050: Ioannis Anastassakis – Orbital Attempt
049: Blackfield – Welcome to My DNA
048: Beardfish – Mammoth
047: Long Distance Calling – Long Distance Calling
046: Evergrey – Glorious Collision
045: Star One – Victims of the Modern Age
044: Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier
043: Dreyelands – Rooms of Revelation
042: Silent Call – Greed
041: Coheed and Cambria – Year of the Black Rainbow
040: Haken – Aquarius
039: Avantasia – Angel of Babylon
038: Avantasia – The Wicked Symphony
037: Royal Hunt – X
036: White Wizzard – Over the Top
035: Shadow Gallery – Digital Ghosts
034: Guilt Machine – On This Perfect Day
033: Sonata Arctica – The Days of Grays
032: Redemption – Snowfall on Judgement Day
031: Lord – Set in Stone
030: Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition
029: Beardfish – Destined Solitaire
028: Machines of Grace – Machines of Grace
027: Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings
026: Devin Townsend Project – Ki
Band: Ioannis Anastassakis
Album: Orbital Attempt
Guitar players like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Yngwie Malmsteen are known for crafting music with one underlying desire, to showcase the guitar, and that seems to be what Greek guitarist Ioannis Anastassakis has set out to do with his album Orbital Attempt. Ioannis has completed music degrees on multiple continents and performed recitals all across Europe. But his resume does not need to speak towards his abilities, as Orbital Attempt seems to do a fine job showcasing his technicality and his technique.
While much of the album sounds like the instrumental guitar driven rock you’d expect there are a few tracks showcasing Ioannis’ abilities as a flamenco guitarist. Of course it’s only my general lack of knowledge of flamenco guitarists making this comparison, but often times I think I’m listening to Steve Howe when hearing tracks like “A Mil Madre”. In any case these flamenco tracks give the album some much needed separation, allowing a bit of a break where many instrumental albums might start going a bit stale.
For most of the album Ioannis seems to strive for a very forward and driving record with guitar runs exploding out of nowhere on a near constant basis. Layer upon layer of guitars almost assures there is never a moment where something new isn’t happening, and I suspect trying to dissect this record would make any guitarists head spin. This is the kind of record that would make Iron Maiden go, “So, THIS is what it sounds like when three guitars are actually fully utilized”, and the nice thing is in this instance it’s all being done by one man!
The flamenco tracks aside I can say (as a compliment!) some of the tracks on Orbital Attempt could make some great songs for a video game. I can just imagine listening to the powerful guitars as they get me more and more excited to finally beat the boss at the end of a level. For all of the albums good traits I’d say it can certainly get a little one dimensional at times, as might be expected. Sure, the album goes between rock and occasionally flamenco, but at all times the focus is clearly on the guitar work which could make it boring to those who like more to be featured in the music. Still, the manner in which the guitars are used on the album make for some very good compositions and for the most part the album stays exciting from start to finish.
I’d say anyone who enjoys a guitar driven record or an upbeat instrumental album must check out Ioannis. The man delivers some great songs, a lot of flare, and an enjoyable record to rock out to.
Nick’s Grade: B
Album: Welcome to My DNA
When Blackfield, the collaboration between Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson and Israeli songwriter Aviv Geffin first hit the market in 2004, many people saw it as a step back for Wilson. Idolized by many as a guitarist, vocalist, song-writer, producer, engineer and mixer Wilson now has dozens of extremely complex and intricate compositions under his belt from a multitude of projects. With Blackfield however there was a distinct focus on simplicity. The insane patterns of Gavin Harrison were nowhere to be found, and it wouldn’t take a music major to dissect the various layers in the song found on Blackfield I and II. Welcome to My DNA is, simply put, simplicity redefined.
While generally simple, the songs from the first two Blackfield albums did not lack in the department of rock and bombastics. Tracks like “Cloudy Now” and “Christenings” packed a decent punch, and perhaps that made the albums easier to swallow for fans not used to songs so close to the pop label. You’ll struggle to find much on Welcome to My DNA with that kind of up front intensity. Though there are definite moments of groove there is certainly nothing that approaches the term heavy, and instead the album holds a great deal of focus on atmosphere. Songs like “Glass House” and “Rising of the Tide” at the beginning of the album do a good job of showcasing what the album will be and how well Aviv and Wilson can nail a new sound right out of the gait. Unfortunately those two songs are separated by a distinct counterpoint, the song “Go to Hell”. Though the song has a few strong melodies the song screams art for art’s sake and is a prime example of just trying too hard. I’d say that “Here Comes the Blood” also suffers from this, but frankly I just find it to be a better song musically, and it is also the one song on the album that approaches rock, making it a nice contrasting piece in the middle of the album.
Even the acoustic guitars on “Waving” and “Far Away” are played with a casual and laid back feel that simply flows with the rest of the music. I can understand how a wide range of people might dislike this Blackfield album as many people like part’s and instruments to stand out, and while I enjoy that at times it’s very nice to have an album where the instruments come together with one another to simply perfect the songs. Perhaps this is best demonstrated in the album’s final and title track, “DNA”. Two very simple acoustic guitar parts and haunting vocals kick off the track and intriguing lyrics carry the song forward as drums and orchestration enters the picture. By the end this final song ends up being the album’s most beautiful piece, and my personal favorite.
Wilson and Aviv both give rather fitting vocal performances for the album, and though I prefer Wilson’s voice by a good margin it’s nice to hear the diversity between the two in the course of the album. That said the vocals are easily overshadowed by the two shining stars of this album, the keyboards and orchestral arrangements. Anyone who needs proof of this need to look no further than tracks like “Dissolving With the Night” and “Oxygen” on which the atmospheres are created with such efficiency one can only compliment Wilson and Geffin on their abilities to strip music back to such an emotional and beautiful core.
Nick’s Grade: A-
It could be surmised that being forced off of Dream Theater’s Progressive Nation tour in 2009 due to the financial difficulties of InsideOut was the worst thing that has ever happened to Beardfish. But really, was it all that bad? By simple being an act originally scheduled to play the tour the band saw more free promotion than many others will ever hope to get. At that time the band would have been supporting Destined Solitaire, but now, less than two years later after some light touring in Europe the band is set to release Mammoth, their sixth album.
The album begins with “The Platform”, an eight minute track that seems to have enough hooks for twenty minutes. The song seems to incorporate all the things Beardfish have done right over their career and I don’t think anyone who pops in this CD and hears this track will be anything other than excited for the rest of the album. The next track, “And the Stone Said” is the only true epic on the album and delivers everything you might expect from an epic, and from Beardfish. Four and a half minutes go by without vocals as the band delivers an interesting start the song which eventually takes shape as a somewhat more reserved tune featuring some amazing synth tones, big surprise there, I know.
Although not as musically stunning as some of the other tracks, “Tightrope” manages to be one of my favorites due to some beautiful and haunting parts, and the easily relatable lyrics about one-sided love that 99% of us have experienced at some points. Simple and to the point, the song truly shows the band at their most refined. Although the rest of the tracks have their strength I think “Akakabotu” deserves special mention. The five minute instrumental starts out with a simple base and throws in amazing leads left and right making it a melodic powerhouse.
Although Rikard Sjöblom and David Zackrisson put up great performances I think it’s bassist Robert Hansen that really shines on this album. His playing seems to generate more great musical moments than ever before and he is rather prominent in the mix, keeping his fantastic playing from being drowned out by the wonderful flourishes of his band mates. While I found Destined Solitaire to be a good album I felt the band was not hitting on all cylinders with the sound changes made after the Sleeping in Traffic albums. With Mammoth the band takes a big leap in refining that sound and ended up with a fantastic record. At this point most of the complete wackiness that was present in the band’s first few records is gone, but fantastic songwriting has remained as well as all new grooves and the always fantastic keyboard tones and playing of Rikard. The album is fresh and new, yet it is definitively Beardfish, just as it is certainly amazing.
Nick’s Grade: A
Band: Long Distance Calling
Album: Long Distance Calling
An often criticized point of much prog music is that there is too much wankery, or perhaps too much wondering, that often times the song itself is lost. However this is hardly a complaint when it comes to instrumental music, where pushing the limits of your capabilities is almost a requirement to be taken seriously. What Long Distance Calling has done is break that mold, and even within instrumental music they have managed to return the focus on the song.
While contemporaries Scale the Summit managed to effectively achieve similar ends with short concise songs, Long Distance Calling have done it with pure simplicity. I’m not saying the guys in the band are sub-par musicians, far from it, but even with many songs clocking in at over seven minutes, all the songs seem to flow wonderfully. The songwriting is so focused, one wishes the band would take advantage of the situation and add a vocalist, and that wish is granted, for one track at least. The eight and a half minute “Middleville” features the guest talents of Armored Saint and ex-Anthrax vocalist John Bush, who helps demonstrate the potential the band has if they ever decide to add a vocalist in the future.
Of course the six other tracks on the album feature only the instruments the German based quintet bring to the table, and top to bottom those tracks deliver. I think it’s a true credit to the band that they manage to be highly compelling with very little flash, a trait perhaps best displayed on the album’s final and longest track, “Beyond the Void”. The track takes more than three minutes to really get started and yet I wouldn’t cut a single second.
If I had to lodge one complaint, it would be that while the focus on song-writing is refreshing, and very well executed, a little pizzazz wouldn’t hurt now and again. One might listen to the album several times and not remember one track from another despite all the tracks being great, simply because not enough sticks out to make each track memorable. This is a minor complaint though, and now that I’ve been exposed to this band I look forward to their future output knowing it will, as a whole most likely stand out against the other bands and artists of the genre.
Nick’s Grade: B+
Album: Glorious Collision
Everyone who knows me probably knows how big of an event the release of Evergrey’s 8th album, “Glorious Collision” has been for me. It’s no secret that I really didn’t care for their 2006 release, “Monday Morning Apocalypse”, and though I thought 2008’s “Torn” was a big step back in the right direction, it still fell considerably shy of their better work. Thusly, I admit that my expectations were not sky high for this record, until May of last year, when it was announced that 3/5 of Evergrey’s lineup was departing. Longtime guitarist Henrik Danhage, in place since 2001’s In Search of Truth was the most intriguing departure to me, though drummer Jonas Ekdahl and bassist Jari Kainulainen (ex Stratovarius) also left the fold of the group. Replacing them are guitarist Marcus Jidell (of Royal Hunt), bassist Johann Niemann (ex-Therion), and young drummer Hannes Van Dahl. With all these new faces involved, the new era of Evergrey would have a lot to prove. But more than anything else, this shifted focus and pressure onto main-man Tom S. Englund, who undertook writing most of this record himself, with only keyboarder Rikard Zander alongside him. This record was going to be “do or die”. If the new lineup couldn’t bring the excitement and freshness back to this band, I feared that one of my favorite bands would forever enter the realm of mediocrity.
I want to say straight away that this record is NOT a return to form. If you’re one of those people who will only accept “In Search of Truth Part 2” from Evergrey, you might as well stop reading right now. This is not a return to form, but what it is is the history of this band manifested in one single album. Every strength of each era of Evergrey is represented somewhere on this album. Think of it as a “best of” represented in original songs. It’s one of their most diverse albums, and in a sense, finally brings their newer style to fruition. With that all in mind, let’s get into the album itself.
Opening cuts have almost always been a strong suite of this band, and “Leave it Behind Us” is no exception whatsoever. After a brief choir introduction, we’re thrown right into the fray. Within the first minute or two, one thing is quite apparent: This is an Evergrey album. Thanks to Tom S. Englund’s voice, the identity of this band is always assured. The chorus sees a nice little piano line serving as a harbinger for the rest of the album: This is by far the most keyboards on an Evergrey album since 2004’s “The Inner Circle”. All in all, the opening cut sets an excellent overall tone for the 12 tunes that will follow it. The tone of this album is actually one of hope, which is a bit of a change of pace for this band. Many of the lyrics reference change, and leaving the past behind in order to come into something new, which is exactly what this band has done with this track. Note the absolutely killer solo section – the first of many to follow.
“You” brings the tempo down a bit but the heavy riff quotient up considerably. That being said, it also showcases something different about this album. The riffs on this album are so much more than de-tuned chugga-chugga riffs flogging the same note to death, but don’t sacrifice any heaviness. This song boasts some of my favorite lyrics on the disc and one of the more memorable choruses. Also this track is the longest of the batch, clocking in over 6 minutes. As a whole the songs on this disc are longer than the past 2, especially Monday Morning Apocalypse – with more focus on instrumental sections that are allowed to develop appropriately, not just soloing on cue. That being said, third track of the bunch, “Wrong” is among the more concise, dare I say “Commercialized” tracks here. The chorus is very enjoyable, and will probably grow with repeated listens, but in the end this track fits more into the “good but not great” category. An excellent vocal performance by Mr. Englund is the highlight.
“Frozen” has grown to be one of my favorite tracks here, and it starts with probably the most aggressive riff assault present on the disc. That aggression gives way to a really melodic verse that absolutely hooks me in every time. When it picks up it’s an absolute knock-out mix of heaviness and melody – in other words, one of my favorite things about Evergrey. The chorus is probably a tad commercial, but completely works for the song, and is sure to have you singing along regardless of whether or not you want to. There’s also an excellent guitar/keyboard unison/harmony after the second chorus. All in all, this is a home run of a song.
“Restoring the Loss” is a bit of a straight-forward number with some nice hooks and tasty soloing. Nothing more, nothing less. “To Fit the Mold” definitely introduces a new vibe not seen in the 5 tracks which precede it. There’s very noticeable dynamics with some excellent acoustic guitars and orchestration as the song progresses. That being said, the riffs definitely have a nice, heavy crunch and Tom S. Englund gives one of his more memorable performances of the album here, both vocally and musically. The track progresses fantastically, constantly building on itself before eventually returning to an acoustic end. Another favorite, for sure. “Out of Reach” sort of comes and goes somewhat unnoticed, which I’m guessing is as good as it is bad. This is just a relatively short and unmemorable track, but there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does have a pretty cool groove and some nice keyboards. The riffs are also a bit more subtle than some of the in-your-face attacks present on the disc. This track has been steadily growing for me as well, so maybe time will only serve it better.
We now are about half-way through the disc, and we reach one of its obvious highlights for myself. “The Phantom Letters” begins with a vibe rarely seen from this band – simply acoustic guitars alongside Tom’s heartfelt vocals. The mood set by the first section is absolutely superb. So superb, in fact that I feared the remainder of the song wouldn’t measure up. However, when the build-up finally reaches the breaking point, and Tom sings the line “When the ashes fall from heaven – they fall as my confession”, I get goose bumps every single time. The melody and the emotion is just the perfect storm, and from there the track gets quite heavier but loses no emotion or melody. If no other track here does so, this one alone proves the musical maturity and evolution this band has endured over the last couple of albums. With a few amazing solos in place as well, it is apparent: they are finally ready to create masterpieces again.
