Archive for October, 2015

My work in stores this week

This month’s issue of Gitarist is once again full of my work. Besides a myriad of reviews, there’s seven pages of interviews from my hand and I must be honest: I’m proud of that. One of them is devoted to Armel Paap from Rondé – which just might be the next big thing in Holland, I wouldn’t be surprised – and three pages each to Brian Pots of psychedelic Rockers Pauw and the amazing Gary Clark Jr.. Clark’s new record ‘The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim’ is one of the best albums I have heard this year and our conversation about the album (on which Clark played almost all the instruments himself) was very interesting. Read all about it! The acoustic guitar special – including lots of easily overlooked basic information – is a very cool read as well.

My contributions to drum magazine Slagwerkkrant are relatively limited, but being the rhythm junkie that I am, I always enjoy talking to drummers. Especially if their band is as interesting as My Baby. Their drummer Joost van Dijck is a cool guy and My Baby’s Voodoo Blues and Trance inspired sound – sounds unlikely, but it’s true, check their new album ‘Shamanaid’ for evidence – is unique. And he’s not the only awesome drummer featured in this month’s issue; former Sugarhill Records house drummer Dennis Chambers, Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain, Typhoon’s Eddy Addai and Primus’ Tim Alexander all have some space devoted to them. And let’s not forget all those product reviews…

Both magazines are in stores in the Netherlands and Belgium, so get them while they still have that amazing new magazine smell!

Album of the Week 43-2015: Stryper – Fallen

Almost exactly two years ago, ‘No More Hell To Pay’ took me by surprise. I have always had great respect for Stryper as musicians – and Michael Sweet as a singer in particular – but none of the albums released since their reunion early this century as quite as consistent as that 2013 release. ‘Fallen’ is even better. It’s a strong melodic Hard Rock record like one has come to expect from the quartet, but the songwriting department hasn’t done this well of a job since ‘Against The Law’ or possibly even ‘Soldiers Under Command’.

While none of the songs here is as good as the near-perfect melodic Rocker ‘Sympathy’ from the previous record, ‘Fallen’ does avoid some of the pitfalls that ‘No More Hell To Pay’ did suffer from. The material on ‘Fallen’ is still mainly midtempo, but the band has managed to add a little more variation by giving the songs a little more of a recognizable face. Generally, it’s the riff work that does that. The Heavy Metal roots of the band really shine through in the riffs, turning many of the songs into a perfect blend of melodic Rock and Heavy Metal. And the album into a cornerstone of heavy Rock songwriting.

Opening track ‘Yahweh’ is the closest Stryper has ever gotten to an epic Heavy Metal song. Apart from the nice old school riffing, the song spots a surprising number of tempo changes. The choral vocals employed in the chorus are actually a trick that define many of the album’s more religiously laden choruses, such as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Let There Be Light’. Another notable progression is the fact that Michael Sweet once again outdoes himself. His voice just keeps getting better even at age 52 and ‘Fallen’ includes some of his rawest vocal work to date, check out ‘Pride’ (with its awesomely heavy, groovy riff) and the title track for the most obvious examples.

Guitar-wise, the album is simply a delight. Both Michael Sweet and Oz Fox lay down a surprisingly large number of amazing guitar solos and – as mentioned before – the riff work is exemplary. It’s the riffs that make songs like ‘The Calling’, ‘Big Screen Lies’, the powerful Rocker ‘Till I Get What I Need’, the vaguely Middle-Eastern sounding ‘Let There Be Light’ and the stately closer ‘King Of Kings’ so much more memorable than, let’s say, the title track of the previous record. Also, Robert Sweet’s snare drum still resonates too irritatingly loudly, but there’s definitely more variation in his rhythms this time around.

Sure, the secular fan base of the band – to which yours truly counts himself – may be put off by the lesser subtlety in the band’s christian message this time around, but the fact is that ‘Fallen’ is one of the best melodic Hard Rock albums of the last couple of years. The melodies are strong and the riffs and rhythms are muscular. Michael Sweet once again proves that he is one of the finest singers, songwriters and guitarists in the business and as such, his work deserves to be heard. End-of-year list material for sure.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pride’, ‘Till I Get What I Need’, ‘Yahweh’, ‘The Calling’

Album of the Week 42-2015: Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

After what can be only considered one of the most embarrassing soap operas in Heavy Metal history and a surprisingly concise legal battle, Seattle’s Queensrÿche moved on without their legendary singer Geoff Tate. For any band, this would be a disaster, but for remaining original members Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield, it meant they could finally go back to the progressive Metal sound they’ve helped pioneer. ‘Condition Hüman’ is in fact more Metal as a whole than their first, self-titled outing without Tate and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable releases the genre has offered in 2015 so far.

