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.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: Hardcore Superstar, "Beg for It"

The members of Hardcore Superstar pitch their music as a blend of thrash and 1980s sleaze rock. I grew up on sleaze rock and thrash is my favorite metal genre, so that idea intrigued me. It's a bit of false advertisement, though. While they're on the heavier end of sleaze rock, their sound has much more to do with Guns 'n' Roses, Ratt and Motley Crue than Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer.

The record opens with a strange, but promising instrumental, "This Worms for Ennio," which sounds, appropriately considering the reference to composer Ennio Morricone, like a cross between a spaghetti Western soundtrack and a Celtic folk tune. That leads into the first metal song, the title track "Beg for It," which almost delivers what they promise. There's a driving thrash riff at the beginning, but after that it's straight 1980s with a very glam rock chorus. There are some thrash pieces scattered throughout. The first few notes of "Don't Care 'Bout Your Bad Behavior" make you think you're going to get some Metallica influence, but it immediately morphs into an early Motley Crue sound. "Take 'Em All Out" brings a little thrash in the beginning before moving into a funky riff that's still pretty good. There's a lot of Guns 'n' Roses and Ratt influence on the track, though.

There are the complete misses, like the ballad "Hope for a Normal Life" which covers all the worst territory of the hair ballads. Other songs, like "Nervous Breakdown," just seem to kind of lay there.

As far as the straight sleaze rock goes, much of it is interesting if you're a fan of the sound. "Into Debauchery" has a great guitar riff up front. "Shades of Grey" opens with an Iron Maiden-ish guitar lick and has some nice harmonies on the bridge. It's a bit reminiscent of Lillian Axe, a band I still have a great appreciation for. "Spit It Out" opens with a clean guitar lick that almost echoes Motley Crue's "On With the Show" before blasting into an Appetite for Destruction-era Guns sound. "Remove My Brain" is one of the best tunes here, despite a heavy influence of early 1990s Metallica. It's got a nice groove and enough cowbell to make Christopher Walken proud.

Vocalist Joakim "Jocke" Berg has a good voice for the 1980s parts, sounding like a mix of Jeff Keith, Stephen Pearcy and Vince Neil, and the musicians backing him are all capable. Your tolerance for Hardcore Superstar will probably depend on your tolerance for 1980s sleaze rock. If you hate the aforementioned bands from that era, you'll probably want to pass. For those of us who grew up on it, though, it's kind of fun.

Get "Beg for It."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: Gwar, "Lust in Space"

Everyone's favorite horror/art/metal band Gwar returns to celebrate its 25th anniversary and continue its effort toward domination of the earth on "Lust in Space." And they may just manage it this time around.

After a series of hit and miss records, "Lust in Space" finds the band back on Metal Blade and back to doing what made their earlier work so enjoyable. "Lust in Space" features a collection of fun, hummable songs with a few truly goofy moments mixed in. I mean, it wouldn't be Gwar if there wasn't a little silliness, would it?

The record opens with the high-energy "Let Us Slay" that features the cartoonish over-the-top vocals we've come to know and love, but there also seems to be just a bit of a modern edge to this record. It's not a change, really, just an update. For the most part, the songs here are still along the lines of the same punk-influenced thrash Gwar has always delivered, as evidenced on "The UberKlaw," a punkish number with some crazy gang vocals on the chorus. Fans of the band's earlier work will appreciate songs like "Where is Zog," which is mocking and completely over the top. It really reminds me of something off my personal favorite Gwar album, "Scumdogs of the Universe." Those newer to the band might appreciate the Meshuggah-ish riffing of "Release the Flies," which finds Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie) taking on a gruffer, almost death metal vocal style.

