Archive for December, 2015

25 years of Gitarist and Walter Trout!

Looking for something to do during these dark, ridiculously warm December days? Maybe you should get the 25th anniversary issue of Gitarist! I’ve been working with the Gitarist crew only for the last seven, but the editors were kind enough to include me in their anniversary special. For every year of Gitarist’s existence, Michiel Roelse analyzes one remarkable guitar related product and I’ve done the same with three guitar albums per year. It was quite some work, but a lot of fun to do and I even discovered a thing or two along the way.

Furthermore, there’s a few reviews from my hand and two interviews. One of them is with Theo van Niel Jr., whose father used to own the Rocky Road record store in downtown The Hague, where I occasionally bought some music. Junior is an amazing lead guitarist and he has shown so on Mojo Man’s very cool self-titled debut album. Also, I spoke to Blues hero Walter Trout for the second time in a year and a half. Last time, he was recovering from hepatitis C; his life was barely saved by a liver transplant and he was so positive about the whole thing that he blew my mind. Now that he’s back performing, his positivity even went through the roof. These two interviews with him have left a lasting impression on me and so has his surprisingly good new record ‘Battle Scars’.

And if that’s not enough for you, there’s loads of interesting product tests and interviews with James Bay and Briqueville to lighten these dark days. In stores now!

Album of the Week 52-2015: Angra – Rebirth

For a country that has such passionate Power Metal fans, it’s remarkable that Brazil doesn’t have more bands of the caliber of Angra. Then again, not many bands in the genre worldwide are as good as Angra is. They have all the melodic qualities of European Power Metal bands, combined with the interesting songwriting of many Progmetal bands and something uniquely Brazilian – more on that later. Though ‘Aurora Consurgens’ might be my favorite due to the inclusion of some favorite songs, ‘Rebirth’ is every bit as good and probably the best representation of all aspects of Angra’s sound.

‘Rebirth’, as a title, shouldn’t be taken lightly. After original singer André Matos left the band, taking the rhythm section with him, many fans were afraid of Angra’s future. Matos’ replacement Edu Falaschi is a revelation though: his voice is much more powerful than the somewhat feminine tone of Matos and adds a little grit to the mix. Also, guitarists Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro took care of most of the songwriting and that’s probably why the Angra sound is still very much intact, while openings to other musical opportunities are all around, especially in the progressive tinges that seem to be Bittencourt’s doing.

Opening track ‘Nova Era’ is like a second coming of the band’s classic track ‘Carry On’: an uptempo and upbeat Power Metal track with positive lyrics to set the mood for the record. That doesn’t mean the whole album is filled with happy-go-lucky tunes. In fact, a lot of the songs have a darker tone or at least alternate between brooding sections and more hopeful segments, like ‘Millennium Sun’ and ‘Acid Rain’ do. The latter even has distinct Brazilian percussion in its awesome middle section, something that is expanded on ‘Unholy Wars’, which has an intro akin to Brazil’s beloved MPB and moves between a pulsating verse and middle section and a very positive chorus.

Many Power Metal are on the receiving end of quite some ridicule because of their ballads, but it has to be said: Angra is really good at them. ‘Heroes Of Sand’ is a pretty standard power ballad, though executed well enough to be quite enjoyable, but the album’s title track builds amazingly well from a pure power ballad to a strong progressive Metal section and back, while ‘Millennium Sun’ also qualifies due to its somber segment for piano and vocals in the beginning. Falaschi’s slightly raw edge contributes greatly to the quality of those songs as well.

Even though this could be said for most Angra albums, ‘Rebirth’ really deserves to be in any serious Power Metal collection. ‘Angels Cry’ is generally considered their classic album, but since I prefer Bittencourt’s songwriting to Matos’, I have to vote for this one. Also, while the neoclassical elements are still there, the increased progressive sound also means that ‘Rebirth’ is slightly less predictable. Regardless, if you like expertly written and quite likely even better played Power Metal, this is the way to go. Many European bands could listen to this album in envy.

