Friday, December 26, 2014

The best XIV albums of 2014...

It's time, of course, for the obligatory year-end post.  2014 was always shaping up to be a good year from the outset, largely thanks to the number of big names with new releases planned.  What was interesting was that a lot of the highlights actually came from not-so-big names, with some of the headline releases from the likes of the Foo Fighters and Mastodon actually disappointing a little (well, me at least - a lot of people quite liked the Mastodon album).

Anyways, a few near misses before we get into the list proper...

  • Striker - City of Gold: Turns out that NWOBHM is alive and well and living in Alberta, Canada.  A stonking slab of old-school metal.
  • Chevelle - La Gargola: While it can come off a little like Tool-lite at times, it's impossible not to like an album that packs an incredible triple punch like that of Take Out the Gunman, Jawbreaker, and Hunter Eats Hunter.
  • Kyng - Burn the Serum: This album is worth getting solely for the utterly brilliant single Electric Halo.  And there's plenty of other good hard rock on offer here too.
  • Soundgarden - Echo of Miles... Scattered Tracks Across the Path: Whilst I didn't consider it for inclusion on the list (it's not really a studio album and some of the material has been previously released), it's still a definitive, staggeringly good collection of Soundgarden's b-sides, covers and other non-album material.  An absolute must-have for fans of the Seattle quartet.
Right, on to the list proper...

14. Fu Manchu - Gigantoid
So, Fu Manchu had sorta become the AC/DC of stoner rock.  A new album would bring a new collection of fuzzed out riffs and songs about aliens, cars and skateboarding.  And while the source material of Gigantoid is still roughly along those lines, musically the band take a slightly more experimental approach this time around with the occasional punk blast or space jam.  

13. Conquering Dystopia - Conquering Dystopia
Ex-Nevermore guitarist Jeff Loomis and some new friends deliver an intriguing instrumental metal record here.  You'll have to listen to it properly, but when you do, it's a damn good listen.

12. John Garcia - John Garcia
The mythical Garcia album finally saw the light of day (albeit at the cost of another Vista Chino album) and it actually turned out pretty well.  Desert rock through and through, and some good songwriting from the eponymous Garcia, whose talents in this regard weren't often showcased in his Kyuss days thanks to the presence of Messrs. Homme and Bjork.  My Mind and His Bullet's Energy in particular are highlights.

11. Hellyeah - Blood for Blood
After chucking out half the band and starting over, Chad Gray and Vinnie Paul seemed to find a new degree of maturity on this record.  There are the usual Hellyeah ass-kickers, but tracks like Moth, Hush and Black December showcase a more mellow side and balance out the heavy stuff very well indeed.

10. Sanctuary - The Year the Sun Died
Following the Nevermore split, vocalist Warrel Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard re-started Sanctuary, the band they'd both been in together pre-Nevermore.  And although The Year the Sun Died does sound kinda Nevermore-ish at times (in that slightly genre-defying way) it's still a highly worthwhile piece of modern metal.

(spare a thought for Van Williams - at this point he's the only Nevermore member not to appear on this list!)

9. Marty Friedman - Inferno
The ex-Megadeth guitarist emerges from the wilderness (well, actually appearing on various Japanese pop shows) with a superb, unpredictable, mostly-instrumental (but not always) metal record.  There's even duelling guitar, saxophone and keyboard solos (and yes, they actually do work well).  Probably the unexpected highlight out of leftfield of the year.

8. California Breed - California Breed
Gotta hand it to Glenn Hughes, the veteran singer/bassist just seems to get better with age.  California Breed is hard rock with a very strong classic rock influence (hardly surprising when you have Hughes and Jason Bonham involved, although he's subsequently been replaced by Joey Castillo).  Newcomer Andrew Watt, who is something like one-third of Hughes' age, shines on guitar as well.

7. Down - Down IV Part 2
Yes, it's only an EP.  But it is that good.  Hell, We Knew Him Well and Hogshead/Dogshead alone justify the inclusion of this swamp-rock beast from the New Orleans quintet.

6. KXM - KXM
So, they're a supergroup.  Except you probably have never heard of any of the members.  And they haven't self-combusted in a mushroom cloud of ego yet either.  So, not really like most supergroups then.  Just go a listen to Rescue Me and Faith Is A Room - top-shelf hard rock produced by three guys who happen to know a thing or two (or more) from experience.

5. Crobot - Something Supernatural
When I reviewed this album, I described this album as the musical equivalent of grabbing an electric fence, only fun.  I absolutely stand by that.  Bombastic, electric, and with a helluva lot of musicianship for a debut record.  These guys could go far...

4. Sevendust - Time Travellers and Bonfires
You know you have a devoted fan base when you can crowd fund an album in three measly days.  This acoustic record is the band's first foray into this territory into the studio, inspired by their acoustic live album Southside Double-Wide which is a huge fan favourite.  And once again Sevendust demonstrate here exactly why they have such a devoted fan-base - because they consistently deliver.  The first half features a bunch of new acoustic tracks - ranging from the sombre to the upbeat, while the second half reworks a bunch of older Sevendust material.  Another fine effort.

3. Orange Goblin - Back From the Abyss
Positively irrepressible, this one.  The British quartet who have now been around for close to two decades come storming back with a sweaty, beer-drinking, hell-raising hard rock album.  Channeling classic influences from the likes of Motorhead and Black Sabbath, whilst maintaining their own distinctive sound, this one was probably the biggest surprise of the year.

2. Machine Head - Bloodstone and Diamonds
Following up The Blackening and Unto the Locust  - two modern metal classics - was always going to be a tough ask, especially when ongoing tensions with now-departed bassist Adam Duce threatened to end Machine Head's career.  Somehow, Robb Flynn and co. managed to survive all that and produce a visceral, hard-hitting, epic thrash album that absolutely maintains the very high standards that they've set over the past decade.

1. Overkill - White Devil Armory
Thirty four years.  That's how long this band has been around.  Hell, if they can keep producing albums like White Devil Armory there's no reason to believe they couldn't be around for thirty four more.  This is a quality thrash metal album from start to finish - and between this album and its two predecessors (The Electric Age and the brilliant Ironbound), Overkill are embarrassing a bunch of their 80's contemporaries.  From the adrenaline rush of Armorist to the epic closing of In the Name, and including all the territory in between, White Devil Armory is a thrash masterclass.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hellyeah - Blood for Blood album review

Hellyeah's fourth album, Blood for Blood, is a noticeably different affair to their first three albums.  They've still got the same distinctive, aggressive groove metal sound (mostly), but there's a newfound sense of maturity here.

To be fair, that's not that difficult considering most of the tracks on their first three albums were about drinking, partying, fighting and strippers.  Undoubtedly they're a band that certain sections of the metal community love to hate for exactly this reason - but I've always liked them purely because sometimes you just need some kickass groove metal, and not a 10 minute progressive epic that explores forgotten aspects of Greek mythology.

There's still plenty of pedal-to-the-floor groove metal Hellyeah in the form of Sangre Por Sangre (Blood for Blood), Cross to Bier, and Soul Killer while Say When, Demons in the Dirt and DMF are up there with the heaviest tracks this band has written.  Let's be fair though, if anyone can do this stuff well it's this band, given the Pantera pedigree in the form of drummer Vinnie Paul - and this time around they sound a lot more deadly serious about it than on the previous three albums, having upped the intensity and heaviness a notch or three.

