Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Still spinning: Kiuas, "Spirit of Ukko"

In preparing to review Kiuas' latest record, "The New Dark Age," I revisited the album that first got me hooked on the band. Listening to it again and re-reading my review, I still stand by every word. If you haven't heard Kiuas, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Look for my review of their latest coming soon, but for now, enjoy a blast from the past:

It’s rare for an album to catch my ear on first listen. Usually I have to hear it three or four times before I can really form an opinion on it. But sometimes an album hits me like the bolt of lightning crackling from the sky on this album cover. If you’re a power metal fan, go get this album now. It’s that good.

Though Kiuas has been around since 2000 and recorded a number of EPs, this is their first full-length album – well, at eight songs and 42 minutes, it’s more like an extended EP by today’s standards. That’s a problem, since I wanted this album to keep going. At first listen, I thought this was a power metal outfit with a death metal fetish, as the title track breaks out in blast beats and some melodic death riffing. That in itself was interesting to me. Singer Ilja Jalkanen sounded a bit like Zachary Stevens with a heavy accent on the track – another point in the album’s favor in this Savatage fan’s estimation.

But that was just the beginning. Through the course of the album, the music takes sidetrips into medieval sounds, Viking metal, neoclassical and a few other styles. It’s all tied together with an old-fashioned hard rock sensibility, due in large part to Jalkanen’s delivery. That old school feel is particularly evident on “No More Sleep for Me” and “Warrior Soul.” Whereas most power metal bands feel the need to have a singer with a “pretty” voice, Jalkanen puts a little more grit and power into his vocals. He can pull off the traditional high-pitched harmonies, but he can also snarl and scream when the music calls for it. He claims bluesmen Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf among his influences, which seems a bit odd for a guy from Finland, but you can hear a bit of that blues tone in his voice and it puts him miles beyond the same-sounding vocalists that dominate the genre. It proves that you can sound like a man and still be a great power metal vocalist.

There’s a great deal of Manowar influence on the album, particularly on songs like “On Winds of Death We Ride” and “Warrior Soul.” If you’re not into the warrior metal schtick, don’t worry, it’s not quite as over-the-top as some of the acts out there. Besides this album is so musically solid, they could be singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and it would sound cool. In fact, the only weak song on the album is the semi-ballad, “Thorns of a Black Rose,” and even it’s not a bad song. Mikko Salovaara lays down some gorgeous acoustic guitar work on the soft parts that raises it above the melodrama of the rest. I was also impressed with Atte Tanskanen’s key work. It adds a great deal of atmosphere to the songs, but it doesn’t stick out, even when it plays a primary role in the song. That seems obvious, but if you’ve listened to a lot of power metal, you’ll know that not every keyboard player gets it.

Kiuas pulls out a new surprise on almost every track, adding a variety of elements to their music without ever sacrificing their identity. Whether it’s the Malmsteen-like sweep arpeggios of “Warrior Soul” or the chugging Meshuggah-style riffs on “And the North Star Cried,” it’s obvious that Kiuas knows what their strengths are as a band and they use their influences well to accentuate those.

This is how power metal should be done, and if Kiuas doesn’t quickly rise to the top ranks of the genre, something is seriously out of whack.

Get "The Spirit of Ukko."

Still Spinning is an occasional feature about an older record that still gets regular time in my CD player.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Review: Firewind, "The Premonition"

Despite a rotating cast of musicians, no one in the melodic/power metal realms has produced more consistent records over the past several years than Firewind. Their latest record, The Premonition, is the second record for Century Media and the second with the same lineup, a first in the band’s history. While it doesn’t bring any major shifts in direction, it does find the band beginning to mesh better.

The record opens with a bang on the thrasher “Into the Fire.” This track features an obvious homage to classic Metallica. In its opening, you’ll hear elements of “Battery,” “Sanitarium,” “Blackened” and a few others leading into some fast-paced riffing that finally settles more into power metal territory when Apollo Papathanasio begins singing. It’s not the rip-off of Metallica that a few other bands are pushing these days, and perhaps it’s not exactly a straightforward tribute, but it’s certainly a tip of the hat to the influence, and it’s a welcome beginning to a welcome CD.

