Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Annihilator: Feast - Review

Let's face it, a good portion of Metal fans have a preferred style within the genre, whether it be Black, Progressive Death, etc. Although within our particular favourite we try to listen to every band we can there is always someone that slips by unnoticed. For me that style has to be Thrash Metal and although I have gone through all sorts from The Big 4, Testament, Exodus, Sepultura, Kreator and even the revival bands like Municipal Waste, Evile, Warbringer and Lazarus A.D., I have managed to go all these years without really giving Canadian thrashers Annihilator a real go. My experience with the band really goes as far as hearing the track "Alison Hell" (which I think is ace) and so I thought that, 
as they had just release of their 14th album, "Feast", it was time to really give Annihilator the time of day. 

To very briefly sum up my opinion on "Feast" before I delve into the details, I would say that it is the epitome of a mixed bag. There are so many elements that the band gets right and yet there are so many other elements that totally ruin the record for me and stop it from achieving its full potential.  

I'll start off by talking about what Annihilator get right on "Feast". As they predominantly play Thrash it is to be expected that the band can write good, fast and aggressively heavy riffs and this is indeed the case. Tracks like opener "Deadlock", "No Way Out" and "Fight The World" have a real old school, Testament-esque feel to them, which I absolutely loved. Any good Thrash album should make me want to start headbanging on the spot and make me wish I was in a circle pit somewhere and in many ways this feeling is achieved on "Feast". I can only imagine what it is like live when Annihilator play "Fight The World" live, with its maniacal riffs and Anthrax-style chorus and I think that a lot of the tracks present really would sound absolutely incredible live.

Along with the great riffing the album also features some immense lead work. The solos feel very well placed and always enhance the songs whenever they are used and again this is to be expected given Annihilator's Thrash background. A good example of the calibre of lead playing on show from Guitarist Jeff Waters is about two thirds of the way through "No Surrender", this solo is long and frantic, like all good Thrash solos should be, and when it is played over the cracking rhythm work from Dave Padden that section of the track comes alive. There are also some nice twin leads in tracks like "One Falls, Two Rise", which add a little variety to things and overall work really well.   

Whilst "Feast" does, in my opinion, feature many positives, there are numerous times throughout the record where Annihilator deviate from their Thrash roots and things start to go a little wayward and that is both from a musical and vocal perspective. 

Starting with the musical side of things and, to be quite honest, Annihilator don't sound the least bit coherent on this record. There are Thrash songs ("Deadlock", "Fight The World"), Hard Rock songs ("Wrapped") and ballads ("Perfect Angel Eyes") and this variety is fair enough to a degree but then there are tracks like "No Surrender" and "Demon Code" that try to fuse all these elements together and things start to get very messy. In many ways the songs all sound totally different from each other and that's not in the "ooh there's a nice bit of variety" way, it's more like "what the fuck is going on here!?". 

To further describe the song structure on the record, "No Surrender" has a Red Hot Chili Peppers-style verse, a Five Finger Death Punch-style pre-chorus and then a Slayer-esque chorus. As it can be imagined these riffs don't blend together so seamlessly and so portions of the track are, quite simply, horrible (I say portions because, as I already mentioned, the solo section is really good and it is this inconsistency within songs that really bothers me). Another example is "No Way Out", which is 90% pure Thrash and then drops into a groovy, Hard Rock bridge, which again feels out of place. There are so many sections in each song that are really damn good, featuring great riffs and ideas and then other sections where you question what exactly Annihilator think they are doing. This has the effect of making it hard to fully like everything about most of the tracks on the record and in fact it's only "Deadlock" and "Fight The World" that I really enjoy, the other tracks feature good parts that are totally overshadowed basically by poor song construction.    

As for the vocal, all I can say is that I found Dave Padden's voice incredibly irritating most of the time. I run the risk of sounding like a broken record but again things are all well and good when the music is kept Thrashy but then begin to fall apart elsewhere. Padden clearly tries to be a diverse vocalist but this attempt fails miserably. At some parts, such as in "Perfect Angel Eyes", he reminds me of Ivan Moody of Five Finger Death Punch (this is not a compliment) and at other times he sounds like a mix of Axl Rose and Dave Mustaine such as in "Wrapped". There is even what I assume to be an attempt to become Jesse Leach on part of "No Way Out"! Arguably Padden's vocal approach varies more than the riffing styles do and that really helped to put me off "Feast" because I don't think he is that good at singing in any other vocal style than Thrash (is that a vocal style?) and his bad vocal deliveries are all over the album. The best way to highlight this issue is during the chorus riff to "No Surrender". When Padden sings over it the riff sounds average and boring and yet when it is played underneath a solo is sounds incredible and really heavy. Maybe I would like this album a little more with a better vocalist, maybe. 