The contrast comes with Moth, Hush and Black December - and they're probably the three best songs this band has written.   Rather than going for their standard all-out-sonic-assault-by-everyone formula, both tracks are a little more refrained musically, almost melancholy - the intensity is instead provided by Chad Gray's vocals and boy does he deliver on both tracks.

Given also the line-up changes that have occurred, with guitarist Greg Tribbett and bassist Bob Zilla leaving the band, it's probably fair to say this is a lot less a fourth album than it is the first album by a refocused Hellyeah.  

With its ten tracks clocking in at 39 minutes, Blood for Blood is a lean, focused, hard-hitting effort.  It's the best work Hellyeah have produced in their career so far, and if you'd gotten sick of the drinking songs already, now might be exactly the time to tune back in.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Shihad - FVEY album review

There are times, listening to FVEY, where you will probably question whether or not you are listening to a Shihad album.  It's a gritty, dark, industrial grind, largely devoid of brightness.  Even the distinctive guitar tone sounds different - lower, thicker, and missing the light/dark contrasts that historically populated even the heavier Shihad tracks like The General Electric, Lead or Follow and All the Young Fascists.

Gone, also, are the big hooks that were so memorable on Home Again, Pacifier and Run.  In fact, there's points where Jon Toogood's voice is about the only thing that'll remind you that, yes, this is still Shihad.

Overall, FVEY is probably the darkest, heaviest album Shihad have produced, even more so than Love is the New Hate.  But whereas that album managed to be memorable by taking some established traits and dialling them up big-time, it was still quintessentially Shihad - tracks like Alive, All the Young Fascists and Big Future still had those great, soaring choruses which almost worked even better when contrasted with the pummelling verse riffs.

And I'd have to admit that, at this point, I'm struggling to see what all the fuss is about - and that's coming from someone who is a long-time Shihad fan, owns all the albums, and has seen them live more times than I can remember.

FVEY starts off really strongly.  Think You're So Free is a genuine anthem, although not in the traditional Shihad form - it's got the pummelling industrial vibe that pervades most of the album, but makes it really catchy by counterbalancing it with some great vocal hooks, and clever use of Tom Larkin's drumming to create some contrast.  It's followed up by FVEY which has a pulsing, seething main refrain that is bound to create mosh-pit mayhem. 

And after that?  Well, to be brutally honest, not much.  There's a series of largely mid-tempo numbers that kinda blur into one another, with only the chilly-but-not-hopeless Song For No One and the loping groove of Love's Long Shadow really standing out.  It's not that any of the rest is particularly bad, it's just all a bit lifeless and sterile.

Fortunately closing track Cheap As sends things out with a very serious bang, courtesy of a brilliant, lurching riff, and a savage 'Cheap! Cheap as fuck!' vocal refrain.

Lyrically the anti-corporate, anti-government agenda that pervades the album just gets tired after a while.  It works well on a few songs (certainly the first and last tracks), but by the end of the album it's starting to feel like Jon Toogood is just railing against everything indiscriminately.

I really wanted to be blown away by FVEY but ultimately I just can't find more than a handful of tracks that really stand out.  Credit to Shihad for shifting their creative direction so bravely at this point in their career, but FVEY just didn't do it for me.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways album review

Sonic Highways is a concept album - maybe not in the traditional narrative sense, but certainly in the thematic sense.  Eight songs, recorded in eight different US cities, with lyrics inspired by each location and local guests joining in as well - and all documented in a TV series, too.

It's not that this is a bad idea, per se.  It's actually a pretty cool idea.  It's just that Dave Grohl never really struck me as a concept album kind of guy.  One of Grohl's most endearing traits is the fact that he is so damn likeable and down to earth - in fact, he's right at the top of my 'rock stars I would love to have a beer with' list, alongside Robb Flynn (Machine Head) and Neil Fallon (Clutch).  And he writes some damn good rock songs.  Not pretentious, or overblown, just damn good rock songs.

In contrast, the concept album tends to be a domain more frequently inhabited by the ego-tripping rock star, and the over-intellectualiser (looking at you, Billy Corgan - especially now you have gone completely next level and have decided to do Inception-style concept albums within concept albums).  But if anyone has earned the right to do something a little bit out of leftfield like this, it's the tireless Grohl.

To be honest, I wouldn't have the faintest idea about American cities and their influence on music, other than Seattle = grunge.  Clearly the Sound City documentary - and jamming with a roster of legends like Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks and others kick-started Grohl on this path, and the classic rock influence is the single most obvious factor in the way the album sounds.

In fact, if you're expecting a traditional Foo Fighters record with big, stadium-sized singles like Best of You and These Days, you're not going to find a great deal of that here.  

Opening track Something From Nothing (Chicago, featuring Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick) is a good example of the overall concept working really well.  It builds gradually from a muted, melancholy guitar intro, throwing in a very funky keyboard line in the middle, and then totally explodes around the 4-minute mark.  It's a genuine case of the Foos trying something a little different and it totally paying off.

The Feast and the Famine (Arlington, feat. Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson of Scream) is another winner.  Grohl played drums for Scream waaaaay back in the day, and also pinched their guitarist Franz Stahl during the Colour and the Shape era.  Anyway, the Foos co-opt the DC hardcore influence (check the "heyyyyy man!" refrain and a very shouty vocal effort from Grohl) to good effect on this energetic number which is a little reminiscent of Monkey Wrench and DOA.  

Congregation (Nashville, feat. Zac Brown) definitely conjures a Nashville vibe, or at least what I imagine a Nashville vibe would be and there's some nice guitar work, although the main refrain gets kinda tedious and the lyrics don't do a lot for me.

What Did I Do? / God As My Witness (Austin, feat. Gary Clark Jr.) is very much a song of two halves - as the name would imply.  The first half evokes memories of The Who thanks to its bright tone, some great singalong vocals, Taylor Hawkins doing a fine job of channeling Keith Moon, and a very rock and roll guitar solo.  The second half drags and largely feels like an extended outro to the track.

Outside (LA, feat. Joe Walsh), another one of the standout tracks, has very much a highway rock vibe with its driving bassline, insistent tempo and clear Tom Petty influence.  The bridge section is a big highlight thanks to some excellent guitar detail layered around the main solo.  

In the Clear (New Orleans, feat. the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) feels like a fairly standard Foo Fighters mid-album filler track that they've attempted to tack some superficial horn parts on to.  It's actually kind of a disappointment - with a full jazz band at their disposal they really could have been a lot more bold, and I'm thinking along the lines of Faith No More's Star A.D. here.

Subterranean (Seattle, feat. Ben Gibbard) is a good track, albeit it doesn't sound particularly Seattle-ish.  It's a grooving mid-tempo number, with layered, intertwining electric and acoustic guitar parts, and a killer bassline from Nate Mendel, but at 6 minutes it's probably a tad too long as it does start to feel repetitive at times.  Mendel is, arguably, the biggest star on Sonic Highways.  There's a lot more space on a lot of the tracks than has traditionally been the case with the Foo's generally tightly crafted rock songs - and this really brings Mendel's counter-melodies to the fore.  