The Premonition has a nice variety about it. The songs range from pounding power metal numbers to more commercial pieces, like the first single “Mercenary Man,” where the band brings some 1980s arena rock influence. That track also features one of the most memorable hooks to be found here. It’s really a tune to get out on the highway and crank as loud as it will go with that soaring opening and chorus, just set the cruise control if you don’t want it to be an expensive trip. The record keeps going strong with the slashing riffs of “Angels Forgive Me” and a return to the thrash touches that opened the record on “Remembered.” The Police-inspired clean opening of “My Loneliness,” which finds Papathanasio doing his best early Sting, is cool. I was impressed by the choice not to include a ballad on their last record Allegiance, but for the most part I like this one. The verses are cool, but the chorus is not quite as catchy, sounding a bit like a Scorpions throw-away.

There are some rough moments later in the record that make it not quite as enjoyable as Allegiance. After a nice traditional metal opening riff, “Circle of Life” loses its steam and becomes perhaps the most lifeless offering of the 10 tracks here. And I’m not sure what they were thinking when they decided to cover Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” Yeah, the song from “Flashdance.” They crunch it up enough to make it listenable, but it’s still a real head-scratcher for me. The only thing I can figure is that keyboard player Bob Katsionis really wanted to do the synth line that opens the song and somehow convinced the rest of the band to do it.

Fortunately, they make a comeback after that to close the album strong with “Life Foreclosed.” The song is perhaps the darkest moment on the record, and despite some small lyrical challenges in the chorus, it’s still one of the best numbers here.

With The Premonition, Firewind delivers exactly what I’ve come to expect from them, a set of tasteful, melodic and catchy songs that are well-played and well-produced. Founder and guitarist Gus G. has quickly become one of my favorite players in the current crop, and his chops continue to impress here. While I occasionally think Papathanasio needs a little more grit in his voice, it’s hard to argue with the power he puts into moments like the chorus of “Mercenary Man.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band in the current crop of power/melodic metallers than Firewind. While The Premonition doesn’t top 2006’s Allegiance, which stands as Firewind’s best work to date, it’s still a very solid, consistent album and one worth your consideration.

Get "The Premonition."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Judas Priest, "Nostradamus" single

When metal bands do concept records based on historical figures or writings, it's an iffy proposition. For every superb album like Bruce Dickinson's "The Chemical Wedding," you get a whole bunch of losers. Having listened to the first single off Judas Priest's upcoming concept record "Nostradamus," which seems like a bit of a hokey concept to begin with, I'm not sure what we're going to get when it hits shelves in June.

The operatic opening, I felt, was a little weird. The keyboards were kind of cheesy, and the vocals don't really play to Rob Halford's strengths. After that, we get a pretty standard Priest number that sounds a bit like a mash-up of a couple of "Painkiller" tunes. The song has its up and downs. "Painkiller" is one of my favorite Priest records, so I don't have any problems with that sound, but at the same time, much of the song feels like I've heard it before. The chorus is one of the weakest points (aside from the repetitive chant of "Nostradamus"), and a little goofy-sounding. There's a line that I believe is "Nostradamus ... he's our mage." On casual listen, it comes off sounding like "Nostradamus ... he's our man," which would be worse than some of the lyrics they forced "Ripper" Owens to sing on "Demolition." They pick it back up with a nice ripping bit going into the solo with Rob screaming over it, that I really like. (Editor's note: It has been pointed out to me by a reader that these ears that have been abused at metal concerts for a quarter of a century have completely misheard this lyric. The poster points out the actual lyric is "Nostradamus is avenged." I don't think the lyric is quite as clear as he seems to think, but I concede that it is probably correct and it is a much better lyric.)

Ultimately, it sounds like a pretty average Judas Priest song. Nothing truly disappointing, but nothing really inspired either. Naturally, I'll reserve judgment until I hear the whole record, but I hope that this isn't the best song it has to offer. Nice cover, though.

You can make your own conclusions about the song since Epic Records is offering it as a free download here. Give it a listen.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Review: Jon Oliva's Pain, "Global Warning"

With Savatage seemingly on indefinite hiatus between the monster that Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become and the various solo projects of its members, fans are getting a lot of music in a similar style, but not what they really want. Until now.

