Archive for September, 2012

Album of the Week 39-2012: Grave Digger – Rheingold

Once upon a time, yours truly disliked German Metal veterans Grave Digger. Part of that was Chris Boltendahl’s raspy voice. And still, despite the great music, I think that what is considered the band’s classic album, 1996’s ‘Tunes Of War’, is marred by Boltendahl attempting to do more than his limited range allows him to. In recent years, he seems to have embraced his shortcomings. On 2003’s ‘Rheingold’, the entire band was on fire. Since the band’s early ninties reunion, they tried to combine their Speed Metal roots with a Power Metal sensibility, with the speedy riffs of the former and the bombast and big choruses of the latter. ‘Rheingold’ is the ultimate marriage of both.

Based on Richard Wagner’s opera adaption of Germany’s legendary ‘Nibelungenlied’, ‘Rheingold’ is one of Grave Digger’s many concept albums. Their most accomplished at that as well. The symphonic elements used much more as a complimentary thing than is usual within the Power Metal framework, especially when it’s used as an interlude accompanied by the band, such as in the awesome ‘Giants’. As for the choirs in the choruses, that’s something Grave Digger has been doing since the reunion, they’re just more present here. And better arranged.

‘Rheingold’ also really profits from having Manni Schmidt on guitar. No disrespect to Uwe Lulis before him or Axel Ritt after him, but Schmidt is by far the band’s best guitarist, with the only true contender being Thilo Hermann, who teamed up with him for ‘Ballads Of A Hangman’ only. His past in Rage already prove he was very proficient riffer and his leads have a certain off-the-cuff looseness to them uncommon to the genre, but still undeniably Metal. And those riffs are just killer. My favorite is the opening riff to the title track. That’s the kind of stuff that gets my blood pumping. I don’t want to take any credit from the impressive drumming of Stefan Arnold and the bass playing of Jens Becker, which is far above German Power Metal average, but Schmidt is on fire here.

Despite the fact that Grave Digger always has had four distinct types of songs – fast songs, midtempo songs, epic stuff and ballads, although nothing on this album fully qualifies as the latter – ‘Rheingold’ displays a surprising amount of variation. The dynamics in ‘Maidens Of War’ and ‘Murderer’ are impressive. The band excels in fast songs (the title track, ‘Valhalla’, ‘Giants’), but also in midtempo stuff (‘Sword’). It gets even better when the band mixes it up (‘Twilight Of The Gods’ – strangely misspelled “Twighlight” in the booklet – and especially ‘Dragon’, listen to that song and you’ll realize that’s why you listen to Metal in the first place!). The band has been accused of being too much of one thing in the past, but that certainly isn’t the case here.

It may have taken me a while to give Grave Digger the fair chance they deserved, but it’s albums like these that just pull me in. ‘Rheingold’ would also serve perfectly as an introduction to the band’s work, together with the excellent ‘Excalibur’ (if only to chuckle at the ridiculous German pronounciation of the title), the speeding frenzy ‘The Reaper’, the inspired ‘Heart Of Darkness’ and ‘Ballads Of A Hangman’. Their recent ‘Clash Of The Gods’ is pretty cool too. The riffs of “good old” Heavy Metal and the choruses of Power Metal. You won’t hear me complain!

Recommended tracks: ‘Rheingold’, ‘Dragon’, ‘Twilight Of The Gods’, ‘Giants’

Baroness and Moke? Check the new issue of Gitarist!

Recently, I interviewed guitarists and singers John Dyer Baizley and Pete Adams of the American “psychedelic Metal” – I know that’s not quite accurate, but it’s close enough – quartet Baroness before their show at De-Affaire in Nijmegen. Obviously, this was before their terrible tour bus crash in the UK which caused Baizley to break both of his left limbs and drummer Allan Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni to suffer from crushed vertebrae. Before I carry on about the actual publication, I’d like to wish all of the band and crew members, all of whom were very kind and sincere people, a speedy recovery.

