Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011: Top 10

As I look back over 2011′s releases, I realize that maybe it wasn’t quite as good a year in the metal world as I thought. For the past few years, I’ve had as many as a couple dozen candidates for this list, and it’s been difficult to winnow them down to 10. This year, the records that were good were really good, but after that things start to drop off pretty quickly.

10. Three Thirteen, Full Tilt: I love surprises from independent artists, and Three Thirteen delivered a great little retro hard rock package this year. I was drawn in by the physical product, which had a little more thought put into it than the average CD these days, and the fun, hell-raising rock songs on the record held me. The record is a tip of the hat to the classic acts the band grew up on, with a heavy late-1970s, early-1980s rock feel. There are no sappy ballads or thinking-man’s songs here. It’s a party from start to finish. It’s the perfect record for popping the t-tops out of your Trans-Am and heading out on the highway.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011: Honorable mentions

I continue my glance back at 2011 today with some records that I enjoyed, but weren't quite good enough to make my top 10 list, a few records that I didn't quite get enough time with because of a hectic work schedule late in the year, and my favorite EP.

I'll start with the records that I haven't had enough time with to form an opinion on. As you might have noticed, I didn't do a lot of writing in November and December because I had a little too much going. I got all of these records during that time, and they've been a little shortchanged in the listening. Any of them, with time, could elevate into the Top 10.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011: The year's disappointments

A few of my most highly anticipated releases of this year turned out to be duds, so I'll start my look back at this year with the records that didn't pan out.

White Wizzard, Flying Tigers: This retro-metal act’s 2010 album Over the Top topped my best of list for that year. It was a fun, energetic and campy throwback to the days of my youth. After some turmoil in the band, White Wizzard comes out with a follow-up which shows a lot of musical growth. That’s admirable. Unfortunately, most of the big hooks and unadulterated fun of Over the Top are missing on Flying Tigers. It’s not bad, but it’s also not memorable.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Anthrax, "Worship Music"

I didn’t have high hopes for this record. First, there was all the drama surrounding it. They bring in new singer Dan Nelson. The album’s recorded and ready to go when Nelson is canned, so it’s shelved. Then, much to my pleasure, John Bush is performing with the band again. But, wait a minute, he doesn’t want to re-record Worship Music because he feels like he doesn’t have any stake in the songs. Then, Anthrax shows up to play the first Big Four show, and who’s on stage with them but 1980s singer Joey Belladonna. He’s happy to re-record the album, and so Anthrax and Belladonna are reunited … again.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Seven Witches, "Call Upon the Wicked"

It’s been four years since we’ve heard anything from Seven Witches, but Jack Frost is back with a new lineup and a familiar voice. James Rivera of Helstar, who sang on two of the band’s earlier albums, returns to record Call Upon the Wicked.

There’s a very heavy Judas Priest flavor early in the record, as you hear quickly on “Fields of Fire,” which finds Rivera nailing those Rob Halford shrieks on the chorus. That direction continues on second track “Lillith,” with Rivera delivering some nice vocal melodies and interludes. The Priest pops up again late in the record on “Eyes of Flame,” which features a nice riff early and Rivera in Halford mode for most of the song.

The next few songs take things back to a simpler heavy rock time.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: White Wizzard, "Flying Tigers"

White Wizzard’s last outing, Over the Top, was my favorite record of last year. It was a great fun throwback record that hit me immediately, and some of the songs from that record are still on my everyday playlist. I gushed about it every time I got the chance. So Flying Tigers was one of my most, if not the most, anticipated record of the year for me. Admittedly, I already had it penciled in for a spot atop my best of list for this year, so perhaps my hopes were a little too high, but after spending a few weeks with it, my reaction is a resounding “meh.”

It’s been a turbulent year and a half since the release of Over the Top. Singer Wyatt Anderson left the band, then returned to record this album, then left the band again. Guitarist Erik Kluiber is also out. The lineup for this record included founder/bassist Jon Leon, Anderson, drummer Giovanni Durst and producer Ralph Patlan.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: Alice Cooper, "Welcome 2 My Nightmare"

Alice Cooper promised a sequel, and he delivered in a surprising way. The shock rock pioneer went into the studio with the intention to record a follow-up to 2008’s creepy serial killer concept album Along Came a Spider. Once he got in the studio with long-time producer and collaborator Bob Ezrin, they decided to delve farther back into his catalog to the record that is, arguably, his finest moment, Welcome to My Nightmare.

I admit the move left me puzzled. It’s a tried and true recipe for failure. Usually a failing band slaps the title of its most popular work on its latest album and puts a “2″ behind it to draw some interest from fans who have wandered away. It’s never a good idea because it creates a certain expectation that the new record can never match. In fact, most of them suck.

Of course, there are a few differences between most bands and Alice Cooper.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: Pharaoh, "Ten Years"

As fans await the follow-up to 2008’s Be Gone, Pharaoh offers them a little teaser with this six-song EP featuring two new tracks, two rare tracks and a couple of covers. It’s not the four-course meal we may have wanted, but it’s a nice little appetizer.

The new tracks are the title track, “Ten Years,” and “When We Fly.” Of the two, I prefer the title track, which is more of a straightforward traditional metal song with a chugging power riff from Matt Johnsen and some great, aggressive vocals from Tim Aymar. “When We Fly” is a great track in its own right, though, leaning more toward the power metal side of the band’s spectrum. It’s a bit more complex than “Ten Years,” with Aymar soaring a little more and an occasional heavier break showcasing Johnsen and drummer Chris Black. Hell, on second thought, I’m not sure I prefer either of the new tracks over the other. They’re both awesome.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Sebastian Bach, "Kicking and Screaming"

If there’s one act from that morass of hairy hard-rock bands from the late 1980s that I’d love to hear some new music from, it’s Skid Row.

