Friday, October 29, 2010

L.A. harcore rockers terrorize the scene with "Keepers of the Faith"

Genre: Hardcore
Century Media
Running Time: 33:33

I'll make a few admissions here. I don't really listen to that much hardcore music.

I don't know much about this band.

But what I do know is that you need to hear this album.

Keepers of the Faith, the fifth album from the L.A. hardcore band, hits you like a fist to throat. The production on the album is fantastic. The guitar tone is crisp, clean, and clear. The production brings the general intensity of the music to the forefront without sounding overproduced.

Another great aspect about Keepers of the Faith is it's well edited. All the songs are short and concise - long enough for the band to make a statement, but never rambling. Every song on the album is like a tightly compacted keg of dynamite.

Along the way, Terror proves they're not just another cookie cutter hardcore band. The guitars take a break during the first verse of "Shattered" to give the drums and bass a chance to shine through.

The opening track, "Your Enemies Are Mine," gets off to a quick start with its spitfire guitar riff. And listen to the drums in that song. Man! He is tearing up his kit! I wouldn't want to be his snare drum when he plays that one.

"Only Death" starts off with a sound clip, and the closing track, "Defiant" starts off with the sound cranked down for the first 10 seconds. After that the volume is cranked back up to normal and the effect is dynamic. The ripping guitar solo is "Dead Wrong" is also a tasty treat.

Vocalist Scott Vogel also manages to cover quite a bit of ground lyrically. Naturally, there are the aggressive, hard hitting lyrics in songs like "You're Caught" and "The Struggle." On "Dead Wrong," he warns about the gritty ways of the world:

"They'll cut your throat in the blink of an eye
You got to find a way to keep yourself alive
In this ugly world, there's only one truth
Hold fast to what you love and put your trust in few"

Vogel is trying to be a realist in how he looks at the world, but also attempts to express hope. He talks about the importance of brotherhood; his lyrics express the mantra of sticking together in the face of evil. Songs like "Keepers of the Faith" and "Stick Tight" do a masterful job of articulating that notion.

With Keepers of the Faith, Terror have constructed a simple but effective treatise on intense music combined with worldly lyrics, all wrapped up in airtight production. For those of you who think hardcore music is nothing but a bunch of screamo tailored for the Hot Topic crowd, think again. Terror has proven they're the real deal.

Score: 85/100

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Destini Beard EP serves up Halloween scares

Genre: Goth
Linfaldia Records
Running Time: 22:18

True story: I was working as a cashier once when this guy comes through my checklane wearing a Midnight Syndicate t-shirt.

They looked like some sweet metal band, so I asked him who they were. He told me they played goth music and suggested I check them out.

So lo and behold, I did.

Midnight Syndicate is two guys - Ed Douglas and Gavin Goszka - who compose Gothic Halloween inspired soundscapes, and they've been at it since the mid 1990s. It's a neat idea but it's mostly just atmosphere music. It's not something I would sit around and listen to all day.

So I was intrigued to find the recenty released EP, The Dark Masquerade, which pairs Midnight Syndicate with vocalist Destini Beard.  The eerieness of the background music coupled with pretty female gothic vocals would make a winner, right? The Dark Masquerade is certainly a unique addition to anyone's music collection, though it suffers from being a little rough around the edges.

This six song EP is essentially a work of Destini Beard.  Beard, who was a soprano in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, wrote the lyrics and composed the vocal arrangements. The general sound is similar to Evanescence or Lacuna Coil, minus the rock influences. The Midnight Syndicate tracks are nothing new, with the exception of the title track. The rest are all pulled from the group's previous album, which is where the problem lies.

Many of the instrumental backing tracks were written years ago, and Midnight Syndicate almost certainly wouldn't have had a singer in mind. At times, it seems like this made it difficult for Beard to come up with effective vocal arrangements.

In the opener, "Awaken," Beard's arrangement plays off the melody established by Midnight Syndicate, but her vocals cover up those gorgeous, haunting synthesizers. I never noticed them until I listened to the instrumental track on its own. "Fallen" has added nothing vocal-wise other than oohs and ahhs.

