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”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review of Fates Warning's Darkness In A Different Light

Much like the case with Black Sabbath, Fates Warning released their first album in nine years under some odd circumstances. Sporadic activity and numerous side projects cast the prog giants’ future in doubt, but they’ve come back with an album that is stronger than anticipated. They even brought touring drummer Bobby Jarzombek and classic guitarist Frank Aresti along for the ride, drawing even more comparisons to the Arch/Matheos project that was spawned in 2011.

Fates Warning and Arch/Matheos may have the same players in their ranks aside from the singers fronting them but each project does have a distinct sound to it. While Sympathetic Resonance exerted long song lengths with a dark prog metal execution, Darkness in a Different Light offers a more accessible approach. The songs are shorter in comparison and tracks like “Desire” and “I Am” sound more like Soundgarden or Tool than Dream Theater. This album also has a more contemplative side with “Lighthouse” and “Falling” sounding like lost OSI tracks.

Of course, there are some inevitable similarities to their sister project. There are some heavy tracks to be found as “One Thousand Fires” starts things off with an appropriately fiery delivery and “Kneel and Obey” has a crunchy riff or two to match the slower tempo. “And Yet It Moves” is the strongest overall connection as it goes through several changes over the course of fourteen minutes.

And like any Fates Warning album, the performances are what truly sell it. Ray Alder may have lost his higher register years ago but his lower range has held up and works well with the material at hand. The rhythm section is also incredibly tight as Joey Vera’s bass playing is some of the best that the band has ever had and the drumming is consistent intricate through even the simplest of grooves.

Sympathetic Resonance may have been a touch more worth of the Fates Warning banner but Darkness in a Different Light is a surprisingly satisfying comeback. The style may be tricky to get into but it is executed well and the band sticks to its strengths. It’s hard to tell which project has more momentum behind it but the players still have plenty of life in them.

“One Thousand Fires”
“I Am”
“And Yet It Moves”

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Look Back At Black Sabbath's Seventh Star

Originally intended to be Tony Iommi’s solo debut, there is no denying that Seventh Star has the oddest status in the Black Sabbath discography. It doesn’t get torn apart like Forbidden or divides opinion quite like Born Again, but rather seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle with its successor The Eternal Idol. Context aside, this album is still responsible for many of the tropes that the band would come to adopt through the late 80s and early 90s.

In addition to being the first Sabbath album to feature Iommi as its sole original member, Seventh Star saw them fully embracing styles that had merely been hinted at before. Songs like “In For The Kill” and “Turn To Stone” show a proto-power metal sound that Dio never could’ve predicted while “Heart Like A Wheel” is the band’s first glimpse at the blues since their earliest days. There is also inevitable influence from the time period in its prominent keyboards, reverb heavy production, and all-out power balladry on “No Stranger To Love” and “In Memory.”

The lineup may result in a faceless rhythm section but the overall performances are worth noting. Iommi himself is as smooth as always though his leads are more focused than his riffs as the always-underrated Geoff Nicholls dominates “The Sphinx” and brings some nice Hammond touches to “Angry Heart.” On the other hand, vocal legend Glenn Hughes contribution is sure to divide listeners as he provides his amazing range and soul but lacks the atmosphere that truly makes a standout Sabbath singer. At least Joe Lynn Turner was busy at the time…

And with that to consider, it is hard to recommend this to traditional Sabbath fans. It doesn’t quite match the riff-driven Ozzy era, the majesty of the Dio era, or even the B-movie darkness of their other 80s ventures. The new sounds are also a point of concern as they provide a source of transition but ultimately make the album a true product of its time.

Black Sabbath’s twelfth studio album may essentially be the best album that Rainbow never made, but it may have more in common with their other efforts from the decade than one would initially think. It is worth wondering how things would’ve been if this had been released properly, but thankfully the band evolved well from here and Tony for a few more chances at a solo career in later years. I’d go for Fused to hear an astounding Iommi/Hughes collaboration or Headless Cross for the best of late 80s Sabbath but this is still worth looking into if you get the chance.

