Archive for October, 2014

Album of the Week 43-2014: While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Ambition isn’t a thing that eludes Tom Phillips. From their humble beginnings as an old school Doom Metal trio, While Heaven Wept evolved into a seven-piece that – while still relatively subdued in terms of tempo – combines influences from many subgenres into a unique, majestic form of Heavy Metal. For me, as a fan of their massive epic ‘The Furthest Shore’, the announcement that ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ would be a fourty minute song (divided into eleven chapters) meant anticipation. And expectations are met; ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ is a beautiful work of art that has brought While Heaven Wept to a whole new level once again.

Labelling the music on this album isn’t an easy task. There seems to be a basis of symphonic Heavy Metal, but it definitely has a progressive edge to it. The progressive side isn’t all that surprising, as Phillips never made a secret of his admiration for Fates Warning and the album features contributions from Fates’ co-founding guitarist Victor Arduini and former drummer Mark Zonder, though the most “Metal” passages of the album are probably closer in atmosphere of the latter’s original band Warlord. Also, there are piano interludes, balladic segments and purely classical bits. Hell, ‘Icarus And I’ even features a section that has a Black Metal vibe, due to the dissonant chords and harsh vocals.

Phillips isn’t the only reason why this album is so incredible. Throughout the band’s existence, he has always profited from the strengths of his fellow musicians. Singer Rain Irving has an enviable range that is perfectly able to carry this masterpiece emotionally, Jason Lingle’s keyboards are essential to the album’s sound, Mark Shuping’s strings are tear jerking and Christopher Ladd’s work on the classical guitar is simply a revelation. The cooperation of the latter two on the breathtaking overture ‘Introspectus’ is more beautiful material than on many a contemporary album, but ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ has 35 additional minutes!

To get an idea of the sheer scope of the album, just listen how the progressive instrumental chapter ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’ moves into the epic Metal of ‘Souls In Permafrost’ through the heart wrenching piano ballad ‘The Memory Of Bleeding’. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The enormous amount of emotion could have easily carried on too far into the cheesy and the many layers of instruments could have turned into hollow bombast, but instead, the results are overwhelming. It is sort of ironic that an album that tells a tale of ambition and failure succeeds at its own ambition so well.

‘Suspended At Aphelion’ isn’t an easy album by any means, but it is well worth the time it takes to grow. There are many subtleties to grasp, but more importantly, there are many beautiful melodies and engaging rhythms to immerse yourself in all throughout the album. Or song, if you will. It will be hard for an album like this one to find its audience in the current Metal scene and its constant quest for louder, lower tuned and more extreme, but its sincerity should be enough to convince anyone with an open mind and a heart. Bonus points for the surprisingly dynamic mastering job.

Recommended tracks: ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’, ‘Souls In Permafrost’, ‘Introspectus’

Album of the Week 42-2014: Dr. John – Locked Down

For the white psychedelic Rock generation, Dr. John was the professor of New Orleans music history. His revolutionary ‘Gris-Gris’ (1968) and even moreso his record full of New Orleans traditionals ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) introduced a whole new generation of musicians not commonly associated with the town to the exuberant music and the mysterious rituals of The Crescent City. One of those – admittedly at a later time – was The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced Dr. John’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Locked Down’ and plays guitar on it. The doctor himself sounds as convincing as always on this collection of dark, shimmering grooves and nocturnal melodies.

While Auerbach’s touch is quite distinct in the pseudo lo-fi production of the album, the brilliance of the material is very much a collaborative achievement of Dr. John and his backing band. Bassist Nick Movshon and drummer Max Weissenfeldt expertly lay down the earthy, low-key Funk grooves so typical of New Orleans’ rhythmical approach, although the percussion from several band members also contributes to that, and Dr. John’s electric keyboards top the whole thing off. Normally, I would complain about the lack of his unequaled piano playing, but the atmosphere of these compositions just begs for the direction he took for the album.

Between those instruments in the spectrum that is ‘Locked Down’, we find quite a lot of different approaches throughout the album. ‘Big Shot’ is relatively jazzy, with the horns and lingering rhythms pushing the song into fifties territory. ‘Revolution’ is also horn-driven, but much more aggressively funky in its beats. ‘Ice Age’ is carried by a haunting dual guitar harmony and the almost terrifying vocals of the doctor, where the opening title track is primarily built upon Funk riffs and rhythms. ‘Eleggua’ is wordless – but not instrumental – psychedelia and the Gospel track ‘God’s Sure Good’ closes the album in a surprisingly upbeat fashion, but makes perfect sense in context.

Although the album remains consistently impressive all the way through – all of the tracks are diamonds in the rough – there is one song that caught me completely off guard and that’s the subdued dream groove of ‘My Children, My Angels’. Its leading Rhodes piano riff strongly reminds me of my favorite Led Zeppelin song ‘No Quarter’, with which the song shares its darkness, and Dr. John proves that you don’t have to be Tom Jones in order to send shivers down someone’s spine by singing. Especially the somewhat uplifting – but once again in a subdued fashion – chorus. Simply breathtaking.

‘Locked Down’ rates along ‘Gris-Gris’, ‘Gumbo’ and ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ as Dr. John’s masterpieces in a discography that is consistently amazing anyway. And with his carreer spanning over six decades (counting his early years backing other New Orleans greats), that is nothing short of an impressive achievement. Those who enjoyed the mysterious nocturnes of his debut album will most likely be captivated by this amazing record as well. And for any musician, this should be a lesson in groove.

