REVIEW: Sahg’s New Concept Album Is Downright Ascendant

Norway’s Sahg have been melting faces since 2004, but 2013 marked a fresh new approach for the ambitious Scandinavian metalheads. After three albums, all of which sequentially numbered, the group let their imaginations run wild with a conceptual album idea, one that wouldn’t be given a number like past records. Delusions of Grandeur took the road instead of a simple Sahg IV, and while it sounds like a break of tradition, it’s actually an incredibly smart move by the band. Delusions of Grandeur is a standalone concept album with as much cosmic energy as the brightest star. Sahg’s latest metal creation delivers just as much finesse as its already ascendant concept implies.

Sahg express their innermost creativity with Delusions of Grandeur, a concept album about a protagonist and his blind obsession with his own ego (aka “delusions of grandeur”). As the character’s reality begins to fade from the delusions, he appears in an imaginary existence where he believes he is the ruler of the universe. His control comes to an end, however, when he falls from his mountaintop palace and fades into the darkness surrounding him, all while being stripped of every bit of his power. Sahg have noted Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as thematic influences, which fits extremely well with the many different moods that are fully released in Delusions of Grandeur. From the triumphant rule of “Blizzardborne” to the tragic reincarnation into the real world in “Sleeper’s Gate to the Galaxy”, the record demonstrates maniacal control, acceleration of danger and an overarching mood that illustrates a false kingdom’s downfall in picturesque and textured forms.

Throughout the album, Sahg demonstrate every single influence they can get their mitts on. In one track, “Firechild”, they’re tossing ravenous guitar solos that share tones with Mastodon’s Crack the Skye record, while the following track “Walls of Delusion” is purely brilliant sludgy doom metal, taking cues right from The Melvins or even Black Sabbath. Singers Olav Iversen and Tony Vetaas show off extremely versatile vocal styles mixing the spectral snarl of Ozzy Osbourne and the shrieking battlecry of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson across the tracklist. Iversen, along with fellow guitarist Thomas Tofthagen, demonstrate extreme versatility on the axe, with riff-heavy rhythms crashing through on slower songs like “Walls of Delusion” and revving into overdrive with the fantastically melodic grinding on “Ether.” Drummer Thomas Lønnheim doesn’t skimp on the jazzy drumming either, especially in opener “Slip Off the Edge of the Universe.” There are so many moods shown in Delusions of Grandeur and that’s what every great concept album has been able to do: show off multiple vibes. A consistent stream of mood is no way to tell the highs and lows of a story like Delusions of Grandeur, and Sahg are able to show the rise and fall of its protagonist by creating various tones throughout the album, each one to complement a critical point in the storyline.

“Sleeper’s Gate to the Galaxy” is the eleven-minute-long closer to the record, a multi-portioned departure of the protagonist back into the reality that he leaves behind, all with his own madness in tow. Mixing 2000’s prog metal like Opeth with Led Zeppelin groove and Iron Maiden-esque vocals, Sahg make one hell of a closer, one with multiple steps and sections to tell the album’s climactic final act. The acoustic intro and mid-song interlude set the stage well, breaking up the intensity and letting the listener reflect on what transpired beforehand. With a mighty burst, the album ends as it begins.

Delusions of Grandeur’s ambitiously conceptual nature may sound a recipe for pretentiousness, but Sahg keep this spacey inter-dimensional odyssey (ironically) rather down-to-earth. And that’s a good thing. The band lets tone and texture take control instead of bizarre melodic chords or superhuman rhythm patterns, creating a story that’s both fully envisioned and phenomenally presented. It does tend to lose its most striking luster around two-thirds in (“Then Wakens the Beast” is rather lackluster compared to the rest on the album), but Sahg prove their conviction to their concept and even more conviction to their songwriting. Despite that lull, Delusions of Grandeur finishes strong with a climactic epilogue. Sahg make a ton of smart moves with Delusions of Grandeur; from the tumultuous tonal shifts to the fit and resonant instrumentation, this is a concept album whose intriguing narrative is never a crutch for its songwriting of virtuosity. Delusions of Grandeur is a mix of many different ideas, but a synergy of only the best. It’s a downright out-of-this-world album.

REVIEW: Red Fang’s Whales and Leeches Unleashes Primal Groove Metal

Rising metalheads Red Fang hail from a rather interesting place for metal: Portland, Oregon. While many of the most prominent metal bands of the 2010’s come from Europe, California or even the south of Georgia, Red Fang’s roots come from a place that’s more associated with the nearby grunge movement from nearby Seattle. This is interesting because it clearly has had an effect on these groovy metal mavens. Red Fang invest less in thrash speed or percussive intensity, and more in the stoner metal traditions set into motion with Washington’s iconic The Melvins. Red Fang took the teaching of The Melvins to heart throughout their career, mixing stoner metal with southern prog helmed by bands like Mastodon. The band’s third album Whales and Leeches might not further their evolution too much, but it’s a groove-laden joyride across the roughest roads that still has a lot of proficiency between its doomy exterior.

Red Fang further refine their stoner metal tradition with groovy rhythms and lots of bluesy melodies to balance out the heaviness. It’s no surprise that the band has shared tours with Mastodon, Baroness and Kyuss Lives; Red Fang definitely follow the history of these legendary acts in grooving and sludgy metal sounds. Like many of the stoner greats, Red Fang gather heavy influence from bands like doombringers Black Sabbath and proto-grungers The Melvins. The vocals from bassist/frontman Aaron Beam share plenty of similarities with the haunting, gutteral moan of Buzz Osbourne. The closer “Every Little Twist” is ripped right from that sludgy, stoner code that The Melvins pioneered during the late 80’s and early 90’s, while the downright frightening ending to “1516” is almost spectral in its imagery. The sludge reaches its freezing point in the five-minute dark séance of “Failure,” a thick, doom metal style track with psalmic distortion on lead singer Aaron Beam’s already creeping bellow. The rhythms are both tribal and frightening, as they channel the dread and haunting that first emerged from late 70’s Black Sabbath, before reaching a triumphant climb and diving back into hibernation.

But not all is at a crawler’s pace with Whales and Leeches. This is stoner metal, so expect plenty of wild guitar solos and ferocious rhythm patterns. While the album rarely reaches the technicality heard in Mastodon, the tempos are dynamic, especially in the warped rhythms on “Crows In Swine” or the proggy fever dream of “Dawn Rising.” The groove is remarkably consistent across Whales and Leeches, with “Blood Like Cream” emitting lots of bluesy guitars from axemen Bryan Giles and David Sullivan. Some songs like, once again, “Crows in Swine”, emit a massive Mastodon vibe, one right from the Blood Mountain era. “Behind the Light” features some downright epic drumming from percussion lead John Sherman, whose technicality once again tugs toward their prog rock pals Mastodon.

And while Red Fang do quite a bit to impress on Whales and Leeches, they still have trouble adding those instantly memorable moments that their peers do. The vibe dances between a slender crawl and a metal highway jolt, and Red Fang demonstrate this indecisiveness a bit too much. This makes Whales and Leeches a rather fragmented record once it closes. It’s certainly well-performed and well-written, but its focus is just a bit too off center to recommend to any metalhead. Some songs sound out of place for both the slow and fast, like “No Hope”, which sounds too straightforward for repeated listens. Red Fang seem to be stuck in this bizarre state where they rapidly jump between sluggish doom and fiery blues metal, sometimes within the same song, and it ends up being too disorienting and unfocused to be worth an instant recommendation.

Red Fang’s third album is not bad by any means. In fact, it’s a technically proficient and very enjoyable record that preserves the philosophies that guided Black Sabbath, The Melvins and Kyuss way back when. It even manages to muddy the path further, giving Red Fang a grimier and filthier sound. But the group doesn’t have its identity solidified just yet. It’s disorienting to hear something paced so slowly, then turning up the speed so dramatically. And the fact that Red Fang are focusing on these two very different aesthetic leads to them becoming mixed too much, sometimes in incompatible ways. That being said, Whales and Leeches is another respectable, albeit less confident step forward for this up-and-coming metal outfit. While it’s not an essential metal record, Red Fang continue to be a very interesting specimen in modern metal. They just need to tighten those bolts a bit more.

REVIEW: Baroness’ Live EP Delivers a Small Taste of Awesome

Since 2003, Baroness has been one of the most promising acts in metal. Alongside fellow southern metalheads, Mastodon, Baroness have pioneered a progressive metal sound that has sounded much less technical than their peers in Dilinger Escape Plan or Between the Buried and Me. After two critically acclaimed albums in Red Album and Blue Record, Baroness released the 2012 Yellow and Green, an album that furthered their path into metal stardom. 2013 marked the release of Baroness’ short live EP in Studio 4 of Maida Vale for BBC. With four solid tracks in tow, the EP is a nice grab bag of some fantastic recordings from the band, even if it’s not the live recording fans have been anticipating.

Like their former tourmates Mastodon, Baroness’ progressive metal was constantly in strong equilibrium with the sludgy alt rock sound of bands like The Melvins and even early grunge like 80’s Soundgarden. There was certainly a level of speed metal influence, but rhythmic riffs were certainly a key component to Baroness’ sound. Even frontman John Baizley’s melodic bellow has ties to Buzz Osbourne’s low-tuned voice. That low-end melody has made Baroness’ sound remarkably approachable for a progressive metal outfit, and like Mastodon’s, the band’s sound has even managed to crack the radio rock charts. The guys in Baroness are clearly educated in progressive tradition, what with the varied percussion of drummer Sebastian Thomson and the intricate bass cues from Nick Jost. Baroness is a more accessible prog metal that’s just as adventurous, but won’t leave you scratching your head with its intricacies.

All four tracks on Live at Maida Vale: Studio 4 come straight from the band’s 2012 double album Yellow and Green, an album that, while not the breakout success of 2009’s Blue Record, further solidified the band’s reputation in the rise of American progressive metal in the 2000’s. The tracks include the album’s two singles, “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea”, along with “Cocainium” (from Yellow) and “The Line Between” (from Green). The two singles, especially the powerful “March to the Sea”, are fantastic recordings, with enormous choruses and a great rhythm performance on both. The percussion tremors and melodic guitar solos of “March to the Sea” remain one of the band’s best works, a highlight in their discography.

“Cocainium” is a much more subdued recording: quieter, proggier and even a bit jazzier. Baroness still have erupting choruses, though not at the level of their singles. The guitar work from Peter Adams keeps up with the virtuosity of prog metal tradition, with melodic guitar chords and plenty of obscure arrangements displayed. “The Line Between” is probably the weakest track, however. While it isn’t necessarily bad, it doesn’t have any strong hooks, nor does it experiment enough in the progressive department. The rumbling rhythm department picks up the slack, but it isn’t enough to really make “The Line Between” stand out.

The songs themselves aren’t too different from their studio counterparts, but Baroness make an effort to mix things up a bit for this live EP. Songs flow together with instrumental interludes between, sounding like one big consistent concert recording instead of segmented tracklists. Sporadic vocal variations are nice, but it’s not really the live environment the band is best on. For a small BBC performance EP, Live at Maida Vale: Studio 4 is okay, but we’re still awaiting that epic live album from one of modern metal’s most powerful bands.

Baroness aren’t really in their strongest element with Live at Maida Vale: Studio 4, but the music is still as well-composed and performed as you’d expect. The track selection is exceptional, displaying mainstream appeal, but not sacrificing the guts of the band’s sound. It’s a bit more subdued and isn’t as raw as hoped (we’re still awaiting that Baroness live album), but it’s a nice little sampler that will likely convince many to invest in Baroness’ more essential recordings.

REVIEW: Down Among the Dead Men Deliver an Energized Form of Death Metal

Bolt Thrower/Benediction vocalist Dave Ingram, along with Rogga Johansson and Dennis Blomberg from Paganizer are no strangers to death metal or even the idea of a side project. Ingram’s work in metal subgenres and even radio programming specifically show that he simply can’t escape the metal community (not that he’d want to). With more than a handful of metal ships sailing these days, the trio pioneer a fresh new project to further scratch that death metal itch. While it won’t set the world on fire and rarely changes itself up across its thirteen tracks, Down Among the Dead Men’s self-titled debut trims the fat from its bones, delivering a faster and overall better approach to the long-tread death metal genre.

Down Among the Dead Men is a mercilessly aggressive record. From start to finish, session drummer Erik R. Bevenrud produces a rapid, gatling gun fire of low-tuned drums, giving the album depth, while guitarists Dennis Blomberg and Rogga Johansson deliver incredibly heavy guitar rhythms, something straight from Messhugah or Fear Factory. Dave Ingram’s vocals are guttural and weighted, rarely differentiating in rhythm. The growls definitely signify the death metal standard, but they rarely achieve a complexity beyond the intense filler heard throughout the genre. It’s certainly a slam, but the layered approach of simply sitting atop such furious musicianship makes the vocals much less essential than they should be.

Down Among the Dead Men is brutal all the way through, but that is its biggest shortcoming. Despite the Messhugah-esque guitar rhythms and suffocating percussion, the album rarely deviates from its heaviness. While that’s nothing new for rhythmic metal, the number of standout moments is terribly miniscule. Melody is clearly not the focus, because aside from toned guitar solos in songs like “Bones of Contention” and “Venus Mantrap”, the album is weight first, pitch later. The band does remedy the single-note vibe by making the songs briefer than their peers do. With a punk rock pace and a blistering metal shade overhead, Down Among the Dead Men remedy the intensity by keeping their songs concise enough that they don’t blend together in a jumbled, single-piece mess. Out of all of the songs on the album, only one cracks three minutes, making the album much easier to digest than others in its genre. However, the lack of standout tracks still creeps along and the appeal is very singular by the final chord.

The rare instances of fully explicit virtuosity appear in songs like “A Handful of Dust”, whose amazing use of guitar groove is a breath of fresh air from the slamming, percussive riffs. “Adolescence of Time” also demonstrates some great guitar work from Blomberg and Johansson, and once again, “Venus Mantrap” stands tall. “Venus Mantrap” also possesses an exceptional blend of beat with guitar intricacy, where Bevenrud’s drums keep a steady pace reminiscent of heavy doom metal than the punk-infused death brew the band shows across the rest of the album. Sadly, these moments of differentiation are limited by the abundance of death metal fundamentals.