The title track has more of a danceclub feel to it. Beard sings of being swept across the dancefloor by a mysterious stranger, creating a gothic romance vibe.Midngiht Syndicate change up the pace a little on this track, while Beard keeps them true to their gothic roots. This track represents the most effective pairing of these two artists.

This record is an interesting experiement, but the fact that the Midnight Syndicate tracks were pre-recorded tends to drag the record down a bit. If they sat down and worked on all-new material that fully complemented one another, the result could be dynamite. I recommend checking these artists out as they are both talented, though this may not be the best starting point.

Score: 63/100

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phil Selway drums up a hit with solo album

Genre: Folk/Acoustic
Nonesuch Records
Running Time: 32:49

I don't know about you, but it always seemed like Radiohead was Thom Yorke and those four other guys.

They are a major part of the band's success, no doubt, but Yorke was the face of the band. So it's no surprise that Phil Selway, the drummer in this band, was going to be mostly unknown, because:

a) Yorke steals all the headlines
b) most people don't pay attention to the drummer anyway

But maybe people should pay attention to this drummer. If there ever was a notion that Yorke was the only real talent in the band, Selway blows it away with his debut solo album, Familial.  

Familial is quiet, moving, introspective, and moody. The softness of Selway's vocal combines with acoustic guitar to make Familial one of the most sublime albums of 2010.

Selway wrote each of the 10 compositions himself. What Selway is doing here is not unlike Conor Oberst's work with Bright Eyes, though Oberst tends to be more folky. I have a hard time describing Selway as folk; it's more like "Karma Police" combined with the moodiness of "Exit Music (For a Film)."

"By Some Miracle," "Beyond Reason," and "The Ties That Bind" have the strongest sense of melody and as such, are the standout tracks. The drumming is kept to a miniuim and never makes much of an impact.

It's not really needed. Selway proves that he's capable of capturing the listener's attention in his own right.

Selway's lyrics are also superb.  One of the major themes on Familial seems to be dealing with conflict and feelings of fear, apprehension, and doubt.

"By Some Miracle" speaks about what it's like to struggle with personal demons, "Patron Saint" deals with being betrayed by a friend and the feelings of bitterness it leaves, while "The Ties That Bind" is a letter to a father wishing for a better life for his son.

"All Eyes On You" deals with a subject many people struggle with - public speaking. You've been invited to a once in a lifetime interview, Selway tells you, and the pressure of the situation makes you so nervous you can't speak.

"And you're embarrassed too
Afraid of the light that shines on you
So frail and so small
So scared, you're terrified by all
The eyes on you"

Granted, not every moment of the album is totally stellar. In some places the album is a little too mellow and wanders a bit, but it's a heck of a start for Selway. As good as he is behind a drumkit, he proves he's even better when taking center stage himself.

Score: 83/100

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Interview with Yossi Sassi Sa'aron from Orphaned Land

I caught up with Yossi Sassi Sa'aron, guitarist from Orphaned Land, after their show at the Masquerade on Oct. 5. I chatted with him about Iron Maiden, and his favorite concert venue, among other things. My friend Josh Rogers starts the interview, then I take over at about 5 minutes in.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Katatonia brings taste of Swedish Metal to the Masquerade

There’s something about a metal concert that words just can’t quite capture.

There’s the thump that you feel in your heart every time the drummer hits the kick pedal. The basslines that you could never seem to make out on the CD become so dynamic and fluid as it pulses through the crowd. And then, there is the decibel factor. When you leave a show, your ears will still be ringing when you wake up in the morning.

I got a chance to witness three great bands perform at The Masquerade in Atlanta Monday night, each with their own distinctive style and background. Progressive Rockers Orphaned Land, hailing from Israel, Finnish Doom metallers Swallow the Sun, and Swedish hard rockers Katatonia. It was an unbelievable night of metal that I won’t soon forget.

Hell Hath no Fury Like a Concert Goer Cramped

First, a little about the venue. The Masquerade consists of two concert arenas; the upper level is called Heaven and down below is Hell. Makes sense, right? Heaven, from what I’m told, is a spacious venue where the major bands play. I got to witness these fine bands straight from the jaws of Hell.

