Monday, March 31, 2008

Review: Stuck Mojo, "Southern Born Killers"

When I first heard Stuck Mojo in the mid-1990s, the sound was fresh and interesting – a solid, Southern-flavored metal band fronted by a rapper. With the rise of the rap-rock trend and the nu-metal trends in the late 90s and early part of this decade, the sound began to lose its edge. The band was dealing with internal strife and feuding with Century Media, which led to a parting of ways in 2001. Guitarist Rich Ward went on to play in wrestler Chris Jericho’s ’80s cover band Fozzy and release his own, very strange solo album.

In 2005, the band got back together to tour, but frontman Bonz left before they went into the studio in 2006 to record Southern Born Killers. With new rapper Lord Nelson, the band released this record as a free download. It led to a signing by Napalm Records and this official release two years later with three bonus tracks.

While most of the groups that cashed in on the rap rock sound have moved on over the years in search of the next trend that will score them a radio hit, Stuck Mojo continues to do what they’ve always done. If you’ve heard the band before, Southern Born Killers doesn’t offer a lot of surprises.

The record opens with the chugging riff of “I’m American,” which leads into a Rage Against the Machine-inspired verse (without the annoying vocals) and a hard rock chorus with sung vocals. That pretty much sums up what you’ll get here. The title track is one of the catchiest numbers on the record, blending southern hip-hop influences with southern rock and metal. Each style gets its spotlight on the record. “The Sky is Falling,” is more of a straight hip-hop number with a radio rock chorus, while “Metal is Dead” should satisfy the other side of the audience with its blazing thrash riffs.

The album does have more than its share of throw-away tracks. “For the Cause of Allah” is a white noise track with drum machine, synth and audio clips from newscasts that’s really a huge waste of space to set up the track “Open Season.” It would have bothered me less if it had been short, like “Prelude to Anger,” the second unneccessary intro track. “Yoko,” a bit of a joke track, is another song that really seems to kind of take the air out of this record, placed between two solid numbers.

The main thing Stuck Mojo seems to have lost with former frontman Bonz is the ability to do more funky, southern-flavored songs. Two of my favorites from the band are “Southern Pride” and “Hang ’Em High” from The Rising. Nelson’s style just doesn’t lend itself to those types of songs, and I do miss it.

Of course, when the new lineup gets it right, they get it really right. “That’s When I Burn” is one of the best songs they’ve ever recorded with a great grooving guitar riff from Ward and an undeniably catchy chorus.

Southern Born Killers covers ground that Stuck Mojo has covered many times in the past, but there’s something to be said for sticking to your guns. They know what they do, and they do it well. It’s not their best record, and it’s not as exciting as it was 10 or 12 years ago, but if you’re looking for a funky blend of metal and rap, it’s solid.

Get "Southern Born Killers."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review: Brainstorm, "Downburst"

So often, in the review business, it all comes down to timing. I try to keep an open mind and give fair reviews for every CD that comes across my desk. But in all honesty, if I get an OK record in a style that I’m just really burned out on at the time, it probably doesn’t get as fair a shake as it should. Some of it is right record, right time.

With the latest record from Brainstorm, it’s a case of the perfect record at the perfect time.

I popped the CD into my player for the first time on my way home after another crap day at work, and I wonder what the other folks on the road must have thought when they saw me grinning like a madman and banging my head like crazy as I drove past. This is the kind of record I’ve been looking for. There are no unneccessary intro pieces, no wimpy ballads, no over-the-top power metal pretensions, no trendy screams. In short, no bullshit. Brainstorm plugs in, cranks up and rocks the fuck out like it’s 1985 – with much better production values of course.

Sure, Brainstorm’s music has always been rooted in the traditional, but on Downburst, they nail the vibe absolutely perfectly. From the first riff of album opener “Falling Spiral Down,” you get the overwhelming sensation of the glory days when Priest and Maiden ruled the metal world. Unlike bands who simply copy the riffs, though, Brainstorm owns the style. Guitarists Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric lay down some monster riffs and Andy B. Franck’s powerful voice commands the listener’s attention.

