Posts Tagged ‘ Classic Rock ’

Best of 2017: The Albums

After a number of great releases in January, I thought 2017 was going to be an amazing year for rock and metal. In that respect, the year in music had been a little disappointing. There was no consistent stream of good releases, though there were a few clear peaks in the release schedule. Aside from January, March was a small peak release-wise, September a large one, with the last two months of the year having a handful of interesting albums. My top 10 more or less made itself, but I had even more trouble filling the last couple of positions than last year.

Having said that, I was overwhelmed by the number of quality releases from my own country. Being a Dutchman, I am sometimes overly critical of Dutch bands and sometimes unjustly so. Speaking as a music journalist, I would certainly say that 2017 was the year of pleasant surprises from Dutch guitar bands. There were two clear winners for me this year and neither of them is Dutch, but with four Dutch releases in the top ten and seven in the top twenty, I’d say that last year was surprisingly pleasant for a journalist of a couple of Dutch guitar magazines.

1. Firewind – Immortals

Some of the best power metal I have heard in a long, long time. I have always enjoyed Firewind, but the addition of singer extraordinaire Henning Basse to the line-up and Dennis Ward to the production and songwriting team was just the boost that the (largely) Greek power metal band needed. ‘Immortals’ is full off exuberant power metal with anthemic, yet not too cliché-ridden choruses and surprisingly aggressive riffing courtesy of Gus G. The epic feel that the concept about the Battle of Thermopylae requires is prominently present, but never at the expense of the songs, which would not lose any of their power when played “out of context”. Though the Greeks did not win the battle, Firewind did. ‘Immortals’ still makes me grin like an idiot when I play it today.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Leonidas’, ‘Hands Of Time’, ‘Rise From The Ashes’

2. Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

Lovebites was the only serious competition for Firewind this year. I was ready to dismiss the quintet as another hyped-up girly J-metal band, but both the EP and the album they released this year were jaw-dropping. There’s nothing cutesy about Lovebites: their music has balls. ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is chock-full of high octane riffs, mad lead guitars and excellent heavy metal songwriting. Lovebites combines the best elements of traditional metal and contemporary power metal into a catchy, delicious cocktail with a healthy dash of aggression. Singer Asami, who I had never heard of prior to the EP, is the icing on the cake. Her flexible range and immense power make this an incredible album instead of just a great one.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Hammer Of Wrath’, ‘Shadowmaker’, ‘Liar’

3. Dool – Here Now, There Then

Gloomy, dark, depressive, but always with very distinct melodies. Though ‘Here Now, There Then’ is only Dool’s first album, they already hits all the right buttons. Their immersive sound features equal parts doom metal riffing, psychedelic rock soundscapes and general post-punk nihilism. Listening to Dool is like being surrounded by huge walls of guitars that alternate between weaving intricate patterns and crushing your soul with brutally effective riffs played in unison. Though many bands playing a similar style are marred by subpar vocals, ‘Here Now, There Then’ features some of the best vocal work I have heard Ryanne van Dorst do thus far. She sounds great on her own, but the harmonies are even better. Not for the faint of heart, but an incredible experience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Vantablack’, ‘Oweynagat’, ‘The Alpha’

4. Steve Hackett – The Night Siren

In a way, it is ridiculous that an almost supernaturally talented guitarist like Steve Hackett needs to revisit his Genesis legacy to get the attention he deserves, but if it gives him the means to write and perform a record like ‘The Night Siren’, it has all been worth it. Here, Hackett explores his influences from all over the world and combines them with his own English rock, pop and blues roots. World fusion in the best possible way. The real class of ‘The Night Siren’, however, lies in the fact that Hackett blends these worldwide influences with his own music in a way that does not sound like he is trying to be clever, it just enhances the mood. Again, the atmosphere is immersive and unsurprisingly, Hackett’s playing is nothing short of stellar.