Down Among the Dead Men is sure to appeal to anyone who got hooked on Ingram and Johansson’s previous projects, but its rapid-fire percussion does bring a nice edge of thrashy punk to the mix. The rhythms are still the star of the show, with blistering drums and pounding guitar riffs. However, the intricacy is lacking, as Down Among the Dead Men extends its prowess well beyond the limits of its seams. It’s concise and furiously composed, which are still excellent qualities that set them above their peers, but it still drags on too long for a death metal album. All in all, Down Among the Dead Men may have its recurrent flaws and hesitance to stand out, but by trimming the songs down and keeping the rhythms on full view, it still manages to be a good debut that surpasses many of its peers in quality.

REVIEW: Fallen Fate Leave Their Concept Hanging in New Album

Fallen Fate are one of the newer metal bands to appear after the new millennium began. The cavalcade of heavy metal bands from the UK meant that metal was once again empowered. The thrash world mixed death metal and punk for metalcore to rise, and Fallen Fate were ready to plow their way down the aisle and spread their dark, heavy tracks to the people. Into the Black is Fallen Fate’s latest, a concept album with a gothic edge. Sadly, despite a creepy concept, Fallen Fate rarely articulate their story coherently, leaving a stripped-down album that doesn’t rise or fall enough to be dynamic or interesting.

Into the Black is a concept album about Vespa, a young girl who denounced faith in God early in life. Over time, Vespa is possessed by a demonic presence, who takes control of her life and kills her family, ultimately killing Vespa. The concept is something ripped right from one of those modern exorcism movies that get released every year like The Conjuring or The Possession, and while Fallen Fate tend to go a bit deeper than the films that inspire Into the Black, the story is still loose and the music doesn’t do much to present that story in a very articulate or cinematic manner. The band also intentionally leaves the story untied. By not explicitly detailing what exactly is controlling Vespa, the band wants to leave the interpretation to the listener: as to whether Vespa is truly possessed by evil or if her affliction is a sort of divine punishment for not following a faithful life. While leaving an idea open to interpretation isn’t bad per se, announcing that debate within the concept takes a ton of that fun in digging deeper and understanding the concept away. It’s like a standup comedian having to explain why their joke is funny after telling it.

Musically, Fallen Fate stay true to the melodic death metal mantra established by contemporary metal bands like As I Lay Dying and Lamb of God: brutal, guttural vocals with thrash metal musicianship, and while that’s not necessarily bad, Into the Black is certain to leave something to be desired. Vocalist Lee Skinner produces rough vocals throughout the entire album, so it already has its share of limitations. Rough vocalists, due to their lack of melody, are reliant on rhythm to stay interesting and Skinner very rarely experiments with his delivery. The darker, more ominous background vocals in songs like “I Welcome the Dead” and closer “Vespa” are really the only places where the vocals keep things fresh. They add atmosphere and a sense of presence, like something is watching from afar, but they are rarely used and their impact doesn’t give the album much personality beyond their immediate location in the track.

The musicianship, sadly, stays within its own circle as well. The guitar solos crank up the energy on occasion, but to compliment the creepy-as-hell subject matter, speed and melodic creativity isn’t the name of the game. The heavy rhythm section and low-tuned melodies are clearly dark (which is appropriate for an album about religious/sacrilegious conflict). The gothic tones and church-choir atmosphere are nice as well; it’s just a shame that they can’t shine brighter alongside Piers Donno-Fuller’s guitars. And the guitars are really good. “Last Rites” and (once again) “Vespa” are amazing examples of Donno-Fuller’s axemanship. The blend of ascendant, almost angelic solos with the crunching and falling riffs signify Vespa’s push-pull story of good and evil. It’s here where Fallen Fate manage to really paint a picture and tell a story.

Into the Black is dark, and frankly, it should be. It’s a concept album about otherworldly possession, but a good concept album knows that music and story should be entwined. You are telling a story through your music. Fallen Fate have trouble telling that story: instead of some deep narrative, the constantly dark tone sounds more like a one-act play that goes much longer than it should. There are no striking moments, no left turns to speak of and nowhere to really get the guts of their narrative out in front. Virtuosity clearly has a place in modern thrash/metalcore, but it’s how that musicianship is organized that makes Into the Black so underwhelming. Fallen Fate try to tell a story, but Into the Black only provides a setting. A setting does not a story make.

REVIEW: Scythia Deliver True Prog Metal Majesty

Canada’s Scythia have been pushing their snow-covered cavalry for nearly six years now, touring vigorously across the world and constantly aiming to find their comfort zone in the crowded realm of post-90’s progressive metal. It’s not easy; there are so many subgenres and styles to approach, but with their newest release, the band is finally coming into their own. 2014 is off to one hell of a start, because Scythia’s …Of Conquest is an album loaded from stem to stern with virtuosity, intensity and vision. Barely half a month into the new year and we’re already seeing something we’ll be talking about at year’s end. Scythia are a blistering example of progressive metal done right.

Scythia injects a strong shot of folklore influence into their progressive sound, and while that’s nothing too unusual for the genre, the emphasis on Dio-era power metal mythology is a remarkable shift. In fact, the band’s use of folk/power metal lyricism is a striking inclusion. “Sailor’s Accolade” draws plenty of inspiration from European history with the revving guitars of metal, but the upbeat “pirate” themes of seafaring Celtic songs. Lead vocalist Dave Khan is clearly educated in the work of bombastic metal mavens Iron Maiden, though his belting call does possess a trace of Axl Rose, with equal range, but cleaner delivery. In addition to Khan’s powerful singing, drummer Celine Derval also delivers some truly ascendant vocal performances, such as the amazing opening to “Reflections”, a simmering bit of balladry that erupts into a colossal blitz once Khan re-enters the fray. Even the storytelling “Land of Scythia” emits an aged vibe, one that commemorates a fallen fleet with an acoustic guitar line and Khan’s tremendous vocal chops before bursting into an epic climb. Each song tells a story, one built with exceptionally epic musicianship and, as heard in the stampeding “Army of the Bear”, plenty of charging battlecries.

A major problem spot with many progressive metal bands in this new age is that the progressive tends to usurp the metal. Very few bands are able to deliver something heavy and intense while also bringing something intricate and complex. Scythia dodge that pitfall masterfully; …Of Conquest is a very heavy album. Khan’s excellent guitar solos in songs like “Reflections” and “Into the Storm” are razor-sharp, but toned to pitch perfection, not unlike those heard in Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. Drummer Celine Derval’s drumming patterns are extremely adaptive (a key feature for progressive metal); beats shift very frequently throughout …Of Conquest, but Derval keeps pace without a second of hesitation, while delivering just as much heated rhythm as jazzy virtuosity. The same can be said of bassist Terry Savage, whose varied musical background allows him to keep tabs with both the melodic and rhythmic ends of Scythia’s spectrum. The album is heavy, but not in the sludgy sense of Mastodon or Baroness. Scythia are able to hone the claws of the Dream Theater side of progressive metal; it’s certainly majestic, but it’s also just as furious.

But Scythia’s strong grip on prog metal tradition is never ignored. In fact, it’s some of the strongest heard from the community in years. The dizzying keyboards of Jeff Black in the end of “Rise of the Kraken” take the jazzy jam feel of King Crimson and jack in a healthy dose of purely metal drum beats, courtesy of Derval. They don’t sound as heavy as Khan’s guitar, but their texture is a welcome inclusion, one that cools the impact of Derval and Savage’s slamming rhythms. The intricacy isn’t used as a crutch for pretentiousness either; Scythia stays very sensibly in classic power metal mythology and the ever evolving world of heavier progressive metal like Dream Theater. The 13-minute stampede of “Path Through the Labyrinth” constantly changes tempo and rhythm, and while it doesn’t reach the most epic of heights of prog rock/metal forefathers, it manages to stay interesting throughout, a feat that many other prog metal bands have failed to achieve.

…Of Conquest is an album rich with progressive and heavy metal fundamentals, but even more impressive is how much these fundamentals are tightened up. The compositions are majestic and epic, but amazingly heavy. The furious vocal charges into battles, the steady keyboard serenities, the hardened guitar solos, the massively versatile rhythm section; every single one of these elements fulfills the satiations of any prog metal album, but Scythia always go one step further. Scythia are a band with so much creativity and virtuosity in their bones that they give even the prog veterans from Europe a run for their money. Just a few weeks into 2014 and we already have an album that’s sure to reach some Top 10 lists by year’s end. …Of Conquest is simply spectacular.

REVIEW: Blitz From Boston – Punk/Hardcore Anthology Pays Tribute

Beyond the streets of Los Angeles, Washington D.C. was a hub for a budding interest in adrenaline-drenched punk and hardcore music ideologies. But while Bad Brains was taking control of the Capital City, the punk vibe was steadily brewing further north. Boston, Massachusetts was gathering its own punk and hardcore scene, one that LA and DC couldn’t handle. Pioneered by bands like Gang Green, the Boston punk/hardcore phenomenon was taking over. After more than 30 years since the scene hit, influential figures in the movement have released Drop the Needle – Boston Punk Anthology, a collection of legendary punk tracks and unreleased materials from figureheads of Boston-based punk and hardcore. If you’re wondering why punk was such a big deal during the 80’s in Boston, this is the record to listen to. It doesn’t cover every single facet, but this music is still some of the most furious examples of everything great about the scene.

“First Nickel” possesses all of the energy of a punk classic, but tames it quite a bit with melody and some blistering guitar solos. Its emphasis on texture over speed makes it a much less potent chaser after the Red-Bull-spiked adrenaline punch of the first three tracks. The songs by Celebrity Death Certificate don’t reach the paces of classic punk energy, but the band demonstrates a nice control over their intensity. It’s clearly metal over punk, but that’s not a bad thing.

The Scratch tracks are the songs that stand out the most in the “punk” or “hardcore” vibe, because they really aren’t either. Their steadier tempos and Black Sabbath-style guitar solos are so incredibly noticeable when standing on the same album as Gang Green. The bass lines on the song “Centralia” are so heavy, even when set behind the rugged and ripped guitars, highlighting Scratch’s slower pace (which also contributes to the song’s length, which is massively longer than other tracks on the album). The songs from Mallet Head continue this trend, with the live version of “Mother Sunshine” progressing with a stomping rhythm beat and a vocal chorus that, while definitely good for brewing those pits, calls out longer than your typical punk “oi!” But like the Scratch tunes, Mallet Head’s tracks emphasize steadiness and are clearly more based in classic heavy metal than 80’s hardcore punk.

This makes the third Scratch song “El Monstro” such a sucker punch to the face; it starts off quiet and steady enough, but bursts into punk pacing without any warning. The band’s metal skill darts through in a great guitar solo, but still keeps its tempo energized and racing. The brew of metal and punk reaches a near-perfect pitch on “El Monstro”, a track that is able to please both headbanging metalheads and the amped-up punk fans. It’s one of the best tracks on the record.

Probably the most interesting inclusion is five rare demo tracks by Smegma and the Nunz, one of Boston’s premiere punk supergroups that would eventually become the second major lineup for Gang Green. Composed of members of Gang Green and The Freeze, along with the late vocalist of Leper (what is said to be the first hardcore band in the Boston region), Alec Steere, Smegma and the Nunz are still as rambunctious and energized as ever. Steere’s sneering vocals are right up there with the legends of The Sex Pistols and Black Flag. Guitarist Chuck Stilphen (who appears on all other tracks on the album) is a very skilled axeman who is able to mix melodic texture and punk endurance together fascinatingly. “Napalm Sticks to Kids” has an infectiously creepy guitar bend throughout the track, while the bass beats in “Nuns of Guatemala” are just as inescapably hypnotic. As one of the unsung heroes of punk, Smegma and the Nunz’ influence is just as important as Gang Green’s, and in some ways, accelerates itself far past its own breaking point while still managing to stay on its feet. It’s downright incredible how much this music holds up today.

It’s kind of sad how the Boston scene seemed to get set aside in favor of the Los Angeles scene, because the music it produced was something of immeasurable potency. Unlike other groups, its speed and energy never trumped its musicians’ virtuosity. The songwriting from Smegma and the Nunz is amazing: blisteringly fast, but melodic and toned when it needs to be. The Mallet Head and Celebrity Death Certificate tracks don’t stand out as much, but they’re not as all bad: they just have a lot to live up to sharing the stage with Gang Green. Scratch manages to keep both punk and metal fundamentals in equilibrium; “El Monstro” is a fantastic recording. The inherently influential nature of Boston-based punk and hardcore is something of Northeastern myth (trust me, this is Pittsburgh), so seeing the movement get such a resounding tribute is downright incredible. Boston had a lot of offer for punk and hardcore, and this record is a fine sampling of what made the movement so massively appealing, even in 2014.

A Tradition Worth Repeating: Fates Warning’s Dark/Light 11th Album

As the first Fates Warning album in nearly ten years, Darkness in a Different Light has a long legacy to fulfill. Alongside bands like Queensryche and Dream Theater, Fates Warning were a definitive progressive metal band, influencing countless other groups in their journey to step beyond speed or doom metal. They fused the epic nature of 70’s and 80’s prog rock with the growing New Wave of British Heavy Metal influence, creating a heavy, but operatic sound. Darkness in a Different Light isn’t going to set the world on fire. It pales in comparison to Perfect Symmetry, but for a band that has taken so much time off from studio recordings, it’s an album that only reiterates what made Fates Warning so influential.

Unlike modern progressive metal bands, Fates Warning (along with their peers in Dream Theater and Queensryche) didn’t revel in their songs. Many of the tracks throughout Fates Warning’s albums aren’t marathons of virtuosity, and Darkness in a Different Light is no exception. Only two songs on the entire album break the six-minute mark, a shocking move for contemporary prog metal, but also a smart return to tradition. The songs are prime examples of progressive musicianship, but even better, progressive songwriting. With so many other bands stretching their songs out to stupidly lengthy tracktimes, Fates Warning trims the fat while still retaining that majesty and expansiveness they’ve established from square one. “Firefly” has great uses of heavy riffs; for a few moments throughout, it actually sounds like a radio-friendly track (mind blown). The same can be said of the chugging guitar rhythms of “Kneel and Obey”: they show virtuosity, but also oust pretentiousness. They are the perfect length.

