Archive for May, 2014

Album of the Week 21-2014: Boston – Boston

Back when the term “Arena Rock” hadn’t been coined yet – in fact, AOR was still in its infancy – the first seeds of its sonic representation were sown by a man named Tom Scholz. While the sound on the self-titled debut of his band Boston is still miles away from the reverb-laden productions that would storm the charts about a decade later, the huge, beefy guitar sound and strong melodic hooks that would characterize the genre are prominently featured on the album. And it worked; the album sold enough to fill hundreds of arenas and its songs are still played on the radio universally.

There are three reasons why ‘Boston’ is worthy of much more praise than many critics continue to give it, dismissing it as a “corporate Rock” album. First of all, the album’s sound – including the instantly recognizable guitar sound – was created entirely by Scholz, using his knowledge of engineering to build equipment to record the album with. He tricked the record company into believing it was recorded in an expensive studio and it’s easy to hear why the executives would believe that. Secondly, all the vocal work – including the enormous and intricate choirs – was done by one man only: the amazing Brad Delp. Musically, it’s a similar story; friends were brought in for drums and the occasional guitar solo, but besides that, everything you hear is Scholz.

Besides that, the song material on the album is incredible. Over here in Europe, opening track ‘More Than A Feeling’ is by far the best known song of the album and while its melodic appeal is beyond any shade of doubt, it’s hardly even the best song here. The joyously melodic ‘Peace Of Mind’ with its larger than life chorus would take that cake. Or the classically inspired Progrocker ‘Foreplay/Long Time’, which starts out as a rocking interpretation of a symphony courtesy of Scholz, only to transform into a fantastically unpredictable Rock song during which acoustic and electric guitars battle for supremacy.

However, that’s not where the brilliance ends. In fact, every song on ‘Boston’ could have been an AOR radio hit. Closing track ‘Let Me Take You Home Tonight’ sticks out a little based on the fact that it’s the only composition of Delp and the only one recorded with the band that would eventually hit the stage, but it’s an extremely well written tune. ‘Something About You’ marries Pop sensibilities with heavy Rock guitars and triumphant leads, ‘Rock & Roll Band’ is a swinging boogie with a surprisingly moving chorus and ‘Hitch A Ride’ highlights the lighter side of the band.

Scholz would eventually become every record executive’s nightmare by taking ages to finish each album following this album’s equally brilliant follow-up ‘Don’t Look Back’, but I admire him greatly for his perfectionism. Also, I find his discomfort with playing live relatable. His dedication to studio work is a large part of what makes ‘Boston’ one of the altimate AOR classics. Delp’s unbelievable vocal work does the rest. All of you who are into strong melodies, enormous hooks and a fantastic production and aren’t one of the millions who already own it, should get a hold of ‘Boston’ as soon as possible.

Recommended tracks: ‘Peace Of Mind’, ‘Foreplay/Long Time’, ‘Something About You’

Album of the Week 20-2014: OverKill – The Years Of Decay

In a way, ‘The Years Of Decay’ and its direct follow-up ‘Horrorscope’ are the most complete records that New Jersey’s – and if I’m brutally honest, the world’s – finest Thrash Metal band OverKill has ever released. Calling them their magnum opus would be disrespectful towards the rest of the ever developing band’s repertoire, but it’s certainly understandable why these albums are generally the band’s most beloved to date. It’s were the band started exploring and stretching the boundaries of their aggressive Thrash Metal roots with excellent results. Many of these tracks are justified live staples to this day in OverKill’s set.

With original guitarist Bobby Gustafson – technically he was preceded by a few guitarists, but he was the first to appear on a recording – departing after the tour supporting the album, ‘The Years Of Decay’ is also something of the end of an era for OverKill. From the early nineties on, the band would be working with two guitarists, generally technically more skilled than Gustafson and as such, ‘The Years Of Decay’ in all its variation and experimentation is the last one to feature the unbridled, at times juvenile aggression of Gustafson, which is a large part of the charm of the band’s early work.

