Archive for August, 2015

Album of the Week 35-2015: Imelda May – More Mayhem

Most Rockabilly revival artists are charming and entertaining, but so exclusively driven by nostalgia that they lack any relevance in the contemporary music industry. Imelda May avoids this pitfall with a more versatile approach to her – admittedly strongly old school – style. There’s a lot of Rockabilly, of course, but also hints of Jazz, Country and quite a healthy shot of Blues. In addition, miss May isn’t just a great singer, she’s a fantastic songwriter as well. All of this contributes to the fact that ‘More Mayhem’ – a reissue of her best album ‘Mayhem’ – manages to stay interesting all throughout its running time.

Why ‘More Mayhem’ then, you may ask? Why not just ‘Mayhem’? Well, first of all, ‘More Mayhem’ has ‘Road Runner’. With its driving rhythm and May’s irresistible lower register vocals, it is easily one of May’s best and most vibrant songs. The slow Blues ‘Blues Calling’ has a distinct New Orleans vibe that sets my heart on fire as well. Also, I might enjoy the remix of ‘Inside Out’ just a little more than its slightly slower original. So now we’ve only talked about the bonus tracks and we’ve already discussed three of the album’s highlights. That’s why!

Among the original album, there are quite a few moments of absolute brilliance as well. Quite a few of those are outside of May’s supposed comfort zone. ‘Proud And Humble’ doesn’t exactly sound out of place in terms of atmosphere, but the acoustic guitar parts seem to pay more tribute to May’s Irish heritage than her Rockabilly fascination. ‘All For You’ in all its sultriness and seduction sounds like it could have been one of those Jazzy show tunes from the 1930’s – and that roar in the chorus induces goosebumps. ‘Too Sad To Cry’ almost sounds like a funeral dirge, but May’s hertfelt delivery makes it beautiful.

Early on, ‘Let Me Out’ became one of my absolute favorites of Imelda May’s entire oeuvre. It rocks relatively hard; had it not been for Darrel Higham’s distinct reverb-drenched Rockabilly sound and the shuffle rhythms, it could have been a Gov’t Mule song. Higham churns out a great guitar solo as well. The song builds toward its amazing chorus fantastically. Also, May has been known for a number of fantastic covers of songs from the fifties and sixties. On this album, she comes close to Gloria Jones’ original of ‘Tainted Love’. Not as good as the original, but definitely the best cover of the song I’ve heard so far. ‘Pulling The Rug’ and ‘Mayhem’ are more familiar territory for May, but executed extremely well.

Lately, retro styles have been quite popular, but what makes a really good artist is to take the musical legacy that comes with your tastes and turn it into something of your own. Imelda May has understood that and although elements of her sound are extremely familiar, she consistently refuses to paint a musical picture that’s just true to nature, opting to go for something a bit more timeless instead. It has so far resulted in three good to incredible albums, with this one being the most allround satisfying listening experience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let Me Out’, ‘Road Runner’, ‘All For You’

Pre-Album Praise: Raglaia

After singer Rami left Aldious, the band quickly lost most of its appeal to me. Sure, Yoshi and Toki can still embarrass many men with their riffs, but Rami’s replacement Re:NO despite a decent voice lacked any semblance of power, watering Aldious down to something that is sometimes dangerously close to a girl group with somewhat heavy guitars. Not that Rami was all power all the time, but she had a sense of dynamics that made some of the band’s songs – most notably the brilliant ‘Luft’ – a delight to listen to.

Since health issues were cited as the reason why Rami stepped down, something in the back of my mind always kept wondering what happened to her. Then suddenly, after three years of not hearing anything about her, she surfaced with the first single ‘Breaking Dawn’ of her new band Raglaia. Of course, I’m not sure how her health is treating her these days, but her voice sounds downright amazing, while guitarist and producer K-A-Z has provided her with a heavier, more contemporary Metal vibe than we may have gotten used to from Rami. It definitely pushes her to her most powerful and versatile performances thus far.

Where the debut single served its purpose of awakening interest in the band, it’s their brand new single ‘Promises’ that really shows Raglaia firing on all cylinders. ‘Breaking Dawn’ featured a two good songs and one great – ‘Outer Dark’ to be exact – but ‘Promises’ is an all killer, no filler deal. With as much variation as a three-song single can offer. The amazing title track has a recognizable, almost catchy feel despite K-A-Z’s fairly intricate guitar work, while the other video ‘Aching Memories’ has the guitarist battling drummer Youth-K!!! (also in Aion) for who can attack their instrument most brutally.

