboss,” who has since left the band, provide some top notch riffing throughout the record.

How much you like Volbeat will probably depend on your tolerance for Poulson’s unconventional vocals. Admittedly, they don’t really seem to be the best fit with a few of the songs, but for others they’re perfect. It’s a solid record, but I still can’t help but wish the rest of it weren’t just a little more like “Sad Man’s Tongue.”

Get "Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Review: Judas Priest, "Nostradamus"

It’s a shame that, in one of his prophecies, Nostradamus didn’t foresee that Judas Priest would one day record a two-disc concept album about him. Maybe he could have warned them that it may not be the best idea.

The idea of a concept record about Nostradamus had me scratching my head to begin with. I kind of had an idea that it would be this bloated, overbearing, self-important piece of work, and that’s pretty much what Judas Priest delivers.

It starts well with the nice traditional riffing of “Prophecy.” The song is catchy enough that I can overlook the silly lyrics and overly melodramatic tone. By the end of the song, I was thinking this might not be so bad. And, in truth, it’s not. There are enough good songs scattered around this record to make one pretty good CD. “Pestilence and Plague” has a nice, galloping power metal feel to it, something we’ve rarely heard from Priest. “Death” is a morose, Sabbath-influenced track that might be the best of the dark numbers. “Conquest” has a cool, exotic vibe to it, thanks in large part to Halford’s vocal delivery. “Persecution” is a ripping ending to the first CD that leaves a good impression, and the title track provides a solid late-record spark with some Painkiller-style riffing, even if the vocals are, again, a little silly.

Even the flamboyant operatic stuff is not all bad. “Revelations” is a very dramatic piece of music, one of the strongest here, even if it does sound a little dated on the more metal parts, and “Alone” is one of the highlights of the second disc, opening with a Pink Floyd-ish moment before kicking in with a nice, plodding metal riff.

So, what’s the problem? Well, there are a few. For one thing there are far too many short interludes and intros on the record that really go nowhere. It feels like almost every song has some sort of intro track. The album is belabored by overbearing, and if I’m being honest, pompous tracks that are essentially the band trying to force the listener to recognize how brilliant this record is. I’m not buying it. British Steel is brilliant. Screaming for Vengeance is brilliant. Painkiller is brilliant. None of those records needed to point that fact out for listeners to recognize it.

Only a handful of the songs here are what I would truly call bad, “New Beginnings” being the notable exception — a pop ballad that’s easily the low-point of the record and possibly of the band’s career. But many of the songs just don’t seem to go anywhere. “War” is the perfect example. I listen to it, and I feel like it’s building up to some big release, some sort of crescendo, and then it never comes. Instead we move right into another slow, tortured song after another. Sitting through track after track of that just gets interminably boring somewhere around the middle of the second disc. I’m praying for a “Painkiller” to come blow the top of my head off, but hell, I’d almost settle for a “Turbo Lover” — at least it’s got a hook.

By and large the album is well put together and well composed, and perhaps as a Broadway-style piece, it might work. Unfortunately, that’s not what I want from Judas Priest. If I was looking for Broadway-style metal, there are many bands out there that do it better. What I want from Judas Priest is straight-up, balls out, traditional metal, and there’s far too little of that to be found on Nostradamus.

Get "Nostradamus."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Review: Motley Crue, "Saints of Los Angeles"

It’s about time that Motley Crue remembered what they do best.

Since their first breakup in the early 1990s, they’ve struggled to find their identity. For those who haven’t been keeping score, it started with the heavier sound of 1994’s self-titled record with vocalist John Corabi. It was a solid record, arguably one of the best in their catalog from a musical standpoint, but a lot of longtime fans didn’t buy into Corabi. That resulted in the return of original singer Vince Neil for the dismal 1997 effort "Generation Swine," where the band tried to show off its “artistic” side. Really bad idea.

Another breakup followed, with drummer Tommy Lee leaving and the late Randy Castillo stepping in. In 2000, the band again tried to placate fans displeased with the direction of "Generation Swine" with "New Tattoo." An attempt at a return to their glam success of the 1980s, the record, for the most part, contained a collection of lame songs that would make the worst ’80s hair band cringe.

So then it was time for another reunion. "The Red, White and Crue" “best of” package brought us two very promising new tracks in “If I Die Tomorrow” and “Sick Love Song,” easily the best tune the band had recorded in 15 years or so. There was some excitement, but tempered. After all, fans have been there before.

The good news is, this time, they got it right. No electronic noise, no alternative, no plaintive ballads about band members’ children, just straight up rock. While "Saints of Los Angeles" is certainly no match for "Shout at the Devil," it is a return to what you want from a Motley Crue record: sleazy, three chord anthems about sex and partying. It’s music to turn off your brain, pick up a drink and rock out with.

There are some stinkers here. “The Animal in Me” takes itself too seriously. It’s too hard to get past the goofy lyrics of “Chicks = Trouble” to enjoy the pretty good blues rock stomp of the music. The tough guy bravado of “Goin’ Out Swingin’” doesn’t translate musically, and “Down at the Whisky” retains that thin, lifeless, going-through-the-motions feel that sank "New Tattoo."

But when they’re on, they’re really on. A concept record of sorts, since almost every song here is about the band, the best moments come when Motley Crue embraces their past and delivers some raunchy, glitzy, mindless rock ‘n’ roll. The title track is a standout moment, reminiscent of the "Dr. Feelgood" era. There are also some hot grooves to be found throughout the record on songs like “Mutherfucker of the Year” and the record’s second-best track “This Ain’t a Love Song,” which reminds me a lot of “Primal Scream” from their first “best of” compilation way back when. They rock out in fine form on the bouncing “White Trash Circus,” and tip the hat to Alice Cooper on “Just Another Psycho” - a song that’s begging for a guest shot from Cooper, but unfortunately doesn’t get it.

If you hated Motley Crue in the 1980s and wish that era in rock history would go away, then likely nothing will change with this record. If you’re a fan that wandered away during the band’s lost years, you should definitely give "Saints of Los Angeles" a listen. The record has its ups and downs and doesn’t completely match the energy of their heyday, but it’s easily their best work since 1994’s "Motley Crue."

Get "Saints of Los Angeles."