Current Highlights:
“In For The Kill”
“No Stranger To Love”
“Heart Like A Wheel”
“Angry Heart”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Look Back at Witchfinder General's Death Penalty

Witchfinder General was one of the more fascinating bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Movement. Despite having a short run that offered very little success, the two albums released in their early 80s heyday showcased a unique sound that proved to be incredibly influential in the development of the doom metal subgenre. 1982’s Death Penalty makes for a fascinating debut as it shows how they were deserving of their accolades despite sounding like what would happen if the guys from Wayne’s World ever tried their hands at Sabbath worship…

For starters, the band members’ inexperience is made glaringly obvious throughout the album. Phil Cope’s guitar playing may be competent but the production job makes the drums sound like cardboard, the bass is only heard on rare spots, and the vocals are an acquired taste at their best. While Zeeb Parkes has a decent voice that recalls a cross between Ozzy and Diamond Head’s Sean Harris, he lacks charisma and even basic technique at times with “Invisible Hate” suffering the most due to some horribly executed voice cracks.

The lyrics are also worth noting, as they seem to follow Venom’s old school example of sex, drugs, and the Devil. Of course, many of the early 80s bands executed these now dated themes with a pronounced sense of menace or camp, but Witchfinder General’s method is much more vapid. The occult themes on songs like “Burning A Sinner” and “R.I.P.” are close to their Hammer Film aspirations but they lack the foreboding sense that made Sabbath’s horror themes so inspiring. In addition, “Free Country” is a rather lame drug anthem and “No Stayer” has some of the worst lyrics ever written.

But with that said, almost all of these faults are redeemed by the facts that Parkes and Cope happened to be a pretty good songwriting team. Even with their dumb lyrics, “Free Country” and “No Stayer” are actually among the best songs on here as the former rides some punk influence and the latter offers an equally upbeat introduction before going into some fun hard rock riffs. The album’s last three songs will also be of particular interest to traditional doom fans with “R.I.P.” offering some catchy vocal lines and “Burning A Sinner” matching a groovy main riff with the most jovial chorus ever written about a woman burning at the stake.

Some people always claim that a given band never rose above an obscure status due to record company politics or what have you, but there is often another very visible reason for why that band never caught on. Much like Anvil, Witchfinder General was a band worth praising on the basis of their influence but could never be a household name due to their rather boneheaded approach. Death Penalty offers some well-written proto-doom for fans of the genre and some unintentional comedy for everyone else. I would recommend a Saint Vitus or Pentagram album before it, but it’s a purchase that’s pretty hard to regret either way.

Current Highlights:
“Free Country”
“No Stayer”
“Burning A Sinner”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review of Lords Of The Trident's Plan Of Attack

Hailing from the most metal land of Wisconsin, Lords of the Trident is one of the more over the top bands in an already over the top genre. While their goofy themes and stage personas make them seem like power metal’s answer to Lordi or GWAR, the actual music is quite energetic and well put together for an emerging group. This EP is their latest studio effort, with there being two full-lengths before this one, and sums the band up pretty well in just four songs.

While the production is quite sanitized, Lords of the Trident sits pretty securely in the American power metal style. The guitars are as melodic as they are fast and the vocals range from mid-range cleans that recall Pharaoh’s Tim Aymar to intentionally cheesy falsettos that bring bands like Cage and 3 Inches of Blood to mind. There is also a slight folk metal side that is prominent at the climax of the particularly stirring “Song Of The Wind And Sea.”

But aside from that borderline ballad, the other three songs generally opt for a much more upbeat pace with plenty of memorable hooks. “Complete Control” may be the most distinct track as it provides the most straightforward performance and opens the EP with attention grabbing wails that would’ve flopped in the hands of a lesser singer. From there, the title track brings in a strong gallop attached to an uplifting chorus and “The Joust” closes things out in an epic fashion.

While I have yet to hear the two albums before this one in full, Plan Of Attack manages to be an excellently executed EP. The song titles and lyrics don’t seem to be as silly as before, but there is still enough camp to keep things entertaining and good enough writing to keep it from straying too far into the standard comedy rock traps. Highly recommended to power metal fans across the board.

Current Highlights:
“Complete Control”
“Song Of The Wind and Sea”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review of Dream Death's Somnium Excessum

Despite only releasing one album in their heyday, 1987’s Journey Into Mystery, Pittsburgh’s Dream Death came to be a noteworthy influence in the underground metal community thanks to their thrashy doom blend of Celtic Frost worship. Now that the outfit has been bitten by the reunion bug and released their long-awaited sophomore effort, it is interesting to see how close they’ve kept to the original vision after over twenty-five years.

