Friday, October 31, 2003

Review: 7th Moon - Alter Alma (2002)

7th Moon
Alter Alma
(2002)
Icarus Music

Halloween 2003 has arrived, and what better way to "celebrate" the season than to wrap oneself in the haunting melancholy of a Gothic metal CD? Originating in 1996 as a project of guitarist Carlos Collazo and bass player Sergio Delgado, 7th Moon has evolved into a potential innovator of the genre. Incorporating the sounds of Lacuna Coil, early The Gathering, Amorphis, and Tristania into their debut album Alter Alma, 7th Moon creates a woeful soundscape worthy of comparison to any of the aforementioned bands.

While being particularly partial to this dark style of metal, objectivity forces me to state that Alter Alma does very little to further the genre or to give 7th Moon their own identity. Temper their limited originality with superb musicianship and the unbelievable voice of Sonia Carles, and you can't help but comprehend the boundless promise of these Spaniards. Throughout the album, Sonia's unwavering passion and depth of feeling as she delivers her memorable vocal hooks is absolutely remarkable. She reminds me more of Amy Lee from Evanescense than, say Anneke Van Giersbergen or Liv Kristine because she's firmly in the mid-range and rarely ventures into operatic bounds. Sonia also delivers the contrasting harsh vocals that are common to this genre of metal (although kept to a minimum on Alter Alma), providing the band with a bit of distinction.

As far as stand-out songs go, I'd have to start with the very catchy chorus of "The Eternal Flight". The lush atmosphere that opens "I'm The King Again" is fairly reminiscent of recent Amorphis. Heavy on the effects, this track also offers some fine leads by Carlos and great bass lines from Sergio. Next up, "Land Of Rain" is one of my favorite songs on the album. The catchy hooks and prominent snare drum weave a fine foundation for Sonia and the lavish keys of Albert Gómez. The band experiments with some interesting timings, yet manage to keep things moving along at a relatively active pace. "The Mermaid Chant", also a favorite for me, opens with one of the most up-tempo riffs on the album. Sergio delivers some very prominent lines, his bass and the complex work of drummer Oriol Basqués being focal points.

A solid album, Alter Alma lacks only that bit of innovation to set it apart from the many other good albums of the genre. As a debut, the disc is worthy of note for the quality of musicianship displayed and the promise of great things to come should 7th Moon choose to venture out from their influences and evolve in their own right. Fans of the genre, however, will be pleased with Alter Alma.


Track Listing
1Love, Sweet Death
2The Eternal Flight
3I'm The King Again
4ALand Of Rain
5The Shine Of The Unknown
6The Mermaid Chant
7Man Lives Apart



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Friday, October 24, 2003

Review: Magus Beast - Say Your Prayers (1996)

Magus Beast [ Website | MySpace | Facebook ]
Say Your Prayers
(1996)
self-financed

New York-based Magus Beast, previously known as Agressor, changed their name earlier this year due in no small part to the obvious commonality of their former moniker. Say Your Prayers, the bands full-length debut, retains the original band name in the layout because it was actually recorded in 1996. The music of Magus Beast is clearly influenced by the sounds of Overkill, Metal Church, Iron Maiden, and Mercyful Fate - very shred-heavy old school thrash with wailing vocals.

The first track on Say Your Prayers is "Magus Beast", the inspiration for their new name. A great driving riff gives way to the ball-crushing falsetto of singer Ron Scauri. The guy has an awesome set of pipes. He hits the highest notes with seemingly little effort, and puts in a flawless performance on each track. "Death Before Dishonor" begins with Ron belting out a sustained shriek that is simply amazing. The raw, menacing guitar sound from John Rup that opens "In Vain" is very much in league with the great thrash of the '80s. The galloping bass of Dave Zob and the pummeling drumming of Steve Williams is very prominent on this track, and provides an excellent foundation for John's blistering leads. "Nightfall" has a very memorable groovy riff and a catchy chorus that makes this a standout track. The album also contains a hidden track called "Legend Of Frankenstein" that is a very good example of Iron Maiden inspired songwriting.

Crunchy guitars, thunderous drums, complex bass lines, searing solos, and Ron's scorching vocals make Say Your Prayers a very welcome return to the glory days of classic American metal. The production doesn't quite stand up against the polished standards of today's metal, but I feel that only adds to the nostalgic feel of the album. The band continues to open for great metal acts such as Overkill, Symphony X, and King Diamond but the fact that drummer Steve Williams lives in Arizona has cut deeply into their ability to record new material. They are working at it, however, so hopefully we'll see something new from Magus Beast in the near future.


