Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vangough - Game On!

In the past, some of the old guard of melodic metal (such as Primal Fear – Killbound and Helloween – The Game Is On) have lyrically depicted video games as a dangerous distraction for the borderline kids of the Ritalin generation. So as a gamer who grew up in an environment that screamed video games were something to be watched carefully and cautiously, it’s refreshing to see this newer crop of bands who acknowledge video games as they would any other form of narrative media.

Joining the ranks of Machinae Supremacy and HORSE The Band with this new album, America’s Vangough have offered up an album of rearranged covers and medleys from classic games old and new. Unlike those two bands I just mentioned, who take sounds and aesthetics from video games and create original music, Vangough mastermind Clay Withrow says in the liner notes that he just wants us to take this for what it is: a tribute to classic games over the years.

Alright, Mr. Withrow, you got it. Game on.

It’s actually pretty difficult for me to look at this in a totally objective light, because I have a fond attachment to a lot of games represented here. Donkey Kong Country? Starfox? Bloody Metroid Prime 2? You’re speaking my language, buddy.

Much of the rhythm section here gets quite heavy for the kind of covers being done, especially on The Turtle King’s Lair (Super Blastbeat Brothers?) and Torvus Bog, but it works out well. The drums actually serve as the pivotal point of the aforementioned Mario medley, letting the guitars and keys fill in the gaps and create an atmosphere that definitely works in context.

For those of you who checked this out expecting to rock out to your favourite game tunes re-arranged into something to bang your head to, try Corneria (a part of me thinks it sounds more like the Transformers theme than Starfox before the solos kick in, but I never did get too many hours on the original SNES game as opposed to 64, and I’m guessing this is based on the original, so) and The Killer Instinct.

But the most important thing about any adaptation, music or not, is whether or not the spirit of the source material remains intact. So for what it’s worth, these tracks – in particular, Simon’s Revenge (the Castlevania medley) serve up those helpings of nostalgic goodness that make you feel back in your living room, controller in your hand.

Though, speaking from my inner geek, it’s surprising that while they chose to use a mellow track from the Donkey Kong Country series to close out the album, they didn’t choose Stickerbrush Symphony. Don’t get me wrong, Coral Capers is a great track, but wherever I look, Stickerbrush is usually in the de facto top ten of most people’s video game songs. But at the end of the day, that’s splitting hairs in the way that only a combined music and video game fan would bother to. It’s like – “oh, hey, why not cover F-Zero, or put in some music from Prime and Super for the Metroid medley?” It’s that kind of “what if?” nitpicking that can take the fun out of the album that they did give us. We can dream on for a Game On Again!, or something, but I’m happy with what we got.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Queensryche - American Soldier

I'm not a Queensryche hater, not by a country mile, but it's somewhat difficult to articulate why I'm so displeased with this record.

No, displeased is the wrong word; indifferent, moreover. This is a record which forces your indifference. It's not good, it's not bad, it just -exists-, in the same way that sugarless cake feels like a great wad of nothing in your mouth.

Right up front, I'll give the band credit in that the album is centered around a novel concept, and nothing feels out of place with the instrumentation, with a tight performance all around. But how could anything feel out of place, with compositions so bland and seemingly apathetic to their own existence?

Many people hated Operation: Mindcrime II, but dammit, that album took a musical stand, as all good records do; it stood for a gritty, treacherous urban landscape in which the story took place. It may not have been what a lot of people wanted as a sequel to the bombastathon that was the original Mindcrime, but it went in a direction and it stood by it. And it was followed by the theatrical, dramatic Mindcrime At The Moore, which held fast to the musical vision of both records and gave us a DVD/CD that, I think, both fulfilled and closed the Mindcrime saga.

Unlike this. This is mush; these meandering, lightweight compositions just kind of float along, but it's not a Pink Floydian or Katatonian kind of transcendence they evoke, only the occasional checking of the clock.

That's my big problem with this record: you can put on the highest quality headphones out there, push play, listen all the way through, and come out of the experience having felt absolutely nothing, no emotional resonance with the art presented here.

