Tuesday, April 09, 2019

1113. Rising / Rainbow. 1976. 5/5

Back in those long-ago days of high school when I was first discovering the so-called dark arts of heavy metal music, the mixture of bands that were sampled during that time ranged from mainstream to hard rock to metal. Players switched bands, which brought about more music to be searched for to listen to. One particular friend had a penchant for the guitaring of Ritchie Blackmore – and why not, he is a legend – and one day brought to school the album Rising by a band called Rainbow. It was not the first material I had heard with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, but it was probably the first time I actually realised just what a powerhouse he was. And in no way was I ready for the change in style of music that came here from what had been Ritchie Blackmore’s forte in Deep Purple. What I found was the start of a new chapter in my love of music.

This has been considered a great album pretty much since its release, a defining album, an album that is influential to so much that followed. All of this is true, but there is always a question over the relative ‘greatness’ of all of the songs on an album, and whether that brings down where the album ranks amongst the greats of any genre or era. That is also true here, as of the six songs that comprise Rising I would consider three to be at the top of the tree, one to be a high standard, and two that are above average but without the qualities of those ranked higher. Thus, the rating of this album for some is a stretch.
The two songs in question for me are “Run with the Wolf” and “Do You Close Your Eyes”. The use of the term ‘filler’ is too harsh for these songs, as aside from the fact that it is difficult to have filler on a six-song album, they both also have their charm. Perhaps the lyrics aren’t what you generally expect from Dio, indeed one could say that they are unexpected given his output from this point on. “Run with the Wolf” does deal with the supernatural and has its flight through this, whereas “Do You Close Your Eyes” falls a bit too close to pop lyrics which is an unexpected left turn considering the opening salvo. Certainly, to me this is the case with “Do You Close Your Eyes”, but was this the Ritchie Blackmore influence, looking for that track that would get radio airplay? Once Dio moved on from Rainbow there was a much great effort to make the band radio friendly, and these are the kinds of lyrics that Joe Lynn Turner was happy to go with in his tenure with the band. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s a jaunty enough track but it just doesn’t have the claws of the other songs that trigger those emotional ties.
“Starstruck” too is an upbeat hard to heavy song, and one that gets the mood moving. The chorus is a crowd pleaser and the overall vibe of the song has always given the middle of the album a kickstart. No doubt there are those out there that rate this as highly as the gold tracks of the album. I don’t think it quite reaches that level but I still enjoy the song.
The other half of this album is pure joy. The album opener “Tarot Woman” is one of my favourite songs of all time, and has everything you could ever want from a high voltage song. The beautiful 90 second opening synth prelude from Tony Carey sets the tone up beautifully, wreaking the emotive beginning into the Ritchie’s guitar and Cozy Powell’s drums and underscored by Jimmy Bain’s bass line, crashing into the powerhouse of the song as Ronnie lets loose with his amazing vocals. It also showcases Ritchie’s amazing soloing on guitar, which here is perfectly supported by the keyboards before Dio’s vocals soar for the concluding verse and chorus, and the song then fades out to Carey’s keyboard solo. Still brilliant all these years later.
Most count “Stargazer” as the star attraction of the album, and while I lean to the opening track in this regard that doesn’t make this any less brilliant. It is again full of everything that makes this incarnation of the band its finest. The opening drum solo from Cozy is just awesome, creating the perfect entrance to Ritchie’s guitar riff to start the song. Dio’s brilliant lyrics that are then perfectly performed in telling the story are superb, and then the middle stanza including Ritchie’s best guitar work again make this a perfect work of art. Then we are treated to the joy of “A Light in the Black”, the fastest song on the album where the band again blend superbly. The joyful solo break in the middle of the song is surrounded by Dio’s hard soaring vocals pushing the song to its limits. It is the perfect way to conclude the album with two eight-minute-plus songs that hold your attention all the way to the end.
The performances here by the three major contributors – Dio, Blackmore and Powell – are extraordinary. That is not to ignore the contribution of either Carey or Bain, but these three went on to record the follow up Long Live Rock 'n' Roll which somewhat amazingly outstrips this album. But their perfection in their art – vocals, guitar and drums – on this album is brilliant. Cozy’s hard-hitting drumming is perfect on these songs, Ritchie’s guitar is a shining light and Ronnie’s vocals both here and on the following album are probably his most pure and electrifying of any other project he was involved in. If only Ritchie had not felt compelled to find commercial success, who knows what this trio could have produced.

Whether or not you consider this one of the great ‘heavy metal’ albums of all time, there is little doubt that the influence of Rising on future generations of musicians and bands is enormous. It showed once and for all that Ritchie Blackmore had more to his repertoire than what he did in Deep Purple, and it rose Ronnie James Dio to a prominence that he never fell from again. “Tarot Woman”, “Stargazer” and “A Light in the Black” set the band and its members on to greater glory. The album and its songs sound as great today as they must have when they were first released. To me, it is a triumph and still a joy to put on at any time.