Track Listing
1 Magus Beast
2 Death Before Dishonor
3 In Vain
4 Devil's Advocate
5 Born To Kill
6 Assault Attack
7 Nightfall



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Monday, October 20, 2003

Review: Iron Maiden - Dance of Death (2003)

Iron Maiden [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Dance of Death
(2003)

The force that is Iron Maiden has delivered unto us their 13th studio album - Dance Of Death. The follow-up to 2000's Brave New World (the first album since Bruce Dickinson's return home) is everything that comeback album should have been and more. While Brave New World is a good album, the passion and intensity displayed by Iron Maiden on their early releases seemed lacking here. Dance Of Death retains that unmistakable Maiden  sound that has influenced countless bands over the years, but evolves it a step further by fully realizing the potential of a triple-guitar attack while also incorporating some finely tuned progressive elements. One of the components that I felt was missing from Brave New World  was the innovative guitar harmonies heard on previous albums. The lads must've noticed as well, since nearly every track on this release introduces a unique, flowing harmony that makes each song memorable in its own right.

Immediately following drummer Nicko McBrain's uncharacteristic "one-two-three-four" opening, the single "Wildest Dreams" kicks things off in a big way. This is a great up-tempo rocker with a catchy chorus that is surely destined to be an arena favorite. "Rainmaker" follows with one of those notable guitar harmonies I'd mentioned earlier. Similar in feel to the previous track, Bruce's vocal performance is simply outstanding. Throughout the album it's apparent that his focus, and really that of every member of the band, is once again on creating heartfelt and memorable metal that defies what the "industry" considers commercially viable. Bassist and band leader Steve Harris is to be commended, if not revered, for evolving the sound of Iron Maiden while holding true to their signature sound. If only other metal greats (i.e. Metallica) could understand this concept...

However, I digress. The first song of epic proportions encountered on Dance Of Death is "No More Lies". Starting off with a slightly Middle Eastern influenced riff, anticipation builds (thanks in no small part to Steve's grumbling bass) as modest symphonic aspects are introduced until finally Nicko's hammering blasts the song open. The driving riff is simple, but the underlying keyboards and flawless solos from Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers keep the song from going entirely stale over its 7-minute run. That being said, I feel that this song is the weakest on the album due mostly to the unimaginative and too-repeated chorus.

The riffing on "Montségur" is among the heaviest and darkest to be found on the album, but very appropriate given the subject matter of the lyrics. Recalling the 13th-century massacre of the Cathars by the French, Bruce's soaring vocals are matched well with the lilting guitar leads. The title track is a very interesting, and quite surprising, composition. With a mellow beginning, much like "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner", the strumming guitars build along with Bruce's passionate vocals as once again we're treated to expansive symphonic aspects. A short folksy riff gives way to a full-blown neo-classical crescendo. The riff is carried through with all three guitars and the strings, adding to the great progressive feel of this track. This is Iron Maiden at their progressive best. Again with the theme of memorable guitar harmonies, "Gates Of Tomorrow" kicks off with a very '80s hard rock riff that brings to mind AC/DC or Van Halen. The hard rock ambiance carries through the entire song, making this quite a nice little rocker and one of my favorites on the disc. Besides being another solid rocker, "New Frontier" is notable for the fact that it is drummer Nicko McBrain's first writing credit in his 20-year career with the band.

By far the best song on Dance Of Death is the epic "Paschendale", the story of the first use of chemical weapons in World War I - a tragic turning point in the history of modern warfare. The opening riff is haunting and a very appropriate compliment to Bruce's impassioned voice. Again the band displays their flair for bombastic, historical epics and "Paschendale" will undoubtedly be remembered as one of their best. Closing out the album is the enjoyable "Journeyman", with its lush symphonic atmosphere and acoustic melodies. Certainly a departure from the pure metal of the rest of the album, this song is nevertheless one of the best.

Dance Of Death is not Iron Maiden's best album, yet it is far from bad or even mediocre. This is a solid album that every Maiden fan has been craving since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and ranks among the year's best releases. As expected, the production is stellar and the arrangement perfectly done. My one and only complaint is about the cover art, as meaningless a factor as that may be. Compared to every previous Maiden album, the artwork for Dance Of Death is quite amateurish.





