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.