Posts Tagged ‘ USPM ’

Album of the Week 23-2017: Iced Earth – Incorruptible

Lately, it seems like Iced Earth has been trying to make up for the bombast that characterized their sound during the first decade of this century by proving they are still first and foremost a heavy metal band. ‘Incorruptible’ follows this same general idea, as the guitars are front and center on the record. Sometimes it’s band leader Jon Schaffer’s instantly recognizable riff work, sometimes it’s the triumphant guitar harmonies reminiscent of traditional metal acts like Iron Maiden, but the guitars are always the defining factors of the songs. Combined with the ballsy production, this makes ‘Incorruptible’ one of Iced Earth’s more powerful releases.

The album’s direct predecessor ‘Plagues Of Babylon’ was also relatively guitar-oriented, but that album’s somewhat bland production and samey song ideas made it fall short of their excellent 2011 comeback record ‘Dystopia’. Schaffer made sure that the songs stand out more this time around by switching up atmospheres and melodies without losing track of the powerful foundation of the band. It helps that he has the amazing pipes of Stu Block at his disposal, as Block is perfectly capable of carrying out an anthemic chorus or a highly emotional passage without making it sound artificial.

Ironically, one of the highlights on ‘Incorruptible’ doesn’t even feature Block at all; it’s been a while since Iced Earth attempted an instrumental that wasn’t an intro or interlude, but ‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’ is a well-constructed track which lets its triumphant twin guitar melodies tell the story instead of the lyrics. That does not mean there aren’t any stories here. In fact, Schaffer’s fascination with American history prompted him to write yet another epic – ‘Clear The Way (December 13th, 1862)’ – this time about the Battle of Fredericksburg. Interestingly, even on this track, the guitars don’t yield for bombastic elements. There’s a few subtle keyboard flourishes, but it’s a riff-driven epic by nature.

While most of ‘Incorruptible’ feels pleasantly familiar, the best moments of the record show the band taking the slightest detour from their normal sound. ‘Brothers’ initially sounds like one of the band’s trademark power ballads, but quickly develops into a highly melodic heavy metal track with an amazing guitar solo by newcomer Jake Dreyer, while the following ‘Defiance’ does an amazing job alternating an angry, crushing verse with a refreshing melancholic chorus. ‘The Relic (Part One)’ has a brooding atmosphere, while the riff work is simple, yet brutally effective, which can also be said about Dreyer’s sparse, but amazing lead work. ‘The Veil’ has an amazing build-up and as a result, it is one of the band’s better power ballads yet.

Of course, that doesn’t meant that typical Iced Earth tracks like ‘Great Heathen Army’, ‘Black Flag’ and the dark, aggressive ‘Seven Headed Whore’ aren’t worth your attention. Those who have followed the band for a long time will definitely like those tracks, but the rest of the album might just convince a few people who have given up on the band around the turn of the century. ‘Incorruptible’ sounds like a deliberate attempt to confirm Iced Earth’s status as the kings of American heavy metal. As fas as I’m concerned, that’s the best decision they could have made at this point in their career.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Relic (Part One)’, ‘Defiance’, ‘Ghost Dance (Awaken The Ancestors)’


Album of the Week 12-2016: Metal Church – XI

When Metal Church announced the return of their best singer Mike Howe, I was moderately positive. Moderately, because Howe hadn’t been in any professional band since leaving Metal Church in the mid-nineties and time can be quite merciless on the human voice. Besides, I was quite fond of Ronny Munroe’s natural grit. Howe’s voice, however, has stood the test of time remarkably well and apparently fired up founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof to write his most inspired set of songs since the band’s original reunion, leaning very carefully toward the darker, more progressive tendencies of the earlier Howe-era. A very welcome change.

Recent Metal Church albums weren’t bad at all, but lacked the urgency that marked their classic work. While ‘XI’ doesn’t entirely escape that problem – a song like ‘Signal Path’ is decent enough, but not as memorable as it should be – it’s definitely the type of album you’ll spin completely instead of skipping to the better tracks. What helps in that regard is the production job; everything is well balanced and Jeff Plate’s drum sound is so much more natural than what is the norm for contemporary Metal records and therefore a lot more pleasant to listen to. Producers should take notes.

