Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review: Amorphis, "Skyforger"

There are some records that make you want to roll down the windows, crank the stereo and head out on the highway. Then there are records that make you want to lay back, close your eyes and let the music wash over you. Amorphis' latest, "Skyforger," is firmly in the second category.

I discovered the Finnish folk/progressive outfit with their 1996 record "Elegy," and quickly went back to pick up 1994's "Tales from the Thousand Lakes." Their output for the next eight years, though, was somewhat disappointing as the band moved toward a mellower, more experimental sound. In 2006, they began a surprising comeback with the addition of new vocalist Tomi Joutsen. The music began to get heavier again, and the punctuating death growls of "Elegy" started to creep back in. The trend continues on the band's third record with Joutsen.

"Skyforger" returns to a source that's been a goldmine for the band over the years -- Finnish literature. The songs on the record tell several scenes from the "Kalevela" from various characters' viewpoint. The opening track "Sampo" gives a good overview of what listeners can expect from this record. It opens with an upbeat piano run that's joined quickly by a harmonizing guitar riff that builds to a fairly aggressive vocal delivery from Joutsen. The chorus is melodic and memorable, and after a brief, soft interlude, the band gives us a heavier piece in the middle that sees the first (but certainly not the last) hint of the growled vocals on the record. It gets "Skyforger" off to a very good start.

That's followed by the first single, "Silver Bride." It's an energetic number with a more upbeat and straight-ahead rock approach. It lacks many of the subtleties of the opening track, but it's still solid, with another memorable chorus -- really what you'd expect from a first single. "From the Heaven of My Heart" returns things to the folk sounds, and has a real "Elegy" feel to it. There's an almost commercial turn on "Sky is Mine," which opens with an undeniable guitar riff that may be one of the happiest-sounding pieces I've ever heard from Amorphis. The whole song is high-energy and upbeat, almost to the point that you're thinking they're looking for a mainstream hit. That notion is quickly put to rest with the appropriately named "Majestic Beast" that follows. It is indeed an epic, snarling beast of a song with some overtones of Opeth's heavier material. It's one of the many highlights of the record.

One of the things that Amorphis did in their experimental period was to play around with non-traditional metal instruments, and they continue to do that here. The mournful flute (at least I think it's a flute, I apologize for not being up on my woodwinds) at the beginning of "Highest Star" is a great touch and a nice contrast with the heavier chorus of the song.

If there's a song on the record that is one of those roll down the windows and head out on the highway numbers, it's the title track. It opens with a jaunty acoustic piece featuring more woodwind sounds and traditional instrumentation before transitioning into a heavy chorus that builds and builds to the deathly growls on the end.

The record closes just as it opened with one of the strongest numbers, "From Earth I Rose." It's another high energy number that perfectly blends heaviness with melody and brings together all of the elements that have come before. The folk melodies and instrumentation, aggressive sounds that rub elbows with death metal and a huge, memorable chorus. It brings the record full circle.

"Skyforger" brings to fruition a promise that the band made with "Eclipse" three years ago, a return to the more metallic sounds of the past, while taking elements from the experimentation of the middle years to augment that sound. It's easily the band's best work since "Elegy" and, quite possibly, its equal.

Get "Skyforger."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Spheric Universe Experience, "Unreal"

To tell you the truth, I’ve been just about “progged” out in recent years. I’ve reviewed stacks and stacks of predictable prog, but just when I get to the point where I groan when I pull a new one out, I find a record that renews my hope in the search. The latest from Spheric Universe Experience is that record.

Is it incredibly original and mind-boggling? Not really. But it is incredibly well-done, a collection of tight songs with the focus on the song rather than on the abilities of the musicians.

“Unreal” is full of high energy tracks, and the opener “White Willow” sets the tone with an interesting organ riff on the opening, moving to a more aggressive, almost thrash bit, and then a power-metallish chorus. While the song (and the record) is loaded with Dream Theater influence, as are most prog metal acts these days, it’s not copycat. They continue with the unusual instrumentation on “Down Memory Lane,” which opens with a sitar riff, followed by an exotic-sounding melody before the heavier bits kick in on the verse. “3rd Type” opens with a Rush-like synth line before moving into a very nice piece with some spacy keyboards and a chunky guitar riff about 35 seconds in.

