Archive for October, 2016

Album of the Week 43-2016: Bad Company – Bad Company

Back in the seventies, supergroups sometimes actually were bigger than the sum of their parts. Led Zeppelin could be considered one, but the first band to release an album on their Swan Song label is an even better example. Bad Company combined the talents of Free’s Paul Rodgers (vocals, piano) and Simon Kirke (drums), Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and bassist Boz Burrell, who played on one King Crimson album. Their debut is one of the best albums ever released; practically every track is essential seventies rock with all the riffs and melodies you could wish for. And the album art is iconic.

Maybe this is sacrilege, but as much as I like Free, I have always preferred Bad Company. It’s a matter of performance versus composition. Free had loosely written structures that could be adjusted to the immense improvisational talents of – primarily – their late guitarist Paul Kossoff. Bad Company has tight, concise songs with highly memorable choruses and nice tension and release workings. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any impressive performances; Rodgers is one of the world’s greatest singers and always delivers, while Burrell is one of the very few bass virtuosos whose busy playing works on a bluesy rock record.

Sure, the market was flooded with bluesy hardrock by the time ‘Bad Company’ was released in 1974, but in the midst of excessive, drug-fueled jamming, the quartet brought the genre back to its bare essentials. Armed with a handful of good riffs and a bunch of melodies that will forever stick to the back of your mind, the band recorded a record of which almost every song is still a staple on classic rock stations worldwide. And it makes sense: songs like ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Movin’ On’ just feel right and have you singing – or at least moving – along during the first spin.

Even more interesting are the moments when the band takes things in a somewhat darker direction. The namesake track is beyond brilliant. From a brooding piano intro, the verses only have the guitar adding atmospheric touches before exploding in the chorus. Rodgers’ vocal is among his most moving performances yet. The same can be said about the subdued, bluesy masterpiece ‘Ready For Love’, which Ralphs took with him from his Mott The Hoople days. ‘Rock Steady’ is fairly straightforward, but has a brilliant, dangerous sounding chorus. And while the album sounds fairly American, the beautiful closer ‘Seagull’ brings the folk of Bad Company’s British home soil to the forefront.

While the original lineup of Bad Company would go on to release more fantastic albums – and even their less impressive records feature a number of mindblowing songs – their debut album is one of those moments where all the stars align and everything sounds just right. Of course it helps to have so much talent in one band, but that alone will not result in a timeless classic that still sounds as fresh today as it must have sounded the day it was release. I’m just assuming there, because I wasn’t born until twelve years after its release. Songwriting as it’s done on ‘Bad Company’ transcends trends and technological development. That’s why it’s still amazing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Company’, ‘Ready For Love’, ‘Seagull’

Another Gitarist cover story!

Personally, I was quite surprised that I got another cover story this month. Yes, Kensington is one of Holland’s biggest bands at the moment and I did have a very interesting chat with their guitarists Eloi Youssef and Casper Starreveld about their new album ‘Control’, but seeing the former on the cover surprised me pleasantly. Also, I interviewed Animals As Leader’s guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes when they played in Holland three months ago. Now that their new album ‘The Madness Of Many’ is almost released, it’s finally published. It’s easily one of the most technically tinted conversations I’ve had in the past years and let’s be honest: what better band to do that with than the band with two eight string guitarists, one of which has an outlandish signature model?

And there’s more interesting stuff. Steve Rothery gets some deserved space in the magazine and the time is right, because Marillion just released an album that is easily their best since 2004’s ‘Marbles’. And Allen Hinds just released ‘Fly South’ and extensively tells us about his history with guitars. Sadly, I didn’t write either story, but reading them was very interesting. Besides that, there’s a load of album reviews – most of which I did write – and more gear reviews than you can imagine. And if you’re an acoustic guitarist and wonder how to improve your live sound, we have a feature that is tailor made for you.

It’s on the shelves now. I can give you more reasons to get it on request.

Album of the Week 42-2016: Loudness – Loudness

After Loudness’ failed attempt at broadening their western appeal by recording two albums with American singer Michael Vescera, guitarist and bandleader Akira Takasaki must have had a few demons to exorcise. There’s no other way to explain how he moved from the softest Loudness record to what was at the time their heaviest. Takasaki’s guitar riffs dominate their self-titled, but the all-star cast of Japanese metal musicians all bring something to the table to make this a memorable, vicious slab of heavy metal. Despite being released in a period where turmoil affected their input negatively, ‘Loudness’ is a must-have record.

