Monday, December 30, 2013

My Top Fifteen Favorite Albums of 2013

Is it me or was 2013 the most underwhelming year of the 2010s as far as new releases go? Granted, there weren’t too many tragic deaths or albums that severely lowered the bar, but there were a few more disappointing releases than usual from the old guard and there wasn’t an album that quite blew my mind as much as some had in previous years. Thankfully, the underground and local music scenes still have a lot to offer and I may just need to be more selective when it comes to getting new stuff in the near future. In the meantime, let’s talk about fifteen of my favorite albums that came out in 2013!

15. Somnium Excessum by Dream Death
Having been a fan of the classic though uneven Journey Into Mystery since high school, I was curious to see how Dream Death would live up to the challenge of releasing a sophomore album twenty-six years after their legendary debut. This album retains the sludgy riffs, aggressive vocals, and elaborate song structures that made the band’s Celtic Frost worship enjoyable back in the 80s and it may even be more consistent than their legendary debut. There’s no track on the level of “Sealed in Blood” or “The Elder Race” here but tracks like “Them” and “From Inside the Walls” may eventually pick up their own high status.

14. The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here by Alice In Chains
Alice In Chains’ fifth full-length album may be somewhat disappointment as a follow up to the triumphant Black Gives Way to Blue. It seems like that album exorcised the last of the band’s demons, leading way to an effort that is downtrodden by conventional standards but doesn’t make you want to crawl in a hole and die quite like their classic material. But with that said, Jerry Cantrell’s ear for melody and solid riff writing ultimately prevails as tracks like “Stone” and “Phantom Limb” have a menace to them while ballads like “Voices” still retain a melancholic character. It may not be a true Dirt or Jar of Flies but songs this enjoyable do make it hard to complain.

13. Stormcrow by The Gates of Slumber
It is a shame that the swan song by these Indianapolis doom titans was a free EP released through Scion A/V but one can take solace in the fact that it is a damn good EP. While the sound picks up right where The Wretch left off, it succeeds well on its own terms. The opening “Death March” sets things up excellently with a few Saint Vitus homages and “Son Of Hades” also stands out for its particularly memorable chug. The projects that the members have planned for the future will definitely be worth checking out if this material is anything to go by.

12. Virgin Sails by Satan’s Host
This album would probably be higher on my list if I hadn’t heard it so late in the year and was more familiar with the band’s back catalogue, but it is a definite winner. Like By The Hands Of The Devil before it, Virgin Sails does an excellent job of pioneering blackened power metal and offers some great contrasts through its running time. If the previous album felt like the debut of a completely new band, then this album is the sophomore effort that shows no signs of slowing down.

11. …Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age
As someone who is only recently acquainted with Queens of the Stone Age after years of putting them off, this is a pretty solid effort. It is more laid back than past efforts and seems to have a lot of influence from groups like The Beatles and Alice Cooper than usual. Some may find it to be too mellow and it doesn’t quite compare to the variety found on albums like Songs For The Deaf, but songs like “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory” and “If I Had A Tail” make it worth looking into.

10. Zombie Bullets by Zombie Bullets
These guys were another great find late in the year and are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands here in Indy. While the band’s specific genre is tricky to pinpoint, there is a lot of blues and classic rock influence at work and the songwriting on tracks like “Dopamine” and “Iron Head” more than makes up for the crude presentation. It’ll be great to see where things go from here and I hope the band’s follow-up in 2014 will be even better.

9. The Winery Dogs by The Winery Dogs
Comprised of Mr. Big alums Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen alongside prog journeyman Mike Portnoy, The Winery Dogs made due on their promising lineup and offered up a great slab of rock on their debut. The band shows off a lot of technical ability and chemistry with one another while never losing sight of their classic rock aspirations. The last three songs are where the band shines the most as a unit but the pop hooks on “Elevate” and “You Saved Me” are hard to deny.

8. Lay My Soul to Waste by A Pale Horse Named Death
Masterminded by former Type O Negative member Sal Abruscato, A Pale Horse Named Death serves as an excellent successor to the fallen goth metal titans. I have yet to hear their debut And Hell Will Follow Me, but Lay My Soul to Waste is a great example of what the band has to offer. They never quite match Type O Negative’s sense of humor or diverse song structures, but tracks like “Shallow Grave” and “DMSLT” perfectly convey their morbid aesthetics and ear for melody while songs like “Dead of Winter” touch on some different ground. I still wonder what happened to Seventh Void but this may be a great recommendation for unsatisfied Alice In Chains fans.