Often you hear people try to separate bands from the “hair band” stigma by saying they got a bad rap. With Skid Row, that might be at least partially true. After being discovered by Jon Bon Jovi, the band released its self-titled debut in 1989. Though it was a great commercial success, producing their two biggest hits in the ballads “I Remember You” and “18 and Life,” it wasn’t entirely what the band was about. We found that out in 1991, when they released the follow-up Slave to the Grind, a much heavier and nastier record than their debut. The songs ranged from the down-and-dirty hard rock of the lead single “Monkey Business” to the near-thrash of the title track to darker and much more interesting ballads “Quicksand Jesus” and “In a Darkened Room.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Still Spinning: Anthrax, "We've Come for You All"

As I await the release of Anthrax’s Worship Music, the band’s reunion with 1980s singer Joey Belladonna, I’ll try to drown out the soap-opera drama with changing lineups and re-records surrounding it by cranking up their last record — and one of their best — 2003’s We’ve Come for You All.

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up on the 1980s version of Anthrax with Belladonna, and I still love it. But when he exited, and they tapped Armored Saint singer John Bush, the band became something different, and while I know a lot of fans will disagree with me, something better, in my opinion. The Belladonna era of the band was perfect for my teenage years. It was fast, brash and a little cartoonish and goofy. The band with Bush, though, was Anthrax for my adulthood. It was a little slower, a little heavier and a lot more thoughtful. Plus, Bush is just an all-around better singer to my ears. There’s more soul and a greater range of emotion in his voice, and if I’m being honest, I actually preferred Bush’s version of a lot of the Belladonna songs.

Freebies: Download Iced Earth's re-recorded "Dante's Inferno"

In anticipation of Iced Earth's upcoming album "Dystopia," the first with Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block, the band is giving away downloads of a re-recorded version of the epic "Dante's Inferno," from their "Burnt Offerings" album. The new recording, which will feature Block's vocals, allows the band to replace the click track, which was erased from the original, enabling them to play the song live again.

To get the new version, go to Iced Earth's official site.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Review: Sepultura, "Kairos"

I’ve had the same problem with the last few Sepultura records. They all struck me as pretty good albums straight out of the box, but after a few weeks I put them away, and most of them haven’t gotten any play since that initial listening period.

This is the second record with guitarist Andreas Kisser now, more or less, fully in control of the band’s sound, but if you’re expecting the future direction of the band to be established here, you shouldn’t. Instead, Kairos leads us on a trip back through time to various eras of the band from the chugging thrash of the Arise/Chaos A.D. era to the hardcore influence of the first couple of Derrick Green outings, to the more concepty stuff they’ve done with their last albums. Perhaps it’s an intentional move, given that the theme of this record is something about the passage of time, but you’ll find a song or two that represents almost all of the band’s various incarnations.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: "Southern Independents Vol. 1 and 2"

Over the past few months, Shooter Jennings has released two free compilations for his unfortunately named XXX movement, which are both still available for free download at

For those not familiar, Jennings hopes to create a genre called XXX to help promote some original artists, a commodity that doesn’t get much recognition in the mainstream these days. It’s an amalgam of musical styles, ranging from hardcore classic country, to Southern rock, to even some harder rock sounds. The qualifications to be part of the genre are a bit hard to describe, but it’s one of those things where you kind of know it when you hear it. The main points are that the musicians are doing their own thing on their own terms and no matter where the acts take the music, it’s all rooted in Southern and country tradition. The XXX moniker comes from the three x’s that appear on moonshine jugs in old cartoons and drawings. Obviously, that’s not what most people these days think of when they see XXX, which is a strike against the movement from the beginning.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Still Spinning: Alice Cooper, "Brutal Planet"

As I await next month’s release of Alice Cooper’s latest record Welcome 2 My Nightmare — with much more anticipation, I might add, now that I’ve heard some samples — I decided to revisit my favorite of his more modern efforts.

You see, Alice kind of got off-track in the 1980s. That’s not to say that he didn’t release some good stuff then, but he did kind of get pulled along with the flow, which runs counter to what he’s always been about. He released a few records with a parade of guest musicians that were some of the hottest commodities on the hard rock scene at the time, and the albums didn’t have quite the bite or impact that his earlier work had.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Stoney LaRue, "Velvet"

When I reached into the envelope from B Side Music Group and felt something fuzzy, I wasn’t sure what, exactly, was going on. It soon became clear, though, as I pulled out the latest record from Oklahoma Red Dirt artist Stoney LaRue, titled Velvet. Appropriately, the CD cover is covered in red velvet. As, seemingly, one of the few remaining fans of the physical product out there, I appreciate it when a little effort is put into it, even if it’s something small. As a fan of country music that comes from the heart rather than a Music Row executive suite, I can also appreciate what’s contained on the album.

