075: The Gentle Storm – The Diary
074: Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope
073: Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light
072: Haken – The Mountain
071: Leprous – Coal
070: James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
069: Queensryche – Queensryche
068: Beardfish – The Void
067: District 97 – Trouble With Machines
066: Circus Maximus – Nine
065: The Flower Kings – Banks of Eden
064: Burning Point – The Ignitor
063: Affector – Harmagedon
062: Sonata Arctica – Stones Grow Her Name
061: Morglbl – Brutal Romance
060: Awaken – Awaken
059: Beyond the Bridge – The Old Man and the Spirit
058: RPWL – Beyond Man and Time
057: Riot – Riot
056: Flaming Row – Elinoire
055: Redemption – This Mortal Coil
054: Pain of Salvation – Road Salt Two
053: Fullforce – One
052: Queensryche – Dedicated to Chaos
051: Karmakanic – In a Perfect World
Band: The Gentle Storm
Album: The Diary
The Gentle Storm is the newest in a growing list of projects from Dutch maestro Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and features lyricist and vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. While that pairing alone should have any prog fan turning their head, the pairings’ debut work, The Diary, is more than simply great composer meets great vocalist. The album comes in two discs, one “gentle” and one “storm”, featuring softer and heavier versions of the same songs. But don’t be fooled into thinking the softer album is simply your typical stripped down acoustic album. Instead the songs, while seemingly built from the same cores, are constructed quite differently on each disc.
The glue between the two discs is most certainly Anneke, who’s beautiful and melodic vocals shine through on both versions of each song. For those unfamiliar with her previous work, most famously on Devin Townsend Project albums, you are in for a treat. She manages to have a hauntingly beautiful timbre to her voice, but she has the ability to present it with significant power. Not to be confused at all with more “ballsy” female vocalists, she simply manages to hang on high notes without appearing thin.
Instrumentally I would say the “gentle” disc is certainly the more interesting of the two versions. There is an amazing diversity of instruments that put unique stamps all over the tracks. The “storm” album isn’t particularly heavy or metal by many standards, but has a traditional drum setup and is generally more guitar driven than its counterpart and is probably closer to Ayreon than Star One. The “gentle” tracks however bring full on folk and eclectic sounds that have not been seen since Ayreon debuted with The Final Experiment. The “gentle” album is also where you will likely notice what a fantastic job Arjen has done with the piano on this album, as it is featured prominently on several tracks.
One of the aspects I enjoyed about the “storm” album, is that the only keys are the piano; no minimoog, or synthesizers; truly a first for Arjen. With that in mind, if you take a moment to notice the sounds you’d so often associate with a keyboard patch on the albums and listen closely, you can fully appreciate how nice the plethora of instruments sound in their place. Even on the heavier “storm” album the violins, double bass, and other strings really stand out. The analog synths that Arjen has often employed has always been one of my favorite parts of his sound, and so for an album without them to be so good is a big credit to him.
Arjen’s songwriting and use of the many instrumentalists is stunning throughout both discs. Arjen clearly did not set out to make the “gentle” album more than an album featuring cheap acoustic versions usually used as b-sides and fillers by other artists. The thought and arrangement of the music clearly shines through, and the albums don’t feel identical songs with instruments swapped out. Anneke’s lyrics and vocals are captivating and powerful, as to be expected based on her recent collaborations. With every listen new songs and new parts always seem to stand out, and in the end this looks like another home run from Holland’s leading progressive mastermind.
Nick’s Grade: A
It is hard to believe it’s only been four and a half years since The Whirlwind. After waiting eight years between Transatlantic’s second and third albums, the fourth seems to have come up rather quickly. Perhaps the difference was the band staying somewhat active in the period between studio releases this time, perhaps it was better scheduling, but whatever the case may be, Roine Stolt, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy and Pete Trewavas have returned with the new album, Kaleidoscope.
It will come as no surprise to fans of the band that the opening piece, “Into the Blue” is twenty five minutes long. The band at this point has become a flagship band for the longer songs that progressive rock is known for. “Into the Blue” along with the thirty two minute closing piece and title track “Kaleidoscope” make up the bulk of the album, and together feature songwriting that seems slightly more driven by Neal Morse’s input than the previous release “The Whirlwind”. Both tracks, especially parts of “Into the Blue” seem to have a strong influence from classic Yes and Genesis. Along with the track lengths, certain other aspects of the two epic tracks, and in fact the whole album will feel familiar to fans of the band: First, the lyrics, while not as clearly religious as on Morse’s solo work are still clearly spiritual, and the vocals are handled mainly by Morse, with Stolt, Portnoy, and Trewavas contributing in descending amounts. The one amazing surprise in “Into the Blue” is a few excellently done lines of vocals from longtime live member of the band Daniel Gildenlow. That same movement of the song also features the first of many excellent solos on the album from Roine Stolt. The song ends much as it began, with a classic prog reprise to the second and most memorable movement.
The next track, “Shine” is a classic ballad, and the one chosen as the lead video from the album. Though the track is perhaps a tad too long and repetitive, strong vocals from Morse and Roine, and the most stunning guitar solo of the album certainly help distract from any other issues. The third track, “Black as the Sky” ended up fulfilling what I felt was something this album needed, and is what I found to be the best on the album. The song sees the epic, prog loving band keep things short, simple, and rocking. While not necessarily metal by any means, the song just drives forward at a great pace, has a great chorus, and beautifully features the talents of four amazing musicians wonderfully crammed into seven minutes. The fourth track, and last of the shorter pieces, “Beyond the Sun” harkens back to the very simple, vocal driven ballad that was “Bridge Across Forever”. One part piano, one part slide guitar, and one part Morse’s emotional vocals make up the formula for most of this song, which is a breather before the epic conclusion to the album.
“Kaleidoscope” starts, perhaps expectedly with an instrumental overture, that along with the earlier track “Black as the Sky” highlights what is perhaps one of the highlights of this album. Along with some of his great more atmospheric work, Morse came up with some fantastic more up-tempo keyboard leads for this album. Those leads, along with Stolt’s guitar work, really help create a one-two punch of hooks as far as the instrumental work on the album is concerned. As a whole I found the song “Kaleidoscope” to be the stronger of the two epics, I can certainly see that question as a subject of debate amongst fans for years to come. Both tracks sound new, and to a degree fresh, but there is certainly no big departure from what fans have come to expect from Transatlantic.
Through all of this I’ve made little mention of drummer Mike Portnoy or bassist Pete Trewavas, and there is a reason for that. As has often been the case the pair made a perfect supporting cast for this album. Both played as we’ve come to expect, and both gave the songs, especially the epics, just what they needed to compliment what Morse and Stolt seemed to be trying to accomplish. The sound of this album, as with the similarly crafted previous effort is crisp and clear, and for the fan with a little extra to spend it is offered in a plethora of formats including a bonus covers CD, vinyl, an artbook, and with a songbook for musicians who will want to learn the album. While I don’t see this as the best effort to date from these four amazing musicians, it is certainly strong enough to reside alongside the incredibly strong catalog they have delivered thus far.
Nick’s grade: A-
When it comes to expectations from a band, it is quite possible that Transatlantic has a higher bar than any other band I follow. All three of their previous albums would probably make my top 50, and so putting a fourth album in that stratosphere would be akin to making two hole in ones during a single round of golf. As unfair as that expectation is, that is pretty much where it was heading into the album. I won’t go into the specifics that Nick has already covered, but I will give a few additional thoughts on Kaleidoscope.
This review is probably going to sound much more negative than it is intended. Don’t get me wrong, Kaleidoscope is a very good album; however it was clearly not in the rarified air of their previous albums. Unlike the previous albums, Kaleidoscope did not seem to feature a balance of creative power, and at times felt more like a Neal Morse solo album than a Transatlantic album. “Into the Blue” lacked that really special moment that all the previous Transatlantic epics have, and unlike the other opening tracks, did not have a “grab me by the short and curlies” moment and this leaves the song as the weakest epic from the band to date. “Shine” similarly falls short of excellence in my eyes, but since that track has been released, you can draw your own conclusions. “Black is the Sky”, however, takes the title for best non-epic Transatlantic song including the four on the Whirlwind bonus disc (but taking Whirlwind as one song). “Beyond the Sun” doesn’t really even register for me when I’m listening; it feels like a filler piece to hold over to the title track. When I’m not listening to the album, but I think about it, my mind immediately recalls the melodies of the title track. “Kaleidoscope” encompasses everything in a song you expect from Transatlantic, and sees the album finish strongly.
One of the things I really liked in this album was the use of recurring themes. You will hear little pieces of one song in the other songs, and it helps make the whole listening experience cohesive. My biggest complaint is that at times it lacks the mutli-songwriter dynamic I alluded to earlier. While Neal and Roine do shine in their spots, Mike and Pete take more of a backseat than they ever have, which I feel Nick implied in his review without stating it. Like I said, this is a very good album – but what the listener needs to brace themself for is that this is not what we have come to expect. This is the only Transatlantic album that had to grow on me, all the others wowed me from the first listen. It has probably the weakest epic in “Into the Blue”, and weakest short songs in “Shine” and “Beyond the Sun”. “Black is the Sky” and “Kaleidoscope” are certainly what one comes to expect from this super group. While any Transatlantic fan will like this, I don’t think anyone will ever consider this a classic, or even a great album. Very good is a fair and apt description for what was my most anticipated album. I’m still looking forward to the covers, which I suspect will excellent.
Dr. DTVT’s grade: B+
Band: Fates Warning
Album: Darkness in a Different Light
When Fates Warning releases Darkness in a Different Light, they will do so nine years to the week of their previous album FWX. Those nine years have produced a fair amount of frustration and uncertainty amongst fans. However, with guitarist and mastermind Jim Matheos remaining busy with various projects through the nine years, so most fans continue to have faith in his writing ability. Additionally, Ray Alder has kept busy with Redemption, and the rest of Fates Warning united with former singer John Arch on 2011’s well received album under the moniker Arch/Matheos. That said, this album will ultimately determine whether or not Matheos and company still have what it takes to produce a classic Fates Warning record.