Best songs: “Tarot Woman”, “Starstruck”, “Stargazer”, “A Light in the Black”.

Rating: “Her love is like a knife, she’ll carve away your life”. 5/5

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

1112. Anthrax / State of Euphoria. 1988. 4/5

It’s hard to believe as I think back now that I missed Anthrax during my high school years. There were the couple of music videos that floated around – the one for “Madhouse” from Spreading the Disease being the most memorable one – but as for actually coming around and getting into the band, well that just didn’t happen until later on. Indeed, it wasn’t until I walked into Kiama Sight & Sound one day and saw this shiny album cover staring at me from the “A” rack that I finally purchased an Anthrax album, and I haven’t looked back since.

For me, of those first five albums that encompassed the decade of the 1980’s to 1990, this is the one that I still have confusion over how much I enjoy it as a whole. The debut was rough and mottled with its own charms but certainly not of legendary performance. Each of the other three albums to me are perfectly formed, filled to the brim with strong tracks and songs that are still just as brilliant today as they were when those albums were released. But there’s something about the songs on State of Euphoria that don’t always feel that same way, and it is this reason that I think it is a little maligned in comparison to those other 80’s giant Anthrax albums.
Why is this the case? Personally I think the band got a little bit ‘funky’ with their sound on this album, and it ended up being somewhere between their original thrash metal sound, the hip hop hard core sound that came with their single I'm the Man that came out around the same time, and the more mature metal sound that came with the following album Persistence of Time. While the thrash elements are still here for all to hear, the subtle change in song structure and the similarity in which some songs follow the same pattern does feel as though it comes back to haunt this album to a degree.
Listening to the album with a critical ear, there is a case to be made that many of the songs are too similar in structure and sound. That may tend to over-simplify the argument, but it is what comes across to me. Whereas the other albums mentioned here all have songs that have their own qualities and that stand on their own, there is a case to be made that the songs on State of Euphoria just roll into one another and share too much time together. I can sing the choruses of a number of the songs over other songs on the album and it all fits in to place too neatly. Is this a reason why some people find it too difficult to get into the album? Perhaps.
Having said all of that, I still love this album and I love the songs on it. That certainly comes partly from having had this album for so many years and from having listened to it so much in those late teenage years when everything becomes a part of your psyche forever. There are few better album opening tracks than “Be All, End All” which is a sign of their growing maturity as a band. The cover of Trust’s fantastic “Antisocial” is brilliant roof raiser, still as powerful today as it was when they first played it. “Finale” is a great closing track, completing the album in style. Even those songs that could be accused of being similar still have great powerful chanting lines in the best traditions of Anthrax, lines like “Now it’s dark but I can see, don’t you fuckin’ look at me!” (“Now It’s Dark”), and “You know me and I can be, a very, very vicious critic” (“Misery Loves Company”), and “Invisible could be my name, your excuses are so lame” (“Who Cares Wins”) just to name a few. And this is the main crux of any argument – for me, I love these songs and this album through weight of having grown up with it and listening to it a thousand times or more. And that’s what will colour any review of any album.

The hardline bottom line to State of Euphoria is that is doesn’t quite stack up against those other three giants that the band was able to produce during this first stage of their career, and that’s okay because those are three pretty brilliant albums. But this isn’t that far behind, and anytime I put it on I am still enamoured by its corroded ferocity and tongue firmly in cheek dark tones. I don’t know how I would react to this album if I was coming into it now, some 31 years after it was released. No doubt a lot differently than I did when I did first get it. Whereas Anthrax has other albums that are immediately lovable and relatable, State of Euphoria probably needs a little bit more time to find out how to love it.

Best songs: “Be All, End All”, “Antisocial”, “Now It’s Dark”, “Misery Loves Company”, “Finale”.

Rating: “Stand up, you know what it means, wake up, time to live your dreams”. 4/5

Friday, March 29, 2019

1111. Dream Theater / Distance Over Time. 2019. 4.5/5

While many would disagree with me, my love of Dream Theater has run along two quite distinctive sections. Apart from one or two exceptions I love the era up to and including Train of Thought. These are the albums that I discovered in a short space of time and devoured them. Since then, I have found the albums a bit hit and miss in regards to my love of the music despite the still high level of musicianship. I still look forward to each album being released hoping for something that will reignite that true love of what the band can do. I think I’ve found that with Distance Over Time.