LaRue’s work is a blending of traditional country sounds, a little Americana, some folk and bluegrass here and there, and even some rock ‘n’ roll sizzle. The Red Dirt movement has always been a little difficult to define, and Velvet offers up a little bit of everything that goes into the genre. I was quite enjoying the record through the first four tracks, with the Southern rock grit of “Wiregrass” making the biggest impression. Then I hit the fifth track, “Sharecropper.” I stopped what I was doing, cranked it up and just enjoyed.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stuck in My Head: Warrant, "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

This is the song that should have been Warrant’s defining moment. Their 1990 album was recorded and ready to go. It was going to be called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and they were going to stake an attempt at a slightly more serious musical direction on the strength of this piece.

It might have even worked. But their label, Columbia, told them they needed another song, something catchy that might be a hit at radio. In about 15 minutes, singer Jani Lane knocked out the lyrics to a shallow three-chorder called “Cherry Pie,” essentially a three-minute string of sexual references, and the rest is history. When the album came out, the title was Cherry Pie, the song was the lead single and a huge hit, and Warrant’s fate was pretty much sealed.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Benedictum, "Dominion"

So Benedictum isn’t exactly a new band, but somehow they’ve flown under my radar until Dominion, their third release.

My first impression wasn’t the best, either. When the techno-dance beat at the beginning of the opening title track kicked in, I thought perhaps taking this record on was a really bad idea. But by the end of the second track, “At the Gates,” the band had won me over, primarily with the catchy chorus groove of that song.

At heart, Benedictum is a traditional metal act, and they’re at their best in that realm.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Still Spinning: Bruce Dickinson, "Tattooed Millionaire"

When Bruce Dickinson’s first solo album, Tattooed Millionaire, arrived in 1990, it left me — and I’m sure many other Iron Maiden fans — just a little confused. My initial reaction to this mixture of 1970s-inspired hard rock and 1980s excess was deep disappointment.

It was such a far cry from what I was used to from Dickinson, and I thought the simplistic song structures didn’t really allow him to use that amazing voice to its fullest. Luckily for me, during those years, a $10 cassette was a serious investment, so I rarely gave up on one without a fight. As I gave it more chances, many of the songs began to grow on me, and two decades later, I’m actually quite fond of the album.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review: Kenny Wayne Shepherd, "How I Go"

For a guy that once told me in an interview that he couldn’t seem to make everyone happy with his mix of blues and rock, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has done pretty well for himself.

Coming out of the gate as a 16-year-old kid schooled in the Stevie Ray Vaughan style of blues on his 1995 debut Ledbetter Heights, Shepherd met with mixed feelings in the blues community. There was no doubt that he had the chops, but some traditionalist blues fans felt that, as a teenager, he didn’t have enough life experience under his belt to play the music. Others thought there was a little too much rock in his sound. That seemingly ceased to matter in 1997, when he released the follow-up Trouble Is… which found huge mainstream success on the strength of the single “Blue on Black.”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Iron Maiden, "From Fear to Eternity"

I’m wondering if Iron Maiden mastermind Steve Harris is, for some reason, trying to alienate fans. First, the band goes on tour last year playing primarily songs from its last four records and largely ignoring the classic albums that made them one of the top heavy metal bands in the world. Then came the lazy and uninspired The Final Frontier. (Yes, I know not everyone agrees with me, but it was really flat.) Now, we’re presented with yet another compilation album to try to suck money out of fans’ wallets.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Alestorm, "Back Through Time"

I’ve developed a theory that you can’t stay angry or be in a bad mood while listening to Alestorm. In recent months, that theory has been sorely tested, but every time, the goofy Scottish pirates have managed to conquer my frustrations after a few songs. So, along comes their third record, Back Through Time, just in time. I’ve used “Keelhauled” on the drive home after work so many times it was starting to lose effectiveness, so I needed some fresh piratey sing-alongs, and this record delivers a treasure chest-load of them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: WildeStarr, "Arrival"

I try my best to get at least a taste of as many records as I possibly can in a year, but with the sheer amount of music being released these days, it’s inevitable that a few pretty good records are going to slip past you. One of those for 2009 was WildeStarr’s debut record Arrival.

WildeStarr was formed by original Vicious Rumors bassist Dave Starr and studio vocalist and keyboardist London Wilde. The two met while working on Chastain’s In an Outrage. They formed a friendship and cut a demo in 2007 that did well on the Internet. They then added drummer Jim Hawthorn for this record.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: In Flames, "Sounds of a Playground Fading"

Upon hearing In Flames’ Sounds of a Playground Fading, one of my esteemed colleagues at Teeth of the Divine dubbed it Sounds of a Career Failing. I’m sure many fans will feel the same, but being the contrarian that I am, I’ve got a slightly different take.

I’ll say off the top that I happen to be a big fan of Reroute to Remain, which, I realize, automatically invalidates my opinion among a segment of In Flames fans. So, hardcore In Flames fans look away while I don my flame retardant suit and wade in.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Destruction, "Day of Reckoning"

Did anyone happen to get the license plate of the truck that just hit me? Over and over. For about an hour.

Growing up in a rural area long before the internet showed up in every household giving people access to music from around the world, I was a latecomer to Destruction. I was already familiar with their fellow countrymen Kreator and Sodom when I discovered them, but for some reason Destruction spoke to me more than those other two bands. I’ll admit I’m still not the biggest fan of the German thrash scene, but when the mood strikes me, I’ll probably be reaching for Destruction. And their latest, Day of Reckoning, is just as good an option as any from their catalog.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Speed\Kill/Hate, "Out for Blood"

I missed the 2005 debut from Speed\Kill/Hate, side project of Overkill guitarist Dave Linsk, but I just might have to go back and check it out after hearing their latest effort, Out for Blood.

