Posts Tagged ‘ Heavy Metal ’

In Memoriam Chris Cornell 1964-2017


Now this one came as a shock. Last week, I even reviewed the best album Chris Cornell was ever a part of and now, he is dead. Despite making a few dubious artistic choices throughout his career, Cornell had one colossal voice and has written a bunch of downright fantastic songs. His death is still shrouded in mystery at the moment, but it occurred only hours after a sold out Soundgarden show in Detroit. It’s hard to say anything useful at the moment, but let me at least pay a little tribute to – by far – the best male singer from the Seattle rock scene.

Despite ultimately being one of the biggest bands of the Seattle scene of the early nineties, Soundgarden started as early as 1984. Kim Thayil is often credited for the unique guitar tapestries of the band, but Cornell was quite the guitar player himself and their interaction was an essential part of the heavy, yet melodic and deliberately awkward sound of the band. Cornell either wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of the band’s output. Soundgarden had some of the most natural sounding odd time measures in the music business and a bunch of riffs that within Seattle were only rivaled by Alice In Chains in terms of heaviness.

Soundgarden was one of the more interesting rock bands that Seattle had in the eighties, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cornell found his voice. Both litterally and in terms of songwriting. That’s the year when Temple Of The Dog released its sole album in April and Soundgarden released their massive ‘Badmotorfinger’ in October. Two monumental records with Cornell’s voice on them. ‘Temple Of The Dog’ was a strong tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood which also featured the recording debut of one Eddie Vedder and ‘Badmotorfinger’ showed Cornell almost litterally outdoing himself with songs like ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.

While it meant Soundgarden’s breakthrough and artistic highlight, the band didn’t reach its peak in popularity with 1994’s ‘Superunknown’. Five successful singles were released from that album, the most popular of which – the monster hit ‘Black Hole Sun’ – won two Grammy Awards. Personally, I always preferred the gloomy ‘Fell On Black Days’. After one more album in 1996 – ‘Down On The Upside’ – Soundgarden split up and Cornell focused on his own projects. Always an experimental guy, he tried out several genres and while I don’t agree with every decision he made – the R&B record ‘Scream’ that he made with producer Timbaland is borderline embarrassing – he deserves a lot of respect for trying.

In the meantime, Cornell also formed Audioslave with all members of Rage Against The Machine except for singer Zack de la Rocha. They had a couple of hits, but eventually the former bands of all members involved would reunite. That included Soundgarden, whose 2012 release ‘King Animal’ battle’s Alice In Chains’ ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ for the title of best comeback album ever made by a rock band. Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seemed to be very serious about reuniting for good, but while on tour, Cornell passed away.

Besides the songs, we would have to remember Cornell for having a sense of humor that didn’t ruin his music. How else would you explain the hilarious glam rock and hair metal parody that is ‘Big Dumb Sex’? Sadly, there is very little that fans of his voice can laugh about today, but we are luckily still left with recordings of his amazing voice and I suggest we play it as loud as we can. I’ll start.

Album of the Week 18-2017: Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger


Along with Alice In Chains, Soundgarden is one of the very few bands from the early nineties Seattle scene that is actually appreciated among heavy metal audiences. The band’s third album ‘Badmotorfinger’ clearly shows why. The noisy punk leanings or mainstream ambitions that many of the band’s peers did have are absent here. Instead, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is full of heavy riff work reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and odd time signatures with ditto rhythms. And while the songs did streamline the band’s sound, it does so without sacrificing even the slightest bit of the Seattlites’ unique character and approach.

Compared to the album’s direct predecessor ‘Louder Than Love’, ‘Badmotorfinger’ sounds significantly more focused. The songs are harder-edged and while there is still a great deal of variation to be found on the record, the quartet doesn’t need quite as much time to get to the point here. However, the biggest improvement to be heard on ‘Badmotorfinger’ is in Chris Cornell’s voice. With this album and Temple Of The Dog’s sole release, 1991 prove to be the year that he transformed from a promising rock singer to a powerhouse vocalist with a massive range. Hardly anyone has come close since.