It should come to no surprise to anyone who heard 2011’s Arch/Matheos record that straight from the opening of “One Thousand Fires” it becomes obvious that aggressive and distinctive riffing of Fates Warning will be in full force on this album. The way Matheos and and his six string partner in crime Frank Aresti work together has always amazed me, and their amazing synergy continues on this album.that track record continues on this album. On this opening track, as has happened in Fates Warning in the past so many times, it seems almost as if the two guitarists are playing riffs from different songs, and yet they merge together beautifully in musical bliss. Underneath the chaos is the drumming of veteran Bobby Jarzombek. Although this is his first studio effort with the band, the years of touring with them and an impressive resume shine through in his very active and interesting drumming on the album. Add on top of that some fantastic guitar solos and a typically strong studio performance from vocalist Ray Alder and I was ready to forgive the band for the long wait after the first track.
The next two tracks, “Firefly” and “Desire” offer more of the same, the former of which has a section that hits hard on a Fates Warning staple, some odd rhythm work that still gives you that urge to want to head bang. In many ways the first three tracks from this album demonstrate why Fates Warning can often be progressive metal for those who don’t know they are listening to progressive metal. They take musical ideas that don’t seem to make much sense, and manage to fuse them together flawlessly into masterful songs.
After a soft and short interlude track, “Falling”, the album once again kicks into high gear with “I Am”. The heaviness of the verses of the track offer a beautiful juxtaposition to the bridge, which sees soaring vocals from Alder and light guitar strokes layer perfectly on top of a rhythmic tom pattern. And yet, however good the bridge is, one cannot help but wait for the 180 to occur again as the chorus kicks in. The sixth track, “Lighthouse” stands out as an obvious midpoint in the album, as it is the only full length soft song on the album. Not in any way a ballad, but simply a bit of a droning background noise that fails to properly grab your attention at any point.
While “Into the Black” and “Kneel and Obey” don’t quite pick things back up to the level of intensity seen prior to “Lighthouse”, they do have guitar solos that border on classic shred more than any other on the album. While the songs are good, and solos great, they simply fail to take hold and grab you like the earlier tracks on the album. The next track however, “O Chloroform”, shows the slightly softer dynamic of the album, but as perfectly executed as the beginning of the album. The guitars aren’t as complicated, the chorus has a slightly poppier edge than the rest of the album, and the entire song would serve as an excellent introduction to the album without the metal aspect being dialed all the way up.
The album ends with the fourteen minute “And Yet it Moves”, which will draw comparisons to “Still Remains”, the sixteen minute track from 2000’s Disconnected, for no other reason than being the first track of that length the band has produced since then. Starting as many epics do with an extended instrumental section no one would be in a hurry for Alder’s voice to break into the track, but should be happy when it does as the first verse is one of his strongest vocal performances on the album. From there through the nine minute point in the exceptional instrumentation continues, with Alder lending the occasion and very strong melody. At the nine minute mark things have gone quiet, and acoustic guitars kick in. Simple at first, they are joined by some nice keyboard work and vocals, and eventually a soft and moving electric lead guitar part. The song which at one point seemed content to be over builds and builds until it is at full force, and when it ends again, this time more suddenly, you rewarded with a satisfying payoff of the buildup, wishing it would repeat again. “And Yet it Moves” serves as an exclamation point on the album, and to Fates Warning’s comeback to studio success.
Ultimately the best parts of Darkness in a Different Light are a lot like the Arch/Matheos record mentioned earlier in my review, with the very distinct and cutting voice of John Arch replaced by the smoother stylings of Ray Alder. However the album does have many distinctive Fates Warning qualities that set it apart from the other things Matheos has worked on over the past nine years, and the album seems like a clear successor to 2004’s FWX despite the time gap. The unmistakable crunch of the Matheos/Aresti guitar duo hasn’t faded one bit, and the fantastic Mark Zonder has been replaced by the equally capable and stylistically creative Bobby Jarzombek. And while a trio of songs create a noticeable lull in quality, it is nowhere near the point where I’d consider skipping the tracks, and that lull is only noticeable due to the strength of the material surrounding it.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Album: The Mountain (Special Edition)
The definition of progressive music is always in debate it seems. Some people think it has more to do with a certain sound that harkens to the progressive movement of the 70s, others take a more literal definition and want it to be music that evolves and pushes into new territory. When discussing Haken, both definitions seem to fit.
Haken have built a very loyal legion of fans on the strengths of their first two albums, which led them to be signed by what some consider the premier progressive label, InsideOut, a move that can potentially lead them to a wider progressive audience. Aquarius set the tone for Haken’s sound, and Visions saw them move in a darker direction musically. After watching the two videos from The Moutain, “Atlas Stone” and “Pareidolia”, I thought the band was moving back towards the first album’s sound. However, upon hearing the full album, I was stunned that Haken continued to break new ground, and not stick with what got them to this point.
If I had to sum up the overall tone of the album, I would use the word “beautiful”. While Visions was darker, and Aquarius was rather fun and playful musically, The Mountain showcases an even more melodic and softer tone on many of the tracks; all the while still keeping with the Haken sound. The real showpiece of this album is singer Ross Jennings. His unique timbre is a real treat, and reminds me of Tetrafusion’s Gary Tubbs. The tracks “The Path”, and the last four tracks, “As Death Embraces”, “Someday”, “The Path Unbeaten”, and “Nobody” feature Ross high in the mix over soft, ethereal music. This caught me off guard on my first listen, not because they were there, but because of how great they sounded (note: The Path Unbeaten and Nobody are not on the regular edition). The epic “Falling Back to Earth” features a mix of this new softer tone and the older Haken sound, and it may have taken the title of my favorite Haken song, as it blends softer instrumental passages, a frenzied pre-chorus that leads to a wondrous payoff when the chorus hits, and a nice keyboard and guitar tradeoff before the third verse. The two earlier mentioned pre-release tracks whet the appetites of those who loved the first two albums, as will “Cockroach King”. That song has the most keyboard sound elements that people will either love or hate, and has the potential to be a lot of people’s favorite track.
My expectations for this album were high based on Haken’s body of work, but I was honestly blown away by this album. The interplay of Ross’s emotional vocals over the sublime keyboard workings of Diego Tejeida on the softer tracks, the hooks and riffs crafted by guitarists Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths, the grooves by Thomas MacLean, and superb drumming by Raymond Hearne meld together and demonstrate that this album might not be a magnum opus, but the tip of the iceberg of what could be this decade’s showcase band.
One final point – I believe getting the special edition is required for any Haken fan. “Nobody” was one of my favorite tracks and I cannot imagine the album without it. Other favorites included “Falling Back to Earth” and “Cockroach King”, so if you’ve listened to the pre-released songs from the album, you’re still in for lots of treats.
If anyone has wondered why I haven’t given a grade higher than A- before this album, this album is the answer. Time will tell whether or not this becomes a legendary album (an A+ if you will), the likes of Images & Words or Parallels. I think it has the potential. Until then, The Mountain can still claim the title of earning my first A.
Mason’s grade: A
Two years ago, Leprous broke through with their third album, Bilateral. A big reason for their emergence is they captured a sound that was new, and did so after having signed with InsideOut Records, who put the album in the hands of prog stations and developed a strong grassroots fan base. It is always interesting to see how bands follow up their breakthrough. Do they stick with what works – a path many bands follow, or do they take their success as creative license? The latter choice sometimes yields great new things (Anathema has three distinct periods), but they run the risk of alienating their initial fan base (Stone Temple Pilots second album comes to mind personally). There is a nice middle ground between those two, where the band continues to hone their sound, yet finds new ground to explore; Dream Theater found this area with Awake. Looking at the progression from Tall Poppy Syndrome to Bilateral, I was fairly certain I could expect this middle ground. I wanted the chaos and frenzy of their previous work, but I also knew to expect something new to crop up in the mix.
If one wanted to try to forecast the direction Leprous wanted to take with Coal without even listening to the first note, there are plenty of clues on display that I’ve noticed in hindsight. First, the album artwork has some clues. Bilateral was very colorful and featured very interesting cover art, and the art conveyed the musical zaniness contained within. Coal is a black background, with a skull and some gemstones in white outline. Even the album name, Coal, suggests the darker tone of the album. This darker tone is a progression from Bilateral, but it’s not as dark as some of the subgenres of metal like doom, just some of the brightness from the previous album is gone – but not the polish. The chaotic style and staccato from the previous albums are still present, and the toned down frenzy gives the album a darker feel, as well as slower tempos and an increased use of backing vocals.
While there was not an area of improvement that needed to be addressed from the last album, after several listens I couldn’t help but notice the larger variety of talent on display from Einar Solberg in the vocal department. It’s hard to miss how smooth and graceful his clean vocals are this time around. Maybe it is just a function of having more of them, but by the time the seventh song “Echo” rolls around, it is quite clear Einar is quite skilled and can cover a lot of musical ground vocally. Also of note in the vocal department is the guest performance of Ihshan on the track “Contaminate Me”, where he does a great job with the harsh vocals.
Musically, if you haven’t heard anything from Leprous before, their sound would best be described as chaotic, complex, and dynamic. Leprous is not the band you would look to find relaxing music, unless you are like me and you need the complex harmonies to keep your mind occupied on the music so you can drown out the outside noise. Leprous is an active listening experience that requires your attention, and thankfully the music grabs you by the collar and pulls you in close. Coal can be challenging: jarring at times with Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk creating staccato guitar phrases, blitzing drum fills that pop out from the background and quickly return to the background crafted by Tobias Ørnes Andersen, and dynamics that perk up your ears just when you start to get comfortable. But this is why I enjoy the album. It forces me to listen. It challenges me to perceive music in ways I have not done before. While the album is consistent in tone and feel, there is still variety. The gloom of “Foe” gives way to build of “Chronic”, which leads to the despair conveyed in “Coal”. “The Cloak” is more somber sounding, which leads to possibly my favorite song, “The Valley”, which is the embodiment of the Leprous sound, and perhaps showcases Einar’s vocal abilities more than any other song. “Salt” and “Echo” compromise the most subdued part of the album, with “Salt” featuring tradeoffs between a softer piano part also played by Einar and a section with a soft, but dark guitar tone, and “Echo” featuring Einar’s soaring clean vocals. The heaviest stuff is left for the end, with the previously mentioned “Contaminate Me” featuring Ihsahn on vocals, and if you got the bonus track, “Bury” features the most frenzy and vigor, and is a fitting way to end the album.
