Album of the Week 05-2016: Gargoyle – Tenron

Even for bands that have a consistently awesome output, there are sometimes moments that the stars align just right. Japanese experimental Thrash monsters Gargoyle have had quite a few of those moments, but ‘Tenron’ is arguably the pinnacle for the original recording lineup of the band, which dissolved shortly after the release of the album. It’s one of those records where every song hits just the right notes and where the first listen is every bit as enjoyable as the umpteenth one. A masterpiece of Thrash Metal that is as vicious as it is melodic, entertaining and sometimes even surprising.

Very little subtlety kicks off the record when you hear Kiba’s gruff bark introducing the chorus to the spectacular opening track ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’ a capella. It pulls you right into the album – by the throat – and doesn’t let you go until it’s over. Sure, Gargoyle has a tendency to take Thrash Metal far beyond its traditional boundaries and with such an amount of variation, some tracks are bound to please the listener more than others, but as far as consistency goes, ‘Tenron’ is one of their better works. Even the goofy track ‘Amoeba Life’ (with a Country guitar solo!) is amazing.

Stylistically, ‘Tenron’ isn’t even that remarkable of a Gargoyle album, but everything that makes the band work is just turned up to eleven. The traditional funky track (‘Doumu Lullaby’) is more intense than its earlier counterparts, the slower, doomy track (‘Hikari To Yami No Monogatari’) is incredibly atmospheric and has just the right riffs in the right places (not to mention a downright amazing guitar solo courtesy of Sheja) and while it just barely misses out on the genius of ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum’ (the original) and ‘Yakusoku No Chi De’, ‘Inochi Yukashi Inochi Nagashi’ is a fantastic, brooding ballad with amazing guitar work.

However, Gargoyle is at its best when they’re firing on all cylinders and churning out Thrash grenades like the annihilating closer ‘Haretsu Ganbou’ or the mind-blowing ‘Ame Ni Mo Makezu’, the latter being responsible for making me the rabid Gargoyle fan I am these days. The aforementioned ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’ fits that category as well, although Sheja’s neoclassical flourishes and Toshi’s remarkably catchy bass lines put the song in a more melodic league. ‘Gekka Ranshou’ brings all of the influences together in an epic Heavy Metal track with a haunting guitar intro and a myriad of pummeling riffs and soaring melodic themes.

‘Tenron’ is definitely a fine place to start if you want to get yourself acquainted with the crazy world of Gargoyle. I think it would be fair to warn you that their world is highly addictive though. Especially because their music has more depth than it may reveal initially. There’s the exploration of styles, there’s a bassist that plays unconventional bass lines, but somehow makes it work, there’s a barking singer that holds his own remarkably well even in ballads and beneath all the riff and lead guitar violence, there’s one of the most vicious Thrash drummers in the world. And so – again – a Japanese band has lifted a traditionally western art form far above its accepted limitations.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ame Ni Mo Makezu’, ‘Gekka Ranshou’, ‘Shinpan No Hitomi’

Album of the Week 04-2016: Hexx – Under The Spell

Kudos to Metal Blade Records for re-releasing some of the more obscure American Metal releases lately. San Francisco’s Hexx got such a treatment and I’m extremely happy with that, because I’ve been looking for their sophomore record ‘Under The Spell’ for quite a long time now. First of all, it’s just about exactly halfway between the Metal subgenres I enjoy most – Power and Thrash Metal – and as such, intensity and melody are balanced quite well. Also, Dan Bryant’s spirited vocal performance lifts this record above the average of the late eighties Thrash scene. The result is nothing revolutionary, but thoroughly ejoyable.

Many reviews have pointed out that ‘Under The Spell’ was illustrating the transition from the band’s more traditional US Power Metal style on debut album ‘No Escape’ to a more Thrash oriented approach. However, when you listen to both albums, you’ll notice the style change isn’t all that considerable. Sure, the riff work courtesy of Dan Watson and Clint Bower definitely shows an increase of Thrash influences – though I think that difference is rather a result of one album being recorded in 1984 and the other in 1986 – and Bryant has a rawer edge to his voice than his predecessor Dennis Manzo had. But the music itself is obviously written by the same people.

As mentioned before, Bryant is a significant part of why I enjoy ‘Under The Spell’ so much. Here, he sounds like a combination of Dio at his rawest with the higher range bringing to mind Metal Church’s late singer David Wayne. When you hear his performance on the short, but stellar opening track ‘Hell Riders’, you’ll notice that the voice lifts the song from very good to excellent Heavy Metal. Sure, his high shrieks won’t be for everybody, but there’s a quality to the vocal work that only very few Thrash singers had in the day. And an aggression that wasn’t common in USPM.