Ultimately, any of these improvements would be meaningless if the songs weren’t any good. Luckily, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is the most consistent set of songs Soundgarden has yet released. The band found a way to combine their love for odd measures with memorable melodies without having to alternate between those extremes. ‘Outshined’, for instance, feels like a catchy rock song despite its 7/4 meter and heavy riff and ‘Room A Thousand Years Wide’ is such a pleasant listen, that you hardly realize that the 6/4 rhythm that it’s built upon is quite unconventional. ‘Badmotorfinger’ is filled with such moments. It’s always a good thing when a band isn’t trying to be too clever with these things.

‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ is the ultimate proof of just how heavy Soundgarden could get: Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell pump out some crushing riffs, while the latter belts his heart out in the chorus. ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ has Matt Cameron’s incredible rhythms and the propulsive riff work pounding relentlessly underneath yet another amazing Cornell performance and opening track ‘Rusty Cage’ manages to be heavy and hypnotizing at the same time. ‘Holy Water’ is somewhat reminiscent of Alice In Chains and some songs are weirdly, but successfully decorated with horns. New bassist Ben Shepherd’s love for punk shines through the wonderfully aggressive ‘Face Pollution’.

Before ‘Badmotorfinger’, Soundgarden was a decent band that occasionally lost their way halfway through meandering songs. The increased focus did help the band a great deal, because ‘Badmotorfinger’ is easily one of the best records of its era. Terry Date’s production, which gave the band’s bottom end a not so subtle punch without damaging the clear highs, is another important factor in why the album sounds so good. And while its follow-up ‘Superunknown’ would definitively propel the band into stardom, ‘Badmotorfinger’ still stands as the bands ultimate artistic statement. One on which rock, metal, punk and pop melt into one irresistible whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’

Album of the Week 15-2017: God Forbid – Earthsblood


God Forbid’s last album with their original line-up – and penultimate altogether – was the record on which they truly outdid themselves. In quite a litteral sense too. Starting out as a musically tight, but not particularly surprising metalcore band, the quintet gradually evolved into an excellent contemporary heavy metal band on ‘IV: Constitution Of Treason’. It’s that album’s follow-up, however, that is a truly unique work. Though most of the separate elements are familiar – hardcore, melodic death metal, thrash metal and progressive metal most prominently – the combination is what makes this a one of the very few modern day metal masterpieces.

So what to call the music on this album then? Well, it’s definitely modern metal in the sense that it contains downtuned guitars, significant hardcore influences and the vocal interaction between frontman Byron Davis’ harsh shouts and guitarist Dallas Coyle’s melodic cleans. ‘Earthsblood’, however, is more ambitious than what even some of God Forbid’s better peers – such as Shadows Fall – were attempting. The band’s mission here seems to be to seamlessly blend all of their influences and while history has proven that approach to often be a recipe for an incoherent disaster, it miraculously works for almost the entire playing time of the album.

Nowhere is the band’s ambition more obvious than during the more progressive moments. ‘The New Clear’, for instance, sounds like nothing God Forbid has ever done before, with its subdued vibe somewhat reminiscent of Opeth and ‘Elegy’ era Amorphis. Closing tracks ‘Earthsblood’ and ‘Gaia’ – the two longest tracks on the record – are more traditionally proggy in their dynamics, alternating between God Forbid’s trademark thick, heavy riffs and more atmospheric passages. Standout moments are the acoustic guitar sections on the former and Dallas Coyle’s mood-defining one-note vocal harmonies with himself on the latter. A final punch delivered in style.

But even the band’s more familiar heavy approach sounds great here. ‘War Of Attrition’ is probably the most typical God Forbid song on here, but more impressive are the surprisingly melodic ‘Walk Alone’ – a 21st century interpretation of traditional heavy metal – the viciously thrashy ‘Shallow’ and the strong, dark opener ‘The Rain’, which has a brilliant build-up in tension. ‘Empire Of The Gun’ has some nice dramatic twin guitar work and an incredible chorus built upon Dallas Coyle’s clean vocals as a perfect juxtaposition to the heavily stomping riffs and Davis’ hardcore barks in the verses. It could have been a successful single on alternative radio.