There are certainly two ways to take this album, and I guess in the long run I can only go with the way I have listened to it. From the very first time I put the CD on my stereo I was hooked. It had songs that were just songs, not pieces of a larger conglomerate of story interspersed with talky moments and interconnecting interludes. I could put this album on and just get ten songs coming at me that I either loved or didn’t - and loved them I did. Is it an attempt to reconnect with those fans who, like me, loved those albums from a different age? If indeed this was part of their package this time around, they succeeded with me from the outset.
While The Astonishing was a production and for me often a struggle to get through the whole double album in one sitting, Distance Over Time is a wonderful collection of the duelling keyboards of Jordan Rudess and the guitar of John Petrucci, the amazing bass lines of John Myung, the metronomic drumming of Mike Mangini and the silky vocals of James LaBrie. The combination here of the heavier guitar sound in many songs and the soaring vocalising of LaBrie is perhaps the winning direction. It differentiates itself from other recent releases by doing so. I love each member’s contribution to this album again. Mangini may not be Mike Portnoy but he does his job well. Petrucci’s guitaring is superb and continues to defy belief in sections. So too Johnny Myung’s bass playing, which is still so integral to Dream Theater’s sound.
Does it hold up though? Well, it has been a month now since its release and I still have it on my daily playlist, and that probably says that it has held up well. Having said that, I am not as ecstatic about it now as I was for the first couple of weeks. As the songs have become more familiar, I have found myself picking up on the similarities to other Dream Theater songs, just riff progressions or keyboard fills or even rhythm pieces that blend into other parts of the catalogue. That’s not meant to be a criticism as such, just that as with some other Dream Theater productions, some of it becomes a bit samey as the album progresses, and it is noticeable where the break out pieces that grab your attention more fully are placed on the album.
What will strike most old school fans is that the whole vibe of the album is more favourably directed towards the way those great early albums were written. None of the songs are as deliberately complicated or have 72 time changes every minute of every song however. In that way there is a more manageable way that they songs have been written to suit the course that sets this album apart from recent releases. What these songs do have are the perfect combination of having each member have their moment within each song. There are still those brilliant solo breaks where the musicians have their way and enhance the track, while when the vocals come in it is left to LaBrie to carry the song with his wonderful voice. No one person dominates on this album, every member contributes equally to each song, and this is what creates the best Dream Theater material.

I haven’t felt this way about a Dream Theater album since Train of Thought, and perhaps that comes from both albums having been focused on being heavier albums that the band’s usual output. It’s not all smash and bash, it is still Dream Theater doing what they do best, and revitalising that prog sound that they were such a big part of emphasising during the 1990’s. If you have quietly moved away from the band in recent years, then this would be a good album to come back into. It is a return to form.

Best songs: “Untethered Angel”, “Paralyzed”, “S2N”, “At Wit’s End”, “Pale Blue Dot”, “Viper King”

Rating:  “The world keeps turning as we latch on to the wheel”.  4.5/5

Monday, March 25, 2019

1110. Blaze Bayley / Live in France. 2019. 4/5

Having completed his Infinite Entanglement trilogy with the release of The Redemption of William Black: Infinite Entanglement Part III I guess it was only fitting that Blaze Bayley and his band released a live album to showcase the work they have been doing over those three albums, and how those songs would hold up in a live environment. As a result we have Blaze belting out two discs worth of songs on this release Live in France.

I was certainly hesitant going into this album, not only for what I was going to hear but how it would be presented. Blaze has shown he loves playing live, and he carries just about everything he does well on stage, and his band has been pieced together for some time. I enjoyed the fact that the song list more or less covered the extent of the three albums that make up the trilogy as it fit with Blaze’s two previous live album releases, the first covering his first two solo albums and the second covering the albums in-between times. But this also concerned me because I wouldn’t get to hear those great songs from the first half of his solo career, the ones that had been so impressive to me at the time. I can always go back to those other live albums for that, but the fear for me was that if this album didn’t stand up it would be a relic if all it contained was songs from those three albums. Fortunately, I needn't have worried as despite the lack of older material this album is a beauty.
As mentioned, there are no less than six songs from Infinite Entanglement, four from Endure and Survive (Infinite Entanglement Part II) and five from The Redemption of William Black: Infinite Entanglement Part III. That’s fifteen of the total twenty tracks on the album from the Infinite Entanglement trilogy, and for the majority they sound better live than on the album. That in itself is not unusual as Blaze tends to be a dynamo on stage and brings out the best in everything he performs. The band sounds great and Blaze’s vocals are supreme. Of the other five songs, four are from his Iron Maiden days. The always brilliant “Futureal” is cracking once again, and comes in brilliantly after the opening of “Redeemer” segues beautifully into “Are You Here”. The always surprisingly good “Virus” closes out the first disc of this double set, while there is an absolutely scintillating version of “Man on the Edge” which almost steals the album by itself. The only downside is the choosing of “The Angel and the Gambler” as his fourth Maiden track. It really is one of the most average songs Maiden has ever done, and Blaze wasn’t even a co-writer of the song! There are so many other better songs he could have chosen to do, and this is a shame. Rounding this out is the title track from his first solo album, “Silicon Messiah” which always sounds great, but oh for just a few more tracks like “Ghost in the Machine”, “Kill and Destroy”, “Ten Seconds” and “The Man Who Would Not Die”. Next time perhaps.