Granted – there are moments. Opener Sliver at least attempts some kind of energy, while the lyrics are solid throughout. It’s a shame to have to give this a low score, because it’s easy to see the contemplative mood that the band wanted to achieve with this – but it’s a tightrope to walk. You do it right, and you come up with the transcendent brilliance of later Katatonia, but you fail to inject that extra dose of compelling musicality, and this is what you come up with. The elements are there, but they fail to mesh and really kick-start one another, or captivate interest.

By rights, a record so bland as to inspire total and utter indifference (the polar opposite of love; not hate, as many say) in me should get a complete, flatlining "average". But as Luc Lemay (and I'm sure a host of others) once said, music is the universal language; it's an art form that reaches out and requests - no, demands - that you clench and feel the artist's passion. From the most energetic of power metal to the most vicious of death metal, even to the fluffiest of pop, music is (cheesy as it may sound) the language of the soul. That's why I'm being so harsh with this, despite the instrumental precision and the occasional spark: it's simply a soulless album on the whole.

It's still not enough to erase the goodwill that their earlier prog masterworks have granted in me. Queensryche have a new album coming out this year, and once again, I’ll be checking it out. Here’s just hoping it’ll make me feel something, anything.

Psycroptic - Ob(Servant)

(This review was originally written for metal-archives a couple of years back)

I really wanted to like this record.

So the Tasmanian devils are back with their fourth full-length. This was my first exposure to their new lineup, and the taste it left in my mouth was…disappointing, in a word.

Joe Haley could possibly be my favourite guitarist from the land down under; his playing seamlessly blends impressive but unpretentious technicality with the strength and driving power that a genre like death metal demands from its performers. It’s his licks and riffs that shine throughout this album, giving me a reason to spin it occasionally or to pay attention when its songs come up on shuffle. It’s because of Haley’s unwavering devotion to laying down those consistent, frenetic riffs, flowing into each other like a choppy but powerful sea, that this record is worthy of the Psycroptic name. The other Haley brother pounds away on the skins with a hair trigger, keeping up with any time changes with mechanical precision. It does well for the robotic lyrical themes of the album. Had this been an instrumental album, I’d have deemed it…well, still not fantastic, but good to spin once in a while.

And then there’s the elephant in the corner: mister Jason Peppiatt. Forgive me for this bit of vitriol, but I just want to make clear that I’m criticizing based on his style, not just out of some misdirected aggression because of the singer change-up like what seems to be a good chunk of the Ripper/Bayley haters. In fairness, he’s tolerable when he’s grunting along with a standard growl. But when he attempts to hit the high notes, he just sounds like he’s trying to do a bad Jon N√∂dtveidt impression. Don’t even get me started on the garbled mid-tone shouting that sounds less like a death metaller and more like someone trying to alert the immediate company to perform the Heimlich maneuver since they’re choking on a log of meat.

And he doesn’t. Shut. Up. Most of the time I’m trying to enjoy Haley’s blazing riffs, and keep getting thrown out of it because of this warbler and his incessant vocal lines. It’s not even that he’s not an appropriate replacement for Chalky, one of the most inhuman-sounding and diverse vocalists I’ve ever heard; it’s that he’s just not a competent vocalist at all. The ghost of Matthew Chalk is sure to dog this band, but even when you look at this album as a standalone piece, Peppiatt just doesn’t work. There are moments where he’s tolerable, like when he’s just ordinarily growling, and a few times when he takes that mid-tone shout and distorts it a step further. If by any odd chance he’s reading this (like anyone actually reads this blog, but I digress ;), my advice is to focus on those strengths and build your way up from there. But if Peppiatt was the best out of the pool they auditioned to replace Chalky…I really don’t want to know what that says about the ones who didn’t make the cut.

Apologies for ranting like this, but it needs to be said: I don’t have high standards when it comes to my vocalists, so long as they fit the music. Elvenking, Megadeth, Motorhead: all bands that produce good music and have a good vocal/instrumental synthesis because their singers compliment the music, despite a marked lack of raw technical singing talent – at least, as far as I know. But Peppiatt is literally, for lack of a better term, abrasive: when you’re trying to listen to the riffs, his grating barks can actually be painful, both in their texture and overall amateurism. Right – I’m done roasting Peppiatt. He has potential to be a good vocalist, but as it stands, he’s tolerable in his best moments.