As for the interview, I was happy to talk to Baizley and Adams before the accident, because we had a very interesting conversation about their new album ‘Yellow & Green’ and a general sense of guitar nerd-ism. In addition, the guys themselves speak out about where to categorize their hard-to-categorize music (conclusion: they don’t want to be categorized) and you might actually come across some surprises soundwise. In addition, I spoke to Amsterdam quintet Moke about their brand new ‘Collider’ album. The result was an interesting conversation about the recordings in Brussels’ renowned ICP Studios and the production process with Gordon Groothedde. I just love talking to people about the process of recording albums. Anyway, an article based on the conversation can be read in the “Op de plaat” section of this month’s issue.

Furthermore, the Gitarist issue that spots the most beautiful cover since I started writing for them features three small reviews I wrote – on Moke’s ‘Collider’, John Coffey’s incredible ‘Bright Companions’ and BloYaTop’s ‘Why Waltz?’ – and there’s an extended feature on the acoustic guitar. As if that isn’t enough, you can enjoy interviews with Ed Sheeran, John Coffey and the incomparable Robert Cray, as well as countless product tests and workshops. Want to learn how to tap on bass or how to play ‘Vortex Omnivium’ by the downright amazing Obscura. They even recorded an instruction video to accompany the workshop.

Now don’t act like you have any reason to not check this out, because this is one hell of a way to enhance the enjoyment of your commute!

Album of the Week 38-2012: Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud

While I don’t want to start a habit of having the same artist in the “Album of the Week” twice in a row, a new Devin Townsend release is always a guarantee for repeated spins in the Kevy Metal residence. And although Townsend does have something of a unique, instantly identifiable sound, he stubbornly refuses to do the same thing twice. Having said that, ‘Epicloud’ is probably closest to ‘Addicted’ in terms of style. Both albums are incredibly poppy, both albums feature the dual vocal delivery of Townsend and Anneke van Giersbergen and both albums feature a remake from Townsend’s back catalog – ‘Kingdom’ this time.

So ‘Epicloud’ is one hell of a Townsend-style Pop record. It takes the formula of ‘Addicted’ one step further. Anyone familiar with Townsend’s work knows what that means: big, hooky choruses, a beefy production giving eighties Hair Metal bands a run for their money and of course lots and lots of guitars. The first reference that came to mind when I heard the album, however, was Talking Heads. Of course, Townsend is the same kind of mad genius David Byrne is, but the a capella gospel choir intro ‘Effervescent!’ immediately brought to mind ‘Road To Nowhere’. When the intro makes way for Van Giersbergen’s loving vocals in ‘True North’, you know you’re going to be in for a poppy ride. But then again, why would you mind?

Generally, I feel that ‘Epicloud’ touches on a few more different aspects of Townsend’s songwriting than ‘Addicted’ did, possibly because it doesn’t have the strong conceptual character the latter had. Despite the continuous presence of humor in Townsend’s music, something cabaret-esque as ‘Lucky Animals’ is new to his canon and I think he’s never done any ballad as cute and small as ‘Divine’. ‘Grace’ and ‘More!’ are – despite Van Giersbergen’s inclusion and their instant sing-along value – crushingly heavy affairs by leaning on the brilliant dark riff of the latter and Ryan van Poederooyen’s brilliant rhythms of the former. ‘Liberation’ is the ultimate eighties Hardrock anthem not written in the decade, ‘Hold On’ is an incredible power ballad, ‘Where We Belong’ and exercize in aural dreaming and closing track ‘Angel’ reprises ‘Effervescent!’ with the gospel choir. The electronic rhythms and passionate chorus or ‘Save Our Now’ make said song the highlight of the record though!