Guitar-wise, there’s quite a lot to enjoy here as well. This isn’t as lead guitar-oriented as you would expect a band associated with Shrapnel to be, but the riff work is excellent. Take ‘The Victim’, for instance. Usually, when a Metal song is catchy, it’s because of a melodic theme or a chorus, but the main riff is just as catchy. The same goes for the title track, ‘The Hexx’ and ‘Edge Of Death’, which plays with half-time and double-time feel changes very effectively as well. Closing track ‘Midnight Sun’ is a bit slower and more atmospheric and therefore one of the more pleasant surprises on the record and ‘Fever Dream’ has an excellent build-up and a strong guitar solo by Watson.

‘Under The Spell’ should be enjoyable to anyone who enjoys a well-written, though not too complicated Metal song with good vocals. The original album only lasts slightly over half an hour, but that also means that it has no filler whatsoever; every song is worthy of your attention. And if quantity is an issue: the Metal Blade reissue has the entire ‘No Escape’ album and a wealth of bonus audio and video content – including a few live tracks with their suprisingly good new singer Eddie Vega and two fine new songs – so don’t let that keep you from getting this piece of USPM and Thrash history. It might be a footnote, but I’d take this over some of the more popular bands in the genres any day.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hell Riders’, ‘The Victim’, ‘Midnight Sun’

My first cover story in seven years!

Earlier this week, the new issue of Gitarist appeared in stores and it is one that I’m extremely proud of, because it features my first cover story in almost seven years. It features the interview I had with Pablo van de Poel about DeWolff’s amazing new album ‘Roux-Ga-Roux’ – listen to it now if you haven’t yet – and I’m glad the editorial office gave me four pages to fill, because we had quite a lot of interesting subjects to cover. Also, I spoke with De Staat guitarist Vedran Mirčetić about ‘O’, which was album of the week here two weeks ago, and with BloYaTop guitarist Mark Vergoossen.

There’s quite a lot of interviews in this month’s issue anyway, which I always see as a good thing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gear reviews included of course. Also, I contributed quite a few reviews to the issue. One in particular I’d like to point out and that is the debut album by the Leif de Leeuw Band. It’s called ‘Leelah’ and although the band has a Blues basis, it’s a fantastic blend of Rock, Blues, Soul and Roots influences in a couple of amazingly written and executed songs.

If you haven’t got it already, please share the honor with me and go out and read it.

Album of the Week 03-2016: Megadeth – Dystopia

So you’re Dave Mustaine and you’ve just released the biggest piece of shit you’ll ever release. Yes, I think ‘Super Collider’ is worse than ‘Risk’. What will be your next step? Record an album that’s easily your best in over a decade of course. One has to admire his resilience; Mustaine has had enough misfortune to make any ordinary musician quit five times, but his determination always forces him to get back up when he’s down. This time, the result is ‘Dystopia’, a sharp, fierce blend of Thrash Metal and traditional Heavy Metal with spectacular guitar work. In deed: the mark of a great Megadeth record.

Maybe it’s the new lineup. The Daves (Mustaine and bassist Ellefson) have enlisted the help of Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro and Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler this time. The former is a master of his craft who luckily gets enough room to display his talent and the latter simply sounds better than he ever has. The drum sound helps, but I think his parts are infinitely more interesting than what he does in his main band. Maybe these two guys were just wat Mustaine needed to write another scorching Metal record.

Then again, the songwriting is cranked up a notch as well. Occasionally, you can hear that Mustaine had a little trouble coming up with an ending for a few songs, but after a song and a half, you’ll have heard more good stuff than on all of ‘Super Collider’. The first two songs are among the album’s best anyway: opening track ‘The Threat Is Real’ is nice and Thrashy, while the title track has a passing nod to ‘Hangar 18’ with its highly melodic midtempo main riff – well, midtempo by Megadeth standards – and the sudden tempo change for an amazing guitar solo section near the end.

Standing out for me is ‘Poisonous Shadows’. With its dark, brooding nature, vaguely Arabian-sounding string section and amazing chorus, it shows that Mustaine can write an excellent catchy track if he really puts his effort into it. Furthermore, the high octane instrumental ‘Conquer Or Die!’ is a showcase for Loureiro’s skills on the electric as well as the nylon string acoustic guitar, ‘Fatal Illusion’ and ‘Lying In State’ are delightfully aggressive and the slower tempo makes ‘Post American World’ a perfect vehicle for a darker, more threatening take on the band’s sound.