The first two efforts of Jon Oliva’s Pain have been quite enjoyable, if a bit uneven. "'Tage Mahal" (2005) represented a welcome return to the older, more aggressive style of Savatage, but at the same time, the songs on the record sounded an awful lot like Savatage throw-aways. The follow-up, "Maniacal Renderings" (2006), had one of the best songs Oliva has recorded in years, “Through the Eyes of the King,” but much of the record was very personal and self-indulgent. The same could be said of Oliva’s latest, "Global Warning," with one big caveat. Indeed, this record is very indulgent. Unlike "Maniacal Renderings," however, "Global Warning" is pure fucking genius.

You know you’re in for a wild ride from the title track, which opens the record. Oliva has, for a while now, been writing a musical based on the Romanovs, and some of that comes through on the Russian-flavored classical opening of the track. From there, it morphs into a 1970s hard rock jam, complete with big Hammond organ riffing, and finally into a Gutter Ballet-era Savatage song. That’s a lot of musical ground covered in four and a half minutes. It’s also a microcosm of the record, which features everything from blazing metal tracks to big, theatric numbers to soft, poignant vocal and piano pieces.

The record really captures the mood and feel of Savatage’s now classic rock opera Streets in its variety and power. Also like that record, some of the strongest songs here are the slower numbers. “Firefly” is a shining moment on the record, fueled by guitarist Matt LaPorte’s soulful, melancholy leads. LaPorte’s power is once again felt on “Open Your Eyes,” a Beatles-influenced number that finds Oliva sprinkling falsetto notes over his piano with a big bombastic bridge and chorus and LaPorte delivering a dramatic solo straight out of the Brian May playbook. (Queen is also a huge influence throughout the record.) “The Ride” may be the strongest track on the record, opening with a happy, jangly acoustic melody and then taking a turn into a more sinister chorus as the subject of the song is subjected to temptation. “Someone/Souls” closes the record with an emotionally-charged crescendo, just as “Somewhere in Time/Believe” did on Streets.

Not to worry, though, if you’re a metal fan. While Oliva has always been able to deliver top notch ballads, he also brings the rock here, too. “Before I Hang” will have a very familiar sound to longtime fans. A combination of the 1980s demo track ”Before I Hang” and the Streets demo “Larry Elbows,” the song, rightfully, sounds like a song taken from the Streets record and backs up the overall feel of "Global Warning." The digital feel and manic circus-style lead riff of “Master” should please, and “Stories” finds Oliva plying his theatric skills with the showtune-like gang vocals delivered over a pure metal track. “You Never Know” will probably have more old school fans banging their heads than any other track, as it sounds like it was taken straight from Hall of the Mountain King, a screaming, welcome, blast from the past.

Oliva’s voice, which has at times been a bit ragged over the past decade or so, sounds better here than it has in years. From his trademark Savatage shrieks to a gritty blues tone to crystal clear clean vocals on the ballads, he covers all the bases sounding like the late 1980s version of himself. There’s more passion packed into Oliva’s performance here than the last two JOP records and Savatage’s last record "Poets & Madmen" combined.

When I interviewed Savatage producer Paul O’Neill prior to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour last fall, he assured me that a new Savatage record will happen one day. But he also made it clear that it wasn’t a priority with several other TSO projects in the works. The good news for fans is that "Global Warning" will serve well as your new Savatage record. Most everyone will agree that bands can’t relive their best works, but Jon Oliva has done just that, reproducing the quality, vibe and feel of Streets here. It may not have the Savatage logo stamped on the cover, but this is a record that Savatage fans have been waiting on for a long time.

Get "Global Warning."