But don’t think that Fates Warning have gone all mainstream on you; this is still a progressive metal record and these guys can still spread their wings and break convention. The final track, “And Yet it Moves”, is a 14-minute showcase of melodic symphonies, one that isn’t as heavy as you might expect, but its multiple segments emit fascinatingly intricate guitar rhythms and drumming patterns whose intricacies will stutter your wavelengths. Vocalist Ray Adler’s singing is also on full display with “And Yet It Moves.” His operatic beckon is a rising call that eventually settles into the acoustic coda at the end of the track. The guitar solo on “Into the Black” captures a slick speed metal aesthetic, but it’s toned just enough to not sound overly indulgent. Guitarists Jim Matheos and Frank Aresti combine heaviness and quelled elegance to produce a strong highlight on the album and one of the most impressive performances from the band in years.

There is, however, a big chunk in the album that sounds obnoxiously stale. From third track “Desire” to “Lighthouse”, the band’s creativity isn’t on full display. This section blends together too much; those moments of distinctive instrumentation heard in “Into the Black” or “Kneel and Obey” are buried under power chords and surprisingly tame vocals from Ray Adler. After the rhythmic bliss of “Firefly”, this streak of weakness sticks out like a sore thumb. Not even a brief interlude in “Falling” has the potential of breaking up this period of monotony.

Fates Warning have definitely made their mark on progressive metal over the course of their career, so Darkness in a Different Light has a tough set of acts to follow. While it’s not the band’s best performance, the album is fresh and resilient enough to give the younger prog metal mavens a run for their money. Its steady flow of traditional metal musicianship and epic symphonic ideals make the album recapture the long-lost spirit of 80’s prog metal. Fates Warning’s penchant for disguising intricacy with aesthetic elegance is alive and well; even if you were skeptical about a fresh Fates Warning album, Darkness in a Different Light, despite its flaws, is an album that delivers on the band’s legacy.

Threat Down: Hank Williams III’s Punk Trudge

Hank Williams III’s fascination with genres beyond his family’s pedigree has been one of his most intriguing features in his music. His iconic country legend grandfather and his southern rockstar father have risen to the spotlight for decades now, but Hank III, discontent with that settled vibe, has turned to rock, metal and punk to satiate his creative itches beyond the twang of country. A Fiendish Threat is Hank III’s newest foray into punk, and though it manages to make acoustic guitars fast and rhythmic, the rest of the album is a one-note trip that simply doesn’t know when enough’s enough.

A Fiendish Threat embraces the gatling-gun firing pace of punk with acoustic guitars taking the place of electric guitars. It gives the songs a nice sense of distinction, almost a down-homey kind of vibe. The repeated chords of the acoustic guitar call back to Kyle Gass of Tenacious D, of all people, adding a rougher aesthetic to the furious power chords. Some songs charge ahead, no questions asked, like the maniacally quick “Broke Jaw” and the even faster “Face Down.” Hank III clearly has skill as far as punk endurance goes; it’s great to hear acoustic guitars get such revving motors in a punk atmosphere.

A Fiendish Threat makes two rather large mistakes, though. The first is that the songs are simply far too long for punk tracks. Looking back at some of the more prolific punk bands like The Clash and Black Flag, their songs were blisteringly paced, ending with a crack of thunder and shutting off instantly. They were brief, but energized shots of adrenaline that embodied a rebellious fervor that permeated the scene back then. While the 90’s tamed that speed a bit, bands like The Offspring were able to keep much of that intensity alive by keeping their songs concise. A Fiendish Threat doesn’t embrace that straight-ahead mentality. The tracks very rarely drop below three minutes, with some reaching marks of more than six minutes. While the endurance that Hank III and his band have is noticeable, and brief moments of straight-ahead punk ideals are apparent in the shorter tracks like “Full On”, the songs drag on considerably longer than preferred, making them lose their shine quickly.

The second mistake could be attributed to the first, but still is worth noting: the songs never evolve. The philosophy behind punk tracks is that the actual musicianship is more limited than something like metal or prog rock. Rapid-fire power chords usurp the thrones of intricate guitar solos, bass pedal marathons beat out polyrhythms; punk prided itself on a simplistic structure of speed over technicality. That’s why the songs were so short; no one would want to listen to that sense of simplicity over six minutes. It would get dry extremely quickly. But lo and behold, A Fiendish Threat falls square into that pitfall. The songs drag on and on without any interesting change in tone, rhythm or melody. Of the thirteen tracks on A Fiendish Threat, only two drop below three minutes. Each song’s vibe is the same throughout its length; no melody and no attentiveness to speak of. It just keeps going.

Hank III’s country croon is also nowhere to be found on A Fiendish Threat, instead replaced with a muffled megaphone-esque vocal style which grows thin barely a couple tracks in. The vocals never change during A Fiendish Threat; the monotone chants from Hank III try to harken back to the age of Black Flag and Minor Threat, but sound soulless and imitative. Hank himself just sounds so bored performing the vocals. Aside from the Ozzy Osbourne-esque snarl in “Your Floor,” the album’s punk vibe is hampered by poor vocal effects and an inescapable sense of monotony. It’s just an uninteresting record.

When it comes right down to it, Hank III should be commended for stepping outside of his comfort zone. You don’t hear of many country artists who are willing to do that. But that is the real irony of A Fiendish Threat: it stays in one place and never changes. It’s so devoid of musical topography; the tracks drag on far too long and the adrenaline shot can’t carry on for so many songs, especially when the songs are over five minutes most of the time. The vocal effects tend to grate more than intensify, the power chords very rarely mix things up, and the entire album just embraces simplicity instead of fundamentalism. When the tracks work and Hank III is able to rev the engines to higher gears, you’ll see something truly remarkable, but these moments are simply too infrequent to carry the album. Once again, Hank III is a real explorer in his genre; he’s proven that a country artist doesn’t have to stick to country music and can actually make great music beyond that established genre. However, A Fiendish Threat pales in comparison to his past works and just ends up being dull. Just pass on A Fiendish Threat.

Rough and Rugged: Hank Williams III’s Return to Country

When it comes to having a pedigree on his belt, Hank Williams III is a poster-child. As the grandson of one of the forefathers of country music and the son of a country rock mainstay, Hank III has a family rooted in the fundamentals of southern spirit and down-home tradition. But even with country in his blood, Hank III has earned himself a reputation of diverting from that long-tread path. He’s experimented with heavy metal and punk, all while performing in every role, from singer to drummer to bassist to banjo. But his reputation is taking a rest with Brothers of the 4×4, a return to the musician’s country roots. Though the songs are too lengthy to really experience in their prime without losing steam, Hank III’s multi-faceted talent is still very much alive, even in his most traditional of genres.

The realm of modern country music has been about palatability. The roots of country twang and guitar virtuosity has been set aside in favor of accessibility and pop success. Hank Williams III, like his grandfather and father before him, has ignored the simple song structures and generic lyrical content, instead embracing a “classical” approach to the genre. Songs have demonstrated exciting rhythms, along with virtuosity using stringed instruments like the banjo and acoustic guitar. It’s homey, and while some might call this philosophy “dated”, it still has substance and it allows for a lot more instrumental experimentation on the songwriter’s part. Hank III is a fascinating songwriter. “Farthest Away” is a steady country ballad that has a surprising amount of instrumentation to keep things interesting, despite its smooth, buttery groove. The gloomy sounds of “Ain’t Broken Down” is a worn burn, one that sounds pristinely somber, while the energetic fiddles and guitar twangs come alive in “Lookey Yonder Commin’” (especially in the final instrumental stretch). Williams’ nasally snarl morphs into a steady croon throughout the album (and vice versa), so there’s a lot of variety between the songs themselves.

While Hank Williams III has grown a collective following for his recurrent desire to step outside his established country genre, Brothers of the 4×4 is a country album through and through. The rhythmic riff snarls from Hank III in the laid-back “Outdoor Plan” shows a smoother and much less serious side of the country world. The title track is another song that embraces relaxation and comfort in the outdoors; it doesn’t clutter itself with melodrama, instead sounding off on mudding and hitting the gas. It’s very refreshing, as modern country still sounds restricted in its own skin. The moments in pop country that attempt to celebrate living life and playfully writing music are rare and normally forced, so Hank III’s ideology of taking country back to the roots (roots established by his grandfather and his peers) is exciting and shows that the genre hasn’t lost that rugged charm it built itself on.

Unlike the works of his father, Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III likes to revel in his music. The result is a remarkably long album. Songs rarely drop below the five-minute mark, with the longest, the opener “Nearly Gone”, clocking in at nearly nine. While you do get a sense of Hank Williams III’s skill with rhythm and technicality on the strings, the songs rarely break up their own monotony and move outside their established vibes. They simply don’t change enough. After about three minutes, the songs drag on longer than needed. Compared to the works of his father, many of which were shorter and more radio-friendly recordings, Hank III’s songs on Brothers of the 4×4 overstay their welcome. Hank III’s song-by-song diversity is encouraging and a fresh form for the genre itself, but the songs themselves are simply too consistent individually, dragging on into repetitive and overly extensive territory.

Brothers of the 4×4 is a fun and good-spirited album. Even in its slower and steadier moments, it has a sense of soul that carries it further than other releases from the year. Hank Williams III remains a multi-faceted and technical musician, one who can carry multiple influences around and still add a panache and power to them. But the songs themselves, for all their different vibes and upbeat rhythms, don’t have the endurance to carry themselves for their respective lengths. Brothers of the 4×4 sounds too padded for its own good because of it. But the moments of excitement and spirit are still apparent; Hank Williams III is able to take his most classic of genres and make something remarkably contemporary. While he will continue to be known for his experimental musical guts, this return to his familial musical bloodline is smart, laid-back and it’s a country album that may even turn some heads of those new to the genre.

Therapeutic Rap-Rock: Tech N9ne’s Nu-Metal Mystery

Aaron Dontez Yates, best known for his work as rapper Tech N9ne, has always had a habit of sneaking his way outside of the hip-hop genre and mixing in with rock and metal genres; it’s become one of his most appealing features. He’s a verbose and skilled rapper, but it’s his desire to experiment that has earned him so much attention from so many different genres. Therapy is Tech N9ne’s latest adventure, a return to the ancient art of nu-metal. The fact that Yates is moving into this territory is something that simply must be noted. Despite continued support from genre mainstays like Korn and Limp Bizkit, the nu-metal genre is practically abandoned. Deftones departed back in 2000 with the spacey White Pony, while Linkin Park discarded their nu-metal influences after 2003’s Meteora. So why in the world would Tech N9ne dive into a genre that’s barely alive? His logic behind the decision is still fuzzy, but what’s even more notable is how Yates is able to inject a shot of adrenaline to this otherwise drained subgenre.

With nu-metal producer Ross Robinson on board, Tech N9ne’s newest EP is bursting with heaviness and weighted groove. It’s a clear throwback to the late 90’s-early 2000’s era of metal, and as an effort to breathe new life into that struggling subgenre, Therapy is actually a remarkable success. “Hiccup” is a record-scratching blitz that takes hardcore rap and mixes it with clamoring beats and chugging riffs: it’s a track that’s chock full with intensity and it’s a highlight on the album. However, other songs on the EP don’t work out as well. “Public School” sounds like something ripped right from a mid-era Korn album (with a guttural yell sounding eerily similar to the start of Korn’s single, “Blind”). The first few songs on the album tend to pride themselves on nu-metal tropes like beefed-up rhythms, but without much refinement. But overall, despite some very impressive performances, Therapy still has a persistently dated vibe. If you don’t have a history listening to early nu-metal like self-titled-era Korn or Adrenaline-era Deftones, it’ll be very hard to see what the big deal is. Still, for an album rooted in a near-obsolete subgenre, Therapy is still an admirable work.

The songs that move away from the nu-metal trappings are also very well done. “I.L.L.” is a smashing hitter with a club-metal vibe over Tech N9ne’s rapping, while the heavy, but gloomy “Stop the Sailor” closes out the album with panache. Vocalist Caroline Dupuy Heerwagen’s performance on the hypnotic “Shame on Me” is stellar (though it’s the only guest appearance that really stands out). Therapy’s best feature is still Tech N9ne’s rapping, which hasn’t lost its luster. You won’t hear as much rapid-fire chopper rapping like in All 6’s and 7’s, but his rhymes are still intelligently constructed and poetically lyricized. His creative use of rhythms has earned him critical acclaim over the years and his rhythmic prowess is still very prevalent on Therapy. It’s just in a more subdued form.

Tech N9ne’s courage to break out of the rap genre is admirable, though his decision to revitalize nu-metal with Ross Robinson on board isn’t without its issues. The less-than-stellar songs feel overworked and claustrophobic; the beats are too heavy and a bit too cacophonous to bring out that perverse magic of nu-metal. But even during the weakened moments, Therapy has a good amount of things to love. It’s still a fine example of Tech N9ne’s versatile skill as a musician with a lot of cleverly implemented and substantial hooks. While the album will more than likely be appreciated by classic nu-metal fans the most, anyone who has followed Tech N9ne’s rap discography from the start will still find his skill to be as razor-sharp as ever. It’s not Yates’ best work, but considering his more-than-impressive track record, Therapy is still an interesting listen.

Into Space: Ayreon Continues Sky-High Ambition With Eighth Album Opera

Dutch musician Arjen Anthony Lucassen burst onto a new scene in 1995, pioneering a project that made the world of metal stop for a brief moment. As a fan of sci-fi and dramatic musical opera, Lucassen brought out Ayreon, a group that gripped its goal of massive and cinematic metal with a clenched fist. After seven albums following the epic narrative of Lucassen’s development, Ayreon has returned, starting from scratch, but still keeping its signature ambition. The Theory of Everything marks a new beginning for Ayreon. Lucassen, content with the saga concluded with the previous album 01011001, began a whole new mythology for the Ayreon project, with The Theory of Everything marking its genesis. Ayreon’s ambition continues to walk on air with the project’s eighth album; it’s a powerful and massive endeavor whose strength comes from its united result instead of its scatterbrained components.