7. Tres Cabrones by the Melvins
While the Melvins’ first album with original drummer Mike Dillard and Dale Crover performing bass duties could be seen as just another odd lineup experiment, Tres Cabrones is a surprisingly refreshing release. It is one of their more guitar-driven efforts and has a lot of great songwriting to go with the usual Melvins weirdness and style shifting. Hell, even the minute long renditions of “Tie My Pecker To A Tree” and “Ninety-Nine Bottles Of Beer” are a lot of fun to listen to! Just check out the swagger of “Doctor Mule” or the downtuned riffs on “City Dump” and you’ll get a hint of what the album has to offer.

6. Plan Of Attack by Lords of the Trident
I may be biased in placing the new EP by Lords of the Trident on my list as I housed the group after one of my bands played an admittedly terrible set with them last fall, but the Wisconsin metal group definitely knows how to put a song together. They have a few goofy gimmicks, but songs like “Complete Control” and the title track are great power metal tracks and “Song Of The Wind and Sea” is a climactic ballad with an excellent folk friendly climax. I’ll definitely be looking into their full-lengths and hoping the circumstances will be better if they ever decide to come back to town…

5. Peace by Vista Chino
Formed by former members of Kyuss after they were unable to get the rights to the name, Vista Chino’s debut is an excellent album that is more than worthy of the Kyuss name and sounds like it would’ve been a solid follow-up to their classic 90s material. It conveys the old stoner band’s bass heavy riffs and trippy atmospherics well while offering a rawer attitude and huskier vocals. Hell, some may like it more than the latest Queens Of The Stone Age effort though I did find both to be quite satisfying listens.

4. Queensryche by Queensryche
All of my friends may be tired of hearing about Queensryche after I talked so much about them this year, but I can’t emphasize how badly this album needed to happen. Getting Geoff Tate out of the band was the smartest decision they ever made, as their first album without him is their best since Promised Land and also exposed the world to the talents of Todd La Torre in a way that the stalling Crimson Glory never could. The running time is short and the production may be too modern at times, but songs like “Vindication” and “Redemption” live up to their titles and plainly tell which lineup will be walking away with the rights to the name come January…

3. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) by Steven Wilson
The third solo album by Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson took time to grow on me and I’m still working on it to some extent, but there is no denying that it is an incredibly well put together release. It doesn’t have a lot of pop appeal but it is easier to get into than Grace For Drowning or his Storm Corrosion collaboration were and has a foreboding tone that goes along well with its ghost story themes. The closing title track is especially powerful due to the emotion that it presents though “The Pin Drop” may be the easiest song to get a feel for. I still pine for a Porcupine Tree comeback but I would gladly take more of the same.

2. From Time… To Eternity by Stone Magnum
Having been impressed by this Michigan City doom group’s debut, I was quite curious to see how things would work out for Stone Magnum’s sophomore effort. They’ve recruited a new singer and cleaned up their sound, resulting in a style that has more in common with Candlemass than the Reagers-era Saint Vitus style of the debut. “The Gallows of Ohrdruf” is the best demonstration of Epicus Doomicus worship though “By An Omen I Went” and “In Tongues They Whisper” provide some great exercises of classic doom. It’ll be interesting to see what changes for the group’s next effort.

1. Earth Rocker by Clutch
Even though I hadn’t listened to any Clutch prior to buying this album (This has since been rectified), I knew their tenth studio album would end up being my favorite of 2013. It makes due on the title track’s promises of energetic guitar playing, over the top vocals, and song styles that range from high octane speeds to the grooves on songs like “D.C. Sound Attack!” and “Oh, Isabella.” Drawing from the group’s usual mix of punk, blues, and stoner metal, Earth Rocker is sure to please any sort of rock fan and led me to look into an institution that’ll end up being a major influence on my own future projects. Just remember the sage advice of one Neil Fallon: “If you gotta do it, do it live on stage or don’t do it at all!”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review of Vista Chino's Peace

It takes a lot of balls for a band to reform without its leading contributor though maybe less so if it eventually opts for another name.  Much like the relationship between Black Star Riders and Thin Lizzy, Vista Chino was formed when members of Kyuss attempted to reunite without guitarist Josh Homme but had to change their name after a legal dispute between the two parties. The resulting album is a great effort that may have worked better had it been released under the Kyuss banner.