Because Coal is so chaotic, it is an album I can’t listen to twice in a row, which one of the reasons it is still enjoyable after several listens and I’m not burned out on it. Coal may be more digestible than Bilateral to someone new to Leprous, and would make an excellent starting point because the chaos is dialed back just a tad on this album. While not quite crossing into some of the more extreme genres, an album like Coal would make a great gateway album into those more extreme genres of metal. While I can’t say for certain I like this album more than Bilateral (possibly due to what I call “discovery bias”), I can say it will please current fans of the band, and might make people who found Bilateral to be too “out there” to reconsider. Regardless of someone’s taste in music, the one adjective you will never see used to describe this album is “stale”.
Mason’s grade: B+
Band: James LaBrie
Album: Impermanent Resonance
These are calmer times. However things weren’t that way the last time James LaBrie, best known as the lead singer for prog-metal icons Dream Theater released a solo album. In 2010, only a few weeks before the release of Static Impulse, the founding drummer of Dream Theater left the band shaking the foundations of the fan base and the genre. Since then James and Dream Theater have renewed their success both in the studio and on the road, and through it all a new studio album has found its way to the surface.
Impermanent Resonance will certainly draw a few comparisons to the aforementioned Static Impulse, however there is certainly evolution here, and not an AC/DC style carbon copy of previous albums. One fantastic example of this is in the harsh vocals of drummer Peter Wildoer on the two albums. On Static Impulse his vocals were a surprise to many and very much jumped out of the music at times. The new album should do a good job of pleasing those who enjoy the harsher vocals, while being less alienating to those who don’t. While the amount they are used on the two albums is comparable, they are lower in the mix and used in a less jarring manner, especially after the first two tracks. The album’s first track and lead single “Agony” features a vocal tradeoff between LaBrie and Wildoer during the verses, starting with Wildoer. While I’m still baffled why such a high profile track would start with vocals from someone other than LaBrie, it is a fast and energetic kick start to the album with excellent soloing from guitarist Marco Sfogli that gives a good indication of what to expect from the heavier selections going forward.
The next track, “Undertow” and continues to showcase the heavier elements of the album, while seeming to tradeoff a bit of bite from the last album for a more polished final product. And while I’m sure prog fans especially will debate the usefulness of Wildoer’s vocals up to this point, I don’t think anyone will question that he continues to bring his A game behind the kit. The heavier sections in particular showcase the Swedish sensation’s ability. The fourth track, “Back on the Ground” has a structure and beautiful vocal melodies of a power ballad, but one that, at times, goes on steroids and turns up the power aspect to 11. In a perfect world I think a track like this could see significant radio airplay.
“I Got You” is a straight forward rocker with a strong and melodic chorus that features a variety of electronic elements in the background that have been noticeable since 2005’s Elements of Persuasion album, though they are again more refined and less obvious on this track and album. Much of the same can be said of the next track, “Holding On” with the addition of another fantastic guitar solo from Sfogli. The next few tracks take their foot of the gas a tad, focusing on LaBrie’s vocals, especially on “Destined to Burn” during which many long time fans will enjoy the soaring vocals, most notably on the chorus.
“Say You’re Not Mine” starts out with piano and soft, warm vocals from LaBrie, reminiscent of “Coming Home” from LaBrie’s last album, and it a welcomed break in style from the rest of the album till that point. However unlike “Coming Home” the track picks up, leaving the album lacking any true softer ballads. The following track, “Amnesia” is similarly structured, with softer sections which really contrast well against the chorus that manages to end with harsh vocals from Wildoer that don’t seem at all out of place.
The final track on the album, “I Will Not Break” returns fully to the sound at the start of the album with its aggressive start, especially in the drums. And for those in Europe, or who can get their hands on the European release of the album will be treated to two bonus tracks. The first of which, “Unraveling”, treats the listener to a softer sound, especially in the first half of the song, that will serve as a nice counterpoint to what came before it. Finally “Why” ensures that no matter which version of the album you get it will end by leaving your blood boiling for more.
While LaBrie’s fantastic vocals, Wildoer’s drumming, and Sfogli’s excellent guitar work, both lead and solo all help make this album what it is, the standout star is keyboardist Matt Guillory. Not because the keyboard work itself is anything overly complex or groundbreaking, but simply because as the primary composer it was his work that made this album work. Wildoer’s vocals were better incorporated into the music and the keyboards were a perfect example of how to add texture and an extra gear to what is primarily a guitar driven metal album. While the polish of this album does make it a slightly tamer to the ears compared to Static Impulse, it does serve to help draw out and highlight the many memorable melodic moments of the album. Picking favorite tracks is difficult, but for the right reason, as much of the album rises to a very high level.
Fans of LaBrie as a vocalist will not be disappointed in this album, nor will those who have been fans of the other two LaBrie releases. Where fans rank the album will likely be determined by preference in style. Whereas Elements of Persuasion put electronic elements in the forefront, and Static Impulse highlighted punch and aggression this album blends everything together well with perhaps the best guitar work throughout it all to date.
Nick’s Rating: A
Expectations are something that cannot be ignored when discussing follow up albums. Going into their previous album, Static Impulse, fan expectations were for something akin to the Mullmuzzler albums and even more towards Elements of Persuasion. Static Impulse provided a big curve, with Peter Wildoer taking some of the vocal duties. The fan response was rather split – some didn’t mind or even liked Wildoer’s vocal contribution, and those who weren’t a fan of that style to begin with, or were more casual fans who simply saw the name “James LaBrie” were upset to various degrees. I was in the former category, as I can and do enjoy extreme metal and harsh vocals, so it was a welcome addition.
To remind people, James’s name is in the forefront to serve one purpose: sell more albums. He has the name recognition and star power in the genre that is going to draw in the casual prog fan who doesn’t keep track of side projects and smaller details. Perhaps a more proper way to think of a JLB album is a different band that JLB also fronts where he can scratch musical itches with other like minded musicians that he cannot scratch in Dream Theater. Peter Wildoer, Matt Guillory, Marco Sfogli, Peter Wichers, and Ray Reindeau are all important partners; with Guillory and Wicher’s fingerprints all over the sound.
For those who weren’t thrilled about Peter’s vocals, they are still there. However, they are less in forefront and blended in much better so they are not as jarring if you are not accustomed to them. While I have not counted instances, they also seem to be in the album a lot less, particularly after the first two tracks. Between their lessened use and previous experience – you’re expecting them this time – you should find the harsh vocals more easily digestable if they are not up your alley. And if you like them, you’ll find that, as with most things, things improve with time and practice, and Peter’s vocal talents are much better utilized this time around.
Musically, while JLB is moving toward a more aggressive style than he sings in DT, Peter shows he can move toward less aggressive music than his normal outfit, Darkane, showcasing talents he doesn’t use as often in Darkane. Peter’s drumming is just another exhibit in the case against this being James LaBrie’s showcase, and not the proper band it is. Sfogli gets his due in guitar solos, showcasing himself for a nice gig down the road. Matt Guillory once again shows his chops on keys and in the song writing department – which is always been a strength of his going back to his Dali’s Dilemma days. Peter Wichers’ production is a large reason why this album sounds so good. LaBrie, Guillory, and Sfogli have been together for all three James LaBrie albums, and this time have found a balance between using punch and aggression that Wildoer and Wichers bring with the smoother melodic qualities that LaBrie and Guillory have demonstrated in their past work, as well as incorporating the strengths others bring to the table. The sonic compromise makes this a very polished sounding record.
While sonically it sounds polished, one of the reasons it sounds so good is the song writing. Impermanent Resonance features some of the catchiest choruses I’ve seen in prog in quite a while. While Static Impulse was nice, very few parts of it stuck with me after listening. Impermanent Resonance doesn’t leave you looking for the lyrics in the liner notes. In feels like Guillory took everything they teach in creative writing classes to make prose memorable and applied it all – alliteration, rhyming, variations on a theme, familiar themes. After a few listens, this album began to feel like an old favorite shirt, comfortable and it fits just right.
As I said earlier, the album’s first two tracks are the heaviest. The middle tracks are the catchiest and most accessible to the non-prog crowd, which Wildoer’s vocals get dropped into the mix and are complementary to the music as opposed to primary to the music. There are not really any weak tracks, and the trio of “Agony”, “Back On the Ground”, and “Lost In the Fire” I would initially call my three favorite tracks, and a good indicator of the variety on the album – the first being an aggressive track, the second having a upbeat sound, and the third having a fantasy feeling with the electronics. “Say You’re Still Mine” is as good of a ballad as “Coming Home” was on Static Impulse, and the bonus track “Why” will be well worth the pickup for the overseas crowd.
Impermanent Resonance took everything from a very solid Static Impulse, and improved on it. Whereas I burned out on Static Impulse within a few months, I don’t see that happening with Impermanent Resonance – if anything I would say it is going to have quite a permanent resonance. I’m very stingy with grades, so when I give this album an A-, keep in mind that I gave my album of the year last year an A- as well. While I don’t see this as a classic album, it is never the less an excellent example of what melodic death metal can be and hopefully can serve as a gateway album for those looking to accept harsher singing.
Mason’s grade: A-
I try to write reviews in somewhat of a vacuum, judging an album on its merits as opposed to the people and situations that went into an album, however this is an example of an album where that is nearly impossible. Queensryche recently went through the second seismic change of their career with the firing of lead vocalist and lyricist Geoff Tate in June of 2012. The band pushed on with new vocalist Todd La Torre, while Geoff Tate took the band’s website and several social media platforms hostage while trying to claim the name of the band for his own use. For the purposes of this review please understand that when I use the name Queensryche, it refers to the three remaining original members of the band (of which Tate is not), more recent guitarist Parker Lundgren and new singer Todd La Torre.