There’s a break with the fourth tune, “Near Death Experience,” a haunting piano interlude with no metallic instruments at all. There’s a nice flourish at the end that leads into a heavy, solemn opening riff of “Lost Ghost.” Admitttedly, toward the middle of the record, the band begins drifting more toward the standard prog sound, but there are a few more surprises up their sleeves, like the heavy Sabbath-style riffing of the album closer “Tomorrow,” or my personal favorite track on the record “O.B.E.” It’s an instrumental that opens with some impressive guitar riffing, then shifts gears into a nice little funky piece that is fantastic. It’s sort of like a metallized version of a James Brown tune.

The band is solid and tight, with all members putting in impressive showings without being overbearing. There’s a nice balance between musicianship and songwriting. The lyrics could use a little work in places, particularly third track “Lakeside Park,” but that’s a minor criticism.

The songs are solid, the album sounds good, and Spheric Universe Experience throws just enough unusual bits into the mix to keep things interesting. It’s a good listen for those who like song-based progressive stylings.

Get "Unreal."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: Hank Williams Jr., "127 Rose Avenue"

Growing up, I was a big Hank Williams Jr. fan. It was almost a requirement around here in those days. In fact, he was one of only a couple of country artists that I had any interest in listening to in my younger days. Unfortunately, the 1990s saw him become a caricature of himself with a string of albums that could be called mediocre at best and the "Monday Night Football" themes that he became better known for than his music. That changed with the release of "The Almeria Club Recordings" in 2002, a back-to-roots effort that was easily his strongest record since the 1980s.

I was interested to see whether his latest, "127 Rose Avenue," would continue in that vein or go back to some of the cartoonish work of the 1990s. The answer is, a little bit of both. It's a Hank Williams Jr. record, so you know off the top a few things to expect. You'll have the comic song ("High Maintenance Woman," check), you'll have the blue collar anthem ("Red, White and Pink-Slip Blues," check), you'll have the cover of a Hank Sr. song ("Long Gone Lonesome Blues," check), you'll have the song about Hank Sr. (the title track, check), you'll have the politically incorrect social issues song ("Sounds Like Justice to Me," check.) The key is in how he executes them, and on this record, the answer is very well.

The only truly awkward moment on the album is the first track, "Farm Song." It seems that Hank's getting all the excess energy and goofiness out of the way on that track so he can settle down and focus on music for the rest of the record.

"127 Rose Avenue" really begins with the first single, "Red, White and Pink-Slip Blues," which is sure to strike a chord in the current economic times. It tells the story of blue-collar worker and his life after the local mill closes its doors, as he dodges creditors and repo men and tries to rebuild his life. While there are some lyrical cliches sprinkled throughout ("I can't even buy my baby shoes"), it's still poignant picture of what far too many Americans are up against these days.

He follows the somber moment with a little levity on "High Maintenance Woman," which lightens up the mood of the record. After that, there are a variety of stops along the way. He offers up a tribute to his father's backing band in "The Last Driftin' Cowboy," drifts off into bluegrass with backing from the Grascals on "All the Roads," provides a rowdied-up rendition of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" and offers opinions on "Sounds Like Justice to Me" that are sure to make some cheer and some squirm.

But the centerpiece of "127 Rose Avenue" is the title track. It's a nod to the address of his father's boyhood home in Montgomery, Ala., and the song is a tribute to Hank Sr. and all of the musicians that come from the same place. It's a melancholy and haunting piece with some outstanding, smooth lead guitar work. The song meanders between the Eagles' "Hotel California" and other dark Hank Sr. tributes like David Allan Coe's "The Ride" and Alan Jackson's "Midnight in Montgomery," and it's quite possibly the best song that Hank Jr. has recorded since his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

While, as a whole, I don't believe this record is quite as strong as "The Almeria Club Recordings," it's certainly miles beyond most of the lackluster efforts that Bocephus has churned out in the last 20 years or so. It's a solid piece of work with, for the most part, the attention on the music rather than on the singer. And the title track alone is worth every penny.

