Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: The Fallen Within, "Intoxicated"

While The Fallen Within’s debut comes with the melodic death tag, but it’s certainly much more to the melodic side of the coin than the death side. The band obviously takes its cues from two of the giants of that genre, In Flames and Soilwork, but generally speaking, there are far lighter moments than you’d find on most melodeath outings.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stuck in My Head: Down, "On March the Saints"

While most folks probably went for something like the Rebirth Brass Band's version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" after the New Orleans Saints advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time on Sunday, you know I had to reach for something a little heavier. So after Garrett Hartley's kick sailed through the uprights, I cranked up this tune from Down's 2007 album "III: Over the Under."

No, the song is not about the football team, which becomes readily apparent with a listen to the lyrics. Written around the time of the team's 2006 run to the NFC Championship, an effort that energized the city and played a big role in raising spirits in the area following Hurricane Katrina, it uses the Saints as a clever metaphor for the people of New Orleans. That, in itself, is interesting since singer Phil Anselmo isn't exactly known for the use of metaphor in his lyrics ... or any other literary tool for that matter.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't high art. It certainly has its lyrical challenges, but the sentiment of the song comes through in a very personal way. To me, "On March the Saints" perfectly captures the atmosphere and struggle in New Orleans in the years since Katrina. The lyrics and music capture the uncertainty and chaos in the wake of the storm. The song expresses the hopelessness and devastation of the storms. At the same time though, there's a definite joy there, a feeling of triumph in overcoming the challenges.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the song features a great, sludgy slab of a guitar riff, and an undeniable heavy groove.

I'll understand if most fans turn to "When the Saints Go Marching In," or maybe U2's "The Saints are Coming" performance from the reopening of the Superdome in 2006 to celebrate. I'll probably listen to both a few times in the coming weeks. But for me, the primary soundtrack leading up to the Super Bowl is going to include a heavy dose of "On March the Saints." Here's hoping a little of the power and the attitude of the song rubs off on our Saints, and I can crank it again in honor of a Super Bowl win in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Fool's Game, "Reality Divine"

The debut record from Fool’s Game is a promising collection of melodic metal tunes, if at times frustrating. The clear strength of the record is in the guitar work of Matt Crooks and Matt Johnsen of Pharoah fame. The six-string mastery is the foundation that the band is built on and is solid enough to cover up the record’s biggest weakness, the vocals of Lars Larsen.

The songs here draw on influence from some of the biggest forces in the melodic and power genres. The material seems to be heavily shaped by Blind Guardian, but you’ll also hear nods to Savatage, Nevermore and other bands.

Reality Divine blasts into action with opening cut “Mass Psychosis,” which showcases the guitar work with some impressive lead and nice riffing. Larsen’s vocals hover somewhere between Zachary Stevens and Matt Barlow, but with notable weaknesses. There are occasional notes that just sound off and his “death growl” is almost painful. He’s in better territory on “When the Beginning Meets the End,” with a Hansi Kursch-like delivery. There’s a cool 1970s prog synth line at the beginning and some nice atmospherics lurking just below the surface of the song.

The vocals and the record reach a low-point on “As the Field of Dreams was Abandoned,” where the early vocals are really bad and then Larsen attempts to do more than he’s capable of on the chorus. Fortunately, it’s the only real mess here, and is quickly made up for with the next track.

Perhaps the highlight of the records is “The Conqueror Worm,” featuring a vocal appearance by Tim Aymar of Control Denied and Pharoah. There’s a cool, funky opening, and some of the best guitar work on a record that’s impressive in that area. The vocals are steadier here than on any other track, and while it doesn’t quite achieve the epic feel that it’s going for, it’s still a great tune. There’s a nod to thrash on the opening of “Sowing Dead Seeds,” but it doesn’t stay in that territory long. It moves into a sort of dreamy power ballad and settles back into prog-power mode.

Much of the record, though, is up and down, blending some impressive bits with a few blahs. “She Moved Through the Fair,” for example, has some outstanding riffing early, but the verse is a power metal number that we’ve heard countless times. The intro to that song, however, is solid with a dark pianos and big, dramatic blasts of power a la Savatage. “The Wild Swans at Coole” isn’t bad, but doesn’t really have anything to recommend it, either. Album closer “On Endless Plains of Ignorance” features a catchy riff and lead, but I’m not sure I’ll remember much about it.

Reality Divine does offer quite a bit of promise. It’s an entertaining, occasionally impressive, record from a band that, musically, seems to have unlimited potential. I’ll be interested to see what they do in the future.

