Archive for December, 2013

Many heroes new and old in Gitarist and Slagwerkkrant

Gitarist’s last issue for this year (well, technically it’s the January 2014 issue…) contains a lot of interesting stuff. And you certainly won’t hear me say that all of it is mine, because it isn’t. First of all, Adrian Vandenberg – “Adje” for fellow Dutchies – is back! My chief editor Mark van Schaick has written a long and informative feature on his new band MoonKings. I certainly can’t wait to hear the album, but I’ll have to wait until February 24th in order to do so. My compliments to mr. Vandenberg for working with young musicians rather than taking the easy way out and ask a couple of big names to join him.

As for my contributions, there are interviews with some brand new heroes. I talked to Eric Campbell from Vancouver’s No Sinner about their fantastic debut album ‘Boo Hoo Hoo’. To tell you the truth, I have an incredible weak spot for Colleen Rennison’s fantastic vocals and the general old school Rock ‘n’ Soul sound of the band. Check this band out if you haven’t yet! Also, I spoke to brand new Legion Of The Damned guitarist Twan van Geel about his contributions to the band’s brand new ‘Ravenous Plague’ album. I have been a fan of Van Geel’s playing and writing ever since I heard him with Flesh Made Sin and this is definitely Legion’s best album yet!

In addition, I had an interesting conversation (and somewhat decent photo shoot) with Marillion’s Steve Rothery, whose hero Andy Latimer is also featured in the magazine (that interview was done by my colleague Stefan Heger, however). The interview my colleague Martine Sipma had with master repair man Hans Pluut is well worth your time as well. If you wonder what to spend your most recent salary on: there’s loads of reviews as well, among which quite a few from my hand.

If guitars aren’t your thing, but drums are, get Slagwerkkrant instead. I had an interesting conversation with Damian Lopez of Amsterdam’s Red Eyes that is published, but be sure to check out the interviews with new Dream Theater Mike Mangini – who also drummed on Annihilator’s ‘Set The World On Fire’, an album I listen to quite a lot – and Peter Gabriel’s most amazing drummer Manu Katché as well!

And if that’s not enough to cure your new year’s boredom, I will publish my end-of-year list tomorrow, hoping to entertain you a little further with that.

Album of the Week 52-2013: Soul Sirkus – World Play

Generally, I hate supergroups. Usually the names and egos are greater than the actual music. Sometimes it feels like the musicians involved in these projects have too little to prove to actually come up with good material. Soul Sirkus is a notable exception. Something just makes sense here, possibly caused by the fact that Journey guitarist Neal Schon catches himself in a different playing scenario than he is generally known for. Also, he’s working with Jeff Scott Soto, who is one of this world’s best singers as well as one of the best songwriters ever to grace this planet. Whatever the cause, ‘World Play’ is a fantastic album.

It’s not that Soul Sirkus is a radical departure from Schon’s AOR past. This is still highly melodic Hardrock. However, there is much more of an edge to both the music and Schon’s guitar approach. Soto has an enormous range with just the right amount of rasp to his voice and the formidable rhythm section of Virgil Donati and Marco Mendoza is a perfect fit. Both are virtuosos in their field, but opt for a strong foundation with only occasional flashes of their wizardry instead. The true heroes of this record are the songs, since they’re all fantastic.

Schon and Soto have written a handful of fantastic Hardrock tunes for ‘World Play’. Most of the songs have a bluesy flair and are decidedly riff driven. Even though the album never goes into Metal territory, there are riffs in the passionately subdued ‘Another World’ that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Black Sabbath album. The groovy – and surprisingly proggy – riff on the fantastic opening statement ‘Highest Ground’ is something of a stomping surprise as well. Another subdued masterpiece here is the dark and goosebumps inducing ‘Periled Divide’ and ‘My Love, My Friend’ is another expert case of Soto’s choral Queen worship.

However, this album truly excels when Soul Sirkus takes a slightly edgier approach to AOR and the big choruses and heavy riffs push each other to great climaxes. ‘New Position’ is one of the first examples of that. The song has a Rock ‘n’ Roll swing to it and a spirited performance of Soto – who never disappoints – but Schon’s hand is quite obvious in the chorus, especially the riff that closes it. Closing track ‘Close The Door’ is another case of brilliantly written AOR euphoria. My personal favorites have to be ‘Friends 2 Lovers’ and ‘My Sanctuary’ though. The latter has a monstrous, yet sexy groove and powerful chorus, while the former could have been a huge hit in the late eighties. It has heartwarming lyrics as well.

