Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Top XVI of 20XVI

There was a lot of quality music released this year, but probably most notable was the Great Thrash Metal Revival.  The year saw new albums from Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax, Death Angel and Metallica.  In fact, the only classic thrash acts that didn't release albums were Overkill (due in February), Slayer (last year) and Exodus (Gary Holt is on tour with Slayer, but likely to be an album next year).  The best bit about this was that they were mostly bloody good albums that put a lot of modern bands to shame!

Anyway, on with the list:
16. Planet of Zeus - Loyal to the Pack

This Greek hard rock outfit deliver a crushing opening to the album, with the title track evoking the raw power of the likes of High on Fire.  The rest of the album doesn't quite hit the same highs, but it's solid nevertheless.

15. Metallica - Hardwired... to Self Destruct

When I said the Great Thrash Metal Revival was mostly bloody good, this was the one exception.  Granted, there's some solid highlights here on tracks like Atlas, Rise! and Spit Out the Bone.  The problem is that there's also a lot of overlong, turgid filler - a lot of dull 7 minute tracks that could've been good 4 minute tracks.  To put it bluntly, Metallica are resting on their laurels, whilst their contemporaries are producing better material, more often.

14. Kyng - Breathe in the Water
It might lack any out-and-out classics like Electric Halo, but Kyng's third album still had a lot to like.  Veers smoothly between pretty melodies and tight hard rock grooves, most notably on The Dead.

13. Black Stone Cherry - Kentucky
There's never been anything overly complicated about BSC's work - this is classic Southern rock, think Lynyrd Skynyrd a few decades on.  Doesn't make it any less fun, though, especially when they also pull out a great cover of the classic War.

12. Korn - The Serenity of Suffering
You heard that right.  Korn are alive, and well, and releasing decent new music in 2016.  Not entirely sure what's been in their Kool Ade lately but this is comfortably their best output since their mid-90's heyday.  Aggressive, melodic, and some huge riffs - 2nd place in the 'comeback of the year' category after Filter (see below).

11. Megadeth - Dystopia

Speaking of revitalised, Megadeth certainly sound that way also.  After the lackluster Super Collider, this was a big return to form, combining old-school thrash attitude with new-school thrash technicality and production.  Big highlights include The Threat is Real, Fatal Illusion and Foreign Policy.

10. Chevelle - The North Corridor
The remarkably consistent but often overlooked Chevelle produce yet another bleak, powerful slice of hard rock.  Probably not quite as good throughout as its immediate predecessor La Gargola, but has a couple of huge highlights in Warhol's Showbiz and Last Days.

9. Dunsmuir - Dunsmuir
Well, there had to be at least one supergroup on here.  Admittedly, this is not an obvious supergroup, but with Neil Fallon (Clutch), Vinny Appice (ex-Black Sabbath, Dio, Kill Devil Hill), Dave Bone (The Company Band) and Brad Davis (Fu Manchu) that's unquestionably a lot of ammunition.  Old school, heavy, and kicks ass.

8. Crobot - Welcome to Fat City
After bursting onto the scene a couple of years ago with a pile of bombastic riffs, Crobot return two years later with, uh, a whole lot of even more bombastic riffs.  Named for Hunter S. Thompson's suggested name for Vail to keep all the tourists out, Welcome to Fat City is a straight up headbanger of a record that sees Crobot taking a step up from their debut album.

7. Filter - Crazy Eyes
To be fair, Filter's last three albums since Richard Patrick re-emerged have been a mixed bag.  While The Trouble With Angels was consistent and worthwhile, Anthems for the Damned and The Sun Comes Out Tonight both had a few highlights and a lot of predictable filler.  I honestly didn't have a lot of expectations for Crazy Eyes and was starting to wonder if Filter had much left to offer.  Turns out they did.  There's an unpredictable, industrial edge to this record reminiscent of Short Bus and Welcome to the Fold - you never know quite where the ride is headed but you're damned if you're gonna get off the thing when it's this good.

6. Death Angel - The Evil Divide
Really, you just need to hear the opening riff of The Moth to know that The Evil Divide was going to be a highly enjoyable chapter in the 2016 book of thrash metal.  I'll be damned if vocalist Mark Osegueda isn't getting even more snarly with age and it fits Death Angel's aggressive, up-tempo style perfectly.  The songs on here are amongst the best the band have written - precise, tightly coiled, and just waiting to unleash.  

5. Testament - The Brotherhood of the Snake
There is a legitimate case for Testament's current line-up being the most technically proficient in all metal.  Singer Chuck Billy seemingly gets better with age, Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick are one of the great rhythm / lead guitar duos (albeit those lines are increasingly blurred), and then you've got a rhythm section comprising legendary bassist Steve diGiorgio and The Atomic Clock Gene Hoglan on drums.  Of course this is no good if you can't write good songs.  While The Brotherhood of the Snake was a difficult album to make (according to the band), the effort was certainly worth it as this album continues their astounding recent momentum from The Formation of Damnation and Dark Roots of Earth.  Stylistically it's closer to the former than the latter, eschewing the prog leanings of DROE for a more ballistic thrash sound.  At 10 tracks, it's all killer and no filler, with particular highlights being the bombastic Stronghold and the pulsating closing track The Number Game.

