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

Monday, February 25, 2019

1103. Avantasia / Moonglow. 2019. 4/5

Avantasia started off as a pet project that had a wonderful concept – a metal opera – and when the initial stretch of two albums was completed it was appetite sating. When the next trilogy came through it also was exciting. Two further albums have since surfaced and have been well received. Following the album and tour for Ghostlights Tobias Sammat expressed he was tired and would need to do something different for a time. Some thought it would be a solo album, I hoped for a return to form with Edguy. Instead, surprise surprise, what eventuated... was another Avantasia album. Not that I’m complaining, it just seemed a little too predictable to stay with the supergroup concept than to return to the band he began with.

Tobi isn’t reinventing the wheel here. He is using a well-worn formula that has worked for him and his cohorts over the past three or four Avantasia albums. Listening to Moonglow you will come across plenty of sections of songs or chorus lines or vocal melodies that will remind you of several songs from the Avantasia catalogue. That’s probably always going to be an end result of this kind of project and with plenty of similar people being involved throughout. I have only been listening to it for the past week since its release and can already pick out the similarities. This is nit-picking of a type as none of it matters if you enjoy the songs and album as a whole.
Try it for yourself. Apart from Tobi’s sweet high range throughout each song of the album, you can pick out the usual suspects. Ronnie Atkins and his soft but strong vocals range, Eric Martin still crooning like it is the early 1990’s, Bob Catley piercing through the speakers every time he has his piece and Jorn Lande’s honeyed booming vocal chords dominating front and centre in each song he is a part of. It is the familiarity of these vocalists within the project that makes Avantasia what it is, and not just a different sounding album with every release. Their consistent contributions add that stability to the group and allow the newcomers who arrive on each album a chance to make their own contribution without having their toes stepped on.
The addition of Candice Night is a winner, and the harmonies between she and Tobi on the title track “Moonglow” are worth the admission price alone. It’s a shame she isn’t given a part in one of the heavier song to really give her something different to work with. The small part that Kreator vocalist Mille Petrozza adds to “Book of Shallows” is also terrific.
The introduction of Hansi Kursch to the mix is an inspired one. His unique vocals go a long way to not only giving the songs he is involved in a point of difference from the others on the album but will also be the watermark down the track when Moonglow is compared to the other Avantasia albums. “Book of Shallows” and “The Raven Child” are lifted by his presence alone.
I don’t much like songs like “Invincible” which is very much of the ballad variety, but what does mark this as special is the vocal performance by Geoff Tate, who makes this his own. Sadly this is the route Geoff has taken his own music over recent years, but he does a terrific job with this song and makes it better than it would have been. The much heavier and faster paced “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” has him join the whole ensemble of well-versed Avantasia vocalists, and he shines here as well which is gratifying to hear.
As ever, Michael Kiske’s appearance and performance is one of the starring efforts of an Avantasia album. His amazing vocals lift every song he is a part of, and this is once again the case with “Requiem for a Dream”. The song itself is upbeat and lively, filled with the double kick and racy guitar riff that are the best elements of the best Avantasia songs, and yet Kiske’s vocals kick it up a further notch. His high pitched perfect notes, well supported by Tobi, make this probably the best song on the album for me. It’s interesting that Kiske’s contribution was left to the end of the album, no doubt his involvement with the reformed Helloween cut down his ability to contribute more heavily this time around.
The music itself is once again a revelation even if in places it does sound a bit formula driven, that a drum beat and bass riff is found and is drawn out to the ends required. Long time collaborator Sascha Paeth again contributes all the guitars on the album and Edguy drummer Felix Bohnke again does double duty here, while Tobi holds the bass guitar once again.

I’ve always looked forward to each Avantasia release and have enjoyed them all. This time around it was more exciting given they are finally touring Australia and I will see them live on this tour. It means I will be listening to this album a lot more over the coming months as I prepare myself for what is to come. And while this isn’t their most outstanding effort it still ticks most of the boxes for anyone who enjoys this genre of the artform. And that’s the key to this album. Someone coming in having not experienced the previous albums is at a disadvantage because the way you listen to the vocals on this album is directly tied to what has come before. You can listen to this and enjoy your favourite vocalists for their contribution, but it is the combination of all as a part of their characters in the story that makes this the full experience rather than just an album full of songs. It’s a small concession, but I do think fans of the Avantasia experience will get more from this than a first timer coming in at this stage of the game.

Best songs: “The Raven Child”, “Requiem for a Dream”, “Book of Shallows”, “Moonglow”

Rating:  “Everything you've come to dream is gonna turn out real.”   4/5

Friday, February 22, 2019

1102. Northern Kings / Rethroned. 2008. 3.5/5

You never know... lightning might strike twice. Following the reasonable success of their first album together, the super-group conglomerate of Northern Kings obviously decided that it was worth a crack, and came together once again to record another album full of cover versions of songs from the past. It was a bold move, one that was always fraught with the danger that too much of a good thing would end up being the opposite. In the end, this was probably closer to the truth than the opening sentence of this review.