Lucassen’s aspirations and creative ambition toward his Ayreon project is downright superhuman (he makes Coheed and Cambria’s seven-album Amory Wars mythology look like a Dr. Seuss book). His bizarrely routine practice on enlisting upwards to 20 guests for each individual album continues with The Theory of Everything. If there’s a face in classic prog rock, modern symphonic or progressive metal, there’s a good chance it appears in an Ayreon album. The Theory of Everything doesn’t stray from that tradition, bringing on vocalists like Marco Hietala of Tarot, Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil and John Wetton of Asia to name a brief few. Joining the instrumentalist section are musicians like ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. With such an eclectic group of musicians from such diverse rock and metal backgrounds, The Theory of Everything very rarely stays in one lane. Lake & Palmer’s Keith Emerson and Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess provide a cosmic synthesizer double team on “Progressive Waves”, while the grinding guitars of “Quantum Chaos” are sure to rev up the atmosphere before ascending even higher. The constant shifts in tone from heavy metal to synth-driven symphonies are poignant, but a bit too abrupt to avoid being disorienting.

The cavalcade of musicians also shows a general lack of synergy, since almost none of the musicians have collaborated with Lucassen prior to The Theory of Everything. There is a large emphasis on keyboard and spacey synths over heavy guitars, especially in comparison to past Ayreon albums, but the more subtle inclusions like the uilleann pipes from Nightwish’s Troy Donockley and a fantastically melodic solo on “Transformation.” But overall, it’s an album fully under Lucassen’s wing, and while that’s still a very admirable feat of creativity on his part, it tends to divide the album in small, but noticeable ways.

Like Ayreon has accomplished in the past, The Theory of Everything is a prog opera, a bombastic and massive spectacle of a metal record. Each vocalist represents a specific character in Lucassen’s story, a tale that draws influence from the cult series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In explaining the transcendent nature of The Universe and the characters that Lucassen uses to demonstrate the story’s purpose, Ayreon bathes itself in such loftiness that it can be very difficult to understand what exactly Lucassen is trying to tell us. In four phases across two CDs, Ayreon demonstrates an insanely ambitious story that just tends to stretch further than the seams can hold. Lucassen clearly has a vision that demands to be heard, but hesitates to be comprehended.

When divided up into individual sections (even by phases), The Theory of Everything sounds more unfocused than it should. With a lack of distinctive moments, a restless musical tone, and a premise so absurdly up in the clouds, it’s not the kind of album that your typical metal fan would fall in love with, even after multiple exposures. But when listened to in its entirety, the vision that Lucassen has pitched to the world doesn’t sound as out of reach. Like any great opera, The Theory of Everything is better than the sum of its parts, a culmination of smaller components that when united, become something completely different and completely unique. And like any theory, this 90-minute opus of ambition has noticeable flaws and a focus that sounds absurdly off-kilter at first, but once the research is put in and the pieces come together, something understandable and poignant appears, something that furthers itself and the world around it in ways originally thought to be impossible.

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A Klok Opera: Dethklok’s Fourth Album Is Less Metal, More Humor

When Adult Swim debuted the brand new cartoon series from Home Movies creator Brendon Small, Metalocalypse, the world was introduced to five metal maestros who aimed to deliver their own brand of fist-to-face, shout-to-hell death metal to the masses. Skwisgaar Skwigelf, Toki Wartooth, William Murderface, Pickles and Nathan Explosion were Dethklok, a band whose massive metal influence simply couldn’t be bound by a television screen. Pioneered in the studio and on stage by creator Brendon Small, Dethklok released three death metal albums, each with brutal metal fundamentals and a satirical outlook on genre itself (when one of your albums has a song called “I Ejaculate Fire”, your tongue is firmly rested in your cheek). After the three Dethalbums, Small and crew released the soundtrack to the Metalocalypse special, The Doomstar Requiem. Though it acts as more of a TV companion album than a standalone death metal juggernaut, The Doomstar Requiem does the band’s journey to reunite justice and offers a remarkable amount of creativity behind the quintet’s purely metal story.

As the soundtrack to the Metalocalypse special The Doomstar Requiem – A Klok Opera, The Doomstar Requiem acts in a different fashion than the three previous Dethklok albums, The Dethalbums I, II and III. While The Dethalbums were pure death metal records featuring Dethklok at their most natural and brutal, The Doomstar Requiem varies up the songs considerably, acting more like a Broadway soundtrack than the playlist to the rise of the Old Gods. While there are examples of death metal virtuosity on The Doomstar Requiem, it acts very leniently in that image. “I Believe” is an uplifting synth-driven song chock full of vocal melodies, while “How Can I Be a Hero?” contains multiple vocals from the band members (Brendon Small, Mike Keneally). “Abigail’s Lullaby” contains violent and frightening lyrics juxtaposed with an acoustic guitar and vocalist Raya Yarbrough singing high soprano notes. The consistently operatic songs tend to lend more instrumental influence from symphonic metal like Within Temptation than the death metal of Cannibal Corpse. “Givin’ Back to You” is a real oddity, capturing a synth-beat sound that sounds like it’s ripped straight from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The final track, the 24-minute long “Doomstar Orchestra”, plays the closer role with a massive orchestral score that captures that epic vibe that any metal odyssey can relate to. It’s a real cornucopia of sounds that Dethklok display on The Doomstar Requiem; it’s chock full of variety that, while not in tune with what you’d expect from the band, still manages to satisfy in a perverse and nonsensical kind of way.

That’s not to say there isn’t some brutality on The Doomstar Requiem. “The Duel” is a purely metal composition with the same amount of light-speed solos and double bass-pedal smashing as you’d expect from any of the Dethalbums. The same can be said with the single “Blazing Star,” and follower “Morte Lumina” a pair of mighty metal climaxes that bring Dethklok to its most apocalyptic of roots. The metal instrumentation throughout the album are usually set in the background, which is sure to bother long-time Dethklok fans, but when it shows up, it’s still incredible well-done. Songs like “The Answer Is in Your Past” might have some goofy vocals, but they’re still undeniably heavy. But is it heavy enough? If you got hooked on Dethklok from the Dethalbums, The Doomstar Requiem is sure to leave you disappointed. It doesn’t intend to be digested as a death metal album, nor should it really be judged as one. It’s a companion, a way to experience the story of The Doomstar Requiem instead of simply playing in its background.

Very much like past Dethklok albums, though, humor is big part of The Doomstar Requiem. Metalocalypse creator (and Dethklok mastermind) Brendon Small has constantly brought a sense of hyperbole and satire to the stereotypically brutal world of metal. The guttural voice of Small’s Nathan Explosion is both clever and brilliantly performed, with Explosion’s metal growls being the character’s default vocal style. Small and the rest of the longtime cast (like Mike Keneally, Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell) perform throughout the album just as well as on the TV show, with additional musicians like Jack Black and George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher bringing in even more variety. It’s a real circus of characters that drive Dethklok’s fourth album, a humorously ambitious record that seems more in tune with the show’s role as a comedic animated series than a harbinger of the future of heavy metal.

It really can’t be overstated how different The Doomstar Requiem is from its predecessors. Despite its small traces of metal intensity, it very rarely fits the same mold as any of the Dethalbums. Acting as a companion to the hilariously metal TV special, The Doomstar Requiem spends more time telling a story and showing memorable characters than brewing the circle pits. In that regard, it performs its job remarkably well. You really do get to know the characters more and it’s a great way to get yourself hyped for seeing the special on TV. But the goofiness probably won’t be enough for those who fell in love with Dethklok long ago. The Dethalbums were remarkable because they were fantastic death metal records in their own rights, so seeing this shift from seriously composed metal with un-seriously written lyrics to a character-driven humor narrative opera isn’t going to be met with unanimous praise. If you’re looking for the The Dethalbum IV, you won’t find it here. If you’re after a less serious and more experimental interpretation of Dethklok, then The Doomstar Requiem will leave a lasting impression. It’s a companion piece unlike any other and, if you’re willing to leave some comfort zones, you’ll fall in love with Dethklok all over again.

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Dear Sister: In Solitude Continue Sweden’s Metal Mastery

Sweden has been contributing to the world of metal for decades, but even now in 2013, they always seem to surprise the metal community. Even after bringing legends like Messhugah and stars like In Flames to life, the recent years have been kinder than ever to Swedish metal and the bands it brews. As if this year’s Ghost B.C. album, Infestissumam wasn’t enough, Sweden brings another group of rising metal mavens to North America with In Solitude. Though they’ve been making music for more than a decade, the Uppsala quintet continue to explore the most revered sanctuaries of metal might. In Solitude’s third album is able to rival its stomping and brooding peers in doom metal, but the band’s insistence on capturing the melodic power of Black Sabbath is what makes Sister an album that sneaks past the feet of the monstrous colossi of the genre, all while making a dent in the hull of metal as a whole.

In Solitude’s sound is difficult to classify, but in a great way. They clearly have a respect and reverence for the doom metal titans Black Sabbath. The guitar riffs from axemen Niklas Lindström and Henrik Palm don’t possess the echoing tones of later doom metal bands like Trouble or Pentagram; instead, the guitarists add a rough and energetic tone, one straight out the book of Tony Iommi. By keeping the pace just upbeat enough to prompt experimentation, the songs sound much more characterized. “Pallid Hands” uses the same tones and notes that Black Sabbath made magical, but unlike the countless doom metal bands of the 2000’s onward, In Solitude don’t sound sluggish on Sister. The songs are actually quite interesting compositions, with plenty of fluid guitar solos and vocalist Pelle Åhman sounding off notes like Baroness’ John Baizley, performers far beyond the gloom of doom. In Solitude inject some much-needed personality into a genre whose standards and formulas have been running on fumes lately, and it’s a great gesture from these Swedish go-getters.

But the band still stays firmly fortified in the lower tones and dark chords of the heavier sides. Despite its ripping guitar lines, the title track has Pelle Åhman complemented by echoing effects and the bell-like bass tones from Gottfrid Åhman sound like psalms for a sermon after dark. Drummer Uno Bruniusson rounds out the quintet with remarkably virtuoso drumming variety. While not enough to rival the prog drummer greats like Tool’s Danny Carey or even Sabbath drum legend Bill Ward himself, it’s incredible hearing a fluid, almost jazzy drumming style in metal, one that’s groovy enough to get a circle pit going amongst the bass kicks and snare fills. Sister is an album that does just enough to stay in its genre of choice, but doesn’t follow the supposed status quo directed by the weighted, lurching beasts of modern doom metal. It’s remarkably varied and lets the band experiment with both melody and tone in shockingly creative ways.

At only eight tracks, Sister does end a bit prematurely. While the diversity between the tracks is definitely noticeable, when the songs crack an average of around five minutes, some opportunities seem to be missed. Despite the song’s nice mixture of tone and rhythm, each song stays within its own bubble. Tempo changes aren’t common, so the over-consistency in the tracks themselves is disappointing. The guys in In Solitude clearly have a wealth of talent across multiple metal fields, so it would’ve been even greater to hear another fresh track or two by the album’s end.

After listening to Sister in its entirety, it’s tough to call In Solitude a doom metal album exclusively. It really isn’t one. It’s dark, but not brooding; dramatic, but not sluggish. By taking cues from 70’s metal instead of modern doom metal, In Solitude manage to bring something fresh to the world of epic, dark and atmospheric metal symphonies. There are so many memorable elements to Sister, but the most resounding success is the band’s ability to combine thunderous rhythms with nimble guitar and vocal melodies. Even at its worst, Sister is refreshing, a diamond in the rough for the genre that takes notes from unexpected influences and interesting metal subgenres. It’s difficult to envision where In Solitude will go from here, but rest assured that Sister is a solid album that challenges conventions while never buckling its own weight. Check it out.

The Body Beyond Redemption

There is a way to make something beautiful and noteworthy out of something unexpected and unorthodox. Noise is a tough element in music to use well, but there are some ambitious artists who can shove distortion to the front lines and actually make something wonderful. The same mantra can be applied to grindcore, death metal or any other metal subgenre that really on roughness, heaviness and a lack of melody; there are ways to make them appealing. It’s not easy, but it’s possible and it’s always nice to see something once classified as cacophony pioneer music into something valuable and culturally essential.

The Body’s Christs, Redeemers doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do anything good. Nothing at all. You can call them “avant-garde” till the cows come home, but that makes no difference when their music is this drained of personality, creativity or any trace of likability.

While the fundamentals of doom metal are slow, lurching rhythms and downtuned melodic instruments, The Body bring this concept into criminal excess in “An Altar or a Grave” and “Failure to Desire to Communicate.” These two songs sluggishly drag their feet for eight minutes with no change in tempo or sampling. They are the same smashing cymbals, super-low riffs and heavily distorted vocals for the entire two tracks. It cannot be overstated how grating this becomes; two minutes into “An Altar…” and you’re already sick of it, but it continues in the exact same pattern. Right when the songs end and you get the okay interlude of “Night of Blood in a World Without End”, it goes right back to the same pattern. It’s disgustingly repetitive to the point of not even being listenable.

Every now and then you’ll hear a new vocal style or the occasionally refined use of metal noise, but these moments are brief, so brief that you might not even recognize them at all. “Prayers Unanswered” features a muffled spoken-word segment while the opener “I, the Mourner of Perished Days” actually can sound majestic, but they’re just not enjoyable. These moments aren’t good for what they truly are; their value simply comes from taking a break from every other pathetic musical notion the album throws at you. They are noteworthy only because they’re not like the rest of the record, not because they themselves are good.

But is The Body a brutal band? They sure do pitch themselves as such, but no, they’re not. Christs, Redeemers isn’t heavy or threatening in the least; the guitars are mindlessly distorted, the rhythms simplistic to the point of basic metronomic pacing, and the cinematic qualities absolutely buried. The most successful doom metal bands make something elegant out of something lurching and brooding; the task of metamorphosis is the genre’s most crucial feature. The Body don’t make any effort to do any of that.

