Archive for August, 2014

A Sound Of Thunder – The Lesser Key Of Solomon – Album Review

Posted in Album Reviews with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2014 by novametalreview

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So, less than a blink of an eye seems to have passed, and ASoT continue their prodigious output, with the release of their fourth full-length album, “The Lesser Key of Solomon” (henceforth TLKoS). Regular followers of the this site will know ASoT are local to the NoVA region and indeed are good friends of ours, however friendship be damned, when I started writing this blog I vowed several key ‘things’ that would keep this train on the rails, namely: pay for everything (gigs, CDs, whatever…), write what I believe and above all else be constructive. I’m mostly reminding myself, here, but it is clear that ASoT have reached a critical juncture in their forward progress. So let’s see where we are, eh?

The debut album, “Metal Renaissance”, was an impressive opening swipe that most almost any band would be proud to deliver and set a marker for what would follow, if not strictly a “blew me away” sort of album. However, what followed, “Out Of The Darkness”, was a monster and remains high on my play list. The blend of strong song writing, great playing/vocals and tight production, established ASoT as a true metal force. In fact I can’t point to a weak song on the album to this day. Skipping over the “Queen of Hell” EP, which itself was awesome, we come the previous release, “Time’s Arrow”, which I scored a riotous 9.5/10, and stated “this is the first must-have album of the year”. You can re-read that review here: http://wp.me/p2hj3p-33

So let’s get to the “main course” here and take a look at TLKoS. ASoT have penchant for longer tracks and albums clocking at almost exactly 60 minutes, and here TLKoS meets the criteria, delivering 10 tracks at 60 minutes… well, to be honest I’d really have to say 9 tracks and an “intro”. I don’t know when this came in vogue, but I’ve noticed the last Saxon album, the last Loudness album and now ASoT seem happy to devote a couple of minutes at the start of their album to some “composition” that clearly is destined to be used as the opening for their live show. So the album opens with the cryptically named “Nexus of Realities” which, as noted, seems likely to kick things off at live shows and I suppose does the same for the album here, but, would I miss it if it weren’t here? Nah, probably not. Perhaps I’m missing some cleaver creative twist?

What follows next, “Uduroth” is a great slice of power metal and follows very nicely in the tire tracks set in both Out of The Darkness and Time’s Arrow. The opening power cord and riff that follows is classic ASoT and for me takes some cues from “The Queen of Hell”, with massive, chanted backing vocals from the “Thunder Choir”. This is one of the shorter numbers on the record, clocking a respectable 4 minutes 32 seconds, and might be my favorite on the record.

Next up we have “Fortuneteller” and it is at this point I get to my first, “hmmm?” moment. Let me try to find some words to pad what “hmmm?” means – I think the best I can come up with is “I’m just not super excited”. The song is solid, the playing is solid, but I’m not being drawn in. It’s not engaging me and for once I’m slightly distracted by the production. There’s just a little too much double-tracking on the vocals, whispered vocal lines, and harmony stuff happening here there and everywhere. There’s also some odd keyboard things going on during the bridge before and after the solo, that I can only describe a bit like monkeys grunting… (Am I loosing it here?). Overall it just seems over-loaded in a way that Time’s Arrow wasn’t. To cap it all, I think the track could have easily finished around the 5-minute 25-second mark and had no less entertainment value. Wow, I am having a grump here you are probably thinking? To some extent that might be true, but then again, I have re-listened to the entire ASoT catalog perhaps 4 times or more straight through, in order to write this review and I think my feet are really on the ground here. I do really like the vocal bridge part that follows the guitar solo… but overall I can’t imagine this track working in a live setting and I think that is where I believe there is a divergence from what has come before – there isn’t a track on Out of the Darkness or Time’s Arrow that I wouldn’t be happy to hear on stage through a crankin’ PA system.

Moving on, next is the intriguingly titled “The Boy Who Could Fly”, which kicks off with a nice simple acoustic guitar, with Nina’s vocal floating over them with an almost ethereal vibe and very catchy melody throughout the song. Overall a very tasty and classy solo tops off the track. So you can put this one on the “winner” list.