I would be hailing "Feast" as a great album if Annihilator had stuck to their Thrash roots. When they do the album really comes alive but unfortunately things are totally ruined by a total lack of coherency. It feels as if Annihilator are too trying hard to please too many different groups of people, attempting to appeal to the fans of bands such of A7X and FFDP (and maybe the great successes of these bands influenced that thought process, who knows?) and to garner more radio time, whilst still trying to show that they are an old school Thrash band and stay somewhat true to their original fan base. To a degree, I can appreciate that Annihilator, 14 albums down the line, don't want to churn out the same record again and again but the direction that they have gone with "Feast" just tries to cover too many bases and that is its downfall. There is no factor that really ties "Feast" together and so the record feels like a total, incoherent mess. For an album that shows so much potential and some genuinely good passages of play I still feel the need to recommend that this album be avoided because nigh on every song has been butchered by this apparent desire to please everybody.




Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Turisas: Turisas2013 - Review

Turisas will always have a special place in my heart as they were the first band that I went to see live where it was just me and my friends and no parents (and I was older than I care to admit). On that warm September evening in Nottingham, having just released their second album, "The Varangian Way", they tore the stage down and truthfully are one of the better bands I have had the pleasure of watching. If you have never had the chance to see them then I would highly recommend it if only to be surrounded by a load of people in war paint wielding (yes wielding) axes and swords and going nuts as soon as anyone says "Battle Metal", it is truly a unique experience.

Anyway, I digress. Turisas are back with their new album, the follow up to 2011's "Stand Up And Fight", imaginatively titled "Turisas2013" (which makes me wonder if I should have some kind of vote to see if this name is worse than Newsted's "Heavy Metal Music"). I was not so impressed with "Stand Up And Fight" as I had been with the first two Turisas records, to cut a long story short it just didn't do it for me, and unfortunately with "Turisas2013" this trend looks set to continue. On this record Turisas are a shell of the band that had such a unique blend of Viking/Folk Metal and now seem, for lack of a better phrase, to be a lot more "poppy". 

There has been a bit of a shuffle in band members in Turisas as of late. The most noticeable is that accordion player Netta Skog has left the band and has been replaced with keyboardist Robert Engstrand. The casual reader may be wondering how much difference it would make not having an accordion around in a Metal band but unfortunately, for a band that's signature sound is a fusion of Metal and Folk it makes a huge difference. This is made worse by the fact that violin player Olli Vanska sits back a lot more than in previous records. What has basically happened is that the "Folk" element of Turisas' sound, that was key to their being so good, has diminished and those gaps have been filled with an electronic instrument that often makes things sound more 1980s than 980s (check out the keyboard solo in "Piece by Piece"). The overall result of this is that as a listener I didn't feel the same sense of epic scale that I felt with Turisas' previous works and so it was much harder to get into.

I never considered Jussi Wickstrom to be a particularly good guitarist but in this record his riff work is, for the most part, particularly mediocre. Quite often, in tracks like "Ten More Miles" and "Into The Free" he just plays very boring power chord progressions. In previous albums this was passable as I often saw him as driving the songs and providing a platform for Warlord to bark and shout about Vikings whilst the violin and accordion did some interesting interplay but now, as the guitars have become a little more prominent, his playing just comes across as being really unexciting and bland. Despite this, there is an exceptional Metal riff in "Greek Fire", which is really fast and heavy but it doesn't last and quickly things revert to dull chord progressions. To be fair to Wisktrom it isn't always him playing these mediocre riffs, "Greek Fire" and "Ten More Miles" both feature Bassist Jesper Anastasiadis doing something very similar but I think it is fair to say that neither of them are at their most creative on "Turisas2013".

I already mentioned how the keyboards detracted from the "classic" feel of Turisas and matters are not helped by Warlord's performance on the record. I am used to seeing him leading the charge as it were, with his characteristic bark giving a terrifying and aggressive edge to Turisas' music, making them feel like big, aggressive, scary Vikings. What I am left with on "Turisas2013" is a vocal delivery that is far too clean far too often. I accept that Warlord does like to dabble in clean vocals and "One More", "Miklagard Overture" and "A Portage To The Unknown" are some of my favourite Turisas tracks but I always felt the clean vocals were used to good effect. Here things are different, with tracks like "For Your Own Good" and "The Days Passed" being more driven by a cleaner vocals far too much, Warlord still does shout a bit but no where near as much. The lyrical content too doesn't feel the slightest bit Viking and is barely even folky. Check this out from opener "For Your Own Good":

This is all for your own good,
You will come to see
I don't expect you to thank me now,
But I do all this for you

Tearing down the walls surrounding you
Tearing down your world

Reach out and take my helping hand,
You see, you have to understand,
It's my duty, it's what I owe you after all

On their earlier works every sentence that Warlord used to sing had some kind of Viking feel but with this record the feel is totally different. On older records Turisas made me feel like I was on a longboat in the rain ready to go and invade somewhere whilst being led by a massive bloke wielding a big sword, "Turisas2013" makes me feel like I'm about 10 and going on a quest to the shops with my dad on a sunny day whilst riding a pony. 

