Album of the Week 37-2014: Slash – World On Fire

Despite being promoted as Slash’s third solo record, ‘World On Fire’ is technically the second album by the band lead by him and singer Myles Kennedy. Very little bands in recent Rock history have such a tight band dynamic as Slash, Myles and The Conspirators, the Canadian rhythm section of bassist Todd Kerns and drummer Brent Fitz. While this album’s predecessor ‘Apocalyptic Love’ took some time to grow on me, the celebratory, hard-edged Rock ‘n’ Roll sound of that record is continued successfully and while true standouts like ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Bad Rain’, ‘World On Fire’ is just as good and possibly even more consistent.

Throughout his musical carreer, Slash has hardly ever strayed from his Hard Rock with a shot of eighties Metal direction and ‘World On Fire’ is no exception. One could dismiss this as unoriginality, but Slash always finds ways to improve on this formula, especially with this lineup. The rhythm section is rock solid and Kennedy is quite likely the best Rock singer on the face of the Earth right now. What does deserve some recognition is that the album contains some of the best riffs Slash has written thus far. Combined with Kennedy’s talent for strong hooks, it’s a winner.

As mentioned before, the highs on the album may not be as high as the ones on ‘Apocalyptic Love’, but the album is a thoroughly entertaining listen all the way through. A few standout moments include ’30 Years To Life’, which builds from a Delta riff to an energetic Rocker, the unabashedly Metal ‘Beneath The Savage Sun’ and the pleasantly surprising structure of the awesome ‘Shadow Life’. Due to its blistering riffwork and recognizable chorus,’Too Far Gone’ should have been the single in a time when singles mattered and the title track is an incredible powerful opener and ‘Automatic Overdrive’ and ‘Wicked Stone’ are spirited Rockers.

However, the album isn’t without its flaws. Apart from the hideous artwork – from the ugly cover right down to the subpar band photos – the album takes a notable dip in quality after the very interesting ‘Withered Delilah’ (bonus points for that title, by the way). Luckily, the album picks up steam again with the upbeat ‘Avalon’. What follows is the delightfully dynamic ‘The Dissident’, Slash’ most exciting instrumental thus far in the shape of ‘Safari Inn’ and the brilliantly dark and bitter closing track ‘The Unholy’.

In the end, ‘World On Fire’ is a strong Hard Rock album that deserves to be heard by any fan of the genre. Quite a lot of this material deserves to be heard in the live environment. I’m quite sure it will work just as well as the songs from ‘Apocalyptic Love’. It’s just that the fact that a CD can contain 80 minutes of music doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do it. Aside from that minor complaint, everyone who enjoyed everything else Slash has done in the past can safely acquire this record. It’s rare to hear Rock bands sound this inspired and “together” these days.

Recommended tracks: ’30 Years To Life’, ‘The Unholy’, ‘Too Far Gone’, ‘World On Fire’

Pushing Paper: Ramita Navai – ‘City Of Lies’

Pushing books is one of the last things I want to do here, but it’s been a long time since I’ve finished a substantial book in less than a day the way I did today with ‘City Of Lies’ by British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai. She was promoting her book in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart two weeks ago and I was captivated. And not for the usual reasons when a woman as beautiful as Navai appears on television. She had just published a book containing eight profiles of people living in the Iranian capital Tehran and their constant struggle of separating their public and private lives, through the titular lies and intrigue that are apparently needed to keep your head above water in Tehran.

First of all, what makes this book such a page turner is that it reads like fiction, even though everything that’s told in the book is deeply rooted in true stories, ironic as that may seem given its title. Navai has a very descriptive style that is almost novel-like in nature. Journalists usually don’t have this much feeling for character and story development. And I’m speaking as a writing journalist here. The idea behind the book may give the impression that we’re dealing with a bunch of interviews here, but Navai tells every story from the viewpoint of the person covered in the profiles and you really feel what they are experiencing. Rather than interview snapshots, the reader is part of the emotional interior of the people Navai introduces.

Ideally, ‘City Of Lies’ paints a more nuanced image of life in and around Vali Asr street than even the most left-wing news media will give you. And despite what the title of the book may suggest, that image may be more positive than you may think based on what the news gives us. Despite the strict religious background of Iran – or maybe even because of it – the people portrayed in ‘City Of Lies’ are relatable characters who find themselves torn between a multitude of difficulties with family, friends, alcohol, drugs, love and all kinds of sexual shenanigans like all of us do. The oppressive atmosphere of a fundamentalist regime and even moreso a traditional family and social circle is never far away, but Navai succeeds in giving this people a face and maybe even a voice.

