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Album of the Week 33-2018: Fates Warning – Darkness In A Different Light


Prolific is a thing Fates Warning has not been for a while. At the time of its release, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ was only the fifth Fates Warning album 22 years and their first in almost a decade. Maybe they needed the time to recharge their batteries, because it is easily their best in a long time. While no Fates Warning album is ever less than decent, much of the material released prior to ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ lacked either assertion (‘FWX’) or melodic content (‘Disconnected’). However, this album restores the balance that is so essential for progressive metal.

Stylistically, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is not too far removed from ‘Sympathetic Resonance’, the album guitarist Jim Matheos recorded with original singer John Arch. The riff work is heavy, but there is an abundance of melodic and atmospheric touches to give the material depth and lasting power. The biggest difference between the two albums is defined by singer Ray Alder, who has a much darker and more emotional tone than Arch. And while his range has not aged perfectly, the emotional impact of his delivery is impressive, resulting in what is arguably his best singing since the rather vocal-centric ‘Parallels’.

While ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is no stylistic detour – it basically blends the heavy punch of ‘Disconnected’ with the melancholic melodicism of ‘Parallels’ – something feels fresh and more metallic about the album. My suspicion is that switching drummers had some influence on that. Mark Zonder’s skills are unquestionable, but he also has a tendency to overplay. Bobby Jarzombek is every bit as technical, but understands that even in its most complex form, heavy metal should be driven and energetic. The return of longtime guitarist Frank Aresti can also be felt in the lead guitar department, though it is still pretty much Matheos’ album.

At its best, ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ can certainly be compared favorably to Fates’ classic material. ‘Firefly’ is a gorgeous song that blends crushing riffing with a fantastic chorus, while ‘And Yet It Moves’ closes the album in a particularly epic fashion. It forsakes the suite-like nature of many long progmetal tracks in favor of a more song-oriented approach to the point where I didn’t realize I was listening to a 14 minute song until the acoustic part before the finale reared its head. The darkly brooding ‘Lighthouse’ is one of the most brilliantly atmospheric tracks in the band’s discography.

If there is anything to criticize about ‘Darkness In A Different Light’ is that it takes a slightly too obvious cue from bands that commenced their activities after Fates Warning did at times. The influence of Porcupine Tree pops up every now and then and ‘Kneel And Obey’ has a distinct Alice In Chains vibe. That is hardly an issue that ruins the listening pleasure of the album though, as it easily is one of the better progressive metal albums in recent years. Fates themselves would eventually outdo it with the slightly more consistent ‘Theories Of Flight’ three years later, but fans of intricate, yet heavy and melodically strong music should enjoy this immensely.

Recommended tracks: ‘Firefly’, ‘And Yet It Moves’, ‘Lighthouse’

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Album of the Week 22-2018: Garbage – Garbage


When I was a kid, Garbage was one of the few modern rock bands on MTV that would not cause me to immediately change the channel. They intrigued me. That was in part because of Shirley Manson’s voice and – I reluctantly admit – appearance, but their music was undeniably atmospheric and unlike anything ever done before or since. It was still modern rock, but it was not as bluntly unmelodic as the nu metal bands that were big at the time, nor was it as self-pitying as American radio rock. And despite the strong productional focus, the songwriting is simply excellent.

More than twenty years later, Garbage’s self-titled debut still holds up. That in itself is a testament to the band’s compositional brilliance. Often in music history, embracing new technology dates a production considerably. Garbage’s practice of incorporating electronic beats and synthetic sounds into the foundation of a rock band still sounds fresh and, surprisingly, in no way dated. This approach combines the best elements of densely layered productions and a live band and the results are often hypnotizing. But it’s not a trick; even the relatively straightforward songs that would have worked with just the band playing still sound convincing.