Takasaki and drummer Munetaka Higuchi are joined here by former EZO singer Masaki Yamada, whose raw, passionate howls occasionally add a slightly sleazy edge to the songs, which especially works well in slower songs where Takasaki’s riffs have a somewhat bluesy feel. Also, bassist Masayoshi Yamashita left and the amazing Taiji Sawada – formerly of X Japan – took his place. Especially his tone works wonders here. Yamashita did still contribute the fine composition ‘Everyone Lies’, which is quite typically his somewhat unpredictable writing style. Speaking of tone: Takasaki has a nice, clear crunch to his guitar and Higuchi’s drums sound nice and ballsy.

Often this record is mistaken for a groove metal record, because most of the singles are midtempo tracks. But even the slower material here – the brooding, doomy stomp of opening track ‘Pray For The Dead’, the playful blues metal of ‘Black Widow’, the highly Black Sabbath-ish ‘Love Kills’ – is classic heavy metal that is more imaginative than the average mid-nineties American band. There’s always a few cool unexpected twists and in typical Takasaki style, there’s more notes in the riff than you can think of. Yamada’s raw vibrato is a thing you either love or hate, but I think it adds a great deal of power to the songs.

But the true highlights are the faster songs. ‘Waking The Dead’ combines a triplet feel with the bluesy approach of early heavy metal, ‘Hell Bites (From The Edge Of Insanity)’ is a little work of art which starts with a killer riff and from there on keeps on building up in tension and ‘Racing The Wind’ is classic Loudness heavy metal with a slightly more aggressive edge. But the song that really gets my blood boiling is closing track ‘Firestorm’, which builds from a midtempo intro to a borderline thrash stomper in the vein of ‘S.D.I’. Rhythmically, there’s a few interesting surprises and in the end, the song annihilates all that’s in its path. ‘Slaughter House’ is a combination of both extremes.

Some records get ignored simply because they’ve been released in an unfortunate era of a band’s career. I’m afraid ‘Loudness’ is one of those records. For me, it’s the Loudness album that I revisit most. I love the combination of Takasaki’s most aggressive riff work and the rough vocal cords of Yamada, who I tend to prefer over original singer Minoru Niihara. It’s too bad that both Sawada and Higuchi left the band after this record and Loudness started a period of simply being lost, because the magic heard on this record is excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Firestorm’, ‘Hell Bites (From The Edge Of Insanity)’, ‘Racing The Wind’

Album of the Week 41-2016: Labÿrinth – Return To Heaven Denied

Romantic isn’t the first word you think of when it comes to metal. Yet it’s exactly the first adjective that comes to mind when describing Labÿrinth’s sophomore album ‘Return To Heaven Denied’. That doesn’t mean the record is full of shallow love songs. Okay, it’s not extremely heavy, but there’s plenty of fast, intricate riffing going on to please the fans of more progressive metal styles and the celestial melodies should enchant those who love the more melodic side of power metal. To me, the album has yet to lose the appeal it had around its release almost two decades ago.

When ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ was released, power metal did go through some sort of underground revival sorely needed to counteract the tough guy posturing of hardcore and nu-metal, but even within the relatively lightweight Italian scene, the atmosphere on ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ is unique. The production helps; guitarists Olaf Thörsen and Anders Cantarelli lay down some impressive chops – and their acoustics shimmer! – but they never overpower the rest. Even when Frank Rublotta’s drums roll at full speed, they blend in. Roberto Tiranti’s voice is expressive enough to fit an Italo pop record, but also powerful enough for metal.

If the last paragraph didn’t clarify the sound well enough, everything I have just described is present in opening track ‘Moonlight’. And while many things happen within that song, it retains this smooth flow that makes it feel like one song. Of course such a great chorus works wonders, but the guitar and keyboard melodies are equally impressive. And just check out that subtle tempo change after the choruses: simply brilliant. ‘New Horizons’ and ‘Time After Time’ follow a similar formula, while ‘Lady Lost In Time’ and ‘Thunder’ highlight the speedier side of the Italian sextet.

