Album of the Week 33-2014: Helloween – The Time Of The Oath

‘Master Of The Rings’ marked the end of an era for Helloween. Not only because of the departure of iconic singer Michael Kiske, it also marked the return to the triumphant Power Metal sound the Germans were instrumental in creating. However, where that album still showed some caution, its follow-up ‘The Time Of The Oath’ would turn out to be a crowning achievement for the Power Metal giants. The arrival of Andi Deris meant a more intense vocal performance and less inner-band turmoil, while ‘The Time Of The Oath’ easily beat even their classic ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ albums in terms of consistency.

Deris was an important addition to the band for another reason than just his role as the singer. He would quickly become the composer of many of the best songs to the point that he basically became the band’s main songwriter. Many of this album’s finest moments are his compositions, although I suspect the band takes a somewhat Queen-like approach to their songwriting credits. Regardless, two of the band’s most intense moments – the energetic opener ‘We Burn’ and the borderline Thrash of ‘Before The War’ – carry his name and are amazing. That’s hardly where the fun stops though.

‘Power’ was the perfect choice to be the first single for the album. It’s a textbook Power Metal tune that contains all the characteristics of a Helloween classic, which was quite likely to draw some of the fans back in who gave up around the time of ‘Pink Bubbles Go Ape’. Its anthemic chorus, self-empowering lyrics and soaring twin solos make it the best single of the band since ‘I Want Out’. But also the album’s more experimental works work incredibly well. It’s unbelievable how well the mood shifts in the mindblowing ‘Wake Up The Mountain’ work, ‘Mission Motherland’ is a fantastic epic based on amazing riffs and the almost Doomy title track in all its atmospheric glory is a perfect closer to the album.

The only weaker moments are the ones that are to be expected; it wouldn’t be until the next album that the band finally succeeded in creating a truly good power ballad in the shape of ‘Time’. It’s not that ‘Forever And One (Neverland)’ and ‘If I Knew’ are bad songs, but they’re extremely predictable and cliché-ridden – particularly in the lyrical department. Save for those, every song on the record is a winner and that’s impressive, figuring that even the ‘Keeper’ records had atrocities like ‘Rise And Fall’. It’s easy to mistake ‘A Million To One’ as a beefed up power ballad, but when it sinks in after a couple of spins, it’s obvious that its a very well-written Heavy Metal tune with a slightly progressive twist. Even Helloween’s trademark goofy song, ‘Anything My Mama Don’t Like’ this time, is surprisingly good.

While yours truly is quite fond of every era of the band, I’m a fan of Deris. Kiske may have been technically superior, but I’ve always found more character and passion in Deris’ delivery. Combined with wild guitar antics of Roland Grapow and founding member Michael Weikath and Uli Kusch’s stellar drumming, which never disappoints, we’ve got ourselves a hell of an album. It’s my personal Helloween favorite. That may not be the most popular opinion, but whoever takes the time to listen to the album will most likely hear the same qualities that I do.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wake Up The Mountain’, ‘Before The War’, ‘The Time Of The Oath’, ‘We Burn’

Album of the Week 32-2014: Versailles – Jubilee

‘Jubilee’ marked the end of a tempestuous period for Versailles, both positively and negatively. The band had just signed with a major label and the difference is immediately noticeable sonically, but on the other hand, there was the untimely death of their original bass player Jasmine You during the recordings, effectively making this Jasmine’s final appearance with the band. It’s also the band’s best effort to date and their last fantastic album. While its follow-ups would both contain a number of good songs, ‘Jubilee’ is the band’s apex in terms of songwriting, intensity, execution and overall consistency.

Versailles was part of the Japanese Visual Kei scene, as is fairly obvious straight away when you see on of their band photos or hear Kamijo’s slightly too melodramatic vocal delivery. Musically, they were one of the most interesting bands of the movement, combining a fundament of highly symphonic Power Metal with overtones of Progmetal and J-Rock and a strong dose of theatrics. And where I feel the band lost a lot of their edge on the following records, ‘Jubilee’ still has the right amount of aggression – especially in the riffing department – and intensity to appeal to the headbanging crowd.

A lot of Japanese music is very vocal based. The production and mix on ‘Jubilee’ – or any other Versailles album for that matter – emphasizes that as well. However, for me, it’s the rest of the band that makes this record. Hizaki and Teru are geniuses in composing riffs as well as executing brilliant guitar solos, many of them neoclasically tinged, and Yuki is easily the best Japanese drummer I have heard so far due to his creative approach to Power Metal drumming. And the power he displays is just delightful. Just listen to how he gives the awesome riffs in ‘月下香‘ (‘Gekkakou’ when romanized) their last push into aggressive territories and you’ll get what I mean.

