Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Yngwie Malmsteen, "Perpetual Flame"

Here's another bit of catch-up from late last year. New stuff's coming soon.

Perhaps I need to go back and take another listen to some guys like Jeff Scott Soto and Joe Lynn Turner. I may owe them an apology of sorts. You see, I’ve always thought that the weakest part of any Yngwie Malmsteen record was the vocals, and I always blamed that on the singers, who I found bland and a little generic.

I was pleased, then, that for his latest record, "Perpetual Flame," Malmsteen signed on former Judas Priest and Iced Earth vocalist Tim Owens. Here’s a guy that I consider arguably one of the best singers out there and certainly one of the most underrated. (Admittedly, he’s partially to blame for that by making himself a perpetual replacement singer instead of doing his own thing.) Malmsteen also recruited keyboard player Derek Sherinian, who is about the only keyboard player out there whose existence I acknowledge. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high thanks to the new lineup.

Now, I understand, it’s not so much the singer as the way that Malmsteen composes his songs. There can be no misunderstanding which instrument that Malmsteen guy plays, and his scalloped Fender Strat won’t be overshadowed by anything else on the record. Thus, the vocal lines and melodies are often generic, as on "Damnation Game," a song that Malmsteen has done over and over and over through the course of his career.

That’s not to say Owens doesn’t get his moments on this record, and when he gets those chances he makes them count. The record opens with one of the better cuts, "Death Dealer," which is perhaps the most aggressive tune Malmsteen has written in a while. The hard rocker "Red Devil," where Malmsteen’s fretwork is a bit more subdued is another strong moment for Owens. Not surprising that it has a bit of a Priest feel. Owens’ best performance comes on the slightly exotic "Live to Fight (Another Day)," which has the feel of a "Framing Armageddon" Iced Earth tune.

Of course, the star of the show is going to be the neo-classical noodling of Malmsteen himself, and there is some impressive work here, most notably on the tunes where he kicks into the classical mode like "Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse)." After so many years, Yngwie’s fretwork is still top-notch and his finger-pretzeling solos remain quite impressive. As on any Malmsteen release, the ego is reflected all over this record from a silly airbrushed cover that shows a stylized version of Malmsteen that’s at least 20 years younger than the real one to Malmsteen’s turn on vocals late in the record (something he should really never try.) Still, fans of shredding guitars will not be disappointed.

Despite the fact that it could use a little wow factor in the areas outside of the guitar solos, "Perpetual Flame" stands as one of Malmsteen’s heaviest records and arguably his best work since 1988’s "Odyssey," the last of his albums to really hold my attention. When the fascination with the wild solos is over, though, there are likely only a few songs here that will hold listeners’ interest.

Get "Perpetual Flame."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review: Hank III, "Damn Right, Rebel Proud"

(Note: I know this is kind of old, but I've got a little catching up to do with some reviews I didn't get posted late last year. This is the first.)

It would be hard to be raised in the south without a healthy respect for Hank Williams. I grew up on the music of Hank Williams Jr., and even in years when you couldn't have paid me to listen to a country song, if you put Bocephus on the radio, I was going to be singing along. As much respect as I have for Senior and as much as I love Junior, III might possibly be the Hank I relate to most.

No, I don't condone the wild and reckless lifestyle that he leads and often promotes in his songs, but I love the spirit of them. I'm a kid that came from a country background but grew up loving heavy metal. As I've grown older, I've developed a much healthier respect for classic country, particularly the outlaws. There's not a lot out there that marries those two worlds beyond Hank III, who can do a spot on impression of Senior one second and rip out a hardcore metal tune with Superjoint Ritual the next.

After years of battles and a couple of attempts by his record company to make him a modern day version of his grandfather, III was turned loose on his last record, "Straight to Hell," and the results were outstanding. He finally put on record many songs that had been fan favorites in his live show for years. It was rude and crude, but at the same time refreshing. He takes the traditional from his grandfather, the outlaw from his dad, then feeds it into a Marshall stack and cranks it up to 10. Traditional country with a metal attitude.

This time around, III didn't have quite the catalog of unrecorded fan favorites built up, and it shows at times. Still, "Damn Right, Rebel Proud" will deliver exactly what fans want, and you can hear that in the first song, "The Grand Ole Opry (Ain't So Grand)," an anthem for his campaign to get his grandfather reinstated. True, a profane rant probably isn't the way to win over the folks at the Opry, but would you really expect anything less?

From there, the record settles into a largely more sedate mood. It's certainly less irreverent than "Straight to Hell," even though it does bring in a little more of the hellbilly style he performs in his live shows on songs like the lead single "Long Hauls and Close Calls," perhaps the best blending of the styles he's ever put on record, and the punked-up G.G. Allin tribute "P.F.F."

As usual, there's some country fare that traditionalists would embrace if they could get past the other side of III. The more upbeat numbers, like "Wild and Free" and "Six Pack of Beer" succeed better here. Of the slower numbers, few really connect. The plaintive "I Wish I Knew," just doesn't ring true with III's spirit. And far from evoking the haggard, haunted atmosphere of "Country Heroes" from his last record, the total downers "Candidate for Suicide" and "Stoned and Alone" just make you want to reach for the fast forward button.

The good far outweighs the bad, though. There's no question that "Damn Right, Rebel Proud" is a bit safer than "Straight to Hell." There are even a few numbers here, like "Me & My Friends," that have at least some potential to make the jump to commercial country radio. But there's still enough rebellious hell-raising to please fans and keep the live show rowdy.

Get "Damn Right, Rebel Proud."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Best of 2008: 1. Metallica, "Death Magnetic"

A second opinion: When this record came out, I really thought it would fall somewhere in the middle of the pack, but the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. No, it's not "Master of Puppets," but those days are gone and for folks waiting for them to return, it's time to get over it. Yes, there are a few stinkers on the record. But, in all honesty, I think it deserves mention in the same breath as their classics.

Original review: 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."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Best of 2008: 2. Jon Oliva's Pain, "Global Warning"

A second opinion: I'll admit that as a hardcore Savatage fan, this might be a little bit of a homer pick. That doesn't mean the record is any less worthy. It's an outstanding CD, varied and powerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get "Global Warning."

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

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Best of 2008: 3. Kiuas, "The New Dark Age"

A second opinion: Kiuas remains the best metal band that you've probably never heard of. "The New Dark Age" continues the band's winning streak with a hard-hitting dose of power/folk/death blend.

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

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

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

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

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

Get "The New Dark Age."