Once we move past the personnel changes within Queensryche, we are met with a few situational problems. Original members Eddie Jackson (Bass), Michael Wilton (Guitar), and Scott Rockenfield (Drums) had been largely absent from writing music for Queensryche for the past 15 years. Whether you believe this to be because of their own lack of initiative or Tate keeping them from the writing is truly irrelevant at this point. What is relevant now is the goal they had set for this album in interviews leading up to its release. The members of the band claimed they were trying to reclaim or revisit the sound of old Queensryche. I would say that, to a large degree, they failed. Aside from how I often forget that I’m not listening to a 1980’s Geoff Tate and an occasional guitar unison like the one seen in the first real track of the album, “Where Dreams Go to Die” and “In This Light” I’d say the album is heavier than the last several, and certainly has a more metal sound, but does not sound like anything the band did in their early days.
However a key point to make is that this isn’t a disappointment. The goal of recapturing the sound was partially a fool’s errand. Very few bands which remain active together sound the same at the beginning and end of any fifteen year period in their career. In Queensryche’s case you have men who were never the primary writing force of the band coming out of a bit of writing retirement joining forces with new members who both contributed to the writing of the album. Even though they worked with producer Jimbo Barton who played a part in forging the sound of several classic Queensryche albums, I think if they had perfectly recaptured the sound it would sound forced and contrived. What we got instead was a very solid album which is what Queensryche desperately needed in order to establish them as a credible modern act.
With the aforementioned “Where Dreams Go to Die” the band comes out swinging and delivers a clear indication of what direction they are taking the album in. Soaring vocals, some odd rhythms with the drums, and some memorable guitar work set it apart from much of what the band had done in the prior few albums. The next two tracks, “Spore” and “In This Light”, form a strong core for the album. Both feature very strong and memorable choruses that form the backbone of two of the best songs Queensryche have produced in decades. By the end of the first three songs several things have already been made clear to the listener. Firstly, new vocalist Todd La Torre can deliver a stellar performance, even if it at times borders too closely to sounding like the departed Tate – which some people may argue is a plus. I also feel the overuse of vocal effects often diminish the performance and leaves questions as to why such heavy use was deemed necessary. This issue will become even more prevalent as the album continues on. Looking at the other members, Scott Rockenfield is back with a vengeance. His playing is noticeably more lively and involved than it has been in some time. The guitars offer tones more in tune to what classic Queensryche fans expect. It’s in this regard that tapping into the old sound certainly proved smart and successful.
Next on the docket was the album’s first single “Redemption”. Though the guitar tone at the opening of the song brushes a bit too closely to the robotic overdrive that was used on Operation: Mindcrime II, the rest of the track was a great introduction to the album for the many fans that checked it out in advance. Verses were well constructed, chorus was again strong, and Michael Wilton delivered one of the best solos of the album. With the next track, “Vindication” a decline is seen in the music that continues until the final track of the album. And while “Vindication” and the three full songs that follow are strong, they left me wanting more from an album which is only slightly over thirty five minutes long.
The final track on the album, “Open Road” sees the band take their foot off the pedal a bit and dial back the full on assault they seemed to be attempting with much of the album. Acoustic guitars start the track off and soon the electric guitar plays gently alongside a violin in the background as the song slowly builds up to a wonderful solo. While stylistically this song is not all that similar to “Anybody Listening”, it reminds me of the track simply by its ability to make a big turn on the final track and still close the album perfectly.
Aside from a slightly lagging second half, the other major issue with this album is the sound. The loudness war hit this recording quite hard, leaving the album with clipping and a lack of dynamic range. In addition while Scott Rockenfield’s drums sound quite good, his cymbal work gets buried in the mix. Finally the bass throughout seems muddied, which works alright at times, but not at others, and certainly doesn’t sound good enough to be the default bass tone on the album. “Redemption” is a perfect example. During the verses and guitar solos the tone seems appropriate, but during the chorus it really takes away from the overall recording. While sonically the album might have as many, though different, issues as some of the other recent Queensryche releases, it certainly is still a jump up in quality musically and vocally.
Had this album shown the strength musically of the first half throughout the rest, and top notch sound, it would have done the nearly impossible and matched the greatness that was the early years of Queensryche. Still, it was a strong effort considering the practical hibernation the band was awakening from. And with that it shows the band has the potential moving forward to be more than a nostalgia act using their early years as a crutch. Whether they use that potential and execute on being a legitimate modern act is yet to be seen, and so we sit and watch the exciting future of Queensryche unfold.
Nick’s Grade: B
Album: The Void
In 2008 I reviewed the Beardfish’s Sleeping in Traffic: Part Two album. Now, in 2012 it seems somewhat odd to say I’m reviewing the third new album since then, and despite the frantic pace of putting out four albums in just over four years, I continue to be fascinated by this band. Their newest release is called The Void, and it manages to continue a balancing act that Beardfish has maintained over the last few albums. The Void pushes into new territory enough to be fresh to the ears of longtime fans, yet remains true to the core of the Beardfish sound. This feat is something many bands don’t seem to be able to do as time rolls on, either seeming in a constant state of pushing the envelope or becoming copies of themselves.
The Void is a return to the band’s heavier sound, with parallels to their Destined Solitaire album. For those unfamiliar with the band it can be compared to when The Flower Kings or The Tangent are “Heavy”, it’s a distinct prog-rock kind of heavy. Right from the opening track, “Voluntary Slavery”, the album shows it’s heavier edge is due mostly to the tones and sound of the album rather than the actual songwriting. The guitars on this especially are much dirtier than the previous album and add a fair amount of grit to the album that wasn’t seen on the heavily polished Mammoth. In what can be seen as a bit of a classic tradeoff, this general change in the sound of the album leads to an extra punch, but at the expense of an album not quite as crisp as the last. Still, as with most Beardfish recordings, the instruments do a fantastic job of all cutting through the mix to deposit each player’s parts easily into your ear.
Although the first half of the album would certainly give a lot of prog albums this year a run for their money, it’s not until “Ludvig & Sverker”, the seventh track that I think the album shows its best material. From there until the end The Void delivers classic Beardfish tracks one after another, including the fifteen minute epic “Note”. I doubt any fan of the band is going to be disappointed with The Void, and for any perspective new fans this album will be as good as any to test the waters. This band must have a blender in their kitchen, because they continue to combine some of the 70’s best sounds in a musical smoothie that goes done easy thanks to strong individual hooks and overall fantastic songwriting.
Nick’s Grade: A
Band: District 97
Album: Trouble with Machines
When Chicago outfit District 97 released their first album Hybrid Child in 2010, it certainly created substantial buzz in the prog rock community. Whether it was the album or several tours/shows in which the band appeared in, I was regularly hearing about them. Despite this I never paid any attention to them; but why? To this day I’ve never seen the band mentioned without also mentioning that their vocalist was an American Idol top 10 finalist. My personal disdain for the show and what it represents kept me from listening to a band that I would by all other accounts probably enjoy, and that was in hind-sight close-minded and stupid of me. I have rectified that with the just released sophomore attempt from the band, Trouble with Machines.
While I don’t think the opening track, “Back and Forth” does a the best job of showcasing the band or oft cited vocalist Leslie Hunt, it does showcase a crisp bright sound that will go on to be a cornerstone of the album. On the second track, “Open Your Eyes”, the band turns things up a notch and shows their true potential. Though the song isn’t long, the vocal melodies from the first moments of the song till the end are fantastic, it has a great mix of musical ideas, and guitarist Jim Tashjian lays down a guitar solo that is short, not overly complex, but perfect for the song. Two tracks later the band presents something rare in prog music, a brilliant love story… kinda. “The Perfect Young Man” is my favorite track on the album, as it has all the great qualities I’ve mentioned about “Open Your Eyes”, is 10 minutes long and features guest vocals from Asia/King Crimson bassist/vocalist John Wetton. While it’s musically excellent, I must say my favorite part about the song is the story, and without spoiling too much, I will simply say that 10+ listens later I still go WOW every time the story ends.
The next track, “Who Cares” is a prime example of how even a short song can build with multiple quick sections wonderfully. In addition to that, the middle section of the song features a few lines that are almost sinfully catchy, and I love how the band alters the second section of this “chorus” slightly the second time around to keep it fresh. While the other tracks on the album are far from duds, they lack the extra gear the prime cuts from the album seem to have. However even on these more average songs, the band’s ability to focus on the song shines through, and they never seem to get stuck in the prog trap of being too virtuosic for their own good. If the band is able to hit their highs on a more consistent basis they are going to be a force to reckon with in the future.
While the album does suffer a bit from ups and downs, one thing that is consistent throughout is the sound. The band, along with Rich Mouser (who has worked with Neal Morse and Transatlantic) have put out what will surely be one of the best sounding releases from the genre this year. All the instruments come through crystal clear, and even backing vocals often strike me as perfectly mixed. If the band can manage to keep up their production value and song oriented brand of prog they are only going to get better. With this album this band has jumped in my mind from an easily disregarded American Idol spinoff to closely watched newcomers who are just fortunate to have a little extra publicity than many other prog acts are going to get.
Nick’s grade: B+
This review was written after having read Nick’s review, and I will refer to his review and leave out details of the band bio to save your time, so I suggest reading his review first.
District 97 – or as I’m going to call them “Musical Big Bang Theory” because their promo photo has an attractive woman with four nerdy looking guys – belies their vocalists Idol roots, they’re a talented group, and my bias against the show leads me to postulate that she was probably too talented and true to herself to win it. While there are some pop sensibilities in places, make no mistake that prog awaits you.
When broken down, there doesn’t seem to anything not to like about this album, however on a whole the listening experience is largely empty calories. Musically, it really feels more like they are following the beaten path. The instrumental sections and solos are largely forgettable and I’m recalling very little of the experience when the album is over, which is rarely the case for me. The talent is all there, I can hear it, but largely lackluster songwriting doesn’t showcase the talents and the strengths that are present. It’s almost like comparing a photo of a food item at a fast food restaurant and then seeing the real thing. The photo looks great, but the eating experience just doesn’t match the expectations. Nick calls them ups and downs; I call it one prime cut with run of the mill prog.
Like Nick, “The Perfect Young Man” is also my favorite track from the album. It’s the one song that pulls it all together and teases you with what this band is capable of producing. Speaking of producing, as Nick mentioned the production is great. It’s amazing that an album from a new prog band can have better production than a million dollar act like Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” (sorry, I love taking that jab anywhere I can since that would be an otherwise excellent album). While there are plenty of female fronted bands, they all seem to reside on the metal side of things so it’s nice to have one on the proggier side of things for a change. The music doesn’t suggest that she was brought on as a gimmick, which some people might think of considering her American Idol tenure.