Though the album is best listened to in its entirity, there are definitely some standout moments. My favorite song on the album is probably ‘愛と哀しみのノクターン‘ (romanized: ‘Ai To Kanashimi No Nocturne’) due to its perfect blend of melody and aggresive guitar power. Yuki’s drumming is once again spectacular and the little twin guitar riffs between verses are guaranteed to bring me to Metal bliss. ‘Catharsis’, opening track ‘God Palace – Method Of Inheritance-‘, single ‘Ascendead Master’ and ‘Princess -Revival Of Church-‘ are fantastic epic Power Metal tracks, while the lighter ‘Amorphous’ highlights the band’s more Pop oriented side surprisingly well.

Every fan of Japanese music should give this album at least one spin, but due to their heavy reliance on European Power Metal influences, ‘Jubilee’ may also be very appealing to melodic Metal crowds that are traditionally less likely to turn to any band from the Visual Kei scene. The fact of the matter is that Versailles is one of the very few latter day bands of the movement that actually made the music come before the visuals, despite obviously putting quite some effort into them. Both in composition and in execution, this is some of the best Power Metal released in this century, only outdone later by Jupiter, which features three members who can be heard on this album.

Recommended tracks:愛と哀しみのノクターン‘, ‘Ascendead Master’, ‘Princess -Revival Of Church-‘, ‘月下香

Album of the Week 31-2014: Fool’s Garden – Once In A Blue Moon

This week, I’d like to take you back to the first album I ever purchased with my own money. Back in the mid-nineties, Fool’s Garden had an enormous hit all throughout Europe and Asia with ‘Lemon Tree’. I was nine years old when the song came out and immediately fascinated by it. It took me at least another year to figure out what the band was called, but once I did, I came across this gem of an album in my local record store. ‘Lemon Tree’ wasn’t actually on it, but I was spellbound by it and now, almost two decades later, it’s still a brilliant record.

Fool’s Garden is a German band, but the sound they’re opting for is very much British. If the cover of ‘Cry Baby Cry’ or the fact that the album is dedicated to John Lennon didn’t give it away yet, the influence of The Beatles is fairly obvious. And while those influences would come to the surface even more on subsequent records, the band is much more than just another Beatles clone. Especially in Volker Hinkel’s big guitar sound, the Arena Rock edge is present, while this record especially has some references to the Soft Rock sound that graced many albums in the early to mid-nineties.

What mainly sets ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ apart from the band’s other output is the fact that Peter Freudenthaler and Volker Hinkel are still sharing lead vocals. The choice of letting Freudenthaler sing everything following this album is understandable, figuring that he technically has the better voice, but there’s something fundamentally bad-ass about Hinkel’s vocals. Just listen to the rocking Blues of ‘The Part Of The Fool’, on which he goes wild both vocally and on his guitar. A part of the abum’s charm is the interaction between Hinkel’s grit and Freudenthaler’s smoother delivery.

Most of the album would classify as easy listening. Songs like ‘One Way Out’ and the delightful ‘Careless Games’ could perfectly function as background music, despite the fact that that would undermine the quality of the compositions. However, the band proves they can rock out if they want to. Opening track ‘Awakenings’ is the perfect Arena Rock opener both musically and lyrically, with especially Hinkel’s guitar themes between the verses giving me euphoric goosebumps. The sultry ‘Lena’ has Freudenthaler seemingly on his knees begging the titular woman to give him another chance to a powerful backing with a somewhat southern European flair, while the U2-ish light-and-shade contrast of ‘Spirit ’91’ is quite likely the band’s most socially critical moment yet.

As with many albums in this style, there’s quite a large number of ballads. Luckily, most of them are pretty good. ‘Sandy’ is borderline cheesy, but the darker section with a fantastic guitar solo by Hinkel and Freudenthaler’s passionate delivery save it, while the short acoustic ‘You’re Not Forgotten’ is simply beautiful. One of the album’s absolute masterpieces, however, is the title track. The song evokes an atmosphere of being in a smokey Jazz café near closing time and Freudenthaler is once again on fire. The way this song works towards its climax is a compositional triumph.

Sonically, the album is treated exactly the way it should be. For Ralf Wochele’s drums, the perfect balance between Rock’s force and Pop subtlety of his playing is reflected in the way they are produced and the way Thomas Mangold’s bass is often doubled with Roland Röhl’s synths works fantastically. There’s a lot of room for the vocals, but not in a way that distracts from the fantastic music.