Following on, we meet “Elijah” which is the longest track on the album, clocking in at 9 minutes and 30 seconds, which makes it the second longest track of the ASoT catalog behind “Time’s Arrow” (9mins 50secs). This is perhaps best described as a mini-opera, involving Elijah, his mother who has him trapped in the house and I think a ghost… who may just be “The Boy Who Could Fly”. Now, truth be told, this track is a grower, so give it time. The first few plays through it seemed to wash over me and came over a little disjointed, but as you start to absorb the story it gets inside your head and it all fits into place. Another winner.

Track six, “Master Of Pain” has a killer title, but just doesn’t quite live up to the potential – it’s just a little to “nice”, despite the lyrics. Again I am suspicious that there’s just a little too much in the production department happening, double-tracking, harmonies and so on. It needed to be nasty. More burning cauldrons of oil, nasty leather contraptions and painful devices. It needed to crush and I’m just feeling a little squished.

Again, with a perfect “10” score for the title of the track, “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” had me filled with expectation and this time I’m closer to getting satisfaction. My one thought is this could have been so much heavier? I get an Iron Maiden vibe with the song title, but not the guitar/bass meat’n’potatoes…I needed a couple more clicks on the “meat” eq and an extra helping of potatoes here, or at least more bass guitar. Perhaps it’s the glockenspiel sort of keyboard (or is it tubular bell percussion?) part that pops up around the guitar solo that irks me? I’m nit picking, so don’t take this as anything other than constructive input.

“Black Secrets” opens with a Deep Purple-ish vibe from Josh’s on guitar, but is soon driven to a classic ASoT mid-paced stopper of a track and this could have probably been included on any of the preceding two releases. Following this comes “One Empty Grave” and again this is another track that I can’t imagine in a live set, but in the context of the album setting works nicely and is another “grower”. It kicks off, once you get past the intro, with another guitar part which again reminds me of recent Deep Purple, however in this case this theme continues deeper into the track, which is cool. I will note this is perhaps the first ASoT track that uses a fadeout to end the track.

The album closes with “House of Bones” which runs with an extended intro that takes about 1 min 40secs to get going at which point there’s another 50 seconds of jazz inspired guitar intro solo (very tasty) until finally the vocal kicks in. I’m not sure what the first 1 minute 40 seconds adds to the track? Personally I would have ditched it. The track itself is solid and includes quite a bit of ‘hammond’ organ, but then again keys and ASoT go hand-in-hand (for example take a listen to “The Day I Die” from Out of the Darkeness) and runs through a number of fairly crushing riffs on it’s way to it’s conclusion.

Of course you re-read my Time’s Arrow review didn’t you? Well, if you did, you may well be wondering where’s the gushing praise for Nina on vocals, and of course Josh, Jesse and Chris respectively on their instruments? Well everyone does a superb job, and essentially I’m just going to say all that I said previously still applies. The crux of this review revolves around the songs. Now I did miss one specific thing and that was the duet track – previously we have had John Gallagher from Raven on Out of the Darkness and Blaze Bayley (ex-Iron Maiden) on Time’s Arrow. I suppose you could argue that breaking the mold is a good thing and there are only so many vocalists worth trying that with, but I did enjoy the previous offerings.

To put this review in its place, I think this album represents maturation for ASoT and, as with all growth, there are points where there is some pain that comes with the process. Here, we have some gems that are easily equal to the best that have come before, but in my opinion (as a fan and supportive observer) we also have some ‘ok’ tracks. Nothing bad so banish that word from your mind, because it just doesn’t apply, but, may be experimentally some of the ideas just don’t hit the nail on the head. Close, but not square on.

So to close, should you buy this record? ABSOLUTELY. And doubly so if you are already an ASoT fan, but even if you are not, this is as good a place as any to start, but do be sure to sweep up the back catalog at the same time or soon after. To score this I’m comfortable with a very solid 8.5/10.

