Album of the Week 17-2015: Symphony X – The Divine Wings Of Tragedy

Progressive Metal has the essence to be one of the most interesting genres of music. And for many earlier releases in the genre, this was true. However, over the years, many Prog bands have limited themselves to playing as inaccessible stuff as possible whilst dwelling on Dream Theater clichés. New Jersey’s Symphony X isn’t without the latter – Michael Romeo’s heavy start-stop riffing screams John Petrucci’s influence – but they also know how to write a good song. In addition, they have a great singer – scratch that, a brilliant one – and an ear for recognizable melodies that many of their colleagues lack.

While the quintet has continued to release quality Progmetal records with remarkably good songwriting, they have yet to surpass their 1997 masterpiece ‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’. It’s on this album when they discovered the ultimate recipe to their blend of neoclassical melodies, mythologically inspired themes and ornate arrangements. Also, the mixing job is surprisingly dynamic and organic, which makes the album a pleasure to the ears quite litterally. It gives the light-and-shade workings of the band a little more breathing room than on many contemporary Metal records, including some of their own more recent albums.

‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’ combines the virtuosic intricacy that the genre demands with an almost catchy approach to songwriting. Nowhere on the record is that more obvious than on the fantastic ‘Out Of The Ashes’. The heavily neoclassical intro – besides Petrucci, Yngwie Malmsteen is an obvious influence for Romeo – there’s an aggressive verse with singer extraordinaire Russell Allen sounding almost as good as a young Ronnie James Dio, after which one of the most beautifully melodic choruses in nineties Metal takes over. ‘The Eyes Of Medusa’ and the awesome opener ‘Of Sins Of Shadows’ have equal interactions between complex riff work and passages that leave a lot of room for Allen’s incredible range.

But there’s more. ‘The Accolade’, whilst still firmly within the Progressive Metal realm, finds the band adapting a surprisingly Romantic – capital R – approach both musically and lyrically, while ‘Candlelight Fantasia’ is as close to a Prog ballad as it gets. A beautiful song with heartwrenching lyrics. ‘Sea Of Lies’ was probably the band’s most aggressive song at the time, but the most notable song would be the twenty plus minute title track that works itself surprisingly fluently through a number of amazing movements and a couple of beautiful climaxes. The song has all of the band’s five members performing their hearts out.

A work of art. Not just the title track, the entire album. In the end, ‘Pharaoh’ – despite its cool chorus – and ‘The Witching Hour’ are slightly less memorable, but that’s probably mostly due to the fact that they’re surrounded by amazing songs. That’s ultimately what sets ‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’ above almost any other Progressive Metal album: the entire album is a pleasing listen, but every song is rewarding to listen to separately as well. And so it is proven that excellent musicianship doesn’t necessarily exclude great songwriting. Possibly, but not necessarily.

Recommended tracks: ‘Out Of The Ashes’, ‘Candlelight Fantasia’, ‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’

Album of the Week 16-2015: W.A.S.P. – Dominator

Blackie Lawless’ attitude has gotten W.A.S.P. a lot of hatred through the years – often understandably – and their live performances have been hit-and-miss for quite a long time, but his songwriting has been consistently good ever since he took a more serious route with ‘The Headless Children’. While nothing has quite been as strong as the conceptual masterpiece ‘The Crimson Idol’, there’s always a handful of fantastic songs on the band’s albums and the band almost always combines the best aspects of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. ‘Dominator’ counts as a latter day highlight for the Los Angeles quartet.

While recent albums of the band have been enjoyable at the very least, often they have shown the band either trying to recreate former glories (the ‘The Neon God’ diptych, while highly impressive, is a blatant ‘The Crimson Idol’-rewrite) or dumbing down their sound in order to please the fanbase of their earliest work (‘Helldorado’). For ‘Dominator’, Lawless has just written a handful of strong songs. There apparently is an underlying political message, although it rather seems to be an act of protest, as Lawless’ sympathies are unclear. Ignore that and you’ve got yourselves a fine Hard Rock-ish Heavy Metal record. Or the other way around, if you will.

