Album of the Week 43-2014: While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Ambition isn’t a thing that eludes Tom Phillips. From their humble beginnings as an old school Doom Metal trio, While Heaven Wept evolved into a seven-piece that – while still relatively subdued in terms of tempo – combines influences from many subgenres into a unique, majestic form of Heavy Metal. For me, as a fan of their massive epic ‘The Furthest Shore’, the announcement that ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ would be a fourty minute song (divided into eleven chapters) meant anticipation. And expectations are met; ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ is a beautiful work of art that has brought While Heaven Wept to a whole new level once again.

Labelling the music on this album isn’t an easy task. There seems to be a basis of symphonic Heavy Metal, but it definitely has a progressive edge to it. The progressive side isn’t all that surprising, as Phillips never made a secret of his admiration for Fates Warning and the album features contributions from Fates’ co-founding guitarist Victor Arduini and former drummer Mark Zonder, though the most “Metal” passages of the album are probably closer in atmosphere of the latter’s original band Warlord. Also, there are piano interludes, balladic segments and purely classical bits. Hell, ‘Icarus And I’ even features a section that has a Black Metal vibe, due to the dissonant chords and harsh vocals.

Phillips isn’t the only reason why this album is so incredible. Throughout the band’s existence, he has always profited from the strengths of his fellow musicians. Singer Rain Irving has an enviable range that is perfectly able to carry this masterpiece emotionally, Jason Lingle’s keyboards are essential to the album’s sound, Mark Shuping’s strings are tear jerking and Christopher Ladd’s work on the classical guitar is simply a revelation. The cooperation of the latter two on the breathtaking overture ‘Introspectus’ is more beautiful material than on many a contemporary album, but ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ has 35 additional minutes!

To get an idea of the sheer scope of the album, just listen how the progressive instrumental chapter ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’ moves into the epic Metal of ‘Souls In Permafrost’ through the heart wrenching piano ballad ‘The Memory Of Bleeding’. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The enormous amount of emotion could have easily carried on too far into the cheesy and the many layers of instruments could have turned into hollow bombast, but instead, the results are overwhelming. It is sort of ironic that an album that tells a tale of ambition and failure succeeds at its own ambition so well.

‘Suspended At Aphelion’ isn’t an easy album by any means, but it is well worth the time it takes to grow. There are many subtleties to grasp, but more importantly, there are many beautiful melodies and engaging rhythms to immerse yourself in all throughout the album. Or song, if you will. It will be hard for an album like this one to find its audience in the current Metal scene and its constant quest for louder, lower tuned and more extreme, but its sincerity should be enough to convince anyone with an open mind and a heart. Bonus points for the surprisingly dynamic mastering job.

Recommended tracks: ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’, ‘Souls In Permafrost’, ‘Introspectus’

Album of the Week 42-2014: Dr. John – Locked Down

For the white psychedelic Rock generation, Dr. John was the professor of New Orleans music history. His revolutionary ‘Gris-Gris’ (1968) and even moreso his record full of New Orleans traditionals ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) introduced a whole new generation of musicians not commonly associated with the town to the exuberant music and the mysterious rituals of The Crescent City. One of those – admittedly at a later time – was The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Locked Down’ and plays guitar on it. The doctor himself sounds as convincing as always on this collection of dark, shimmering grooves and nocturnal melodies.

While Auerbach’s touch is quite distinct in the pseudo lo-fi production of the album, the brilliance of the material is very much a collaborative achievement of Dr. John and his backing band. Bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Max Weissenfeldt expertly lay down the earthy, low-key Funk grooves so typical of New Orleans’ rhythmical approach, although the percussion from several band members also contributes to that, and Dr. John’s electric keyboards top the whole thing off. Normally, I would complain about the lack of his unequaled piano playing, but the atmosphere of these compositions just begs for the direction he took for the album.

Between those instruments in the spectrum that is ‘Locked Down’, we find quite a lot of different approaches throughout the album. ‘Big Shot’ is relatively jazzy, with the horns and lingering rhythms pushing the song into fifties territory. ‘Revolution’ is also horn-driven, but much more aggressively funky in its beats. ‘Ice Age’ is carried by a haunting dual guitar harmony and the almost terrifying vocals of the doctor, where the opening title track is primarily built upon Funk riffs and rhythms. ‘Eleggua’ is wordless – but not instrumental – psychedelia and the Gospel track ‘God’s Sure Good’ closes the album in a surprisingly upbeat fashion, but makes perfect sense in context.