Production-wise there are some really awkward, and noticeable flaws that are really annoying to listen to. A special mention has to go to the section in "Into The Free", where Wiskstrom plays a lead guitar riff that is mixed far too low, he is panned far right but then the main vocal is then panned to the far left, which is incredibly disorientating. This is made worse by the fact that when it is panned to the left the vocal sounds painfully boxy and the change when it moves back to the centre and becomes "normal" again is so noticeable that I had to double take to check what I had just heard (it's easier to hear than describe). It surely wasn't done on purpose so then I wonder how it was missed during the mix stage, madness. Another annoyance is the horns, which don't feel at all like real instruments and so sound at odds with everything else. This was never an issue in previous records, which were filled with horns, so I am at a loss to figure out why it has become one here. 

The final point I want to make concerns the overall pace of the album. There are so many tracks here that are mid-paced and samey, particularly at the start of the record; it becomes boring to listen to very quickly. There is an attempt with halfway track "Run Bhang-Eater, Run!" to make things a little more exciting and in many ways this track is in the same vein as "In The Court Of Jarisleif" or "Sahti Waari". The start of this track is actually pretty good but then it soon dissolves into (quite literally) a woman doing sex moans over something resembling a sax and then rambles on and fizzles out. The song is far too long and doesn't have the same impact as the other tracks mentioned, it easily could do but Turisas managed to ruin it quite spectacularly. Also the closing track "We Ride Together" was a big disappointment. For a band that had written "Miklagard Overture", one of the most epic closing tracks I have ever heard, I was expecting so much more for the closer on this album but "We Ride Together" sums up the whole album really: it just isn't the Turisas that I know and love.   

To sum up, "Turisas2013" was a big disappointment to me. I was hoping for epic, heavy Viking Metal but what I got was pretty lame and unexciting Pop Metal (if there is such a thing). There are one or two good riffs and ideas in the album but they are overshadowed by all of the bad things that I have mentioned. Sufficed to say, Turisas in 2013 are not the same band that I saw in 2007 (or 2011 at Download, still excellent) and for their next album I would certainly like to see a return to heavier and more aggressive music with the folk elements becoming more prominent. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to put on "Battle Metal" and remember why I liked the band in the first place...TO HOLMGARD!




Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Avenged Sevenfold: Hail To The King - Review

I was recently told by a friend that average records are the hardest to review and having heard Avenged Sevenfold's (A7X) latest record "Hail To The King" I would have to say that I agree. On the one hand this is not a record that is so bad that I can write a relatively sarcastic article where I take the piss and on the other nor can I praise the hell out of it for being amazing; this album falls somewhere between disappointing and mediocre. 

At this point I feel the need to say that I am not one of those people that hates on everything that A7X have ever done. I got into them when "City Of Evil" was released (and I still love that album), I have always liked some of their music and very much enjoyed their set at Download, despite getting killed. I thought it best to go into this album completely open minded (as I always do) but was a little concerned by what the band themselves had said in interviews, calling the record "bare bones", "riff-orientated" and "straightforward rock". I have always found A7X exciting because they have flamboyant, over-the-top harmonies and riffs and the idea of them stripping that back didn't sit well with me but nevertheless I went into "Hail To The King" hopeful.

Avenged Sevenfold certainly weren't lying when they said the album was "straightforward rock". There is definitely a move towards slower, more groovy riffs with much less of the embellishment that is normally found within the band's songs. This feel is evident from the outset with opener "Shepherd Of Fire", which was a bit of a grower for me and does feel like a stripped down version of the more traditional sound A7X have become known for. This idea is carried forward across the whole of the album with other tracks like "Hail To The King" and "This Means War", with most of the record featuring solid, groove-laden riffs. 

It is certainly apparent that A7X are trying to mature their sound and in many ways this record could be seen as their "Black Album" as what was previously flamboyant, fast, flashy songwriting has made way for slower, more groove-oriented music. My main issue with this idea is that I just don't feel that A7X have done it that well. Yes, title track "Hail To The King" features a solid riff but the rest of the song doesn't have that same standard and falls a little flat. This issue is also the case with other tracks such as "Heretic" and "Requiem". It feels a little like A7X have tried to slow things down to show that they don't need to shred every 2 seconds but in doing that they have lost a little of what made me like them in the first place.

Adding to the more simplified approach to riffing on this record is a change in the drumming style. I'm going to tread carefully because I know the band has been through a lot with drummers in recent years but the drum work from new drummer Arin Ilejay is in no way exciting or inspiring. Ilejay plods through the album with really basic 4/4 beats that are almost reminiscent of AC/DC instead of the more manic, double kicked approach familiar with The Rev's work with the band. This approach to drumming contributes to the songs feeling at odds with the technical brilliance that is usually on show. A7X have called "Hail..." a "natural progression" but why does that have to mean that they drop everything that was exciting about their music in favour of such straight forward and boring writing? 

