Archive for June, 2014

Album of the Week 26-2014: Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun

Mastodon never ceases to surprise me. Despite the inaccessible nature of their psychedelic, progressive Sludge Metal, they’ve become one of the biggest name in the current Metal scene and – even more surprisingly – a welcome guest at many festivals. What is most amazing about them is that every album they release sounds different than its predecessor. Though ‘The Hunter’ didn’t really do anything new, it did strengthen their position as one of the more imaginitive contemporary Metal bands. ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’ does explore a new territory for the Mastodon sound; at times, it’s surprisingly melodic.

For those unfamiliar with the band: Mastodon’s fundament is made up from the violent Jazz rhythms of Brann Dailor – easily one of the best drummers in Rock music – with Troy Sanders’ tight bass playing keeping everything in line. On top of that, we have Hardcore-inspired Sludge riffs courtesy of guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher and three guys with decent voices; Hinds and Sanders primarily, but also Dailor. None of these guys has a fantastic voice, but they are suitable and since the playful rhythms, stomping riffs, spacious psychedelic passages, unpredictable structures and intricate guitar harmonies are so overwhelming, that’s hardly a complaint.

While ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’ is immediately recognizable as Mastodon due to all their trademark elements being in place, the album once again exceeds expectations due to to a higher dose of melody. The band hardly does any effort to hide that anyway; the opening salvo of ‘Tread Lightly’ and ‘The Motherload’ is surprisingly catchy by Mastodon standards. The first is a strong progressive Hard Rocker with a nice and dreamy chorus, while the latter is as a song quite possibly the most accomplished the guys have released so far; with memorable melodies and Hinds singing at his “Ozzy-est”, it’s a song you can just kick back to.

Other lighter highlights consist of the moving Progrock of ‘Asleep In The Deep’, which also contains one of the best guitar solos the band has ever recorded, the guitar harmony party that is ‘Ember City’, which has Mastodon’s most beautifully melodic chorus so far, and the surprisingly dreamy (given its title) ‘Halloween’, while fans of the more aggressive side of the band are served well by the Stoner Rock monster ‘Feast Your Eyes’, the delightfully brutal ‘Chimes At Midnight’ and the brilliantly titled dark epic ‘Diamond In The Witch House’ that closes the album. The awesome title track has a little bit of both, as does ‘High Road’. The vocal harmonies, by the way, are better than ever.

No, this isn’t better than the band’s 2009 psychedelic masterpiece ‘Crack The Skye’, but it’s about as close as it gets. No one who knows the band would have expected a part two of any of their albums and Mastodon does not disappoint: with ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’, the band once again expands their sound by exploring a different corner of their range. And that is exactly why Mastodon is one of the best bands in contemporary heavy music: they’re a band that keeps challenging itself. And that’s the only way to create such a string of albums that are so successful, both commercially and artistically.

Recommended tracks: ‘Tread Lightly’, ‘The Motherload’, ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’, ‘Feast Your Eyes’

We get it, Loudness…

Back in the mid-eighties, Loudness broke through internationally with an awesome record by the title of ‘Thunder In The East’, their first to feature English lyrics exclusively (if you don’t count the “English edition” of ‘Disillusion’). Its album cover looks like this:

Then, halfway through the first decade of this century, came an album called ‘Breaking The Taboo’. This heavy monster – though not exactly their best effort songwriting-wise – was graced by this cover:

And earlier this month saw the release of their twenty-sixth record ‘The Sun Will Rise Again’. And if you haven’t spotted the pattern yet that I’m trying to point out, let me present to you the cover of that album:

We get it, Loudness. You’re Japanese. I just wish I was there when the album cover was presented to the executives at Universal Music Japan. These guys must have crapped themselves, because I can’t think of any way how three albums with strikingly similar cover artworks are going to be easy to market in any way. Then again, I’m not a businessman, as I have proven many times throughout my life, so maybe I’m overlooking something.

‘The Sun Will Rise Again’, by the way, is the first Loudness record since 2008’s ‘Metal Mad’ that isn’t actually better than its predecessor. And mind you; this is a band consistently churning out albums on an almost yearly basis. Of course, this is master guitarist Akira Takasaki and his crew, so there’s still a handful of enjoyable songs – ‘Never Ending Fire’, ‘Mortality’ and the title track – but after the consistently improving level of songwriting as shown on the last four albums, the album comes off as sort of a letdown.

