025: Roswell Six – Terra Incognita: Beyond the Horizon
024: Bloodbound – Tabula Rasa
023: Queensryche – American Soldier
022: Karmakanic – Who’s the Boss in the Factory?
021: Opeth – Watershed
020: Edguy – Tinnitus Sanctus
019: Gamma Ray – Hell Yeah! DVD
018: Beardfish – Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two
017: Demians – Building an Empire
016: Evergrey – Torn
015: Odin’s Court – Deathanity
014: Iced Earth – The Crucible of Man
013: The Tangent – Not as Good as the Book
012: Pyramaze – Immortal
011: Chris Caffery – Pins and Needles
010: Asia – Phoenix
009: Royal Hunt – Collision Course: Paradox II
008: Firewind – The Premonition (Nick)
007: Firewind – The Premonition (Jeff)
006: Ayreon – 01011001
005: Fish – Communion
004: Rob Rock – Garden of Chaos
003: Vanishing Point – The Fourth Season
002: Gamma Ray – Land of the Free: Part II
001: Dominici – O3, A Trilogy: Part III
Band: Roswell Six
Album: Terra Incognita: Beyond the Horizon
When people hear the term super-group, they generally think only of a well known bunch of musicians collaborating in a band or project. However Roswell Six takes the term a step farther, as it not only brings forth musicians such as James LaBrie, Erik Norlander, Lana Lane, John Payne, and Gary Wehrkamp, but also international best-selling science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson who not only collaborated with his wife to write the lyrics for the album, but also wrote an entire novel, The Edge of the World, on which those lyrics are based.
Musically, the album is fronted by Rocket Scientists main man Erik Norlander, who is credited with composing the album, keyboards, and as the album’s mixer. Because of this it should come as no surprise when you run across sections that may remind you of his solo work, or his work with the Rocket Scientists. Perhaps the biggest instance of this is “Letters in a Bottle” which features Erik’s wife, and frequent collaborator Lana Lane. All of this however, is more of an observation than it is a complaint. For the most part Erik’s compositions are excellent, and they range from the epic opening track “Ishalem”, to the straight forward and rocking “I Am the Point”, to the instrumental “The Sinking of the Luminara”, to the soft ballad “Merciful Tides”. However one of my biggest complaints is that the album is laced with excellent composers like Gary Wehrkamp and John Payne, but you don’t really hear any influence from them in the music at all. I believe a better album could have been made if they had contributed to the composition, instead of being restricted to doing just guitars and vocals respectively. Similarly, I don’t believe that the musicians on the album were used to their fullest extent. Musically the album is very subdued from many of the instruments perspectives, and I don’t think the vocalists, especially James LaBrie were fully utilized on the album, and some of the vocal melodies just don’t seem right. I think a quick listen to Ayreon’s The Human Equation would have shown how well James LaBrie can be used in the context of a somewhat similar album.
These of course, are complaints mainly of what could have been, whereas we are dealing with what Terra Incognita: Beyond the Horizon is, and it is a very well constructed project, and a very strong musical effort by Erik Norlander. The sound and mix is very good, the songs are memorable, and as a whole the entire album works together along with transition text in the booklet to make this the perfect compliment to The Edge of the World novel. The multiple characters, and by extension vocalists, go a long way in making the tracks stand out against one another, and so far this is the most impressive work to come out this year.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Album: Tabula Rasa
Bloodbound’s first two albums were generally a mixed bag of melodic metal. 2005’s “Nosferatu” was a much more traditional power metal affair, while 2007’s “Book of the Dead” somewhat explored the hard rock world courtesy of ex-Jaded Heart vocalist Michael Bormann. Now, with 2009’s “Tabula Rasa”, the band has seen the return of their original vocalist, ex-Tad Morose front man Urban Breed. To say the least, he is in fine form here. The album’s name is derived from the Latin for “Blank Slate”, and I think this says a lot about the album. A lot of the lyrics here are dealing with subjects of starting over, and changing the past, or at least changing for the future. Also, I think the title may have been used to somehow represent the supposed “clean slate” in the return of an ex-member. Either way , I feel the album’s title was very fitting.
Things get off to a very heavy start, as per the intro to “Sweet Dreams of Madness”. This really helps to establish the tone of the album. Gone are the Iron Maiden-esque “whoa” melodies and harmonized leads, and in have come some very heavy, almost thrashy, melodic death metal-esque riffs. Fans of melodic power metal fear not, for the band has retained it’s great sense of melody, it is just used as a counterpoint to really great heavy edge the new style of riffs bring. The album’s opening track also helps to establish another big theme of the album – killer hooks and very memorable, powerful choruses. The breakdown before the solo also has a really great set of riffs accompanied by a more rhythmically driven vocal passage. “Dominion 5” moves in more of a melodic death metal rhythmic direction as far as the rhythm guitars go, show from just the very intro. Again, great hooks, melodies, and riffs abound. The final vocal-driven section is probably my favorite 20-odd seconds on the whole disc. “Take One” is the band’s choice for a pre-release single and is more or less in the same vein, although probably a bit less heavy and a bit more power metal-esque. The album’s odd pair of title tracks are among the more catchy pieces on the album, mainly the predecessor. We are given the basic “obligatory” ballad in the form of “Night Touches You”, though it is certainly less predictably ballad-like and cheesy than the ballad offering from “Book of the Dead”. The second half of the album is, as almost expected, a little less impressive than the first. However, this is not to say it is in any way bad. The songs just aren’t quite as good as those dominating the first half. Near the end of the effort, “All Rights Reserved” proves to be another highlight.
In summary, I think Tabula Rasa is a VERY big and important step forward for this band. One of the first things I noticed is that these songs are averagely shorter than those on the band’s first two albums, and I think they benefit from that. I think the band managed to trim unnecessary fat off of many of the tracks, such as over-repeated choruses and excess runs through the same harmonies. The result is a very punchy and aggressive, yet amazingly melodic and memorable modern melodic metal album. I think this album has enough heaviness to satisfy all those people who bitch that power metal is often just ball-less fairy music, yet also has melodies and hooks out the ass to satisfy all of the people who love melodic metal and are looking to get that out the album. All in all, this is definitely the first 2009 release I have heard that has actually wowed me, and I think that my top albums list come December will favor it quite well.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Album: American Soldier
Queensryche, or at least Geoff Tate, seem to be patting themselves on the back because of what an ambitious project American Soldier was. Tate interviewed dozens of service men and women in order to prepare for the record. However I believe what the fans really care about is the music, and not the lyrical or conceptual inspiration. There is no question that ever since Chris DeGarmo’s departure Queensryche have been losing fans, but I think American Soldier might finally be a turnaround in that trend.
For starters Mike Stone left the band prior to the writing of and recording of the record, this left Wilton on full guitar recording duties, the first time a sole guitarist has recorded all the parts on a record in the history of Queensryche. This is directly linked to the first big achievement of this record, a guitar tone Queensryche fans know and love. In addition I think Queensryche fans will readily identify with a lot of the acoustic guitar found throughout the record. Also, the absence of Mike Stone led to Kelly Gray and Damon Johnson (Slave to the System) to assist Geoff Tate and producer Jason Slater in the writing of the record.
The results of this are possibly the best record Queensryche have produced since Promised Land. Although stylistically the record is not the progressive-metal old school Queensryche fans are used to, there is a return in quality to the music of a new style. Perhaps the best term I’ve heard to describe it is, “Mid-tempo hard rock”, and even if it’s not the style Queensryche fans were dreaming for, I think what’s important is that at least it’s good.
The album opens with “Sliver”, which aside from some perhaps overly aggressive side vocals is a fantastic track and one of the best kick off tracks to a Queensryche album in many years. I especially enjoy the light acoustic guitar work that sits in the background for the verses. The next track, “Unafraid” is again a solid track except for the fact that the soldier sound clips used outnumber the actual number of sung lines. However you pretty much forget about that once Wilton busts out a guitar solo that matches or beats pretty much anything on Mindcrime II. The soldier clips return throughout the album, sometimes obtrusively, sometimes simply at the beginning of songs, and for the most part they are used well, usually focusing the idea the song is trying to convey.
As you progress further into the album you will find a consistency that has often been lacking since Promised Land. Although some songs may not be as good as others I don’t think much stands out as being bad, and there are some great tracks scattered throughout the record. The albums lead single, “If I Were King” does a good job of representing the album. The song is mid-tempo, with acoustic guitar supporting the voices, leading into a chorus that picks up in power, and all of it preceded by a soldier’s introduction. The next to last track, “Home Again” I see as being a love/hate song for pretty much anyone who listens to this album. The female voice of the song is done by Geoff Tate’s young daughter, Emily Tate, and personally, I think it works. It will be easy to point out that the concept may be a bit cheesy, his daughter is not a professional singer, and frankly, right now she has a naturally deeper singing voice than her father, but when one considers what the song is about, and the natural emotion of the song, I think a good choice was made.
So, on the record you have good songs, and in start contrast to the last record, a respectable job with the tone and sound. Michael Wilton shines as the lone guitarist on the album, performing some of his best solos in recent years. As a bonus the theme of the album makes it an interesting an interesting album lyrically. On the flipside a lot of the songs are similarly structured and sound a bit alike after awhile, and the music seems to have put a leash on Scott Rockenfield whose drumming sounds much more subdued than it has ever been.
In the end I’d like to say that I certainly enjoy this album a good deal. One can make a criticism that Queensryche as a band didn’t actually write the music, that was handled almost entirely by people brought in from the outside. However that is not a valid criticism for the music of the album, as no matter who wrote it, it is a solid release under the Queensryche name.
Nick’s Grade: B-
Album: Who’s the Boss in the Factory?
Between a music scene which constantly turns to illegal downloading, and a struggling world economy it is easy to see why a good number of bands are cutting down on their output over the past number of years. There are so many bands which had their last new release in 2006, 2005, 2004, or even earlier. The one place this seems not to be the place is Sweden. Hallmark bands of the country like Opeth, Evergrey, and Pain of Salvation remain as productive as ever, and some of the lesser known acts are even more ambitious. The Flower Kings, Beardfish, The Tangent, and what seems like an endless number of side-projects of the members within those and other Swedish eclectic prog bands keep cranking out albums at an impressive rate.
One such side project is Karmakanic, which is masterminded by The Flower Kings bassist Jonas Reingold. Along with a solid core of players the album features over twenty guest appearances, many of which are very minor, but all of which end up giving the album a little bit of extra spice that makes Who’s the Boss in the Factory stand out amongst its contemporaries. Although the album has some serious overtones, it seems to flow with life, much like the country which seemingly inspires its musicians. Upbeat and inspiring the album kicks off with what is its masterpiece, “Send a Message From the Heart”. The twenty minute song features a majority of the guests and documents very well the overall sound of the album. The main difference the album seems to have from many similar albums is that it tends to drop the somewhat drifty or overly atmospheric parts and replace them with more rockin’ and melodic sections.
Following that, “Let in Hollywood” shows itself to be the only partial let-down of the album. Not a bad song it just seems to be missing something; an incomplete thought. From there on the album amazes. The other two long songs on the album, “Who’s the Boss in the Factory?”, and “Two Blocks From the Edge” leave the listener with incredible melodies and sing-alongs and perfectly segue into the final two beautiful ending tracks of the album.
Between his dozen other commitments you can tell Jonas Reingold really put his time and heart into this album, and any fan of Swedish proggers The Flower Kings should go and buy this album immediately, and anyone looking to see what Swedish eclectic prog is all about would do themselves a favor by starting with this album.
Nick’s Grade: A
My first major exposure to Opeth was on the inaugural run of Mike Portnoy’s Progressive Nation tour. On back to back nights I was able to see live what Opeth had to offer, and my conclusions from those shows are very similar to my reactions from the first full length album of theirs I’ve come to own, their 2008 release Watershed.