Get "Reality Divine."

This review was originally published at Teeth of the Divine.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: Living Colour, "The Chair in the Doorway"

The first few weeks of January are always slow in the music world. The year-end lists are done for the previous year, the records for this year haven’t really started hitting yet. So it’s always a good time for me to look back at some albums that I didn’t get to spend quite enough time with last year. One of those, unfortunately, was Living Colour’s “The Chair in the Doorway,” released in September.

When their hit “Cult of Personality” rocked the hard music landscape in the late 1980s, the band actually, I believe, was short changed. Quite a bit was made of their being an all-black hard rock act in an age when that was rare, and in a way, I think it turned them into a bit of a novelty act. That’s a shame. What Living Colour should be remembered for is not their race, but rather the injection of funk and soul that they put into harder music. “Vivid” and “Time’s Up” are perhaps two of the most creative records to come out of that era of hard rock, and the darker “Stain,” released a little later, was solid in its own right. Their output since then, as a band and as individual performers, has been spotty. “The Chair in the Doorway,” though, may be enough to put me back into the fan fold.

Those who remember the neon-wearing, bombastic act of the 1980s singing about “Glamour Boys” might be a little surprised by this record, but then again, maybe not. There was always a more serious side to the band, and it’s on full display here, but never too heavy-handed. It’s also a more mature band, obviously, and that’s apparent in both the subject matter and the arrangements.

The record opens on a strong note with the energetic “Burned Bridges,” which begins with a hip-hop influenced beat and delivers the first memorable chorus of the outing. Not surprisingly, though, I find myself drawn to the heavier, gnarlier tunes on the record, and there are several good ones. “The Chair” opens with some of guitarist Vernon Reid’s patented noise licks and features a grinding riff and an aggressive vocal delivery from Corey Glover. It’s perhaps one of the heavier moments in the Living Colour catalog. But it’s topped quickly by the next tune, “Decadance.” The song has a relentless guitar riff and another top-notch showing from Glover. “Out of My Mind” delivers a huge, funky hard rock riff to open, one of the most memorable on the record. Then it slips into a down-and-dirty chunky riff with Glover delivering a snarl that we’ve never really heard out of him before. It’s easily one of the strongest performances here, and perhaps in the history of Living Colour – gritty, yet still grooving.

There are less intense moments on the record that are equally entertaining. “Bless Those (Little Annie’s Prayer)” features a heavy blues and gospel influence. It’s funky and fun with some cool slide riffing from Reid and a few nice slap-and-pop bass licks from Doug Wimbish. It’s another of my favorites on the album. “Young Man” delivers a more modern sound with shades of the White Stripes. It’s quite catchy and very memorable. “Method” brings another hip-hop influence on the opening, but then turns a bit spooky, artsy and exotic with a heavy synth line. “Not Tomorrow” displays a trippy, psychedelia-influenced feel with some tasteful guitar work from Reid. The Hendrix comparison is obvious, but also appropriate. “Behind the Sun” brings a happy, sunny guitar riff and one of the more upbeat numbers, similar to something you might hear on “Vivid” or “Time’s Up,” and the hidden bonus track (with a title that I can’t print here) is a fun, tongue-in-cheek number that will recall some of the band’s lighter fare, like the aforementioned “Glamour Boys.”

There are only a couple of songs on the record that miss the mark, and they don’t miss by much. The musicianship is superb, and the band is tight as ever. The songs are well-written and memorable, and on “The Chair in the Doorway,” Living Colour sounds like a band re-energized and re-dedicated. If you’ve wandered away from their music over the years, it’s a good opportunity to rediscover what you liked about them in the first place.

Get "The Chair in the Doorway."

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A decade of favorites

I wasn’t going to do this, but since everyone else is making a list, like a lemming, I’m going to dive right off the cliff. I didn’t quite realize what kind of task this would be until I started trying to put it together. A decade’s worth of music is a massive amount to cover. I've spent the last couple of weeks revisiting some of these records and trying to narrow down my list. Still, I’m sure I missed something glaring that will hit me as I look at this list a little later on. I’m in no way claiming these to be the “best” of the decade, only my personal favorite records. I won’t even try to put these in numeric order, because that would be impossible for me. So, here are my favorite 20 records of the past decade, in alphabetical order, along with 40 or so more thrown in for good measure. (I've provided links to my original reviews, where available, and to Amazon where they're not.)