After several listens to the album, I just can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is just standard prog rock with a female vocalist. The songwriting just doesn’t cut it, especially when compared to everything that has preceded it, particularly in my catalog. Despite this rather negative sounding review, I do see a lot of potential in this band and its current line-up. I’ll be listening the next time they roll out an album since they are capable of making excellent music, as “The Perfect Young Man” demonstrates.
I’d have a hard time putting this in the top half of my collection overall, or even just of the albums released this year. This, along with the aforementioned songwriting is my justification for this grade, which in no means should be used to dissuade you from checking out the album.
Mason’s grade: C
Band: Circus Maximus
Several bands are releasing an album this year for the first time since 2007. In the cases of Rush and Threshold, the time away from the studio could easily be explained by touring, and in the case of the latter, line-up changes. A lot of people wondered why a young, up and coming band with a fervent fan base would take so long to record a follow up album, and could the time away have an adverse effect on their sound.
Circus Maximus made a name for themselves by playing progressive metal in the vein of classic Dream Theater, but with a more modern sound and without sounding like a DT clone. And that’s certainly true of their new album “Nine” as well. The melodies are beautiful, the instrumental sections are artful and the solos are not too wanky, and the vocals and lyrics are probably the best the band has written. To top it all off, the album has a very clean production that has everything sounding crisp. I’ve seen some people describe the new album as having a more pop sound, but I think that is an oversimplification for what is actually a brighter tone. No one should mistake this for pop, it has way too much proggy goodness.
This album took hold of my interest from the first listen, and passed my “force me to pay attention” test with flying colors. That test is simple, I listen to this album while doing something that requires my full attention. If the music is catching my attention and distracting me from my task at hand, it is usually a great indication that I’m going to enjoy a dedicated listen. And listen I have done, having listened to this album on average more than three times a day in the ten days before deciding I was going to review this album. Throughout all the listens, I’m still finding an enjoyable experience with a different song taking center stage each time, which is a testament to the quality of all nine real songs, ignoring the short introductory track.
On the initial listens, the more traditional progressive metal tracks “Architect of Fortune”, “I Am”, and “Burn After Reading” stood out, with their complex musical ideas, great solos, and attention grabbing leads. Then, the two tracks that would be the closest things to ballads, “Reach Within” and “Last Goodbye” caught my attention with their melody and feeling. One constant throughout the album is the exceptional vocals of Michael Eriksen. His power, range, and feel are evident throughout the album, and show why he was recruited to replace Roy Khan on the last Kamelot tour.
“Nine” is really a must-have album for any progressive metal fan. This album will almost certainly be in the running for album of the year when the time comes. While there is little to complain about, and it is a very solid album with no “filler” material, the album has songs that range from excellent to very good, but it lacks a signature track or tracks to distinguish it as an all time great album. Maybe the album name comes from the rating they want, 9 out of 10. Now, please, DON’T MAKE ME WAIT ANOTHER 5 YEARS IF YOU ARE GOING TO RELEASE MATERIAL THIS GOOD.
Mason’s Grade: A-
Band: The Flower Kings
Album: Banks of Eden
When I first got into The Flower Kings years ago, I quickly learned two things about them. First, that they loved making music. It seemed that they not only put out a single or often double album every year, but the individual members pretty much all put out albums with various side projects as well. Second, they often liked to write longer songs (a rarity in prog, I know). With that in mind it was somewhat stunning to the prog world when the Swedish proggers went on hiatus following 2007’s The Sum of No Evil, but returning now in 2012 with Banks of Eden, it’s only appropriate the band decided to show back up on the scene with the twenty-five minute opening track “Numbers”.
We can remain thankful that the individual Flower Kings stayed busy during the hiatus, as five years would have been far too long to live without the guitar stylings of Roine Stolt, who has a particular shine during the opening number. His guitar solos in particular amaze throughout the track, and his ability to vary the style of the solos (and leads) never ceases to astonish me. While Stolt’s best playing may be on “Numbers”, and as good as the track is, I think the album takes a turn for the better at its conclusion. In fashion counter to the usually Flower Kings style, the final four tracks of the album all clock in at less than eight minutes. While this might come as a shock to Flower Kings fans, if the band was aiming for concise, strong songwriting with the rest of the album, they hit the nail on the head.
Starting with “For the Love of God”, the remainder of the album may lack a bit of the overt catchiness of an album like Paradox Hotel, but it still remains nearly as strong nonetheless. Despite lacking that heavier pop edge, incredibly strong melodies remain, and keyboardist Thomas Bodin in particular seems to stand out. While Jonas Reingold provides his usually solid low end support to the Kings sound, Bodin manages to really power the melodies more than he has in the past, and his playing often matches or exceeds that of Stolt’s. Of course that doesn’t mean some of Bodin’s more traditional, brooding background parts aren’t present. On the contrary, on the track “For Those About to Drown”, Bodin spends most of the track away from the spotlight while maintaining an essential presence in the track.
While new drummer Felix Lehrmann does a good job on Banks of Eden, I’ve always found the drums in The Flower Kings’ music to be the least important piece to the finished product, and that trend continues even in this new Kings era. That however is more of a testament to the rest of the band than any Kings drummer, past or present. Along with the already mentioned Stolt, Bodin, and Reingold, vocalist/guitarist Hasse Froberg adds his fantastic flair to the album. Stolt likely has more vocal duties on this album than any previously, but the contrast only serves to help highlight Froberg’s voice as it is reserved for the times when it is best able to shine. Perhaps the best example of this is the final half of “Rising the Imperial”, where his emotive and yet powerful voice sings the final few lines of lyrics with perfection.
Banks of Eden sounds crisp and clean as Kings recordings usually do, and all the way through the album, it manages to be more consistent and enjoyable than perhaps any of their records so far. Although I sadly think none of the new tracks are on par with the very best of what they’ve done in the past, they have managed to cut down immensely on oft criticized “filler” material, giving the album a very cohesive feel. What you have from start to finish are strong songs that are definitively the funky, eclectic musings of The Flower Kings. 2007’s The Sum of No Evil provided too many long, meandering, and quite blatantly boring tracks; it had seemed like the band’s hiatus would pave the way for a new king of their style to be crowned. However, returning now with one of their stronger albums, The Flower Kings have proven once again that they have what it takes to be a leader of their genre.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Band: Burning Point
Album: The Ignitor
Power metal is a genre that I like, but I find a lot of it to be stale and derivative, so I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to it, particularly with bands I haven’t heard of before. So my expectations going into this album were lukewarm at best. However, Burning Point has delivered a great sounding album that is a breath of fresh air into a somewhat stagnant scene.
The Ignitor is in a lot of ways what you expect in a power metal album; fast guitars, clean high register vocals, and up-tempo fun energy. It also lacks some of the well known characteristics of power metal, notably “cheesiness”. While I love the campiness and cheesiness of bands like Rhapsody of Fire (or Rhapsody, or Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, whatever derivative of Rhapsody they come up with next), the lack of cheesiness is what makes this album stand apart. Yes, power metal can NOT be cheesy. The end product is a concise, 44 minute album that is fairly strong across the board, with a few stand out songs like “Eternal Flame”, “In the Fires of My Self Made Hell”, “Silent Scream”, and “Lost Tribe”. Because there is a good bit of variation in the songs, the album doesn’t lull the listener into a sameiness induced boredom. The fast and up tempo lead track with flashy guitar work is followed by a more introspective track, which is then followed by a track where vocalist Pete Ahonen is allowed to shine. This level of variety is present throughout the album as the songs don’t bleed together or go on for a monotonous amount of time. While the album as a whole is very good, the one thing it lacks is a “WOW” song or moment. Of course not all albums have these moments, but the great ones do.
I’m coming away from this album very impressed, and excited to dig into their back catalog. At a time when stalwart power metal bands like Firewind are struggling to keep their sound fresh and relevant, Burning Point is showing that there are still bands out there producing great power metal; you just have to find them. Well, I found them, and I want you to as well. If I were ranking this album simply against other power metal albums, it would get bumped up to an A-, and against the whole of my collection it still does very well.
Mason’s Grade: B+
I knew this album would push me one direction or another. On one hand, I’m probably the biggest fan of Ted Leonard’s vocals I know of, as anyone who has had a conversation about music with me for 10 minutes can tell you. I also thoroughly enjoy most of the other musicians involved in this project: Michael Lepond (Symphony X), guest musicians Jordan Rudess, Neal Morse, and Derek Sherinian, and as for the drummer, if he’s good enough for Neal Morse I’d say he’s good enough for me. The line-up has me hook, line, and sinker.
On the other hand, I am very turned off by the idea of religious music, namely because I don’t care to hear about something I don’t really believe in. It’s been enough to keep me away from the bulk of Neal Morse’s solo work despite the fact that I love pretty much anything else he’s been involved in. Which was going to win out, talent, or personal choice?
Well, it turned out to be talent. Despite being rife with religious overtones thick enough to cut with a knife, I can’t help but enjoy this album in its entirety. Musically, it has the elements I want in my progressive metal: memorable leads, riffs, and hooks – both from the guitars and the keys; beautifully crafted solos – which in the case of the keyboard players showcase their individual style (you should be able to figure out which tracks Rudess, Morse, and Sherinian play without looking it up); and great vocal delivery.
The album opens up with two instrumental tracks that while not spectacular, set the table for the rest of the album. The third track, “Salvation”, features some of the afore mentioned riffage that I liked, which is followed by the catchy hooks of “The Rapture” which features some nice arrangements of vocal melodies in the first section of the song, which leads into a signature Rudess solo and all the fun said solo entails, which is followed by a soulful solo stressing feeling and melody over skill, and if that wasn’t enough, both Fries and Rudess each get another solo later in the song to rock out on.
Ted Leonard and Lepond are given their turn to shine in “Falling Away & Rise of the Beast”, which leads to the title track that features some more Rudess goodness, with the final track again putting Leonard square in the spotlight to shine.