As for the lyrics, it’s a minor point, but I rather miss the fantasy/narrative style of the early Psycroptic. It doesn’t like we’ll be visiting any more Lacertine Forests or picking up any more ancient Scepters with these Aussies, and it’s a shame – those were some damned good lyrics, as opposed to the far more ambiguous lines on this album, and helped for what it was worth to give the old stuff an extra degree of flavour.

And the production is slick like a water slide. Normally I appreciate good production values, but it’s all context-sensitive, and all bands should produce their albums in a way that benefits their style of music. Case in point, the guitar tone on the latest Nightwish record is crunchier than what’s on display here. If your pop-focused symphonic metal has a heavier crunch than your technical tech metal, something may have screwed up somewhere. It’s not a terrible thing, but just something to watch out for.

But I can’t bring myself to fail this album, because dammit, they’re playing their asses off and really trying – and the results are sometimes quite good. Blood Stained Lineage and Initiate in particular are packed with solid riffs, clever structures and tolerable vocal moments that, I will grant, don’t detract from the music. Unfortunately, the music here lacks a lot of the identity that made inventive numbers like The Valley Of Winds’ Breath And Dragons Fire so memorable. Instead, the songs are far more samey. That’s not intrinsically a terrible thing, though: when Peppiatt lets the guitar take the lead, the songs are fairly enjoyable either way, like the mid-paced crusher of a riff that comes in halfway through Removing The Common Bond.

Psycroptic fans owe it to themselves to check this for the instrumental prowess on display – just be warned about the abrasive, and not in the good way, vocalist. I almost feel sorry for him, to be honest: at his skill level, he’s really in over his head with a band like this. But I’d love for him to prove me wrong and churn out an absolutely spellbinding performance on Psycroptic’s fifth opus – after all, good vocals are good vocals, no matter who’s growling them out. Overall a solid effort brought down by some rather glaring aspects; try before you buy.

Props for the Metroid Prime-ish cover art, though.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pain Of Salvation - Scarsick

(This review was originally written at the start of 2008, for, so keep in mind that Ending Themes, Linoleum and Road Salt One hadn’t yet been released. Turns out the record after this was “very different” after all, though)

If there's one statement to be made about Pain Of Salvation's unique take on concept albums, it's that they're not content with simply letting the lyrics tell the story; rather, the contextual visage of each album bleeds right through into the music, and it's most evident right here on 2007's Scarsick. Dissonant, straightforward riffing and aggrivated tones dominate this opus as fitting with the concept, but does it work? Let's scale back a bit.

Prior to this release, Pain Of Salvation was riding pretty on the coattails of its previous album BE, the conceptual behemoth that spawned a live DVD and a hell of a lot of scratched heads (Read the DVD booklet; it's very helpful). But needless to say, after a track record like Pain Of Salvation's, expectations were sky-high for Scarsick. Well, I think it's fair to say that it blew away the expectations of all various directions.

So what we've here is the proper part-two to the much-lauded Perfect Element album, so it feels only fair to address the concept in order to give context to the music. The last of that album left a young man against that dirty floor, eyes fixed on the ceiling - tossed around and left embittered to the world that shunned him. Scarsick takes us into the mind and through the eyes of this young man.

In this way, this album succeeds where a more traditional approach couldn't have reached: a bitter, sardonic mostly-rapped Spitfall mocks and lashes out at materialistic rappers, while elsewhere cheery and bouncy melodies house the seething lyrics that criticize America in the song of the same name. The 'sick' and 'scarred' memes are repeated many times throughout the album, being drilled into the listener's head by the time the final track Enter Rain comes to a close. Irony and mood juxtaposition are just two of the thematic devices at work here, but the most important question of the music is whether it's an enjoyable listen or not.

So is it? Well, sort of. Much of the musically-linking threads from PoS's past releases - such when the refrain breaks down into a euphoric wall of sound under Gildenlow's passionate vocal acrobatics - are either missing or altered here. Influences are grabbed from every which way, with a greater influence on rapping (Much of the title track and Spitfall) in the beginning and then 70s pop in America and even disco with the bizarre and somewhat erratic, drawn-out and even a little disturbing (especially when you piece together what the lyrics are –really– about) Disco Queen, but much of the rest of the album is deep in its own embittered little style. I even sense a little bit of Korn in some of the stop-start riffs and panted or angrily-shouted but clean vocal work at points. That last part alone would be enough to turn off many metalheads I know without a second thought, but it's difficult to paint a single style that dominates the whole album. The individual songs, however, seem focused within themselves, not straying from their territories for the most part. What you hear in the first few minutes of the song will likely be what you hear in the last few minutes, with a few exceptions.

