Archive for March, 2016

Textures and other guitar heroes in Gitarist

Sometimes, I’m just extremely proud to see my work in Gitarist. Case in point: the interview with Bart Hennephof and “new kid” Joe Tal in Gitarist. I’m quite content with how the story turned out, but I’m also happy that the magazine used the pictures I took there. Be sure to read it if it interests you and if you haven’t yet, check out their new record ‘Phenotype’, because it is quite likely their best record so far. Surprisingly, it’s both their most progressive and their most accessible work thus far. Definitely worth your time.

That’s not the only thing I did for this month’s issue. I talked with Birth Of Joy frontman Kevin Stunnenberg about their fantastic new album ‘Get Well’, I spoke to Monomyth guitarist Thomas van den Reydt about making new music to the classic German movie ‘Das Kabinett Des Dr. Caligari’, I spoke to Joe Bonamassa about being elected Guitarist of the Year by our readers to augment an interview about his brand new album ‘Blues Of Desperation’ and I had a nice chat with JD Simo about the clinic he will give at Max Guitar on April 9th. And there’s a wealth of reviews as well, most notably Zakk Wylde’s new acoustic based album – I was pleasantly surprised – and Myrath’s stellar new album, which was Album of the Week on this blog a couple of weeks ago.

And that’s not where the fun stops. There’s a big feature on guitar and bass strings, there’s an interview with slide guitar queen Bonnie Raitt, Steven Wilson tells us about his guitar history and there’s loads and loads of product tests. Did I mention it’s in stores today?

Album of the Week 12-2016: Metal Church – XI

When Metal Church announced the return of their best singer Mike Howe, I was moderately positive. Moderately, because Howe hadn’t been in any professional band since leaving Metal Church in the mid-nineties and time can be quite merciless on the human voice. Besides, I was quite fond of Ronny Munroe’s natural grit. Howe’s voice, however, has stood the test of time remarkably well and apparently fired up founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof to write his most inspired set of songs since the band’s original reunion, leaning very carefully toward the darker, more progressive tendencies of the earlier Howe-era. A very welcome change.

Recent Metal Church albums weren’t bad at all, but lacked the urgency that marked their classic work. While ‘XI’ doesn’t entirely escape that problem – a song like ‘Signal Path’ is decent enough, but not as memorable as it should be – it’s definitely the type of album you’ll spin completely instead of skipping to the better tracks. What helps in that regard is the production job; everything is well balanced and Jeff Plate’s drum sound is so much more natural than what is the norm for contemporary Metal records and therefore a lot more pleasant to listen to. Producers should take notes.

But in the end, what really counts is the song material. I was sort of afraid that the band had already hit us with their best shot when ‘No Tomorrow’ surfaced. It’s a nice epic riff fest in which Mike Howe really plays to his strengths, avoiding the highest regions of his range, but still retaining a lot of it. So how does it hold up to the rest of the album? Well, although it is the best song on ‘XI’, there are quite a few songs that come close. Especially those with highly memorable guitar riffs, like opening track ‘Reset’ or the amazing contemporary USPM of ‘Soul Eating Machine’.

‘XI’ really surprises when the band experiments with slower tempos. Of course, with a singer like Howe, you’ll want to give him the space and slower tempos tend to help that. But it’s also the riff work courtesy of Vanderhoof and Rick Van Zant that really shine in songs like the dark and progressive ‘It Waits’ and ‘Shadow’, which sounds like a cross between ‘Fake Healer’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven And Hell’. ‘Sky Falls In’ sounds like it would turn into a Bluesy Rock shuffle, but instead, becomes a powerful midtempo stomper. Fans of faster material can’t go wrong with ‘Needle And Suture’ or closing track ‘Suffer Fools’.

If it’s Howe’s return or a lucky combination of circumstances that drove Vanderhoof to writing his best material in years remains to be seen, but it’s a fact that ‘XI’ is a thoroughly enjoyable album full of memorable riffs, hooky songwriting and amazing vocals. If that doesn’t make a great traditional Heavy Metal record, I don’t know what does. And it’s probably a coincidence, but releasing this in the Easter weekend does justify to spend your time on at least one “Church”.

Recommended tracks: ‘No Tomorrow’, ‘Soul Eating Machine’, ‘It Waits’

Sixth season. When’s the movie?

After months of waiting – I couldn’t get Yahoo! Screen to run properly due to region issues, then it went out of business and the DVD release got postponed more than once – I finally had the chance to see the sixth and final season of ‘Community’, my favorite television series ever. And though I initially had some concerns, most prominently the departure of Yvette Nicole Brown (who played Shirley Bennett) and Donald Glover (who played Troy Barnes), I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. It certainly is different from the first three seasons, but the thirteen episodes displayed all the quirks and intelligent sitcom writing I’ve come to love about the show.