As much as I’m gushing over this album, it’s not without its faults, which are not due to my previously stated position against religious music. I actually don’t have a problem with them using Revelation as the basis of the album as its scriptures actually can make the basis of interesting tales. While it seems novel to use actual bible verses for lyrics – and a lot of the lyrics are lifted verses, sometimes it just comes off as very cheesy, and not in the fun, Rhapsody of Fire or Symphony X way. Not all the verses have this problem, but some certainly do, and I think taking a few creative liberties with the verses could have greatly resolved the cheesiness. While not a groundbreaking album, it is nevertheless a very solid album that delivers on musical expectations and should be considered a solid album in any progressive metal catalog.
I believe I’m a tough grader, only the top 15% of my collection is in the A range, so don’t let the grade that Harmagedon gets in Dr. DTVT’s class deceive you.
Mason’s Grade: B+
Band: Sonata Arctica
Album: Stones Grow Her Name
With the release of their 4th album, Reckoning Night, Sonata Arctica continued to solidly themselves as a premier power metal act. The band could have very easily built successfully on a proven formula, but instead abruptly changed course with 2007’s Unia. Between Unia and 2009’s The Days of Grays, the band has shown that they are not afraid to try new things. However, it has lead to some mixed results. In The Days of Grays Sonata Arctica was able to make the new ideas work, whereas in Unia they largely left me scratching my head. Stones Grow Her Name lands somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
After a solid start with “Only the Broken Hearts”, the band then delivers a song titled “Shitload of Money”. Not only is that the title, but the primary line of the chorus, and the song is about as good as you’d expect knowing those two things. While the track has its moments musically, I am stumped as to how it ended up as anything other than a bonus track, let alone the second track on the album. The third track, “Losing My Insanity” has a bit of a classic Sonata Arctica chorus that is a bit repetitive, but certainly a catchier section of the album. The lead single/video of the album, “I Have a Right” is guilty of repetition as well, but still stands out as one of the albums best tracks, and in general represents one of the hits on the new album. Simple and anthemic the song centers on keyboard and piano parts with easy to follow lyrics driving the song forward and making it difficult not to sing along.
The album continues to grow with “Alone in Heaven”, a powerful power ballad that offers one of the finer lyrical ideas to ponder, namely can heaven exist as we think of it when there is the possibility someone we love is in hell? “The Day” continues to build on the strength of the previous two tracks, and features a guitar/piano intro that isn’t long, but is one of my favorite musical moments on the album. Past that there are some interesting moments that show the band hitting on a lot of cool ideas. The remaining tracks are return to some more average tracks, and while the banjo in “Cinderblox” and strong vocal performance from Tony Kakko in the short ballad “Don’t be Mean” are nice, as a whole the end of the album is good, but not great. That said it is certainly an improvement to the start of the album which features the already mentioned “Shitload of Money”, and a not much better “Somewhere Close to You”.
While not as consistent as The Days of Grays, Stones Grow Her Name is also not as consistently bad as Unia, and has at least 3 tracks that are better than anything that album has to offer. Although you’d miss some nice sections of music, it would almost be advisable to start with “I Have a Right” the first few times through the album. At this point Sonata have proven you just never know what to expect with a new album, and while they’ve saved themselves from being boxed in musically, they’ve shown it’s not always easy to thrive outside of the box.
Nick’s Grade: C-
Album: Brutal Romance
I never listen to too much instrumental music in the course of a year, but I do always seem to find at least one or two records that will strike my fancy. This year it’s French trio Morglbl that has managed to make the first impact on me. Their fifth album, Brutal Romance, is due out June and a listen through immediately reminds me of Joe Satriani’s more laid back compositions. Though the band may lack a bit of the flare that is seen in a lot of their contemporaries, their strong melodies and concise compositions ensure you never need to hear a whizzing guitar solo to be entertained.
That said the album is certainly guitar centered, with axe-man Christophe Godin driving the music forward while bassist Ivan Rougny and drummer Aurelian Ouzoulias provide a strong backbone. Although this basic formula runs throughout the album, Godin manages to change up his tone and technique to keep the music fresh and interesting. While the opening track “Gnocchis on the Block” features a clean, clear tone with a fancier melody, the song “Le Surfer d’Argentine” shows off a dirtier tone, grungier riffs, and faster guitar solos to contrast against the rest of the track. The song also manages to throw in a softer section which helps to make it one of the most diverse tracks on the record, and a personal favorite.
Though many tracks do manage to have some of their own unique flavors, the album does seem to struggle in the same way many instrumental albums do. Each track may be good, but when they are all stuck together on a single disc a blending effect takes over and makes it difficult to appreciate the album from front to back. I find the record is much more enjoyable a few tracks at a time or as more of a background album.
No matter which way you end of listening to the album, the important thing is that you at least give these guys a chance, especially if you enjoy the compositional stylings of guitarists like Satch and Vai. In the future I’d love to see Rougny and Ouzoulias with a greater role, allowing a more diverse and digestible album. While Godin is excellent on Brutal Romance, it’s extremely difficult for one instrument to carry an album, especially on one with no vocals.
Nick’s Grade: B-
As metal continues to evolve in a variety of directions, often overlooked is a vein of more melodic and traditional metal that lives on stellar riffs and soaring vocals. Awaken is an American band that is building on some of the best foundational elements metal has to offer, and they are one of metal’s biggest hidden gems right now.
Vocalist and composer Glenn DaGrossa formed the band out of the ashes of Lazarus, a band which released a single EP with stunning potential. Awaken proves that many years later, Glenn is still at the top of his game, and while he provides fantastic vocals for the record, the top strength of the album lies in Glenn’s songwriting. I’d challenge any metal fan to listen to this album and not get drawn in by the hooks that taken hold song after song. In an alternate universe I could easily have seen Queensryche writing this album after Operation: Mindcrime, and the similarities between the two bands can be heard during the main riff of “Bones to Dust”, which sounds very similar to the primary riff of Mindcrime’s title track.
While guitar solos are certainly present on the disc, and many are fantastic, one should not approach this album expecting any extreme technical wizardry from anyone. All the parts simply seem to fit together in a manner that, after every track, makes me think, “wow, that was a great song”. Throughout the disc I find a few parts which I’m not particularly fond of, but they are not numerous and they don’t appear in any single track in a large enough number for any of the tracks to go down as bad.
The band is currently searching for a label to give Awaken a proper release, but in the meanwhile they remain one of America’s best unsigned bands. For now anyone who wishes to hear the album can do so freely on the band’s facebook page, and I urge everyone to show some support for a very deserving band.
Nick’s Grade: A
Band: Beyond the Bridge
Album: The Old Man and the Spirit
It’s one thing to get a quality product from a source you’d expect, but another entirely for one to seemingly pop out of nowhere. Beyond the Bridge managed to put forth a very good debut album, while showing great potential to put out even better albums in years to come. The band came out of the gate with not only a concept album, but one that pits a male and female lead vocalist against each other in an oddly unique way. Since “beauty and the beast” bands like Epica have become commonplace, it’s refreshing to see an album simply featuring two strong melodic voices taking turn at leads between and within songs, with the male lead playing the part of The Old Man, and the female playing The Spirit.
The album features several excellent tracks, and between them they showcase a bit of the variety on the album. “World of Wonders” jumped out at me immediately as what might end up being the best ballad of 2012, and featured only soft and luscious vocals from Dilenya Mar. On the other hand the album opens with “The Call” featuring Herbie Langhans and is a little on the heavier side of the album. And then there is of course tracks like “The Old Man and the Spirit” which features both vocalists, and shows them taking turns at the microphone beautifully. That said it’s a tad ironic that my favorite track on the album happens to be the instrumental, “Triumph of Irreality”. While much of the rest of the album seems to serve as a background for the lyrical concept and dual vocalists, this track really shows what the musicians of the band can do. Not only is there a bit of technical flash thrown into the track, but fantastic melodies from both guitars and keyboards throughout the track.
While the band certainly pushed the envelope lyrically and vocally I do think they could have pushed a little harder musically, and I think a slightly conservative effort on that front does seem to make the album lag a bit in the latter half. However the album is for the most part fantastic, especially for a debut, and the sounds a good bit better than one would expect from a band recording their first album. Buy this, and at very least you’re getting an album with an interesting concept and a lot of great vocal melodies from both sides of the gender war.
Nick’s Grade: A
Album: Beyond Man and Time
In 2008 I noticed an album called The RPWL Experience getting a bit of buzz, but ended up never checking it out. Now, 4 years later, I’ve come to regret that decision. The band’s newest album, Beyond Man and Time offers a very fascinating listen.
Much of the time I would say the best word to describe the band is enchanting, as lush and gentle sounds are wonderfully presented to captivate the listener. If that’s not enough, tracks like “Unchain the Earth” deliver some fantastic vocal melodies and hooks that help draw the listener back for repeated listens. Although I hate to call the music simple, the delivery on much of the album is far from going over anyone’s head. More often than not songs end up being a great collection of good ideas blended together very well. This is well seen on tracks like “Beyond Man and Time” and “The Shadow” which make great use of available space that allows the tracks to breathe wonderfully. While I don’t think the band sounds too much like Pink Floyd, it’s in this trait that their genesis as a Pink Floyd cover band becomes clear.
“The Fisherman” is the only track on the album to cross the 10 minute mark, and by a healthy margin at nearly 17 minutes. As with their shorter songs one tends to get lost in the atmosphere and not notice exactly how long the song is. While this attempt at the classic prog epic is very good, I wouldn’t say it is the premier piece of the album as many of the shorter tracks tend to get as much done in less time. Examples of this include “The Ugliest Man in the World” and “The Road of Creation”, both of which sum up what is great about this band.
While I would say the album has grown off me slightly over time, there is no denying there was a big pull from them initially, and that was caused by something different in the core of their sound that really grabbed me. If I had to compare them to another act I’d say you’d be looking at times at a German version of Beardfish that maintains a slightly more mainstream sound. At others times your simply hearing a bunch of great neo-prog influences rolled up into a neat and tidy ball of RPWL.