“The Disease…” starts with a really tasty keyboard pattern and showcases one of Tom’s best vocal performances on the disc. A fairly short and straight-forward song, much like “Out of Reach”, this one will probably take more listens than others to completely appreciate and come into its own, but is every bit as rewarding as the best stuff on the disc. I had mentioned near the beginning of this review that in some ways, this is like a tour through Evergrey’s entire career, and nowhere is this more evident than in the next track, “It Comes From Within”, which harkens back to the blazing fretwork of tracks like “Nosferatu” and “Watching the Skies”. It is with this track as my backing that stake my claim that this is by far Evergrey’s most interesting guitar-record in many years now. I’m not necessarily saying Marcus Jidell is superior to Henrik Danhage, but having someone new in the fold has certainly brought a really fresh, interesting drive to the guitar-end of the proceedings. Both Tom and Marcus play their asses off on the whole record, but this track in particular stands out. This is about as up-tempo as Evergrey has ever sounded, and the track fires on all cylinders. This is a definite home-run as well.
I also mentioned earlier in the review that this is one of Evergrey’s most diverse records, and this feeling could not be driven home any more so than it is by following “It Comes From Within” with “Free”. The track never really moves out of “mellow” territory, but does still manage to pack quite a punch. As usual Tom delivers his vocals with conviction and as much power and passion as you could ask for, and the acoustic guitars really shine through. This is a track where it becomes apparent that Rikard Zander had a greater hand in the creative process than usual, as there’s a lot of keyboard textures in this song. There’s actually a lot of depth here in general, and the vibe is reminiscent of something that could’ve appeared on Evergrey’s debut record, “The Dark Discovery”. It may leave some feeling as though it builds to a climax that never occurs, but it is possible that that fact is what makes the track work in the first place.
“I’m Drowning Alone” has a vibe that I can best describe as recalling “The Inner Circle” with a bit of the vibe the band has had on the past two records. There’s some really crunchy riffs, but they never bury the melody in what is, again, an amazing vocal performance from main-man Tom S. Englund. This track also features a guest appearance from the 3rd Englund to ever appear on an Evergrey record – that’s right, Tom’s daughter, Salina Englund, whose 4 lines before the final chorus add an almost ethereal dimension to the track. This is yet another song that might take several listens to appreciate, but it’s worth the effort. That being said, it pales in comparison to what follows it.
One thing is certain, the band chose the best possible way to end this album. Something Evergrey fans have come to love and almost expect from this band is appearances by Carina Englund, wife of Tom. And she delivers another excellent performance here, in what is easily one of the best and most haunting tunes on the disc. “…And the Distance” shows these two singing alongside each other in a fashion that only they can pull off. They are without a doubt the best and most under-appreciate male-female voice combination in metal. The track builds and builds, eventually exploding with some amazing lines, both vocally and musically. The final line on the album is “Resist the will that pushes under”, which seems almost eerie, as the change prior to this album meant that it was sink or swim for this band, and if they hadn’t delivered the goods here, they indeed probably would’ve been buried by the current of the music world.
So with that in mind, I suppose as a hardcore Evergrey fan I feel blessed. Mastermind Tom S. Englund has managed to find hope and persevere through one of the biggest changes in the band’s career. And not only has the band survived, but have actually created an album that in time will most likely hold its own against the band’s better works. It won’t top them, but it will be a welcome addition to the Evergrey catalog. The band now seems to be the strongest it’s been in years, with plans of their first ever US headlining tour on the horizon. From hell and back, they’ve created a hell of an album. Glorious, indeed.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Band: Star One
Album: Victims of the Modern Age
Much has happened since the crew of Star One touched down on Earth for a series of concerts in support of the first album, Space Metal. Star One mastermind Arjen Lucassen has since put out two Ayreon albums, created two new projects, and made multiple treks through Europe with Stream of Passion. All this would find Arjen exploring many new musical grounds, and would also allow him to work with over twenty new vocalists. I suppose after awhile it’s normal to want to return to familiarity, and to a small extent that’s what Arjen has done with the new Star One album, Victims of the Modern Age.
The album sees the return of the debut’s star cast of vocalists which includes Russell Allen, Damien Wilson, Dan Swano, and Floor Jansen, and in addition we see a return of the general heaviness found on Space Metal. However there are certainly things that do not return, such as the raw, poppy moments like in the chorus of the songs “Songs of the Ocean” or “Intergalactic Space Crusaders”. It’s not to say the album isn’t catchy; however it’s done in a much heavier and darker fashion than on the first album. Victims also boasts some brand new sounds from Arjen, most notably the opening guitar riff to “Human See, Human Do” which sounds like nothing Arjen has done to date.
The synth leads on tracks like “Digital Rain” and “Cassandra Complex” compliments an aggressive guitar style that smacks of the best moments of Deep Purple’s career. And while Arjen stepped up to the plate and delivered some of the best keyboard and guitar parts of his career the all-star roster of vocalists lived up to their reputations and gave 110% to the album. Each singer has their own moments to shine, as well as times when they play off one another in harmonious bliss like in the later parts of “It’s Alive, She’s Alive, We’re Alive”. In addition guitarist Gary Wehrkamp and keyboard wiz Joost van den Broek provided thrilling solos which are sprinkled throughout the album, and I can honestly say that for all he’s done with Arjen I think drummer Ed Warby opened up a new dimension in his playing to compliment the new musical ideas that were thrown into the mix.
While Victims of the Modern Age has a signature sound to it and some familiar voices I think most will be somewhat surprised with how very fresh this album sounds. One of my only complaints about the Guilt Machine album was that much of it sounded like 01 part two, and thankfully that is not the case this time around. I can easily see tracks like “Earth That Was”, “Victims of the Modern Age”, “Human See, Human Do”, “24 Hours”, and “It’s Alive, She’s Alive, We’re Alive” all going down as some of the best songs Arjen has ever written. And yes, I realize I just named half the album, it’s that good. The bar was set quite high by the first Star One album, but it was topped by fresh songwriting, amazing lead work on both guitars and keyboards, and excellent contributions from every musician involved.
Nick’s Grade: A
Band: Iron Maiden
Album: The Final Frontier
Well, it’s that time again. For anyone who knows me, they know how seriously I take the release of an Iron Maiden studio album. This new record is only the third to have been released in my tenure as a fan, which now stretches about eight years. The new album is of course entitled “The Final Frontier”, and there is of course much talk about it being their final studio effort, though for now the band is leaving things open-ended. But still, with this possibility at hand, there’s no doubt that there’s a good deal of tension and pressure for the band to release an album worthy of being the final one, should it wind up going down that way. Their previous album, “A Matter of life and Death” was met with much praise as well as criticism, mainly for sounding somewhat repetitive and one-dimensional. Though I personally really enjoyed it, both points were not terribly far fetched, and I, like most people, were hoping to see Maiden break the formula up a bit and bring a bit more of variety to the table with this album. So, without further adieu, let’s get things started.
The album begins in a very strange fashion, with the intro “Satellite 15″, which is certainly unlike anything the band have done before. Unfortunately I can’t say it’s all that thrilling to me. This intro is the first of a couple of ideas on this record that I don’t think quite panned out like they should have. There’s some very electronic sounding drum patterns, with some very dissonant and effect-laden guitar bits. There is supposed to be a bit of a building feel throughout, but overall it just doesn’t go much of anywhere. There’s some strange chords and weird vocals from Bruce, just adding to the chaos. The first 4 and a half minutes of this really could’ve been it’s own track, for how disjointed it is from what follows it. I suppose some intro sequence was necessary to set up the song, but I think they could have and should have done much better than this. When the proper track “The Final Frontier” kicks in, it’s music to my ears, in much better quality than heard in the promo video. Here we can even here some acoustic guitars jangling in the background. The song is very concise and straight forward. They certainly weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, and I think it actually works the way it is, as just a simple and catchy tune. Bruce’s vocals in the verses aren’t spectacular, and I find myself wanting some vocal harmonies on the chorus, but overall I have no big complaints with the track. Some nice solos from Adrian and Dave, and the track signs off. In all honesty, this is probably one of the weakest opening tracks Maiden have ever done in context of “quality of the song versus the rest of the album”, but it’s enjoyable. It certainly sets a different tone for the album than we’ve grown accustomed to on reunion Maiden records.
Next up we have “El Dorado“, which I figure by now, most people are familiar with. The song begins with a somewhat unnecessary “big ending” of sorts, before kicking into a bit of a cheesy gallop riff that worked considerably better live than it does here. Bruce keeps a very grim, storyteller-like vibe on the verses, not doing much in the way of melody. As with the first track, the band don’t seem to be thinking too outside the box here, but at least they gave us a good bit of variety with key changes in the song, which is one area in which this album is a vast improvement over its predecessor. The extra guitar harmony added on the second half of the second verse is honestly probably my favorite thing about the whole tune, though all 3 guitarist’s turn in pretty strong solos. “Mother of Mercy” opens with a very typical Maiden guitar figure, with some relatively clean guitars building a bit of a mood. This is the typical sort of intro you’d expect the band to use as a jumping-off point for a pick-up into a 7-minute song, but instead the band turns in a fairly heavy and very concise tune with some great lyrics and melodies. The chorus is very heavy and a bit chromatic/dissonant by Maiden standards, but serves as a nice contrast to the very melodic pre-chorus. Bruce strains a bit on the chorus here, but not much worse than fans should be pretty accustomed to hearing by now, especially on songs that Steve writes the vocal melodies for. Just one solo to be found here, and it’s a typically great one from Adrian, no surprise since he penned the tune with Steve. Both the bridge and outro of this song offer some vibes and progressions that Maiden doesn’t use too often, which leads to them sounding pretty fresh. This was the first track on the album where I started to feel genuinely excited to be listening to brand new Maiden material – a feeling that would grow exponentially as the record continued to progress. Ballads are something that have always faired well with me, though this is certainly not the case with the majority of the Maiden fan base. I think the band knows this, which is why when they indulge their ballad tendencies, they usually dress up the song with some heavier sections to keep the wolves at bay. There’s no doubt that “Coming Home” is a ballad at heart, but the band do a nice job of dressing it up with an excellent harmony theme with occurs a few times, and a very thumping pre-chorus. The chorus here is no doubt one of the most melodic and memorable sections of the entire disc, where Bruce is finally able to shine for the first time on the album. The timeless duo of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith turn in two more great solos on this track, and overall I think the band really struck gold with this. Reminiscent of “Out of the Shadows” from the previous album, though even better this time around I think. At this point something should be obvious to the listener. If you consider “Satellite 15” and “The Final Frontier” as two separate pieces, which is logical – we are now several tracks into a new Maiden record which has not had one long song, potentially bloated by soft and slow intros and countless solos. There seems to have been a conscious decision to put the hammer down on this album, and this is driven home by the next offering.
“The Alchemist” is probably one of the fastest and most driving tunes this band have recorded in quite some time. This track bears nothing in common with the solo Bruce Dickinson song of the same name, as it rips for its 4-and-a-half-minute duration. Each section feels like it continues to pick up from the last, and the chorus is just magical, featuring something else that this album has added into the mix – guitar harmonies and lines working their way into lyrical sections of songs. The guitar work on most recent Maiden work has been very riff-driven, with all 3 guitarists generally playing the same riffs aside from their solos on cue. This track is just the beginning of this technique though, we’ll see much more as the album progresses. All in all, “The Alchemist” is just a great track that should please almost any Maiden fan. Track-wise, we’ve now reached the half-way point of the album, and almost as though someone flipped a switch, the band changes gears to more long and epic tunes. “Isle of Avalon” has our first token “slow intro”, though it’s a slow intro that shares almost nothing in common melodically with what has become expected from Maiden. A very creepy recurring guitar figure continues to build on itself. All in all, the whole sequence probably could’ve been a bit shorter, but it seems very justified when the band actually gets going. The pick-up section is brilliant, and the “chorus” that follows is just awesome. The next section features a descending chromatic melody that annoyed me a bit at first but is starting to grow on my ears. The instrumental section is downright magically, with the band starting to fire on all cylinders. There’s no doubt that Adrian Smith pulled out every stop on this track, turning in some of the best guitar lines on the whole disc. His solo on this track is so atypical of what we’re used to from Maiden records. Honestly I am most reminded of the style of King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor – a genuine possibility as Adrian has previously cited his love of this band. The whole middle section just jams in a way that’s very atypical of this band, and I love it. After revisiting the “bridge”, if you will, the band return to the mellow build-up section, but thankfully not as long this time. When they get going again they ride out the song with some great stuff, including a nice little guitar lead. At this point in the record it has become obvious that each track has been getting progressively better in my eyes.
The aforementioned trend continues yet again with the band’s next offering, “Starblind“. Again, we are greeted with a somewhat typical slow intro sequence, featuring a very oddly timed vocal passage. Thankfully the band don’t ride this passage to death for 2+ minutes, and get right to the riffage before being a minute in. The main riff of this song is probably my favorite on the disc as a whole, which is good because it is the clay from which the whole song was molded. The verses and chorus of this song just have such a great groove to them that again is not necessarily typical Maiden fare. I think Bruce’s vocals sound fantastic on this track, and he penned some great lyrics as well. The sections that follow the choruses are oddly reminiscent of the classic “Infinite Dreams” to me, and really add a lot to the epic nature of the song. This track sees even more “outside the lines” guitar work, especially in the second verse in chorus. It really is not to be understated how much I think these little guitar lines add to the songs as a whole. After the second chorus we hear another great riff that dominates the instrumental section, which again has this absolutely great 7/4 groove to it. Adrian’s soloing again paints a great texture for the whole tune, and the lead section following the solos is just undeniably epic. After a quick drop back to the slow section, the band find their way back to the epic groove of the verse/chorus structure, before ending with the great post-chorus section. As of this point, I have to say this my favorite offering from this record, and honestly, probably going to be a strong candidate for one of my favorite reunion Maiden songs, along with another track on this record we have yet to visit.
And the time to visit that track is now. “The Talisman” opens with an acoustic section undeniably reminiscent of “The legacy” from the previous record. Fortunately that similarity is nearly the only complaint I can register about this entire 9-minute opus. The verse riff of this track is fierce, and once it gets going, the song just drives forward immensely. This track has an absolutely great balance between pure balls and soaring melodies, and no shortage of great musical interludes. There’s an excellent interlude in particular that paints a nearly perfect picture of being caught at sea amidst the chaos of a storm, far better than anything present in the band’s classic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The guitar solo on this track is unfortunately a tad underwhelming, but actually serves as an appropriate vehicle for Janick Gers to deliver a somewhat awkward solo. It’s very strange how the solo seems to almost perfectly compliment the section of the tune. The section immediately following the solo reminds me a lot of the band Kansas. Wait? What? I have now mentioned Kansas and King’s X in a review of an Iron Maiden album. If this doesn’t serve as proof that they were thinking outside the box at least a couple of times here, I don’t know what will. All in all, this is just a fantastic track featuring some great lyrics, great melodies, and great instrumentation from pretty much the entire band. No doubt my second favorite tune on here behind the previous one.