Fool’s Garden is still around today – minus the apostrophe – and they’re still creating expertly written music with prominent British influences. And while all of their albums are fantastically crafted Pop records, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ is still the one I hold in highest regard both sentimentally and musically. The album is quite hard to find these days, but definitely worth tracking down. It’s been making my life better for almost two decades now and if you like good Pop and Rock music, that will quite likely be the case for you as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Awakenings’, ‘The Part Of The Fool’, ‘Once In A Blue Moon’, ‘Lena’

Album of the Week 30-2014: OverKill – White Devil Armory

Though OverKill has never released an album that was less than decent, it’s when they hit full-speed that they sound best. And for their last three albums, the average tempo has been higher than in the preceding decade, possibly aided by the joining of drummer extraordinaire Ron Lipnicki. That includes their brand new ‘White Devil Armory’, which fits the direction set out on ‘Ironbound’ and ‘The Electric Age’, although with a better production and more concise songwriting than the latter. If you, like myself, are a devoted fan of the New Jersey Thrash quintet, there’s simply a lot to enjoy here.

Regardless of what you think of the band, it’s admirable that they haven’t sacrificed any of their aggression and intensity over the three decades since their debut. In fact, in the shape of the violent, Hardcore-infused monster ‘Pig’ and the more traditionally aggressive warp speed Thrasher ‘Where There’s Smoke…’, ‘White Devil Armory’ contains two of the most brutal tracks in the history of the band. It helps that Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s high, raspy voice still hasn’t lost anything of its power, but the quality of bassist DD Verni’s compositions does quite a lot as well. As does the overwhelming nature of the riffing.

Of course, the Black Sabbath-isms that have characterized OverKill’s music since the early nineties are still heard throughout the album, most evidently when many songs suddenly shift atmosphere halfway through and in the slower stomper that is ‘Bitter Pill’, easily one of the best groove-laden tracks the band has done in a long time. But OverKill seems to have stretched out a little within the confines of their brand of Thrash Metal this time. The brilliant ‘Freedom Rings’, for instance, brings to mind Heathen due to its epic and slightly progressive nature and there seem to be some nods to traditional Heavy Metal in the guitar department, especially when you hear Dave Linsk’s triumphant melodic leads in the chorus to ‘Down To The Bone’, the pre-chorus to ‘Another Day To Die’ and the lead melody in the aformentioned ‘Bitter Pill’, which is reminiscent of Megadeth’s ‘The Scorpion’.

Highlighting the album, however, is the unadulterated genius that is the closing track ‘In The Name’. The song is undeniably OverKill, yet it sounds like nothing the band has ever done before. Its beginnings sound familiar despite the somewhat atypical triplet feel, but when the song hits its middle section, you’ll realize that it’s breathtaking. Images of Iron Maiden in their best days pop up due to the dramatic guitar melodies and Lipnicki shows himself as the world class drummer he is. It concludes in one of Ellsworth’s most dramatic vocal deliveries to date before moving into a section that sounds like a sinister marching song. Simply brilliant. Easily their best album closer since ‘I Rise’ or possibly even ‘Gasoline Dream’.

Each of the album’s fifty minutes is worth the effort though. The songs are great, the album sounds much better than ‘The Electric Age’ because of its more natural drum sound and the limited edition comes with two unusual, but extremely enjoyable tracks. The album left my blood on fire and that doesn’t happen too often anymore. Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth and his men have delivered another fine record of Thrash Metal with New Jersey’s Punky street attitude that anyone who enjoyed ‘Ironbound’ should acquire immediately.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Name’, ‘Pig’, ‘Where There’s Smoke…’

Album of the Week 29-2014: Judas Priest – Redeemer Of Souls

There are so many reasons why this new Judas Priest album shouldn’t work. Guitarist KK Downing retired, not willing to await how much longer the band’s farewell tours were going to take. The band members’ age is starting to take its toll, especially on Rob Halford, whose voice has been deteriorating rapidly over the last few years. The last few albums have shown a band desperately trying to be itself and and mutilating itself with pointless bombast. And yet, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ works. It is in fact their most spontaneous and traditional sounding album the band has done in a long, long time.

Stylistically, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ harkens back to how the band sounded around 1980. The era ‘Killing Machine’ to ‘Point Of Entry’, meaning very riff-driven, mainly midtempo material. Those of you who exclusively are fans of the ‘Painkiller’ sound will probably disappointed, but with more than half of Europe’s Power Metal bands trying to sound like that, it’s kind of refreshing that Priest itself reconnects with its even earlier tradition. And while the album could have been trimmed a little somewhere in the middle, most of the songs are really good and the album as a whole is a hell of a lot more consistent than anything that came after ‘Painkiller’.