Christs, Redeemers doesn’t sound like music. While you can argue that there are bands that do similar things, but this is experimentalism in its most putrid and abused form. The Body offer compositions on the lowest common denominator possible; they use their walls of noise in very random and unintegrated ways, all while using the same tactics throughout the entire album. Christs, Redeemers sounds like one huge song stretched across ten tracks, but not in any way a good song. It’s monotonous. It’s noisy. It’s unorganized. It’s one thing to challenge the status quo of music and try to be experimental, but it’s another to cite something boring and poorly designed as experimental. Artists use the excuse of experimentalism to justify their work as something viable and creative when it’s not (the “you just don’t get it” or Lulu paradigm). Whether or not The Body are implying this idea may be up in the air, but rest assured that Christs, Redeemers is so devoid of any sense of quality that you’re better off eating your money instead of spending it on this. Do not, I repeat, do NOT listen to this album.

Happily Ever After: Nightwish Soar Higher With New Concert Film

Beyond the pseudo-aggro thrash metal and grinding nu-metal, Finland’s Nightwish were a surging new sound when they hit the scene in 1997. Influenced by dark gothic atmosphere, classical and symphonic musicianship and the heaviness of thrash metal, Nightwish blew the doors down and brought an epic and majestic sound to metal, all capped off with the angelic vocals of a female lead singer. For the time, it was unprecedented to hear such elegance in a heavy metal outfit, but 17 years later, Nightwish have gained a tremendous following in their home country and continue to rise in popularity overseas as well. Despite lineup changes, the band is still the go-to group for their iconic “symphonic metal” sound. With a new lead singer on board, Nightwish rocked Wacken, Germany and documented their performance on the concert film, Showtime, Storytime. Though it has some minor production flaws and a slightly reserved tracklist, Showtime, Storytime is a fine demonstration of Nightwish’s persistent appeal, while also showing off the talents of two brand new members of the Nightwish family.

Showtime, Storytime marks the first production for the band that features new lead vocalist Floor Jansen, who replaced Anette Olzen in October 2013. Like past Nightwish singers, Jansen provides ascendant melodic and operatic force. Her incredible use of soprano continues the band’s defining vocal vibe of siren arias and heavenly pitch. Jansen’s stage presence is very powerful, especially for the concert being her first production as a full-time member of the band. Her performance of “She Is My Sin” varies the rhythm a bit as the tone lowers slightly, while the onslaught of “Romanticide” lets her pipes blast off into the stratosphere. Bassist Marco Hietala also provides backup vocals with a snarling shout. His furious battlecry at the conclusion of “Wish I Had an Angel” brings a slightly rugged aesthetic to the table, but his fantastic performance during “Ever Dream” echoes the late power metal icon Ronnie James Dio with lengthy sustenance and surprisingly expansive range. Worry not, long-time Nightwish fans: the band hasn’t lost their black magic, even with another new lead singer running the front lines.

The band became famous for mixing cinematic and soaring female-fronted vocals with the heaviness of thrash and power metal. 17 years later and lineup changes across the board, Nightwish are still able to deliver some of the most atmospheric heavy metal tracks you’ll find. Many of the more ambient moments during the concert come from Jansen’s excellent vocals and the haunting synths of keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen. Like a church choir, Holopainen’s keyboards add resonance and atmosphere to the grinding guitars and pounding drums. Guitarist Emppu Vuorinen doesn’t demonstrate many intricate solos, but shares some nice virtuosity on “Nemo” and “Romanticide.” Another highlight is the work of newly inducted band member Troy Donockley, who offers incredible sounds on the folk woodwind instrument, the uillean pipes. His stellar performance on the instrumental “Last of the Wilds” is something spectral and otherworldly, but still natural and apropos for the band’s signature sound. Showtime, Storytime keeps the fans happy with the same awesome sound the band has been showing for years, but it also acts as a great demo reel of sorts for new members Jansen and Donockley, who have the potential to push the band to even greater heights in the future.

The concert itself digs into the band’s discography a respectable amount, but doesn’t go further back than the band’s 2000 album, Wishmaster. That might disappoint the long-time fans, but the selected tracks are definitely varied enough to keep viewers interested. Opener “Dark Chest of Wonders” is as energized as it is elegant, two qualities that have always made Nightwish stand out in their genre, while the superb “Ever Dream” darkens the tone further. The cinematic experience of Nightwish is alive in Showtime, Storytime, with haunting lighting illuminating the band and creeping into the roaring crowd. The cinematography, however, suffers a bit too much from abrupt camera cuts, especially in the first half. For a band so infused with elegance and majesty, the very brief shots stick out more than they would for the show of, say, a punk or alternative band. In addition to the concert film, Showtime, Storytime also features a two-hour documentary about Jansen adjusting to performing with Nightwish at live shows and eventually becoming the official lead singer. It’s a nice inclusion and that story of moving from replacement to full-timer is something that few bands have demonstrated publicly. The transition is a moment so overlooked to an audience, so seeing the awkwardness steadily dissipate for Jansen is enlightening whether you like Nightwish or not.

Showtime, Storytime may not be the perfect concert film for the long-running symphonic metal band due to its slightly reserved song selections and rather awkward cinematography, but the excellent introduction to Jansen and Donockley is definitely a sign of good things to come. If you’ve been listening to Nightwish since their inception and are curious to see how they sound with Jansen on board, rest assured that the band’s signature tone is not lost in the slightest. As a group that pioneered the symphonic metal genre, it’s remarkable that Nightwish’s music still sounds fantastic, especially with the roar of a crowd brewing in the background. Showtime, Storytime is a solid representation of the band and thanks to their lively stage presence and ambient gothic tone, it will likely make some new fans as well as satisfying older ones.

Getting the Joke: GWAR Shock and Rock with 13th Album

Beneath the countless genres of rock and metal, shock rock is the one that everyone needs to take a deep breath for before talking about. Alice Cooper, KISS and Marilyn Manson remain the cornerstones of their eras for scaring the crap out of their audiences while delivering their music, but with that embrace of spectacle, the “rock” part of “shock rock” was frequently ignored. It was a musical movement where the live shows fueled record sales, not the music itself.

GWAR were one of the first shock rock bands to completely embrace the joke the genre had become. The members put on ridiculously intricate outfits and face makeup, purposely made their live shows into spectacles in controversy and obscenity, all while staying vehemently dedicated to their wacky mythology of being aliens that landed in Antarctica to play metal for us all. With nearly 30 years of ravaging Planet Earth with their music, GWAR continue their legacy with their 13th studio album, Battle Maximus. GWAR have not changed lanes much since 1985 and they don’t much of that on Battle Maximus either, but if you’re a fan, you won’t be left disappointed.

GWAR’s live performances and obsession with a ridiculously crafted lore behind the band has been their calling card, almost overshadowing the band’s surprisingly enticing mix of punk rock pacing and heavy metal influences. Battle Maximus straddles the line of speed metal with hard punk rock, moving throughout the band’s inner circle with ferocious intensity. “Madness at the Core of Time” is clearly a punk rock song. Despite the thrashy nature of Brent “Pustulus” Purgason’s guitar solo, the pace is so drenched in adrenaline that for a second, you might think you’re listening to some up-and-coming hardcore band in a local dive. It’s made all the clearer when Brad “Jizmak” Roberts started pounding on the drumkit like a maniac, frequently shifting pace and tempo throughout “Nothing Left Alive.” GWAR don’t just parody metal; they can play it really well too.

Dave “Oderus” Brockie, despite donning the spiked shoulder-pads and wrinkled makeup of a shock rocker, actually has a very good and distinctive metal voice. Less guttural and much more influenced by the snarl of Ozzy Osbourne, there’s just enough crowd-pumping spirit behind his voice to get the circle pits turning. “Bloodbath” lets Oderus vary up his singing style with punk calls to the crowd and the occasional sliding melody. His lyrics dance around the controversial content that has made GWAR so widely known and loved in metal. It can get rather raunchy, but GWAR capitalize on that vibe and make it their own. When anyone else does it, it’s uncomfortable. When GWAR does it, it’s their weapon of choice.

“They Swallowed the Sun” is one of the best on the album, with lyrics working around machine control and the same cosmically evil themes GWAR brought with them from outer space. Left-turns are abound throughout the track; shifting tempos, metal breakdowns and a great amount of punk-infused energy. The last chorus escalates immensely, reaching a crowd-pleasing height and ultimately diving down before a climactic final note. However, after the halfway point hits, Battle Maximus starts to blend its parts together. Aside from the instrumental title track and “I, Bonesnapper” (featuring vocals from the artist of the same name), the band loses steam from its distinctive mix of punk and thrash. The songwriting stumbles and the band’s signature tones and themes muddle together into something that will get the circle pits turning, but you won’t necessarily know why.

But does this mean that GWAR are bad? Not really. For a band so completely inseparable from their stage presence, their music is actually quite good and can stand alone. You can’t say that for every shock rock band, but GWAR have some very well constructed songwriting in their arsenal. It’s just a shame that much of that excellent songwriting is shoved to the front of the album. It makes an incredible first impression then starts dragging its feet before its end. Battle Maximus is as blistering and ferocious as GWAR has ever been; it won’t make any new GWAR fans, but it’s still incredibly encouraging to see a shock rock band that can still keep its actual music from getting stale, even 30 years after donning the makeup.

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Needs More Punch: Big Guns Pay Tribute to the Classic Rock Icons

Northern Ireland’s Big Guns have no shame in living in the era where Guns n’ Roses and AC/DC ruled the airwaves. There’s a constant vibe in their music that hearkens back to leather jackets, Harley packs and the grimy, dirty hard rock of the 70’s and 80’s. Big Guns’ debut, Down But Not Out, is an album with a lot of energy behind its rough riffs and crowd-packing choruses, but it still doesn’t have enough Big Guns in it as opposed to the band’s influences.

Despite the focus on the riff-heavy rock from AC/DC, vocalist Kieran “Twerp” McArdle doesn’t try to imitate the kind of sound you’d expect from Brian Johnson (and definitely not Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, the singer from another of the band’s influences). Instead, McArdle channels the grungy, but ranged vocal style of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and the era’s questionable resultant, post-grunge. “The Devil’s Highway” (aside from taking a huge cue from AC/DC in name alone) lets McArdle stretch that vocal range considerably, and while he doesn’t reach the climactic highs of Cornell’s, it’s still a shining moment of promise for Big Guns. You can hear his lungs shaking at the intensity behind his voice.

The band makes a superb showing with “Remember Me,” a blisteringly intense anthem chock full of invigorating left-turns and lots of variety in between the surging pace. Aside from McArdle’s furious, right-in-your-face vocals and a fantastic mix of riffs and solos from guitarist Daniel “Baldo” O’Toole (with the solos drawing comparisons to Judas Priest and early thrash metal), drummer Lisa Howe unleashes a blitz of fast fills and smashing beats, shining as a rhythmic machine behind the kit. “Remember Me” is the kind of song where a band simply doesn’t hold back, letting loose every trick in their book in one massive swell. It pays off: “Remember Me” is easily the best song on the whole album.

That kind of performance makes the rest of the album sound weaker in comparison. The formula of catchy beats leading to a thunderous punch of a hook at the end of the chorus is done rather excessively. Opener “Red Eyed and Rolling” and the underwhelming “A Song For a Friend” both show this formula in effect even before the halfway mark, so expect that abused tactic to ring repeatedly across the eight tracks. “Kiss and Tell” continues that repetition, tugging at those radio-friendly throwbacks that modern classic rock seems to grasp at. The band continues to try and capture that nostalgic fury with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”, which while not terrible, neither brings their own sound into the mix enough, nor pays tribute to Young’s iconic vocal style. It clearly sounds like a cover. The brief closer “Forever and Always” is a dark, evanescent simmer that slowly fades away after its finely tuned guitar solo. It’s a very atmospheric track, but as you can deduce from its short length and status as a closer, it’s the not the kind of music the band wants to make.

Classic rock means different things to different people, but to the musicians in Big Guns, it means something important. By covering a Neil Young gem and channeling their love for AC/DC and Judas Priest, they’ve shown that they’re not trying to crutch up the past, but to inject some adrenaline back into the old bones of the 70’s and 80’s. The result is an album that, while catchy and pretty intense, still doesn’t have the full drive behind it. “The Devil’s Highway” and “Remember Me” are songs that the band should definitely keep close to heart, as they aren’t just fine examples of classic rock-infused fervor, but they give the band their own identity; these are great songs and they’re great Big Guns songs. But for the stumbling points like “A Song for a Friend” and “Fall From Grace”, you see a band who’ve analyzed the formulas of classic rock, but not the creativity. The hooky choruses can only last so long before sounding stale. Big Guns’ debut demonstrates a walking of the line behind reverence and downright reliance; if the band wants to move into the big leagues, they need to channel their own spirits just as much as they channel the spirits of their influences.

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Believe It: Royal Canoe’s Ruthlessly Experimental Alternative LP

Despite a surprisingly lengthy career so far, Canada’s Royal Canoe has still been reserved in publicity, but their newest record Today We’re Believers aims to change that. By embracing a spacey and spiritual sound, Royal Canoe takes the vibes from modern indie and almost obsessively deconstructs and reconstructs them. Royal Canoe diverges from the catchy pop hooks and takes a chance by developing music with intense texture. It’s confidently experimental, but not in a way that alienates the typical listener; Today We’re Believers is a record from a band that simply can’t sit still and that desire to stay moving and exploring is what makes the record such a joy to listen to.

