Monday, December 29, 2003

Review: Nemesis - Goddess of Revenge (2003)

Goddess of Revenge

The power metal genre has suffered a glut of bands playing a neo-classical, symphonic style in recent years. Countless second- and third-tier bands have emerged, all attempting to emulate the leaders of the genre with varying degrees of success. While most members of these bands are technically proficient and many of the vocalists skillful enough to match the demands placed on their abilities, the lack of innovation and originality often mars an otherwise well-performed album. Hailing from the Czech Republic, Nemesis is one of these bands that emulate their Stratovarious and Sonata Arctica influences well, but their debut album Goddess Of Revenge does little to distinguish them from the multitude of similar bands vying for a slice of the metal market.

Packaged between the typical power metal symphonic intro and outro, the 8 songs which comprise Goddess Of Revenge incorporate all of the elements one would expect from the genre. Most songs are speedy, with frequent time changes and an abundant use of keyboards. Although well-played the majority of this album is not memorable except for perhaps the keyboard riffs of "Servant Of Will" and "Desert Of Your Sins", primarily because the same riff is essentially recycled in the second song with only slight variation. Frontman Vilém Majtner is an archetypal power metal vocalist, maintaining his presence in the upper ranges with only the occasional dip to a lower tone. His skills are more than a match for this type of music, and where many bands falter Vilém carries Nemesis forward. Guitarist, co-founder, and primary composer Libor Krivák lays down some very technical riffs throughout the album, but he also doubles on the keyboards - which really are the focus of Goddess Of Revenge. Not all is pummeling double-bass and frenzied harpsichord solos, however, as the ballad "Rain" slows the pace considerably. Right on the heels of the ballad is the instrumental "Crystal Eyes", what I consider to be my favorite track of the album. Mid-paced, the song is dominated by keys but they're less progressive and more atmospheric than anywhere else on the album. Some heavy riffs from Libor compliment his keyboard work for a very tight composition which is, unfortunately, all too short. The heaviest riffage on the album comes in the latter half of the epic "Mercenary". Following a flute interlude Libor lets loose with a crushing riff, the likes of which would have been quite welcome if more prevalent throughout the album.

Fans of symphonic power metal who don't insist on every new band being an innovator of the genre will find much to enjoy about Goddess Of Revenge. The production is first-rate, the cover art by Jonathan Earl Bowser is outstanding, and the musicianship is unquestionably of the highest caliber. Should Nemesis tighten up as a band and hone their songwriting skills, they have the potential to move up the ranks and deliver that originality which is missing from their debut.

Track Listing
1 The Mission
2 Servant of Will
3 Desert Of Your Sins
4 Queen Of Fate
5 Host From Kingdom of Lion
6 Rain
7 Crystal Eyes
8 Mercenary
9 Heaven's Fall
10 Last Heretic

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Saturday, December 27, 2003

Review: HEAVENandHELL - 3-song Sampler (2003)

3-song Sampler

Those of you who enjoy checking out local bands know there is a common "sound" to many of the bands plying the bar circuit across the country, whether it be here in Detroit, out in far-off Sacramento, or in HEAVENandHELL's hometown of Indianapolis. Heavy on the bass, frequent time changes, and chunky riffs are some of the hallmarks of this genre-transcending style I lovingly refer to as "bar rock". Formed only in January of 2003, HEAVENandHELL  are a five-piece who exhibit all the trademarks of the bar rock style with an added boost from frontwoman Mia Kileen, who has a voice very similar to Pat Benatar.

The three-song sampler sent to me for review is a precursor to HEAVENandHELL's debut full-length, which the band is currently in studio recording. The first track, "Without You" is really the weakest of the three. Bass player Sam Honeycutt delivers a solid performance and is way up in the mix, while guitarists Gregg Jones and Jeromy Pierce lay down some pretty straightforward riffs. The problem is that Mia sounds a bit forced and not at all into the song. This results in the song sounding a little flat, as if the band were merely going through the motions. "One Day", however, shows what HEAVENandHELL are really capable of. Slower paced than the leadoff track, Mia is clearly immersed in the lyrics and delivers a powerful performance. Gregg Jones, who handles most of the leads, shines with a few above-average licks and some expressive hooks. John Foster is dead-on behind the kit, handling the time changes without pause. According to the band's website, this song has been chosen for the soundtrack to an upcoming indie film. The heaviest song on the disc, "Hate" begins with a portentous lead from Jones and some fine drumwork by Foster. Slightly over mid-way through the song, Honeycutt breaks into some progressive bass lines before the band opens up again with the dark riffs. Mia is in top form, exhibiting convincing range and emotion.