Sadly, we have now reached the section of the album where the trend of the songs getting seemingly progressively better has died. “The Man Who Would Be King” is far from bad, though not up to snuff with the several tracks that proceeded it. The lyrics manage to be almost annoyingly direct and annoyingly ambiguous at the same time – almost like I should know what this song is about, but yet I have absolutely no idea. The whole slow intro sequence is somewhat reminiscent of the (gasp) Blaze-era of the band. The harmony section when the tune starts to pick up is quite cool, probably actually the single best part of the song – the section builds amazingly well before kicking into the verse which somewhat brings back the aforementioned Blaze-era vibe. The chorus sounds a tad disjointed to me for some reason, though continues the pattern of being beefed up with extra guitar lines. The solo section of this tune is just bizarre – it honestly reminds me of something found in one of Journey’s more proggy songs. Dave Murray turns in a very noodly solo that is a bit buried, before giving way to a cool harmony section. Eventually there’s more verses and a chorus, and something heard for the first time this shockingly late on the album – a “slow” outro. This is something the band have drawn a lot of criticism for on recent records, so it’s nice to see they’ve cut back on it. Overall the track has its moments, but comes off a tad inferior compared to the 5 or so tracks which proceeded it. Unfortunate, considering it’s Dave’s only writing contribution to this album.
And now we arrive at the closing track, the curious “When the Wild Wind Blows“. There was no doubt that there was going to be huge expectations for this track, as it ends up clocking in as the third of fourth-longest song the band have ever done, at 11 minutes. Before getting into the actual music itself, I just have to mention that this track let me down. I was expecting something far more adventurous and creative out of a track so long and promising. Unfortunately, the sole solo-penned Steve Harris track ends up underwhelming me. Why? Sadly, I have to confess that this entire track consists of approximately 3 or 4 musical ideas, with nearly all identical chord structures. The rhythms and melodies change slightly throughout, but overall it honestly comes off like 11 minutes of the same vibe. It doesn’t help matters that I find the lyrics of this song to be very silly. It bothers me to say this, but I just feel like Steve blew it here. This is especially painfully to say being that I genuinely believe that this track does have good parts and a lot of potential. If they had either cut about 4 minutes worth of repetition out, or replaced it with something considerably different, they probably could’ve salvaged it as a very, very good track. But the truth of the matter is that the best thing about this song is the instrumental section – while fairly pedestrian in arrangement, features some absolutely brilliant soloing. The Blaze-era vibe is definitely running through this tune as well – both in the guitar melodies as well as the vocal melodies, as Bruce stays relatively in his lower range throughout most of the track. I guess I’m partially to blame for my own disappointment here, I think I got a tad too excited for this, but the truth of the matter is that I just can’t help being as underwhelmed as I am. The thought of this possibly being the final track on the final Maiden record is somewhat disappointing to me, compared to the previous couple of album closers.
So, 75 minutes later we have finished the musical journey known as “The Final Frontier”, and it’s time to reflect a bit. Despite it ending on a somewhat down note for me, I don’t think this would be a bad final album for Maiden’s great career. For ANY band’s fifteenth studio album, this is an incredible effort. Is it rivaling their best work on the whole? No. But I genuinely believe they are by far the most enduring band in their age bracket. The fact that they cant still turn out tunes like “Starblind”, “The Talisman”, and “The Alchemist” at this point is incredibly impressive to me. I think the writing of Janick Gers and the soloing of Adrian Smith (as well as his writing) shown the most on this effort, with Steve Harris overall being much more of a background player than we’re used to, I think it’s very obvious that the band was thinking and writing a bit outside of their typical “box”, or comfort zone with this album, as they really seem to have broke the mold that many people criticized the last album for. Sadly this band tends to attract a lot of people who are never happy, and so I’m sure this album will receive many negative reviews from stubborn old folks who want the band to keep rewriting Piece of Mind – but the truth is that for better or worse, I think this album is triumph for the creative side of this band. Though less consistent than its predecessor, the band has definitely yet again proven why they should still be making albums – because they can still write music that is worth being heard – and I can honestly say I am genuinely interested in hearing more of it, should the band bless the world with writing it.
Jeff’s Grade: B+
Album: Rooms of Revelation
I’m fairly certain many people’s first thought when seeing this band name is: “Who?”, and I can’t really blame them. Though formed almost a decade ago, Dreyelands are now making their debut – and I have to say they’re doing it in style. I’ve said before that there don’t seem to be too many bands left out there that are really doing great, inventive things within the style of music I really like. Even more so, there doesn’t seem to be that many brand new exciting bands out there. Prior to release, the band dropped a short trailer that certainly had fans of Progressive Metal chomping at the bit for more, and with their debut album – “Rooms of Revelation”, they get it.
The album is divided into 8 main tracks and an intro, with each main track named “Room 1” through “Room 8”, with subtitles. The songs manage to tackle a wide range of expressions and emotions, from more dark and angry themes, to more light and catchy stuff, to more somber and emotional material. Certainly not content on autopilot, the band’s songwriting is filled with fresh and creative passages and changes that keep the listener coming back, and even discovering new intricacies with repeated listens. The thing that first struck me as a stand-out aspect of this band is singer Nikola Mijic, who is honestly one of the best completely new (to me) singers I’ve heard in quite a while. His style can best be described as a cleaner (less abrasive) version of Mats Leven, who is already a singer I quite like. That’s not to say the instrumentalists don’t shine through though. The keyboards play a very prominent role in this operation, featuring some great solos as well as atmospheric textures, showcasing a good variety of sounds. The rhythm section is tight and more than proficient, and the guitar playing is pretty fantastic. When the band feels the need, the riffs can get very sinister and heavy – but they also show a lot of restraint, not letting the riffs run away and bury the other instruments. The production is also worthy of note, being very, very strong – downright top-notch for such a new, unknown band. Many times a band takes a while to find its niche, and usually 1 or 2 albums pass before the band will pass into maturity and make something that truly shines. Not the case here, especially in terms of the general sound of the album.
And the songs themselves? All told the proper opener, “Room 1: Seek For Salvation“, isn’t quite as powerful as I feel it maybe should have been, but it’s no matter. Honestly, I feel that as the album proceeds, the songs actually get better, eventually peaking somewhere past the half-way point. “Room 2: Can’t Hide Away“, is strong, but “Room 3: Pretending” is even better, hitting the listener with a strong batch of hooks and upbeat melodies. It seems as though the band buried their progressive side with this tune, but then about half-way through, it hits you like a brick wall with a very different groovy middle section showcasing a heavy dose of keyboards. Maybe a tad disconnect from the rest of the song, but certainly brilliantly executed. Continuing the seamless flow of tracks, “Room 4: Fragments” picks up the pace a bit and may be my favorite song on the entire disc, featuring a balance of heaviness of pure melodic bliss. The bridge is a nice change of pace, and launches the listener headlong into another intricate middle section. With the level of songwriting maturity present on tracks like this one, you would never guess that this was such a young band. “Room 5: Way to You” is the second-longest and arguably the most intricate of all the tracks present here – that being said, there’s still a big and powerful chorus and an abundant supply of melodies. The next track is the most unlikely but yet the most resounding gem of the entire disc. “Room 6: Blossoms of Decay“, is practically a segue track in the grand scheme of the album, as it’s by far the shortest. However in this 3-minute track the band have created an absolutely great, emotional masterpiece of a ballad. Featuring a lot of piano, great orchestration, and top-notch vocals, this track is sure to pull at your heart strings for its all-too-short length. As the track gets going, it sets up the next tune, “Room 7: Vain” which again features a really nice mix of different dynamics, and a great balance between technicality and melody. The riffs at times are brutal, but the band never lose sight of their emotional center. If the previous track and this one could be combined into one 11-minute song, it would no doubt be my favorite on the disc, as they are probably the two leading candidates on their own. The aforementioned “Vain” features a really nice extended guitar solo in the middle, segueing into a very inventive instrumental break which gets all the instruments in on the action. The album’s closing track, “Room 8: Leaving Grace“, is another tune in the style of the albums heavier, more technical tracks – but also features a mixture of some very heavy doomy sections and some absolutely uplifting larger-than-life melodies. Not the strongest end possible, as it’s probably my second-least favorite track behind the album’s opener. But nevertheless, it’s still a strong tune.
With “Rooms of Revelation”, Hungary’s Dreyelands have certainly established a place in the still-growing world of Progressive Metal. The album has a few shortcomings I think, but the strengths certainly make up for it and make it a collectively great and enjoyable piece of work that is sure to be enhanced by repeated listens. If a new band can release an album this strong as a debut, it’s almost frightening to think what they might be able to accomplish in a couple of years if given the opportunity to grow. If that’s true, it’s only a matter of time until the world takes notice of this great new band, and this very strong album they have put forth.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Band: Silent Call
Silent Call’s debut album “Creations From a Chosen Path” was a pleasant surprise in late 2008. It’s not often anymore that I find new bands that really seem worth my time – that if they’re not breaking ground, they’re at least perfecting an already commendable style I really enjoy. Silent Call is more of the latter. Featuring one of the best ballads I’ve heard in a long time in “I Believe in Me”, and a whole bunch of melodic progressive metal songs that had both hooks and heaviness – “Creations…” has been in occasional rotation for about a year and a half for me. Imagine my excitement when I was informed that the band’s sophomore effort – “Greed” was on the way. They then teased us with extensive trailers and clips, and eventually a promo video. Nothing could really hold me over and I was anxious as hell to hear the finished product in full form. Vocalist Andi Kravljaca was the original singer for the now renown prog metal band Seventh Wonder – who released a candidate for album of the decade in 2008 – but now he’s onto new things with Silent Call – and I have to say, his vocals here are outshining his vocals of the past. But when it came time to finally give the album the proper listen, I had a couple of questions – mainly one: Could the band take all the promise of their debut, and mature enough to forge an all-around great album with no considerable short-comings? How does “Greed” measure up? It’s time to find out.
The album greets the listener with the sound of a scratchy needle, like we have just put on an old vinyl album, which is a sort of cool effect. Instantly I can’t help but be somewhat reminded of Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” given the soft and more atmospheric intro which begins to build throughout the first minute. Given that the aforementioned track kicked off one of the best Prog Metal albums of all-time, one can’t help but get excited for what lies ahead – and opening cut “Every Day” certainly delivers the goods. Taking about 90 seconds to build to its monumental metal chug – the band assure the listener that they are gonna get down to business. The keyboards are up front, but in no way bury the riffs, and visa versa – which is a very good thing. There’s no doubt that the production is very crisp and everything sounds great. After pretty heavy verses, we are taken into an extremely melodic and powerful chorus, which is sure to have your first in the air and your mouth singing along after only a few listens. After the second chorus there’s some oddly aggressive vocals from Andi, which I have to say I’m not incredibly fond of, but they don’t get too out of control, and don’t hold the song back from being pretty much a ten-out-of-ten. A great solo proceeds the return to the brilliant chorus before the band signs off for this one. There’s no doubt that they mean it when Andi says: “Ain’t a game – and I ain’t here to play”. This band means business.
“I Am My Nation“, the album’s “single” comes next, starting with atmospheric keyboards before another crunchy riff double by some really brutal dirty organ. The band make heavy use of an almost spoken-word effect here which was peppered into their previous album and sees more use again here. I think this song may be the biggest “grower” on the whole disc. The first time I heard it I liked it, but now that I’m about 15 listens in, I can’t get enough of this song. The vocal melodies are divine, Andi sings his ass off here – and again the band find pretty much the perfect meeting place between sensible poppy hooks and absolute balls-out metal. Another strong chorus is absolutely headbang-worthy. The band’s riffs seem to actually be fairly creative rather than just riding the same one-chord (or even one-note) chugga-chug like so many other Prog Metal bands when they try to be heavy. The solo on this one is even better, definitely among my favorites from the entire album. Eventually the music fades, leaving just the haunting spoken-word type of effect to close out the track. Another definite mark in the “win” column. Anyone familiar with the band’s debut album can’t help but draw a parallel between third track, “Through the Endless Night” and the third track on their debut, the album’s highlight – “I Believe in Me”. I’m not in any way suggesting self-plagiarism, the songs are merely fairly similar in style. The style can best be described as a nice melodic ballad that still gets the whole band involved in a great metal track. The chorus is less of an obvious hook and more of a flowing melody, which all segue into more great guitar work. This track does not steal the show like “I Believe in Me” did, but that’s less an knock to the song and more of a testament to how strong the rest of this album is. Again, Andi K really shines with some soaring vocals.
Next up is the rousing mid-tempo track “All That Might Be” – which features another really catchy chorus, which gets easily lodged in my brain. Again – I must stress that for how melodic this band is, they pack all the might and balls of the most ferocious metal acts out there. Not very speedy, but they more than make up for that with sheer riffage and great playing. Also, I think this band does an absolutely phenomenal job with vocal harmonies. They are worked into the melodies so well that they basically take on a life of their own, without beginning to overtake the presence of the lead vocals. No easy task, so massive respect there. Another thing really at play on the previously mentioned track that I adore is the use of keyboard leads, melodies, and textures over very heavy and repetitive guitar riffs. The sort of thing Symphony X used to be brilliant at but have recently backed off of. “Dream Tomorrow” kicks off with an absolutely great riff, eventually giving way to a calm and melodic first verse. Another great mid-tempo song with an even better chorus, but I can’t help but think that maybe this song and “All That Might Be” should have been distanced on the CD. Two great songs that stand amazingly well on their own, but next to eachother, it becomes obvious that there’s some similarities. But what’s that? Maybe this was intentional – because following a kick-ass instrumental section, there is actually a complete reprise of the chorus of “All That Might Be”, which blends perfectly into this song. Kinda strange, but I’m not gonna lie – it works really, really well. Maybe there’s some sort of conceptual connection I don’t know about. Still – linked or not linked – two more great tracks.
We see a considerable shift in feel with the start of the next song – the more slow and atmospheric tune, “Turn the Tide“. A less heavy and more relaxing number though by no means a ballad, the band create a cool vibe here that is again really driven forward by vocalist Andi Kravljaka – and for some reason I can’t listen to this without swaying a bit and bobbing my head. Half way through the tune, the band picks up the tempo abruptly for yet another strong solo before some keyboard orchestration drives into probably the coolest “middle section” on the disc, that really scores some BIG extra points for this song – taking it from being one of the album’s more forgettable tracks to one of its best. “Unbreakable” comes roaring in like a freight train – probably the fastest, heaviest, and yet also most keyboard-driven songs here. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but the truth is – there’s another really strong chorus here with more great hooks, and more fist-in-the-air power. This is probably gonna be one of the most appealing songs here to fans of straight power metal, but still manages lots of progressive shifts and tempo changes.
“Falling From Grace” starts up with some really powerful keyboards and becomes very heavy when it kicks in. This is the longest song to be found here – clocking in at just over 7-minutes. No doubt that this is both the heaviest and most progressive song on the entire disc. As such, it ebbs and flows, and has its strengths and weaknesses. I think it shows that the band isn’t incredibly experienced with writing longer, more elaborate material, but to call this track anything like a failure would be very inaccurate. I think it’s just that at the end of the day, after heavy listening, this track doesn’t stick in my mind like most of the others. There is no huge hook that I always remember, no absolute fist-in-the-air anthemic moments. But it’s still very good. The band throw the listener for a loop about 4-minutes through with a more mellow section, very detached in style from the rest of the song. After about 2 and a half minutes of that, the band take an abrupt turn back towards heaviness to finish out the song. As I’ve said, there’s great stuff here, no doubt – I think this track just isn’t quite as good as it should be – or more so what I want it to be given the length. “When Angels Call Your Name” is a pretty cool slower, heavy groove sort of song that manages to make room for some great piano work as well. As with the previous track, I think this is another one that gets sort of lost in the shuffle, even though for what it is on its own, it’s a pretty solid tune.