Essential to Queensrÿche’s renewed Progmetal sound is new singer Todd LaTorre, who sounds a lot like Tate. He’s slightly rougher around he edges, but he sounds more like Tate in his prime than Tate himself does these days. Besides his powerful wails and wide range, the guitars of Michael Wilton and relative newcomer Parker Lundgren feel familiar. The more contemporary production keeps ‘Condition Hüman’ from being a complete reproduction of their early sound, but the album has all the US Power Metal riffs, melodic themes and twin guitar harmonies and old school Metalhead can wish for.

This approach gives ‘Condition Hüman’ a significantly more Metal feel than the first release of this lineup. The album is most certainly more riff driven than anything Queensrÿche has done in the past two decades and that results in a couple of fantastic uptempo Metal songs. ‘Arrow Of Time’, ‘Guardian’, ‘Toxic Remedy’ and album highlight ‘All There Was’ all highlight the US Power Metal sound of albums like ‘The Warning’ – the latter is very reminiscent of the amazing ‘En Force’ – rather than the Progmetal sound they’re famous for, despite some distinctly progressive touches in especially their timing and the unpredictable song structures.

For fans of the more progressive Queensrÿche, however, the second half of the album offers quite a few treats. The kaleidoscopic 8 minute title track is a no-brainer, but ‘Hourglass’ is likely even better. Clean, distorted and acoustic guitars alternate in sections of shifting atmospheres and LaTorre is in top shape here. Bassist Eddie Jackson’s progressive stomper ‘Eye9’ is no slouch either. ‘Bulletproof’ is a fantastic power ballad and while ‘Selfish Lives’ and ‘Hellfire’ are somewhat more subdued in terms of tempo, they’re still soaring Heavy Metal tracks with some great guitar and vocal work. Scott Rockenfield’s drums are finally at full force again as well.

Some of the statements that Wilton, Jackson and Rockenfield made during the trials for the Queensrÿche name sounded too absurd to be true, but listen to ‘Condition Hüman’ one time and you’ll find out they probably were. Queensrÿche finally sounds like Queensrÿche again and as a result, ‘Condition Hüman’ is the finest record they’ve released since ‘Operation: Mindcrime’. And I’m pretty fond of ‘Promised Land’, so it says something that I like this one better. But even without the troubled recent history in the back of your mind, ‘Condition Hüman’ is a good album. How good? One of the best Metal albums of 2015: that good.

Recommended tracks: ‘All There Was’, ‘Toxic Remedy’, ‘Hourglass’, ‘Arrow Of Time’

Album of the Week 41-2015: Black Sabbath – Heaven And Hell

Black Sabbath of course has a legendary status in the pantheon of Heavy Metal based on their first six albums with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals alone. And rightfully so. But none of Black Sabbath’s albums are so amazing all the way through as ‘Heaven And Hell’, which was recorded with the incomparable Ronnie James Dio, who single-handedly transformed the band from riffwriters to songwriters. The increased emphasis on melody and Dio’s vocal lines – which are infinitely more interesting than Ozzy’s – make this probably the best traditional Heavy Metal album there is. It’s quite likely the most played Metal album in my collection.

Hardcore fans of the band’s Ozzy-era were afraid that Dio’s arrival would water Black Sabbath down and though this is definitely not ‘Into The Void’ – follow-up ‘The Mob Rules’ would restore some of that crushing heaviness – the album still contains all the heavy riffs and pounding rhythms you can wish for. Of course, there were some changes: Dio’s vocal melodies didn’t slavishly follow Tony Iommi’s guitars and the band definitely upped the ante in terms of tension and release in songwriting. And Dio’s fantasy-based romanticism may be a departure from Geezer Butler’s darker lyrics, but they’re no less memorable.