Although currently seeking a replacement for Honeycutt (as of this review), HEAVENandHELL should leave the studio having produced a quality slab of rock that will appeal to the fans of classic and modern rock alike. Keep an eye out for these guys and check their website for recording updates.

Track Listing
1 Without You
2 One Day
3 Hate

Friday, December 26, 2003

Review: Sixty Miles Down - Sink Or Swim (2002)

Sixty Miles Down [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Sink Or Swim

With the radio clogged by a glut of bands who are no more than clones of the latest mallcore trends (Switchfoot, Audioslave, A Perfect Circle  to name but a few), it's no wonder that any new "modern rock" group is usually met with skepticism, and often more than a little bit of disdain, by serious fans of heavy music. The emo/agro/nu-metal muppets so often hailed as "kick ass" by the baggy-pants generation are so devoid of artistic creativity that it's difficult to tell where one band ends and the other begins. Can anyone tell me what musical innovation separates Slipknot from Static-X, or Clutch from Spineshank? Sure, their clown makeup differs slightly, but is that what we want from a band? If I haven't yet made clear to you how I feel about what the major labels feed us as rock these days, then let me turn my little red baseball cap around and spell it out for you...

Nah, you're metal fans so you get the point (and in all likelihood share it as well). What does my rant have to do with Sixty Miles Down's debut album Sink Or Swim? Well, Sixty Miles Down is what most would consider a "modern rock" band that has a sound I could see as radio-friendly, but they're also a band in possession of musical talent and songwriting ability that sets them far apart from the sonic goobers mentioned above. Plenty of bottom-tuned guitars and distortion, tons of bass groove, and a vocalist who sounds like a less depressed Layne Staley - that's Sixty Miles Down in a musical nutshell. What separates them is the variation of their songwriting as they ease from crushing riffs to power ballads to semi-industrial grooves. Frontman and band founder John Mosco captures the bleakness that hallmarked Alice In Chains and refines it with excellent range and sincere emotion. Sink Or Swim was recorded at a time when their drummer was splitting duties with another band and unable to participate in the recording process, so besides being the voice of Sixty Miles Down John also sat behind the kit.

A far majority of the songs on the 12-track debut are strong enough to stand on their own, with some slight nuance or distinction keeping the album from falling into a rut. Of the many standout tracks, the first to catch my attention was the semi-ballad "What You Never Had". This song has the most potential to be a radio hit because of its Semisonic-like accessibility. Far from the heaviest on the album (aside from a couple of crunchy riffs), it still serves as an indication of the bands ability to switch gears and compose quality songs at more than one level. Getting back to what we're most interested in (that being the heaviness of Sink Or Swim), "Say Goodbye" is very reminiscent of early Filter for its electronic/industrial makeup. The title track, as well as "Resolution" and "Temper Takes Control", shows a clear Godsmack influence in both vocal styles and heavy riffs. "Raise The Dead" is the first of two ballads on the album (the other being "Waiting For You" with its expressive guitar opener). Again, a powerful performance from Mosco and some fine guitar lines keeps the listener involved and away from the "skip" button. Wrapping up the album is "Darkness Falls", with dual-guitar harmonies and some of the heaviest riffs on the disc. A short interlude with female backing vocals is a nice touch as well.

Several members of Sixty Miles Down were splitting time in another New Jersey band called Anger of the Lamb, resulting in tensions which ultimately forced John to disband the group shortly after releasing Sink Or Swim. Striving to keep alive the band he founded, John recruited a new guitarist (Dave Chisholm) and a new bass player (Eric Bergmann) in early 2003 and set to work writing material for a follow-up to the debut. Should the rebuilt Sixty Miles Down be able to match or exceed the quality of Sink Or Swim, big things are sure to be on the horizon for these guys.

