Friday, December 25, 2009

Have yourself a metal little Christmas

While hard rock and metal outfits have generally been more associated with Halloween than Christmas, the last 10 or 15 years have seen quite a few rockers getting into the Christmas spirit. In truth, the results haven’t always been that great, but the efforts have brought a few gems.

For this list, I’ve tossed out the goof songs like Spinal Tap’s “Christmas with the Devil” or Bob Rivers’ “I Am Santa Claus,” set to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” I’m looking for tunes that show a little reverence and joy in the season rather than going for laughs.

I’ve also tossed out Trans-Siberian Orchestra, since the entire 10-song list could be made up of their stuff. (I am however particularly fond of their version of “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” and the jazzy “Christmas Nights in Blue,” which I highly recommend.)

So, here’s the list of 10 songs I’ve come up with. Feel free to add your own.

10. “Deck the Halls,” Ted Nugent. From the second volume in the “Merry Axemas” series, this song is delivered in typical, in-your-face Nuge style. It plays a bit like a cross between the traditional song and “Free-for-All.”

9. “Run Rudolph Run,” Lemmy Kilmister, Billy Gibbons, Dave Grohl. Chuck Berry’s version of this song is one of my favorite holiday tunes, and, from Brian Setzer to Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’ve never heard a version I didn’t like. The combination of three most unlikely musicians on this version easily puts it on my list.

8. “Blue Christmas,” Joe Perry. The Aerosmith guitarists twangy take on the Elvis classic is one of the more memorable moments of the first “Merry Axemas” collection.

7. “We Three Kings,” Halford. This song is easily the strongest moment on Rob Halford’s “Winter Songs” record. It’s an upbeat, rocking version of the song with an undeniable melody courtesy of the original.

6. “The Little Drummer Boy,” Doug Pinnick, George Lynch, Billy Sheehan, Simon Phillips. Four hard-rockers team up for a very soulful version, and King’s X frontman Pinnick’s vocals are perfect for the tune.

5. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Gary Hoey. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” has always been one of my favorite holiday stories, and the Thurl Ravenscroft original one of my favorite songs. Hoey’s instrumental version really puts the mean into it, though.

4. “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” Tim “Ripper” Owens, Steve Morse, Marco Mendoza, Vinny Appice. Another favorite rock Christmas song given the hard rock treatment. Owens’ vocals really shine on this tune and give it its attitude.

3. “White Christmas,” Zakk Wylde. The flashy guitar hero Wylde has always been a very underrated acoustic player, and this earthy version of the song is one of his better soft moments.
2. “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen,” Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo, Simon Wright. It took Dio until his mid-60s to be convinced to do a Christmas song by his wife, and it was worth the wait. He and Iommi deliver a dark, dirge-like version of the song suitable for any Black Sabbath record, but retain the reverence of the original.

1. “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” Savatage. I said I wouldn’t include Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and I didn’t … technically. The song was recorded by Savatage for their “Dead Winter Dead” record, a year before Savatage producer Paul O’Neill and frontman Jon Oliva repurposed it for TSO’s debut record “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” In my mind, it’s the ultimate Christmas tune recorded by a metal band.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Halford, "Winter Songs"

A Christmas record from Rob Halford?

Yes, that Rob Halford. The leather-clad screaming frontman of Judas Priest. Let’s just say that the third record with his eponymous Halford side project, “Winter Songs,” is … well, just a little different from the first two.

It doesn’t start out that way. The first single and opening track “Get Into the Spirit” is very much in the vein of Halford. There are, perhaps, some holiday-flavored lyrics, but the song is a roaring metal tune with Halford showing off his upper ranges, as usual. It’s not a bad song, but not very Christmassy either. From there, we get a mix of classic carols and original numbers that do ring a little more of the season.

One of the better songs on the record is the cover of “We Three Kings.” It’s an upbeat and rocking take on the song with just a little bit of the mystical. It’s by far my favorite on the record and is the only one here that will make my top 10 list of the best hard-rocking Christmas songs (coming tomorrow). But there are some almost equally entertaining numbers. “Oh Come, O Come Emanuel” features a nice, galloping guitar riff, but doesn’t work quite as well as “We Three Kings.” “Christmas for Everyone” and “I Don’t Care” are interesting in their old-school 1970s hard rock feel. The first reminds me a bit of classic Alice Cooper, without the creepiness, the second is less of a Christmas song and more of a rock ‘n’ roll song that just happens to be set around Christmas. Both are a lot of fun.

Halford also shows a surprisingly soft side on this record. He gives a very traditional treatment to “What Child is This?” It’s actually quite impressive and shows there’s more to Halford than a high-pitched howl. “Light of the World” shows off some Beatles-esque atmospherics in the softer moments, and the title track is a piano ballad with some Led Zeppelin overtones. It’s a really strange place for Halford. Sometimes it works (“What Child is This?”), sometimes not so much (“Winter Song”).

Of the remaining two songs, “Oh Holy Night,” is the better. It takes the traditional melody of the song and lays some crunchy rock guitars beneath it. It reminds me of something that Trans-Siberian Orchestra might do with the song. The album ends with a rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” which is way over-the-top and melodramatic, but at the same time very much in line with the traditional version.

I’m a collector of off-the-wall Christmas records, and I’ve got some pretty gnarly ones, but this one might be the strangest pairing of music and musician there. (Well, there is the death metal version of “Silent Night” by members of Testament and Anthrax, but that’s in its own league of weirdness.) Still, Halford does a surprisingly good job with it. I certainly don’t think this record is destined for the Bing Crosby treatment, with families listening to it by the fireplace on Christmas eve, but beyond the squealing opening track, it’s a respectable effort.

Get "Winter Songs."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Slayer, "World Painted Blood"

I remember reading an interview with Kerry King a while back where he was asked what he thought about producer Rick Rubin choosing to work with Metallica on “Death Magnetic” rather than working with Slayer again. King’s reply was something to the effect that Rubin enjoyed working with bands who were trying to reinvent themselves, and Slayer had no desire to reinvent themselves.

On the one hand, that’s admirable. On the other, maybe it’s time for Slayer to at least consider a few tweaks.

“World Painted Blood” is not a bad Slayer album. In fact, it might be some of their best work since “Divine Intervention.” Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where you’re kind of thinking “Slayer’s released their album again.” I quite enjoyed it for the first week it was in my CD player. After the second week, I’d had enough, and a few months from now when I want to hear some Slayer, I’ll be much more likely to grab “Reign in Blood,” “South of Heaven” or “Seasons in the Abyss” than this one.