Familiarity is always lurking throughout the album. However, with a band with a carreer as lengthy – and an audience as conservative – as Judas Priest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The triplet riffing in the extremely enjoyable title track is strongly reminiscent of the awesome ‘Hell Patrol’, the structure of ‘Hell & Back’ brings to mind ‘Blood Red Skies’ and ‘March Of The Damned’ has a hint of ‘United’ in it, despite being a vastly superior song. In fact, the only song that has anything vaguely fresh in it is ‘Crossfire’, which in its dark Bluesy approach seems to tributize Black Sabbath’s very earliest work.

Highlighting the album is the amazing ‘Down In Flames’. Priest has done these brooding, midtempo stompers before, but hardly ever have they sounded as powerful as this one. The way the song is structured lends a very exciting atmosphere to the song that would fit perfectly in a movie scene where the hero prepares for his final battle. Other highlights include the bombastic epic Doom Metal of ‘Secrets Of The Dead’, the old school Heavy Metal romp ‘Halls Of Valhalla’, which shares its delightfully epic feel with ‘Battle Cry’. The unmistakingly eighties Hard Rock of ‘Cold Blooded’ raised my eyebrows upon first listen, but quickly became one of my favorites as well.

What is most surprising about the album though, is that Rob Halford seems to be aware of his strengths and weaknesses much better than before. ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ focuses on the stronger part of his current voice (his lower bariton) almost exclusively. His raw, growling edge does the rest of the trick. Also, Richie Faulkner deserves nothing but praise for his performance on the album. Replacing someone who was in the band for over four decades may not have been easy, but his past with Deeds has proven his proficiency with both the guitar and traditional Heavy Metal and he definitely gives the performance of a lifetime here.

Is there nothing to complain about then? Well, of course there is. As said before: the album is much too long. Especially when you also have the limited edition with bonus disc. While fans should undoubtedly buy that version, because it contains a few good songs – the melodic Power Metal of ‘Tears Of Blood’ especially – the wonder remains why they didn’t cut some of the weaker songs and replaced them with the better ones on the bonus disc. Another major complaint is the guitar sound. It’s absolutely horrible. It’s over-processed, ultimately making the guitars sound thin and tinny. Also, I don’t get why they wouldn’t put one of the greatest drummers in the world – to which Scott Travis absolutely belongs – more on the foreground.

Altogether, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ is much better than I expected Judas Priest to deliver in this stage of their carreer. Generally, fans of the band are bound to enjoy this. Only the Speed Metal freaks and those expecting another ‘Sad Wings Of Destiny’ or ‘Stained Class’ may want to take a listen before they buy the album first. I for one can think of many Priest albums considered “classics” that I prefer this one to. ‘British Steel’ for one. If that’s the Priest you liked, you cannot go wrong here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Down In Flames’, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’, ‘Cold Blooded’, ‘Tears Of Blood’

Album of the Week 28-2014: Jupiter – Classical Element

Versailles was one of the most Metal – and arguably one of the best – bands of the latter day Visual Kei movement, but they lost most of their edge after the ‘Jubilee’ album. When the band split last year, singer Kamijo moved on to a solo carreer, while the rest of the band formed Jupiter with new singer Zin. The resulting debut album is already one to be pround of. Not only is it even better than all the material that Versailles ever released, ‘Classical Element’ is one of the very best Power Metal albums released in the 21st century.

Essentially, Jupiter is a continuation of Versailles’ sound – or at least the contributions that guitarists Hizaki and Teru did to Versailles’ compositions – albeit a bit less theatrical and therefore more guitar oriented. The songwriting is also more concise than on the average Versailles album. As the album title suggests, the neoclassical Power Metal sound is still intact, but ‘Classical Element’ is above all a guitar album, lending the album its powerful edge. Also, while facilitating somewhat similar melodies, Zin has a much clearer timbre than Kamijo, which I find much more pleasant to listen to.

Remarkably enough, Zin’s compositional contributions fit the band perfectly. His own composition ‘Heaven’s Atlas’ is fairly standard, but enjoyable Power Metal and ‘Rhythmos’, which he co-wrote with Hizaki, is a unique progressive Metal song and as such one of the highlights of the album. Other highlights include the classic Power Metal euphoria of ‘Scarlet’, the perfect combination of melodic sensibilities and aggressive riffing that is ‘Decadence’ and the somewhat more neoclassical masterpiece ‘Atmosphere’.

