Album of the Week 51-2014: Dir En Grey – Arche

A new Dir En Grey album is much like the box of chocolates referred to in ‘Forrest Gump’. The Japanese quintet has been so eclectic throughout their discography, that you litterally never know what you’re going to get. ‘Arche’ is no exception. Ever since singer Kyo discovered a deep, almost inhuman growl in his already broad vocal arsenal, the Death Metal influence in their music has increased. A further exploration of the experimental extremities heard on predecessor ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ would therefore have been a reasonable expectation. Being Dir En Grey, however, the band chose a different direction. One significantly more straightforward and melodic. The resulting album is a winner.

Stylistically, ‘Arche’ is located somewhere between the emotional approach of ‘Kisou’ and the playful aggression of ‘Vulgar’, combined with the distinct contemporary progressive leanings of ‘Uroboros’. Kyo still employs all the extremes of his range, but has a considerably cleaner approach this time. The cleaner inclination is reflected in the guitar sound and the production as well. The mix is spacious with a lot of room for the drums courtesy of Shinya, who simply gives the performance of a liftime here. Granted, it works because the songs have more breathing room than the band gave their songs in a while, but it works fantastically.

In a way, the two singles released before the album – ‘Rinkaku’ and ‘Sustain The Untruth’ – give the wrong impression, or at least an incomplete one, of what ‘Arche’ sounds like. Then again, each of the sixteen songs has a distinct character of its own. This also is a result of the more straightforward songwriting; ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ was very abstract and as a result, some of the songs tend to blur a little. In this case, sometimes it’s a riff (the kickass headbanger ‘Chain Repulsion’), sometimes the brilliant light-and-shade workings (‘Uroko’) and sometimes just the alternative direction (the almost electronic-sounding ‘Phenomenon’), but all the songs stand out one way or another.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any highlights. ‘Un Deux’ has fantastic riff work as well as a downright brilliant chorus that sticks in my head despite my inability to remember the words due to the language barrier. It sets the tone perfectly and as such, it rivals ‘Vinushka’ as the best opening track of the band. The surprisingly sparse ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’ is easily one of the best Dir En Grey ballads so far, not in the last place because of Kyo’s fantastic performance, and ‘Kaishun’ features some fantastic guitar interplay by Kaoru and Die. Whoever plays that solo does an awesome job as well. Those who like that side of the band will probably be disappointed that the Death Metal factor has been toned down considerably, but the closing salvo of ‘The Inferno’ (as if the title didn’t give that one away) and the awesome riff monster ‘Revelation Of Mankind’ do highlight the more brutal side of the band.

Because of its variation and strong songwriting, ‘Arche’ is thorougly enjoyable through multiple spins. Each one of them slowly reveals more layers and secrets as you go along. In time, it may even come very close to ‘Gauze’ and ‘Uroboros’ as my favorite Dir En Grey album. Fact is that it’s another disc of brilliantly written and executed heavy music that doesn’t really sound like anything anyone else is doing at the moment. Dir En Grey at its best.

Recommended tracks: ‘Un Deux’, ‘Chain Repulsion’, ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’, ‘Revelation Of Mankind’

Album of the Week 50-2014: Gov’t Mule – Dose

Now that Gov’t Mule has started releasing several recordings to celebrate their twentieth anniversary, it seems the right moment to give some attention to their discography. And although their discography does seem to confirm Gov’t Mule’s reputation as a live band, they have released quite some impressive albums. ‘Dose’ is probably the most impressive one because it doesn’t only highlight the band’s qualities as musicians, but also as songwriters. While the record is all over the map style-wise, it does feel like a whole. Even when the songs get extremely jam-heavy, the trio keeps it concise and interesting.

It’s important to know where Gov’t Mule is coming from to fully understand their brilliance. Original bassist Allen Woody, who sadly passed away in 2000, and guitar slinging frontman Warren Haynes more or less brought The Allman Brothers Band their second youth in the early nineties. They teamed up with drummer Matt Abts to form a power trio and apparently have some more musical freedom. Their live sets contain Blues, Soul, Rock, Jazz, Folk and even some old school Heavy Metal covers and save for the latter, all these influences are represented on ‘Dose’. It seems unlikely, but it works incredibly well.

Why it works so well is because these songs are – despite the room provided for improvisation – extremely well written. The most obvious example is ‘Thorazine Shuffle': due to its relatively simple structure, there’s plenty of space to solo over, but in the end, it’s Woody’s incredible and surprisingly timed bass line that makes the song. Also, it’s one of the best bass lines ever recorded. Opening track ‘Blind Man In The Dark’ seems relatively concise, but prove to be an excellent vehicle for extended jams in future live shows and on future live albums as well. Maybe that’s what makes Gov’t Mule the best recorded jam band: they know albums and live shows are different sciences.

