Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: Warrel Dane, "Praises to the War Machine"

When you play in a group of extremely talented musicians who are all trying to grab their piece of the spotlight, it’s no surprise that, at some point, you’d want to do your own record and put yourself in the spotlight. Already considered one of the best vocalists in metal, Warrel Dane now indulges his own tastes a bit to showcase that voice outside the confines of Nevermore. He’s recruited ex-Soilworkers Peter Wichers (who also recorded and mixed the record) and Dirk Verbeuren and Matt Wicklund, formerly of Himsa, to back him on a record that, while not alien-sounding to Nevermore fans, allows Dane to stretch his horizons.

It’s an easy and obvious comparison, but Praises to the War Machine is somewhat similar to a Bruce Dickinson solo record, in that it’s a record that allows Dane to be the star of the show without having to share time with other band members. Like Dickinson’s records, in some ways this one is almost superior to Nevermore. There’s certainly a bigger focus here on song structures and songwriting than technicality. Not every song needs a blast of virtuosic performance, not even from Dane himself. It also gives Dane a chance to show more of his range from the warbling vocals Nevermore fans are familiar with to some nice lower register work which is surprising in spots.

The record is, at times, a bit indulgent, but that’s really the point of a solo record. There are certainly things you’d never hear on a Nevermore record, like a fairly faithful cover of the Sisters of Mercy’s “Lucretia My Reflection” - one of the highlights of the record - or the melancholy, almost gothic “Your Chosen Misery” or the sort of bluesy feel of the opening of “This Old Man,” both of which showcase a lower, more subdued side of Dane than we’re used to hearing. Many of the slower songs here are a bit morose and there seems to be an obsession lyrically with the death of a family member that runs through several of the songs. Even the slower songs provide some moments of undeniable power, though, like the soaring chorus of “Brother.”

There’s also a conscious effort here to not alienate fans of Nevermore, as evidenced by opening tracks “When We Pray” and “Messenger” (featuring Jeff Loomis on guitar), neither of which would cause fans to bat an eye if they appeared on his regular band’s next record. Perhaps the most surprising moment on the record is an unexpectedly heavy, very Nevermore-ish cover of Paul Simon’s “Patterns,” which is another highlight of the record. He closes with a bang, delivering the pounding, crunching sound of his main band on “Equilibrium.”

Praises to the War Machine is not a huge departure from what we’ve heard Dane do before. While it gives him a chance to show some things we don’t normally hear in his regular gig, the music here is more like Nevermore than unlike. The big difference is that it’s arranged to showcase the vocals and, yes, deliver up perhaps a few more accessible moments to those who aren’t obsessed with virtuosic performances. It’s hard to get choruses like the one from “The Day the Rats Went to War” (which brings in the title of the record) out of your head, and maybe the songs here are, at times, a bit catchier than the average Nevermore fare. But fans of the band won’t be disappointed, nor will fans of great melodic metal in general. This one’s easily a top 10 release for the year.

Get "Praises to the War Machine."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review: Kiuas, "The New Dark Age"

Kiuas' 2005 release, "The Spirit of Ukko," was one of those records that I dream of finding in a stack of CDs by bands that I’ve never heard of before. A mix of power, death, thrash and folk metal, it was one of those rare albums that I can honestly say sounded like nothing else out there. The follow-up, "Reformation," toned down the death influences playing up the thrash and folk. It was a great record, but didn’t quite match "The Spirit of Ukko." Their newest release "The New Dark Age" works to find a balance between the two, and may well be their best.Thrash and power are still at the forefront here, but the death metal elements make a bigger return than on "Reformation." The riffs are great, the melodies memorable and the huge anthemic choruses make great sing-along fodder for the wannabe chest-beating metal warrior in us all. It’s a definite top 10 selection at the end of the year.

The heart and soul of this album is a trio of songs, appropriately, in the middle of the record. It starts with the title track, opening with an old school death metal stomp riff opens the track followed by a soaring series of sweeps by guitarist Mikko Salovaara. It settles firmly into thrash territory after that with one of those big chorus melodies that gets the blood pumping. Throw in a couple of brief blasts of the original deathish riff and a growl or two scattered throughout the song, and it may be the strongest effort here, but it’s got competition. Next up is “To Excel and Ascend,” opening with a slightly exotic classical guitar lick and some folky, almost tribal drums. A thrash-power hybrid riff follows with the first real deathly vocal growls on the record that lead into certainly the most memorable chorus melody on the record. It brings a little groove to the record. The third song in this triumvirate, also starts with a surprising classical piano run. “Black Rose Withered” is a straight-up galloping thrasher that, lyrically, revisits The "Spirit of Ukko" tune “Thorns of a Black Rose.”