On many Visual Kei-related albums, the ballads have the tendency to severely disrupt the flow of the record. Surprisingly, one of the two ballads here is actually quite good. ‘Nostalgie’ maybe has somewhat of a more progressive build-up than the average ballad of the movement, but that is exactly what makes it above average. The title track shows Jupiter succeeding where Rhapsody usually fails; the 12 minute epic is full of surprising twists and remains engaging all throughout its length. ‘Allegory Cave’ sees Zin equipping a somewhat unnecessary, but proficient death grunt and features some of the most delightfully aggressive riffing on the album.

When focusing on individual performances, we can’t leave drummer Yuki unmentioned. The man is easily one of the most versatile and technically competent drummers in the contemporary Power Metal scene. And while Japan is full of fantastic musicians, Yuki is my favorite Japanese drummer due to his creative approach to his parts. With a guitar record such as ‘Classical Element’, a downright amazing guitar duo like Teru and Hizaki is mandatory. Both are extremely tight in the riff department and virtuosic in their leads, without sacrificing any catchiness in the melodic field. An impressive and much too rare achievement.

Earlier this year, Jupiter released the ‘Last Moment’ EP, which already hinted that the band – especially Zin – would be moving in even more impressive territory and I for one can’t wait to hear what the future will hold for these guys. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been this impressed by a symphonic Power Metal record. It’s not hard to hear why; Jupiter is one of the few bands that has both technical mastery and concise, catchy songwriting in high regard. And they succeed in both. Every Power Metal fan should hear and love this album. If only because that may bring them to Europe more often.

Recommended tracks: ‘Scarlet’, ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Decadence’, ‘Rhythmos’

Album of the Week 27-2014: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

For many years, ‘Innervisions’ has steadily been in my top 3 albums of all time and I can’t imagine that changing any time soon. Stevie Wonder was on a roll in the seventies, releasing a string of classic albums, but even by these standards, ‘Innervisions’ is a sublime work of art. As a collection of songs, nobody has yet come even close to the variation, memorability and melodic strength of the album, but the album also succeeds in the way its message is apparent without taking the music hostage. And production-wise, it’s still unrivaled as well; with Wonder playing most of the instruments himself, this is the ultimate proof that extensive overdubbing doesn’t necessarily have sterile, lifeless results.

When playing the album, it’s immediately striking how fresh and alive this album still sounds more than four decades after its original release. Every instrument sounds like it’s right there in the room with you. But more importantly: the songs have survived the test of time with incredible ease. The album is distinctly a work of the glorious seventies, but the melodies and lyrics are timeless and in a way ahead of their time. This is one of those rare instances where every song is a winner.

Let’s look at Wonder’s complete solo ventures on this record first; side two opens with the immensely popular – and rightfully so – Funk stomper ‘Higher Ground’, followed immediately by a lesser known moment of Funk genius called ‘Jesus Children Of America’. All the instruments and vocals (including the somewhat Gospel-tinged backing vocals on the latter) on these songs are done by Wonder himself. And yet both of them have a swing that suggests a band playing. The same goes for ‘Living For The City’, a tale of a young, hopeful African American man from the countryside vainly trying to find luck in New York City, which is arguably Wonder’s magnum opus. This album version crushes the single version because of the narrative in the middle and Wonder’s most aggressive vocal take ever in the last verse.

But even on the other tracks, the help is usually limited. ‘All In Love Is Fair’ is far and away the best piano ballad ever with only the bass not being played by Wonder. The beautifully dreamy ‘Visions’ comes closest to musical interaction, with Dean Parks’ acoustic guitar lending a Latin flavor and David T. Walker’s electric guitar giving sort of a psychedelic Rock edge to a deeply spiritual song. Other notable moments include the expertly written Pop brilliance of ‘Golden Lady’ and the unlikely, but ultimate successful Rumba and Soul fusion of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’.

It sounds like a cliché, but to truly grasp the genius of ‘Innervisions’, you need to hear the album. It’s the pinnacle of an era when Stevie Wonder’s music was still deeply rooted in the Soul history of his record label Motown, but he was starting to branch out. That’s exactly why you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of Soul music to be able to appreciate this progressive work of art that’s still as relevant today as it was when the day came out. When doing interviews for Interface, I often use this album’s production as an illustration of perfection. But really, one could say the same about the songwriting. A music fan without this album has an incomplete collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘All In Love Is Fair’, ‘Visions’, ‘Living For The City’, ‘Higher Ground’


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