Archive for May, 2015

Album of the Week 22-2015: Forbidden – Forbidden Evil

As much as I love Thrash Metal, the market was saturated in the late eighties. Almost every band sounded like the last one and the scene was too conservative – and still is, in many ways – for “something else”. Yet, something else is what Forbidden was. Sure, all the intensity and aggression of the Bay Area Thrash Metal scene are present in the riffing, but there’s also a distinct classic Heavy Metal vibe going on here. That, the lead guitar insanity and the more interesting nature of the riff work makes ‘Forbidden Evil’ almost a fired up version of Judas Priest.

For what it’s worth, I consider ‘Forbidden Evil’ one of the 10 best Thrash Metal albums ever. Sure, there are a few filler tracks, but even those are quite enjoyable. Fact is that there are five classic tracks of the genre on the record, executed expertly by a bunch of hungry young musicians. The lead guitar duo of Glen Alvelais and Craig Locicero is the best in Thrash Metal history, with Alvelais being a serious rival for Alex Skolnick as ultimate Thrash lead guitarist. Paul Bostaph’s later recruitment by Slayer says enough about his drumming and Russ Anderson is above average as a singer in a genre that’s quite difficult to come up with good vocal lines for.

‘Chalice Of Blood’ opens the album the way it should be opened. It’s fast, it’s heavy and it’s got a chorus to yell along to loudly. “Welcome to the church of lies” may sound like a genre cliché, but it’s ultimately satisfying to the congregation. ‘March Into Fire’, which opens the B-side of the record, is probably even more maniacal in its riff work due to the higher tempo. The band wasn’t without its depth though; ‘Follow Me’ is an epic Heavy Metal track with a lot of light-and-shade workings in the songwriting department. Strong structure too.

Two songs truly stand out though. There’s ‘Through Eyes Of Glass’, which is the finest example of the classic Metal sound of the band due to Anderson’s more melodic vocal delivery, the strong epic riffing and the guitar solos… Oh god, those guitar solos! Alvelais lays down a few mind blowing themes and gives all the competition a run for their money with all the warp-speed notes in between. And then there’s the title track. A masterpiece of dark Thrash Metal. The riffs have a degree of imminent danger to them and the solo trade-off has to be heard to be believed.

Like many Thrash Metal bands, Forbidden faded into obscurity as the nineties reared their ugly heads, though ‘Twisted Into Form’ and ‘Green’ are still quite decent records. Still, not many bands get to record even one album of this impressive nature. Even in times of less dabbling in the genre, this album doesn’t cease to get my blood boiling and my head banging. It’s all a testament (no pun intended) to Forbidden’s songwriting and musicianship, both of which were far above what was the standard in the late eighties. Awesome stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘Forbidden Evil’, ‘Through Eyes Of Glass’, ‘Follow Me’

Album of the Week 21-2015: Leprous – The Congregation

Bizarre and unique. Those are the only two adjectives that describe Leprous adequately. Sure, it’s progressive Metal, but it’s nothing like the Dream Theater clones that saturate the genre. The Norwegians abandon chugging over constantly changing meters and bouncing a million riffs around in favor of an approach that is high on both atmosphere and melody. Their brand new ‘The Congregation’ is considerably darker than their breakthrough album ‘Bilateral’ was and even darker than ‘Coal’ (no pun intended), but man, this album is an intense and haunting experience. And once again, there’s no one else doing anything that sounds even remotely like this.

In the four years since ‘Bilateral’ was released, the band has learned a lesson or two about space. As much as I loved the more hyperactive sound on ‘Bilateral’, it’s admirable how the band leaves room for the songs to gradually work towards their climaxes and that sometimes means repeating sections a number of times without boring the hell out of the listener. An impressive accomplishment in itself. Singer and keyboard player Einar Solberg is an important factor in this. He has a powerful, dramatic voice, but can also descend into theatrical madness when the music calls for it.

Riff-wise, ‘The Congregation’ is a strong album without ever being flashy. Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk leave their mark with oddly timed notes and twisted, jazzy chords. In the occasional ambient-like segment – without the aimless meandering of the genre – their delay effects work miracles. Solberg’s synths push some passages into Electro territory (the first half of ‘Slave’, parts of opening track ‘The Price’, the opening movement of ‘The Flood’) and the majority of the rhythms of new drummer Baard Kolstad is so relaxed, that we’re almost dealing with really dark progressive Rock here, had it not been for the distorted guitars.

