Archive for November, 2013

Album of the Week 47-2013: Mekong Delta – Wanderer On The Edge Of Time

Mekong Delta’s bassist and composer Ralf Hubert has a unique way of fusing classical music with Heavy Metal sounds. Sure, there are plenty of symphonic Metal bands these days that flirt with that fusion, which makes sense as most good Metal is clearly rooted in classical music, but Hubert actually composes classical pieces with movements – rather than actual albums with songs – for a Metal band. His most successful attempts at this are both rondos for Rock groups he’s written: the fantastic ‘Dances Of Death’ from 1990 and its even better sequel ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’, released twenty years later.

Essentially classical music performed on contemporary electric instruments, Mekong Delta’s music is often labelled as progressive Thrash Metal. And though that is probably the closest reference to an existing genre, it will probably throw fans of both Thrash Metal and Progmetal off, since it sounds like neither Metallica nor Dream Theater. Mekong Delta is truly a unique band that needs to be heard, preferably multiple times, to be understood. Whatever you choose to call it, ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’ is an intense and moving composition and ultimately an extremely satisfying listening experience.

While this is really to be listened to as a continuous piece, the vocal parts can be heard as separate songs. That’s where part of this album’s brilliance lies as well: with Martin LeMar, Hubert has finally found the right singer for his music. While Doug Lee provided some enjoyable vocal work, the emotional range and power LeMar has is unbelievable. His vocals make something special of already fantastic compositions such as the fast and heavy ‘The Apocalypt – World In Shards’, the interestingly constructed ‘The 5th Element’ and the creeping madness of ‘Mistaken Truth’.

Like any rondo, ‘Wander On The Edge Of Time’ has a recurring theme that mostly manifests itself in the fantastic instrumental interludes. Besides being well written, the guitar work of both Erik Adam H. Grösch and Benedikt Zimniak is fantastic in thight execution as well as the fantastic guitar sound. The production on this album is fantastic anyway, allowing every instrument the room it has in the sonic spectrum and sounding remarkably easy on the ears, although the compositions are relatively chaotic.

But the true revelation instrumentally is Alex Landenburg. He has since been picked up by Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody and those who hear his work on this record can only expect him to be more in demand: his playing is tight, his double bass work is impressive even on the album’s highest tempos and – though this may be Hubert’s influence – his bass drum sound is much more powerful than on many other contemporary Metal releases.

Those who revel in Hubert’s genius most likely already have this album, but it is truly his brightest shining moment. ‘Dances Of Death’ is of similar brilliance, but the musicians involved in this – as well as the larger amount of technological possibilities developed in the two decades that hav passed – really help to raise the bar here. If you like what Hubert has done to Metal or to (mainly) Mussorgsky’s classical compositions, you shouldn’t let this one go either. Had I started this weblog a year sooner, this album would definitely have topped the 2010 list. Give it a chance and let it top yours as well!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Apocalypt – World In Shards (Le Maison Dieu)’, ‘The 5th Element (Le Bateleur)’, ‘Finale’

Album of the Week 46-2013: Joanne Shaw Taylor – Almost Always Never

Many Blues guitarists – if not almost all of them – can improvise a great guitar solo. Much less of them are actually good songwriters. Enter Joanne Shaw Taylor. This British lady can solo in the best Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins tradition, but also can write a great tune. And the groove she and her band put down is simply irresistible. Her approach of Bluesrock is actually quite interesting as well, especially on her third album ‘Almost Always Never’, where all of her Blues, Rock and Soul influences come together to form a very tasty melange that is very hard to put down.

As much as I love Blues, its relatively little variation can be a reason to stay away from some of the genre’s defining albums. A true Blues great doesn’t just make Delta Blues, Country Blues, Chicago Blues or Bluesrock, they combine it to create something of their own. By that logic, Joanne Shaw Taylor is very well on her way to become a giant of the genre. Her compositions don’t take any notion of subgenre borders and are just preoccupied with being good songs, her somewhat raspy alto fits those songs perfectly and her guitar playing is wild in the solo department and servicable during songs.