In the latter category, we find the insanely memorable and borderline self-parody ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. The chord progression is simple, but not predictable, especially with its insistent chorus providing a perfect contrast to its more morose verses. ‘Dog New Tricks’ is another strong electrorocker with a great chorus and a focus on guitars and drums. A majority of the other more straightforward songs are a little more laid-back, including the massive hit singles ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Queer’. This approach really suits Manson’s voice, which sounds seductive when it has to, but also occasionally excels in brilliantly suppressed anger.

At other times, ‘Garbage’ proves that spending a lot of time on your production does not necessarily result in overproduction. The darkly brooding ‘As Heaven Is Wide’ probably illustrates this best. Its combination of tribal rhythms, fuzzy bass line and electronically tinged bridge should not work in a rock context, but it does. It is also the best example of Manson’s subdued aggression. The more intimate ‘A Stroke Of Luck’ is less propulsive, but just about as good. It has also been provided a perfect juxtaposition in the shape of the more outspokenly aggressive rocker ‘Vow’, one of the brightest shining gems on ‘Garbage’.

Confusingly, ‘Garbage’ is as much a product of its time as it is timeless. An album like this more or less could only have been thought up in the ninteties, but it was so far ahead of its time that it will probably still sound contemporary ten years from now. That in itself is something that not many artists can claim and will become rarer as more and more musical territory is no longer uncharted. For Garbage, their debut album was so revolutionary, that they had a hard time trying to equal it both in terms of success and overall quality, though they came close several times and are fortunately still artistically relevant to this day.

Recommended tracks: ‘Only Happy When It Rains’, ‘As Heaven Is Wide’, ‘Vow’

Album of the Week 08-2018: Rhapsody – Symphony Of Enchanted Lands


For everyone involved in the making of the album, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is the pinnacle of their abilities. It was not just a compositional triumph for all the musicians involved, it also established Sascha Paeth and Miro as the go-to producers for symphonic metal. Rhapsody did not invent the genre, but ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ takes the genre to its logical extremes. An enormous orhcestra, three different choirs, narrators, medieval interludes… And surprisingly, it works. The progressive power metal songs sound full and bombastic rather than cluttered, with the metal elements and the classical elements being in perfect balance.

Two decades after its initial release, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is primarily known for its shorter power metal tracks, specifically ‘Emerald Sword’ and ‘Wisdom Of The Kings’. Both of these songs would end up in almost every live set once the band started touring, which they did not do until about a year and a half after the album’s release.  The popularity of these songs is understandable. ‘Emerald Sword’ is a fresh power metal song with a some memorable guitar work and an anthemic chorus, while the verses ‘Wisdom Of The Kings’ harbor one of Fabio Lione’s best vocal melodies.

‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ has more to offer though. The middle section of the album has two back-to-back progressive metal tracks. The dark, threatening ‘Beyond The Gates Of Infinity’ is the better of the two by a hair. The Dream Theater-inspired riff work is offset by horror-style symphonics, an excellent use of dynamics and an unpredictability in the songwriting some of the band’s later work lacks. As its title suggests, ‘Eternal Glory’ is slightly more triumphant in approach, though also ending in darkness. The brass driven intro sets the mood for a proud, somewhat angry metal song.

Another interesting song is ‘The Dark Tower Of Abyss’. Arguably the least accessible song of the record, but it is also the most baroque chamber music oriented song on the record. There are large sections of the song reserved for strings and harpsichord, though the electric guitar driven sections have an exciting amount of tension. ‘Wings Of Destiny’ is Rhapsody’s first piano-based ballad and with a singer as passionate as Lione, it was bound to succeed. Only the closing title track misses the mark somewhat. It does contain a number of great sections, but those would have worked better if they were worked into four separate songs rather than a single long one.

