Friday, December 30, 2005

Review: The Greatest Fear - The Coronation of the Locust Queen (2005)

The Greatest Fear [ Website | MySpace ]
The Coronation of the Locust Queen
Red Room Records

Southern California's The Greatest Fear  is an intriguing outfit. Core members Brian Saunders (drums) and Jane Alisabeth Saunders (vocals, synth, flute) employ various session musicians for recording and touring duties, though a fully cohesive line up appears to be an ultimate goal for the duo. The Coronation of the Locust Queen is the band's debut long-player, featuring Gonny Shimura on guitar and Felix Nunez on bass (who remains with the band for touring purposes). All but two of the twelve tracks were penned solely by charismatic frontwoman Jane, giving the album quite a consistent thematic feel. Anger, malevolence, rebellion, spite - words that spring to mind when listening to Jane's poisoned lyrics. Lending the words absolute lethality is Jane's expressive, multi-layered vocals. Some may hate her style, others may be absorbed by it, but there's no denying her ability to fascinate the listener and no doubts as to her frame of mind when putting pen to paper. Her shrieks, shouts and whispers soar above the radio-friendly Gothic melodies served up by her bandmates, hinting at influences ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Marilyn Manson and Lacuna Coil.

Radio-friendly is an apt phrase when considering the music of The Greatest Fear. Hoping to hitch to the established success of bands like Evanescence, and perhaps even the introspective sounds of Creed, The Coronation of the Locust Queen is an assortment of accessible yet dark guitar melodies and haunting vocal harmonies, punctuated by a familiarity that will appeal to mainstream listeners without wholly alienating those brooding in the underground. While most tracks share a similar central sound, each is varied enough through riff patterns and Jane's vocalizations to keep the album from becoming stale and repetitive. The first track to stand above the rest is "Let It Go", with prominent bass riffs and Jane's expansive vocal delivery. The sorrowful, plucky bass of "New World Catastrophe" drives the mid-point of the album as Jane weaves a vocal tapestry of contempt and reprisal. Closing out the album is "Les Nuages", a track that departs from the main formula of all previous tracks and instead embarks on an ethereal, almost synth-pop journey. Having written the song as a lullaby for her husband Brian, Jane drops her signature enraged approach and takes on a coy, popish style that reminds me of Sarah McLachlan or Tori Amos. Not metal in the least, but a remarkably pleasing way to close out a solid debut album.

The intense vocals of Jane Saunders enables The Greatest Fear to rise above clone status, giving The Coronation of the Locust Queen credibility in a genre that is quickly becoming crowded with sub-par sound-alikes. Fans who like their music dark with a hint of an industrial edge should at the very least give the album a try, and may in fact find themselves pleasantly surprised by what these Californians have to offer.

Track Listing
1 God Is Not Love 2:36
2 Let It Go 2:30
3 Force Feed 3:54
4 Privilege 3:02
5 Prelude to the New World 0:47
6 New World Catastrophe 4:29
7 My Master 3:51
8 Opus Dei 4:44
9 Just For Today 4:34
10 Las Conversaciones Con El Diablo 3:51
11 The Suicide Table 5:14
12 Las Nuages 4:24

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Review: Beseech - Sunless Days (2005)

Sunless Days
Napalm Records

Sweden's Beseech have clawed their way into the ranks of such notable Gothic metal bands as Tiamat, H.I.M., and Lacuna Coil. Their 2002 album Souls Highway is a classic of the genre and with the Stateside success of H.I.M., Beseech is perhaps more than ever poised for a commercial breakthrough. In an attempt to capitalize on the trend slowly seeping into American radio, the band has released their fifth studio album Sunless Days. Still unable to reach the power and emotion of Souls Highway, the new album is nonetheless a quality Gothic metal/rock album sure to please loyal fans and could conceivably win some new ones.

Having already created a practically flawless album, measuring up to it on each subsequent release proves to be a difficult task. Drama, though good, fell short of expectations. More comparable to Drama than Souls Highway, Sunless Days does not hold a candle to the 2002 classic but is solid in its own right, embracing the expansion of vision first introduced by Drama. Once again, the most prominent difference is the voice of Erik Molarin. As on the previous release, he mostly eschews his deepest baritone for a softer delivery much more akin to Johan Edlund (Tiamat) and Valo Ville (H.I.M.). However, "Devil's Plaything" (a fantastic cover of the Danzig song) and "The Outpost" offer a return to the vocalizations that were so mesmerizing on Souls Highway. The vocal mix between Erik and Lotta Höglin remains an integral element of Beseech's sound, though Erik has hold of the majority of the vocal parts. Lotta does take the lead on occasion, with the ballad "Lost" being a welcome showcase for her to explore the power and range of her voice. Quite slow and accompanied only by piano, Lotta dips and soars along with the mournful melody.