Track Listing
1 Wildest Dreams
2 Rainmaker
3 No More Lies
4 Monstégur
5 Dance of Death
6 Gates of Tomorrow
7 New Frontier
8 Paschendale
9 Face In The Sand
10 Age of Innocence
11 Journeyman



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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Review: Dark Fortress - Light & Darkness (2000)

Dark Fortress
Light & Darkness
(2000)
self-released

This review of the debut album from German power metallers Dark Fortress has been the hardest review for me to write thus far. Although they play a raw and unrestrained brand of heavy metal similar to fellow Teutons Hammerfall and Grave Digger, which they execute more than competently, singer Torsten Thassilo Herbert's ability to match the quality of musicianship is severely lacking. He has a forceful, gritty voice that would be much more suited to an extreme style of metal such as that plied by Mudvayne, Hatebreed, etc. Melodic metal requires a vocalist to be on key and be able to sustain a note - skills that Thorsten does not possess on this album. Thus I am presented with an album where the musical elements deserve a quality rating but the vocal performance kills the enjoyability of the disc.

Having said that, I'll focus the review on the musical presentation of Light & Darkness which is worthy of three stars in and of itself. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the style of metal is pretty straight-forward in a traditional sense. Most songs are mid-tempo with a couple of up-tempo burners, all with a slightly dark feel. After the expected ominous intro, we're presented with the frantic yet melodic riffs of guitarists Thorsten Brand and Matthias Bludau along with the thunderous double-kick of drummer Marcus Buhl on "Fear". Right off the bat, the band displays their aptitude for creating involved compositions with the varied time changes and interludes of this song. "Isolation" follows by building up from a placid opening to a heavy and dark twin-guitar assault. The majority of the songs on Light & Darkness follow this "building-up" formula, but the variety of melodies and harmonies keep things from getting stale. Another positive aspect of Light & Darkness is the quality of the guitar solos and leads. While not very intricate or complicated, they are executed skillfully and noticeably enhance the distinction of the songs. One of the musical highlights for me was "Tell Me Why". The simple but driving riffs give the song an uplifting momentum that is enhanced by catchy leads. The mellow acoustic beginning of "Last Day On Earth" is punctuated by a remarkable departure of style by Torsten. While still wavering and slightly off-key, his voice is much smoother and more in line with the type of music (in this case a mostly acoustic ballad).

Taken by itself, the metal of Dark Fortress is enjoyable and shows significant potential. It's been several years since the release of Light & Darkness and the band is now close to recording their follow-up, with Torsten behind the mic, so I hope there has been a marked improvement in his vocal abilities. If not, the band should consider finding a singer more suited to this melodic style of metal.


Track Listing
1 March of the Damned
2 Fear
3 Isolation
4 Tell Me Why
5 Monster
6 Lay Down In Hell
7 No Flowers On Your Grave
8 Last Day On Earth
9 Was Du Willst
10 Frodo (Lord of the Rings)
11 Back From Hell
12 Light Of Salvation



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Thursday, October 9, 2003

Review: In Vain - Serenades of the Wretched (2001)

In Vain
Serenades of the Wretched
(2001)
self-released

Although In Vain  is a very young band, these Swedes show a maturity and promise on their debut album that very few bands exhibit even after two or three releases. The musicianship, especially that of guitarist and co-founder Patric Tindvall, is top-notch. The band's ability to create catchy melodies that stick with you long after the CD is over is a key indicator of the great potential possessed by In Vain.

Beginning life as a slow-paced doom outfit founded by brothers Patric and Robert Tindvall (bass guitar), In Vain displays a very different sound on their debut album Serenades of the Wretched. While still slow- to mid-paced, the vocal style of Magnus Christiansson tends to remind me more of modern hard rock bands like Nickelback and Creed. This is just a reference point, however, as the impressive guitarwork of Patric and Johan Hasselblom creates a very mellow, morose atmosphere well suited to fans of the melancholy. Although their haunting riffs permeate the album, it's not until "Angel of Inconvenience" that the melodies grasp you fully and drag you deep within the heart of In Vain. On this track, Magnus finishes his verse around the five-minute point and before you know it Patric and Johan have lofted you over the 9-minute mark with their interwoven hooks and leads. Their jam is the perfect backdrop for a night spent in a dimly lit barroom with your favorite pint in hand, drowning the sorrows of the day. The instrumental track "Forgotten" carries on the expressive display by Patric and Johan. There's no doubt that Patric plays with a depth of feeling uncommon in today's "heavy" music. He's far from a shred king like Yngwie, but he possesses that natural, emotive kind of talent reminiscent of Stevie Ray or Clapton. No, I'm not comparing him to the greats, only saying that he has the talent and passion to rise high in the guitar world. A final highlight of the album is "Discontinued", which opens with a lush piano melody from Joakim Maule. Magnus offers up a deep, Gothic baritone on the first verse before reverting to his usual style. Although I think he wields a powerful voice, he can at times sound strained when reaching the higher ranges. This is of course just a matter of learning his limitations and where his comfort zone is, though I think it may be interesting if he were to pursue the deeper baritone he flashed on "Disconnected".