With Somnium Excessum translating roughly to “Dream Death,” it’s a relief that the album has a lot of the tropes that made their debut so distinct. The riffs are still packed with filth, the tempos and structures are all over the place, and guitarist/vocalist Brian Lawrence’s half spoken, half growled delivery has not withered with time. The band does benefit from some modern production, but it’s done more to bring out Richard Freund’s bass than to provide the sound with any real polish.

But even with those elements secured, there are some modifications that have taken place. This album actually manages to be more dynamic than its 80s counterpart as “Them” and “Bludgeon” bring in quieter sections to build a haunting atmosphere. In addition, the songwriting may be even more complex than before as there aren’t any songs that’ll stay on the same segment for long. The opening “Feast” may be the easiest track to get a feel for and “Dystopian Distress Signal” is bookended by a few catchy riffs but it doesn’t spend as much time on them as I’d like.

In a smart move, the band decided to only put six songs on this effort, allowing more care to be put into each track and keeping the tempo changes from getting too exhausting. It’s a little tricky to pick the best track since each one finds a way to stand out but “You’re Gonna Die Up There” is arguably the most distinct, coming the closest to fully exploiting their thrash side. Props must also be given to the closing “From Inside The Walls” as it manages to keep an unsettling tone through its nearly twelve minute duration.

Somnium Excessum may be one of 2013’s harder albums to get a feel for but it makes for a satisfying Dream Death reunion. There’s not a song on here as truly spell binding as “Sealed In Blood” but it may arguably be more consistent as the songs on here tend to feel unified. You should still go for their classic first but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try them both out at the same time.

Current Highlights:
“You’re Gonna Die Up There”
“From Inside The Walls”

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Look Back at Dream Death's Journey Into Mystery

Dream Death was one of the more interesting cult bands in the late 80s metal scene. Having had a short initial run, the band members eventually found greener pastures in Penance but have also enjoyed their status with a recent reunion. While 2013 would see the release of their sophomore album Somnium Excessum, this 1987 effort is the only full-length from their prime and has proved to be an influential though obscure listen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dream Death didn’t really fit into a particular scene in their early days. Their style of doom was more unhinged than Saint Vitus or Pentagram but wasn’t as extreme as the sludge and death/doom that they would help inspire. Instead, they played an odd fusion of doom and thrash metal with Celtic Frost, Slayer, Venom, and the obligatory Black Sabbath as influences.

These cues can be heard in the riffs and muddy production job, but the vocals are where it stands out the most. Clearly inspired by Tom G Warrior with some Tom Araya inflections here and there, guitarist/vocalist Brian Lawrence has a harsh bark with an almost spoken word approach. It can run the risk of sounding bland but it definitely fits the filthy atmosphere in a way that a standard death grunt just couldn’t.

The songwriting is also diverse and covers the doom to thrash spectrum, oftentimes in the same song. The opening “Back From The Dead” and “Dream Death” show more thrash, “The Elder Race” and “Sealed In Blood” offer the most doom, and other like “Bitterness & Hatred” and “Divine In Agony” are a little harder to predict. The results are a mixed bag as four songs are pretty much perfect and the others range from great to somewhat directionless.

A couple lesser songs bring it down a notch, but Journey Into Mystery should be seen as a classic doom release. While there are more influential efforts from this period, its uniqueness makes it worth checking out and it definitely grows on you with repeated listens. And since the band has put out a solid comeback, I suppose we can finally stop wondering what could’ve been.

Current Highlights:
“Back From The Dead”
“The Elder Race”
“Sealed In Blood”
“Dream Death”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review of Hatriot's Heroes Of Origin

It seems like the metal community has been experiencing more intergenerational camaraderie in recent years. Ol Drake of Evile had a brief stint as Destruction’s touring guitarist, Gary Holt produced a Warbringer album, and a whole new can of worms was opened when Max Cavalera revealed that his son would be the newest drummer for Soulfly.

Cue the debut of Hatriot (or Hat Riot as I like to call them), a new thrash band featuring former Exodus/Tenet vocalist Steve “Zetro” Sousa alongside a group of kids that includes his two sons as the rhythm section. Fortunately any signs of nepotism are lost as the group offers a pretty solid debut.