The album opens with what I believe exemplifies all the best qualities of the band. The song “Coil” features beautiful acoustic guitar melodies that drift the listener through moody and atmospheric sections led by the excellent clean voice of vocalist Mikael Akerfeldt, and the guest female part of Nathalie Lorichs. From there the album makes a major jump in style as it leads to what I’ve come to understand is a fan and live favorite, “Heir Apparent”. Personally I’ve always found growling best used sparingly, and for the emotional punch of a song. That said I’ve never found a reason for growling to be used throughout an entire song, or even for most of one as it tends to ruin the beauty and melody of what can often be a wonderful piece of music. “Heir Apparent” is no exception. Growling aside it features some of the best heavier moments on the album. Often segued by acoustic pieces it probably would have been my favorite track on the album had Mikael chosen to sing the song. “The Lotus Eater” best exemplifies why Mikael should use his clean voice more often. Verses are sung half and half between clean and growling and I can’t help but feel the song is completely lost once he makes the transition. The song does feature what it probably the best instrumental breakdown on the album.
The fourth track, “Burden”, is for me the highlight of the album. Much like “Coil” it shows off what I find to be Opeth’s most appealing qualities. Beautiful vocals, atmospheric bliss, and an appropriate and excellent guitar solo. “Porcelain Heart” shows a very nice middle of the road Opeth. Light at times and somewhat heavier at others you almost forget about the guitars at times as they blend into the near perfect background. When we get to “Hussian Peel” I can’t say much more then I did for “Heir Apparent”, great when there is no growling. The album ends with the song “Hex Omega”, a mellow and brooding piece that sums up the emotion and atmosphere of the album very well.
At the end of the day I can say that if you enjoy growling, you’re probably going to love this album, and if you don’t you are still in for a treat. Even during their heavier moments Opeth often found ways to create soundscapes that you will not hear replicated by many other bands. I am often impressed with how well the keyboards and guitars mold with each other to create a thick and vibrant background. The ability to be soft or heavy, aggressive or restrained, all while performing in front of an atmospheric and soothing background is very difficult to do. Of the points I take off little is for the music, and most is simply for the growling that often destroys otherwise fantastic music.
Nick’s Grade: C
Album: Tinnitus Sanctus
Edguy have been a band of much discussion. 2004’s “Hellfire Club” saw them reach a much larger stage of popularity which has only been growing since. However, 2006’s “Rocket Ride” let a lot of older fans down by it’s more light-hearted, hard-rock direction. Tobias Sammet himself mentioned many things in regards to their brand new album, Tinnitus Sanctus, namely that it would be “less goofy” than Rocket Ride. I had a lot of hopes and fears going into this, figuring it may have been the stamp of death on one of my previously favorite bands.
So, things get started with “Ministry of Saints”, which should please just about any and all fans of the last 3 Edguy albums. The song is heavy, ballsy, and has a helluva catchy chorus that will get stuck in your head and force you to sing along. It’s not particularly power metal, but it certainly embodies the more serious approach Tobias Sammet mentioned. In a way this song is very reminiscent to the better moments of the most recent Avantasia album, “The Scarecrow”. “Sex Fire Religion” is without a doubt my least favorite song to be found on this album. The song isn’t a joke as the title would suggest, in fact it is quite non-jokey by nature. However it is also quite non-good by nature. There’s just not a ton of good stuff going on. The chorus tries to save the song by being more catchy and powerful, but it’s to no avail. The solo is pretty nice though. Ah yes, “The Pride of Creation”. Now THIS is what I’m talking about! Remember the Mandrake album? Remember when Edguy were a cutting edge power metal band mixing both strong melodies and more operatic passages in a style all their own? Well, it’s back. This track is quite fast and full of melodic hooks, boasting a chorus that’s certainly very Queen-inspired. This song oozes traces of “Judas at the Opera” from the Superheroes EP, and is easily in running for the best track on the disc. The solo section is pretty damn excellent as well. Can’t really say enough positive thoughts about this one, even though the lyrics seem a bit goofy, as seems to be the case for 80% of Edguy songs since Mandrake.
“Nine Lives” introduces a motif of a chunk of the album, heavy use of synthy keyboard leads, a la Superheroes. Unfortunately I can’t say a ton about this track. It’s by no means bad, it’s just not particularly good in any way. Catchy chorus, straight-forward heavy rocking song, not too much else to say. “Wake Up Dreaming Black” sees things picking back up-tempo with some really great hooks and a really powerful anthemic chorus. One of the more power metal-ish moments on the album, but it’s certainly no “Fallen Angels” or anything.
“Dragonfly” may get my award for the most unique track on here, as it’s certainly nothing like I would’ve expected. The verses have a nice slow drive to them and the pre-chorus is, as you’d expect, anthemic and catchy. Tobias’s voice tends to shine a bit in the verses here, and each time it hits the pre-chorus I just want to start singing “CALLING YOU! CALLING YOU!”, it’s just irresistibly catchy. The chorus shows a bit of a change of pace from what I was expecting, with some really bombastic vocal choirs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have “Thorn Without a Rose”, who a blind, deaf man could’ve predicted would be Edguy’s obligatory ballad on the album. This song reminds me a lot of “Save Me” from the previous album, but I do prefer the verses of this song, they seem a lot more inspired to me. The chorus is typical catchy-pop-metal-ballad stuff, as was the case with the previously mentioned song. If you liked that, you’ll like this, it’s as simple as that.
“929” brings us back to catchy keyboard leads, and probably takes my cake for the overall catchiest chorus on the album. I’m seeing myself liking this more than most people, because it’s the epitome of my theory of “If you can’t be unique and great, just be really up-tempo and catchy”, and this song is exactly that. This is the kind of song that people are either going to give them crap for or just enjoy, I doubt there will be much middle ground.
Well, if it’s true you should save the best for last, Edguy certainly took heed. “Speedhoven” has definitely impressed me the most of all of the tracks on this album. The intro is fucking BOMBASTIC, reminiscent of the kind of thing Tobias would’ve done circa Theater of Salvation or the first 2 Avantasia albums. The verses are driving and organ-heavy, leading into a really great faster chorus which is among the better moments of this disc in general in my opinion. The track certainly lacks nothing of epicness, clocking in just shy of 8 minutes, and featuring a really nice slow section after the 2nd chorus, which only makes the bombastic solo section and triumphant return that much better. This song really knocked me off of my feet on my first several listens.
Lastly we have “Dead or Rock” which is nothing special. It’s basically a very 70s-rock inspired track, similar to an upbeat Rainbow number. It’s not a joke song, but it’s definitely good fun and still manages to be a solid track on top of that. There’s also a bonus track entitled “Aren’t You a Little Pervert Too” which is a total joke track void of musical merit. It’s basically a 2 minute hoe-down with hilariously filthy lyrics. Total Tobias Sammet in joke mode.
So, in conclusion, what do we have here? I’ll be frank, I really have been enjoying this album. It certainly does feature a true power metal track or two in the form of “Pride of Creation” and “Speedhoven”, and most of the rest of the tracks are certainly not lacking fun hooks and powerful choruses. It’s not the return to form many have been hoping for, but it is certainly a more serious approach to some of what they tried on Rocket Ride, in addition to taking some new chances, some of which seem to have been picked up via the latest Avantasia record. I’m seeing a lot of people knocking this album, but I’m also seeing a lot of people embrace it. I guess you just have to make the call yourself.
Jeff’s Grade: B+
Band: Gamma Ray
Album: Hell Yeah! DVD
For big, or even moderate Gamma Ray fans like myself, this DVD was a long time coming. I’m not simply talking about the fact that it should have been released over a year ago originally. Gamma Ray haven’t released any form of an official live video since Ralf Scheepers was still their singer… over 13 years ago. Until now they had failed to catch the band in their current (and top) form, and luckily this DVD has finally done that.
Disc 1: Live in Montreal
Ah, where to begin. Well, there are a few mild complaints I have, so I might as well get the big one out of the way now. The crowd is mixed too quietly. I advise any first-time listeners to not turn up their speakers during the crowd intro and “Welcome”, because you may blow them out once “Gardens of the Sinner” starts. Ah yes, Gardens of the Sinner. Things get off to a great start, and it becomes pretty apparent right away that the band sounds fantastic. All the instruments are represented at just the right levels, the band is having a great time, and they are playing quite well. The first few songs really get you going, namely the pleasant surprise of “Man on a Mission”, which does much to showcase just how tight of a live outfit Gamma Ray are, ditto for “Fight”. My other complaint is the use of split-screen editing to show 2 or 3 different things at once. The layering effects of this type are neat, but the plainly bordered 2-3 camera views are just kind of unprofessional looking, not to mention kind of annoying because obviously it’s difficult to look at two things at once. However, they don’t use the effect all that much, and the editing aside from that is downright enjoyable, a nice compromise of fast and slow editing, and the lighting just adds to the atmosphere. In my personal opinion the inclusion of tracks such as “Heavy Metal Universe” and “Dream Healer” wasn’t the best decision, but it hardly hurts my opinion of the DVD. Things are great throughout, but really pick up once we hit “Beyond the Black Hole”. “Somewhere Out in Space” may have been the most enjoyable song of the DVD for me, the best way I can describe it is simply “EPIC”. Gamma Ray loves their sing-alongs, and the one in the aforementioned song is about as great as they come. The encores are fantastic as well, including a performance of Kai’s “I Want Out” that should make Helloween green with envy in comparison to how they perform it these days.
Simply put, the main concert on this DVD is a fantastic watch, which casual and hardcore Gamma Ray fans should really enjoy. The band play brilliantly, the sound is excellent, crowd interaction is superb. I can’t register a solid complaint that would detract from my overall enjoyment of this show.
Disc 2: Special Features
I’ll be honest here, I was a little disappointed here. Points were not deducted off of my score for it though, as they are simply added bonus material. “Historay” is a nice compilation of pro-shot bootleg songs, backstage, and studio footage spanning their career, but mainly from the mid-to-late 90s and forward. Good stuff, but I think it would’ve been a good call to include subtitled on the majority of the stuff where they’re speaking German. The whole feature runs about 45 minutes, the longest of all of them.
The Unplugged in Japan footage offers a nice stripped down approach to 4 tracks: Rebellion in Dreamland, Land of the Free, Fairytale, and Send Me a Sign. Nothing special and probably could’ve been done better, but they’re neat to have.
The North American Tour “Documentary” let me down. As with “Historay”, it’s merely a compilation of footage rather than any form of a documentary with commentary. It does offer a number of laughs though and is worth the 20 minute watch.
The promo videos are all neat to have, but I had seen them before and really they’re nothing too impressive. The DVD also features a live version of “Heavy Metal Universe” from Melbourne, Australia.
The final, and in my opinion best of the special features is the Wacken 2003/2006 footage. The 2003 songs (Last Before the Storm, One With the World) are the superior in quality and performance. They’ve been circulating on the internet for a while but are nice to have here. The 2006 footage (Rebellion in Dreamland, Heavy Metal Universe, Somewhere Out in Space) is of a bit lesser quality in both audio and performance itself, not aided by the unfortunate fact that the show was during the day.
So, all in all, what we have here is a fantastic feature DVD with some nice but not amazing bonus features. For Gamma Ray fans big and small, it is definitely worth the $20 you will likely pay for it, and finally captures the Hansen/Richter/Schlacter/Zimmerman lineup live in all its glory. I highly recommend this.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Album: Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two
Are we witnessing the birth of a new king? With Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two, Beardfish have shown they are ready to give their Swedish contemporaries a run for their money. Part Two leap-frogged over the latest albums from The Tangent and The Flower Kings in terms of originality and quality, and in doing so Beardfish have started to establish themselves as a premier eclectic prog act.
The sound of Beardfish manages to be familiar yet incredibly fresh. Their contemporaries make very bright music for the most part, but the music in Part Two manages to seem happier, crisper, and just simply better than what’s come from the other eclectic acts lately. Oddly I think may in fact be a result of less of a focus on composition. For much of the album Beardfish seem to kick back and play, bringing an essence of playing for fun and pure lightheartedness (see: Transatlantic), rather than for a grand composition. However it’s not all fun and games for Beardfish. The album shows off some moments of odd composition and complexity, often moving from light fast moving passages to somehow dark and moody fronted sections.
