Friday, January 30, 2009

Best of 2008: 4. Amon Amarth, "Twilight of the Thunder God"

Not sure how I managed to miss posting my original review of this one, but here it is:

Two years is really too long to wait for another blast of the pure, unadulterated Viking berserker rage that is Amon Amarth. Fans of the band will find few surprises on their latest record, "Twilight of the Thunder God." Still, it definitely ranks among the band's best, even surpassing 2006's excellent "With Oden on Our Side."

For those unfamiliar, Amon Amarth comes from the school known as Viking metal, which means their songs are mostly about, you guessed it, Vikings. However, far from being cheesy and cartoonish, the music truly captures the spirit of its subject. It's a harsh and brutal music, but at the same time it can be quite grandiose and oddly beautiful. Just take a listen to the epic riffing that opens "Varyags of Miklagaard" for an example.

The songs on the record really capture both the feel of the romanticized version of the Viking life -- sailing over the seas to glory and victory -- in the soaring, epic moments, and the harsh realities of what it must have really been like in gritty and ugly passages. You can feel the spray of the ocean in some of the more glorious moments, and feel the droning beat of the oars on songs like "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags."

I've never been a huge fan of death metal because I can't get into the monotonous grunting of their vocalists, and I prefer strong melodies to speed and technicality. Amon Amarth, while often pushed into the death metal genre largely because of Johan Hegg's vocals, is really a breed of its own. They blend the brutality and heaviness of death with an old school sense of melody. That becomes apparent on numbers like "Guardians of Asgaard," which has a real old-fashioned hard rock vibe at times.

They do occasionally follow the death metal formula, as on the album's weakest cut "Where is Your God?," which is the only definite skip here, but that's the exception rather than the rule with Amon Amarth. Their music is about as heavy as you can get, but there's a strong sense of melody that runs through each and every song. You need look no further for it than the title track, which opens the record, to hear the combination.

Amon Amarth brings aboard some guest stars for the first time on "Twilight of the Thunder God." Entombed's L.G. Petrov guests on "Guardians of Asgaard," Children of Bodom guitarist Roope Latvala provides a guitar solo on the title track and the cellists of Apocalyptica add some interesting atmosphere to "Live for the Kill." While Petrov and Apocalyptica lend their own sound to the songs, like the Vikings they sing about, Amon Amarth overpowers those influences to make the songs 100 percent their own.

"Twilight of the Thunder God" delivers everything you'd expect from the band. Hegg's voice drips with testosterone, the riffing of Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg is tight and precise, and drummer Fredrik Andersson bashes the skins like they're the skulls of the enemy. It's time to grab the horned helmets and beat your swords against your shields again. Amon Amarth is back, and as good as ever.

Get "Twilight of the Thunder God."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Best of 2008: 5. Opeth, "Watershed"

A second opinion: No matter what direction they take, it seems Opeth can do no wrong. Death metal rubs elbows with jazz, blues and progressive rock on "Watershed," which is less a collection of songs than an experience.

Original review: Here's one of the few bands left in metal that can, seemingly, do no wrong. Easily the most creative band in the genre, Opeth can release anything from a full-on death metal record to a soft, acoustic record with no metal at all, and fans won't bat an eye. They've done both.

"Watershed" finds the band at the top of its game, blending all the facets of its music into a product that is, honestly, like nothing else that you'll hear (outside of a couple of bands that have tried unsuccessfully to copy them in recent years). Soft balladry is followed by pummeling metal, interrupted by a shimmery jazz guitar run, some nylon-string classical guitar and capped off by some bluesy Hammond organ riffing. Sometimes all of that comes in the same song, and it's all brought together by the tremendous musicianship of the band members and the versatile vocals of Mikael Akerfeldt. Even those who don't like metal should be able to appreciate the musicianship on a song like the 1970s prog rocker "Burden," on which you'll find no metallic sounds whatsoever.

It's really hard to single out one or two songs on this record, because if you don't take the piece as a whole, you're missing out, but I'll give it a shot. "Heir Apparent" is the heaviest number on the record, opening with one of the most crushing open chords you'll ever hear, made all the more heavy coming out of the acoustic opener "Coil." Add to that a great, heavy riff on the death metal verse, and you've got perhaps the best song on the record. "Burden" shows the band's progressive leanings to full effect, while "Porcelain Heart" walks the middle ground, blending in a bit of folk, classical and metal.

I've heard Opeth described as death metal, progressive, extreme progressive, forest metal, art metal and several other variations. The truth of the matter is that they're a band that defies description, and that's a rare thing in this age of metal.