Track Listing
1 Tired
2 Broken Down
3 What You Never Had
4 Say Goodbye
5 Sink Or Swim
6 Raise The Dead
7 Resolution
8 Temper Takes Control
9 Waiting For You
10 Dead Weight
11 Underwater
12 Darkness Falls

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

Review: Infinite Dreams - Touch My Skin (2003)

Infinite Dreams [ MySpace ]
Touch My Skin
TTS Media Music

In the mid-'80s, melodic hard rock ruled radio with bands such as Whitesnake, Tesla, and Bon Jovi setting the standard for success. Like it or leave it, the memories of the decade were made to songs such as "Little Suzi", "Still Of The Night", and "Never Say Goodbye". The Swiss quintet Infinite Dreams takes a nostalgic page from the Decade of Excess and delivers a solid debut album in the form of Touch My Skin. While the aforementioned bands provide a pretty accurate comparison to the music of Infinite Dreams, frontwoman Miriam Pürro adds an entirely different dimension to the mix. Bringing to mind Heart's self-titled 1985 album, Miriam's passionate voice is clear, powerful, and fits seamlessly with the music. Easily on the same level with hits such as "Never" and "These Dreams", the songs on Touch My Skin deliver in a big way.

Heavy on the bass, "Bad Devotion" starts the album off and provides quick introduction to the skills of Infinite Dreams. Miriam impresses immediately with her flawless performance, particularly on the catchy chorus. Sandro Huwiler's keys are a constant, and remain so throughout the album. Never overwhelming, the keyboards are used very effectively in creating atmospheric melodies and lending an appropriate accompaniment to Severin Schürch's great bass lines and Michael Giger's chunky riffs. Giger also impresses with his leads, such as those on the title track. Miriam shines again on this track, displaying remarkable range and depth of feeling. The melody and chorus is particularly memorable, giving this song definite radio hit potential. "Lost In Your Arms" is another highlight, taking a more bluesy slant than other songs on the disc. Giger lets loose a bit with some colorful leads and a tight solo, while Miriam adds a sultry element to her delivery that is reminiscent of Alannah Myles. A big guitar sound and mesmerizing keys herald the beginning of "Afraid To See The Light". Very basic in structure, this song nevertheless provides one of the more memorable choruses on Touch My Skin. Huwiler brings on a tender interlude before the song ramps up with some chunky riffs from Giger. Mid-tempo is the overall pace of the album, but the ballad "Everything Has An End" slows things down another notch. Schürch's bass is the prominent feature here. Emotional and intricate, he mixes well with Giger and Huwiler. Steady and reliable, Mark Steffen's work behind the kit isn't flashy or pummeling but his timing never falters throughout. Wrapping up Touch My Skin is "Call Of The Road". With an opening riff slightly similar to Poison's "Ride The Wind", the tune is up-beat, infectious, and one of the best of the disc.

Nostalgia aside, Touch My Skin is an excellent melodic hard rock album. Flawless production and alluring artwork complete a first-rate package, making this one of my favorite albums of 2003. Fans of melodic rock, and '80s hard rock in particular, are advised to keep an eye out for Infinite Dreams. Check out their website for song clips and more info.

Track Listing
1 Bad Devotion
2 Touch My Skin
3 Irresistible
4 Shelter From The Storm
5 Lost In Your Arms
6 Afraid To See The Light
7 Is It A Sin?
8 Everything Has An End
9 Falling
10 Restless Heart
11 Addicted To Fire
12 Call Of The Road

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Friday, December 19, 2003

Review: Trator - From Hell (2002)

From Hell

What I enjoy most about being involved with the indie metal scene is the thrill of coming across a young band whose pure talent, raw energy, and love for the music they create permeates each and every one of their songs. Some of these oft-called "diamonds in the rough" evolve into metal icons, while others spend their careers gracing the underground with their quality music. Hailing from Brazil, Trator is one such band who've a lot refinement ahead of them but clearly show they have what it takes to create something special.