There are certainly some songs here that most fans will agree on. The title track, “Psychopathy Red,” “Unit 731” are all a bit reminiscent of the band’s earlier work with catchy melodies and enough aggression to satisfy, but at the same time, they just can’t recapture the raw energy of the early records that they recall. A song like “Public Display of Dismemberment” tries to attain the speed and chaos of some of the band’s earliest work, but it comes off here as more of a faux chaos. There’s just not enough viciousness here, and it sounds a bit too premeditated. Perhaps its because they’re older, perhaps it’s because I’m older or perhaps it’s a combination, but these songs just don’t light that fire in me.

By contrast, the more interesting tunes here are the ones that many fans will probably dislike. On “The Human Strain” Tom Araya abandons his usual monotone vocal melody for an almost rap-like cadence that brings something different to the record. “Americon,” while certainly the most commercial piece here, is bouncy and quite catchy, though sure to send a certain segment of fans into a rage. The song, though, that’s most likely to polarize fans is the droning “Playing With Dolls.” It’s perhaps the softest song in the Slayer catalog, but interesting simply because it’s something they haven’t done before. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying these songs are great, but at least they bring something new to the mix.

I do admire King and Co.’s unbending desire to stay true to the Slayer brand and their unwillingness to compromise. It’s a trait that I’ve wished more bands in the past had. That said, though, I think it may be time to shake things up just a little. I think there are ways to put a little more variety in the music without going commercial. Otherwise, they risk becoming something of a nostalgia act with new records becoming just an excuse to tour their old stuff again rather than living, breathing blasts of new energy in the set.

Get "World Painted Blood."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Billy Idol, "In Super Overdrive Live"

For me, Billy Idol is one of those strange artists. I grew up listening to him, and I like most of his work, but for whatever reason, I never became a real fan. I usually crank up the radio when one of his songs comes on, but I've only got two of his records in my collection. Maybe it's time to fix that problem.

One thing's for sure: He's never been satisfied to stay in one place. From the punk-inflected sounds of Generation X to his more commercial pop-rock of the 1980s to the underrated experimental record "Cyberpunk" to his energetic "comeback record" of a few years ago, "The Devil's Playground," he's covered a lot of ground, and his latest DVD "In Super Overdrive Live" also covers most of it.

This far into his career, it's hard to believe this is Billy Idol's first-ever live DVD. Recorded for the TV series "Soundstage," the performance finds him backed by a solid band. Long-time partner in crime Steve Stevens, of course, provides the guitar work. Brian Tichy, a veteran of Pride and Glory and Ozzy Osbourne's band, among others, handles the drumming duties. Derek Sherinian, who has played with Dream Theater, Yngwie Malmsteen and Alice Cooper, covers the keys, and Stephen McGrath handles bass duties.

If you grew up in the 1980s, as I did, it's hard not to be a fan of Idol's breakout record, "Rebel Yell." It's well represented here with "Flesh for Fantasy," "Eyes Without a Face," "Blue Highway" and, of course, the title track.

After opening with "Super Overdrive" from "The Devil's Playground," the DVD slows down a bit with a poppy renditionsof "Dancing With Myself" and a version of "Flesh for Fantasy" that seems, to me, to lack some of the oomph of the original. But things quickly pick up with the first of two unreleased tracks, "Touch My Love." It's a funky, high-energy tune that gets things headed in a harder-rocking direction.

"White Wedding," always a hit, cranks up the volume with a rock-solid performance of one of Idol's best-known tunes. He follows up with an equally hard-rocking version of the more recent "Scream," one of the highlights of "The Devil's Playground."

The set slows down a bit after that. Idol delivers a smooth, cool version of his hit "Eyes Without a Face," followed by a second unreleased song, "Cry," which doesn't have the impact of "Touch My Love."

That sets up a grand finale that features a few surprises. Idol kicks it off with the new-wave rocker "Blue Highway" from "Rebel Yell" before launching into Gen X's "Ready Steady Go." The expected closer, "Rebel Yell," actually comes a song early to make way for a show-stealing performance of Gen X's "Kiss Me Deadly."

Even though it's been more than 30 years since Billy Idol burst on to the music scene, he's in fine form here -- hair still spiked, lip still curled in that perpetual snarl and fist still pumping. The band, too, is on the top of its game, and it's nice to see Idol and Stevens hitting on all cylinders again. The DVD does ignore Idol's most commercial period in the late 1980s (no "Mony, Mony" or "Cradle of Love") and "Cyberpunk" (not a fan favorite, despite my own affection for it), but it covers most every other period of his career.

While it's not likely as energetic or unpredictable a performance as we might have gotten circa 1984, it's still well worth watching for Idol fans or any child of the 1980s that still loves to crank up the stereo and sing along every time "Rebel Yell" comes on the radio.

Get "In Super Overdrive Live."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Interview: Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill

One of the blessings of the season for Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O’Neill may be the fact that he doesn’t have to answer questions about when the group’s new album, "Night Castle," is coming out. The double album, which has been promised for at least five years, hit shelves on Oct. 27 and has already gone gold.

"When (Guns ‘n’ Roses’ long-awaited album) ‘Chinese Democracy’ came out, we kind of lost our cover," O’Neill joked. "Luckily our fans have been very patient, and the album’s selling better than we could have ever imagined."

"Night Castle" was originally intended to be a stand-alone 10-song record with no theme, but TSO co-founder and Savatage frontman Jon Oliva convinced O’Neill that it had to be more.

"Jon told me that TSO is not like any other band, and fans expect a story," O’Neill said. "It’s a little bit of role reversal because when we were working on Savatage, I was always the one wanting to do a concept record. The first half of the record is the ‘Night Castle’ story, and the second half pays homage to our past and looks forward to the future."

Savatage fans will find a couple of treats here as a reworking of "Prelude to Madness," the band’s take on Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King," shows up as "The Mountain," and the second disc features a cover of "Believe" from the "Streets" album. The latter is a preview of a Broadway musical called "Gutter Ballet" (also the name of the second record O’Neill did with Savatage) that O’Neill and Oliva hope to get to the stage in the next two years. It’s the culmination of a work that O’Neill began in the 1970s. Many of the songs have already had rock versions recorded by Savatage, but will return to their roots for the Broadway show.

"We want to take it back to the original blues, gospel, Motown sound," he said. "For Savatage, you’ve got to metal it up. Jon and I are kind of psyched to be doing it because Broadway is something we’ve always wanted to take on."

The second disc also includes a cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s "Nutrocker" that features Greg Lake on bass. It’s a song that obviously had a profound influence on O’Neill and TSO, who are known for blending rock and classical for Christmas.

"That song brings it full circle," he said. "It’s us paying tribute to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, paying tribute to Tchaikovsky."

The new album also means a new experience for the Christmas tour that fans have come to view as a tradition over the past few years. The first half of the concert will be the expected Christmas show, while the second set will focus more heavily on material from "Night Castle." Not to worry, though, the band will still follow its motto: "Fog it, light it, blow it up."

