Album of the Week 30-2015: Vamps – Bloodsuckers

Entertaining is something that Vamps has always been. Their choruses are easy to shout along, their rhythms are surprisingly danceable for a band so loud and the band doesn’t shy away from a little fanservice, which I find laughable rather than rousing, but entertaining nonetheless. I just haven’t been able to enjoy a full album of theirs, because their simple three-chord contemporary alternative Hard Rock ‘n’ Roll lacked depth to keep it interesting. Until ‘Bloodsuckers’, released outside of Japan earlier this year, came out. Suddenly it seems like Hyde and KAZ had a songwriting masterclass in the meantime.

It’s not like ‘Bloodsuckers’ suddenly contains a number of complex Rock songs, but the men behind Vamps have learned a lesson or two about building up tension within songs. That is exactly why I could listen to the album all the way through instead of just skipping through the highlights like I used to do with the band’s records. In addition, the samples and electronics that used to clash with the guitars are much more an integral part of the songs this time around, resulting in a nice Ministry-like industrial Metal vibe in songs like ‘Lips’. It’s like the band finally equipped all of their potential.

However, the band could still use a class or two in song order. ‘Zero’ isn’t a bad track per say, but it does sound like it should have been on a L’Arc-en-Ciel record rather than a Vamps record. The surprising aspect about that is the fact that KAZ, not Hyde, wrote the track. To give credit where credit is due though, the heartfelt, layered semi-ballad that is ‘Inside Myself’ is the perfect closing track for this record. KAZ does a simple, but perfectly fitting guitar solo near the end of the track. There’s a surprising amount of depth to the track.

As for the rest of the album, it mainly contains nice stompers with strong choruses and headbangable riff work. ‘World’s End’ (or ‘Ahead’, if you have the Japanese version) is a fantastic, catchy Rock stomp with a brilliant sense of release in its chorus and some great vocal work by Hyde. His guitar work blends with KAZ’s fantastically as well. ‘Evil’ and the slower ‘Damned’ employ a somewhat darker approach, with especially the former being an exciting track, ‘Get Away’ is a nice battle between synth, guitar and vocals and ‘Ghost’ is the best of the more introspective tracks.

Those who liked Vamps before ‘Bloodsuckers’ will most likely enjoy this album as well, but it’s also a great place to start if you want to know what the band is all about. It’s where the band transformed from a promising audience favorite to something that is musically interesting as well, no matter the simplicity of the material. In a way, these are really loud Pop songs, but they’re good Pop songs to boot. And with just enough variation to make your listen an entertaining fifty minutes.

Recommended tracks: ‘World’s End’, ‘Evil’, ‘Lips’

Album of the Week 29-2015: DragonForce – Sonic Firestorm

Guilty pleasures come in all shapes in sizes. However, I don’t feel particularly guilty about enjoying artists like ABBA or DragonForce. Sure, the latter may have an abundance of Metal clichés in their songs, but they seem to be very tongue-in-cheeky about it. Also, their brand of warp speed, highly melodic Power Metal has something irresistible. It’s the tempos that get your blood pumping, the choruses that force you to sing along or at least smile, all combined with virtuosic musicianship. So virtuosic that it’s often on the verge of being too much, but ‘Sonic Firestorm’ still manages to stand proudly on the line between flashy musicianship and good songwriting.

In a way, ‘Sonic Firestorm’ is DragonForce’s most accomplished record when it comes to their “Extreme Power Metal” style. Due to the introduction of blastbeats courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh’s debut, the extremities are here for the first time. Also, the tempos seem to be just a tad higher than on their fantastic debut ‘Valley Of The Damned’. While the band would take it too far on its follow-up ‘Inhuman Rampage’, this sophomore record has a handful of expertly written Power Metal tunes. They’re just a bit faster and longer than you may be used to.

So quite a lot of Metal purists dislike the band and I don’t really see why. Case in point: opening track ‘My Spirit Will Go On’ contains all the elements of a good Power Metal track. It builds up very nicely towards several climaxes, has a triumphant chorus with a very pleasant melody and a bunch of amazing guitar leads. Sure, these leads may be a bit too flashy, but there’s still always a good melody somewhere in it. Also, I’m quite fond of the “twin blasts”, as the band calls them.

