Album of the Week 28-2019: Confessor – Condemned


Prior to hearing ‘Condemned’, technical doom metal was a mix of styles I pretty much considered impossible. There are plenty of doom metal bands that take a strong influence from Fates Warning’s early albums, so progressive doom metal: sure. But the idea of abrupt shifts in rhythms, tempos and time signatures did not blend with the despair-ridden atmosphere of the better doom metal bands in my mind. Enter the debut album of North Carolina’s Confessor. Not only does it manage to make sense of combining all the aforementioned elements, it also sounds significantly more anguished than many of their peers.

First things first: those expecting a more complex version of Solitude Aeturnus’ prog-ish interpretation to the Candlemass sound may not get what they are hoping for. In fact, Confessor does not really sound like any other band. The borderline thrashy riff work brings the better moments of Invocator’s second album to mind and there are traces of what Meshuggah would later attempt, but the voice of Scott Jeffreys immediately blows those comparisons out of the water. His high-pitched, almost spotlessly clean voice sounds more tortured than any growler ever could. His sustained notes sound like Jeffreys is actually exorcising some persistent demons.

The closest comparison would be a considerably slowed-down and less bass-heavy Watchtower, a band Jeffreys briefly fronted, in the sense that Confessor hardly stays in the same gear for too long. Only ‘Eve Of Salvation’ is built upon a relatively steady foundation of Black Sabbath-influenced riff work, while drummer Steve Shelton keeps his rhythms fairly straightforward. By contrast, ‘Prepare Yourself’ contains some of the most twisted, intricate riffing that Brian Shoaf and the late Ivan Colon are subjecting themselves too on the record. The rest is closer to the latter than the former: the riff work is dense, the drumming busy and Jeffreys wails lines that sometimes appear to have little connection to the accompanying music. And yet it works.

While there aren’t really any tracks that strike me as better than the others, a stand-out track is ‘Uncontrolled’, which has a slightly more thrashy vibe than the rest of the album through its (marginally) higher tempo and the gang-shouted backing vocals in its chorus. The title track that follows has a slightly more uptempo and violent vibe than the other tracks as well, mostly due to Shelton punishing his kit like there’s no tomorrow. His bass drums sound dry, but that somehow works well with the riffs. The start-stop riffing of ‘The Stain’ sounds delightfully claustrophobic, while ‘Suffer’ ties the album together very nicely.

In the end, my only two complaints for ‘Condemned’ are minor. Cary Rowells’ bass is hardly audible most of the time; it’s there, but it’s far too trebly for its own good. Also, since the songs don’t have very clear structures – at least not initially – they blend together a little at times. Neither of those factors should discourage anyone from listening to what is truly one of the most unique albums in heavy metal history. It might need a few spins to sink in. The first time, you’ll wonder what the hell you’re listening to. The second time, you might be able to wrap your head around it a little more. From then on, you’ll either get it or you won’t.

Recommended tracks: ‘Uncontrolled’, ‘Suffer’, ‘Prepare Yourself’

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My video interview with Jared James Nichols

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview thumb guitar virtuoso Jared James Nichols for the Aquarium Sessions, an initiative of Gitarist magazine. Nichols had drawn my attention with his debut album ‘Old Glory & The Wild Revival’, initially with the cool blues rock vibe of his song material, but I later find out he had a rather interesting right hand technique that is closer to fingerstyle than anything else really. The result can now be seen on the YouTube channel of the Aquarium Sessions. Definitely worth seeing if you want to know more about Nichols’ signature Blackstar amplifier, his Epiphone Old Glory or his playing technique.

Album of the Week 27-2019: Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light


Occasionally, there are rare instances in which the cliché that great misery inspires great art proves to be true. Swallow The Sun’s seventh album ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’ is one of those instances. Rhythm guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio lost his wife, South African singer Aleah Starbridge, to cancer at the much too young age of 39 and her absence is felt throughout the album. Being a Finnish doom/death metal band, Swallow The Sun was never the most cheerful bunch, but the beautiful melancholy on display here gives the album its unique character within the band’s discography.