In the shape of ‘Teacher’ and opening track ‘Mercy’, the album contains two of my favorite W.A.S.P. songs. In all honesty, the songs are quite alike, both high-powered Rockers with big choruses where Lawless’ sandpaper vocal chords turn from a sinister half-whisper to a mighty roar. The riffs are simple, but incredibly effective and drummer Mike Dupke answers to that approach pefectly with his understanding of dynamics. Other highlights include ‘Take Me Up’, which starts like a ballad, but turns into a ‘Heaven And Hell’-like midtempo stomper, the rollicking ‘Long, Long Way To Go’ and the typical W.A.S.P. crusher ‘The Burning Man’.

All that is missing from ‘Dominator’ is one of those overwhelming power ballads (think ‘The Idol’ and ‘Sleeping (In The Fire)’) where Lawless’ voice gets beautiful in its ugliness. The sombre ‘Heaven’s Hung In Black’ comes close and has some amazing guitar leads courtesy of Doug Blair – easily the best guitarist the band ever had – but ultimately lacks the climax such a song asks for. And after a relatively dark record, closer ‘Deal With The Devil’ sort of sticks out like a sore thumb with its exuberant Rock ‘n’ Roll vibe. It’s not a bad song, but it would probably have worked better with different surroundings.

For W.A.S.P.’s ultimate work of art, you’ll have to turn to a different album (‘The Crimson Idol’, naturally), but respect for the band is due, since their third decade output is much better than the average for bands with careers of the same length. Powerful songwriting and serviceable musicianship are generally very compatible and ‘Dominator’ is a textbook example of that. Only Blair sometimes shines brighter than the rest, but nowhere near as much as in live performances of older songs. It’s well worth your time if you like either old school Heavy Metal or eighties Hard Rock. or both.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mercy’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Take Me Up’

Album of the Week 15-2015: Kansas – Leftoverture

Historically, ‘Leftoverture’ would come to be known as guitarist and synth player Kerry Livgren’s album due to the writer’s block that singer and keyboard player Steve Walsh was suffering from at the time. Generally preferring Livgren’s contributions to Kansas’ albums, ‘Leftoverture’ quickly became my favorite album of the band, despite my favorite song (‘Child Of Innocence’) being on its predecessor. It’s an album that perfectly blends the band’s progressive tendencies and Rock power with their melodic sensibilities and Livgren’s philosophical wonderings. The result rivals Styx’ ‘The Grand Illusion’ as the best American progressive Rock album of the seventies.

What I like most about Kansas is that they weren’t schooled musicians, like most of the British Progrockers of the era were. Kerry Livgren’s compositions and arrangements show that he knows a great deal more of music theory than your average Rock ‘n’ Roller, but the unschooled rawness lendt the band a powerful edge that many of their British contemporaries lacked as their progressive Rock transitioned into Art Rock. Kansas has a violinist – in fact, the coolest in the genre – and a keyboard player and a half, but didn’t forget they were a Rock band first and foremost. Well, they would in the eighties, but that’s a story best left for another time.

‘Carry On Wayward Son’ functions as the shop window for this record. Despite its relative complexity, it quickly became a huge radio hit and that’s probably due to the large amount of hooks in the riffs and melodies. But it’s hardly the only highlight on the album. The album’s shortest track ‘What’s On My Mind’ may be even better, with its hard driving rhythm, jubilant chorus and the brilliant guitar interplay courtesy of Livgren and Rich Williams in its main riff.

Kansas’ more introspective approach also shows its best side on ‘Leftoverture’. ‘Miracles Out Of Nowhere’ builds from the delicate and passionate vocal work in the verses towards a powerful finale, while the beautiful ‘The Wall’ has a nearly symphonic quality with the way it works toward carefully orchestrated climaxes and Walsh’s passionate vocal delivery. Near the end of the album, the band goes full-Prog with ‘Cheyenne Anthem’ and the lengthy ‘Magnum Opus’. The latter goes through a few movements, only one of which with vocals, showing clearly the influence of classical music on the band. It’s similar, yet it rocks a lot harder.