The second track on the album, and the first proper song, “Into the Night” features some organ as a rhythm instrument through some of the verses, something very fresh and interesting as compared to the normal atmospheric chords that would normally be played. “South of the Border” is an interesting piece about a womanizer who is set up to take a night with a transsexual, and thus realizes he is gay. A variety of musical patterns keeps the song very fresh and it may be my favorite on the album. Lots of sound clips, interesting vocal parts, and a large change of pace near the end of the song keep it fresh and amusing, even if in the course you run into a part of two that make you laugh or cringe. “Cashflow” is the only full length instrumental on the album and suffers from being perhaps a bit too random, odd, and obnoxious. However it still gives a nice vocal-less feel of the groove which makes much of Beardfish’s music tick. “The Downward Spiral-Chimay” starts with a country twang that might seem out of place in most rock and metal, but for the highly unusual and eclectic Beardfish it only helps to strengthen the overall sound. Finally, we have the culmination of two albums, the thirty-five minute “Sleeping in Traffic”. The giant begins with the best instrumental section of the entire album, heavier than most other sections, and shows what the band can do in a bit more straight forward direction. Once the vocals kick in the song weaves through several different sections that seem much more brooding then the rest of the album, helping the lengthy song develop and build. Near the middle of the song the tension is slowly let out as the song mellows and lightens, even including a brilliant section documenting perfected what would happen if Beardfish emerged during the Disco rage. All in all the song is well constructed, many different interesting sections, my only complaint being I wish it would have used the buildup in the beginning better.
Overall I love the sound of the disc, well mixed and very crisp, which serves the band well. The songs stand out against one another, all having something special in their own rite. The instrumentation is not often intense, but is almost always very tasteful and well done. The highlight of the disc is that it can seem so familiar and yet so fresh, something any progressive rock fan will want to check out.
Nick’s Grade: A
Album: Building an Empire
What is the extent of a single man’s capabilities? Well, apparently one man can write and arrange music, sing, play guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, and help mix and master an album. All of this was done by Nicolas Chapel in order to complete the debut work of Demians, Building an Empire. What is amazing about the album is how well Nicolas does everything. The saying often goes, “A jack of all trades, master of none”, however that is not the case here. The songwriting on the album is intricate and fresh. All the instrumental work is well done, as Nicolas shows proficiency at all the instruments he picked up or beat on for the album. And perhaps most shockingly, being as the album was recorded at his home, and it is a debut work, the sound of the album is fantastic! The many instruments Nic brings to the fold are all clear, and well heard in the mix, and the overall presentation of the album is that of a sonic masterpiece.
The music of Demians reminded me a bit of another up and coming InsideOut act, Frost*. There are poppier elements at time, with a lot of intricate songwriting and many minor prog movements that really define it as a whole. Only difference is that I believe Frost* never quite managed to make great songs start to finish when all was said and done, however Demians manages to bring everything home in the end. Building an Empire is not an album that I am going to break down track by track. It is an album that you can put on, sit back, relax, listen, and enjoy. Any time you close your eyes hidden beauty in the music and little subtleties jump out and give you new appreciation for the album.
All that said there are simply points in the album that no matter how many listens I just don’t seem to “get”. Maybe one day they will, or perhaps they’ll always be black spots on the album to me. However they are still minor as they are a small part of an incredible experience packed into just under one hour. The album has been in the works for about half a decade; however that does not take away from how good this album is coming from one mind and body. It is also important to note that the album does not suffer from having only one input. One would not be able to guess that it is one person playing everything. In fact, it only helps that the album came from one man as there is cohesiveness in the piece, everything seems to fit together perfectly, and for good reason.
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the follow up as we did for the debut, as this was an excellent start for Demians. The level of intricacy and quality of sound were two things I did not at all expect in this album, and they with everything made this a fantastic album.
Nick’s Grade: B+
Evergrey have been a trusted name in Progressive Metal for about 10 years now, always capable of delivering their unique brand of melodic progressive metal with a darker twist to it. In the early 2000’s they put out a string of untouchable albums, but then something happened. Two years ago, the band faltered, breaking their streak of otherwise great albums. Monday Morning Apocalypse failed to not only impress me, but many other Evergrey fans. It’s concentration on down-tuned chugga-chugga riffs with little melodic substance to go with it was the first turn off. Second came the annoying vocal effects which really put a damper on Tom Englund’s already sub par vocal performance. And to round out the disappointments, the album sounded very poor, a far cry from Andy Laroque-produced masterpieces of In Search of Truth and Recreation Day. Now that we are faced with a new Evergrey album in the form of “Torn”, there are many many questions in my mind going in. If this was going to be another Monday Morning Apocalypse, I wasn’t even sure I would buy it to keep my collection complete. On the other hand, there was the chance for the band to grasp back at some of their former glory. Thus, I was extremely anxious to hear what they came up with.
Things start off with “Broken Wings”, which does very well to set the tone for the album. It becomes pretty apparent within the first minute what the band’s intentions were here. The band haven’t really diminished the down-tuned heaviness present on the last album, they’ve merely made it more tolerable by accompanying with tasty guitar harmonies and melodic elements, much more in the style of past albums such as Recreation Day. By the time we arrive at the chorus, my foot is already well into tapping. The second verse is a bit of scare, with some of the vocal effects of the last album, but not to worry, it’s one of the only times you’ll hear them on the album. This is surprisingly “up-tempo” by Evergrey standards, but by no means lacks the emotional punch of many of their previous works. This is certainly no “The Masterplan”, but is easily an improvement and did well to put many of my early fears to rest. “Soaked” greets us with a very confrontational vocal-driven intro, which really took me by surprise. This track helps establish a blessing and a curse theme of the album. Many of the verses to be found here are nothing really impressive, but the choruses are really strong and memorable. The solo here is really excellent. I think both Tom and Henrik play parts of it, and the whole thing works really really well. “Fear” follows almost step-by-step in its predecessors tracks… with mediocre verses and a really great chorus. The album’s fourth track, “When Kingdoms Fall” is its second taste of greatness (next to the opener). It offers a nice change of pace, allowing some piano and whatnot to drive the opening verse, rather than the down-tuned guitars. The chorus is another melodic one, featuring another great and emotional vocal performance by Tom Englund. The instrumental section to this one is a real keeper as well, this track is just all around very good, possibly the highlight of the album for me actually.
“In Confidence” really brings nothing new to the table, and falls neither among the best nor weakest tracks on the album. “Fail”, the track the band chose to release in advance, is a good taste of the album, and probably ranks among its better tracks for me. This song doesn’t suffer from the same drastic quality difference between verses and choruses that many others do. The instrumental sections also offer some really sweet guitar harmonies. This track also probably bears more in common with older Evergrey than most of the rest of this CD. The next highlight track to be mention here is the title track, “Torn”. The acoustic guitars on the verses here are a really nice break from the heaviness of the rest of the album, almost reminiscent of something from The Dark Discovery (“As Light is Our Darkness”). This is probably the closest thing this album has to a ballad, and is probably the most emotional track on here, which is saying a lot for a band like Evergrey. “Nothing is Erased” and “Still Walk Alone” are more or less cut from the same mold of good-but-not-greatness, the former being the better of the two. So, we arrive at the final track, “These Scars”, on which a lot of pressure fell. Things get off to a fairly standard start with the verses, but the chorus shows all the rhythm guitars drop out at first, leading the way for a really nice post-chorus harmony which Evergrey can never have too many of. This track treats us to a great underappreciated bonus of Evergrey, Tom’s wife, Carina Englund. She gets an entire vocal passage to herself her, which is really awesome and adds a great touch to the track. Following that we have some nice keyboards which, while being more present here than on MMA, are still under-used. After a nice instrumental section we are returned to the final choruses and instrumental section. The track ends with about 45 seconds worth of orchestral outro in the vein of the track Recreation Day. This track definitely leaves an overall good taste in your mouth.
So, what do we have here? I’ll be frank. There are two things I will say in confidence (pun intended) about this album. First of all, this is a very big improvement over Monday Morning Apocalypse. Second, this is not the glorious return to the past that it could have been. This is no doubt a good, enjoyable album, but it stills fall short of the band’s best works. Any disappointment aside, I am more excited than I am upset, as this album renews my faith in Evergrey, one of my favorite bands. This album proves that they still have all that it takes to delivery some really great material, and I’m happy with it.
Jeff’s Grade: B
Band: Odin’s Court
Based over several states, the eastern US based progressive metal band Odin’s Court has recently put out their first signed release on ProgRock Records, Deathanity. The album shows some improvement, or in most cases maturity over the previous unsigned releases.
Deathanity begins with atmospheric keyboards accompanied by an intro solo that is reminiscent of David Gilmour. Immediately following that is a section that I absolutely love. Reminding me of the early years of my favorite Italian progressive act, Time Machine, from the subtle use of all the instruments, to the unfortunately lacking production of a newer band on a tight budget. As the track changes over to “Volatilestial” the first vocals kick in. Matt Brookins, the lead singer as well as one of two guitarists has an unusual voice that may be hard to digest at first. I would be the first to admit that his voice would not suite many styles of music well, however with the hauntingly dark and emotional pieces created by Odin’s Court he fits his low, drawn back voice like a glove. Near the end of the song the band manages to create a creepy atmospheric bass line to compliment beautiful soling and keyboards, and I’m once again feeling as if David Gilmour had become the lead guitarist of Time Machine. Through the next track, “Manifest Destiny”, keyboards take over as the instrument to take over the moody atmospheric duties. Creating soundscapes behind a steady backing of an array of vocals, subtly dirty guitar tones, and ever shifting drums.
The general sound of Odin’s Court continues throughout the record, often moving from the very laid back and atmospheric to straight forward progressive metal. As one listens the high and low points of the record become very obvious. At the top you have excellent composition. A relatively new band was able to compose a fantastic concept album in which songs flow musically and lyrically, as well as stand on their own as excellent pieces of music. On the other hand the sound of the album could very well be a thorn in the bands side for a long time. The mix is good for the most part; it’s simply the quality of the sound that is lacking on almost every instrument. However as is usual, this slight lacking barely takes away from amazing music.
“Mammonific” manages to be both a dark song at times and upbeat at others, all while staring the guest vocals of Tom Englund. The guitarists show in the song that the laid back soulful soloing is not the only trick up their sleeves as they deliver an upbeat and fast tour de force on the track. The next two tracks are more of what I’d come to expect from the album; Awesome soloing, intricate instrumental work, and a complex layout. The melodies are subdued, span multiple instruments and are usually very well done. Then we come to “Crownet” featuring Tony Kakko. I love Sonata Arctica, and Tony, however I think he was poorly used in a lot of the song. His first vocals seem to come out of nowhere and seem somewhat out of place and odd. Song itself is very good; I just think there could have been better use of Kakko’s voice, although near the end of the song it gets much better than in the beginning.
Near the end of the album we are treated to a fantastic rendition of “Ode to Joy”. It’s a very well done metal cover of the song, but why in the middle of a concept album? The rest of the album is somewhat dark and gloomy, but here is this upbeat optimistic bit near the end of the album. Just struck me as odd, I’d have tacked it onto the end as a bonus track. The next to last song on the album, “Cosmosera” is a love/hate track for me simply depending at what moment of the song is on. Finally, “Vastificant” ends the album on a nice smooth instrumental departure, winding gently till the album concludes.
Although I have several complaints, I also can’t say enough good things about this album. The composition and songwriting is top notch. The band is tight, and the playing is superb. The storyline is immense and well sown into the music. There are certain things that didn’t strike me right, but at the end of the day Deathanity is a very solid “first” effort from Odin’s Court. Biggest complaint is the production, but with a young band that’s to be expected, and I’d also hope that improves with future releases. I would highly recommend checking this album out; Odin’s Court is bound to make a run at America’s progressive metal scene, managing to stay away from the more straightforward and less progressive metal that many “prog” metal bands today love to indulge in. Odin’s Court’s music tends to be more subtle in its genius and that is something not to be overlooked.