No matter how you feel about this group’s existence and name politics, you can’t deny that the guys in Vista Chino knew exactly what made Kyuss such a unique fixture of the stoner metal scene. The guitars are as bass heavy as ever, John Garcia’s testosterone-soaked howls hold up despite his age, the drums work in a number of fills, and the songs cover the usual fields of driving rock to zoned out psychedelia. It certainly helps that guitarist Bruno Fevery played in a few Kyuss tribute bands before coming here but he is a solid riff writer on his own terms.

It also helps that a bunch of the songs on here do sound like classic Kyuss. Lead single “Dargona Dragona” and “Planets 1&2” are the leading offenders as the former is a percussive opener in the vein of “Thumb” while the latter has a “Green Machine” chug with a few extra tempo changes thrown in. Of course, there are more distinct moments such as the radio friendly “Adara,” which oddly sounds more like something that Homme would’ve put together for Queens Of The Stone Age…

But when compared to its alma mater, Vista Chino has a more straightforward presentation. There may be a couple interludes and signature spacy tangents throughout, but you won’t find as many of them and the ones here rarely go for as long as they did before. The album is also surprisingly rawer though that has more to do with the production and Garcia’s huskier voice.

In a rather odd move, I’m more than happy to accept Peace as a twenty-first century Kyuss album but it’ll take some time and evolution before it can be judged as a true debut. It’s another good example of a new band having famous members to justify a derivative sound but fans may actually like it more than what Homme himself is doing nowadays. It’ll be intriguing to see where things go from here but nothing will replace your copy of Blues For The Red Sun anytime soon.

“Dargona Dragona”
“Planets 1&2”
“Acidize… The Gambling Moose”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review of Melvins' Tres Cabrones

Coming off the heels of 2012’s Freak Puke and the Everybody Loves Sausages cover album, Tres Cabrones is the latest in a series of the Melvins’ odd lineup experiments. Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover are still here but Crover has been moved to bass duties to make room for original drummer Mike Dillard’s first recording with the band in decades. The resulting effort doesn’t betray the sounds set up on their most recent outings but does offer up its own set of tweaks.

With this lineup being the Melvins’ most conventional in over a decade, this album’s sound is somewhere between the laid back rock of Freak Puke and the chaotic noise on their Big Business collaborations. The guitar is the most dominant instrument as Buzzo’s signature riffs and odd structures define many of the songs on here. Dillard’s playing doesn’t quite match Crover’s bottom heavy tone and Crover himself isn’t a flashy bass player, but the rhythm section is quite adequate with Dillard in particular offering a more punk-influenced approach.

And even though most of the songs on here were previously released on a few different EPs, they all feel cohesive as a whole and go through a neat cycle of styles over the course of the album. It starts off with a series of heavy straightforward rockers, progresses to more experimental jams, and then ends on an energetic note with a couple punk covers. A few goofy recitals of traditional songs also pop up as interludes of sorts; it’s a rather odd move but one that would’ve been much less fun in the hands of another group.

The first three tracks may be the album’s most powerful as “Doctor Mule” provides some strong bursts of swagger while “City Dump” and “American Cow” feel like they could’ve been part of their early 90s repertoire. From there, “Psychedelic Haze” does have an appropriately groovy set of riffs and the one-two punch of “Walter’s Lips” and “Stick ‘Em Bitch” closes things out quite nicely.

Overall, Tres Cabrones is as hard to recommend to new listeners as ever but makes for a surprisingly enjoyable listen that is quite refreshing when compared to the more underwhelming releases that have come out this year. Some songs do feel like they should be heavier and one does wonder how the “main” lineup would’ve sounded playing this material, but the actual writing does make it worth checking out. I still think Melvins Lite may be the better trio but this works as a heavy alternative.

“Doctor Mule”
“City Dump”
“American Cow”
“Psychedelic Haze”
“Walter’s Lips”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review of Warbringer's IV: Empires Collapse

As indicated by the more intriguing cover art and the absence of a “W” title, Warbringer’s fourth album is a stylistic game changer. Guitarist Jeff Pots and bassist Ben Mottsman have been recruited from Mantic Ritual and the band is finally acting on the experimental side that has been bubbling since Waking Into Nightmares. Fortunately, this album’s mix of the familiar and unfamiliar keeps it from being a stylistic train wreck.