But in the end, what really counts is the song material. I was sort of afraid that the band had already hit us with their best shot when ‘No Tomorrow’ surfaced. It’s a nice epic riff fest in which Mike Howe really plays to his strengths, avoiding the highest regions of his range, but still retaining a lot of it. So how does it hold up to the rest of the album? Well, although it is the best song on ‘XI’, there are quite a few songs that come close. Especially those with highly memorable guitar riffs, like opening track ‘Reset’ or the amazing contemporary USPM of ‘Soul Eating Machine’.

‘XI’ really surprises when the band experiments with slower tempos. Of course, with a singer like Howe, you’ll want to give him the space and slower tempos tend to help that. But it’s also the riff work courtesy of Vanderhoof and Rick Van Zant that really shine in songs like the dark and progressive ‘It Waits’ and ‘Shadow’, which sounds like a cross between ‘Fake Healer’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven And Hell’. ‘Sky Falls In’ sounds like it would turn into a Bluesy Rock shuffle, but instead, becomes a powerful midtempo stomper. Fans of faster material can’t go wrong with ‘Needle And Suture’ or closing track ‘Suffer Fools’.

If it’s Howe’s return or a lucky combination of circumstances that drove Vanderhoof to writing his best material in years remains to be seen, but it’s a fact that ‘XI’ is a thoroughly enjoyable album full of memorable riffs, hooky songwriting and amazing vocals. If that doesn’t make a great traditional Heavy Metal record, I don’t know what does. And it’s probably a coincidence, but releasing this in the Easter weekend does justify to spend your time on at least one “Church”.

Recommended tracks: ‘No Tomorrow’, ‘Soul Eating Machine’, ‘It Waits’

Album of the Week 04-2016: Hexx – Under The Spell

Kudos to Metal Blade Records for re-releasing some of the more obscure American Metal releases lately. San Francisco’s Hexx got such a treatment and I’m extremely happy with that, because I’ve been looking for their sophomore record ‘Under The Spell’ for quite a long time now. First of all, it’s just about exactly halfway between the Metal subgenres I enjoy most – Power and Thrash Metal – and as such, intensity and melody are balanced quite well. Also, Dan Bryant’s spirited vocal performance lifts this record above the average of the late eighties Thrash scene. The result is nothing revolutionary, but thoroughly ejoyable.

Many reviews have pointed out that ‘Under The Spell’ was illustrating the transition from the band’s more traditional US Power Metal style on debut album ‘No Escape’ to a more Thrash oriented approach. However, when you listen to both albums, you’ll notice the style change isn’t all that considerable. Sure, the riff work courtesy of Dan Watson and Clint Bower definitely shows an increase of Thrash influences – though I think that difference is rather a result of one album being recorded in 1984 and the other in 1986 – and Bryant has a rawer edge to his voice than his predecessor Dennis Manzo had. But the music itself is obviously written by the same people.

As mentioned before, Bryant is a significant part of why I enjoy ‘Under The Spell’ so much. Here, he sounds like a combination of Dio at his rawest with the higher range bringing to mind Metal Church’s late singer David Wayne. When you hear his performance on the short, but stellar opening track ‘Hell Riders’, you’ll notice that the voice lifts the song from very good to excellent Heavy Metal. Sure, his high shrieks won’t be for everybody, but there’s a quality to the vocal work that only very few Thrash singers had in the day. And an aggression that wasn’t common in USPM.

Guitar-wise, there’s quite a lot to enjoy here as well. This isn’t as lead guitar-oriented as you would expect a band associated with Shrapnel to be, but the riff work is excellent. Take ‘The Victim’, for instance. Usually, when a Metal song is catchy, it’s because of a melodic theme or a chorus, but the main riff is just as catchy. The same goes for the title track, ‘The Hexx’ and ‘Edge Of Death’, which plays with half-time and double-time feel changes very effectively as well. Closing track ‘Midnight Sun’ is a bit slower and more atmospheric and therefore one of the more pleasant surprises on the record and ‘Fever Dream’ has an excellent build-up and a strong guitar solo by Watson.