Back to Subterranean though - and seriously, of all the Seattle-based guests they could have picked, they went with a guy from a bland indie outfit?  I'd have loved to hear Jerry Cantrell team up with the band, albeit Cantrell now resides in LA.  But still, what about Mike McCready, Mark Lanegan, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Duff McKagan, or the vast array of others who would've been a lot more interesting?  OK, rant over.

I Am A River (New York, feat. Tony Visconti and Kristeen Young) is also a bit of an oddity.  Visconti is a legendary producer, but Kristeen Young, uh, who?  There's a big, bright, stadium-sized chorus, but I can't help but compare the "I am a river" lyric with James Hetfield's infamous "I am the table" lyric from the ill-conceived Lulu.  Like Subterranean it also feels a little overly long and the big string-driven climax at the end does't really do it for me.

Overall, Sonic Highways seems like an ambitious idea that comes up a bit short - like an expansion of the Sound City concept that just didn't have quite enough steam to sustain an entire album.  In this case, I wonder if having a documentary run alongside the album production maybe distracted the focus a bit, or maybe demystified the whole process.  

Like most Foos albums, there are certainly some gems on here that will stand the test of time.  However, like many Foos albums there's some stuff on here that is noticeably not as good as the good stuff.  But still, good on them for trying something ambitious and different, and not being content to rest on their laurels.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Anthrax - Chile on Hell review

They must really go nuts for thrash metal in South America because there's no shortage of live DVDs filmed there.  Chile on Hell is Anthrax's contribution in this regard, and it captures the band in good form touring on the back of their reunion album with vocalist Joey Belladonna, 2011's very good Worship Music, and the Anthems covers EP.  

It also captures that uniquely South American tendency of singing along to the big guitar riffs - which is still cool no matter how many times you hear it.

Anthrax's current line-up is, surprisingly for a veteran thrash metal act, pretty close to their classic 80's line-up with Belladonna, guitarist Scott Ian, drummer Charlie Benante, and bassist Frank Bello joined by new guitarist Jon Donais (borrowed from Shadows Fall).

The unsurprising consequence of this is a tracklist that leans heavily on the classic 80's era Anthrax material, with a smattering of tracks from Worship Music.

That's not necessarily a bad thing - Anthrax's one genuinely great album, Among the Living, contributes 6 tracks here, and the gig boldly starts with the first five tracks, in sequence, from that record.  It's a helluva run to start a show given that represents probably 5 of the best tracks Anthrax have written - Among the Living, Caught in a Mosh, I Am The Law, NFL and A Skeleton in the Closet (the next in the sequence, Indians, pops up later on in the set).

The rest of the setlist is a slightly more mixed bag.  Take this with a grain of salt though, as I'm struggling to remember a live recording where I haven't gotten finicky about the tracklist.  There's three tracks from Worship Music - that most excellent ode to zombie slaying Fight Em Til You Can't is a big highlight, but I'd have taken the killer opening salvo of Earth on Hell and The Devil You Know over the other two tracks included (In the End and I'm Alive).  Got the Time is another surprising omission, but with both TNT and Antisocial included, maybe the band thought that would be one cover too many.

It's also no real surprise that there's nothing on offer from the John Bush era, but part of me would've loved to hear Potter's Field and Only.  

Performance-wise, it takes Belladonna a song or two to really get into it, but that's the only criticism of an otherwise very energetic and enthusiastic performance.  The band have clearly been revitalised and reinvigorated on the back of Worship Music and the Big Four shows, and that's obvious even at the tail end of a pretty extensive touring schedule.  Anthrax were always the most manic member of the Big Four, and that quality is certainly captured here (they even throw in I'm the Man, one of their sillier b-sides).  I'm certainly hoping they can continue that as they hit the studio to record their next album, due out next year.

If you've never really got into Anthrax, this actually wouldn't be a bad place to start given the (mostly) career-spanning setlist which captures most of their classics and a number of other quality tracks.  Even long-time fans should find a lot to like here given the relative dearth of quality live Anthrax releases, and a longer show than their Big Four set list.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crobot - Something Supernatural album review

If you had to sum up Crobot's debut album Something Supernatural in one word, that word would be "bombastic".  It's a lot like the musical equivalent of grabbing an electric fence, only fun.

This hard rock outfit essentially combines the swagger and bluesy groove of early Aerosmith with Audioslave-sized riffs, and even a dash of funk.  To be fair though, these guys sound genuinely different and unique - and not like they're trying a 70's revivalist thing in the vein of Wolfmother or Graveyard, thanks to some tight and original songwriting which seems to pack an enormous amount of material into even a 3-minute track.  And crucially, they exude the same sense of irreverent enthusiasm that can be heard on personal favourites like Rose Hill Drive's Americana and the Queens of the Stone Age classic, Songs for the Deaf.

Musically Crobot are certainly something to behold.  The rhythm section, brothers Paul and Jake Figueroa, lay down excellent grooves throughout the album, and provide an ideal platform for guitarist Chris Bishop (think some sort of crazy Tom Morello / Jack White hybrid) and vocalist Brandon Yeagley (very much in the vein of Myles Kennedy) to do some pretty awesome things.  And I'm sure it probably helped having Machine (Clutch, Lamb of God, etc.) at the helm producing the album - how Crobot pulled that off on their debut record is either an enormous fluke or a very serious reflection on the potential of this band.

The same could be said of the album itself because it's one of the best debut records I've heard in a long time, from the opening feedback wash of Legend of the Spaceborne Killer through to the ominous, weighty closing chords of Queen of the Light.  

Nowhere to Hide is a pretty decent microcosm of the album itself - you get a stupidly groovy opening lick, then a mix of bluesy guitar wails and palm-muted crunch before the chorus provides the space for vocalist Yeagley to really let rip.  And then there's an obscenely cool guitar solo from Chris Bishop which actually showcases the rhythm section just as well as the soloist.  And all this in barely 3 minutes!

The longer tracks like La Mano De Lucifer and Queen of the Light highlight just where Crobot could go in future, with the extra length of these tracks really giving the band a bit more space to demonstrate their considerable chops.

But even on shorter tracks like Fly on the Wall there are all sorts of clever dynamics going on - in this case the way the band take a very groovy blues lick that could happily stand alone and then start almost shamelessly dropping huge chords on top of it with all the subtlety of a concrete slab.

Lyrically there's all sorts of crazy sci-fi, supernatural and horror themes going on, and Yeagley gets huge bonus points (from me, at least) for acknowledging Clutch's Neil Fallon as a big inspiration.

There isn't a weak moment to be found on Something Supernatural, and about the only thing I can think of that would improve it is a bit more dynamic variation.  The record is very much tuned to 11 (or way past) for about 90% of the time, and although this seems to be one of the band's hallmarks, I can't help but feel that the dynamics they show on Queen of the Light and Fly on the Wall could become an even bigger asset.

Equally, it's hard to fault that approach when it results in tracks as ridiculously fun as Chupacabra, and given also that the more I listen to this album, the better it seems to get.  Crobot have clearly announced themselves as a band to watch with Something Supernatural, and there's an x-factor to their music that suggests to me that these guys could potentially be huge.  More power to them, I say, we need more exciting new bands like this.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Machine Head - Bloodstone and Diamonds review

Before I saw Machine Head live, at Soundwave Festival in Sydney back in 2012, I liked them a lot. I'd heard most of their stuff, and their recent resurgence on the back of The Blackening (unquestionably very good, but a challenging listen) and Unto the Locust (outstanding and a big personal favourite) had me excited.