While Empires Collapse is a thrash metal album to the core, it seems to combine the genre with several others throughout. “Horizon” and “Towers Of The Serpent” show off extreme metal riffing, “The Turning Of The Gears” has a pounding rhythm reminiscent of classic Ministry, “One Dimension” and “Iron City” have some punk influence, and things go to a doomy pace on “Leviathan.” The variety does run the risk of inconsistency but the album stays cohesive and is their most song-oriented release to date.

It also helps that the band dynamic hasn’t changed a bit. Even with the member swaps, the guitars have a solid crunch and the bass heavy approach from Worlds Torn Asunder has been retained. There’s also vocalist John Kevill’s performance to consider; say what you will but it just wouldn’t be a Warbringer album without his Mille Petrozza style shrieking.

But with the changes on here comes the hunch that they could’ve gone into an even more grandiose direction with this effort. The songs on here are all well written but there’s nothing that quite matches the epic scope that was predicted on tracks like “Demonic Ecstasy” and “Shadow From The Tomb.” It also would’ve been cool to see another one of their instrumentals at work but the closing acoustics on “Horizon” do capture a similar feeling.

Overall, Warbringer’s fourth album is a small step from their first three but the variety results in what may be their most accessible release. Some may dispute the changes but they do keep the album from sounding stagnant and don’t affect the band’s presentation all that much at the end of the day. Other bands like Megadeth and Testament made better albums under similar circumstances but Warbringer may have had one of the smoothest transitions.

“The Turning Of The Gears”
“One Dimension”
“Towers Of The Serpent”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review of Motorhead's Aftershock

Every Motorhead review ever written starts with some statement about the band’s apparent invincibility and unwavering persistence, but their infallible reputation has been slightly shaken over the last year. Iconic vocalist/bassist Lemmy Kilmister’s recent health troubles have caused some alterations to their touring schedule, leading some to question the band’s future as a fully functional unit. Fortunately, Motorhead’s twenty-first studio album adheres to their longstanding status quo while reviving a few tricks that haven’t been seen in some time.

Even with health scares to consider, it’s safe to say the band dynamic hasn’t changed a bit. Lemmy’s vocals retain their slurred but commanding croaks, his ferocious bass playing often leads to guitarist Phil Campbell playing a lot of catch up, and Mikkey Dee’s drumming is as rapid fire as ever. The clear production and chorus-oriented songwriting also make it quite similar to the efforts that have been put out since 2004’s Inferno.

But with there being fourteen tracks on here, more than any other Motorhead album, it does end up being one of their more diverse releases. In fact, it has a fair amount in common with 1977’s Overkill. In addition to many tracks having a less than three minute run time and a fast punk execution, “Lost Woman Blues” plays like a mellower version of “Limb From Limb” and the melancholic “Dust And Glass” has a psychedelic tone that recalls “Metropolis” or “Capricorn.” There’s no track as massive as “Overkill,” but “End Of Time” does come close to matching its intensity.

Of course, having fourteen tracks also means that there are some bits of filler to be found. Even the most casual fan can tell you that there is no such thing as a bad Motorhead song but a number of tracks do run together, especially towards the album’s end. The highlights make up for them as always but even those seem like they needed more development or more dynamic song structures.

Overall, Aftershock has a few tweaks that make it more unique than its most recent predecessors but is about even with them in terms of quality. It doesn’t have the fire to challenge the likes of Inferno but it secures the band’s standing in a more uncertain time. I’m still holding out for a bluesier direction, but the classic aspirations may be enough to recommend it to established fans.

Current Highlights:
“Lost Woman Blues”
“End Of Time”
“Do You Believe”
“Silence When You Speak To Me”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Local Love: Review of Stone Magnum's From Time... To Eternity

Stone Magnum’s second album may only be out a year after their self-titled debut, but they’ve already gone through some noticeable changes. Following guitarist Dean Tavernier’s decision to stop performing vocals, Nick Hernandez was recruited and Ben Elliot was also picked up for bass duties. These moves aren’t enough to suggest a name change but they do make From Time… to Eternity a different animal compared to the one before it.