The 2011 lineup of the band is completely different from the 2005 version, which also featured a couple of other Overkill members. Linsk is the only remaining member from that roster, joined here by vocalist Bob Barnak, former Ripping Corpse bassist Dave Bizzigotti and former Sindrome drummer Tony Ochoa.

I went into the record expecting it to have a definite Overkill flavor, and there are moments of that in songs like “Breeding Hate” or “Written in Blood” which wouldn’t be at all out of place on a release by Linsk’s other band, musically at least (Barnak’s hardcore roars are another matter).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Chrome Division, "3rd Round Knockout"

There’s just something about black metal guys getting together to jam on some old-fashioned hard rock that works. By all rights it shouldn’t, since the accessible melodies and memorable hooks that go along with the style of music are pretty much the exact opposite of what black metal bands normally do. But every time I hear one of these projects, it seems to be pretty good.

Chrome Division is the brainchild of Dimmu Borgir vocalist Shagrath, who plays guitar for the band and only does backing vocals. I remember enjoying their 2006 debut record Doomsday Rock ‘n’ Roll, which, as I recall had much more of a Motorhead feel.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Still Spinning: Infectious Grooves, "The Plague That Makes Your Booty Move"

Converting a huge CD collection to digital as I’ve been doing slowly for the past couple of weeks can be tedious, but it also has its rewards: Namely, stumbling across very cool records that you haven’t spent any quality time with in years.

I’ve rediscovered several in the process, the most recent being Infectious Grooves’ 1991 debut The Plague That Makes Your Booty Move.

Founded by Suicidal Tendencies vocalist Mike Muir and bassist Robert Trujillo (now in Metallica), Infectious Grooves also featured guitarists Dean Pleasants (George Clinton, Ugly Kid Joe, Jessica Simpson) and Adam Siegel, as well as former Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Freebies: Download Anthrax's "Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't"

Download the first released song from Anthrax's upcoming record, "Worship Music," at or using the widget below.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Ozzy Osbourne, "Blizzard of Ozz"/"Diary of a Madman" reissues

One of the more contentious issues in Ozzy Osbourne’s career may have finally been laid to rest with the release of a pair of reissues on Sony Legacy — Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Ozz.

The story starts shortly before the release of Diary in 1981, when bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake were fired from the Ozzy band and replaced by bassist Rudy Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Whitesnake) and drummer Tommy Aldridge (Black Oak Arkansas, Gary Moore, Whitesnake). Not only did Sarzo and Aldridge replace the pair in the band, but also in the credits for Diary. Daisley and Kerslake successfully sued Jet Records in the mid-1980s to have their credits restored and to receive royalties from the records. Daisley even continued to work with Ozzy through 1991’s No More Tears, writing much of the lyrical content from Ozzy’s early career and playing bass on every record except 1986’s The Ultimate Sin — though he did write most of the lyrics on that one, as well.

Review: Amorphis, "The Beginning of Times"

After having essentially given up on Amorphis after 2001’s Am Universum and 2003’s Far from the Sun, which I just didn’t get at all, I’ve been very pleased by the slow and steady comeback they’ve launched since. The introduction of the powerful voice of Tomi Joutsen in 2005 was a step in the right direction, putting them back on the map with 2006’s Eclipse, which was the first Amorphis record I had liked in years. Silent Waters in 2007 improved on the formula a little more, seeing the return of a few death growls here and there in the mix. But the comeback was complete with the release of the 2009 masterpiece Skyforger, which saw the band once again at the height of their creative powers and rivaled anything they’d done in the past.

That release set a high bar and even higher expectations for the band’s latest effort, The Beginning of Times.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Three Thirteen, "Full Tilt"

I so rarely get a physical product these days with review copies that I think I get way too excited when I get a nice one in the mail. The trappings of Three Thirteen’s Full Tilt aren’t all that elaborate – it’s a folding slipcase, designed a bit like an old LP cover, with a three-page insert. But it’s still pretty damned cool.

The band is a throwback to the classic 1970s and ‘80s days of hard rock and metal, and the packaging celebrates that era.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Hank III, "Hillbilly Joker"

I debated for a while on whether or not to review this record – not because I don’t like it, but because of the back story. In case you don’t know, this isn’t a new record from III. Instead, it’s an album that was recorded some time ago. His record label at the time, Curb, refused to release it. Fast forward to 2010, III’s contract with Curb is done, and due to a string of disagreements with the label, including repeated delays of his 2005 masterpiece Straight to Hell, he’s not coming back. Now, the label has all of a sudden become interested and, thus, we have Hillbilly Joker.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Still Spinning: Kiss, "Revenge"

When you think of Kiss, most people think of the outrageous makeup and elaborate stage shows of the 1970s or, perhaps, the somewhat sad nostalgia act the band has become today, starring in reality shows and attempting to relive those glory days with two other guys dressed up like guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. The no-makeup period from the 1980s and early 1990s will largely be overlooked and perhaps dismissed as Kiss’ attempt to fit into the hair-band scene of the time. Never mind the fact that a 1970s Kiss performance featured more excess in one song than most of the 1980s bands did in the whole decade.

