Monday, May 30, 2016

Review of Anthrax's For All Kings

Joey Belladonna's return and the subsequent release of Worship Music in 2011 put Anthrax in a pretty good place, but it seems like they didn't keep a high momentum going for long. Releasing the Anthems cover EP and switching lead guitarists may have spiced things up but they didn't exactly strike while the iron was hot. Fortunately For All Kings comes through as a solid addition to the band's discography, even if it took its sweet time getting here.

In the grand tradition of The Last In Line and Defenders Of The Faith, For All Kings feels like an extension of Worship Music and features many of the same elements. The style still compromises the melodic thrash of the classic era with the grunge metal outlook of the band's stint with John Bush. The production also leans in favor of the rather chunky guitar tone but it is Belladonna's persisting vocal talents that continue to lead the charge. They even kept a couple orchestral interludes around though they may actually be more properly composed this time.

Speaking of which, the vocal hooks in particular keep this album from feeling like a tired retread. While songs like "The Devil You Know" and "The Giant" had plenty of infectious choruses, there seems to be an even greater emphasis on catchiness here. Despite seeming like an odd single choice before the album's release, "Breathing Lightning" is a strong example of this as the catchy as hell vocal line works well with the more rock approach. In addition, songs like "Monster At The End" and "Defend/Avenge" are guaranteed to be stuck in your head for days while the vocal layering on "Blood Eagle Wings" makes the near eight minute long track even more inspiring.

It also helps that the styles are a little more jumbled here. In comparison to the fast to slow song progression on Worship Music, For All Kings is rather unpredictable and seems to jump styles between songs. While "You Gotta Believe" starts the album off on an upbeat note similar to "Earth On Hell," the following tracks opt for a mid-tempo approach and songs like "Zero Tolerance" bring some speed toward the album's end.

Overall, For All Kings is a good addition to Anthrax's discography, even if it does often feel like more of the same. It'd arguably leave more of an impact if it had come out a couple years ago, but it still manages to be pretty enjoyable on its own terms thanks to its earworm quality. Megadeth may be back on top as the most relevant part of the Big 4 but Anthrax shouldn't be reaching the Slayer levels of stagnancy anytime soon...

"Monster At The End"
"Breathing Lightning"
"Blood Eagle Wings"

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review of Dream Death's Dissemination

Dream Death's third full-length album isn't too far removed from 2013's Somnium Excessum, the album that brought these Pittsburgh should-have-beens back from the dead (No pun intended). The band's refusal to commit to a single genre is at full force as the songs opt for doom, thrash, or a ripping combination. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Lawrence's ever distinctive bark continues to guide the listener through the labyrinthian sludge and the production develops an atmosphere that is dark yet clear.

But while Dissemination's near forty minute run time is about the same as Dream Death's past two efforts, the album does stand out for having more songs to work with than usual. Ten tracks total with an average length of three to four minutes between them doesn't result in more accessible songwriting or bids for radio play, but it does condense them quite a bit. Several songs have a tendency to run together and there isn't as much time to really build anything up beyond the odd tempo swap. Fortunately, there are still good songs on here despite the slight format change; the title track leads the charge with a pretty upbeat riff set and "All In Vain" rides a solid plodding chug through its three minute duration.

That said, there are some attempts to preserve the past dynamic feel even if the results aren't as ominous as past staples like "Them" or "Sealed In Blood." The closing "In Perpetuum" may be the most ambitious track as its ambient intro eventually gives way to a creepy shuffling rhythm and more restrained vocals while "The Other Side" keeps its haunting tone throughout with a nice Pentagram-esque stomp to match. There are also a number of samples throughout the album that seem to be based on hypnotic suggestion and astral travel. It's hard to tell if they're indications of an overarching lyrical theme beyond the usual gloom and doom, but they don't sound out of place either.

In an ironic twist, the fact that Dream Death's third album has shorter songs may actually make it harder to get a feel for in comparison to Somnium Excessum or Journey Into Mystery. On one hand, the scope is slightly scaled back and there aren't as many soul harrowing moments as before. On the other hand, the fact that the band members stick to their guns and have their signature tropes in place keeps this from feeling an identity crisis. It may take a bit more effort to appreciate but it's still worth looking into for doom and sludge diehards.

"All In Vain"
"The Other Side"
"In Perpetuum"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review of BUS's The Unknown Secretary

No one can deny the influence that the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal had on every metal movement that came after it. The effect it had on Metallica among others has been thoroughly documented but its relationship with doom metal isn't quite as defined. Witchfinder General is the most obvious example of the connection due to their direct inspiration on staples like Cathedral, but even groups like Angel Witch and Holocaust have their place due to their often dark and raw approaches. In addition to having the most impossible name to search for on Google this side of 3, BUS of Athens, Greece is a strong example of the two metal genres meeting at a satisfying crossroad.