Those of you who made it this far are probably well aware of live classic ‘Elimination’. Having seen the band live over a dozen and a half times, I have yet to see a show without this shot of adrenalin. ‘I Hate’ and the downright amazing, warp speed closing track ‘E.vil N.ever D.ies’ appeared on sets quite regularly as well, but the brilliance of this album lies beyond that. The title track is the band’s first attempt at an epic ballad and it’s simply spine chilling – though I have a preference for ‘Soulitude’ from its follow-up – and songs like ‘Nothing To Die For’, ‘Birth Of Tension’ opening track ‘Time To Kill’ are amazing slabs of a more progessive approach to Thrash.

After a few careful steps into slower territories on previous albums, this is where OverKill really takes their first leap into full-on Doom Metal tempos. Those who know the band well shouldn’t be surprised, given how obvious of an influence Black Sabbath has always been on the band – if the approach of changing the song into something completely different halfway through didn’t give that away already, the inclusion of three Sabbath songs on ‘Coverkill’ did – but the experiments work well here. ‘Who Tends The Fire’ is an acquired taste, but really turns into a fantastic atmospheric song when it clicks and ‘Playing With Spiders/Skullkrusher’ consists of ten minutes of crushing Doom, save for the faster middle part. The brilliant practice of recording two simultaneous guitar solos works amazing as well here. It is still quite likely my favorite song of the band.

Even Terry Date’s production of the record is perfect. Some people have called it muffled, but I find it irresistible. It’s quite friendly towards DD Verni’s trebly bass sound and ‘Sid’ Falck’s drums – and his bass drums in particular – but he can carry it. In fact, he would remain OverKill’s best drummer until Ron Lipnicki joined the band about a decade ago. As for personal performances, we can’t review an OverKill album without pointing out the vocal prowess of Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth. Sure, his screeching qualities may be off-putting to some people, but not one singer in the Thrash genre has remained this consistently powerful and in tune as Ellsworth.

While OverKill would explore other – and sometimes even more interesting – territories within the Thrash genre later on, effectively making them one of the most experimental bands whilst still operating within the boundaries of the genre, ‘The Years Of Decay’ is rightfully heralded as a Thrash classic. This is the ambition of Metallica’s ‘Master Of Puppets’ without actually castrating the primal energy of the genre. With one of the best singers of the entire Metal genre. For those of you who consider Thrash untalented noise based on the early Teutonic work, this may offer some perspective. For those into the genre, this is an obligated entry into your collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Playing With Spiders/Skullkrusher’, ‘E.vil N.ever D.ies’, ‘Birth Of Tension’

Album of the Week 19-2014: X – Blue Blood

Back before X Japan turned into a band that released a little too many ballads – despite the obvious quality of some of them – X was a fantastic Heavy Metal band with a tightness and a musicianship that many European or American genre colleagues should have been jealous of. In fact, their sophomore album ‘Blue Blood’ is one of the best late eighties Power Metal albums in my collection. The album has the aggression that many Power Metal albums lack, the melody missing on many Speed Metal records and an enormous amount of variation absent on many Metal records regardless of their subgenres.

In a way, ‘Blue Blood’ is the album that made X Japan – or X, as they still were known at the time – what they are today. It’s where they first started combining their signature melodic Speed Metal style with glossy balladry, Glamrock bombast and psychedelic experimentalism. The amazing thing is that almost all of it works on this release. The instrumental track ‘Xclamation’, a composition by guitarist hide and bassist Taiji, foreshadows the psychedelic industrialism that hide worked on during the latter years of X Japan’s original incarnation and his solo work and ‘Celebration’ is easily the best of the band’s Glam-tinged material.