Fans of Blaze Bayley will find this to be an excellent addition to their collection. In giving all of his trilogy songs a live atmosphere to be found in, Blaze has satisfactorily concluded this part of his career. What he moves onto now is anyone’s guess, though no doubt an extended tour with his Iron Maiden material (given his tenure in that band ended precisely 20 years ago this year) is likely. Those that have not heard any of Blaze’s solo material will still find this worthy of listening, but should then move back to his first few solo albums to discover his best stuff. As a live recording of this portion of his musical career, this does a more than adequate job.

Best songs: “Reedemer”, “Futureal”, “Are You Here”, “Man on the Edge”, “Endure and Survive”.

Rating:  “Do you think you deserve all the freedom you have?”  4/5

Friday, March 22, 2019

1109. Skid Row / Subhuman Race. 1995. 3/5

It’s amazing how many metal bands released albums in or around the year 1990 to high acclaim and praise, and then didn’t release another until 1994 or 1995 with an almost completely revamped sound and to wide panning from critics and fans alike. I could name a dozen off the top of my head who went from chart topping heroes to a career-threatening low in that space of time. One of those was Skid Row who for me looked to be on a never ending career ascendancy back in 1992, only to release Subhuman Race and as a result plummet to the depths of a place they have not seemed to return from.

To be honest, I could write a carbon copy of my review for Mötley Crüe’s self titled album from 1994 here, because the story of both bands is pretty much word for word. Two bands with previous albums that were at the top of the tree, Dr. Feelgood for Mötley Crüe and Slave to the Grind for Skid Row. Huge tours following these albums had their popularity at an all time high. A long break between their next albums (for varying reasons) also incorporated a huge change in the music scene with grunge becoming hugely popular and thus influencing the direction that all music, but especially metal, was then recorded. The result was a change in style that so disillusioned fans that these bands found themselves fighting battles on all fronts, and barely winning any of them. Oh, and not to mention that the producer of both of these albums was Bob Rock who along with influencing the sound of these two albums was also helming Metallica’s charge to alt-rock on Load and Reload.
Is this too long a bow to pull? I don’t think so. Though Mötley Crüe had forsaken Vince Neil for John Corabi which at least gave them a semblance of reason for the change in musical direction, Skid Row could only use the excuse that the tensions in the band were already pulling them apart. Could it be that they were still trying to find their identity in the music market? Their debut had been a pure hair metal release, while their sophomore album was morphing closer to heavy metal. Here it has been suggested that they wrote and performed a heavier version of that. If they have made a progression, it isn’t to that.
As to the album itself, are there many redeeming features? What amuses me is when people say, as suggested above, that this is the heaviest album Skid Row had released to this point. C’mon, really? Just because you slow down the tempo a little and drop the gauge a tad to make it sound as though it’s a heavier sound doesn’t make it a heavier album. And what really ties it back to the time is the similar rhythm running through every song. The tempo of the album barely changes, such that you could pretty much put a drum machine on and a bass rhythm just hollowing up and down the fretboard in time and that would suffice for the whole album. Which to me is the point. This album sounds like it is an attempt to compromise between what the band had done in the past, and where the music scene was heading to following the remnants of the grunge era. By doing so it is neither one or the other, and for me it suffers because of it.
There are some good songs here, but none that you are ever going to label as great. “Bonehead” is as close to the old Skid Row as you are going to come, though it really needed the Seb Bach screaming vocal over the top within the song to really bring the best out of it. Strangely enough he then does this on “Beat Yourself Blind” and it just sounds forced. “My Enemy” and “Firesign” are fine after you have listened to them about twenty times. “Remains to be Seen” has its moments. “Subhuman Race” finds much of the old vibe for a brief moment in time and produces the best song of the album.

To conclude, this is just an average album from a band that up until this point had excited me thoroughly. Like a lot of albums from metal bands I loved from the 70’s and 80’s that were released through the 1990’s this one is too off-track to get a lot of enjoyment from. The divorce with Sebastian Bach after the tour left both without their main vehicle to go forward and it feels like they have both been looking for it since.

