Archive for July, 2014

Album of the Week 30-2014: OverKill – White Devil Armory

Though OverKill has never released an album that was less than decent, it’s when they hit full-speed that they sound best. And for their last three albums, the average tempo has been higher than in the preceding decade, possibly aided by the joining of drummer extraordinaire Ron Lipnicki. That includes their brand new ‘White Devil Armory’, which fits the direction set out on ‘Ironbound’ and ‘The Electric Age’, although with a better production and more concise songwriting than the latter. If you, like myself, are a devoted fan of the New Jersey Thrash quintet, there’s simply a lot to enjoy here.

Regardless of what you think of the band, it’s admirable that they haven’t sacrificed any of their aggression and intensity over the three decades since their debut. In fact, in the shape of the violent, Hardcore-infused monster ‘Pig’ and the more traditionally aggressive warp speed Thrasher ‘Where There’s Smoke…’, ‘White Devil Armory’ contains two of the most brutal tracks in the history of the band. It helps that Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s high, raspy voice still hasn’t lost anything of its power, but the quality of bassist DD Verni’s compositions does quite a lot as well. As does the overwhelming nature of the riffing.

Of course, the Black Sabbath-isms that have characterized OverKill’s music since the early nineties are still heard throughout the album, most evidently when many songs suddenly shift atmosphere halfway through and in the slower stomper that is ‘Bitter Pill’, easily one of the best groove-laden tracks the band has done in a long time. But OverKill seems to have stretched out a little within the confines of their brand of Thrash Metal this time. The brilliant ‘Freedom Rings’, for instance, brings to mind Heathen due to its epic and slightly progressive nature and there seem to be some nods to traditional Heavy Metal in the guitar department, especially when you hear Dave Linsk’s triumphant melodic leads in the chorus to ‘Down To The Bone’, the pre-chorus to ‘Another Day To Die’ and the lead melody in the aformentioned ‘Bitter Pill’, which is reminiscent of Megadeth’s ‘The Scorpion’.

Highlighting the album, however, is the unadulterated genius that is the closing track ‘In The Name’. The song is undeniably OverKill, yet it sounds like nothing the band has ever done before. Its beginnings sound familiar despite the somewhat atypical triplet feel, but when the song hits its middle section, you’ll realize that it’s breathtaking. Images of Iron Maiden in their best days pop up due to the dramatic guitar melodies and Lipnicki shows himself as the world class drummer he is. It concludes in one of Ellsworth’s most dramatic vocal deliveries to date before moving into a section that sounds like a sinister marching song. Simply brilliant. Easily their best album closer since ‘I Rise’ or possibly even ‘Gasoline Dream’.

Each of the album’s fifty minutes is worth the effort though. The songs are great, the album sounds much better than ‘The Electric Age’ because of its more natural drum sound and the limited edition comes with two unusual, but extremely enjoyable tracks. The album left my blood on fire and that doesn’t happen too often anymore. Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth and his men have delivered another fine record of Thrash Metal with New Jersey’s Punky street attitude that anyone who enjoyed ‘Ironbound’ should acquire immediately.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Name’, ‘Pig’, ‘Where There’s Smoke…’

Album of the Week 29-2014: Judas Priest – Redeemer Of Souls

There are so many reasons why this new Judas Priest album shouldn’t work. Guitarist KK Downing retired, not willing to await how much longer the band’s farewell tours were going to take. The band members’ age is starting to take its toll, especially on Rob Halford, whose voice has been deteriorating rapidly over the last few years. The last few albums have shown a band desperately trying to be itself and mutilating itself with pointless bombast. And yet, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ works. It is in fact their most spontaneous and traditional sounding album the band has done in a long, long time.

Stylistically, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ harkens back to how the band sounded around 1980. The era of ‘Killing Machine’ to ‘Point Of Entry’, meaning very riff-driven, mainly midtempo material. Those of you who exclusively are fans of the ‘Painkiller’ sound will probably be disappointed, but with more than half of Europe’s Power Metal bands trying to sound like that, it’s kind of refreshing that Priest itself reconnects with its even earlier tradition. And while the album could have been trimmed a little somewhere in the middle, most of the songs are really good and the album as a whole is a hell of a lot more consistent than anything that came after ‘Painkiller’.