Ultimately, God Forbid started to fall apart after ‘Earthsblood’. Dallas Coyle left the band, that released one more somewhat underwhelming record and disbanded shortly afterward. Maybe the frustration of not being able to outdo this record may have been a part of that, but whatever the reason, some bands don’t even get to make an album this good. I feel that God Forbid is often dismissed by older metal fans as one of those bands that profited from the hype created by the likes of Lamb Of God and Killswitch Engage, but the truth is that none of those bands ever cared so little about what type of music they were supposed to make and ended up with an album as spontaneous and pleasantly surprising as ‘Earthsblood’.

Recommended tracks: ‘The New Clear’, ‘Gaia’, ‘Empire Of The Gun’

Album of the Week 14-2017: Onmyo-za – Kishibojin


Concept albums can be a tricky affair, but when done right, their atmosphere and continuity lifts everything about the albums in question to a higher level. Take Onmyo-za’s ‘Kishibojin’. It’s one of those albums that leaves very little to be desired and therefore is almost impossible to turn off before it’s over. The band supersizes its unique combination of fairly traditional heavy metal riffs, an atmosphere inspired by Japanese myths and legends, an approach to songwriting that ignores genre boundaries and a duo of (almost) equally amazing singers, resulting in one of the best albums I have ever heard.

On the surface, all the songs having “Kumikyoku ‘Kishibojin'” in their titles – which I will omit from the separate songs for brevity reasons – already betrays that we’re dealing with a concept album, but there’s more subtle hints as well, such as songs transitioning into each other and recurring themes. All songs are great stand-alone tracks too, however. And there’s a consistency, both in terms of style and quality, that surpasses even the rest of Onmyo-za’s strong discography. That also means there’s no upbeat J-Rock songs here – though the aggressively playful ‘Oni Kosae No Uta’ is borderline – but I consider that a plus.

‘Kishibojin’ is a darker affair than the average Onmyo-za record, though songs like ‘Urami No Hate’ and the powerful opener ‘Samayoi’ have a hopeful undertone to them. You don’t have to understand Japanese – I don’t, for instance – to get carried away by the atmosphere. For instance, the middle section of the amazing ‘Kishibojin’ seems to portray insanity – highlighted by subtly shifting rhythms and lead guitar feel – and the ballads ‘Korui’ and ‘Gekko’ suggest a feeling of solitude. The slower, brooding tunes ‘Ubugi’ and ‘Michi’ are masterclasses in building atmosphere, while the brilliant closing track ‘Kikoku’ ties the whole thing together musically and mood-wise.

As far as performances go, ‘Kishibojin’ is as close to perfection as it gets without having its life sucked out. Bassist and band leader Matatabi and his wife Kuroneko are both great singers. The former delivers his best performance thus far on this record, while the latter is – as always – incredible. The guitar duo has perfectly complementary lead guitar syles, with Maneki having a more thematic approach and Karukan being responsible for the faster runs. ‘Kishibojin’ is session drummer Makoto Dobashi’s recording debut with Onmyo-za and his powerful, but not overly aggressive playing proves to be a perfect fit for the band.

While Onmyo-za has yet to release an album that is less than good, every good band has a release where they truly outdo themselves. ‘Kishibojin’ is that release for Onmyo-za. The generally melancholic atmosphere on the record may not be for everyone, but it’s also a very important part of what makes the album such an immersive listening experience. I would like to be critical and point out small mistakes, but the truth is that they are nowhere to be found. This is a near-perfect record, right down to the subtle, but indispensible keyboard flourishes. Go check it out, if you haven’t yet, and don’t blame me for your Onmyo-za addiction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kikoku’, ‘Kishibojin’, ‘Michi’

Album of the Week 13-2017: Wicked Mystic – Lithium


Sometimes unexpected breakups inadvertently mean that bands go out while they’re at their peaks. Yours truly was thoroughly impressed with Wicked Mystic’s sophomore album ‘Lithium’, but before they could properly promote the record, the band had already broken up. And that means that outside of the Netherlands, not many people could acquaint themselves with this highly interesting hybrid of progressive and power metal. During those days, it wasn’t easy to find a record in the genre with such a perfect balance of melody and variation in the songwriting department. Easily one of the best Dutch metal records of all time.