‘Under The Spell’ should be enjoyable to anyone who enjoys a well-written, though not too complicated Metal song with good vocals. The original album only lasts slightly over half an hour, but that also means that it has no filler whatsoever; every song is worthy of your attention. And if quantity is an issue: the Metal Blade reissue has the entire ‘No Escape’ album and a wealth of bonus audio and video content – including a few live tracks with their suprisingly good new singer Eddie Vega and two fine new songs – so don’t let that keep you from getting this piece of USPM and Thrash history. It might be a footnote, but I’d take this over some of the more popular bands in the genres any day.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hell Riders’, ‘The Victim’, ‘Midnight Sun’

Album of the Week 42-2015: Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

After what can be only considered one of the most embarrassing soap operas in Heavy Metal history and a surprisingly concise legal battle, Seattle’s Queensrÿche moved on without their legendary singer Geoff Tate. For any band, this would be a disaster, but for remaining original members Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield, it meant they could finally go back to the progressive Metal sound they’ve helped pioneer. ‘Condition Hüman’ is in fact more Metal as a whole than their first, self-titled outing without Tate and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable releases the genre has offered in 2015 so far.

Essential to Queensrÿche’s renewed Progmetal sound is new singer Todd LaTorre, who sounds a lot like Tate. He’s slightly rougher around he edges, but he sounds more like Tate in his prime than Tate himself does these days. Besides his powerful wails and wide range, the guitars of Michael Wilton and relative newcomer Parker Lundgren feel familiar. The more contemporary production keeps ‘Condition Hüman’ from being a complete reproduction of their early sound, but the album has all the US Power Metal riffs, melodic themes and twin guitar harmonies and old school Metalhead can wish for.

This approach gives ‘Condition Hüman’ a significantly more Metal feel than the first release of this lineup. The album is most certainly more riff driven than anything Queensrÿche has done in the past two decades and that results in a couple of fantastic uptempo Metal songs. ‘Arrow Of Time’, ‘Guardian’, ‘Toxic Remedy’ and album highlight ‘All There Was’ all highlight the US Power Metal sound of albums like ‘The Warning’ – the latter is very reminiscent of the amazing ‘En Force’ – rather than the Progmetal sound they’re famous for, despite some distinctly progressive touches in especially their timing and the unpredictable song structures.

For fans of the more progressive Queensrÿche, however, the second half of the album offers quite a few treats. The kaleidoscopic 8 minute title track is a no-brainer, but ‘Hourglass’ is likely even better. Clean, distorted and acoustic guitars alternate in sections of shifting atmospheres and LaTorre is in top shape here. Bassist Eddie Jackson’s progressive stomper ‘Eye9’ is no slouch either. ‘Bulletproof’ is a fantastic power ballad and while ‘Selfish Lives’ and ‘Hellfire’ are somewhat more subdued in terms of tempo, they’re still soaring Heavy Metal tracks with some great guitar and vocal work. Scott Rockenfield’s drums are finally at full force again as well.

Some of the statements that Wilton, Jackson and Rockenfield made during the trials for the Queensrÿche name sounded too absurd to be true, but listen to ‘Condition Hüman’ one time and you’ll find out they probably were. Queensrÿche finally sounds like Queensrÿche again and as a result, ‘Condition Hüman’ is the finest record they’ve released since ‘Operation: Mindcrime’. And I’m pretty fond of ‘Promised Land’, so it says something that I like this one better. But even without the troubled recent history in the back of your mind, ‘Condition Hüman’ is a good album. How good? One of the best Metal albums of 2015: that good.

Recommended tracks: ‘All There Was’, ‘Toxic Remedy’, ‘Hourglass’, ‘Arrow Of Time’

Album of the Week 38-2014: Crows – The Dying Race

There are albums that should have been heard (and loved) by everyone, but just don’t get heard by anyone. It could be a matter of bad timing, lacking promotion or just simply bad luck. For Germany’s Crows, it’s a matter of “all of the above”, although the lack of promotion is something they had agreed on with their label Century Media Records. That did, however, keep a lot of people from hearing this genuine masterpiece of melodic, powerful and semi-progressive Heavy Metal. Even when drummer Bobby Schottkowski and guitarist Bernd Kost joined Thrash legend Sodom about half a decade later, the album didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Stylistically, Crows’ music is something of a mixture of the best elements of melodic German Speed Metal and early US Power Metal. Those who know Schottkowski and Kost from their tenure in Sodom will probably be surprised by the enormous amount of melody heard on ‘The Dying Race’. The album is full of awesome twin guitar lines, old school Heavy Metal riffs, unexpected twists in the songwriting department and blazing solos by Kost and fellow guitarist Jochen Kalpein, often backed with riffing that lends it a slightly dramatic edge.

