Archive for June, 2019

Album of the Week 26-2019: Megadeth – The System Has Failed

Originally devised as a Dave Mustaine solo album, ‘The System Has Failed’ eventually became Megadeth’s comeback on multiple levels. Not only did it feature Mustaine returning to activity after an intense arm injury sidelined him for at least a year and a half; it is also more or less unequivocally seen as the first great Megadeth album since 1992’s ‘Countdown To Extinction’. Personally, I think that seriously sells ‘Cryptic Writings’ short, but it is a fact that ‘The System Has Failed’ is the best thing Mustaine had released in a long time and still stands as the best 21st century Megadeth record.

Despite bearing the Megadeth name, calling ‘The System Has Failed’ a Mustaine solo record is not a stretch. This is the first Megadeth album that does not feature bassist David Ellefson and all the compositions are solely credited to Mustaine. In addition, the album was recorded with a lot of session musicians, though there is a consistent core of bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas, Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and – perhaps most surprisingly – lead guitarist Chris Poland, who played on the first two Megadeth records. Mustaine being who he is, however, this sounds like a reinvigorated version of Megadeth, with a few exceptions.

In a way, ‘The System Has Failed’ sounds like an anthology of all of Mustaine’s songwriting tropes. The riffy opening track ‘Blackmail The Universe’ bears a passing resemblance to ‘Set The World Afire’, the intricate, yet aggressive speed metal of ‘Kick The Chair’ is highly reminiscent of ‘Take No Prisoners’ and the rocking ‘Something That I’m Not’ feels like an improved version of ‘Architecture Of Aggression’ at times. The nostalgic heavy metal of the surprisingly melodic ‘Back In The Day’ doesn’t necessarily sound like any previous Megadeth tracks, but does highlight Mustaine’s love for the NWOBHM movement prominently.

That does not mean that Mustaine is going through the motions here. ‘The Scorpion’ is one of his most experimental tracks to date, marrying the atmosphere of OverKill’s latter day midtempo tracks with a progressive, at times almost symphonic arrangement effectively. Even better is the following ‘Tears In A Vial’, an epic heavy metal track with a dramatic feel that has familiar sections, but also a bit of a fresh approach. The melancholic and melodic majesty in the chorus of ‘Die Dead Enough’ may be more controversial, as Megadeth’s hardcore fans prefer the band less chorus-driven, but it’s an extremely well-written song that works very well within the context of the album.

Ultimately, the only problem with ‘The System Has Failed’ is that it ends relatively weakly – like most Megadeth albums. ‘Of Mice And Men’ is good enough, though a bit preachy, and ‘Truth Be Told’ has a bunch of cool ideas that don’t really transition into each other all that well, but listeners will eventually mainly remember the album for its first eight tracks. Those feature all the tight riffs, wild lead guitar parts and snarling lead vocals one has come to expect from Mustaine. Compared to the rest of their discography, it would fit nicely between ‘Rust In Peace’ and ‘Countdown To Extinction’, as it is more streamlined than the former, but infinitely more metal than the latter.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kick The Chair’, ‘Tears In A Vial’, ‘The Scorpion’, ‘Back In The Day’

Album of the Week 25-2019: Savatage – Hall Of The Mountain King

Depending on the era, Savatage is either the most classy of the first generation US power metal bands or the vehicle for producer Paul O’Neill’s rock opera ambitions. The first album O’Neill produced for the Floridians, however, screams eighties power metal. Often literally. Everything worthwhile about American heavy metal in the eighties can be heard here. Jon Oliva combines high-pitched screams with raw, surprisingly theatrical vocals which fits the dramatic progressions of the music and the at times overblown lyrics perfectly. If you want to know what Savatage originally was all about, ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ is your record.

In retrospective interviews, O’Neill often pointed out that Savatage needed to be re-established as a heavy metal band before they could move forward. The band had just been pressured into pandering to the commercial rock market with the staggeringly weak ‘Fight For The Rock’ a year prior. It would not be their commercial breakthrough and alienated their fan base. ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, by contrast, sounds like a more refined ‘Sirens’ or ‘The Dungeons Are Calling’. Criss Oliva’s Judas Priest-ish riff work and wild, mildly neoclassical soloing is all over the record, as are brother’s characteristic vocal histrionics.

Sure, the first seeds of O’Neill’s bombastic vision are sown here in the shape of ‘Prelude To Madness’, which features Criss Oliva interpreting the song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite that would eventually become the album title, but the majority of ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ is classic heavy metal. The title track in particular is about as perfect as USPM can get. Even past the standard talking points – Jon Oliva’s evil laughter and impassioned shrieks – there is still plenty to love. The main riff is perfect, as is the one in the middle section before the guitar solo and as heavy as it is, it’s also catchy as the flu.