Loudness – The Sun Will Rise Again – Album Review

Posted in Album Reviews with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by novametalreview

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I first discovered Loudness with the purchase of “Lightning Strikes” in 1986 and since that day they have easily remained my #1 favorite Japanese heavy metal band (and in my top 10 all time bands overall), and are easily in my top 5 live bands, most recently blowing me away in 2013 at the M3 Festival. The guitar playing of Akira Takasaki has always been like watching fret board fireworks and that statement is just as valid today in the middle of 2014, just as it was the first time I heard “Lightning Strikes” and everything that followed since then.

The release of “The Sun Will Rise Again” brings the album count for the band to a pretty staggering count of 29 studio albums… boy, do I have some catching up to do! Given they are currently in their 33rd year as a band, and have remained active throughout this time; they are one of a few bands that have survived without some kind of hiatus during this time, unlike the majority of their contemporaries.

Despite some line-up changes in the very-late 80’s and 90’s, the band is back with the original line up, except for original drummer, Munetaka Higuchi, who passed away after a brave fight to cancer in 2008. So we have Akira Takasaki on guitar, Masayoshi Yamashita on bass, Minoru Niihara on vocals and new-boy Masayuki Suzuki completing the line-up on drums. I had the fortune to see this line-up up close and personal at Empire (Springfield, VA) on June 3rd, 2011 and that concert will remain one of my most enduring heavy metal memories – we were front row, 3 or 4 feet from one of my favorite bands of all time, while they ripped through a set of classic and more recent killer tracks. It would be almost impossible to forget the mastery that Akira presented during his spotlight guitar solo that night.

So turning to recent releases from Loudness, most have been Japan-only releases and this includes “The Sun Will Rise Again”, so I have resorted to devious means to get each one shortly after release via import. If you want a recommendation I have been using http://www.yesasia.com/us/en/home.html who offer free international shipping and have been reliable.

I have seen comment that some find the heavier, more thrash oriented, direction that Loudness sometimes edges toward lately doesn’t sit quite as well as the more mainstream melodic metal numbers, but to be honest I really like the edgy mix that the band is currently experimenting with. Don’t get me wrong – those melodic riff-oriented numbers are still up front and center (check out the track “The King Of Pain” from the album of the same name for a classic riff-driven killer), but there is definitely a hint of heavier to many of the more recent tracks.

A final word for any guitar players that might be reading this, before I get to the review proper… I was most interested to learn that Akira is a big fan of the Marshall JMP-1 rack-mount preamp. Why? Just because it happens to by my favorite and current preamp to this day, as it has been since 1992, just as it was and still is for Akira. Perhaps this is why I am such an Akira fan-boy! If anyone knows what external effects he is using, particularly how he gets that deeply modulated, “not quite a flanger” sound he uses for a lot of his rhythm playing please drop me a note.

“The Sun Will Rise Again” opens with a short two-minute intro-piece, which certainly seems to be the ‘de rigueur’ these days. I’m now loosing count of how many bands have done this recently. I suppose it makes sense, but it sort of irks me when a band claims there are 10 tracks on their album, but in fact it’s really 9 tracks and a 2 minute intro… I’m not mad at Loudness because they put 11 tracks on this record – 10 tracks and an intro!

The album for real kicks off with “Got To Be Strong” and this is Loudness firing on all 12-cylinders, with a monster riff, that just washes over you and pins you to your seat (assuming you are sitting… otherwise you are going to be pummeled into the wall behind you)! Sure, it’s a pacey double-kick drum driven number, but I challenge anyone who claims to like heavy metal to not like this track. The bridge that leads to the solo is a thing of beauty with Akira tearing some crazy runs off the guitar neck.