Recommended tracks: ‘Behind The Smoke’, ‘El Niño’, ‘Fifty Miles From The North Pole’

5. Adagio – Life

This was a grower for me. It took some time to do so, but once it did, it was very difficult to stop playing ‘Life’. Adagio really does something new here, which may not be too surprising, since their last album was released more than eight years ago. The tempo is considerably lower and Stéphan Forté’s downtuned rhythm guitars are sometimes reminiscent of the djent-sound, but with Kevin Codfert’s mind-blowing orchestrations and Kelly Sundown Carpenter’s mighty voice, the music has so much more to offer melodically and harmonically. The songwriting is bombastic, complex and melodically strong simultaneously and the record is full of subtleties that reveal themselves over repeated spins. I never was a big Adagio fan, but now I will certainly keep my eye on them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

6. Navarone – Oscillation

On the surface, every element that made Navarone’s prior albums so great are in full force on ‘Oscillation’: the great seventies and nineties rock riffs, Merijn van Haren’s massive voice and a rather unpredictable approach to songwriting. Yet, something has changed. The songs are more concise and the band really explores the sonic opportunities of the studio here. And with that comes new possibilities. The surprisingly cinematic ending of ‘Snake’, the contemporary pop sensibilities of ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’ and the progressive splendor of ‘Chrome’ are born from this altered approach. As soon as the initial awkwardness wore off, ‘Oscillation’ turned out to be a very satisfying album by what is arguably Europe’s best rock band at the moment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Days Of Yore’, ‘Chrome’, ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’

7. Jeangu Macrooy – High On You

Before I ever even heard a note of his music, Jeangu Macrooy already impressed me with his moving, powerful voice, which has distinct traces of Bill Withers in it. His music is just about as good. ‘High And You’ is a melting pot of styles which really bring out the best in each other. Large doses of soul, of course, but also pop, jazz, folk and hints of rock and Carribean music. And while many artists who attempt something similar get lost in the maze of their own influences, Macrooy’s warm, almost spiritual voice ties the whole thing together convincingly. What truly helps is that Macrooy’s basic compositions are essentially all excellent pop songs. The profound, yet uplifting ‘Step Into The Water’ would be my choice for the single of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

8. Galneryus – Ultimate Sacrifice

Always highly anticipated: a new Galneryus album. Especially because ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ was announced as a sequel to ‘Under The Force Of Courage’, one of their better records. ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is a bit more consistent and really finds the band firing on all cylinders. The songwriting leans a tad more towards progressive metal than usual, but not without sacrificing – no pun intended – any of their euphroric, strongly European-tinged power metal sound. One of Galneryus’ best traits has always been their display of virtuosity: it is always there, but not before the song has been clearly outlined. Sure, it is fast and reasonably complex, but ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is also full of accomplished melodies and it has a remarkable dynamic range for the style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rising Infuriation’, ‘Heavenly Punishment’, ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’

9. Merry – M-Ology

For years, I have been wanting Merry to make an album like ‘M-Ology’. Not that I did not like their previous albums – ‘Nonsense Market’ is awesome – but the great thing about this one is the fact that the retro feel that made early albums like ‘Modern Garde’ and ‘Peep Show’ so good is finally as prominent as it should be again. Sometimes it feels like a particularly loud jazz band deciding to play a mix of alternative rock, punk, rock ‘n’ roll and traces of metal and blues. I am aware that such description sounds like a mess, but that is where Merry shines: songwriting. All these songs are based around memorable hooks and rhythms that are as energetic as they are danceable. As a result, I did not play anything else for days after ‘M-Ology’ came out.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inugata Shinsei Masochist’, ‘Kasa To Ame’, ‘M-Ology’, ‘Happy Life’

10. Robin Borneman – Folklore II: The Phantom Wail

Navarone made me aware of this great Dutch singer/songwriter. More than half of that band contributed to ‘Folklore II: The Phantom Wail’, but it is still very much Borneman’s record. One that is kind of hard to define, as it sounds cinematic and rootsy at the same time. This is the kind of stuff that takes you on a journey. Just close your eyes and it will come immediately. Sometimes it’s folky blues, but there are also times when it sounds like a spaghetti western contained in a psychedelic rock song, there are hints of country & western… The only true way to describe this is emotional, atmospheric and unpredictable music. No single instrument outshines the bigger picture and the production job is the best I have heard in a long, long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Woebegone Blues’, ‘O Faithful World’, ‘The Reckoning / Dawn’

11. Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back To The Moon

If you like heavy metal riffs and vocal harmonies reminiscent of The Beatles simultaneously, King’s X and Galactic Cowboys are basically the only bands you can count on. However, the former’s last studio album is almost a decade old and the latter broke up around the turn of the century. Fortunately, they are back and their new album is their best since their incredible debut. On the surface, Galactic Cowboys may be focusing on their heavy side here, but really, every part of their charm can be heard here. The harmonies, of course, but also their cross-genre approach, their loose jam feel and their ability to let the music breathe when it needs to. To show their fans that they are serious about rekindling their fire, the album even starts with Galactic Cowboys’ oldest song.

Recommended tracks: ‘Amisarewas’, ‘Drama’, ‘In The Clouds’

12. Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God

When ‘Architecture Of A God’ was just released, I was sure it was going to make my top five. It is, after all, the Italians’ best record since career highlight ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ and almost every song on here is pure gold. Singer Roberto Tiranti is in top shape and as such, he is the perfect fit for the progressive, yet romantic power metal of the sextet. At times, new keyboard player Oleg Smirnoff even pushes the band to different terrain sonically with his unconventional keyboard sounds. And then there are Olaf Thörsen and Andrea Cantarelli, providing all the dreamy melodies and shimmering acoustic guitars you could wish for. It drags a little near the end, but with some of its fat trimmed, ‘Architecture Of A God’ would have definitely made the top five.

Recommended tracks: ‘Still Alive’, ‘A New Dream’, ‘Someone Says’, ‘Diamond’

13. Drive Like Maria – Creator Preserver Destroyer

‘Sonny’ alone is enough reason to get ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’. Seriously, that little mix of melancholic melodies and poppy rock sensibilities is one of the best songs on an album released this year. The rest of the album is equally strong though. ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ does sound a little different than Drive Like Maria’s earlier albums, as the beautifully soulful, but not too loud vocals of Bjorn Awouters suddenly get all the room they need to excel. Underneath them, there is enough variation to make this material, which was originally released as three EP’s, interesting for an entire album. Sexy grooves, extended seventies rock jams, monolithic stoner riffs and the occasional ballad… Whatever you need, you will probably find it here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sonny’, ‘Tiny Terror’, ‘Keeps Me Going’

14. For All We Know – Take Me Home

Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie released an incredible solo album under the For All We Know moniker in 2011. That album was full of atmospheric, surprisingly emotional progressive rock and I am very glad that he got the whole band that recorded the debut back together. Especially the partnership between Jolie and singer Wudstik is pure magic. Together, they create complex, richly layered songs that are accessible at the same time. This concept is taken to the extreme on ‘Take Me Home’; the poppy aspects are catchier, the ballads are softer, the heavy riffs are heavier and the complexity is turned up at strategic moments as well. Listening to For All We Know is truly an immersive experience and though it is a pity we had to wait for it for over six years, it is a great thing that Jolie had the time to write, record and release yet another great record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Big Wheel’, ‘They’ll Win’, ‘Fade Away’

15. Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand

Mastodon is quite likely the only modern metal band I am consistently interested in. Their sludgy guitar sound is offset by Brann Dailor’s busy rhythms and the overall progressive songwriting. Those who thought the band took its melodicism too far on recent albums will be in for a treat. Though ‘Emperor Of Sand’ still contains its fair share of highly melodic choruses, the riff work and the lead guitar sections are more complex than they have been for a long time. The record is full of triumphant guitar harmonies and the three lead singers (Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders) work together better than ever. On ‘Emperor Of Sand’, Mastodon proves that there is such a thing as a metal band aging gracefully without becoming a caricature of itself.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’