Not to be overshadowed by the guitars, the rhythm section of Robert Tindvall and drummer Daniel Karlsson is tight and and does an excellent job providing a solid foundation for Patric and Johan. In fact, as a bass player myself I'm impressed with Robert's lines.

All-in-all Serenades of the Wretched is a solid debut from the young In Vain and I am quite interested in hearing where their follow-up album takes them.


Track Listing
1 No Sign of Yester Pride
2 Wretched Will
3 Angel of Inconvenience
4 Forgotten
5 All For Nothing
6 Discontinued



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Friday, October 3, 2003

Review: Cage - Darker Than Black (2003)

Cage [ Website | MySpace | Twitter ]
Darker Than Black
(2003)
Fugitive Records

The hype surrounding Cage's third album has been tremendous. Heralded as defining the next millennium of heavy metal, Darker Than Black has been proclaimed to be an instant classic. In all honesty, rarely does an album meet such lofty predictions. Cage, however, has certainly delivered an album that is worthy of being regarded as one of the best metal releases of the year - not just American metal, but globally.

After the spoken-word title track, "Kill The Devil" kicks in with with an imposing riff and vocalist Sean Peck's Halford-esque wail. Guitarist Dave Garcia belts out a couple of energetic solos, while the double-kick of Mikey Niel powers the song onward. While Peck generally stays in that high range, but gritty, power metal style of singing on "Kill The Devil", he next introduces us to his blackish stylings (along the lines of Dani Filth) on "Chupacabra". Peck's varied style (clean, black, death, and all points in between) is what really gives Darker Than Black such variety and uniqueness. Although slower paced than the previous track, "Chupacabra" delivers an awesome melodic riff (the best of the album) and a quick but interesting solo by Anthony McGinnis. "Blood Of The Innocent" begins with the sound of the windswept American plains followed by the sorrowful tune of a Native American flute before launching the heavy bass of Mike Giordano and tribal drumming of Niel. The opening riff also has a distinct Native American feel to it, and rightfully so as the song is about the American westward expansion in the 19th century. Sean is once again in his raw power metal element, including a couple of ball-crushing falsettos. "March Of The Cage" is a song that defines heavy - chunky riffs, Sabbath-inspired bass, monastic choruses, and a featured lead by workaholic Roy Z. Although it's not the strongest song on Darker Than Black, it adds to the variety that makes this album such a powerful record from start to finish. Sean Peck delivers a superb vocal performance on "White Magic". His multi-tracked vocals seamlessly alternate between black, Goth, and his standard throaty power metal styles. Peck's competence with such a wide array of vocalization is astounding. Not to be outdone by the Europeans when it comes to epic compositions, Cage throws their hat into the ring with "Wings Of Destruction" - a song with a very Iron Maiden feel to it. The fat twin-guitar harmonies and blistering rhythms of Giordano and Niel, combined with Peck's passionate singing and expressive leads by Roy Z and McGinnis make this one of my favorite tracks on the album. Rounding out the album, if you have the patience to sit through 30+ 6-second tracks of silence, is a hidden track wihich is actually a Spanish version of "Chupacabra". So not only is Sean Peck impressive with his multi-style talents, he can deliver just as strong a performance multi-lingually.

The copy of Darker Than Black that was sent to me contains two bonus tracks available only on the U.S. release - "Antimatter" and "Forces Of Freedom". Sounding as if it was recorded in another session than the rest of the album, "Antimatter" is an angry song with a very modern metal feel similar to Disturbed or Nothingface. "Forces Of Freedom" is Cage's tribute to the victims of 9/11 and those who have paid the ultimate price since then. Clearly an American anthem, I would love to see this song benefit from the production given to the rest of the disc.

Overall, Darker Than Black is a magnificent example of the resurgent American power metal scene. The outstanding production of Richard Carr, particularly the heavy bass and complex drumming, is a major contributor to the pure fury of this album. While I don't think this album is the instant trendsetting classic many have praised it to be, I'm thoroughly impressed with the level of energy exhibited by Cage, and look forward to witnessing their talent live. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent artwork of Marc Sasso, a truly bad-ass artist whose work is perfectly suited to grace many an album cover.