One of the things that has been the hallmark of Gwar's work in the past is the fact that, despite the costumes and wild stage show, despite the ridiculousness of some of the lyrics, despite all of the novelty trappings, their songs have always had a sound metal underpinning. That continues here, perhaps better than it's been in recent years. "Metal, Metal Land" blends thrash, punk and NWOBHM sounds for a strange brew that's a bit silly lyrically, but one of the most fun songs on the record. "Price of Peace" covers the classic conquer-the-earth Gwar material, but features a great squealing opening guitar riff. Gwar save the best for last, though, with the title track and its shifting moods. It opens with an acoustic riff and spoken vocals from Urungus, then moves into a Nevermore influenced warbly bit where he does a fairly good impression of Warrell Dane. It finally settles into more of the expected Gwar sound. It's solid, it's catchy and it's hard to listen to without a smile on your face.

The same can be said of the record as a whole. If you're a Gwar fan, you'll love this record as the band gets back to what it does best. If you hate them, it won't change your mind. While, in my mind, it doesn't quite live up to "Scumdogs," it's pretty damned close.

Get "Lust in Space."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Swashbuckle, "Back to the Noose"

I can't deny the little tingle of excitement I had when I read the description of Swashbuckle -- a thrash pirate metal band. Pirate metallers Alestorm have been one of my happiest discoveries of the past few years, and thrash is my preferred subgenre of the metal world. I couldn't wait to get my hands on "Back to the Noose."

My initial reaction to the music here was a bit of disappointment. Rather than a pirate thrash album, this seemed to be a thrash record that just happened to have songs about piracy. I missed the quirky folk elements that Alestorm brings to the table. Once I got past that initial disappointment, I had to admit, though, that the thrash elements of the record were pretty solid. They're short, punchy songs with plenty of speed and intensity to spare. The blazing riff and memorable chorus of the title track is a perfect example of what this band does best. "Peg-leg Stomp" opens with an appropriately grooving thrash stomp, which returns on the chorus, making it one of my favorite tunes here. "No Prey No Pay" bashes away with an S.O.D.-like assault that's a staple for many of the thrash numbers. "The Grog Box" opens with a bouncing riff and blends in just a little traditional metal influence in the guitar melody, while "Attack" just bashes the listener over the head.

A few of the tracks give me the kind of thing I was really expecting from the record. "Rounds of Rum" is another favorite, with it's sing-along drinking song feel. "Splash-n-Thrash" is a close second with some guitar work that has that pirate movie soundtrack feel and a great, heavy breakdown.

There are some interesting piratical interludes that are hit and miss. Album opener "Hoist the Mainsail" is an excellent mood-setter. "Cloudy with a Chance of Piracy," on the other hand, sounds (I suppose, appropriately) like something you'd hear during the forecast on the weather channel (or maybe in the background at a seafood restaurant). Some are almost like checking in at different ports of call. "Carnivale Boat Ride" has a bit of a Celtic feel, "La Leyenda" has an interesting Spanish flavor, "Tradewinds" features some medieval influence. Some just get in the way, like the goofy skits "Rime of the Haggard Mariner" and "All Seemed Fine Until," which the record could really have done without. But when they get the interludes right, they work well, particularly the piece "Shipwrecked" near the end of the album, which is perhaps the most impressive and moving of the interludes, at least until the spoken word poetry bit comes in.

Despite that, though, I think the interludes and attempts to be more "piratey" work against what's a pretty solid collection of thrash tunes. Even though some of them are interesting, more often they just get in the way and slow down an album that, for the most part, is anything but.

Get "Back to the Noose."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Megadeth, "Endgame"

The rumors are already out there that "Endgame" could be the appropriately titled final record from Megadeth. Of course, those rumors have been swirling for the last several records.

You might say it's a small wonder that Megadeth even exists today. It's been a tumultous decade or so for the band. A few rounds of stylistic changes in the 1990s, including the awful experimental record "Risk," turned some fans off. Then there was the announcement of founder and mastermind Dave Mustaine's retirement following a nerve injury in his hand, which he eventually recovered from. The subsequent reformation included an ugly split with original bassist and long-time Mustaine collaborator Dave Ellefson, the only other constant in the band over the years, which made Megadeth an even bigger revolving door of musicians in recent years. In an effort to conquer his longtime battle with drugs and alcohol, Mustaine became a born-again Christian a few years back, which didn't sit well with a few fans of his music that has, at times, been critical of organized religion. It would be easy to understand if he just decided to call it a day.