Even without knowing the story behind the album, one thing stands out immediately and that is the profoundly sad gothic atmosphere that defines a large portion of the album. There are still outbursts of extreme metal, but tracks like ‘Upon The Water’ and the gorgeous ‘The Crimson Crown’ are so full of arpeggiated clean guitar chords that they feel stylistically closer to Fields Of The Nephilim’s masterpiece ‘Elizium’ than to anything Amorphis ever released. In a way, the album reverses the process of ‘Songs From The North’ (2015), on which the band gave different discs to each aspect of their sound.

Bringing those extremes back together has really done wonders for the dynamics on ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’. Mikko Kotomäki utilizes his deep, clean vocals for a majority of the album, but he is backed by electric guitars almost exclusively. These alternate between the aforementioned clean chord work and beefy doom riffs that are notably more spaciously produced than the guitars on the band’s earlier works. It helps that the riffs are significantly less chord heavy than on their previous albums; the single notes can really ring through with the intensity they should have.

While an album like ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light’ is best listened to in its entirity to let the atmosphere carry you away, anyone into the darker spectrum of music needs to hear ‘Stone Wings’. The song is mainly carried by a Nephilim-esque eye-watering guitar part and has what is probably the most hauntingly beautiful chorus released this year. There is a more extreme middle section, but even that part of the song is quite melancholic. By comparison: the aggressive middle part of the otherwise sorrowful ‘Firelights’ is the closest the band has ever gotten to black metal. Elsewhere, ‘Here On Black Earth’ contains a surprisingly dynamic guitar arrangement.

No, ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into Night’ is not an easy record to listen to. It is in the sense that it’s probably the most accessible album Swallow The Sun has released thus far, but the feeling of loss hangs over the album like a pitch black cloud. As a result, the album is not for the faint of heart, but it is in fact the best record the Finns have released thus far. Its superior flow helps too; many of their earlier albums were difficult to listen to in one setting, but once the piano and string laden closer ‘Never Left’ extinguishes, I have been captivated for 52 straight minutes. One of the better metallic releases of 2019. Highly impressive.

Recommended tracks: ‘Stone Wings’, ‘The Crimson Crown’, ‘Never Left’

Saber Tiger lyricist about ‘Obscure Diversity’


One thing that makes Saber Tiger stand out is the fact that their English lyrics are better than those of most Japanese bands. Starting with their 2011 release ‘Decisive’, the band has been extensively collaborating with lyricist Fubito Endo, who also wrote of all the lyrics for their new album ‘Obscure Diversity’.

Back in 2007, I came across a blog post from (founding guitarist) Akihito Kinoshita”, Endo explains. “Saber Tiger was at a low point in their career at the time. They had no record deal, no management, not even a singer. I had been a fan of Saber Tiger since junior high, when they hadn’t even released their major label debut yet. So when I saw on AK’s blog that he needed a lyricist, I decided to contact him. I was already a professional musician and producer at the time, so I hoped I could help him out.

I watch a lot of American and British movies and tv series. When I hear some cool words or phrases, I always write them down in my Saber Tiger memos. I have a long list of these phrases. When I receive demo tracks from the guys, I always check the memo and see if I can get a vision of what I want to talk about.

The basic concept of ‘Obscure Diversity’

For the previous trilogy of ‘Decisive’, ‘Messiah Complex’ and ‘Bystander Effect’, my lyrics were mostly about war, conflict, crime, life and death. I think I have written enough about these concepts, so I decided to write from a more personal perspective for this particular album. I never went to a war zone and I never pulled the trigger. I’ve never even seen someone die in front of me except for the natural deaths of my relatives. So these stories were all fictional for me. The basic concept of ‘Obscure Diversity’ was to write more about personal tragedies in our lives.