Nick’s Grade: C+
Band: Iced Earth
Album: The Crucible of Man
First of all, let’s be honest here. Iced Earth are a love or hate band. I have seldom met anyone in between. At this point in the game, either you’re a fan or you’re not, and one album isn’t going to change this. Iced Earth’s last effort was a bit long winded and not highly original. Few felt like the band had any hope of turning this around for the second part of the conceptual piece, “The Crucible of Man”. However, I must say the return of Matt Barlow to the group’s ranks did give me a good bit of restored faith. Unfortunately I must be quite direct and say this is NOT the glorious return to the Iced Earth of the late 90’s that many, including myself were hoping for.
Things get started here with a very predictable 2-ish minutes of acoustic guitars, choirs, and whatever other pseudo-epicness Jon Schaffer feels like throwing at us. “Behold the Wicked Child” offers a solid chorus, but overall this song is nothing special, basically laying a blueprint for the whole album. One thing that really gets me about this album, like its predecessor, is that rather than Schaffer’s classic way of having his clear-cut distinction between quality and crap songs, on these albums he merely molded the two into one, meaning each song has both good and bad parts, basically making every song more or less “average”. “Minions of the Watch” and “The Revealing” are both short (under 3 minutes) and not surprisingly, neither really accomplish much, just the now-standard mid-paced chugga-chug and Schaffer’s pseudo-intelligent lyrics about what seems to me an ever-more-stupid sci-fi concept. Towards the end of the latter track they embark upon nearly a minute of just stupid pointless riffs. “A Gift or a Curse” had a little bit of promise, being a ballad, but alas it is not to be. Immediately you are greeted by awkward sounding bongos, and many of the vocals present on this track aren’t even Barlow. I don’t know who they are, I’m presuming Jon Schaffer, but I can’t really be sure. I have to say though, the section after the second chorus, around 2 and a half minutes, is pretty damn sweet, I really enjoyed it, the guitar solo is pretty good too, unfortunately they just lead us back to another boring verse.
“Crown of the Fallen” is actually one of the few tracks on the album that I can simply say “I like”, it’s not highly original (nothing on here is), but I at least enjoy the whole thing. “The Dimensional Gauntlet” sees us back to the standard bore chugga fest, including some hilariously silly-sounding lyrics, and of course, 2-odd minutes in, everything drops out so we can have just a stupid riff going on with absolutely nothing to hide its boringness. Up next is “I Walk Alone”. Nothing new here, the chorus isn’t bad, but overall, just nothing new going on here. “Harbinger of Fate” is another ballad, with the verses directly imitating the track “Reflections” from Framing Armageddon. Overall I probably like this more than “A Gift or a Curse”, but the 3rd verse brings back those hilariously stupid sounding bongos. “Crucify the Kind” is definitely the heaviest song on the album, crawling along while the vocals and lyrics try to be very “evil”, which just comes across as silly more than it does serious. The section before the final chorus is pretty solid though. From here until near the end things just kind of blur together in one big bore-fest. Not that the songs are any worse than the crop hat proceeded them, it’s just that at this point the listener has become completely jaded with what they’ve been hearing for the last while.
“Something Wicked Part 3” includes a riff from “The Coming Curse” from the original SW trilogy, but hardly matches the greatness of the original. At this point something has become remarkably clear to me. It’s almost absurd how throughout both albums, despite the story “progressing”, the music hasn’t been building at all. There is no more feeling of finality or a coming end here than there was in the opening handful of tracks on Framing Armageddon. Most conceptual pieces build to climaxes and if nothing else, gain steam near the end, whereas this just continues at its same generally lame pace, despite the 2 hour-long musical “journey” nearing its end. Speaking of end, not to leave a bad taste in my mouth, Schaffer and Co. throw in one amazing track here, in the form of “Come What May”, which is easily the best thing this album has to offer. It still offers little finality to the album, but is at least a damn good song that doesn’t bore you, despite being the longest song on the album. It’s also one of the only song on the album that shows Barlow really living up to his potential greatness.
So, what do we have here? Honestly, this album isn’t terrible. Not once in the listening process did I actually feel what I was listening to sucked. It’s not bad in that way. Many of these songs alone would be fine songs, it’s just that when you put them all together, it makes one very boring album… let alone a double album. I feel the listener is rewarded with very little for having bore the brunt of 2 hours worth of generally sub par music. If you are a huge Iced Earth fan, I’m sure you will still enjoy this, and if you liked Framing Armageddon you will definitely enjoy this. However, if you hated Framing Armageddon, do yourself a favor and skip this.
Jeff’s Grade: C
Band: The Tangent
Album: Not as Good as the Book
Not as good as the previous effort. A band like The Tangent, like their close brother, The Flower Kings, often manage to make something good, while rarely making something truly amazing. For whatever reason it seems that even though these bands have pioneered a very unique sound, they don’t seem to be able to use it to its fullest extent. The exception for me is The Flower Kings’ Paradox Hotel. That album seems to be able to push the trademark sound of Swedish Progressive Rock to the limit in order to produce a fantastic album. So at the end of the day I’d approach the album at hand in one of two ways. If you are familiar with The Flower Kings, or The Tangent, expect a good, but not brilliant continuation of the sound you already know and love. However if you are not familiar with either band, this album does have the potential to be mind-blowing simply because of how well it is able to meander back and forth between traditional and unique progressive rock.
The two disc set opens with “A Crisis in Mid-Life”, which documents one of the key elements of this bands sound. No matter what the lyrical content, the music is going to be upbeat and positive. I swear this band could put a smile on my face if they were singing about the holocaust. That said it is musically the best song in the set. Great use of keyboards and intermingled guitar support the vocals of Andy Tillson as he pushes the song through. At first the vocals through the chorus stood out a bit as annoying, but on several listens I think they really blend into the song nicely. Up next is “Lost in London 25 Years Later”. A step down from its predecessor, it’s interesting at times, as I can say for almost the entire album, however it often wonders places I seemingly have no reason to follow it to. I can say the same thing about the next track, which happens to be the longest on disc one, “The Ethernet”. The next song is the albums only instrumental track, “Celebrity Puree”. The shortest track on the album one might think it naturally be my favorite as the rest of the album can drag at times. However the opposite is probably true, some of the keyboard tones and instrument usage annoys me to no end, and the song seems to somehow wander to much even in the short duration.
The title track tends to bring things back up to form for me however. I think vocals really help give the music on the disc direction and adhesion, and this track is certainly a great example of that. However the very spacey middle section does tend to go on a bit too long. But at least when it ends and picks up with acoustic guitar and goes into the final block of the song it, you forget in current enjoyment how long you had to wait. “A Sale of Two Souls” is typical of the rest of the album, enjoyable, interesting, just not overly great. I really don’t think I can say anything other than that for the final cut on disc one, “Bat out of Basildon”.
The second disc simple contains two epics clocking in at just over twenty minutes each. The first is “Four Eggs, One War” and is certainly a high point of the album. Several extra vocalists bring a lot of needed variation to the sound, and in general the song somehow manages to keep my attention longer than any other, despite being the longest. I do think the massive amount of lyrics that fill the long song certainly helps once again in bringing direction to the song. A beautiful job is done throughout, in every aspect. The final piece on the album is “The Full Gamut”, and it unfortunately fails to deliver as powerful a punch as the previous track. Also it should be noted that for whatever reason, the lyrics for this track are completely excluded from the booklet. All that aside, it’s one of the better songs on the album. Like the previous track, despite its length, it tends to keep its direction and focus a lot better than a lot of the tracks on disc one. With the exception of the primary instrumental passage (Can’t this album do anything logically?) I’d even say this song has some of the strongest music on the album.
All in all, this album would be a cool experience for someone who isn’t familiar with this type of album. Lots of instruments to take in, cool arrangements, and all around cool sound. However as someone already introduced to this type of music it really fell short of amazing me. I’d much rather listen to their previous album, A Place in the Queue, or simply listen to the better The Flower Kings discs than give this too many repeated listens. Certainly not the place to come if you’re the progressive music fan looking for insane musicianship, as this is much more in the vein of mood music than anything else. If I’m in the mood for it I can really enjoy this set, however if I’m not it can tend to bore me, or just leave me wishing it was at that next step of greatness.
Nick’s Grade: C-
My expectations for this CD were about as high as you could imagine. I was not only a big fan of Matt Barlow with Iced Earth but I also really enjoyed the previous Pyramaze album, “Legend of the Bone Carver”. The almighty Barlow’s voice had not been heard in over 6 years prior to this album, and I was really anxious to hear how his voice and approach may have changed in his time away from metal and mostly music in general. Being his grand return, “Immortal” would need to be an impeccable album in order for it to truly satisfy me.
“Arise” greets us with some epic orchestration and somewhat cheesy spoken narration. However, under the circumstances of Barlow’s great resurrection, a little epicness is totally called for.
“Year of the Phoenix” comes ripping through the speakers like a freight train… heavy riffs, great guitar melodies, awesome drumming, and an awesome scream from Barlow. Just one word comes to mind for me regarding this track: EPIC. The verses are slow and crunching, the pre-choruses do an awesome job at building, and the chorus just blows you away. Probably one of the catchiest songs on the whole album, I have not tired of it slightly in the many listens I’ve already given this album. This track really establishes the factor of this album that most surprised me. I was expecting Barlow’s vocals to carry my enthusiasm, but the rest of the band really offer some first class playing. The level of orchestration in the songs is brilliant, the guitar solo are very impressive yet not once cross into wanking territory.
The second actual track on the disk, “Ghost Light” begins with a mid-tempo crunching riff with some cool keyboard melodies over it. The first verse shows Barlow reaching more towards the rough side of his vocal capabilities, but the chorus really uses it to play off of a more melodic vocal bit, adding to the vocal diversity of the album. This track, as well as those that soon follow it help establish that the quality of “Year of the Phoenix” was no fluke and this band has brought their best to the table. “Touched By the Mara” and “A Beautiful Death” are very good tracks but don’t quite stand out much when compared to most of these. Don’t get me wrong, quality is abound, but not the cream of the crop to be found here.
Track 6, “Legacy in a Rhyme” is probably the pleasant surprise of the album for me. This track is basically a piano ballad at heart, though it’s far from the cheesy overload of bombast usually present in tracks like this. Barlow’s vocal performance is wrought with conviction throughout, and the music backing him is absolutely superb. The lyrics are among the best on the album, and this track really drives home the ability of this band to cover different styles and still maintain the same great level of quality.
“Caramons Poem” takes us right back to the great up-tempo and catchy greatness of the opening cut, and stands as one of my favorite tracks on the album. The intro perfectly sets up a heavy verse followed by a really melodic pre-chorus and extremely powerful chorus that will surely have you singing along shortly after hearing it for the first time. Unfortunately the track seems somewhat incomplete, mainly due to failing to return to a chorus following an instrumental break. However, I’m hardly going to deduct substantial marks for that. “The Highland” begins with a vocal-driven intro which gives you a really cool folksy vibe, which disappears during the main body of the song until the chorus is reached. As many other tracks do, this song shows a great deal of choir arrangements and great uses of backing vocals to really accentuate the many different passages.
The final full track on the disk, “Shadow of the Beast” is among the more intricately arranged pieces of to be found here and, with the aforementioned tracks respectively, stands among my favorite tracks on the album. There are many different parts comprising this track, and it’s difficult to split the song into an easy “verse/chorus” format, though many of the parts do repeat in a logical order. Many passages are very epic and at times dark sounding, while the chorus goes for a very straight-forward driving feel. About 4 and a half minutes through the song, the general feel we’ve come to know fades and an acoustic-driven passage begins. I felt that this may just lead to a quiet ending to the track, but the driving guitars return once more with some simple yet powerful riffs which allow things to pick up into a final and epic guitar solo. Lastly, “March Through an Endless Rain” is a very orchestra-driven outro piece which really helps to bring a sense of closure to the last 40-odd minutes of listening. You almost get the feel of the closing credits to a war-themed movie or something here, and it gave me chills on the first listen.
