Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Machines of Grace, "Machines of Grace"

I've got a bit of a love/hate relationship with new projects from Savatage members. On the one hand, I have a massive amount of respect for most of the musicians that have been part of that band over the years (hence the name of the site), and I always look forward to their new efforts. On the other, it always reminds me how long it's been since we've had a new Savatage record and how unlikely it seems that we'll ever get another.

Now that my gripe session is out of the way, we'll get on to Machines of Grace, the new project that features former Savatage singer Zak Stevens and drummer Jeff Plate. Surprisingly, the band's debut record has very little to do with Savatage, and a lot more to do with good, old-fashioned melodic hard rock. There are certainly some metallic moments to be found through the album, like the undeniable guitar riff of second track "Psychotic," one of my personal favorites, but more often than not there are heavy overtones of 1970s and '80s arena rock. Machines of Grace has all the hallmarks of that genre: big memorable guitar licks, catchy melodies and just a little bit of dramatic flair.

As I understand it, this is a reunion of sorts. Stevens, Plate and guitarist Matt Leff played in a Boston-based band called Wicked Witch in the late 1980s. Apparently the songs here are a combination of reworkings of some of the original Wicked Witch tunes and all-new material. The 1980s influence is definitely present, particularly on the ballads like "This Time," which despite some tasty guitar work from Leff, still has a bit too much of the hair metal power ballad to it. But misses in the 14 songs here are few and far between.

The record opens with a rock-solid set of four big, fist-pumping rockers. "Just a Game" opens with a very cool (if a bit too brief) swinging blues rock intro before blasting into full hard rock mode with a version of the same lick on steroids. That's followed by the chugging riff of "Psychotic," which worms its way into your head and won't go away. The first taste of the progressive sounds Stevens and Plate explored in Savatage comes on "Fly Away," which wouldn't have seemed out of place on that band's "Edge of Thorns" or "Handful of Rain" albums (despite the fact that Plate didn't play on either of those records). The blues influence returns a bit on the grooving intro to "Innocence." The song is largely acoustic, but rocks just as hard as some of the heavier tunes.

The first true ballad comes with "The Moment," a big, dramatic number with an opening in the vein of King's X. It's grown on me, but hasn't quite overcome my aversion to ballads. There's some more tasty guitar work by Leff on "Prelude," which ranges from acoustic to some slightly exotic licks to progressive in its minute or so running time before leading into "Between the Lines," with its big, memorable chorus.

Later in the album, the more metallic side of the band returns for "Breakdown" and "Soul to Fire." Both have a great mix of heavy riffs and unforgettable melodic bits. The star of "Breakdown" is this huge 1970s-style chorus refrain that's unstoppable. "Soul to Fire" brings the progressive back, big-time -- it's easily one of the best tracks here, along with "Psychotic" and "Fly Away." There's also another little nice surprise waiting in the final tracks with the Thin Lizzy-influenced rocker "Better Days," that at first seems a bit out of place with the rest of the record, but is just too upbeat to dismiss.

Stevens' voice is as good as it's ever been. The vocals are less dramatic and over-the-top than his work with Savatage, but the style fits perfectly with the music. Leff comes up with some huge riffs and tasteful leads. The rhythm section of Plate and bassist Chris Rapoza lays down solid grooves. It's a strong debut record from start to finish.

Whether you're a fan of Savatage or just great melodic hard rock/metal in general, do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Get "Machines of Grace."

Monday, July 20, 2009

News: Shadows Fall releases new song

Shadows Fall is giving fans the first taste of "Retribution" today exclusively on their official MySpace page. The first song to be made available from the album, “King of Nothing,” is available now at The song features a guest appearance by Lamb of God vocalist Randy Blythe.

Singer Brian Fair comments: “This song opens with my favorite riff on the record. It came out of Matt’s late night drunken riff bag, and the song built itself around the heavy vibe that it created. It is a four minute beat down!! The lyrics of this song are about the overwhelming self-medication of our world. There is a prescription for every mood these days, and people are turning into zombies. It's time to toughen up and face your reality, no matter how brutal it may be, otherwise you will just be reigning over a world of nothingness. The bridge features guest vocals from the one and only D. Randall Blythe aka Uncle Goddamn aka The Redneck Assassin of the mighty Lamb of God. Randy came down to the studio in VA to cook us dinner, and we put him right to work behind the mic. We layered his voice with Matt’s and myself to create the three part harmony from hell!!”