Highlights are sort of hard to define, because each of the songs has a face of its own and quality is all around. ‘Rewind’ stands out due to its highly unpredictable structure and the killer bass line by session man Simen Børven, ‘Down’ has an instantly recognizable chorus and is therefore closest to an accessible single and ‘The Flood’ is simply absorbing due to Solberg’s synth work and beautiful vocals. ‘Slave’ combines an almost Arena Rock feel with pitch black darkness and an Enslaved-ish climax and ‘Triumphant’ combines my favorite guitar work on the record with almost tribal drumming. In the end, these are just mere descriptions of an album that should be heard in its entirity.

After the slightly disappointing ‘Coal’, ‘The Congregation’ is another artistic triumph for Leprous. One of the very few actually progressive albums in the genre. The album sounds unlike anything I have ever heard, including previous work by the Norwegians themselves. ‘Bilateral’ is – despite its greater level of complexity – a better choice to start getting acquainted with the band and while I slightly prefer it to this one, this is a masterpiece. An exercise in how layered music should be made. Yes, it’s bizarre, but it’s also listenable, because the songwriting is the only show-off point for Leprous.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slave’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Triumphant’

My douze points for 2015

So there we have it. Sweden’s song ‘Heroes’ won the Eurovision Song Contest 2015, not because it’s such a good song – the first verse sounds promising, but the chorus butchers it – not because it’s sung so well – it’s not – but because it’s been directed as a music video. It’s not often that I get to quote my sister, but she’s right: five years from now, everybody might remember the drawn figures, but I already can’t recall what the song sounds like. It makes me think of Eddie Vedder’s reluctance to do videos, because he wants people to remember the songs instead of the visuals. Israel’s entry is stuck in my mind though.

It’s funny to see that none of my predictions came entirely true. Okay, the first one was statistically likely rather than musically, but I still figured Norway would win. The song had a good climax, it just took too long before it arrived there. However, it’s likely that I judge the songs differently than the majority of the audience does, as my following list of favorites – my sept to douze points, if you will – will show you. Out of these titles, only the first one came close to the number of points it deserved.

Before I move on to my honorable mentions for this year – four instead of five this time – there’s two more things I’d like to say. First of all: thank you Eurovision, for appointing Mirjam Weichselbraun (the blonde one) as one of the moderators. Something about her eyes continued to hypnotize me. Secondly, and this one is aimed at my fellow Dutchmen: couldn’t we, at some point in the discussion about Trijntje Oosterhuis’ dress, have addressed the fact that the song was so shitty? Seriously, how do you get so much repetition into three minutes?

Without further ado: Good evening Vienna, Heerhugowaard calling. Here are the results from the alternative Dutch jury.

Estonia: Elina Born & Stig Rästa – Goodbye To Yesterday

Okay, so maybe Stig Rästa – who wrote the song – shouldn’t have sung it himself, but ‘Goodbye To Yesterday’ is a good song and 20 year old Elina Born has both the voice and the emotional gravitas to carry a song like this one. Especially here, because she was notably less nervous than during the semi-finals on Tuesday. Despite the higher tempo, the song reminded me of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s brilliant ‘Summer Wine’ – I have a weak spot for their beautifully bitter duets – with a a little bit of old James Bond soundtracks thrown in for good measure. It’s got a nice driving rhythm and while the harmonies would have worked better with a better male singer, it’s a passionate and honest entry to this year’s Eurovision. Also, that has to be one of the most perfectly falling tears in television history.

Greece: Maria Elena Kyriakou – One Last Breath

For the second time in three years, Greece surprises me very pleasantly with their Eurovision entry. But where ‘Alcohol Is Free’ was just plain fun two years ago, ‘One Last Breath’ is a classic Eurovision power ballad that I don’t only think deserved to earn much more votes, I actually also more or less expected it to. Maria Elena Kyriakou has an amazing set of pipes and while there are some  parallels to be drawn to Celine Dion, she doesn’t have the irritating “breathy” way of singing the latter has. In fact, Kyriakou has a little more power and a very subtle raw edge sneaking in a few times. I absolutely love the last minute or so of the song. In an ideal world, where songs don’t have a three minute limit, this song would have been longer and taken more time to build toward that fantastic climax.