“The Wages of Greed” no doubt makes up for any shortcomings there may have been with the last two tracks. Heavy as hell and completely in your face, this may actually be the band’s heaviest song to date, but as expected – melody is not lost on it. Some very cool tempo and feels shifts throughout the song, and the chorus is absolutely dramatic in the best way possible. Yet another tune that I can’t help but sing and air-play to every time I hear it – I absolutely love the drumming on the chorus. There’s no shortage of variety in the passages, and overall the band just managed to marry all their best elements in one absolutely brutal and amazing song. I can’t really think of anything that would make this tune better – there’s no doubt to me that this is not only one of the best songs on the disc, but one of the best the band has written thus far.
Now, it should be noted that I am a big sucker for band’s ending their albums with more mellow, acoustic sorts of songs, and the band’s previous album had one of those for sure. Much to my pleasant surprise, the band opted to end this one in a similar, but even better fashion. “Clavain’s Tale“, is a simple song consisting of merely various keyboard textures and the amazing, soaring vocals of Andi Kravljaka. The vibe of this tune is monumental though it is so stripped and simple – a true testament to how vocal melodies and pure atmosphere can carry a track. A track like this is also a strong piece of evidence as to why the previously hailed Kravljaka has moved up the radar to be considered one of my favorite vocalists in the emerging metal scene today. There are few who rival this guy in terms of an amazing voice meeting a gift for incredible vocal melodies. This track works very well to bring the listener down an emotional peg and ready them for the end of this next chapter in Silent Call’s musical journey.
So, after the final notes have faded, it is undoubted that one question has been answered by the previous hour of music. Silent Call’s “Greed” has not only meet and exceeded the quality level of their debut album – but ushered in a new era of maturity for this sill new Swedish band. The vast majority of issues with their debut album have been corrected here, and they have unleashed a batch of undoubtedly strong and memorable tunes that are sure to satisfy fans of progressive and melodic metal the world over. I have certainly noticed this band gaining more recognition in the past few months due to this album – and they deserve it. They deserve much more of it actually. Given the caliber of this album, there’s no reason why Silent Call shouldn’t be riding the crest of this incredibly respectable musical wave known as European Prog Metal – featuring bands like Pagan’s Mind, Circus Maximus, and Seventh Wonder. I can only hope the world takes notice of what this great band have given them.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Band: Coheed and Cambria
Album: Year of the Black Rainbow
Being a newer Coheed fan, the release of Year of the Black Rainbow and the accompanying book by the same was an exciting event. If I was to have even the slightest clue what was going on in the crazy universe known as Heaven’s Fence than a prequel to the story so far was essential.
The album starts typically enough with the first real track, “The Broken”, which maintains a lot of the sounds Coheed has established over the previous two records, but at the same time you get the feeling the album is moving into new territory, a feeling which will be validated as the album continues on. “The Broken” has some very memorable guitar leads and a catchy chorus that one would expect, but the next track, “Guns of Summer” really sees the band throw out their own rulebook to travel new ground. That trend is somewhat continued in “Here We Are Juggernaut”, in which guitarist, vocalist, and lead songwriter Claudio Sanchez explains that the band for the first time ever wrote a song based around a small electronic sample. This bit of experimentation proves to be successful as the track ends up being one of the best and most accessible on the album despite not being completely straightforward.
The track “Far” displays what is perhaps the best part of the album, its softer side. The band really did well kicking back with some new techniques to deliver some very soothing moments on the album. And however much I like “Far” the best example of this probably comes a little later on the album with what I’d consider the highlight of the album, “Pearl of the Stars”. The track is as far as I’m concerned the best softer song the band has ever done, and I think between its simplicity and easier to handle than normal vocals it will be a song that can convert a lot of new people into fans. The song not only features emotional and moving vocals, but probably the most emotional guitar solo on the entire disc which reminds me of something I might hear on a Pink Floyd album.
Although I’ve been mostly positive at this point the album does have some drawbacks. For starters some of the new things the band tried didn’t come across perfectly. I’d say failed experiments are certainly in the minority, but definitely there. My other, much larger complaint is with the production of the album. Along with sounding way too stuck up and British on the documentary that accompanies the deluxe edition of the album producers Atticus Ross and Joe Barresi managed to flaw what was perhaps Coheed’s best mixed album to date by making the entire record sound somewhat flat and muddy. The sound does somewhat lend itself well to a track or two, but over the entire record it certainly does not work.
I think this record has great potential to bring in new fans, while as long as they don’t resist change older fans should come along for the ride. There are certainly still elements of the last few albums older fans can look to, especially in tracks like “World of Lines” which has potentially the best chorus on the disc, and it sounds like it could have come straight from one of the Good Apollo albums. This album opened up a new toolbox to the band (literally if you watch the documentary), and they did very well with their new ideas for the most part, producing a very solid album musically.
Nick’s Grade: B+
From the very beginning of “The Point of No Return” Haken proves to be a trip through the unexpected, while still maintaining elements of progressive rock and metal that will allow fans of the genre to love them. In one moment the band can show master craftsmanship in carving out very beautiful music, and in the next they can be doing something completely off the wall in a fashion Frank Zappa would be proud of. With that said let me say that if you criticize a band like Dream Theater for the occasional “circus music” then Haken may not be for you, but if you dig it, then you’ll probably love Haken.
The primary musical mind behind the band, Richard Henshall manages to make a great use of symphonic keyboards to build suspense, as can be heard in the second track “Streams”, and keyboard player Diego Tejeida does a good job handling quick piano runs on “Eternal Rain”. That track also features what guitarist Charles Griffiths is capable of as it features guitar solos that fits the song perfectly.
It’s around this point that I should point out one of my few complaints about the disc, which is the way singer Ross Jennings is included in the sound of the album. I’m not sure whether it’s his voice or the production of the album but at times he sounds a bit synthetic and pulled into the music, making it hard for him to have his own punch really be heard. It’s not necessarily a bad thing throughout, as the voice is a musical instrument and many times he adds fantastically to the album when blending so thoroughly with the music, but there are certainly moments where I wished he stood out a bit more. Also, the blending often makes it a bit hard to hear his enunciation. Despite those complaints I’d say Ross does a very good job throughout the record, especially on longer held notes in which he maintains power in a very nice way.
The final track, “Celestial Elixir” showcases both Haken’s ability to write longer, diverse, and ever changing songs and their ability to simply create musical excellence. Although the entire seventeen minutes of the track is amazing the chorus stands out to me as the highlight of the album. It’s also amazing how well the final lines of the verses merge themselves perfectly into the chorus. After all the beauty that is the first eight or so minutes of the song it’s amazing how well the band can transition into crazy and then later back into something softer and soothing. And although this song may be the best example of it there is evidence of it all around the album.
Musically this album is a complete gem, and come the end of the year I doubt I’ll find a new act with a debut album as promising as this one. From a production standpoint, aside from the vocal aspect mentioned earlier I’d say the album sounds great. If you live in the UK and have a chance to see these guys, you should, and if you live anywhere in the world you should buy this album.
Nick’s Grade: A
Album: Angel of Babylon
Welcome to part two of my epic double-header of Avantasia reviews. This time I will tackle the second of the new releases, and the completion of the trilogy, known as “Angel of Babylon”. For details about “The Wicked Symphony”, please see part one, but in short, I felt that record dazzled, well up to my extremely high expectations, featuring a diverse list of guest vocalists which really drove the fairly diverse songs forward. So now it is time for part two, and again, it is a star-studded cast, featuring repeated vocalists Jorn Lande (Masterplan), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Bob Catley (Magnum), and Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween), while also bringing in new vocalists Jon Oliva (Savatage), Oliver Hartmann (ex-At Vance, Hartmann), and female vocalist Cloudy Yang who handled backing vocals on the 2008 World Tour. Instrumental duties were divied up similarly here as with the previous record, but with a guest keyboard solo from Jens Johansson (Stratovarius) and a guest guitar solo from Henjo Richter (Gamma Ray). Certainly there is no shortage of stars abound here, but we all know guests don’t make an album great, it’s really up to the songs to do that. So, how does the conclusion of this epic trilogy measure up? It’s time to get down to business.
This album kicks off with “Stargazers”, a track which features the most guest vocalists ever on an Avantasia track aside from “The Seven Angels” on “The Metal Opera, Part 2”. Despite all the guest appearances here, this is mostly a Jorn and Tobias Sammet affair, though Russell Allen and Michael Kiske have fairly significant parts as well. After a fairly atmospheric intro we are launched head-long into a fairly speedy and very heavy power metal assault. There’s no doubt that the verses here have both melody and a nice set of balls as well, and the prechorus and chorus are melodic bliss. The chorus is actually handled by a different vocalist each time, which is nice for the sake of variety. Jorn’s vocals in the second verse are a big highlight of this track for me, among my favorite of his between both albums. After a nice solo section and a third chorus, which are unfortunately Oliver Hartmann’s only lead vocals on the record, the pace drops back to a very atmospheric and somewhat doomy vibe which the remaining 2 to 3 minutes ride out, vocals shared by Jorn and Tobias Sammet. This track doesn’t measure up to the epic centerpiece and title track of the previous record, but it is no doubt an absolutely fantastic offering among the standout tracks between both albums.
The album’s title track is up next and it is no doubt a keyboard-driven affair, aided by a lengthy overlapped keyboard solo by legendary power metal player and notorious goofball Jens Johansson. Tobias and Jorn trade lots of vocals here across the verses and choruses, and this is no doubt one of the catchiest, most upbeat pieces to be found. Not a whole lot to say about this one, aside from that it’s just an all-around great slab of melodic metal that is sure to please almost everyone. “Your Love is Evil” is one of only three songs across both discs to not feature any guest vocalists, and all in all it kinda sits in the middle of the road. In a sense it reminds me of “I Don’t Believe in Your love” from The Scarecrow, just a little less awesome. There’s no doubt that it’s catchy and a song you’ll not want to skip upon repeated listens, but much like the previous Edguy album which this song reminds me of, it just kind of fails to dazzle.
“Death is Just a Feeling” was no doubt a track I was destined to love, when it was announced that Savatage mastermind Jon Oliva would contribute vocals to it, and again, he dominates the song. I like any time it sounds as though a part or song was written for a specific guest vocalist, and that couldn’t be any more evident here. The verses of this song have an absolutely creepy, sinister vibe to them which fit Jon’s maniacal vocals perfectly. The chorus is very upbeat and singable, and all in all somewhat strikes me like a big overblown musical number – almost like a title song for a vilian in an opera or Broadway play. Some great strings add to the over-dramatic vibe. I think this track perfectly represents a great collaboration, and definitely remains one of my favorites and a nomination for the most enjoyable song here. A live staging of this with both vocalists and a string section would be amazingly epic. Next up we have “Rat Race” which somewhat revisits that vibe of the previous Edguy record in a good way – “Wake Up Dreaming Black” comes to mind. Jorn contributes some vocals but this is mostly just a Tobias Sammet affair, including some heavy riffs and a very catchy chorus. After just one or two listens it wouldn’t be surprising to find yourself singing: “living it a rat race, dying in a rat race!”, it’s just downright catchy, and I really like the main “riff”. Again, more of a middle-of-the-road sort of song, but still well-worth its place on the album and repeated listens.
Unfortunately it is around this time that we begin to tread the waters of filler, which is worse with some tracks than others. First up is “Down in the Dark”, which still remains quite enjoyable though unremarkable. Jorn again contributes some vocals, and makes the first chorus of this tune absolute melodic bliss, fans of AOR will be loving it – unfortunately I think the chorus comes off as somewhat pedestrian. After a bridge and a solo we pass back through the chorus and the tune is over. No harm done, but it’s not something I find myself ever really wanting to listen to. In a similar but more extreme vein we have the next offering, the ballad “Blowing Out the Flame”, which is the final song with no guest appearances. I am a constant lover and defender of Tobias Sammet ballads, as I think he has penned some absolutely brilliant power ballads in his past. Unfortunately this won’t be joining those tunes, as it just comes off as very uninspired. I would’ve really gone for an overblown melodramatic ballad here, but instead this kind of just sounds like a modern rock band’s attempt at a ballad with just some added choirs, orchestration, and piano. I actually think the verses outshine the chorus here, which for a song like this isn’t a very good thing. I actually think the guitar solo manages to be the biggest highlight of this track, and that’s no insult to it, it’s a good one.
Things get worse with the next tune, which is definitely my least favorite song across both discs. “Symphony of Life” stands out as obviously not written by Tobias Sammet, but instead by guitarist/producer Sascha Paeth. The combination of all the weird keyboards, gothic choirs, female vocals, electronic noises, and simple down-tuned riffs make for an overall affect I couldn’t be less crazy about. This track comes off sounding like a mix of Evanescence and lacuna Coil, neither of which are bands I feel I should be mentioning at all in a review of something Tobias Sammet has done. This track is solely sung by Cloudy Yang, who is OK, but I’m really just not a fan of these sort of vocals at all. This is the only song here I would call a total misfire, and it certainly has upset a lot of other long-time Sammet fans like myself. it is one of only maybe 2 or 3 songs total that I would say these albums didn’t need, and it is definitely the most extreme offender.
“Alone I Remember” is sure to conjure up references to the Skid Row classic, “Monkey Business” as it no doubt has a verse and main riff rather similar to the blues-based groove that that tune does. Jorn contributes some of his most David Coverdale-esque vocals to this one, which is no surprise given the vibe. I really dig the groove of this song, and the chorus is total pop in a very ABBA sense. Now, that may be an instant turn off for some, but I think for some reason this tune really works. Hard to describe or justify, but I just really enjoy this one, simple as that. But if the description I laid out turns you off, I’m sure you’ll be wanting to pass on this track. After “Alone” fades, we are treated to something a big Avantasia fan might remember from back in 2007 – the second “lost in Space EP” to be specific. Yes, this is indeed a resurrection of the track “Promised Land” which created a huge buzz since its release, enough so to be played live on the 2008 Tour. This track remains one of my absolute favorites, but that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have been loving it for two and a half years already. Upbeat and uplifting with a morose breakdown before giving way to arguably the best solo section on this entire disc, this track is sure to please just about everyone. It’s got it all – hooks and substance, melody and power. Michael Kiske originally sang the second verse and chorus back in ’07, but Tobias Sammet did the right thing by removing his vocals and having Jorn rerecord them this time, given that they make perfect sense coming from the perspective of Jorn’s character – a sly, manipulative devil of sorts. All in all, a superb track.