Don’t let the supergroup label scare you away from ‘World Play’. It’s actually one of the few albums bearing that label that is actually, well…super. This is one of those albums that makes you want to just get up and move. And with its great riffs, swinging grooves and – I can’t emphasize this enough – Soto’s simply amazing vocal work, it’s kind of hard not to. This is definitely one of the finest hours of every musician involved and I can’t imagine anyone into melodic Hardrock not getting into this.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Sanctuary’, ‘Friends 2 Lovers’, ‘Close The Door’, ‘Another World’

Album of the Week 51-2013: Riot – Thundersteel

Some records just scream “Metal” proudly in your face. Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’ obviously is something of a model record in that matter. However, two years prior to that classic, New York’s Riot released an album Priest wouldn’t even dare to dream of. In Priest’s defense, it would take them a little longer until they found a drummer of the same class as Riot’s Bobby Jarzombek, but that’s not the only reason why ‘Thundersteel’ is an album that is worthy of the same praise as ‘Painkiller’. Its impeccable songwriting and top-notch musicianship have proven through the years to be almost impossible to equal.

At the time, ‘Thundersteel’ was something of a rebirth for Riot. The band had been around since the mid-seventies and had recorded some essential early Heavy Metal records – ‘Fire Down Under’ above all – but it wasn’t until this album that all the pieces fell into place. Mark Reale had proven himself a fantastic songwriter and even better guitarist through the last decade and a half, but even he outdid himself here. Then there was the unexperienced, but fantastic singer Tony Moore who debuted here, the aforementioned Jarzombek and bassist Don Van Stavern, who contributed to a lot of this album’s stellar songwriting.

With that as a strong base, the album kicks off into a flying start. ‘Thundersteel’ itself is probably the most impressive, adrenalin pumping opening track Heavy Metal had heard up until then – as mentioned, this is two years before ‘Painkiller’, which it pretty much is on par with – with Jarzombek’s rolling bass drums, Reale’s blazing riffs and solos and Moore soaring on top of that. If this doesn’t get your blood cooking, you’re not into Heavy Metal, it’s that simple. Quite a lot of American bands did this kind of classy, melodic Heavy Metal at the time rather successfully – Leatherwolf, Omen and Savage Grace come to mind – but none had summed up Heavy Metal as well as ‘Thundersteel’ did.

However, there’s more after that amazing title track. In fact, the album is a continuous source of highlights, my favorite of which being ‘Johnny’s Back’. Lyrically in the same vein as Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, the song is a combination of fantastic climaxes, a brilliant chorus, amazing riffs supported by Jarzombek’s pulsating drumming and a masterclass in lead guitar work. The nostalgia displayed in the lyrics somehow is reflected really well in the song’s melodies. Other highlights include the eighties USPM riff fest that is ‘Run For Your Life’ and the near-Thrash riffing of ‘Flight Of The Warrior’. But even when the band slows down, as heard on mid-tempo stomper ‘Sign Of The Crimson Storm’ and closing Doomster ‘Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)’, they impress.

Contemporary Metal fans have the tendency to ridicule this kind of Metal somehow, but I have yet to see one of the newer “heroes” of the scene come up with this combination of energy, melody, instrumental mastery, class and compositional brilliance. Sadly, chief songwriter and master guitarist Mark Reale passed away about two years ago, leaving a void in the genre that only true experts seem to acknowledge. ‘Thundersteel’ is his magnum opus, an album that should be heard by anyone who loves Heavy Metal the way it’s supposed to be played.

Recommended tracks: ‘Johnny’s Back’, ‘Thundersteel’, ‘Run For Your Life’

Album of the Week 50-2013: Tourniquet – Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance

When you listen to ‘Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance’ for the first time, you’ll notice that the riffs are everywhere. As a result, the album leaves an incredibly disjointed impression upon first listen. Some of the crazy changes within the songs seem rather incoherent, but repeated listening reveals the brilliance in the songwriting department. Don’t let the fact that some of the songs may sound like collections of riffs rather than songs initially throw you off. After all, ‘Melissa’ is a timeless classic as well. I’m not sure if Tourniquet, being a christian band, would appreciate the Mercyful Fate reference, but you get the idea.