Retribution streets September 15 on the band’s own label, Everblack Industries, which was created in conjunction with Warner Music Group’s ILG, Ferret Music, and ChannelZERO Entertainment.

Courtesy: Adrenaline PR

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review: Dark Moor, "Autumnal"

Though this is their seventh record, my introduction to Spanish symphonic metallers Dark Moor came through their 2007 outing, "Tarot," which had some strong moments, but overall was a mediocre effort with a little too much standard power metal. Not a great deal about their sound has changed on "Autumnal," yet it strikes me as a much stronger effort.

The record starts promisingly with “Swan Lake,” a heavily classical-influenced number that should appeal to fans of bands like Rhapsody of Fire. But second track, “On the Hill of Dreams” reminds me of what brought Tarot down. It’s a pretty standard power metal number without much to recommend it. Business picks up again on “Phantom Queen” with a frenzied blast of Celtic fiddle on the opening and an incredibly catchy chorus reminiscent of some of the more bombastic efforts from Queen or Blind Guardian. It also sees the debut of a bit of a growl from vocalist Alfred Romero.

The problem, as on the last record, is that Dark Moor keeps switching back and forth between powerful and interesting symphonic numbers and generic power/melodic metal numbers. The more standard tunes are not horrible, but they’re songs I’ve heard thousands of times before. Thankfully, there’s much more of the symphonic here.

Those numbers, on the other hand, are really, really good. “Faustus” brings an operatic feel on the chorus, with just a little touch of darkness. “When the Sun is Gone” features a darker verse than other pieces on the record, and I also like Romero’s gruffer vocals. Surprisingly entertaining is “For Her,” which made me expect a sappy ballad. Instead, I got a nice medieval flavored melody in the symphonic bits, perhaps like something from the soundtrack of an adventure movie. “Enchanted Forest” offers a very dramatic, slightly gothic flavor that’s very tastefully done. I also admire the album closer “Fallen Leaves Waltz,” a powerful, full-on classical number influenced by Tchaikovsky.

If I have one complaint with the record (and this is true of many bands in the genre), it’s the very similar song structures that fill the album — energetic, loud openings with a drop off to a mellow verse, followed by a return to the energy for the chorus. I know it’s a pretty standard song structure in power metal, but I’d really like a little more creativity from a band that obviously has the talent and vision to provide it.

I leave "Autumnal" much more impressed with Dark Moor than I was previously, and I can wholeheartedly recommend that fans of symphonic metal check out this record.

Get "Autumnal."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Glittertind, "Landkjenning"

I’ve admitted before that I’m a sing-along sort of guy, and I sometimes have a problem with records that are not in English for that reason. On the other hand, I can’t complain about weak lyrics when I don’t understand any of them. So maybe it all comes out in the wash.

So, I’m faced with the latest from Norwegian folk metal outfit Glittertind, Glittering Tine in English. "Landkjenning," which translates to "Landing," "Landfall" or "Landsighting" in English depending on where you look it up, is a bit of a concept album that revolves around Norwegian poetry and history. It covers the years of Norway’s Christianization and the conflict between the new religion and the old ways. I’m taking the word of the press notes that came with the record on that. Perhaps some of our Norwegian brethren will straighten it out if that’s not the case.

Anyway, on to the important part - the music. And it’s quite an interesting mix, ranging from straight-on folk to metal to some really fun numbers. Chief among the latter tracks is the only one sung in English, “Longships and Mead.” The accordion-driven number is actually a little out of place after the more somber mood of the first three tracks, sounding more like the pirate sounds of Alestorm. It would be a great drinking song, though, and it serves as a bit of a turning point in the record as much of the rest of the record falls more into Korpiklaani or Alestorm territory. “Varder in Brann” continues the more upbeat sound with an entertaining reel. “Jeg Snorer Min Sekk” has an almost pop-punk feel, only with a flute riff in the middle.

Toward the end, things turn back toward the more somber with the soft “Mot Myrke Vetteren.” Not quite as good as the ballad “Gar Min Eigen Veg” that came earlier on the record, it still brings the reflective feel of the earlier part of the record back. “Brede Seil Over Nordsjo Gar” returns to the march-like sounds that opened the record with the title track, and the record closes on a very traditional note with the organ-heavy instrumental “Overmate Full Av Nade.”