The demo From Hell shows a band working to find their own way. Bouncing from thrash, to power metal, to a more modern death/thrash sound, the band manages to overcome the inconsistency with excellent musicianship. Drummer Marlo Lustosa impresses time and again with his intricate beats, while guitarists Leandro Buchmann and Márcio Grohmann belt out the twin-guitar harmonies at a furious pace. I was overly impressed with the tricky leads and solos worked into each and every track. Sandro Schneider's bass was never out of sync with Marlo, giving each song a solid foundation over which Leandro and Márcio laid down their crunchy riffs. While not terribly wide-ranging, the angered shouts of frontman Thomas Rost drift from a Phil Anselmo growl (on "Final Chapter") to a mid-range power metal style ("Cadaverina" and "Necrodome"). Thomas' vocal skills are raw, particularly when it comes to the higher ranges and sustained notes, but as his skills mature and he establishes his comfort zone I'm certain he'll be a good fit for whatever musical direction Trator takes.

Personally, I'd like to see them pursue their power metal potential. "Cadaverina" is a highlight of From Hell and my favorite track on the album. The blistering twin guitar assault from Leandro and Márcio is killer while Marlo is a madman behind the kit. Thomas is perhaps at his weakest here, but as he finds his range the power in his voice will be unleashed. Other highlights are "Eviscerator" and "Necrodome", primarily for the outstanding riffs and melodies from Leandro and Márcio.

Overall the production is a little thin and the band has a bit of tightening to do, but these are things that are in no way unexpected from a band at such an early point in their career. Time will erase the flaws as Trator continues to evolve and mature. From Hell is a solid demo and a sign of good things to come.

Track Listing
1 Eviscerator
2 Two Steps Away From Hell
3 Final Chapter
4 Cadaverina
5 Nameless Grave
6 Necrodome
7 Napalm Child
8 Blow

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Sunday, December 14, 2003

Review: Black Widow - Satan's Playground (2003)

Black Widow [ Website | MySpace ]
Satan's Playground

Formed in 1997, Maryland-based Black Widow originated as an '80s metal cover band. An uncommon aspect for a band of their type, and perhaps the catalyst (no pun intended - really) for venturing from cover band into original work, is the fact that Black Widow is female-fronted. Leadwoman "Cat" possesses a voice that lies somewhere between the strength of Doro Pesch and the sass of Liza Minelli. Musically the band is pure '80s heaviness, taking the hardest elements from their influences (Judas Priest, Saxon, Dokken, and of course Iron Maiden) and crafting a debut album that is powerful and infectious while paying tribute to melodic metal of the '80s.

"Black Sunshine" sets the pace of Satan's Playground with Tommy Azzinaro's rumbling double-bass and John Anthony's thrashy riffs. The sound is very much reminiscent of early thrash greats such as Anthrax and Testament, but Cat's distinctive voice adds a layer of freshness that sets Black Widow apart from the multitude of retro metal bands on the scene today. Powerful and emotive, Cat sings with confidence in her abilities. The first of my many favorites on Satan's Playground is "Ends Of The Earth". John's melodic riffs and snappy licks literally force you into air-guitar mode, while Cat's amazing vocals are a treat for the ears (sounding much like Doro on this track). The title track opens similar to Ozzy's "Mr. Tinkertrain", with the sounds of children playing soon replaced by tones both evil and ominous. John's chunky riffs bring to mind early Metallica as Dean's bass swirls just below the surface. An expressive, and extended, solo by John punctuates the high quality of this tune. Another of my favorites is "Night Chills", which begins with the sounds one might hear on any given night - crickets, an owl, the mournful ring of a distant churchbell, the deep moan of a zombie. John once again kicks in with an awesome riff that fits seamlessly with Dean's bass lines. On this track, John's solo is of a more shredding kind that reminds me of our own Motor City Madman - Deadly Tedly Nugent. Wrapping things up on Satan's Playground is "Heavy Metal Warrior", but this is not your average leather and spikes ode to the world's finest form of musical expression. John's maniacal shredding to open the song gives way to a locomotive riff, all underscored by Dean's rumbling bass. Cat is at her strongest here, supported by fist-pumping gang choruses. Well-executed and infectious, this song is my personal favorite of the album.