Get "127 Rose Avenue."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Devin Townsend Project, "Ki"

I've been a fan of Devin Townsend since I first heard him as vocalist and second guitar player on Steve Vai's "Sex & Religion" album. I haven't always liked the music he's done, but I have to say that every project he's been involved in has, at least, been interesting.

With "Ki," he opens another chapter in his career. In 2007, Townsend disbanded his long-running extreme metal outfit Strapping Young Lad and decided to devote more time to his family. In the intervening two years, he's sobered up and written a series of four records with what he says are very distinct sounds, all of which he hopes to release before the end of the year, followed by a short tour. This is the first record, and it's very different from anything that Townsend has produced before.

The record opens with the brief soft, clean guitar sounds of "A Monday," and listeners familiar with Townsend's previous work will be expecting that explosion of sound and ferocity on the following track "Coast." They may be disappointed. Instead, the second track opens with a slowly building noise, followed by some interesting funky jazz fusion-ish riffing that continues to build as Townsend sings softly. There's finally a little clash of metallic sound at the end, but it's relatively brief and drops back into an acoustic lick.

The third track, "Disruptr" is one of the better songs here, opening with a bass-heavy groove and following the same pattern as the previous track, building into a heavy, maniacal attack at the end with Townsend singing in more of his usual growling and warbling style. It doesn't take long for listeners to hear the connections in the songs. It should be apparent by fourth track, "Gato." There are a lot of very similar grooves, beats and themes laid down in each tune, yet each retains its own unique character.

Townsend continues to throw some strange and quirky things into the mix as "Ki" goes along. There's the quiet, wah-laden blues licks on "Ain't Never Gonna Win," the jazzy licks of the title track, The Beatles-esque sounds of "Lady Helen" and the country/Southern-rock stylings on the opening of "Trainfire," which is at the same time one of the most out of place moments on the record and one of the most fun, as Townsend does his best Elvis impression on the opening verses. A fun little wink and nod comes toward the end of the album, with the tune "Quiet Riot." Surprisingly, a jaunty acoustic piece filled with Beatles influence, it sounds nothing like the band that is the namesake of the song -- yet there is a connection.

Like all projects Townsend has been involved with, this one is quirky and more than a little strange. It's a varied piece of work loaded with surprises, if rather sedate by Townsend's previous standards. I'm not sure that it's something I'd choose for everyday listening, but it's certainly interesting enough to earn a spot in my collection. I'll be curious to hear the other three installments and see how they fit together.

Get "Ki."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

News: A taste of the upcoming Megadeth record

Roadrunner Records has posted a video of producer Andy Sneap mixing "Headcrusher," one of the new songs on the upcoming Megadeth record. To hear a bit of the tune, click here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: Stratovarius, "Polaris"

After taking a more mainstream approach to their last record (and catching some grief from fans), Finnish prog/power titans Stratovarius return to their old ways a bit on "Polaris."

There have been a few shakeups within the band in the years since their last record, with the revolving door of musicians spinning once again and rumors of a break-up swirling at one point. Original guitarist and creative force Timo Tolkki is now gone, replaced by Matias Kupiainen, who joins long-time members Timo Kotipelto (vocals), Jens Johansson (keyboards) and Jorg Michael (drums). Kupiainen's chops are solid, and he fills Tolkki's shoes well, though I'm sure many long-time fans will be disappointed in the lineup change.

The sets a good tone early with the opener and first single "Deep Unknown," a brooding prog piece with all the usual flourishes of keyboard and guitar. That's followed by the catchy "Falling Star" and the spacey opening of "King of Nothing," which also features a nice marching guitar riff by Kupiainen. On the fourth track, "Blind," we finally get the blast of energy that I've been waiting for -- the blazing power metal influence that has made for some of the band's better moments over the years. "Higher We Go," which blends the faster pace on the chorus with a more restrained verse, is also a solid offering.

Perhaps the crowning moment of the record, though, is the second high-speed track, "Forever is Today," where Kupiainen really gets to show his stuff. It's impossible not to crank this one up and hum along with the soaring chorus. It's just too upbeat and catchy to ignore, and it really serves as the climax of "Polaris." "Winter Skies" is another signature moment on the record, a slower tune that also manages to be sweeping and bombastic.