Of course, the accessible Hardrock of ‘Walk Away’ and the remarkably positive, but ultimately irresistible ‘Wishing Well’ were something fresh for Sabbath at this point. But opposite that, there’s the monumental title track, which showcases a huge Iommi riff, perfect dynamics, brilliant guitar solos and a downright incredible climax. Easily a showcase in Heavy Metal song writing and one of the ultimate songs in the genre. ‘Children Of The Sea’ and the dark melodicism of closing track ‘Lonely Is The Word’ also still show the band in semi-Doom mode. The latter has an amazing middle- and ending section unlike anything the band has ever done before as well.

When the album speeds up, we can see the groundwork for early Power Metal being laid. Opening track ‘Neon Knights’ shows Dio in top shape – he rarely had any other shape, but that’s beside the point – over a simple, but brutally effective uptempo Iommi riff, while ‘Die Young’ shows Black Sabbath at their most vicious – despite the use of keyboards. All of this requires drummer Bill Ward to employ a slightly simpler and less jazzy approach than usual to make room for everyone else, including Geezer Butler’s underestimated, but still mindblowing bass work.

In a way, ‘Heaven And Hell’ is a turning point. It shows a rejuvenated Black Sabbath and it opened the doors for a more melodic approach, that Iommi continued to pursue until long after Dio left. But even without its historical relevance, ‘Heaven And Hell’ still warrants an enjoyable listen. It’s an exercise in excellent songwriting and a more than amazing musicianship. It is quite likely the best album that any of its musicians ever were involved with – although Dio’s legendary contributions to Rainbow’s sophomore ‘Rising’ album shouldn’t be forgotten either. Every respectable Heavy Metal collection should contain this album. Period.

Recommended tracks: ‘Heaven And Hell’, ‘Neon Knights’, ‘Wishing Well’

Album of the Week 40-2015: Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud

Consistency is key in Amorphis’ career. The Finnish sextet has hardly released any subpar records and although the stylistic detours of the first half of their discography are in the past, you can always depend on the band to come up with a well-crafted record. ‘Under The Red Cloud’ is no exception. It doesn’t stray too far from the path the Finns have followed ever since their current singer Tomi Joutsen joined the band, but Amorphis is playing to their strengths rather than just getting too comfortable with their own style. The album has all the lush melodies and powerful riffing you can wish for.

Of course, if you’re looking for the subtle differences, you’ll find them. Jens Bogren’s bombastic production is significantly different than Peter Tägtgren’s rawer approach for the album’s predecessor ‘Circle’. Also, Joutsen seems to growl a little more than he has on any Amorphis album to date, which is surprising, given that the songs aren’t quite as heavy this time around. The band has taken a slightly more progressive route. While the songs are still highly accessible, lead guitarist Esa Holopainen and keyboard player Santeri Kallio – who composed the bulk of the songs – wrote a few slightly more daring middle sections to some of the songs.

Sometimes it’s up to question just how “Metal” Amorphis still is. Highly melodic songs like ‘Sacrifice’ have a distinct Hardrock vibe. And while that is no problem whatsoever with songs as well-written as these, Holopainen and fellow guitarist Tomi Koivusaari do seem to make sure that the songs are riff driven enough to push them into Metal territory. And that is where Amorphis succeeds: they combine the best aspects of progressive Rock, Metal and Folk – the melodies are remarkably folky on ‘Under The Red Cloud’ – into a cocktail that transcends either of the three genres.

While the album is of consistently high quality throughout, a few songs stand out. It’s amazing how ‘Dark Path’ combines one of the album’s most melodic choruses with the dissonant  drama of the verses and the tranquillity of the middle section. ‘Death Of A King’ brings to mind my favorite song of the Finns (‘Better Unborn’) through its electic sitar melody and its supreme use of dynamics, ‘The Four Wise Ones’ is a surprisingly brutal track and the dark, brooding nature of ‘Enemy At The Gates’ is a breath of fresh air. I love the contrasts in ‘Bad Blood’ as well.

During a time when the contemporary Metal scene increasingly bores the living crap out of me, it’s good to have a band like Amorphis around. Their unique melodic approach and melancholic romanticism – which is more present than ever on ‘Under The Red Cloud’ – accounts for a very pleasant listening experience. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Esa Holopainen is one of my favorite lead guitarists around, because his approach to melody (instead of speed) and tone is virtually unrivalled. ‘Under The Red Cloud’ is further evidence that Amorphis are still the masters of the sound they have created themselves.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Blood’, ‘Death Of A King’, ‘The Four Wise Ones’, ‘Enemy At The Gates’