Aside from that eternal classic, there is a lot to enjoy on ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’. Personally, I really like the idea of a jamming metal band on the end of ’24 Hrs. Ago’, especially after the tight aggression of the first half. ‘Legions’ is an easy to shout along midtempo metal anthem with some awesome riffing and the fast and aggressive ‘White Witch’ is borderline thrash. There are subtle shades of experimentalism here and there that make the songs just a tad better than the highlights on ‘Sirens’. The piano backing the main riff on ‘Devastation’ for instance, is almost unheard, but does give the whole thing an almost gothic vibe. The same goes for the keys on the dark monster ‘Beyond The Doors Of The Dark’.

Even during its most poppy moment, ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ convinces. The highly melodic ‘Strange Wings’ is a duet between Jon Oliva and Ray Gillen of Badlands and Black Sabbath fame. At first it may seem like Gillen was only brought in for the harmonies in the chorus, but his acrobatics in the climax are incredible. Combine these factors and you have a heavy metal record that is equal parts elegant, aggressive and memorable. It’s also relatively progressive at times, though it may seem a little primitive compared to what would follow with ‘Gutter Ballet’ (1989) and afterward. It is certainly some of the most well-written primitive stuff, however.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’, ‘Legions’, ‘Beyond The Doors Of The Dark, ‘Strange Wings’

Album of the Week 24-2019: Fates Warning – Inside Out

‘Inside Out’ always gets lost in the shuffle between the hyper-accessible ‘Parallels’ and the ultra-proggy monolith that is ‘A Pleasant Shade Of Gray’. Personally, I consider it superior to either of those. Sure, the flat production and the dull cover art really don’t do the songs any justice, but the classy melodicism that always characterized guitarist Jim Matheos’ songwriting is taken to its logical extreme here. I understand why many consider the album lacking in terms of heaviness and intricacy, but Fates Warning always was more about the songs than displays of virtuosity and ‘Inside Out’ fits that paradigm perfectly.

Stylistically, ‘Inside Out’ is pretty much a continuation of the sound heard on ‘Parallels’ three years prior, albeit with an even bigger emphasis on melancholic melodies. The arrangements are less dense, though the occasional rhythmic complexity is still there – this has Mark Zonder on drums, after all. In terms of songwriting, the material on ‘Inside Out’ is notably more tailored to Ray Alder’s vocal range, who simply delivers the performance of a lifetime here. Adapting the music to his voice rather than the other way around is a large part of why the album sounds the way it does.

‘Monument’ is the only song that has been a consistent live staple since the release of the album and it is not hard to understand why. With an incredible bass riff in 7/4 driving the song and some unexpected elements popping up, such asMatheos’ classical guitar solo, it could be characterized as the most progressive moment on the record. Alder’s impassioned performance is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Parallels’ highlight ‘Point Of View’ and the dynamics strongly enhance the atmosphere of the track. Along with the cool start-stop riffing of opening track ‘Outside Looking In’, it best represents the classic Alder-era Fates Warning sound.

As good as those songs are, however, the overall sound of the album is best portrayed by its more concise moments. ‘Pale Fire’ successfully marries Fates Warning’s accessible side with their progressive roots, while having a chorus that is so powerful that I can even forgive Matheos for rhyming “fire” with “desire”. ‘Face The Fear’ combines Zonder’s busy drum work with Matheos and Frank Aresti weaving a fantastic tapestry of riffs and bright, clean guitar strums and ‘The Strand’ probably would not have worked on any other Fates Warning album, but does here. Its atmosphere brings to mind mid-nineties alternative rock, just with significantly more inventive writing and playing.

Of course, ‘Inside Out’ is not perfect. ‘Down To The Wire’ is a blatant ‘We Only Say Goodbye’ rewrite, ‘Shelter Me’ is a tad too melodramatic and the inoffensive ballad ‘Island In The Stream’ really starts to drag halfway through. But everything else on here is much better than it tends to get credit for. It may not be the most challenging album from a playing viewpoint and the production really could have used some extra punch, but to dismiss Matheos’ songwriting here for not being prog enough would both be unfair and untrue.

Recommended tracks: ‘Monument’, ‘The Strand’, ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Face The Fear’

Album of the Week 23-2019: Capilla Ardiente – Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness

Chile’s two finest metal bands share two key members in the shape of singer/guitarist Felipe Plaza Kutzbach and bassist Claudio Botarro Neira. Both bands play doom metal of the more epic variety, but where Plaza Kutzbach’s Procession is more traditional along the lines of Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus, Botarro Neira’s Capilla Ardiente has a grimier, yet despair-ridden vibe reminiscent of early doom/death records by the likes of My Dying Bride. Combined with Plaza Kutzbach’s mournful, dramatic and always heartfelt clean vocal delivery, ‘Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness’ is an ambitious and incredibly powerful debut album that any fan of the genre should hear.