Perhaps the darker, more serious songs at the beginning and end are meant to reflect the more rigid Christianity, while the lighter, more carefree side reflects the previous pagan ways. I like the idea that the record was arranged that way, and I’ll go with it unless someone fluent in Norwegian corrects me on the assumption.

All in all, I find "Landkjenning" a quite entertaining record despite my inability to grasp what most of the songs are truly about. I will admit to preferring the middle section of the record, which is much more light-hearted and great fun. It’s the kind of stuff that I’d like to clink a pint of mead to, and those songs lead me to give "Landkjenning" a hearty recommendation to fans of Alestorm and Korpiklaani.

Get "Landkjenning."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Best of the year so far

I'm running a couple of weeks late on my roundup for the first six months of the year. In these days, of course, that's not the only thing I'm running late on. At any rate, here's a look at my top 10 so far:

1. Heaven and Hell, "The Devil You Know." I'll be very surprised if anything unseats this in the next six months. It's the band's best work since "Heaven and Hell."

2. Alestorm, "Black Sails at Midnight." Just as much fun as the band's debut record and better musically.

3. Amorphis, "Skyforger." This one's fairly fresh, but I think it's their best since "Elegy." It hasn't left my CD player in weeks.

4. Lazarus A.D., "The Onslaught." This is one of the best records that I've heard from the new thrash movement. There's an energy that's lacking in many of the others in the genre.

5. Lacuna Coil, "Shallow Life." It's probably their most poppy record to date, but I like it.

6. God Forbid, "Earthsblood." Another solid outing from one of the most underrated bands out there.

7. Lamb of God, "Wrath." An early favorite for album of the year in my book, this one has slipped down the list. Still a really good record, though.

8. Luna Mortis, "The Absence." The blend of power, progressive and melodic death is interesting and very catchy.

9. Candlemass, "Death Magic Doom." A solid addition to the Candlemass catalog. Robert Lowe continues to impress on vocals.

10. Spheric Universe Experience, "Unreal." Nothing fancy here, but some very well-played prog metal.

Album I'm reserving judgment on for now:
Dream Theater, "Black Clouds and Silver Linings." I wrote a quick, negative review of their last record and ended up liking it after more listens. I'm going to give it some more time before reviewing it.

Disappointments so far:
Queensryche, "American Soldier." At this point, I don't know if I can call a Queensryche album a disappointment since my expectations are low. Still, it was a good concept, and I'd hoped for a better record.

Tim Owens, "Play My Game." (review coming soon) Fairly solid musical outing brought down by weak lyrics and a lack of hooks. Not a horrible record, but not what I was hoping for.

What I'm looking forward to:
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, "Night Castle." Years in the coming, the most recent update was that it should arrive in October. We'll see.

Anthrax, "Worship Music." I'm a fan of John Bush, and I thought "We've Come For You All" ranked among the band's best. They'll have to really impress me with new singer Dan Morgan.

Megadeth, "Endgame." I like what I hear from "Head Crusher" and hope Mustaine and Co. continue the momentum from "United Abominations."

Slayer, "World Painted Blood." It's Slayer, what else is there to say?

Machines of Grace, "Machines of Grace." As a Savatage fan, I've got to check out this project of Zachary Stevens and Jeff Plate. Look for a review soon.

We could also possibly see new records from Ozzy (hope it's better than the last one) and Black Label Society before the year is up.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts on Megadeth's "Head Crusher"

So I've had a day to digest the first song from Megadeth's upcoming record, and there's always a slight holding of my breath as I wait to see which Dave Mustaine showed up this time. Fortunately, at least on this track, it was the old familiar Dave.

"Head Crusher," despite being a bit unimaginative in the title and lyrics department, is a solid old-school Megadeth tune. It's aggressive, featuring shades of "Wake Up Dead" from the classic "Peace Sells" record, while also taking cues from the last 'Deth record, "United Abominations." That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned, since I consider that their comeback record. (I know most people consider it to be "The System Has Failed," but I really don't care for that record.)

So, it's only one song, but it's pretty much what you want from Megadeth. It opens with a fast riff and some lead wailing from Mustaine, has some slower, chunkier riffs in the middle, a decent melody and some screaming leads. It's a good taste of the new record. Hopefully it's representative of what we can expect from the rest of the record.

If you haven't heard "Head Crusher" yet, it's streaming at Roadrunner Records. Check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

NEWS: Download Megadeth's "Headcrusher"

Download the new Megadeth tune "Headcrusher" today at Roadrunner Records. More thoughts on the song to come later.