16. Sven Hammond – Rapture

Notably less polished than their other recent efforts, but no less enjoyable. ‘Rapture’ finds Sven Hammond returning to the raw, almost garage-y soul sound of their earliest records – if those three instrumentals are no nod to Booker T and the M.G.’s, I don’t know what is – but this time, they combine that with their knack for writing accessible songs, as showcased on their previous records. ‘Rapture’ feels like a groovy late night jam session, during which the presence of Sven Hammond’s amazing singer Ivan Peroti requires some sense of structure. The rhythms are driving, Sven Figee’s Hammond organ is nice and dirty and Tim Eijmaal’s guitar alternates between bouncy riffs and subtle coloring. This sounds way more American than a Dutch band has any right to sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Choosy Lover’, ‘A Right Pickle’, ‘Lazarus’

17. The Magpie Salute – The Magpie Salute

Sad as it is that The Black Crowes are no longer around, The Magpie Salute really is the next best thing. Sure, there is only one original song on this album – I’ve been told an album full of original material is coming in the new year – but what really makes this album is the musical interaction. It is more than obvious that every musician involved has a maximum of respect for the other musicians and the songs they are playing. Jam rock bands have a tendency to stick to the same groove for too long, but every second on The Magpie Salute’s self-titled debut album made me hungry for more music. The album is full of exciting musicianship and the lack of a truly charismatic lead singer like Chris Robinson is cleverly compensated for by harmonies.

Recommended tracks: ‘War Drums’, ‘Omission’, ‘Goin’ Down South’

18. Septicflesh – Codex Omega

If there is death metal in my list, it has to be something special. And it is. Septicflesh has always attracted my attention due to their sophisticated orchestrations, but their songs never appealed to me quite as much as on ‘Codex Omega’. This time around, the orchestra does not just add power to the songs, the songs themselves are already powerful, allowing the orchestra to take them to their logical extremes. There is also a lot of toying around with rhythms, which can probably be attributed to the arrival of new drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner, whose rhythms try to find their strength in unconventional accents rather than complexity. Jens Bogren’s immense production job is incredible. Hell, I don’t even mind Seth Siro Anton’s grunts. They enhance the atmosphere.

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

19. Cloven Hoof – Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?

It would be easy to dismiss Cloven Hoof as a mere shadow of its former self on account of the ridiculous number of lineup changes they have had to endure in recent years. But ‘Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?’ is such a euphoric, energetic slab of traditional heavy metal that it is easy to forget all of that. A mix between US Power Metal and the NWOBHM scene they are often associated with, the album is treat for old schoolers. And as many credits as bassist Lee Payne deserves for writing these incredible songs, it is really singer George Call – also known as “gruff Bruce Dickinson” in my circles – who pushes these songs beyond how good they would have been otherwise. New material from an old band that does not sound like a weak rehash. Refreshing!

Recommended tracks: ‘Star Rider’, ‘Time To Burn’, ‘I Talk To The Dead’

20. Black Country Communion – BCC IV

Glenn Hughes, never a poster child for subtlety, was very bitter about Joe Bonamassa walking out of Black Country Communion. So it was all the more surprising that they recorded a comeback album together. And that it was good. Not as memorable as their first two albums, but with a songwriter as strong as Hughes, there are bound to be some winners. Most of it is pure classic rock gold, but there are some folky, bluesy and surprisingly poppy moments as well. Of course, with four musicians this good – and most of them experienced in session work – the interaction is simply excellent. As a result, the longer songs work best. I am not as big a fan of Bonamassa as most people seem to be, but in this context, his playing just works. And Hughes’ voice defies physics.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Cove’, ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Awake’

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Album of the Week 42-2017: Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality


If Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut was the birth of heavy metal, their third record ‘Master Of Reality’ is where the genre reaches adolescence. It retains some of its youthful mistakes – most prominently Ozzy Osbourne’s rather dull vocal lines, something which would not improve until ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ – but improves upon a lot of them as well. Despite its flaws, ‘Master Of Reality’ is an album that still sounds fresh and relevant today and the most important reason for that is the fact that Black Sabbath perfects its own intention on this record; the album is full of mighty riffs.