Get "Watershed."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Best of 2008: 6. Motley Crue, "Saints of Los Angeles"

A second opinion: Even the most hardcore Crue fan had to have pretty much written the band off after those two lame late 1990s records that were overshadowed by the antics of the band members. This is a surprising bit of down and dirty rock that revitalizes the band, though. Strong grooves, solid hooks and plenty of sleaze.

Original review: It’s about time that Motley Crue remembered what they do best.

Since their first breakup in the early 1990s, they’ve struggled to find their identity. For those who haven’t been keeping score, it started with the heavier sound of 1994’s self-titled record with vocalist John Corabi. It was a solid record, arguably one of the best in their catalog from a musical standpoint, but a lot of longtime fans didn’t buy into Corabi. That resulted in the return of original singer Vince Neil for the dismal 1997 effort "Generation Swine," where the band tried to show off its “artistic” side. Really bad idea.

Another breakup followed, with drummer Tommy Lee leaving and the late Randy Castillo stepping in. In 2000, the band again tried to placate fans displeased with the direction of "Generation Swine" with "New Tattoo." An attempt at a return to their glam success of the 1980s, the record, for the most part, contained a collection of lame songs that would make the worst ’80s hair band cringe.

So then it was time for another reunion. "The Red, White and Crue" “best of” package brought us two very promising new tracks in “If I Die Tomorrow” and “Sick Love Song,” easily the best tune the band had recorded in 15 years or so. There was some excitement, but tempered. After all, fans have been there before.

The good news is, this time, they got it right. No electronic noise, no alternative, no plaintive ballads about band members’ children, just straight up rock. While "Saints of Los Angeles" is certainly no match for "Shout at the Devil," it is a return to what you want from a Motley Crue record: sleazy, three chord anthems about sex and partying. It’s music to turn off your brain, pick up a drink and rock out with.

There are some stinkers here. “The Animal in Me” takes itself too seriously. It’s too hard to get past the goofy lyrics of “Chicks = Trouble” to enjoy the pretty good blues rock stomp of the music. The tough guy bravado of “Goin’ Out Swingin’” doesn’t translate musically, and “Down at the Whisky” retains that thin, lifeless, going-through-the-motions feel that sank "New Tattoo."

But when they’re on, they’re really on. A concept record of sorts, since almost every song here is about the band, the best moments come when Motley Crue embraces their past and delivers some raunchy, glitzy, mindless rock ‘n’ roll. The title track is a standout moment, reminiscent of the "Dr. Feelgood" era. There are also some hot grooves to be found throughout the record on songs like “Mutherfucker of the Year” and the record’s second-best track “This Ain’t a Love Song,” which reminds me a lot of “Primal Scream” from their first “best of” compilation way back when. They rock out in fine form on the bouncing “White Trash Circus,” and tip the hat to Alice Cooper on “Just Another Psycho” - a song that’s begging for a guest shot from Cooper, but unfortunately doesn’t get it.

If you hated Motley Crue in the 1980s and wish that era in rock history would go away, then likely nothing will change with this record. If you’re a fan that wandered away during the band’s lost years, you should definitely give "Saints of Los Angeles" a listen. The record has its ups and downs and doesn’t completely match the energy of their heyday, but it’s easily their best work since 1994’s "Motley Crue."

Get "Saints of Los Angeles."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Best of 2008: 7. King's X, "XV"

A Second opinion: After quite a few less than stellar outings, King's X finally got back to the groove-based rock 'n' roll that they do so well. This is easily the band's best effort since "Dogman."

Original review: I'm much later than promised on this one, but it's still well worth noting.

Anyone whose read my reviews knows that I love bands that break the mold and do something a little different. King's X was one of the first of those I discovered. I was watching Headbanger's Ball (the original) back in the late '80s when the video for "Over My Head" came on. Here was this lanky, mohawk-sporting black guy (a rarity in itself in those days of metal) with an incredible voice, wailing over music that drew as much influence from gospel and soul as it did from Black Sabbath.

It's been almost 20 years since that discovery, and I've had my ups and downs with the band from the outstanding first five records to the hit and miss experimentation of the late 90s and this decade. The band's latest, "XV," though, stands as perhaps its best since 1994's "Dogman." Those tight Beatles-like harmonies that the band has always been known for, here become more like the harmonies of an energetic gospel choir, and that change is announced early on the chorus of record opener "Pray." It also signals that, perhaps, there's a little more anger here than in the past, a point proven later in the record on the charging "Move" and the dark "Love and Rockets (Hell's Screaming)."