Although the album remains consistently impressive all the way through – all of the tracks are diamonds in the rough – there is one song that caught me completely off guard and that’s the subdued dream groove of ‘My Children, My Angels’. Its leading Rhodes piano riff strongly reminds me of my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, with which the song shares its darkness, and Dr. John proves that you don’t have to be Tom Jones in order to send shivers down someone’s spine by singing. Especially the somewhat uplifting – but once again in a subdued fashion – chorus. Simply breathtaking.

‘Locked Down’ rates along ‘Gris-Gris’, ‘Gumbo’ and ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ as Dr. John’s masterpieces in a discography that is consistently amazing anyway. And with his carreer spanning over six decades (counting his early years backing other New Orleans greats), that is nothing short of an impressive achievement. Those who enjoyed the mysterious nocturnes of his debut album will most likely be captivated by this amazing record as well. And for any musician, this should be a lesson in groove.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Children, My Angels’, ‘Ice Age’, ‘Big Shot’

Album of the Week 41-2014: Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

Nevermore’s breakup – or hiatus, whatever you choose to believe – was terrible news for yours truly. Nevermore’s unique blend of crushingly heavy riffs, compositional complexity, Warrel Dane’s incredible clean vocals and a sense of melody that seems to be forbidden in contemporary Metal made them one of the best bands on the planet. Luckily, Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard also reformed Sanctuary, the band that put them on the radar in the late eighties, around the same time. With most of its original lineup intact even. ‘The Year The Sun Died’, their first recording after the reunion, is a downright fantastic record which sounds a lot like Nevermore.

Obviously, Dane’s typical voice would push anything he sings on into Nevermore territory, but Lenny Rutlege’s riffs sound surprisingly similar to those Jeff Loomis wrote for Nevermore. In all honesty though, the album’s predecessor ‘Into The Mirror Black’ – released a quarter of a century ago! – would have sounded quite a lot like this if it also had such a contemporary production with such a punchy low end. The lead work by Rutledge and the band’s only new addition, Forced Entry guitarist Brad Hull, has a distinctly more old school vibe than Loomis’ and the progressive sections have a hint of the early work of fellow Seattleites Queensrÿche, but any fan of Nevermore should get some satisfaction from this.

‘The Year The Sun Died’ seems to be a concept album about the fall of a civilization, which prove to be one of Dane’s favorite lyrical subjects through the years. The imagery fits the dark sound of the music really well. Most of the songs are built around powerful half-Thrash riffing in the intros and verses and wide chords topped off with strong vocal melodies in the choruses. The acoustic based ‘I Am Low’ and ‘One Final Day (Sworn To Believe)’ stray from that formula a little, with the latter being one of those sinister sounding semi-ballads that Sanctuary traditionally excels at.

With this being a concept album, it is best listened to in its entirity. Yet there are a few standout tracks. ‘Frozen’ has it’s killer, relatively uptempo riffs and Dane harmonizing with himself in the immense chorus, ‘Question Existence Fading’ is one of the most violent tracks on the album rhythmically (hats off to Dave Budbill’s drumming) and has another big, ominous chorus, while the title track is the doomy, pitch black closing statement that the album requires. That atmosphere is nigh impossible to reach. Just brilliant.

Fans of Nevermore can buy ‘The Year The Sun Died’ blindly and the only old school Sanctuary fans that may want to listen first are the ones who might expect another feast of falsetto mayhem and uptempo riffing akin to the band’s debut album ‘Refuge Denied’. Those who end up buying this would do wise by getting the limited edition, because of the awesome cover of ‘Waiting For The Sun’, one of the highlights of The Doors’ discography. It fits the band’s own material nicely, and not only because of its title. This is a release that will definitely end up extremely high on my end-of-year list. Why? Because it’s a god damn masterpiece, that’s why!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Year The Sun Died’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Question Existence Fading’

Album of the Week 40-2014: Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth

Fourth album ‘The Dirty Truth’ finds British Bluesrocker Joanne Shaw Taylor at an important stage of her carreer, where exclusively calling her a Blues artist is starting to sell her short. There have always been traces of Soul, seventies Rock music and less prominently Americana in her music and all of these influences are slowly starting to blend with and complement each other. But where ‘Almost Always Never’ was wildly eclectic – and incredibly good as such – ‘The Dirty Truth’ is Taylor’s most concise set of songs thus far. And the album most driven by awesome grooves.