Spain: Edurne – Amanecer

Seriously, where the hell did this come from? For years now, Spain has submitted decent, but forgettable Pop songs. This is something completely different though. First of all, “little roja riding hood” blew me away with her powerhouse voice and her passionate performance. Secondly, I have a degree of admiration for artists that still use their native tongue, despite the fact that it’s no longer required. But the atmosphere here is the real game winner – besides Edurne’s amazing voice of course. The orchestral arrangement leaves absolutely nothing to be desired and the way the strings blend with the piano is fantastic. The electronic percussion is sparse, but the drama it adds to the way the tension in the song is built-up is indispensible. This is something to envy as a composer, one of which here – interesting to the Metal fans here – is Masquerade guitarist Thomas G:son.

Georgia: Nina Sublatti – Warrior

During the semi-finals on Tuesday, ‘Warrior’ struck me as “quite good”. The more I listened to it, the more I started falling in love with the subdued aggression and dark, defiant character of the song and the strong voice of that strangely beautiful young lady. A true grower apparently, because the level of the competition on Tuesday was truly cringe-worthy. The song sounds a little like a crossbreed between Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor’ and the Jim Steinman-produced work by The Sisters Of Mercy. Bonus points for Sublatti for writing and co-producing (with, again, Thomas G:son) the song herself. Still, that wouldn’t mean anything if the actual song – a female empowerment anthem – and her vocal performance weren’t so mind-blowingly marvellous. It does, however, make me curious about an entire album of her material. My prediction that this would be Georgia’s highest charting Eurovision song has – astonishingly – not come true, but here’s what should have happened: twelve points go to Georgia and see you in Tblisi next year.

My Eurovision predictions for tomorrow

Another year, another Eurovision. For those of you who don’t live in Europe or Australia: the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual, widely broadcasted festival to which countries submit three minute Pop songs to compete with each other. There are results of varying degrees of quality, hilarity and entertainment value.
Those of you who have visited my weblog for longer than two years know that my full report will follow the day after the actual Contest, but based on what I have seen in the semi-finals and the video clips, I can share the following predictions with you.

This year’s Contest will be won by a male-female singing duo. My guess would be Norway’s Mørland and Debrah Scarlett, but I’m hoping for Estonia’s Elina Born & Stig Rästa. Czech Republic’s Marta Jandová and Václav Noid Bárta – by far the best male singer of this year – were favorites as well, but they were sadly voted out.

Nina Sublatti’s ‘Warrior’ – a Destiny’s Child-like female empowerment anthem – will give Georgia their highest ranking ever. More specifically, that would mean somewhere between positions 1 and 8.

Wheelchair bound singer Monika Kuszyńska from Poland will gather a lot of sympathy votes with her ‘In The Name Of Love’. Whoever directed that performance did so brilliantly, showing images of when Kuszyńska was still able to walk. That doesn’t in any way attack her song, which is actually quite a decent power ballad.

None of the so called “Big Five” will end up in the top 10. Italy’s ‘Grande Amore’ will be the highest ranking track out of the five.

Australia’s Guy Sebastian will receive much more sympathy votes than he deserves with his middle of the road Pop song ‘Tonight Again’ simply because this is the first time they are actually taking part.

Not much of a prediction, rather a “post-diction”: whoever voted Portugal’s Leonor Andrade and her ‘Há Um Mar Que Nos Separa’ out is an idiot.

Always risky, but my guesses for the top 5, in no particular order: Norway, Greece, Russia, Sweden and Latvia. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with that, though Maria Elena Kyriakou’s ‘One Last Breath’ (Greece) is Eurovision gold.

Serbia’s Bojana Stamenov will finish just outside the top 5, even though it doesn’t quite deserve that spot. Let’s just say the mediocre song does have some elements a majority of the Eurovision crowd can relate to.

I am very curious to see how much of this will actually turn out to be true.

Just to round things off, I’d like to share with you what we’re missing out on now that Portugal is out of the race. Leonor Andrade’s voice mixes the power and passion of the Portuguese Fado tradition with more conventional Pop melodies and her performances has some sort of beautiful anger boiling beneath the surface. The song sounds a little like Journey minus the guitar histrionics. The modulation in the last chorus is a little cheap, but apart from that, it’s a shame this didn’t make it to the finals.