From there, the band follows a similar formula throughout much of the album, sometimes more upbeat (‘Once In A Lifetime’, ‘Fury Of The Storm’, which has probably the largest number of blastbeats here, but also the most catchy chorus), sometimes a bit darker (‘Fields Of Despair’), sometimes a little progressive (the amazing middle section of ‘Prepare For War’) and there’s even a half-decent ballad (‘Dawn Over A New World’). The ultimate highlight, however, is the ten minute masterpiece ‘Soldiers Of The Wasteland’, which brings together all of the band’s elements. Sam Totman and Herman Li riff and solo as if their lives depend on it, ZP Theart has been given a number of amazing vocal lines (including that chorus: oh my god!) and the build-up leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. Easily the best song in DragonForce history.

Without any doubt, ‘Sonic Firestorm’ is the most “DragonForce” record in the band’s catalog. Personally, I’m slightly more partial to ‘Valley Of The Damned’, because I had been in love with the band’s demo for a while when it came out, but if I had to show someone what this band is all about in terms of both style and quality, this is the one to go for. And sure, their brand of Power Metal may be a bit extreme and cliché-ridden, but remember: no one in the industry does it like this. The album did give some new impulse to a genre that was somewhat stuck. Also, ‘Soldiers Of The Wasteland’ has more Power Metal than some albums in the genre!

Recommended tracks: ‘Soldiers Of The Wasteland’, ‘My Spirit Will Go On’, ‘Fields Of Despair’

Album of the Week 28-2015: Dew-Scented – Intermination

With the arrival of the four Dutch musicians that currently round out Dew-Scented’s lineup besides vocalist Leif Jensen, something happened with the sound of the band. Sure, the hyperspeed, incredibly tight and brutally aggressive sound that balances on the edge of Thrash and Death Metal has remained, but guitarist Marvin Vriesde brought a lot more variation and even a slight hint of melody to the band. Now that his six string partner Rory Hansen and bassist Joost van der Graaf also contribute to the songwriting, ‘Intermination’ is quite likely the most varied Dew-Scented album thus far.

Long time fans shouldn’t be afraid though; ‘Intermination’ is still a Dew-Scented record through and through. It’s just admirable that the band really seems to search for the boundaries of what can be done within the Dew-Scented paradigm. Koen Herfst doesn’t limit himself to blastbeats and Thrash polkas, but also has a great feel for groove and unconventional approaches to familiar formulas. Vriesde and Hansen also offer something new to the guitar solo department. The noisy, Slayer-esque screaming leads of the past have made way for a more Fusion-like approach (Hansen) and thematically strong solos (Vriesde).

As a result, ‘Intermination’ manages to stay interesting for a longer period of time than any predecessor has. Dew-Scented’s records were often frontloaded; by the time you got to the final quarter of the album, your ears would already be tired of the all-out brutal Thrash assault, regardless of how good it was. Want proof? The only live staple on the band’s set that’s near the end of an album is ‘Never To Return’. This time, it’s different. The second half of the album contains some quality Thrashing (‘Power Surge’, ‘Reborn’) and due to successful experimentation with different song tempos and building up tension, you actually get to hear it as well.

Illustrating this most wonderfully is ‘Ode To Extinction’. I doubt if any former Dew-Scented lineup would have been able to create a song quite like this. It starts out with a brooding bass intro courtesy of Van der Graaf and builds into an almost Suffocation-like Thrash/Death Metal song with three amazing guitar solos. Other highlights include ‘Means To An End’, which builds from raging Thrash to a surprisingly atmospheric finale, the trusted sound of ‘Scars Of Creation’ and the adrenalin shot that is opening track ‘On A Collision Course’. Bonus track ‘Those Who Will Not See’ deserved to be on the regular album.