Familiarity is always lurking throughout the album. However, with a band with a carreer as lengthy – and an audience as conservative – as Judas Priest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The triplet riffing in the extremely enjoyable title track is strongly reminiscent of the awesome ‘Hell Patrol’, the structure of ‘Hell & Back’ brings to mind ‘Blood Red Skies’ and ‘March Of The Damned’ has a hint of ‘United’ in it, despite being a vastly superior song. In fact, the only song that has anything vaguely fresh in it is ‘Crossfire’, which in its dark Bluesy approach seems to be a tribute to Black Sabbath’s very earliest work.

Highlighting the album is the amazing ‘Down In Flames’. Priest has done these brooding, midtempo stompers before, but hardly ever have they sounded as powerful as this one. The way the song is structured lends a very exciting atmosphere to the song that would fit perfectly in a movie scene where the hero prepares for his final battle. Other highlights include the bombastic epic Doom Metal of ‘Secrets Of The Dead’, the old school Heavy Metal romp ‘Halls Of Valhalla’, which shares its delightfully epic feel with ‘Battle Cry’. The unmistakingly eighties Hard Rock of ‘Cold Blooded’ raised my eyebrows upon first listen, but quickly became one of my favorites as well.

What is most surprising about the album though, is that Rob Halford seems to be aware of his strengths and weaknesses much better than before. ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ focuses on the stronger part of his current voice (his lower baritone) almost exclusively. His raw, growling edge does the rest of the trick. Also, Richie Faulkner deserves nothing but praise for his performance on the album. Replacing someone who was in the band for over four decades may not have been easy, but his past with Deeds has proven his proficiency with both the guitar and traditional Heavy Metal and he definitely gives the performance of a lifetime here.

Is there nothing to complain about then? Well, of course there is. As said before: the album is much too long. Especially when you also have the limited edition with bonus disc. While fans should undoubtedly buy that version, because it contains a few good songs – the melodic Power Metal of ‘Tears Of Blood’ especially – the wonder remains why they didn’t cut some of the weaker songs and replaced them with the better ones on the bonus disc. Another major complaint is the guitar sound. It’s absolutely horrible. It’s over-processed, ultimately making the guitars sound thin and tinny. Also, I don’t get why they wouldn’t put one of the greatest drummers in the world – to which Scott Travis absolutely belongs – more on the foreground.

Altogether, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ is much better than I expected Judas Priest to deliver in this stage of their carreer. Generally, fans of the band are bound to enjoy this. Only the Speed Metal freaks and those expecting another ‘Sad Wings Of Destiny’ or ‘Stained Class’ may want to take a listen before they buy the album first. I for one can think of many Priest albums considered “classics” that I prefer this one to. ‘British Steel’ for one. If that’s the Priest you liked, you cannot go wrong here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Down In Flames’, ‘Redeemer Of Souls’, ‘Cold Blooded’, ‘Tears Of Blood’

Album of the Week 28-2014: Jupiter – Classical Element

Versailles was one of the most Metal – and arguably one of the best – bands of the latter day Visual Kei movement, but they lost most of their edge after the ‘Jubilee’ album. When the band split last year, singer Kamijo moved on to a solo carreer, while the rest of the band formed Jupiter with new singer Zin. The resulting debut album is already one to be pround of. Not only is it even better than all the material that Versailles ever released, ‘Classical Element’ is one of the very best Power Metal albums released in the 21st century.

Essentially, Jupiter is a continuation of Versailles’ sound – or at least the contributions that guitarists Hizaki and Teru did to Versailles’ compositions – albeit a bit less theatrical and therefore more guitar oriented. The songwriting is also more concise than on the average Versailles album. As the album title suggests, the neoclassical Power Metal sound is still intact, but ‘Classical Element’ is above all a guitar album, lending the album its powerful edge. Also, while facilitating somewhat similar melodies, Zin has a much clearer timbre than Kamijo, which I find much more pleasant to listen to.

Remarkably enough, Zin’s compositional contributions fit the band perfectly. His own composition ‘Heaven’s Atlas’ is fairly standard, but enjoyable Power Metal and ‘Rhythmos’, which he co-wrote with Hizaki, is a unique progressive Metal song and as such one of the highlights of the album. Other highlights include the classic Power Metal euphoria of ‘Scarlet’, the perfect combination of melodic sensibilities and aggressive riffing that is ‘Decadence’ and the somewhat more neoclassical masterpiece ‘Atmosphere’.