That's not to say it's all anger. The record is varied with songs like the bubble-gum "Rocket Ship," the joyful "Go Tell Somebody" and the sardonic "Broke." Drummer Jerry Gaskill also takes a turn on the mic for the first time in a number of years for "Julie." It's a strong comeback for King's X, without a bad song to be found. The song here requests "If you like what you hear, then go tell somebody." Consider somebody told.

Get "XV."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Best of 2008: 8. Alice Cooper, "Along Came a Spider"

A second opinion: After experimenting with a heavier sound on "Brutal Planet" and "Dragontown" and a more commercial garage rock sound on "The Eyes of Alice Cooper" and "Dirty Diamonds," Cooper gets back to his roots with this disturbing concept record about a serial killer. This is Alice at his spooky best.

Original review: For the past few years, Alice Cooper has been trying, with limited success, to recapture the sound and feel of his 1970s heyday. Those records, "The Eyes of Alice Cooper" and "Dirty Diamonds," had a little problem, though. While some of the tunes hit the right note, both albums had several songs that sounded like they were written by Vincent Furnier, the aging 50-something rocker who spends more time on the golf course than on the stage.

This time around, though, he nails it. A concept record revolving around a serial killer in love, "Along Came a Spider" is pure Alice, a guy who Vincent Furnier would be quick to tell you has never held a golf club unless he was clubbing someone over the head with it. This is perhaps one of Cooper’s more twisted creations. It’s a much darker record than his last two, and is filled with his trademark black humor, not the least of which is the often bouncy and happy-sounding melodies that accompany dark turns in the storyline.

I’ll be honest and say that, in the lead up to this record, I was hoping for something more in line with the heavier sounds of his 2000 record "Brutal Planet." He only delivers that on one song, “Vengeance is Mine,” which features guitar work from Slash. The lack of that heaviness, however, is not a disappointment. Most of the songs on this record are firmly rooted in Cooper’s classic 1970s blend of punk and garage rock with the occasional bit of metal or Broadway thrown in.

The only real misses on the record come in the form of the ballad “Killed by Love,” the latest failed attempt to recreate “Only Women Bleed,” and the showtune-influenced “Salvation,” which seems a bit out of place and doesn’t connect with the rest of the story.

The remaining songs on this record are all rock solid. Cooper delivers catchy garage melodies and memorable hooks on tunes like “Catch Me If You Can,” “(In Touch With) Your Feminine Side,” “Wrapped in Silk” and “The One that Got Away.” Perhaps the best example of the blending of twisted thoughts with happy-go-lucky, bubblegum rock comes on the track “I’m Hungry.” There are some less tongue-in-cheek dark moments scattered around the album, most notably the maniacal “I Am the Spider,” which closes the record.

This is easily Cooper’s best work since "Brutal Planet."

Get "Along Came a Spider."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Best of 2008: 9. Disturbed, "Indestructible"

Second opinion: Disturbed is one of only a couple of the nu-metal bands to emerge in the 1990s that has remained relevant. Slinky melodies and David Draiman's unique vocal style retain their charm here. It's also nice to hear guitarist Dan Donegan get to show off his chops a little.

Original review: While I do think that metal fans owe some amount of gratitude to the nu-metal movement of the late 1990s for bringing the genre back to the forefront, the truth of the matter is that it didn't produce a lot of music worth listening to. There were a few exceptions, however, and one of those is Disturbed.

I first came across Disturbed as the opening act for Pantera on a now defunct late night concert series on HBO. I was struck by vocalist David Draiman's unique vocal style and the tightness of the band and immediately went out and found their first record, "The Sickness." Unfortunately, they drifted into more generic rock territory on their second record. With "Indestructible," the band has finally found a way to integrate the two styles seamlessly. While the crazed vocalizations that became Draiman's trademark on the first record are scattered throughout the album, there are also some strong melodies that balance it out and make it seem less cartoonish.

The perfect example of this is first single "Inside the Fire," which really showcases the blending of the band's unconventional early work with amore melodic smoother sound. "Criminal" is another strong point, with a hook that's hard to get out of your head. My personal favorite is "The Curse," one of the darker tunes on the record. I don't know that it's one of the best songs on the record, but it's certainly one of the most relatable for me personally.

Draiman's manic vocals are, admittedly, still the star of the show, but it's also nice to see guitarist Dan Donegan getting a bigger chance to shine on this record. The guitar comes to the forefront on a few songs, and Donegan takes a solo on every tune. It further underscores the musical maturation process of the band from chunky detuned riffs and edge-of-madness squawks to a legitimate, well-rounded hard rock machine.