Being a doom metal band, Capilla Ardiente’s music is generally slow, but composer Botarro Neira is very aware of the fact that good doom metal demands more than just crawling tempos and a dreary feel. Songwriting-wise, ‘Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness’ is actually quite a step up from what most doom metal bands of the same generation do. Besides an intro that could easily be considered a part of the following song and a bass interlude, the album consists of four 10+ minute songs that don’t justify their length from their slow pace, but from being multi-faceted compositions.

Obviously, Capilla Ardiente is not content to let the same riff drag on for a few minutes even in the slowest parts of the songs. Within the songs, the band often switches between the different tempos on the slow to mid-tempo spectrum. ‘Towards The Midnight Ocean’, for instance, has a main section characterized by a Black Sabbath-esque shuffle before transforming into a quasi-Gregorian march and culminating in a few minutes of haunting ultra-doom, which seemingly go by in a breeze. It would be misleading to call the songwriting progressive, but there is definitely more to it than the blatant Candlemass worship of most epic doom bands.

For one thing, ‘Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness’ is a very listenable album that stays enjoyable all the way through. The atmosphere is monolithic and oppressive, but not in a way that entirely sucks the life out of its listener. There are interesting melodic and rhythmic developments galore and Julio Bórquez treats us to a handful of intense guitar solos, the sorrowful one during the funereal apotheosis of the highly dynamic closer ‘Into Unknown Lands’ being his crowning achievement on the album. There are even some slightly distorted bass solos that add to the variation on the record.

The music Capilla Ardiente makes has the potential to appeal to people who are generally intrigued, but ultimately bored by doom metal. ‘Bravery, Truth And The Endless Darkness’ does not allow you to get bored even a single second. Its atmosphere envelops the listener, undoubtedly helped by the powerful production, which has plenty of bottom end and gives Francisco Aguirre’s drums the thunderous quality they should have, but not at the expense of the melodic qualities of Capilla Ardiente’s compositions. Like Procession, Capilla Ardiente is one of the greatest doom metal bands currently in existence. A new album is due in September and if it is anywhere near as good as their debut, it is worth anticipating.

Recommended tracks: ‘Into Unknown Lands’, ‘They Who Were Lost And Now Are Cursed’

In Memoriam Dr. John 1941-2019

Dr. John was a gateway artist to me. While discovering the musical traditions of New Orleans, Dr. John was just “rocky” enough to have any sort of appeal on the staunch hardrocker I was at the time. By mixing the New Orleans jazz tradition with the funk DNA of the town and some psychedelic rock grooves, Dr. John basically had something for fans of all genres. His sleazy voice and jumpy, slightly Carribean piano parts immediately recognizable, while the dangerous voodoo-inspired, vibe in some of his tracks is still as hypnotizing today as it was in the late sixties. Malcolm John Rebennack, as was his real name – “Mac” to his friends – died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 77.

New Orleans royalty

As I’m quite sure was the case for many white rockers, my first time hearing Dr. John was his solo debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ from 1968. The album can be downright weird at times, but I was intrigued from the first notes right down until the last. The seductive grooves of ‘Mama Roux’ and the irresistible darkness of ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ never wear off their welcome and I can’t be the only one who feels like that, as the latter is among one of the most covered non-traditional songs from Louisiana.

Before that album was released, however, Rebennack already made quite a career as a musician. Originally aspiring to be a professional guitar player, he was shot through the ring finger of his left hand in 1960 and eventually settled on the piano as his main instrument. His style was clearly influenced by another New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, but he ran with it and sort of modernized the style without forsaking any of the swing and looseness that makes New Orleans jazz and funk so typical that it really can only be made in that particular area. He would appear on many records as a session musician before embarking on his solo ventures.

Throughout the seventies, Rebennack released one great record after the other. His 1973 album ‘In The Right Place’ in particular was a gathering of New Orleans royalty, with The Meters backing him and Allen Toussaint producing. The record, and the powerful single ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ in particular, was when he crossed over to the mainstream. It was hardly his only good song of the decade though; ‘Loop Garoo’, the lengthy ‘Angola Anthem’, ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Qualified’ are just a few of the masterpieces he released that decade, while ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) is one of the most exuberant celebrations of New Orleans’ musical history ever released.