Compared to its excellent predecessor ‘The Paramount Question’, ‘Lithium’ is more concise and a little more aggressive, but the general sound is similar. Specifically, this means the songs are shorter, but not simpler. Within the songs, quite a lot of things happen, but they never end up sounding disjointed. In addition, some of the album’s best moments are not in the riffs – despite their obvious quality – but in the clean and acoustic guitar passages, that the quintet seems to be quite liberal with. This may cause the album to sound a little busy at times, but that generally is its strength.

Two of the songs are even largely acoustic. ‘The Reverie’ is a beautiful, folky ballad with some excellent fretless bass work by Erik Schut, but the most wonderful acoustic work can be heard on the breathtaking closing track ‘Last Honesty’, which tells the story of a wrongfully convicted death row inmate through an immaculate build-up. Some acoustic guitar solos pop up from time to time, with those near the end of the strong heavy metal track ‘Inborn Jester’ standing out most. The heavier ‘Mournful Rhymes’ and the euphoric ‘Hollow Phrase’ profit from extended clean sections with fantastic lead guitar work by Niels Kuenen and Harald te Grotenhuis.

On the more aggressive side of things, there is the relatively speedy ‘Calm Despair’, which builds from a high-speed twin guitar intro to a song with driving rhythms and great vocals by Remko Roes, who draws parallels to Ronnie James Dio and Tad Morose’s Urban breed. ‘Knight Errant’ is the song that demands most versatility from him – from the more aggressive opening to the harmonies of the chorus. Opening track ‘Toxemia’ is easily the most modern song on the record and while it’s good, it’s probably not the best song to open with, as it’s a bit misleading.

Wicked Mystic recently had a brief reunion with one of their early line-ups, mostly focusing on the more aggressive thrash metal leanings of their early work. While it was a pleasant listen, ‘The Paramount Question’ and ‘Lithium’ were without any doubt the albums that showed the band from their more unique side. To call this progressive metal would give people the wrong impression of what the music sounds like, but it is a fact that Wicked Mystic didn’t let itself be limited by what was expected from contemporary power metal bands at the time. Worth a listen if you are into Iced Earth’s more adventurous material.

Recommended tracks: ‘Last Honesty’, ‘Inborn Jester’, ‘Hollow Phrase’

Album of the Week 12-2017: Seikima-II – Mephistopheles no Shouzou


A cliché often used for eighties rock bands that survived through the nineties is that their records sound as if the nineties didn’t happen. Hardly any album answers more to that sentiment than ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’. Despite being released in 1996, the compositions, arrangements and production scream eighties hard rock and heavy metal, while the band’s appearance and theatricality could be either a tribute to or a parody of Kiss during a time when Kiss themselves didn’t even wear make-up. One thing is for sure: it was almost impossible to find this much classy heavy metal on one record in the mid-nineties.

Most of Seikima-II’s records are good, but many of them lack a consistency that ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ does have. The fact that it’s a concept album of Faustian themes may help the excellent flow of the record, although not an inch of the band’s versatility has been sacrificed. There’s the NWOBHM-tinged heavy metal of their early days, melodic hard rock tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on their late eighties records and a bunch of power ballads, all passionately performed with a complete disregard of whatever musical trend reared its head, giving the album a timeless flair.

‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’ kicks off the album in a delightful early eighties heavy metal fashion with all the simple, yet effective riffs and twin guitar harmonies you can wish for. This approach is combined with powerful galloping rhythms in songs like closer ‘Holy Blood ~Tatakai No Kettou~’ and the extremely well structured ‘Yajuu’. The power ballads may sound entirely out of style for the time of the album’s release, but especially ‘Who Kills Demon?’ – somewhat reminiscent of the band’s own ‘Stainless Night’ – is really good. ‘Salome Wa Kaette Satsui Wo Shirushi’ has a more epic nature, sounding unlike anything the band has ever done before.