"We spend more on pyro in two months than most of the rock world does in an entire year," O’Neill said with a laugh. "Our first duty is to the fans, to give them the best show for their dollar. We realize that entertainment is not a necessity of life, but human beings need moments of joy, or at least moments that are stress free. When you’re not worrying about what’s outside the arena, the body gets to recharge its batteries. The underlying story is about hope."

When O’Neill started TSO, he never expected it to become a Christmas staple. His idea was to do a Christmas trilogy, six rock operas and a couple of regular albums. With the release of "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" and the holiday hit "Christmas Eve Sarajevo" (also originally recorded by Savatage) in 1996, the band did what O’Neill describes as "lucking into a Tchaikovsky," a reference to the composer’s "Nutcracker" ballet which became a Christmas classic.

"‘The Nutcracker’ was just another ballet, and it never dawned on him that it would become so intertwined with the holidays," O’Neill said. "When we wrote the Christmas trilogy, we hoped it would be successful, but we never dreamed it would become as big as it did. The fans wanted to see it every year, and we didn’t want to let them down."

Now, it’s a sold-out holiday tour with two companies that keeps growing and keeps O’Neill going non-stop from October through January. There’s still plenty to keep O’Neill occupied after the holidays, too. There are currently plans for a spring tour to focus on the band’s two non-Christmas albums, "Beethoven’s Last Night" and "Night Castle." Work continues on the Broadway show. There are some Savatage projects in the offering, including a best-of compilation, a re-release of the band’s last record "Poets and Madmen" on Atlantic, and possibly a new album. And then, there are, of course, those future Trans-Siberian Orchestra records. O’Neill’s not ready to make any predictions on those yet, though.

"Whatever I say, I know it’s going to be later," he joked. "I’m just glad I’m in rock ‘n’ roll and not in charge of getting ammunition to some war front in World War I."

Read my review of "Night Castle."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Night Castle"

For the past five years, I've talked with either Trans-Siberian Orchestra founder Paul O'Neill or guitarist Al Pitrelli. Every year the story has been the same: "Night Castle" will be here in the spring or soon after. This year, I didn't have to ask the question. It finally arrived -- as a double album, no less -- and I can safely say that, while I don't want the next record to take quite as long, it was worth the wait.

As with all things TSO and Paul O'Neill, "Night Castle," through the first 21 songs, follows a fairly elaborate story line. I'll leave the finer details to the listener to discover, since that's part of the magic of a TSO record, but the story involves a seven-year-old girl who meets a strange man building a magical sandcastle on a beach and a U.S. Army lieutenant about to be deployed on a Special Forces mission to Cambodia who drunkenly stumbles into a magical castle of his own. The story visits a variety of times and places before it reaches its ultimate conclusion.

The music here is also as varied as you'd expect from a TSO record. There are some heavy operatic pieces, some of the band's patented blending of rock and classical pieces, and some straight up hard rockers.

The record opens big with "Night Enchanted," originally released as a single during the holidays last year. It's a magical piece that blends bits of Verdi and Delibes with some rock courtesy of O'Neill. A heavy vocal piece follows with "Childhood Dreams," which showcases the huge voice of Jay Pierce, who reminds me a bit of Guy LeMonnier, the original big voice from TSO's debut, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories." I'd love to hear him get a crack at "An Angel Came Down," but unfortunately, he's with the other troupe this year. He's not the only huge voice here, though, as fans will hear when Rob Evan gets cranked up for "There Was a Life." (Alas, he's also on the other leg of the tour.)

After two heavy classical pieces, the band throws a straight up hard rocker at us with "Sparks," which O'Neill tells me was originally from his Broadway show "Gutter Ballet," which hopefully will hit stages in the next couple of years. The show also provided some familiar Savatage tunes from the record of the same name and the "Streets" rock opera.

Savatage fans also have another treat coming with "The Mountain," which fans will recognize as a slightly altered version of "Prelude to Madness," the band's take on Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from the "Hall of the Mountain King" record. There are some minor changes here and there, but it's pretty much note for note.

The title track brings the first appearance from another rock vocal icon, Jeff Scott Soto. It's an intense number that's very much in the vein of Savatage. Soto also turns in a stellar performance on the record's most metallic number, "Another Way You Can Die," which is a personal favorite of mine. He shows off his more operatic range on the moving "Time Floats On" on the second disc, as well. To be honest, this record gives me a new appreciation for Soto, and, luckily, he's on our leg of the tour.

"Tocatta - Carpimus Noctem" brings another top-notch blending of classical and rock, as the band takes on Bach. Mozart's in there, too, with "Mozart and Memories." Beethoven and Chopin get their turn at the TSO treatment to start the second disc with the frantic, mysterious and powerful "Moonlight and Madness." While all of the band's work is top notch, they truly shine on these instrumental blends, and the ones on "Night Castle" are no different. The story portion of the record ends on a reflective note with the acoustic instrumental piece "Embers."

The record closes with five pieces that pay tribute to some of O'Neill's influences, tip the hat to the past and look to the future. Most recognizable to TSO fans will be the band's dark take on Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," which has been a fiery fixture in the live show for several years now. It loses a little power in the translation to record, but is still a solid performance. Another treat for Savatage fans comes in the cover of one of my favorite 'Tage tunes, "Believe" from the "Streets" record. This version is a little closer to the planned Broadway version of the song with soulful vocals from Tim Hockenberry (who also sings on "Sparks"). As much as I like this version, to be honest the Jon Oliva version will always be the version for me, though.

One of the group's more obvious influence comes to play on the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Nutrocker." The rocked out take on Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" was obviously the prototype for much of what O'Neill and TSO have done, and it features a guest appearance by Greg Lake. There's another Delibes piece with "Child of the Night," which would fit well with the "Night Castle" story. The record ends with a look forward on the rocking instrumental "Tracers," written by O'Neill, Pitrelli and Pitrelli's wife, Jane Mangini. It's perhaps the most straightforward piece on the record, but that doesn't make it any less solid.

As always, O'Neill has rounded up an outstanding cast of singers and musicians for this record and worked it to as near perfection as you can get. It's often the case that double albums feature only really one good album's worth of songs, but "Night Castle" is a definite exception to that rule. I've only just gotten this record, and I can't wait to hear what the next one will sound like. (After we get a new Savatage record, of course ... hint, hint.)

Get "Night Castle."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Kiss, "Sonic Boom"

The long-running joke among Kiss fans has been that Gene Simmons would put the Kiss logo on anything except what fans really want -- a new record. He and co-founder Paul Stanley have finally given us that, and, unfortunately, it's really not much more than a cheap piece of plastic with a Kiss logo on it.