Of course there are ballads on a record with a romantic atmosphere. And they’re quite good too. ‘The Night Of Dreams’ balances on the line between beautiful and kitschy, but ‘Heaven Denied’ has an incredible build-up and ‘Falling Rain’ is simply breathtaking with its desperate atmosphere and stunning guitar solos. ‘State Of Grace’ combines both extremes into a melodic, elegant and utterly beautiful song which could have been a minor radio hit at the time. It’s catchy enough to have been one. Of further notability is the cover of ‘Feel’, originally by German techno trance collective Cenith X, which works better as a metal instrumental than it maybe should have.

At the time, Labÿrnth’s type of melodic and somewhat romantic power metal was called “gay” or “chicks’ metal” by the fans of downtuned modern metal that I somehow surrounded myself with and admittedly, I can see why the female metal crowd would like this, but the fact is: I love it too. The atmosphere is there to carry you away beyond – to quote ‘Moonlight’ – the ivory gates of dreamland, but the album also carries enough merits from a musicality viewpoint. While Labÿrinth spent the majority of this century’s first decade in a sizeable identity crisis, not many bands get to release even one record this good. With such a perfect album cover.

Recommended tracks: ‘Moonlight’, ‘State Of Grace’, ‘New Horizons’, ‘Falling Rain’

Album of the Week 40-2016: Epica – The Holographic Principle

Regardless of your opinion on Epica, you have to admire their ambition. This time, the band decided to beef up their already bombastic sound by leaving orchestral samples for what they are and using only real instruments. That may seem like a minor detail, but it won’t take long to realize that ‘The Holographic Principle’ is sonically spectacular. All instruments have an unprecedented brightness and an energy to them. And even more impressively: the increasing heaviness of the Dutch sextet surprisingly also continues here. Everything about the album is supersized and that works much better than it should have.

Admittedly, I also dismissed Epica as just another Goth band initially, but ever since former God Dethroned members Ariën van Weesenbeek (drums) and Isaac Delahaye (guitars) have joined the band, their sound grew heavier and more interesting. A lot of things happen within the songs. Not just arrangement-wise, but also compositionally. There are bands on the more progressive end of the spectrum whose material is more predictable. And there’s something exciting and energetic about the record that should be the norm in contemporary Metal. If it was, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about the future of the genre.

What impressed me most upon first notice is how memorable the riffs are. Even moreso than the choruses. The main riff to ‘Edge Of The Blade’ refused to leave my head for days. This is essential to the album’s brilliance, because even though there is quite a bit of chugging on the lowest string, this memorability gives every song a face of its own. None of the songs sound alike. Riff heavy monsters like ‘Divide And Conquer’, ‘The Cosmic Algorithm’, the closing titular epic or the amazing ‘Tear Down Your Walls’ all approach the guitar work differently. It’s what keeps the album interesting through multiple spins.

Obviously, the orchestral instruments leave their mark on the sound of the record. The band has worked with actual string instruments and choirs in the past, but the input of the flutes and other wind instruments is notable here. Or listen to how the percussion augments the atmosphere of the darker sections in ‘Dancing In A Hurricane’. Or how cinematic the interaction between the heavy guitars and the orchestra is in ‘Ascension -Dream State Armageddon-‘. But even when the record focuses more on Delahaye’s guitars, like on ‘A Phantasmic Parade’ – of which the verse sounds like an inversion of the one in Black Sabbath’s ‘Behind The Wall Of Sleep’ – there’s a certain bombastic quality present.

Vocally, the band has made quite some progress as well. Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of grunts, but Mark Jansen’s sound nice and intense here. Simone Simons still isn’t my cup of tea; she’s a very capable mezzosoprano, but I don’t find the higher registers of her more “Pop” range very pleasant to listen to. However, even in that range, she delivers one of her best performances yet here. A special mention goes out to Van Weesenbeek: he is simply what a contemporary Metal drummer should sound like. Technically superb, but also a hard hitter. Simply excellent.