The album builds well toward the two-part epic "Emancipation Suite," designed, it would seem, as a centerpiece of the record. The first part, subtitled "Dusk," opens with a nice heavy riff, but then turns very somber -- perhaps too somber, as I find myself waiting for that big exotic-sounding riff again during the verses. Part two, "Dawn" continues in that mood, and despite some solid lead work from Kupiainen, really drains a bit of the energy that has been built up. The record is capped off with the folk ballad "When Mountains Fall," which, as a fan of traditional instruments and music, I appreciate. I still find it an odd choice to close the record. After building to the crescendo of "Forever is Today," the album almost seems to run out of steam with the last four tracks, spiraling down into a more mellow and somber mood with each one, almost sapping the energy out of the listener. Perhaps that was the design, but it really leaves me wanting another big blast of power.

Still, "Polaris" sees Stratovarius moving back toward their progressive roots, and there are some very strong performances here. As expected, the musicianship is top-notch and the songs are polished and perfected. While the album won't surpass the band's early work, it's a solid addition to the catalog and fans should be pleased.

Get "Polaris."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Magica, "Wolves & Witches"

I’ve been on a roll of good female-fronted records lately — Luna Mortis, The Agonist, Lacuna Coil — so I suppose it was just a matter of time before I got another one of these.

Wolves & Witches has a few things going for it. Musically, it’s some pretty solidly played traditional metal. It’s something I could definitely listen to, and in fact, there are bits and pieces that I really enjoy. But it has one great, big, honking problem — vocalist Ana delivers that same old tired semi-soprano female voice that we’ve heard thousands of times. It was interesting 10 or 12 years ago when we hadn’t really heard it before, but now it’s just tired. For one thing, very few bands actually integrate it into the music, and the vocals end up feeling like they’re laid on top of what the band has done instead of being part of the band’s work. That’s definitely the case here, particularly on songs like opener “Don’t Wanna Kill.” For another, you really have to be good at it to convince people to listen to it for an entire record. The vocals here often sound too sharp or too flat, particularly when she goes into hysterics.

Magica almost gets it right a few times, like “They Stole the Sun,” which opens with nice hard-rocking riff and the vocals fit on the verse. On the chorus though, they layer Ana’s vocals, and the effect is a bit shrieky and over the top. It’s an issue that resurfaces several times over the course of the record. On “Hurry Up Ravens,” the soprano could have possibly worked, but she ratchets it up to new heights of ridiculous, and it ends up sounding very corny. It’s a shame, because when Ana sticks to the lower registers of her voice, as on the verse of “Until the Light is Gone,” they’re much better, but even on that song, she goes over the top on the chorus. (Those layered vocal tracks just sound awkward every time.)

The band dips into what seems to be a growing nostalgia for 1980s pop rock and new wave on the opening of “Hold on Tight,” before trying to go for a Lacuna Coil sound that just lacks the cohesion of the band it’s emulating. They go full opera on the ballad “Maiastra” which just seems out of place.

As I said before, there are things I like about this record. The bouncing opening riff of “Dark Secret” is top-notch, and I even like the ’80s-style “dark secret” refrain on the chorus, but there are those vocal issues again on the rest of the song. The traditional riffing on the opening of “Mistress of the Wind” is catchy and memorable. The instrumental “Chitaroptera” is the shining star on the record with its blend of exotic and heavy riffing. It’s really the only song that I’ll probably take away from this record, and it leaves me wishing they were an all-instrumental band.

There’s some promise here, but unfortunately, outside of “Chitaroptera,” which I really like, Wolves & Witches just leaves me with a headache.

Get "Wolves & Witches."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: Iron Maiden, "Flight 666"

At first glance, 23 shows in 21 cities over the course of 45 days doesn't seem so unusual for a touring band. Some who play a show in a different city every night might call it a light schedule. That is, until you consider the fact that those 21 cities are on five different continents and often thousands of miles apart.

For their 2008 "Somewhere Back in Time" tour, the subject of the new documentary "Flight 666," Iron Maiden took to the skies in a Boeing 757, dubbed Ed Force One after the band's mascot Eddie. The plane was piloted by vocalist Bruce Dickinson, a licensed airline pilot, and hauled the complete tour staff and equipment in jumps that took them to all corners of the world over the course of a little more than six weeks.