Not only has Mustaine not thrown in the towel, but he's blasted back at his critics with two of the best Megadeth records since the 1980s, 2007's "United Abominations" and the latest, "Endgame."

"Endgame" reaps the benefits of Mustaine's sobriety and conversion, as it seems to have given him a clearer focus on the music. Like "United Abominations" before it, "Endgame" strikes a solid balance between the technical flash and mastery of the early Megadeth records and the melody and hook-based tunes of 1992's "Countdown to Extinction," which marked the band's first shift in style.

"Endgame" opens with a short instrumental piece, "Dialectic Chaos," that leads directly into the high-speed thrasher "This Day We Fight," which wouldn't have been at all out of place on the band's high-intensity records from the '80s. The more melodic side of the band comes out on "44 Minutes," a song based on the 1997 North Hollywood shootout that spawned a movie of the same name. Unlike the impressive speed and technicality of the first song, "44 Minutes" relies on a big, memorable chorus and a moodier delivery. It's a pattern that repeats throughout the record. "1,320'" revisits Mustaine's obsession with speed and features guitar work to match. "Bodies," one of the best of the more melodic numbers, would have been a perfect fit on "Countdown to Extinction," while "Headcrusher" takes listeners right back into the chaotic speedfest. None of them disappoint.

The only questionable choice here would be "The Hardest Part of Letting Go ... Sealed with a Kiss," which opens in a plaintive ballad style that amplifies the weaknesses in Mustaine's vocals and moves to a galloping number. There's a nice little almost classical-sounding riff in there, but by and large it sounds a lot like some of the weaker moments from the 1990s. The other 10 tracks on the record, though, make you forget about this one.

Of course, no one listens to Megadeth for Mustaine's voice. It's all about the guitar, and that's in fine form here. He's obviously recovered fully from the nerve injury because "Endgame" features some of his most impressive work in a lot of years. The riffs are tight and crisp, and the leads scream across the top of them like a fighter jet. Veteran metal producer Andy Sneap also deserves great credit for the mix which gives Mustaine's guitar work more bite than perhaps it's ever had.

After years of artistic experimentation, phoned in records and not knowing what to expect from Megadeth, it's nice to have them back. When you put in a Megadeth record, you want riffs that rip your face off and blazing leads that shred what's left of it. That's just what "Endgame" delivers. If it's Mustaine's swan song, they go out on a high note. I, for one, hope we can get a few more records like these last two.

Get "Endgame."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Check out Hank III live

3voor12 has video of an excellent Hank III performance from the Lowlands Festival available for streaming now. Click here to check it out. It's about an hour long, and I highly recommend it for III fans.

Also, look for a review of the new Assjack album, featuring III here soon.

Review: Stryper, "Murder by Pride"

I suppose it's inevitable that most any band that had some measure of success will reunite at some point, usually putting out a throw-away record so they can hook up on one of the summer nostalgia tours. That's pretty much what I expected from 1980s Christian rockers Stryper's latest record.

Don't get me wrong, I rocked out a few times to "Soldiers Under Command" and "To Hell with the Devil" back in those days, and I still whip out Oz Fox's riff from "The Way" every now and then when I'm noodling around on my guitar. But, by and large, Stryper was always a little too clean-cut for my tastes. It had nothing to do with the Christian lyrics, but everything to do with Michael Sweet's saccharin sweet vocals and the too-polished sound of most of their songs. Unfortunately, that's still a problem in 2009.

"Murder by Pride" definitely has that Stryper sound, but with a very heavy 1970s arena rock influence -- so heavy that they've even got a carbon-copy cover of Boston's "Peace of Mind" complete with guitar work by Tom Scholz.

There are, surprisingly, signs of life. There's a nice big guitar riff from Fox that opens second track "4 Leaf Clover," and Sweet's vocals are a bit more restrained on the verse. The chorus is bubble-gummy, but it's not a bad song overall. The title track has some nice guitar work that reminds me a bit of the heavier songs from the band's earlier catalog. It's probably the best track here -- maybe the only one I might return to on this record. "Mercy Over Blame" is perhaps the grittiest tune on the record with a nice 1970s hard rock feel to it. Album closer "My Love" is another big rocker with some nice dual-guitar lead work and another heavy '70s influence.