Being a Bluesrocker by origin, the Rockers on this album were a case of love at first hearing. ‘Tied & Bound’ alone would have been worth what I paid for the album, with its big riff, monstrous groove, fanastic solo section at the end and chorus that won’t leave your head for days. It’s one of the best Bluesrock songs I’ve heard in a long time. Opening track ‘Soul Station’ also has an awesome groove and an exciting build-up towards its brooding chorus, while ‘Standing To Fall’ has a dirty riff and an inspirational, somewhat psychedelic jam in the middle section.

However, when Taylor shows some more restraint, it results into some impressive songs as well. ‘Army Of One’ sounds like a mixture of Country Blues and Led Zeppelin’s acoustic material, ‘You Should Stay, I Should Go’, while having the urgency of the Rock songs, has a more laid-back R&B groove, ‘Beautifully Broken’ is reminiscent of Gov’t Mule’s more restrained material (it’s not a cover though!) and could have been a big single with the right promotion and ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ is a dark, slithering masterpiece of late sixties, early seventies psychedelic grooves and exciting climaxes.

Okay, so I have a weak spot for musicians that can both jam and write great songs. But if you’re into Bluesrock at all and you give Joanne Shaw Taylor a chance, I’m sure you will fall for her music as well. Especially on ‘Almost Always Never’, as it’s extremely well written and possibly even better performance-wise. Taylor and her band settle for fantastic grooves and the dry production of the album really emphasizes that. I’d take this over Joe Bonamassa any day. This goes far beyond my ladies with Les Pauls fetish, this is just really, really good music that deserves to be heard by anyone. And with her being 27, hopefully she has plenty more of this to come.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tied & Bound’, ‘Soul Station’, ‘Army Of One’, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’

Album of the Week 45-2013: Stryper – No More Hell To Pay

Neither praise nor rejection for Stryper based solely on their religious beliefs would not be fair to the Californians. Yes, they’ve laid pretty heavily on the religious lyrics – although some of it is the exact same imagery many secular bands in the genre use – but the band also is responsible for a couple of awesome melodic Hardrock and Metal tunes and Michael Sweet is one of the best singers in the business, even today at age 50. Atheists like myself may need to give ‘No More Hell To Pay’ a shot; the good word is much more subtle and the band’s sound is surprisingly dark this time.

In the early nineties, Stryper took a lot of beating from their core audience for ‘Against The Law’, while the less overtly religious lyrics of the album open the doors to other audiences at the time. For the latter audience, ‘No More Hell To Pay’ may be a similar sort of album. This is, however, an album that is notably more Metal than the eighties Hardrock approach of ‘Against The Law’. Despite the band’s usual sense of strong melodies, all of the songs are proudly riff-based. Also, those who gave up on the band after ‘Reborn’ will probably be surprised by the number of guitar solos heard on the album.

The song material on ‘No More Hell To Pay’ is extremely well-written. My main gripe with Stryper was never their lyrical subject matter, but their incredibly syrupy-sweet, vomit inducing ballads, but even the sole ballad on the album (‘The One’) is quite good. It does help that it’s a guitar ballad and not the piano pastiche of the past.

But it’s quite obvious that Stryper came to rock this time. ‘Saved By Love’ is a Speed Metal tune that fits perfectly fine with their uptempo eighties material, ‘Legacy’ has a pounding riff and some of Michael Sweet’s most aggressive vocal work to date, the cover of ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ rocks hard – much moreso than the Doobie Brothers’ rendition even – and ‘Water Into Wine’ has sort of a sleazy eighties Hardrock vibe.

Personal favorites, however, would be the incredibly heavy stomper ‘Marching Into Battle’, which according to Michael Sweet was one of the first songs he ever wrote and has an awesome, haunting chorus, the perfect melodic Hardrock tune that is ‘Sympathy’, a worthy contender for Frontiers Records’ ultimate single of 2013 with its flawless harmonies in the chorus, and the uptempo rocker ‘Te Amo’, which is quite remniscent of Iron Maiden’s most poppy moments, not in the last place because of a well-written section under the fantastic solos of Mike Sweet and Oz Fox.