 While Stone Magnum’s debut was largely caught in the crossfire of 80s Sabbath and Scott Reagers-era Saint Vitus, this album is immersed in the throes of early Candlemass worship. The production is cleaner, the guitar riffs are of a more melodic and mystical nature, and the operatic vocals are torn between Johan Langquist and Messiah Marcolin. This style is best demonstrated on “The Gallows of Ohrdruf,” which might be the best track here thanks to it sounding like it could’ve come straight from Epicus Doomicus Metallicus.

This shift not only makes the album sound more unified but also results in a more stable band dynamic. Tavernier’s thin wail did have a certain uniqueness to it but there’s no denying that the vocal switch was a smart move as Hernandez offers an approach that’s easier to get a feel for. The songwriting is also more complex, no thanks to the guitars getting a little more freedom this time around.

But on the flip side, the unity does mean that the songwriting has a little less diversity to it. Having only seven songs on here does result in a lack of filler but there aren’t many moments that go beyond your standard doom pace. Songs like “Lonely God” and “By An Omen I Went” do have a rock flair and the climax of “Uncontained” opts for a faster direction, but it would’ve been great to see an anthem like “Pictures of Your Life” on here.

Overall, From Time… To Eternity is one of the more noteworthy efforts of 2013 and should secure Stone Magnum as a staple in the doom metal community. It may be easier to recommend it to new listeners over the debut but the two may be about even as far as quality goes. It certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea to get the edition that has both albums together. Give that a listen and we’ll see where they go from here!

Current Highlights:
“Lonely God”
“In Tongues They Whisper”
“The Gallows of Ohrdurf”
“By An Omen I Went”

Monday, October 14, 2013

Review of Dream Theater's Self-Titled Album

Some may deem them uncreative, but self-titled albums often have interesting purposes in a band’s discography. Unless it is released as a group’s debut, a self-titled album usually suggests a dramatic change of direction or serves as a statement of their core tenets. Like A Dramatic Turn Of Events before it, Dream Theater’s twelfth studio effort and second with drummer Mike Mangini aims to be your quintessential Dream Theater album but has a few elements that set it apart from that particular release.

While the appropriately symphonic “False Awakening Suite” and lead single “The Enemy Within” initially hint at a heavier, more theatrical direction, the bulk of Dream Theater is actually driven by the tropes that defined efforts such as Octavarium and Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. The influence of other bands is back on their sleeves as “The Looking Glass” and “Surrender to Reason” channel the pep of early 80s Rush while “The Bigger Picture” and “Along For The Ride” serves as the token ballads. Elsewhere, “Enigma Machine” is the first instrumental to be seen since the Train Of Thought days and “Illumination Theory” is another one of the band’s beloved twenty-minute epics.

The musicians also offer their typical virtuosities though the dynamic seems to be shaken up a bit. John Petrucci’s guitars and Jordan Rudess’s effects continue to assert their dominance and the drums have integrated well enough, but bassist John Myung appears to be the album’s standout contributor as his performance is his most energetic since Falling Into Infinity. On the flip side, James LaBrie’s vocal performance will continue to divide listeners though there are a few signs of slippage that even the most dedicated of fanboys will notice. He still works well with the material but the cringe-worthy wails during the climaxes of “Illumination Theory” threaten to derail an otherwise solid closer.

 But for an album that features shorter song lengths and a less than seventy minute run time, it is strange to note that its biggest flaw is a lack of true catchiness. Detractors have always been quick to identify Dream Theater as a band only capable of endless wanking and cornier lyrics, but they have known how to craft a good chorus and have many a grand riff in their repertoire. A few tracks like “The Bigger Picture” and “Behind The Veil” do come close to reaching this point, but most of the songs are rather interchangeable despite the album’s variety. They’re still good enough but aren’t as memorable as usual.

Overall, Dream Theater’s self-titled venture is a solid release that mixes good songs with a looming threat of stagnancy. It might not be a bad idea for the band to consider recharging their batteries in the near future, but a return to a heavier sound or even entertaining the idea of another concept album could make for an equally satisfying remedy. There is still some enjoyment to be found here but it’d be best to get the new albums by Queensryche and Fates Warning if you want to hear the old prog metal elite at its best.

Current Highlights:
“False Awakening Suite”
“The Enemy Inside”
“The Bigger Picture”
“Behind the Veil”
“Illumination Theory”