Whether you would classify the music on BUS's first full-length album as hard rock, doom, or traditional metal, it has a raw retro style that should appeal to any fans of those genres. The guitar harmonies are obviously channeling Iron Maiden's earliest efforts, the vocals have a mid-range wail reminiscent of Angel Witch's Kevin Heybourne with occult lyrics to match, and an ominous atmosphere can be felt throughout thanks to an early 80s influenced production job. But in an unusual fashion for a band associated with the doom movement, the songs all tend to be based around an upbeat swing tempo with very few of those crushing moments being featured.

Fortunately, the songwriting is focused enough to keep all the songs from sounding too similar to one another. "New Black Volume" may be the most memorable tune here thanks to its bouncy building bass line in the intro while "Forever Grey" offers the most enthusiastic chorus between the mid-70s Rush-style verses. They also do find time to put in a few outliers as "Don't Fear Your Demon" rides a crunchy mid-tempo riff throughout and "Rockerbus" dabbles with the lighter side of 80s metal complete with an opening rhythm that channels Van Halen's "Panama" of all things.

Overall, The Unknown Secretary pushes a style that will ring true with fans of all things retro metal. While some may find the album to be slightly one-dimensional and derivative of other bands, the songs all manage to convince the listener with their upbeat approach and the energy involved should keep them from being seen as a throwaway nostalgia trip. One can only hope that the name choice doesn't hinder their chances at success as they definitely have the potential to come up with something even stronger in the future.

"New Black Volume"
"Forever Grey"

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Review of Metal Church's XI

Metal Church was in a rather interesting place when their second major singer Mike Howe was with them the first time around. The videos for "Badlands" and "Date With Poverty" have secured a nostalgic outlook for the era but most of that time was spent vainly trying to match the commercial success of the Big 4, ultimately culminating with the awesome but obscure Hanging In The Balance in 1993. Now that Howe has returned to the band after a long musical retirement, there is a feeling of vindication that justifies the optimistic anticipation surrounding this album's release.

XI's first three song may start things off on a speedy note but you won't hear much of the hard hitting thrash of Blessing In Disguise. Instead, the occasional brooding and melodic flourishes suggest a hybrid of the Hanging In The Balance sound with the style that had been achieved when previous vocalist Ronny Munroe was in the band's ranks. This is especially apparent with the acoustic break on "Signal Path" being similar to that on "Down To The River," the "Hypnotized" echoing shuffle on "Sky Falls In," and a melodic run on "Soul Eating Machine" that recalls "Losers In The Game."

But regardless of the approach, Howe's vocals sound pretty damn incredible throughout. In a way similar to John Arch's recent performances, Howe's snarl sounds like it hasn't aged a day and brings a refreshing bite to the otherwise unchanged band dynamic. Fortunately, the other members still find ways to deliver with drummer Jeff Plate in particular putting in one of his most muscular performances.

Unfortunately, there are still some awkward moments. While the vocals are immaculate, the lines themselves are prone to occasionally awkward phrasing that keeps things from being as straightforward as they probably should be. A couple songs also don't hit the mark as "It Waits" broods for a little too long while "Blow Your Mind" spends more time talking about how it's going to blow your mind instead of actually doing so...

Overall, XI isn't out to change the metal world but it does have a sense of purpose that makes it the best Metal Church album to come out since The Weight of The World. It has plenty of good songs but the surprisingly strong vocals are what truly make it worth checking out for fans. One can hope that this is just a mere warm up compared to what the band has in store for the future.

"No Tomorrow"
"Sky Falls In"
"Needle and Suture"

Monday, April 11, 2016

Review of Megadeth's Dystopia

Much has already been made of Megadeth's fifteenth studio album, including the parallels that it has to past achievements like the classic Rust In Peace and the surprisingly satisfying Endgame. Like those two efforts, the recruitment of a new lead guitarist and drummer (Angra's Kiko Loureiro and Lamb of God's Chris Adler, respectively) reignites the energy that had been fading from the lineup before it and results in renewed senses of aggression and technicality. Dystopia may be a retread of an established pattern but it does develop a few tropes that had merely been hinted at through Megadeth's long career.

Seeing how Thirteen and Super Collider got their share of flak for moving away from the standard Megadeth sound, it is interesting to note that Dystopia may be the style dialed down even better than Endgame ever did. Not only are the songs more energetic and Dave Mustaine's vocals tougher, but the songwriting makes use of the structural complexity to extents that haven't been seen in some time. This is most evident in the opening songs as the ultra melodic title track crosses the drive of "Hangar 18" with the closing stomp on "Wake Up Dead" and "Fatal Illusion" dances about numerous tempo changes in a way that recalls "Bad Omen."