Nick’s Grade: A-
Album: Immortal Soul
Riot are one of the most underrated and enduring symbols of classic heavy metal excellence. Along with Saxon they easily earn my pick of the best unsung bands of the strictly “traditional metal” genre – and boy has Riot covered some ground. In the beginning they were a bit of a hard rock / rock n’ roll band with some heavier tendencies, but in the late 80’s after changing every member except founder/guitarist Mark Reale, they became a speed metal powerhouse playing a style of music distinctively their own – thanks to the outstanding musicianship of every player involved and the piercing vocals of frontman Tony Moore. However, by the early 90’s this lineup was no-more, and the band explored more hard rock territory with vocalist Mike Dimeo. It’s fair to say that 1988’s Thundersteel is one of the most revered classic metal albums ever made, often called “The Painkiller before Priest made Painkiller”, and thus when it was announced in 2008 that this lineup of Riot was to reunite, fans everywhere (myself included) were salivating. I want to point out that this record seemed to take forever to make – and that I’m also writing it while listening to the album – having just listened to Thundersteel.
The record starts with a very majestic-sounding intro, reminiscent of something the band would’ve done in the Dimeo-days, but that quickly gives way to the absolutely ripping main riff of the aptly titled “Riot“, which is essentially the classic “Thundersteel” rewritten, which is not at all a bad thing. This song fucking DESTROYS everything, and one thing is certainly made very clear very quickly. Twenty years has seen these guys lose absolutely nothing. Tony Moore’s vocals are still as strikingly powerful as ever, and rhythm section is absolutely on fire, supporting the blistering guitar work. The solo section features some of the great harmonized soloing Riot fans have come to expect, and the final verse sees some astounding drumming from virtuoso Bobby Jarzombek. The choruses just slay, and after half-a-listen are sure to have you going absolutely insane. This track kicks the album off in an absolutely outstanding way. Riot is back with a fierce vengeance.
One of Thundersteel’s more fun and memorable songs was a tune by the name of “Johnny’s Back”, which the second cut “Still Your Man” echoes very vividly (in an obviously intentional way). There’s some cleverly written lyrics which are sure to really grab fans of the original. It’s more or less a perfect sequel – in that it perfectly follows up the theme and energy of the song, but never feels as though it’s retreading old water. “Crawling” changes the pace up considerably, as the tune truly lives up to it’s name. Not only is the pace altered, the guitars also sound really down-tuned here. There’s something fairly haunting about the track, and Tony Moore doesn’t get up to his typical register until the excellent outro. The song is a grower and certainly showcases a little variety, but it’s not one of the best tracks on the record. It’s just not what Riot are best at doing. Next up is “Wings are For Angels“, which brings the tempo and energy right back up to where it was with the album’s opener. It’s another astoundingly technical and well-written speed metal track, and stands as a true highlight of the album. “Fall Before Me” is a slower, more progressive-sounding track – but absolutely succeeds. The melodies are strong and powerful, and the band shows that they certainly know how to do more than blow you away with speed and technicality. The song has a great groove to it and some really nice vocal hooks and great riffing/soloing.
“Sins of the Father” brings the tempo back up to the double-bass-drumming craziness of some of the previous numbers. The chorus is catchy and strong, but aside from that the song is pretty repetitive – nothing really that noteworthy going on here, aside from the blistering harmonized solo. “Majestica” is essentially just a short instrumental, only about a minute long. It’s just sort of there, like a misplaced intro track – but nevertheless it’s not bad in any way, it’s actually kind of oddly reminiscent of late 80’s Iron Maiden. Next up is the title track, “Immortal Soul“, which ironically, along with “Crawling”, is the least typically “Thundersteel”-esque song on the record. Nevertheless it is a superb song with some great melodies and riffs alike. Honestly this reminds me a lot of something that would’ve been on one of the Mike Dimeo-fronted albums, particularly 2002’s Through the Storm. Next up is “Insanity“, which starts acappella before firing into a great riff. Despite the speed, this song isn’t particularly aggressive sounding, in fact it’s pretty melodic and I absolutely LOVE the chorus. This is one of those sort of things that would’ve sounded cheesy with different vocal techniques or different playing behind it, but as it’s presented here, it totally owns. This is another one of my favorites. Tony Moore definitely shows how tastefully melodic he can sound on this track.
“Whiskey Man” is sure to recall some memories of the first two incarnations of Riot, with its really vintage sounds, especially in the cleanly-played verses. The music of the chorus is superb with some typically great riffing and chord voicings from Mark Reale – however the vocals have this somewhat agitating sound to them, like as though they were harmonized using a harmonizer or as though somehow autotune was involved in the editing. It’s hard to pinpoint, I just am not crazy about the harmonization on the vocals. The section after the second chorus is rather refreshing and excellent though. The fact that this is one of the album’s lesser tracks is a testament to its strength. The final two cuts are “Believe” and “Echoes” both of which are very strong. Both feature some great melodies, outstanding riffs, great lead work, and the ass-kicking rhythm section which any Riot fan should surely expect by this point. Both of these tracks are excellent, and overall it really helps the album end on a high note.
Thus ends “Immortal Soul” – which honestly is probably one of my highest anticipated albums ever. I’m not sure that I can say “The band picked up where they left off 20 years ago”, for the fact that there’s really not much of the Progressive-side of 1990’s The Privilege of Power present here. Immortal Soul would best be described as a cross-section between the much-expected Thundersteel album (as heard on tracks like “Riot”, “Wings are For Angels”, and “Sins of the Father”) – and a cross-section of both early Riot and the Mike Dimeo-fronted albums of the late 90’s. If this is to be the band’s final album, I would say Mark Reale did a superb job of sort of rounding up everything this band has been great at doing over the past 3 and a half decades into one great, contemporary album. As for what it means in the big picture, it’s hard to say. This album is certainly not going to become as revered as the classic Thundersteel, as times have changed so much since then, and also because many older metal fans are incredibly biased when it comes to things like this. But the band has certainly met, if not surpassed the expectations of even their harsher critics. This album is 100% Riot, and also 100% awesome, despite what minor flaws it has. A great listen, and a great comeback album.
Jeff’s Grade: A
Band: Flaming Row
The 21st century has presented its fair share of problems for the music industry. Piracy is rampant and sales have been steadily declining, however technology has also brought some important benefits to musicians. Artists from Germany can record with musicians from all over the world, and it has never been easier to record a crisper, cleaner debut album.
These tidbits are not lost on new German progressive rockers Flaming Row, who have recently released their first album, Elinoire. With a sound acts from previous decades would have killed for and guests including Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery), Brendt Allman (Shadow Gallery), and Billy Sherwood (ex-Yes) the album certainly had the potential to be great, but in the end it’s the songwriting that matters. And it’s the songwriting that is the most impressive element of this album.
Headed up by Martin Schnella and Kiri Geile, the album Elinoire has come from nowhere to become the best album I’ve heard so far this year. While the album’s concept is similar to Ayreon’s The Human Equation, Flaming Row brings an art-rock approach to the concept, often sounding more like Phideaux than Ayreon. And while I can say this album sounds very fresh there are still passages that remind me of Shadow Gallery or Ayreon. But these comparisons are valid for only brief passages on the album. For the most part a diverse cast of over a dozen vocalists brings the album to life and provide beautiful melodies throughout. I will even go so far to say that the various female vocalists on this album are better utilized than the woman on any Ayreon album.
As impressive as the vocals are on this album, the array of instruments is equally impressive. Over a dozen instruments are used on the album and all seem to fit in perfectly with Schnella’s beautiful arrangements. While Schnella has made albums with other bands before, his ability to write music for a project of this magnitude is simply stunning to me. I haven’t been this floored by a debut since Demians introduced the world to Building an Empire. But whereas that album was written and recorded by one man, Elinoire adds many talented people, and manages to use them all brilliantly.
Elinoire has masterful songwriting, a great sound, many talented musicians, and even a few flashy solos. I truly don’t know if any prog fan could ask for more. Releases from Opeth, Dream Theater, and Steven Wilson are right around the corner. But for now Flaming Row sits atop the mountain as the band to beat this year.
Nick’s Grade: A+
Album: This Mortal Coil
Since 2003 Redemption have delivered biannual goodness to the progressive metal world. Like clockwork the band has stuck to their schedule and Redemption are set to release a follow up to 2009’s Snowfall on Judgment Day. While an album every other year may not seem too impressive, one must explore some events that have transpired in the last three years. Redemption’s mastermind and composer Nick van Dyk was diagnosed with blood cancer, and given five years to live. Nick went into an aggressive treatment, and now looks to be a lucky man, likely cured of his disease. These events might have brought many people’s production to a screeching halt, but with Nick it seems to have only brought inspiration. Though not written directly about Nick’s battle with cancer, This Mortal Coil explores the most serious topic associated with it; our mortality and the fact that one day we will all face it.
While lyrically content may have changed, musically I don’t think many will be scratching their heads wondering what band this is. Redemption seems to have carved out their own little niche in the progressive metal world, setting themselves apart from many other bands in the genre. However I think for the first time with This Mortal Coil that perhaps the band is getting a bit too comfortable in their corner. With this album I find myself thinking I’ve heard things before, with sections of “Dreams From the Pit” sounding eerily like a song on a previous album. Neil Kernon who recorded and mixed the album seems to have made this album sound a tad dryer than the previous two, leading to a small hint of staleness in the final product.
Despite these complaints This Mortal Coil delivers in a variety of ways. If you liked Redemption before then chances are you’re going to like this album. Nick’s signature songwriting is still strong and tracks like “Path of the Whirlwind” and “Blink of an Eye” still bring the intense riffs and energy Redemption fans have come to expect. “Let it Rain” and “Focus” feature some fantastic keyboard and piano playing, a nice counterpunch to the often guitar driven arrangements. And it’s certainly nice to hear another strong vocal performance from Ray Alder since the new Fates Warning album has taken a back seat once again, this time to the new Arch/Matheos project. Of particular enjoying are his more soaring vocals on “Perfect”.
This Mortal Coil features a good group of musicians led by a masterful songwriter, but it just seems to lack some of the pop of earlier Redemption. Songs on the album don’t pop out against one another, and as a whole they don’t stick with you as well as songs from previous albums have. However if I was let down by this album it’s only because of Redemption’s record of excellence. The only time anyone is going to complain about getting a silver medal is if they’ve gotten used to a regular string of gold medals. There is a ton of good material on this record, but you might just have a little harder time accessing it.