The impact of the departure of guitarist Klas Bohlin was felt on Drama, and so Manne Engström joined the ranks of Beseech for the new album. The guitar sound is much thicker this time around, with some very deep riffs and solemn leads from Robert Vintervind. The plucky melody of "The Outpost" is a highlight, helping making that track one of my favorite on the album. The cover of "Devil's Plaything" beats them all to rank first on my list, however, with Erik at his best vocally and some truly crushing riffs from Vintervind and Engström. Beyond those two tracks and the fast-moving "Innerlane", I found the remainder of Sunless Days to be good but somewhat indistinct. The songs are pleasurable to listen to, but not compelling.

The limited edition comes with two bonus tracks. The first is a remake of "Manmade Dreams", a song that first appeared on the band's second album Black Emotions. The 2005 version trumps the original with a richer guitar sound and of course a superior vocal performance. Closing the album is the second bonus track, "Lost (emotional version)", which is a major disappointment. This version of Lotta's solo ballad would be more properly titled the "emotionless" version. Her performance on the album version, as well as the lush piano accompaniment make the bonus version feel bleak and sterile. If not for "Manmade Dreams", I would suggest saving a few pennies by steering clear of the limited edition.

Beseech have, with their last two albums, announced the creative direction in which they are taking their music. It is not to further explore the magical formula found on Souls Highway, but instead to chase the likes of H.I.M. and Evanescence to commercial success. Their music is still good, and worthy of any Goth metal fan's collection, but I fear their innovative days may be behind them.

Track Listing
2The Outpost5:18
3A Bittersweet Tragedy4:07
4Everytime I Die4:03
5Devil's Plaything4:49
7Last Obsession3:40
8Emotional Decay3:54
9Restless Dreams5:44
10Reversed Mind2:04
11Manmade Dreams [bonus]4:39
12Lost (emotional version) [bonus]3:49

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Review: Heorot - Yö Jahti (2005)

Heorot [ MySpace ]
Yö Jahti

The best part about this job is occasionally discovering that hidden gem of a band that blends originality, strong songwriting, and solid talent to create an album which is as fresh as it is exciting. I was very happily surprised to stumble across Finland's Heorot, whose demo Yö Jahti  is an outstanding example of atmospheric Viking/folk metal and gives a good indication that only the best is yet to come. Formed in 2002 by frontman Modsognir and drummer Mikko Mokelainen, the band's line-up solidified in 2003 and work began on what would ultimately become four songs inspired by the pre-Christian Norse heritage of the band members.

Yö Jahti opens with the majestic "Kansaansa vastaan". I've never visited the breathtaking fjords of Scandinavia, but having lived in Alaska for a time I'd like to think I can relate in some small way to the grandeur of it all. The lush, atmospheric piano intro from Jani Ambrusin evokes an image of still, almost glasslike waters flanked by mist enshrouded and snowcapped peaks. One can almost see the longships pulled up on the gravelly shore, the smoke from cook fires lazily rising to intermingle with the morning mist. Such magical, image-laden songwriting persists throughout the album and is what makes Heorot such a find. After a minute of Jani's mystical melodies, the rest of the band bursts forth with a thunderous beat from Mikko Nokelainen and grinding riffs from Raidokan and Timo Nokelainen, while frontman Modsognir unleashes an angered snarl and embarks on a gnarled delivery of the lyrics. Timo is the main contributor of traditional instrumentation on the album, and carries the opening melody through the song on the flute backed by Jani's keys. The song contains several breakdowns over its 7-minute length, involving cleanly-styled group choruses, classic metal riffs, and a heavy bass groove from Kimmo Intke. The song closes with an acoustic rendition of the opening melody, this time played by Timo on the acoustic guitar. A very fine way to close a spectacular song. "Kansaansa vastaan" is unquestionably my favorite track on the demo, though the rest are just as admirable in their own ways.

The title track again incorporates fine flute melodies from Timo, unpolished riffs, and barren drum beats. Modsognir snarls the lyrics without overreaching, instead essentially keeping his delivery to a low growl. The latter half of the song switches gears slightly, with the underlying melody remaining but instead the use of traditional percussion instruments take to the fore and the band begins a group chanting harmony, sometimes significantly off key, eventually reaching a point where I can't help but envision a musty Viking hall filled with the smells of meat and mead, and groups of grizzled warriors toasting heroic sagas of days past and joining one another in raucous drinking songs. Sure, my imagination is running rampant but Heorot possesses that precious ability to stir the imagination and leave the imprint of their music on your soul.

"Ragnarök" is a tale taken directly from the Edda, telling the Viking belief of the coming end of the world. Having a doomy, unhurried pace, the song is flavored by tense keyboard accompaniment and interesting choral hooks. The shouts of "Ragnarök!" during the refrain, combined with a quickened beat from Mikko, keep the gait from settling into routine. There are several time changes in fact, all arranged expertly to hold interest and impart the vast emotional range of the subject matter. The final track of the demo, "Sowelu" is a somewhat brief instrumental track showcasing a wide array of traditional instruments. Once again, Heorot manages to call to life the epic history of the Vikings through their clever use of traditional melodies and devotion to their ancestors' beliefs and way of life.

For a demo recording, Yö Jahti excels. Fans of Finntroll, Einherjer, and Falkenbach will find Heorot to be a band to keep their eye on. A new demo is soon to be released, and it is one that I am waiting for with much anticipation.