Though the band released one more successful album before falling victim to the identity crisis that seemed to be mandatory for every band that was around in the seventies. Kansas would never rise to the height of ‘Leftoverture’ again, but then again, some bands would have killed for an album this good. For me, it combines two things I love dearly: hard driving progressive Rock with its music and lame puns with its title. Besides being the band’s best album, it’s also the ideal starting point for people who want to know what Kansas is all about, as it works its way through more accessible tracks towards a more ambitious B-side. Well worth anyone’s time.

Recommended tracks: ‘What’s On My Mind’, ‘Carry On Wayward Son’, ‘Miracles Out Of Nowhere’

Album of the Week 14-2015: Anthem – Immortal

Album covers are supposed to seduce people into buying the sound carrier they contain. Though not quite as hideous as…let’s say ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’, the cover of ‘Immortal’ doesn’t suggest that we’re dealing with one of the best Heavy Metal records of the 21st century here. Yet that is the case. Immortal has the Japanese quartet running the extra mile and therefor it is the band’s best studio album thus far. Their perfect blend of traditional Heavy Metal and early Power Metal may be relatively simple in composition, but intense and unbelievably effective in execution.

When the nineties destroyed just about anything good about every Heavy Metal band that was active in the eighties, bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata did the right thing and Anthem laid low for a little while. As a result, ever since the band reformed around the turn of the century, they have been churning out albums that were decent at the very worst. ‘Immortal’ is one of those albums where the blend of aggressive energy, recognizable melodies and expert musicianship is just inexplicably perfect. It also seems to be just a tad faster than the average Anthem record, which contributes to the exuberant, powerful nature of the album.

The increase in tempo can be heard right from the start; opening track ‘Immortal Bind’ – still one of the best Anthem tracks thus far – is borderline Thrash with Hiro Homma’s rolling bass drums and Akio Shimizu’s fast palm-muted riffing. Eizo Sakamoto’s brooding double-layered vocals in the verses and triumphant approach in the chorus are the cherry on the cake. The slightly Motörhead-ish Speed Metal monster ‘Soul Motor’, the delightfully chaotic ‘Betrayer’, the more traditional ‘Road To Nowhere’ and the highly melodic ‘The Beginning’ are all uptempo scorchers that make my blood boil with old school Metal euphoria.

However, when the band slows down a little, their class and versatility really shines through. ‘Mob Groove’ is a groovy little stomper with an irresistible chorus, but Shimizu’s masterpiece ‘Echoes In The Dark’ really takes the cake. The midtempo song has a dangerous sounding groove that, combined with Sakamoto’s clean but raw vocal assault, is somewhat reminiscent of Dio’s darker work. Elsewhere, Shibata’s compositions allow both Sakamoto and Shimizu to shine. The former with his passionate, enthusiastic vocal performance and the latter with his melodically strong and enviably fluent fretboard magic.

Not judging an album by its cover once again proves useful when it comes to ‘Immortal’. If you like good old Heavy Metal, it’s simply impossible to dislike anything on this record, apart from maybe its poor to non-existent distribution outside of Japan. After this album, Anthem would continue to make more really good Heavy Metal records with Sakamoto and later – on last year’s pleasantly surprising ‘Absolute World’ – Yukio Morikawa on lead vocals. Every good band just has that one record where they rise above themselves. While many traditionalists may point to ‘Bound To Break’, ‘Immortal’ is that record for Anthem.

Recommended tracks: ‘Immortal Bind’, ‘Echoes In The Dark’, ‘Soul Motor’

Album of the Week 13-2015: Mother’s Finest – Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts

Damn, it’s been a while since Mother’s Finest released a studio album. As a fan of their combination of Funky R’n’B grooves and heavy Rock guitars, the announcement of the release of ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ was amazing news to yours truly. Especially after hearing it; where predecessor ‘Meta-Funk’nPhysical’ contained a couple of brilliant songs – ‘Funk-a-Wild’ is so good it hurts – but relied a little too much on modern production techniques, the new album is full of live energy. The album contains all the guitars and grooves you need and the singing couple of Joyce Kennedy and Glen ‘Doc’ Murdock is on fire, the former especially.