Daguerreotype Of Phineas Gage

This was the final song written for this album. ‘The Crowbar Case’ already existed and Takenori (Shimoyama, singer) came up with the idea to kick off the album with a kind of gothic choir. The vocal recording is actually a demo. We originally planned to hire professional opera singers to emulate the parts on the demo, but my demo recording went so well that we decided to keep the recording for the final product.

The title refers to one of the two silver prints that were left of Phineas Gage after his eye and part of his brain were taken out as part of a tragic accident. An iron rod pierced through his head. The fragmented Latin words don’t mean anything by themselves, but they are supposed to depict a fragmental image of what his life and death are all about.

The Crowbar Case

The story of Phineas Gage was really interesting for me. Before his accident, he was known as a very decent, hard-working man and a trustworthy boss. Then he had a tragic accident that made him lose part of his brain. Miraculously, he managed to survive, but when he recovered, he came back with a completely different personality. He was told to have become extremely violent and selfish. When I read this story, I began to think: which part of him made him the person he was? And who was the real Phineas Gage in the first place?

The Worst Enemy

“’The Worst Enemy’ was the very first song we wrote for this album. These lyrics set the basic concept for the whole album. Jealousy is our worst enemy. But if you’re human, you can’t live without it. No matter how decent you are, everybody suffers from jealousy. If you are faced with it, maybe you can control it or at least learn how to deal with it. But if you try to deny it, you will eventually be controlled by it.

Stain

Sometimes, people do things that never really go away. Even if you try to hide it or even erase them, these things will always leave a stain inside you. It is possible that everybody else forgets about it, but since you are the one who did it, you are never going to forget. You simply have to deal with it and learn to live with it. That is the basic concept of ‘Stain’.”

Beat Of The War Drums

When we went to Germany to mix ‘Decisive’ with Tommy Newton, Akihito had a stroke. He nearly died there. He had to be brought back to Japan on a stretcher in first class with a doctor present. Though he was super lucky to have survived, he has been suffering from pretty severe depression ever since. I wrote the lyrics to ‘Beat Of The War Drums’ to kind of cheer him up.

If people work too hard, it will eventually break their physical condition, after which it will break their minds. That’s when the war drums start beating in your head. That is the state of mind of hard-working people. I can relate to the feeling myself. When I was producing the vocals for ‘Paragraph IV’, I didn’t sleep anywhere near enough for two or three weeks. After that, I was sick for two months.

Distant Signals

“’Distant Signals’ is very different from the usual Saber Tiger style. It was a challenge to write these lyrics, because the music is so complicated, but I enjoyed it very much. This particular demo was the first song hibiki (bassist) wrote for Saber Tiger. It sounded so spacey! I felt like I was flying through space, from planet to planet. Therefore, the lyrics were inspired by the idea of quantum mechanics: we always take a shower in an immense amount of possibilities. Your actions will define the truth of the next moment.

For the previous albums, I always wrote about perfect despair. If you look deep into the abyss of despair, you will eventually find one small fragment of hope. I never wrote purely positive lyrics, but I wanted to write something really positive for this hibiki song, because I felt this positive energy from him. So I think the concept of believing in yourself and trusting your own actions really fits the song.

The Shade Of Holy Light

This is the very first ballad Machine (guitarist Yasuharu Tanaka) wrote for Saber Tiger. This is another story of a decent guy in an unfortunate situation. The guy in this song worked too hard covering for his colleagues and working overtime. One night, he works late and when he drives back home in the dark, during heavy rainfall, over the speed limit, he runs over somebody. He ends up in jail, where he reminisces his life. Nobody forced him to be nice; he decided by himself to help somebody out. That resulted in him killing someone. The idea is that the strongest light always creates the darkest shadows. Even if you are a good man. This happens all the time in our lives. The world is an unfair place.

Permanent Rage

Saber Tiger has had a long career and because they are such kind guys, they have often been hunted by predators. A lot of people show up to them, act all nice and end up ripping them off. They have lost a lot of money over the years simply because they are not businessmen, because they trust these people. They always tend to show up again though, because they think they will still be an easy prey. When that happens, you have to face them and say: I know what you are trying to do. Say that again and look me in the eye.