Undoubtedly, One of the most recognisable things about A7X's sound is the guitar interplay between Zacky Vengeance and Synyster Gates. To be fair, there are some excellent solos on show. The solo for standout ballad "Crimson Day", for example, features both players, is incredibly melodic and really enhances the song, "Coming Home" as well features an extended lead section and feels like vintage Sevenfold. Unfortunately this sort of thing is not kept up for the whole record; A7X have definitely written much better lead work on previous records. Missing also is that chemistry between the two axemen. Listen to "City Of Evil" and Gates and Vengeance lock in so perfectly together be it in twin leads, solos or riff work, they just bounce off each other so effortlessly but this is so much more absent with "Hail...". The lead work feels almost token, like A7X are trying to not be technical and to strip everything down but at the same time are trying to remind us that they can shred and this contradiction just doesn't work. 

Moving on and one thing that I really used to enjoy about A7X's music was M.Shadows' vocal harmonies. "City Of Evil" features an abundance of these and they help to make songs come alive a little more but in so many places on "Hail...",  such as on "Coming Home" and "Doing Time", his harmonies feel so flat and don't have the same effect. It is almost as if M.Shadows is trying to tone his vocals down a little to make them fit in more with the stripped down nature of the rest of the music and, for me, this just doesn't work. "Shepherds Of Fire" is the only song, I would say, that has harmonised vocals that enhance the music on show and this contradicts the whole idea of the album. If A7X wanted to go for a more "straight forward" approach then why fill the album with bad harmonies that do nothing to enhance the music?

Additionally, the album pacing isn't all that great. Because of the nature of the album the fastest songs are mid-paced at best and so the whole record feels much slower than it maybe should and, as a result, drags. Despite it being a standout track, opener "Shepherd Of Fire" is relatively slow and I couldn't help feeling that on other A7X albums this would not be an opener. Yes, there are cool ideas but the tempo is much reduced, meaning that the album doesn't open with the punch that fans have become used to with tracks like "Beast and the Harlot" and "Nightmare". Although good it does not set the rest of the album up very well and this is made worse by the fact that it is one of the album's best songs; things don't really pick up after that. Even tracks like "Coming Home" that is supposed to be faster just feels slow and so when the ballads like "Crimson Day" are added then as a whole the record becomes boring. There is an attempt with "Doing Time" to have an up-beat track that gives the album a bit more "oomph" but this sounds more like a bad Velvet Revolver or Stone Temple Pilots track than anything A7X are used to doing so all I am left wanting is to put "Core" on and kickback to some 90's Alt Rock.  

I have one or two other gripes with "Hail..." before I wrap this one up. Firstly the production is far too clean and it feels like there is a gap in the middle of everything, which makes the songs feel empty. Additionally, the mix isn't the best as the drums often feel far louder than they should compared to the guitars. There is an obvious attempt to have a massive drum sound but it's all just a bit of a mess and doesn't have the desired effect. Also the use of a choir in "Requiem" is quite literally laughable, I'm not sure what anyone was thinking when that was added but it basically ruins a song that isn't half bad and features a really cool chorus melody. Finally, I already mentioned the pacing but the last 3 songs are far longer than they need to be. By that point in the album my interest was diminished and so for the last 3 songs to total 19 minutes was just too much for me.

To conclude this review I would have to say that "Hail To The King" really disappointed me. I can see what A7X are trying to do with not trying to re-write the same albums but for me they seem to have cut out everything that made their sound interesting. The riff-orientated approach is fair enough but the riffs aren't strong enough to make the songs exciting and save for "Shepherd Of Fire" and "Crimson Day" most of the album is forgettable. The odd bits of some of the songs grab my attention but for the most part I would have to say that this album is very poor. I put on "City Of Evil" after listening to "Hail..." and the difference in quality is so huge that it's startling. It would appear that A7X have gone from young, exciting musicians to mediocre songwriters and I hope this trend doesn't continue.




Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Fleshgod Apocalypse: Labyrinth - Review

I can almost guarantee that anyone reading this is familiar with the concept of a Rock Opera but I fancy that not too many of you are so familiar with any Death Metal Operas. Step forward Italian band Fleshgod Apocalypse who, with their new album "Labyrinth" have managed to combine the brutality and technical proficiency of Behemoth with the symphonic tendencies of Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir to create a sound that feels very unique. "Labyrinth" at once assaults the listener with lightning fast drumming, technical riffery and snarled vocals but offsets this with operatic beauty, making use of strings, horns and choirs, and this makes the album feel like a true marriage of Classical Music and contemporary Extreme Metal.  

"Labyrinth" is a concept album that details the Ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur and, as you may have guessed by now, there is a lot going on with this record. Although this album has been well-received by a number of critics I for one am not a great admirer and there are indeed a number of reasons for this.  