While ‘Dystopia’ may not be the big return to the ‘Rust In Peace’ brand of Speed Metal some people may have been hoping for, I think it’s excellent at finding the middle ground between Heavy and Thrash Metal, which is exactly what made 2004’s ‘The System Has Failed’ such an awesome record as well. Mustaine’s lyrical views may be a tad far-fetched every now and then, but I’ll take a Mustaine I disagree with politically over the insipid drivel that dominated the previous record any day. At least this Mustaine sounds inspired, vicious and aggressive. And let’s face it: isn’t that how any fan of his work would want him to sound?

Recommended tracks: ‘Poisonous Shadows’, ‘Dystopia’, ‘The Threat Is Real’

Album of the Week 02-2016: De Staat – O

First of all, I’d like to apologize for the late publication of the album of the week. I came back from Eurosonic Noorderslag so sick that I wasn’t able to look at a computer screen. On the upside though: I got to see De Staat live again. They were promoting their new album ‘O’, which focuses on the electronic side of the band a little more. No more walls of guitars, like on the amazing ‘I_Con’, which meant the album took a little longer to get used to. But once I did, ‘O’ revealed itself another great De Staat album.

De Staat’s weird sound is comprised of equal parts of Rock, Electrofunk and Pop. As you may have understood from the previous paragraph, the Electrofunk part is very prominent on ‘O’. There’s an abundance of funky guitar riffs – even though they sound like synthesizers at times – and the songs are highly rhythmic. The vaudeville- and circus melodies are still there, but there’s a little less focus on that this time around. Torre Florim’s sarcastic bite is more than apparent in the lyrics (‘Blues Is Dead’), but also in his vocal delivery. In a way, this is De Staat super-sized.

The album starts out with the first single ‘Peptalk’ and ‘Make The Call, Leave It All’. A relatively weak start, although the latter has a brilliant verse riff. After that, the jewels of the album reveal themselves. The dark ‘Murder Death’ is probably my favorite, but the heavily riff-driven and sarcastic ‘Life Is A Game (Ladadi Ladadada)’, the dirty ‘Systematic Lover’ and the amazing acoustic Blues of closing track ‘She’s With Me’ are just as good. ‘Time Will Get Us Too’ features a long, amazing guitar solo by Vedran Mirčetić and ‘Help Yourself’ has the band once again showing how much you can take from a limited number of notes.

Looking at individual performances, I have to emphasize that Tim van Delft is one of the best drummers active today. I think it’s admirable that he can do the forced stiffness on ‘Blues Is Dead’, because his grooves are generally what the songs are about. I love his dynamic drum sound too; even when the band sounds at its most electronic, the drums sound natural. The electronic bottom is usually taken care of by bassist Jop van Summeren and synth man Rocco Hueting, but even those guys are often using elements not usually associated with electronic music to reach that sound.

Okay, so De Staat isn’t for everyone. And those with a preference for their Rock side will probably have to listen to ‘O’ more than once to get it, but it’s definitely worth the effort. They’re an obstinate band with very little care of how things are “supposed” to sound and it’s just that what makes them such a delight to listen to. It definitely is the main cause of their “love or hate” status, but let’s face it: why would you listen to a band that sounds like something else if you’ve got De Staat to listen to?

Recommended tracks: ‘Murder Death’, ‘She’s With Me’, ‘Systematic Lover’

Album of the Week 01-2016: Enslaved – Ruun

There was a time when I despised Black Metal a priori. Befriending Dystopia’s frontman Dennis Onsia in my early twenties has helped me discover quite a number of good bands affiliated with the genre. That phrase is used quite consciously, because by the time Enslaved released ‘Ruun’, the general dark atmosphere and Grutle Kjellson’s (too) throaty rasp were the only distinctly “Black Metal” aspects that were still featured in their music. And even though the term “extreme progressive Metal” has been a bit overused recently, it’s the perfect way to describe this music: aggressive, but also melodic and sometimes slightly psychedelic.

With the inauguration of their current lineup, the style change was a fact for Enslaved. Installing a fulltime keyboard player was a great move: Herbrand Larsen often expands on the atmosphere of the layered guitar work and contributes greatly to the Pink Floyd-isms of the band’s progressive side. Besides that, he’s got one of the most pleasant clean voices in the business, which is perfect to balance out the irritation Kjellson’s screeches cause me sometimes. But let’s not forget Enslaved’s secret weapon: Cato Bekkevold has one of the most relaxed drumming styles in extreme Metal these days.