4. Tremonti - Dust
When Mark Tremonti releases Dust just a year after Cauterize, the logical assumption is that it comprises material that didn't make the cut first-time around.  Well, that's entirely not the case.  Dust, if anything, is stronger than its predecessor, and with Tremonti having a hand in three very good albums over the last two years, you've gotta admire both his work ethic and his musical ability.  Dust leans slightly harder than its predecessor overall - and while as expected the riffs come thick, fast and heavy, there's no mistaking Tremonti's ear for a good melody too: the title track is a standout, and the mid-tempo Tore My Heart Out might be the album's highlight.  

3. Throttlerod - Turncoat
After a 7 year absence, Throttlerod return with Turncoat, an album that was undoubtedly worth the wait.  I don't often take the time to write a full-blooded review of an album these days, but this particular gem was worth it.  Long story short, it's a welcome return from obscurity, for a band that will probably continue to be tragically overlooked. 

2. Anthrax - For All Kings
In a year of great albums by classic thrash metal bands, Anthrax's For All Kings stood tallest.  For a band that has probably endured more ups and downs than any of the Big 4, and at times had to fight like hell just for their musical survival, this is genuinely a triumphant statement.  It opens with the epic You Gotta Believe and doesn't really ever relent from there.  Highlights include the melodic Breathing Lightning, lead single Evil Twin, and the hard-hitting closing track Zero Tolerance.  Like Testament, this is also the sound of a band in all-time form musically, with singer Joey Belladonna and drummer Charlie Benante being the particular standouts this time around.

1. Alter Bridge - The Last Hero
For a little while, I wondered if Alter Bridge's outstanding second album, Blackbird, would become a bit of a weight around their necks in terms of subsequent albums being good - but just not quite as good.  Their fifth album, The Last Hero, defiantly throws that theory out the window.  From start to finish, this is undeniably an outstanding album - everything you could hope for from a band that includes two of the great songwriter/guitarists of the current generation in the form of Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti.  Overall, it leans toward the heavier end of the Alter Bridge spectrum, but also includes some unbelievably catchy hooks.  And the sheer volume of 'holy shit' moments on offer here is just ridiculous - the intro (and chorus) to Show Me A Leader, the super sludgy main riff on The Other Side, the epic bridge on The Last Hero... the whole record is just absolutely massive.  When it comes to bands that have emerged over the last decade, Alter Bridge are absolutely in a league of their own.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I'm just not that excited about the new Metallica album

It is Thrash Metal Thursday, just like every Thursday, so it seems appropriate to do a thrash metal column.

Here's the thing - 2016 has been an awesome year for thrash metal.  Anthrax, Megadeth and Death Angel have all released excellent material and the first single off Testament's forthcoming album also sounds pretty damned good.  There would've been an Overkill album too, but that got punted until next year.

There's a new Metallica album coming too, "Hardwired... to Self Destruct".  But this one, I'm just struggling to get excited about.

Here's my problem with Metallica - they really haven't done anything worthwhile in 25 years.  The Black Album - regardless of whether you think that was the sound of Metallica selling out or the sound of Metallica innovating - was definitely a big deal.  But since then, we've had:

  • Load (1996) - highly polarising.  It definitely extended the hard rock tack that started on the Black Album.  The problem was it was nowhere near as consistent as the Black Album, and for every good song (and there were one or two VERY good songs, like King Nothing) there was some blatant filler.  
  • ReLoad (1997) - same story as for Load, only the fact it came out just a year later meant that no-one could quite figure out whether it was the second half of a double album, or a bunch of out-takes.  
  • Garage, Inc. (1998) - a disc of covers (some very good) and a disc collecting various b-sides and rare tracks from their classic 80's era.  It doesn't really count as a studio album, and although there is some really good material here, the timing suggests a frantic effort to regain credibility in the face of a couple of stinkers by reminding everyone how good their classic material was.
  • St. Anger (2003) - about the best thing you can say about this is that it's better than Lulu, although that wasn't an option when it was released since Lulu was still some 8 years away.  The title track and Some Kind of Monster are OK, and aside from that, the remaining 60 of 75 minutes are basically solid riffs that get lost in unimaginative, overly long songs with asinine vocals, the infamous trash-can snare drum, and no guitar solos.
  • Death Magnetic (2008) - the best thing since the Black Album, which isn't saying that much.  To be fair, it's actually a solid record.  There's some good songs (Cyanide, Suicide and Redemption, The Day That Never Ends), and The Judas Kiss has a positively stonking main riff.  The vocals don't always add much, and the production suffered from a horrendous case of The Loudness Wars and tinny cymbals.  There's some filler, and probably a tendency once again towards overly long songs, but it's a big improvement.  Still not a patch on anything that Metallica did between 81-91 though.
  • Lulu (2011, w/ Lou Reed) - don't bother.  Just, don't bother.  A terrible idea, which was badly executed in practice.  
The argument is, of course, that after setting the bar so high with their classic material (Kill Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets, ...And Justice for All, and the Black Album), almost anything was going to sound average.  But this doesn't hold up when you look at their contemporaries.

Anthrax, Megadeth, Testament, Overkill, Exodus and Death Angel all produced great stuff in the 1980's/early 1990's as part of the heyday of thrash metal.  In order by artist, Spreading the Disease / Among the Living, Peace Sells / Rust in Peace, The New Order, Under the Influence / Horrorscope, Bonded By Blood, Act III... all excellent, classic thrash metal albums.

Here's the thing - since 2000, all those artists have all produced material which ranks alongside their classic material or better.  Worship Music, Endgame / Dystopia, The Formation of Damnation / Dark Roots of Earth, Ironbound / White Devil Armory, Tempo of the Damned, The Evil Divide - all very good stuff that has made people sit up and take notice.