Then there are the other moments: "Alive," a sappy piano ballad that attempts to be this record's "Honestly;" the dated 1980s pop rock influenced "The Plan;" the contemporary Christian sounds of "I Believe." The latter might actually score them a hit in that format, but not so much with hard rock fans.

The songs in between are all OK. They're listenable, but a bit like wallpaper. They fit the record, but don't really standout. As you might have figured out from the song titles, Stryper is fully back in Christian mode on this record, unlike the more commercial "Against the Law" in 1990, which turned some fans off and got their records thrown out of some Christian book and record stores.

I went in with low expectations, and surprisingly, "Murder by Pride" isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In all honesty, if there should be some reason I need a Stryper fix, I'd probably dig out one of their early records rather than grabbing this one, but if you were a big fan of them the first time around, you'll probably enjoy this one.

Get "Murder by Pride."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Review: Dream Theater, "Black Clouds and Silver Linings"

I'm a little late in reviewing this, but I wanted to give it some time to sink in. I bashed Dream Theater's last record on a quick review, and I ended up quite liking it. I wanted to make sure that didn't happen this time.

On "Black Clouds and Silver Linings," Dream Theater is back in full prog mode. You can tell that by the tracklist. The CD is packed about as full as it can get with music, and there are only six songs, the longest, "The Count of Tuscany," checking in at nearly 20 minutes, the shortest, "Wither," clocking about five and a half.

I apologize in advance for the length of this review, but there's so much going on that it's practically impossible to write a complete review that's brief. There are just too many twists, turns and shifts. If they wrote songs like most bands, they could get six or seven out of each of theirs.

First the good:

Album opener "A Nightmare to Remember" gets things off to a rolling start with a heavy opening that borders on extreme metal with its crunching guitars and rolling drum line until the keyboards kick in. Vocalist James LaBrie takes on a dark, cutting delivery that reminds me of Jon Oliva in places. The tune slows down about the four-minute point, but remains dark for the next few minutes. We come out at about the 7:30 mark with a bluesy, rocking, jaw-dropping solo from John Petrucci that leads to an extended bit of madness on his part. Drummer Mike Portnoy makes a vocal appearance to give a deeper sound to a thrashy bit toward the end. The record's off and rolling to a good start.

"A Rite of Passage" is one of the less adventurous tracks on the record, but also one of my favorites. It's among the shorter tunes at around eight minutes, but features some more aggressive elements in the way of vocals and guitars. It's reminiscent of their one mainstream hit, "Pull Me Under," with a catchy chorus melody.

"The Shattered Fortress" is on the gnarly side for Dream Theater, which is a good thing. It opens with a heavy riff that moves into a melody with a feel reminiscent of some of the pirate metal bands popping up lately thanks in large part to the soaring keys of Jordan Rudess. It moves back to a thrash riff about two mintues in with Portnoy providing some snarled supporting vocals for Labrie. After a soft interlude where a deep spoken word bit (Portnoy again?) trades off with Labrie's vocals and finishes strong with a rolling heavy riff that leads to more histrionics from Petrucci.

The album is capped off with the epic "The Count of Tuscany," which while a bit too long, certainly shows off the band's skills. It opens with a heavy Rush influence before moving to an "Images and Words" feel. LaBrie's vocals here are in a very classic hard rock mode, and he uses the more aggressive vocals he's worked on recenlty here as well. The slow, atmospheric interlude that kicks in around the 10-minute mark probably could have been cut drastically from its four-minute run time and helped the song. A simple, Pink Floyd-ish acoustic piece follows that leads into a majestic close.

Now for the not-so-good. The ballad "Wither" is certainly the weakest link here. It's the most straightforward song and thankfully the shortest, and really doesn't have much excitement at all. "The Best of Times," despite some strong moments, is a bit too vanilla for my tastes as well, and goes on far too long at 13 minutes.