The truth about the unmasked version of Kiss, though, is that many of their offerings were superior to the classic records from a technical standpoint. Though it may offend some hardcore fans, most of the guitarists and drummers that Kiss had in the 1980s were, if we’re being honest, far more talented than Frehley and Criss. Was the band better with those guys than the original lineup? Well, that’s certainly debatable, but most Kiss followers, myself included, are going to reach for Destroyer or Dressed to Kill before Animalize or Asylum.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: Black Label Society, "The Song Remains Not the Same"

The days of getting a new Black Label Society record every year seem to be over, and that’s probably not a bad thing considering the way Zakk Wylde seemed to have burned out of good riffs on the band’s 2007 record Shot to Hell. So instead of a follow-up to last year’s outstanding Order of the Black, fans get the teaser record The Song Remains Not the Same.

We’ll put aside the bad title for the time being and dive right in. There’s no new material here. Instead, it’s a collection of four mostly-acoustic versions of songs from Order of the Black, four covers that all appeared as bonus tracks on various different versions of that album, an alternate version of “Darkest Days” featuring country singer John Rich, and an instrumental version of the Christmas carol “The First Noel,” which Wylde recorded for a guitar Christmas album some years ago.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Still Spinning: Black Sabbath, "Sabotage"

Mention Black Sabbath in a metal crowd, and everyone has a favorite. You’ll get plenty of votes for their self-titled 1970 debut, which most people, myself included, consider the very first heavy metal record. Paranoid, also released in 1970, will likely hog the bulk of the discussion with its hit parade of some of the band’s biggest numbers — “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “Hand of Doom,” “Fairies Wear Boots.”

Master of Reality, from 1971, has an almost cult-like following among Sabbath fans who claim that it was the first record where the band truly brought it together. Vol. 4 (1972) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) will get their time, and devotees of the Ronnie James Dio years will be sure to interject Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981) into the discussion. All are outstanding and worthy pieces of the Sabbath catalog, and good arguments can be made for all of them as Sabbath’s best work.

Often overlooked and criminally underrated, though, is the band’s 1975 masterpiece (in my opinion, of course) Sabotage. Recorded at a time when the relationships in the band were just beginning to fracture, the album has a slightly different feel than the first five Sabbath albums. There was some experimentation on this record, but it wasn’t too off the wall, as on 1976’s Technical Ecstacy. There was tension, but it wasn’t like 1978’s Never Say Die!, which Ozzy Osbourne, having quit the band, basically phoned in. Sabotage represents a band still at the height of its powers, but just on the brink of slipping into chaos, and that translates into the music.

There’s certainly more variety than on earlier albums. Among the eight tracks are two of the heaviest songs in the band’s arsenal — arena-rock bits, blues-rock numbers, a choral piece and a pop song that just might be the strangest one in Sabbath’s catalog.

Sabotage blasts out of the gate with a raging slab of metal, “Hole in the Sky.” Guitarist Tony Iommi is the undisputed king of the metal riff. Name the top 10, and he owns them all. “Hole in the Sky” would be on that list, near the top. The main riff swaggers, swings and crushes all at once. There are hints of the band’s blues background in it, there’s a head-bobbing melody and there are those two big power chords that bring it back to the dark, doomy, oppressive sound fans had come to know and love. Drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler, who I’ve always felt was the true backbone of Ozzy-era Sabbath, are locked into the groove, as always, and the song also features one of Ozzy’s best vocal performances.

Sabotage belongs in the conversation based on “Hole in the Sky” alone. But it has much more to offer. After a brief instrumental interlude that allows Iommi to show off some acoustic skills, we come to the proto-thrash number “Symptom of the Universe.” It’s arguably Sabbath’s heaviest tune, but it’s also a very important song — and not just because it’s my favorite. “Symptom of the Universe,” along with Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” forms the bedrock that the 1980s thrash movement was built on, leading directly to bands like Metallica and Megadeth. No “Symptom of the Universe,” no Metallica. Or, at least not the same Metallica. But for all of the song’s speed and heaviness, there’s a twist at the end. The distorted open E chugging and power chords drop out, and the last two minutes of the song become an organic bluesy acoustic jam that couldn’t be further from the tune’s opening. It shifts from anger, apocalypse and aggression to peace, love and happiness on a dime, and that’s one of the things I love about it.

Then things start to take a turn. Fourth track “Megalomania” opens with more doom and gloom. The first part of the song is a bit creepy with a vocal line that always draws a picture of a guy in a straightjacket and padded room in my mind. It’s really a little more Alice Cooper than Black Sabbath. About three minutes into the 10 minute opus, though, Ward starts whacking a cowbell, and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of an uptempo rocker with an almost happy hook. No surprise that the lyrics are about a schizophrenic soul, and the music matches perfectly.

“The Thrill of It All” is a pretty straightforward grooving blues rocker with another solid vocal performance from Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, Sabotage as a whole features possibly the best work of his career, as he pushes his vocal cords a little more than usual. There are moments here when Ozzy reaches right out to the edge of what he’s capable of, and in slightly different ways than we’d heard before. That leads us into the strangest section of the album. “Supertzar” mixes distorted electric guitars, jangling acoustics, chimes, symphonics and the English Chamber Choir. To be honest, it sounds like there were some good drugs going around the studio that day, but it works.

The good drug theory, though, comes into full play on the next track, “Am I Going Insane? (Radio).” Don’t bother looking for the non-radio edit of the song. It doesn’t exist. The “(Radio)” part of the title is apparently some kind of code-word/inside joke. The song opens with this kind of psychedelic, slightly Spanish-flavored keyboard riff. The guitars are pushed into the background, and it’s altogether too lightweight for Sabbath. It’s somewhere between the pop end of 1960s psychedelia and early Pink Floyd. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of decades now, and I’m still not sure what to make of the song.