Ultimately, only ‘Beyond The Matrix’ fails to impress me and that’s just because I think its chorus lacks power. It’s quite simple: ‘The Holographic Universe’ should be a delight to anyone who enjoys symphonic Metal, regardless of what additional subgenre you choose to decorate it with. It’s a highly dynamic, energetic record with a dozen of very interesting compositions. In a way, it’s the album I’d wanted Rhapsody to make for a long time, albeit with a more contemporary edge in the shape of grunts and seven string guitars. One of the better Metal releases this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ascension -Dream State Armageddon-‘, ‘Tear Down Your Walls’, ‘Edge Of The Blade’, ‘The Holographic Principle -A Profound Understanding Of Reality-‘

More Epica in Interface

As I had implied in my post about this month’s issue of Gitarist: Mark Jansen and Isaac Delahaye weren’t the only people with whom I spoke about the recording of Epica’s brand new album ‘The Holographic Principle’. I also went to the Sandlane studio to talk with keyboard player Coen Janssen and the production team, consisting of producer Joost van den Broek and engineer Jos Driessen. We had a very pleasant chat about the pre-production and the recording process, as well as a handful of technical details. Are you curious yet? Well, as luck would have it, it’s available in all good bookstores throughout the Netherlands and Flanders as of today.

Album of the Week 39-2016: Pentagram – Unspoken

Pentagram’s second album with the excellent singer Murat İlkan was the last one that was released internationally, albeit under the band name Mezarkabul outside of Turkey to avoid confusion with the American Doom Metal band Pentagram. The fact that the record contained songs in English exclusively raises the suspicion that the band was still aiming for the international market, but luckily, the Middle-Eastern scales and slight Folk leanings – emphasizsed by the ney playing courtesy of session musician İlhan Baruçu – are still present in Pentagram’s well-written, mostly midtempo Heavy Metal. ‘Unspoken’ is not too complex, yet has a depth many bands in the genre should envy.

While the record isn’t quite as adventurous as its direct predecessor ‘Anatolia’, ‘Unspoken’ does a good job consolidating Pentagram’s style. Up until this point, the band was searching for their comfort zone, incorporating elements of Heavy Metal, Thrash Metal, Power Metal and even some progressive touches. Here, the band really found its style. The tempo is never really high, but that gives the melodies and İlkan – Turkey’s Bruce Dickinson – all the room they need to shine. The aggression is mainly limited to Hakan Utangaç’s incredibly crunchy rhythm guitar, but since the songs are so strong, that really isn’t a problem.

If there ever was a true opening salvo on a Pentagram record, it’s here. After the excellent intro ‘We Come From Nowhere’, ‘In Esîr Like An Eagle’ is probably the ultimate opening track the band ever recorded. Epic Heavy Metal to the max with relatively simple, but brutally effective riffs and one of İlkan’s finest vocal performances to date. After the crushing heaviness of the title track, ‘Lions In A Cage’ is probably the most Middle-Eastern sounding song on the record and one of the highlights in Pentagram’s discography. ‘For The One Unchanging’ manages to be progressive and extremely passionate at the same time.

The instrumental ‘Mezarkabul’ – which, like the outro ‘For Those Who Died Alone’, is good, but slightly too long – functions as sort of an act break, after which the slightly more experimental second half of the album follows. As a result, it’s somewhat less memorable, although the heartfelt ‘This Too Will Pass’ has a chorus that won’t leave your head. ‘Pain’ is probably the most Doomy track the Turks have ever recorded and ‘Puratu’ features a highly progressive middle section. The guitar solos courtesy of Onur ‘Cat’ Pamukçu and Metin Türkcan – the latter of which joined as a fulltime member shortly after the album’s release – really stand out here.

Regardless of what name graces the cover, anyone who comes across ‘Unspoken’ – or really anything the band released after the mid-nineties – should get it. Not many bands these days have as much character as Pentagram does and unlike many contemporary Metal bands, they don’t need an overload of intricate riffs or clashing styles to create a rich, interesting sound. And they’re not quite as highbrow about their cultural heritage as some other bands from the region are: the influence is there, it just blends with the Heavy Metal sound perfectly. Worth a listen for anyone bored with the uniformity of contemporary western Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lions In A Cage’, ‘In Esîr Like An Eagle’, ‘For The One Unchanging’