I have always loved the phrase ‘M.O.’. I’m a big fan of American legal dramas and often hear this phrase ‘same M.O.’ used by detectives or lawyers. I have always wanted to use it. When I heard the demo, there was a part where it just fit perfectly. That was the first idea for the song.

Seize Your Moment

Literally, ‘Seize Your Moment’ is very positive. This is your chance, your opportunity, so you have to grab it. Everything has two sides though. If somebody shows up and says: you have no problem, I will take care of everything for you, they might be trying to set you up.  If somebody really cares about you, they don’t always say nice things. Sometimes they say something that is difficult for you to hear. Seize Your Moment is about seeing both sides of everything.

Divide To Deny

Simply put, this one is about people who fear people with a different point of view. The reason why people attack others is fear. They fear something they don’t understand, so they try to attack it. But it’s impossible to understand everything. It’s only natural if there are things that you don’t understand. Being different is not a crime. You don’t have to understand it, but there is no need to attack anyone. You can just leave the people you don’t understand alone.

This idea is also reflected in the title ‘Obscure Diversity’. Diversity is kind of a trendy word these days. Everyone is talking about it, but a lot of people are simply talking about diversity because they are afraid to get attacked for being politically incorrect. The other extreme is trying to hide your actual incorrectness behind a screen or an anonymous handle. Living with something you don’t necessarily understand is true diversity.

Paradigm And Parody

As professional creators, we always suffer to create something original. On the other hand, it’s impossible to create something new, as most possibilities have already been done by someone at some point. All that we can do is change the combination or the color. That’s how you can leave your signature. We dedicate our whole life to these kinds of small changes, but some people have no problem being a copycat.

I don’t say that everything I create is completely original. Of course I have been influenced by my favorite artists and artists that I admire. But when I see people who just copy and paste, I always think: how can you sleep at night doing this as your profession?

My favorite lines from these lyrics are: you know there are ten thousand ways to be right / you know it’s so easy, a matter of pride / and what you want to be known for when you die. I don’t believe in life after death, so after I die, I only live in someone else’s memory. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who just stole or copied from other artists. At least I tried to create something to make people happy.

The Forever Throne

“’The Forever Throne’ was inspired by a real life incident. A few years ago, Tetsuya Komuro, a very famous Japanese music producer, was caught trying to sell the rights to songs he didn’t own. He was never prosecuted for fraud, because his label owner paid a lot of money to prevent that. However, he was already all over the news, so he had to talk about it. He said that the reason he did it was to make his wife happy until the day his fraud was discovered. He knew he was going to lose everything he created, but he took the risk to make his wife feel like a queen.

When I heard this story, the image of an empty throne came to mind. Spending a crazy amount of money on something meaningless. I feel in this story, Komuro kind of was the emperor in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It is impossible to own everything. Not even a millionaire can buy the sky or the sun. And happiness is not defined by how much you own. I really believe that everyone who experiences great happiness also has to face big sadness. At the end of the day, it’s all in balance.

Album of the Week 26-2019: Megadeth – The System Has Failed


Originally devised as a Dave Mustaine solo album, ‘The System Has Failed’ eventually became Megadeth’s comeback on multiple levels. Not only did it feature Mustaine returning to activity after an intense arm injury sidelined him for at least a year and a half; it is also more or less unequivocally seen as the first great Megadeth album since 1992’s ‘Countdown To Extinction’. Personally, I think that seriously sells ‘Cryptic Writings’ short, but it is a fact that ‘The System Has Failed’ is the best thing Mustaine had released in a long time and still stands as the best 21st century Megadeth record.

Despite bearing the Megadeth name, calling ‘The System Has Failed’ a Mustaine solo record is not a stretch. This is the first Megadeth album that does not feature bassist David Ellefson and all the compositions are solely credited to Mustaine. In addition, the album was recorded with a lot of session musicians, though there is a consistent core of bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas, Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and – perhaps most surprisingly – lead guitarist Chris Poland, who played on the first two Megadeth records. Mustaine being who he is, however, this sounds like a reinvigorated version of Megadeth, with a few exceptions.