It's the culmination of a descent into nostalgia act status that began in the early 1990s. It seemed that Kiss was about to turn another chapter in its history in 1992, having emerged from the hair band days of the late 1980s with a rougher, darker and deeper record, "Revenge." It was their best since the 1970s and, with guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer, had some real musical chops to back it up. It was a promising moment. Then came the reunion with original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. A second record in the same vein, "Carnival of Souls," was put on the backburner and eventually released as a throw-away with no fanfare in 1997 as they prepared for the release of the lackluster "Psycho Circus" in 1998 from the original lineup (it was later revealed that Criss and Frehley played on only a couple of tracks on the record.)

It was nice for guys like me who missed Kiss in the 1970s to see the full show, but it quickly degenerated into a nostalgia act -- to the point that they're now dressing guitarist Tommy Thayer and Singer as Frehley and Criss and trying to pass it off as the real deal. It's a good parallel for this album. While "Sonic Boom" certainly has the sound of the band's 1970s work, it doesn't sound like a band that's just feeling the same vibe of their older work. It sounds like a band that went into the studio with the intent to create a record that sounds like their 1970s work. It's a cold, calculated reproduction of the sound and it comes through all over the record.

There are a few interesting moments. I like the opening riff from “Modern Day Delilah” and the heavy groove of “I’m an Animal” is easily the best piece of music here, and really the only song that I’ll likely take away from this record. But most of it sounds hollow and generic.

Much of the charm of Kiss' classic work -- beyond the bombast of their live show -- is in the fact that they weren't very talented musicians, but the music they made had a raw, energetic honesty to it. This is a heavily sanitized version of that sound, and it simply doesn't work. In the end, "Sonic Boom" sounds much like the band sounded the last time I saw them live a few years back: like a band with no creative spark left, going through the motions and collecting a check.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: Diablo Swing Orchestra, "Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious"

One of my musical interests outside of metal has always been the jazz and swing of the Big Band era. That’s why the Diablo Swing Orchestra’s name immediately caught my attention. Then there’s opening track, “A Tap Dancer’s Dilemma,” which is one of the most interesting songs that I’ve heard in a long time. It blends classic Big Band cool with some crunching distorted riffs and gets Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious off to an excellent start.

Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of that mix in the other nine songs on the record. After that, it reverts into more a blend of metal and musical theater. It’s not bad, as I’m also a closet fan of musical theater, but for me, it’s not nearly as exciting as that first track.

Certainly there’s no easy classification for the Diablo Swing Orchestra. Take second track “A Rancid Romance” for example. The song opens with a classical piano piece that leads in to an …And Justice For All-era Metallica riff before the Spanish horns kick in. The Metallica-style thrash riffing continues on “Lucy Fears the Morning Star.” There’s actually some pretty impressive riffing all over the record from Daniel Hakansson and Pontus Mantefors. “New World Widows” features a more modern chugging riff that sounds a bit System of a Down-ish. “Vodka Inferno” has some of the best guitar work to be found. The classically influenced bits are particularly good, and a there’s a nice interplay between dueling guitar and cello by Johannes Bergion in the middle of the song.

But metal, jazz and musical theater are certainly not the only things on the menu on Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious. You’ll find a bluesy shuffly on “Bedlam Sticks,” some Russian-flavored sounds on the short interlude “Siberian Love Affairs,” rockabilly flair on “Memoirs of a Roadkill” and even a little surf guitar on “Ricerca Dell’Anima.”

Vocally, the record is a mixed bag. Most of the operatic stuff from Hakansson and female vocalist Annlouice Loegdlund is far too over the top. At worst, as on the opening of “Bedlam Sticks,” Hakansson sounds like Elvis doing a bad Dracula impression. Likewise, Loegdlund’s glass-breaking opera vocals on “New World Widows” are more like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not all bad in the vocal department, though. There’s a bit of operatic insanity that’s cool in “Lucy Fears the Morning Star” and an interesting blend of operatic and black metal vocal stylings in “Bedlam Sticks.”

There’s an awful lot to like about this record if you’re into strange, avant-garde musical blends. Aside from the aforementioned “Tap Dancer’s Dilemma,” there’s the Peter Gunn-ish guitar riff of “Ricerca Dell’Anima” which sounds like a crunched up spy movie theme. Album closer “Stratosphere Serenade” is also impressive, opening with some nice gypsy strings, punctuated by a thrash riff. The vocal delivery on the song is a little different as well, falling into more of an alternative rock style that’s actually superior to some of the more heavy-handed operatic moments.

Though I admit to being a little disappointed that there wasn’t a heavier jazz and swing influence later in the record, I still really enjoyed it. I love the originality and general craziness. It’s a wild ride with stops all over the musical map, and it’s well worth the few bumps in the road.

Get "Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: ZZ Top, "Double Down Live, 1980-2008"

For fans of a certain age, ZZ Top's new DVD, "Double Down Live, 1980-2008," gives us the chance to experience the band at the height of its blues rock power, before the MTV years of the 1980s that brought wild excess and crazy stage shows.

The two-DVD set features a live performance from 1980 recorded live for the German "Rockpalast" show and a performance from their 2008 tour that features interviews and behind the scenes footage. Both are entertaining, but for me, the real strength is the first disc. Recorded on the "Deguello" tour, the set list features most of the songs from that album, as well as some real jewels from the band's early days that fans don't get to hear often. Those are highlights of an outstanding set. There's the hard-rocking "Precious and Grace," the trippy "Manic Mechanic," the driving "Nasty Dogs & Funky Kings," and one of my personal favorite tunes from the Top catalog, the spaghetti Western-flavored "El Diablo."

In addition to some rare gems, there are the expected hits like "Thank You," "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago," "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" (another personal favorite), "Heard it on the X," "Cheap Sunglasses," "La Grange" and "Tush." A couple of cool covers are thrown in with "Dust My Broom" and "Jailhouse Rock." Mix in some other well-known songs that just don't get played that much anymore, like the raucous "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers," "Arrested for Driving While Blind," "She Loves My Automobile" and "Fool for Your Stockings," and you've got one heck of a rowdy set.

You've also got a rowdy band playing those tunes. At first, it's hard to recognize singer/guitarist Billy Gibbons because I'm so used to seeing the grizzled road veteran he's become these days. He's fresh-faced behind the ever-present beard and full of energy, running around the stage, jumping up and down and just generally having a great time. The interplay between Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill is a lot of fun, but not quite the over-choreographed performance that it would become by the time that I got a chance to see them live in the mid-1980s. Drummer Frank Beard is just as cool as ever, stoically pounding away on the skins, tons of energy hidden behind his laid back expression.

The band rolls through a set of classics having just as much fun as the delighted audience before delivering a couple of encores that include the two covers, the classics "Tush" and "Tube Snake Boogie," and closing with a high-octane rendition of "Just Got Paid," which might be the best moment on either DVD.