Favorites of the decade
Anthrax – We’ve Come for You All (2003). This record is incredibly underrated. I think it’s one of the best in the Anthrax catalog, on par with their classic “Among the Living.” Great soul, great groove and great songs.
Black Label Society – Stronger than Death (2000). For me, the second record from Zakk Wylde’s BLS is by far the best. While I like most all of their records, this one just has more power and more impact. Honorable mentions: 1919 Eternal (2002), The Blessed Hellride (2003), Hangover Music, Vol. 4 (2004), Mafia (2005).
Disturbed – The Sickness (2000). The debut from Disturbed, with frontman David Draiman’s manic vocal delivery that wasn’t quite like anything we’d heard before, sliced through the same-sounding nu-metal crowd. Honorable mention: Indestructible (2008).
Down – III: Over the Under (2007). I knew there would be a Down record on the list, but it was a tough choice between this one and Down II. In the end, Over the Under has had the more long-lasting impact on me, so it’s my Southern sludge choice for this list. Honorable mention: Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow (2002).
Godsmack – Faceless (2003). Perhaps the most refined release from Godsmack, it shows the band at the height of its power. On par with their debut and possibly better.
Hank III – Straight to Hell (2006). Finally, Hank III was allowed, for the most part, to be himself and not forced to try to be a carbon copy of his grandfather. It’s raw and raucous with wild, irreverent tunes and also some rock-solid, sincere country moments.
Heaven and Hell – The Devil You Know (2009). I won’t deny that nostalgia may play a part in this pick, but no one can argue that this isn’t a rock solid record. Easily better than anything from the Black Sabbath camp since the Heaven and Hell record.
Iced Earth – The Glorious Burden (2004). This record was a perfect storm for Iced Earth. Jon Schaffer was writing songs about something he was passionate about – history – and new singer Tim “Ripper” Owens brought vitality to those songs. It’s worth making the list for the Gettysburg trilogy alone.
Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000). Bruce Dickinson returned, and so did the classic Maiden sound. This record is on par with their 1980s output, though the records that followed became a little self-indulgent. “Dream of Mirrors” would also be one of my favorite song choices for the decade. (But I’m not getting in that deep).
Kiuas – The Spirit of Ukko (2005). This will be the most obscure band on my list, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. They blend power, traditional and death metal in a potent combination. This is one of the few records that absolutely blew me away in this decade. Honorable mention: The New Dark Age (2008).
Lamb of God – Sacrament (2006). A lot of longtime Lamb of God fans saw this record as something of a sellout, but it remains my favorite of their catalog. They found some better grooves here, and previously monotone singer Randy Blythe learned to inject a little variety and feeling into his vocals. Honorable mention: Ashes of the Wake (2004).
Megadeth – United Abominations (2007). An unlikely comeback record from a band that just a short time earlier had been declared dead by founder Dave Mustaine. He returned from a career-threatening nerve injury to revisit the band’s more metallic roots. Honrorable mention: Endgame (2009).
Metallica – Death Magnetic (2008). I never thought that I’d feel about Metallica again the same way that I felt in the 1980s, but this record put me firmly back in the fold. It wasn’t a return to their classic sound, but certainly an evolution into a new sound with elements of the past.
Opeth – Blackwater Park (2001). This shows one of the most creative and diverse bands in the metal genres at the height of its power. It’s at times brutal, at times beautiful, but always entertaining. Honorable mention: Watershed (2008).
Pantera – Reinventing the Steel (2000). Unfortunately, this was destined to be the final Pantera album after guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was murdered on stage with his band Damageplan in 2004. Fortunately, it was a top-notch effort on par with their best work.
Savatage – Poets and Madmen (2001). It’s been far too long since we’ve heard from Savatage (though we’ve certainly heard plenty from the members). Jon Oliva took back the vocal duties completely for this record and made fans remember why they loved his voice to begin with.
Shadows Fall – The Art of Balance (2002). Though the following records have certainly been disappointing, this one was outstanding. It had a perfect blend of thrash, hardcore and more progressive elements.
Shooter Jennings – Electric Rodeo (2006). The junior Jennings’ blend of traditional country and rock was, for me, at its best here. “Bad Magick” remains one of my favorite songs of the decade. Honorable mention: Put the O Back in Country (2005).
Soilwork – Sworn to a Great Divide (2007). The band finally found a perfect blend of melody and heaviness on this record. It’s filled with memorable tunes and might be their best work to date. Honorable mention: Natural Born Chaos (2002), Figure Number Five (2003).
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – The Lost Christmas Eve (2004). The final installment in TSO’s Christmas trilogy is the equal of the first. It’s filled with great instrumentals like “Wizards in Winter” and diverse vocal songs, including a favorite of mine “Christmas Nights in Blue.” Honorable mention: Beethoven’s Last Night (2000), Night Castle (2009).