That set was enough - more than enough - to make me a huge fan.  The combination of melody and crushing heaviness and intensity, delivered with pure, unadulterated energy to a crowd that was completely and totally up for it, was unforgettable, and ranks in the top 5 sets I've seen at ANY music festival.  Yep, that good.

I'd see this band live again in a heartbeat, and probably even faster than that given just how good I think some of the songs off this new album, Bloodstone and Diamonds, would sound live.  If they can capture this level of vitality - and in many cases, sincerity - on record, then some of these songs would be nothing short of phenomenal at a live gig.

If you had to sum it up in one word? Visceral.  

Lyrically, there's always been a genuine sense of rawness in Robb Flynn's vocals, but this time around - and particularly on tracks like Sail Into the Black and Game Over - the emotion is palpable and will make your hair stand on end.  

Musically, it hits just as hard.  The band sound tighter than ever, particular on tracks like Killers and Kings and Eyes of the Dead where there is a helluva lot of complexity.  There's a particular way of locking the drums, bass and rhythm guitar together on a riff to make it hit that much harder - it's an art Sevendust are the masters of - and it's evident throughout this record - whether that be on up-tempo tracks like Killers and Kings, or the insanely (and appropriately) sludgy Beneath the Silt.

Although it's just as consistent as its two immediate predecessors, the dynamic range of Bloodstone and Diamonds is a lot more broad - there's the usual heavy-as-hell Machine Head (even heavier, in places), but there's also some genuinely reflective moments - like Damage Inside and the first half of Sail into the Black.  

It's pretty lengthy, with the 12 tracks clocking in at 71 minutes, but in my opinion it subdivides into three main sections.

The first four tracks are all pretty instantly catchy (Now We Die, Killers and Kings, Ghosts Will Haunt My Bones, and Night of Long Knives). Considering all but one of those tracks clock in at over 6 minutes, that's no mean feat, but none of the tracks feel overly long - put that down to some tight songwriting and big hooks.

After that, we get into much more divergent territory - Sail Into the Black is a genuine epic, a real slow-builder that crescendoes to a very ominous chorus, and conjures a real sense of pirates (possibly undead) on the dread seas, and both Here Comes the Flood and the outstanding Eyes of the Dead are similarly huge in scale (the latter also features a brilliant extended lyrical metaphor).  Beneath the Silt is tighter and more concise - though sludgy as hell - and breaks up the other three tracks nicely.

The album's final movement starts with the brooding Damage Inside, before launching into Game Over - possibly the album's highest point - which is essentially Machine Head turned to 11 in every aspect.  The acrimonious split with former bassist Adam Duce - the subject of the track - clearly had the emotions running high and the result is a stunning track which hits hard on every level.  After that there's a slightly pointless instrumental(ish), Imaginal Cells, before closing track Take Me Through the Fire wraps things up in an almost (but not quite) upbeat manner.

The album's only real flaw is arguably its length - it doesn't make for an accessible end-to-end listen in the same way Locust did - and possibly ditching a couple of tracks might have made for a tighter record.  Which sounds like a nice idea, in theory, but in reality I don't actually know what you'd cut (other than Imaginal Cells).

Overall, Bloodstone and Diamonds is a worthy continuation of Machine Head's excellent form over the past decade or so.  There's a huge amount to enjoy on this album - and I live in hope that they'll tour it in New Zealand.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kasabian - 48:13 album review

The album cover for 48:13 is pretty simple.  It's hot pink, says "Kasabian" at the top, and then features a list of times (in the case, song lengths), which add to the album's run time of 48:13.

Seems very straightforward.  But it's actually more revealing than you'd think at first glance.  You see, the act of reducing songs to an interchangeable set of digits is a bit like how the album sounds - a largely by-the-numbers effort from a band that has delivered a lot more on albums like their self-titled debut and West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.

It's interesting at times.  This is a big improvement on its rather bland predecessor Velociraptor!, which frankly was a blatant abuse of an album title befitting a far more incisive record.  The first two real tracks, Bumblebeee and Stevie both feature wicked, loping grooves and a bombastic chorus.  And then there's Clouds, one of the most obscenely bouncy and infectious tracks Kasabian have written - in the vein of tracks like Empire and Fire.

The problem is, there's a bunch of interludes, and a number of other wholly unremarkable tracks that could probably have appeared on almost any Kasabian album in the past decade - and most likely would've been regarded as filler on any of those records too.

The end result is an underwhelming album which is probably one or two tracks short of being a very good EP.  Not their best work.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Orange Goblin - Back from the Abyss review

Good old irony.

No sooner had I finished (finally) writing my review of Overkill's latest album, and applauding them for still kicking a considerable amount of ass after all these years, then what should happen?  Well, my copy of the new Orange Goblin album arrives, and on first listen it's immediately apparent that this band is also currently kicking more ass than they have in their 20 year history.

Anyway, I won't rehash that angle quite so soon, so what I will say is this: Back From the Abyss is a beer-sculling, sweat-drenched, gasoline-fuelled hard rock rampage.

The title is actually a sly reference to the band's return to prominence on the back of previous album A Eulogy for the Damned.  Having put out some outstanding early material in the form of the psychedelic Time Travelling Blues (1998), and the full throttle ride of The Big Black (2000), the band got a bit stuck in a Groundhog Day-ish loop of producing further solid, but unremarkable, hard rock albums - increasingly taking a less zany and more raw approach.

Apparently they almost called it quits, but then out came A Eulogy for the Damned and it proved to be something of a rebirth for the band - it was much more energetic, recaptured some of their earlier distinctiveness, and proved to be a big hit with the fans.  And crucially it got them firmly back on the map, a ton of tour dates and festival slots followed, and all of a sudden they're Back From the Abyss.

This is undoubtedly an album from a band that has some serious momentum right now.  It has even more of a sense of unabashed energy and enthusiasm than its predecessor, but there's also a sense of swagger from a band who took a chance and had it pay off for them big-time.

In fact one of the album's greatest attributes is the abundance of 'fuck yeah' moments.  I was starting to wonder if this was becoming something of a lost rock tradition - thinking here of classic moments like when the opening riff eventually hits in Kyuss' Freedom Run, when Bruce Dickinson lets rip with that opening "YEEEEEAAHHHHH" in the Maiden classic The Number of the Beast, when Them Crooked Vultures FINALLY let rip half-way through No One Loves Me (And Neither Do I).  You know, those riffs and moments that just make your jaw drop and/or your head bang every time.

Turns out that the Goblin have a serious supply of those, like the bit at 3:27 of Demon Blues where they simultaneously launch into a wicked ascending riff and an appropriately bluesy guitar solo.  Or the abrupt tempo shift at 4:10 of Heavy Lies the Crown that evolves into an epic Viking war cry - if the "TO VALHALLA! FIELDS OF THUNDER! HALLS OF POWER! TORN ASUNDER!" chant does not make you feel the need to wield a battle axe, then you have no soul.  Or the seriously groovy riff that ends the chorus on Into the Arms of Morpheus, accompanied by the lyrics "Praise the Valium!".  Or the solo section in Mythical Knives.  You get the idea.