Best songs: “Bonehead”, “Subhuman Race”, “Remains to be Seen”

Rating:  “Brothers hear my story, but don't you take no pity out on me”.  3/5

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

1108. Queensrÿche / The Verdict. 2019. 4.5/5

Most of the world’s Queensrÿche fans have been waiting patiently for the walls to come down, for pigs to fly, and for the band to deliver us an album that isn’t a carbon copy of their great albums from the 1980’s and early 1990’s, but contains that passion, contains that intensity and replicates the brilliance that the band showed in those great days. No one wanted another Operation: Mindcrime (which we got a poor man’s copy of back in 2005), but what we wanted was another album that had the same energy and drive that we could put on and love all over again. So here we are in 2019, seven years after the great split between the band and their lead singer, and almost thirty years after their last true great album, and we have finally reached the day that that album has arrived in the form of The Verdict.

In many ways this is the polished completion of the two albums released since the introduction of Todd La Torre to the band. While both Queensrÿche and Condition Hüman had good moments and several songs that had promise, it felt as though they both fell short in some way of finding the right ground. While The Verdict is by no means a perfect album it does sound as though many of those loose strings have been attached and brought this back closer to a well-rounded project.
In bringing back a sound closer to their glory days than they have been at any time in the past 25 years there is sure to be some division over what they have brought to the table. Is it reminiscing on what once was, and thus backing their old ground base of support to rush back to the fold, or is it living in the past and not looking to produce an album that looks forward rather than back? To me it doesn’t matter. I think Queensrÿche fans have been waiting for an album that reignites their great love of the band, rather than ones that gain tacit support and keep the fandom trickling along rather than booming in spirit and joy, and this is the closest we have come to a whole package in doing that since those early days of the 1990’s.
You cannot help but marvel over the similarity in voice between La Torre and Geoff Tate, and while it is different enough that you know they are two different singers it still produced enough melancholy that you are reminded of those early Queensrÿche albums.
It’s the power of the tracks that makes this more than what has come in recent years. Everything is out the front of the mix, and it is interesting how much a central piece the drums are, given it is not Scott Rockenfield on the kit this time around by Todd La Torre doing double duty by playing drums as well. There is no loss in the finesse department either, La Torre can really play the damn things, and the drum sound elicited here along with the deep rumbling bass track laid down by Eddie Jackson is just fantastic. Add to this the twin guitars of Michael Wilton and the somewhat underrated Parker Lundgren, who both sound like they are freeing their arms and letting loose with more abandon than has been the case over the years, and you have an album full of songs that are a joy to listen to.
The album opens as a rousing reception, starting off wonderfully with “Blood of the Levant”, which combines the best of Todd’s vocal range and pleasingly the faster pace and hard-hitting drums that were hallmarks of the great Queensrÿche songs. “Man the Machine” and “Light-years” are also both glorious renditions in this way. Like all of the great Queensrÿche albums there is a mix in the emotional state of songs throughout, but unlike during the ‘dark years’ the album is not dominated by a morbid atmosphere or a slow drawn out series of songs. The mix here works perfectly, but most importantly the power behind the tracks never diminishes which keeps it in your face all the way through. Well...
The major sticking point here for me is the closing track “Portrait”, which is the one track that halts this being elevated into the realms of recent great albums from dinosaur metal bands. I will never understand why bands have to end an album with the slower, ‘thought provoking’ type of song when so much great material has come before it. This is no “Anybody Listening” from Empire, this is a really dreary kind of conclusion to an album that had set so many benchmarks before it. Whoever decided on this track being on the album and indeed closing it out made a huge error in judgement.

Ignoring this, The Verdict is an absolute winner in the same way that Judas Priest’s Firepower was a winner last year on its release. Here we have a band that has taken the roots of what gave them their most success as a band, and used those elements to produce an album that doesn’t replicate those earlier albums but molds it in a way that it has a presence in the modern day and has recaptured the best that the band can do. No matter what Queensrÿche go onto do after this, they can be proud of what they have put down here, once and for all proving they are a band that still has what it takes.

Best songs: “Blood of the Levant”, “Man the Machine”, “Light-years”, “Propaganda Fashion”, “Bent”.

Rating:  “Why do we face the same thing if change is a constant?”   4.5/5

Monday, March 18, 2019

1107. W.A.S.P. / The Last Command. 1985. 5/5

Their debut album is right up there with one of my favourites of all time, and when I was really becoming obsessed with the band at the end of high school and into university, it was that album and this one that I had on high rotation. The release of The Headless Children pushed this into the stratosphere but until that time these first two albums were what took up a lot of my listening hours. And while on the surface it is easy to say that W.A.S.P. has better albums out there than The Last Command that would be to ignore the time when it was released and how it fit into the metal scene as it was at the time.