Here’s to hoping that Leif Jensen has finally found his definitive Dew-Scented lineup, because as much as I loved their work with guitarists Flo Müller and Hendrik Bache, I still consider ‘Icarus’ and ‘Intermination’ to be the band’s best records yet. This one definitely benefits from having three different songwriters, each with their own influence on the album. Having played in a Thrash Metal band for years, I have often found the genre quite limiting in terms of songwriting, but this record proofs that you don’t need to fuse it with any other genre to really stretch its boundaries. That alone makes it worthy of your attention.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Extinction’, ‘Means To An End’, ‘On A Collision Course’

Album of the Week 27-2015: Kyuss – Blues For The Red Sun

Europe’s current heatwave inspired me to pick up what is arguably the best music for hot weather in Rock history. Because really, the desert is everywhere on Kyuss’ sophomore album. I can see why Kyuss has always preferred the term Desert Rock instead of Stoner Rock; the incredibly heavy, trance-like music on ‘Blues For The Red Sun’ probably better qualifies as a heat stroke rather than any drug high. Where Kyuss also seems a little more level-headed than their Stoner companions is their ability to write dense, complex songs that manage to stay interesting for their entire run. This album completely deserves its classic status.

The first thing you’ll notice upon hearing ‘Blues For The Red Sun’ for the first time is the massive wall of guitars and bass – the difference between Josh Homme’s downtuned guitars and Nick Oliveri’s rumbling bass is sometimes hard to define. That’s the most important ingredient to the hypnotic nature of Kyuss’ music and it’s also a testament to the genius of producer Chris Goss, who seems to favor performance over sonic perfection. For the untrained ear, the results can almost seem unbearably heavy, but give this some time and it’ll be one of the most overwhelming listening experiences you’ll ever have.

Many bands associated with the Stoner Rock scene lose themselves in drug-fueled jams and noise exercises that don’t go anywhere. For some reason, even when Kyuss moves into that direction stylistically (‘Freedom Run’ comes quite close here), they know how to create structure and maintain momentum. The album is quite heavy on instrumentals, but especially those are the ones that are remarkably complex and thought out. How tight Homme, Oliveri and drummer Brant Bjork sound and how well they follow each other on tracks like ‘Apothecaries’ Weight’ and ‘Molten Universe’ just shows how clear the ideas were in their minds.

By contrast, most of the vocal songs are somewhat more simple by comparison, so that John Garcia – still one of the best Rock singers on the face of the Earth to this day – can shine despite his modest place in the mix. ‘Allen’s Wrench’, opening track ‘Thumb’ and the band’s masterpiece ‘Green Machine’ are straightforward, driving Rockers with great choruses. Bjork also has a tendency to respond to Garcia’s vocals really well. What also sets the band apart from the majority is their sense of humor; from crediting all the lyrics to the instrumental tracks to Garcia to letting him sing “I hate slow songs” for the biggest innovator in slow Rock music since Black Sabbath, it’s subtle, but it’s awesome.

Kyuss’ fan base is still conflicted on whether this one or the following ‘Welcome To Sky Valley’ is the quartet’s greatest achievement. I wouldn’t be able to tell either, as both albums are simply masterpieces, but ‘Blues For The Red Sun’ is rightfully hailed as the record that put Desert Rock on the map. The album was often imitated, but never exceeded and that exactly is the mark of a classic album. Due to the band’s songwriting skills and Garcia’s amazing clean but raw vocals, the record may even impress people not normally into Stoner Rock. It’s timeless, heavy Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Green Machine’, ’50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)’, ‘Freedom Run’

Album of the Week 26-2015: Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody – Prometheus: Symphonia Ignis Divinus

Three years ago, Luca Turilli released – much to my immense surprise – the best album he’s been involved with since Rhapsody’s breathtaking ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’. His spin-off of Rhapsody proved to bring the focus back to the orchestral side of the band, which Turilli understandably dubbed “cinematic Metal”. Let’s just call this symphonic Power Metal though, as there are enough ridiculous Metal subgenres already. Sophomore record ‘Prometheus: Symphonia Ignis Divinus’ is finally there and although it’s not quite the overwhelming experience ‘Ascending To Infinity’ was, it’s another quality symphonic Metal record on which the orchestral “backing” is quite upfront.