On many Visual Kei-related albums, the ballads have the tendency to severely disrupt the flow of the record. Surprisingly, one of the two ballads here is actually quite good. ‘Nostalgie’ maybe has somewhat of a more progressive build-up than the average ballad of the movement, but that is exactly what makes it above average. The title track shows Jupiter succeeding where Rhapsody usually fails; the 12 minute epic is full of surprising twists and remains engaging all throughout its length. ‘Allegory Cave’ sees Zin equipping a somewhat unnecessary, but proficient death grunt and features some of the most delightfully aggressive riffing on the album.

When focusing on individual performances, we can’t leave drummer Yuki unmentioned. The man is easily one of the most versatile and technically competent drummers in the contemporary Power Metal scene. And while Japan is full of fantastic musicians, Yuki is my favorite Japanese drummer due to his creative approach to his parts. With a guitar record such as ‘Classical Element’, a downright amazing guitar duo like Teru and Hizaki is mandatory. Both are extremely tight in the riff department and virtuosic in their leads, without sacrificing any catchiness in the melodic field. An impressive and much too rare achievement.

Earlier this year, Jupiter released the ‘Last Moment’ EP, which already hinted that the band – especially Zin – would be moving in even more impressive territory and I for one can’t wait to hear what the future will hold for these guys. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been this impressed by a symphonic Power Metal record. It’s not hard to hear why; Jupiter is one of the few bands that has both technical mastery and concise, catchy songwriting in high regard. And they succeed in both. Every Power Metal fan should hear and love this album. If only because that may bring them to Europe more often.

Recommended tracks: ‘Scarlet’, ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Decadence’, ‘Rhythmos’

Album of the Week 27-2014: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

For many years, ‘Innervisions’ has steadily been in my top 3 albums of all time and I can’t imagine that changing any time soon. Stevie Wonder was on a roll in the seventies, releasing a string of classic albums, but even by these standards, ‘Innervisions’ is a sublime work of art. As a collection of songs, nobody has yet come even close to the variation, memorability and melodic strength of the album, but the album also succeeds in the way its message is apparent without taking the music hostage. And production-wise, it’s still unrivaled as well; with Wonder playing most of the instruments himself, this is the ultimate proof that extensive overdubbing doesn’t necessarily have sterile, lifeless results.

When playing the album, it’s immediately striking how fresh and alive this album still sounds more than four decades after its original release. Every instrument sounds like it’s right there in the room with you. But more importantly: the songs have survived the test of time with incredible ease. The album is distinctly a work of the glorious seventies, but the melodies and lyrics are timeless and in a way ahead of their time. This is one of those rare instances where every song is a winner.

Let’s look at Wonder’s complete solo ventures on this record first; side two opens with the immensely popular – and rightfully so – Funk stomper ‘Higher Ground’, followed immediately by a lesser known moment of Funk genius called ‘Jesus Children Of America’. All the instruments and vocals (including the somewhat Gospel-tinged backing vocals on the latter) on these songs are done by Wonder himself. And yet both of them have a swing that suggests a band playing. The same goes for ‘Living For The City’, a tale of a young, hopeful African American man from the countryside vainly trying to find luck in New York City, which is arguably Wonder’s magnum opus. This album version crushes the single version because of the narrative in the middle and Wonder’s most aggressive vocal take ever in the last verse.

But even on the other tracks, the help is usually limited. ‘All In Love Is Fair’ is far and away the best piano ballad ever with only the bass not being played by Wonder. The beautifully dreamy ‘Visions’ comes closest to musical interaction, with Dean Parks’ acoustic guitar lending a Latin flavor and David T. Walker’s electric guitar giving sort of a psychedelic Rock edge to a deeply spiritual song. Other notable moments include the expertly written Pop brilliance of ‘Golden Lady’ and the unlikely, but ultimate successful Rumba and Soul fusion of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’.

