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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’

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Album of the Week 50-2018: Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence


Last week marked the seventeenth anniversary of Chuck Schuldiner’s passing. Metal fans everwhere celebrated his genius by playing old Death records, but personally, I think the sole Control Denied album may have been his crowning achievement. ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ used to be my all time favorite album for a long time and to this day, I still am in awe by the melodic elegance and the complex, yet accessible nature of the record. Despite the shadow of the disease that would eventually kill Schuldiner inadvertently looming over the album, the album impresses with excellent songwriting and ditto performances.

The cast of musicians on ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ looks like an all-star cast of Death musicians with a clean singer. Tim Aymar’s powerful, theatrical voice that is equal parts Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford is what gives the album its own face, because the music isn’t that much different from the final Death album ‘The Sound Of Perseverance’. That should not be too surprising, given that some of the songs on that record evolved from Control Denied demos. As a whole, Control Denied comes across slightly more streamlined, though the songs still feature all the abrupt changes and glorious melodies that Schuldiner was known for.

It is hard to imagine most of these songs as Death songs though. The guitar riffs and arrangements in tracks like ‘What If…?’ and the incredible ‘Believe’ seem to be set up specifically with the idea of leaving as much room as possible for Aymar’s vocals, making their structure feel somewhat more open than Death’s dense compositions. Of course, those moments of density are still there, as not giving the virtuoso rhythm section of Richard Christy and bass wizard Steve DiGiorgio any room would feel like a waste of talent. What makes these guys good, however, is that they also know when to hold back.

My collection does not feature many other albums with such a consistently high level of songwriting and performance throughout. Only ‘Cut Down’ is merely good. ‘Breaking The Broken’ might be the best transitional track for Death fans, as it retains the aggression along with intelligent songwriting. ‘Consumed’ is a brave opening track, as it changes tempo and mood several times throughout its seven minutes and introduces Aymar remarkably effectively. ‘Believe’ is relatively simple, but brutally effective and the closing title track has to be heard to be believed. It manages to combine traditional heavy metal riffing with an almost ethereal middle section and ending that almost two decades later still gives me goosebumps.

Of course, with a line-up like Control Denied had on this album, it is nearly impossible to go wrong in terms of performances. Shannon Hamm is easily the most Schuldiner-like guitarist Chuck ever worked with and they’re both on fire here. The performances could have easily held the songs hostage though. It is a testament to the brilliance of Chuck Schuldiner that the music holds together so well. He was truly a unique talent and as good as every Death album from ‘Human’ onward is, ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ may actually be the most unique album he created.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’, ‘Breaking The Broken’, ‘Believe’

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’

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 ‘Dante’s Inferno’ 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 drummer 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’

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