Actually, it might be a bit unfair to just pick out singular moments like that because Back From the Abyss is actually a bloody good listen from start to finish.  There's traditional groove-heavy stoner-rock (Sabbath Hex, Ubermensch), to some serious, unashamed Motorhead-channeling biker rock (The Devil's Whip, Bloodzilla) and they even revisit their old-school psychedelic approach on Into the Arms of Morpheus (I haven't heard them do snare fills like that since Time Travelling Blues!).  Somehow they've managed to capture everything I love about Orange Goblin in one place without it ever sounding like a hodge-podge.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay this record is to say that it exudes rock and roll in a very similar fashion to Clutch's Earth Rocker.  There's that same consistent, compelling urge to just get up and move, that same undeniable energy.  This is definitely the best hard rock album I've heard so far this year.

Back From the Abyss, indeed.  And long may it stay like that.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Overkill - White Devil Armory review

Right near the start of this, Overkill's 18th studio album, you just know you are in for a hell of a ride.   The ominous bleat of intro xDm creates an eerie tranquillity, which is then abruptly shattered by machine-gun double-kicks and the brutally energetic main riff of Armorist.  This is, appropriately, the opening salvo of White Devil Armory and with lines like "I'm a one man army, I'm a warring nation" the intent of the veteran New Jersey thrash outfit is clear.

What follows is one of the best albums of Overkill's career to date, spanning 30 years and four decades, and which is also largely devoid of the form slumps that plagued most of their 80's thrash contemporaries.  White Devil Armory is thrash metal through and through, but it also incorporates some of the more progressive elements that Overkill wielded on their outstanding 2010 album Ironbound, and the perceptible, raw energy that is pretty much their trademark.  

They've stuck the ideal balance here between the two, because White Devil Armory is consistently interesting and energetic without ever becoming predictable.  

The dust has barely cleared from the initial shellacking of Armory when Down to the Bone launches an equally ambitious attack.  The approach here is somewhat more methodical - there's big riffs and big climaxes but there's clearly also a measured structure to make the most of the big moments, and a certain insistence of rhythm and momentum throughout. This somewhat industrial vibe is a subtle complement to the main chorus refrain of "We're working down to the... down to the bone".

"Measured" is not a word one would use to describe Pig, a raw, punkish blast that harkens right back to Overkill's very origins and the same attitude that led to such memorably named EPs as "Fuck You... and Then Some!"

Next up is second single Bitter Pill, which seems initially like a fairly solid mid-tempo number, but unfolds with twists, turns and clever details.  There's some weird vocal layering in the chorus which makes singer Bobby Blitz sound incredibly eerie, which is neatly complemented by a similarly sinister guitar lead.  And then, just when you think that chorus is about to hit for the second time, instead the track abruptly segues into an obscenely bouncy bridge which has mosh pit mayhem written all over it.

The creepy vocal layering is also in full effect on Where There's Smoke, which sneakily marries two tricks from its two immediate predecessors - the energy and aggression of Pig and the "kickass bridge" of Bitter Pill.

Freedom Rings looks slightly further back in Overkill's catalogue for inspiration - the progressive fingerprints of Ironbound are all over its 7 minute span, and although this is a track with twists and turns and epic solos throughout, there's almost a sense of catharsis in the decision to close it with a simple, chuggy, classic riff.

Another Day to Die is probably one of the more straightforward tracks on the album but even then, there's gold to be found in some of the discordant guitar leads and a particularly venomous vocal performance from Blitz who sounds like even more of a demented gremlin than he has in the past.

Next up, King of the Rat Bastards proves to be exactly as likeable as one would expect a track with a title like that to be.  There's some classic thrash chug in the verses, which provides the ideal platform for the helter-skelter chorus to let rip, climaxing - yep, you guessed it, on that line "...of the rat bastards!!".  The fact Blitz seems to accentuate his New Jersey twang on "bassss-tards!" just makes it even more fun.

It's All Yours leans possibly a little too far towards generic Overkill at times, and doesn't offer as much as some of the other tracks but is somewhat saved by a pretty glorious solo towards the end.

However, closing track In the Name is, in a word, imperious.  A majestic intro, more creepy treatment on Blitz's vocals, more progressive influences, and a seemingly endless supply of chord barrages close out the album much the way it started - with a very large bang, albeit a far more refined and epic one than Armorist

Overkill have undergone as many line-up changes as the average 80's thrash metal band at this point in time, but the core duo of Blitz and bassist DD Verni are still front and centre, and the current iteration - including xxxxxxxx - sound exceptionally tight throughout.

In White Devil Armory they've produced an enthralling, well-paced blast of a metal album which demands to be considered alongside their best.  This is the Overkill that you (should) know and love, at the top of their game.  It's a five-star album in my books - not because it's necessarily perfect, but because it's too much bloody fun to be anything less!  

And for that same reason, it's probably going to take something pretty special from someone else for it not to be my album of the year.  In true Overkill style, they've really thrown down the gauntlet with this one.

Footnote: Some versions of the album feature a couple of bonus tracks.  I'm not always a fan of these (why put something on an album if it's not actually part of the album??), but one of these, The Fight Song, is actually an example of a bonus track done well.  It sounds too upbeat to be part of the album, but it's a pretty fun song in its own right - hence it's actually a rare example of a well-judged bonus track.

California Breed - album review

Once upon a time, there was a supergroup called Black Country Communion.  At 3 albums, their life was probably a lot longer than the average, but inevitably they had a big fight and split up, just like all good (and bad) supergroups do.  

Anyway, bassist/singer Glenn Hughes (who has played in almost every 70's-era metal band ever) and drummer Jason Bonham (son of THAT Bonham, and occasional member of recent Led Zeppelin reunions) decided they could probably still make some good music, even without blues guitar whiz Joe Bonamassa and keyboardist Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater, no, not the weird bald one, the  other one from ages ago).

So they did exactly what you would expect two rock veterans to do (Bonham is 48 and Hughes is 62), and started a new band with a 23-year old guitarist by the name of Andrew Watt that no-one had ever heard of, other than Julian Lennon (yes, son of THAT Lennon) who made the introduction.

That band was called California Breed and so is their debut album.

I'll be honest, I was pretty sold after about 30 seconds of opening track The Way.  It begins with a monolithic funk-rock riff, and Hughes sounding in ridiculously powerful form on the mic - and then escalates from there.  There's this fun, insidiously catchy 'whooooa ohhh ohhh' style bridge section and then Hughes goes really, really ballistic - the line at 2:27 is delivered with unbelievably fierce power and control and never fails to send a chill down my spine.  

Seriously, the guy is 62, for goodness' sake.  And yet his vocals are an absolute highlight throughout this album.  He somehow manages to combine the power you expect from a great rock singer with the soul you'd expect from, well, a great soul singer.  As good as he sounded on the Black Country Communion - he's even better here. This is career-best form from one of rock's great vocalists.

However, what is arguably more impressive is the guitar performance of Andrew Watt.  The risk of having a young guy like him alongside two giants like Hughes and Bonham is that either he just can't foot it with them, or that he ends up overplaying to compensate.  In fact, he does neither of these things.  The solo on cruisy ballad All Falls Down is a shining example - Watt delivers it with a ton of soul, a few sneaky hints that he can shred with the best, and a closing note that gives you the same sort of chills as Hughes vocals.