Today We’re Believers does a whole lot. There aren’t too many songs that would be considered “radio-friendly” (at least not on the level of their peers like Young the Giant or AWOLNATION), but admirably, Royal Canoe prove their chops with constant experimentation and soundscapey atmosphere. No song on Today We’re Believers sounds the same; the band jumps from genre to genre, taking every class of music and tossing it into a blender. Like the classification-defying project Gorillaz (specifically during the Plastic Beach era), the members of Royal Canoe don’t limit themselves to what their radio-flooding peers are doing. At one point you’ll hear the exotic “Hold on to the Metal” with its toned and tuned guitars, the next you’ll hear a smooth effect-laden electronic groove on “Just Enough.” This sense of impatience actually works to the group’s advantage; Today We’re Believers has a lot of life, all stemming from the band’s desire to keep things interesting and surprising.

The capitalization on electronics lets the group integrate diverse sounds throughout the record. “Light” demonstrates a warped, almost otherworldly vocal mix and escalating pitches in its second half. The buzzy synths of “Bathtubs” blend seamlessly with the constant motions of vocal effects. Royal Canoe have the makings of indie pop success with their Moby-esque mastery of electronic sounds and groove-laden uses of traditional instrumentation. The use of the synthesizers and the blip-bloops of early 2000’s electronica keep their music from getting stale. It’s unabashedly retro, but also captivatingly current; it strikes a balance and settles into a comfortable spot between the past and present.

But are the songs interesting? For the most part, yes. There are a few missteps, like the slightly drawn-out “Stemming”, but Royal Canoe nail the sense of experimentation that their field has brought to life. The most noticeable issue comes from the moments when the experimentation tones itself down and the more traditional musical elements appear. “If I Had a House” has a surprisingly intense vocal punch, but without a sense of quirkiness and “outside the box” drive, the song doesn’t reach the potential of other songs on the album. “Button Fumbla” is a jumbly and upbeat song with infectious bass beats, and while it also has a broad creativity to it, it is another example of Royal Canoe falling into the pitfalls of their radio-friendly peers.

With so many bands trying to capitalize on pleasing crowds, all with a sense of minimalism in their musicianship, it’s very nice to see Royal Canoe take that slimmed-down, straight-ahead approach so seriously. The tracks are constantly shifting in aesthetic and influence, but the fluctuation isn’t distracting. In fact, it’s more enticing than anything; you’re bound to find a favorite across the twelve tracks. Is it perfect? No. Despite having a handle on the electronic elements, Royal Canoe are still trying to get a grip on the traditional elements like guitars and finding a vocal niche. They are by no means bad, but they are still unrefined. There’s still room to grow there. The indie scene is moving closer and closer to not being “indie” anymore; as these originally toned-down musicians attract bigger and bigger crowds, embracing experimentation is harder and harder to do. Royal Canoe take a step down a promising path with Today We’re Believers. If it’s a sign of the band’s musical vision for the future, this is a band that we’re bound to hear more about in the coming months. Keep an eye out for Royal Canoe, and in the meantime, listen to the clever and creative Today We’re Believers.

Anything But Cheap: Hey Monea! Take Folk Rock Back to Its Roots

The early 2010’s brought us a folk explosion in popular music. Fuzzy guitar tones and thunderous drum solos were no longer the name of the game; today, it’s all about acoustic guitars, banjos and percussion without the fifty-piece drum kits. Say what you will about the quality of bands like The Lumineers, but with their arrivals, the arenas were no longer reserved for anthemic guitar solos and mosh pits. Interestingly enough, Canton, Ohio’s Hey Monea! pre-dated this folk boom; long before folk made its mainstream mark, Hey Monea! were playing at festivals with artists like Soundgarden and John Fogerty. The Ohio natives even got to open for Bruce Springsteen himself in 2012. Despite now being in a genre crammed with newcomers aching to reach out to packed amphitheaters, Hey Monea! don’t aim to follow that trail. This is clean-cut alternative folk music through and through with no extraneous elements attached…and that’s a good thing.

The band’s newest album Cheap Souvenirs kicks things off rather humbly with the catchy, folksy love ballad “Adeline.” Everything you’d expect from the recent folk-splosion that engulfed America in the last few years is present in Cheap Souvenirs, but Hey Monea! don’t give into the arena rock pitfalls that Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have fallen into. The Ohio quartet instead cut back on the bombast, focusing on simmering vocal harmonies and some catchy melodies. They trim the fat from big, big choruses and provide a surprisingly intimate and honest look into that minimalist version of alternative rock that has been torn away in recent acts. An emphasis on steady claps for percussion brings out the band’s vision on stripping down the spectacle and taking their genre back to the good ol’ times.

“I’ve been to church but I don’t pray/And I ain’t gonna start today,” sings frontman Dan Monea on “Pollyanna,” a piano-driven track that takes the best from rootsy, folk rock like Crash Kings and Alabama Shakes. From its campy, but gripping lyrics to the fantastic harmonies between the vocalists, “Pollyanna” shows the band’s biggest strengths, which translate well toward similar songs like “Stay” and “Ohio Lullaby.” The closer title track slows the pace to a steady one; it’s not a crawl, but it’s an intimate one (in a less serious light, it’d be the song your older brother would play to his significant other around Christmastime). These moments of reveling in the moment are where you see Hey Monea! in a fine light, one that doesn’t distract or obscure. It’s just there and it does a great job doing it.

Other songs on the album, however, don’t work out as well. “Never Gonna Take You Back” is a forgettable track that, despite its galloping pace and upbeat tone, doesn’t provide anything interesting for the band. It’s an odd detour, since the first two tracks are remarkably mellow ones; moving toward that crowd-jumping pace seems like an unneeded and distracting motion. The album also tends to drag a little near the end, with some of the last few songs lacking that aged amber that the beginning of the album possesses. “Cigarette” is a faster song reminiscent of modern indie bands like Vampire Weekend or a softer version of early emo rock like Jimmy Eat World. While it’s a nice surprise, it’s not Hey Monea! doing what they do best. The harmonies aren’t as noticeable, the melodies not as smooth; it’s a bit of a disappointment. These moments of diversion stick out like sore thumbs among the smooth balladry on Cheap Souvenirs, which otherwise demonstrates a homey vibe that Hey Monea! simply shine with.

Hey Monea! aren’t the hardest rocking band, nor are they the kind of band you’d expect selling out enormous arenas in this pop folk environment called 2013, but they do possess a brilliant kind of campy substance that makes Cheap Souvenirs a nice surprise. When the Ohio guys slow their pace down and let the fire burn a little bit, they show an excellent alternative to the stale folk scene. The piano chords sound off like no one’s business, Dan Monea’s singing is quite melodious (especially in the harmonies with his bandmates) and the songwriting has a rugged, but refined tone. This surprisingly interesting approach to folk rock makes the detours from the mellow tones all the more distracting. It’s great to hear variety on an album like this, but the band shows that they’re not at their best when their pacing accelerates. When they slow things down, Hey Monea! do a lot of things right. Cheap Souvenirs isn’t going to set the world on fire, but if you want an alternative album that cuts the theatrics and just performs really, really well, Hey Monea! will offer a serene and comforting look into the World of Folk That Used to Be.

Stick to Tradition: Satyricon’s Black Metal Motions

Oslo’s Satyricon are one of the survivors of the Norwegian black metal scene. Countless tragedies in other bands have notoriously marked the genre as a dangerous mechanism in metal, but Satyricon have always remained a pure entity, grounded by musical integrity and civility. With only a vocalist as an original member and a long-time drummer picking up the slack, Satyricon have returned for their first new studio album since 2008’s The Age of Nero. The band’s self-titled album is a decent return, but it doesn’t live up to the band’s past works and almost sounds drained, even before the halfway mark hits.

With the two main members of Satyricon taking control, their self-titled album is, conceptually, a condensed project. Lead singer Sigurd Wongraven (otherwise known as Satyr) follows the black metal book with a razor-sharp growl to his vocals; it’s aggressive, but not guttural, making the vocals much more bearable than those of their peers. However, the lack of percussive shouts does detract from the rhythmic nature of the vocal style, while the lack of melody makes it near impossible to consider it “singing.” Satyr’s vocals are nothing to write home about, but by black metal tradition, they are far from problematic.

But what drives Satyricon’s latest album so far is the drumming proficiency of Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad (otherwise known as Frost). His suffocatingly intense fills thunderously roar in the background, while double-bass pedals rumble alongside Satyr’s vocals in songs like “Tro og Kraft.” Regardless of the tempo or the mood of the song, Frost is constantly pushing his speed and rhythmic prowess into aggressive territory. It’s odd considering the steadier beats from Frost appear at the most bizarre times; he slows down the pace rather inconsistently throughout the album, but negates this minor issue with undeniably fast rhythms. Like a lightning storm in the distance, the quakes from Frost’s drumming shake the very essence of the album.

But aside from Frost’s riotous drumming and Satyr’s snarling growls, Satyricon don’t do much to break their traditions of black metal. The guitars are tuned to a looming tone, but you won’t find many virtuosity infused solos or captivating soundscapes on Satyricon. The melody is very under-utilized, almost to the point where Frost’s rhythms are the only thing moving the band into new territory. Even the most elementary of doom or black metal band is able to use melody to imply a darker tone, but Satyricon, despite being veterans in their genre, keep this album flat and uninteresting. The brief moments of tempo shifting and tone experimentation like the thrashy “Walker Upon the Wind” or the siren psalms of “Phoenix” are buried under a cacophonous template moving entirely by Satyr’s snarls and Frost’s snare barrages. Clear as day: Satyricon are going through the motions with their self-titled album.

“The Infinity of Time and Space” is an oddity on Satyricon, with the band going through a number of musical shifts over the course of eight minutes. You’ll hear shrieking sounds from Satyr, some frequent tempo changes and an overall sense of epicness and broadened approach. While it’s not exciting from start to finish, “The Infinity of Time and Space” is a captivating track that demonstrates narrative and compositional complexity: there’s a progression here that is tragically absent from the rest of the album. One other unique track is “Nekrohaven” where the band lets loose their growing emphasis on hard rock influences. “Nekrohaven” doesn’t have obscure rhythms or doomy, downtuned instruments; at moments, it almost sounds radio-friendly. Despite the commercial appeal, “Nekrohaven” is shockingly different from the rest of the songs on Satyricon, making it a surprising star track.

Satyricon is not going to wow anyone, even if you’re a dedicated fan of Norwegian black metal. The band hasn’t diluted their sound to the bone, but they haven’t spiced it up either. The short bursts of creativity like the choral voices of “Phoenix” is only realized after the first four trudging tracks, with the other highlights being buried and overly condensed by the album’s conclusion. Black metal isn’t what it used to be, and while Satyricon’s attempts to keep their sound current and focused are appreciated, their efforts are ultimately left for naught. Satyricon is an album that feels soulless and too straightforward to recommend. If you’re a long-time fan of the band, the album is okay, a mild effort from a band synonymous with the genre. But anyone else, even metal fans will find the album to be uninteresting and far too dull to sit through the entire 52 minutes.

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Bloodshot – Hardcore Thrashers Ringworm’s Blistering Vinyl Release

Cleveland, Ohio’s Ringworm have had quite a career. With a huge number of lineup changes since the band’s inception in 1991, it’s clear that they’ve had multiple opportunities to shift their fist-to-face sound over time. After more than 20 years running riot on tour, Ringworm celebrate another move to the road with a special vinyl recording, Bleed. It’s short and doesn’t do anything remotely new for the band, but fans who grew to love Ringworm will find all of their favorite features brought to their record player once again.

Bleed is a brief three song vinyl record, with each track demonstrating the band’s penchant for blistering speed and metal-influenced intensity. With a clear love of the chaotic thrash metal genre and the adrenaline-drenched hardcore genre, Ringworm’s special promo LP does capture the band’s spirit well. Despite a punk aesthetic, hearing such powerful guitar lines from guitarists Matt Sorg and John Comprix is exceptional. The guys compliment the intensity well, with their solo techniques and sounds influenced straight from the thrash metal high-rises like Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. In combination with a rapid-fire machine gun percussion from drummer Danny Zink, Ringworm pick the best parts from 80’s thrash, while keeping a hardcore energy alive at all time.

However, these three songs don’t speak volumes. As intense and furious as these three songs are, they are clear examples of a band sticking to their guns. Across the three tracks, there’s nary a moment where the band changes things up and shifts into a new gear. It’s fast and heavy, but no amount of speed and distorted weight can prevent these three tracks from blending together into a collection of extreme punk metal cacophony. It’s crazy, but insanity can’t carry Bleed out of its already established forte.

Ringworm’s trump card on Bleed is a cover of punk band Discharge’s “The Nightmare Continues.” While the guys in Ringworm do preserve that sense of anarchic, rambunctious fervor, their extreme hardcore sound doesn’t click in tune with Discharge’s original punk track. The energy is misplaced; the entire song blends in with the other two tracks on Bleed, making the cover a missed opportunity, both to recapture the spirit of Discharge’s original and to revamp the performance in Ringworm’s own light.

Ringworm do a good job of mixing thrash metal with its (debatable) roots of punk sounds, while adding some extreme musicianship as well. If you’re a fan of Ringworm’s extensive discography, Bleed will get your attention during the brief time it lasts. If you’re looking for a starting point for Ringworm, however, you won’t find a good one in Bleed. With such few surprises and a sound that never evolves or grows in appeal over time, it’s definitely not an essential disc, even for the most flexible metal maven.

A Misfit Shines: Doyle’s Debut Abominator Slays Expectations

In the Pantheon of punk, there’s always a special place for The Misfits. Where Black Flag and Minor Threat used crazy, hardcore elements and The Ramones spearheaded elements from pop music like The Kinks, The Misfits were the ones who descended into the darker realm of horror-themed images and creepy-as-hell aesthetics. In comparison to the motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket-wearing rebels in the high school parking lot, The Misfits were the guys dressed in black, goth gear and smoking behind the bleachers. After the multiple restructurings of the Misfits lineup, guitarist Paul Caiafa (best known as Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) took his time to move back into music. After some appearances with former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig on tour with his band, Doyle finally broke his silence and moved into full-fledged solo work. Abominator is the first record from Doyle’s self-titled band and it’s one of the most surprisingly strong solo debuts you’ll see this year.

