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).