Considering how dear old Zetro is the band’s mastermind, it goes without saying that their first outing feels like it could’ve been a follow-up to Exodus’s Tempo Of The Damned. The production has a clean but crisp tone, the guitars run through numerous trade-offs and harmonies, and the vocals are as pissed off as ever. They even one-up some of his alma mater’s recent work with shorter songs, more extreme drumming, gang vocals, and those punny lyrics that every thrash band was obsessed with using back in the day.

Of course, Heroes Of Origin still has a few quirks to it. The production is somehow even cleaner than your typical Andy Sneap sound-alike with the drums in particular sounding rather triggered and the songs generally operate at faster tempos with very little room to groove. In addition, Zetro seems to be falling into the Tom Araya trap of shrieking at a higher pitch than necessary. His voice is full of energy and never cracks, but you rarely hear the lower Bon Scott sneer that was always his most distinct asset.

And while there aren’t any tracks that make for truly distinct highlights, they’re all well constructed. Tracks like “Weapons of Class Destruction” and “Murder American Style” offer memorable vocals and guitar runs while “Globicidal” and “The Mechanics of Annihilation” provide the most intense hooks. In addition, “The Violent Time Of My Dark Passenger” has more subdued verses, “And Your Children To Be Damned” dabbles with more guttural flourishes, and “Shadows Of The Buried” starts off with the album’s sole slower moment before picking up speed.

Hatriot’s debut album shows a good balance of old and new elements as it gives thrash fans a sound that they’ve been clamoring for while leaving room for further development. It’s not at the level of a modern classic but it is the kind of album that makes one wonder what could happen if more band mentoring took place in this fashion. And considering how this is supposed to be the Kill ‘Em All of the band’s career, we’ll just see where they’ll go from here.

Current Highlights:
“Weapons of Class Destruction”
“The Violent Time of My Dark Passenger”
“Murder American Style”
“The Mechanics Of Annihilation”

Review of Newsted's Heavy Metal Music

Even though bassist Jason Newsted was Metallica’s butt monkey for the better part of fourteen years, Cliff Burton may be the only member in its history with a more favorable reputation. In addition to not having contributed much to Metallica’s commercial period, he also proved his chops through his stint in Voivod among other projects. Now with the recruitment of Staind guitarist Mike Mushok, Newsted is back with a full-length debut that builds from the Metal EP and lives up to its incredibly bone-headed title.

To answer everyone’s questions right off the bat, this doesn’t sound all that much like Metallia. Newsted’s vocals do have their Hetfieldisms and the music has traits of …And Justice For All and the Loads if you squint a little, but the songwriting and instrumental performances are much more basic in comparison. Albums like Megadeth’s Youthanasia and the last few by Testament make for more accurate comparisons though Motorhead is definitely the leading influence if the gruff vocals and distorted bass are anything to go by.

And when you take Newsted’s extreme meat and potatoes goal in mind, it is rather interesting to see how diverse this effort can be. While it’s presented under a groovy traditional metal umbrella, each side seems to have a certain style to it. Just as tracks like the opening “Heroic Dose” and “Soldierhead” guarantee an upbeat first half, the second half has a doomier direction as “Nocturnus” and “Kindevillusion” offer slower tempos and “Twisted Tail Of The Comet” has a strong stoner groove. There are also a few melodic moments as seen on “Above All” and “King Of The Underdogs.”

But with the variety taken into consideration, Heavy Metal Music isn’t as dynamic as it could’ve been. Newsted’s voice is stronger than expected but his limited range runs the risk of sounding monotonous at times. A few songs do make one wonder how they would’ve turned out with someone like Chuck Billy on the mic and a more skilled backing band in tow, but the overall package is still more competent.

Overall, Newsted’s Heavy Metal Music lives up to its name by serving as your “typical” metal release. The variety offers a lot of promise and the performances allow for consistency, but there is also room to develop from here. It’d be great to see Newsted experiment with their style and try some different vocal techniques, but I may be just as happy with a more creative title. Sometimes that extra effort can make a world of difference.