Doyle is Caiafa’s outlet to let his inner metalhead loose. While there are moments of punk pacing and rapid-fire rhythms, Doyle is no punk band. The rambunctious punk fundamentals of Doyle’s former band are set aside in favor of some blisteringly heavy riffs more in-tune with the heavy metal world. The title track is a furious opener, with vocalist Alex Story screaming his lungs out seconds into the album. Doyle himself is able to add squealing guitar solos into nearly every track on the album, another stark contrast to the hardcore-influenced work of early Misfits recordings. With the ability to focus on metal melody and virtuosity instead of simply punk endurance, Doyle’s skill as a guitarist is clearer than ever. Even more so is his talent in songwriting; he’s in the spotlight now, so passing off the same power chords and punky tones just doesn’t cut it anymore. Fortunately, it pays off on Abominator. Doyle just shines here.

But while Abominator is still a very heavy album, it doesn’t go too far in that intensity. Story’s vocals are near-guttural, but there’s just a smidgen of melody, one that keeps him in the realm of Pantera instead of Sepultura. That walking of the line between extreme metal and melodic heavy metal allows Doyle to pick the best parts of both without suffering too much from either side’s weaknesses. The catchy “Cemeterysexx” may be as romantic as getting your girlfriend a torn-up Jhonen Vasquez comic compilation for your anniversary, but for a song about getting dirty in a graveyard, it’s tone is surprisingly radio-friendly. “Dreamingdeadgirls” is a bizarre left turn, with a surprisingly lighter chorus, one that’s juxtaposed with some gritty verses about necrophiliac relations with murdered women. As you might expect, it’s a fiendish record.

The grindy, gritty metal sounds, above all odds, don’t outstay their welcome. “Valley of Shadows” has a solid pace, one that lets Doyle experiment with his guitar rhythms while still making the song purely metal. “Land of the Dead” has a tight chorus reminiscent of older Metallica recordings mixed with a low “crush” growl that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Slayer. Doyle performs a very smart act in adding a plentiful amount of variety in Abominator. Behind a doom metal verse in “Love Like Murder” instantly moving to a thrash metal chorus in the same song, Doyle clearly didn’t feel comfortable in sticking to one subgenre of metal music. That decision makes Abominator a much more appealing record altogether.

If Abominator has a mark against it, it would be in the lyrics, which feel juvenile. While The Misfits were the pioneers of integrating horror themes and creepy imagery into their punk songs, the topics of necrophilia and occult practices don’t seem to hold weight here. They don’t sound dark enough to be taken seriously (even by Hot Topic regulars), nor do they sound ironic enough to joke around with; they exist in this half-parody, half-conviction limbo. It’s never clear why the lyrics are what they are, so it damages Doyle’s aesthetic, adding in an indecisive mystery that distracts more than intrigues.

It’s very comforting seeing how Doyle is able to step outside of the shadow of his most iconic project and finally put his talent in songwriting and axe-rocking into legitimate effect. Abominator is a shockingly tight album with some great musicianship from Doyle, with his fellow bandmates keeping up with him every step of the way. Even better is his yearning for difference, his ability to keep the intensity on high and the variety constant. It’s not easy moving into solo work from one of the most prolific backgrounds in punk and goth rock history, but Doyle proves that it can be done. Abominator is a beast of an album with a little something for any variety of headbanger. It’s one of the best surprises of 2013.

**Editors Note: Hopefully you are all well aware that Doyle is on tour with Danzig and he is even doing a Misfits set with Glenn.  When he stops in Pittsburgh on 10/21, Doyle promised to chat with us for a bit, so stay tuned for an exclusive interview from Stage AE!!!

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HORSEBACK Defy Genre with Rarities Collection, A Plague of Knowing

Let’s cut to the chase: HORSEBACK is thoroughly original. No band really sounds like them when they’re in their element. Combining rough and distorted vocals with cosmic, indie-alt production and musicianship, Jenks Miller’s bizarre project defies all identification, priding itself on breaking tradition instead of accessibility. Their latest rarities collection, A Plague of Knowing, over-indulges their sound a bit too much, but still keeps their unclassifiable vibe alive.

HORSEBACK is a very interesting animal in the world of metal. Founded by Mount Moriah guitarist Jenks Miller, HORSEBACK does contain influences from the grindcore vocal world. The rough and growling singing is brutal, but through clever production and subtle uses of atmospheric effects, it sounds spectral and otherworldly, in addition to being heavy. The increased use of distortion adds an almost frightening element to Miller’s vocals; it’s unintelligible, but like many ghosts of horror movies, that lack of coherence makes it even more difficult to understand and more enticing to explore.

From the musical side of things, however, A Plague of Knowing is very un-metal. The heaviness is toned back considerably for progressive rock-influenced ambiance and majestic, ethereal soundscapes. This is a startlingly inventive move that sounds very bizarre at first, but instead shows how to make something intense like growling vocals fit in with one of the least intense fields of contemporary music. Even compared to spacey prog metal like Mastodon’s Crack the Skye of Between the Buried and Me’s Colors, HORSEBACK’s A Plague of Knowing kicks the ambiance into its highest gear, transcending the intense façade and machining its way into higher places. By far, what Miller has truly done with HORSEBACK is abandon all sense of taxonomy; classifying what HORSEBACK is isn’t possible.

A Plague of Knowing is extensive, with 24 tracks composed of live recordings, vinyl songs, demos and rarities from the entire HORSEBACK discography. While seasoned fans will love individual mixes and specific musical endeavors, newcomers aren’t likely to find any specific examples of prowess throughout this collection. A Plague of Knowing is best experienced as a collective and while there aren’t one or two standouts, the entire album is compiled so well as a whole that it’s tough to not get lost in all 24 tracks. For example, “MILH” and “IHVH” merge together well, with spacey production, climbing melodies and the distorted static of Miller’s growls. This storm is quiet, but intense; A Plague of Knowing is so radically different from so many other metal bands that it’s sure to underwhelm the fans of instantly gratifying radio metal. It’s not meant to punch you in the face; it’s meant to slowly weather away the interference before going in for the finisher.

That being said, though, this near-dependence on collectiveness demonstrates a lasting sense of self-indulgence and length. 24 tracks is a lot of music, and with so many of these tracks lasting more than 5 minutes (the closing title track is a whopping 41 minutes long), it can overstay its welcome a bit. It’s very muddled in its continuity; in other longer albums, these extensive passages add a connection and unity between the tracks, telling a bigger story. A Plague of Knowing, however, is no concept album. It’s a rarities collection, so these lengthy songs don’t link together and it can make the longest ones a bit hollow in their meaning. Also, since these songs are already very spacey and atmospheric, A Plague of Knowing isn’t a concentration album, that is, it’s best played in the background and not when you’re actively listening. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: A Plague of Knowing has a ton of creativity behind its creator. It’s not focused enough to stand out, but really, it doesn’t need to.

HORSEBACK will not appeal to everyone. It’s an extremely slow burn, even next to its progressive anthem-constructing peers, and it will instantly flop with anyone addicted to adrenaline-soaked radio metal. But those with patience will discover something purely original in HORSEBACK. Judging the album itself, however, isn’t as cut and dry. The immense length of the collection and the very broad song construction can make the entire album sound over indulgent and too long to handle. Once again, it’s an album that not only doesn’t demand active listening, but is best to avoid that. It can’t be recommended as a record where you’ll get lost in every second of every track. But it clicks distantly and effectively. For anyone with a penchant for musical journeys (albeit long ones), you’ll find this rarities collection to hold some wonderful enjoyment. Original and chock full of content, A Plague of Knowing won’t make any new fans, but will secure the reverence of anyone already familiar with HORSEBACK.

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Casting a Scornful Eye: Primitive Man’s One-Note Debut

Filthy. Malignant. Frightening. These words can and have been used to describe Scorn, the debut album of Denver’s Primitive Man, the death/doom metal double team. Those three words are potent adjectives to describe the band’s undeniably angry and depressing musical force. The filthy grinding guitars, the rough, guttural vocals, the frightening bass tones: those adjectives are not at all inappropriate for Scorn. But with that fitting mood, Scorn builds up a number of mixed messages, ones that make the album much less than what it could’ve been. Primitive Man have made an album that is depressing on every possible level, not only in the purposely weighted tones and blackened vocals, but in the fact that this 44-minute death/doom hybrid is one of the most unappealing slogs through metal seen this year.

Scorn opens up with its title track, a 12-minute long grind through some of the heaviest and darkest musicianship this side of Black Sabbath. It’s so weighted and packed with low-tuned riffs that the album doesn’t bring up any kind of consciousness on energy. The members of Primitive Man have prided themselves on a sense of sheer pessimism and depressing tones and in that regard, Scorn does its job incredibly well. This album is devoid of anything resembling positive thinking. It’s the theme of doom and death metal to offer a rebellious and distorted view on music, but Scorn takes that theme and sucks the soul right out of it.

Scorn is an album drenched in monotonous darkness. Doom metal is a genre that possesses those heavy tones, but it also offers melody. It’s unquestionably dark, but that melody is what keeps any great doom metal album from becoming a flat and boring one. On the other hand, death metal is intense and furious, complimented by percussive death growls and aggressive rhythm sections. In Scorn, Primitive Man mixes the two together. It most certainly is heavy and dark, but in combining death growls with doom metal, the album becomes flat and boring. Songs blend together with their stomping tempos; even before the first track is over you’ll begin to get bored.

The album does pick up a little in the song “I Can’t Forget”, an ominous instrumental with clashing drums and ambient soundscapes and in “Black Smoke”, a slightly experimental soundscape track with chanting in the background. “Stretched Thin” is a faster, thrashier song, one that picks up the pace late in the album after over 30 minutes of terribly boring death metal doom. “Stretched Thin” is better, a refreshing glass of water after the potent cocktail of doom/death metal, but once the song’s over, the band regresses right back to painfully repetitive growls and stomping drum smashes.

Primitive Man’s mix of death metal intensity and doom metal heaviness isn’t necessarily an unsteady one. The genres combine seamlessly and the entire album takes some of the better parts from each. However, the album is about as varied and interesting as a brick wall. No song stands out and the entire album drags on considerably because of it. It’s a 40-minute grind of a record that tries to be ambitious, but ends up being an uninteresting slog with no left-turns or shocking melodies to speak of. Even if you’ve gotten involved in either the death metal or doom metal scenes, Scorn cannot be recommended. Primitive Man’s attempt for uniqueness and creativity is admirable, but the end result is a wasteland of bleak and empty metal songs that don’t possess any kind of spark of personality. Stay away from Scorn.

Losing the Legacy: Her Dying Regret’s Untapped Potential

Very much like hair metal, post-grunge and nu-metal before it, metalcore is an underwhelming genre. It’s nothing particularly bad; it’s just oversaturated. Very few bands have been able to move beyond those screaming vocals and grinding riffs; for every Killswitch Engage or Underoath we see, we see hundreds of slapped-together outfits plagued by repetition and uninvention. The bands keep churning, but here comes Her Dying Regret, a metalcore band from Reading, United Kingdom with an urge to continue the genre’s trail of circle pits and fists in the air. The band’s newest record, Legacy, is a thoroughly disappointing effort not in its overall quality, but in the fact that every pristine moment of wonderful evolutionary potential is buried under the same metalcore tropes we’ve seen for the last 10+ years.

The fundamentals of the love-it-or-hate-it genre of metalcore are clear as day on Her Dying Regret’s newest record. You have your rough, screaming vocals. You have your crunchy guitar riffs. You have your heavy, pounding rhythm department. It’s all there, checked off the bulleted list of genre mainstays. For what Her Dying Regret does, it does without much falter. None of the members do their job particularly poorly. Legacy is an intense record, one that feels tuned for getting a crowd going in a filthy dive in your local town. It’s not epic, nor is it bombastic, but it’s aggressive.

Metalcore’s greatest weapon has always been the mix of screaming and clean vocals, and while you do see some shockingly refined examples of that on Legacy, Her Dying Regret still seems too focused on the brutality of rough vocals, at least during the first half of the album. The brief moments of cleanly vocalized melody like in the surprisingly majestic chorus of “The Shallow” clear the air of the heavier growls that seem to permeate the first two full tracks. The title track possesses some wild tempo changes, great changes in rhythms and some awesome exchanges between screaming and clean vocals. The guitar lines are also very toned and clear, harkening back to the works of prog metal band Between the Buried and Me. The very surprising key of the closer “The Filthy Truth” is uplifting, despite having the same growls and grunts heard throughout the entire album, closing out with a battlecry of sorts before the album’s end.

But Her Dying Regret doesn’t expand upon the amazing dynamics and experimentation of “Legacy” and “The Filthy Truth,” still feeling content with heaviness over creativity. The musicianship is definitely there, but it’s static, trapped in an obnoxiously settled loop that never branches out to new ideas. The rhythms are thunderous (especially when the double bass pedals make their appearances) and the chugging guitars confidently bring on the weight and the grind. However, Legacy is not an effort made in self-invention. It rarely emits an ambitious vibe and constantly uses the same tropes heard in countless other bands in the genre. The moments of evolution are big enough to be noticed, but not focused enough to bring the album to anything above the established average.

Metalcore is easily one of the hardest genres to stand out in these days. So many bands are appearing and disappearing from the scene that finding a truly original gem is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Her Dying Regret’s Legacy is no gem; it’s a straightforward metalcore record with every bit of personality you’d expect from the genre, for better or for worse. What’s especially crushing is that there are examples of melody, experimentation and captivating distinctiveness throughout the album: “The Shallow” and “The Filthy Truth” are stepping stones to making Her Dying Regret stand out instead of fading into the background cluttered with posters of All That Remains and Blessthefall. If Her Dying Regret want to really distinguish themselves from their countless peers, their next album needs a kicker. This is a band that (unlike many other metalcore bands) has true, untapped potential, but right now, they just haven’t dug deep enough. Legacy is the cap on that well.

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Just Rock – Black Water Rising’s Nameless Riffs

Brooklyn’s Black Water Rising’s second effort capitalizes on the band’s self-proclaimed moniker: “No frills riff rock.” At that explanation, the band’s image is already settled onto a plane riddled with derivative radio butt rockers like Pop Evil and Saliva. But let’s not count out their second album, Pissed and Driven just yet, because it’s not a bad record. On the other hand, it’s not great either. It’s a rock record. What kind of rock? Grinding rhythmic rock? Intricate speed rock? Neither. Pissed and Driven is just a rock record and that’s its biggest problem.