Drummer and main songwriter Ted Kirkpatrick has always been a technically very proficient drummer and songwriter, but ‘Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance’ is the first release where the band fully focuses on the more technical approach. The result sounds like a mixture of the faster work on Metallica’s ‘…And Justice For All’ and what Death did on ‘Human’, with a few quirky left turns. It accounts for an intense and ultimately interesting listening experience. An album that the band, despite several solid efforts, wouldn’t come close to topping in their subsequent carreer.

Although it’s unfair to judge these songs by their riffs, it’s generally the songs with the best riffs that end up being my favorites. ‘Incommensurate’, for instance, has a bad-ass, driving main riff that makes me want to revisit the song as often as possible. ‘Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance’ has a vast amount of awesome riffs and so much happening, that my surprise was quite big that it was only four and a half minutes long. The bizarre ‘Gelatinous Tubercles Of Purulent Ossification’ (this may sound like old school Death Metal, but trust me, it isn’t) has an amazing galloping main riff and an interesting middle section and the twin riffs of ‘Theodicy On Trial’ swirl around madly.

The album does get a little more experimental at times. ‘Phantom Limb’ is based on a playful, almost jazzy groove and even though it’s a good song, I think it’s placed too early on the album. The dark and twisted ‘Exoskeletons’ is something of a departure as well, but quite a welcome one. The a capella verses are downright frightening and the doomy atmosphere suits the song incredibly well. That same doomy atmosphere is present on this album’s ultimate experiment: closing epic ‘The Skeezix Dilemma’. Starting out with a beautiful acoustic guitar intro, moving into a disturbingly dissonant carnival melody, the song’s momentum is shortly killed by a spoken part (by a child) only to continue into the ultimate Doom song that perfectly fits the lyrics about child abuse.

Performance-wise, everyone’s at the top of their game here. Kirkpatrick has done an admirable job on drums from Tourniquet’s first release on, the guitars by Guy Lenaire and Erik Mendez sound aggressive, intense and powerful and while the interplay of Guy Ritter’s haunting vocals and Lenaire’s Araya-inspired shouts allegedly started as a necessary evil, it works incredibly well here.

Every good band has that one moment, that one recording, where everything just sounds exactly the way it’s supposed to sound. Although Tourniquet already showed they were on the right way with their debut ‘Stop The Bleeding’, ‘Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance’ is that album for them. It’s unbelievable how well the technical Thrash approach works on this record. If you are, like myself, an atheist, unsure of whether to listen to this album, let me be the one to tell you that you should. You’ll be surprised how dark and evil it sounds.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance’, ‘Incommensurate’, ‘Exoskeletons’, ‘Gelatinus Tubercles Of Purulent Ossification’

Album of the Week 49-2013: Amorphis – Silent Waters

Although ‘Elegy’ will always be one of my all time favorite albums, Amorphis has been recording a series of impressive albums ever since singer Tomi Joutsen joined halfway through last decade. With Joutsen being as good at clean vocals as powerful grunts – needless to say, I’m more of a fan of the former though – and keyboard player Santeri Kallio proving to be perfectly complementary with lead guitarist Esa Holopainen in terms of songwriting. Despite everything by this lineup being of consistent quality, ‘Silent Waters’ is truly their magnum opus.

Fans of the early work by the Finns might be put off by the large amounts of melody on both the majority of the songs as well as Joutsen’s voice, but that is exactly what makes this album so good. The contrasts between the melodic passages and the heavier segments – which, with the exception of opening track ‘Weaving The Incantation’, aren’t all that heavy anyway – works extremely well and the songs are just very well written. Strong riffs, big hooky choruses and as usual, fantastic melodic lead themes with a hint of folklore to them.

Listening to this album, one of the things that stands out is how much sense the whole thing makes. The order in which the songs are presented is obviously well thought out. For instance: the way ‘Shaman’ follows the unique folky approach of ‘Enigma’ – with its acoustic guitars and impressive multi-layered vocal work – is just right. Just take a listen and you’ll hear what I mean.

But in the end, it’s the songs that matter. And luckily, they are very strong this time around. I found myself being touched by many of the anthemic choruses on the record (the beautiful ‘I Of Crimson Blood’ and ‘Towards And Against’, a song driven by awesome contrasts, spring to mind) and as always, it’s impossible to resist Holopainen’s fantastic lead guitar. He won’t lead many “best shredder” lists, but his impeccable melodic sensibilities definitely make him one of my all time favorites.