Rounding out the release is ‘Strings Of Fate’. A good, epic power ballad. It is strong in atmosphere and especially in the way it builds up tension. The guitar solo is surprisingly heartfelt by Japanese measures – a lot of Japanese Metal features lots of notes instead – and Rami’s voice paints a desolate picture. All of this makes me very curious what the debut album of the band will sound like. From what I understood it’s either finished or near completion, so hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer than until late 2015 or early 2016.

In conclusion, I can only say I hope that Raglaia will get the honest chance they deserve. And not just based on the looks of the two ladies in the band. Sure, Rami is beautiful and bassist Ery is adorable, but the music on offer here is something fresh, powerful, energetic and melodically irresistible. Surprisingly contemporary in production and riffing as well. The heavier work might just appeal to fans of melodic Death Metal, as long as they don’t mind the clean vocals.

As a result, it’s quite possible to listen to all of the band’s material without ever even thinking of Rami’s former band; this is a whole different beast. And if this beast can maintain the momentum displayed on ‘Promises’, they might just turn into one of Japan’s more interesting recent bands.

Album of the Week 34-2015: Galneryus – Resurrection

Not that I want to make a habit of stating the obvious, but ‘Resurrection’ was sort of a second coming for Japan’s Galneryus. It was the first album with their current singer Masatoshi Ono and also the first thing to be released after the heavier and more experimental ‘Reincarnation’, which was generally considered a tired-sounding album, despite the fact that the experiment was at least partially successful. ‘Resurrection’ just sounds a like a breath of fresh air. The band sounds unburdened and extremely positive and though the band would top it two years later with the nearly flawless ‘Angel Of Salvation’, it still stands as one of their best albums.

First things first: Ono is much more suited to this style than his predecessor Yama-B. The latter’s mighty, semi-operatic bellow is without equal, but Ono’s clearer, more soaring timbre fits the very European-tinged style of Power Metal heard on every album since ‘Resurrection’ to a T. Also, on earlier albums, guitarist (and bandleader) Syu and Yama-B seemed to get in each other’s way every once in a while. With Ono’s more transparent voice – and Syu’s improved guitar tone – every element on ‘Resurrection’ makes sense and is part of a coherent product.

But none of this would even be relevant if the songs weren’t good enough. And some of these songs are pure, uncut gold. Though I had heard the band before, ‘Carry On’ was the song that made me fall in love with Galneryus definitively. It’s got this blazing main riff, fantastic vocals by Ono and a triumphant chorus garnished with self-empowerment lyrics. Sounds like supreme Power Metal? That’s because it is! The same goes for opening track ‘Burn My Heart’, despite its slightly more melancholic vibe. The upbeat ‘Destiny’ quickly became a Galneryus classic and ‘Emotions’ is an interesting instrumental.

Keyboard player Yuhki has contributed to a surprising amount of songs on this album as well and especially ‘Save You!’ stands out. It’s somewhat more progressive than the average Galneryus song, despite it’s highly recognizable chorus, and features some fantastic riff work. ‘Destinations’ has a somewhat darker vibe and a middle section that never fails to give me goosebumps – it is somewhat reminiscent of the post-chorus part of Labÿrinth’s ‘Moonlight’. ‘Fall In The Dark’ is a strong Power Metal track with impressive lead guitar work and hell… Even ‘A Far-Off Distance’ is surprisingly tolerable for a ballad from a Japanese band. And drummer Junichi must have an enviable endurance.

Despite my long-lasting love for Power Metal, there aren’t many bands that set my heart on fire as strongly as Galneryus does. Part of that is the fact that Syu always makes sure their sound is as ballsy as possible, but their strong and varied songwriting is also indispensible. Whatever it is you like about Power Metal, Galneryus has it, right down to the sometimes awkward accent. And even though ‘Angel Of Salvation’ would serve as a better starting point, there’s no denying that ‘Resurrection’ is a fantastic record with one of the better tracks the genre has ever brought forth.

Recommended tracks: ‘Carry On’, ‘Burn My Heart’, ‘Destinations’

Album of the Week 33-2015: Gargoyle – Geshiki

While superficially, it may not seem that way, Gargoyle is one of the most interesting Thrash bands of Japan and possibly the entire world. Sure, the charge is led by Kiba’s gruff bark, Kentaro’s abrasive riffing and the manic, yet complex rhythms of Katsuji, but ever since the early days – when current Volcano guitarist Sheja was still in the band – there have been distinct melodic segments and a restless hunger for experimentation. And especially since the band switched from two guitarists to just Kentaro, the Thrash riffs have gone hand in hand with a more traditional Heavy Metal approach. ‘Geshiki’ last year became the most successful blend of both styles yet.