Still, with all its bombast and carefully arranged production, ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’ is an album that sounds as overwhelming now as it did upon release twenty years ago. Rhapsody outdid itself here, as subsequent releases proved. The more metallic approach they would adapt – undoubtedly fueled by their live shows – resulted in a couple of great songs, but never again would they release an album as consistently good as ‘Symphony Of Enchanted Lands’. As a young teenager, I was obsessed with this record and I still don’t see that as a youthful mistake. The music on this album is way too good for that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beyond The Gates Of Infinity’, ‘Eternal Glory’, ‘The Dark Tower Of Abyss’

Album of the Week 51-2017: Septicflesh – Codex Omega


While the orchestral death metal of Septicflesh should have a decent amount of appeal to me, their albums always felt just short of interesting to me. Admittedly, 2011’s ‘The Great Mass’ came close, but this year’s ‘Codex Omega’ was the first Septicflesh album I pretty much enjoy start to finish. In essence, the elements that defined their last few albums are the same as those defining ‘Codex Omega’, but something has changed for the better. It is sort of hard to put my finger on what that is exactly, but let’s make this review an analysis of the album’s immense qualities.

First off, let’s focus on what has changed since the somewhat lackluster predecessor ‘Titan’. Most obviously, Septicflesh changed drummers. Former Decapitated drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner is now on the stool and the band certainly profits from his approach to extreme metal drumming. His style seems to be a little looser and somewhat less predictable than that of most of his peers. Though I don’t know big his role in the songwriting process was, the unconventional placement of his accents must have influenced the dynamics of segments like the intro of ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’ and the chorus of ‘The Faceless Queen’.

In addition, Septicflesh worked with in-demand producer Jens Bogren for the first time, who did an incredible job. Mixing a Septicflesh album cannot be an easy task: there are bottom-heavy riffs that give the music its balls, but there are also huge orchestral parts that define Septicflesh’ music. He managed to find a perfect balance between these two seemingly contrasting elements though, creating a surprisingly natural drum sound for Lechner in the process. The drums on many contemporary extreme metal records sound computerized to a fault. On ‘Codex Omega’, you can actually hear that a person is hitting them. Hard. Look no further than the intro to ‘Dark Art’ for proof.

Quite simply, the songwriting had a bit of a boost as well. ‘Our Church, Below The Sea’ could have easily been a dime a dozen extreme symphonic metal song, but the way the two guitar parts are interwoven creates an almost baroque guitar pattern. Opening track toys with expectations of tempo in a really powerful way, best expressed in the start-stop riff that occurs repeatedly throughout the song, while ‘The Gospels Of Fear’ is composed in an almost lineair way that makes it feel like it is coming over you in waves. Closing track ‘Trinity’ is a masterpiece due to its relatively simple, yet extremely powerful rhythms and its effective use of dynamics and acoustic instruments, which lend an almost gothic-like feel to the track.

‘Codex Omega’ is the album on which Septicflesh finally makes use of its full potential. While the excellent work by the choir and the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague add an irresistible layer of bombast to the music, the album would not have worked nearly as good if the basic compositions were an less good than this. Even the most standard extreme metal riffs have been arranged in a way that it sounds just a little different. Easily the best death metal album released this year, symphonic or not.

Recommended tracks: ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’, ‘Trinity’, ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Album of the Week 41-2017: Saber Tiger – Timystery


Before Saber Tiger was fronted by the passionate howls of Takenori Shimoyama, they made a couple of excellent albums with Yoko Kubota, an impressive singer in her own right, at the helm. This was the time when the Japanese quintet started incorporating progressive elements into their music, slowly morphing from an above average heavy metal band to the amazing band they are today. ‘Timystery’ is one of those albums that does everything just right. The compositions are better and the musical interaction is more cohesive than ever before. And though it would turn out to be Kubota’s last album with the band, she really comes into her own here.

‘Timystery’ finds Saber Tiger streamlining the progressive touches that were on the foreground on its direct predecessor ‘Agitation’. As a result, ‘Timystery’ feels a little more like ‘Invasion’, Kubota’s 1992 debut with the band, but there is some more musical class hidden beneath the surface. In essence, the album is exactly what you would have expected from Saber Tiger at this point in their career: energetic songs, huge beefy riffs and recognizable choruses, but the songs take a few surprising twists. Also, it is Saber Tiger’s first album that features English lyrics exclusively.