Read my review of "'Tage Mahal" from 2005.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Stuck in My Head: "Over My Head," King's X

These days it's a rare thing to find a record that really blows you away, that makes you go "wow, I've never heard anything quite like that before." I've experienced a lot of music in my life, and I guess, to an extent, I've grown into the jaded old cynic that always feels like most new stuff is just a rehash of something older with a few new touches. So it's nice to revisit a time when I had a little fresher view of music, and I could be surprised. When the promo for the latest from King's X, "XV," arrived in my mailbox earlier this week, it made me think about how I discovered the band that was one of my favorites through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I was in high school when I first heard King's X. I was sitting in front of the TV one Saturday night watching "Headbanger's Ball," a weekly ritual for me in those days. The first thing that stuck out to me was the striking appearance of singer/bassist Doug Pinnick. Here was this tall, lanky, mohawked black guy (which was a rarity in itself in hard rock and metal in those days) that served a sharp contrast to the makeup-coated, big-haired (although his certainly wasn't small), preening singers of the time. The physical differences, though, melted away when he opened his mouth and that soulful, monster of a voice came out. I wondered how something that big and resonant could come out of this skinny guy that looked like he weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. What he sang, I believed. The voice had that kind of power.

But it wasn't just Pinnick and his voice that drew me to the song. It was the whole mish-mash of musical vibes that were going on. It started with that big power chord riff. It was a simple three-chord riff, as many of the best are. The riff is a play straight out of the Black Sabbath playbook, but with a twist. Instead of doomy and gloomy as Tony Iommi would have delivered it, it was faster, joyful and uplifting. Built around that metallic riff was a range of influence from funk, soul and even gospel. And then there was Pinnick's manic, yet powerful vocals, that brought it all home, brothers and sisters. I was instantly hooked.

I picked up my copy of "Gretchen Goes to Nebraska" on my next trip to the record store, and found even more to like about the King's X sound. It truly was like nothing I'd ever heard -- tight Beatles-style harmonies and song structures that ran head-on into Sabbath-influenced riffs, thumping and funky bass lines scattered throughout, old school soul flourishes here and there, all delivered with the power and passion of a gospel choir. For all that, they still managed to keep a sardonic sense of humor in the music, too.

The band rapidly became a favorite of mine. I quickly picked up their previous record, "Out of the Silent Planet," and snapped up each following record through 1994's "Dogman." Admittedly, King's X's late 1990s records and those earlier this decade were spotty as they began to experiment and move away from that powerhouse sound that first made me a fan. The good news is they've come full-circle back to that sound on their new one. Look for my review of it in the coming weeks.

Hear a clip of "Over My Head."

Get "Gretchen Goes to Nebraska."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: Cavalera Conspiracy, "Inflikted"

I can't deny that I've been waiting on this record for a long time. I was lucky enough to have a chance to see Sepultura live before they split with singer/guitarist Max Cavalera, and they destroyed the stage. Shortly thereafter, Max left amid some ugliness, and the band released a series of mediocre records that never really held my interest (even those that I initially liked, like 2006's "Dante XXI"). Meanwhile, Max took the sound of the band's more commercial "Roots" and made it even more accessible in Soulfly. While I admit I liked a lot of the Soulfly offerings, and they had a great live show, they don't stand up to the best Sepultura work at all.

Finally, though, Max Cavalera and his brother Igor have buried the hatchet and teamed up for this debut release from Cavalera Conspiracy. And finally, I've got the Sepultura record (pay no attention to the name on the cover, this is a Sepultura record) that we should have gotten after "Chaos A.D."

My favorite version of Sepultura was the middle version. While the early, more death-influenced stuff isn't bad, and the tribal sounds of "Roots" are OK, it's the groove-based thrash of "Arise" and "Chaos A.D." that made me a fan. On "Inflikted," the brothers Cavalera deliver a sound that's somewhere between that head-on thrash of "Chaos A.D." and the tribal grooves of "Roots" or Soulfly. It's a potent mixture. It opens with the title track, which might make you believe this will be a Soulfly record with Igor Cavalera on drums, but that changes with the pounding "Sanctuary," which introduces a return to the more aggressive Sepultura style, but also features a nice breakdown for Soulfly fans.