Nowhere is the power of the riff more apparent than on the massive closer ‘Into The Void’. It is Black Sabbath’s first encounter with the C# tuning – for non-musicians: one and a half step lower than standard tuning – and it has been a successful one. Many heavy metal riffs have been written since that intro, including a number of particularly fine ones by Black Sabbath themselves, but none has ever quite surpassed the thick, heavy majesty of this track’s intro. And that’s not even the only brilliant riff in the song. ‘Into The Void’ is probably the song that captures the essence of early Black Sabbath best.

There are many more songs to enjoy here, although the record really only has six songs if you subtract the two acoustic instrumentals. ‘Children Of The Grave’ is easily one of Black Sabbath’s finest compositions. The driving shuffle rhythm, Tony Iommi’s simple, but brutally effective riffs and Osbourne’s first truly decent performance form one of the band’s most exuberant compositions, even though it’s not particularly upbeat. ‘After Forever’ is quite a surprise upon first listen due to some unexpected twists and the incredibly downbeat ‘Solitude’ is one of the very few successful Black Sabbath ballads.

While the band was often berated for their dark lyrics, they are nowhere near as dark as they are made out to be. ‘After Forever’ and ‘Lord Of This World’ – another riff monster with surprisingly good vocals – are the most overtly religious lyrics that bassist Geezer Butler had written up to this point. In fact, the only more obviously christian lyrics in my collection are in Stryper songs. It does give the songs a unique character though. In contrast, I could do without the overt ode to pot that is opener ‘Sweet Leaf’, but at least Iommi’s riffs make it a worthwhile song.

Early Black Sabbath really triumphs over later work by the band because of the musical interaction between the members. Butler and drummer Bill Ward occasionally get a little jazzy, though ‘Master Of Reality’ is really the album where they started getting very bottom heavy. Butler’s right hand attack lacks even the vaguest hint of subtlety, but that is exactly what gives Iommi’s guitar work the balls it would not have had otherwise. Sure, Black Sabbath has made albums that are more interesting musically or more memorable melodically, but if anyone ever wanted to know why early Black Sabbath was so hugely influential, ‘Master Of Reality’ is the album to put on.

Recommended tracks: ‘Children Of The Grave’, ‘Into The Void’, ‘Lord Of This World’

Album of the Week 31-2017: The Joe Perry Project – Let The Music Do The Talking


Guitarist Joe Perry is often seen as the one who guards Aerosmith’s musical integrity next to Steven Tyler’s showmanship. Anyone with some in-depth knowledge about Aerosmith knows that grossly oversimplifies the band’s complicated dynamic, but it is a fact that during the Perry’s time away from the band, Perry released two excellent albums with The Joe Perry Project while Aerosmith released one mediocre record. And while sophomore album ‘I’ve Got The Rock ‘n’ Rolls Again’ of Perry’s project may have higher peaks, ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ is one of the most consistently engaging bluesrock records of the early eighties.

First off, the title of the album is not without meaning, of course. It could be interpreted as a provocation towards Aerosmith, but it could also just represent the fact that Perry burned all the bridges behind him and decided to just focus on what he likes doing best in the first place: making music. Regardless, Perry sounds like a man unburdened on ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’. There is a spontaneity to this debut that some of the late seventies Aerosmith albums lacked, no matter how good they were. The songs sound raw and energetic, but not underdeveloped.

Another reason why ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ sounds so fresh and spirited is the fact that Perry put together an excellent band. Nowhere is this more obvious than during the short, high octane instrumental ‘Break Song’. Drummer Ronnie Stewart and bassist David Hull are perfectly in sync with each other and Perry, ending up sounding positively on fire. The upbeat, uptempo closer ‘Life At A Glance’, the massive and somewhat dark ‘Shooting Star’, the swinging boogie of ‘Discount Dogs’ and especially the powerful, catchy title track that opens the record profit from the tight, spirited interplay of The Joe Perry Project.