The tones on Pissed and Driven vary considerably throughout the album. “Pissed N Driven” is a revving adrenaline-soaked joyride, while lead single “Dance with the Devil” brings on the Alice in Chains-inspired sludge with steady paces and singer Rob Traynor’s snarling croon. “Last Man Standing” is a song that bursts with personality, something that the album doesn’t necessarily flaunt. The guitars are usually downtuned extremely low throughout the album (like in the sludgy “All Gone”), which makes for a rough and grindy sound reminiscent of groove metal like Pantera and early nu-metal like Deftones. This kind of rhythmic guitar aesthetic is something that could make the band’s sound blossom, but it isn’t utilized in a personal manner and is introduced in a pedestrian and unneeded way. It doesn’t have an accurate focus, it doesn’t sound cohesive: it wanders aimlessly.

Guitarist Dennis Kimak’s Zakk Wylde/Dimebag Darrel inspired solos are revving examples of great shredding (especially during the solos of songs like “Pissed N Driven”), while vocalist/guitarist Traynor brings on the downtuned grinds. While rhythm becomes the key element on a majority of the songs, the parts of the album that sound the most exciting are the faster, more energized ones like “The Allure of Self Destruction,” a fantastically composed song that manages to bring up enthusiastic vibes despite its clear metal roots. There’s a virtuosity in the musicians’ bones that begs to be free; it’s clearly there, but only for a short moment.

Some songs, however, don’t demonstrate enough creativity or fluidity in their sound. “Along for the Ride” aims for a smoother groove, but ends up sounding boring with uninspired lyrics and a tempo that doesn’t sound as tight as it should. “Fire it Up” has some fantastic guitar solos, but once again, the boring vocals and nu-metal-sounding rhythms tend to overstay their welcome. The whole album’s sense of indirection is really what makes it so underwhelming. The metal sides of the musicianship are great and some of the more traditional hard rock bits are good at times too, but just as you’re beginning to see a vision in one great song, the entire picture shifts and you’re listening to something different and generally less appealing.

In that regard, it’s tough to see the kind of direction that Black Water Rising is trying to achieve with this album. The variety throughout the album is surprisingly well-done, but at the same time, it’s scatterbrained and unfocused. You just can’t tell what kind of rock band Black Water Rising wants to be. The use of rhythmic grinding guitars in addition to faster, speed-metal influenced guitar solos make the album’s otherwise honed rock fundamentals disperse into something formless and difficult to identify. Black Water Rising’s already ambiguous description of themselves is a sign that they need to develop their personality beyond just “riff rock.” Pissed and Driven isn’t a terrible record at all, but at the same time, it’s not great at all either. It’s just rock. Riff rock. And right now, I’m not entirely sure that anyone can really say what that means.

Forever Doomed – Trouble Stomp Back With The Distortion Field

Black Sabbath are widely recognized as the progenitors of what would later become heavy metal. Unsatisfied with what rock was during the 70’s, the British kings of metal become one of the most important bands in history, pioneering a dark genre and a mighty movement unlike anything seen before in rock. Metal was alive. But with the emergence of a fascination of speed in heavy metal, many bands abandoned the cornerstone elements of Black Sabbath’s sound in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal brought out bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, bands that demonstrated their virtuosity with a frighteningly fast and aggressive pace. That eventually led to thrash metal; bands like Metallica took Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to heart, catapulting metal into a new age dominated by speed.

But some bands found more value in what Black Sabbath and Deep Purple had to offer: a thunderous and heavy tone, mixed with a virtuosity that could set influence toward the later works of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Chicago’s Trouble marked a back-to-basics sound that, despite relying on the older days of metal, felt just as fresh, potent and meaningful as what both Judas Priest and Metallica would eventually bring to life. The band’s first album since 2007’s Simple Mind Condition isn’t just a recognition of doom metal’s fine past, but it’s a damn good album that can match anything that metal has showed off this year.

Living in a genre based around a near perpetual sense of morose heaviness, Trouble keeps the traditions at the forefront of their battalion. Despite living in eras of both the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and its later-inspired thrash metal cousin, Trouble set speed aside and moved in the opposite direction. Quickness and nimbleness was never in the band’s blood and that doesn’t change on The Distortion Field. Songs like “Glass of Lies” are some of the most stomping tracks in metal; Trouble shows every bit of their skill and finesse in bringing out the weight of their world. “One Life” is a massive slam of a track, with an opener with such gravity that you might need to upgrade your subwoofer by the song’s finale. Even when the grinds subside in the more elegant and melodic “Have I Told You,” the pacing is still very steady, which makes for a refreshing glass of water among the Red Bull cocktail of furious speed metal.

But just because Trouble is a heavy grind of a band doesn’t mean that the virtuosity is set aside. “Hunters of Doom” manages to inject a spike of adrenaline to the record, but not moving too fast and leaving the band’s roots in the dust. The Judas Priest-inspired double-guitar assault from Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartell remains a finely dimensionalized approach to a genre so enamored with stalwart golems of metal. Trouble isn’t a one-trick pony on The Distortion Field; they show a sense of groove on “Greying Chill of Autumn,” demonstrating the band’s reverence for psychedelic rock along with their metal background.

A new vocalist offers a new beginning for the doom metal legends. Kyle Thomas may not be a stranger to the band (he filled in as lead vocalist from 1997 to 2000), but this is his first role of the official vocalist for the band and his first studio album recorded as it. While the instrumentalists in Trouble have focused on the sludgy metal of all eras of Black Sabbath, Thomas settles into a niche brought to life by the late, great former Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio, where the steady pace isn’t shoved down by low and otherworldly screams. Instead, it’s all about a balance, an uplifting and gripping voice complimented by some great musicianship. Thomas’s range is phenomenal; while it’s a bit rougher than Dio’s, he still shows off vocal chops with high notes, vibrato calls and a great amount of diversity even throughout single songs alone, such as the lower-toned “Your Reflection.” It’s clear that he is right at home with Trouble.

The Distortion Field doesn’t distract the listener; each song is focused and packed with substance. The band’s straight-ahead metal groove is something of unsung heroism. While other bands have claimed the main stage of metal with speed, Trouble remains as a group of giants of musicians, enamored with tradition, but still willing to move forward and break new ground in their doom metal empire. They can play and play very well, but their shining victory as doom metal kings comes from songwriting with a clear vision in mind. They don’t try to be anything they’re not. The Distortion Field is metal’s wakeup call to a band that have been creeping and grinding for more than 30 years now. Don’t expect speed in The Distortion Field; just expect an incredibly well-crafted doom metal record that any headbanger should listen to.

On a Technicality – Dichotomy Favor Heaviness Over Intricacy

Dichotomy is a band with a penchant for heaviness. Death metal is their game and they’ve been brewing up a fanbase in their home country of Ireland since 2010. They can dole out the darkness and build up the circle pits; that is clear as day. But the band members prove to be unsatisfied with fury alone. Very much like Opeth and Between the Buried and Me, Dichotomy are fans of the virtuosity of their influences, which they aim to show in their debut album. Dichotomy prove their reverence for death metal’s anger with an unchained brutality and some of the heaviest songs in the genre, but their debut album Paradigms doesn’t make much of a case for their reverence of the more technical side of death metal.

Despite the growls, grinds and drum fills, Dichotomy show that there are some surprisingly textured death metal tracks on Paradigms. “Polarity” is a culmination of technicality. Time signatures shift in abrupt, but ultimately appropriate ways, there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate extensive musicianship from guitarists Andrew Kealy and Rats, and the song even has a few solid hooks throughout. “Covenant of the Forsworn” unearths a mightily epic vibe, one that escalates and expands to new heights about halfway through the track. One of the best tracks on Paradigms, the instrumental “Alea Iacta Est,” despite not getting going until nearly two minutes in, is a breath of fresh air. It’s a song that changes the band’s musical pace significantly. It’s a dramatic work that calms the ferocity just enough to sound epic, climactic and enjoyable without unclenching its fists.

Dichotomy is a band claiming to embrace the technical side of death metal as well, announcing Gojira and Opeth as influences. The problem is that the band doesn’t make that technicality a lasting feature. Where Opeth and Between the Buried and Me have expanded their brutality with some incredibly intricate and dynamic arrangements, Dichotomy’s brief moments of technical prowess are severely overshadowed by the same death metal tropes that the genre has been cursed with since its inception. Melody is unquestionably secondary for any death metal band, but rhythm and force are usually the elements to pick up the slack. Dichotomy deliver the heaviness, no questions asked; that is clearly their forte. But most of the album (the first half specifically) doesn’t live up to that promise. Songs like “The Sentient Oppressed” and “All-Seeing Eye” are very flat compositions and don’t emit a promising first impression. “No Catharsis” is underwhelming on every front, while the closer, “Of Strife, Of Discord” is a disappointment. Right when the band starts to move into the melodically technical world of metal, the album ends. It’s crushing to hear such progression and excitement in the second half, but hearing that final fade-out is a slap in the face to the listener.

The album is a short one: seven main tracks and one intro track, all with no song breaking past six minutes in length. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering that the death metal grinds can grow tiresome after a while, but with many of the songs being rather underwhelming, the band could’ve offered a couple more compositions before the conclusion.

If you’re looking for the next technical marvel in the world of death metal, Dichotomy really aren’t it. They don’t pack in the ambitious and experimental nature of their peers, instead focusing on heaviness over virtuosity. For a band claiming to offer groove to death metal and flow to brutality, Dichotomy don’t deliver on their promise. Paradigms is an album that seems more content to stick with the guttural growls and double-bass-pedal fury of the death metal scene than the ambition that Gojira and Opeth have brewed. There are brief tastes of that technical death metal world on Paradigms, but Dichotomy are far too reluctant to sink their teeth into it all the way.

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Take the Jewels and Run – El-P and Killer Mike’s Priceless Collab Record Masterpiece

Since 2002, Jaime Meline (best known by his rapper moniker El-P) has unknowingly become one of the most important rap artists of this generation. In an era where sensationalism and lavishness has conquered the hip-hop scene, El-P has locked himself away in his laboratory, all while creating memorable and poetic lyrical escapades that no one has come close to matching. Well…except Michael Render (best known as Killer Mike). Killer Mike has guest rapped on tracks by Jay-Z, OutKast and T.I., but once he started making solo albums, you could see that he didn’t really fit in with many of the artists he collaborated with. Much like El-P, Killer Mike is an intellectual rapper, one disguised behind a very approachable rapping style. When these two geniuses united on Killer Mike’s 2012 solo record, R.A.P. Music (with El-P running production), it was clear that these guys had unquestionable musical chemistry. R.A.P. Music became one of the best received albums of 2012 and anticipation for whatever they were cooking up next was reaching a crazy high. R.A.P. Music let Killer Mike’s intense rap delivery shine, with El-P’s production injecting subtle and textured concentration to the already sturdy tracks. With the duo’s official collaboration album Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike let both of their established essences go crazy.

Meline’s fascination with post-apocalyptic sci-fi is what made his previous two solo albums so potent. From the frightening visions demonstrated in “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead to the paranoia-infused rhymes of “True Story” from Cancer 4 Cure, it’s clear that the Philip K. Dick fan is making something far beyond the typical rhyming mindset. The steady beats don’t clash with El-P’s signature spacey production, like the haunting piano line in “DDFH” or the otherworldly distorted synth on the opening to “Get It.” The bizarre sampling and subtle uses of melody throughout the tracks signifies a yearning to experiment. That’s always been Meline’s vibe and it’s tough to see a better example of it than here.

But El-P’s influence is only one side of the brain. Killer Mike is a monster of a rapper and the way he so forcefully delivers the already intricate rhymes on “36” Chain” alongside El-P’s spacey, but echoing production is something even unlike the already amazing R.A.P. Music. “Job Well Done” punches listeners in the face with a thunderous beat; Killer Mike raps in an unreal way, one of the strongest and most intense performances on the album, but also one with a relaxed finesse. Behind the surreal beats and rhythms, Render is a blunderbuss, a rapper who blows down the doors with his rhymes and pushes back anything that gets in his way.

But it’s when these two minds come together that it’s clear there’s something special going on with Run the Jewels. One of the signature tracks “Sea Legs” has a surprisingly catchy chorus, behind lyrics that echo El-P’s literary brilliance, all with Killer Mike on the frontlines, never stopping the onslaught. “Job Well Done” has a fantastic guest appearance by Until the Ribbon Breaks and an ethereal chorus that stands out on the album considerably. The other guest appearances from Prince Paul and OutKast’s Big Boi layer the already fantastic tracks even further, slamming a varied approach to the album and keeping the whole thing feeling fresh. Even during the points where the duo hearkens back to their past projects like in “No Come Down” (which would sound perfect on Cancer 4 Cure or R.A.P. Music), there’s no sense of fatigue. Every bit of energy any musician can direct toward an album is present on Run the Jewels, but even with that, it’s an organic, almost playful album. It shows not only how seriously the duo works with their craft, but also how effortlessly they can make something truly brilliant.

Run the Jewels isn’t as cosmic as Cancer 4 Cure, nor is it as thunderous as PL3DGE, but there’s a steady balance that both Meline and Render contribute to the album. Each artist does what they do best, all without compromising the other. It doesn’t even feel like a collaboration; it feels like a rap duo purely drenched in synergy. There are no seams, no holes in the patchwork. Run the Jewels is an effortless hit, one where two undeniably talented artists leave no stone un-turned in making the album stunningly different from the rest, but still enough at home to avoid alienating either of their groups of followers.

Don’t listen to Run the Jewels because of the collaborators’ past experiences. Don’t listen to it because of the unorthodox musical approaches. Hell, don’t listen to it because it’s free to download. Listen to Run the Jewels because it’s one of the best rap albums around right now.

Run the Jewels will appear at Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar on Saturday, July 13.

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