Fortunately, these lyrics go beyond the usual English catchphrases surrounded by poor grammar that Japanese bands revelled in at the time. I don’t know if Kubota had any help, but her English is decent enough and the songs actually have topics. There is a lot of relational material and lyrics about trust issues, but they work. Sometimes even surprisingly well: every aspect of ‘Bad Devotion’ is flawless. The start-stop riffs and dynamics of the song really enhance the story of a woman trying to get back on her feet, while every section of the song is a new climax, culminating in the solo section, which is both virtuosic and goosebumps-inducing.

Of course, no one needed to worry about the qualities of the musicians; Akihito Kinoshita and Yasuharu Tanaka are likely the best guitar duo in the business, Takashi Yamazumi is a bassist who makes the most of his moments, but also has no problem holding down the bottom end and Yoshio Isoda is solid as a rock. That musicianship is what lifts songs like the highly rhythmic ‘Living On In The Crisis’, the relatively heavy opener ‘No Fault / No Wrong’, the pleasantly melodic ‘Distressed Soul’, the pounding ‘Revenged On You’ and the highly dynamic ‘Easy Road To Life’ above their obvious compositional quality.

Saber Tiger truly struck gold on ‘Timystery’. They found the perfect balance between progressive metal – the unconventional rhythms of the lengthy closer ‘Spiral Life’ are easily the most “proggy” moment of the record – and traditional heavy metal, creating something that may appeal to fans of both genres. The album contains several of the best songs the band has ever made and it would take more than fifteen years before the band would top it. Albums this consistent are a rarity, especially in the mid-nineties metal scene, but ‘Timystery’ is simply an album that will not let you go until long after it is over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bad Devotion’, ‘Living On In The Crisis’, ‘Easy Road To Life’

Interview: Versailles’ frontier defying spirit


B7 Klan offered me the opportunity to interview Versailles and of course I took that opportunity. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original article right here.

With their bombastic power metal sound and their almost fairytale-like appearance, Versailles grew to be one of the most important players in 21st century visual kei. In late 2012, the band took a break, but as of last year, the band is active again. After a few one-offs in Japan, the band’s first tour will follow and just like in their early days, it will remarkably take place in Europe. “The time was right for Versailles again“, says guitarist Hizaki.

In the intervening years, the band fully committed itself to other projects. Singer Kamijo went solo and all of the other members formed the excellent power metal band Jupiter, which will remain active alongside Versailles. “I compose imagining the person who will sing the song“, states Hizaki, who also released his instrumental solo album ‘Rosario’ earlier this year. “The melodies I write will always be a reflection of the singer’s personality. I do like the fact that I can now show in Versailles the skills that I have developed in my personal activities.
Kamijo also doesn’t rule out the opportunity that his solo adventure will get a sequal. “I’m sharing my feelings with different audiences“, he describes the differences. “In both cases, we are playing my melodies, but the reasons why I’m writing each project’s songs are different. In 2017, Versailles celebrates its tenth anniversary, so you can imagine that there will be some new projects.“”On February 14th, we will release our new album“, guitarist Teru already spills. As for the rest, the band still keeps their plans strictly secret, but bassist Masashi calls on the fans to keep an eye on their website and social media: “We have many projects planned.