Usually I wouldn't start by talking about the production values as I feel that, for the most part, they don't tend to make-or-break an album for me. That being said I think a lot of my issues with the album stem from how it has been produced. I do not envy Stefano Morabito one little bit and I can only imagine how difficult a task it would have been finding space in the mix for the vast number of guitars, vocals, drums, choirs, strings and horns that he was presented with but what doesn't help matters is the level of compression present on the record. Everything is C.T.F. (as one of my lecturers would say) and this means that the instruments are all left lifeless and fighting for what little space there is whilst the songs themselves lose their focal points. The guitars, for example, are often muddy and lost and this makes it harder to differentiate between the tracks, making "Labyrinth" blend together in a way that makes the album as a whole lose my interest faster than it should.  

As I have already mentioned, there are a lot of different instruments fighting for space and it is not just the over-compression that causes this issue. I feel like a lot of the time the tracks would be improved if some of the instruments dropped back a little to let the other elements through. A good example of this would be on the intro for "Kingborn" where the drums pummel away, the guitars riff like mad and there are operatic instruments all over the place. This, for me, creates a muddy and messy sound and I can't help but think that if something dropped back to let the other instruments through then the overall effect would be better. Unfortunately I see this issue across a lot of the album. I appreciate that in Extreme Metal there are often walls of sound created with blast beats and speed picking and the like but, as Fleshgod Apocalypse are using a load of other elements on top of that, something has to give. When I compare this record to something like "Nymphetamine" by Cradle Of Filth there is a clear difference. I feel like where Cradle Of Filth seem to fuse the different elements together really well by giving space for things, whilst in some places with "Labyrinth" they feel more forced and unnatural.   

Moving on and it is clear that "Labyrinth" was written to be listened to as an album and not as individual tracks. Each song blends in to the next and this is a nice touch to keep things flowing. What I am less sure about is the overall pace of the record. I find that the first 7 tracks are very samey in that they often revert to the same wall-of-sound feel and many feature bland, unexciting melodic guitar solos that in no way do justice to how epic the themes of the album are. There are some definite attempts to vary things a little within these tracks, "Minotaur (The Wrath Of Poseidon)", for example, features a beautiful piano intro and "Warpledge" has some killer dual guitar work but overall I feel like the first half of the album blends together and becomes more boring than it should, which is a shame given the latter tracks. 

The use of a short, slow instrumental in "Prologue" leading into "Epilogue" is, in my opinion, the high point of the album. It is this variation in pace that means that the brutality that follows is more interesting. There is also the use of a closing instrumental in "Labyrinth", which features some beautiful piano work and shows that the band are able to slow things down to great effect. I would definitely liked to have seen Fleshgod Apocalypse show their slower side much more than they did. It is my personal opinion that the album pacing would have been much improved by making use of some slow, short instrumentals earlier than the 8th track to break things up a little and act as a palette cleanser to keep the heavier sections more fresh and exciting. Although things do get slightly more interesting towards the end of the record I feel that, by that point, it is too late to salvage my overall interest.   

The final aspect of "Labyrinth" that I will comment on is the vocals and, like the rest of the album, I feel like it is a mixed bag. On the one hand I think that the lyrical content is superb. Tommaso Riccardi has done a cracking job with telling the story of Theseus and The Minotaur, looking at the perspectives of both eponymous characters as well as telling the story of Icarus and much more besides. An example of the lyrics is as follows:

Torn by the lust for control he betrayed Poseidon
The reckoning arises from the sea,
For it's the land of the pain,
Falling for the guilt of the despotic Minos,
Cursed shall be the name for the rest of the days.

The use of language is both exciting and feels authentic, making the concept come alive much more. This gives a more believable quality to the songs and helps immerse the listener because of the attention to detail. What I am less sure about is the vocal delivery. I think that Riccardi's voice has grown on me over time but I am not a fan of the King Diamond-esque falsetto that seems to crop up every now and again because it seems at odds with the brutality of the rest of the record. There are some lovely operatic vocals included as well and these are used sparingly enough so that when they do feature they contrast things nicely. I would argue that the contrast between operatic and growled vocals is enough without the need for falsetto as well. As with the rest of the instrumentation there is a lot of things going on vocally and sometimes I think this works and other times I'm not so keen.

To sum up this review it is very clear that Fleshgod Apocalypse have put a lot of time, detail and effort into "Labyrinth" and there are many people that have given it rave reviews. For me, there are just certain aspects of the record, such as the compression issues and congestion of instruments, that stop me liking it as much as I could. Clearly they are very talented musicians but in too many places this just isn't allowed to show like it should. I think that Fleshgod Apocalypse are on to a good idea with the fusion of styles that "Labyrinth" expresses but I also think that it needs some refining before I can sit back and fully enjoy it. What I would say is that this record is definitely worth a listen with an open mind because there are some solid elements on show but, at this point, this album isn't for me.    



Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Norma Jean: Wrongdoers - Review

I first became aware of Norma Jean back in 2009 when I saw The Chariot supporting Protest The Hero in Nottingham Rock City's Basement. I had never heard of The Chariot before but they put on one hell of a show and I still remember their bassist stage-diving into the crowd from the front of house monitors, something I found to be pretty awesome. Anyway, following the show my friend mentioned that vocalist, Josh Scogin was once a member of a band called Norma Jean and that I should check them out. Now, this being in the days of Limewire, I didn't bother with any of Norma Jean's albums but had a collection of maybe 7 or 8 songs of which my favourite was "A Grand Scene For A Colour Film", which featured that immortal line "Let's break out the shotguns, we're going to town". Since then those few songs have had very little play time on my Mac and I had all but forgot about the band themselves.

Fast forward to now and I found myself with a gap between albums that I wanted to review; Newsted and Revocation were done and Fleshgod Apocalypse's new record isn't out until this Friday. Scouring the net I found that Norma Jean had just released a new album entitled "Wrongdoers" and so I thought I would give it a listen and see how the band had progressed. Little did I know I was about to listen to the single best album that I have had the pleasure of reviewing so far.

For me, the best way to describe "Wrongdoers" would be a mix of the heaviness, aggression and franticness of The Dillinger Escape Plan with the melodic catchiness of Post-Hardcore bands like Alexisonfire. The record manages to do so much to hold my interest, which is a big deal in a genre that I often find can become very repetitive. I was definitely hooked on this album from the outset.

Anyone who regularly reads my blog (thank you to those few!) will know that I constantly bang on about album pacing and the need to keep things interesting. I can honestly say that Norma Jean have got it absolutely spot on with "Wrongdoers". The tracks on this album fit together seamlessly, varying in pace almost at will and this means that individual elements of the album don't get boring. I can point to the contrast in tracks such as opener "Hive Minds" and "The Lash Whistled Like A Singing Wind". The former is a very well-developed 6+ minute song, which makes use of longer instrumental sections and a slightly slower tempo whilst the latter lasts little more than a minute and is incredibly fast and aggressive, reminding me of the Dillinger song "Panasonic Youth". It is this use of slower, more developed tracks that makes the faster, shorter tracks feel very fresh, aggressive and exciting and this works incredibly well to hold my interest across the whole record. 

Another aspect of "Wrongdoers" that I love is that Norma Jean know exactly when to use more melodic vocals to enhance a song. I recently listened to the new Killswitch Engage album with a view to reviewing it (I never did) and I hated that they constantly switched between screamed and melodic vocals on every track because it became predictable and boring. By contrast, Norma Jean use it much more sparingly; it isn't until the eponymous 3rd track that more melodic vocals are used to great extent. When this vocal style is used on "Triffids" it creates an incredibly anthemic chorus and this helps to make the track stand out and this is also the case with "Sword In Mouth, Fire Eyes". On the one hand Norma Jean present songs full of aggressive screams but then they offset them with other tracks with more melodic singing and as a result everything sounds fresh and nothing feels overdone.

Moving on to the lyrics and all I can say is that I think Cory Brandan is an amazing vocalist. I have already considered his delivery but what he actually says is equally satisfying. There isn't a single track with cheesy lyrics and everything feels incredibly well thought out. Take this from "The Hive":

"Pride is a cancer born from the cracks and crawling skyward.
I have been you. The shell on the street corner with change hungry hands.
A sunset car ride with a bottle of meds, or is it the canopy and rooftops?
A burst of soft color and a haze on your limbs?"

The lyrics are both deep and exciting and what also stands out is how Brandan phrases them over the music. His vocal rhythms are complex and this helps to give each song its own identity. 

Production-wise the album is absolutely spot on and Producer Josh Barber has succeeded in creating a sound that incredibly immersive. Every instrument has its own place in the mix but maintains a rawness at the same time and this gives the album a character that would have been absent if everything had been too polished. Although it could be argued that the production values don't quite capture the feel of seeing Norma Jean play live I would suggest that, given the mix of raw aggression and melody on the record, the production feels like it should. 

My only real gripe with "Wrongdoers", and this is possibly a bit pedantic, is with the length of album closer "Sun Dies, Blood Moon", which is over 14 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised that around 8 minutes of that time was filled up with a brilliant song that is totally different from the rest of the music on show but then I question the need for the other 6 minutes. This time is filled up with what seems like a bit of a jam from the band and this all seems relatively needless. The way the song itself ends is with some incredibly aggressive and well-built-up screams and if the album stopped dead there it would be perfect but for some reason Norma Jean decided to another 6 minutes at the end which does nothing to enhance the record and detracts from the end of it. I find this to be a real shame as it takes a little of the gloss of the brilliance of the album.  

To conclude this review I re-iterate that "Wrongdoers" is the best album that I have currently reviewed and is indeed one of the best albums I have heard in a while. Whether your background is Metal, Hardcore or Punk there seems to be something for everyone and I would be surprised if someone listened to this record and didn't enjoy it. Norma Jean have managed to strike the perfect balance between everything with this record, keeping things fresh and exciting, and I see this as a real achievement. If I was still giving albums ratings (which I am not) it would certainly be a 9 and maybe a 9.5, it is simply that good and I urge anyone reading this review to give it a listen, you won't regret it.