If you pick up the three-disc limited edition of the record, you'll also get a collection of cover songs that has some real fun in store. My favorite, unsurprisingly, is their fairly faithful cover of the underrated Iron Maiden tune "To Tame a Land." The Dixie Dregs' "Odyssey" gives the a chance to really put in a musical workout with its twists and turns. They pay tribute to a big influence with a cover of King Crimson's "Larks Tongues in Aspic Pt. 2," and rock out on Rainbow's funky "Stargazer." Perhaps one of the most interesting of the cover songs is a medley of Queen tunes, "Tenement Funster," "Flick of the Wrist" and "Lily of the Valley," and it doesn't disappoint. I like the fact that they chose three lesser known Queen numbers instead of a big hit. In fact, I like that about all of the covers, and I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch. It's well worth the few extra bucks for the limited.

It goes without saying that the musicianship here is impeccable and masterful. The band members continue to boggle the mind on all levels and frustrate wannabe musicians like myself who realize that, even if they spent the next 40 years locked in a room with their instrument, they'll never be that good.

In the end, I'm glad I gave the record some time to grow on me, as my initial impression was much the same as the last record. I still think there's a little too much "show off" on "Black Clouds and Silver Linings." Don't get me wrong, what Dream Theater can do is incredibly impressive, but I think that sometimes it comes at the expense of the song. It's not a record for casual listening on the drive to work (there are songs on here that would cover the morning drive, the afternoon drive and the next morning's drive), but like most of their efforts, something that needs to be experienced in full and digested.

Get "Black Clouds and Silver Linings" standard edition.

Get the 3-CD limited edition.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Tim "Ripper" Owens, "Play My Game"

I’ve held off on this review for a while, hoping the record would grow on me a little more, but I think it’s time to let it go.

You won’t find a much bigger fan of Tim Owens than me (you may remember my rants when he was booted from Iced Earth last year), but as a songwriter, I continue to be somewhat disappointed by his efforts. Here he’s recruited guys like Bob Kulick, Chris Caffery and John Comprix as co-writers, and a pretty impressive stable of musicians, including Jeff Loomis, Rudy Sarzo, Simon Wright, Steve Stevens, Bruce Kulick, Caffery, Michael Wilton, Doug Aldrich, Dave Ellefson, Marco Mendoza, James Lomenzo and others as backup.

Not surprisingly with that lineup, the music is rock solid. The problem, surprisingly, comes in the area where Owens should be most adept — the vocal melodies. For a guy with such a great voice, the melodies here are often vanilla and occasionally even awkward. A beautiful example of what I’m talking about is on second track, “Believe,” which features this gigantic guitar riff from Comprix and a vocal melody from Owens that’s like listening to paint dry.

There are some shining moments on the record. “It Is Me” is hands down the best tune on the record with a grinding, heavy riff from Comprix and some of Owens’ best vocals here. Even it has problems, though, as do several other songs, with some awkward lyrics. The Priest-influenced tune “The Cover Up” is another winner (despite the Area 51 cliches) and benefits from a ripping Loomis lead. Surprisingly one of the better moments is the ballad “To Live Again,” which features a huge chorus that shows some nice vocal control from Owens. The title track opens with a nice bouncing riff and one of the most aggressive vocal deliveries on the record, and it features a nice shift to a plodding chorus. It reminds me (and I’m sure Owens would had this comparison) of some of Rob Halford’s work with Fight. Finally, the fanboy in me has to favor the final track, “The Shadows Are Alive,” co-written and performed with Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery. It’s one of the most varied pieces on the album, opening in a ballad mode, then moving to a traditional metal piece and finally a power metal-influenced ending. It also really allows Owens to show his full range. It’s a strong ending to the record and makes the songs that came prior to it even more disappointing in a way.

There are also a few numbers here left in limbo despite some strong moments. Album opener “Starting Over” has some nice depth and tasteful guitar work from Bob Kulick, and the verse is nice, but the chorus just doesn’t seem to fit. Similarly, “No Good Goodbyes” has an interesting Alice in Chains influence and some good guitar work from Bruce Kulick, but it falls apart with the chorus which again just doesn’t impress.