Less than ever, Turilli uses his band as a vehicle for his guitar qualities. If he wants to show off, it’s probably his compositional skills rather than his riffwork or sweeping guitar leads. Of course, the latter are still there, but the guitar often takes back seat to the orchestra, choir and piano. That’s where much of the album’s bombast comes from anyway. Also, there are a few experiments with electronic elements here. None too overpowering, but some of them are featured quite promintently in the progressive ‘Il Tempo Degli Dei’ and overture ‘Nova Genesis’.

What makes ‘Prometheus’ slightly less overwhelming than its predecessor is the fact that the songs are a little less urgent this time around. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any standout moments here though. Especially the latter half of the record features a few diamonds, like the massive epic ‘Of Michael The Archangel And Lucifer’s Fall Part II: Codex Nemesis’ that closes the record, the bombastic title track and the surprisingly catchy ‘Yggdrasil’. Closer to the beginning of the album, ‘Anahata’ builds from a very cinematic intro (think ‘The Never Ending Story’) towards an amazing orchestral “riff” that turns into a fantastic progressive Power Metal track. Truly impressive.

Drummer Alex Landenburg makes his first appearance with the band here and as could be expected based on his unbelievable work on Mekong Delta’s last two albums, he’s amazing. He doesn’t quite get the space to be as creative as he was with Delta, but his playing is fluent and tight. Alessandro Conti is once again a revelation: his powerful voice, enormous range and versatile approach blew me away when I heard ‘Ascending To Infinity’ for the first time and things haven’t changed here. In fact, the increased use of Italian lyrics seems to work in his favor, especially when he goes into full opera mode on ‘Notturno’.

Metal purists will undeniably cringe when they hear the guitars being pushed to the background by all these orchestras and choirs – presumably especially on the “cinematic version” of Riot’s ‘Thundersteel’ – but the fact is that this is a professional release with well-written songs and meticulous arrangements. The songwriting is slightly less consistent than it was on its predecessor, but this is again a bombastic, thrilling ride through several filmic landscapes. If you’re looking for that instead of another predictable Power Metal record: this one is for you.

Recommended tracks: ‘Anahata’, ‘Yggdrasil’, ‘Of Michael The Archangel And Lucifer’s Fall Part II: Codex Nemesis’, ‘Prometheus’

Album of the Week 25-2015: Masterplan – Masterplan

When drummer Uli Kusch and guitarist Roland Grapow were simultaneously fired from Helloween, they wasted no time and started Masterplan. Since their shared tenure in Helloween is my favorite period in the German Power Metal giants’ history, I was eagerly awaiting this debut release at the time. It wasn’t quite as Helloween-like as I expected, but the blend of progressive Hard Rock and Power Metal that is on their self-titled album is nothing less than impressive. A rare instance where the songs lead the album despite the involvement of a number of high-profile musicians.

My first impression upon hearing debut single ‘Enlighten Me’ – and opening track ‘Spirit Never Die’ – was that the song structures sounded a bit messy, but eventually, it starts to make sense and what’s left is respect for the fact that the band has managed to combine so many elements into relatively streamlined songs. Especially because they still leave a lot of room for the powerful vocals of Jørn Lande, who was pretty much the rising star of the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal scene at the time. Kusch, Grapow and Lande somehow managed to combine memorability, versatility and brief displays of virtuosity in an irresistible cocktail.

Despite the presence of something like a common sound – heavy, ultra-melodic and anthemic – the band swings back and forth between those extremes quite effortlessly. ‘Enlighten Me’, ‘King Hearted Light’ and ‘Sail On’ are somewhat poppy Hard Rock songs, there are ballads in the shape of the Zepplin-esque ‘Into The Light’ and the ridiculously Whitesnake-like, but nonetheless fantastic ‘When Love Comes Close’. ‘Crawling From Hell’ shows a heavier side of the band, while the dramatic and bombastic ‘Soulburn’ is as progressive as it gets here. The catchy Power Metal of ‘Heroes’ is most Helloween-like, which seems appropriate, given Michael Kiske’s cameo.