In addition, adding a lead singer to his project was a great idea from Perry. His own voice is cool and a perfect fit for the dark, bluesy ‘The Mist Is Rising’ and the sarcastic tone of the strong rocker ‘Conflict Of Interest’, but his range is not particularly wide. The higher, more powerful registers of Ralph Morman are the perfect fit for songs that demand some more vocal prowess. His clean voice has a slight raw edge, which really lifts songs like ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ and the otherwise somewhat mundane ‘Ready On The Firing Line’ to higher level. His duets with Perry work remarkably well too and should maybe have been featured more prominently here.

Without the big budget and the business acumen of Aerosmith’s management, ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ never quite took off the way it should have, but the album is still available and very much worth checking out. Somehow, the record still sounds fresh today and I suspect that Perry’s drive is largely to blame for that. It may be a cliché, but the debut album of his Project – capital P – does actually let the music do the talking. There may be some bitterness in a few of the lyrics, but it does not dominate the record. The strong bluesrock songs and excellent performances do.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’, ‘Life At A Glance’, ‘Break Song’

Album of the Week 26-2017: Ningen Isu – Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros


Ningen Isu is the best seventies power trio that is not actually from the seventies. Despite starting out in 1987, their brand of heavily Black Sabbath-inspired, yet progressively tinged metal would have fit the same bill as Rush and Budgie in the mid-seventies. While the band has recorded some excellent progressive doom metal throughout the last three decades, they had yet to release an album that I enjoyed start to finish. Until ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ was released last year. Though instantly recognizable as Ningen Isu, there are some surprises that make the record amazing right down to the last note.

As the band kept progressing, their albums kept getting more consistent and notably heavier, yet there was always a song that went overboard in weirdness or that suffered from the fact that none of the three band members are particularly strong singers. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, however, plays to the band’s strengths. The songs on the album are crushingly heavy and the compositions take a few more left turns than we are used to by the band; the trio no longer builds on the same groove for more than sixteen bars and Nobu Nakajima’s rhythmic patterns are busier than ever.

Opening track ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’ actually gives a good impression of what the album will sound like. It is built upon a couple of monolithic, Sabbath-like riffs, but is not just about the riffs. It is a dynamic composition with some interesting twists and turns and a good vocal performance by guitarist Shinji Wajima. There’s an excellent interaction between the rhythms and the riffs, which constantly push each other to the front rather than off the record. These characteristics define all the songs, although sometimes they are a bit more straightforward (‘Doro No Ame’) and a little more complex at other times (‘Yomigaeri No Machi’).

In a typical case of saving the best for last, the brooding, doomy epic ‘Madame Edwarda’ is one atmospheric monster of a closing track. Another stand-out track, however, is the delightfully rocking ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, which starts out sounding like an AC/DC song and evolves into one of the most catchy, upbeat Ningen Isu songs to date. Nakajima’s vocal performance on the song is surprisingly good as well. The middle section of ‘Yukionna’ cannot be anything else than a tribute to Led Zeppelin classic ‘Achilles Last Stand’, but it is done in good taste and honoring an incredible band, so I will just let that slide.

The mark of a true progressive band that it keeps getting better. By that definition, Ningen Isu is a real progressive metal band, even though the King Crimson-isms were larger in number in their earlier years. In hindsight, it should not be too suprising that the trio outdoes itself on ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’, as they have been improving from the day they started releasing music. And they were pretty damn good to begin with anyway. Anyone with a taste for seventies progressive rock and traditional doom metal should not be discouraged by the lack of English song and album titles and just give this band a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Chou Nouryoku ga Attanara’, ‘Kyofu no Dai Ou’

Album of the Week 25-2017: Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand


Out of all popular contemporary metal bands, Mastodon is the only one I can get behind. I respect how little they care about genre boundaries or belonging to a certain scene. From day one, they have chosen their own path and there is always a possibility that a new album is not going to sound anything like its predecessor. Curveballs like their 2009 psychedelic metal masterpiece ‘Crack The Skye’ are probably a thing of the past, as every record that followed attempted to combine the best aspects of their discography thus far, but none of them quite succeeds as well as ‘Emperor Of Sand’ does.