What does jump out is that the different medium allows for a different pacing. Because the writers weren’t confined to the network mandated 22 minute limit, they could branch out a little in this season, though never over half an hour. That may seem a little off-putting at first, because the delivery isn’t quite as rapid-fire as it used to be, but once you get used to it, the extra breathing room actually enhances the emotional weight of the acting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a bigger emphasis on the drama, but it doesn’t exactly hurt it either. And due to the season’s highly conceptual nature, I feel the extra time was needed. Some of the season 5 episodes with the same tendency (‘Geothermal Escapism’ most prominently) suffered from the time limitations.

One of the revelations of this season is the addition of Paget Brewster as the consultant Francesca ‘Frankie’ Dart. I must admit that I’ve been a bit of a fan of Brewster since her guest role in ‘Friends’ and this character is more proof of why she’s great for any sitcom: she has a dramatic gravitas without letting her comedic talents suffer from that. Perfect for a character who functions as sort of a voice of reason. Albeit flawed, because we are dealing with Greendale Community College here. In fact, Frankie’s struggle to adapt to the cast’s ongoing insanity is the source for a majority of this season’s comedy, although Ken Jeong’s surprisingly restrained and heartfelt performance as Ben Chang isn’t far behind.

Keith David, the other “new kid” who plays Elroy Patashnik, has a bit of a weird dynamic with the rest of the main cast. David is a class act for sure, but you could see that the writers were a little too committed to making him a substitute for both Troy Barnes and Pierce Hawthorne (portrayed by Chevy Chase, who left the fold quite some time ago) to play to his strengths. Him being the only African-American actor on the main cast does offer a proper canvas for Greendale’s hilarious political hypercorrectness – which consistently borders on racism, of course – but I feel David’s character doesn’t quite get the development it deserves. Then again, there are some moments that suggests he was meant to be sort of a shielded personality and I love David’s acting.

It’s quite obvious that the crew decided to go all-out one more time now that they were working with more creative freedom than ever. The end tags are really something else this time around, often litterally. ‘Grifting 101’, which features large portions of Matt Berry (‘The IT Crowd’) just the way we love him, is an even weirder brother to the brilliant season 2 episode ‘Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design’ and as such would have been too bizarre for network television. In a similar way, I think ‘Modern Espionage’ would have at least suffered the pressure to emphasize the paintball element more. ‘Laws Of Robotics And Party Rights’ features some laugh-out-loud silliness that shouldn’t work, but does. All combined with the heart that is so important ‘Community’. In a way, that combination makes this season a little thank you gift to all the fans that have stuck by the show’s side for six seasons.

Naturally, we can’t discuss a final season without talking about the finale (‘Emotional Consequences Of Broadcast Television’) and I can only say it is exactly what we could have asked for. It’s funny, the season 5 finale failed at its attempt to translate the general wonder what the story would be if there’s no more story, but it’s exactly that sentiment that is played out so perfectly this time around. With a short guest spot for a surprisingly slender Yvette Nicole Brown to make it feel more complete. It’s a very wordy episode with very little gags or jokes, but it’s perfect. I can see why the big Winger speech, this time delivered by Abed Nadir (as always expertly played by Danny Pudi) made the cast cry and seeing Jeff Winger (synonymous with Joel McHale’s development as an actor) actually care deeply about anything is the perfect way to round the story out. It’s a tearjerker for sure, but not as depressing as you might expect.

Ultimately, season six is directed at hardcore ‘Community’ fans obviously and those of you who are – including yours truly – will enjoy it immensely. A few episodes fall flat – I’m not too fond of ‘Intro To Recycled Cinema’ and ‘Wedding Videography’ is decent, but the concept has been done better before – but all in all, it’s a great season to round out what I consider the most brilliant show ever to have appeared on television. Now all we need is that movie that the series promised us. In fact, it does it again at the end of the finale. Please, Dan Harmon, if you won’t do it, I will, and we all know no one would want that.

Album of the Week 11-2016: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

Contemporary Jazz generally doesn’t appeal to me. Except when it does. That sounds a bit trivial and it probably is, but some artists just connect with me. Like Trombone Shorty. And Esperanza Spalding. Her unique musical vision and relatively song oriented approach has already resulted in a couple of good albums – I quite enjoyed 2012’s ‘Radio Music Society’ – but with ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, Spalding obviously had an approach in mind that required a tight-knit band. The result is a highly dynamic and surprisingly guitar heavy album that combines equal parts of Jazz, R&B and Rock, as well as hints of Pop.