While those three songs are definitely the strong points of the record, "The New Dark Age" doesn’t really have a weak point. All of the songs are incredibly solid. They deliver up some folky leanings with the acoustic track “After the Storm,” which features a female vocalist (unidentified in any information on the record that I could find.) It has a heavy Fleetwood Mac feel with the harmonized male and female vocals, but that’s not a bad thing at all. “The Wanderer’s Lamentation” follows that same track with some nice acoustic guitar work under the verse before a big power metal crescendo kicks in. “Conqueror” has a soaring chorus that the power metal fans will appreciate. “Of Sacrifice, Loss and Reward” should appeal to melodic death fans. You get the picture. There really is something that most metal fans can appreciate here.

The band features a group of versatile musicians and everything is solidly played here. Salovaara provides great riffs and leads, Markku Naraneva pounds the skins with a vengeance and Atte Tanskanen provides some tasteful atmospheric keyboards that are never overbearing. Without a doubt, though, one of the biggest strengths, if not the biggest, of Kiuas is vocalist Ilja Jalkanen. He’s got a powerful, versatile voice with force and balls. No wimpy power metal vocals here. Of course, if their Web site is to be believed he’s got a powerful ego to go with it, but the dude can sing.

I’ve only got one question about this record. Why am I still having to order these guys as an import? Someone please get them a U.S. release.

Get "The New Dark Age."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Review: In Flames, "A Sense of Purpose"

I was one of those people that thought "Clayman," "Reroute to Remain" and "Come Clarity" were all pretty good records. (I am, however, in agreement with the majority on "Soundtrack to Your Escape"), but it still took me a while to connect with In Flames’ latest "A Sense of Purpose."

My initial reaction to opener and lead single “The Mirror’s Truth” was really negative. I hated it. My first response is still there for the world to see on the Teeth of the Divine forums. But, I can also admit when I’ve been a little too quick to judge and I’m wrong … sort of. After a few listens, the song began to grow on me, and the same can be said of much of the rest of the record. It’s definitely not among the band’s best work and it definitely won’t end up on my year-end top 10 list, but I can easily see it becoming a guilty pleasure kind of record.

"A Sense of Purpose" is certainly the band’s least “heavy” release to date. That will immediately alienate the legions of fans that are looking for them to return to the sound of "The Jester Race" or "Whoracle." This record makes it clear that it’s time to give up on that hope. The sharp-edged, in your face guitar sound that I still love from "Whoracle" is again missing, even on the heaviest tracks, and the guitars seem to be pushed back a little more into the mix. The songs structures are simplistic for the most part. There are only a handful of songs on the record that could be remotely called melodic death, and most of them sound like tunes that you’ve heard before.

Still, fans longing for the old days might get some satisfaction from a few tracks on the record. “Disconnected” opens with the familiar mechanical riff and smacking snare, but also has some interesting melodic elements on the chorus. “March to the Shore” probably comes the closest to matching their older efforts, and is one of my favorite tracks on the record. “Condemned” and “Drenched in Fear” both open with a nice, heavy riff, with the latter being another favorite. It strikes a nice balance between the heavier sound of their past and the more current sound.

As surprised as I am to be typing these words, one of the most interesting parts of "A Sense of Purpose" is in the songs that are perhaps a little more mainstream. There’s an originality in a few of them that’s often been sorely lacking in In Flames’ work. “Sleepless Again” has a little more groove on the opening than the usual In Flames fare, and I particularly like the wailing guitars on the chorus section. Perhaps the most accessible moment on the record for mainstreamers will be “Alias,” but to be honest, I really like this song. That bouncing riff backed by the synth that opens the song is catchy as hell, as is the chorus. It’s not as catchy as the riff from ”Cloud Connected,” but it’s perhaps the most unique and memorable song here. Another nice groove comes in on the beginning of “Delight and Angers,” and I like the little exotic sounding guitar bits before the chorus.

The lighter approach isn’t always a positive thing, though. The opening of “I Am the Highway” reminds me of one of those “hip” commercial rock bands that think they’re doing something cool and unique, but all really sound the same, and there’s just no power in the song at all. Likewise, the ballad “The Chosen Pessimist” is absolutely awful. It’s supposed to sound tortured and gloomy, but really just comes off sounding whiny.

Anders Friden’s has taken a more melodic direction with his vocals here. On "Reroute to Remain" and "Come Clarity," he often tried to force more aggressive, screamy vocals over songs where they just didn’t fit. He doesn’t do that here. Instead, he takes a cue from Soilwork’s “Speed” Strid and allows his vocals to flow more naturally with the melody. Don’t get me wrong, Friden’s not even close to mastering it the way that Strid has and probably never will. He just doesn’t have the chops that Speed does, but if they intend to continue to follow this musical path, it’s a step in the right direction.

No, it’s not a great record. There are quite a few forgettable songs that suffer from the sameness that’s plagued the band for a while now. That said, I’ll admit that, yeah, I kind of like "A Sense of Purpose." Let the laughing and finger-pointing begin.

Get "A Sense of Purpose."