So, we now arrive at “Journey to Arcadia”, the epic conclusion of this saga that it has taken three albums and three hours’ worth of music to convey. No doubt that this track was written with a “finale” mentality, but as with most things regarding these albums, not so much in a bombastic “rock opera” conclusion. Instead we start out with a very mellow, almost storytelling-like vibe delivered very well by Bob Catley. When things kick in, we’re in for a real treat with very big choirs and orchestration and Tobias Sammet delivering some of his best vocals of the whole saga. The actual chorus here may pale in comparison to the sections immediately before and after it, but they all work very well together. Rather than a very action-packed ending, we are instead left with much more of a “moral of the story” sort of vibe, seeming as though the lesson we are supposed to take out of this story is that there is a lot that we don’t know, and a lot that we can not know – and the best thing we can do is to live our lives to the fullest, enjoy every moment, take in every note – because it’s really all we have – “It’s just you and I”. As with these albums as a whole the very allegorical, “bigger picture” sort of story shines through in the end – giving the listener so much more than what your typical cheesy, un-relatable rock opera can deliver. This track is certain to deliver its biggest punch after full listens of the saga, and through repeated listens to of the track itself. Though I sensed a bit underwhelmed at first, the several weeks I have given this track have allowed it to crawl to be one of my unquestionable favorites here.
After the final note has faded, it is time to give a thought or two about what these albums mean in the “big picture” and what they mean in comparison to one another. First of all, I want to say that I feel “Angel of Babylon” was a bit weaker than its two predecessors, solely because of the aforementioned stretch of questionable tracks on the back half of the album. There’s no doubt that it still remains very enjoyable, and at least a solid eight out of ten, but I have no doubt that I prefer “The Wicked Symphony” for it being a bit more diverse and well-rounded. In fact, “The Wicked Symphony” is actually my favorite of the entire trilogy, trumping the 2008 highlight “The Scarecrow”. There is no doubt in my mind that if they had shaved some filler out of all three albums, they could’ve been combined to one incredible double album that would deserve a spot amongst my favorite albums of all-time. However, in the end, the are maybe only 5 songs across all 3 discs (33 songs total) that I would say they really could’ve done without, and I feel actually hurt my overall opinion of their respective albums. I admire Tobias Sammet a ton for what he has done – not just his ability to bring countless big names to his projects, and not just his ability to take on such an immense workload himself, but most of all his ability to pen countless songs that really grab the listener and make them feel connected to the music. The songs from “The Scarecrow” have worked their way into my subconscious, they are part of my life – and I feel time will only serve to bring all of these new tunes that much closer to my heart. Tobias Sammet has alienated a lot of people over the last 5 years, and there’s no doubt that many people will be equally as put off by these new albums – but you know what? That’s their loss.
Jeff’s Grade: B
Album: The Wicked Symphony
I think before I get down to business I think it’s pretty important for me to talk a little bit about how incredibly excited I was for this album as well as its “sister” release, “Angel of Babylon”. The first album in this trilogy, 2008’s “The Scarecrow” was one of my favorite albums of that year, and time has been nothing but kind to it. With passing time, the songs have grown on me a lot, to the point that I have forgiven the album for its inconsistency and embraced it for all of its excellent hooks, performances, and songs as a whole. After a relatively pedestrian album with his main band Edguy, Avantasia mastermind Tobias Sammet went to work on the next chapter in his Avantasia legacy. There was no doubt that these albums would be following in the stylistic and conceptual footsteps of their predecessor, and the guest list was enough to make just about any metal fan salivate. I won’t delve into the guests for the second disc, but for just this first one, we are treated to vocalists Jorn Lande (Masterplan), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Bob Catley (Magnum), Michael Kiske (ex-Helloween), Tim “Ripper” Owens (ex-Judas Priest, ex-Iced Earth), Klaus Meine (Scorpions), Andre Matos (ex-Angra), and Ralf Zdiarstek, as well as guitar solos from Bruce Kulick (Kiss) and Oliver Hartmann. Tobias Sammet again tackled bass duties, while leaving keyboards to Miro Rodenberg and spilt drums three ways between Eric Singer (Kiss, Alice Cooper), Oliver Holzwarth (Rhapsody), and Edguy skins-man Felix Bohnke. Yes indeed, this was sure to be a star-studded cast, and the wait for the release of the albums was nothing short of agonizing. In fact, I became so incredibly excited about them that I was roped into pre-ordering a release for the first time… ever. So, how does this first of two new chapters weigh in? Well, I guess it’s time to get down to business.
“The Wicked Symphony” kicks off with its title track, and it’s pretty clear right from the get-go that we’re in for a treat – with a 90-second orchestral overture leading the charge, giving way to a heavy mid-tempo assault that perfectly blends heavy riffs and symphonic beauty, which is exactly what I was hoping to get out of this track. Tobias Sammet’s voice is unspurprisingly the first one we hear, before giving way to Russell Allen’s high-pitched awesome wailing, with his character serving as the voice of inspiration in this story. Jorn lande sets up the prechorus nicely, before a quick pause gives way to what I honestly believe is one of the very best choruses I have heard in my entire life – it truly has everything. The orchestral elements are still quite prevalent, and absolutely no shortage of catchy hooks. Also, this chorus lays out one of the things we will be hearing a lot of on this disc – singers aside from Tobias Sammet singing the choruses. Normally Tobi is a bit of a vocal hog, but thankfully he seems to have given a bit of that up here. There’s vocal change-ups in the second verse, and for the instrumental section the orchestra comes back into the forefront before giving way to a more atmospheric section with Tobi doing some almost Robert Plant-esque vocals. Eventually things get rolling again, giving way to a nice and bombastic bridge section before returning the song’s million-dollar chorus – this time with some added vocals. Clocking in at just under ten minutes long, this tune sets the bar incredibly high for all the music yet to come.
Fans of speedy melodic power metal need not worry, for the second offering here, “Wastelands” – driven by Michael Kiske, fires on all cylinders. The intro features some of the best guitar leads of the whole disc, and Kiske gives as fine a vocal performance here as he ever has. I tend to find him a bit overrated, but there’s no doubt that, whether he likes it or not, tracks like this are his forte. “Scales of Justice” comes roaring in like a freight train, making it a no-brainer why this was the tune destined for Tim Owens to lend his vocals to. As Kiske led the former tune, Ripper leads this one, with Tobias Sammet only really serving as a vocal compliment. Others have said this sounds like Iced Earth, but I don’t agree – it’s fairly melodic in nature, it just features Tim’s signature screams and throat-destroying wails. The middle section is somewhat unnecessary, kind of comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere, but doesn’t hold the song back much. Not one of this discs most standout moments but in no way weak or remotely unnecessary, “Scales” tends to get forgotten, a testament to the strength of this album on the whole.
Changing up the pace yet again, we have the album’s lead (and thus far only) single, “Dying For an Angel”, featuring legendary Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine – and it’s no doubt a signature slab of Tobias Sammet power-pop. If you hated songs like “King of Fools”, “Superheroes”, and “lost in Space”, you’ll probably have some sort of issue with this too, but I eat these songs up when they are done right. I’ve never been a huge fan of Klaus, but he performs very well here, and definitely lends some of his signature delivery to make this track better. The solo here is probably one of my favorites on the disc (from main guitarist and producer Sascha Paeth), and the chorus is bound to lay eggs inside your brain and haunt you pleasantly for hours or days at a time. “Blizzard on a Broken Mirror” starts slowly and builds up somewhat atmospherically before getting into a fairly strong midtempo groove. The verses are tackled by Mr. Sammet while Andre Matos is the driving force behind the pre-chorus and chorus. Typically I’m not a big fan of Matos, but I really enjoy his performance on the pre-chorus of this time, and the chorus really rocks. The mellow middle section of this tune is really strong, and probably one of my favorite single sections on the entire disc. On the whole, this song was a big notch above what I was expecting from it.
Speaking of songs which fully surpassed expectations, we have the album’s next offering – “Runaway Train”, featuring the most singers of any track present. Bob Catley brings us in with some excellent vocals over just a soft piano line, before kicking into a very epic section completed by a great guitar solo, again by Sascha Paeth. Jorn drives the first verse, which has a very Savatage-esque feel, what with the piano changes over a repetitive rhythm guitar part. The prechorus and chorus are both tackled by Tobias Sammet the first time. Choirs and symphonic elements abound, this tune really gives the feel of an epic Meat loaf ballad thrown into a blender with some Savatage and Queen elements. Tobi and Jorn switch sections on the second verse and pre-chorus, with Jorn’s parts there being among my favorite of his from the project. There is a very distinct change of pace following the second chorus, as Bob Catley and a lone piano line come in and set the pace for an epic build up which significantly picks up the pace. The middle section is where this song goes from a great-but-standard epic ballad to something truly out of this world. My hat is completely off to Mr. Sammet and company for turning in another “perfect 10” tune here – though this is sure to draw fire from those who can’t cope with things not being full-on metal. Michael Kiske drops in before the final chorus, and an outro driven by some cool organ sounds, bringing this tune to a close, just shy of 9-minutes.
“Crestfallen” offers us the first taste of what I would call filler from this project. The verses are fairly strong, but the interludes are driven by a somewhat annoying keyboard line, and the chorus is an odd mix of low-end male-choir vocals and a very weird, electronically altered (distorted I think) set of vocals that may be among the weirdest Tobias Sammet has ever done. This track just doesn’t do it for me, definitely one of my least favorites between the two discs. Fortunately we are back on track with the next tune, “Forever is a long Time”, which is the featured Jorn track of this release. The first verse shows him showing off his divine David Coverdale-isms, which are always welcome in my book. They deliver another fantastic chorus on this one, after the second of which Jorn gives a very memorable line of vocal improvisation that I just love. Another pair of great solos, one of which comes from ex-At Vance frontman and underrated vocalist Oliver Hartmann, and overall just a really great rockin’, bluesy sort of anthemic track. Very enjoyable. Unfortunately following that we have the only other tune I’m not crazy about from this disc – “Black Wings”, featuring relatively unknown vocalist Ralf Zdiarstek. No fault of Ralf’s, for some reason this track just kinda plods and doesn’t do much on the whole. There’s no single fault at hand, it just manages to be underwhelming. Oh well, no matter.
It certainly is no matter, because the next track, coincidentally titled “States of Matter” is as good a tune as these discs have to offer, and features another absolutely soaring vocal performance from Sir Russell Allen. This track is packed with heavy riffs, melodic hooks, and just all-around awesomeness that are sure thrill just about anyone. Remember Edguy’s “Hellfire Club” record and the uptempo melodic vibe of that disc? Well, this track very much recaptures that spirit in a fresh and awesome way, featuring my second-favorite chorus from this album. More proof that Tobias giving up control over choruses was a good call, as Russell Allen turns in a typically jaw-dropping performance, leaving fans to wonder why he doesn’t lend vocals to more projects, especially more melodic ones where he can shine like this. “The Edge” brings things to a close, in a somewhat similar vibe to The Scarecrow’s “lost in Space”. Not as poppy this time around, but relatively mellow and melodic but with a strong somewhat anthemic chorus that, as much as it may scare others to read this, I must admit reminds me a bit of something that would’ve been on a Bon Jovi record from about 8 years ago – you know, from when they were contemporary pop but still knew how to rock and write great songs. All in all a very strong tune, but not one of the album’s highlights – also similar to the way The Scarecrow ended.
It was my intent to wait to review this album until a good month after its release, for I believed it wouldn’t do the record justice to review it right away. As I mentioned earlier, The Scarecrow has done nothing but grow on me over time, and there’s no doubt that both of these new records are in a very similar vein. With each passing listen I gain a certain level of love and respect for all of these tunes. Tobias Sammet has been very vocal about his intent to make the story of this trilogy somewhat secondary to the songs, in order to allow the listeners to better “feel” the music, as it’s hard to connect to a story when you’re wrapped up in the specifics. I have to say I think he’s succeeded in a sense of making these albums more allegorical, allowing the listener to feel the struggles of good and evil, of inspiration and passion, and of all sorts of emotional hardship in the framework of their own lives, as well as the album itself. The songs are more often than not, stellar, and Tobias Sammet has once again proven why he deserves to be arguably the biggest personality in power metal today.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Band: Royal Hunt
There is no doubt in my mind that Royal Hunt stand as one of the world’s most underrated bands. I don’t think I have ever seen another band who have churned out quality release after quality release and have never managed to gain a fraction of the respect and popularity they deserve. The band has gone through their different phases and lineup changes over the years, and this album is no exception. Even from just their previous album, Collision Course, the band have traded in old bassist Per Schelander for Rob Rock/Narnia bassist Andreas Passmark. To be fair, a bass player almost never effects the outcome of an average metal album, and this is really no exception. So, given that the other four guys in the band remain unchanged (especially stalwart keyboard main man Andre Andersson), one shouldn’t expect too many shakeups from the Royal Hunt they have come to know.
However, the band had promised something special for this, “X”, their tenth album. This album was intentionally written and recorded to have a 1970’s musical vibe running throughout it. I would say two things definitely serve to make this audible throughout the disc. Marcus Jidell’s guitar sounds are certainly more organic and less heavy and traditionally metal, and Andersen’s keyboard tones are very reminiscent of that of Deep Purple and classic 70’s prog – more analog synths, Hammond organs, and B3 going on than ever before. The production value of this album manages to stay more or less on par with that of their previous release, which I felt was their strongest to date in that department. The classic, organic vibe comes much more from the instrument tones rather than the production, which is still quite solid by today’s standards.
So, onto the songs themselves – enclosed here we have 11 tracks, two of which serve as merely bookends for the other nine. “Arrival” manages to set up the first track, “The End of the Line” quite well, serving very much as an overture for what you are about to hear. The aforementioned opening track proper is certainly a far cry from some of this band’s powerhouse openers of the past (namely that of their previous album), but that’s not to say it’s not a great tune. It’s just that this time ’round the band opted for more of a mid-tempo, driving groove – which actually does well to some up this album’s departure from their previous release. “King For a Day” sees the band bringing in some heavier riffs as well as their trademark layered call-and-response vocals. I really dig the keyboards in this tune for some reason, and Mark Boals’s lead vocals do much to prove why I have been so happy to be wrong about initially doubting his place in this band. It’s honestly starting to become hard for me to hear anyone else as the voice of Royal Hunt as time goes by, and I think this may have been the perfect marriage for both Mark and the band as a whole. The next track, “The Well” is probably my favorite song on this record, accentuated by some brilliant orchestrally-driven arrangements and really cool riffs. The first minute or so of this tune is honestly really interesting and had me very excited for what would follow it. The band manage to keep the level of awesomeness up for the duration of the track, as they march headstrong into more up-tempo territory, more reminiscent of some of their classic, more poppy numbers. The band strays a bit more into the “fun” territory with the entertaining “Army of Slaves”, featuring some cool grooves and more great vocals from Mr. Boals – honestly this is quite possibly the catchiest tune here, which for a Royal Hunt disc, pretty much lets you know where you stand. “Shadowman” sees the band exploring some somewhat foreign territory for them, a very acoustically driven, yet up-tempo number. The tune gets pretty heavy and rockin’ one we hit the instrumental section, flooded with great organ solos and eventually leading into some cool female lead vocals. The band definitely took a bit of a chance with this one and I think it paid off.