To put it simply, this album basically met all the anticipations I had or even could’ve had for it, and I am extremely satisfied. I can only bring two formidable complaints to the table here. The first is that I feel the album is a tad on the short side, clocking in at 45:29 and hosting just 8 full songs. I feel a longer (8-10 minute) epic track near the end of this album really could’ve sealed the deal, but the length really isn’t a big deal for me, as at least it never drags in the slightest bit. Secondly, as far as I know now, due to Matt Barlow rejoining Iced Earth, this will be a one-off stint. No tour, no follow up album(s), this is it. As big a fan of Iced Earth with Barlow as I have been, I really can not see Jon Schaffer being able to come up with a batch of tunes that can even compete on the same level as this, let alone top it… Barlow or no Barlow. However, that is again not really a complaint about the album itself.
I can’t recommend this highly enough to any fan of metal in general, but particularly progressive power metal. Honestly though, this album strays far enough in every direction to satisfy everyone without leaning too far in any of the directions to really upset anyone either. Simply put, this album is a true winner to me, and probably the best new release I have heard in quite a long time.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Band: Chris Caffery
Album: Pins and Needles
I really try to not write bash reviews, because I can’t stand it when people give horrible ratings to decent things just because they have a stick up their ass, but I really cannot hold back, mainly because there are no reviews of this album yet and I feel people should be warned.
For those of you don’t know (and shame on you), Chris Caffery is most known as Savatage’s guitarist (1987-1990, 1995 – 2002) and also has played with Trans-Siberian Orchestra for many years with his fellow Savatage brothers in arms. Chris is a very accomplished musician and an excellent guitarist, and when he seemingly feels like, he is also a very good songwriter and solid vocalist. His first full-length solo effort, “Faces” was a very diverse and experimental yet very good and original album, which I quite enjoyed.
However, almost none of what I just said applies to Pins and Needles. This CD is a number of horribly bad aspects just rolled into one. First off, let’s talk about the songwriting. It sounds like Chris wrote this album in about 3 days, as most of the songs are extremely uncreative, and about 85% all in the exact same style. The style can best be described as wanna-be Nu-Metal. Yes, that’s right, meaning at times it’s worse than nu-metal. The guitars are tuned down, and they sound god-awful in most parts, not to mention the absolute onslaught of pointless instrument and vocal effects. Lyrically, Chris has been known to do a lot of bitching and complaining… from his personal life to current affairs in the world. However, this disk’s lyrics tend to take things from their normal level to just plain whining and yelling about nonsense. Most of the songs I just found myself wanting to slap him and go: “Just shut up already”.
You can clearly see why this album sucks a big one throughout the majority of it’s (far too long) duration. There’s a problem when you write an album with 15 tracks and 10 of them blow chunks. Now what about these other 5 tracks? Well, “Chained” is actually a good bit of traditional metal fun, and “The Time” manages to be very good and catchy for about half of it’s time. The next two decent cuts are an instrumental (In the Midst), and an intro track of sorts (Quaaludio). The second one of these is actually probably the best minute and a half of this entire album, as the 12-string acoustic guitar and Chris’ seriously deep vocals and lyrics make for an excellent combination, which quickly leads into nothingness in “The Temple”. Lastly, we have the closer of the non-bonus track version: “Once Upon a Time”, which is without a doubt the best full length song on this disk, simply because it’s a ballad, and I’ve yet to hear one of those fucked up by nu-metal guitars and pointless instrumental and vocal effects.
For those of you lucky enough to get the version of this album with bonus tracks, you can increase my rating to about 38% instead of 30. The two bonus tracks are more or less simply alternate versions. First we have “Pisses Me Off (2007)” which is a (mostly) fresh list of things pissing Chris off, which though being quite a bit of fun falls short of the magic of it’s predecessor. Lastly we have an alternate version of “The Time”, which is about the same quality as the original, so it’s actually good at times.
So, in conclusion, if you like Savatage, this album is probably not for you. If you like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, this album is probably not for you. If you like Doctor Butcher, this album is probably not for you, and if you liked Chris’ solo work prior to this, this album is, you guessed it – probably not for you. However, if you are looking to expand your modern garbage metal collection, this album just might be for you!
Jeff’s Grade: F
Geoffrey Downes, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, and John Wetton had not made an album together in 25 years until this release. These four original members made the widely popular self titled album together, and then the Alpha album before the band went through a myriad of line-up changes. In 2007 the original line-up reunited for a tour, and now they have produced a pretty good new album.
The album starts with the upbeat “Never Again” that showcases the positive aspects of the album. The song has an upbeat poppy edge to it coupled with a catch chorus, two aspects that dominated much of Asia’s career. By the end of the song you know that the four men behind the music did not intend to rely simply on their name in order to sell an album. The next song, “Nothing’s Forever” seems to lose some of the magic of the opening cut. Most of the song is dominated by a rather boring drum beat and vocals never seem to die out for any kind of musical wizardry. “Heroine” is a little more creative; however still nothing to write home about. The song is a bit of a ballad and for those who enjoy lyrics I think this song will be a bit of a treat. The next song is three parts, the first and third of which are instrumental. The instrumental sections are very laid back, however I enjoy the subtle beauty of them a lot and they really bring the album back on track. “Now Way Back”, the lyrical section of the song is the caliber of the opener and through this three part monster the album really starts to show promise. “Alibis” is the only track on the album to feature writing credits by Howe and Palmer, and it shows as the song is in my opinion clearly the outstanding track of the album. The verse comes in quickly and features great keyboard lead, and the song quickly gets to the chorus where a very nice odd drum beat carries under a thick vocal melody. One the second verse kicks back in. Solo section is a series of short solo trade-offs between Downes and Howe that are all simple yet very pleasing. The song’s long outro is a very folksy sounding bit that varies a lot from the rest of the song and closes it perfectly.
“I Will Remember You” is another ballad that lacks Steve Howe completely. However the keyboard work is well done and the song does not drag. Better than the previous ballad. “Shadow of a Doubt” is another average track. The verses leave something to be desired however the song brings you back into it every time a chorus kicks in. The next song is another three part beast. This time it is the first section, “Parallel Worlds” that features the lyrics. The entire song is very atmospheric and spacey, or at least as far in that direction as Asia gets, and as common for the album the instrumental sections are highlights in their subtle beauty. “Wish I’d Known All Along” has a groovy eclectic feel throughout led by the guitar work of the song’s writer, Steve Howe. One of the albums best tracks, and perhaps the most interesting on the album. “Orchard of Mines” manages to be epic in its simplicity. Rich keyboards and a mystic drum beat throughout make the song sound big while Wetton provides thick vocals. The song is the only cover on the album, however I have not a clue on who originally wrote it. “Over and Over” is another interesting song from Steve Howe; however the song fails to live up to the overall quality produced by the other two tracks which he helped write. The song is still an enjoyable listen though. The final track on the album, “An Extraordinary Life” is an uplifting piece written by John Wetton after a trip to Croatia and focuses on the theme of Carpe Diem. For a pretty straight forward poppy edged soft rock song it manages to be quite good.
In the end my biggest complaint is that this album needed more contributions by Steve Howe. Howe’s absence was felt both in the music and the writing. The keyboard leads and background work was very good, however the album needed to be balanced with more guitar work. My second biggest complaint is half a joke, but I feel it must be said. Looking at the cover of the album, Asia’s idea of a Phoenix, one of the most majestic and powerful birds in all of mythology, is a glorified pheasant. There is on outstanding track and much of the album, and many more quite good tracks scattered throughout. However with the four guys on the album there was certainly potential for more. Biggest player on the album was definitely Geoff Downes, whose keyboards were always a presence. The album’s sound is quite good, as opposed to much of what I listen to a big budget was obviously there on this disc.
Nick’s Grade: C
Band: Royal Hunt
Album: Collision Course – Paradox II
Nick: I have liked Royal Hunt for an unusually long time considering their relative obscurity. I still remember my first Royal Hunt purchase being the original Paradox at a local record shop over three years ago. Then and now the album blows my mind and remains a top ten album in my entire collection. Now with the release of Paradox II my only hopes where not that it would be the let down that Operation: Mindcrime II was. On my side I have the fact that Andre has been writing mostly fantastic music over the past ten years, whereas Queensryche has not, however Royal Hunt would not have the amazing vocals of John West on this release as they have for the past four albums, or the vocals of D.C. Cooper who appeared on the original Paradox. All things considered I expected an album that probably would not stand up to the original, but would be a great effort nonetheless, partially due to may love of the last Royal Hunt album Paper Blood.
Jeff: I’m not as die-hard of a Royal Hunt fan as Nick, but I’ve now been into them for some time, and I was very anxious to hear what the band was capable of following the lineup shuffle of recent years. The original Paradox is certainly an album to be reckoned with, and I’m sure many people feel the band are foolish to an attempt a follow up, especially with the barrage of bad follow-ups that have been done over the years. However as usual I approached with a generally optimistic point of view.
Song by Song
“Principles of Paradox”
Nick: I love subtle recurring themes in music, however from the instant a stormy background started in this song, I feared that the kickoff to this album would be the same as the first Paradox. Not a bad thing, it’s a great intro, but I hate obvious themes between albums like that. Song slowly builds and takes its own identity, but it still remains the only song on the album I wouldn’t consider superb.
Jeff: Any fan of the original Paradox will quickly realize that what they’re hearing is quite familiar. Just as the original, Collision Course opens with the same sound effects and acoustic guitar passage as heard in the track “The Awakening”. All in all, this is really more of an intro track than anything else, despite its 5-minute duration. Basically this track more or less sets up the musical and lyrical tone for the album that is to follow. As soon as things get going, it becomes obvious that Andre Anderson has not chosen to deviate much from the formula of past releases, which for a band like Royal Hunt seems to help much more than it hurts. The band definitely has a trademark sound it’s very much at work here as ever before.
“The First Rock”
Nick: This song starts quick and is able to really start off what is an amazing rest of the album. Much to my surprise Mark Boals establishes himself as a suitable follow up to D.C. Cooper and John West. Guitar solo is top notch and I would expect anything less from Marcus Jidell. Outro of song and intro to “Exit Wound” feature a much better example of the cross-album referencing I enjoy.
Jeff: Ah yes, this track definitely grabs you right away. I had my doubts about Mark Boals as a vocalist in this band after their previous greats, but this track put most of them to rest. This number is definitely one of the more straight forward tracks on the disk, and probably among my favorites as well. As expected, the band delivers a really catchy chorus here, and Boals certainly wasn’t going for modesty when it came to his vocal performance.
Nick: Very organic track in which verse flows into chorus and back out to verse without me noticing much, fantastic throughout. I agree with Jeff that the chorus is catchy, but I can’t help but feel it isn’t in the same style as traditional Royal Hunt.
Jeff: Go figure, the band wrote another really catchy chorus. Boals gives a much more modest vocal approach here, but still definitely shines. This is track probably has more in common with the original Paradox album than most of the songs on Collision Course, most likely brought on by the very “Message To God”-esque vibe throughout most of the song.
“Divide and Reign”
Nick: By this point I’ve fully recovered from a somewhat lacking opening track and can’t believe how so far Andre has managed to make such a good follower to the original album. Also noticed by this point is the lack of a “normal” Royal Hunt chorus. Seems it’s been since the original Paradox that the choruses strayed so far from the norm and managed to stay so very good. Another amazing song.
Jeff: This could very well be the heaviest song on here, driven by thunderous double bass throughout its chorus. There’s actually a very angry feeling to this track that’s somewhat uncharacteristic of Royal Hunt. I personally don’t find this to be one of the better tracks on the album. This being said, this definitely is still a worthy track, as even this album’s weaker tracks are very enjoyable listens.
“High Noon at the Battlefield”
Nick: Bit softer than the rest of the album thus far, especially for the first few minutes, but eventually the general heaviness of the rest of the album returns. Ending features a talking bit that may catch a few listeners by surprise at first. Andre said the content of the album might be a bit controversial to some, and so the squeamish may do well not to pay attention to the lyrics here or the next song especially.