On a final note, I would like to thank everyone that has read my work so far. My reviews are averaging over 37 views each, which I am incredibly happy with, especially as I have only been doing this for about 6 weeks. I have also had close to 1000 total page views, with my articles being viewed a combined total of more than 450 times. Although I do this for my own personal enjoyment I still like to keep an eye on the numbers that read each article and seeing some that have reached nearly 60 is very gratifying. If you are reading my stuff for the first time then please follow the links below for my Facebook or Twitter pages to keep abreast of new reviews and any upcoming news, for everyone else please spread the word to try to help me generate some more traffic. Once again thank you all. 




Friday, 9 August 2013

Newsted: Heavy Metal Music - Review

Newsted is the current project for former Metallica Bassist, Jason Newsted and if there was a prize for the most unimaginative band name and album title then this band would surely come top of the pile. Their debut album, imaginatively titled "Heavy Metal Music" is the follow up to their E.P. of an even more inventive name, "Metal" (which was released earlier in the year) and by my estimation this makes the band the musical equivalent of Ronseal: it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Although in many ways it would be more "professional" of me to judge this album on its own merits, I can't help but want to offer sizeable comparisons between this record and what Newsted did with Metallica. In many ways "Heavy..." sounds like what Metallica would have done if they released an album in between "Metallica" and "Load". On the one hand it has heavy riffs and fast sections more akin to Newsted's early days with the Metal giants but on the other it has much more melodic solos and that almost "southern", Hard Rock feel that seemed to accompany "Load" and "Reload". This may be off-putting to some people and frankly that depends on your views on Metallica and it won't help if I say that they did it much better than Newsted. In short, this album is very disappointing. 

Naming the album "Heavy Metal Music" was, in my mind, a big mistake because it instantly conjures up a blueprint of what the album should sound like. I was expecting riff-driven, exciting, heavy music on the lines of Maiden and Sabbath but what I got was much more dull and unexciting. Album opener "Heroic Dose" opens with a really boring riff that never seems to develop, in many places the song feels empty and doesn't really go anywhere whilst "Soldierhead" is so close to a 90s Metallica track it is almost laughable. The album just kinds of plods along, never really varying in pace and not offering up too much for me to really latch on to.

Jason Newsted did a great job sitting back in Metallica dropping in as a backing vocalist but he is really not a good frontman. His approach to singing is often pretty dull and doesn't vary a great deal throughout the album and this contributes to the songs feeling generic. It gets really frustrating on "Ampossible" when he starts saying things like "Everybody alright now!" mid-solo as if he is Ozzy on "Sweet Leaf" and this comes off as really badly done and cringe-worthy. 

Another gripe about this album is that it is just too damn long. "Heavy..." features 11 tracks and clocks in at 57:03, which is definitely getting into long album territory. If there was a great deal of variation between the tracks then this would be passable, but there isn't. With the exception of "Nocturnus" the album is very single-paced and when that is compared with the long run-time all I can say is that interest drops off very quickly. I think that some of the later tracks are a little more developed and have more about them but, on each listen, every time I got there I was already completely bored of the album so the effect was totally lost on me.

Production-wise, this album is pretty bad. There is no beef to the instruments and everything comes off as sounding really weak and feeble. Maybe if there was more power to the mix then the tracks would stand out more but arguably the production is as boring as the music. Newsted's vocals often sound buried and this can get really annoying. The only real time the mix stands out is during the guitar solos and then suddenly everything comes alive a bit but overall it is so inconsistent that it becomes frustrating to listen to. I did listen quickly back to parts of "Load" and the production is very similar on both albums, the only obvious difference for me was that Hetfield sits much better in the mix, making "Load" much more listenable.  

The saving grace on this record comes in the form of the guitar work from Jessie Farnsworth and Mike Mushok. They offer some great leads, which have some nice development to them and this helps to break the songs up somewhat. Overall this does improve the album a little but then good solos do not rescue a bad record. I also can't help feeling that a lot of the solos just sound like 90s Kirk Hammett and in fact I think it is nigh-on impossible to go through this record without hearing Metallica. I get the feeling that Newsted will always have that shadow hanging over him for better or worse. Also noteworthy is one of the riffs in "King Of The Underdogs", which is groovy and heavy but again very Metallica-esque (I think I have said "Metallica" more times than "Newsted" go figure). 

Overall I think that "Heavy Metal Music" is a very bland, boring album that is far too long and offers little variation. There is nothing really that holds my interest and after 3 listens I can't think of a song that I want to listen to again. It sounds a little like if my Dad got together with his workmates in the grip of a midlife crisis and tried to recreate the sounds of their youth and that for me does not have the makings of a decent record. If by now you haven't got my point, what I'm saying is don't bother with this album.