As “Am I Going Insane?” fades out with crazed laughter, the final track on the record, “The Writ,” begins to build with a methodical bass line from Butler. Out of nowhere, Ozzy shrieks out the first lyrics accompanied by Iommi’s guitar. It brings things back to the blues rock sound with an impassioned performance, but still dallies with the progressive and psychedelic, incorporating some backwards snare and returning to that low bass line again. About halfway through, there’s a poppy section, followed by a couple of shiny clean guitar interludes with more chimes from Ward that give it an almost music box feel. Then they bring the song home near the eighth minute with another heavy rock riff that fades out the most unique of Black Sabbath’s classic first six records.

The end of Sabotage also begins the fade out of the Ozzy era of the band. Though the two records that followed both have their moments, it wasn’t until 1980 and the entrance of Dio that the band put out another truly amazing record with a sound so altered that, at times, it would be hard to identify the music as Sabbath. There’s also a very powerful argument to be made for that record as the band’s best, but I’ll save that one for another time.

Sabotage isn’t likely to overtake the groundbreaking debut record or the hit-filled Paranoid as Sabbath’s best work in most people’s minds, and I understand that. But the next time you’re looking for a Sabbath fix, dig a little deeper and give it a listen, especially if you haven’t heard it in a while. It might just be a much better record than you remember.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Freebies: New Enslaved EP offered for free

Scion A/V is offering the new Enslaved EP, "The Sleeping Gods," for the price of your e-mail address. To get it, click here, enter your e-mail address and download.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: WhoCares, "Out of My Mind"

For all the mediocre music he shelled out under the Black Sabbath name following the departure of Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi seems to be making amends later in life. His reunion of the Dio-era Sabbath lineup under the name Heaven and Hell a few years ago produced the best Black Sabbath record (and it was Sabbath, no matter what the cover said) since the same lineup reunited in 1992 for Dehumanizer. Now, he’s back together with Ian Gillan, who fronted Sabbath briefly after Dio left, for a charity record to benefit the rebuilding of a music school in Armenia that was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1988.

Since that earthquake, Iommi and Gillan, who helped in the original relief efforts, have spent a lot of time in Armenia. On a recent visit, they discovered a music school, which had been destroyed by the quake, still meeting and trying to carry on in tin sheds. On the flight home, the pair came up with the plan for a one-off project called WhoCares to help benefit the school. The result is a new single, “Out of My Mind,” out this month on EarMusic in Europe and Eagle Rock Entertainment in the U.S.

Just the reunion of Iommi and Gillan would likely be enough for most heavy rock fans, but the rest of the band reads like a who’s who of the genre. Gillan’s former Deep Purple bandmate Jon Lord handles the keys for the project. Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain and ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted make up the rhythm section. Representing the younger generation is guitarist Mikko “Linde” Lindstrom of HIM, who, at 34, is 14 years the junior of Newsted, the next youngest member, and 35 years younger than oldest member, Lord, who is 69. But all that goes to show is age doesn’t really matter when it comes to good music, and “Out of My Mind” is really good.

This first single is very much in the Black Sabbath mode. The song opens with a low rumbling as Newsted thumps a bass line that sounds just a bit like the main riff of “Black Sabbath,” while Iommi provides a quiet, slightly distorted guitar lick. It slowly builds into one of those trademark Iommi power chord beasts of a riff, and Gillan’s vocals, even at age 65, are great. In fact, it’s kind of funny to watch the video for the song below and see this nice, grandfatherly looking gentleman and then hear the voice that’s coming out of him. Lord builds some dramatic flourishes on the Hammond organ on the chorus, which is really the only place you can hear him on the song, Iommi’s guitar dips down for an even deeper, darker growl, and Gillan continues to soar mocking vocals over the top of it. It’s a thing of beauty for an old metalhead.

A little later in the song, the assault is toned down for a softer interlude that sounds a lot like something from Ozzy-era Sabbath, right down to a more nasally vocal tone from Gillan. Iommi delivers a soulful lead, and after another trip down into that dark chorus, the song fades out with some slightly exotic sounding lead guitar licks. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a fan of Gillan-era Black Sabbath, but this song makes me a believer. Maybe it’s time I went back and gave Born Again another listen.

The b-side of the single (can you call it a b-side anymore?) is a song called “Holy Water,” which should please the other half of this band’s target audience. The song fades in with some Persian-flavored sounds before going full on rock. Lord has a more heavily featured role in this song, as his Hammond gets behind Iommi’s main riff and pushes it along. We get a bluesier, smokier vocal from Gillan that has a very late ’60s feel, and the song, overall, is more of a Deep Purple number. I prefer “Out of My Mind,” but then I also prefer Sabbath to Purple. You can’t really go wrong with either tune, though.

My only complaint with this project is that there’s not enough of it. I’ve been both anticipating and dreading a Black Sabbath reunion with Ozzy Osbourne because I know it can’t possibly live up to their first six records. After hearing “Out of My Mind,” I say let Sabbath rest in peace. I want to hear more from WhoCares — a lot more.

Stuck In My Head: "Sad Man's Tongue," by Volbeat

Editor's note: This review originally appeared at Something Else Reviews.

When Volbeat’s “Sad Man’s Tongue” comes blaring out of my speakers on a shuffle, I’m always happy, and I always hit repeat — usually a dozen times or so, at least. And I always think about how I nearly missed such a great song.