I absolutely loved this album when I first got it, and for a while rated it as better than the debut album such was the constant rotation I gave it. Eventually I came to realise that the genuine anthemic qualities of the previous album on songs such as “I Wanna Be Somebody”, “Hellion”, “On Your Knees” and “L.O.V.E Machine” outrank those on this album, but if you judge the songs on consistency over both albums then The Last Command could possibly still win by a nose.

You aren’t coming into these early W.A.S.P. albums for the lyrics, though Blackie eventually became more intense when it came to this part of the artform. The lyrics all through are fun and still fun to sing even for those of us now well entrenched in middle age. The chanting choruses that encourage you to sing along are the winners here, especially when tooling around town in the car. None of it is highbrow stuff but as a teenager it was all fun and games.
“Wild Child” is the out-and-out hit of the album, and opens it up in style. More melodic than headbusting it still carries itself well after all these years. It could have signalled a much different direction for the album as a whole if the lads had carried on in the same vein, but the follow up of “Ballcrusher”, “Fistful of Diamonds” and “Jack Action” all restore the general vibe of loud and violent themes and music to the fore.
“Widowmaker” is one of the best on the album, mostly because it is still a heavy song but has a different atmosphere from the other tracks. It is not melodic musically like “Wild Child” but has a chorus of melody vocal lines throughout that introduce a variation in theme on the album, much like “Sleeping in the Fire” did on the first album. As the change up song on the album it is particularly effective. “Cried in the Night” tries to do a similar thing but although it is still a great song it isn’t as effective as “Widowmaker” is in this instance.
“Blind in Texas” was one of the singles from the album, and is very much the quintessential W.A.S.P. track form this era. Belligerent, loud and lyrically simple and to the point, this drunken anthem leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s hard and heavy with a great guitar riff and is everything that W.A.S.P stood for in the mid-1980's.
The title track “The Last Command” stood for me as my own anthem for a number of years during this time, the at-times angry and confused teenager trying to find his place in the world, and happy to use this song as my flagbearer. Even today I can put it on and remember how I felt when I would play this over and over again, and how it lifted me up, in the same way as “Department of Youth” and “Youth Gone Wild” used to. “Running Wild in the Streets” used to speak to my youth at the time as well and is still a favourite, while the album closer “Sex Drive” is again so typical of the W.A.S.P standard that even though it might sound laughable almost 35 years later it is still one I can – and do – sing all the words to.

Looking at this album in 2019 – a year that I could not even conceive of when I first bought this album – it has certain flaws that are easy to hear and point out. One even wonders how many of these songs Blackie would now deem to play live in concert given his born again Christian status (answer – very very few). It is an album of its time, filled with sexual and violent innuendo that was frowned upon at the time, and would probably just be tut-tutted now by parents for its childishness than its themes. But beyond all of that, when I put it on my stereo and turn the volume up to eleven, this is still for me a brilliant album. I probably don’t love it as much as I did back in my youth, but it still helps me remember how I felt about the album back then. W.A.S.P. was a juggernaut, and this line up of Blackie Lawless, Chris Holmes, Steve Riley and Randy Piper is arguably their greatest. Maybe kids coming into it today would not find as much in it to enjoy, but with so much emotional baggage tied up in it for me it is one I will always love.

Best songs: “Wild Child”, “Widowmaker”, “Blind in Texas”, “The Last Command”, “Jack Action”.

Rating:  “Hear the call we are the Last Command”.  5/5

Monday, March 04, 2019

1106. Beast in Black / Berserker. 2017. 3/5

Power metal has never been more pop metal than what Battle Beast has released since their inception, and while too much of a good thing can be too much, it has been a solid career for that band in that genre. As such, the departure of Anton Kabanen from Battle Beast over that old chestnut of ‘musical direction’ is an interesting one, as the subsequent albums released by both don’t really reveal too much difference, because they both still have the same musical quality as those original Battle Beast albums. What it does reveal is that Anton has a singular style of music running through his head, and it continues on that path here on his new band’s debut release Berserker.