The aforementioned songs, along ‘Game Face’ and ‘Larger Than Life’, became Gov’t Mule live staples through the years, and rightfully so, but there’s so much more to hear on this album. My personal favorite being ‘Towering Fool’, a surprisingly sparse and heartfelt power ballad with an incredible build-up. It does help that Haynes isn’t only a world class guitarist, but also a fantastic, soulful singer. It’s one of those ballads that cuts through your soul. Obligated listening. Other notable moments are the acoustic and folky ‘Raven Black Night’ and the gospel-like closer ‘I Shall Return’.

While Gov’t Mule has at least as many fantastic live albums as studio records and most of them are worth having, their studio albums generally are very pleasant listening experiences as well. ‘Dose’ is probably the one that captures them best without going all overboard on jamming, something that obviously works better live than on an album. Instead, it’s a collection of strong Rock songs, expert musicianship and Warren Haynes’ fantastic voice. And while Allen Woody is sadly no longer with us and the band has since expanded to a quartet, the legacy of the band lives on. Hopefully for much, much longer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Towering Fool’, ‘Thorazine Shuffle’, ‘Blind Man In The Dark’

Album of the Week 49-2014: Galneryus – Angel Of Salvation

On my never-ending quest for good Power Metal bands, I have stumbled upon the name Galneryus numerous times. While they have a couple of fantastic songs – ‘Struggle For The Freedom Flag’ and ‘Carry On’ come to mind – most of their albums just didn’t appeal to me enough. Original singer Yama-B was part of the problem; his operatic mid-range bellow – while technically proficient – got on my nerves. This album, the band’s second with Masatoshi ‘Sho’ Ono holding the microphone, corrects my gripes with the band: Ono’s soaring approach is much more my cup of tea and the level of songwriting is consistently high.

First things first – at least chronologically – the album’s overture ‘Reach To The Sky’ is quite possibly the most awesome intro I have ever heard. The main theme of the piece is so triumphant that it hurts. Guitarist and main songwriter Syu never shied away from such melodies, but such a victorious march is overwhelming even by his standards. It’s not just that though; every song is good. Galneryus’ upbeat, warp speed Power Metal on this record is most reminiscent of Helloween – whose discography, let’s be honest, is just as spotty – but Galneryus is more neoclassically oriented, which especially shows in Syu’s guitar histrionics.

Opening track ‘The Promised Flag’ – one of many flags in Galneryus’ discography – is one of those songs that will make your day. It did for me. Syu’s riffing and Junichi Satoh’s drums in high gear get your energy going and that huge, positive chorus with Ono soaring on top bring your spirits up. And that’s not where the fun stops. All the songs have great riffs, mind blowing solos (both by Syu and keyboard player Yuhki) and strong choruses. Favorites are ‘Lonely As A Stranger’ with its badass main riff and the triplet fest of ‘Infinity’, but any of the other songs would have done if you’re into this type of upbeat Power Metal.

Galneryus’ magnum opus, however, is the 15 minute title track of this album. The remarkable thing is that the song never really feels like it lasts a quarter of an hour. You’ll notice that it’s longer than the average song, but the band did very well to build in recurring themes and even a sort of chorus that returns frequently, though it’s more sort of a bridge if you count the monumental section near the end as the chorus. Personally, I love the way the mood of the song changes gradually throughout the song and Syu uses a lot of the room to show off, but then again: he’s good enough to keep even that interesting. Ono’s vocals are beyond amazing here as well.

So after a while, I did get the hype around Galneryus. This is clearly a group of very capable musicians who had done some awesome songs in the past, but as a compositional unit, this is definitely their crowning achievement. Also, I realize preferring Ono to Yama-B isn’t exactly the most popular opinion, but if you give this album a chance, you’ll realize that he’s an amazing singer at the very least. And if you, like me, would like to have a shot of Power Metal adrenalin once in a while by pumping your ears full of fast riffs and hyperspeed melodies, this is definitely the way to go.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Promised Flag’, ‘Angel Of Salvation’, ‘Reach To The Sky’, ‘Infinity’

Joanne Shaw Taylor and more in Gitarist!

Two months ago, I had an extremely pleasant conversation with British Blues, Rock and Soul singer/guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor. Regular readers of this weblog may know that I have been an admirer of her work quite some time and that only increased the delight of talking to her about her guitar choices, her songwriting proces and how she got where she is now. The resulting article, including two photos I took of her, is published in this month’s issue of Gitarist, which is in stores right now.