Current Highlights:
“Heroic Dose”
“Above All”
“Twisted Tail Of The Comet”

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review of Oliva's Raise the Curtain

When you’re as invested in your projects as Jon has been with Savatage and its spinoffs, it is easy to question why you would want to release a solo album. While Oliva does stick to a few of the frontman’s core templates, the last name basis is justified as he picks up a few new conspirators and provides even more experimentation. This may also be the last album to feature contributions frm the late Criss Oliva, effectively bringing an end to what I like to call the Shoebox Era.

Just as Jon Oliva’s Pain and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as seen as offshoots of Savatage, Oliva could certainly be viewed as an extension of Jon Oliva’s Pain. That project’s penchant for theatrics and the vocals’ raspy tone are still secure, as are the layered structures and progressive influences that were developed on 2008’s Global Warning and 2010’s Festival. The appearance of Pain drummer Christopher Kinder also helps with the connection though he doesn’t really shape the sound either way.

What truly sets this apart from past projects is a distinct lack of metal. The upbeat “Big Brother” borders on heavy but there are more prog and classic rock touches than anything else. The title track serves as a cheerful overture in the vein of Styx and Boston, “Father Time” is driven by a light 70s style riff, and snatches of Beatles pop up on “Soldier” and the closing “Can’t Get Away.” A few songs are also made interesting by the inclusion of a horn section with “Ten Years” arguably being the album’s best song because of it.

Of course, Raise The Curtain still has a few flaws despite the successfully lighter direction. While its second half is noticeably darker, the writing is a little jumbled as “Armageddon” has a slightly awkward structure while “Stalker” and “The Witch” blur together. The lyrics are also rather plain though that’s been noticeable with every band that has been formed without Paul O’Neill’s involvement.

As Jon himself points out in the liner notes, Raise The Curtain could be seen as a companion to Savatage’s Handful of Rain. While this effort is much lighter in comparison, they both feature Jon providing a bulk of instrumentation and both have a feeling of closure. Considering how Jon wants to go back to a heavier sound with his next venture, this probably won’t be the last we’ll see of him. Let’s just see how well he does without the shoebox…

Current Highlights:
“Raise The Curtain”
“Ten Years”
“Father Time”
“I Know”
“Big Brother”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review of Megadeth's Super Collider

It’s no secret that Super Collider is already becoming one of the most controversial releases in the Megadeth discography. While the band has certainly pulled off more, since the 90s, but this album is coming out right after they spent a good ten years reclaiming their thrash metal reputation. But while this album will never be worse in the public eye than Risk, it does prove to be a pretty rocky listen.

It is obvious that this album is different when compared to the last few efforts before it, but it’s hard to tell just how it is different. Unlike Risk or Cryptic Writings, there are no blatant sellouts or dance music experimentations. If anything, you could say that it is just a dumbed version of their signature melodic metal as the tempos are slower and the vocals return to a more prominent position.

Of course, these changes do lead to a somewhat disjointed band dynamic. While some training and honest effort led to fairly enjoyable vocals during their last commercial period, Dave Mustaine’s voice just sounds tired and almost bored in this day and age. Thankfully Chris Broderick gets some good leads in when he can and Shawn Drover’s drumming has its moments, but the limited writing means that the talent is more competent than it is impressive. That’s not even going into the banjo on “The Blackest Crow” or the David Draiman influence, though those elements aren’t as offensively prominent as one would think.

Speaking of which, the writing also feels like a mixed bag and seems to lack the hooks the band had gotten really good at putting together. “Burn!” and “Built For War” would’ve been bigger highlights with smoother transitions, “Dance In The Rain” and “Beginning Of Sorrow” have a few pacing issues, and the title track is the kind of hard rock song that makes one wonder why AC/DC couldn’t have gotten to use the title first…

Fortunately, there are still some good moments on here. The opening “Kingmaker” and “Don’t Turn Your Back” make for solid metal tracks as the former channels some Diamond Head influence and the latter features a particularly tight drum performance. The cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cold Sweat” also makes for a decent closer and “Forget To Remember” actually has a few hooks in there though it could’ve been even better in the hands of a more melodic group.

While Super Collider certainly isn’t at the Lulu level of disaster, it is certainly the weakest Megadeth album since The World Needs A Hero. The best moments are when the band sticks to what they’ve been doing since United Abominations and even some of the other good ideas may have been better with other bands performing them. Seriously, doesn’t the title Super Collider sound like it should’ve been for the best AC/DC album in twenty years?