It’s not bad, it’s just a little stale and tired. The playing is tight – of course, the band consists of downright amazing musicians – and while Minoru Niihara’s voice is rapidly deteriorating – the man’s not getting any younger – you’ve got to appreciate his spirit and dedication. However, ‘The Greatest Ever Heavy Metal’, as one of the songs is called, this is not. Loudness has done so many things that are so much better to know that.

Album of the Week 25-2014: Luna Sea – Image

Nothing about reviewing Luna Sea is more difficult than describing their style. Sure, their music fits the Rock idiom, but their guitar sound is too clean to call them a Hard Rock band, the song structures are too progressive and their playing too technically demanding for Punk, Ryuichi’s vocals have an undeniable Japanese Pop flair and while the New Wave and Post Punk influences are apparent, the rhythms tend to rock a little too hard for that category as well. Whatever you choose to call this though, it is good music characterized by strong melodies and a wide range of moods and atmosphere.

What helps is that Luna Sea has three good songwriters with equal input in the band. Bassist J’s compositions are probably least alien to western ears due to his obvious fascination with the American alternative scene, while rhythm guitarist Inoran’s works often have a Balkan-like flavor due to his extensive use of accented chords on the afterbeat. Lead guitarist and violinist Sugizo has a somewhat more experimental approach, generally resulting in the more progressive songs of the quintet. These aren’t strict divisions though; ocassionally the approaches mix with great results.

More importantly, ‘Image’ is full of moments where the amazing songwriting and fantastic performances complement each other. Opening track ‘Déjàvu’, for instance, has quite a light Rock feel with breezy melodies, but they still get their power from the rhythm section, particlarly Shinya’s solid drumming. Not many bands succeed in marrying the melodic sensibilities of Pop with the brute force of Rock, but Luna Sea does just that seemingly effortlessly all throughout the album.

Highlighting the album is probably its fantastic title track. With the ideal merger of Inoran’s acoustic and Sugizo’s electric guitars, the fantastic bass parts courtesy of J and Ryuichi’s vocals mainly staying in their lower, soothing register, this song has something of a Japanese Billy Idol-vibe, although Idol’s rebellious vibe is traded for dreamy melancholy. It’s hard not to get carried away. Another masterpiece is the progressive ‘Search For Reason’, where heavier sections lead by an oddly timed Black Sabbath-ish riff alternate with calmer, haunting passages. Once again: brilliantly written, expertly executed. There’s a little something for everyone here though; ‘Moon’ is for the dreamers, ‘Symptom’ for the violent and ‘Wish’ for those who need to be cheered up.

All this, combined with its fantastic production, makes ‘Image’ a must for everyone who likes good Rock music. Also, with Luna Sea being a household name of Japan’s famed Visual Kei scene – though they later prove to take the musical side of it more seriously by ditching most of their visual attire – all of the artwork looks nothing short of fantastic. It’s the last piece to make this perfect as a total product. Luna Sea’s music may sound bit strange upon first listen, because it’s hard to categorize, but once it makes sense, mastepieces like ‘Image’ and 1994’s ‘Mother’ are likely to return to your music player on a regular basis.

Recommended tracks: ‘Image’, ‘Search For Reason’, ‘Déjàvu’, ‘Mechanical Dance’

A Song For A Day: ‘Hoy Gano Yo’

While I don’t give a rat’s ass about soccer, I won’t let this opportunity pass me by. Today in the 2014 World Championship, the match between Spain and Chile will take place. Obviously, that’s not the match that will keep my entire country busy – Holland plays Australia as well – but once again: I really don’t care. Since Spain got beaten 5-1 in their last game and might need something to boost their spirits, I’m offering them something from one of their own bands. Then again, it might also boost their opponents’ spirits, since Chileans speak Spanish as well.

‘Today I Win’. That’s what ‘Hoy Gano Yo’ translates to. And though it is possible that the game will end in a tie, there’s a bigger chance that one of the teams will be able to utter those words. Statistically at least. And while the lyrics of the song have absolutely nothing to do with sports in any way, it is a tale of personal triumph and believing in who you are.

Víctor García may have experienced said personal triumph through this song as well. He, along drummer Alberto Ardines, was kicked out of Avalanch – one of Spain’s most popular Heavy Metal bands at the time – because they were working on material on the side. Their project, which they named WarCry, became a fulltime band and while the true masterpieces were still a long way ahead of them (2011’s ‘Alfa’ and 2004’s unbelievable ‘Alea Jacta Est’, the self-titled debut was a relatively simple and one-dimensional affair), WarCry became vastly superior to Avalanch and comparable in terms of popularity. The triumph was García’s.