To fully understand the subject matter, reading is absolutely obligated. Trust me, you won’t regret sacrificing a bit of your time for this fantastic book. It’s one of the most successful attempts at writing something that its both informative and exciting to read. All thanks to Navai’s pleasant writing style, sharp observations and her seemingly endless knowledge of the subject matter, which she shares almost effortlessly between the reading experience. A truly captivating book that should be read by anyone.

For those of you looking for more background information, I urge you to check out the interview Jon Stewart had with Navai in The Daily Show right here. Stewart is at his best and Navai is selling her book without even trying to sell it; you can see both of them are very interested in the subject.

Album of the Week 36-2014: Queen – Live At The Rainbow ’74

While it’s easy to dismiss Queen for the musical identity crisis that butchered most of their eighties output, we must not forget that their carreer was bookended by a group of incredible. Being a fan of bombastic music, I can’t help being captivated by especially the part tribute to, part parody of progressive Rock that characterized their early to mid seventies work. So naturally, when the news came that two of Queen’s shows at the London Rainbow Theatre – of which only parts have surfaced throughout the years – that was something to look out to. The result is a stunning look into the days when Queen was still an awesome Hard Rock band.

The first surprise is how fresh the recordings still look and sound. Of course, it’s obvious that it was recorded with seventies technology, but the Rainbow Theatre had very good equipment – as evidenced by the many fantstic recordings that were made there throughout the seventies and early eighties – and it’s obvious some experts have dealt with it before release. I suspect some of the backing choirs were beefed up somewhere along the way, but the whole thing has a delightful sense of raw abandon, most evidently in Brian May’s guitar being much more prominent and rocking than on the studio recordings of these songs.

Both shows were recorded in 1974, one in March supporting ‘Queen II’ and one in November promoting ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, both fine albums with a wealth of strong material to choose from. The DVD shows the entire November show, which is the better of the two. Performance-wise, there’s very little difference, but the recordings and the setlist of the latter show are just superior. There are a lot of songs included in both shows, which makes sense with the relatively limited time between them, but both shows are definitely a treat for fans of the band.

Those who are only familiar with the Queen’s Pop material, the heavy guitar work on songs like the pounding ‘Son And Daughter’, the gallopping ‘Keep Yourself Alive’, the rollicking ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, the epic ‘Ogre Battle’ and the dark masterpiece ‘Flick Of The Wrist’. Other highlights include the mood setting opener ‘Now I’m Here’ and a fantastic execution of both parts of ‘In The Lap Of The Gods’. However, the powerful and dramatic reading of the beautiful ‘White Queen (As It Began)’ takes the cake. Song-wise, the only disappointment would be that the mind blowing ‘The March Of The Black Queen’ – possibly the band’s best song after ‘Innuendo’ – is only included as part of a medley.

If you’re being really picky, you might notice the absence of audience footage, but let’s be honest: who cares about the audience when there’s four legends in the prime of their musical prowess on a relatively small stage? Yours truly can’t be the only fan of Queen who has been anticipating this for years, but I can honestly say, the show exceeds any expectations you might have had. This is by far the best live release of Queen, easily beating ‘Live Killers’ in terms of intensity and track listing. It’s a no-brainer for Queen fans that this release needs to be acquired, but anyone into seventies Hard Rock should also pay close attention to this gem.

Recommended tracks: ‘White Queen (As It Began)’, ‘Flick Of The Wrist’, ‘In The Lap Of The Gods’, ‘Keep Yourself Alive’

Album of the Week 35-2014: Dir En Grey – Gauze

Dir En Grey’s debut album is the hidden gem of the Visual Kei scene. This may sound a bit weird, figuring that the Japanese quintet is probably the most popular band in the Metal scene with non-English lyrics after Rammstein, but ‘Gauze’ stands out stylistically in a discography that is charactarized by an incredible amount of variation anyway. Those who know Dir En Grey’s later, more brutal and progressive work will probably be surprised by how melodic the material on ‘Gauze’ sounds. One thing is for sure though: this is the work of an immensely talented band capable of writing fantastic songs.

About half of the album was produced by X Japan’s main man Yoshiki. This “L.A. Session” has resulted in a lot of music that sounds closer to the melodic Hard Rock generally associated with the Visual Kei scene than the experimental take on extreme Metal that the band would come to be known for. And although all the band members have proven to be extremely talented through the years, it’s especially singer Kyo and bassist Toshiya that shine on these songs. It’s a matter of space; Toshiya’s jumpy, melodic bass lines add an almost danceable edge to Shinya’s intense drumming, while Kyo, who would become the man who could go to any vocal extreme, gets the room to display how amazing his clean vocals are.