The second disc, which features the 2008 performance, is a little slicker than the first, which is simply a performance video. There are more camera angles and heavier editing, splicing in scenes from numerous shows, but these sometimes detract from the power of the band's stage presence. There seem to be some video/audio sync issues on some of the more artistic shots that are possibly intentional, but were a bit annoying. And when Dusty Hill blasts out those big bass runs at the end of "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," I'd much rather be watching work it out than footage of the crew setting things up. There are also some interesting interview pieces scattered throughout that are certainly worthy of their spots.

Surprisingly, the set list here is solidly old school, too. There are only half as many songs as the first disc, but only two from the MTV days on, "Got Me Under Pressure" and a deeper cut from the "Eliminator" record, the semi-ballad "I Need You Tonight." The sets share a few songs in common: "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago," "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," "Heard it on the X," "Just Got Paid," and, of course, "La Grange" and "Tush." The second disc also shows ZZ Top getting back to the roots of those earlier shows. The sets are stripped back and the focus is placed firmly on the men and the music.

The voices of Gibbons and Hill are a little gruffer and rougher on these tracks, but the music is still tight. There is occasionally a rough around the edges spot, particularly on this version of "Heard it on the X," which seems a bit off-kilter at points, but you'll forget those with the performances of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," "Just Got Paid" and "I Need You Tonight." The bluesy spots in this set are the truly bright ones. The band cranks out an amazing version of "Blue Jean Blues" and a killer cover of "Hey Joe" that steal the show. The Rev. Willy G. has, hands down, one of my favorite guitar tones ever, and on those two tracks, he nails it.

Both sets are solid slices of ZZ Top history and well worth owning, but as slick as the modern end is, it's the raw concert footage of the earlier show that remains the most exciting and electric. If you missed ZZ Top in the 1970s or early 1980s, I'd highly recommend correcting that by picking up "Double Down Live."

Get "Double Down Live."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: The Gates of Slumber, "Hymns of Blood and Thunder"

Black Sabbath being the fount from which all doom springs, it's only appropriate that you should hear their influence in bands of the genre. But you could argue that Gates of Slumber cross the line of influence right into worship. Not that that's a bad thing. "Hymns of Blood and Thunder," the latest offering from the Indy-based trio, is heavy on darkness, gloom and oppressive atmosphere. It clearly pays homage to the bands that came before, particularly Sabbath, but never comes across as sounding like a tribute band.

The record opens with a couple of uptempo numbers, "Chaos Calling" and "Death Dealer," which have the vibe of the later, Dio-era Sabbath, the first reminding me a bit of "Neon Knights." After that, though, things settle down into the old school sludgy stomps, but there are some occasional surprises. "Beneath the Eyes of Mars" opens with an interesting rolling drum intro from "Iron" Bob Fouts, that leads into a nice bit of guitar work that builds the first wall of sound feeling on the record. The instrumental "Age of Sorrow" features some cool clean guitar work that builds into slow, soulful electric noodling, while there are some nice acoustic atmospherics layered under album closer "Blood and Thunder." "The Mist in the Mourning" throws the only real curve ball on the record. It's a medieval ballad with some female vocals mixed in, one of the more interesting tracks.

But the backbone of this record is big, chunky Iommi-style riffs, and there are plenty of them offered up by frontman Karl Simon. "Descent Into Madness" could be ripped from any 1970s Sabbath record, and "The Doom of Aceldama" opens with a big, sludgy beautiful guitar riff. Perhaps the strongest tune on the record, though, is "The Bringer of War" which puts a fantastic, grooving riff out front that gives it a Candlemass vibe.

But while Simon's guitar work is solid, his vocals aren't quite so strong. He's not a horrible vocalist, but the weaknesses are more than apparent in places, as on the verse of "Beneath the Eyes of Mars." Then again, vocals have not often been the strong point of the doom genre. Lyrically, he covers the subjects that you'd expect looking at the Frank Frazetta-inspired cover art and song titles. He does offer a nice little tip of the cap to primary influences in "Iron Hammer," with the line "over the mountain, into the void."

Hymns of Blood and Thunder is an unabashedly old school doom record -- in songwriting, execution and production. The album has a dirty, distorted 1970s mix with a little of the warbling, synth-like sounds of St. Vitus. It's a mix that would normally turn me off in a modern record, but seems only appropriate for this sludgy celebration.

Gates of Slumber won't find a place on my year-end top 10 list with this effort, but they will find a place in my permanent collection. I'd highly recommend it for fans who like their doom slow, dirty and heavy.

Get "Hymns of Blood and Thunder."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

News: M.O.D./S.O.D. frontman joins Lamb of God to perform 'United Forces'

M.O.D./S.O.D/MASTERY frontman Billy Milano recently joined LAMB OF GOD on stage at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, TX. After being introduced by Randy Blythe, LAMB OF GOD and Billy Milano ripped through the S.O.D. classic “United Forces.”

You can view video of the performance below.

LAMB OF GOD drummer Chris Adler had the following to say about the performance: “We were honored to share the stage with a legend. Billy and S.O.D are our roots and I’ll remember this moment forever.”

Billy Milano also commented about the performance with the LAMB OF GOD Guys: “To share the stage with LAMB OF GOD was fucking amazing. It was a life changing experience. Watching the video on YouTube, I couldn’t believe the size of the stage I was on. I don’t want to say it was the highlight of my career, but it truly was a milestone. Words are escaping me while trying to describe this event, which is strange, since I never shut the fuck up.”

Courtesy: Adrenaline PR

Review: W.A.S.P., "Babylon"

I could make this review short and sweet and just say that W.A.S.P. have recorded their album again. Or, perhaps more appropriately, that they've recorded their song seven more times.

There was a time when W.A.S.P. was a favorite of mine. Their debut, "The Last Command," "The Headless Children," all of those records spent quality time in my stereo and still get their share of listens these many years later. But since the 1990s, Blackie Lawless and Co. just haven't been able to break out of a rut of sameness. Oh, there have been glimmers. The industrial-influenced "K.F.D." was interesting, and the down and dirty rocker "Helldorado" had its moments, but by and large, everything they've done since "The Crimson Idol" has had a sameness to it. Generic riffs, generic melodies, generic vocals. "Babylon" doesn't break the mold.

A concept record of sorts, based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (what originality), "Babylon" opens with an attempt to make fans believe this is a return to their classic sound with "Crazy" which owes its main riff to "Wild Child," but that's where the similarities end. It's probably the best of the originals on the record, though, as "Live to Die Another Day" takes us quickly back into the same stuff they've been doing for the past 20 years.

There's another moment of hope with the rawk guitar on the opening of their cover of Deep Purple's "Burn," but as soon as the rest of the band kicks in, we're back to Sameville. Ballads "Into the Fire" and "Godless Run" offer a change of pace, but nothing very interesting. The latter tries for heavy emotion, but comes off a bit corny.