“Back to Square One” may have to take the award for the song that best recognizes the band’s intended 70’s theme, complimented by very retro keyboards, a fun rockin’ arrangement, and an all-around classic rock sort of vibe, but in a nice and fresh sort of way. Again, the band no doubt bring the melodies and hooks, but the lyrics of this tune see a tad troubling to me – being that they seem to bring to mind a frustration with touring and lack of substance, possibly hinting at a desire to start a fresh life, which ties into rumors I’ve heard suggesting that this may very well be Royal Hunt’s last album. I can’t say I would blame them, for it must indeed be frustrating to churn out quality music for so long and forge a sound very much your own to be constantly overlooked and just fail to ever really “make it”. It’d be a damn shame too, because the band continues to prove their mettle with tracks such as “Blood Red Stars”, featuring a solid 3-minutes of brilliant musical texture in the beginning, before making its way into an all-around great tune. “The Last Leaf” is pretty much your standard sort of ballad – this band has honestly done better, but as long as you don’t have some issue with piano ballads, you’re gonna dig this one. The band winds the album down with “Falling Down”, one of its faster and more intense numbers, and amongst its best as well. Again, I can’t overstate how much I think the vocals of Mark Boals have really given Royal Hunt a fresh, new identity – enough to make me say this is probably my second favorite era of their career behind the classic DC Cooper stuff. “Departure” brings things to a more proper close, sending yet one more album into the extensive catalog of this underrated band.
At the end of the day, I have to say I think this album is a bit of a step down from their previous album, Collision Course, but to be fair that was my second favorite album they’ve ever done. I am not disappointed, I was just not blown away, as I was with the last record. I very much admire this band’s decision to turn from what I feel was their most metal record to date and in turn do a “roots”-based, more basic and “rockin'” sort of album. It definitely gives the listener something extra to get excited about and assure that this won’t be a record that gets lost in the shuffle easily, because unlike many other bands ten albums into their career – Royal Hunt have no entered cruise control mode and are still doing their absolute best to make the greatest album they can. Well played, sirs.
Jeff’s Grade: B
Band: White Wizzard
Album: Over the Top
The world of traditional heavy metal was no doubt a genre that had its biggest days over two decades ago with bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio, Riot, WASP, and countless others ruling the world with their own brands of metal anthems. The vocals were screaming, the guitars were intricate and melodic, and the rhythm section drove everything forward. The lyrics tackled subjects from the mythical and magical to every day experiences, and in the cliché end of the spectrum, partying it up and defending the lifestyle you love so much.
But what has happened to this genre today? There are about a million different subgenres of metal alive and well today, but one that seems to have been buried under years of dust is this simple genre of great, balls-out traditional/US power metal. The few bands still playing it are mostly stuck in complacency, failing to dazzle – and that is why White Wizzard, a hot new band out of California have begun to sweep the metal world with a raging storm of power.
The band’s debut, “Over the Top” sounds like it came out in 1987, but with some of today’s best production. Now, depending on how you feel about “retro” music with glossy production, that may annoy you, but for me, it’s music to my ears. The album’s title track wastes absolutely no time getting right to the point, and within seconds you have an idea of what you’re in for – a band that is best described as a near-perfect cross between classic Iron Maiden (Piece of Mind, Powerslave albums) and late 80’s Riot (Thundersteel-era). The guitar work is superb, combining great riffs, melodic harmony leads, and impressive soloing with screeching yet melodic vocals, reminiscent of some of metal’s best singers. One thing any fan is quick to notice is this band’s cue taken from Iron Maiden in the bass department. Unlike most other bands which bury the bass because it merely follows the guitars and does nothing interesting, White Wizzard have it right in the forefront of the production with a sound and style very akin to that of Maiden’s legendary bass-man Steve Harris.
A strictly song-by-song analysis of this album seems somewhat unnecessary, for many of the songs follow similar formulas, but for anyone who has liked what I’ve already said of this band, that is in no way a bad thing. That being said, I will do my best to say a little bit about some of the tunes. Songs such as the album’s title track, “Out of Control”, and the incredible “40 Deuces” are sure to floor any old-school metal fan, with their aforementioned sonic assault of guitars, vocals, and actually interesting bass playing. The lyrics aren’t that much to speak of, this is one band that is hardly struggling to write poetry, but in a sense, that’s a good thing. These songs don’t bring to mind carefully crafted lyrics conveying deeper meanings, but moreso the mood of partying, racing cars, picking up chicks, and just having a great time. This band has most certainly taken a detour from the over-thought, self-important stuff of some other bands in similar markets. The album does offer a few style/tempo breaks in the form of “Iron Goddess of Vengeance”, which is quite atmospheric and progressive at times, honestly a bit reminiscent of classic John Arch-era Fates Warning, and the band’s title-song, “White Wizzard” is not too far off, featuring more intricate arrangements and performances. “High Roller” is a near explosion of guitar fury with more of a “metal-swing” type of vibe. Even the fastest, most straight-forward songs of the bunch tend to find time and ways to dabble in completely different and varied middle sections, perfectly executed in the album’s title track.
So, all in all, what White Wizzard have managed to do is make an album that spits in the face of critics of clichés and stereotypes by simply not trying to avoid them. Sometimes I think this can be a band’s worst mistake, but in the case of this band, I think they have managed to hit the nail completely on the head and drive it home in a way that is sure to leave any fan of 80’s metal reeling in excitement. When I put this record on, I expected to think it was merely OK but wound up loving it from more or less start to finish, and think it is pretty much the perfection of this style of revival-metal, if you will. Unfortunately this can tend to be the sort of style that makes follow-up albums a bitch, with it being hard to evolve or just stop from producing a creative drone next time around. But thankfully that’s not something fans of this band will have to worry about for some time while they enjoy rocking out to this album’s excellent tunes.
Jeff’s Grade: B+
Band: Shadow Gallery
Album: Digital Ghosts
Shadow Gallery has always been known for beautiful and often mystical vocal melodies. Since Shadow Gallery’s self titled debut was released in 1992, Mike Baker was the man responsible for delivering a majority of those melodies. His voice became one of the most well known and well respected amongst progressive metal fans worldwide. Sadly in October of 2008 Mike suffered a fatal heart attack, and the future of Shadow Gallery was unclear. Eventually the band decided to push ahead, but one thing would be clear, Mike and his voice could not be replicated. The band set forth to finish their album with a new singer, and a new identity, while honoring the memory of Mike Baker. Room V would prove to be not only the close of a story, but the close of a chapter in the band’s career. With this review I analyze the start of a new chapter in Shadow Gallery history.
What I just wrote I myself did not fully come to terms with until about a week after Digital Ghosts was released. My first reaction to the album was somewhat negative, simply because it wasn’t Mike on lead vocals. However with a few listens I came to appreciate newcomer Brian Ashland, and the fact that he wasn’t simply trying to mimic what was heard in the past. On top of that several guest appearances and the usual anthemic backing vocals provided both variety and a strong enough link to the core sound a hardcore fan was used to. However much I now appreciate Brian Ashland, my favorite vocals on the entire album probably come from bassist Carl Cadden-James and guest vocalist Clay Barton who delivers stunning up pace vocals on the albums second track, “Venom”.
The following track, “Pain”, provides one of the most addicting and stunning chorus’s in the bands entire catalog. It’s so catchy after hearing the chorus in the song the first time I can all but guarantee that you’ll be singing along the second time it comes along. I’d like to say that I was surprised by this, but it certainly is not the first time Shadow Gallery has pulled it off. Musically the album is definitely Shadow Gallery, however a bit of a new edge or spark is apparent. Oddly enough Gary Wehrkamp who is mainly known for his work on guitar and keyboards took over drums on this album for all but two tracks, but no loss of quality is noticed, which is really a credit to his already impressive abilities.
The track “Strong” features Primal Fear vocalist Ralf Scheepers on lead vocals, and Ralf certainly delivers. He keeps to a lower yet aggressive register that really suits the track well. I think most of the credit for that can go to the man primarily in charge of lyrics and vocal melodies, Carl Cadden-James. Carl can’t really receive enough credit for how well he crafts parts not only for the band’s lead vocalist, but several guests and of course the combined voices of himself and his band mates. Carl isn’t the only one on top of his game however, there is certainly nothing big lacking from the guitars, keyboards, or drums throughout the album.
If I were forced to be picky, there are some things I’d change around on the longer tracks “With Honor”, “Digital Ghost”, and “Haunted”; however I would not say there are any major issues at all with those tracks, or this record. From the basic composition to the delivery to the solos this album is strong from top to bottom. If you are a fan of Shadow Gallery, you are going to enjoy this record, and if you’re new to the band you’re going to find plenty of things to love. If you are looking for a stunning new progressive metal release, look no further than Digital Ghosts.
Shadow Gallery wrote in 2001 that, “My legacy is how I live on”, and I’d like to think that Mike not only made for himself a great legacy that lives on through fans today, but that the band is continuing a legacy that Mike would be very proud of.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Band: Guilt Machine
Album: On This Perfect Day
Guilt Machine is yet another side project of Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen. Unlike Ayreon, which is famous for a myriad of guest vocalists and instrumentalists, the album On This Perfect Day has only four members. Lori Linstruth, guitarist on Arjen’s Stream of Passion project handles the lead guitars and lyrics, while unknown talent Jasper Steverlinck takes on vocal duty, and ex-Porcupine Tree drummer Chris Maitland is behind the kit. Arjen of course handles all other instruments, aside from a violinist and a cellist.
Although the six songs on the record are each quite strong in their own rite, I cannot help but feel that at times we are hearing slightly sub-par b-sides from the last Ayreon release, 01011001. While I normally think Arjen does a fantastic job on turning out something very new between different Ayreon or side project releases, when you get to 0:30 or 6:55 of “Green and Cream” or 0:56 of “Over” you see quite clearly that perhaps not enough time has passed since the completion of the last Ayreon album. Another theory behind these similarities could be the theme of the album, which is depression and the resulting emotions. Arjen has said he can only write when he is happy, and this album comes on the tail of great personal hardship and depression, so perhaps some ideas carrying over was inevitable.
Despite this carryover there is a lot of great new material on the album, and the lack of a billion guests seems to give it a nice concise unified punch. It is a somewhat dark album, made to give a look into depression, guilt, and all that goes along with those things and it accomplishes that emotionally. In addition the final two tracks, “Over” and “Perfection?” stand out as being phenomenal.
With only four members in this project, each one will undoubtedly come under a microscope a great deal more than on a typical Ayreon project. Perhaps the most scrutinized will be Jasper, who was selected because of his ability to convey a wide range of emotions that Arjen would normally select a diverse group of vocalists for. He does a fine job with the vocals on the album, but I can’t really say that he was a perfect choice for the project. I would have much preferred Jasper have taken Daniel Gildenlow’s small role on 01011001 so that Daniel could have come in on this and given the album a truly dynamic one man show. Everyone else was on top of their game, especially Chris Maitland who was able to nail the function he was brought in to do, to play both heavier parts, and especially more subdued and subtle parts. Also, I think it is worth noting what a fantastic job Arjen does in providing some of the backing vocals for the record. Normally he is one voice of many, bouncing off other voices and separating for its own unique punch, but on this album he does an amazing job complimenting Jasper’s voice.
Finally some mention needs to be made for the effort Arjen and Lori made to get the fans involved with this project. While the album was being made they asked fans to send in messages relating to guilt and similar emotions, and twenty of those lucky fans had their messages interwoven into the music of the album. This little touch really adds an extra degree to the album, and drives its central theme home.
Nick’s Grade: B-
The special and deluxe editions of the album come with a bonus DVD containing a 40 minute interview with 3/4ths of the band, several radio edits, an additional original track, and a special track made to accommodate additional fan messages. I am fortunate enough to say I appear on this track, and even in this small capacity it is a real treat to be able to say I appear on an album with Arjen, who I consider to be my favorite composer. So thank you Arjen and Lori for the idea to include the fans on this album and handling all the submissions that came your way!
Band: Sonata Arctica
Album: The Days of Grays
One of the interesting things about Sonata Arctica’s newest album is the light it shines on their previous work, Unia. The record will show I was no fan of that album, and so naturally I was a little reserved with my expectations for this album. But now I can look back on Unia in a similar to fashion to that of Rush’s Caress of Steel. The album would prove to be a turning point in the bands career, a mix between what Rush had been and what they would become, and most fans agree that something just wasn’t there on that album. However, unlike Caress of Steel, I now view Unia as a full jump into what Sonata Arctica would become, just very poorly executed. The Days of Grays is a new Sonata Arctica, well done. One of the most interesting things about it, and what has sparked a good part of my interest in the album, and my renewed interest in the band is how the band progressed on the album. It was not a foray into the progressive-metal realm of bands like Vanden Plas or Threshold, that one might expect a power metal band would attempt, but instead is perhaps an odd marriage of progressive rock’s art-rock sub-genre with power metal.
After the soothing instrumental version of “Everything Fades to Gray”, the album rips open with “Deathaura”. When I first heard the very beginning of this song I immediately thought, “Oh no, here we go, it’s Unia all over again.” The intro to the song is one of several parts on the album that have awkwardness to them. And that awkwardness is remains my only major complaint with the album. However a lot of those parts grew on my with a few listens, something I cannot say about Unia. In fact I can say this is one of those albums that get better every time you listen to it! Although not always the case, power metal can often have a way or boring over time and repeated listens, but I think the new sounds and ideas that Tony Kakko brought into this album will allow it to stand the test of time very well.
The third track on the album, which also happens to be the title track, is where the album really starts to take off. The verses really remind me of softer parts of older Sonata songs, while the chorus really does a good job of blending their new sounds into the song. Other standout tracks include “Flag in the Ground”, “Juliet”, and the full version of “Everything Fades to Gray”. The rest of the album ranges from quite good to songs that are slightly lacking in something, or that have some of those awkward moments I mentioned earlier. Perhaps as a whole the one thing the album lacks is any songs that will be remembered as well as classics such as “Full Moon”. While none of the tracks on this album may stick out like that song did, the album is very well done from start to finish and the boys in Sonata deserve a lot of credit for taking the style of Unia and merging it with the quality of the albums that came before it.
Nick’s Grade: C+
Album: Snowfall on Judgment Day
I’m not going to lie here, I’ve been impatiently waiting for this album. Redemption’s work to date has been just about worshiped by myself, particularly since picking up The Origins of Ruin shortly after it’s early 2007 release. Since then it’s been a long, but justified wait. The band have climbed some notable mountains in that time – From the release of a live DVD, an incredible breakthrough supporting Dream Theater, to the personal struggles of the group’s guitarist and songwriter Nick Van Dyk. I’ve played the hell out of the last two Redemption records and find them both to be among the top releases of the past 5 years, so it need not be said that my anticipations and expectations for this album were immensely high. When I found out the band would be unleashing it early to attendees of ProgPower USA X, I quickly did my best to secure a legitimate physical copy as early as I could. Fortunately, this came to fruition and about a week ago my very own advance copy of “Snowfall on Judgment Day” arrived. It has barely left my CD player since.