Jeff: In sharp contrast to the previous track, “High Noon” opens up with a very mellow acoustic guitar and fretless bass intro, which gives way to a very ballad-esque vibe. The variety here is a nice change from the one-two-three punch of this song’s predecessors. However, the ballad-esque vibe certainly does not last, as just over 2 minutes through the track; we’re thrown into a very heavy, grinding passage. The variety of guest vocalists here really helps to keep things interesting. The track closes with a nice return to the original vibe of the intro. This is definitely one of the more creative tracks on the album.
Nick: Perhaps the most aggressive song on the album, Mark Boals powers his way through this one and delivers one of the edgiest performances in the entire Royal Hunt catalog. Song stays powerful throughout and ends up being my favorite track on the disc.
Jeff: Who would’ve thought a track about the KKK could be this great? It’s true, this track’s lyrics revolve around the infamous hate group, but in pure Royal Hunt fashion, they can write a really catchy song about a very serious topic. Most of this track just kicks you in the ass, and could very well be my favorite track on the album after the listens I’ve had. The instrumental section offers a kickass guitar and keyboard solo duel between Marcus Jidel and the “lord of the board” Andre Anderson. I’ve noticed though that as a whole there are less keyboard solos on this album than many Royal Hunt albums of the past. The keys are still very present in the mix, just less solos, which I suppose is good or bad depending on your feelings on them.
“Blood In Blood Out”
Nick: On first listen I could only expect this song would deliver the first super catchy traditional Royal Hunt chorus on the disc as on the old song “Day In Day Out”, but once again the song is simply a well blended, perfectly crafted piece with a powerful punch.
Jeff: This track offers a slower, more broody building progression than the quick punch of many of the other tracks. Generally a slower tempo but quite heavy and driving number, this tune helps to up the album’s “epic quotient”, both due to the general feel and the variations to the style made throughout the arrangement. I don’t think anyone didn’t see this coming, but this track also offers another superbly catchy chorus that is sure to have you singing along after just a few listens. Andre offers up a traditionally great keyboard solo, again I don’t think this is surprising anyone.
“Tears of the Sun”
Nick: Verses of the song are possibly the neatest and best on the album and feature some nice instrumental work. I would also say the short instrumental sections of the song probably come closer to a traditional Royal Hunt feel then any other part of the album.
Jeff: We’re greeted here by some female vocals done quite nicely, which leads into an instrumental section very reflective of the musical style of the original Paradox. Not as much here to grab a hold of here, but this track certainly isn’t lacking quality, perhaps just lacking the strong identity that many of these other songs have. The lyrics and at times delivery are a bit darker than Royal Hunt usually partake in, but for some reason the music comes across as jolly, which makes for an interesting combination.
Nick: Another in a long string of great songs, however I do think this may be the weakest track on the album aside from the opening track.
Jeff: Here we have another darker song, this one reflected in the music as well. I have to say this one takes a little long to get off the ground, but once it gets going it’s very enjoyable. The chorus is a bit goofy sounding with the use of female vocals and whatnot, but it’s still got that classic Royal Hunt catchiness. As Nick said, it could be the weakest track on the disk, but it’s still very solid.
Nick: Last and shortest track on the album, it starts with a musical reference to the original Paradox that is much more to my liking than the one in the opening cut. Verses aren’t overly spectacular, but the instrumental work under the alright vocal melodies and the awesome chorus more than make up for it. The song ends as the album started with a more direct tribute to the first album; however after an entire album of original music this is much more digestible than in the first track.
Jeff: We get off to a very heavy start here, and I quite like the riff and use of Hammond-type organ. The guitar solo fills by Marcus Jidel here are quite nice and very much add to the mood of the song. The vocals here are very powerful by Boals’ or any other singer’s standards, and very much bring a sense of closure The album draws to a close with a very obvious motif drawn from the original Paradox, and as Nick also said, it’s more enjoyable than the one found in the opening track.
Nick: I can’t believe how close to the original Paradox this album came, and I can’t at times believe this is a Royal Hunt album. The combination of Mark Boals on vocals and Andre writing music that wasn’t centered around two or three major musical elements made this a unique and outstanding addition to the Royal Hunt collection. I have no problem calling it the best release of the year so far. The writing is superb, the solos are fantastic, the vocals delivered, and the only track that gets points taken from the overall rating is the opening cut. The music on this disc is much thicker than any previous Royal Hunt release, the instruments are not nearly as separated and individual catchy as I am used to, and the music is much more organic and blended. For the most part the musical referencing to the original Paradox is very well done, and it is kept to a very reasonable amount. Andre seemed to take some keyboard techniques he used on Paper Blood and honed them to perfection on this album. Production wise the album is good, but nothing to write home about. The mix is very solid with nothing standing out to make a complaint about. Every member performed well on the album, but the surprise superb performance definitely came from Mark Boals. Not the same style as either West or Cooper, he managed to deliver his own unique powerful performance on the album that will with another album or two put him right up there with the fantastic singers Royal Hunt has had. It will be interesting seeing him do the older songs on tour, or perhaps the entire Paradox album if they decide to do it before the performance of this album.
Jeff: Overall I am very impressed with this album. With all the changes Royal Hunt had undergone in the last couple of years – mainly the loss of John West, I figured that this album would be a wash, and I am very pleased to say it’s anything but that. Mark Boals fits the music of this album like a glove to a hand, and Andre has managed to throw together a bunch of new songs that both stay true to the classic Royal Hunt sound and offer enough evolution and new ground broken to satisfy the hardcore fan of years. I’ve been listening to the album fairly regularly since I came into contact with it and that doesn’t look to change, it definitely withstands many listens. I feel like most of this material will go over quite well live and I’m interested to see how Boals will handle the older material. This is a definite keeper of an album, and one Royal Hunt die-hards and new fans alike should make sure they check out as soon as possible.
Album: The Premonition
Back in October of 2007 I went to see Sonata Arctica, and in doing so was treated to one of the best opening acts I’ve ever seen, Firewind. They had a pretty short set, but it was full of energy and I very much was able to get into their set. That experience tied with hearing a few tracks off The Premonition convinced me to pick up this release when I saw it at my local Best Buy.
The opening of the album reminds me of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, acoustic guitars with a classic feel to them setting the tone for something much different. Once “Into the Fire” kicks into full gear you know what you’re in for. However through a switch between the intro and verse, and the verse the song is a bit slow to pick up. But once you get to the chorus there is no reason you wouldn’t get into this song full force. For a good number of the songs on the album I tend to think the verses are made to look a little sub par simply due to awesome choruses. The next song, “Head Up High” kicks off with an awesome but short instrumental intro which sets up a multi-part verse that will keep listeners into it through every listen and every single verse. Chorus is upbeat and fantastic. The second chorus is followed by back and forth guitar and keyboard solos that are some of the best on the album. All in all this is probably my second favorite song on the album. “Mercenary Man” kicks off with a bang right into a strong guitar lead and transfers to one of the best sounding verses I’ve ever heard. Broken into three sections the first is a single simple cutting guitar under fantastic vocal melodies and the other two follow heavier and just as good. Chorus is also an epic sounding bit to be reckoned with. My favorite song on the album it ironically comes with my biggest complaint. The first part of the verses should be twice as long; they are too good not to be. Also after the instrumental section there should not just be a final chorus, but there needs to be another verse there somewhere as well.
“Angels Forgive Me” starts with a keyboard lead and builds through a verse to what might be my favorite chorus on the album. As with much of the album the verse is not just one simple part, but in great fashion it is broken into two separate musical bits that really add a lot of flavor and diversity to the album. The next track on the album, “Remembered” also features broken verses. First there is a dark drum and vocal bit followed by a full band more upbeat bit, and they play off of each other well. Chorus sounds somewhat epic with a driving vocal melody that is sure to have you singing along. “My Loneliness” is a bit of a love/hate track for me. The verse lines all start with the phrase “My Loneliness” and musically it is lighter than most of the album and I tend to like it, but for whatever reason sometimes when I listen to it I want to bludgeon Apollo to death if he says “My Loneliness” one more time. Either way I always enjoy the chorus of the song which tends to be the standout part of the song, and it’s a chorus that stands out on the album as well, especially the second one which transfers into an amazing guitar lead/bridge and then a fantastic guitar solo.
“Circle of Life” starts out with a intro that makes me think it will be my favorite track on the album, but unfortunately it ends up being my least favorite track on the disc. Still, something that says a lot for this album is that even this song is a decent song. And I’d probably like it as much as the rest of the album if not for the chorus which just annoys me for some reason. Also the song is simply blander than the rest of the album. Next up is “The Silent Code”, which manages to improve over “Circle of Life” but still ends up being my second least favorite track on the album. For this song I once again can’t point to many stylistic difference that would make it sub-par to the rest of the album, just doesn’t suit my taste as well as the rest of the album. After those two songs go by with little interest the special treat of the album starts with its very obvious keyboard lead. Followed by drums faded in and finally guitars “Maniac” kicks into full force. On first listen I could not believe how good this musical hit transferred into a metal song. Not as good on average as the original material on the disc, but the track is certainly a unique and great cover I look forward to every time I pop the disc in. “Life Foreclosed” is the final track, and one of the heaviest. Thick ominous lyrics and vocal deliveries power this song and it works perfectly as a closer. Some people may be turned off by the riffing style in the verse, but I think it works well and leads perfectly into a very melodic yet heavy chorus.
Musically the album delivers in varying amounts of goodness from start to finish. My biggest complaint about the album is the mix. Keyboards are brought out for leads and solos, but when there is background work being done you have to focus and struggle to hear the keyboard part being played, which sucks because I often enjoy a lot what I can make out. Also the bass is a bit quiet throughout the album, and is under-utilized. Gus G. is the focus of the album, and he delivers throughout with awesome riffs, leads, and solos. Apollo has no weak points on the album, and is often giving the strong Russell Allen type performance that leads a song forward and as such he really impressed me. He was unfortunately not with the band when I saw them open for Sonata Arctica, and I hope I can see them again some point in the future to check out his live performance. Mark Cross delivered a good drum performance, but like the bass (was there bass? Half the time I’m unsure) work there is nothing really stands out to be concerned about.
Nick’s Grade: B
Album: The Premonition
How do you follow up an amazing album that not only serves as a definitive landmark in your career, but as a perfect summation of what you genre should sound like today? Firewind’s 2006 release “Allegiance” did this for myself and others, and when it came time to follow it up, I was both very anxious and afraid of what the band may produce. Mediocrity seemed almost eminent. However, I’m happy to say this was very much not the case.
The Premonition begins with an acoustic intro which really helps to paint the scenery of what is to come. I hate to sound like I’m just beating the cliché into the ground, but it’s very much like an actual “premonition” of what is to come – very ominous and very cool. Things soon pick up as we go head-first into the excellent opener, “Into the Fire”, which perfectly combines elements of both speed and melodic power metal. As expected Gus G and Bob Katsionis offer up an excellent guitar and keyboard duel in the superb instrumental break. This song is sure to become a killer live opener on the upcoming tour. The band plunge into the second general motif of this album with the second track “Head Up High” which is basically kickass traditional/power metal in it’s purest form. The vocals on the verses of this track really remind me of Dio, which of course is never a bad thing, and the chorus is definitely catchy enough to keep you singing along throughout. I also expect this song to be an excellent live selection. Third track and first single “Mercenary Man” find the band exploring the greatness of classic influences – here in the form of Thin Lizzy/Gary Moore, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. Just as the previous selection(s), I could listen to this song a number of times in a row and not really grow tired of it’s sing-along goodness. “Angels Forgive Me” isn’t an album highlight but as expected it still offers a chorus that will get stuck in your head, as well as the fair share of guitar solo ownage.