It sounds like a cliché, but to truly grasp the genius of ‘Innervisions’, you need to hear the album. It’s the pinnacle of an era when Stevie Wonder’s music was still deeply rooted in the Soul history of his record label Motown, but he was starting to branch out. That’s exactly why you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of Soul music to be able to appreciate this progressive work of art that’s still as relevant today as it was when the day came out. When doing interviews for Interface, I often use this album’s production as an illustration of perfection. But really, one could say the same about the songwriting. A music fan without this album has an incomplete collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘All In Love Is Fair’, ‘Visions’, ‘Living For The City’, ‘Higher Ground’

Six seasons and a movie!

“All stories are about death and resurrection.” These wise words from Abed Nadir in the season 2 episode ‘Messianic Myths And Ancient Peoples’ have become all too true for all of ‘Community’ itself. As have the words “six seasons and a movie”. About two months ago, NBC announced the cancellation of ‘Community’. Unsurprisingly to many, because the series seemed to be on the brink of extinction throughout its existence. Why is beyond me, because it is still the most intelligent and just simply funny show on television. Ever.

Which is why the news that reached us at the beginning of the week was the best news I’ve heard in a long time. Yahoo! announced that it would be streaming the 13 episodes of season 6 on Yahoo! Screen. Honesty forces me to say that I’m not familiar with the medium, but any medium giving ‘Community’ room to air – even NBC, with its dubious position when it comes to their greatest comedies – is a good one in my book. Sony Pictures deserves a lot of credit for not giving up on the show either. Both media probably know that they should give Dan Harmon and his crew room to be as creative or crazy as they like. It’s what got the show its hardcore fans, such as yours truly.

Harmon promised us around the time the cancellation was announced that a sixth season would also mean the movie from the earlier quote would be made. That has also piqued by interest. Especially because season 5, despite being hilarious and warmly true to the show’s premise, prove that the series may have outgrown the TV format. The enormous escapades as seen in ‘Geothermal Escapism’ and the heartwarming – as I’m a fan of the literary genre – dystopia tribute ‘App Development And Condiments’ were almost limited by the 22 minute restriction. It would be interesting to see how a 90+ minute feature film would turn out if Harmon could get someone like Justin Lin, who directed the first paintball episode ‘Modern Warfare’, to direct it.

The main cast of Joel McHale (as Jeff Winger), Danny Pudi (as Abed Nadir, TV’s most brilliant character ever, thanks in part to Pudy’s incredible portrayal), Yvette Nicole Brown (as Shirley Bennett, who has been somewhat underused lately) and the gorgeous Alison Brie (as Annie Edison) and Gillian Jacobs (as Britta Perry)  has already been confirmed to be on board for season 6. If I interpret the credits correctly, that means Jim Rash (as Dean Craig Pelton) and Ken Jeong (as Benjamin Chang) will also be a part of season 6. This is a good thing, because these people have proven they are funny, but also able to carry the gravitas to deliver acting-wise. I also hope Jonathan Banks will be able to reprise his role as criminology teacher Buzz Hickey, as he was a fantastic addition to the show. An extension of Jon Oliver’s return as psychology professor would be pleasant as well.

More hopes and wishes I will not have. Because if history has proven us one thing, it’s that anything that Dan Harmon and his crew come up with is good. The vast majority of it is even pure comedic genius. Through this way, I just want to thank everyone involved for the sixth season that this show deserves. Despite breaking all the rules of TV logic. Or maybe even because of that.

Steve Hackett and much more in Gitarist

About a month and a half ago, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and myself had a very interesting conversation about his recent ‘Genesis Revisited’ projects, his never ending search for sonic innovation and his technical and melodic development through the years. The resulting article has now been published in Gitarist and also includes a portrait I took of Hackett. Hackett is one of my absolute favorite guitarists because of his unmatched sense of melody and the interview was one of my best yet, because of his intelligence and British humor. This issue of Gitarist should be in stores today, so be sure to check it out.

Other articles from my hand include an interview with My Baby, a Dutch trio that combines Delta Blues riffs with soulful vocals, dark grooves and a hypnotic atmosphere reminiscent of the Voodoo music of the southern states of the US, and a studio report with the Dutch psychedelic Rock sensation DeWolff – also a trio coincidentally. DeWolff recently recorded their impressive fifth release ‘Grand Southern Electric’ with producer Mark Neill, whose work with The Black Keys on ‘Brothers’ was awarded with a Grammy Award. Mark Neill and I also had a nice conversation about these recordings, which is published in Interface, also in stores today!