All of those contemporaries have given their fans new reasons to like them - and attracted new fans too.  In contrast, Metallica have maintained a strong reputation without adding to their discography in any meaningful way, and still have a huge reputation and rake it in at their live shows because, well, they're Metallica.  In other words, they are resting on their laurels.  Even more so given that most of those other bands have continued to put out solid albums every 2-3 years... it's been 8 since Death Magnetic.  It's kinda at the point now where it's putting me off their old stuff and I can't remember the last time I had the inclination to listen to a Metallica album other than Ride the Lightning.

Two songs have been released off Metallica's forthcoming new album so far.  The first, Hardwired, is hard-hitting but a little sparse and bland - it feels like its caught somewhere between My Apocalypse (from Death Magnetic) and St. Anger.  The second, Moth into Flame, is a lot more interesting.  There's a nice dual-guitar intro, a chuggy riff, and some good dynamic shifts - although the verse/chorus section probably has one or two more ideas than it really needed.  The bridge and solo section are great though.

I'd like to believe this album is going to be really good, and it's going to get me excited about Metallica again.  I just don't really expect it to play out that way.  Still, happy to be convinced otherwise, and I'll be checking it out on November 18 alongside probably most other metal fans in the known universe.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Throttlerod - Turncoat album review

Life isn't always fair.  Shit happens.  Effort doesn't always lead to reward.  Bands that have produced consistently good music and toured their asses off don't always get the recognition.

I've always rated Throttlerod as one such band since I heard their album Hell and High Water playing on the PA at Real Groovy Records, and their latest album Turncoat affirms that more strongly than ever.  Seven years is a long time between drinks, and in the time since Pig Charmer was released, I started to wonder if these guys had dropped off the map entirely.

Thankfully, they haven't, and the quality of Turncoat suggests they've spent a fair chunk of that seven years writing ideas, refining them, playing around with them, and turning them into one hell of an album - this time with the help of producer J. Robbins who has previously worked with acts such as The Sword and the mighty Clutch.

The intro to opening track Bait Shop might be a sly head-nod to Blue T-Top, the first track of their 2000 debut album Eastbound and Down - the first few bars are slightly muted and then all hell promptly breaks loose as everything gets turned to 11.  This tells you pretty much all you need to know about this album - firstly, this is the same Throttlerod, but different - and secondly, you're in for a helluva ride.  It's not too far removed from the power and aggression found on Nail and Pig Charmer but when the main riff is given the chance to stand alone, it's almost perfectly hypnotic - weaving space into the equation in contrast to the sheer impact that pervaded the last couple of albums.  You could listen to the thing on loop for hours and still not get tired of it.  The song's closing lyrics are 'It's been so long' - and yeah, I'd have to agree.

This is not to say that Throttlerod have lost the ability to be loud by any means, because second track Lazy Susan starts loud and gets even louder with the intensity of past tracks like A Fly on the Fault Line.  The strong Southern influence that powered Throttlerod's early material is well and truly back in view on this track as well, as is singer/guitarist's Matt Whitehead's ability to go absolutely ballistic  and starting belting his lungs out at just the right point in the song.

Never Was A Farmer is a different beast though.  It's jaded, melancholic, almost sludgy as the band let the chords slowly ring in the air like a bell tolling above a march on the Arctic tundra.  The verse is equally bleak, dominated by the rumbling tones of new bassist Jeremy Plaugher before a big chorus and bridge leading to a great Whitehead solo add colour to the track.

Lima works in similar fashion, but this time it's drummer Kevin White that adds some subtle texture to the verses.  It's followed by title track Turncoat, which is probably the most aptly-titled song on the record.  It cruises along for four minutes with a lurching groove underpinning a clean guitar line with a hint of brightness to it and just when you think you've got it figured out, the distortion plunges off a cliff and the song's last minute goes utterly manic, with Whitehead screaming 'Hell!' repeatedly over a frantic riff.

You Kicked My Ass At Losing, on the other hand, features undoubtedly the best title of the record and also showcases Throttlerod's well-honed ability to make you think they're going with a straightforward verse-chorus-verse deal, and then spin off in entirely unexpected directions - as well as their ability to deliver sheer unadulterated hard rock crunch with the best of them.

The guitars chime at the start of Gainer, a bright, angular piece of noise rock that provides a timely lift to the album's mood. Every Giant starts with some nice interplay between bright guitars and warm, earthy bass before Matt Whitehead goes into shouty mode and then makes ironically subtle use of a belting chorus riff accented by a scorching guitar bend.

Cops and Robbers is less classic-car-chase and more carefully-planned-heist as it disguises itself in various time signatures.  It's followed by the busy, bristling Breadwinner, which carries near-industrial momentum throughout.

I Know A Ship is another clever track - hinting at up-tempo optimism while never entirely committing to it aside from a couple of positively anthemic guitar solos.  The album finishes with The Guard - at six and a half minutes it's the album's longest track and also one of the most memorable, schizophrenic as it bounces between a snarling, vicious 7/8 tempo for the intro and chorus, and a spacious, calm 4/4 for the verses.  The instrumental last 3 minutes of the song are even better, as a squealing, screeching guitar line threatens to go completely off the rails, but can't escape the exceptionally tight groove laid down by the rhythm section - who ultimately have the album's final say.