However, for yours truly, it’s mainly the Metal material that is responsible for the album’s repeated spins. When after a slightly overlong intro – a common flaw in X’s album and live history – the opening riff of the title track comes in with all of its warp speed Thrashing violence, it’s clear that we’re dealing with an awesome band here. The song contains a number of riffs and atmosphere changes that many a Metal composer – including myself – should envy and this definitely is the case for the other speedy, screaming Metal epics such as ‘Kurenai’, ‘Orgasm’, the 11 plus minute ‘Rose Of Pain’ and the album’s highlight, which is the band’s amazing namesake.

Out of the ballads, I find ‘Unfinished’ (which, ironically, is finished this time, unlike on the band’s debut ‘Vanishing Vision’) to be the vastly superior one, even though ‘Endless Rain’ is somewhat of a fan favorite. The more melodic Rock songs work remarkably well as well, especially the fantastic Hardrocker ‘Week End’ with its strong vocal harmonies and spacious riffs.

Looking at the individual performances, it’s hard to deny that Yoshiki isn’t only X’s hero as the main songwriter, but also as an unbelievably powerful drummer. Especially when you consider the drums sound too real to be triggered and realize the consistent power held out throughout even the fastest double bass exercises. The guitars courtesy of Pata and hide are all over the record and remain deeply impressive even after repeated listens and even though greater popularity loomed later with a different bassist, Taiji is the best bassist the band has had. Sadly, both hide and Taiji are no longer with us. Toshi’s high-pitched, clean vocals are a bit less impressive, but suit the songs really well.

While X Japan would later perfect their symbiosis of Metal, Glamrock, Pop and experimentalism on the breathtaking, half-hour song ‘Art Of Life’, ‘Blue Blood’ is definitely the best album to check out if you want to hear what this band, that is immensely popular in their come country, is all about. It has all the riffs and aggression a Metal fan can wish for, just combined with a greater dose of melody than one might be used to and a fearlessly open minded approach to composition. And that alone should be enough reason for anyone to give this phenomenon a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘X’, ‘Rose Of Pain’, ‘Blue Blood’, ‘Kurenai’, ‘Week End’

My douze points for 2014

About half of the eleven Eurovision predictions I did earlier today came true. That didn’t diminish any of the joy, however. This year, there is a winner who more than deserves it, my entire country is happy because it came in second – the greatest Eurovision success in a long, long time – and Graham Norton’s commentaries on the BBC were thoroughly enjoyable. Between his sarcastic remarks, there were even some words of sincere admiration for the Dutch entry. Personally, I think the Netherlands sent a better delegation last year, but I have a weak spot for Ilse de Lange with her cute smile and sympathetic charisma.

The fact that this year’s entry from the Netherlands was less satisfying for me than last year’s is more or less in line with the level of the entire Eurovision Song Contest. There were more good songs and the vocal efforts were much, much better on average in 2013. Nevertheless, this year’s winner was nothing short of fantastic and I’ve seen some enjoyable acts. Some of them more intentionally than others, as always.

So like last year, I will share with you – my dear readers – my own top 5 of the festival. Or my six, sept, huit, dix et douze points if you will. It was slightly more difficult to gather five acts that I actually really liked this year, but they exist and these entries all deserve my honorable mentions.

Russia: Tolmachevy Sisters – ‘Shine’

Judging from the enormous amount of booing the audience emitted for the 17 year-old twin sisters representing Russia, I may be getting a lot of crap for mentioning this song, but I’m looking at this from a musical angle, not a political one. In fact, looking at this politically may give the lyrics an ironic aftertaste, but the fact is that ‘Shine’ a strongly written Pop song with bombastic strings backing a big, hooky chorus. That’s just the way I like it. The voices of the Tolmachevy Sisters work very well together and their vocal symbiosis lifts the chorus to its larger than life status, although I suspect there are some extra backing vocals on the backing track. The sister who does the higher part every alternate line does an amazing job. In the semi-finals, this was the first song to leave something of an impression on me and although a few songs surpassed them, this song definitely has some lasting value after the contest. And let’s be honest: these girls are just adorable.