Hell is smaller and much more cramped, but you get a chance to get closer to the bands. If you go up the ramp on the right hand side there’s a seating area to the side of the stage, and there’s literally nothing but a rail separating you from where the band plays. You can slap fives with the band, etc., between songs and sets, and it makes for a great atmosphere.

Everybody jump for Orphaned Land!

The show kicked off with Orphaned Land, whose influences range from Iron Maiden and Depeche Mode to the more traditional Middle Eastern music of their homeland. On their albums, they’re well known for using a diversity of instruments, but here they went with strictly a guitar/drums/bass setup.

They interacted with the crowd very well. The guys looked like they were having a great time on stage, and that energy transferred into the crowd – It was something they could feed off of.  Their vocalist, Kobi Farhl, would instruct the crowd to jump while the band played, trying to get them into it even more.

I also thought it was cool how the drummer really got into it to. He would stand up behind his kit and try to get the audience into it. 

Orphaned Land brings a taste of the Middle East to Atlanta

Swallow the Sun Swallows the Tempo

Next up was Swallow the Sun, a band I had the privilege to see perform at the Muse in Nashville in 2009, and I also met their vocalist, Mikko Kotamäki there. When they took the stage the lights dimmed which made for a more gloomy atmosphere. 

Swallow the Sun slowed down the pace from the frenetic, bouncing around tempo that Orphaned Land established, but it helped set the mood for their style: a much more slow, heavy , doom type metal vibe. They do a fantastic job of creating atmosphere. 

Vocalist Kotamäki is capable of pretty melodic vocals, but can also deliver deep growls – picture Mikael Akerfeldt type growls. And he also pulls off bloodcurdling shrieks. They have great melodic guitar leads and expert arrangements on keyboard . 

Drummer Kai Hahto was also impressive. He was keeping some complex beats on the drum pads while employing lightning fast double bass. 

Myself and Josh Rogers with Juha, Mikko and Aleksi from Swallow the Sun

Chill Out: It’s Time for Katatonia!

The last band of the night was the headliner, Katatonia. What amazed me about them was how they were able to go from having a very mellow, chillout vibe one minute to being heavy as hell the next. I can’t think of many bands who can combine that as well as Katatonia. 

Their sound is based on pretty, melodic guitar leads and flowing bass lines, while still bringing the intensity of a metal band. Katatonia was playing without guitarist Fredrik Norrman and bassist Mattias Norrman, who left in 2009.

Katatonia’s appearance got the crowd even more engaged than before; The audience began  energetically chanting for “Forsaker.”  Somebody threw a bra onstage. And then the moshing broke out. 

The last major metal concert I went to gave me the chance to get my first brush in a mosh pit. It was neat; I got a major scrape right under my chest. The moshing didn’t really get started until Katatonia got into the meat of their setlist, but when it did it became frenetic.

Katatonia brings down the house at the Masquerade Monday night.
After a short encore, Katatonia was done and it was time to head home. I mingled with members of Orphaned Land and Swallow the Sun, who had gathered down by the merchandise table. I also snagged some merchandise, took photos, and got an album signed. The experience put a considerable drain on my bank account, but it was worth it for the great time and memories made.

I said there are things about a metal concert that can’t be put into words, although I guess I tried my best here. The best thing I can say is get out to your local venue and support some bands if you get the chance. You’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Katatonia has officially achieved Rock God status.

"The Final Frontier" is latest epic from Iron Maiden

Genre: Metal
Sony Legacy
Running Time: 76:39

Iron Maiden have been on a lot of wacky adventures over the years.

They've flown with the Icarus, discovered secret performances of satanic rituals, and hid out in the Rue Morgue. They've even read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Over the last 30 years, Maiden has been one of metal's most consistent bands. Since the release of their 1980 eponymous debut, the band has never gone more than four years without releasing an album.

So with the recent release of their 15th studio album, The Final Frontier, are they ready to continue their march forward, or have the years finally caught up with them? Maiden has released a decent album, but one that may struggle to stand the test of time.