The most original thing here is the band's slightly Southern-fried cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" which closes the record, but even that we've heard from them before.

For the most part, all of the songs here tend to run together, just like most of W.A.S.P.'s records for the last 20 years. Every time they release one, I give it a chance in hopes they'll get it together and release something that hits me the way those early records did, but at this point, it doesn't look likely.

Get "Babylon."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review: White Wizzard, "High Speed GTO"

I feel a little like I’ve stepped into a time machine on hearing the title track from White Wizzard’s High Speed GTO. It’s a song that’s uncompromisingly and unabashedly devoted to the NWOBHM era — in composition, in execution and in production. It’s upbeat with catchy riffs and a huge chorus and makes a solid promise for the rest of the album.

The other six tunes on the record, however, are a mixed bag. While there are some very appealing things and a certain nostalgic charm to the music, White Wizzard often gets just as much wrong as it gets right – sometimes in the same song.

The second track, “Celestina” has the bouncy grooves of something from Iron Maiden’s debut or Killers, but the love song lyrics are pulled straight from the hair band era, a sound they return to for the forgettable “Octane Gypsy.” “Into the Night” has the forced traditional metal sounds of Avenged Sevenfold, and is the weakest link among the other tracks which show a genuine connection to the genre. “March of the Skeletons” opens with a cool galloping bass line a la Steve Harris, but the chorus is too bubble gummy for an otherwise darker song.

Of the seven tracks here, “Megalodon” is far and away the best. Like most of the songs, it’s in a NWOBHM vein with some more Harris-style bass work. It’s also on this song where vocalist Wyatt “Screamin’ Demon” Anderson turns in his best performance (overlooking the ill-advised “Immigrant Song”-style yowls under the chorus). “Red Desert Skies” has a lot going for it as well with some cool lead guitar melodies and riffing that cancels out the strange gibberish chorus that does more to interrupt the flow of the song than aid it.

Bassist Jon Leon seems to be the backbone of the band, turning in the most solid performance on the record and providing a sound base for the songs. Anderson is a capable singer, but his nickname couldn’t be more inappropriate as there’s absolutely nothing demonic about his vocals at all. Quite the opposite in fact, as he often wanders off into a pop delivery that detracts from the NWOBHM feel of the songs. Most of the songs here need a good bit more oomph in the vocal department than they get.

On a non-musical note, I have to admit that the lifelong fantasy fan and career editor in me also balks a little at the name of the band. I’m just going to assume the misspelling is an homage to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and leave it at that (please don’t correct me if I’m wrong). On the other hand, I kind of dig the funky, retro cover with the leather jacket and the old-school pins and T-shirt.

Originally recorded in 2007 with a different lineup, High Speed GTO marks the band’s debut on Earache Records, with, I’m assuming, some new material probably coming soon. It will be interesting to hear what the new members bring to the table and what kind of transformation the band has gone through in the last couple of years. There’s a lot of promise for some good retro metal here, but this EP doesn’t really deliver on it. If they can put together an album full of songs as good as the title track or “Megalodon,” though, I’ll be the first in line for the T-shirt (even if I have to whack my internal editor over the head).

Get "High Speed GTO."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Lillian Axe, "Sad Day on Planet Earth"

I was thrilled a few years back when Lillian Axe, a live-show staple of my misspent youth, made a strong comeback with a new singer and new record "Waters Rising." So I was excited to get my hands on the follow-up, "Sad Day on Planet Earth." Unfortunately, this record, while still good, doesn't live up to the standard set by "Waters Rising."

In all fairness, the songs on that record were written over the course of many years with some tweaked in numerous live performances. These 15 tracks, on the other hand, are the result of only a couple of years' work. Perhaps its the melancholy tone of much of the record or perhaps it's an often-flat mix, but there just doesn't seem to be as much energy here.

The songs, for the most part, are not bad. But a clearer, more dynamic production could certainly benefit the movements of songs like "Hibernate" or bring out the more atmospheric moments in "Down Below the Ocean" to give the record a little more pop.

As with "Waters Rising," there's a nice mix of the various phases of Lillian Axe. There are heavier, hard-rocking numbers, some pop-oriented moments, shimmery ballad passages and more progressive and experimental material. "Megaslowfade" gets things started on an energetic note and kind of throws a little bit of everything at the wall. Then things get more somber with the powerful "Jesus Wept," but the band doesn't stay there long, following up with a straight-up, old-fashioned hard rocker in "Ignite."

That's when the album is kicking along well, when there's a blend of the heavier-handed numbers that fit with the environmental theme of the record and lighter, more energetic pieces. It's at its best when they get the blend right in the same song. "Cold Day in Hell" is a perfect example, opening with a heavier riff before settling into mid-pace territory and deliving another great chorus melody, a formula that plays well again later in "Kill Me Again." "Blood Raining Down on her Wings" offers an interesting mix of the classic Lillian Axe ballad and a bubble-gum rock riff that's strange for the lyrics. The blending doesn't always work, though. "Within Your Reach" opens with a 1950s sounding melody that's a little strange and reminiscent of a popular song that I can't quite put my finger on.

There are also a few songs on the record that seem to blend together a little. "Nocturnal Symphony" opens with a classical-influenced piece of music that's interesting, but fades. The same with "Divine," which has a nice, gritty groove on the opening, but never seems to go anywhere. Somewhere in between is "Fire, Blood, The Earth and Sea," their epic, over-the-top closing record that, while impressive in moments, just tries to do a little too much.

Those moments are eclipsed by songs like "Grand Scale of Finality," though, which features a catchy, irresistable melody that again seems to be at odds with the darker lyrical content. It reminds me a bit of an early Queen melody.

Overall, I like the record and most of the songs on it, but for some reason, it just doesn't sing to me the way that "Waters Rising," "Psychoschizophrenia" or the band's first two records did. I understand that, for Steve Blaze, each successive Lillian record has been about stretching his musical boundaries, more serious musicianship and more complex compositions. But here, everything seems very heavy-handed. I guess, every now and then, I'd just like to hear the band break out a fun and frivolous three-chorder like "My Number" for old-time's sake. Since they don't even play that tune live anymore, I don't suppose it's going to happen, but it might help break up the gloominess of "Sad Day on Planet Earth." After all, there's no law that says to be a serious musician you have to be serious all the time.

Get "Sad Day on Planet Earth."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Alice in Chains, "Black Gives Way to Blue"

I'll be honest off the top in this review. I didn't want to like an Alice in Chains record without late vocalist Layne Staley.

Staley is, perhaps, one of the most underrated singers to come out of his era. While Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is celebrated by the press and fans of Seattle's grunge sound of the early 1990s, Staley seemed to fade slowly away, his death in 2002 barely a footnote in comparison. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to listen to just about anything on rock radio these days without hearing the influence of Staley's wounded moan. His was a distinctive and powerful voice, perfect for the music of the band which could go from an acoustic whisper to a heavy metal roar in an instant. In the eyes of fans, a replacement singer is sure to be a hard sell.