The downright beautiful and moving title track has Joutsen crooning the goosebumps inducing lyrics at his most gentle. The same can be said about the passionate ‘Her Alone’, which is probably the closest Amorphis has ever come to a proper power ballad. ‘The White Swan’ is probably rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari’s most impressive contribution to the Amorphis canon, with its haunting melodies and contrasting sections. The guitar solos are nothing to be ashamed of either.

It’s hard, almost impossible to go wrong with Joutsen-led Amorphis – ‘The Beginning Of Times’ had some mediocre moments – but it’s also hard to get it better than what is on display here. This is a band so comfortable with its style that it doesn’t really pay attention to what style fits the songs best. The result is an album full of songs that are low on pretense, but incredibly high on content and melodic qualities. Add Holopainen’s lead guitar, Joutsen’s vocals and Kallio’s tasteful keyboards to the mix and you’ll have a cocktail of musical brilliance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Silent Waters’, ‘I Of Crimson Blood’, ‘Towards And Against’, ‘Her Alone’

Album of the Week 48-2013: Styx – The Grand Illusion

Before Styx fell victim to one of the greatest identity crises in AOR history due to inner band turmoil in the eighties, they were actually responsible for writing and recording a couple of the finest melodic Hardrock tunes. And although my favorite songs (‘Blue Collar Man’ and ‘Queen Of Spades’) are on its follow-up, none of their albums were as complete, consistent and just overall strong as ‘The Grand Illusion’. Very little albums in the late seventies were. Styx’ combination of AOR’s melodic sensibilities and hooky accessibility with song structures and a creativity more commonly associated with Progrock is used to unbelievable effect here.

One year prior, the first recordings with guitarist and singer Tommy Shaw resulted in the surprisingly good ‘Crystal Ball’, which already hinted at the potential realized here. Shaw brought to the band a pop savvy in composition – whilst still strongly rooted in Rock traditions – which complemented perfectly with the classically influenced theatrics of keyboard playing frontman Dennis DeYoung and the Hardrock leanings of the other guitarist/vocalist James Young. Shaw has the most pleasant voice between the three to my ears as well. All this contributed to the unprecedented brilliance of ‘The Grand Illusion’.

Conceptually, ‘The Grand Illusion’ focuses on the darker side of fame. While not strictly a concept album, the unifying theme does lend a great deal of continuity to the album. Also, the return of some of the themes heard earlier on the album on ‘The Grand Finale’ does suggest some Rock opera-like vibe, which fits Styx’ bombastic music quite well.

What makes this album their best, however, is the quality of the compositions. There simply isn’t one song I would skip on this album. This is helped by the fact that no two songs song alike. ‘Come Sail Away’ is probably Styx’ best known song and it’s probably the most proggy on this album, but despite that, it’s not even the best on the album. That would be a photo finish between Shaw’s Kansas-inspired masterpiece ‘Man In The Wilderness’, a song that means a lot to yours truly, and the DeYoung’s oft overlooked slow, brooding and gloomy work of art that is ‘Castle Walls’. Both songs are fantastic Prog songs highlighted by haunting melodies and strong instrumental work by all musicians involved.

The rest of the album has a little something for everyone as well. Young’s ‘Miss America’ is one of the band’s hardest rocking tracks, Shaw’s ‘Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)’ is one of the lightest moments and a breath of fresh air as such, while ‘Superstars’ relies on Queen-like bombast and very well-written contrasts and the awesome opening title track is a perfect moodsetter with some of the band’s best riffs and vocals.

Although all of these songs would find their definitive renditions on the DVD where Styx performed ‘The Grand Illusion’ and ‘Pieces Of Eight’ in its entirity released about two years ago – I simply find Lawrence Gowan’s voice much more pleasant to listen to than DeYoung’s – this is the album that shows Styx as their most accomplished. If you like the majesty of Prog, the melodic gloss of AOR and the accessibility of Pop, this is the place to turn to. It’s all expertly written and performed. Avoid only if you’re allergic to melody.

Recommended tracks: ‘Castle Walls’, ‘Man In The Wilderness’, ‘The Grand Illusion’