The Giant Elephant in the Room: The Length

The two albums prior to The Final Frontier showcased two vastly different sides of Maiden. 2003's Dance of Death was very melodic, so much so that it almost sounded like a pop metal record at times.

The followup, 2006's A Matter of Life and Death, took the opposite approach by stringing out long epics. The Final Frontier fits more closely in the vein of the latter record than the former. The songs are long, drawn out, and usually don't really seem to go anywhere.

The #1 issue with The Final Frontier is not the length of the songs. It's more in the lack of melody, the lack of creativity and a general lack of direction in this album. It's a sobering thought, but it appears Steve Harris and Co. may be running low on musical ideas.

The guitar work, whcih was once one of Maiden's strengths, really dosn't impress on this album. Not even the guitar solos really do much for me.

And it's clear at this point that Bruce Dickinson's voice is no longer what it once was. The wear started to become noticeable on A Matter of Life and Death, but on the latest album it's hard to deny that something is up with Bruce's voice.

The fact that the songs are so long just further hamstrings the album's appeal. Out of the last five songs on the album, only "Starblind" is under eight minutes. Three of those songs clock in over a whopping nine minutes, with the closer "Where the Wild Wind Blows" nearly cracking the 11 minute mark.

You don't have to try to write Beowulf on every song, guys.

Maiden's Sense of Melody

There are three good songs on this album - "El Dorado," "Where the Wild Wind Blows," and the title track. Then there's one decent track - "The Alchemist."  The rest of the songs aren't bad, they just aren't particularly memorable.

When the formula works, it's because the band has its sense of melody working. For examples, see the chorus of "El Dorado" or the guitar lead in the beginning of "When the Wild Wind Blows." There definitely are flashes of brilliance.

Lyrical Brilliance

Oh, and speaking of positives, did I mention the lyrics? No matter what anybody says about this album, you can't knock the lyrics. "The Man Who Would Be King" tells the story of man on the run, wanted for murder. When you read the lyric sheet you can pitcure him making his way across desolate barrens, searching for salvation.

"The Alchemist" tells the tale of a once powerful mage who met an untimely end. And the closer, "When the Wild Wind Blows," is an emotional story about a family and society preparing to face nuclear warfare. If there's a standout track on the album it's this. No other song on the album pairs Maiden's storytelling talents with a compelling musical soundscape like this track does.

I thought the way the story ends was pretty lame, however. I won't spoil it, but it's just so lame and such a copout that it actually degrades the quality of the track as a whole. M. Night Shyamalan would be shaking his head in disgust if he were to read this one.

Maiden Reaches into their Bag of Tricks

On the opener, "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier," the band pulls off a little trickery. The album opens with a sporadic, twisting bassline and then ominous guitar strains break in over top of that. You'll wonder if you popped in the wrong CD.

Surely you think once Bruce's vocals kick in it will restore a sense of normalcy - but no! Dickinson's whispy and fleeting vocals tell the tale of a man trapped on a satellite being sucked toward the sun. It sounds like some kind of bizarre, alternate reality version of Maiden.

Just before the five minute mark the band changes gears and returns to the Maiden sound we all know and love. But the first part of the song does such an effective job of creating a sense of foreboding that it could literally put a lump in your stomach. Sadly, it's one of the few times on the entire album the band does somethhing interesting musically.

Where Maiden Stands with this Album

Iron Maiden possesses a great musical legacy, having come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Movement in the early 1980s. They're without question the only band from that era to still remain even remotely relevant today (the only other possible contender being maybe Saxon.)

But since their critically acclaimed comback album Brave New World in 2000, it's been a mixed bag. They need something fresh, a new sense of direction. When Maiden hangs it up for good, it will be a sad day for metal, but hopefully they can pull out something better before then. If not, their final years may end up being remembered as Wasted Years.

Tracks to check out:

Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
El Dorado
When the Wild Wind Blows

Lyric to use as your Facebook status:

"I was the keeper of the books
I had the knowledge of the scrolls
But now through ignorance and fear
I cast a shadow through the years"
 - The Alchemist

Score: 77/100