I was plugging along at work one day in 2007 when I got an e-mail from a publicist pushing Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil, the upcoming record from Danish band Volbeat. In the e-mail was a picture of the band with singer Michael Poulsen boasting a greasy, black pompadour, and the publicist describing the music as “Elvis Metal ‘n’ Roll.” The album title seemed a little awkward (and I often cringe at clich├ęd connections between metal and the devil), I didn’t quite get the band name, and being the good Southern boy I am, I wondered what in the world a Danish band could know about Elvis. I may have rolled my eyes a little before moving on from the e-mail.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: Cavalera Conspiracy, "Blunt Force Trauma"

If you’ve followed the career of Max Cavalera, you won’t likely be surprised by what you hear on Cavalera Conspiracy’s latest outing, Blunt Force Trauma. It’s the same blend of Sepultura-style thrash and groove metal he’s delivered since leaving Sepultura, minus the world music influence. His second reunion with brother and drummer Igor Cavalera is, perhaps, a bit more refined and a bit less ugly than 2008’s Inflikted, but it’s no less powerful. In fact, the variety on Blunt Force Trauma, including a slightly surprising twist or two, just might make it a better record.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: King Kobra, "King Kobra"

When the new self-titled project from reformed 1980s rockers King Kobra, issued by Frontiers Records earlier this month, landed in my hands, I remembered two things about the band. Sadly, neither one of them was legendary drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Ozzy Osbourne, Blue Murder).

Instead, I remembered the cheesy, synth-laden, quintessentially 1980s theme song from the movie “Iron Eagle,” and the fact that King Kobra was the band whose original singer had become a woman. The band released three albums in the 1980s that barely made a blip on my metal-loving radar before breaking up in 1988, with most of the members moving on to moderate success in other acts. Appice joined Blue Murder with John Sykes, who had been ousted from Whitesnake. Bassist Johnny Rod joined shock-rockers W.A.S.P. Guitarist Mick Sweda joined Marq Torien, who had a brief stint as the singer of King Kobra, to form BulletBoys.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Whitesnake, "Forevermore"

Editor's Note: This review originally appeared at Something Else Reviews.

Maybe it’s because I was forced to listen to “Is This Love?” way too many times in the late 1980s, but for some reason, I just don’t hold Whitesnake in the same regard as many of my friends of a similar age. When I converted my music collection to CD in the 1990s, I repurchased every single record from many of my favorites of the same era. For Whitesnake, though, I opted for a compilation CD so I can get my fix of “Still of the Night” every now and then.

That said, the latest incarnation of the band has released a couple of very interesting records, including their 11th release Forevermore, which debuted in the Top 50 across multiple countries this month.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: Amon Amarth, "Surtur Rising"

"Surtur Rising" is an Amon Amarth album. Ultimately, that should be all I have to say in this review.

Few metal bands in recent memory have had a more consistent output than Amon Amarth, and while they’re not big on progression or trying new things, there’s certainly something to be said for knowing what you’re going to get when you hit the play button. In that, our Viking friends don’t disappoint.

All the elements are here: bludgeoning guitar riffs, Johan Hegg’s rage-filled growls about Viking heroes and villains and songs that are just as melodic as they are heavy. Surtur Rising won’t rank as the band’s best outing by a long shot, but it’s another worthy entry in the catalog.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Helstar, "Glory of Chaos"

More than a quarter century after releasing their debut record, the current lineup of Helstar has released the band’s heaviest record to date in Glory of Chaos.

Like its predecessor, 2008’s The King of Hell, this record leans more on thrash influences than the band’s earlier power/speed metal tendencies, but it’s a more potent recipe than that record. Glory of Chaos goes for the jugular immediately with album opener “Angels Fall to Hell,” a ripping number that finds vocalist James Rivera exploring some Painkiller-era Rob Halford screams on the chorus. The album never lets up from there.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Tuck from Hell, "Thrashing"

It’s kind of hard to take a band named Tuck From Hell seriously, particularly when their record contains song titles like “Barbecue Beast,” “Tuckerz” and “Italian Stallion” and the cover features a cartoon guy wielding a chainsaw and flamethrower. But if you’re a fan of old-school 1980s thrash, it’s kind of hard not to like them.

Tuck From Hell clearly draws its inspiration from the 1980s titans of thrash — Metallica, Megadeth, Testament. Unlike those bands, though, you won’t find many heavy topics on Thrashing. Instead, the band takes the more light-hearted approach of early Anthrax or D.R.I.

Freebies: Decibel streaming new Vicious Rumors album

Listen to a stream of one of my favorite records of 2011 so far, the new Vicious Rumors album "Razorback Killers," at Decibel Magazine.

Also look for a review of the record here in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Still Spinning: Alice in Chains, "Facelift"

I still remember the first time I heard Alice in Chains. It was the video for “Man in the Box” on “Headbanger’s Ball.” I was in the throes of one of those “more notes=better music” phases that most young guitar players go through, and I absolutely hated it. The one-note main guitar riff was far too simplistic and the moaning vocal style of Layne Staley was so foreign to the things I was listening to at the time.