The album is probably best described as hard rock with some classic influences - although there's noticeably more of a modern feel than on the BCC albums.  Think big, driving riffs, Bonham hitting the drums pretty hard, but with some nice melodic contrasts in there too as well as the funk influences that Hughes has toyed with from time to time.

It's not all quite as good as that beast of an opening track, but it is pretty consistent and balanced throughout, with other highlights including the Bonham-powered groove of Midnight Oil, the back-home boogie of Spit You Out, and the 1-2 closing punch of Scars and Breathe.

They might only be good for one album given the average longevity of supergroups, but they've certainly made that album a very worthwhile one. Although, given Bonham has recently left due to scheduling issues, and has been replaced by former Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo, there's an argument that the supergroup tag no longer applies.  Either way, long may California Breed rock. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marty Friedman - Inferno

In a heavy metal world populated by curious characters, Marty Friedman is right up there in the 'path less travelled' stakes.  Having played with Megadeth through the 1990's, from the legendary Rust in Peace through to the infamous Risk, he upped sticks and headed off to Japan.  Subsequent developments included involvement with progressive rock bands, video game/anime soundtracks, covers of various J-Pop tracks and collaborations with Japanese Idol group Momoiro Clover Z.  And also a bunch of appearances on assorted Japanese television programmes, where he became known as Hebimeta-san, or in Anglicised terms, Mr. Heavy Metal.

You can't make this stuff up.

Anyhoo, I'll freely admit to having heard absolutely none of Friedman's work outside of Megadeth other than his guest spot on the opening track of Jeff Loomis' last solo album (ironically he's not even the only Megadeth ex-guitarist on that album, with Chris Poland also getting involved).  However, his latest solo album Inferno was picking up some solid buzz on the internet from reputable sites like Metal Injection, so I took a punt on it.

It's bloody good, to be honest.

Inferno doesn't follow the standard instru-metal formula of basically just having 11 or 12 tracks of end-to-end shredding.  There's certainly a decent quantity of shredding here, but the writing has clearly been song-driven rather than solo-driven and the range of material on Inferno is a huge plus.

Of course there are some out-and-out shredfests, like Inferno and Steroidhead, but the execution on these is nothing short of flawless and, at times, jaw-dropping.  Credit is due to the songwriting here, as even the more traditional tracks weave their way through a variety of moods, never dwelling on a particular riff or solo for too long, and constantly keeping things interesting.

With his pedigree, you'd expect Friedman to be all over that, but there's a great deal more on offer here.  

The aptly-titled Wicked Panacea layers electric guitar over a wicked flamenco acoustic backdrop (courtesy of Rodrigo y Gabriela) and alternates seamlessly between acoustically and electrically driven sections.  Danko Jones provides guest vocals on the straight-ahead rocker I Can't Relax, which sounds something like classic rock and roll jumped into a time machine and encountered thrash metal 60 years later.  And by this point, we're only at track five!

Given it's Marty Friedman, so a degree of weirdness is expected (indeed, necessary), and the best example here is Meat Hook.  You've probably never heard a saxophone / piano / guitar duel in a metal track before, and particularly not over a thrash metal backdrop.  That's hardly surprising, since it sounds like a completely ridiculous idea.  And yet somehow it ends up coming off as one of the album's highlights.

The second half of the album ups the ante when it comes to intensity, with the brutal Sociopaths featuring a great guest spot from Revocation front man Dave Davidson.  Again, Friedman goes against the grain to good effect - the bulk of the track is genuinely heavy but it veers into an uplifting neo-prog solo at around the 4 minute mark.  It's followed by the similarly vicious, though more direct, Lycanthropes and that in turn is followed with the brilliantly contrasting Undertow, a glorious metal soundscape if I've ever heard one.

Rounding the album out are Horrors, which ends up being something of an intriguing virtuoso journey through all the moods and styles captured throughout the album, and a very proggy reprise of opener Inferno which provides a grandiose closing.

And at the end of all of that, if you're anything like me, you sit there with a slightly dazed look trying to comprehend what you've just heard, before rapidly reaching for the repeat button.  I certainly won't be rushing out to track down his J-Pop back catalogue, but for now Marty Friedman has come right out of leftfield to provide one of the best albums I've heard so far this year.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mastodon - Once More 'Round The Sun

Mastodon's last record, The Hunter, was clearly a major attempt by the band to bring a more accessible sound and a move away from the progressive expanses of Crack the Skye and the crushing heaviness of Blood Mountain.

I'll confess that I really wanted to love The Hunter but ultimately it was just too uneven.  There were moments of sheer brilliance - Black Tongue was foreboding and imperious (and insanely catchy), Curl of the Burl was both sludgy and bouncy (and insanely catchy), Blasteroid was incredibly energetic (also insanely catchy) and Spectrelight remains a huge personal favourite, marrying the viciousness of early Mastodon with an awesome hook.  But every time the album started to get a roll on with a series of good songs, something a little mediocre or not-very-interesting would kill the momentum - like The Octopus Has No Friends which had an undeniably brilliant title and not much else.

In short, if Mastodon could produce an entire album that was as good as the really good stuff on The Hunter, it would be amazing.

Once More 'Round the Sun, unfortunately, is not that album.  The approach and overall aesthetic is pretty similar to its predecessor, and so are the results. 

Once again, there are moments of awesomeness.  High Road takes a simple but effective approach with a super-chuggy, super-chunky main riff that has the same sort of inevitable momentum as, say, a charging rhinoceros.  The Motherload is a really nicely-crafted, catchy gem of a track with a brilliantly ethereal bridge that recalls Crack the Skye and features great contributions from the entire band. And then there's Halloween, a rollicking up-tempo number which pulls countless tricks, delivers some brilliant treats (including a great solo and an absolute payoff of an outro riff) and wastes not a single one of its 279 seconds.

The problem, once again, is that this stuff is so good that it makes the filler really obvious.  Asleep in the Deep sort of plods along without really offering a lot, Aunt Lisa has a minor identity crisis, and opener Tread Lightly comes across like a less menacing, and therefore less interesting, version of Black Tongue.  These tracks all sounds a bit too... safe... and one of the hallmarks of Mastodon's best material has been an undeniable ability to push the boundaries of heaviness and prog.

So for me personally, Once More 'Round the Sun ends up as another enjoyable, but somewhat frustrating, Mastodon record.  One that, over time, will most likely be culled down to a handful of tracks on my iPod.

Black Label Society - Catacombs of the Black Vatican

I wouldn't call myself a huge follower of Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society, but I'm just familiar enough with them to conclude that Catacombs of the Black Vatican is the sort of album that existing fans will probably like but which probably won't turn them on to a big new audience.

In short, it is Black Label Society doing what they have largely always done - hard rock with guitar squeals, impressive solos, and the odd quiet song lobbed in for good measure.

The songwriting on here is very much intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-outro, but that's never been Zakk Wylde's strength.  His biggest asset has always been his insane guitar ability, and the biggest redeeming feature of this record is that the guitar work has all the hallmarks one has come to expect.  The riffs sound huge, the squeals are... squealy, and the solos are excellent.