Switzerland: Sebalter – ‘Hunter Of Stars’

With me being an outspoken hater of whistling in recorded songs, this may come as something of a surprise to those who know me, but Sebalter’s song was a delightful breath of fresh air in this year’s contest for me. Not the best vocal effort, but ‘Hunter Of Stars’ is a lightweight, upbeat Pop song without having the annoying electronic Europop bombast of majority of this year’s entries. Sebalter’s backing band contained a badass banjo player and the singer himself proves why he should be taken seriously as a musician by playing an awesome violin solo which could have been a guitar solo on any neoclassical Metal song. Once again, Switzerland surprises with a song that is free of pretense, but not without its musical value, just like Anna Rossinelli’s fantastic ‘In Love For A While’ three years ago, which sadly finished last at the time.

Slovenia: Tinkara Kovač – ‘Round And Round’

A lot of criticism has been projected onto Tinkara Kovač for consistently holding her flute during the performance of her song ‘Round And Round’. Being more interested in the music than the actual performances, I couldn’t care less. In fact, I think Kovač performed one of the most consistently amazing Pop songs in this year’s contest. Slovene and English mix remarkably well and Kovač strong alto fits the song perfectly. I think the song is extremely well written as it works towards several emotional climaxes with such ease that you’d almost forget that the song is relatively complex with all the subtle changes in the accompanying parts. Also, ‘Round And Round’ has been bugging the hell out of my father and me because the song’s chorus strongly reminds us of another song and we can’t figure out which one. Those of you who have suggestions are cordially invited to leave them in the comments section.

Italy: Emma – ‘La Mia Città’

One of the very few songs to be sung in the native language of the performer and the only decent Rock song – no, Finland’s horrible, horrible song doesn’t count – was delivered to us quite surprisingly by Italy. Emma Marrone has a great, powerful voice and the musical backing is somewhat typical Italian Poprock, albeit with a greater deal of force than you’d expect based on what can be heard on their mainstream radio. Emma proves herself as a strong performer and I am definitely tempted to check out one of her albums after what she did here. The dual vocal harmonies gave me goosebumps and have sort of an Alice In Chains vibe in their darkness. This is probably the most impressed I have ever been by Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest and that’s not just because Emma’s a good looking lady. She’s a Rock monster in the guise of a goddess.

Austria: Conchita Wurst – ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’

As I’ve said before: Austria’s “lady with a beard” – technically, I’d say Conchita’s a guy in a dress – is the only one who would have deserved to win the contest this year. Of course, a lot of media coverage was on the unlikely combination of the beard and the dress, but Conchita had both the best song and the best voice of this year. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ sort of reminded me of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ in its structure and orchestral backings and the vocal delivery is powerful, heartfelt and just downright impressive. The song actually nearly brought me to tears. Despite the relatively sober presentation, the camera captured Conchita’s emotional gestures perfectly, but even without that, it’s just a relief to see that the jury and audiences have decided the best man or woman should win this year. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is by far the best song of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest and Conchita Wurst owns the best voice. Congratulations!

My Eurovision predictions for tonight

The non-European viewers of this weblog may not be interested in this, but then again, I know some American people who are into the Eurovision Song Contest as well. Much to the annoyance of my mother and my Metal friends alike, I’m always looking forward to the contest. My full report will be posted tomorrow, but based on what I have seen in the semi-finals, I have made some predictions and I have some other conclusions I’d like to share with you as well.

Since the general level of the compositions and – even moreso – the vocal performances this year was thoroughly disappointing for yours truly, I think the scores of the top countries will be higher than the previous years.

Russia will receive less points than their Tolmachevy Sisters’ song rightfully deserves based on the political situation in Ukraine. They can definitely forget about their douze points – or really any for that matter – from said country for sure.

By the same logic, Ukraine will receive more points with their incredibly middle of the road Pop song ‘Tick-Tock’ than Marina Yaremchuk deserves.