While the eighties were unkind to almost anybody not playing synth pop or metal, Rebennack kept on releasing music that though not as inspired as his seventies work was enjoyable enough. In the meantime, there were session gigs he gladly joined. His return to form came in 1992, however, with ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’. An effort comparable to ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ twenty years prior, the album focuses on what New Orleans has to offer musically, from the gorgeous classical roots of the Gottschalk tribute ‘Litanie Des Daints’ to the standards ‘Carless Love’ and ‘Goodnight Irene’, the latter in a surprisingly bombastic rendition. The title track, Rebennack’s interpretation of a Joe Liggins tune, is a horn-heavy masterpiece.

Since that album reconnected him to his essence, Rebennack kept frequently releasing records, some of which are nothing short of incredible. In fact, not too long ago, ‘Locked Down’ (2012) introduced him to a whole new audience by teaming up with The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach. The album is sort of an update of his seventies formula, including career highlights like ‘Big Shot’, ‘My Children, My Angels’ and the title track, with a big shot of psychedelic rock. Those who followed Rebennack’s career would not have been surprised though, as he had shared amazing albums like ‘Tribal’ (2010) and ‘The City That Care Forgot’ (2008) not too long before his Auerbach collaboration.

On Rebennack’s 73rd birthday, I was fortunate enough to see him live with his band. Not a perfect show by any means; the band was almost too loose and trombone player Sarah Morrow hogging the spotlight got on my nerves after a while. Also, it was obvious that the Doctor was not in the best physical shape anymore. His musical feeling did not suffer even the slightest bit, however, with especially his improvisational skills being impressive without being too ostentatious. Clearly a natural musician at work.

According to his own words, Dr. John leaves behind “a lot of children”. My condoleances go out to them. What he also left behind is an impressive body of work that deserves to be celebrated.

Album of the Week 22-2019: Rammstein – Rammstein

Rammstein’s first studio album in a decade was bound to cause some controversy. After all, controversy follows the band everywhere they go. Sometimes it’s their provocative – but often really funny – videos and lyrics, but their untitled seventh album may just cause a rift among their fan base. On one hand, the music is Rammstein as one would expect them to be, with their trademark militaristic rhythms and blunt, simple guitar riffs firmly in place. However, as a whole, the album is also notably more melodic than most of their previous material. But is ‘Rammstein’ really worth the wait?

Whether or not that is the case depends on your taste, but I think it is a more than admirable effort. It would have been easy for the band to pump out another typical Rammstein album, but with it being the first one in ten years, they seemed aware of the fact that something different was desired. For the first time ever, the band worked with a different producer than Jacob Hellner, though Olsen Involtini has worked with the band in the past. He seems to favor Christian ‘Flake’ Lorenz’ keyboards, because they are significantly more prominent, though fortunately not at the expense of the guitars.

The first singles may not have given the impression that ‘Rammstein’ would move in a slightly different direction. ‘Deutschland’ and ‘Radio’ are both strong metallic rock songs with anthemic choruses and lyrics clearly rooted in the band’s East German history. The pseudo-symphonic metal of ‘Zeig Dich’ sounds somewhat familiar as well, although that one clearly shows Involtini’s experience as a string aranger. In addition, Till Lindemann’s vocals – which I still think are not as appreciated as they should be by “serious” music media – are allowed a larger range of singing styles and emotional expression than ever before.

Further into the album, the experimentation is turned way up. ‘Was Ich Liebe’, ‘Weit Weg’ and ‘Ausländer’ are among the poppiest Rammstein tracks to date. The latter was initially too electronic for my taste, but it’s a grower. ‘Diamant’ is an absolutely gorgeous acoustically-based ballad. One of the true highlights is ‘Puppe’, which moves from a dark ballad to nightmare fuel with Lindemann going absolutely mental in its chorus. It kind of feels like an even darker stylistic sequel to ‘Stein Um Stein’. The first person perspective child abductor story of ‘Hallomann’ is another brilliant theatrical move with a nice and dirty bass line courtesy of Oliver Riedel.

Out of the more typical Rammstein track, the big, Black Sabbath-infused groove of ‘Sex’ is surprisingly effective. ‘Tattoo’ is lyrically hilarious, but it feels a little lost in the shuffle between all the experimentation going on during the second half of the album. Hardcore fans of the first two albums may scratch their heads upon hearing ‘Rammstein’, but the truth is that the album is a pretty logical progression from everything the band did from ‘Mutter’ onward. The riffs, rhythms and clever, at times laugh out loud funny lyrics are still there. There is just a slightly different polish this time around, which I’d say is a welcome experiment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Puppe’, ‘Zeig Dich’, ‘Hallomann’, ‘Radio’