It’s not a strict division though; ‘-Zan-‘, with its hyperspeed riffs and drums, is easily the most brutal and aggressive song on the record and it was recorded in Los Angeles with Yoshiki. On the other hand, the light and breezy Pop melodies of ‘Raison Detre’ (sic) – one of the album’s highlights – is from the self-produced session in Japan. The rest of the album sort of bounces back and forth between those extremes. ‘Cage’ and ‘Yokan’ are masterpieces of melodic Rock with beautiful choruses that have me singing along despite the fact that I don’t speak Japanese (not even a little) and on the other hand, there’s the pounding riffing of ‘Tsumi To Batsu’ and the terrifying Progmetal of ‘Mazohyst Of Decadence’.

Quite a lot of time has been spent on the production and it shows. ‘Gauze’ is a dream of hi-fi late eighties alternative Rock production. In hindsight, the guitars of Kaoru and Die could have done with a bit more balls as the casual listener hardly notices how impressive these guys are, but it’s hardly a disturbing factor. In fact, a more “Metal” production probably wouldn’t have suited the album, since it’s not strictly a Metal record.

What this is though is a collection of extremely well-written songs that have a lot of room for incredible melodies and quite possibly Kyo’s best vocal work to date – keep in mind that I have a strong preference of clean vocals. It’s hard not to love an album with such fantastic songwriting and so much variation. The beautiful cover model doesn’t hurt either. All this contributes to what is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album, along the 2008 masterpiece ‘Uroboros’. It’s quite difficult to get a hold of outside of Japan, but well worth tracking down.

Recommended tracks: ‘Raison Detre’, ‘Cage’, ‘Yokan’, ‘-Zan-‘

Album of the Week 34-2014: Stratovarius – Nemesis

One of the best developments in recent Power Metal history is the fact that Stratovarius is once again in the hands of a guitarist. This is an important thing, seeing as the departure of original guitarist and chief songwriter Timo Tolkki lead to the most guitar unfriendly record the band has released so far in the shape of ‘Polaris’. Tolkki’s replacement Matias Kupiainen basically took over his role as both the producer and main songwriter to the band, which breathes new life into the band’s tried and true formula. Predecessor ‘Elysium’ was promising, but ‘Nemesis’ is the first Stratovarius album since ‘Elements Pt. 1′ that fully adopts all of the Finns’ benefits.

It has to be said: while this is still instantly recognizable as the highly melodic band that single-handedly shaped the Finnish Power Metal scene, Kupiainen has a slightly rawer approach to the riff writing as well as the production. It may help that Kupiainen was a fan of the band before he joined; as such, he knows which elements to keep, because make the band what they are (the soaring neoclassical melodies, the strong and infectious choruses and the interaction between the guitars and Jens Johansson’s keyboards) and which elements might need a little tweaking (the three albums before he took over production lacked some serious balls in especially the riffing department).

While ‘Unbreakable’, the first single from the album, failed to impress me upon first release, the song makes a lot more sense within the context of the full album. It’s still a somewhat plain, but enjoyable Power Metal tune. More impressive is opening track ‘Abandon’, which probably has the most aggressive opening riff of any Stratovarius song. It’s a perfect amalgam of the powers of Kupiainen and new drummer Rolf Pilve, who surprisingly is every bit as good as the semi-legendary Jörg Michael.

The other highlight of the album has to be the closing title track, which works its way through a surprising number of climaxes and a couple of fantastic riffs, including an awesome twin riff, always a guarantee to make me smile. Other key moments on the album are the back-to-back stately Power Metal classics ‘Out Of The Fog’ and ‘Castles In The Air’, the latter of which contains a sick Fusion-style solo courtesy of Kupiainen, the bombastic ‘One Must Fall’ and the controversial ‘Halcyon Days’, which contains some electronic beats that in my opinion don’t sound out of place at all. It gives the song a fresh edge.

It’s surprising that a band that has stuck quite close to its formula over the last still gets such amazing performances out of its musicians. In fact, Timo Kotipelto gives the vocal delivery of a lifetime here. While he stays clear of the top heights of the likes of ‘Father Time’, but his tenor still has the strength it had when he was in his early twenties. Combined with a stellar production and the best set of Stratovarius songs in over a decade and you’ve got yourself a winning Power Metal album. It’s recently been re-released with an inessential, but still enjoyable documentary. Whichever version you choose, it’s a wise choice for fans of melodic Power Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nemesis’, ‘Abandon’, ‘One Must Fall’

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


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