Recommended tracks: ‘Unholy Wars’, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Acid Rain’, ‘Nova Era’

Album of the Week 51-2015: George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

George Harrison’s proper solo debut is easily the best record released by anyone ever involved with The Beatles. The Quiet Beatle’s songs were always my favorite of the legendary British quartet, but one listen to ‘All Things Must Pass’ is enough to make the listener realize that whatever reasons John Lennon and Paul McCartney had for not alowing more Harrison compositions on their records, they weren’t musical. Don’t let the fact that some of these songs were rejected by The Beatles fool you: this triple album is filled with amazing songwriting, a great deal of variation and an almost tangible joy of performing.

While McCartney was probably the best musician in The Beatles, Harrison was always craving musical innovation and that shows on ‘All Things Must Pass’. All of the songs have a strong Pop vibe, but there’s experiments with Folk, Americana, Rock, Blues and Gospel throughout the record and almost all of them are successful. In addition, Harrison assembled a cast of friends around him that consisted of musical legends like Eric Clapton, former Beatle Ringo Starr and the always amazing Billy Preston, while Bob Dylan contributed to the songwriting. But the true power of the album lies within the songs themselves.

Best known are the Gospel-light of ‘My Sweet Lord’ and the uplifting, almost celebratory ‘What Is Life’, but that’s not where the highlights stop. Opening track ‘I’d Have You Any Time’ is a surprisingly brooding ode to friendship, ‘Beware Of Darkness’ and ‘Hear Me Lord’ are brilliantly structured ballads that build toward fantastic climaxes. ‘The Art Of Dying’, which was recorded with what would become Derek And The Dominos, is a driving Hard Rock track with a dark vibe, awesome dual lead vocals and amazing lead guitar work by Clapton. Speaking of lead guitars: this is the record where Harrison’s slide guitar really came into its own.

Much of the album’s criticism is aimed at “Apple Jam”, the third record of Bluesy jam sessions. While I tend to agree that some of them go on a little too long and it would have been better had they been more evenly distributed over the records, it’s a delight to just hear the musicians play without any pretense or assertiveness. Even Phil Spector doesn’t dominate the record; where I usually consider his productions too busy, ‘All Things Must Pass’ sounds exactly like it’s supposed to sound. Harrison, co-producing the record, probably reigned him in a little.

Even people who aren’t necessarily into The Beatles should give ‘All Things Must Pass’ a chance. It’s a lot of material, but honestly: it’s worth it. What you hear here is a music lover with loads of different ideas who is finally free to share them with the world. How can I not love that? And while Harrison would continue to record quality albums afterward – ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Living In The Material World’ and his closing statement ‘Brainwashed’ most prominently – this is still the one that highlights all sides of his broad musical spectrum best. Recommended to everyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Art Of Dying’, ‘Hear Me Lord’, ‘Beware Of Darkness’

Album of the Week 50-2015: Galneryus – Under The Force Of Courage

Opinions on Galneryus’ previous album ‘Vetelgyus’ were divided. The album saw the band deviating from their trusted formula by injecting more Hardrock than usual into their highly melodic Power Metal sound. Personally I quite liked the record, but those of you who had their concerns need not worry: ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ manages to mix the catchy, yet musically interesting Power Metal of their era with current singer Masatoshi Ono with the epic, dramatic nature of their early work. And some refreshing Progmetal influences to boot. Whoever liked ‘Angel Of Salvation’ will certainly find something of their liking here.

What may help in terms of consistency is that ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ is a concept album. Its conceptual nature is apparent through recurring themes and interludial passages. The record has not one, but two intros and while that may seem a bit excessive, there’s enough proggy Power Metal euphoria between them to justify them. Yuhki seems to leave his mark when it comes to progressive influences; his keyboard sounds are really surprising and ‘Rain Of Tears’, one of his compositions, bears more than a passing resemblance to Symphony-X. These things are exactly what make this more than just another Galneryus record.

After the two intros, ‘Raise My Sword’ and ‘The Voice Of Grievous Cry’ open the album in pretty much trusted Galneryus fashion. They’re the upbeat Power Metal tracks one would expect the Japanese quintet to open their albums with. And that is no criticism, because it works. The latter has a main riff that blew me away upon first listen. The story seems to take a dark turn after that; the aforementioned ‘Rain Of Tears’ builds from a dark ballad to a section that even has guitarist and band leader Syu grunting and the following ‘Reward For Betrayal’ is one of the album’s highlights with its exciting structure and dramatic delivery.