Track Listing
1 Darker Than Black
2 Kill The Devil
3 Chupacabra
4 Blood Of The Innocent
5 Eyes Of Obsidian
6 Philadelphia Experiment
7 March Of The Cage
8 White Magic
9 Door To The Unknown
10 Secret of Fatima
11 Wings of Destruction
12 Antimatter [bonus]
13 Forces of Freedom [bonus]



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Thursday, October 2, 2003

Interview: Jake Vorrath of Circle of Nero

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jake Vorrath, the drummer from the Virginia-based Circle Of Nero. While our conversation ranged from beer to football, and all points between, we did spend some time discussing the band and their latest album Brutal Harvest.

[HMM] What's the band been up to the last couple of months? 
Jake Vorrath
[Jake] We are finishing up the last five songs for the Brutal Harvest CD. I have just one more drum track to finish on Sunday.

Yeah, I was wondering what the status of Brutal Harvest was. I know you guys had planned on releasing it quite awhile ago. Has a new date been set?
Well, we are trying to get a deal worked out. Hopefully Metal Blade will step up! If not, we have others that are interested.

No doubt! So what do you look for when considering a label?
We would like for a release in as many countries as possible; interviews; airplay; the usual.

Would you sacrifice, say, production freedom for worldwide distribution?
We have our own studio so worldwide would be the way to go. Hey, I wanted to tell you about some of our new songs.

Ok. Fire away.
To further CONfuse, one of our new songs has a big Black Metal influence.

Black Metal? You already have a ton of influences on the album so far...so is Gary rasping it out?
[laughs] Yes, he does a great Dani Filth. It's funny - we dig lots of music. Extreme metal has the best drumming. Very hard to do. It inspires me.

Do you think CON might evolve more in that musical direction?
Well not totally, but we might do stuff like that with our singing. I would like to hear some total Black Metal music with clearer vocals.

That's awesome. So any other new surprises?
Yeah. We have an element of everything we've ever heard! We like Heavy Metal and don't have all these genres, you know? Just HEAVY!

Cool. Too many up-and-coming bands try to stick to their influences and their music becomes formulaic. What I like about the songs on Brutal Harvest is the way you mixed in all those various elements, but every song kicked serious ass.
Thanks. We are influenced also by Life and Death. The eternal struggle.

Which can be really brutal most of the time. Is that what inspired the album title?
Well, we are not really a "brutal" band per se, but our lyrics are always dark. I think that is where the Brutal Harvest title came from. I read something that Gary wrote and said "Cool - good title".

Was it something like that for the band name too?
Oh no. I came up with the name after reading about Satanism.

Oh yeah? How is the name connected to that?
Well it's not. These fanatics here in Virginia were telling me that the Peace sign was Satanic. So I looked it up and found this Cross of Nero that was used for torture. I just changed it to Circle of Nero so we could be as heavy as a torture device or mellow like the Peace sign.

I like the symbolism.
Me too. Circle of Nero is not Good or Evil - we just are!

So what's the scene like in your area? Are you plagued by holy-rollers or are things pretty healthy?
Holy-rollers abound! [laughs] It's funny, on the day of the hurricane these Jehovah's Witnesses were knocking on my door. I couldn't believe it. Saving souls last minute.

Well, what better time to recruit than the end of the world, right?
Yup.

So do you find it tough to line up gigs?
We played at the Metal Mind Rage this past summer. Nothing booked now but we are in touch with Heavy Oder Was about next years Bang Your Head festival.

Hey, I gotta ask - Who's the babe on the cover of Massive Obliss?
Her name is Nicole. She's a model Chad got. Chad Michael Ward. He's a great artist.

So he's the guy behind your album covers?
Yeah. I want to use him on Brutal Harvest.

Did he do the artwork for the tentative cover?
No, we did that. We try to do everything.

Is that the sort of design you want to go with if Chad does the new album?
Yeah, or let him come up with something. On Massive Obliss, I had an idea of what I wanted. So maybe he could build off of this as well.

Gary McCaffrey isn't your original singer, but he's got great range. How did you hook up with him?
Century Media told me that I would need a better singer so I went on a mission looking. My girlfriend knew of him, so I checked out his band. And sure enough he was a bad ass.

How did the band get its start?
I met Koky [Flores] at a jam session of the Latin Kings! [laughs] Koky is from Peru. I went with this bass player and it was fucked up looking but we rolled in and started stompin' out some stuff and everything was cool. I thought we might get shot, or at least robbed. [laughs].

Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk. Good luck with the album. Anything else you'd like to say to the readers?
Yeah. Visit us at www.circleofnero.com.