‘Emperor Of Sand’ is the record on which Mastodon learned to do all the things they already did a lot better. Their riffs are still heavy and not too fast, there is an abundance of classy twin guitar harmonies, drummer Brann Dailor still lays down some downright incredible fills and yet, it all sounds just a little better than before. The highly melodic hooks that started appearing around the turn of the decade are integrated into the heavy songs a lot better than ever and the increasing classic rock influences mix with the band’s heavy metal and hardcore roots more satisfyingly.

More importantly, the compositions are extremely interesting. Mastodon has clearly made an effort to make every section of the song be a new climax, which is especially beneficial to songs with a lot of drama, such as ‘Roots Remain’ and the epic closer ‘Jaguar God’. As stated before, the melodic choruses are still here, some songs even have several hooks, but they feel less like an attempt to cross over to the pop rock audience. Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds have always been experts at weaving distinct guitar lines through each other and that feature of the band gets all the place it needs on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. Their bombastic sound helps. Hinds’ synth guitar in ‘Clandestiny’ adds an extra dimension to the sound.

In addition, the triple lead vocal assault seems to work better than ever. Dailor is there for the cleans, Hinds switches between a raw snarl and an Ozzy-like voice and bassist Troy Sanders is easily the rawest and most powerful of the three. They feed off each other and complement each other, which adds dynamics to songs like the highly catchy ‘Show Yourself’, dramatic harmonies to ‘Andromeda’ and impressive trade-offs are scattered all over the album. The vocals are not the thing that makes the album though; the guitars and the insane drumming are. As always.

While I will always be partial to ‘Crack The Skye’, Mastodon has really outdone itself on ‘Emperor Of Sand’. They have finally succeeded in combining all of their best qualities in a way that sounds “fluent”, for lack of a better term. I am somewhat reluctant to call the music on this record progressive metal, as the term conjures up images of Dream Theater clones, but it is a fact that this is the work of a metal band that wants to keep moving forward, with their virtuosity helping them rather than getting in the way of the songs. Quite an impressive feat, which makes ‘Emperor Of Sand’ one of the best metal albums released this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’, ‘Roots Remain’

Album of the Week 20-2017: Heart – Little Queen


While Ann and Nancy Wilson are still soldiering on making good music – in fact, their most recent studio album ‘Fanatic’ is easily the best thing they’ve done since the late seventies – Heart made its best albums in the second half of the seventies. They were always a good singles band, but 1977’s ‘Little Queen’ is a fantastic record almost all the way through. Though it may primarily be known for its energetic rockers like ‘Barracuda’ and ‘Kick It Out’, ‘Little Queen’ is a highly dynamic, balanced record and a songwriting triumph for both the Wilson sisters and guitarist Roger Fisher.

Anyone who has ever heard a Hart album except for maybe their eighties records should not be shocked that the band was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin. ‘Little Queen’ is no different in the sense that it fuses hard rock songs with distinct folky touches like Led Zeppelin did on their third and fourth albums. The folky diptych of ‘Sylvan Song’ and ‘Dream Of The Archer’ even seems pretty directly modelled after ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, with its layered vocals and prominent spot for the mandolin. It does have a more dreamy atmosphere though. These folky ballads are juxtaposed nicely against forceful rockers, creating a very pleasant listening experience.

It’s still the rockers that got most of the attention though. And in case of ‘Barracuda’, it’s not hard to understand why. Built upon the secont meanest gallop around at the time – after Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’- ‘Barracuda’ is a strong, riffy rocker with what is arguably Ann Wilson’s most powerful vocal performance to date. It may sound realitvely simple, but just listen how well those guitars in the chorus are arranged: it’s a little work of art. The energetic rock ‘n’ roller ‘Kick It Out’ is another staple off this album and it’s easy to hear why: it practically begs for the stage.