No song better demonstrates the melting pot of influences than its title track. The song has a strong, funky Rock groove, but the subdued chicken picking riff that leads the song is something you’d generally find on a Country record. And it all flows together nicely. Personally, I’m really fond of this sort of genre mixing, but Blues based artists especially often get stuck in their specific guitar approach. Taylor clearly has a familiarity and fondness for all the genres she tackles in her songwriting as well as in her playing.

While the album has a certain flow that makes perfect sense, there’s a few standout tracks. ‘Wicked Soul’ has one of the meanest grooves as well as one of the darkest vocal melodies Taylor has ever attempted, which made it one of the most pleasant surprises upon first lesson. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is built upon a fundament of pure, unadulterated Funk, making it a track where Memphis drumming legend Steve Potts really feels like a fish in the water. ‘Outlaw Angel’ has a huge riff and opening track ‘Mud, Honey’ has some of Taylor’s most traditionally Bluesy vocal performances. Even the ballads groove, with ‘Tried, Tested & True’ and ‘Shiver & Sign’ shining brightly. The latter brings to mind the eighties power ballad, but sounds a lot less glossy and a hell of a lot more sincere due to Taylor’s rootsy approach.

Vocally, ‘The Dirty Truth’ shows an enormous progression for Taylor. It’s as if the potential that was always there in her raw and passionate howls is finally fully realized. There’s more depth than ever and a broader sprectrum of expression as well. She had a powerful delivery, which is sort of essential in Blues and Soul territories, but it seems she’s found qualities to her voice that have been undiscovered before. Fans of Beth Hart and Joss Stone should definitely give Taylor’s voice a try.

Like ‘Almost Always Never’ before it, ‘The Dirty Truth’ finds Taylor branching out from her Blues roots. And while the approach – a total blend of all the influences – is different, the results are equally satisfying. I would say the album is her best so far. It’s her greatest triumph yet in terms of songwriting and the performance of every musician leaves very little, if anything, to be desired. In fact, the only thing would be more of this. Taylor is an exceptional talent in all bases she covers and deserves to be heard by any fan of good music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wicked Soul’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘The Dirty Truth’, ‘Shiver & Sign’

Album of the Week 39-2014: Prince & 3rdEyeGirl – PlectrumElectrum

Being a fan of Prince the musician rather than Prince the hit machine or Prince the phenomenon, ‘PlectrumElectrum’ was an album I looked forward to. Unlike most people, I was particularly fond of the guitar oriented direction of the ‘Lotusflow3r’ album and the prospect of an album made with his all-female backing trio 3rdEyeGirl seemed to promise the band feeling that characterized the best material of Prince and the New Power Generation. And indeed: ‘PlectrumElectrum’ might just be the most band driven material Prince has released in a long, long time. Possibly ever.

First things first: Prince and 3rdEyeGirl have an incredible chemistry. It works that the band consists of fantastic musicians. Especially Danish bassist Ida Nielsen, who had been backing Prince for a couple of years already, really shines here. She impressed me at two Prince shows I attended recently already, but her star shines almost as brightly as the purple one himself here. Her fantastic basslines range from beautifully melodic to viciously rocking whilst never forsaking that essential groove. I tend to slightly prefer John Blackwell’s grooves to those of Hannah Ford Welton, but she lays down some awesome fills.

What’s most important, however, is the songs. Luckily, Prince has delivered his most consistent set of songs since ‘Musicology’. The material largely focuses on grooves and guitars. Figuring that this is Prince, the grooves are generally sultry and seductive, but the record rocks surprisingly hard at times as well. When the riffs kick in during the second track ‘Pretzelbodylogic’, it’s obvious that the focus isn’t just on Funk and Soul. And that’s not where it stops, ‘FixUrLifeUp’ is one of the album’s highlights with it’s huge riffs and melodic verses, the killer title track is a jam heavy instrumental that brings to mind Hendrix and Led Zeppelin – not in the last place because the main riff brings to mind ‘The Ocean’ – and the socially conscious message of ‘Marz’ is backed up by R’n’R riffs that put Status Quo to shame.

One of the album’s finest moments is the fantastic cover of Alice Smith’s ‘Another Love’, which has a monstrous groove, moving vocals and a mind blowing solo section – which seems to be Prince trading off with Donna Grantis – lifting the song to a level the original didn’t reach. The rest of the album moves between accessible Rock (‘Wow’), pure Funk (‘Funknroll’, unsurprisingly), balladry (‘Whitecaps’) and even contemporary R’n’B (‘BoyTrouble’). The only misstep is the syrupy ‘TicTacToe’, which drowns in its own overdose of repetition.