Tracks like Fields of Unforgiveness,Heart of Darkness and Damn the Flood are solid hard rock numbers, built largely around a solid riff and a good chorus, which come to life thanks to Wylde's guitar work.

There's no overwhelming musical revelations on offer here, but equally, Catacombs of the Black Vatican isn't the sort of record you turn to for that sort of thing.  On the other hand, if you want some hard rock with really BIG guitars, you'll probably enjoy it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

John Garcia - John Garcia album review

It's not quite Chinese Democracy, but it's still a minor miracle that the solo album from legendary vocalist John Garcia (Kyuss, Vista Chino, Unida, Slo Burn, Hermano) has finally seen the light of day.  It was originally slated for a 2008 release as 'Garcia v. Garcia' but then got shelved when Kyuss Lives! got rolling, had a big legal fight with Josh Homme and Scott Reeder, and then continued rolling as Vista Chino.  

Thing is, this project is clearly very important to Garcia because in order to finally get it done, he turned down offers to record new albums with Vista Chino, Hermano and Unida.  And much as I'd have liked to hear new albums from any or all of those three bands (particularly the incredibly overlooked and under-rated Hermano), I'm probably more intrigued by this fabled record finally getting a release.

So, the obvious question is what does it sound like and is it any good?  To which the answer is, it has the desert rock vibe with which Garcia is universally associated in spades, and yes, absolutely.

Opening track My Mind has a particularly doomy opening riff, over which a pissed-off Garcia snarls "What the hell are you saying, who in the hell are you talking to?  Won't you leave me alone" before locking into a tight upbeat groove.  It's a catchy, powerful and impressive start to proceedings which highlights Garcia's considerable songwriting ability.  On one hand, that ability might well be presumed given the quality of Garcia's resume - on the other hand, it's really the first time he's been the primary songwriter on an album.  

And there is a ton of evidence on this album that this is a very welcome development.  Garcia's songwriting captures the desert rock essence and groove that fuelled Kyuss but he marries it with the hooks that were more typical of Hermano's material and also the occasional acoustic moment a la Murder One or Dark Horse II.  There's certainly shades of the recent Vista Chino material in there as well.

John Garcia's greatest accomplishment, however, is the fact that while those familiar flavours are there, this record does not sound quite like any of them.  Like the ram with the crazy-ass floral horns on its cover, it is its own animal.  It's tighter than Kyuss, more organic than Hermano, easy to get into without sacrificing the depth that only becomes obvious on repeat listens, and of course it's a showcase for Garcia's raspy, inimitable vocals.  It is definitively John Garcia - not in the personal, heart-on-the-sleeve sense that many solo albums can be, but in the sense that he's put a definitive personal stamp on the songs and the album.

If there's one criticism I have of the record, it's that it can get a little samey at times.  There's a lot of great mid-tempo desert rock grooves on here but having one or two more experimental tracks like the distortion v. Garcia of Confusion, or the brilliant acoustic closer Her Bullet's Energy (featuring a great guest spot from Robby Krieger of the Doors) would have added a lot of variety and depth to the record.

Of course, it does help that those mid-tempo grooves are all very solid, none more so than the insistent, driving one-note strum of His Bullet's Energy and the hammering, snarling stomp of 5000 Miles.  And to be entirely fair, the vast majority of punters who pick up this record will be expecting a solid helping of the desert rock for which Garcia is renowned.

It might have been years in the making, but John Garcia has such an abundance of quality that I can only hope he finds time to produce another solo record at some point.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Down IV Part 2 EP review

Rejoice, fans of the riff, for the second of Down's four planned EPs is the best thing they have released in a number of years.

Down IV Part 2 strikes pretty much the perfect balance between the direct, aggressive style of historical favourites like Ghosts Along the Mississippi and Lifer, and the sludgy epics like Bury Me In Smoke that the New Orleans heavyweights are equally famous for.  Of the EP's 6 tracks, basically 3 fall into the former camp and 3 into the latter.

Opener Steeple certainly sets the tone, with a particularly evil-sounding howl from the legendary Phil Anselmo over a particularly evil-sounding riff.  Down were always clearly big Black Sabbath fans - the doom metal influence is just a little more obvious this time around.  The track does a great job of tempo-shifting between doomy heaviness and some faster riffs to keep it interesting.

Next comes one of the great one-two punches in Down history.  Firstly, We Knew Him Well, which launches into what might the most potent riff Down have ever written while Anselmo delivers a biting and occasionally indecipherable vocal performance (but you'll still pick out the best lines, like "Distrust the honest!").  Down have written plenty of headbangers in their time and this is one of the best.  Better yet, it's followed up with Hogshead / Dogshead, which is every bit as good.  This one has Pepper Keenan's fingerprints all over it from the word go - it's more than a little reminiscent of some of the great Keenan-era Corrosion of Conformity material (particularly Wiseblood) particularly in terms of the guitar work and the lead / rhythm guitar interplay.  Having said that, as a straight-up band effort this is an awesome performance - bass and rhythm guitar blend seamlessly on the riff, while Pepper shreds some great solos and Jimmy Bower absolutely kills it on the drums throughout.

After that double blow, Conjure slows things down with 8 minutes of fairly overt - but very good - Sabbath worship.  The sludge is strong on this heavy, atmospheric number and the guitar work gives it a real edge.  Keenan, in my opinion, continues to be one of the most under-rated guitarists on the hard rock and metal scene and his combination with new band member / former stage manager Bobby Landgraf (who replaced Kirk Windstein) is pretty much seamless.

Sufferer's Years is the last of the faster tracks and although Keenan and Landgraf do another stellar double-act here and Bower pummels the cymbals into oblivion, this is probably Anselmo's best moment on the record as he alternates between his powerful mid-range sound and snarly upper-range.

Bacchanalia is a pretty apt way to round things out with a bang.  At almost 9 minutes it seamlessly winds its way through a lot of the sounds found throughout the album - doom, sludge and straight-up riffs - before closing with an acoustic outro reminiscent of Jail or Pray for the Locust.

Down have provided six tracks of sheer, undiluted quality on this EP, and frankly it's a stunning example of why more bands might like to consider this approach to recording music.  Excellent stuff.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Conquering Dystopia album review

So many times, I've heard a metal band open a track with a great riff, only to abruptly lose interest when the vocals kick in.  No matter how hard I try, the guttural vocals generally just don't do it for me.  There's some exceptions to this - Opeth are an example of a band where I love the way the harsh vocals blend seamlessly with the music - but in general I just don't get them.  Which is kind of a shame, because musically there's a lot to like about many of the bands at the harder edge of the metal spectrum.

It's entirely possible, therefore, that I wouldn't have liked Conquering Dystopia if it had vocals and wasn't an instrumental record.  But it doesn't, and it is, and I do like it, rather a lot, in fact.

As a huge fan of Nevermore, I've followed Jeff Loomis since their untimely split, and hence how I stumbled across this.  And apparently the band's line-up is an enormous wet dream for some metal fans because of the combination of Loomis and some of the other guys in the band, although I know absolutely nothing about them - other than that they turn in some very fine performances here.