Thursday, 8 August 2013

Revocation: Revocation - Review

If last week I had been told that I was about to review an album that combined influences from Slayer to Necrophagist I would have been very excited indeed. If you then told me that it wouldn't be quite as good as I was hoping for then I would have been very confused. How can a band combine the best bits of Thrash and Technical Death Metal, with a range of influences that reads as a who's-who of my favourite bands and not leave me with a broken neck from headbanging? Alright, so maybe that comes off as me being a shade harsh about what is actually a very good record. Boston outfit, Revocation's eponymous 4th album is on the one hand really fucking good and on the other hand it leaves me wanting so much more. 

Starting off with the diverse influences that I already mentioned, "Revocation" sees the band draw riffs and ideas from all over the place to create somewhat of a unique sound. The influence of Tech-Death bands like Necrophagist is obvious from the offset from the opening riff in "The Hive" to the solos in "Archfiend" and "A Visitation". Added to that is some outright Death Metal blast beats and speed-picked riffs akin to Cannibal Corpse and Death, some Maiden-style twin leads and an overall feel reminiscent of Thrash Revival bands like Violator and Evile. In a nutshell this plays out like an Extreme Metal fan's wet dream and what is striking is not just how seamlessly Revocation blend these different styles together but how tight they are and the apparent ease with which they present their music. 

It is no secret that to play Metal usually requires an advanced ability on your instrument be it guitars, bass or drums (unless you are Lars Ulrich) and therefore to say that the members of Revocation stand above most with their approach to their music should be taken as a real compliment. The technical ability that this band has is unreal, from the blast-beat, double kick infused drumming of Phil Dubois-Coyne to the incredible guitar work from David Davidson and Dan Gargiulo. As a listener I was often left with a big smile on my face from hearing what the band were playing and I think that this gives "Revocation" a "fun" element, which can help to hold attention.

Talking more specifically about the guitar work, I was incredibly impressed with the leads on offer from this record. I love the fact that Revocation aren't afraid to slow their music down and often prefer to write a more melodic solo instead of shredding away for the sake of it. They show such a varied approach to solo writing, "Numbing Agents", for example, has a very Slayer-esque solo whilst the solo in "Fracked" feels so well phrased and features some great twin-leads. This helps to keep things fresh and it is nice to see that the band don't stick to the same formula when it comes to their solos.

Moving on to the production of the album and all I can say is that Producer Peter Rucho has done an amazing job. Every single instrument on "Revocation" sits beautifully in the mix and it gives the record a real "power" that does justice to the style of music; it strikes the balance between "clean" and "dirty" really well. The drums sound immaculate throughout, from the pummelling sound of the kick drum through to the crisp toms on "Archfiend", which just sound beautiful. It's not even just the drums that sound great, the other standout for me is the tone on the guitars, particularly for the solos. I always used to think the production on Lazarus AD's "The Onslaught" was good but "Revocation" blows it out of the water.  

It is clear to this point that there is a lot about "Revocation" that I both love and admire but, for me, there is a major flaw in that the album pacing is not all that great. It is very clear that Revocation can blend a load of different styles of Extreme Metal together and write some incredible songs, and I am not going to contest that, but what I will say is that the listenability of the album as a whole would be greatly increased if they altered the pace a little. Thrash and Death Metal are two of my favourite genres of music and I often get frustrated by hearing albums that are very single-paced and "Revocation" certainly falls into that category. 

I will acknowledge that Revocation have made an effort to try to vary their songs a bit on this record. "Numbing Agents", for example, is more of a "Thrash-and-roll" track, "Spastic" is an instrumental, there is the use of an acoustic guitar on "Archfiend" and "Invidious" makes use of a banjo. All these features do help to break tracks up a little bit but it doesn't stop the album as a whole feeling very atonal and single-paced. For anyone who thinks I am being pedantic with this I will point to what I consider to be "great" Extreme Metal albums: "Leprosy" by Death, "Reign in Blood" by Slayer, "Master of Puppets" by Metallica and "Epitaph" by Necrophagist. What these records have in common is that they either show diversity between songs, varying the pace to create more of an "album", or they push the same great sound throughout but make the album shorter so that the effect of the music isn't lost; I think in the case of "Revocation" the latter would be better. If the album was two songs shorter then there wouldn't be chance for the exciting things that Revocation do to get stale but as it is, at 10 tracks and 45 minutes, towards the end of the album the overall effect, for me, is lost. 

To conclude this review I would say that "Revocation" is a very good record. The musicianship on show is simply astonishing and the band are really on top form with what they do. Despite this I can't help but feel that making the record a little shorter would have pushed it into "great" album territory. If I sat and listened to the odd song from this record then I would probably say that Revocation are one of the best bands around at the moment but as an album "Revocation" just falls a little short for me. I think ultimately I don't like this album quite as much as I would like to but it is definitely worth checking out.