There's been a lot of good music released so far this year - with the likes of Anthrax, Megadeth, Mark Tremonti and Death Angel all producing quality albums.  But at this point in time, Turncoat is the best thing I've heard so far this year, and it's going to take something pretty exceptional to knock it off that perch.  And even if it's seven years before Throttlerod next hit the studio, I reckon Turncoat will probably tide me over until then anyways.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sevendust - the albums, ranked!

This Friday, Sevendust play their first ever headline gig in Auckland. While I’ve seen the band live once – they played a brutal six-song set at Soundwave a few years ago – I’m super-excited for this show, having never seen a Sevendust headline gig. Even more, given that the band are on record in multiple interviews saying this will be a one-of-a-kind setlist, over two hours and probably also incorporating some of the acoustic material since they never toured Time Travellers and Bonfires down here.

In honour of that, this week will be a Sevendust marathon honouring the consistency and longevity of this very under-rated band. I’ll listen to each and every one of the band’s 12 albums, some probably more than once. And here, I’m going to rank those albums. It probably speaks volumes of the consistency and quality of the band’s catalogue that, in the course of writing this list, I shuffled and reshuffled it probably at least 15 times.

#12: Chapter VII: Hope and Sorrow (2008)

Some good moments, but this album lacks the consistency of most of their records. There are some decent highlights, like Inside, Scapegoat, and the savage Contradiction – but in places it gets just a bit too overtly broody for my liking. In some ways, a change of direction was probably unavoidable as there was simply no way 7D could out-heavy Alpha, their previous album. However, one of the greatest strengths of 7D has always been that they manage to convey intense moods in such accessible ways, whereas Chapter VII just gets a little bit too self-absorbed.

There are guest spots from Mark Tremonti, Myles Kennedy and Chris Daughtry… and unexpectedly Daughtry’s contribution on The Past upstages the two Alter Bridge representatives.

#11: Sevendust (1997)

For any given band, there will always be a group of fans who tell you that they are truly old-school and still think the band’s first album is far and away their best, and since then they’ve gotten soft/sold out/gone weird/whatever. In many cases, Sevendust included, they are wrong. The self-titled album fires a brilliantly brutal opening quartet of Black, Bitch, Terminator and Too Close to Hate and after that, it’s kind of a mixed bag – some hits (like Prayer) and some misses.

#10: Next (2005)

The first album following guitarist Clint Lowery’s departure, Next was released on Winedark Records, which promptly went bust, causing the band financial headaches that took years to resolve. Possibly as a response to the perceived commercial feel of its predecessor Seasons, the band took this album in an entirely different direction – dialling back the melody and dialling the crunch up to 11. Pieces, in particular, remains as possibly the heaviest track the band has written and is still a staple of their live set – and The Last Song is almost as heavy. I was always a huge fan of Desertion too, a near-perfect blend of Sevendust’s riff and melody-writing abilities, and great use of both Lajon Witherspoon and Morgan Rose’s vocals.

#9: Black Out the Sun (2013)

Black Out the Sun has some absolutely huge tracks. Faithless is a stunning opener featuring one of the most scorching riffs Sevendust have written. Mountain has a fantastic rolling groove, and some typically sly touches from drummer Morgan Rose. Decay has an ominous, industrial vibe, Got A Feeling is a rare and excellent quieter moment, whilst closing track Murder Bar perpetuates the admirable Sevendust habit of finishing albums with a bang.

The rest of the album is pretty solid too, but occasional it can be a little sparse and just doesn’t always hit the huge highs of the tracks above.

#8: Animosity (2001)

Sevendust always had a strong sense of melody to go with their arsenal of riffs; Animosity is the album that really brought that melody to the fore. Tracks like Angel’s Son, Follow, and Xmas Day were a new sound for Sevendust but quickly gained the respect they unquestionably deserved – and they also showed just how good a singer Lajon Witherspoon is. Meanwhile, the likes of T.O.A.B., Dead Set and Crucified showed the band had lost none of their edge – and then you have two of the most brilliant songs Sevendust have ever written in the form of Praise, Trust and Beautiful. The former is a masterful example of weaving great dynamics around a simple, insanely catch main riff; the latter two both showing a great combination of old-school Sevendust crunch with new-school Sevendust melody.

#7: Time Travelers and Bonfires (2014)

The fact that this acoustic album was successfully crowdfunded in less than three days speaks volumes to (a) the commitment of Sevendust’s fans and (b) the regard in which those fans hold the 2004 live acoustic record Southside Double Wide.

Time Travelers and Bonfires is a record of two halves – the first being new acoustic tracks, the second being acoustic performances of older Sevendust tracks (in a similar vein to Southside Double Wide). The new material is just quality through and through; the older material repeats a little from Southside but is still excellent and takes some good risks too, like a radically stripped-down version of Denial. However, one of the few disappointments of this record is that it doesn’t take a punt on any heavy numbers like Southside did so brilliantly well with Too Close to Hate and Rumble Fish. Hearing the band lob in a full-blooded acoustic take on a track like Terminator, Disease or Face to Face would’ve really put this one over the edge.

#6: Cold Day Memory (2010)

Cold Day Memory marked the return of Clint Lowery following a three album absence. But for that absence, the band have maintained the same line-up since their beginning in 2004, which is a pretty remarkable feat. And coming as it did on the heels of Chapter VII, it’s impossible to describe Cold Day Memory as anything other than ‘back with a vengeance’.