So, it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that "Black Gives Way to Blue" has spent the last week in my CD player without a break, and I'm enjoying it more with each listen. Just so things are straight, no, this record is not as good as Alice in Chains' 1990 debut "Facelift" or its landmark 1992 album "Dirt." It's not even as good as the self-titled 1995 record made as Staley was spiraling down into the drug-induced depression that eventually led to his death. But it's a far better album than I expected and certainly a worthy addition to the catalog.

New singer William DuVall does his best, often sounding eerily like the original, though his voice lacks much of the darkness and intensity of Staley's wails. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell also takes on a heavy share of the vocal duties, as he always has, to help create those classic Alice in Chains harmonies. Musically, the record is as solid as fans would expect, and quite melancholy as many of the songs revolve around Staley's life.

"Black Gives Way to Blue" starts a bit slowly with "All Secrets Known," which seems to be an attempt to prove early on that this record will still sound like Alice in Chains. Unfortunately, the song is a bit boring, constantly building to a peak that it never reaches. Second track, the single "Check My Brain," is the closest the record gets to an upbeat song, and it sounds a bit too much like it was written with radio in mind.

Things begin to pick up with third number, "Last of My Kind." It opens with a dark verse that puts me in mind of some of the tunes toward the end of "Facelift," then explodes with a big, driving hard rock chorus that's probably one of the least Alice in Chains-sounding pieces on the record, but also one of the most memorable moments. They follow up with the acoustic number "Your Decision" that would not have been at all out of place on the band's incredible 1994 EP "Jar of Flies." It's territory they'll explore successfully again later in the record with "When the Sun Rose Again."

The vibe gets heavy again with the droning opening riffs of "A Looking In View," an epic, cascading wall of sound with the trademark warbling harmonies from the band's early work and also some nice vocal moments for DuVall scattered throughout. Then we get the melancholy, haunting harmonies of "Acid Bubble," interrupted a couple of times with a heavier, rawer guitar riff that jars the listener, but in a good way. "Lesson Learned" offers up a nice heavy groove with a memorable melody that strikes a good balance between the gloomier material and mainstream rock.

The end of "Black Gives Way to Blue" offers up another mixed bag. "Take Her Out" opens with an interesting, exotic-sounding guitar lick, but doesn't elevate itself to the level of the really good songs here. "Private Hell" features some of the best harmonies on the record, but just seems to be missing something. The album-closing title track is the one that most directly addresses the loss of Staley, and it also pulls out some big-time firepower with piano work from Elton John. By its very nature, the song has to be very morose, and it is. I'm really undecided about the tune. I like it, but it's a big downer to end a very good record on.

Alice in Chains has served up a bit of a curve ball for me. Having heard DuVall's voice with his previous band Comes with the Fall (of which I'm not a fan), I didn't think he was at all the right person for the job. And I'll admit, my feelings are mixed in praising this record. Even in its strongest moments -- and there are many -- I have to wonder how much better "Black Gives Way to Blue" might have been were we able to hear it with the original lineup. Regrettably, that's not possible, and it's not really fair to this lineup.

So, yes, DuVall succeeds and "Black Gives Way to Blue" is a very good record, possibly even a top 10 choice for the year. But fans with strong ties to the original lineup should also expect a twinge of regret and sadness to come along with the enjoyment of the album. Perhaps that's as it was intended and as it should be.

Get "Black Gives Way to Blue."

Friday, October 2, 2009

News: Armored Saint enter studio to record new album

Los Angeles' sons of metal, ARMORED SAINT, are set to enter Tranzformer Studios in Burbank, CA to begin recording the band's sixth full-length studio album. Tranzformer Studios is owned by Dave Jerdan (Alice in Chains, Jane's Addiction, etc) who produced ARMORED SAINT's 1991 classic "Symbol of Salvation" and Bryan Carlstrom who handled engineering on the same album. The SAINT will be working with Bryan Carlstrom who will once again handle engineering duties with the bands very own Joey Vera producing, and both Joey and Bryan mixing the record. A partial song list for the upcoming album, which is expected to hit streets in the spring 2010 is: Black Feet, Chilled, Loose Cannon, Blues, La Raza, Head On, Get off the Fence, Left Hook From Right Field.

Here's what ARMORED SAINT vocalist John Bush had to say about how the new album came together:

“About a year and a half or so ago Joey asked me if I'd be interested in writing some songs. I was in the right mind finally, so I said send me something. To be quite honest, I wasn't thinking in terms of ARMORED SAINT but more like just writing rock music. I felt pretty free with that mentality and the ideas felt very organic. With every passing song things improved and next thing we knew we had about eight songs demoed. Although the idea of sparking something completely new was appealing it became clear that if it was Joey and I the reality was, let's not kid ourselves; this is ARMORED SAINT.

So here it comes. Embracing my inner R&B singer and coupling that with our influence of the great seventy's hard rock band's we grew up on.”

ARMORED SAINT bassist Joey Vera comments:

“John and I began writing over 14 months ago and in the beginning we had only a general musical direction in which we were going. Once we decided to keep writing and with more of an intention of turning it into an ARMORED SAINT project, we were faced with a few questions. One was, how does this new music we're writing fit into the current musical styles of today? And should we care? We quickly answered the latter. We realized we should do what we always did and that is to write good songs. And for ourselves first. We are not unaware of our parameters in which we have created over the past 25 years, but we are also not afraid to take chances and simply do what we do best. The idea of trying to continue where we left off over 10 years ago since our last release is not very appealing to me. I have to let go of what I did in 1991 and in 2000. Nothing at all against what we've recorded in the past but my head is in a different place now. Trust me; I still want to kill your senses with music, but just in a different way.”

To get a taste of what the new ARMORED SAINT album will sound like, head over to the band's MySpace page where they're streaming the demo version of "Loose Cannon" (performed with a drum program). Loose Cannon gives fans a glimpse into ARMORED SAINT's writing process and is also a nice taste of what's to come on the band's forthcoming full-length studio release.

Courtesy: Metal Blade Records

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Lynyrd Skynyrd, "God & Guns"

As the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd continue to dwindle, one wonders how long the venerable Southern rock machine can continue. If their latest record, "God & Guns," is any indication, quite a while longer.

With guitarist Gary Rossington as the only original member left in the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd marches on and manages to release one of the better records of their second incarnation along the way. "God & Guns" does have the more mainstream sound that has marked most of the band's records since the reformation in the late 1980s, but there's also a harder rocking edge to some of the songs and more influence of the eponymous country side project from singer Johnny Van Zant's and brother Donnie Van Zant of .38 Special fame.