Honorable mentions (again in alphabetical order)
Aerosmith – Honkin' on Bobo (2004).
It's a covers album, so it shouldn't really count, but it did bring the band back to their blues rock roots, giving fans, for the most part, a sound we hadn't heard since the 1970s.
Alestorm – Captain Morgan’s Revenge (2008), Black Sails at Midnight (2009). One of my favorite discoveries of the latter part of the decade. Long may they sail the seas.
Alice Cooper – Brutal Planet (2000), The Eyes of Alice Cooper (2003), Along Came a Spider (2008). Cooper’s heaviest record, and two returns to his creepy 1970s sound, all worthy of his best. I really wanted to find a place for Brutal Planet in the best-of list, but couldn’t take anything out.
Amon Amarth – Versus the World (2003), With Oden on Our Side (2006), Twilight of the Thunder God (2008). Each record as solid as the last, some of the most brutal, yet melodic metal you’ll ever find.
Amorphis – Skyforger (2009). A brilliant record after a long series of mediocre ones. Their best effort since 1996’s Elegy.
Bruce Dickinson – Tyranny of Souls (2005). As always, outstanding work. In recent years, Dickinson’s solo outings have often been more interesting than Maiden records.
Dio – Magica (2000). The last great Dio album (not counting Heaven and Hell). On par with his 1980s output.
God Forbid – IV: The Constitution of Treason (2005). God Forbid is one of the few bands to come steaming out of the metalcore movement of the mid-decade. With more progressive leanings, their work remains impressive.
Hank Williams Jr. – Almeria Club Recordings (2002). Perhaps Hank Jr.'s most solid set of songs since the 1980s. It lacked much of the over-the-top silliness that made him a caricature of himself in the 1990s.
In Flames – Reroute to Remain (2002). Many fans didn’t like the more melodic direction of this record, but that was its appeal for me. I still think it’s one of their best records.
Into Eternity – Buried in Oblivion (2004), Scattering of Ashes (2006). One of the better blends of melodic progressive and aggressive extreme metal that I've ever heard.
Jamey Johnson – That Lonesome Song (2008). A rock solid set of old school, traditional country, especially surprising considering that Johnson wrote one of the most commercial country hits of the decade – Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk."
Jon Oliva’s Pain – ‘Tage Mahal (2005), Global Warning (2008). The first, a return to the more metallic Savatage sound of the 1980s, the second, an outstanding record that answered ‘Tage fans’ hopes. Global Warning was a close call for the main list.
Lillian Axe – Waters Rising (2007). After basically disappearing, one of my favorite homegrown bands returns with an impressive outing blending the energy of their early stuff with more progressive leanings.
Machine Head – Through the Ashes of Empires (2003), The Blackening (2007). Two excellent returns from another band that had kind of fallen off the cliff.
Motley Crue – Saints of Los Angeles (2008). After break-ups, fights and a few really awful records, Crue had been left for dead. The reunited band showed there’s still some life and sleaze left, though.
Nevermore – This Godless Endeavor (2005). Power, melody and excellent musicianship – in short, a Nevermore record.
Ozzy Osbourne – Down to Earth (2001). An incredibly underrated effort from the Ozzy camp, this record is filled with memorable songs.
Trivium – The Crusade (2007). I'm not a big fan of Trivium, but I did like this thrash-flavored offering that dropped the monotonous screams and took the band in a more melodic direction.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best of 2009: Top 10

1. Heaven and Hell, The Devil You Know. Call this a fanboy pick if you want, but I’ve continued to return to this record time and time again over the course of the year. I really think the songs here blow away much of the stuff being done by musicians who could be their great-grandchildren.

2. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Night Castle. Fans waited a long time for this one, and it was worth it. It’s got a good blend of rock and classical, with some of the most metallic moments on any of their records. There are also a couple of Savatage covers thrown in for good measure.

3. Alestorm, Black Sails at Midnight. Alestorm’s second record is just as much fun as their first was, and the music is better.

4. Amorphis, Skyforger. I find myself firmly back in the Amorphis fan fold after this record. To me, it’s easily the best thing they’ve done since “Elegy.”

5. Saint Deamon, Pandeamonium. This was my introduction to Saint Deamon, and I was immediately impressed. It’s got a great blend of heaviness and melody.