The differences are immediately obvious - a palpable increase in urgency right from the start, with the opening one-two of Splinter and Forever, a more outward-looking perspective and a lot less introspection, and more intricate song arrangements. At the time, CDM was a very strong reminder that Sevendust still had a lot to offer, and it remains a fine record.

The now-obligatory excellent closing track this time around was Strong Arm Broken.

#5: Alpha (2007)

Just when you thought Next might’ve marked the zenith of Sevendust heaviness… they produced Alpha. From the frantic opening attack of Deathstar, you got the immediate sense that Alpha was probably going to take things up a notch again from its predecessor – and it does. This is Sevendust in full beast mode – due in no small part to Morgan Rose having a tough few years and consequently letting rip on this album, big-time. Instead of being a secondary vocalist providing a harsher contrast to Lajon’s soulful leads, Alpha is almost a dual-lead effort between the two of them.

There’s pretty much no respite on the whole record, aside from the quieter sections of 9-minute epic Burn, still Sevendust’s longest song by a considerable margin. It’s somewhat fitting that the assault ends with probably the fastest and most bruising song the band has written to date – the title track, Alpha.

#4: Seasons (2003)

This was really the album that got me into Sevendust; I’d been introduced to Home a few years earlier but it never really grabbed me at the time. Seasons, however, I can vividly remember blasting in my car, via a discman and one of those cassette adaptors (!) back in 2003 – it’s certainly one of their strongest records from start to finish. I couldn’t get enough of it back then and it still holds up extremely well now.

I was genuinely staggered to discover that the band (or at least Morgan Rose) was disappointed with this record as being too commercial. While it’s definitely well-produced, there’s a heavy sense of darkness around the album and it blends some of Sevendust’s heaviest tracks (Disease, Enemy, Face to Face) with some excellent mellower tracks (Skeleton Song).

As a side note, the cover of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues that was included as a bonus track on some versions is well worth tracking down.

#3: Kill the Flaw (2015)

If there’s a word to describe Sevendust’s most recent album, it’s ‘cohesive’. That might sound odd; one of Sevendust’s trademarks has always been the way they seem to lock drums, bass and guitar together in a way that amplifies their already-potent riffs. But there’s a tightness, a density about this album that immediately distinguishes it from its predecessor, Black Out the Sun. The level of detail, interplay and complexity on Kill the Flaw is unparalleled across Sevendust’s extensive catalogue. The clever use of rhythm and syncopation by Morgan Rose and Vinnie Hornsby that got hinted at on Mountain gets stepped up a notch on Not Today, Silly Beast and Chop. Guitarists John Connolly and Clint Lowery layer sounds in such a manner that, while you know there’s two different guitar lines being played, it’s sometimes pretty hard to individually pick them out. Lajon Witherspoon is stunning throughout. And yes, there’s the usual beastly closing track – this time around it’s Torched (or bonus track Slave the Prey, depending on your version).

Because there’s so much happening, Kill the Flaw isn’t necessarily Sevendust’s most accessible album, but it’s certainly one of their best and most rewarding to listen to.

#2: Southside Double-Wide: Acoustic Live (2004)

At the time (2004) this was totally left-field; one of the heaviest bands I knew putting out an acoustic record? But I was hooked from the first listen. Some of the obvious candidates for an acoustic performance, like Beautiful, Skeleton Song and Angel’s Son, translated every bit as well as you would expect them to. But the real highlight was the band charging unreservedly into heavy tracks like Too Close to Hate, Rumble Fish, Black and Bitch – somehow the extra texture and space (and exceptional playing from Rose and Lowery in particular) took these tracks to an entirely new level.

To this day, it still rates as probably the best acoustic or unplugged record that I’ve heard.

#1: Home (1999)

It still amazes me that this album never really grabbed me when I first heard it back in 1999. Since I rediscovered it, sometime around 2005, it’s been nothing short of an all-time favourite, go-to record for me – always ready, always there, always rewarding.

Sevendust clearly hit a rich vein of form on this album, and managed to distil it perfectly into 41 minutes par-excellence of what guitarist John Connolly describes as "some kind of heavy and some kind of rock and some kind of metal". From the stoic, raw crunch of the opening riff of the title track, there really isn’t a wasted minute on this album. The raucous headbanging of Denial, the ‘get up, get up, get up’ call to arms of Rumble Fish, the teeth-gritting defiance of Waffle… it’s all glorious.

Guest spots were very much in vogue at the time but were a notoriously hit-or-miss affair; the two here are absolute killers. Skin from Skunk Anansie (remember them?!) appears on Licking Cream, and the Deftones’ Chino Moreno contributes vocals to closing track Bender.

My personal favourites? They’ve changed over time, but at the moment it’s Headtrip and Bender. The way guitar, bass and drums syncopate and weave around each other on these two tracks is awesome – and Morgan Rose in particular shows a great deal of subtlety and guile with some particularly deft touches on the drums.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Anthrax - For All Kings album review

Rewind 30 years to March 1986. Metallica has just released Master of Puppets. Megadeth are recording Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? in between trips to their drug dealers. Anthrax, on the back of breakthrough album Spreading the Disease are about to record their seminal classic Among the Living.

Would anyone, back in little old 1986, have guessed that some 30 years later, Metallica would be the biggest live metal ticket on the planet? That Megadeth would still sound distinctly pissed off about the state of the world, despite Dave Mustaine making peace with Metallica, and Dave Ellefson becoming a pastor? That Anthrax would produce great albums with two distinctly different singers?