In the recent past, Prince often seemed to favor either composition or performance, based on what his ideas for the songs were. All the material on ‘PlectrumElectrum’ shows that both directions can mingle and intertwine with fantastic results. Though I really liked ‘Lotusflow3r’, this album has the consistency that so many critics have accused Prince of having lost. This material just screams for the live environment, like ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘Peach’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Colonized Mind’ before it. And that’s exactly the type of album Prince needed at this point in his carreer.

Recommended tracks: ‘AnotherLove’, ‘FixUrLifeUp’, ‘PlectrumElectrum’

Walter Trout in the new issue of Gitarist!

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Blues legend Walter Trout on the phone. It turned out to be one of the most remarkable interviews I have ever had. Trout was on the brink of death no less than half a year ago due to hepatitis C. Since then, he had a liver transplant, his remarkably good new album ‘The Blues Came Callin” was released and during our chat, I found out he’s even starting to think about touring again. For more details on that conversation, I’d like to direct you to this month’s issue of Gitarist, which is available in stores as of today.

Furthermore, I spoke with Marcus Deml, once one of Germany’s most sought-after session guitarists, but these days, he focuses on his own Rock band Errorhead. Any fan of Bluesy Rock with a Funky touch is well advised to give that band a chance, you may even want to catch them on their forthcoming European tour. It’s worth it. Other notable articles from other authors include a ten page vintage special, a special on compressors, many lessons in various genres (including on Walter Trout’s style) and that beauty of a Duesenberg guitar on the cover. Personally, I’m a Les Paul man, but admit it: it’s quite hard to resist, isn’t it?

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but I can honestly say that as a guitar freak, I even would have checked this one out if I wasn’t writing for them.

Album of the Week 38-2014: Crows – The Dying Race

There are albums that should have been heard (and loved) by everyone, but just don’t get heard by anyone. It could be a matter of bad timing, lacking promotion or just simply bad luck. For Germany’s Crows, it’s a matter of “all of the above”, although the lack of promotion is something they had agreed on with their label Century Media Records. That did, however, keep a lot of people from hearing this genuine masterpiece of melodic, powerful and semi-progressive Heavy Metal. Even when drummer Bobby Schottkowski and guitarist Bernd Kost joined Thrash legend Sodom about half a decade later, the album didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Stylistically, Crows’ music is something of a mixture of the best elements of melodic German Speed Metal and early US Power Metal. Those who know Schottkowski and Kost from their tenure in Sodom will probably be surprised by the enormous amount of melody heard on ‘The Dying Race’. The album is full of awesome twin guitar lines, old school Heavy Metal riffs, unexpected twists in the songwriting department and blazing solos by Kost and fellow guitarist Jochen Kalpein, often backed with riffing that lends it a slightly dramatic edge.

Polish siren Leszek ‘Leo’ Szpigiel joined Crows shortly before the recording of ‘The Dying Race’ and delivers the best performance of his carreer here. His melodies are slightly lower than those familiar with his work may expect, which adds a lot of balls to his parts. However, the most redeeming factor about the vocals are the brilliant harmonies and little call-and-response bits he does, such as in the chorus of the moving opening track ‘The Frantic Factor’. It’s those harmonies that get passages from the mind blowing ‘We Are The Storm’ and the menacing ‘East Of Eden’ stuck in your head forever.

Despite the consistently high level on ‘The Dying Race’, there’s four songs that stand out. Which isn’t too bad if you consider that’s half the album. ‘The Frantic Factor’ and ‘We Are The Storm’ are fantastic examples of how Metal can be aggressive, melodic, catchy and interesting at the same time, while ‘Four’ is a riff fest the likes of which were very few in number in 1991 that gets your blood boiling, while the closing title track brings all of the album’s melodic qualities, prowess in the musicianship department and progressive structures together in a simply irresistable track.

For those wondering about the aging Native American on the album cover: the lyrics on ‘The Dying Race’ are based on Native American history. Kalpein, who penned all of them, has studied the subject and delivered us lyrics that are more than an excuse to sing about fighting cowboys. A nice extra touch to an already great album.

While Crows never got the recognition they deserved, the digital age that we live in these days does provide a new chance to check out this incredible material. In fact, US based label Divebomb Records has re-released the album with all of the band’s demo’s as bonus. I suggest you will at least give this a listen, because it’s hard to find a Metal album these days where melody, aggression and intelligence go hand in hand as well as on ‘The Dying Race’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Four’, ‘The Frantic Factor’, ‘The Dying Race’, ‘We Are The Storm’


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