My only minor complaint with ‘No More Hell To Pay’ is that a little more variation in the tempos would have been beneficial for the album. There is quite a lot of midtempo material on the album and that isn’t necessarily a problem, but with the album opening with two midtempo tracks – one of which, opener ‘Revelation’, is nothing short of amazing – swapping tracks 2 and 3 may not have been a bad idea. Also, for the same reason, I would have put the uptempo closer ‘Renewed’ earlier on the album, maybe between ‘Sticks & Stones’ and ‘Water Into Wine’.

Apart from that, Stryper made a quality product here. Many people have called the album the best album they’ve done since ‘To Hell With The Devil’. For me personally, the darker tone makes this one even better. This may be Stryper’s best record so far, although time has to tell if it has the lasting value ‘Soldiers Under Command’ has. I think it will. It has the songs and performances to back it up. And one of the perfect melodic Rock singles of the year. Isn’t that combination exactly what made Stryper so popular in the eighties?

Recommended tracks: ‘Marching Into Battle’, ‘Sympathy’, ‘Te Amo’, ‘Saved By Love’

Album of the Week 44-2013: Metal Church – Generation Nothing

Following their 2008 release ‘This Present Wasteland’, a competent, but only moderately inspired album, Metal Church broke up. Imagine my surprise when the release of ‘Generation Nothing’ was announced. In fact, the lineup remains unchanged, but ‘Generation Nothing’ is a much better record. Where ‘This Present Wasteland’ did a decent job consolidating Metal Church’s trademark sound, ‘Generation Nothing’ is something of a rebirth on par with – or possibly even better than – the coming of Ronny Munroe in the shape of ‘The Weight Of The World’.

‘Generation Nothing’ shows the Metal Church we’ve come to know and love over the years. This is strong American Heavy Metal with powerful guitar riffs courtesy of sole remaining original member Kurdt Vanderhoof and lots of room for Munroe’s vocal tour de force. However, something seems to have re-energized Metal Church. ‘Bulletproof’, for instance, is a remarkably fierce kick-off by Metal Church measures and the compositions are generally more interesting and surprising than any of the band’s post-2000 output, contributing to a very pleasant listen. Then again, what may help as well is the great quality of the material.

Despite only ‘Noises In The Wall’ being of actual epic proportions, there’s actually quite a few tracks that take their time to grow into a composition with multiple different climaxes. ‘Hits Keep Comin”, the fantastic dark closer ‘The Media Horse’ and ‘Suiciety’ would definitely qualify as epic in that matter. The latter has one of the album’s most impressive guitar solos on the album as well. Along ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Scream’ is surprisingly Thrashy for Metal Church. The relatively melodic chorus does make it a typical Metal Church staple and everything combined, it’s probably the best track on the record.

Looking at the individual performances on this record, I once again have to emphasize my weak spot for Ronny Munroe. He stepped into big shoes, following up the legendary David Wayne and the much better Mike Howe, but he does so very well. His vocals are characterized by an enviable amount of power and just the right amount of grit. Nothing here gets as good as his live performance of ‘Gods Of Wrath’, but Munroe is one of the better singers Metal has to offer at the moment.

Guitarists Vanderhoof and Rick van Zant – both Dutch names, the nationalist in me would like to address – both do a fantastic job here. ‘Generation Nothing’ is very much a riff record, but their solos are simply awesome, sometimes helped by the fact that the solo sections are notably well-written. Bassist Steve Unger and Savatage drummer Jeff Plate are a formidable rhythm section, with Plate having a warm, authentic sound that seems forbidden on many contemporary Metal productions.

While maybe not quite be on par with the almost inhuman brilliance of ‘Blessing In Disguise’, ‘Generation Nothing’ is the best album Metal Chuch has done in a long time. In an era where the only old-school bands are bands tributizing their heroes in a way that it borders on parody, it’s good to hear the real thing delivered with a sincerity and a passion that contemporary Metal begs for. But then again… They’re not a “Metal Church” without reason, right?

Recommended tracks: ‘Scream’, ‘The Media Horse’, ‘Dead City’, ‘Bulletproof’