Esperanza Spalding’s work on the bass – both acoustic and electric – is second to none, but in the past, her voice has sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. She’s obviously a very skilled singer, but when she breaks away from her standard alto range, she somehow reached a frequency that I personally didn’t enjoy listening to. She still does that on ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, but for whatever reason, it works a lot better for me this time. At times, it feels like I’m listening to a 21st century R&B version of Kate Bush, with whom she shares an eccentricity, but not a style.

Apparently, Spalding put together the band especially for this album. The drums are handled quite proficiently by either Justin Tyson or Karriem Riggins, but the true revelation of the record – besides Spalding herself, obviously – is guitarist Matthew Stevens, whose seamless transitions between restrained riffing and distorted madness is largely responsible for the Fusion-like feel of the majority of ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. Whether he and Spalding collaborate on a crazy riff in unison (‘Funk The Fear’), goes wild with a solo (the alternate version of ‘Unconditional Love’) or sets the mood with a Hendrix and Zeppelin meet jazzy dissonance riff (opening track ‘Good Lava’), it makes for a truly pleasant listening experience.

Because the number of musicians per track is relatively limited – four of the album’s tracks were even recorded solely by Spalding, Stevens and Riggins – these songs really get the room they need to breathe. With the number of styles covered on the album, it could easily have become a bloated mess of virtuosos, but in this composition it just works. The rhythms can be funky if they need to, the chords can hit hard when the song asks for it and there’s plenty of room for Spalding’s trademark dreamy contemplations.

The eclectic, but still smooth and song oriented appraoch of the album makes ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ a genre transcending masterpiece that could easily work as a gateway record for R&B or Rock enthusiasts who consider delving deeper into Jazz. And with Spalding being in her early thirties, it makes me hopeful about what the future will bring. I’m hoping for more works of the same brilliance, but even if ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ turns out to be too good to equal, it can still be seen as a crowning achievement for her. As a bass player, as a singer, as a band leader and as a songwriter. An absolute must.

Recommended tracks: ‘Good Lava’, ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Change Us’, ‘Judas’

Album of the Week 10-2016: Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel 3

After two albums of progressive, yet still pretty conventional music – just how conventional an album that involves Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp can really be is open for debate – Gabriel really immersed himself into synthesizers, African rhythms, drums without cymbals and proto-electronic music on his third self-titled record, nicknamed ‘Melt’ for its album cover. It says enough about how ahead of his time Gabriel was that this album – released in 1980 – sounds like it’s from the mid to late eighties. But even disregarding the album’s progressive nature, the song material itself is among the best Gabriel has ever recorded.

Gabriel has always danced on the line between progressive and accessible and though ‘So’ – an amazing album in its own right – was his mainstream breakthrough, not one other album of Gabriel’s balances out those extremes so perfectly. There’s a lot of darkness in the lyrics on the album, but Gabriel and his producer Steve Lillywhite always find a way to give the songs a hook. That’s probably how the cynical ‘Games Without Frontiers’, which spots a distinct guest performance by Kate Bush, became this album’s unlikely hit song. In fact, it was his most successful single at the time.

There’s not really anything like a common sound throughout the album. Though apart from the somewhat upbeat ‘And Through The Wire’, most of the songs are dark and rhythmical. The maniacal ‘I Don’t Remember’ with its fantastic Chapman stick work courtesy of Tony Levin and ‘Not One Of Us’ bring sound like they’re built from the same artistic ideas as what the Talking Heads were doing at the time, whereas the tuned ideophones of the brilliantly structured ‘No Self Control’ seem to prelude his later forays into African-inspired music. Speaking of the African inspiration: there’s ‘Biko’, Gabriel’s stately, brooding tribute to the anti-apartheid activist.

My personal favorite of the record is the bleak, dark opening track ‘Intruder’. With it’s pronounced drum pattern – Gabriel’s former Genesis mate Phil Collins and his first experiment with gated drum sounds – and dissonant main riff, as well as the subdued danger in Gabriel’s voice make this song amazingly atmospheric. Nightmare fuel maybe, but it’s a great mood-setter for an album that isn’t all that cheerful anyway. The somewhat more conventional sounding ‘Family Snapshot’ is another highlight. It builds from a piano ballad to several fantastic climaxes and as a result, it has a sense of drama that is rare in progressive music.

Of course, Peter Gabriel would become more famous with subsequent albums, but while his first two self-titled albums had a couple of amazing moments, this is the first album to fully capture his unique and as of yet unequaled artistic vision. While not without hooks, this masterpiece is rather an album that slowly reveals its secrets to the listener through multiple spins and in a way, those are usually the albums with the largest replay value. Highly recommended to everyone who likes profound, truly progressive music and doesn’t mind a cynical, gloomy observation every now and then.