Next up is “Never Ending Fire” and I remember sitting at home the first time I heard this record sitting with a slightly insane grin on my head, when this track blasted out of the way too loud stereo system – I seem to remember yelling “Loudness are killing it”, which got an enthusiastic nod from Michelle. Track 3, “The Metal Man”, is from the “short, but sweet”, school of song writing, clocking in at 2 minutes 45 seconds, and is the perfect vehicle for one of my favorite solos from Akira, who backs off the overdrive and delivers a master-class in hammer-on tapping. His guitar tone is just magic here.

One, thought before I loose it: one of my subconscious thoughts every time I listen to this record is that Akira’s guitar playing here is exactly what Joe Satriani would deliver if he simply let his heavy metal demons loose. I might seem like an odd statement, but technically Akira is right up there with the guitar-playing elite, but with a hard and heavy edge that seems missing from many that achieve technical supremacy.

Skipping forward to track 6, we are greeted with an intro that is a little different and definitely has a bit of a Rage Against The Machine vibe I think. Certainly there is a 90’s groove running through this whole track, which also clocks in as the longest on the album at 8 minutes 20 seconds. Often I find longer songs, end up dragging, but Loudness manage to avoid this, and this is perhaps a function of the funk-infused bridge section that pops up around the 6 minute point.

The title track, despite drawing out an intro that keeps you in suspense for tad over a minute, has one of those classic Loudness riffs and is one of those songs you just want to hear blasted at you live. The same can be said for the next track, “Rock You Wild” which is another that just punches you in the head with the opening riff. Smack! Listen to this sucker… At this point I must mention the perfect combo of Yamashita on bass and Suzuki on drums – these two are so tightly locked together it’s easy to take them for granted, but totally unfair.

Track 9, “Greatest Ever Heavy Metal” doesn’t pull any punches with the title now does it? And, neither does it with the riff that drives this song forward, which just incites you to crank the volume. To be honest this is quite a complex song, since it ties together about four distinctive riffs, which sometimes isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Loudness has both technique and vision that allows them to pull-off things that lesser bands would probably stumble over. Again this is a longer track, clocking 8 minutes and 13 seconds, but I am surprised to write that down, since it doesn’t seem that long when I’m cranking it in the car for example.

The album draws toward a close strongly with track 10, “Shout” which is just about the only slower paced song on the record, followed by “Not Alone”, a mid-paced number, which has a melody that seems to worm into your head and forces you to play the entire album over again. At least it works that way for me… This is the perfect moment to mention the excellent vocal performance from Minoru Niihara, who continues with his imperfectly accented English – without which Loudness looses a key characteristic that in itself is a critical part this makes this all so perfect.

So far I have lived with this record for a couple of months and it is showing not sign of loosing it’s magic with me. From the very first play I had a heavy metal grin on my face and that is still there every time I hit the play button. At this point I might have to award this album of the year? My score: 10/10

 

Judas Priest – Redeemer Of Souls – Album Review

Posted in Album Reviews with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by novametalreview

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I’m actually a little surprised to find myself writing this review because, to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting I was going to be that motivated based on the pre-release teasers that were put out ahead of the release date. It wasn’t that they were intrinsically “bad”, but from what I remember, nothing grabbed my ear, aside from thinking the production wasn’t that sharp. However, the CD release has now found a happy home in my iTunes rotation and today I am fired up to give you my thoughts!

As any good metal fan knows, Judas Priest are as close to the roots of true Heavy Metal as you can get. Formed in 1970 (though with some roots reaching back into ’69), this band is nearly as old as I am, and that is REALLY OLD… crazy to even think of a band existing and cranking it out for this long. Yes, that really is 44 years. Carving a unique niche, with their twin-guitar attack from the very start, today this doesn’t seem that special, but in the 70’s it was, trust me. Aside from perhaps Wishbone Ash, the idea of using two guitarists in dual-lead roles wasn’t something that had been seen in the very early 70’s and Priest took that and ran with it, cranking overdrive upon harmony and breaking ground on a genre that has survived for better or worse four and a half decades and counting.