Polish siren Leszek ‘Leo’ Szpigiel joined Crows shortly before the recording of ‘The Dying Race’ and delivers the best performance of his carreer here. His melodies are slightly lower than those familiar with his work may expect, which adds a lot of balls to his parts. However, the most redeeming factor about the vocals are the brilliant harmonies and little call-and-response bits he does, such as in the chorus of the moving opening track ‘The Frantic Factor’. It’s those harmonies that get passages from the mind blowing ‘We Are The Storm’ and the menacing ‘East Of Eden’ stuck in your head forever.

Despite the consistently high level on ‘The Dying Race’, there’s four songs that stand out. Which isn’t too bad if you consider that’s half the album. ‘The Frantic Factor’ and ‘We Are The Storm’ are fantastic examples of how Metal can be aggressive, melodic, catchy and interesting at the same time, while ‘Four’ is a riff fest the likes of which were very few in number in 1991 that gets your blood boiling, while the closing title track brings all of the album’s melodic qualities, prowess in the musicianship department and progressive structures together in a simply irresistable track.

For those wondering about the aging Native American on the album cover: the lyrics on ‘The Dying Race’ are based on Native American history. Kalpein, who penned all of them, has studied the subject and delivered us lyrics that are more than an excuse to sing about fighting cowboys. A nice extra touch to an already great album.

While Crows never got the recognition they deserved, the digital age that we live in these days does provide a new chance to check out this incredible material. In fact, US based label Divebomb Records has re-released the album with all of the band’s demo’s as bonus. I suggest you will at least give this a listen, because it’s hard to find a Metal album these days where melody, aggression and intelligence go hand in hand as well as on ‘The Dying Race’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Four’, ‘The Frantic Factor’, ‘The Dying Race’, ‘We Are The Storm’

Album of the Week 51-2013: Riot – Thundersteel

Some records just scream “Metal” proudly in your face. Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’ obviously is something of a model record in that matter. However, two years prior to that classic, New York’s Riot released an album Priest wouldn’t even dare to dream of. In Priest’s defense, it would take them a little longer until they found a drummer of the same class as Riot’s Bobby Jarzombek, but that’s not the only reason why ‘Thundersteel’ is an album that is worthy of the same praise as ‘Painkiller’. Its impeccable songwriting and top-notch musicianship have proven through the years to be almost impossible to equal.

At the time, ‘Thundersteel’ was something of a rebirth for Riot. The band had been around since the mid-seventies and had recorded some essential early Heavy Metal records – ‘Fire Down Under’ above all – but it wasn’t until this album that all the pieces fell into place. Mark Reale had proven himself a fantastic songwriter and even better guitarist through the last decade and a half, but even he outdid himself here. Then there was the unexperienced, but fantastic singer Tony Moore who debuted here, the aforementioned Jarzombek and bassist Don Van Stavern, who contributed to a lot of this album’s stellar songwriting.

With that as a strong base, the album kicks off into a flying start. ‘Thundersteel’ itself is probably the most impressive, adrenalin pumping opening track Heavy Metal had heard up until then – as mentioned, this is two years before ‘Painkiller’, which it pretty much is on par with – with Jarzombek’s rolling bass drums, Reale’s blazing riffs and solos and Moore soaring on top of that. If this doesn’t get your blood cooking, you’re not into Heavy Metal, it’s that simple. Quite a lot of American bands did this kind of classy, melodic Heavy Metal at the time rather successfully – Leatherwolf, Omen and Savage Grace come to mind – but none had summed up Heavy Metal as well as ‘Thundersteel’ did.