Most albums of this style tend to die off a bit in the middle, but just as Allegiance, this album proves otherwise. In fact, “Remembered” is probably my favorite track on the album thus far. The riffs at many times are very reminiscent of the older, heavier Firewind circa Forged By Fire or Between Heaven and Hell. In sharp contrast, this song offers a chorus which is again a helluva sing-along. If this already wasn’t enough, this track also features my favorite solo on the whole disc and a bitchin’ key change near the end. At this time we also now get the album’s first of two somewhat ballad-esque tracks – the very melodic “My Loneliness”. Personally this track hasn’t really grabbed me as much as the majority of the disc, but I still think it’s got a lot going for it. “The Circle of Life” is probably the most “by the books” song on the album, which as expected, makes it fall into the category of not being very original but also having no strikes against it. “The Silent Code” gets back to the heaviness of “Remembered” at times, but also offers a very melodic yet speedy chorus. I really would like to see this one get done live on the upcoming tour. The contrast between practically thrashy riffs and very melodic passages makes for a really nice combination.
Following this, we get the surprise of the album. Firewind have never done a ton of covers in their career, so to think that they’d go out of their way to pick something unique and obviously “unmetal” seems as a bit of surprise to me. The song “Maniac” from the 80’s movie “Flash Dance” is basically a staple of jokes, usually involving hilarious video sequences of sorts… it would seem unlikely that this song could be turned into anything of substance, but somehow Firewind have done just that. I never would’ve expected to be enjoying this song to the degree I have been since I heard this version – it’s just so catchy. Anytime I can be really surprise by something in a good way I’m happy, and this song very much did that. To offset the jolly enjoyment of “Maniac”, the band bring one more track to the table – the dark, ominous, and yet very enjoyable closing track of “Life Foreclosed”. The pre-chorus to this is uncharacteristically dark and heavy, but seems to fit the mood of the song perfectly. The chorus itself is very slow and melodic and more or less very well brings a sense of closure to the album.
So, in retrospect, The Premonition serves as an excellent follow-up to Allegiance that is sure to please just about any Firewind fan. “Allegiance” will always hold a place in my heart, and this album may suffer just slightly for having followed such a landmark in this great band’s career. However, this is not to say that this is a clone of Allegiance, nor is it an inferior style change. I myself continue to be very satisfied, and I’m sure many fans will feel the same way.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
After nearly four years the follow up to my favorite Ayreon album had finally arrived. The anticipation for 01011001 rivaled what I felt for new Rush and Dream Theater releases, which is saying something. That said I am very glad I didn’t review this album after one listen, because my initial reaction to it was disappointment. It has grown on me now, but not to the point that I would hold it in the same class as The Human Equation, which to me is the best thing Arjen has ever done with Ayreon or any other band.
The opening cut of the album, “Age of Shadows/We Are Forever” clocks in at just over ten minutes and manages to use all of the time effectively. A spacey bit starts the album and then slowly evolves into the brand of dynamic progressive metal Arjen is known for. The first of many talented to singers to be heard is Tom Englund, followed by Steve Lee and Daniel Gildenlow. The song is innovative throughout, and excellent except for the section that incorporates the albums name. That particular section seems unnecessary, and just not as good as the rest of the song. “Comatose” is a haunting duet between Anneke van Giersbergen and Jorn Lande. Probably my least favorite track when I first heard it, it now is one of my favorites off the album. Simple and chilling the song just brings you into the depth of the music. “Liquid Eternity” returns to the overall spacey heaviness of the opening cut, with a deep, thick guitar riff leading things. Like many tracks on the album, this one moves from heavy and crunchy to smooth and atmospheric with little or no effort, and as always the track is led forward by an array of talented and powerful vocalists.
Going out of order a bit I’m going to group the next track, “Connect the Dots” in with the track that ends the first disc of 01011001, “Web of Lies”. Both tracks are somewhat different from the rest of the album, which is certainly not bad, however lyrically they seem to have little or almost no connection to the central concept. Many concept albums are written loosely, to the point where many wouldn’t know without being told that there was a story there, however Arjen tends to, and did on this album write very to the point lyrics that get across a clear story. Just seems like he should have picked one style or the other, because these two tracks, despite being excellent, just feel out of place.
The remainder of the first disc, “Beneath the Waves”, “Newborn Race”, and “Ride the Comet” continue the rollercoaster ride where “Liquid Eternity” left off. There always seems to be a strong, powerful voice that will pull your mind away from a lighter section of the album to a heavier aggressive part. However I think “Newborn Race” stands out on the disc as one that is exceptionally good, and one that reminds me of older Ayreon, especially Into the Electric Castle. A range of instrumentals, warm synths, and vocalists creates a perfect atmosphere for a great track.
Although both discs contain plenty of awesome music, I think the second disc of 01011001 gets the nod as the better simply because unlike the first disc it acts as one conceptual unified whole. What “The Fifth Extinction” starts doesn’t end until the album comes to a close with “The Sixth Extinction”. In between the two there is a ton of killer music. “The Fifth Extinction” continues a common trend on the album of long songs with a wide range of sounds and different parts. “Waking Dreams” contains a female fronted chorus that is one of the most beautiful and stunning moments on the album. “The Truth is In Here” starts with a very Celtic flute intro that is very reminiscent of early Ayreon works. It runs into a very smooth section that documents why despite not being as good as most of the singers he brings on his albums, Arjen is still certainly worthy to step up to the microphone to add his own personal touch to the vocal duties. “Unnatural Selection” features perhaps the most drastic mood change in any song. Multiple keyboards and Tom Englund lead a soft intro into an explosion that produces one of the, if not the heaviest section on the album, and then it all averages out into one of the simply best parts of the album. “River of Time” continues another habit on the album of either very odd drum parts, or simply the deception of drums due to a very rhythmic keyboard part. In this case a very interesting snare part simply rides under all of the verses. “E=MC2” contains one of the best female vocal parts in the album, that continues into a guitar slide you can’t help but love. The song also features what is my favorite guitar solo on the album, which is surprisingly played by Michael Romeo of Symphony X fame. “The Sixth Extinction” is the final track, and yet another that clocks in at over ten minutes. It features a shrieking synth lead led by powerful vocals that is one of the most easily remembered parts on the album. Great track and disc throughout.
One of my biggest complaint’s with the album is one that actually came from a friend of mine first. I have always considered Arjen an excellent selector of vocalists, and what’s more is that he consistently brings out the absolute best in a wide array of singers. However when I think about it, I’m mainly thinking of the male vocalists he’s worked with. On the other hand I often do have a tough time differentiating between different female vocalists as his use of them seems a bit less distinct, and the techniques he uses them for tends to be similar. However after taking that into consideration and the complaint that two songs don’t fit the album all that well, you are left with an innovative, exciting, consistent, and fantastic album. Lyrically the album is traditional Arjen. It tells a story of a dying or struggling race, and how the remnants of it travel to Earth to help shape the future of humanity there. And along the way Arjen ambitiously ties in the stories from all of his previous works. The lyrics have a lot of cheese, which personally isn’t a complaint of mine, but it may turn many serious lyric readers off.
Nick’s Grade: B+
The special and limited editions of the album come with a bonus DVD well worth the extra money. Featured is a long, interesting documentary with most of the artists that appear on the album. My only complaint is that it seems Arjen’s ego took center stage during the editing process and much of the documentary focuses on him, and not the actual music, how it was made, and how he interacted with the other artists. Also included is a shorter documentary about recording drums for the album, I found this both very informative, and it gave me a bit of a deeper respect for Ed Warby. There is a CGI movie for Beneath the Waves, which I personally thought was pretty bad. Then there are also several of the guide-vocal tracks Arjen sends to various artists so they can learn the music. These are interesting in that you can see what changes were made from the early writing stages of the album. Finally there is an audio blooper reel from the recording session that is good for a few laughs one or two times around.
Fish’s newest live offering, Communion, was recorded in August 2006 and features 19 tracks performed acoustically. The sound is warm, natural, and very good for a live recording. Since the set comprises of mainly Fish solo songs, I will say that if you like Fish’s solo career, you will enjoy this live set, however if you don’t you will probably find nothing special in here. As with a typical acoustic set many songs sound new, interesting, or more beautiful. However there are tracks that come up that make you wish Fish had stuck with the studio versions of the songs. The only two Marillion songs played seem to document this effect perfectly. “Slainthe Mhath” sees the addition of flute and a more distinct acoustic lead, and the entire song sounds like something just written, coming across fantastically. On the other hand I can’t help but wish I was listening to Script for a Jester’s Tear during “Chelsea Monday”. There are new dynamics added to the song, but something just doesn’t feel right, and the song tends to drag a bit. At the end of the day it is a good live performance that accurately reflects Fish’s career as a solo artist. Fans of softer music who want to get a good introduction to Fish, or long time fans who want something out of the ordinary to pick up should check this set out.
Nick’s Grade: C
Band: Rob Rock
Album: Garden of Chaos
The last Rob Rock album, “Holy Hell”, was a highlight of 2005 for me, so I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of this album. Especially since this album also features an excellent list of guest appearances: Roy Z (Bruce Dickinson), and Gus G (Firewind) on guitars, and Bobby Jarzombek (Riot, Halford, Demons and Wizards) on drums. Also, being that the majority of the songs are written by Roy Z and the album is produced by him, good things are expected. Well, not only are good things expected, they basically can’t fail.
The album kicks off with a bang with its title track, which is probably one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. The riffs are heavy, the vocals are strong, and the chorus is really really catchy. It makes you just want to put your fist in the air and sing along. No surprise that it’s so good, it was written by Gus G. The next couple of songs are all very good, but somewhat lacking in identity… The choruses to just about every song are fairly strong, and the solos are impressive. The album begins to pick up towards the late middle of it, with the songs “Only a Matter of Time” and the killer metal anthem “Metal Breed”. Following that is another awesome track, “Millennial Reign”, the fastest song on the disc, the soloing is fucking insane, as is all the musicianship, including Rob’s vocals. Following that we have, “Unconditional”, the token ballad, but I like this one more than the one featured on Holy Hell. It’s good, but when you’ve got material like the heavy stuff on this disc, you tend to skip the ballad on a regular basis. After that, we’ve got “Ride the Wind”, the final highlight of the album, featuring a fantastic solo by Gus G and the ever-gymnastic drumming of Bobby Jarzombek, this song just kicks you in the teeth and makes you want to bang your head. Finally, we wrap it all up with “Ode to Alexander”, which is ballad-esque, but just comes off as more of a somber epilogue to the album.
All in all, after about 5 listens now, I love this album, and it’s definitely a highlight of the year for me. If you like classic heavy metal, particularly the last 3 Bruce Dickinson albums, you will love this. The combination of these musicians with Rob’s voice makes for a killer album that is sure to stay in rotation for me for some time to come.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Band: Vanishing Point
Album: The Fourth Season
I’ve been a Vanishing Point fan for about 2 and a half years now, and I found their previous two efforts to be extremely impressive. I’ve said that on paper, this band should be my favorite band in the world, as they perfectly blend all the different metal styles I most enjoy. They’ve been a blend of progressive, power, and melodic metal, and this album really doesn’t stray from this formula. I had very high expectations for this CD and I’m happy to say it met just about all of them.
The album gets off to a great start with “Embodiment”, which is definitely one of its strongest tracks in my opinion. The chorus to this song is very catchy, and it generally sets the tone for the whole disc. Vocalist Silvio Massarro is still in fine form, showing that he has what is, in my opinion, one of the best and most unique voices in modern melodic metal. The album more or less maintains this style throughout, deviating just enough times to keep it interesting, such as the segue-type track “Gaia” which leads into the beautifully powerful “I Within I”. “Behind the Open Door” is a bit heavier than most of the disc’s other tunes, but it’s more than welcome for me. The disc already felt very solid and complete as it closed in on the end, but the final track just brings it all home. “A Day of Difference” is more or less a ballad, not ever getting any heavier than some piano, vocals, strings, etc… but the band makes this sound extremely powerful, with Silvio belting out one of his best vocal performances on the disc. This track also features some excellent spoken-word background effects which really enhance the mood of the track.
Overall, as I mentioned before, this disc met every expectation I had for it, and will certainly receive a very generous ranking in my overall 2007 ranked list. If you are a fan of melodic, progressive, or power metal, you really can’t go wrong with something like this.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Band: Gamma Ray
Album: Land of the Free Part II
I’m not sure how everyone else feels, but I found Majestic to be a bit of a let down by Gamma Ray’s standards and not up to the superb quality of their albums from Land of the Free through No World Order. However, this review is not about Majestic.