Rethroned brings together another eleven songs of mixed heritage to have new life breathed into them by this stellar array of vocalists and their supporting band. For me though, while I enjoyed the first album immensely, this time around I was not as enamoured. This has nothing to do with the musicianship or talents of the vocalists on show, indeed it has almost everything to do with the songs that were chosen to be covered. Whereas I knew and liked almost all of the songs on Reborn, here I knew about half the songs but didn’t necessarily enjoy the ones I knew. That made listening to this album a much more difficult process.
Four of the songs I was unaware of at all. I have of course heard the “Training Montage” before in the scene from Rocky IV where Stallone is getting ready to fight Ivan Drago, but I wouldn’t have recognised it in a million years. Being an instrumental it gave the band itself their time to shine to start the album off. “Strangelove” by Depeche Mode I don’t think I have ever heard, but the version here is listenable enough. “Killer” by Adamski and Seal I have no knowledge of at all, while "Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend" by Thin Lizzy I must have heard before, especially as it was the one album Gary Moore played on, but I simply don’t recall it at all. First rule of listening to a covers album is knowing all the songs recorded on it. Fail.
Five of the remaining seven songs are hit and miss, depending on your individual taste. Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is a difficult song to cover well at the best of times, let alone by converting it to a faster tempo and trying to inject as much ‘power metal’ into it as you can. The vocal line itself is a tough one to carry off. I’m not sure it really works here. Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” from Batman Forever is another which is hard to do justice to, but on this occasion, I think they’ve done it. By remaining more faithful to the original, expressing the emotion in the vocal lines where it comes and using the energy from the song to make an up vibe and faster tempo track, I think they’ve produced a great version. It helps that all four vocalists were involved in the track as it certainly increases the power and melody of the vocals. Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” which was popularised by Sinead O’Connor, has not been a long-held favourite of mine, and the version here is serviceable. Much the same could be said of the cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Given the reverence it is held in it was an interesting choice to do here, but I have to say they did a good job of it without taking away from the original. On the other hand, there is very little reverence held for Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky” given its life as the poppiest of pop songs, so the dual attack of this cover version, which begins as a slow, low and deep rendition for most of the track before breaking out in the last third to a fast paced scream gives this the perfect way of honouring this song that everyone knows but no one can actually admit that they like or liked.
The two remaining songs are my favourites. Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” from the James Bond movie of the same name is excellent, again helped by having all four vocalists involved in the harmonies throughout. I don’t think it betters the original (though I have a soft spot for all of Duran Duran’s music) but it does mirror the emotion and power of their version. Then there is A-ha's “Take on Me”, which the Northern Kings nail here in a symphonic masterpiece of vocal harmonies that perfectly enhance the vocals from the original version. This is a beauty, the kind of cover version of a song that shows off the qualities of both the original and the remake.

I don’t think this matches the previous album, but that is more for the songs chosen than the quality of the musicianship and vocals. Each song here sounds fantastic and the singing is fabulous. This was the second and last release from this supergroup, and perhaps their creative flow together had been sated by the two releases. No matter what the reason, I for one am glad they made the effort.

Best songs: “Take on Me”, “A View to a Kill”, “Kiss from a Rose”.

Rating:  “Until we dance into the fire.”  3.5/5

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

1101. Judas Priest / Nostradamus. 2008. 3/5

I’m sure there were others like me out there that felt some disappointment in the offering produced by the reformed Judas Priest as their comeback album, Angel of Retribution. Over-excitement was definitely a factor in that. So, when the band announced they were going into the studio to record their follow up there was cause for further tingling of the senses. Surely this time they would not only find a way to hold true to the Judas Priest metal ideals, but would also eliminate those slight anomalies that were on the previous album and produce another masterpiece. It turns out that I ended up feeling slightly let down once again.

“Ambitious” is probably the word that best describes the whole Nostradamus concept from start to finish. From the time it was announced that the next album would be a concept album based on the life of the seer, a musical symphony or rock opera as such, and that it would span two discs, it felt like it was not only going to be overblown but also very un-Judas Priest-like. Certainly not what I considered the band and its music to be like. Even so, I reserved judgement until the album had arrived and I had put it on to listen to for the first time.
Did I have problems with it when it was released? Yes. Do I still have problems with it now? Yes. This is a complex album and one that is almost beyond just being able to put it on and listen to for pleasure. It isn’t like taking out Defenders of the Faith or Painkiller and knowing the songs and headbanging along in glee. This, like an opera, is an entire musical piece, one that is difficult to pick pieces out at random and just enjoy those tracks because in essence they all have to fit together. For me this is the most difficult part of the album. Even with Queensryche’s brilliant concept album Operation: Mindcrime you can enjoy the songs on their own as well as part of the whole album. Here on Nostradamus I find that almost impossible. And in essence that seems to be because the songs themselves as individual components just aren’t great, or inspiring, or energetic.
More than anything, it is just looooooooooong. Because of the fluctuations between the style of songs as each tries to tell another part of the story, and with the short instrumental interludes between songs that are used to connect these parts of the story, it feels as though it stretches out eternally. At almost 103 minutes in total, it is a long time to commit to get through from start to finish, especially when there are tracks that just don’t appeal my general music taste.
The opening of “Prophecy” and “Revelations” is enjoyable enough, mixed in as it is with the synths and keyboards and the symphonic sound that is incorporated throughout. The closing song of the first disc “Persecution” is probably the best song on the album because it sounds like the Priest songs that I love. “Alone” is different from that but in the course of the album is another I don’t mind, along with “War”. “Nostradamus” flows with an energetic burst towards the end of the second disc. To be honest, for me that is as much enthusiasm as I can raise for the individual tracks here, and even that is a stretch.