There’s much more to enjoy on ‘Little Queen’ though. The title track, for instance, with its subdued, syncopated, almost funky riffing and qausi-psychedelic middle section, is a hidden gem in the band’s body of work. ‘Love Alive’ is another Zeppelin-esque masterpiece of layered guitars, many of them acoustic. The epic two-part finale of ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Go On Cry’ is gorgeous as well, with the dark nature and the almost wordless vocals of the latter making it quite a unique entry in Heart’s discography. ‘Say Hello’, with its weird reggae meets folk feel, is the sole misstep on this record.

Otherwise, it’s nothing less than excellent. ‘Little Queen’ is more focused and songwriting-oriented than many rock albums that were released in the mid-seventies, but still a very sprawling record in its own way. Part of the reason why is the fact that the album is very much a band effort. Nobody except for maybe occasionally Ann Wilson outshines the compositions and everyone’s performances are serviceable to the songs. Then again, that must be relatively easy to do if the songs are actually this good. Heart would go on to release a string of great songs, but they wouldn’t release an album this consistent until early this century.

Recommended tracks: ‘Barracuda’, ‘Little Queen’, ‘Love Alive’

Album of the Week 19-2017: Led Zeppelin – Presence


For some reason, ‘Presence’ turned out to be Led Zeppelin’s slowest selling studio album. Maybe because its sounds significantly more stripped down than ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’, but ultimately, I prefer it even to some of the band’s classic albums. The record shows Led Zeppelin reconnecting with its roots, attempting to capture the essence of what made them so good in the first place. And succeeding at it surprisingly well. ‘Presence’ is a muscular hard rock record with excellent songwriting and an unusually strong emphasis on Zeppelin’s brilliant rhythm section. It is simply everything I’d want from them.

‘Presence’ was written and recorded during a tumultuous time for Led Zeppelin. Singer Robert Plant was seriously injured due to a car accident and the recordings had to be rushed due to the studio being booked by The Rolling Stones, which may be why the album isn’t loaded with extra touches like its two predecessors were. Instead, it focuses on the power within band and has the distinct live feel that made the debut so exciting seven years prior as a result. Drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones sound bigger than ever and the compositions truly focus on the band’s strengths.

The album is bookended by two of the best songs the band has ever recorded. ‘Achilles Last Stand’ is probably the most carefully arranged song on the album and basically feels like proto-heavy metal, due to its propulsive, galloping rhythm and Jimmy Page’s almost orchestral-sounding, layered guitar work. It feels significantly shorter than just over ten minutes. The other masterpiece is ‘Tea For One’, which – after a misleading intro – is essentially a minimalistic slow blues, into which Page’s sparse riffs inject a dark, almost doomy vibe. It’s number one on my list of Zeppelin songs that don’t get the love they deserve.

While those two tracks take up almost half of the album’s running time, they are hardly the only enjoyable songs on the record. The band’s adaptation of Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues song ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ quickly became a live staple, which is easily justified by its drive and strong build-up. ‘For Your Life’ has a spontaneity that brings back memories of the self-titled debut, though with a cleaner production and the sleazy, dirty fifties groove of ‘Candy Store Rock’ makes the song a true hidden gem. The other two songs are just good, but figuring that this is Led Zeppelin, “just good” is still far above average.

Although ‘Presence’ never enjoyed the same classic status, it is every bit as good and consistent as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ was. In the end, the most important reason why I prefer ‘Physical Graffiti’ to this is really that it has twice as much Led Zeppelin. On ‘Presence’, the band strikes a better balance between spontaneous jams and meticulously arranged songs than they have done before or since. I can understand why it’s somewhat lost between the sprawling majesty its predecessor and the confusing experimentalism of its follow-up, but the fact is that this is the band’s final masterpiece and a treat to fans of Zeppelin’s trademark rock sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Achilles Last Stand’, ‘Tea For One’, ‘Candy Store Rock’

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