In the end, you’ve got five really good songs, two or three middle-of-the-road numbers and an awful lot of uninspired and unmemorable filler on a 12-track album. Owens’ voice is great as usual, and I can’t fault the musicianship with the all-star cast. It’s just that many of the songs just don’t ever come together.

"Play My Game" is a better than average record, but probably not that defining moment that Owens’ fans were hoping for from the first record where he’s calling all the shots. The truth of the matter is, "Play My Game" isn’t bad, but if Owens wants to be seen as more than a hired gun, he’s really going to have to up his game in the songwriting department.

Get "Play My Game."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

News: Rob Halford to release Christmas album

Just in time for the 2009 holiday season comes a release that is sure to grab the attention of heavy metal fans worldwide, as legendary singer Rob Halford debuts his first holiday CD "Halford III - Winter Songs" on his new label Metal God Records.

"Halford III - Winter Songs" is Rob's first solo release in more than seven years, and includes a collection of new Halford-penned tracks plus traditional holiday favorites presented with original arrangements by HALFORD (Rob Halford - Vocals, Roy Z., - Producer / Guitarist, Metal Mike Chlasciak - Guitars, Mike Davis - Bass and Bobby Jarzombek - Drums).

The first new Halford single: 'Get Into The Spirit' debuts at radio and www.RobHalford.com Sept. 29.

"Well, I've always said I wanted to produce a Christmas CD," said Halford. "The Halford band has assembled a fantastic release, and we're excited to have produced a collection of holiday tracks which all of us have enjoyed from a very early age."

"Halford III - Winter Songs" debuts new Halford tracks: "Get Into The Spirit," "When Christmas Comes For Everyone," "Light Of The World," "What Child Is This," "Oh Holy Night," "Come All Ye Faithful" and more.

The record releases world-wide the week of Oct. 26. For a preview of the record, visit http://www.metalgodshop.com/.

Courtesy: Chipster PR

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: Tyr, "By the Light of the Northern Star"

My introduction to Tyr came a few years back when I was asked to take on "Eric the Red" for another site. I’d read rave reviews about it all over the Web, but personally, I was unimpressed. In all honesty, I found the record fairly boring. It’s been a while since that review, and I really hadn’t thought much else about the band from the Faroe Islands. Now, I’m faced with their latest, "By the Light of the Northern Star." Maybe they’ve changed or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been enjoying a lot more folk metal lately, but whatever the case, this record is a completely different experience.

"By the Light of the Northern Star" grabbed me instantly with the majestic opening riff of “Hold the Heathen Hammer High” (video below) which morphed into a blazing power metal-influenced lick. But the icing on the cake is the chorus, which is just killer - chest-pounding, testosterone-driven bravado delivered with an infectious melody. “Trondor I Gotu” keeps the winning streak going with a great guitar riff after the opening chanting. The verse of the song brings in the first hint of 1980s rock influence that will get bigger later in the album. (Not to worry, they haven’t gone hairy, but there are certainly some more commercial threads running through some of the tracks.)

That ’80s sound is most noticeable on the opening of “Northern Gate,” which opens with a big sing-along style chant that will return throughout the song. The tune, like a few others here, has a very heavy Manowar vibe to it. That’s most notable on “By the Sword in My Hand,” which with Eric Adams on vocals would practically be a Manowar tune. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the better moments on the record, though, with that huge, warrior-metal chorus.

Things taper off a bit after that track, though. “Ride” has a bit too much of the 1980s influence in it for my tastes. “Hear the Heathen Call” and the title track aren’t bad songs, but they don’t stand up to the songs that came earlier on the album.

The record closes with two brief instrumentals which are both quite nice. “The Northern Lights” is an acoustic folk number, and I’m a sucker for those. It’s a well-done piece that just doesn’t last long enough. “Anthem” is a more bombastic classical-influenced number in the vein of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

One problem that I had with Eric the Red was in the vocal department, but there are no problems here. Heri Joensen’s vocals are spot-on for the style, as are all of the instruments. In fact, I’ve got no complaints at all with By the Light of the Northern Star. I think I’ll have to go back and check out the last few to see what I might have missed.