6. Megadeth, Endgame. No, it wasn’t “Rust In Peace” part 2, like Mustaine promised, but I didn’t expect it to be. It’s a rock solid record that’s among the best, if not the best they’ve done since the 1980s.

7. Luna Mortis, The Absence. I’d reviewed a record from this band under their former name, Ottoman Empire, but couldn’t remember much about it. The first album as Luna Mortis, though, pretty much blew me away early in the year.

8. Machines of Grace, Machines of Grace. The band features two former Savatage members, and it’s no secret that I’m a Savatage fanboy, but the music has little to do with that band. This is old-fashioned 1970s-style hard rock with a few progressive leanings.

9. Black Water Rising, Black Water Rising. I’m not sure if this record has officially been released yet, but I’ve been digging the promo since April. It’s some of the best straight-up hard rock I’ve heard in a while.

10. Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue. I didn’t want to like Alice in Chains without Layne Staley, but I do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Best of 2009: Honorable mentions

These are the records that came close, but didn't quite make the cut on my final list. A few of them were in the running right up until the end and could almost be interchangeable with the last few on my final list. These are in no particular order. (The links will take you to my original reviews.)

God Forbid, "Earthsblood." With more progressive leanings, God Forbid is about the only band from the metalcore movement that remains in my playlist.

Lazarus A.D., "The Onslaught." This may be the best band to come out of the neo-thrash movement.

Goatwhore, "Carving Out the Eyes of God." I’ve never been a big fan of my hometown boys, but this record impressed me.

Ensiferum, "From Afar." The best folk metal I heard this year outside of Alestorm.

Lacuna Coil, "Shallow Life." Yeah, it’s incredibly poppy and commercial, but I still liked it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Best of 2009: Favorite songs

Here's a look at some of the songs that made a lasting impact on me this year.

“Bible Black,” Heaven and Hell. The best song they’ve recorded since “Heaven and Hell.”

“Keelhauled,” Alestorm. Just try and resist this melody. It’s impossible.

“Another Way You Can Die,” Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Featuring Jeff Scott Soto on vocals, this is a very metallic, very Savatage-flavored tune. Probably the heaviest in the TSO catalog.

“The Only One Sane,” Saint Deamon. Great riffing, undeniable melody, fantastic song.

“Hold the Heathen Hammer High,” Tyr. I can’t resist the big melody of this tune. I have to crank it every time it comes on.

“Silver Bride,” Amorphis. This song wormed its way into my head within a few days and hasn’t left.

“Six Times Dead (16.6),” Primal Fear. I can’t get enough of the military march chorus of this song.

“A Tap Dancer’s Dilemma,” Diablo Swing Orchestra. A great blend of big band and rock. I wish more of the record were in this vein.

“Floyd,” Lynyrd Skynyrd. The first of two completely non-metal songs on my list. Co-written by John 5, this tune is a great, grooving, creepy hard rocker worth a listen even for hardcore metal fans.

“127 Rose Avenue,” Hank Williams Jr. No metal at all here, but it’s a dark, haunting number that’s easily the best he’s recorded in decades.

“No Halos,” Black Water Rising. Great hook, solid hard rock.

“Last of My Kind,” Alice in Chains. Easily the best song on the new record with a great, raging hard rock chorus.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Best of 2009: Most promising discoveries

I'll continue my look at the best releases of 2009 with a look at a couple of the most promising acts I found this year. (The links will take you to my original reviews).

White Wizzard. I know I gave them some grief for the spelling of their name and their two-year-old EP which was released by Earache this year, but it did show a lot of promise. I’ve kept up with some of the stuff they’re doing for their official Earache debut “Over the Top,” and I’ve got high hopes for it.

The Sin Committee. Their EP was one of the best sets I’ve heard from an unsigned band lately. I’m interested to see where they go from here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Biggest disappointments of 2009

Overall, 2009 was a pretty good year for metal. There were also disappointments, though. I hate to start the list on a down note, but here are the records I had higher hopes for this year. (The links will take you to my original reviews).

Tim “Ripper” Owens, "Play My Game." I had hoped this record was going to blow me away, but it turns out to be an average hard rock album. Here’s hoping Richard Christy’s Charred Walls of the Damned provides some more inspiring work from Owens.

Lillian Axe, "Sad Day on Planet Earth." After a big comeback with "Waters Rising," one of the staples of my youth follows it up with a mediocre effort that isn’t helped by poor production values. There are good songs, but it’s an overall disappointment.

Kiss, "Sonic Boom." Not that I expected greatness from a new Kiss record, but I expected more than this phoned-in attempt to relive the 1970s.