Besides the interview with Joanne Shaw Taylor, there’s a feature dedicated to the new album of Dutch Rockers De Dijk based on a conversation I had with their guitarist Nico Arzbach and one of our Fuzzboxes is dedicated to Richard van Bergen, with whom I had a very interesting conversation about the troubled genesis of his first solo record ‘Rootbag’. Also included is a handful of reviews that I wrote, along with a great deal of product tests and an interview my chief editor Mark van Schaick had with Dutch rising star Jett Rebel.

In a completely unrelated note: in my stats, I saw that someone got to this weblog using the search term “is every female fronted metal band the same?”. Whoever did that, first of all: kudos for the original search term and secondly, thank you for providing me with a belly laugh.

Album of the Week 48-2014: Anouk – Paradise And Back Again

Internationally, Anouk is probably known for last year’s Eurovision entry ‘Birds’, but the Dutch music scene explodes whenever she releases something new. There’s a good reason for that: Anouk is Holland’s best (and best selling) female Rock singer and she understands the power of scarcity. Granted, she doesn’t play live much simply because she doesn’t want to, but it does keep her in demand. ‘Paradise And Back Again’ is her ninth studio record and though it isn’t on par with the underrated diamond ‘Graduated Fool’, it’s another strong album with mainly her Soul, Blues and Pop influences at the forefront. The album’s live feel is part of its charm as well.

Let’s get some criticism out of the way first. ‘Paradise And Back Again’ is a front-loaded album. This is especially true when you have the limited edition that closes with three electronically oriented tracks that have Anouk performing well, but because of the sudden stylistic shift, they rather stand out like a sore thumb. But also without those bonus tracks, the album doesn’t exactly close on a high note. Having said that, the album does contain a large number of fantastic grooves. Many Dutch reviewers have pointed out that the album is conceptually weaker than its predecessor, but I do think the songwriting is better.

Not so long ago, a lengthy interview with Anouk in the TV show College Tour was aired and she closed it off with excellent performances of ‘Looking For Love’ and opening track ‘Cold Blackhearted Golddiggers’. Those performances made me very hungry for this album and the two songs are definitely among the album’s highlights. Especially the former, with its overwhelming vocal work and monstrous groove, but the latter is a fantastic, darkly brooding Blues track that serves as the perfect introduction for ‘Paradise And Back Again’.

For me, ‘Don’t Wipe Us Out’ is the highlight of the album. The song is built upon one of the most awesome bass lines I’ve heard this year, while the climaxes of the song are reached by adding or removing layers of instruments. That killer bass stays though. ‘She Is Beautiful’ is a well-crafted Pop song with a Daptone vibe in its intro, ‘Daddy’ contains one of Anouk’s most spirited performances of the album, not to mention some of the best lyrics and ‘Last Goodbye’ is a short, genre-defying Pop song. ‘Wigger’ has more depth than its title may suggest and I somehow really like the creeping vibe of ‘Some Of Us’.

Okay, so there’s no classic like ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Everything’ on this record, but give it some time and the album will grow on you. This is mainly due to its more subdued nature; the songs have a way of revealing their secrets slowly rather than punching you in the face with them. That is what characterizes ‘Paradise And Back Again’ and it is also its redeeming quality, no matter what you might think upon first listen. What the first listen will reveal, though, is that Anouk has a fantastic voice and a knack for writing good hooks. That should keep us satisfied until she wants to play live again. And admit it: that album cover is awesome!

Recommended tracks: ‘Don’t Wipe Us Out’, ‘Looking For Love’, ‘Cold Blackhearted Golddiggers’

Album of the Week 47-2014: Dr. John – Goin’ Back To New Orleans

While a lot – if not all – of Dr. John’s albums a celebration of all things New Orleans, nowhere else is the tribute to his musical heritage nearly as obvious as it is on the two collections of New Orleans classics known as ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) and these fantastic recordings from two decades later. In a way, the album is also sort of an artistic reawakening for Dr. John after a somewhat unproductive decade. No matter how you view ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, it’s an enjoyable listen. If only because of the celebratory nature and spirited performances by every musician involved.

Part of what makes the album work so well is that the Doctor is working with some veterans of the scene, including Danny Barker, Al Hirt and the Neville Brothers. The chemistry is alive and well throughout ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans'; it’s obvious that everyone involved had the shared enthusiasm for bringing new life to these New Orleans classics. That spirit would be reason enough to go out and buy this record immediately, but it’s also clear that Dr. John put a lot of effort into selecting a range songs and thinking of the order in which they worked best. That alone warrants the presence of eighteen tracks.