Get "By the Light of the Northern Star."

(Review originally published at Teeth of the Divine.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Saint Deamon, "Pandeamonium"

Inevitably, as a reviewer, you get to that point, usually staring at a stack (or virtual stack, these days) of mediocre albums, where you question why you bother. Aside from the records by known bands where you pretty much know what to expect, you'll find a few you like (which are easy), a few you hate (which are even easier) and tons of middle-of-the-road records where you struggle to say anything good or bad about them. Then, maybe a couple of times a year, one comes off the stack that reminds you why you spend time listening to all the others.

When I gave Saint Deamon's "Pandeamonium" it's first spin, I didn't expect much. I thought the band name was a little corny, and it was a power metal record - a subgenre known for more than its share of cheese. My preconceptions were immediately shattered by the throbbing, Dream Theater-inspired riffing that opened the first song, "Deception." The band eschews the typical over-the-top arrangements and bombast of the genre, focusing instead on tighter songwriting and memorable songs. It's a welcome respite from a genre where bands often try to outdo each other with the grandeur of their concepts.

The roll continues with second track, "The Only One Sane," a soaring track with just a touch of the unbalanced. It's got some nice melody shifts that will feature more prominently later on the record. But the track that really sold me on the record is the fourth, "Eyes of the Devil," which opens with a thrash riff, reminiscent of "Justice"-era Metallica before shifting into a more typical power metal mode for the verse and chorus, which is, as it should be, huge and memorable. It's a song that even folks who hate power metal on general principle could appreciate.

The band can also muster the pomp and bombast of others in the genre, as they prove on the epic, seafaring tune "Oceans of Glory," and there are moments of the majestic sprinkled throughout "Pandeamonium." They work, but I'm more drawn to the simpler structures, like the galloping riffing of "Fallen Angel" or the blazing "The Deamon Within," which reminds me a lot of classic Iron Maiden in its verse vocal melodies.

There are a couple of tunes here that fall a little more into a typical power metal sound, primarily the slower numbers like the title track and "A Day to Come," but they're the exception. More often, you'll find yourself humming along with an insidious melody like the chorus of "Fear in a Fragile Mind" that remains with you throughout the day.

There's nothing new or earth-shatteringly different about the music here, but its played with passion and conviction - a rarity in a genre that, if we're being honest, can be a little paint-by-numbers. There's also a refreshing lack of the pomposity and grandiose concepts that often plague power metal. The songs are focused, well-played and stand on their own. It's a good record for those who prefer the pioneers of the genre.

While it serves as my introduction to the band, "Pandeamonium" is actually the sophomore effort from Saint Deamon. You can be sure that I'll be seeking out their debut very soon.

Get "Pandeamonium."

News: Scar Symmetry releases new ... game?

Swedish progressive metallers Scar Symmetry have launched an exclusive online game for their upcoming record "Dark Matter Dimensions."

Based on the classic game Asteroids, "Dark Matter Asteroids" offers a bonus for players who beat the high score: a meet and greet with teh band during the Neckbreakers Ball Tour 2009 with Behemoth, DevilDriver and Arsis.

To play, visit www.nuclearblast.de/scarsymmetry.

"Dark Matter Dimensions" hits shelves Oct. 2 in Europe and Oct. 20 in teh U.S. Look for a review here in October.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

News: Dimmu Borgir parts ways with two members

Norwegian symphonic black metal band DIMMU BORGIR have issued the following statement: "We regret to inform you that we have parted ways with both I.C.S. Vortex [bassist, clean vocalist] and Mustis [keyboards]. However, we do want to make it perfectly clear that the creative force in the band is highly intact, perhaps even more so than ever. With that being said, we're currently working on our next album and are excited to start a new chapter in the legacy that is DIMMU BORGIR."

Courtesy: Nuclear Blast Records