And performance, alongside composition, are two of the first words that come to mind on this album. Rightly or wrongly, metal (or at least some of it) is often analogised to classical music.  Conquering Dystopia is a great example of why that can be true - combining intricate, complex songs, compelling leads, and outstanding playing.  Like much classical music, there's recurring themes throughout - in this case linked to the dystopian future referenced in the title (as if song names like Prelude to Obliteration, Totalitarian Sphere, and Nuclear Justice weren't enough to tip one off to that).

And despite the inevitable sonic assault that one would expect given those themes, and that line-up, that sense of musicianship also provides enough dynamic balance to (mostly) prevent it getting repetitive.  Tracks like Lachrymose, Doomsday Clock and Resurrection in Black provide a breather - sonically and dynamically - and a break from the intensity of the heavier tracks.

Of course, to actually enjoy it properly, you will have to listen.  This is not an album that you can just throw on in the background and expect to get the most out of it.  This is an album that demands your attention and will reward you for it - there are lead guitar parts that will send chills down your spine, drum parts that will have you gasping in amazement.

And it is very much an album.  So often these days, I'll listen to a new piece of music, and instantly hook on to a few tracks.  And then maybe a couple more will grow on me.  And over time, it becomes not so much an album at all as really just a few good tracks and some that get skipped over.  On the other hand, Conquering Dystopia is a record I actually can't conceive listening to in parts, or on shuffle.  It's a beginning-to-end deal, a modern symphony of sorts.

Having said that, at 53 minutes, it's possibly a touch too long for an instrumetal record - dropping a couple of tracks could potentially have been the difference between 'very good' and 'great'.

Nevertheless, it is very good indeed, and if you like your metal a bit more cerebral then you'll love Conquering Dystopia.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fu Manchu - Gigantoid album review

It was starting to get to the stage where Fu Manchu were essentially stoner rock's answer to AC/DC or Motorhead.  After a great series of albums through the late 1990's, peaking on 2000's King of the Road, everything since followed a largely similar formula: big fuzzed-out riffs, lyrics about aliens, girls, and/or cars, and plenty of mid-tempo crunch.  The material was decent, but it wasn't anything you hadn't heard before, and lacked some of the memorable elements of their earlier material - the sleazy groove of Weird Beard, the dual-guitar mayhem of Tilt, or the sheer hooks of tracks like Evil Eye.

Gigantoid changes that up.  The sound is unmistakably Fu Manchu but there's nothing formulaic about this record.  Opening track Dimension Shifter starts with a classic Fu Manchu hook a la Evil Eye, but at the two minute mark it abruptly morphs into a groovy psychedelic instrumental jam.

Meanwhile, Invaders On My Back, rather than being the paranoid stoner jam that the title might imply, is a direct, angry number that is much more reminiscent of the band's punk influences.  It is, however, followed by the particularly groovy and far more accurately titled Anxiety Reducer, which features a stunning main riff that is the equal of anything on Daredevil or ...In Search Of.

The experimentation doesn't always quite work - the quiet loud quiet loud dynamic of Mutant is a bit jarring.  And sometimes it's absent altogether - Radio Source Sagittarius could have appeared on any of the last three or four Fu Manchu albums and the extended outro prolongs it a bit much.

But equally, there's some really deft touches throughout the album.  No Warning is an absolute full-throttle number that threatens to end at the tender young age of 35 seconds, before launching into another full-on assault to instead end at the not-quite-so-young age of 1 minute 25 seconds.

Nowhere is this more evident than The Last Question - a classic call-and-answer riff, a great groove, and a tasty solo characterise the song's first half, before the remaining four minutes transform into a wandering, psychedelic jam.

Overall, it's a fairly tightly-packed 39 minutes worth, with minimal filler, and enough variety to hold the ear of the discerning listener - and arguably the best thing they've released since King of the Road.  Gigantoid is unlikely to win Fu Manchu much in the way of new audience, but it certainly might rekindle the interest of a few older fans (this one included).

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Short version:

KXM is the best album of the year so far. If you like top-shelf hard rock, go buy it. Trust me.

Long version:

KXM is a supergroup of musicians that, whilst great talents, aren't exactly household names. Guitarist George Lynch almost played for Ozzy Osborne but got beaten to it by some guy called Randy Rhoads, and ended up with Dokken and Lynch Mob, amongst other things.  Bassist/singer dUg Pinnick (his spelling, not mine) made his name with King's X, a band who have garnered a cult following over the past 25+ years.  Drummer Ray Luzier is the only member I'm familiar with, from his work on the Army of Anyone album with the deLeo brothers from Stone Temple Pilots and Richard Patrick from Filter.  He's probably better known for his work with David Lee Roth, and as Korn's current drummer.

So yeah, supergroup, you know the drill, this could go either way.  Either their powers combine to produce something awesome, or their egos collide to produce something terrible.

The good news is that KXM is most definitely the former.  This is a stonkingly good hard rock record.

There's so much to like about this album, and so much of that is to do with the fact that it comes from three talented guys who have played a lot of music, with a lot of acts, and have clearly learnt a few things in the process.

Opening track Stars is a prime example.  It starts with tribal drums from Luzier, a tightly wound riff that Lynch accentuates just a little bit at the right moments, and you think it's going to be a heavy, dense, bleak opener.  All of sudden, the mood changes to optimism for the chorus, led by Pinnick's vocals, like a ray of light breaking through on a cloudy day.  It's a pretty major dynamic shift, but it flows perfectly because these guys know just how to play it, to make it work.

Another example is some of the phenomenal riffs on this record.  In part, that's because they are actually obscenely good riffs, but it's also because KXM know not to overplay them in the song - using them just the right amount, at just the right points to really maximise their impact.  Case in point, Human Friction.  The first 50 seconds is atmospheric, but slowly swells to the point where you know something big is going to happen, and then BAM! The payoff riff hits you and it is glorious.  A couple of spins, and it's into the verse, but you know it's coming back, you're waiting for it - and BAM! There it is again.  A triumph of timing and tact.

Speaking of tact, Ray Luzier's playing is just outstanding on this record.  It's easy to sit back and appreciate the sheer drive he provides, but listening closely provides an experience in itself, especially on the (brilliant) closing instrumental Tranquilize.  So many great fills and clever details lurking there to be discovered - but they're never in your face, never overshadowing the song or the other players.

Actually, that's perhaps what shines most brightly about this album - the balance between guitar, bass, vocals and drums is just so tight.  There's a sense of unity, of everything working together, throughout the record - you can go listening for individual instruments in the mix if you want, or you can just sit back and let the whole glorious wall of rhythm, melodies and counter-melodies wash over you.  This could only be the work of three talented guys who are all very much on the same page (and probably a decent producer too).

Clearly the musicianship is great but, crucially, so are the songs.  There's a good balance (there's that word again) of upbeat numbers and mid-tempo grooves, broken up by a couple of slower, more reflective numbers - the acoustic ballad Never Stop and the very lyrically-pointed Sleep.  

My personal favourites include the pacy, harmony-laden I'll Be OK (which features a great solo from Lynch), single Rescue Me, the dynamic shifts and clever interplay of Do It Now, the intensely groovy Human Friction and the stomping, catchy Faith is a Room, which basically showcases everything I've said about this album in one particularly excellent track.

But having said that, this is an album with no filler tracks - it's an end-to-end listen.  Like I said at the start, if you're a fan of really well-written, well-played hard rock, trust me and just go buy it.