The 2011-2012 world tour was declared to be the last for the band, and it was stated that the band would retire at the end of the scheduled dates. This was further reinforced with the departure of KK Downing in 2011 and many thought that the Epitaph tour really would be the end of the road, despite the recruitment of new blood in the shape of Richie Faulkner to take over the empty guitar slot to allow the band to complete the tour. There will always be resistance to change when it comes to any iconic band, and Priest have this in capital letters, so Richie had some really big shoes to fill, but anyone that has seen the Epitaph DVD will be hard pushed to say anything other than good things about Faulkner’s playing and overall fit in the band.

I have to say that I have grown rather tired of bands declaring they are retiring, and Priest have played that card no differently, with the release of “Redeemer Of Souls” bring them to a tally of 17 studio albums, and now have announced a 20-date tour of the USA… Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy this is the situation, but the farewell tour syndrome really is getting rather long in the tooth.

So, what do we get with Redeemer Of Souls? Well, the previous release was a long six years ago, in the shape of the Nostradamus concept album, that to be honest met with a pretty mixed reception, most reviews scoring a rather tame 5/10. Of course, that record will have it’s advocates, so don’t bother showering me with messages telling me it’s your favorite Priest release – I’m simply relaying what the consensus opinion was of that record. The one sad fact is that Nostradamus was KK Downing’s last record with the band, so that was rather a tame closing chapter. Here, we have the recording debut of Richie Faulkner and a step-up indeed. My subjective impression is the production is better than the pre-release teasers, so maybe they were early mixes, which, if true, rather questions the point of releasing them, because if there are many folks like me, they had a rather more negative effect than positive. The regular album delivers a total of thirteen tracks and, if that’s not enough new Priest for you, shell out for the deluxe edition that adds another five tracks to the count on a second CD.

The CD opens with “Dragonaut” which powers into a pretty standard Priest power-riff driven, mid-paced number, which for some reason seems to remind me of Ozzy, but in a good way. It’s not my favorite number by any stretch, but does a decent job of getting this off and running. Next up “Redeemer Of Souls” powers forward and just sounds so much more together than I remember from the teaser release. Rob Halford is in fine voice and personally I’m hard pushed to say I am missing KK Downing at all – Richie Faulkner I believe delivers all the solo parts mixed to the left, while Glenn Tipton is mixed speaker-right, and both get equal billing and do a fine job. Following “Redeemer” we have “Halls Of Vahalla” and at this point I am getting into this nicely, and the neat harmony bridge section that kicks in at around 3:30 into the track is very tasty.

Skipping forward, track 6, “Down In Flames” seems to remind me of every Judas Priest album there has ever been, while “Cold Blooded” which follows seems to get into my head every time I hear it, and is another showcase for Rob Halford’s classic vocal delivery. Track 9, “Metalizer” – there’s a classic Priest song title if there ever was – delivers a decent slice of power metal. The next track has a definite blues vibe to the riff and reminds me of Deep Purple when they turned on the heavy. Very nice. Jumping ahead again, track 12, “Battle Cry” is my favorite number from the entire CD. Great vocal melody and nice pacey riff that rocks out. The regular CD closes out with “Beginning Of The End”, which is another signature Priest type-track, this time being a slow bluesy number, which again reminds us why Halford is such an iconic singer.

I’m not going to extend this review by much more by covering the tracks on the extra disk that comes with the deluxe edition, except to say they are worth the additional couple of $. In for a penny, in for a pound I say, and in this case all five of the tracks included are worth shelling out for.

So, closing thoughts? No, there aren’t any fireworks here, or any radical departure from the truth that has been and still is Judas Priest. This is a really good thing in my opinion. What we have is a really solid album from the masters of heavy metal. And let’s not loose sight of the contribution from Richie Faulkner here, or more accurately the fact that this is largely a non-event (and I mean that in absolutely the best possible way!). We have business as usual, in-context player that just fits in, and none of that “hey, look at the new boy here” stuff that sometimes goes on. Equally Richie is given every opportunity to show what he’s got going on and it’s all good. All round I score this a healthy 8/10.

– Neil Waterman