Sometimes, the band gets it just a little more right than the rest of this immensely enjoyable record. ‘Crystal Night’ is a winner with its heavy, stomping midtempo riff, anti-racism lyrics and downright beautiful chorus. ‘Bleeding Eyes’ is another one that kicks down the tempo a little, which fits the atmosphere of Eastern mysticism perfectly. The riffs of the song are incredibly heavy, Lande’s vocal performance is the best on the entire album and Grapow’s noisy guitar solo is easily the craziest shit I’ve ever heard him do. And ‘Spirit Never Die’ is simply the perfect moodsetter here because of its perfect build-up and upbeat message.

It’s too bad that Masterplan never quite reached the heights of their amazing debut album again. The lack of stability in the line-up may be a factor in this, but it’s only natural that a band doesn’t hit this much of a peak in terms of songwriting too often in its career. It’s not often that a record completely transcends the division between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, but this is one of those records and it should have equal appeal to fans of both genres. Unless you don’t like a well-written and ditto performed song, of course.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bleeding Eyes’, ‘Crystal Night’, ‘Soulburn’

Album of the Week 24-2014: Şebnem Ferah – Can Kırıkları

Turkey’s Rock scene has quite a number of great female singers. Two of the most influential have once played together in an all-female band called Volvox. But while Özlem Tekin has been all over the map stylistically on her solo releases, Şebnem Ferah’s work has always rocked. However poppy it sometimes gets. Especially since she started working with producer – and Pentagram bassist – Tarkan Gözübüyük, who seems to realize that even though Ferah is proficient at all the subtleties of Pop music, her powerhouse vocals work best when she has to push her way to the foreground through loud guitars and string backings.

If it’s Gözübüyük’s influence or just the fact that Ferah wrote heavier songs this time around, I truly can’t tell, but it’s a fact that ‘Can Kırıkları’ has the heaviest guitar work on any Şebnem Ferah album so far. One doesn’t need to look any further than the dark, brooding opening track ‘Okyanus’ to hear that direction in full effect; the unpredictably timed chords by Metin Türkcan – another Pentagram member – add an almost Dream Theater-like feel to the verses and the riff in the middle section is extremely Metal, but Ferah’s keen ear for melody keeps this accessible. That’s why the album works for fans of both Pop and Rock. Possibly even Metal fans.

‘Can Kırıkları’ isn’t chock full of Metal though. Ferah is quite likely the best power ballad singer in Turkey and there’s quite a lot of those here. Some are a little heavier (the title track, with its heavy chorus and awesome orchestration) and some are a little more subdued (closing track ‘Hoşçakal’, although Ferah herself really lets it rip there) and there’s even an acoustic-based Rock song in the shape of the awesome ‘Çakıl Taşları’. Ultimately, it’s those changes in dynamics that make the album enjoyable all the way through.

My favorite Şebnem Ferah song – not just on this album – is ‘Delgeç’. That song alone is a lesson in dynamics; it starts out with a mighty Power Metal melody, turns into Pop Rock for the verses in which Ferah occasionally harmonizes with herself amazingly and then gets back to all the heavy riffing in the chorus, which has a lot of tension and drama to it. Though Ferah wrote a number of amazing songs after this one, it’s still the one I’ll play people to show what she’s about. It’s quite illustrative of how many sides there are to her voice and songwriting.

As with many Turkish releases – especially the ones with Turkish lyrics – it’s quite difficult to find this one outside of Turkey, but I would urge everyone with any interest in good Rock music or powerful female vocals to try and pick ‘Can Kırıkları’ up. If you want to get your money’s worth for shipping, get Ferah’s latest effort ‘Od’ as well. This is an example to all western producers of female Rock singers that you don’t have to castrate the music to make your singer stand out. It’s also a testament to Şebnem Ferah’s unbelievable skills as a singer and a songwriter.

Recommended tracks: ‘Delgeç’, ‘Can Kırıkları’, ‘Çakıl Taşları’, ‘Okyanus’


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