Album of the Week 20-2015: The Organization – The Organization

After Death Angel released their masterpiece ‘Act III’, quite a lot of things happened in a short time. Drummer Andy Galeon got badly injured in a tour bus accident, Geffen Records dropped the band and singer Mark Osegueda moved to New York. The four remaining members formed The Organization and, on this phenomenal debut album, took the melodic leanings and Funk rhythms that popped up on ‘Act III’ further to develop a sound that despite the occasional Thrashy riff is more Rock than Metal. That shouldn’t discourage the fan of well-written songs though; ‘The Organization’ is full of them.

Galeon and lead guitarist Rob Cavestany share lead vocal duties here and while I have always considered them the better singers in Death Angel, Osegueda was infinitely more Metal than them. With this album’s melodic, but still riff-heavy nineties Hard Rock sound comes the perfect opportunity for Cavestany and Galeon to shine vocally, both separately and together. They are also in charge of songwriting here, although the influence of guitarist Gus and bassist Dennis Pepa shouldn’t be understated. The latter is indispensible for the Funky feel of the rhythms. He has an awesome bass sound as well.

Opening track ‘Free Burning’ does give the impression we’re dealing with a band unburdened here. Despite the presence of a few heavy riffs – the chorus riff most prominently – the song has more room to breathe than Death Angel’s music, which automatically gives Cavestany and Galeon all the space they need. This is a formula that is followed on the entire album, although “The O” takes it in every direction possible; from dreamy (‘Bringer’, ‘The Past’) to funky (‘Lift’, which even features a saxophone solo) to heavy (the almost punky closer ‘Been Nice’).

Instrumental track ‘Withdrawal’ is easily the most Metal song on the album, but hardly the most enjoyable. Every song is so good and so discernible that basically each song is an equal delight to listen to. Save for the two absolute highlights, that is. ‘Wonder’ is a Cavestany-led ballad much in the same vein as ‘A Room With A View’ on ‘Act III’ and builds from small and fragile to the Sturm und Drang of the solo section with admirable ease. Cavestany’s heartfelt vocal performance is amazing and that also goes for the mafia tale of ‘Policy’. Its clean guitar intro and outro set the mood perfectly, before upping the intensity to a driving Rock song full of broad chord riffs and pounding rhythms. Simply amazing.

Those of you expecting a vicious Thrash record comparable to Death Angel’s debut or last two albums will probably be disappointed by the more accessible, but still surprisingly eclectic sound of ‘The Organization’, but it’s a fact that this record rivals ‘Act III’ as the magnum opus of all four musicians involved. It’s got all the musical prowess and songwriting brilliance any fan of Rock music could wish for and the only thing left to be desired is simply more work from The Organization. This shouldn’t be treated as an oddity in the musicians’ careers, it’s a masterpiece worthy of anyone’s attention. Even – or rather especially – if you’re not normally into Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Policy’, ‘Wonder’, ‘The Past’

Album of the Week 19-2015: Michael Schenker Group – The Michael Schenker Group

Say what you want about his alcohol problems, crippling stage fright or tendency to walk out on bands unexpectedly, but Michael Schenker is an extraordinary talent when it comes to playing the guitar. And while he is most certainly a virtuoso on his instrument, he never forgets that playing well serves a good song first and foremost, despite occasional flashes of indulgence on his instrumental tracks. The untitled debut of his own band is quite likely the most consistent set of songs the German six string legend has released to date. It’s a bona fide classic that balances on the edge of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.

It’s not entirely Schenker’s fault that the album is so good though. Singer Gary Barden, virtually unknown prior to joining the Michael Schenker Group, leaves an indispensible mark on the album. While he’s not necessarily a terribly gifted singer, he sounds convincing and has no doubt had his share of influence on the songwriting. That’s where this album shines anyway: the songs aren’t just collections of riffs and solos, but there’s always a recognizable chorus and a logical structure and tension build-up, even in the instrumental ‘Into The Arena’. Especially that one actually.

The basic style on ‘The Michael Schenker Group’ isn’t miles away from what Schenker did during his tenure with UFO, although there does seem to be a slight nod to the anthemic quality of Judas Priest era Heavy Metal. ‘Cry For The Nations’, for instance, turns into an exciting blend of powerful riffing, fiery lead guitar work and a chorus that blows the roof off. Once you get past the weird intro, but it’s definitely worth waiting for. Opening track ‘Armed And Ready’ is another fine stomper that serves as the perfect opener for the album, both musically and lyrically. ‘Victim Of Illusion’ and ‘Looking Out From Nowhere’ – the latter Barden’s best performance here – are stylistically similar.