Notably, former members have contributed greatly to the record. Especially original guitarist Damian Hamada, who wrote some of the album’s best material, including the aformentioned ‘Yajuu’ and the dark, brooding, slithering masterpiece of a title track. Former guitarist Jail O’Hashi wrote the closing track ‘Akuma No Blues’, which doesn’t really sound like the rest of the album musically and production-wise – it’s a seventies inspired blues rock track – but it’s too enjoyable to complain about that.

As for the actual members, Sgt. Luke Takamura III and Ace Shimizu throw around amazing guitar solos – including a mindblowing acoustic one in the title track – and Demon Kogure once again opens up his entire vocal register. Bassist Xenon Ishikawa and excellent drummer Raiden Yuzawa are surprisingly laid back for a metal rhythm section, but it works really well within the context of Seikima-II’s unique music.

Sandwiched between two records that have the band experimenting with a somewhat more poppy approach, ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’ often gets forgotten, but the truth is that it’s a quality heavy metal album released in a time that those were extremely rare. If you like your metal theatrical, epic, melodic and not afraid of a little experimentation, Seikima-II is your band. And with the consistency being as it is on ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, it’s going to be difficult to turn off the album before it’s over.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mephistopheles No Shouzou’, ‘Yajuu’, ‘Jigoku No Koutashi Wa Ni Do Shinu’

Album of the Week 11-2017: OverKill – W.F.O.


Like many of their peers, OverKill faded to the background a little when the nineties reared their heads. Unlike their peers, however, OverKill continued to make quality records. A complaint often heard is that the band focused too much on groove following their classic ‘Horrorscope’ album. And while the next record ‘I Hear Black’ did in deed have a lot of Black Sabbath-inspired grooves, its follow-up ‘W.F.O.’ is one pissed-off record which merges an almost punkish aggression and some of the most varied songwriting in the band’s history. Looking back, only its 1994 release date keeps it from being considered a classic.

‘W.F.O.’ is basically OverKill turned up to eleven. Their trademark punky thrash attitude is amplified by an abrasive production job – harsh guitars, a prominently rumbling bass – that may be somewhat off-putting in the beginning, but turns out to have its charms as well. The riff work oozes with anger and energy and appear to attempt breaking free from the confines of your speakers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for nuance on this record. In fact, its versatility is rivaled only by the seminal records ‘Horrorscope’ and ‘The Years Of Decay’. And maybe, just maybe, ‘Killbox 13’.

The album bulldozes into gear with the adrenalin monster ‘Where It Hurts’, which is one of my favorite OverKill openers to this day. There’s very little subtlety in the song, but enough to hear the fantastic interaction between the guitars and the rhythm section, which don’t necessarily blindly follow each other. This level of aggression is retained for thrash monsters like ‘They Eat Their Young’ or more punk influenced material like ‘Fast Junkie’ and ‘Supersonic Hate’. ‘Under One’ already signals in the more modern influences that OverKill would flirt with on their following records, but not without the trusted OverKill approach.

Surprisingly, the album does get a lot more melodic at times. ‘R.I.P. (Undone)’, an acoustic instrumental dedicated to the memory of Savatage’s Criss Oliva, is quite unique in that respect, featuring Rob Cannavino on the acoustic guitar and Merritt Gant soloing his heart out on top of that. ‘Bastard Nation’ feels like a disillusioned – and better – nineties equivalent to ‘In Union We Stand’ and ‘The Wait – New High In Lows’ combines the two extremes. The best is saved for last; ‘Gasoline Dream’ is a dark, brooding monster of a track with a climactic finale that remains one of the band’s best songs to this day.

Even though they are rare, strong thrash records have been released deep into the nineties and ‘W.F.O.’ is definitely one of them. Ironically, the prominent feel on the album is a disillusionment similar to the one expressed on many of the grunge records that were big at the time, OverKill just chooses to express it with pure, uncut anger rather than a feeling of despair. The result is an album that is OverKill through and through; its streetwise aggression is part of what makes the band – and this album in particular – so unique. Highly recommended those who need their blood to rush again.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gasoline Dream’, ‘Bastard Nation’, ‘Where It Hurts’