So, there’s no real surprise that this sounds like a Battle Beast album, and it is all the better for it. It starts off with a bang, showing off all of those qualities that those who enjoy his previous band were in it for. It is fast paced with that pop tinge, great drums dictating the flow, solid base rhythms undertowing each song, hard guitar riffs and soling mixed in with the inevitable synths and keyboards, and soaring vocals that keep their anthemic qualities throughout.
More than anything else, it’s fun! The music is heavily borrowing from the 1980’s new wave pop genre, with foot-tapping and head-nodding uplifting tracks that would fit in perfectly in a retro dance club. In fact some of the songs would hardly skip a beat if they were thrown on in just such clubs. It’s the synths and keyboards that give it this era-defining quality and while that won’t suit all people’s tastes it does separate Beats in Black’s debut from other power metal albums that are being released. On some tracks it gets a bit much - “Crazy, Mad, Insane” for one just goes too far in that direction with its almost techno-like influences, moving too far beyond the blurred line to enjoy as a metal song and not just a retro track. This has all the sampling and other tricks of the trade from the worst pop songs of the 1980’s and kills off most of the enjoyment for me at least – I don’t mind 80’s pop as I grew up in that era, but it doesn’t make the bad stuff any more likeable. “Ghost in the Rain”, the closing track on the album, is another piece of deadwood, draining all of the energy from the album in a limp and disappointing finish to an album that deserved a better fate this this.
Within this framework are some really fun and energetic songs. The title song “Berzerker” opens the album up nicely, and is followed by “Blind and Frozen” and “Blood of a Lion” where vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos really fires up and shows off his pipes, and a real metal riff blazes throughout. “Born Again” does the same, while “Zodd the Immortal” brings a nice tangent to these tracks with a deeper vocal and a change in riffage along the way.

Is this the greatest form of metal music? No, that’s not what I’m able to say. Is it enjoyable and a mood changer when you put it on? My word yes, it certainly is. There are some really good songs here and then there are others that just vary too much to hold the interest all the way through. The first half of the album is high quality in my opinion, but it doesn’t finish off with the same flourish.

Best songs: “Blind and Frozen” “Blood of a Lion”, “Born Again”, “Zodd the Immortal”.

Rating:  “I will wait for tomorrow, that may never come.”   3/5

Friday, March 01, 2019

1105. Last in Line / II. 2019. 3.5/5

For a band that started out a few years ago as a reunion of sorts of the original Dio band, sans their iconic lead singer, to play the songs of that Dio era for a few gigs, this has progressed into an interesting and impressive combination. There has been some shuffling in personnel, but this has become more than just a side project for those involved. The band has grown solid together, and following the release of their debut album Heavy Crown full of original music, it was actually gratifying to hear that we would be treated to a second round and would get a follow up album. And that is what we have here in II.

For those that are wondering – no, this does not sound like those early Dio albums, nor does it sound like any Dio music. Well, actually, there is one exception to that. The song “Sword from the Stone” sounds a lot like the Dio song “Blood from a Stone” off the Strange Highways album in both tempo and vocal character, but only Vinny Appice had anything to do with that 1994 album, and without doubt this is more a coincidence than anything else.
“Blackout the Sun” is a slow beginning, going for the old fashioned (new return?) slow hard beginning – and mirrors some 1990’s Soundgarden in the music and vocals. This could also be said of “Give up the Ghost” and quite possibly “The Unknown”. Peculiar to say the least. “Landslide” has a better tempo throughout until we reach the chorus, but that can be forgiven. Vivian’s solo is a delight however. “Gods and Tyrants” is another song where the tempo is rather tepid until we get to Viv’s guitar solo, where it then gets up to where all of these songs should be sitting. His solo again on this song is just terrific. Herein lies the tale of this album.

I enjoyed the first album. It has some terrific songs on it, mixed with some that don’t work as well. I absolutely came into this album with the hope and desire that we would hear more speed in the tempo of the songs, in the way that the early Dio material had. I didn’t expect it, but I hoped for it, mainly because I knew the four members of the band could do it, and it would stretch them back to a time when they played that kind of stuff on a regular basis.
What we have instead is four very powerful performances. Andrew Freeman’s vocals are fantastic, strong and full of energy, a terrific combination throughout. He is truly wonderful and there is no doubting his quality. Phil Soussan’s bass and Vinny Appice’s drums form the solid base that holds the songs together. Both are veterans and professionals with a rugged and immovable style that dominates the structure of most of the songs. The sound of both on this album is enormous, there is nothing being hidden, they are all up in the mix which provides a huge sound.
If I’m going to be hyper-critical of this, then in many ways what creates the slight ambivalence I feel for this album comes down to Vinny’s drumming. It could very well be the way he has been asked to play these songs (something he had from Dio on many occasions from all accounts), but his staid, staccato style of drumming does tend to emphasise the slower tempo of the songs, and this makes some of the tracks harder to enjoy. That’s an easy thing to say when you are a fan of faster songs and albums like I am, but I do believe in this case it just drags back the album overall. If that’s a writer's call, then the band has obviously gone down this route and they are all in this boat.
But really, why the change of tempo even within songs themselves? “False Flag” is the absolute standout on this album, and I’m not afraid to say that if they had written songs like this for the entire album it would have become a modern-day classic. Freeman’s vocals soar in the way that showcases his greatest attributes, and Viv’s guitar riffs are brilliant, and his solo is a gem. But even here they muck around with the change within the song that just gets to me. I just want them to let go off the reins and let this song (and others) have its head and career off it the distance. For me II lacks that punch that would make it a stellar release. I have no doubt others will find it perfect for their tastes for the reasons I have trouble with it.