Amongst the tracks selected are traditionals that have been done by everybody, such as ‘Careless Love’ and a particularly swinging version of ‘Goodnight, Irene’ – have you ever heard that song with such awesome horns? – there are also a few less predictable inclusions. The album opens with the very atypical ‘Litanie Des Saints’, Dr. John’s tribute to classical composer Gottschalk. The song has a classical vibe to it, but there’s also something African and something Caribbean to the rhythms. It took some time getting used to it, but it quickly became one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard.

Other highlights include ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’ with its exciting vibe, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say’, which has a vocal cameo by Danny Barker, who actually knew Buddy Bolden, and the cynical Blues of ‘How Come My Dog Don’t Bark When You Come Around’ with the Doctor himself ad-libbing brilliantly near the end. However, the perfect closing statement is the title track. The horn arrangement just pops, the choirs by the Neville Brothers are exuberant and the Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano parts make even me want to get up and dance. Joe Liggins’ original is amazing, but this is the ultimate version of the song.

Dr. John’s New Orleans class is complete with his extensive liner notes, in which he explains the history of the songs he’s tackled here and whose versions inspired him most. It accompanies the music perfectly and makes the album so much more than just another album by the musical genius that is Dr. John; it makes ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ sort of an archive release by an enthusiast who wants people to learn as much about the vast musical history of New Orleans as possible. But even when you approach this as “just an album”, it’s an incredibly enjoyable one with a very long lasting impact. A must for any music fan.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’, ‘Litanie Des Saints’, ‘Do You Call That A Buddy?’

Album of the Week 46-2014: Warlord – Deliver Us

Some legends of Heavy Metal have their praise based on an incredibly small amount of output. For many of the unsung heroes of the NWOBHM movement, only a handful of singles remains as a monument to their supposed brilliance. California’s Warlord has recently expanded their catalog a little, but for a while, two half-hour albums were all the band had going for them. The praise they got, however, was more than deserved. While their original oeuvre predates the term Power Metal, that’s exactly what it is. And the whole thing sounds remarkably sophisticated for the genre too.

Despite the consistent input of drummer extraordinaire Mark Zonder, Warlord is and will always be the brainchild of guitarist William J Tsamis – “Destroyer” in the credits. His classy riffwork and unorthodox approach to Heavy Metal songwriting – some things he said in interviews may make one doubt if he ever actually liked the genre – are what make Warlord’s music. Listen no further than the semi-title track to this debut EP of theirs; ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ counts as an ultimate Heavy Metal classic through its triumphant main riff, marching rhythm, subtle keyboard flourishes and beautiful vocal harmonies.

And that brings us to one of the other redeeming factors of ‘Deliver Us’. Singer Jack Rucker – “Damien King I” in the credits – isn’t your typical Heavy Metal singer in the sense that he doesn’t have the raw, primal power that is normally associated with the more traditional variation of the genre, but his voice fits the ethereal quality of the melodies on ‘Deliver Us’ so well that it’s hard to imagine these songs with a different singer. He carries the changes in atmosphere in the brilliant ‘Penny For A Poor Man’ with remarkable ease. It borders on unbelievable that Rucker never did anything of particular relevance in the Metal scene after leaving Warlord, because his vocal performance here is among my favorites in the history of the genre.

‘Child Of The Damned’ is one of the more popular songs on the album due to inclusion on the Metal Blade compilation ‘Total Destruction’ and HammerFall covering the song much later. It is definitely the most explicitely uptempo song on the album and benefits from a great riff and fantastic double bass work by Zonder. Even better is the ‘Metal Massacre III’ inclusion ‘Mrs. Victoria’, due to its darker, ominous tone. That one’s only included on the re-release of ‘Deliver Us’, but it definitely rounds out the release. The more tranquil ‘Winter Tears’ is another brilliant track with a great vocal part courtesy of Rucker.

It’s easy to understand why ‘Deliver Us’ has earned its classic status. It’s a classy Power Metal album with a unique approach to Heavy Metal songwriting. The expert musicianship from everyone involved does the rest. Tsamis and Zonder have continued the Warlord legacy intermittently throughout the years and although they’re still releasing quality material, but the way all the starts have aligned for ‘Deliver Us’ is a rarity. A rarity waiting to be heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Deliver Us From Evil’, ‘Penny for A Poor Man’, ‘Winter Tears’


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