‘Ruun’ takes the sound the band has been experimenting with on its predecessor ‘Isa’ and perfects it. Ivar Bjørnson’s dissonant chords provide a perfect basis for Arve Isdal’s dreamy, often Blues-inspired guitar leads and the vocal interaction between Kjellson’s raw vocals and Larsen’s more soothing voice. What makes ‘Ruun’ better than ‘Isa’ is that the songs have a stronger identity this time around. If it’s not the choruses that stick out, the riffs are extremely memorable. This especially goes for the riff-driven nature of the first three tracks: the uptempo aggression of ‘Fusion Of Sense And Earth’, the pleasant midtempo ‘Path To Vanir’ and the brilliant opener ‘Entroper’. Later on, ‘Api-Vat’ adapts the same approach impressively.

If I had to single out one track, it has to be the title track. The build-up in tension and release is just about perfect and the interaction between the esotheric 7/4 feel of the verses and the pulsating nature of the Kjellson-led parts is mindblowing. Also, take note of how the guitars intertwine beautifully in the intro. All of this contributes to what is without any doubt one of the best Metal tracks of the 21st century. It’s not like that’s the only song highlighting the more atmospheric side of the band – ‘Essence’ and the massive closer ‘Heir To Their Cosmic Seed’ do a similarly commendable job – it’s just that ‘Ruun’ is an unbelievable song.

On following records, the band would juggle the balance between progressive and extreme a little until they found the perfect balance on their most recent efforts ‘RIITIIR’ and ‘In Times’, but my favorite album remains ‘Ruun’. It may just be the excitement of trying something new that shines through here, but regardless, it’s a fantastic album that incorporates large amounts of atmospheric layers without ever sacrificing the nature of a good song. Not many bands succeed these days, but Enslaved most certainly does here. It makes ‘Ruun’ a perfect gateway record to the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ruun’, ‘Entroper’, ‘Api-Vat’

Album of the Week 53-2015: Rainbow – Rising

Before I get into the actual musical brilliance of this mid-seventies masterpiece, just look at that album cover. If that isn’t monumental, I don’t know what is. Luckily the music answers to that as well; Rainbow’s sophomore album is where the band really started coming into its own. Ritchie Blackmore’s mighty riffs exceed anything he did with the already brilliant Deep Purple here, while Ronnie James Dio probably delivers his best performance in a career full of powerhouse performances. This is quite likely the best work eve to balance on the edge of Hardrock and Heavy Metal, released in a time when that border was still a little vague.

What may help is tha Blackmore fully embraced the fact that Rainbow was now his fulltime band. The self-titled debut was an elevated side project of Blackmore with members of Dio’s band Elf, but on ‘Rising’, there’s the first proper line-up, including the legendary Cozy Powell on drums. He makes his performance known here, refusing to be a marionette to Blackmore’s direction. That’s how the album got the best of both worlds: the excellence of the musicians on their instruments and the power of a good song. A perfect match, if you ask me.

Another person who contributes greatly, but is often forgotten is keyboard player Tony Carey. His spacey keyboard work takes over the full intro of the amazing opening track ‘Tarot Woman’, but even more important is what he did on the album’s biggest monument: the orchestration to the mighty ‘Stargazer’. This midtempo, ominous epic is obviously Blackmore’s answer to Led Zeppelin’s inimitable ‘Kashmir’ and Carey’s arrangement for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in the finale helps it get to that league. Dio’s overwhelmingly powerful voice and Powell’s big, beefy drums are respectively the icing and the flour to this musical cake.

That’s hardly where the fun ends though. ‘Starstruck’ is a bit lighter and bluesier, but incredibly enjoyable and offers another stellar performance by Dio, the aforementioned ‘Tarot Woman’ is sheer seventies Hardrock euphoria and closer ‘A Light In The Black’ builds upon a repetitive, but incredibly effective riff and has incredible solos by both Blackmore and Carey. ‘Run With The Wolf’ and ‘Do You Close Your Eyes’ seem less interesting by comparison, but are far above the average Hardrock songs of the mid-seventies, while the latter has yet another amazing vocal performance by Dio.

Following the release of ‘Rising’, Blackmore wanted to take Rainbow in an increasingly more commercially viable direction. Most of its direct follow-up ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was still very enjoyable, but after that, nothing he released was even close to the genius of ‘Rising’. Maybe it didn’t help that Dio left the band in 1979 and Powell not much later. While everyone involved would end up in musically interesting ventures later on, nothing ever quite reached the magic of this monumental Hardrock record. If you ever want to look below the surface of what Rock music was about in the mighty seventies, ‘Rising’ is the perfect place to start. One of the best records ever released.

Recommended tracks: ‘Stargazer’, ‘Starstruck’, ‘Tarot Woman’


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