Choreography
For a Japanese band, Versailles has always been surprisingly internationally oriented. Before the band even went on its first full tour through Japan, their first European tour with Matenrou Opera was already a fact. Later on, the band came back to Europe twice, so it’s not a complete surprise that the band once again aims for Europe after a couple of one-offs in Japan. “I can’t wait to come back to Europe“, Hizaki agrees. “Since we can’t meet our fans out there often, I want to enjoy them as much as possible. It seems to be even harder to bring our music overseas to America, but I would like to make it back there as well someday.“”I notice that European audiences want to show their power in a different way“, says Kamijo. “In some countries, they shout. In Japan, they synchronize their choreography.
It’s beautiful to see the different reactions in each country“, Masashi confirms. Teru agrees: “When I play overseas, I truly realize that the reaction in Japan is really original.
And yet, it’s remarkable that Versailles is one of the very few bands that tours Europe somewhat regularly. “I don’t know exactly how we did that“, says drummer Yuki. “But I am really proud of Versailles’ music. We only stick to our own convictions.
I guess some bands get too discouraged by certain details“, Teru thinks aloud. “It’s important to make music with a spirit that transcends frontiers and nationalities.
And the band rehearses for that with full determination. “As usual, I’m practicing by playing a lot“, Yuki says. “Besides that, I listen to good music and I imagine myself playing it, drum acting. And because I’m trying to be more familiar with the English language, I also watch some movies.
I record myself in ProTools and then check the results of my playing“, Teru shares. But, Hizaki emphasizes: “You who will be at our live shows must be ready too.

Dreams
Versailles’ music contains quite dense arrangements. Besides the five band members, a vast amount of choral and orchestral samples deliver a significant amount of bombast. However, the spectacular guitar work of Hizaki and Teru always remains prominent. “There is always an orchestra in my head“, the latter smiles. “It’s important to listen to all of the band members’ sounds. I always try to think of all the elements when I’m playing. Concerning my guitar sound, I try to reduce the gain and keep the peak in the middle and high frequencies.
When we practice the songs, we always make it“, Hizaki adds. “The synthesizer parts always tend to be gathering into midi arrangements, so I try to be attentive of those in terms of my phrasing.
An additional problem for many Japanese bands is that they can’t take all of their equipment with them to Europe. Amplifiers are rented, but every member at least takes his own instrument with him. “And I’m taking my sticks and pedals with me. And my love for Versailles“, Yuki states. “I’m considering taking a Fractal Audio system with me“, Hizaki thinks aloud.
When asked if they would ever like to play with an actual orchestra, everyone answers affirmatively. “Of course“, Yuki continues. “It’s one of my biggest dreams.” “Please organize it!“, Hizaki begs.

Connected
One can’t think of contemporary visual kei without thinking of Versailles. At least as much attention as they put into their music will also go into their flamboyant clothing, hairdos and album covers. “What do you like more?“, Kamijo asks. “A wonderful movie without images or a beautiful movie with images?
The music and the visual aspect are inseparably connected to each other“, agrees Teru, himself a graphic designer. “The artistic value of the music can be increased by this combination. I am proud of visual kei, but I don’t want to be too occupied with trying to fit that genre or category. I only go forward with what I like and what I think is beautiful.
And there’s another mission for Versailles: bringing the visual kei audiences and the metal audiences together. “There is a barrier between them higher than the highest frontier“, Kamijo states. “We are there to destroy this barrier.
The band is not interested in ever making music without the visual aspect. “Impossible“, they collectively say. “My spirit is always in heavy metal“, Hizaki continues. “But I can’t feel any attraction towards artists who neglect their appearance.
Only Yuki leaves the door slightly ajar. “I think we and our audience would still like our music“, he says. “Otherwise we would have never started doing this. But I do think that it adds an element with which you can tell the listener more than with just the music.
And how do the guys stay fresh and inspired after playing together for so long? “By stimulating each other to become better“, Kamijo resolutely says. Masashi agrees: “We all evolve together with the other members.” “It’s simply interesting to work with the music of other people than myself“, Hizaki concludes.

Versailles’ ‘Renaissance’ tour travels to the following venues in early 2017:

January 26th: Teatr Club, Moscow, Russia
January 27th: Gloria, Helsinki, Finland
January 29th: O2 Islingron Academy, London, England
February 1st: Zeche, Bochum, Germany
February 2nd: Hybrydy, Warszaw, Poland
February 4th: Salamandra 1, Madrid, Spain
February 5th: La Machine du Moulin Rouge, Paris, France

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.

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