Most importantly, would anyone back in 1986 have guessed that so many of those classic thrash metal acts – not just the Big 4, but also the likes of Overkill, Exodus, Death Angel, and Testament – would still be producing great, contemporary metal music in the year 2016?

I’m guessing not.

I mean, I can’t really figure it out either and, aside from Megadeth and Metallica, I’ve really only discovered most of those bands in the past 5 years or so. The best guess I have is that these acts care first and foremost about producing kickass metal music, and somewhat less about popularity, image and all that sort of hype. All those bands have survived multiple line-up changes, health scares, personal tragedies, and massive industry change. While all that could easily make one pretty jaded, the one constant that all of these bands have hung on to through those times is the desire to make great metal music.

In Anthrax’s case, that desire is arguably stronger than ever right now. Revitalised by the release of 2011’s excellent Worship Music, the hugely popular Big 4 tour, and the support of a label that isn’t broke or a pain in the ass, there’s a sense of confidence and optimism about the band at the moment.

The result is their most assured-sounding record since 1987’s Among the Living. While the tone is relatively dark and somewhat bereft of the traditional Anthrax humour (even Worship Music had a song about fighting zombies) – For All Kings is a top-shelf effort worth every minute of the 5-year wait since their last album.

Musically, the band sound insanely tight. I mean, they were pretty damned good on Worship Music – the schizophrenic Earth on Hell being a particularly fine example – but For All Kings takes it up a notch. Sure, it helps that the songs were written with singer Joey Belladonna in mind this time around – and he does an outstanding job – but you can almost visualise drummer Charlie Benante, rhythm guitarist Scott Ian and bassist Frank Bello huddled together grinning at each other during the breakdown of Evil Twin.

This is not to say that there’s no risks taken. Breathing Lightning is uplifting, melodic with a catchy almost-pop chorus, whilst Blood Eagle Wings starts out with the sort of mid-tempo hard rock groove more typical of Anthrax’s John Bush-era albums in the 1990’s.

At first listen, it seems like there’s some clear standout tracks – opener You Gotta Believe elicited more than one ‘holy shit!’ from me the first time I heard it, and the savage intensity of closing track Zero Tolerance is matched only by its biting lyrics.

But the real test of this is repeat listens, and the more I play For All Kings, the more it becomes an end-to-end listen, thanks partly to some very well-layered tracks on the album’s second half that reward a keen ear. As much as I know Zero Tolerance is going to be awesome when I get to it, I just got really hooked on this drum line in All of Them Thieves that I hadn’t really noticed before. You get the idea.

As much as there are highlights throughout the album, it’s hard to pick a better moment than the chorus of This Battle Chose Us – the lyrics undoubtedly a reflection on Anthrax’s at-times tumultuous 35 years:

"Hell this ain't no warning

You give them hell because you must

It's a long hard road we're walking

Because this battle chose us"

For Anthrax to be putting out records of this calibre 35 years into their career… well you’d have to say they’re winning. And if you were to go back in time to 1986 and tell the band that they’d put out one of 2016’s best albums – well I think they’d certainly call that a huge win. There’s still a lot of potentially excellent music to come this year but I have no doubt I’ll still be listening to For All Kings a lot by the end of the year – and beyond.

Actually, now there’s an idea… a concept album whereby Anthrax go back in time and meet the younger versions of themselves…

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2016, a very metal preview

We're not even 2 weeks into 2016, and already it seems like there is a ton of great new music to look forward to.  The old trend whereby Jan/Feb would be quiet for new releases because everyone targeted a Nov/Dec release window to maximise Xmas sales seems to be over, and thank god for that because I for one was a little tired of having to wait months into the new year for some half-decent new music to arrive.  Anyway, here's a run-down of a bunch of albums I'm excited about this year...

Megadeth - Dystopia (Jan 22)
After the dreadful SuperCollider I had a bit of break from Megadeth - and when guitarist Chris Broderick and drummer Shawn Drover announced their departure I wondered if the wheels were falling off.  And then MegaDave Mustaine announced new members, guitarist Kiko Loureiro, and drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God), and a new album.  The three tracks out thus far, Fatal Illusion, The Threat is Real and Dystopia are all very promising, largely eschewing verse-chorus-verse in favour of an inspired combination of old-school thrash attitude and musicianship and new-school thrash songwriting.

Anthrax - For All Kings (Feb 26)
Anthrax were pretty much my new band obsession in 2015 (much like Overkill in 2014 and Testament in 2013...).  For All Kings has been some time in the making since 2011's Worship Music, but one upside of drummer Charlie Benante's carpal tunnel syndrome (which has limited his touring appearances) has been the time it's allowed Benante, Scott Ian and Frank Bello to put into songwriting.  Anthrax are a band that have had their ups and downs, but they seem seriously excited about this one - and when it includes tracks like Evil Twin and Breathing Lightning (and omits a track as good as Soror Irrumator), I think it's fair to say this could be a career highlight for the zaniest of the Big 4 acts.

Tremonti - Dust (early 2016)
Dust was recorded alongside Tremonti's excellent 2015 album Cauterize - clearly he was on a huge creative trip as enough songs were recorded for two albums.  With Cauterize, Tremonti's songwriting stepped up from good to great and frankly the guy has never been anything less than phenomenal on the guitar - so Dust promises to be another very good effort.

