Friday, September 25, 2015

Review of Symphony X's Underworld

Symphony X has taken their sweet time putting together the albums that have come out since The Odyssey's release in 2002. A slew of side projects and higher profile tours has kept the band members busy along with guitarist Michael Romeo's notorious perfectionism. The frankly similar sounding records have led some to wonder if the band was also starting to run out of ideas. The well still hasn't run dry on Symphony X's ninth studio effort but there are a few causes for concern.

For the most part, Underworld's style is about the same as it was on Paradise Lost and Iconoclast. The tone is as dark as ever and the instrumentation is still largely driven by Romeo's aggressive, downtuned riffs with the odd symphonic flourishes here and there. However, there is a sense of restraint that hasn't been seen on the album before it as the vocals aren't as rough and the songwriting is more melodic. The aim may have been to make a more accessible effort but the approach ironically keeps even the heaviest of songs from hitting as hard as they could.
What keeps this album's head above water is the still great songwriting. While nothing here lives up to the bar set by the awe inspiring "Overture" and a bunch of the pre-choruses sound alike, every song on here manages to be memorable. "Nevermore" and "Without You" proved to be smart single choices due to their solid hooks, "Kiss Of Fire" and "In My Darkest Hour" come close to matching the heaviness of past efforts, "Swan Song" makes for a sweet ballad, and the nine minute "To Hell And Back" and the closing "Legend" channel classic Dream Theater with their upbeat tempos and energetic keyboards.

But like the self-titled Dream Theater album, Underworld starts off excellent but has ideas that leave less of an impact than usual. The songwriting and strong performances still make it an enjoyable listen but it is mere prog metal comfort food compared to their finest outings. I wouldn't call this a disappointment but a new direction may soon be called for.

"Kiss Of Fire"
"Run With The Devil"
"Swan Song"

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of Ghost's Meliora

Ghost may be the best modern example of the band whose success is owe almost entirely to their gimmick but you can't accuse them of being lazy. Their retro rock aim has divided listeners but they put obvious care into their arrangements and have given each of their full-lengths a distinct identity. Ghost's third album isn't an exception to this rule but serves as an overall definition of their signature sound.

While Infestissumam's dramatic foray into symphonic rock was a big leap from the humbler doom pop of Opus Eponymous, Meliora works as a compromise between the two styles. True to the Nameless Ghouls' claims, this is a more riff-driven album as the keyboards and choirs are scaled back and the guitars and even bass get to shine on heavier tracks such as From The Pinnacle To The Pit." However, the theatrics still have their place with the upbeat "Absolution" serving as this album's answer to "Year Zero" and "Deus In Absentia" bringing the choir back for an ominous finale.

And even with this blending at work, the band still stumbles on new ideas to play with. "He Is" may be the most interesting track of the lot due to its gentle acoustic guitar and uplifting vocals giving it a Satanic gospel feel that your mom will love until she realizes what the lyrics are about. On the flip side, the faster riffs and tensely whispered vocals on "Mummy Dust" result in Ghost's most extreme song to date and the "South of Heaven" musings that bookend "Cirice" give the song a forboding tone that Slayer themselves can no longer replicate.
Of course, this album still has its share of flaws. It is a minor nitpick but the two interludes are rather pointless compared to those on past efforts and their awkward positions in the track listing reinforce the idea of them being undeveloped fillers rather than atmospheric boosts. In addition, those don't like Ghost's vocals will remain unconvinced as Papa Emeritus III's voice is just as thin as his "predecessors."

I don't think Ghost will ever top their debut but Meliora may be their best representation. It may better cater to the tastes of those who feel they reached too far on Infestissumam and those new to the band may find this to be a pleasant gateway to explore what the band is all about. It wouldn't surprise me if they stuck to this style but I fully expect to expand even further with future efforts. Let's just hope the gimmick doesn't eclipse things too much...

"From The Pinnacle To The Pit"
"He Is"

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review of Pentagram's Curious Volume

As everyone knows by now, 2011's Last Rites and the accompanying Last Days Here documentary depicted Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling getting off the drugs, crawling out of his parents' basement, and restoring his band's relevancy in the modern doom community. Misfortune has plagued the man in the four years it's been since that album's release but the persisting exposure and return to Peaceville Records are enough to suggest that the band's fifteen minutes may not be up yet. Most miraculously, the lineup changes are minimal by Pentagram standards as drummer "Minnesota" Pete Campbell was brought on, guitarist Victor Griffin left but came back on in time to record the album, and bassist Greg Turley stayed on all the while.

Like the last couple albums before it, the sound of Curious Volume draws more from the classic 70s style than the heavy doom of their first couple full-lengths. But while Show 'Em How tried its hand at energetic rock and Last Rites offered a more contemplative outlook, the album has a noticeably gritty style in comparison. The reflective nature can still be felt in spots, particularly on the closing "Because I Made It," but most of the songs on here have a much more driving nature. This is best seen on "Misunderstood" as its upbeat protopunk riffs make it one of the band's fastest songs since "Drive Me To The Grave."