Fast forward about six months. I’ve got tickets to see Van Hagar, and Alice in Chains is the opening band. If it hadn’t been a general admission show, I might have showed up late. I’m glad I didn’t.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review: "Hurtsmile," Hurtsmile

It probably won’t come as a great surprise to most that Gary Cherone’s new project Hurtsmile has a lot of elements of his main gig, Extreme. It’s not a complete accident, either. The core of the band is formed by Cherone and his brother, Mark. They’re joined by bassist Joe Pessia, a veteran of Nuno Bettencourt’s Dramagods, and drummer Dana Spellman, who was a student of former Extreme drummer Mike Mangini. Throw in the fact that Mark Cherone and Bettencourt’s brother once played in a band together, and it’s a pretty tangled knot between the two bands.

That said, though, the record is certainly not just an extension of Extreme. There are a lot of other influences that run through the songs, ranging from Alice in Chains-style grunge to prog-rock blasts of instrumental virtuosity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: Nekromantheon, "Divinity of Death"

The name, logo, album cover and Norweigian origin all say extreme metal, but the music on Nekromantheon’s Divinity of Death is pure candy to the ears of classic thrash fans.

Nekromantheon blazes through 11 tracks in about 30 minutes sounding like the bastard child of Show No Mercy-era Slayer and very early Sepultura. The songs are short, fast, punchy and very solidly played. They don’t cover any new ground in the thrash genre, but at the same time they also manage to sound fresh and not derivative.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: The Shadow Theory, "Behind the Black Veil"

I’m having a tough time with the debut record from The Shadow Theory. On one hand, I love the mashup of soft atmospherics, driving heaviness and the occasional hit of weirdness. It’s all very well-played and put together. Those qualities make me want to call it the first candidate for best of 2011. On the other hand, around the midpoint of the record, it starts to taper off and the second half, the final song excepted, is largely unmemorable.

Behind the Black Veil is a concept album about a man trapped in his nightmares, and the record does a good job of capturing the feel of a dream, as we get musical flashes and shifts that sometimes don’t quite seem to make sense, but end up working together.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Freebies: Devin Townsend offers free acoustic EP online

The Devin Townsend Project is offering a free five-song acoustic EP featuring the songs "Supercrush," "Kingdom," "Truth," "Om" and "By Your Command." To get the EP, you have to share Townsend's tour page on Facebook or Twitter. Here are the details.

Townsend is also at work on two records slated for 2011 release.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Freebies: German thrashers Destruction offer stream of latest album

German thrashers Destruction are currently streaming their latest record, "Day of Reckoning," in its entirety on their Facebook page. The record is set for U.S. release on March 8. Look for a review of it here shortly thereafter.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What a concept: 10 metal tales worth exploring

The concept album, over the years, has become a staple of the metal genre. Though there are claims to the origin of the concept album stretching back to the 1930s (or I suppose you could argue that operas were the first concept albums), the form probably reached the public consciousness in the 1960s with bands like The Beatles and The Who. In the 1970s, the concept album became the provenance of prog rock. The hard rock and metal bands of the late 1970s and the 1980s soon jumped on board, and since then, just about every metal band that wanted to seem “epic” has given it a shot, and many of them have been dreadful. It’s a tricky proposition, the balance between story and music, the thin line between the almost necessary bombast of a concept album and pretentious self-indulgement. Proven, and even legendary bands (*cough,cough*Judas Priest*coughcough*), have failed in the attempt.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: DarkBlack, "Midnight Wraith"

I vaguely recall being asked to review a DarkBlack’s The Barbarian’s Hammer EP for the old Digital Metal and being quite unimpressed. While I don’t, to be honest, remember much about that record, I’m a little more intrigued by the material on Midnight Wraith. I’m not quite won over by it, but it certainly shows some promise.

The five tracks on this EP blend late 1970s and early 1980s traditional metal sounds with ‘70s hard rock for a cool vintage feel. The record opens with “Doom Herald,” a traditional metal number with some early Iron Maiden overtones.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: Bob Wayne, "Outlaw Carnie"

I understand that there are people on both sides of this one scratching their heads a little. The metal crowd is probably wondering why Century Media signed a country artist. The country crowd is probably wondering why Bob Wayne signed with a metal label. To me, though, it makes perfect sense.

The first thing that the metal crowd should know about Bob Wayne is that his music isn’t the overproduced pop bullshit that you hear on country radio. It’s honest. It’s real, and it’s got a lot in common with metal, in spirit if not in sound. Like the best metal being made today, the best country (and not much, if any, of it is on a Nasvhille label) is about making the music you want to make and to hell with trends and marketing. Wayne also has personal connections to metal, citing Black Sabbath, Pantera and Neurosis among some of his favorite acts. His music, on the other hand, has more to do with David Allan Coe, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, all guys with the spirit of metal in their own right.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Freebies: Earth's latest album streaming now on NPR

Earth's upcoming album "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1" is currently streaming live on NPR through Feb. 7. The record is set for a Feb. 22 release through Southern Lord.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Yngwie Malmsteen, "Relentless"

I was a little disappointed with Yngwie Malmsteen’s last outing Perpetual Flame, primarily because of the underuse and uninspired performance of vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens. It was a combination I had high hopes for. Malmsteen’s latest outing, Relentless, doesn’t correct the underuse factor, featuring Owens on only six of the 15 tracks, but it does correct the uninspired portion.

The shift comes early on the first tune to feature vocals, “Critical Mass.” Malmsteen delivers an incredibly catchy Persian-flavored guitar riff and Owens gets a vocal line that not only is much more interesting than the generic melodies from Perpuetual Flame, but is one of the best lines he’s had since his departure from Iced Earth.