However, there’s more after that amazing title track. In fact, the album is a continuous source of highlights, my favorite of which being ‘Johnny’s Back’. Lyrically in the same vein as Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, the song is a combination of fantastic climaxes, a brilliant chorus, amazing riffs supported by Jarzombek’s pulsating drumming and a masterclass in lead guitar work. The nostalgia displayed in the lyrics somehow is reflected really well in the song’s melodies. Other highlights include the eighties USPM riff fest that is ‘Run For Your Life’ and the near-Thrash riffing of ‘Flight Of The Warrior’. But even when the band slows down, as heard on mid-tempo stomper ‘Sign Of The Crimson Storm’ and closing Doomster ‘Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)’, they impress.

Contemporary Metal fans have the tendency to ridicule this kind of Metal somehow, but I have yet to see one of the newer “heroes” of the scene come up with this combination of energy, melody, instrumental mastery, class and compositional brilliance. Sadly, chief songwriter and master guitarist Mark Reale passed away about two years ago, leaving a void in the genre that only true experts seem to acknowledge. ‘Thundersteel’ is his magnum opus, an album that should be heard by anyone who loves Heavy Metal the way it’s supposed to be played.

Recommended tracks: ‘Johnny’s Back’, ‘Thundersteel’, ‘Run For Your Life’

Album of the Week 44-2013: Metal Church – Generation Nothing

Following their 2008 release ‘This Present Wasteland’, a competent, but only moderately inspired album, Metal Church broke up. Imagine my surprise when the release of ‘Generation Nothing’ was announced. In fact, the lineup remains unchanged, but ‘Generation Nothing’ is a much better record. Where ‘This Present Wasteland’ did a decent job consolidating Metal Church’s trademark sound, ‘Generation Nothing’ is something of a rebirth on par with – or possibly even better than – the coming of Ronny Munroe in the shape of ‘The Weight Of The World’.

‘Generation Nothing’ shows the Metal Church we’ve come to know and love over the years. This is strong American Heavy Metal with powerful guitar riffs courtesy of sole remaining original member Kurdt Vanderhoof and lots of room for Munroe’s vocal tour de force. However, something seems to have re-energized Metal Church. ‘Bulletproof’, for instance, is a remarkably fierce kick-off by Metal Church measures and the compositions are generally more interesting and surprising than any of the band’s post-2000 output, contributing to a very pleasant listen. Then again, what may help as well is the great quality of the material.

Despite only ‘Noises In The Wall’ being of actual epic proportions, there’s actually quite a few tracks that take their time to grow into a composition with multiple different climaxes. ‘Hits Keep Comin”, the fantastic dark closer ‘The Media Horse’ and ‘Suiciety’ would definitely qualify as epic in that matter. The latter has one of the album’s most impressive guitar solos on the album as well. Along ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Scream’ is surprisingly Thrashy for Metal Church. The relatively melodic chorus does make it a typical Metal Church staple and everything combined, it’s probably the best track on the record.

Looking at the individual performances on this record, I once again have to emphasize my weak spot for Ronny Munroe. He stepped into big shoes, following up the legendary David Wayne and the much better Mike Howe, but he does so very well. His vocals are characterized by an enviable amount of power and just the right amount of grit. Nothing here gets as good as his live performance of ‘Gods Of Wrath’, but Munroe is one of the better singers Metal has to offer at the moment.

Guitarists Vanderhoof and Rick van Zant – both Dutch names, the nationalist in me would like to address – both do a fantastic job here. ‘Generation Nothing’ is very much a riff record, but their solos are simply awesome, sometimes helped by the fact that the solo sections are notably well-written. Bassist Steve Unger and Savatage drummer Jeff Plate are a formidable rhythm section, with Plate having a warm, authentic sound that seems forbidden on many contemporary Metal productions.

While maybe not quite be on par with the almost inhuman brilliance of ‘Blessing In Disguise’, ‘Generation Nothing’ is the best album Metal Chuch has done in a long time. In an era where the only old-school bands are bands tributizing their heroes in a way that it borders on parody, it’s good to hear the real thing delivered with a sincerity and a passion that contemporary Metal begs for. But then again… They’re not a “Metal Church” without reason, right?

Recommended tracks: ‘Scream’, ‘The Media Horse’, ‘Dead City’, ‘Bulletproof’