Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

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’

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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.

Essence

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’

Album of the Week 21-2019: Arch/Matheos – Winter Ethereal


With Arch/Matheos being active, there are essentially two Fates Warnings, the one actually called Fates Warning being fronted by Ray Alder. Neither are very prolific; they have a combined grand total of four albums this decade. However, all four are excellent, so that should not be a reason to complain. Jim Matheos found a niche for himself that works, but at the same time provides him with enough opportunities to experiment without straying too far from his core sound. ‘Winter Ethereal’ fits that niche. It’s slightly more streamlined than ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, but similar enough to appeal to the same audience.

Not unlike on their debut album, or even the two-track ‘Twist Of Fate’ EP released under John Arch’s name, ‘Winter Ethereal’ sounds like twenty-first century Fates Warning tailored to Arch’s vocals. For those of you who have never heard them, imagine an esotheric Bruce Dickinson and you’d be close. Unlike their debut, however, Arch and Matheos rotate the cast of backing musicians on the record with several Fates Warning alumni (Frank Aresti, Mark Zonder, Bobby Jarzombek, Joey Vera, Joe DiBiase) and a couple of respected names in the field of progressive rock and metal (Sean Malone, Steve DiGiorgio, Thomas Lang, Matt Lynch).

Maybe it is the close connection that all these musicians have to the history of Arch and Matheos, but ‘Winter Ethereal’ eludes the musical posturing and lack of cohesion that most of these super line-ups have. The men whose names are on the cover are in control here, that much is never in doubt. And despite a couple of fantastic guitar solos on ‘Vermillion Moons’ and ‘Solitary Man’, Matheos is more concerned with getting the riffs and the atmosphere right. He certainly does here. Despite the heaviness and complexity, ‘Winter Ethereal’ always remains a pleasant listen, which has been Matheos’ trademark for all of his recent material.

Easily the most metallic track on here is ‘Wrath Of The Universe’. It’s wild and Matheos enhances the rhythmic violence of Jarzombek and DiGiorgio by often layering two contrasting guitar parts; one aggressive, one creating breathing room. Clever writing. The brilliantly atmospheric ‘Pitch Black Process’ is a more contemporary progressive rock track, though with distinct heavy riffing, somewehere along the lines of a more metallic Porcupine Tree. Closer ‘Kindred Spirits’ is the only 10+ minute song this time around and it is a strong, dynamic track that highlights all that Arch/Matheos has to offer in a surprisingly fluent fashion. The other large epic is the powerful opening track ‘Vermillion Moons’, which “only” clocks nine minutes.

Though ‘Winter Ethereal’ is not perfect – ‘Never In Your Hands’ is a little plain and the ballad ‘Tethered’ is good, but drags a little at several points in the song – it is simply a no-brainer for anyone who loved the debut and even the last two Fates Warning albums. The album is dynamic, powerful and intricate, but never too complex. Such listenable progressive metal is hard enough to come by these days, but Arch and Matheos certainly give a few young bands – as well as a few burnt-out old ones – a lesson or two in prog songwriting here. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wrath Of The Universe’, ‘Pitch Black Process’, ‘Kindred Spirits’, ‘Vermillion Moons’

Album of the Week 20-2019: Amorphis – Elegy


Perfection is hard to come by in music. More often than not, I refer to a certain aspect of an album being as close to perfection as it gets. In case of Amorphis’ third album ‘Elegy’, its atmosphere is just about as perfect as it gets. ‘Elegy’ was the second album on which Amorphis showed a massive stylistic change and it would not be the last, but it does say something that the signature sound they currently have is not too far removed from what can be heard on ‘Elegy’. It is simply an excellent work of melancholic Finnish metal.

In a way, it is odd that ‘Elegy’ is my favorite Amorphis album, as the band would become much better later on. Current singer Tomi Joutsen is vastly superior to both the throaty grunts of rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and the Hetfield-esque cleans of Pasi Koskinen, Santeri Kallio has a significantly more melodic style than ‘Elegy’ keyboard player Kim Rantala… Basically the only band member who is already close to the massive heights he would soon reach is lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, one of the most tasteful guitarists in rock and metal. And yet, everything on ‘Elegy’ is as it should be.

First off, the lack of vocal prowess does not hurt the music at all. Koskinen is the right fit for the melancholy expressed in the lyrics – all English translations of the poems in the ‘Kanteletar’, a collection of traditional Finnish songs and poems – and Koivusaari is buried in the mix. Besides, if I had to estimate, less than 25 percent of the album actually has vocals. ‘Elegy’ is the record that most clearly displays the influence that their fellow countrymen Kingston Wall had on Amorphis: it’s extremely jam-heavy, giving Holopainen plenty of room to excel, and the band opts to let the ideas unfold slowly rather than cramming their songs full of them.