As for the rest, the album shows a few experiments in style. ‘Bijou Pleasurette’ combines an acoustic basis with neoclassically inspired lead work that doesn’t forsake Schenker’s typically Bluesy soul, whereas ‘Tales Of Mystery’ is a surprisingly good ballad. Closing track ‘Lost Horizons’ is easily the best of the experiments, with its slow, heavy riffing, mystical atmosphere and amazing extended solo near the end. Roger Glover’s treble heavy production doesn’t suit the song too well, as gives more space to Simon Phillips’ drums than it neets, but it’s still a fantastic song.

Michael Schenker would continue to release fine Hard Rock and Heavy Metal records for years to come, although aforementioned problems would sometimes cause long breaks between them. But even artists who consistently release good material have their moments when everything just seems to be just right. ‘The Michael Schenker Group’ is this moment for both Schenker and Barden. More than half of the material still is on heavy rotation on Schenker’s set lists and it’s not hard to understand why when you listen to the record. It’s a brilliant example of how good heavy music was back in the early eighties.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cry For The Nations’, ‘Lost Horizons’, ‘Into The Arena’

Album of the Week 18-2015: Merry – Nonsense Market

While there may be bands I enjoy listening to slightly more, Merry is by far the most interesting Japanese band I have come across so far. They have a very strong concept focusing on the Japanese avant-garde of the first half of the twentieth century and it’s exactly that multiple genre approach that keeps them from being locked inside the fairyland court symphonic Rock or futuristic vampire modern Metal that many Visual Kei bands confine themselves to. Merry has a unique style in which retro and contemporary music blend perfectly. Due to its increased eclecticism, their most recent effort ‘Nonsense Market’ is one of their most enjoyable releases.

Since listening to the band’s 2009 effort ‘Under-World’, I had feared Merry would be pushing their Metal influences to the forefront too much. But since the band refuses to release the same album twice, I shouldn’t have worried. 2011’s ‘Beautiful Freaks’ was a great selection of songs – I love ‘Fukinkou Kinema’ with a passion – and ‘Nonsense Market’ shows the band further down the melodic path. It still gets a little heavy sometimes (‘Zero’ and the crazy ‘Carnival’ are fine examples), but there’s a great deal of variation and unconventional, at times spectacular songwriting at work here.

On recent releases, I felt some of the distinct retro feel of Merry’s earlier releases was lacking. There’s more than enough of that here. ‘Hide-And-Seek’ is an old school Rock ‘n’ Roller lead by reverberating clean guitars and Surf rhythms, giving the song an atmosphere reminiscent of The Shadows, while ‘Zombie Paradise ~Jigoku No Tango~’ feels like a modern day Disco tune due to the funky rhythms courtesy of bassist Tetsu and drummer Nero. The frantic pace and backbeat accents of ‘Chiyodasen Democracy’ have something of a ska vibe and the way the accordion battles with the guitars is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Highlighting the album is the bright Rocker ‘Fukurou’. Its euphoric atmosphere is caused by a triumphant guitar theme, a huge chorus and Nero’s simple, but brutally effective base rhythm. The song contains a lot of Merry trademarks – the complementary guitar interaction between Kenichi and Yuu, the backbeat guitar accents in the verse and Tetsu’s inventive, melodic bass lines – and is one of their best. The title track was a logical choice for a single due to its catchy character. The somber ‘Unreachable Voice’ stands out due to its acoustic approach, after which the more upbeat ‘Gunjou’ is a perfect closer.

As with all Japanese bands, Merry’s releases are hard to get a hold of, but well worth tracking down. They have the coolest drummer in Japan, which is filled with technically proficient drummers, but none of them seems to get into it as intuitively and enthusiastically as Nero does. Also, they have five great songwriters who each bring something else to the table. That makes it hard to explain the sound of the band even when you’ve heard it, especially on an album as wildly eclectic as ‘Nonsense Market’, but it’s also what makes the band so incredibly interesting. They’re really something else.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fukurou’, ‘Gunjou’, ‘Hide-And-Seek’