Calling to mind the sound made popular by those metal greats of the '80s, Satan's Playground is a kick-ass example of a band staying true to their roots while creating a work that is as fresh and exciting as it is nostalgic. The musicianship is flawless, and Cat lends an air of uniqueness that boosts Black Widow above the pack. Pleasing to both classic metal purists and those that just want their metal loud & hard, this album should be considered a must-have for any metalheads collection.

Track Listing
1Black Sunshine
2Silent Scream
3Ends Of The Earth
5Now It's Over
6Satan's Playground
7Brain Damage
8Winds Of Fire
9You're Guilty
10The Unknown
11Night Chills
12Heavy Metal Warrior

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Sunday, December 7, 2003

Review: Forefather - Engla Tocyme (2002)

Forefather [ Website | MySpace ]
Engla Tocyme

I find it admirable for the members of metal bands to take pride in their heritage and create original and memorable songs based on the history, folklore, and mythology of their cultures (Cruachan being an example of one of my favorites). Many times, however, such an endeavor results in a song or album that sounds cheesy, at best. On the other hand, there are those few times where everything gels and the lyrics fit the music like a glove, with the compositions having an epic feel suited perfectly for the telling of an ancient tale. Forefather is one of those rare bands that has managed to create an imposing work of heroic metal worthy of the history they represent. Blending black, classic, folk, and symphonic elements into Engla Tocyme (meaning The Coming of the English), the band spins 7 yarns of the early Anglo-Saxon period of Britain.

Actually a duo, Forefather was formed by brothers Wulfstan and Athelstan in 1997 and over the next 3 years released two albums of epic blackish metal on their own label. Still recorded in their home studio, Engla Tocyme sees a departure from the majority of the black metal elements though the influences are still present (blast beats are at some point in nearly every song, while "Iron Hand" also sees a return to Wulfstan's extreme vocal style). Lead-off and title track "Engla Tocyme" wastes not a second in establishing the mood of the album, opening with the sound of the sea lapping at the shore (presumably that of Britain) and Wulfstan chanting melodically. The chanting continues as the band launches an assault of guitar sound that completely envelops the listener and draws them in to Forefather's story. Wulfstan's voice is intense and powerful as he sings of ancient times with heartfelt conviction. For this reason, I'd like to see the band stay entirely away from the blackish vocal stylings and embrace Wulfstan's clean style, which does much more to convey the atmosphere of the songs. The song closes out with blast beats and a searing lead from Athelstan. "Into The Forever" has an even more imposing wall of guitar sound than the preceding track, but right away the use of a drum machine is clearly evident. While Forefather does use a machine throughout the album, they generally are able to blend it well enough so as not to be obvious. Breaking up the furious guitar torrent, the band tosses in a grinding dual-guitar riff before the blast beats once again pummel the listener. As mentioned earlier, "Iron Hand" is the closest to a "fully" black metal song on the album. From the very blackish opening riff, to the sinister keyboard passages, to Wulfstan's raspy vocals (deeper than most, however), the song exudes a menacing feel that is quite appropriate for the bloody subject of the lyrics. To me the most memorable track on Engla Tocyme is "Fifeldor", with its catchy chorus and medieval melodies that all stick with you long after the disc is out of the player. The dual riffs grab you and force you to move with the music, while Wulfstan sings in a bardic style that places you smack in the middle ages. An excellent song from start to finish, I've caught myself shouting "Fifeldor!!" hours after last listening to the album. The first of two instrumental tracks on the album is "The Swan's Road", a exquisitely lush and atmospheric composition driven mainly by Wulfstan's keyboards. Very mellow, the song creates a medieval mood with the synthesized sounds of various Renaissance and medieval instruments. While still powerful in an epic sense, the song does have a relaxing quality to it that reminds me of something Enya would have come up with (don't knock her, she kicks ass). "Forever In Chains" brings the album fully back into the metallic world with full guitars and a woeful riff. Wulfstan sings at a higher range than normal here, even managing to resemble Paul Stanley at times, though the chorus is sung in a deeper tone. While the keyboards were predominant in the previous track, here they appear only for brief, but enhancing, atmospheric passages. Athelstan's leads are simple but at the same time are very expressive, wrapping you in the moment. The final track on the album, "The Fate Of Kings", is the second instrumental and is wholly guitar-driven, whereas "The Swan's Road" was focused primarily on keys (though the keys still provide occasional background atmosphere). The main riff is crunchy and driving, with Athelstan's emotive leads resembling much from the early days of bands such as Metallica and Megadeth. Mostly mid-paced, the song nonetheless carries the listener away and leaves them wanting more.