Lyrically, ‘Hoy Gano Yo’ deals with Heavy Metal, plain and simple. About how it’s consistently ignored by mainstream media – though I personally still think that’s a good thing – and how its fans are ridiculed and ostracized. García pleads for unity amongst Heavy Metal audiences, speaking of the victorious feeling of a concert. It’s a common theme in the genre, but it’s effective. ‘Hoy Gano Yo’ was on WarCry’s first album, but it still closes virtually every live set of the band and as you can see on the video, it drives the audiences crazy.

If you like what you see, please consider buying WarCry’s fantastic ‘Omega’ DVD. It’s worth your time and money.

Album of the Week 24-2014: Falconer – Black Moon Rising

After its direct predecessor ‘Armod’, the first album for Swedish Power Metal band Falconer that was fully in their native tongue, being a relatively Folky affair, ‘Black Moon Rising’ can almost be seen as a reaction to that record.  This eighth full length is easily the most guitar riff driven and allround Metal effort that Falconer released since their amazing self-titled debut. And though the relatively little amount of Folk Metal may disappoint fans of that particular side of the quintet, ‘Black Moon Rising’ is arguably the best Falconer album since the debut. Possibly, it’s even better.

Essentially, all the elements that made Falconer’s best moments just that are firmly in place on ‘Black Moon Rising’. Guitarist Stefan Weinerhall’s compositions are once again highly melodic, marrying the intensity of uptempo Power Metal with the melodies of Scandinavian Folk music, but without sinking into drinking horn wielding Folk Metal territories. Then there’s the fantastic vocal force of Mathias Blad. He’s been compared to Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson quite frequently and although his range is similar to Anderson’s – meaning much lower than the Power Metal standard – Blad has a significantly more powerful timbre. Or simpler: he’s a better singer, which is fairly obvious, considering his day job as a musical actor.

What is new this time around are the influences from the extreme Metal field. Maybe unsurprisingly, given Weinderhall’s past in more extreme Metal bands. It’s not like ‘Black Moon Rising’ is full of them, but especially the blastbeats in the middle section of the amazing opening track ‘Locust Swarm’, the very last section of closing track ‘The Priory’ and the intro of the awesome ‘Wasteland’ as well as the dissonant semi-Black Metal riff on the latter provide a fresh take on Falconer’s core sound. It helps that they have a drummer fully capable of these things in Karsten Larsson.

But also on more familiar ground does Falconer convince here. ‘Scoundrel And The Squire’ is much more convincing than the similarly Folky detour ‘A Quest For The Crown’ on the debut, ‘Dawning Of A Sombre Age’ has an almost Hard Rock-like flair, ‘At The Jester’s Ball’ is catchy and has a strong, melodic chorus and ‘There’s A Crow On The Barrow’ and ‘Age Of Runes’ are epic Power Metal masterpieces that any fan of the genre should hear. The blend of aggressive riffing courtesy of Weinerhall and Blad’s amazing voice works really well. In addition, Jimmy Hedlund provides some of the band’s best guitar solos to date.

Since the release of ‘Falconer’, this album is what yours truly has been waiting for. Those of you who got into the band at that time would probably agree. While every album since Blad’s return was good, this is the first time Falconer reaches the unique heights that made their debut the impressive work of art that it is. ‘Black Moon Rising’ is without any doubt the best Power Metal album of the year so far, but fans of Folk Metal who aren’t just in it for the drinking should give Falconer a chance as well. This one is for the Metalheads though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wasteland’, ‘Locust Swarm’, ‘Age Of Runes’, ‘There’s A Crow On The Barrow’

Album of the Week 23-2014: Blue Öyster Cult – Secret Treaties

At the beginning of their carreer, most notably around the time of their first three “black and white” releases, Blue Öyster Cult was often hailed the American Black Sabbath. Personally, I have always viewed this comparison as somewhat unfair. It’s also the direct cause that Blue Öyster Cult has always been mislabelled a Metal band. While both bands had a significantly darker sound than what was usual at the time, Blue Öyster Cult’s was still somewhat rooted in the psychedelic tendencies of the half decade before them, while their riffs had an unmistakable Boogie flair to them. Nowhere have both sides been better represented than on this third record – their masterpiece.

The band’s actual sound is somewhat closer to the Space Rock on UFO’s first albums, albeit much better due to the ever present intelligence in the songwriting department. To state it simply: Blue Öyster Cult was different. And while their first two albums contained a couple of fantastic songs, ‘Secret Treaties’ is where the band really gets things right. Especially the way the guitars and keyboards cooperate to create an eerie sound was unheard of at the time. Also, the guitar work by Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser and Allen Lanier is nothing short of stellar.