This subtle shift in style is also reflected in the musicianship. While there aren't too many classic riff driven monsters on here, Griffin's guitar has a rough edge that has arguably not been seen since the days of Be Forewarned. The drums have the typical loose feel and Liebling's vocals don't stray too far from the haggard, lower pitched delivery of Last Rites. This may be the only sound that his voice can sound good with but I'm sure there's an alternate universe where he went down the Ozzy Osbourne route of vocal processing and overcompensation. I'm glad I don't live in that universe.
And true to all Pentagram efforts, Curious Volume is packed with variety. While the start-stop riffing on "Lay Down And Die" starts things off on a slightly awkward note, things pick right back up with the "Black Night" style swing on "The Tempter Push" and "Sufferin'" utilizes the tempo later on to entertaining effect. First Daze Here fans should also be pleased by the inclusion of the bass heavy "Earth Flight" while doom fans will go for the downtrodden grooves on songs such as the title track and "Close The Casket."

Amidst the various lineup changes and tonal shifts that have plagued Pentagram through their forty year career, they've been on a solid plateau in terms of songwriting since Be Forewarned. The same could be said for Curious Volume. It doesn't rise too far above any of their previous efforts but it fits right in with them and may be their most authentic sounding effort since their heyday. Established fans will eat this up and listeners who missed the last couple wouldn't be discouraged from giving this a shot either. No one knows how much Pentagram has left but let's hope they can hang onto Victor Griffin for a while longer.

"The Tempter Push"
"Earth Flight"
"Close The Casket"

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Top 10 Reasons Why The Government Is Basically Customer Service

10. They have access to all of your personal information yet you keep yelling at them
9. They're probably talking shit about you when you're not around
8. No one thinks they're qualified to do their jobs
7. The other departments keep contradicting them
6. They have to get permission from the people who are paying them before they can do anything to help you
5. Endless red tape keeps them from actually being able to help you
4. Their solutions to most of your problems are usually pulled right out of their asses
3. Some of them have been there for too goddamn long
2. You look for even more reasons to not trust them if they're not white
1. It's not that they don't understand what you're going through; they just don't care

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Review of Iron Maiden's The Book of Souls

Much has been made about Iron Maiden's decision to make their sixteenth studio effort a double album. The five year gap between this and The Final Frontier along with Bruce Dickinson's recent health scare lead one to theorize that the band felt the need to demonstrate their refusal to back down in the face of old age. On the other hand, over ninety minutes of music gives a lot of fuel for people who believe that the band's "progressive era" has grown more self indulgent with each successive release. The answer seems to be somewhere between these two ideas but The Book Of Souls manages to be an enjoyable listen either way.

For the most part, The Book Of Souls doesn't stray too far from the template that was used on A Matter Of Life And Death and The Final Frontier. The songwriting offers a good deal of variety but still largely matches upbeat tempos and drawn out structures under a darkly introspective umbrella. In an odd twist, Steve Harris's omniscient bass playing might be the least prominent it's ever been and Nicko McBrain's drums play more of a backing role to match. Fortunately, the triple guitar attack rolls with Kevin Shirley's muddy production job well enough and the strength of Bruce's vocal lines make up for any signs of strain.

Going along with that, there do seem to be a few more nods to the band's distant past than usual on here. "Speed Of Light" channels the hard rock grit better than anything on No Prayer For The Dying ever did and the title track is somewhere between "Seventh Son" and "Mother Russia" before hitting "Losfer Words" style speed metal at the halfway point. On the flip side, the intro to "Shadows Of The Valley" may be a little too close to "Wasted Years" for comfort and "The Red And The Black" attempts to match the tone of "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" but doesn't have enough going on to really justify the thirteen minute running time.

Fortunately, there are still a few curveballs bookending the album that keep things interesting. The synths and spacy vocal effects on "If Eternity Should Fail" make it a slightly jarring opener but the smooth transitions work well and the writing style wouldn't make it too out of place one of Bruce's solo albums. "When The River Runs Deep" uses similarly smooth transitions while the mid-tempo riffs on "Tears Of A Clown" make it one of the band's most straightforward tracks in some time.

And it would be blasphemy to not bring up "Empire Of The Clouds," an eighteen minute epic penned solely by Dickinson. While the lyrics are on an "Alexander The Great" level of dryness and the composition could probably have had a couple minutes trimmed in the middle, the piano driving the piece works quite well and it does have a more cinematic scale compared to many of Maiden's other epics. It's stuff like this and "If Eternity Should Fail" that make me hope Bruce has at least one more solo album left in him...

Even with its more ambitious nature, The Book of Souls just ends up being another good modern day Iron Maiden album. Anyone hailing this one as their best since [insert 80s classic here] hasn't properly acquainted themselves with Brave New World or The X Factor and anyone who says that this is too bloated has probably been saying that about the band in general for nearly a decade. Cutting "The Red And The Black" probably would've made this better than their last couple but not by a drastic amount. At the end of the day, you gotta the band credit for not getting lazy and for aging more gracefully than every other band at their level.

"If Eternity Should Fail"
"Speed Of Light"
"When The River Runs Deep"
"Tears Of A Clown"
"Empire Of The Clouds"