Recommended tracks: ‘My Children, My Angels’, ‘Ice Age’, ‘Big Shot’

Album of the Week 41-2014: Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

Nevermore’s breakup – or hiatus, whatever you choose to believe – was terrible news for yours truly. Nevermore’s unique blend of crushingly heavy riffs, compositional complexity, Warrel Dane’s incredible clean vocals and a sense of melody that seems to be forbidden in contemporary Metal made them one of the best bands on the planet. Luckily, Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard also reformed Sanctuary, the band that put them on the radar in the late eighties, around the same time. With most of its original lineup intact even. ‘The Year The Sun Died’, their first recording after the reunion, is a downright fantastic record which sounds a lot like Nevermore.

Obviously, Dane’s typical voice would push anything he sings on into Nevermore territory, but Lenny Rutlege’s riffs sound surprisingly similar to those Jeff Loomis wrote for Nevermore. In all honesty though, the album’s predecessor ‘Into The Mirror Black’ – released a quarter of a century ago! – would have sounded quite a lot like this if it also had such a contemporary production with such a punchy low end. The lead work by Rutledge and the band’s only new addition, Forced Entry guitarist Brad Hull, has a distinctly more old school vibe than Loomis’ and the progressive sections have a hint of the early work of fellow Seattleites Queensrÿche, but any fan of Nevermore should get some satisfaction from this.

‘The Year The Sun Died’ seems to be a concept album about the fall of a civilization, which prove to be one of Dane’s favorite lyrical subjects through the years. The imagery fits the dark sound of the music really well. Most of the songs are built around powerful half-Thrash riffing in the intros and verses and wide chords topped off with strong vocal melodies in the choruses. The acoustic based ‘I Am Low’ and ‘One Final Day (Sworn To Believe)’ stray from that formula a little, with the latter being one of those sinister sounding semi-ballads that Sanctuary traditionally excels at.

With this being a concept album, it is best listened to in its entirity. Yet there are a few standout tracks. ‘Frozen’ has it’s killer, relatively uptempo riffs and Dane harmonizing with himself in the immense chorus, ‘Question Existence Fading’ is one of the most violent tracks on the album rhythmically (hats off to Dave Budbill’s drumming) and has another big, ominous chorus, while the title track is the doomy, pitch black closing statement that the album requires. That atmosphere is nigh impossible to reach. Just brilliant.

Fans of Nevermore can buy ‘The Year The Sun Died’ blindly and the only old school Sanctuary fans that may want to listen first are the ones who might expect another feast of falsetto mayhem and uptempo riffing akin to the band’s debut album ‘Refuge Denied’. Those who end up buying this would do wise by getting the limited edition, because of the awesome cover of ‘Waiting For The Sun’, one of the highlights of The Doors’ discography. It fits the band’s own material nicely, and not only because of its title. This is a release that will definitely end up extremely high on my end-of-year list. Why? Because it’s a god damn masterpiece, that’s why!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Year The Sun Died’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Question Existence Fading’

Album of the Week 40-2014: Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth

Fourth album ‘The Dirty Truth’ finds British Bluesrocker Joanne Shaw Taylor at an important stage of her carreer, where exclusively calling her a Blues artist is starting to sell her short. There have always been traces of Soul, seventies Rock music and less prominently Americana in her music and all of these influences are slowly starting to blend with and complement each other. But where ‘Almost Always Never’ was wildly eclectic – and incredibly good as such – ‘The Dirty Truth’ is Taylor’s most concise set of songs thus far. And the album most driven by awesome grooves.

No song better demonstrates the melting pot of influences than its title track. The song has a strong, funky Rock groove, but the subdued chicken picking riff that leads the song is something you’d generally find on a Country record. And it all flows together nicely. Personally, I’m really fond of this sort of genre mixing, but Blues based artists especially often get stuck in their specific guitar approach. Taylor clearly has a familiarity and fondness for all the genres she tackles in her songwriting as well as in her playing.

While the album has a certain flow that makes perfect sense, there’s a few standout tracks. ‘Wicked Soul’ has one of the meanest grooves as well as one of the darkest vocal melodies Taylor has ever attempted, which made it one of the most pleasant surprises upon first lesson. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is built upon a fundament of pure, unadulterated Funk, making it a track where Memphis drumming legend Steve Potts really feels like a fish in the water. ‘Outlaw Angel’ has a huge riff and opening track ‘Mud, Honey’ has some of Taylor’s most traditionally Bluesy vocal performances. Even the ballads groove, with ‘Tried, Tested & True’ and ‘Shiver & Sign’ shining brightly. The latter brings to mind the eighties power ballad, but sounds a lot less glossy and a hell of a lot more sincere due to Taylor’s rootsy approach.

Vocally, ‘The Dirty Truth’ shows an enormous progression for Taylor. It’s as if the potential that was always there in her raw and passionate howls is finally fully realized. There’s more depth than ever and a broader sprectrum of expression as well. She had a powerful delivery, which is sort of essential in Blues and Soul territories, but it seems she’s found qualities to her voice that have been undiscovered before. Fans of Beth Hart and Joss Stone should definitely give Taylor’s voice a try.

Like ‘Almost Always Never’ before it, ‘The Dirty Truth’ finds Taylor branching out from her Blues roots. And while the approach – a total blend of all the influences – is different, the results are equally satisfying. I would say the album is her best so far. It’s her greatest triumph yet in terms of songwriting and the performance of every musician leaves very little, if anything, to be desired. In fact, the only thing would be more of this. Taylor is an exceptional talent in all bases she covers and deserves to be heard by any fan of good music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wicked Soul’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘The Dirty Truth’, ‘Shiver & Sign’