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.