In good Blue Öyster Cult tradition, the A-side of the album is the more accessible one, while the B-side is a bit more experimental. However, this time, the characteristics of both sides blend more than usual. ‘Subhuman’ on side one is a dark and brooding masterpiece with a haunting melody and subdued nature, while ‘Cagey Cretins’ and ‘Harvester Of Eyes’ on the other side have the boogie swing that many of the simpler songs of the band have. Both approaches work really well; although yours truly has a slight preference for the more mysterious aspect of the band, ‘Dominance And Submission’ and ‘ME 262’ are awesome Rockers.

Closing the album are arguably the best two songs that the band has ever recorded; ‘Flaming Telepaths’ has a wonderfully atmospheric intro, but doesn’t completely drift off into psychedelic territories due to its tight structure and amazing chorus. The amazing guitar solos are the icing on the cake. And just when you think it couldn’t get better, ‘Astronomy’ follows immediately. Anyone familiar with Blue Öyster Cult beyond the obvious ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ will probably be familiar with the track, which is basically the band’s ‘Free Bird’, working its way through multiple climaxes, some of them tranquil and haunting, others intense and riff driven. Just brilliant.

Sadly, Blue Öyster Cult would fall into some sort of a musical identity crisis shortly after the release of ‘Secret Treaties’. They are still a force to be reckoned with in the live environment, but the unpretentious brilliance of the “black and white” albums was never reached again. It’s Space Rock for those who still wish to keep both feet on the ground, Hard Rock for the schooled headbanger, but without moving too far into the Prog realm. With an awesome seventies production to boot. If that’s your thing, ‘Secret Treaties’ is a must.

Recommended tracks: ‘Astronomy’, ‘Flaming Telepaths’, ‘Subhuman’

Album of the Week 22-2014: Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

Explaining why ‘Physical Graffiti’ is my favorite out of all the amazing albums that Led Zeppelin recorded is quite easy. First of all, there’s the quantitative argument: it’s a double album, so there’s twice as much Zeppelin to enjoy. But even when you look at the quality of the material, it’s hard to love any Led Zeppelin album more than this one, though I can certainly see where the people who prefer ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ come from. On these two records, Zeppelin cultivates the wild experimentalism of ‘Houses Of The Holy’ without abandoning their heavy Blues roots.

Of course, everyone who knows their Rock music is familiar with the orchestral eastern mysticism of the downright amazing ‘Kashmir’, if only because it is quite likely the most imitated song in music history. The monolithic Blues of the 11-minute ‘In My Time Of Dying’ and the metallic Funk of ‘Trampled Under Foot’ quickly found their way into the regular live set of the British quartet, but there is so much more to enjoy here. Though the recording history of the album – where the band recorded more than an album’s worth of material and decided to include songs from earlier sessions – may suggest an odds and sods record, the consistency of the material is unbelievable.

While the first disc contains the most familiar material, taking a dive into the second one will prove just as rewarding. It’s where the obscure classics are hiding. For instance, not many people know ‘The Wanton Song’, but the contrast between Jimmy Page’s root note-octave riff, the awesome solo section and the melodic Leslie speaker driven riffs makes it irresistable. The epic ‘In The Light’, which is lead alternately by John Paul Jones’ synthesizer and Page’s enormous riff, brings together the best sections The Doors and Black Sabbath never dared to record and the beautifully complex ‘Ten Years Gone’ captures romanticism and melancholy in a way unheard of at the time.

Like many of the greatest bands in music history, Led Zeppelin was bigger than the sum of its parts. The thing is that even the sum of Zep’s members was already bigger than any other band at the time. The incomparable Robert Plant has the unique talent to conjure up more emotions than the words of the songs are stating and John Bonham’s only contender to the drumming throne at the time was Deep Purple’s Ian Paice. His power and performance in ‘Kashmir’ have yet to be matched. Page may have been a tad sloppy, but that gave his music its life. His ideas speak for themselves. Jones’ compositions on the album prove that he is the secret weapon to the group’s depth.

Though each and every one of the band’s first seven albums is as close to perfection as music can possibly get, ‘Physical Graffiti’ to me is just that little bit extra. It’s true that part of that is the album’s length, but that wouldn’t make much sense if the actual material didn’t back up the duration of the record. What Led Zeppelin gives the listener here is almost an hour and a half of the best material they could capture on vinyl a the time and every last minute of it is incredible. This is one of those albums that needs to be heard to be believed.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kashmir’, ‘Ten Years Gone’, ‘The Wanton Song’, ‘In My Time Of Dying’