Recommended tracks: ‘Intruder’, ‘Family Snapshot’, ‘I Don’t Remember’

Album of the Week 09-2016: Alkaloid – The Malkuth Grimoire

Recently, I praised Obscura’s excellent new record ‘Akróasis’. It showed that frontman Steffen Kümmerer could make great albums even without the rest of the classic lineup. Last year, drummer Hannes Grossmann and guitarist Christian Münzner – along bassist Linus Klausenitzer, who is still in Obscura – proved that it’s also true the other way around. ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’ may not be as instantly recognizable as Obscura’s work, but it’s a downright fabulous work of progressive extreme Metal. In fact, while the music does expand upon the traditions set by the likes of Death, it’s really quite unique in atmosphere and structure.

Don’t mistake this for a simple Obscura spin-off. Alkaloid’s music is darker, sometimes even somewhat unsettling and several passages are really more progressive Rock than Metal. Part of that is probably the influence of singer and occasional guitarist Florian Magnus Maier, who is prone to adapt a darker approach in songwriting, but since Grossmann wrote just about as much material, it seems like he wanted to go in that direction as well. Maier’s switching between grunts and clean vocals – though still rather raw most of the time – really augments the shifts in atmosphere, which is where the album really outdoes any competition.

Besides, the band has three amazing lead guitarists. Münzner was forced to leave Obscura due to a disease that affects his fingers, but his dexterity, as well as the highly melodic nature of his lead work, really shines here. Danny Tunker, who played with the likes of Aborted and Detonation, also plays better than he ever has here, while Maier’s more abstract solo’s really add an interesting layer to the record. And that doesn’t even apply to Maier’s guitar sample collage ‘C-Value Enigma’, which brings to mind Zappa’s ‘G-Spot Tornado’. The album even closes with a brilliant solo section; the perfect conclusion to the amazing build-up of ‘Funeral For A Continent’.

What makes the album so unique is that it’s constantly on the move. A lot of modern, progressively tinged bands are just in your face all the time, but Alkaloid lets its music breathe. There’s a lot of clean and acoustic guitar moments – opening track ‘Carbon Phrases’ and the simply amazing ‘Orgonism’ for instance – to balance out the extreme heaviness of a track like ‘Cthulhu’ or the hyperactive speed of ‘Alter Magnitudes’. That’s also why the album’s longer songs, most notably Maier’s tetralogy ‘Dyson Sphere’ and the aforementioned ‘Funeral For A Continent’, stay interesting throughout their length.

To a certain extent, the same goes for the entire album. With a running time of 73 minutes, it’s an incredibly long album, but it still leaves you wanting more. In a time of increasing musical interchangeability, that is quite an impressive achievement. It does help that the musicians involved never let their obvious virtuosity get in the way of the music, but use it to augment the songs they have written. And isn’t that exactly what virtuosity should be used for in the first place? Let this album be a lesson to any progressive Death Metal band around these days.

Recommended tracks: ‘Funeral For A Continent’, ‘Orgonism’, ‘Carbon Phrases’

Vegetation-based names in Gitarist

No, seriously. The bands I have interviewed for this issue of Gitarist are named Black Stone Cherry – about their surprisingly good new record ‘Kentucky’ – and Mandrake’s Monster. So apparently, I was attracted to plants this month. Both interviews were pleasant meetings and if you haven’t heard of Mandrake’s Monster, be sure to check them out live, because their as of yet unreleased new material is incredible. It’s a bold step to go that heavy and that poppy at the same time, but they blew me away at Eurosonic Noorderslag. Speaking of which: there’s a photo spread of the shots I took at that festival in the new Gitarist as well.

As if that wasn’t enough already, there is an extensive article on Megadeth’s fantastic new album ‘Dystopia’ in which both band leader Dave Mustaine and new guitarist Kiko Loureiro – who is also half of the guitar duo in one of my favorite Power Metal bands: Angra – are interviewed. The other large specials are about the guitarists who worked with David Bowie – despite my intense dislike for his music, the article is very interesting – and the NAMM Show, where my colleagues have had a first look at many interesting instruments, amplifiers and peripheral equipment for the rest of the year. Alice Cooper’s guitarist Nita Strauss speaks with us in the wake of her first clinic, there’s the amazing Robert Cray, there’s loads of gear reviews… Plenty of fun for the guitar geek.

This issue should be in stores throughout Holland and Belgium from today. Get it while it still has that great new magazine smell!