Certainly there are moments here that won't appeal to the unbending fans that hated "Roots" and Soulfly -- you know, the crowd that likes to throw the term sell-out around. There are undeniably some more commercial moments here than you would have ever found on one of those early Sepultura records, but then there are songs like "Hex" which digs even farther back for an "Arise," maybe even getting into "Beneath the Remains" territory a little, or the punk-influenced burner "Nevertrust." I happen to like a good groove, though, and this record has some great ones. The *gasp* hooks of songs like "Ultra-Violent" and "Bloodbrawl" and the screaming, bouncing riff of "Must Kill" will be with you long after you've finished listening.

"Inflikted" offers a perfect balance between heaviness and grooving melodies. It features songs that are hummable in one moment and bash your skull in the next. The tribal elements that colored "Roots" and Soulfly's sound are still there in places, but they're played down, putting the focus on a straight ahead metallic sound. It's a welcome return of a band that I've been missing for a good long while.

Hear a sample of "Sanctuary."

Get "Inflikted."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review: Alestorm, "Captain Morgan's Revenge"

I've been recommending this record to people for months, so it's about time I get around to posting a review.

No description of Alestorm could possibly be better than the one they give themselves -- Scottish pirate metal. Blending power metal, keyboard lines inspired by the scores of countless pirate movies, the classic sea shanty and lyrics about sailing, wenching, grogging and pillaging, it's undeniably cheesy. It's also undeniably fun.

The folk metal elements of the music are obviously heavily influenced by Korpiklaani, but I find Alestorm's brand just a bit more fun. I can easily picture vocalist Christopher Bowes staggering around in full Jack Sparrow get-up and waving his cutlass in the air as he delivers songs like "Nancy the Tavern Wench," "Of Treasure" or the goofy "Wenches and Mead," which would be almost sexist enough to make the members of Motley Crue blush. But, we are talking about pirates here.

The record opens with the high seas adventure of "Over the Seas" which prepares the listener for the pirate power that's coming. The band covers a lot of metal ground over the course of the record. There's the pure power metal of songs like "Set Sail and Conquer," the Annihilator-inspired thrash of "Death Before the Mast" and "Terror on the High Seas," and of course the folky feel of "Of Treasure" and "Flower of Scotland." Alestorm does high speed blazers and mid-tempo songs equally well, as "Nancy the Tavern Wench" and the barroom sing-along shanty "Of Treasure" fare just as well as some of the more high octane numbers.

One of my favorite aspects of the record is the handling of the gang vocals. If you've listened to much power metal, you're familiar with its handling of those -- perfectly harmonized and tweaked within an inch of their life until they're as flawless as possible. Alestorm takes a rougher approach. They're not exactly what I'd call out of tune, but it's a little looser style that gives the impression of a group of salty dogs singing on the deck. When it works, as on the title track, which also stands as perhaps the strongest tune here, it's great. I dare you to listen to that chorus and not want to raise a pint and sing along. They do occasionally take it too far, though, as on the weakest number, "Flower of Scotland," where it sound too much like a rowdy, drunken, out of tune rabble. Of course, that's probably closer to the real pirate singing experience (if in fact there be such a thing).

Your tolerance for this record will probably depend on your tolerance for tongue-in-cheek humor in your metal. The dark, uber-serious crowd that rants about how "Metalocalypse" is making a mockery of metal will probably want to skip it. But if you enjoy a good laugh and some fun, well-played folk metal that doesn't take itself too seriously, definitely check it out. Alestorm's debut is silly and over the top, but it's still somehow enjoyable and quite addictive. Har, mateys.

Get "Captain Morgan's Revenge."

Monday, April 7, 2008

Review: Black Tide, "Light from Above"

I was intrigued when I heard the opening single “Shockwave” from Black Tide’s debut record. Sure, the lyrics were a little corny, but it was hard to get the chorus out of my head anyway. So, I’m torn when listening to the full record. On the one hand, after years of tuneless screaming from new bands, it’s really nice to see some young guys returning to the melody and distinctive vocals that are the roots of metal. On the other hand, there are points on this record, where I just don’t quite buy it.

If you haven’t heard Black Tide yet, they play a retro brand of metal, reminiscent of the early 1980s sound coming out of England. And while a song like “Shockwave” has a hook that will bury itself in your brain, it’s a little more difficult to take them seriously on a song like “Warriors of Time.” Despite a nice classical-flavored clean guitar opening, the “ohohoohs” and the lyrics are just way too hokey. It’s very, very Spinal Tap.