After opening with the packing of the plane and first take-off, "Flight 666," is an engaging film on several levels. Directed by Sam Dunn, who also did the acclaimed "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey," the documentary offers a rare glimpse of the inner workings of Iron Maiden. The band has rarely opened up about what goes on behind the scenes. Far from the hard-partying craziness that bands often use as backstage material on DVDs, here we get to meet bassist and band leader Steve Harris' family, who he takes on tour with him. In their off time, they're playing golf, tennis and soccer at various locations around the globe. It's not exactly scandalous material, but it is interesting.

There are the expected interviews with the band and crew and some gorgeous aerial shots from around the world. There's also plenty of energetic live performance clips which are impressive. The power and energy of a live performance is often hard to translate to film, but they work wonderfully here. One of the most striking moments on the record is when the band launches into "Fear of the Dark" (the only non-'80s track) and a stadium full of people start singing the melody line together. It gives you, at least, a little taste of what it might have been like to be in the crowd. The set list (each song played in a different country) is also pleasantly surprising. The tour was focused on the band's material from the mid-1980s, and includes some gems like "Revelations," "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Moonchild" and "Clairvoyant," which the band doesn't often play anymore.

The real power of this documentary, though, is its look at the band's fans around the world. The viewer gets to meet Maiden fans of all walks of life, from celebrities like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Lars Ulrich of Metallica backstage in California, to everyday fans in India, Costa Rica, Columbia and Chile, who are thrilled to get to see the band for the first time, to a minister near Sao Paulo, Brazil, whose body is covered with Iron Maiden-related tattoos. One of the most powerful images on the DVD is after a show in South America where the camera focuses on a fan holding a drumstick, brought to tears by the emotions of the show. Your first thought might be, "Dude, it's just a concert," but when you think about it, it kind of puts things in perspective a bit. Most of us take something like being able to see a rock concert for granted, but for this young man, it was perhaps one of the biggest events in his life.

It's also striking, considering that Maiden's heyday was in the 1980s, how young the audience was. There were a few older folks like me scattered around the crowd, but, as members of the band marvel at several times during the movie, the front rows look pretty much like they did in 1985.

While they've certainly earned enough respect in the metal world to sit on their laurels and phone things in like so many other bands, the performances captured on "Flight 666" are not those of a nostalgia act. They're living, vibrant performances, perhaps some of the best that Iron Maiden has put on stage in years. The second DVD in the set is dedicated entirely to the performances, showing each in its entirety. For Maiden fans, or those new to the band that want to get a good overview of music from the band's most powerful era, "Flight 666" is a must-have.

Get "Flight 666" on DVD.
Get "Flight 666" on Blu-Ray.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

You've Gotta Hear This: The Sin Committee, "Confess"

Editor's note: You've Gotta Hear This is an occasional feature about unsigned bands that I think deserve your attention.

I’m always a little nervous when I get an independent CD. On the one hand, I hate to rip them apart. They’re usually bands just starting out that still need a lot of work but could develop into something, and being a lousy guitarist that refuses to give it up myself, I hate to discourage anyone. On the other hand, a lot of them are really bad.

So I’m always happy when I get a self-released record that I can really get behind, and that’s the case with this latest EP from The Sin Committee. The five songs here are well-written and well-recorded, and all in all it’s a promising and interesting sample of what might come in the future from these guys.

Confess features a heavier brand of progressive. While there are some shades of more traditional prog metal like Dream Theater, the music here owes much more to bands like Opeth. The guitar riffs from Raymon van Vught are, by and large, on the heavy side of the prog spectrum, and you won’t hear any reaching for the skies vocals from Joris Bod. Don’t get me wrong, he can sing, but it’s a more aggressive style, and he also offers up some nice deathly growls to punctuate the clean vocals with a gut punch of heaviness. Best of all, there are no overbearing keyboards to be found here — just guitar, drums, bass and vocals on most of the tracks — and the music doesn’t lose anything at all in atmosphere with their absence. In fact, when a keyboard-like line does make an appearance in “Straw Men,” it sounds a bit out of place, and if I’m being honest, I’m not actually sure if it’s really a keyboard or an effect created with the guitar.