This should not be seen as diminishing their earlier output; Gargoyle has a surprisingly consistent discography compared to other Japanese bands, which tend to have spotty discographies. It’s just that once every while, an album pops up that rises even above the band’s high standard. In the past, there have been the likes of ‘Furebumi’, ‘Tenron’ and ‘Tsuki No Toge’ and now there’s ‘Geshiki’. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes the album so good, but the songwriting is of consistently high quality here and the production is just clean enough to market, but also just raw enough to capture the band’s primal energy.

Right out of the gate, ‘Gordian Knot’ shows what the band is about. There’s an explosive start, a brilliant main riff accompanied by rolling rhythmic thunder and a nicely dramatic chorus. And if that sounds like the characteristics of a classic Heavy Metal song: you’re right, Gargoyle just does it with Thrash Metal intensity. ‘Chokugeki’, ‘Uzumaku Taiyou’ and especially the scorching ‘S.W. Power’ also are consisted of delicious Thrash riffs and catchy choruses with a flair for the dramatics. Kentaro is keen to do strong twin melodies and his solo style is every bit as melodic as Sheja’s, albeit a bit less clasically oriented.

However, Gargoyle is known to branch out a little on their records as well. Sometimes, that means the band turns down the intensity a little, most successfully on the monumental closing track ‘Namina No Kachi’, which is almost symphonic in nature, but the power ballad with Black Sabbath riffs ‘Fullcolor Answer’ is worth the attention as well. ‘Mankai Oratio’ combines a Punky gang vocal approach with surprisingly swinging rhythms and traditional Metal guitar work and ‘Tsubasa No Kioku’ is reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s early instrumentals due to its strong epic, almost storytelling vibe.

It’s hard to go wrong when you’re discovering Gargoyle’s work. While Kiba’s voice may take some time to get used to – I know it did for me! – every album has at least three or four utterly brilliant tracks and a few more good ones. On ‘Geshiki’, however, almost every song is a winner – only ‘Tiny Song’ is merely enjoyable. Once again: it’s hard to put my finger on why this album is such a shining star in an already enviable discography, but somewhere between the excellent songwriting, the perfect guitar tone and the energy, it stole my heart and refuses to give it back. ‘Geshiki’ can keep it.

Recommended tracks: ‘S.W. Power’, ‘Gordian Knot’, ‘Namina No Kachi’

Album of the Week 32-2015: Volcano – Melt

Over two decades have passed since Sheja left Japanese Thrash legends Gargoyle, but the basic elements of his compositions are still the same in Volcano. There’s his lethal guitar tone, perfectly suited to both his vicious riffs and highly melodic leads, raw vocals – though “gruff” would be a more fitting word for Gargoyle’s Kiba – and rhythms that support groove as well as aggression. And if the break of “only” four years after its predecessor ‘Mythology’ wasn’t good enough news – there was a decade between their masterpiece ‘Davi’ and ‘Mythology’ – the quality of ‘Melt’ is. It’s one fine record on the tri-state area of Thrash, Melodeath and traditional Heavy Metal.

‘Mythology’ showed the band trying out a more contemporary approach which I considered partially successful. Some of the Death Metal influences are heard throughout ‘Melt’, though mostly in one track (‘Tokyo Panic’). However, due to the more melodic songwriting, the album has a distinctly more traditional vibe than any of their previous releases. The violent Thrash riffs are definitely still there, but most of the intros and choruses are built upon melodic (twin) guitar parts and the latter are generally only pushed into Thrash territories by Nov’s raspy vocals.

Yet, there’s something deliciously irresistible about the melodicism of ‘Melt’. While ‘The Mother Earth’, for instance, has the uptempo palm-mute riffing of a Thrash Metal song, it is essentially classic Heavy Metal with a strong build up, wailing leads and a soaring chorus. Even the most Thrash-oriented moments, such as opening track ‘Super Whole Stone’, ‘Perish’ and the Slayeriffic ‘Die Number Nine’ have twin solos and dramatic passages to make them more interesting than the average contemporary Thrash Metal record. The intensity of a song like ‘History Cries’ or ‘Progress’ is never reached, but somehow, that wouldn’t really fit the album anyway.