While the contemporary production techniques haven’t vanished from the music – they’re quite prominently featured near the end of the album – they have been incorporated into the band’s sound more fluently than before and as a result, seem to support the guitars and rhythms rather than replacing the latter. Also, drummer Dionic, son of Kennedy and Murdock, has had a big hand in composing the material for the album – previously mainly the task of bassist Jerry ‘Wyzard’ Seay – and he seems to prefer a Mother’s Finest that rocks heavily.

But as the band’s history has proven, it’s the variation that makes this band so special. And ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ is no different. The exuberant opening rocker ‘Angels’ sound like something you would have come to expect from Mother’s Finest and therefore is the perfect introduction to the album. After that, the album moves effortlessly between Hard Rock (‘Shut Up’, the surprisingly heavy near Metal closing track ‘My Badd’), Funk Rock (‘Take Control’) and a single dark ballad (‘Tears Of Stone’, fantastically sung by Kennedy).

Highlighting the album is the fantastic ‘All Of My Life’, an Arena Rocker with a massive chorus. Everything just works in that chorus; the choral vocals that are guaranteed to get stuck in your head, the triumphant lead guitar against the wide chords of the rhythm guitar and the way it breaks the song open. Other stand out tracks include ‘Another Day’, which moves from an awesomely funky riff to a celebratory, almost gospel-like chorus and the swinging, yet crushingly heavy riff work in the stomper ‘She Ready’.

If ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ warrants a twelve year wait since the last studio album, I’m not sure, but you can’t accuse the five men and one woman of the band of rushing through making another album. In fact, it’s all very well written and produced and very likely to please fans of the band, at the very least the ones who are into ‘Another Mother Further’ and ‘Black Radio Won’t Play This Record’. Their self-titled debut album will always remain the band’s ultimate piece of work, but ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ is a more than worthy addition to the band’s excellent discography.

Recommended tracks: ‘All Of My Life’, ‘Another Day’, ‘She Ready’

Album of the Week 12-2015: Kenn Nardi – Dancing With The Past

Anacrusis was one of the most unique bands ever to have graced the Metal scene. Want proof? Name one band that sounds like them. See? Their one of a kind blend of Thrash Metal, Progmetal and hints of New Wave and even some suspenseful film score music made 1993’s ‘Screams And Whispers’ the progressive masterpiece that it is. The band never had a chance to outdo that album, since like many Thrash related bands, the nineties ultimately proved fatal to them. There was a glimmer of hope for a sequel when the band reunited for a few gigs, but the band quit again. However, in ‘Dancing With The Past’, singer and guitarist Kenn Nardi has released a spiritual successor to ‘Screams And Whispers’.

Nardi had intended this material to be on Anacrusis’ fifth studio album. When the band split up again, he turned it into a massive work spanning two CD’s and over two and a half hours. Commercially, making two studio albums – or even three – would be a more attractive option to release the album, but I’m not sure if selling records was the motive behind this release. There’s no need to draw new people in here and those who loved Anacrusis are accustomed to this kind of inaccessibility. In fact, this is more than just a release to fans of the band: it’s a treat.

The sound of the album is very much reminiscent of nineties Anacrusis, but it isn’t a blatant ‘Manic Impressions’ rewrite. The progressive approach and fearless experimentalism was always a strong feat of Nardi’s compositions and ‘Dancing With The Past’ is no different. It finds Nardi exploring all corners of his influences and often the ones that stray from what one may have come to expect are the most pleasant surprises; ‘Submerged’, for instance, is a dark Rocker with a prominent New Wave flavor, but stands out considerably as such.