We all came to this band for one reason only. Vivian Campbell. He is the one that we all follow, in the hope that we get just a little glimpse of the guitarist we all fell in love with back in 1983. There is little doubt that this album contains his finest work since he left Dio. That is not to have a go at the way he plays in Def Leppard, Riverdogs and other projects. It is just that here we really hear how he can play without the confinements those other bands may have on his guitaring style. Every single solo on this album is brilliant, without fail. If you could just cut out the rest of this album and have Viv’s solos back to back, it is a five-star album. There are other brilliant riffs on the album, and there are a majority of songs here that are great – but it is Viv’s guitar work that is the top-notch highlight over everything here.

When all is said and done I may appear to be putting down this whole album, and that’s not the truth. It’s not all my style of hard rock or metal, and that frustrates me a little. Everything I hear on the album is fantastic, all I want is a faster pace of song to really get into, rather than the slightly clunky tempo most of these songs sit at. That being said, I am still listening to the album five times a day and have no thoughts of replacing it anytime soon, so it can’t be all bad, can it?

Best songs: “False Flag”, “Electrified”, “Landslide”, “Year of the Gun”

Rating:  “Break our backs, break our hearts, but you're never gonna break me.”  3.5/5

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

1104. Powerwolf / Metallum Nostrum. 2019. 4.5/5

From all accounts, this album was actually released as a bonus disc on the Japanese release of the Blessed & Possessed album back in 2015. While that must have been gold for the Japan fans, it’s also nice that it is getting a full release for the rest of the world to enjoy as well. Given that this is an album of cover version of Powerwolf’s favourite artists, it also acts as a window to the band’s influences in their music over the past fifteen years, and how that has helped shape their own music over that period.

Unlike the two Northern Kings albums I have reviewed recently which concentrated on redoing 1980’s pop songs, this tribute album is to songs and bands that have obviously heavily influenced the music that Powerwolf produce themselves. The song list is impressive and shows me that the members of the band grew up with much the bands that I loved at that era (though I would be about a decade older than these guys I would suggest). That to me is interesting because the base of their own sound absolutely comes from the 1980’s metal rather than the 1990’s or beyond, and that is where most of the songs reside.
Not only are all of the songs chosen here brilliant and, for the most part, also personal favourites of mine, the versions that Powerwolf have performed are carefully created and in no way denigrate the original versions. There is no attempt to fiddle with the perfection of the original tracks, instead they are given the tweaks that give them the Powerwolf metal sound as they should sound in the modern-day environment.
The album is bookended by two tracks from Judas Priest’s Painkiller – starting off with “A Touch of Evil” and concluding with “Night Crawler”. Both are terrific, maintaining the pace and intensity of the tracks while still adding that Powerwolf influence, especially vocally where they sound great. There is an absolutely cracking version of Running Wild’s “Conquistadores”, which for me betters the original by some margin, highlighted by Attila’s Dorn’s vocals. I don’t know the Chroming Rose song “Power and Glory”, but I do know I like this version so I should certainly track it down in the future if only to be able to compare it to this. Also, it is interesting to note the obvious vocal related differences in this cover of Amon Amarth’s “Gods of War Arise”, and is another great job done by the band as a whole. I am also impressed with Powerwolf’s work on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns”, which retains all of the angst and emption of the original and is a fitting tribute to Criss Oliva’s memory.
If there is any doubt about the ability of the members of this band on their instruments, then the remainder fo the album should put that to rest. Not only have they chosen brilliant songs to pay tribute to but they have done a magnificent job in covering them. There aren’t too many bands who could pull off such loving and accurate representations of songs such as Gary Moore’s “Out on the Fields”, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark”, Black Sabbath’s “Headless Cross” and Iron Maiden’s “The Evil That Men Do”, but that is exactly what you get here. “Shot in the Dark” and “Headless Cross” especially for me are just brilliant. Like the other songs they don’t step too far from the template, but they still give it their own voice, and I really enjoy that of this album.

My age-old philosophy on tribute albums, I believe, still applies here – that no matter how good the versions of those songs that are performed here are, eventually you will drift back to the originals because they will always be the best. Still, several weeks after first listening to this album it is still in my rotation, and I am enjoying it as much as ever. Anyone who knows these songs and enjoys them should check it out, just to see what fans like you who are also pretty handy musicians play them like.

Best songs: “Touch of Evil”, “Conquistadores”, “Shot in the Dark”, “Headless Cross”.

Rating:  “All men are equal till the victory is won.”   4.5/5