Another classic Heavy Metal song is the amazing ‘Fire Sky ~Hero Of This Story~’, that has a couple of blazing twin riffs and one of Nov’s best vocal performances on the record. Drummer Shun is absolutely on fire as well and proves that Katsuji Kirita can absolutely be replaced, something I initially had my doubts about. Another one of Shun’s highlights is ‘Tokyo Panic’, on which he alternates between the blastbeats of the verses and the powerful Thrash grooves beneath the rest of the riffs. And that chorus (“Panic! Tokyo Panic!”) begs to be shouted along. And when the band does slow down, like they do in the crushing ‘Aim, Shoot, No, Kill’, they impress just as much.

With the Metal scene being as conservative and stubborn as it is, there’s a chance many people will find it too little of either to be interesting, but the simple fact is that ‘Melt’ is the perfect melting pot (incredibly lame pun totally intended!) of Thrash Metal and Heavy Metal. Sheja obviously knows how to write a good song and that is a feat not given to many Thrash composers. With the band being Japanese, it’s kind of hard to track down the album, but it’s worth every bit of money and effort you put into it. I wish they still had a European deal like they had with their debut…

Recommended tracks: ‘The Mother Earth’, ‘Fire Sky ~Hero Of This Story~’, ‘Tokyo Panic’

Jon Voyage!

After watching Jon Stewart’s last appearance as the host of ‘The Daily Show’, I felt the need to share a few thoughts to add to the long list of shared thoughts that plague the Internet already. That seems a little excessive, but Jon Stewart’s show was such an important part of the Kevy Metal household, that it truly is the end of an era to me. And as much as his crew – both on- and offscreen – deserves all the credit they can get, it was Stewart’s charming, witty and sometimes shamelessly nerdy personality that made him a welcome addition to our living room for years. Sometimes it even felt like he was right there with us. An impressive feat that isn’t given to every show host.

My parents and I started watching every episode of ‘The Daily Show’ as soon as we had a TV channel that aired the program. I can’t exactly pinpoint the date we started watching, but judging from the many compilations that were featured in the show in these last few weeks, it must have been about six years ago. Stewart was a breath of fresh air for us. Not only was his delivery in terms of humor fantastic, he also had a surprisingly universal approach when compared to the America-centered worldview of most American anchors. His sincere interest in all things Middle East hardly has any competition worldwide.

What is more important, however, is the function that ‘The Daily Show’ has had as a springboard for young, talented comedians. Despite joining the show prior, Stephen Colbert is commonly seen as a protégé of Stewart, with Colbert even mentioning him as the reason he started moving into political satire. ‘The Daily Show’ was also responsible for getting John Oliver to the United States and therefore granting him the stage that later enabled him to start ‘Last Week Tonight’ about a decade later – a show that might equal, possibly even surpass the quality of ‘The Daily Show’ these days.

For me, it was the show that introduced me to a number of fantastic comedians. Sometimes these were younger talents that got their chance to shine to a sizeable audience through the program (the brilliant Wyatt Cenac, the downright crazy Kristen Schaal) and sometimes, I was introduced to a comedy veteran for whom ‘The Daily Show’ just happened to be the medium that introduced me to their work; most prominently Lewis Black, who remains one of my favorite comedians to this day. I’m not sure how much emphasis there is on comedic acting among cast and crew, but people like Jason Jones and Aasif Mandvi have grown to full-blown comedy actors throughout the history of the show.

Let’s not forget the interviews. Some of the best interviews were the ones that had nothing to do with whatever the guest was promoting – Ricky Gervais’ monologue about raccoons having sex with panda’s springs to mind. Occasionally, a genuinely interesting interview popped up. It was through ‘The Daily Show’ that I was introduced to Ramita Navai’s amazing book ‘City Of Lies’. It actually went so far that my mother begged the show to stop promoting interesting books; it was quite an assault on our bank accounts at some point. Stewart’s political interest made people like Barack Obama show a bit of their true selves and sometimes set to “unmask” people in a different way, like his on-screen frustration opposite journalist Judith Miller about her role in the Iraq war by publishing faulty information.

Now that this icon has quit the show, all we can hope for that his replacement Trevor Noah will get an honest chance to prove himself. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly impressed by his few appearances on the show, but it was his performance on BBC’s ‘Live At The Apollo’ about his experiences as a child of a mixed race parents in South Africa that convinced me that he is able to at least put on a good and credible satire show. And as long as he’s got the current team of correspondents – Hasan Minhaj, the silly genius of Jordan Klepper and the perfect combination of beauty, brains and humor that is Jessica Williams – we can be sure that the legacy of the show will be safe.