Is it a flawed masterpiece? I’m not sure. Certainly, the concept and the way it was written and recorded highlights that a lot of thought and work went in to this album, and the band had to know beforehand that because it was unlike anything they had ever done before that it was going to be a hard sell to the fans. As musicians and artists this must have been something they felt very strongly about recording, and I admire the fact that they went outside of their pigeon hole to produce it. I have spent the past couple of weeks reacquainting myself with it for this review and I believe that I appreciate it more now for what it is than I did when it was released. Actually, I’m sure of that. However, as an album to put on for the afternoon to listen to while having a couple of beers, this definitely isn’t the one you are going to grab off the shelves.

Best songs: “Prophecy”, “Revelations”, “Persecution”.

Rating:  “They will not eradicate me, break my will or suffocate me.”  3/5

Monday, February 18, 2019

1100. Northern Kings / Reborn. 2007. 4/5

The Christmas holiday period in Australia always finds me looking back in time with rose coloured glasses on, back to my high school days and the music that dominated that time, both metal and pop music. So when you come across an album that fuses the two together, making metal anthems out of 1980’s pop songs, it is something that is hard to ignore. Thus over the past couple of months I have discovered Northern Kings and their two cover albums, starting with this one entitled Reborn.

Not sure why an album like this has to be released? Well, the answer is why not? This is a one-off super-group type of situation, with the four vocalists - Jarkko Ahola, Marco Hietala, Juha-Pekka Leppäluoto and Tony Kakko - from various Finland metal groups coming together to bash these tunes out. And for anyone like me who not only remembers all of these songs when they were released but also prefers heavier music, this is an enjoyable exercise.
Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” has probably always been a song that could lend itself to a reimagining, and this is one of the better cover versions here purely because it has been speeded up and given a raucous middle section dominated by the duelling guitar and keyboard solo along with the double kick. One of the kings of the AOR movement is given a perfect power metal overhaul here and sounds fantastic.
The version of Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is perhaps the standout and certainly my favourite in this collection. It doubles down on the emotion of the original track and doesn’t move too far from the structure except to beef up the power and energy throughout. It is still impossible not to sing along at the top of your voice through the chorus, and the four voices together (the only track where all four are involved together) give this a fitting treatment.
Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” also sounds great, thanks to Tony Kakko who does a great job on the vocals for this track. On the other hand, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” has gone in a different direction, going for the slower and lower approach which is the opposite of the vibrancy of the original. I appreciate that they needed to change this version to do something original with it, and I do think that it is fine in that respect. I just love the anger and fire of the original too much. I’d have loved to have heard a real power metal up-the-ante version of this. David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” is giving a fitting tribute which still giving it a varied sound which gives it its originality. To be honest I think Northern Kings version of “Fallen on Hard Times” is better than Jethro Tull’s original, giving it a life that Tull never did. It’s a great track and makes me listen to it in a different way now.
Another high energy track given a slower and more introspective version is Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms”, which to me deserved a real speed metal version instead. Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” sticks closely to the original piece, which is a good thing because it would be an easy song to make sound bad if you are not careful. This rendition is faithful and retains the vibe of the original. This is completely different from the version of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” which is given a complete makeover and given the speed and vibrancy that power metal invokes. It is pretty much a completely different song with the same lyrics such is the change in the output. It takes a bit of getting used to if you know the original song well, which most people of my generation will. In the case of the Phil Collins hit “In the Air Tonight” the band again plays a more energetic version of the track without steering too far from the structure of the song, thus giving it a power metal feel without cracking the song for the purists.
There have been a couple of excellent and interesting cover versions of Radiohead’s “Creep”, though I wouldn’t number this among them. They have gone for a heavier slower version rather than go in the other direction, and to my thinking it would have been more interesting to hear that tested out instead.
A close second to song of the album is the souped up, double time version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, which is perfectly performed on vocals by Jarkko Ahola. Once again the emotion of the track is enhanced, while also giving the music an edge and a drive that the original does not have. Excellent. The album concludes with “Brothers in Arms” from Dire Straits which holds itself much to the same tempo as Mark Knopfler’s version which perhaps hinders the end of setlist because of it.

Like I said at the start, for anyone who grew up in the 1980’s listening to these songs on the radio and who also doesn’t mind hearing them get a fresh coat of paint this a well worth searching out. After a few listens I was hooked, and I can now put this on at any time, in any company, and get a kick from it.

Best songs: “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, “Fallen on Hard Times”, “Sledgehammer”, “Hello”.

Rating:  “All we want is life beyond Thunderdome.”  4/5