Be sure to get ‘Epicloud’ with the bonus cd ‘Epiclouder’, as it features 10 extra tracks. They’re demos, but figuring that Townsend usually records everything himself, you can probably imagine how professional it sounds. For yours truly, ‘Epicloud’ – with or without ‘Epiclouder’ – consists of many more minutes of Devin Townsend brilliance. The added value of Anneke van Giersbergen – one of my all time favorite singers – is a bonus. The performances and production on the album are just impeccable and I applaud Townsend for having the balls to make the move of making such a poppy album in the conservative circles that is the Metal scene. For someone who likes heavy guitars, catchy choruses, dreamy melodies and a general cheesiness in this post-eighties era, ‘Epicloud’ is an obligatory acquisition.

Recommended tracks: ‘Save Our Now’, ‘More!’, ‘Hold On’, ‘Where We Belong’

Album of the Week 37-2012: Devin Townsend Project – Addicted

While not necessarily my favorite Devin Townsend-involved album – that will eternally be the sole Ocean Machine album – ‘Addicted’ may be the most fun album the crazy Canadian has ever done, because it’s so shamelessly poppy. Unapologetically catchy melodies and heavy guitars: it sounds like a perfect marriage and it is. At least if you have the knack for both like Townsend has. Count to that the fact that Anneke van Giersbergen acts as Townsend’s female counter vocal on this record and you’d already think that nothing can go wrong. And you’d be right in that case.

‘Addicted’ starts out somewhat misleading with the two heaviest tracks, ‘Addicted!’ and ‘Universe In A Ball!’ (for some reason, all the titles are exclamated), probably to provide contrast for its much more tranquil, but equally brilliant, predecessor ‘Ki’. ‘Addicted!’ fits the mold of this album because of Van Giersbergen’s vocals and a huge chorus and ‘Universe In A Ball!’ for its electronic rhythms, but the latter sounds like something that could have been on Strapping Young Lad’s final album rather than a track for a poppy Metal record. No complaints though, both tracks are amazing, but the party really starts with the blatant nineties Eurohouse – and obviously ‘Futurama’ – tribute ‘Bend It Like Bender!’.

From there on, this is one of the few Metal records that could get people who aren’t normally into the genre to party. ‘Supercrush!’ is the perfect melding of Townsend’s and Van Giersbergen’s vocals in a breathtaking song which appears to describe the sensation of falling in love, the remake of ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ highlight ‘Hyperdrive’ with Van Giersbergen on lead vocals replaces the dreamy atmosphere of the original with a hopeful, positive energy so typical of her charisma and the brooding ‘The Way Home!’ is goosebumps inducing. The lovely ‘Ih-Ah!’ is the only exception to this album’s huge, beefy production (somewhat) by being a small, heartfelt ballad and is therefore a standout track. The album closes off on a slightly heavier note with ‘Numbered!’ and the perfect closer ‘Awake!!’ (that’s right, two exclamations!!), both of which feature once again stellar performances by Van Giersbergen and the latter of which even features something of an announcement of the forthcoming ‘Deconstruction’-album.

While the shared vocal duties of Townsend and Van Giersbergen are undeniably part of the album’s charm, Ryan van Poederooyen deserves all the praise he can get for providing the perfect rhythms for an album like this. In turns dancable and heavy, he is exactly what this album needs, sometimes working together so seemlessly with the electronic beats that it’s hard to tell what is programmed and what isn’t. Also, despite this album being built around the vocals, there are a lot – no really, a lot! – of guitars on here.

Though the Pop tendencies have always been fairly obvious in Townsend’s music – think ‘Christeen’ and ‘Slow Me Down’ for instance – ‘Addicted’ is the first time that Townsend fully exorcizes his Pop demons. And he did it in style. So well that this is very likely the album I revisit most of his discography. And I’m not sure if I am allowed to give you this insider’s information, but there will be a sequel for both the vocal marriage of Townsend and Van Giersbergen as well as for the positive Pop vibes of this record. How that sounds? Stay tuned for ‘Epicloud’!

Recommended tracks: ‘Supercrush!’, ‘Hyperdrive!’, ‘Ih-Ah!’, ‘The Way Home!’