Of course things won’t be the same again. The second most important man in our living room – second only after my father – won’t appear quite as often anymore. Jon Voyage!

Warren Haynes, Dew-Scented and much, much more in this month’s Gitarist

Sometimes a new album is a reason to have a fairly standard promo interview with musicians. In case of Gitarist, the journalist talks to the musician in question about the instruments and equipment he used for the album and that’s a routine job. Other times, a musician makes a record that is so different from the rest of his repertoire, that the interview is bound to be interesting. Such was the case with Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers Band) and his new release ‘Ashes & Dust’. While he certainly had displayed some Folk influences in the past, he went full “Roots” on the album he made with New Jersey-based Newgrass band Railroad Earth. The results of the interesting interview I had with him can be read in this month’s issue of Gitarist.

Other work from my hand include an interview with Marvin Vriesde and Rory Hansen, two of the four Dutch musicians that make up Thrash Metal outfit Dew-Scented besides German singer Leif Jensen these days. We had an interesting chat about how this collaboration started and how it influenced Vriesde to change guitars. I’ve been following the band for quite some time, but I’ll have to admit that these last two studio records – ‘Icarus’ and ‘Intermination’ – are the most consistent and well-written ones in the band’s history. As always, there are quite some reviews I have either written or translated as well.

While you’re at it, make sure you check out my colleagues’ lengthy cover article with Wild Romance guitarist Dany Lademacher as well. As one of the few guitar heroes we have in the Benelux, he has quite a lot to mention and it’s all interesting. Of course, there’s a lot of attention for his signature guitar – which he is holding on the cover – as well. And with all the product reviews and other interesting interviews (Joe Satriani, Sonny Landreth, Bliksem), there should be plenty of interesting stories for any guitar freak out there.

And quite some interesting things are shaping up for future issues as well. More on that later…

Album of the Week 31-2015: Symphony X – Underworld

Upon first listen, I thought ‘Underworld’ suffered from the same flaws as Symphony X’s previous album ‘Iconoclast’. While the latter was an enjoyable album, it sacrificed a lot of the band’s melodic sensibilities in favor of a heavier approach. For instance, Russell Allen, one of the best Rock singers on the planet, focused on a gruff delivery rather than the soaring melodies of the past and Michael Romeo’s riffs were the focal point of the music. Whether it’s because of the increased input from the rest of the band is unclear, but the more varied approach of ‘Underworld’ makes it likely the best post-2000 album of the band.

Of course, Romeo’s riffs are still all over the place and Allen will always have a raw edge to his voice, but there’s a greater sense of space on ‘Underworld’. Also, keyboard player Michael Pinnella finally gets a little more room to shine here and all the songs have a much stronger character than on ‘Iconoclast’, on which the songs tended to be a bit samey over time. Symphony X was always miles ahead of the rest of the progressive Metal scene in terms of songwriting and ‘Underworld’ is more evidence of this.

While the first half of the album mainly focuses on the heavy side of the band, the latter half has a stronger emphasis on melody and dynamics. Though there’s still heavy riff work, it often takes a backseat to Allen’s – once again truly amazing – vocal work, atmospheric passages and great soloing by both Romeo and Pinnella. ‘Swan Song’ even has a romantic sound with a prominent role for the piano and the best lead vocal performance on the album. Truly the album’s highlight. Closing track ‘Legend’ even has a slight eighties vibe and halfway through the album, ‘Charon’ does a fantastic job combining both sides of the band.

Because of the greater amount of variation, the heavier material is much more enjoyable this time around. The title track has a vicious, galloping riff courtesy of Romeo that drives the song forward in a simply delightful manner. The chorus is the perfect climax for it as well. Opening track ‘Nevermore’ almost sounds on its way to become too ‘Iconoclast’ for its own good, but a beautiful chorus breaks it open quite nicely. And sure, the band is prone to self-plagiarism – listen to that acoustic guitar part in ‘Without You’ and compare it to ‘The Divine Wings Of Tragedy’ – but the greater picture is one of success here.

Symphony X has never made a record that was less than good, but this is for the first time since ‘V: The New Mythology Suite’ that I’m actually hanging on to every note they’re playing throughout the album. ‘Underworld’ is a triumph for Symphony X as a songwriting progressive Metal band and that is exactly what made them better than most bands in the field anyway. If this amount of variation is kept for the next album, the band is finally back at the level they were at fifteen years ago. ‘Underworld’ is a must-hear.

Recommended tracks: ‘Swan Song’, ‘Charon’, ‘Legend’, ‘Underworld’