Additionally, the eastern mysticism in Kingston Wall’s music is prominent on some of the Holopainen-penned songs, the incredible opener ‘Better Unborn’ in particular. That song deserves an award anyway. It’s easy to come up with something self-pitying for that set of lyrics, but Amorphis made something extremely powerful out of it, kind of like a Scandinavian metal interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s later works. ‘Song Of The Troubled One’ has a similar vibe, though notably more northern European. The twin guitar harmony laden ‘Against Widows’ is more propulsive, as is ‘On Rich And Poor’, which contains some incredible rhythm guitar work. The surprisingly good instrumental ‘Relief’ brings all the elements together.

Even when the band adopts a more laid-back approach, it sounds amazing. The climactic title track and the unbelievably gorgeous album highlight ‘My Kantele’ have some prominent Pink Floyd-isms, albeit with much more powerful rhythm guitar work. But really, only those who prefer Amorphis as a full-on death metal band might not find anything to like on ‘Elegy’, but I sincerely doubt if they ever were. The consistently melancholic tone is what largely makes ‘Elegy’ so amazing, but the unusually large amount of jamming helps too, plus the fact that Holopainen and Koivusaari hardly ever play in unison. A fairly unique album, even within Amorphis’ discography, that still sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Better Unborn’, ‘My Kantele’, ‘On Rich And Poor’, ‘Relief’

My douze points for 2019


Finally. The return of the big, sweeping power ballad in the Eurovision canon. Also, the return of the song that is so bad that it’s entertaining. That doesn’t mean that there was nothing to complain about this year. My favorite song of the semi-final – Ester Peony’s dark electropop song ‘On A Sunday’ (Romania) – got stuck in the semi-finals and I actually think that the folkish but not quite ‘Sul Tsin Iare’ by Georgia’s Oto Nemsadze deserved to have qualified as well. In addition, the idea of “message over music” is really getting on my nerves.

However, let’s focus on the positives. There were actually a couple of good songs this year and Serhat’s ‘Say Na Na Na’ (San Marino) was welcome for multiple reasons. First of all, Serhat being Turkish, this is the closest we’re probably going to get to a Turkish Eurovision entry for a while. But more importantly, the entertainment value is significantly higher than the musical content. Just perfect. We have been needing that for years.

Spain: Miki – La Venda

Is the song order of the Eurovision Song Contest really as random as people claim? Because Miki’s ‘La Venda’ was as good a finale as possible. An energetic, upbeat, sunny pop song that fits the country it’s representing really well. In all honesty, I think Miki may have been better off aiming for this year’s summer hit rather than Eurovision, but I would be surprised if Miki did not gain a massive audience for ‘La Venda’ through his enthusiastic performance. The song is more South American in tone than Spanish, but that should not be any problem. Definitely the perfect way to get the adrenalin pumping one more time before going into the (too) extended voting break.

Concerning that very last bit of the final sentence: in deed, I can’t stand Madonna.

North Macedonia: Tamara Todevska – Proud

Usually, I am of opinion that a good singer cannot save a lesser song. Not that ‘Proud’ is bad, just a little plain, even though it has a bit of an old school Eurovision vibe, with only piano and strings backing Tamara Todevska. I just like the intensity of Todevska’s delivery. She definitely shows some serious range here, both emotionally and musically. There’s some multiple octave work going on and it’s great how Todevska moves from extremely intimate to big and powerful. One thing I find clever is that Todevska and her production team found a way to make the song’s grand message of female empowerment much more personal. Decent song, excellent performance.

Serbia: Nevena Božović – Kruna

Sure, the song is a little messy in the sense that the transitions could have been a little smoother – the pre-chorus in particular is slightly anti-climactic – but Nena Božović’ vocal performance on this is so incredible that it’s easy to ignore that. Not unlike Tamara Todevska, but ‘Kruna’ is slightly better both in terms of performance and songwriting. Bonus points to Božović for writing the song on her own, by the way. Like I said in the beginning, the big sweeping Eurovision power ballad was more prominent this year and ‘Kruna’ is the best example. Božović is a powerhouse singer and her emotional performance really sells the song. She does a lot of dance pop as well, but I think she would do well to focus on stuff where she can really stretch her vocal cords.

Albania: Jonida Maliqi – Ktheju Tokës

After having easily the best singer of the contest in the shape of Eugent Bushpepa last year, Albania once again enters the contest with a great singer and a surprisingly good song. Upon hearing it for the first time, I knew it was not going to win – too dark, too ethnic – but that is exactly why I liked it so much. Jonida Maliqi’s vocal performance deserves all the praise it can get. Some of the notes may sound a little alien to western European ears, but it’s powerful, intense and highly atmospheric. Personally, I love it when Eurovision acts use their country’s folk music as the basis for their song. Especially when it’s translated to a more contemporary environment as well as this. By the way, is this the second time in a row Albania is my top pick?

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