The record is loaded with big, memorable hooks, notably on songs like “Fire Walk With Me” and “Frozen,” which stick long and hard. They do toss out a few interesting moments that stray from the traditional. The opening of “Redemption in Your Eyes” kind of puts me in mind of an In Flames riff. There’s a bit of a prog feel to “End in Sorrow,” which even as the slowest track on the record offers up some beefy riffing. The band does veer a bit into the power metal realms later in the record as the keyboards show up heavier than on the earlier songs, but they’re used nicely to punctuate the music rather than overwhelming it. The record ends solidly in traditional territory with the aforementioned “Frozen” and its huge chorus and the strutting groove and Queensryche influnced bridge and chorus of “All Alone.”

I was a bit disappointed with Brainstorm’s last effort, "Liquid Monster," after a solid performance with my introduction to the band "Soul Temptation" in 2003. But they bounce back strong with this record, surpassing their previous efforts. In short, "Downburst" is the best record I’ve heard so far this year.

Get "Downburst."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review: Avantasia, "The Scarecrow"

Epic albums with big-name guest stars are an iffy proposition. The expectations those all-star lineups create can be a bit of a letdown. That was the case for me with the latest effort from Ayreon, which I found a bit boring. On this record, though, the guest stars get bits that better reflect their own musical styles, and the result is more along the lines of what you might expect.

The side project of Edguy’s Tobias Sammet, Avantasia appeared on the scene in 2000. Sammet released two ambitious records, "The Metal Opera Part I" in 2001 and "The Metal Opera Part II" in 2002, then faded into the background until last year, when new EPs popped up in advance of this record.

The guest lineup is short, but impressive. Former Kiss drummer Eric Singer provides the backbone for the record. Alice Cooper, Jorn Lande, Michael Kiske, Amanda Somerville and Roy Kahn are among the guest vocalists. Rudolf Schenker lends some guitar work to help out producer/guitarist Sascha Paeth.

"The Scarecrow" starts with a bang. The huge, slightly exotic riff of “Twisted Mind” grabs you immediately and stays with you. It sets the standard for what will come later on this record, namely big, memorable melodies. The obligatory “epic” 11-minute title track follows. I normally find those songs more than a little self-indulgent, but “The Scarecrow” is the exception. The song flows well without a lot of filler material to stretch it out.

Things take a dip from there, as Sammet explores a more typical power metal sound with “Shelter from the Rain.” Then things get really odd. “Carry Me Over” sounds like a 1980s electronic pop song, and Somerville delivers an over-the-top pop diva performance on “What Kind of Love.” It made me wonder if I had warped into some kind of bizarro world after the incredible power of the first two numbers.

When the Iron Maiden-flavored opening licks of “Another Angel Down” kick in, they’re very welcome. It brings some sanity back to the world. Lande delivers an incredible vocal performance on the song, as usual, and it gets the record back on track. What’s most welcome on this record, though, is Alice Cooper’s guest performance on “The Toy Master.” Make no mistake, this isn’t an Avantasia song. Who wrote it is beside the point — this is an Alice Cooper song. The twisted number sounds like it came straight from Cooper’s “The Last Temptation,” and is far and away Alice’s best song since the “Brutal Planet” record. It clears out the cobwebs left by that little sidetrip into ’80s pop.

The final portion of the record is a mixed bag. “Devil in the Belfry” is the best of the bunch, a quite enjoyable speed/power metal number. “Cry Just a Little” is a skippable ballad that also has a lot of 1980s overtones, as does the more rocking “I Don’t Believe in Your Love” which reminds me a bit of the Scorpions. (Not sure from the album notes what songs Schenker plays on, but I’d guess this is one.) The final track, “Lost in Space,” is, not surprisingly, a spacy mid-tempo number with a little progressive influence. It’s one of the middle-of-the-road numbers here. Not as good as the first two tracks or the Cooper song, but the best of the ’80s-influenced half of the record.

"The Scarecrow" plays on the same kinds of influences that you hear in Sammet’s regular band, Edguy, but takes them in slightly different directions. It’s a very varied record covering a lot of styles, and while it occasionally misses the mark, it delivers more than its share of exciting and memorable music. It’s a great record that you’ll be humming long after listening to it.

Get "The Scarecrow."