Engla Tocyme truly is a remarkable album for its originality and quality of musicianship. While many bands try to express themselves in a grand, epic style, Forefather seems to have what it takes to easily create metal of the sort that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Having recently signed to Karmageddon Records, I for one am very excited to see what's in store for their 4th album. I strongly encourage fans of lush, epic metal with a medieval feel to check out this band.

Track Listing
1Engla Tocyme
2Into The Forever
3Iron Hand
5The Swan's Road
6The Fate Of Kings

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Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Review: Forge - Bring On The Apocalypse (2003)

Bring On The Apocalypse
Static Records

Forge have been bustin' ass in the Detroit music scene for several years, releasing a couple of albums in the late '90s and weathering a series of line-up changes. Founded by cousins Aaron and Steve Greene, the band blends classic metal hallmarks with modern aggressiveness and a slightly punk attitude to create a sonic cocktail sure to please any lover of heavy music, regardless of "genre".

The appropriately titled Bring On The Apocalypse is Forge's third studio full-length. Singing about subjects ranging from war to sci-fi, Aaron's gritty vocal style relays feelings of smoldering anger and sense of purpose. Album opener and highlight "The Fold" sets the pace with a driving riff that brings to mind old-school thrash masters such as Anthrax and Exodus. Right away the band displays their knack for blending modern and classic elements to create refreshing metal as the listener is treated to Aaron's euphonious shouts while the rhythm section of drummer JoeSmith and bass player Steve Greene changes pace for the Offspring-like choral passages. A flickering guitar lead from John Dearry heralds the beginning of "One Swift Motion". Ripe with time changes, the song has a slight Killing Joke feel. Aaron's impassioned singing, encompassing several tones, is the focal point of this track. "The Torch" kicks in with a dual-guitar riff that oozes classic metal. Aaron seems a little strained while tackling the upbeat anthemic lyrics, which are sung at a higher range than most of the album, but he still turns in a fine performance and the song is considered one of the many bright points of Bring On The Apocalypse. Sticking with the classic metal riffage, "Days Of Destruction" pummels with driving bass and well-executed guitar leads straight out of the '80s. With a more modern approach, "6.6.44" tells a first-person tale of D-Day. A catchy chorus, varied tempos, and the Steve Harris-like bass from Steve Greene make this one of the more memorable tracks on the disc. My favorite song, however, is "Parade Of The Forgotten". A thundering drum/bass beat blasts from the speakers as Dearry's guitar weaves an intricate lead, all serving as an introduction for Aaron's relation of a conversation with an old veteran of wars long gone. Fictional or not, the lyrics strike a chord with me. Not only because I am a veteran myself of Desert Storm, but because the words manage to capture the essence of those who have served and now have handed the banner to today's men and women in uniform. The song does not drip with patriotism, and is certainly not an anthem. It is, however, a recognition of those who have sacrificed, and more to the point, those that still do even though they no longer wear a uniform.

Forge have crafted a well-thought, tightly executed album encompassing the best of classic and modern metal styles. Every song on Bring On The Apocalypse contains some element that sets it apart from the others. Whether it be the aggressive riffs of "Defenseless" or the sinister guitar intro of "Mastermind", the listener is never left feeling as if they're wading through filler until the next stand-out song comes along. This is an album that can please both the metal purists and those enraptured by today's made-for-radio metal.

Track Listing
1The Fold
2One Swift Motion
3The Torch
4Bring On The Apocalypse
6Days Of Destruction
8Secret Mines
9Parade Of The Forgotten

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