Nick’s Grade: B
Band: Pain of Salvation
Album: Road Salt Two
Bands take a risk when they change their sound. Some fans will undoubtedly be pleased while others will end up not quite as happy. In the end a band has do make the music that makes them happy and they have to hope the numbers are greater in the former group than that of the latter. With Pain of Salvation change had become a bit of a norm in recent years. Though the band’s sound seemed to evolve to some degree with every album, the release of Scarsick seemed to show the band capable of a complete makeover. Then with Road Salt One they sounded like a brand new band once again.
While I think both of these dramatic turns worked out wonderfully for the band, producing two fantastic and fresh albums, I’m glad that Road Salt Two turned back the innovation dial a tad. Road Salt Two is all that was right about Road Salt One tweaked and evolved, and in the end this fine tuning may have resulted in the band’s best work to date. While much of the material on the album was written in tandem with that of Road Salt One I can’t help but think the additional time to ferment did wonders for the final outcome of Road Salt Two.
I feel that this album will end up being a huge building block between Pain of Salvation and all of their fans. To those that have enjoyed the changes within the band, I think they will love this album even more than its predecessor. However I also think fans that may have felt put off by the previous two works will be won over by this record. The album is a perfect marriage of the experimentation of Road Salt One with some more classic and traditional Pain of Salvation elements, and as a whole I’d say it is more accessible and smoother than Road Salt One. One of my complaints about Road Salt One would have been the tendency to be a bit over dramatic. While I know critics of the band have held this complaint for years, I never really saw it until the Road Salt One. With the follow up that complaint is completely removed. Where dramatics might have been on the previous album they seem to be replaced by fresh music and vocals that any Pain of Salvation fan will still easily identify with.
Starting with the first true track “Softly She Cried” pretty much every song on this album offers some hooks and bits of excellence. “To the Shoreline” features a western vibe that like much of the album is hard to describe. “The Deeper Cut” is a track that pretty much features one line of lyrics past the half way point, and yet it stands as one of the best tracks Pain of Salvation have ever crafted. Just a beautiful piece of music with fantastic vocals that make the repetitive lyrics easy to listen to even with repeated listens.
After “End Credits” has finished the listener will have enjoyed everything good that prog represents. The merging of rock with various other genres to produce a complex and yet beautiful album that stands as much as a finely crafted piece of art as it does a collection of songs. Every Pain of Salvation fan might not enjoy this as much as I have, but I think they will compare it to the previous two albums and feel the band has found a spark and headed off in the right direction.
Nick’s Grade: A
Fullforce are a new band who caught my attention as soon as I heard about them due to the personnel involved. The project is fronted by Cloudscape vocalist Mike Anderson, while guitar duties are handled by Stefan Elmgren (ex-Hammerfall) and Carl Johann Grimmark (ex-Narnia, Rob Rock). To boot, the band’s line-up is rounded out by Hammerfall drummer Anders Johansson. Naturally my initial expectations were rather high, and I was eagerly anticipating the release of their debut album, simply entitled “One”.
In short, the end result is very solid, though maybe a tad underwhelming. The songs on the whole are well-written and all manage to have some strong parts filled with nice hooks and great playing – but overall there isn’t too much on here that hasn’t been heard before in some form. Mainly I’m reminded of Cloudscape, which is not a bad thing, but as I said, new ground isn’t particularly being broken. The rhythm guitar work is rather heavy and chunky, giving a bit more of an aggressive, modern edge to the sound, while the lead work is definitely incredibly competent and flashy. “Mythomaniac” is a bit disappointing as an album opener, but “None of Your Concern” picks up some of the slack, being a really enjoyable mid-tempo number. Other highlights include “Heart and Soul”, “Walls of Secrets”, and the album’s closer, “Into the Cradle”. Overall the album should please most any fan of Progressive/Power Metal, but given the amount of talent involved and my expectation level for the disc, I can’t help but be a little disappointed by the end result. However, regardless of anything else, it’s a very enjoyable listen, so if you have any interest in it, don’t hesitate to check it out – it’s very solid.
Jeff’s Grade: B-
Album: Dedicated to Chaos
For many years I have found myself standing on a strange middle ground amongst Queensrÿche fans. Some seem to enjoy whatever the band does and stay highly dedicated, while others have forsaken anything post-DeGarmo, often for musical differences as well as for other reasons. I however have remained quite apart from the drama and have found something I’ve enjoyed in every post-DeGarmo album. I thought Q2K had some very interesting ideas and a few very good songs. I felt that Tribe was actually a very solid rock record from the band. While I had issues with the last third or so of Mindcrime II, and while I thought the guitar tones on the album were rather bad, I felt through the first two thirds of the album there were a lot of really strong tracks. And finally, while others tore into American Soldier for variety of reasons I once again found a record that was not amazing, but one I certainly enjoyed from the band.
This all brings us to the present day and the band’s newest effort, Dedicated to Chaos. I will not fault the band for the dramatic change in sound for this record, as far as I’ve concerned they’ve been really changing sounds between albums ever since the departure from classic Ryche that was Empire, and then again with Promised Land. However I will fault the band for entering into a musical realm in which they obviously have no clue with what they’re doing. I was not expecting this album to sound like anything in particular, but I was expecting it to at least be as enjoyable as the previous few albums. Unfortunately Queensrÿche have completely failed me this time around. I honestly support Queensrÿche in their quest to make music that they want to make. Some fans have more or less called for Queensrÿche to sell out and just make records that the long time fans want to hear, but I’m happy they haven’t tried this because frankly if they tried to do another Warning or Rage for Order I feel the outcome would be an album that’s a hollow shell of the album it’s supposed to mimic. As for what has happened though, it’s an album full of poorly executed ideas. The band entered new territory and apparently had no clue what to do on this new ground, but they forced an album out anyway.
The extended edition of the album sports 16 tracks, and of those tracks I can say I really enjoy 2 of them, and there is exactly one song which features sections I would truly call amazing. The rest fall between alright, meh, and what the fuck were they thinking. Several tracks are musically similar to what Geoff Tate had released years back on his solo album, the problem is that I’d say those songs on Dedicated to Chaos are of a quality far below that of Tate’s solo album. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the track “Wot We Do”. Like much of the album I simply struggle to properly describe it as anything other than bad. And although it’s not something I might normally take note of myself, I can’t help but echo the sentiments of Queensrÿche fans who have complained that the band responsible for the lyrics of songs like “Take Hold of the Flame” or “I Will Remember” have now so dramatically changed their lyrical approach, and not for the better.
After a concept album and a thematic record I was somewhat excited that Queensrÿche was simply going to write an album of songs again, perhaps one as strong as Tribe, but instead what I got was a smorgasbord of poorly written or executed songs that fail to do any justice to quality musicians such as Michael Wilton or Scott Rockenfield. With this being written a few weeks post release I have been able to see Queensrÿche’s sales number plummet, and I hope the band takes note of it. I’m not asking them to make an album for the fans, to return to a progressive metal blueprint, or to give up. I am however hoping that they learn what their strengths as a band are and turn this ship around. They’ve shown a lot of looks over the years, and some have worked better than others. Surely they can find some of those strengths, enjoy them, and even improve on them. Because if the alternative is continued experimenting into areas in which people clearly do not belong, then my hopes for future Queensrÿche material is bleak at best.
Nick’s Grade: F
Album: In a Perfect World
In my review of the last Karmakanic album, Who’s the Boss in the Factory, I eluded to the band’s ability to distinguish themselves from others in the genre by their ability to cut some of the length and airy sections of their music creating more coherent and upbeat songs. The band continued this trend and perhaps improved it on their latest outing, In a Perfect World.
The album starts in a bold fashion, starting with a nearly 15 minute piece which will make any fan of the band immediately draw connections to “Send a Message From the Heart” from the band’s last album. Though the songs are not similar I was surprised that “1969” managed to be nearly as good as “Heart” was. After the initial track the rest of the songs manage to stay under 10 minutes, an accomplishment for composer Jonas Reingold who is best known for his work with The Flower Kings and their epic laced albums. After a rockin’ “Turn it Up” we come to one of my favorites from the album, “The World is Caving In”. It starts mellow with only piano and vocals before the guitar kicks in and takes over. For the remainder of the song guitar, keyboards and piano all take turns leading the track and all do a fine job in adding their own spice to it. Eventually the song builds to an epic climax before ending as softly as it began.
The verses of “Can’t Take it With You” bring some of the fun craziness you’d expect from people like Jonas Reingold and guitarist Roine Stolt, but once the chorus kicks in it seems all down to business as it soars over any silliness present elsewhere in the song. Overall the song does a nice job in showing the versatility in Reingold’s songwriting. The next track, “There’s Nothing Wrong With the World” reminds me of why Goran Edman is the perfect vocalist for Karmakanic’s style of music. He is a versatile vocalist, but no matter what he’s singing he brings a warmth and passion to the music that draws you towards it and makes you want to sing along. The song also features what is probably Stolt’s most memorable solo on the album, one that has its more drawn out and melodic moments, but is at its best as it picks up with intensity and speed.
“Bite the Grit” is the albums shortest track and also quite possibly the best. Nothing overly complex about the song, but there are nice guitar riffs throughout, and the one in the heavier instrumental section of the song is particularly catchy and I find myself waiting to get to it every listen through the song. Finally, “When Fear Came to Town” is a somber closer much in the same vein of “Eternally” and a fitting change of pace to end the album. Beautiful throughout I can think of no complaints about the song other than it seems to simply follow the formula “Eternally”.
While I find the album to have some fresh ideas and many great songs I don’t think it quite hits the high bar set by its predecessor. While the album isn’t without memorable moments (see “1969” and “Turn it Up for quite a few!), I don’t think it stands out amongst the crowd of progressive releases as well as albums like Entering the Spectra and Who’s the Boss in the Factory. Individual songs don’t stand out as much either, and while there are a bunch of great songs I find it to be just that, a bunch of great songs without much standing above the rest. I suppose in the grand scheme of things that isn’t too big of a complaint, and it remains a strong record, but as a long time fan of Karmakanic I think I’ll be reaching for older albums more often than not.
Nick’s Grade: B+