Speaking of which, Cribcaged. This is weird for PoS - it has one or two vocal melodies throughout the whole song and has "fuck" in half the lines. I'm fine with the swearing and the lyrics as they fit with the theme, but the song is just very repetitive. There are a few nice parts, but it and others on the album such as Scarsick and Kingdom Of Loss suffer from that lack of variation. It gets somewhat boring on repeated listens.

I see no problems with the production, though. It's darn crispy.

Can this be compared to the rest of the band's collection, or even just to its predecessor? Not really. This is bound to be remembered as the black sheep of the band's discography, a rougher and grittier but deliberate effort: by that I mean that it wasn't brought about by a lack of focus within the musicians, such as Helloween's Chameleon, but rather a purposeful shift in focus for the recording, such as Sonata Arctica's Unia.

It's important to remember, though, that for those of us who know well Pain Of Salvation, the boys haven't sold out or lost their direction; on the contrary, it would seem that they know exactly what they're doing, to the point of releasing an album so musically into He's theme of bitterness, despair and anger that they seemed to have angered quite a few people in the process. Don't fear, though - if I'm right and this whole opus was written as a thematic extension of its lyrics and concept, then Daniel and co. will have new and very different material coming up for us on the next record.

Buy/download/avoid? If you've read through this and aren't feeling confident about it, then download a few songs - try America with its infectiously catchy everything and Spitfall with its surprisingly well-rounded and paced rap job. This is the kind of album that was unleashed upon a fanbase that wasn't expecting its style, but it deserves a look both as a historical discography curiosity and to see what became of The Perfect Element Part II.

Hail Of Bullets - ...Of Frost And War

War: accusations fly that metal artists fall back on the subject of war and conflict as a lyrical inspiration too much, but when you really take a look at it, there’s no other genre so well-suited to conveying the dizzying rush, the adrenaline and fury of the battlefield by virtue of its own intrinsic heavier, more intense aspects. From Maiden’s history-class-made-fun storytelling to Sabaton’s drill sergeant-like bellowing, it’s also an entertaining subject in its own right.

But for a long time I’d searched for an album that doesn’t just take the theme and run with it. I’d hoped for an album that realizes the potential that these two things have together, and take it to its natural extreme: that is, an album that is so visceral in its intensity, so palpable in its fear and fury, that it puts you right there in the midst of the battlefield – a great artistic statement.

Death metal supergroup Hail Of Bullets have made that album, and for that I thank them.

If you enjoy the razor-sharp tones of extreme Swedish classic acts like Dismember and Entombed, you’ll love what Gebedi and Baayens have in store here. Their riffs are easily comparable to the OSDM scene, naturally, striking that fine line between brutality and melody, at times crossing into dominance of the former but never losing that fine ear for powerful, brash melody. Ed Warby puts forth a fine display on the drums despite not doing anything of particular wonder.

Martin van Drunen’s vocal performance here can be summed up as such: fitting. This is a performance that truly understands and works with the album concept. It’s not “evil” like the David Vincents of the world, or demonic, possessed, whatever complimentary, otherworldly description people are tagging on to high-quality harsh vocal performances. No, Drunen’s agonized, fear-drenched screams are very, very human. The man channels the mind and emotion of a tormented soldier. There’s next to no melody, no formal guidance to the vocal lines; they just come spontaneously and depart abruptly, like a soldier having to scream over the shells bursting around him. Commendable job, even if it is more or less the same uniquely Van Drunen style that extreme music fans have come to love ever since his Asphyx/Pestilence days.

Lyrically the album doesn’t disappoint, with vivid yet tasteful depictions of soldiers on that frigid Eastern front in World War II. The lyricism tactfully balances the editorials of soldiers’ tense emotions with cold historical fact. Drunen’s all-so-human vocals allow you to make out many of the lyrics, which in this case is a welcome element to the experience.