But what really makes Dystopia stand out is the heightened sense of drama compared to their other recent efforts. Megadeth has always flirted with backing vocals and classical instrumentation but it's never taken on such a cinematic quality. From the Middle Eastern vocals that open "The Threat Is Real" to the climactic vocal lines on "Death From Within" and building swells on "Conquer Or Die," Dystopia showcases theatrics that haven't gotten their chance to shine in quite some time. Props must be given to Loureiro for working in his power metal influences in a way that Marty Friedman or Chris Broderick never pulled off.

Of course, the album still has its share of imperfections. The heightened technical prowess and polished production job do highlight Dave Mustaine's diminishing vocal performance and less commanding energy. In addition, the attempts at rock & roll attitude on "The Emperor" and take on Fear's "Foreign Policy" end up sounding out of place and close the album on a rather underwhelming note.

While Dystopia isn't a perfect album and I may actually prefer Endgame by a hair, it is interesting to see Megadeth once again assume the role of the strongest band left of the original 80s thrash scene. The songs find ways to be memorable and the overall presentation elevates them to a greater level of grandiosity. Considering the trajectories that occurred in the wake of the band's past successes, it'll be interesting and potentially horrifying to see how things evolve from here...

"The Threat Is Real"
"Death From Within"
"Poisonous Shadows"
"Conquer or Die"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Local Love: Review of Stone Magnum's Holy Blessings to None

Stone Magnum of Michigan City, Indiana has always been able to bring diverse songwriting to their particular brand of Trouble-inspired epic doom metal. Their third full-length album is certainly no exception and showcases even further evolution to their sound. The result is easily their most varied effort so far.

While past efforts, particularly 2013's From Time...To Eternity, proved that the band could pull off differing moods and tempo changes, Holy Blessings To None pushes them even harder and ends up being their most aggressive effort. Much of this can be attributed to the recruitment of drummer Justin Henry; his double bass work makes the fast jumps on songs like the opening "As I Burn Your World to Ash" even more hard hitting and turn the curiously self-titled "Stone Magnum" into a borderline speed metal tune. The vocals also add to the shift as Rick Hernandez brings in a grittier performance with more unhinged operatic moments.

The diversity is welcome but I do find the songwriting doesn't quite have the same impact as their first two albums. The performances are stellar and the changes keep the songs from getting dull, but there aren't as many memorable riffs or vocal lines to stand alongside past tracks like "Fallen Priest" or "By An Omen I Went." Fortunately, greatness can still be found as "The Illusion of Faith" brings the most stirring moods while the title track closes things out in a wickedly plodding fashion.

Overall, Holy Blessings To None hits harder than their past efforts in terms of style but results in a slightly lesser impression. It may take more time to grow on the listener than usual but should be particularly rewarding for those seeking a more energetic approach to epic doom. From Time...To Eternity is still their effort to top but this is a worthy entry.

"Stone Magnum"
"The Illusion of Faith"
"Holy Blessings To None"

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of Conan's Revengeance

Things have changed quite a bit in the Conan camp since the release of 2014's Blood Eagle. Guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis is the only member left from those sessions as drummer Rich Lewis makes his debut with the UK trio and longtime producer Chris Fielding has come on for bass and backing vocal duties. The resulting studio album stays true to Conan's bludgeoning caveman doom approach but also evaluates some different takes on tempo and vocal dynamics.

When the punk beat kicks in for the opening "Throne Of Fire," it becomes clear that Revengeance will be the band's fastest effort to date. They've always placed the odd upbeat track between the longer drones of amplifier worship, but there's not been much like the driving parts or the borderline black metal blasts on the title track before. Fortunately, the massive guitar and bass chugs keep the various tempo fluctuations consistently weighted.

Faster moments aside, the slower songs remain the most dominant and boast their own variety. While "Wrath Gauntlet" stands out for its sluggish blues rhythm, the second half provides the most earth-shattering cuts. "Every Man Is An Enemy" keeps its activity to a mid-tempo level while "Earthenguard" is a meditative track that recalls classic Om and makes strong use of its near twelve minute running time.

But in a way similar to Mastodon's maturation, the vocal evolution that Revengeance demonstrates is what truly sets it apart from its predecessors. The format is still based on the guitarist and bassist yelling over the riffs but their prominent spot in the mix makes them more articulate than before. In addition, the more fleshed out lyrics make the vocal lines more elaborate than the simple battle slogans and there are more trade-offs between the two singers. I would've loved to hear how previous bassist Phil Coumbe would sound contributing his bellow to this, but there's not much here to complain about.

I may prefer Blood Eagle but Conan's third full-length album will likely leave a deeper impression. Its forays into faster tempos and more prominent vocals work well with their brand of sludgy brutality and may even enhance the ideas behind their barbaric imagery. I don't see them getting as far out there as Mastodon or Baroness, but there is more to their boneheaded formula than meets the eye.

"Every Man Is An Enemy"