Album of the Week 36-2012: Rage – Black In Mind

Peter ‘Peavy’ Wagner deserves all the respect he can get for soldiering on with his old fashioned Heavy Metal for almost thirty years now. As singer, bassist and chief songwriter for Rage, he’s been churning out consistently good records, although his best works were released in the mid-nineties with guitarist Sven Fischer and the brothers Chris and Spiros Efthimiadis – drums and guitars respectively – in the form of 1995’s ‘Black In Mind’ and ‘End Of All Days’ a year later. It was on these albums that Rage perfected its Hardrock-edged German Power Metal sound.

‘Black In Mind’ is everything that ranks Rage among the best Heavy Metal bands from Germany. This definitely has more aggression than your average Helloween clone – no disrespect to Helloween itself whatsoever – and the catchy bits don’t sound quite as forced as with many Teutonic Power Metal bands. The guitar riffs prove that the band’s music is actually still rooted in Speed Metal, the songs sound instantly recognizable, yet have enough surprising twists and turns to avoid the predictability of the aforementioned types of bands and Wagner’s raw and powerful vocals are high above his country’s average.

In addition, Rage’s best songs are on the two records mentioned in the first paragraph. ‘End Of All Days’ has the rightful live staple ‘Higher Than The Sky’ and its passionate title track, but Rage’s numer one song is on this album: ‘The Crawling Chaos’! Holy freaking shit, this song is amazing. Besides possessing the greatest chorus Rage has ever recorded – I love powerful vocal harmonies, they always invite me to wail along – the song’s pounding rhythm accounts for obligatory headbanging and despite its simple structure, the song doesn’t let itself be predicted easily. ‘The Crawling Chaos’ is one of those desert island songs for me.

But ‘Black In Mind’ wouldn’t have been an album of the week if there wasn’t more great stuff on here. ‘A Spider’s Web’ for instance, which despite its slightly Prog-ish dynamics is an obvious hint to the band’s earlier Speed Metal days and therefore is quite reminiscent of what the band did on ‘Trapped!’. The epic ‘In A Nameless Time’ has a structure which seems like a precursor to the neoclassical route they would try out several times – with varying levels of success – in later days. ‘Sent By The Devil’ and the driving title track would later become live staples.

The only minus about this album is its length. Personally, I would have made the album about fifteen minutes shorter, also because the second half of the album is slightly less interesting than the first. There are some great songs on the second half though; ‘Forever’ is reminiscent of Maiden, despite it not being too spectacular lyrically, and closing ballad ‘All This Time’ is beautiful.

Lyrically, this album seems to be a bit odd every now and then – check the furthermore awesome ‘Alive But Dead’ to see what I mean – but there’s nothing to be too worried about. There is a Lovecraftian twist to some of the lyrics – hell, ‘The Crawling Chaos’ is a Lovecraft title – and it definitely fits the sound of the music.

Almost everything Rage put out is worth at least a listen, but if you want to kickstart with their greatest work, ‘Black In Mind’ would be an amazing starting point. When you go out to get that one, be sure to get ‘End Of All Days’ as well, as it’s been recorded with the same lineup and is stylistically similar. German Heavy Metal hardly gets any better than this.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Crawling Chaos’, ‘A Spider’s Web’, ‘Shadow Out Of Time’

Album of the Week 35-2012: Loudness – 2012

Why there isn’t any European or American label with the balls to release Loudness’ new albums is beyond me. Loudness has been one of Japan’s best bands ever since their inception, but they’ve really been on a roll these last few years. ‘The Everlasting’ was good, ‘King Of Pain’ was great, ‘Eve To Dawn’ was brilliant and ‘2012’ continues this tradition by being even better. In fact, ‘2012’ is to these ears the most successful attempt at combining the classic Loudness sound with the more modern, somewhat Pantera-esque sound they’ve been experimenting with for the last 15 years. As such, ‘2012’ is Loudness’ best album since their self-titled album twenty years ago. Maybe even since 1984’s ‘Disillusion’.