The first thing I noticed about this album is that it’s undoubtedly a fine return to their classic form, as noticeable on many tracks such as From the Ashes, To Mother Earth, and When the World. The thing that surprised myself as well as most I’ve talked to is that this album actually does sound reminiscent of it’s namesake, unlike what I expected: the lyrical themes of LOTF with the music of an album like Majestic. I was pleasantly surprised.
I must say, I like Into the Storm but I found the guitar work on it to be fairly disappointing. No bombastic harmonies, no surprisingly good riffs, and the chorus isn’t all that strong, but nevertheless it is indeed a solid track and a fine opener. As I mentioned, From the Ashes is very much in an older style, reminiscent of songs like Man on a Mission. The interlude Rising Again is good, but pretty silly that it’s separated from it’s following track, To Mother Earth, as it very easily just could’ve been coupled together. To Mother Earth is also a fine song, though the chorus lyric/melody made me chuckle: “She was sooo beautiful!”. After that we enter what I feel is the hit or miss section of the album. “Rain” is good, but just seems like it’s missing something, and the psuedo harsh vocals on the one section don’t really aide my opinion on it. This track is certainly made up for with it’s follower, “Leaving Hell”, again a very fun song with a great and catchy chorus. “Empress” is again I feel a bit of a weak song, mainly because of the chorus, which doesn’t really grab me and just sounds kind of silly. Around this point I started to lose faith in the album on my first listen, but that was about to change.
We now move onto the track “When the World”, which I feel is one of the best tracks on here. The chorus to this song is very strong, it had me singing along on just the second listen, and the solos are fucking excellent. I’m not sure which solo is Kai and which is Henjo, but my hats off to both of them for these. Next up is probably the surprise of the album, “Opportunity”, written by Dirk Schlachter, is the second longest and possibly second best song on the album, featuring many different changes and styles represented throughout. You’ll notice a familiar bass riff about half way through the song though, because it’s almost verbatim Maiden’s Clairvoyant bass riff. However, they take it somewhere a bit different, so I can forgive.
Speaking of ripping things off, next we have Kai’s album essential, his rewritten version of I Want Out. “The Real World” is a fine song, but at time the I Want Out-isms are nearly humorous, especially the lead into the solo. However, when you’ve written one of the best and most original power metal songs ever written, I think I can forgive you for ripping it off… this is nothing new, need I mention “Heaven or Hell” or “Send Me a Sign”. “Hear Me Calling” is another strong track, but lacks the identity of it’s predecessors. It generally gets overlooked as for me, at this point I’m just waiting for the final track, “Insurrection”. I figured at the 11 and a half minute time, this would either be a massive success or a redundant failure, and I’m very happy to say it succeeded big time. I think this may be one of the strongest tracks Gamma Ray have done to date, and any fan will be happy to hear the musical references to the classic Rebellion in Dreamland from time to time. The 11 minutes seems like nothing, as I find myself wishing that helluva chorus to continue. This song alone makes up for any of the disappointments of the couple filler-esque tracks.
So, in summary, I am very very happy with this album, and pleasantly surprised to see a return to form in both style and quality. Speaking of quality, the production quality on this album is surprisingly good. If you’re a Gamma Ray fan, you’ll definitely enjoy this, and hell, even if you’re not, you might want to give it a shot anyway.
Jeff’s Grade: B+
Album: 03 A Trilogy – Part 3
Edited By: Jerry D.
After leaving Dream Theater in 1989 Charlie Dominici fell of the face of the earth as far as music is concerned. And for fifteen years after leaving, Charlie would stay hidden away in the shadows. However, in 2004 Charlie re-appeared at Dream Theater’s famous When Dream and Day Reunite show in Los Angeles, helping his former band mates perform an energetic and historic two song encore. It was that show that brought the passion for music that ruled a great part of Charlie’s earlier days back to the forefront. In 2005 Charlie announced ambitious plans, a musical and lyrical concept that would span three albums. After being dormant for so long such a large scale goal was shocking, however time has proven that Charlie had the drive to do it.
In the summer of 2005 Charlie released the first part of O3 as Charlie Dominici on his own Dominici records. Slated from the start as a trilogy, the first disc was written and performed entirely by Charlie, and featured only vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica on two tracks. Many found the first disc a surprise considering his strong recognition as the original singer for progressive metal pioneers.
The first album caught the interest of InsideOut Records, and the band Solid Vision, and Charlie decided to team up with those two parties in order to complete the final two parts of the trilogy. In early 2007 the renamed band Dominici put out part two of the trilogy, and fans of Dream Theater and progressive music in general found themselves in the midst of a much more digestible album. The success of the second album allowed Dominici to play several dates in Europe, including three shows in which they appropriately opened for Dream Theater. Despite this it seemed that completing the ambitious work Charlie had embarked upon would require great personal sacrifice in order to complete. He sold thousands of dollars worth of rare and one of a kind Majesty and Dream Theater items in order to obtain the funds needed to complete the third part of the trilogy. With finances in line, Dominici set forth to write and record the final part of the story that had started as one mans dream, and now we are on the brink of hearing the exciting conclusion. O3 A Trilogy – Part 3 is slated for release in Japan on March 26th, and releases in Europe and the United States will follow in April.
When I threw Part 3 into the stereo system for the first time and began listening to the first track, there were a few things I noticed right away. First, this album is going to be heavier than the previous attempt. Musically, it’s more intense; vocally, Charlie is using techniques not yet seen on the previous albums to give it an edgier feel. Second, this album is going to be more bombastic, which is in part due to the fact that the bass drum is slightly high in the mix. The first song “King of Terror” actually starts with a light, ambient interlude with some chatter in the background. Simple guitar, piano, and then vocals kick in, and after a few measures of thinking we may be going back to the first 03 album, the song explodes and Dominici goes early on where neither of the previous albums had touched. As with most of the album, the aggression is led by a thick, low-toned guitar. In certain instrumental passages, the drums pick up to the point that you think a bit of death metal may be on the horizon. However, this leads back into the simply powerful verses, and finally into the melodic chorus. One thing I love about the drummer on the album, Yan Maillard, is that even during the choruses, he constantly finds interesting ways to change up his patterns to keep the backbone of the sound fresh. After the second chorus comes the first of many good solo sections on the album. The guitar solo is somewhat “shredtastic,” with long bits of backing keyboard unison. The first half of the solo features a backing of heavy riffing, and the second more melodic half has a quickly-moving keyboard orchestration pattern to back it. The entire song, verses especially, show Charlie bringing a new style to the album. His voice is a bit raspy, harsh, and heavier than ever before–and that new edge appears on the entire album. I found the song to be both highly informational, and a great opener. Heavy, it hooks your attention and keeps a hold of it, and is also is a gateway into what the rest of the album will be.
The second track, “March Into Hell” starts with more of Brian Maillard’s heavy guitar riffing, and is soon joined by drums and keyboards for a complex musical introduction to the track. The first verse and chorus manages to showcase pretty much the entire range of Charlie’s voice, dynamic-wise–everything from higher and more melodic, to the thicker and more concrete, to even the bit of light growling. Next, comes the first of many keyboard parts (which I am not overly fond of). Americo Rigoldi is an excellent player on the album when he is not the focus of the sound. However, I do find many of his leads and solos fail to keep my interest. This song features a much more soulful guitar solo than the opening tracks, and is a perfect ending to an otherwise very aggressive song.
“So Help Me God” is a welcomed break from the unexpected heaviness of the first two tracks. Acoustic guitar replaces the tone I had come to expect, and the verse tells a moving story that reminds me of the simplicity and style of the first album. The chorus sees the return of electric guitar, but much “thinner” than on previous tracks, and used more for backing to allow Charlie to lead with dramatic energy. The chorus actually reminds me a bit of Dream Theater’s “The Ministry of Lost Souls.”
“Liquid Lightning” is, for the most part, a return to the sound of the second album. The guitar is lighter and less noticeable than in the opening two cuts, and subtle keyboard work is more easily heard. Heavier riffing gives way to much more single note guitar lead patterns.
“Enemies of God” is the first of two tracks over ten minutes, and it uses the time well. The first thing I notice about the track is that the guitar tone encountered in the first two songs returns, as does the heavier riffing that leads the music. The song features one of the strongest aspects of Dominici’s lyric writing: the fact that he is not afraid to break from simple verses and choruses. Different verse structures are utilized to go with the music and keep the longer songs fresh. This also helps bring out different aspects of Dominici’s voice within a song. The best and probably longest keyboard solo is also found in this song.
After a short light guitar intro, it doesn’t take “Revelation” long to kick into gear with an aggressive riff and the complex kick drum work one would have come to expect at this point. The music goes through several variations of heaviness throughout the song; there is a somewhat shreddy and excellent guitar solo, and we have yet another strong track.
“Hell on Earth” keeps up the style of the bulk of the album and is just another amazing track. Although I have always said I don’t mind an album or band that sticks to a core sound as long as it is good, I know that, by this point in the album, some might complain that the album is a bit monotonous, with “So Help Me God” being the only song to break away from the core heaviness so far.
The ending and the beginning are in “Genesis.” The last track of the trilogy (and the second track on the album to clock in at over ten minutes) starts with an instrumental introduction over four and a half minutes long that would make any prog fan happy. Guitar solos, keyboard solos, intense drumming, fast leads–it’s all there. The first verse is one of the softest on the album, and it leads into perhaps one of the most melodic and anthemic choruses Dominici has ever done. The song ends with over two more minutes of metallic, “progtastic” instrumental goodness before the final line is sung and the trilogy is brought somewhat full circle on itself. I believe the catchiness of the chorus, the amazing instrumental sections, and the length of the song will in time make “Genesis” the most widely liked and recognized song in the entire trilogy.
All said and done, a very strong effort from Charlie and company. I think the best performance on the disc actually came from the drummer, Yan Maillard. He constantly provided the right grooves at the right time. But what is more is that he is always changing his playing throughout the album to keep it fresh and interesting. His fills are powerful, appropriate, and well placed. Finally, he knows very well how to incorporate the kick drum into his playing (not too much constant double bass, many different patterns, and as with the rest of his playing, lots of minor changes and twists). The guitar work is all top notch, which it better be since it is the focus of the music for most of the album. The soloing is varied across different styles, and solid in all of them. Although a crucial part of the sound, the bass is hardly noticeable. My biggest complaint is that I am not fond of the keyboard leads–perhaps because they stand out in such stark contrast against the rest of the particular song’s sound. In any case, the parts I dislike are too few to really take away from the album much at all. On the other hand, I love the majority of the background keyboard work on the album.
Vocally Charlie really varied things up on this album, using the full capabilities of his voice to bring some depth to the album. Overall, I think the quality of the vocal melodies dropped off ever so slightly from the last album. Despite this slight overall drop, I would say that the vocal melodies on Part 3 are more consistent than on Part 2. Lyrically, the album is exactly what I like. The lyrics are not cryptic, they do not try and tell me what love is; they simply create a picture in my mind and tell a story. The story itself takes a twist I don’t think anyone could have seen coming, and I think it might actually put some people off just because of how quickly it takes off after the first two albums maintained a slowly evolving plot. Assisting the lyrics is what I believe is Charlie’s single greatest strength as a singer: enunciation. This may seem like a minor point, but I could not begin to list the number of singers I cannot fully understand by simply listening to them. On the other hand, if you listen along to a Dominici album and jot down the lyrics as you go, your version would probably match the lyric sheet exactly.
The sound of the disc is excellent, and I have to award points to all those involved in recording and engineering. The mix is good for the most part; However, I do have two major complaints. At times the bass drum definitely seems mixed too high, and throughout the album the backing keyboards are too low in the mix. The keyboards are always up front during leads, but then seem to fade into oblivion too often afterwards.
All in all a very solid effort that lives up to the high standards set by the previous two releases.
Nick’s Grade: B+