Norway’s Carl Espen will end up in the top 10, because his introspective ‘Silent Storm’ will do better with the traditional Eurovision crowd than most of the bookmakers expect.

My own country of The Netherlands will end up on a higher position than last year, despite the fact that last year’s song was much better. I was impressed by the work of Belgian director Hans Pannecoucke, whose registration perfectly captured Ilse DeLange’s game winning smile on exactly the right moment.

Of the pre-qualified contestants, Italy’s Emma Marone will claim the highest position. If only because her ‘La Mia Città’ is the only good song of the six.

Austria’s Conchita Wurst will end up in the top 5. Not only based on the remarkable act, but also because he/she (I don’t know what Conchita prefers) is by far the best singer I have heard so far. The song is Eurovision gold.

Azerbaijan will continue their streak of high positions with Dilara Kazimova’s ‘Start A Fire’.

San Marino will finish last. Their place as finalist is the only “prize” Valentina Monetta will receive for her persistence, with this being her third participation.

In good Eurovision tradition, I won’t agree with the top 5.

Watching the ESC on the BBC instead of on the Dutch public network will be a good decision. Graham Norton will be much better for my blood pressure than Jan Smit and Cornald Maas.

We will see how much of this will come true in a couple of hours!

Album of the Week 18-2014: Mekong Delta – In A Mirror Darkly

Mekong Delta was always one of the most interesting Metal bands around, but no one could have predicted the second youth they have been experiencing lately. In fact, with their best singer yet on board in the form of Martin LeMar, the band surrounding mastermind Ralf Hubert recorded their best sounding album ever – both sonically and compositionally – in ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’ in 2010. And even with those high expectations, ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ does not disappoint. On the contrary; it’s as much an artistic triumph for Hubert as its predecessor was.

For those unfamiliar with Mekong Delta’s sound: to the untrained ear, their music sounds like a very progressive, maybe even technical take on Thrash Metal. Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that Hubert is strongly influenced by classical music. Not in the least place by the way the album is composed. Not unlike ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’,  ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ is a continuous piece of music with the tracks being movements within the composition. That doesn’t mean that the tracks don’t work separately, but it’s a fact that the album is best listened to in its entirity.

The musicianship on ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ is – as usual with the band – among the best you’ll ever hear in the genre. Alex Landenburg is one of the best drummers I have ever heard and Hubert’s bass creates a surprisingly strong fundament of riffs with Erik Grösch’s guitar, considering the highly unpredictable nature of the compositions. One won’t be able to grasp how exciting the musical interaction of these three men is unless you hear – for instance – the incredible instrumentals ‘Ouverture’ and ‘Inside The Outside Of The Outside’. It’s among the best instrumental Metal – or classical music recorded on modern electric instruments – ever recorded.

Once LeMar enters the picture, it’s obvious that he is another factor that lifts today’s Mekong Delta above even their classic early work. His voice is lower than all of his predecessors, but he has a range of emotions and a power that all of them lacked. For instance, a dark, atmospheric and ominous piece like ‘The Silver In God’s Eye’ wouldn’t have worked without him. But even on the faster, more aggressive material, like the amazing closing salvo of ‘Hindsight Bias’ and ‘Mutant Messiah’, his voice just sounds amazing.

In the end, the only things that makes ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ slightly less enjoyable than its predecessor are its relatively short length and the fact that ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’ had a stronger, rounded off ending. Okay, the album’s artwork has a somewhat cheap feel, but be sure to not judge this one by its cover. Like ‘Wanderer On The Edge Of Time’ before it, ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ is a masterpiece of interesting Thrash Metal and a possible contentor for the album of the year. The compositions are amazing, the production is perfect and you discover something new every spin. This is not an album for this throw-away music era and that’s exactly what makes it so good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inside The Outside Of The Outside’, ‘Hindsight Bias’, ‘The Silver In God’s Eye’