Get "Indestructible."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Best of 2008: 10. Testament, "The Formation of Damnation"

Second opinion: Though it didn't blow me away like I expected, the reformation of Testament managed to hang around and make my top 10. "The Formation of Damnation" features a solid collection of old-school Testament thrash with some big hooks. Good stuff, if not quite as impressive as I hoped.

Original review: I'd like to call this a comeback record, but the truth of the matter is, Testament never went anywhere. Sure, it's been quite a while since they've put out a new album, but unlike many of their contemporaries, their 1990s output -- records like "Low" and "The Gathering" -- were every bit as solid as the early works. Of course, I guess it could be termed a comeback since it's a reunion of four of the five original members of the band (drummer Louie Clemente bowed out for health reasons.)

Though often overshadowed on the 1980s thrash scene by the bands referred to as "the big four" -- Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax -- Testament produced some high-quality music that matched, and at times surpassed the bands that grabbed the spotlight. They continue that trend here. It's almost as if no time has passed since guitarist Alex Skolnick left the band in 1992, and they pick things up with a lineup of songs that sound like a cross between their early work on records like the (IMO) classic "The New Order" and later albums like "Low."

After the expected instrumental intro "For the Glory of...," the band launches into the first true song, "More Than Meets the Eye," which will take fans back to Testament's glory days -- and it's actually not one of the strongest moments here. There's a nice range from very melodic pieces like "Dangers of the Faithless," which features the most memorable hook on the record, to full-on assaults with even a little touch of death metal, like the title track.

Check out "Henchmen Ride" for an all-out old school thrasher with a great squealing riff, or "Killing Season" for a great thrash groove.

Get "The Formation of Damnation."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Best of 2008: Honorable mentions

In a strong year for metal releases, I thought many of these records would make my year-end top 10. Close, but not quite. That doesn't mean they're not well worth checking out, though.

Firewind, "The Premonition." Perhaps the most consistent band in the power metal genre. Gus G. should become a bonafied guitar hero.

Warrel Dane, "Praises to the War Machine." He proves he can make solid metal with or without his bandmates in Nevermore.

Avantasia, "The Scarecrow." Finally, an all-star concept project that really works.

Alestorm, "Captain Morgan's Revenge." This catchy pirate-metal piece was easily more fun than anything else released this year.

Extreme, "Saudades de Rock." The funk-rockers successfully morph themselves into a 1970s rock style that really works. Plus, Nuno Bettencourt gets the shred on again.

Hank III, "Damn Right, Rebel Proud." While not as good as his last record "Straight to Hell," this one sees the introduction of more of the hellbilly style he's practiced on the side. (Review to come soon).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Disappointments of 2008

So begins my roundup of the best of 2008. By and large the year was one of the best in recent memory. Comebacks were the order with some outstanding records released by Metallica, Motley Crue, Alice Cooper and Extreme. Even Axl Rose (no, I won't call it Guns 'n' Roses) finally got his "Chinese Democracy" record on the shelves.

But there were some disappointments, too. Here are the most notable for me:

Judas Priest, "Nostradamus": This overbearing and pretentious two-disc concept record was absolutely awful. While there are a few really good songs scattered throughout, it's hard to slog through the rest of it to get to them. A lot of people say that the record grew on them with more listens. That didn't happen for me. If anything, I like it less.

Iced Earth, "The Crucible of Man": In complete honesty, my objection to this record has less to do with the music contained on it and more to do with my disappointment at the departure of Tim Owens and the return of Matt Barlow. The record itself has some decent songs, but leaves me a bit cold. It also seems that Barlow is doing his best here to look and sound like Owens. Why not just keep the guy?

Into Eternity, "The Incurable Tragedy": Having loved Into Eternity's last three records, this was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A very personal concept record, this one is dark and morose. That's not always bad, but it's draining here. The real turn-off, though, are the schizophrenic vocals. One of the most intriguing things about the band in the past were the melodic clean vocals mixed with the death growls. Here, they're all over the place and it makes it difficult to listen.

Up next: 2008's honorable mentions

Monday, January 12, 2009

New music from Dash Rip Rock

So, tonight I stumbled across some new music on the way from Dash Rip Rock, a great rock/country/punk/party band from my backyard. The first few tracks are from their latest album, and there's some older stuff down the list from their wilder early days that I highly recommend checking out. Enjoy.