Rob Zombie - The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser (April 29)
Well, if the album title wasn't enough to get your attention, the 1 minute teaser of the title track that has been floating certainly should be - it's super-heavy and industrial in a manner we haven't heard since the White Zombie days.  Rob Zombie is claiming this is the most effort he's put into an album since Hellbilly Deluxe; even at this stage the title and tracklist alone justify a pre-order!

Alter Bridge - Untitled 5th studio album (mid 2016)
Currently in recording, the hugely under-rated Alter Bridge - probably the best hard rock group to emerge in the past decade - will release their 5th studio album sometime in the middle of this year.  Expect more melodic hard rock excellence, and hopefully a decent tour including this part of the world.

Other (definite) albums to look forward to but which we know less about (or which I care less about)...
Death Angel - TBA (recording completed)
Deftones - TBA
Nine Inch Nails - TBA (but definitely 2016)
Black Stone Cherry - Kentucky (April 1)
Throttlerod - TBA
Dream Theater - The Astonishing (January 29) - this is last-chance saloon for DT with me, their material post-Mike Portnoy's departure is like a lame imitation of their better material
Holy Grail - Times of Pride and Peril (February 12)

Alice in Chains
Pearl Jam

Sidenote - if you had told me in 2000 that Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and AIC would all be active and would all release albums in 2016 I would have laughed at you very, VERY loudly

Rumour that comes around every year but has amounted to a grand total of nothing since 2005

Thursday, December 17, 2015

RIP Soundwave Festival

Up until yesterday, there had been a freaking amazing hard rock / metal festival run in Australia for the past 9 years called Soundwave.  It was that good, I flew over to Sydney for the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 editions. 

That's not me, but I was there somewhere...

Thanks to Soundwave Festival, and main man AJ Maddah, I got to see all of these bands of whom I am a big fan for the very first time – at least 10 of these are bucket list bands for me:

Alice in Chains (twice), Faith No More, Iron Maiden, Machine Head, Alter Bridge (twice), Rob Zombie (twice), Stone Sour, Testament, Down, Monster Magnet, Sevendust, High on Fire, The Sword, Baroness, Reel Big Fish, Black Label Society, Mastodon, Hellyeah, Filter, Five Finger Death Punch, Staind, Bush, Jane’s Addiction

Then you can add to that the following bands that I’d already seen, but got to see again because of Soundwave (including probably two of my five most-loved bands):

Nine Inch Nails, Clutch (twice), Queens of the Stone Age, Primus, Slash, Lamb of God, Megadeth (this is somewhat ironic – they famously canned their planned Soundwave appearance but still played an Auckland show!)

Unfortunately, yesterday Soundwave 2016 was cancelled.  It wasn’t a huge surprise – anyone could figure out that there were serious challenges behind the scenes.  A few days ago AJ announced this would be the last year for Soundwave, capping off a series of late / somewhat underwhelming band announcements, rumoured huge names that never quite materialised, stories popping up about tax debts from previous festivals, and so on.

The big problem, ultimately, was that the line-up wasn’t of the same calibre as previous years, in terms of both headliners and overall depth.  Soundwave almost became a victim of their own success – previous line-ups had been so consistently, absurdly good, it made it that much more starkly obvious when this year’s line-up came up short of that high benchmark. 

There’s a very good reason for how the line-up ended up, though.  Remember, most major rock/metal bands are from the US, and therefore expect to get paid in US Dollars – with a few from the UK.  From mid-2009 onwards until mid-2014, the AUD was very strong against the USD.  In fact, the AUD/USD rate was pretty much over 0.9 the whole time apart from a couple of brief lulls.  It was over 1.0 for most of 2011 and 2012.  And then, in mid-2014, the Aussie dollar tanked – dropping from 0.93 in September 2014 to 0.70 a year later. 

All of a sudden, a band that costs US$100k – which at 1:1 would’ve cost AU$100k – now costs AU$140k at 0.7:1.  Any operation that had its main cost line go up 40% in the space of 2 years is going to have a serious problem (that would probably sink all but the most profitable businesses).  So the only solution is just to have less bands, and hence the somewhat diminished lineup this year – with no really big headliner, but some solid draws nevertheless (Deftones, Disturbed, etc.) and a genuine wildcard in Metal Allegiance.

The (comparatively) weak line-up meant the punters didn’t front up early on like they have in previous years, which creates a fairly vicious cycle – those weak initial sales will naturally make other bands, who might be big drawcards, reluctant to sign up.  My suspicion is Soundwave’s approach was always to use a big first announcement to drive sales and publicity, to therefore fuel subsequent signings for the second and third announcements – essentially allowing them to give the audience the biggest and best selection of bands they could possibly get.  Up until this year it worked admirably.

Even under these challenging circumstances, AJ was clearly working furiously up until the ship sank to try and get a big name to rescue proceedings.  There was some speculation it could’ve been Guns N Roses with the original line-up – that might have done it.  It turned out it was Rage Against the Machine.  Expecting a band who hasn’t played a show in four years to reunite for a tour on six weeks’ notice was probably pretty optimistic – and I’m not totally sure they alone would’ve saved the day – but hell it was worth a go.

What I actually find really disappointing about the demise of Soundwave is not so much the fact it’s over, or the way it ended, but the way some punters have reacted.  “People on social media” have been incredibly quick to put the boot into AJ, Soundwave, and this year’s line-up, with some celebrating the festival’s cancellation.  Seriously, if you are going to blame anyone, blame the governments of China and Australia.  The former, because the tanking Chinese economy has dried up demand for Australia’s mining exports, which is largely what has caused the AUD to tank.  The latter, because they clearly did not have a plan B for the economy in the event that mining tanked.