Stylistically, ‘2012’ lies somewhere between modern Power Metal and Thrash-lite (think Death Angel’s classic ‘Act III’ – in fact, Akira Takasaki’s guitar approach vaguely reminisces Rob Cavestany’s on the awesome ‘Behind The Scene’). ‘Eve To Dawn’ already hinted at this, but they’re really digging into the sound that made ‘Law Of The Devil’s Land’ such an amazing album back in 1983, in the sense that the songs on the album are obviously influenced by some western bands (Judas Priest most predominantly), but there are so many unexpected structures, that you’re really listening to a unique work of art. It could be because they’re Japanese, but let’s not forget that Loudness forged this sound for itself: Loudness has always been and still is the standard for heavy music from the east.

‘The Stronger’ is the perfect opener to this album, the palm-mute high-speed riffs of Takasaki and rolling bass drums of Masayuki Suzuki get your blood pumping. This is what made Heavy Metal so amazing in the early eighties and that hasn’t changed to these ears. In fact, Loudness has had a succession of amazing opening tracks (‘Hit The Rails’, ‘King Of Pain’, ‘The Power Of Truth’), but this one might be the best since the reunion of the original lineup around the turn of the century. And there’s more classic Heavy Metal where that came from. ‘Break New Ground’ is a mid tempo stomper reminiscent of Priest, ‘2012 – End Of The Age’ has many exciting tempo feel shifts and a thundering main riff and ‘Bang ‘Em Dead’ is another one of those classic Loudness anthems.

Like on ‘King Of Pain’ and ‘Eve To Dawn’ before it, the second half of ‘2012’ is a bit more experimental. Still instantly recognizable as Loudness, but just taking a different appraoch on things. The two instrumental tracks – the Middle Eastern tinged ‘Spirit From The East’ and the dark outro ‘Out Of The Space’ – are the most obvious examples of this, but there’s also ‘Who The Hell Cares’, arguably the most modern Metal track on here. And there’s the slightly more progressive ‘Memento Mori’, but then again, that one was written by bassist Masayoshi Yamashita, who usually writes the more progressive stuff. Highlighting that half of the album is the Ronnie James Dio tribute ‘The Voice Of Metal’, with its slower tempo that just drags you in mourning mode and a surprisingly slow and heartfelt solo – at least partially – by Takasaki. That clean break with brilliant bass accents around the 2 minute mark is the strongest goosebumps-inducing part on the album.

As always, Loudness is mostly a vehicle for Akira Takasaki’s impressive guitar histrionics. However, it seems like he’s found himself a new sparring partner in Masayuki Suzuki, who replaced the late Munetaka Higuchi after his demise in 2008. Suzuki is a virtuoso when it comes to using double bass drums and he and Takasaki obviously feed off of each other’s energy. ‘2012’ is definitely the first album where they truly utilize Suzuki’s drumming abilities, after getting a glimpse of it in the ridiculous drum intro to ‘King Of Pain’. Also, Masayoshi Yamashita is remarkably present on this album, impressively doubling Takasaki’s riffs in ‘Driving Force’ and giving them a Maiden-ish vibe with it and adding a nice touch to the riff in ‘Who The Hell Cares’ with his popping. Minoru Niihara’s vocals haven’t aged too well generally, but he still has a fairly good range and I like the edge that came to his voice with the years.

It’s really a shame no one in the west wants to release this and instead opt for brainless Metalcore bands. This is clearly better than a good 90 percent of every western release. It’s too bad you’re forced to lay down a lot of money to import this from Japan, but the truth is that it’s worth the money. I’m going to have to put a sort of buyer’s guide for all of you interested in Loudness on this weblog soon. I for one can’t wait for the band to return to Europe for some shows to promote (and sell!) this album.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Stronger’, ‘The Voice Of Metal’, ‘Behind The Scene’, ‘2012 – End Of The Age’