In sharp contrast to the previous record, this album starts off slowly and builds up a bit, as opposed to the aural assault in the intro to “The Suffocating Silence”. “Peel” starts off with some orchestration and epic atmosphere before fully kicking in to the band’s trademark progressive metal sound. A keyboard solo and guitar harmony proceed the first verse, which shows Ray Alder in his lower register, sounding a bit scratchy, as if to indicate a bit of anger or intensity. This track definitely keeps up with the last record’s style of the first track being more of an aggressive number, with the majority of this song being on the heavier side, save for the very melodic chorus. In sharp contrast to the Redemption album openers of old though, is the fact that I wouldn’t consider this track to be among the album’s better musical outings. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good… VERY good. However, it wasn’t one of the tracks I found myself most coming back to after initial listens. Following the album’s opener, we have “Walls“, which kicks off with a very bass-heavy intro with some interesting keyboard sound effects, before giving way to the typical guitar-driven lead backed by some wonderful orchestral keyboards. This song is pretty standard mid-tempo stuff, but really catchy, a bit in the vein of “Bleed Me Dry” off the last record. It is on this track that we see a little more of Nick Van Dyk’s lyrical greatness, with some of these lines ringing particularly strongly with myself, as I’m sure they will with many others. A strong instrumental passage follows the second chorus, and shows that the band have maintained their great balance between guitar solos from both Nick and Bernie Versailes as well as new keyboard player Greg Hosharian. A third verse and pre-chorus lead us into the final chorus, and eventually the end of the track, which leaves me very happy. I’m not sure I’d call this one a favorite on the album either, but I think that’s a very strong testament to how good this album is.
“Leviathan Rising” is easily among the heaviest things on the album, following a bit in the vein of “The Death of Faith and Reason” off the last record. I feel I should stop with the comparisons to The Origins of Ruin, but in all honesty there are a lot of similarities. Don’t be shaken by that, it’s not a bad thing. Rather than seeming as though this is just a boring remake of the last album, the band seem to have merely taken an element of the blueprint to the last album and just used it to build something now. One big difference between this track and the one I previously compared it to would be the chorus, which here is quite strong and catchy. It actually may very well be my favorite chorus on the album. This song also has some pretty cool use of voice samples/spoken word segments which enhance the mood of the song, which drips of urgency and conflict. Following that awesome assault on the ears we have “Black and White World“, which really shifts the pace of the album, starting with a piano-driven section which eventually builds into a long instrumental intro before Alder steps into the mix. Here we have one of Ray’s best vocal performances on the album, and one of Nick’s best set of lyrics. In all honesty, I think Redemption are about the best band in the world for making this sort of “emotional progressive metal” as I call it. The combination of the vocals, writing, and instrumentation just come together to make something incredibly special, and this song is a big testament to that. The band had this track up on their MySpace for a bit, so I became pretty familiar with it, despite its long and pretty unconventional song structure. I’d probably say that at this point, this is my nomination for greatest song on the record, but that’s really just picking between a handful of fantastic tracks. If I had to pick a track that has stuck with me the least up to this point, I’d probably go with “Unformed“, which has a riff which is a bit too similar to “Leviathan Rising”, at least to my ears. This song is not bad in absolutely any way, I think it just merely has a little less personality than some of the other tracks. It still has me singing along though, so I guess I can’t complain. The section after the second chorus is pretty cool.
It is now that we make it to the album’s most emotional track, in my opinion away. “Keep Breathing” is a song dedicated to Nick’s daughter Parker. For anyone who has followed the band in the past, you should remember the song “Parker’s Eyes” off of the second album, which was about seeing the world through the eyes of a child – the innocence and ignorance that comes with being too young to know the injustice and tragedy the world has to offer. In the worst case of irony ever, Parker was diagnosed with Cone Dystrophy and as a result will probably never have vision better than 20/200, even with corrective lenses. This song is about how her father, Nick, has been inspired by her struggle, and promises to always be there to support her and see her triumph in time. The song is downright beautiful, mainly the chorus. This was one of the two tracks on the album that gave me chills on my first proper listen, and hasn’t really done anything but grow on me with successive listens. It’s a difficult thing to write a song that can manage to be technically impressive and musically interesting but emotionally compelling at the same time, but the guys managed to do it with this one. “Another Day Dies” is a song of particular interest to most being that it features guest vocals by Dream Theater’s James Labrie. I had my doubts about this, considering even though I’m a Dream Theater fan, I wouldn’t say I love James’s voice. I feel he was put to good use here though, with he and Ray having about equal showings on the track. James takes the 3 verses, Ray takes the 3 pre-choruses, and the two share the chorus which is made up of a pretty sweet two-part harmony. One of my biggest hang-ups with singers singing together is that they bury the voices and make it sound like just a choir of backing vocals rather than having each singer keep their identity. That is definitely not the case here. The two singers’ voices compliment each other very well, both being quite different but working very well together, identity maintained. This is also one of the heavier outings on this record and another track that seems to continue to grow on me the more I listen to it.
“What Will You Say?” has the distinction of being the other song here which gave me chills when I really took it in. This song’s emotional content is again turned up to max capacity, with Ray giving a fitting vocal performance. There is something distinctively un-progressive about this song. It’s a very a straight-forward number, no real tempo changes, not much outlandish instrumentation… it just sort of keeps things in check which I think actually works very well. I think one of the biggest keys to having success with excessive talents is knowing when NOT to use them, and the band used a dose of excellent restraint on this track. To say this track is one of the technically best would be inaccurate, but I feel it’s one of the most enjoyable to listen to, and certainly one of the few which have reached me on a more emotional level. “Fistful of Sand” probably comes in right alongside “Unformed” as far as being somewhat unmemorable, though good. Along with “Leviathan Rising”, it’s the heaviest track on the CD, but I don’t think it works quite as well as the aforementioned track. Again, nothing in particular I don’t like about it, it just doesn’t quite hit me like most of the rest. Finally, we arrive at “Love Kills Us All / Life in One Day“, and needless to say, it’s pretty epic. Easily the album’s longest track, clocking in at around 11 minutes, the track features some of the best musicianship on the whole disc. Starting things off slowly with a keyboard/bass driven passage which shows Mr. Alder doing what he seems to do best these days – softer, emotional singing. After the intro, there is a very lengthy instrumental passage which eventually leads us into a more typical verse/pre-chorus/chorus-type of structure. The verses have a slower, more atmospheric feel, juxtaposed against the more urgent feel of the pre-chorus, and eventually the major-key essence of the melodic chorus. The section after the solos is very excellent, albeit a bit poppy, before kicking in to a pretty awesome building anthemic section before giving way to the final chorus. The outro is pretty sweet, showing Ray doing some excellent vocal improv, including an ode to “Memory” off of the last record. I feel the track my end a bit too abruptly, but everything leading up to that actual moment is pretty glorious, fairly similar to the way the band’s second album, The Fullness of Time ended.
All in all, I think when the album ends, every listener will feel very justified. Unlike other albums of similar length (70 minutes), this album doesn’t wander around and bore the listener. It is merely that long because the band has that much music and story within them and needed that amount of time to get it out. I feel this CD was well-worth the long wait, and is sure to please just about every fan of Redemption out there. It is similar enough to their previous work to not piss anyone off with style changes, yet fresh enough to not trigger people claiming it’s merely a remake of previous work. Snowfall on Judgment Day is sure to be favored incredibly highly amongst all release I’ve heard this year, and is a worthy addition to a still relatively new, but already respected and accomplished band’s catalog.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Album: Set in Stone
For years now I’ve been a huge fan of the work of Tim Grose, from Dungeon to his new band, Lord. I consider Tim to have one of the best track-records in the world, and is close to being one of the only musicians I consider capable of “doing no wrong”. Needless to say, a new Lord album was something I was really, really looking forward to.
First, I will say that I think Tim’s analysis of this record was a tad inaccurate. He said it was to Lord what “A Rise to Power” was to Dungeon, which I think is a bit untrue. If I had to pick one Dungeon album to compare this to, I would go with “One Step Beyond”, as this album sees the band stretching their sound out over a much wider range of styles rather than finding one or two formulas and taking them to their furthest extremes possible. There’s a bit of everything here. Some of the more catchy mid-tempo songs, some of the all-out power/speed metal tunes, some more thrash-oriented stuff with some harsher vocals, and even some ballady stuff, which is a bit of a strange territory for a band of this particular style.
Following the relatively unnecessary intro track “Spectres of the Ascendant“, “Redemption” kicks in with a bang, and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect, in a good way – true power/speed metal with a really catchy chorus. It’s pretty clear that much like Dungeon, Lord intend to also uphold my award for the most guitar-driven band out there. There’s just guitar tracks EVERYWHERE here, which is generally a great thing, but from time to time you get a bit lost in all the harmonized weedly-weedly bits. All in all it’s a fine opening track and among the CD’s overall highlights. It’s kind of hard to imagine a band like Lord failing with a track like this – it certainly delivers. As I mentioned, this CD dips a bit into the mid-tempo catchy stuff, and track #3, “100 Reasons” is probably the biggest example. The closest comparison I can make is Dungeon’s “Against the Wind”, but this song has a much more infectious chorus, which is among the most memorable bits on the whole album. A relatively short solo section on this song, and the soloing definitely takes on a more bluesy, feel-oriented catchy vibe rather than the typical melodic-shred style this band is known for. The final chorus has some really cool changes to make the song seem a bit more epic on the whole, and a classy fade-out to boot. Truth be told, this actually may be my favorite on the disc, but that’s probably just my inner melodic-metal fan talking.
“Eternal Storm” gets right to the point with some of the most ferocious harmonized guitar on the whole album, and the track really lives up to its name. There’s a really groovy riff which dominates the verses, the pre-chorus is a bit melodic, and the chorus is your expected faster power metal bit, though not quite as catchy as the two tracks which proceeded it. What this song may lack in the overall writing department, it certainly makes up for with some killer solos, and a really brilliant outro section. The fact that this song isn’t one of this album’s better tracks is a pretty strong testament to the overall quality of the album, which is what fans of this band should expect by now.
After this we are treated to “Set in Stone“, which bigger fans of the band should recognize from the band’s “Hear No Evil” EP. It’s a much more rockin’-oriented song, as opposed to the power/speed vibe of a lot of this disc, with some relatively simple but infectious riffing. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard this song extra times through the aforementioned EP, but something about it just sticks with me a bit between listens. Again, really cool solos and instrumental section on the whole, but that’s pretty much par for the course for a band like this. Something which is not par for the course is “lead keyboards”, which lead us into the next track, “Someone Else’s Dream“. I can’t say I’m complaining, I listen to a lot of keyboard-driven music, it’s just a tad abnormal for a band who are so dominated by guitars. Another thing which is a bit abnormal is that far a song as melodic by nature as this track is, the entire verses are sung in a very harsh, growly nature. Tim’s no stranger to this sort of vocal performance, you just tend to get them on more all-out thrashy tracks, and not intertwined with catchy melodies. The ending result is one that is surprisingly pleasing to my ears, as I am not generally a fan of harsh vocals. I just feel like they “work”, no matter how odd the concept of using them here is. This is definitely one of my favorite tunes on the disc.
“Forever” gives us something new for this disc, and honestly for the band as a whole. I’d describe this song as an epic ballad, with more sentimental lyrics and a slow, 6/8 sort of vibe. Don’t be fooled though, even in a song that is dominantly considered a ballad, the band find a way to squeeze in some cool riffs, solos, and leads. There’s a really cool bass interlude and some spoken word before launching into a totally ass-kicking heavy bit with all sorts of dissonance and aggression, taking the listener on a wild musical ride filled with many arpeggios and harmonies, eventually leading us back to the originally vibe for another verse and chorus. This is one of a couple of longer, more experimental tunes on the album, and doesn’t stand all that well between listens but is an incredibly rewarding musical mini-journey. Next up, we have “Beyond the Light“, the final shorter song on the record, which delivers us the catchiest chorus next to “100 Reasons”. The vocal harmonies on this record are pretty well assembled, definitely far more intricate than most bands dare to make them. The guys have my regards for trying to pull some of these off live. Even though this is a fantastic track in and of itself, it is sandwiched between the album’s two most ambitious tracks, and thus it’s just kind of “there”. “The End of Days” starts off with some light orchestral strings and the sound of an audience applauding before kicking in with a really grand sounding build-up, complete with an audible countdown, no doubt to the explosion of speed and heaviness which occurs afterward. The first vocals heard here are of the harsh variety, complete with the intricate thrashy riffing, before leading us to a great chorus complete with some weaving guitar lines. This is the heaviest thing the band have done to date, and to be blunt it’s not incredibly “up my alley”, but for what it is it’s pretty sweet. Post-second chorus we get into a big riff breakdown before being launched head-long into the solo assault which follows, complete with some really infectious harmonized leads, the complexity of which is seldom attempted. There’s a pretty nifty middle section with some bits of news audio which breaks up the instrumental section nicely. Following more melodic leads, we are tossed back into the riff-driven thrashy vibe of the verses before meeting up with the melodic chorus again. This song’s musical vibe does nicely to compliment its title, as at times this truly feels like the earth is coming to an end, in a good way of course.
Nearing the end, we have the most pun-tastic bit of the album, the 8-minute instrumental comprised mostly of guest solos from a ton of musicians, cleverly entitled – “Be My Guest“. There’s a few notable names here, from Glen Drover (Megadeth), to Craig Goldy (Dio), Olof Morck (Dragonland), and Chris Porcianko from unsung Australian prog-metal gods Vanishing Point. All in all, it’s about what you’d expect from an 8-minute instrumental, there’s enough key changes to keep things interesting, but it no doubt may come off as tedious to some listeners. It’s pretty solid for what it is though. An 8-minute instrumental could have been a lot worse, see every shred-guitar solo album for proof. Eventually we make our way to “New Horizons“, which closes the record. This is much more of a traditional ballad that “Forever”, lyrically summarizing the troubles which a musician faces – the sacrifices one makes dedicating yourself to completely to your craft. The topic has been done to death over the years, but there’s a special poignancy to this track. As with any good ballad, this one allows for some really great soloing, the likes of which are seldom displayed elsewhere on the album. All in all, this track brings a really good sense of closure to the album and the band’s career-to-date, complete with a nod to the chorus of “Reborn” from the “Ascendance” album.
So, what we have here is basically what I was expecting. On paper, this album is amazing, and through the speakers it’s not far from it. The problem with anything Tim does is that it is bound to come off better to the new listener than the experienced one. The constant level of quality that this band upholds is amazing, but there’s not really any surprises. This album delivered exactly as I expected it to – nothing more, but certainly nothing less. It’s pretty much on par with the last record, and most all Dungeon records which proceed it. If you’ve heard them all, this album isn’t going to blow you out of your shoes, but it’s definitely gonna make you happy. And if you haven’t heard much of the older stuff… shame on you. Now, get to listening.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Album: Anno Domini High Definition
Coming off of their successful Reality Dream trilogy, Riverside are a band who had a lot of new found freedom to work with. Three albums tied together lyrically and similar musically it certainly was interesting to see whether or not they would stay in a comfort zone or use the completion of the trilogy as the perfect reason to explore new ground.
