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.