The record opens big with the hard-rocking anthem "Still Unbroken," a song that was shelved years ago and resurrected for this record. It's actually one of the strongest numbers the band has done in years and has the potential to produce another big hit for them. The country influence comes in on the second track, "Simple Life," co-written by Nashville songwriter Jeffrey Steele. Driven by its chorus hook, the lyrics reminisce about days gone by and are sure to appeal to the band's fan base.

A strange contributer pops up on the third track, "A Little Thing Called You." John 5, guitarist with Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, makes his first appearance as a writer on the track. Not surprisingly, it's more of a hard rock number, but features an undeniable melody and groove that recalls classic Skynyrd numbers. John 5 also co-wrote several other songs, including my personal favorite, the creepy "Floyd," which tells the story of a weird old guy that lives back in the swamp. I wrote about the tune a while back, so I won't go into much detail here, but it's an outstanding song.

The guitarist also co-wrote three other songs on the record with mixed results. The self-aggrandizing "Skynyrd Nation" is forgettable on a record of otherwise strong songs. The funky riffing of "Stormy" is another in a string of strong hard rockers here. The most surprising contribution from John 5, though, may be on album closer "Gifted Hands," a gospel-flavored ballad that pays tribute to pianist Billy Powell.

The slower songs are also a mixed bag. The message of "Southern Ways," like "Simple Life," is sure to appeal to the band's fans, while "Unwrite that Song" seems to put a little drag on the album.

Finally, there are the expected blue collar anthems "That Ain't My America" and "God & Guns." You can't say that Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't know its audience, and these two tracks play right to it. "That Ain't My America" has a big, memorable chorus to back up the patriotic message of the song. The title track opens in a country mode for the first two-thirds before kicking in with a huge hard rock groove at the end that you almost wish had come in earlier.

Despite the tragedies and adversities the band has faced over the years, Lynyrd Skynyrd is still going strong in 2009. There's plenty here that will appeal to long-time fans of the band, as well as a few surprises that might catch the attention of folks who think they don't like Southern rock. It may be their best record since the reformation.

Get "God & Guns."

Get "God & Guns" special edition.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Assjack, "Assjack"

While a big fan of Hank III, I tend to gravitate more toward his country and hellbilly material than the heavier stuff that he does with Assjack. It's interesting considering my normal tastes in music, but I've always felt that III's music loses some of its character in the transition to the bashing, screaming songs of his usual final set.

That's not to say that I don't like it, and in fact, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the project's long-awaited official debut record. Though many of these songs will be familiar to fans of his live show, this is the first time to get them in an official studio format.

If you're not familiar going in, "Redneck Ride" will let the listener know up front what's in store. It opens with a metallized riff from "Dixie," and after that it's rough, loud and fast. It's pretty much what you get through the whole record. Imagine a psychobilly love-child of the Misfits, Pantera and Hank Williams. If you can conceptualize such a beast, this is it. If not, give it a listen.

The Pantera influence is prominent throughout with some bashing riffs and Phil Anselmo-like screams from harsh vocalist Gary Lindsey (as if there are many non-harsh vocals to be found here.) You can hear it heavily on "Chokin' Gesture," which adds some cool spooky-sounding leads, and "Cocaine the White Demon," which has a catchy call-and-response verse between III and Lindsey and goes through a few transitions in its four and a half minutes. There are some more surprising influences to be found on the record, though. Alice in Chains plays a part in the vocal melody of "No Regrets," and "Wasting Away" also blends some Alice in Chains sounds with a cool doomy verse and some of the stylings of his country material. It's more like a pissed off version of one of his country songs than any other track. There's also a hint of more modern music on "Smoke the Fire" which is reminiscent of System of a Down's "Chop Suey," only with more insanity and violence.

There is plenty of influence from his country and hellbilly stuff here, as the metallic often meets the redneck. "Tennessee Driver" is one of my favorite tracks, opening with a sludgy riff that explodes into a redneck stomp that's more in line with his hellbilly material. It's got the right mix of southern sounds and thrashing breakdowns. "Gravel Pit" also brings a bit of the south to the record as one of the more melodic tracks. It features some solid grooves, and even a traditional metal turn about halfway through.

Like most of his records, Assjack's debut reflects the band's founder. It's honest, abrasive and occasionally quite ugly, but it definitely gets the job done. After years of wrangling with a record company that wanted to turn him into the second coming of his grandfather, we're finally seeing more official material escape the Hank III camp. Here's hoping a lot more of all three of his styles will be coming in the near future.

Get "Assjack."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: Jorn, "Spirit Black"

I've long been an admirer of Jorn Lande's voice. It's classic in every sense of the word -- powerful, distinctive and memorable. He also surrounds himself with top-notch musicians who can deliver solid hard rock numbers. So I always look forward to a new record, and "Spirit Black" doesn't disappoint.

The title track lets the listener know right away what the record is about. It opens with a grooving heavy riff, big soaring vocals from Lande and a memorable melody. Actually, I could almost say repeat that formula 10 times and leave the review at that, but the record deserves more. When I say "repeat the formula," I certainly don't mean to imply that all of the songs sound the same. While all in a similar framework, there are some interesting variations. "Below" opens with a little bit of a funky lick. After the expected big opening guitar riff, "I Walk Alone" settles into a bluesy groove for the verse, with a strange guitar effect uner the vocals that sounds almost like a spacy reggae lick.

As with most of Lande's work, there's a very heavy influence of early Dio. It crops up most prominently in "Road of the Cross" with its chunky, chugging guitar riff and exotic lead melodies. It's got one of the better choruses on "Spirit Black" and serves as one of the best tunes here.

The "formula" does often make for some less than memorable numbers, though, and you can expect a few on each record. Here, you have "Rock and Roll Angel," which after a nice acoustic opening, gets kind of vanilla in the heavier parts. Likewise, there's not much memorable about "World Gone Mad." At other times, though, it works to perfection. "The Last Revolution" is a classic hard rock number featuring one of Lande's better vocal deliveries, while "Burn Your Flame" is a ripping old school rocker with shades of Led Zeppelin and some of Whitesnake's earlier, more raw work.

There are a couple of off the wall tracks here that get different results. "City Inbetween" has a bit of a strange melody with some Zeppelin influence on the chorus, but the big harmonized chorus comes off as a little cheesy to my ears. The other, album closer "The Sun Goes Down," gets a much better reception despite being stranger. An ethereal, atmospheric bit gets the song started with the focus entirely on Lande's vocals. The song is a little poppy in places, and the explosive synth effects sometimes sound like the soundtrack for a Star Wars-style space battle, but somehow they work. The huge, epic guitar solo certainly doesn't hurt either. It's an interesting track that bears further listening.

"Spirit Black" delivers exactly what fans expect from Lande and Co. There aren't many surprises, but that's not always a bad thing. It's certainly not here.

Get "Spirit Black."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)