There’s a lot going on here. The band is obviously heavily influenced by the prog metal bands that have come before, but there are nods to death metal, thrash, an occasional hit of doom, and even more modern rock sounds — for example, there’s a little bit of System of a Down’s quirkiness on album closer “Four 2 One.” They manage to keep the music satisfyingly heavy and interesting while weaving some more commercial threads through the songs, like the catchy vocal melodies on the verse of the title track.

In these five songs, The Sin Committee delivers exactly what I’m looking for in a prog band. The songs are hummably melodic and catchy, yet rip-your-face-off heavy in places. It’s just one hell of a good EP, and it whets my appetite for what they might do in the future.

Visit The Sin Committee's site to learn more.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: Alestorm, "Black Sails at Midnight"

Scottish pirate metal outfit Alestorm has to be one of the best musical discoveries I've made in years. Their debut record, "Captain Morgan's Revenge," was one of my favorites of 2008, and their latest outing "Black Sails at Midnight" is even better.

After teasing fans with the "Leviathan" EP, which featured two of the songs from "Black Sails at Midnight," ahead of a U.S. tour earlier this year, Alestorm has unleashed 10 tracks with nary a skip to be found. The biggest thing you'll notice on this record is that the band seems to be getting very comfortable with a signature sound. The first record had a lot of folk, but also had a few straight thrash numbers. The influence is still there on "Black Sails at Midnight," but every song here features some sort of folk metal touch.

The strongest track to be found on the record is probably "Keelhauled," which opens with an accordion and violin stomp before adding a battering thrash riff and an infectious chorus reminiscent of the title track from "Captain Morgan's Revenge." It's high energy, great fun, and it has an outstanding violin riff. How often do you get to say that about a metal record? The other track that will probably get your attention quickly is album closer "Wolves of the Sea," which first appeared on "Leviathan." It's a galloping cover of a bad Latvian pop song that works like a lucky charm for Alestorm. The silly "hi-hi-ho" and "hi-hi-hey" chorus worms its way into your head like the theme song of a children's show and gets stuck there. (I'll admit that between my repeated listens to "Keelhauled" and my son requesting "Wolves of the Sea" over and over, the rest of the record has gotten a bit shortchanged.)

There's also a maturing (well, as mature as guys wearing pirate outfits can get) of the songwriting here that's perhaps most noticeable on the soft, clean guitar work that opens semi-ballad "To the End of Our Days." It's so delicate that it seems out of place on this raucous record, but that's what makes it so striking. While the rest of the song shows some of the weaknesses in Christopher Bowes' salty dog vocals, it's undeniably piratey.

Unlike "Captain Morgan's Revenge," which had a few duds, every song on "Black Sails at Midnight" works, and there's a pleasing variety. The record opens with the blistering guitar riffing of "The Quest" which sets the energy level high. "Leviathan" provides an epic, seafaring number. "Pirate Song" is a storytelling tune that has a bit of sea shanty in it. The soaring instrumental "No Quarter" shows off the band's musical prowess and proves that it's not just the lyrics that make this "pirate metal." Guitarist Dani Evans, who has switched over from bass, gets the spotlight on the song, and impresses. There are also some nice nods to songs from the last record in "No Quarter," particularly a melodic bit pulled from "Set Sail and Conquer."

Bowes also gets credit for his keyboard work. In general, I think keyboards don't belong in metal, but I'll make an exception for these, which are perfect and give the songs the feel of a pirate movie soundtrack. It's particularly solid on "Chronicles of Vengeance," where the keys are the primary instrument.

One more note on this record that most of you won't hear: Often, in an attempt to thwart file-sharing, record companies put voiceovers on promos where a recorded message plays over the music on a regular basis. In general, I detest them and won't review a record that features them because it disrupts the flow of the music. This one was done quite creatively, though, in a pirate voice that reminds you "piracy is a crime." I couldn't help but laugh every time it came on, and I give the record company kudos for that one. (Though I still hate voiceovers.)

If you don't take your metal too seriously, check out "Black Sails at Midnight." I guarantee you won't have more fun listening to a metal record this year.

Get "Black Sails at Midnight."