In a way, ‘The System Has Failed’ sounds like an anthology of all of Mustaine’s songwriting tropes. The riffy opening track ‘Blackmail The Universe’ bears a passing resemblance to ‘Set The World Afire’, the intricate, yet aggressive speed metal of ‘Kick The Chair’ is highly reminiscent of ‘Take No Prisoners’ and the rocking ‘Something That I’m Not’ feels like an improved version of ‘Architecture Of Aggression’ at times. The nostalgic heavy metal of the surprisingly melodic ‘Back In The Day’ doesn’t necessarily sound like any previous Megadeth tracks, but does highlight Mustaine’s love for the NWOBHM movement prominently.

That does not mean that Mustaine is going through the motions here. ‘The Scorpion’ is one of his most experimental tracks to date, marrying the atmosphere of OverKill’s latter day midtempo tracks with a progressive, at times almost symphonic arrangement effectively. Even better is the following ‘Tears In A Vial’, an epic heavy metal track with a dramatic feel that has familiar sections, but also a bit of a fresh approach. The melancholic and melodic majesty in the chorus of ‘Die Dead Enough’ may be more controversial, as Megadeth’s hardcore fans prefer the band less chorus-driven, but it’s an extremely well-written song that works very well within the context of the album.

Ultimately, the only problem with ‘The System Has Failed’ is that it ends relatively weakly – like most Megadeth albums. ‘Of Mice And Men’ is good enough, though a bit preachy, and ‘Truth Be Told’ has a bunch of cool ideas that don’t really transition into each other all that well, but listeners will eventually mainly remember the album for its first eight tracks. Those feature all the tight riffs, wild lead guitar parts and snarling lead vocals one has come to expect from Mustaine. Compared to the rest of their discography, it would fit nicely between ‘Rust In Peace’ and ‘Countdown To Extinction’, as it is more streamlined than the former, but infinitely more metal than the latter.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kick The Chair’, ‘Tears In A Vial’, ‘The Scorpion’, ‘Back In The Day’

Album of the Week 25-2019: Savatage – Hall Of The Mountain King


Depending on the era, Savatage is either the most classy of the first generation US power metal bands or the vehicle for producer Paul O’Neill’s rock opera ambitions. The first album O’Neill produced for the Floridians, however, screams eighties power metal. Often literally. Everything worthwhile about American heavy metal in the eighties can be heard here. Jon Oliva combines high-pitched screams with raw, surprisingly theatrical vocals which fits the dramatic progressions of the music and the at times overblown lyrics perfectly. If you want to know what Savatage originally was all about, ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ is your record.

In retrospective interviews, O’Neill often pointed out that Savatage needed to be re-established as a heavy metal band before they could move forward. The band had just been pressured into pandering to the commercial rock market with the staggeringly weak ‘Fight For The Rock’ a year prior. It would not be their commercial breakthrough and alienated their fan base. ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, by contrast, sounds like a more refined ‘Sirens’ or ‘The Dungeons Are Calling’. Criss Oliva’s Judas Priest-ish riff work and wild, mildly neoclassical soloing is all over the record, as are brother’s characteristic vocal histrionics.

Sure, the first seeds of O’Neill’s bombastic vision are sown here in the shape of ‘Prelude To Madness’, which features Criss Oliva interpreting the song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite that would eventually become the album title, but the majority of ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ is classic heavy metal. The title track in particular is about as perfect as USPM can get. Even past the standard talking points – Jon Oliva’s evil laughter and impassioned shrieks – there is still plenty to love. The main riff is perfect, as is the one in the middle section before the guitar solo and as heavy as it is, it’s also catchy as the flu.