Black Tide are at their best when they’re ripping away, like on the opening riff of “Let Me,” a song that strays a bit toward the later 1980s hard rock scene, but is still quite enjoyable. The same can be said of “Show Me the Way.” When they try to slow it down a little as on “Give Me a Chance,” it’s often just boring.

There’s plenty of hat-tipping to the NWOBHM scene here, like the opening of “Enterprise,” which will put listeners in mind of Priest’s classic “Electric Eye.” While offering a wink and nod to your influences is cool, the biggest misstep on this record is the decision to cover Metallica’s “Hit the Lights.” It’s a lightweight cover that’s like a thin, faded copy of the original. Black Tide plays the song almost note for note like the original, but it just doesn’t have the explosive power that Metallica gave it. Gabriel Garcia’s voice is just too thin and the addition of some squealing guitar notes on the main riff aren’t enough to keep you from wishing you were listening to the real song. Fortunately, they recover with the next song, “Black Abyss,” which opens with a great riff and gets them back to that British vibe that has served them well earlier in the record, and they finish strong on the remaining songs.

There’s no doubt that guitarists Garcia and Alex Nunez have the chops down. The guitar work here, for the most part, will transport you back to the glory days of the NWOBHM. Garcia’s vocals are solid, if not stunning, and the record sounds really good. But when songs like “Warriors of Time” and “Live Fast, Die Young” come on, I just can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m listening to a bunch of kids copping licks off of records they found in their parents’ basements.

Maybe my reluctance to embrace Black Tide is just me, having grown up in the original era of this style, being the grouchy old fart yelling out the window for these kids to get off my damn lawn. I’ll admit to that. Certainly there are quite a few enjoyable songs on "Light From Above," and the record has grown on me more each time I listen to it. It will be interesting to see if this record, which has gotten some traction since the release of “Shockwave,” might help usher the sound back to the spotlight and help bring the melody and vocals back to the up-and-coming scene. One can only hope.

Get "Light From Above."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stuck in My Head: "War Pigs," Black Sabbath

Been a while since I've done one of these, and OK, I’ll admit this is a big, fat, slow-pitch softball for a reviewer. But a discussion on the former forums (now, check it out) has had me thinking about Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” lately.

I grew up, and still live, in the buckle of the Bible belt. When I was a kid, and just starting to get into metal, I was a little nervous about anything that might be considered “satanic.” I shied away from a lot of the bands that I love today for that very reason. The whole religion thing had been pounded into me my whole young life, and I was a little nervous about cranking up my copy of “Shout at the Devil” and convinced that listening to something as innocuous these days as Ozzy. would send me straight to hell. Looking back, it’s funny to think that I thought some of this stuff was “satanic.”

Then one day, I was at a friend’s house, listening to a cassette mix tape. I had no idea that I was listening to a band called Black Sabbath, and when that last verse of “War Pigs” hit, I thought it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I figured if listening to this was enough to send me to hell, then maybe it was worth the trip. The rest, well, you can see it on this site.

Like most Sabbath tunes, it starts with the riff. There’s no one, living or dead, who can compose a better metal riff than Tony Iommi did in the early 1970s. None. The song opens with this stormy, thunder and lightning, back and forth riff before breaking out into that simple two-note D-E power chord punctuation to each of Ozzy’s verses that gives the song its punch. If it stopped with the main riff, the song would be powerful enough, but then there’s that chunky, funky riffage under the second verse and those spacy little sidetrips between that verse and the return of that two-note gut punch for the final verse.

That last little menacing lyric, “Satan laughing spreads his wings,” from Ozzy is just the icing on the cake of one of the most perfect metal songs ever written.

Like the best Black Sabbath songs from that era, “War Pigs” is stunning in its simplicity, yet still packs a powerful punch. If you don’t like this song, then you’re not really a metal fan. It’s as simple as that.

Hear a clip of "War Pigs."
Get "Paranoid."

Stuck in my Head is an occasional feature about whatever song happens to be running around incessantly in my head at the moment.