Generally, the album has four distinct chapters with only a few deviations. The first cd starts with relatively simple, atmospheric midtempo stompers – only broken by the Thrash monster ‘Fragile’ – before moving into a bleak and doomy second act, highlighted by the first disc’s desparate, pitch black closer ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and the almost ballad-like ‘The Dark And The Light’. Familiarity will arrive during the first half of the second disc, which sounds closest to Anacrusis’ dark and complex Thrash sound, before moving toward a somewhat more melodic final act. Of course there are a few exceptions, but that seems to be the general grid.

While Nardi wrote almost all of Anacrusis’ material, his brilliance has never shone through as much as it did here. He plays all the instruments himself and wrings everything that he has out of his voice, screams and whispers in deed. Anacrusis bassist John Emery contributes to a few tracks and according to the liner notes, drummer Mike Owen had a significant role in arranging some of the drum computer parts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the drum sounds were samples from his kit. Regardless, ‘Dancing With The Past’ is a work of art that shows how versatile Metal can be. Recommended even to those unaware of Anacrusis.

Recommended tracks: ‘Submerged’, ‘Creve Coeur’, ‘The Scarlet Letter’, ‘The Dark And The Light’, ‘The Runt’

Album of the Week 11-2015: Gunbridge – Privilege Of Ten Thousands

Galneryus fans are split quite evenly into two camps. One prefers original singer Yama-B, while the other goes for current singer Masatoshi Ono. While I am firmly within the Ono camp, Yama-B’s more dramatic delivery isn’t without its merits. During his Galneryus days, his voice already proved better on the material he had written himself (the awesome ‘Raid Again’ comes to mind immediately) and now that he’s got his own bands and projects to mind, he seems to make sure that his powerful, clean voice gets all the room it needs to shine. And not unlike Galneryus, the result is absolutely stellar Power Metal.

‘Privilege Of Ten Thousands’ is the first Gunbridge album that actually features an entire band; while guitarist Issy and drummer Hideki were around before, the band has been a solo outlet for Yama-B since the late nineties. And he’s still the one who wrote all the material and recorded and produced the whole thing, but ‘Privilege Of Ten Thousands’ most definitely profits from the band interaction here, which is also what justifies the many re-recordings on the album. The instrumentation sounds a lot more together, alive and energetic this way.

Technically, there’s really only two new songs on the album – not counting the intro – and they’re bookending the album. It was one of those songs that drove me to buying the album though. For a while, I have been almost dangerously addicted to the goosebumps-inducing, triumphant slab of Power Metal that is ‘Ten Thousands Cry’. Heroic lead guitar melodies, fantastic lead vocal lines, a driving rhythm and that chorus… Oh my god, that chorus! Guaranteed to get your fists pumping and stuck in the back of your head for days. Issy and Hayato prove themselves more than worthy lead guitarists here and Hideki’s drumming may be a tad predictable, but it’s also incredibly tight and solid.

Of a completely different nature is the other new song, closer ‘Trailblazer’. Prior to hearing it, I would have considered Yama-B’s voice too powerful for a ballad with only acoustic guitar and vocals, but this song turned me around. The voice is a perfect fit and the desolate atmosphere comes across really, really well. The remaining six songs are all strong, uptempo Power Metal highlighted by the amazing verse riff in ‘Baptism Of Steel’, the borderline Thrash scorcher that is ‘Dispel’ and the somewhat darker ‘Means To Live’. I think the highest scream in ‘Try To Win’ was a bit too much, but the song is very good otherwise.

So here we have the ultimate proof of why it was a good thing that Yama-B has left Galneryus. Where his vocals sometimes used to clash with Syu’s guitar histrionics, Gunbridge leaves all the room his powerful, dramatic voice needs. His vocals never become the overpowering factor though; being a good songwriter, Yama-B obviously realizes a good song dominates any separate element. And from a simple quantitative viewpoint: there are even more mindblowing Power Metal albums this way!

Recommended tracks: ‘Ten Thousands Cry’, ‘Means To Live’, ‘Dispel’, ‘Trailblazer’


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