Frankly, you guys do not know how good you have had it. 

Year after year, Soundwave churned out a festival that was comparable to many of the huge festivals in the US and Europe.  We’re talking about the likes of Rock on the Range, Sonisphere, Download – huge names that fans in Australia and New Zealand would dream of being able to go to maybe once in a lifetime.  Those festivals have a potential catchment based on populations well into the hundreds of millions of people; AJ and Soundwave gave us the same thing in our backyard of 25 million or so.  So many festivals down under have involved filling in chunks of the day between a few relatively decent bands; at Soundwave the problem was normally that you wanted to see more bands than you possibly could and hence had to manage the clashes.

And of course, we didn’t just get the festival, we got the deluge of sideshows that came with it – in fact, a lot of bands took the opportunity to come over the ditch to New Zealand, either for their own shows, or as part of Westfest (which is probably now also in a terminal state).  I got to see Clutch, my favourite band in the world, play in the freakin’ Kings Arms in Auckland!

It would’ve been nice to have the once-mighty Soundwave go out with a huge bang, rather than have it crawl into a heap while a bunch of lame internet trolls and keyboard warriors put the boot in, whilst the fight over refunds potentially gets messy.  But that wasn’t to be, and unfortunately idiots are going to behave like idiots.

But I, for one, am pretty bloody grateful for everything Soundwave has given me.  Not just the chance to see a lot of great bands, but some great memories for both myself and my primary concert-going co-conspirator.  So thanks, AJ Maddah, for everything that you did for rock and metal fans down under, through Soundwave, and Soundwave Touring - over the past decade it's hard to imagine anyone who's done more. 

Here are my top five Soundwave highlights (not including sidewaves, which would also garner honourable mentions for Iron Maiden, Alter Bridge and Clutch):

They had an early afternoon set, on the metal (side) stage.  They played only six songs.  But somehow, this was one of the most intense, powerful festival sets I’ve ever seen a band play.  It was like they distilled an entire show’s worth of energy into just six tracks, with every single member of the band holding nothing back.  It was brutal, it was uncompromising, and it has me incredibly excited for their full headline set in Auckland in March next year.  I’d waited ten years to see Sevendust live, and somehow they managed to completely fulfil expectations with just a short festival set.

AIC had recently reformed, with new singer/guitarist William DuVall.  Here was a band I thought I would never, ever get a chance to see perform live, with one of my most respected/admired musicians in Jerry Cantrell.  And I found myself right up the front, right on the barrier, watching a rejuvenated, energetic AIC rip through a stunning set of classic tracks – Man in the Box, Nutshell, Rooster and No Excuses, plus big personal favourites like Rain When I Die and Dam That River.  This was my first Soundwave experience; the bar had been set very, very high.

In exactly the same category as AIC – “bands that I never thought I’d get to see because they’d split up”.  Faith No More were everything I’d hoped for and a lot more.  They came dressed in lounge suits with lavish floral arrangements on stage, and had a great setlist including a few hidden gems like Surprise! You’re Dead, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.  They finished with We Care A Lot – probably the single best track they could have finished a set with.  Throughout, Mike Patton’s presence and vocal ability was nothing less than captivating.  He plays with the crowd much like a cat toys with a mouse – and frankly it was a reminder of how few decent front men have emerged in the past decade or so.

The exception to the above observation about the dearth of front men in recent times is one Myles Kennedy, singer/guitarist for Alter Bridge.  Although, one great thing about Alter Bridge is what a tight unit they are – the way that Kennedy, Brian Marshall, Mark Tremonti and Scott Phillips just continually riff off one another on stage. 

This time around they had an early afternoon main stage set; not ideal, but they sure left everything out there on stage.  It’s impossible not to like a band with such great songs and so much enthusiasm for the songs, the crowd – Mark Tremonti in particular seems to perform with the sort of raw, unabashed energy of a kid (or mildly drunk adult) rocking out to Guitar Hero.  The scary thing about this band – they keep on getting better.  The step-up from their previous Soundwave set to this one was huge.

If I had to pick one Soundwave highlight, this would be it.  It was 9pm, at the end of a long, hot, messy day.  Machine Head were up on the metal side stage, playing against System of a Down, one of the main headliners.  For the next 60 minutes, they put on a performance that I’ve only seen rivalled once since – and that was by them, earlier this year.  Those songs, that energy, just wash over the crowd, and totally envelop you.  And there’s this continual call and response between band and crowd, that just continually pushes the intensity and the energy level up, and up, and up.  This was the first, glorious time I saw Machine Head live; now I consider them the greatest live band in the world today.

Post-mortem; the gig list:

Nine Inch Nails (Vector Arena, Auckland, 2009)

Soundwave 2009, Sydney

Clutch (Auckland, 2010)

Soundwave 2010, Sydney

Queens of the Stone Age (Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland, 2011)

Iron Maiden (Sydney Entertainment Centre, Sydney, 2011)

Soundwave 2011, Sydney

Soundwave 2012, Sydney

Bush, Staind (Enmore Theater, Sydney, 2012)

Alter Bridge (Enmore Theater, Sydney, 2012)

Westfest (Vector Arena, Auckland, 2014)

Clutch (The Metro, Sydney, 2014)

Soundwave 2014, Sydney

Down (The Powerstation, Auckland, 2014)