Current Highlights:
“Built For War”
“Forget To Remember”
“Don’t Turn Your Back”
“Cold Sweat”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review of A Pale Horse Named Death's Lay My Soul to Waste

While Sal Abruscato may always be best known for being the original drummer for Type O Negative and Life Of Agony, he’s getting more of a name for himself as the mastermind behind A Pale Horse Named Death. While the group’s 2011 debut was largely collaboration between Sal and guitarist Matt Brown, Lay My Soul To Waste features a full band that includes drummer Johnny Kelly in an amusing fit of irony. Either way, this project successfully carries the dirty goth metal torch once held by the late Peter Steele.

As with their debut, A Pale Horse Named Death’s second release has a similar sound and set of influences as Seventh Void, the other Drab Four spinoff that seems to be more sporadically active in comparison. Type O Negative and Alice In Chains are the leading influences in the grunge doom style though one could also find similarities to Paradise Lost, Kill Devil Hill, and the doom album that Hank Williams III put out a couple years ago.

But while Seventh Void, spent more time on the grunge end of the spectrum, this band is as close to Peter Steele’s vision as you can get. The opening “Shallow Grave” perfectly channels the Bloody Kisses tone with its “Christian Woman” verses, “Black No. 1” drum beats, and a morose chorus that really sends the point home. Tracks like “Growing Old” and “Day Of The Storm” also do a good job of showing off the keyboard-driven slower side last expressed on October Rust and World Coming Down.

Fortunately, there are songs on here that branch into the styles beyond the goth tag. “Dead Of Winter” is a neat acoustic number with a hammering rhythm that plays out like a downer version of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” There are also a few spurts of harsher vocals on the lyrically cheesy “Devil Came With A Smile” and the bridge of “DMSLT.”

When it comes down to it, Lay My Soul to Waste is a great album that makes for an especially entertaining listen for Type O Negative diehards. While no group could ever match their broad influences and lyrical wit, A Pale Horse Named Death still offers good writing and enough diversity to keep things interesting. In the meantime, we’ll just have to see if another Seventh Void effort will ever see the light of day…

Current Highlights:
“Shallow Grave”
“Killer By Night”
“Dead Of Winter”
“Day Of The Storm”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Local Love: Review Of The Gates Of Slumber's Stormcrow

I don’t know whom at Scion came up with the idea to release exclusive music for free on their website, but I owe that guy a beer. I’m not sure how the exact details work, but it makes for some great promotion for everyone involved and shows some great taste if the deals made with bands like the Melvins and Meshuggah are anything to go by. The Gates Of Slumber is one recent participant and has brought drummer Bob Fouts back into the fold with a five song EP available as a free download through Scion AV.

Despite the drummer switch, Stormcrow serves as a direct extension of 2011’s The Wretch as its songs are in the same bare bones doom metal mold. Every track is played out at a lumbering tempo with plenty of heavy riffs, drawn out chords, tricky structures, and downtrodden vocals to spare. The fast-paced climax of “(Devil’s Grip) Driven Insane” may provide a noteworthy pulse but you certainly won’t find another “Coven Of Cain” on here.

Fortunately, the EP format and songwriting skill allows each song to truly stand on its own. “Death March” is probably the most memorable track thanks to the strong vocal delivery, brief bass spot, and Saint Vitus references though “Son of Hades” and “Dragon Caravan” also stand out for their classic riff contributions. In addition, “(Devil’s Grip) Driven Insane” and “Of That Which Can Never Be” do a good job of rounding things out as the former features a strong drum performance and a theme reminiscent of High On Fire’s “Samsara” while the latter makes for the EP’s slowest dirge.

While releasing an EP through Scion for free may be seen as somewhat gimmicky, Stormcrow is a worthy addition to The Gates Of Slumber’s discography and seems to be stronger than a lot of the actual full-lengths in metal this year. While I would definitely recommend an album like The Wretch or Conqueror as a better place to get fully acquainted with the band, this EP does represent their sound well and provides a safe investment for any curious listener. We’ll just have to see how the band evolves from here.

Current Highlights:
“Death March”
“(Devil’s Grip) Driven Insane”
“Son Of Hades”