Successfully, Riverside chose the latter. Clocking in at just over forty-four minutes, Anno Domini High Definition is an album that paves new ground for the polish progressive metal quartet, while still in a sense remaining distinctly Riverside, partially thanks to the occasion dark and haunting melody that will creep up through the songs and send a chill down your spine. For the most part, Anno Domini is a more rocking album, with Michal Lapaj using many new, brighter keyboard tones and patterns as opposed to the almost constant thick atmospheric background that Riverside fans have become accustomed to. In addition the vocals of Mariusz Duda seem to meander into uncharted territory.
The track “Egoist Hedonist” probably best exhibits the new style which Riverside has pursued. The beginning of the track is a sort of simple groovy feeling that ends by breaking into a strong riff from guitarist Piotr Grudzinski followed by a strong keyboard lead, all of which follow a beat you can really get into. Later in the track the band perfectly executes a sort of natural fade out near the end of the chorus where all the is left is a simple, almost techno like backing which erupts as the song continues and soon after you actually hear an assortment of pleasant brass instruments! Certainly the last thing I expected to hear on a Riverside album.
Although I can’t say that Anno Domini High Definition tops the bands prior masterpiece, Second Life Syndrome, I can say that it is better than the bands other two albums, which is a massive accomplishment considering the experimentation done. After going from three albums all connected by a single concept, to a single album held together by the theme of technology, it will be interesting to see whether or not the band decides that the next album should be a series of totally unrelated songs. I really don’t care as long as the music is this damn good, but either way I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.
Nick’s Grade: A
The special edition of this album contains a bonus DVD which has a concert filmed in Amsterdam in December of 2008. It is seven songs and a great introduction to their back catalog. Definitely pick up the special edition of this if you’re a new fan.
Album: Destined Solitaire
Coming off the heels of what is my favorite Beardfish album, Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two, Beardfish have recently released Destined Solitaire, an album which Rikard Sjoblom said would be “different” when I saw the band perform at NEARfest about a month prior to the album’s release. I would say that although there may be some minor differences from prior albums, the new album is certainly still classic Beardfish through and through.
An ode to the prior to albums, this album opens with “Awaken the Sleeping”, an instrumental piece which does a fantastic job setting up the album, and in general is far more interesting than the pointless and short instrumental pieces that bookend the last album. After that the song “Destined Solitaire” will surely turn a few heads as the song contains a verse that is growled rather than sung. The funny thing about it is the song is otherwise classic Beardfish, lighthearted, full of life, and in the end the growled verse just seems very out of place and unnecessary. Otherwise however the track does a nice job of changing things up for just over ten minutes, remaining interesting and showing pretty much everything Beardfish are capable of.
The next track, “Until You Comply” showcases a nice variety of subtle keyboard use and follows for much of the song simple yet powerful bass lines. Clocking in at just over fifteen minutes the track is the album’s longest, and perhaps its best. The rest of the album is pretty much dominated by tracks eight to ten minutes long, but the big exception is track number four, “In Real Life There is No Algebra”. The song offers the kind of free flowing energy and soul that help categorize Beardfish as eclectic prog. Unfortunately it is at this point that the promise of something “different” really starts to fade away, instead of progressing as the band had done between the two Sleeping in Traffic albums, this album seems to be a bit more of a fallback into older stylings. Still, the compositions remain incredibly strong, with every track having at least a few moments of brilliance. For the latter half of the album “Abigail’s Questions” stands out as a fantastic track.
Overall I’d say that for better or for worse this is a Beardfish album. I really didn’t see any progression within the instruments or compositions, but the boys did write a very solid record, and I really like what they can do by keeping it simple a lot of the time. The sound is crisp and clean and it really helps in hearing the various subtleties of the album, especially with the keyboards. If you’re looking to get into Beardfish I’d suggest their last album, but if you pick this one up I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Nick’s Grade: B-
Band: Machines of Grace
Album: Machines of Grace
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well, but I was quite eagerly anticipating the arrival of the debut album from Machines of Grace. Why, you ask? Well, for those who don’t know, Machines of Grace is a new project, which is actually the reformed project of Savatage singer Zak Stevens and drummer Jeff Plate, originally named Wicked Witch. The band disbanded when the two joined the mighty Savatage, and now, a good decade and a half later, they have decided to resurrect it. This debut album features both brand new tracks as well as re-recordings of the tracks featured on the band’s bootlegged demos from all those years ago.
So, what can one expect from this brand new old project? Well, not Savatage, that’s for sure, and that’s not a negative comment at all. Mr. Stevens’ voice is certainly the closest thing this disc has in common with Savatage. The overall vibe of the disc is much more rock than metal, featuring a good amount of 90s-sounding King’s X-ish guitar bits as well as some cool groovy riff work. The choruses aren’t generally that particularly catchy, but that actually tends to add a more genuine sound to this, as opposed to an overproduced poppy one. The drum sound could have been better. Not to say Jeff Plate doesn’t do a great job, he does. I just feel that the drum sound itself could’ve been better. The bass is pretty present in the mix as well.
When it comes to the tunes themselves, I think it will become pretty obvious that a lot of these songs were penned in the early 90s, and considering that fact, were pretty cutting-edge for the time. In 2009 some of this might sound dated to some ears, but I think it actually stands as a pretty strong testament to what was actually musically great of the area in which it was originally devised. “Just a Game” is a pretty good start to the disc, but stands a good distance from being the album’s highlight. In fact, track 2, “Psychotic” is probably more memorable, thanks to it’s melodic pre-chorus and very in-your-face chorus. “Fly Away” has one of the better choruses on the disc, featuring something this album has which the latest Circle II Circle album was definitely missing: Backing vocals. Overall, this album is a breath of fresh air for Zak Stevens’ voice, the style allowing him to open up and reach the extent of his capabilities, as opposed to the more one-dimensional approach of the aforementioned latest Circle II Circle album. “Innocence” offers something I can’t say I’ve heard many times in my life, as it is an entirely acoustic song, guitar-wise, even though there are full drums and bass. It’s quite an interesting concept, and overall I’d say it worked more than it didn’t, even if it doesn’t necessarily give the song anything it couldn’t have had fully electrified. “The Moment” stands out to me as one of the highlights of the album, and the aforementioned King’s X musical vibe is in full-swing here, particularly reminiscent of that band’s “Goldilox”. Some cool lyrics and a fantastic vocal performance by Zak make this a great semi-ballad. Starting out with a cool acoustically-driven prelude, “Between the lines” is another one of this disc’s highlights, and the solo on this one is particularly worthy of praise. The guitar playing on this album in general is quite good for someone who has gone unnoticed for this many years. “This Time” is this effort’s closest thing to a ballad, eventually featured again, in acoustic form at the end of the album. This song has a really cool vibe and another 5-star vocal performance. Rather than go into song-by-song detail for the rest of the disc, I will merely highlight my favorites. “Soul to Fire” is a great track with another cool acoustic guitar bit, something this album has a lot of, it seems. Eventually you reach the track “Better Days”, which has to be in my personal top 3 tunes on the album. The intro vibe is oddly reminiscent of Dio’s “Caught in the Middle” even though the majority of the song bears no similarity. I’ve always liked when bands bring albums to a close with more positive, upbeat-sort of numbers, much in the way that Savatage wind down Edge of Thorns with “Miles Away”, and this is a classic example. The chorus here is easily among my favorites on the disc, and just leaves the listener with a great musical after-taste, just in time for the previously mentioned acoustic “This Time” to put everyone to sleep, in a good way, as Zak acoustic stuff tends to do.
So, all in all I found this debut record from Machines of Grace to be pretty damn good. Not much incredible work to be found here, but also not a bad track, and on an album of 14, that is an accomplishment. The new and old songs stand aside each other quite while, and at one moment or another the whole band shines, unlike the Zak-dominated performance I was expecting. Some cool vibes, some great tracks. All-in-all a very commendable effort, and I’m already hoping the band opts to do a follow-up at some point.
Jeff’s Grade: A-
Band: Dream Theater
Album: Black Clouds and Silver Linings
Since being turned onto Dream Theater by 2003’s Train of Thought, there have been few musical experiences I can compare to waiting to hear the bands most recent effort. I experienced it with Octavarium, Systematic Chaos, and now most recently, Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
Prior to the album release I had restricted myself to only hearing the single from the album, A Rite of Passage, and strayed away from sound clips and reviews of anything else. Based on “A Rite of Passage” I expected I would be in for a treat, and the album did not disappoint! Opening with “A Nightmare to Remember” the album starts with the ominous tone of thunder in the distance, which is certainly appropriate one comes to find at as they go through the sixteen minute epic. One of the most notable features of the song is how well the differently styled verses build on one another through a majority of the song. However the cohesiveness and unity of the song seems to be derailed around the eight and a half minute mark by a solo section that seems to be horribly out of place; and that is at the end of the day my least favorite solo section on the entire album. After that the song never seems to climb back into its former glory, losing any ground it seems to gain between Portnoy’s two verses of growling and experimentation into blast beats.
After that “A Rite of Passage” opens with a new, interesting, almost Arabic sounding keyboard patch from Jordan Rudess which helps to add a great bit of flavor to a metal-heavy rocker which excites from beginning to end. The bridges of the song seem to beg for an epic chorus to follow, and the song does not disappoint as it features a chorus that will have you singing along after only one listen, something that ended up being very common on this album, and one of its greatest strengths. The solo section of the song is markedly better than “A Nightmare to Remember” with the exception of Jordan’s new toy, the iPhone Bebot application. However that is quickly forgotten about when the song makes an abrupt but powerful return to the chorus. A very favorable mention here should be given to John Petrucci, whose noticeable backing vocals really add an interesting depth and flavor to the chorus of this song and others on the album.
The next track, “Wither” is a rarity, for starters it is a more recent Dream Theater track clocking in at under five and a half minutes, and it was written entirely by one member, musically and lyrically, John Petrucci. Even though Petrucci wrote the song, the performances by LaBrie and Rudess on the track truly make it into a top notch song. LaBrie delivers the vocals with passion, and he uses much of the warmer voice that is often lacking from Dream Theater’s material. On the other hand Jordan Rudess shines on this song, and on much of the album by approaching the song with more basic orchestration and simple piano parts that add the perfect background to Petrucci’s guitar playing. Rudess certainly maintains his style and talented edge on much of the album, but on this song especially, he allows simplicity and beauty to really move things ahead. This type of style could have really helped the instrumental section of “A Nightmare to Remember” flow with the rest of the song.
Things proceed to get a bit heavier after “Wither” as Portnoy completes has saga about his fight with alcoholism in “The Shattered Fortress”. Dedicated to Bill W. of alcoholics anonymous and written about steps ten through twelve of their program, the song completes a cycle that is now five albums deep. The song is the heaviest on the album, and one that contains a plethora of goodies for the diehard fans in the form of musical and lyrical references to past songs in the saga. There are a lot of them, however the diversity in technique is what keeps them fresh and interested. It’s lyrics here, a guitar part here, drum pattern there, and a myriad of combinations in between. On its own it may seem a bit disjointed or seem to move around too much, but to those who know the material that came before it, it should be received as a type of musical bliss that builds on itself, combining elements both old and new, perfectly completing the saga.
The following song, “The Best of Times” is the other lyrical contribution by Mike Portnoy, and is dedicated to his father, Howard Portnoy who unfortunately passed on at the end of 2008. Featuring a guest violinist the musical intro led me to believe this would be a ballad in the vein of “Take Away My Pain”, but just shy of three minutes there is an unexpected jolt of energy thrown into the song that seems to turn it from a song of mourning into a song of celebration before lyrics ever even enter the scene. The song and its lyrics portray a relationship between father and son, its sad end, and could very well leave a listener with a tear in their eye; it certainly did for at least one reviewer on his first listen to the song. The outro of the song features Petrucci’s best soloing on the album, as it not only would sound fantastic standing alone, but it seems to blend perfectly with the song, ending it flawlessly.
Only its sixth track, Black Clouds and Silver Linings comes to a close with nineteen minutes of “The Count of Tuscany”. An odd story that will give people who do not care for Petrucci’s more recent lyrics something gripe about, musically it is as solid as anything else on the album, featuring a nice long instrumental introduction followed by quick riff driven verses that grab the listener and take them along for the ride the story is providing. Keyboard and guitar leads alike are tasteful throughout the song, connecting the lyrical sections very well, and the song features one of the many catchy and majestic choruses. Also present is an atmospheric section reminiscent of the beginning of “Octavarium”, or even “Trial of Tears”, which is a nice break just past the midway point of the song. Following that section the entire band plays it simple for awhile, perfectly executing a build that required limited playing ability, but a whole lot of restraint on their part. A simple acoustic guitar part, vocals, an eventually introduction of a simple keyboard pattern, relatively easy drum intro, and before you know it the entire song seems back into full swing in then unparalleled beauty and majesty.
All in all, one of Dream Theater’s best efforts to date, with sections of “A Nightmare to Remember” and one solo in “A Rite of Passage” being my only complaints about the album musically. It seemed all the musicians seemed to grow a bit on this album, Rudess with a lot more simplistic atmospheric work, Petrucci with an amazing guitar solo outro in “The Best of Times”, John Myung providing the always needed backbone to a variety of song styles, James using his deeper more passionate voice as heard in “Wither”, and Portnoy showing some more simplistic patterns at times, while still showing why he deserves his cult following amongst drummers in a song like “The Shattered Fortress”.
The sound of the album warrants minor complaints, mainly that at times it seems just a tad too thick, perhaps even a bit muddy, and the drums can get a bit lost and flat at times, but really these are minor complains in an album otherwise well engineered album. Simply put, this album delivers from beginning end, combining old Dream Theater trademarks with a newer more refined style that should please old and new fans alike.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Band: Devin Townsend Project
Going into this album I was relatively new to Devin Townsend, enjoying his Terria release a great deal, and loving his appearance on Ayreon’s The Human Equation. Unfortunately, after listening to this album, I think there might be a great deal of time going by until I pick up anything spearheaded by him again.
The music is certainly interesting in a way, and I find many of Devin’s ideas put forth on the album to be good in concept, but to me they simply are not executed that well. The ideas seem disjointed, sections out of place, and as a whole I’d say the album lacks the elegance and beauty that seems apparent on a King Crimson album which would share some of those same qualities. Sometimes I can’t tell if Devin is trying to annoy me, bore me, or both. However, there are certainly a few nice things I can say about the album. Devin’s voice, when it’s not annoying me in one way or another, can tend to be one of the most soothing and atmospherically pleasing out there. On a similar note the female vocals added to the album by Che Dorval seem to fit perfectly, even if they are fitting perfectly into a fundamentally flawed framework. Lastly, I’d say that if you do pay close attention to the album, there will be moments, few and far between, that you can sense shades of brilliance looking for better surroundings.
For the most part, I’d sum up the album saying I find it to be a combination of good moments, poorly executed ideas, and more than anything, parts in which I just find myself drifting off to other things due mainly to a simple lack of interest.
Nick’s Grade: D-