The album’s dynamic is what really drives its quality home. While there are plenty of riffs that come at lightning speed and smash all in their path with their intensity, you’ll find a plethora of mid-paced sections that are integrated wonderfully with the blazing guitar attacks – much like soldiers waiting in tension for the next barrage. Partly thanks to the heavy-as-hell production and partly thanks to the razor-sharp guitar tone, these mid-paced sections are some of the most devastating and crushing I’ve ever heard in the subgenre.

Hail Of Bullets have created an engaging piece of extreme art with …Of Frost And War. The aforementioned Maiden and Sabaton, excellent as they are, can be likened to fine-tuned historical documentaries: they lay out the facts, and they do it in an interesting and entertaining way. Hail Of Bullets, meanwhile, is comparable to the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan: absolutely devastating in its focus and direction, and truly comprehending – and respecting – the true face of total war. Check this out if you like OSDM, or if you want to see a concept album that honestly comprehends and takes advantage of its concept to the fullest.

So snap up this album, crank your stereo, close your eyes and picture the battlefield. Savor the few moments of uneasy peace as the strains of Before The Storm (Barbarossa) waft gently along. When the storm hits and the percussive marching intro of Ordered Eastward begins – you’re right there with the soldiers.

Welcome to the war.

(Originally written for

Blind Guardian - A Voice In The Dark

A quick review for a quick disc. Over-priced and under-available, this single was relegated to “collector’s item” territory as soon as it was released. These three songs, meant to serve as a sneak peek of the then-forthcoming album At The Edge Of Time, won’t hold many surprises to someone who already had said album before getting this single, but on its own, it’s a nice release: the title track that brings to mind Somewhere Far Beyond-era material with a more three-dimensional production job, the cover song You’re The Voice (also available on the second disc of ATEOT’s special edition), and an extended version of the inspiring, minstrel march of War Of The Thrones, one of my favourites from the new record.

Not essential by any means (pick up At The Edge Of Time), but it’s nice to have, even if the only exclusive material is the extended War Of The Thrones. Great song, though; I dig it.

Metallica - The Justice Demos

Until St. Anger arrived and took the heat off it, …And Justice For All was known as the Metallica album with the worst production: the guitars sounded flat, muted and sterile, the drums were precise to the point of sounding mechanical, and the bass – infamously, there is no bass presence whatsoever on that release. You’d have an easier time spotting the four-string on your average second-wave black metal record. The album doesn’t even have a conceptual excuse, either (I let off the sterile and uber-precise playing on The Faceless’s second album because it fits their lyrical concept).

So when I found this vinyl-only (as far as I know; it’s not official, so there isn’t much to check it against) release, my hopes leapt up that somebody, somewhere, had found the Justice tapes that presented these songs with a more organic production, or at the very least, some bass to fill out the album’s woefully vacant bottom-end.

So once I dropped the needle, during that period when static gives way to the first track, I was a bit apprehensive…yet when Blackened kicked in – holy hell! Hallelujah to the lords on high, we have bass!

Actually, you know what – this whole thing sounds better than the finalized record. Most noticeably, you have the bass, which rumbles along steadily, keeping pace and cementing the bottom-end that the finished work lacked so sorely. To compliment this, the guitar and drum tracks sound better than their finished counterparts: they’re rawer, more energetic, and a touch sloppier. Normally I wouldn’t give points for rawness alone, but when the alternative is playing so uncomfortably precise that it sounds less like a human and more like a Terminator, I’ll take it. These riffs and fills sound like the band – wait for it – is actually having fun, unlike the stone-faced sterility of the final record.

The vocals, as you’d probably expect, are a touch shakier, but it’s nothing that would be considered unacceptable for the fast-and-loose 80s thrash scenes. James has a higher pitch here, sounding more like his Master Of Puppets era than he does on the actual …AJFA album. Some of the lyrics are also different in their embryonic form, but it doesn’t impact the songs too much.

So the rumour that there exists, somewhere, an official version of …And Justice For All with bass remains but a rumour, though you can find at least one fan-made version of the album online with bass lines plugged back in. But this is the next best thing, if you can somehow get your hands on it.

Also some quick trivia, that tour poster by Pushead you see just above was also used as the cover art for this LP. So if you’re one of the legions of Metallica fans who would love to see Justice with a more organic feel and bass – now you know what to look for.