‘Soul Of The Field’ also shows a few extreme Metal influences, especially in Junichi’s blast beats, but generally it’s a strong Power Metal track with a rather atypical 3/4 rhythm. But it is after ‘Chain Of Distress’ – one of the band’s better piano-based ballads – that the cake gets its icing. ‘The Force Of Courage’ is a mighty epic that is comparable to ‘Angel Of Salvation’ in more ways than its 14+ minute duration. It builds from an orchestral opening to a monumental, surprisingly catchy Power Metal track with mindblowing riffs (the one that starts shortly after the 2 minute mark is too good to believe) and virtuoso leads. The finale has a similar triumphant feel as well. Simply brilliant.

Coincidentally, ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ lasts almost exactly as long as ‘Angel Of Salvation’. That’s not where the comparison stops; both records are skillfully crafted, joyous slabs of Power Metal and a proof that Galneryus is still a force to be reckoned with. ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ just has a bit of a darker edge at times and a more epic, dramatic feel throughout. It may even convert a few fans who – unjustly – gave up on the band after original singer Yama-B left. Power Metal seems to be stagnating a bit in Europe, but luckily there’s bands like Jupiter and Galneryus in Japan to keep me satisfied.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Force Of Courage’, ‘Reward For Betrayal’, ‘Soul Of The Field’

Album of the Week 49-2015: The Mars Volta – The Bedlam In Goliath

Progrock hasn’t been all that progressive anymore in recent years. It used to be about stretching the borders of Rock music, but recently, Prog bands have gotten a little too comfortable emulating the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes and early Genesis. This is exactly why it’s a shame that The Mars Volta broke up: their music truly seemed to be borderless. Guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala combined their Post-Hardcore background with elements of Fusion, Funk, Latin and electronic music into a highly original and surprisingly listenable blend. Highly intricate, but listenable. Especially on ‘The Bedlam In Goliath’.

In a way, ‘The Bedlam In Goliath’ is The Mars Volta’s heaviest album. Throughout their history, the band has relied quite heavily on contrasting quiet and loud to great success. But while most of the songs on an album like ‘Frances The Mute’ are amazing, the quieter sections could have used some trimming. To keep it simple: they did. ‘The Bedlam In Goliath’ is based mainly on the crazy riff work by Rodríguez-López and former Peppers guitarist John Frusciante as well as the crazy, but remarkably Funky rhythms of bassist Juan Alderete and mind blowing drummer Thomas Pridgen.

Yes, the music manages to be busy and intricate, but Funky at the same time. As a result, the album turns out to be The Mars Volta’s most groove-driven record yet. For instance, the groove in ‘Ilyena’ is irresistible, even though it’s only marginally less busy than the rest of the album. Some songs – like the long ‘Cavalettas’ or the album’s sole quieter moment ‘Tourniquet Man’ – really only get their weirdness from Paul Hinojos’ sound manipulation; especially the former is rather straightforward rhythmically otherwise. The sound manipulation is sometimes on the verge of making things too abrasive, but it’s also a highly original and defining aspect of the record.

Although albums like these are really meant to be listened to in one sitting – most of the songs flow into each other – there are some standout tracks to be found. ‘Metatron’ is an early one due to the way it manages to work its way to exciting climaxes even without the quiet-loud contrast. The surprisingly accessible title track never feels like seven minutes. ‘Ouroborous’ has some amazing riff work and the following ‘Soothsayer’ has this exciting atmosphere due to the inclusion of vaguely Middle Eastern sounding strings. Dark stuff, but it’s fantastic.

The Mars Volta is really one of the very few exciting bands in recent Progressive Rock history. Their music manages to surprise on a regular basis, which is exactly what the genre set out to do in the beginning. The upside is that Rodríguez-López can actually write songs, which makes the record a delight to listen to, even though the mastering is a little too loud sometimes. The band’s eclectic approach means that people from such diverse bands as King Crimson, Santana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers may find something of their liking on the record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ouroborous’, ‘Soothsayer’, ‘Ilyena’