Aside from that eternal classic, there is a lot to enjoy on ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’. Personally, I really like the idea of a jamming metal band on the end of ’24 Hrs. Ago’, especially after the tight aggression of the first half. ‘Legions’ is an easy to shout along midtempo metal anthem with some awesome riffing and the fast and aggressive ‘White Witch’ is borderline thrash. There are subtle shades of experimentalism here and there that make the songs just a tad better than the highlights on ‘Sirens’. The piano backing the main riff on ‘Devastation’ for instance, is almost unheard, but does give the whole thing an almost gothic vibe. The same goes for the keys on the dark monster ‘Beyond The Doors Of The Dark’.

Even during its most poppy moment, ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ convinces. The highly melodic ‘Strange Wings’ is a duet between Jon Oliva and Ray Gillen of Badlands and Black Sabbath fame. At first it may seem like Gillen was only brought in for the harmonies in the chorus, but his acrobatics in the climax are incredible. Combine these factors and you have a heavy metal record that is equal parts elegant, aggressive and memorable. It’s also relatively progressive at times, though it may seem a little primitive compared to what would follow with ‘Gutter Ballet’ (1989) and afterward. It is certainly some of the most well-written primitive stuff, however.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, ‘Legions’, ‘Beyond The Doors Of The Dark, ‘Strange Wings’

Album of the Week 24-2019: Fates Warning – Inside Out


‘Inside Out’ always gets lost in the shuffle between the hyper-accessible ‘Parallels’ and the ultra-proggy monolith that is ‘A Pleasant Shade Of Gray’. Personally, I consider it superior to either of those. Sure, the flat production and the dull cover art really don’t do the songs any justice, but the classy melodicism that always characterized guitarist Jim Matheos’ songwriting is taken to its logical extreme here. I understand why many consider the album lacking in terms of heaviness and intricacy, but Fates Warning always was more about the songs than displays of virtuosity and ‘Inside Out’ fits that paradigm perfectly.

Stylistically, ‘Inside Out’ is pretty much a continuation of the sound heard on ‘Parallels’ three years prior, albeit with an even bigger emphasis on melancholic melodies. The arrangements are less dense, though the occasional rhythmic complexity is still there – this has Mark Zonder on drums, after all. In terms of songwriting, the material on ‘Inside Out’ is notably more tailored to Ray Alder’s vocal range, who simply delivers the performance of a lifetime here. Adapting the music to his voice rather than the other way around is a large part of why the album sounds the way it does.

‘Monument’ is the only song that has been a consistent live staple since the release of the album and it is not hard to understand why. With an incredible bass riff in 7/4 driving the song and some unexpected elements popping up, such asMatheos’ classical guitar solo, it could be characterized as the most progressive moment on the record. Alder’s impassioned performance is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Parallels’ highlight ‘Point Of View’ and the dynamics strongly enhance the atmosphere of the track. Along with the cool start-stop riffing of opening track ‘Outside Looking In’, it best represents the classic Alder-era Fates Warning sound.

As good as those songs are, however, the overall sound of the album is best portrayed by its more concise moments. ‘Pale Fire’ successfully marries Fates Warning’s accessible side with their progressive roots, while having a chorus that is so powerful that I can even forgive Matheos for rhyming “fire” with “desire”. ‘Face The Fear’ combines Zonder’s busy drum work with Matheos and Frank Aresti weaving a fantastic tapestry of riffs and bright, clean guitar strums and ‘The Strand’ probably would not have worked on any other Fates Warning album, but does here. Its atmosphere brings to mind mid-nineties alternative rock, just with significantly more inventive writing and playing.

Of course, ‘Inside Out’ is not perfect. ‘Down To The Wire’ is a blatant ‘We Only Say Goodbye’ rewrite, ‘Shelter Me’ is a tad too melodramatic and the inoffensive ballad ‘Island In The Stream’ really starts to drag halfway through. But everything else on here is much better than it tends to get credit for. It may not be the most challenging album from a playing viewpoint and the production really could have used some extra punch, but to dismiss Matheos’ songwriting here for not being prog enough would both be unfair and untrue.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monument’, ‘The Strand’, ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Face The Fear’

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