Track Listing
1 Kansaansa vastaan 7:08
2 Yö Jahti 4:04
3 Ragnarök 6:53
4 Sowelu 2:27

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Sunday, December 4, 2005

Review: HEAVENandHELL - HnH2004 (2004)


Two years ago this month I reviewed a 3-song sampler from HEAVENandHELL (read the review here) and described their music as "bar rock", that universal sound that can be found in local live venues across the country. I now have in my hands HnH2004, the first full-length album from the band, containing re-recorded versions of all three songs from the sampler. The band has gone through an almost complete lineup-up change between the release of the two recordings, and now features Chris Huggins behind the drum kit and John Mills working the four-string. The charismatic Mia Kileen remains behind the mic, and the riffs are still mastered by Gregg Jones. Despite the line-up changes and the new recordings, the band continues to exude that "bar rock" sound I spoke of - which is not at all a bad thing.

Though just about all of the tracks on HnH2004 share a common sound, there are a few that stand above the rest. "Hate", which was a highlight of the sampler, opens with Mia providing a vocal harmonic to a building riff from Gregg and John. This is a change from the sampler version, and a very good one. John's bass dances effortlessly underneath Gregg's forceful riffs, showcasing his technical ability. The song is fairly slow paced, containing several breaks in the action and even an acoustic piece just before it ends, but is one of the more soulful tunes on the disc. Going back to "Suffocating", the lead-off track, the album starts with a bit of a jump as this is one of the most up-tempo tracks to be found in the collection. Gregg lays down a bit of a spacey riff while Chris proves his mettle behind the kit with some considerably complex beats. Mia, who has a strong voice similar to Pat Benatar and Patti Smyth, steps up to the plate as far as emotional delivery goes and gives a top-notch performance. Wrapping up the album is an untitled acoustic ballad with Mia giving perhaps her most heartfelt performance of the album.

HnH2004 is a consistent statement of HEAVENandHELL's sound, though at times it is a little too consistent - such as the opening riffs of "Suffocating" and "Without You". While not exactly the same, they are nevertheless close enough to be noticed. The band has subscribed to the local indie rock sound which is never unpopular, and will find much appeal among fans of classic, bluesy rock.

Track Listing
1 Suffocating 3:26
2 Believe 3:41
3 Hope? 3:44
4 One Day 3:25
5 Step 3:53
6 Hate 4:21
7 Cruel 4:33
8 Denial 3:59
9 Withdrawn 3:47
10 Without You 3:30
11 untitled 3:26

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Saturday, December 3, 2005

Review: Sinocence - Black Still Life Pose (2005)

Sinocence [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Black Still Life Pose

It was more than a year ago that I reviewed Sinocence's third demo Acceptable Level of Violence (read the review here) and since then this Northern Ireland outfit has released another demo and Black Still Life Pose, their first full length. With Acceptable Level of Violence the band displayed two distinct sounds, one driven by melody and classic metal elements and the other a more modern, post-thrash sound that can be heard from the countless - and mostly faceless - bands clogging American radio airwaves. Black Still Life Pose actually contains only two new songs, the remaining 10 tracks having been culled from the band's previous two demos. While the demo tracks have been remastered, the two new songs ("Requiem" and "Psycho") find Sinocence emphasizing that modern metal sound I mentioned earlier.

Escaping a problem that plagues many young bands, Sinocence's lineup has remained intact since 2004 and the cohesion of tirelessly gigging together is evident on the two new tracks. Frontman Moro remains behind the microphone with his gruff, abusive vocal style. Although I can think of no clear comparison, Moro is somewhat of a conglomeration of late-era Phil Anselmo (Pantera), Corey Taylor (Slipknot), and Evan Seinfeld (Biohazard). The leadoff track, "Requiem", has a deep Pantera-like riff combined with a bit of Black metal fury to carry the song along through several time changes. Moro mixes in some pseudo-Death metal snarls and a hardcorish cadence to his style, while six-stringer Anto drops some quick introspective licks to lighten the atmosphere. I did catch an almost screamo quality to Moro's voice at times, particularly during the refrain, which is even more evident on "Psycho". The second of the new tracks features a more groove-oriented riff from Anto as its foundation and some fairly interesting beat patterns from Davy. Overall the song, due to an alternating tempo and anemic structure, sounds a tad loose and strung together. There are times when the band members deliver solid moments of headbanging fury, however. My biggest complaint with this track is that Moro opts for the unfortunate choice of a rapid-fire, rap-like vocal delivery at times. Simply not very flattering.

And so ends Sinocence's new material. If you're not familiar with the earlier demos from the band, you'll find a mix of melodic thrash, hardcore inspired modern metal, and classic guitar-driven burners. While Moro delivers a blistering performance when enraged, he makes several forays into a more melodic, expressive vocal style ("Beneath The Halo", "Shedding Skin", "Anything For The Next Escape") which doesn't fit him quite as well. His snarly grit just seems out of place with the emotions he conveys. "Drown The Noise", a moody 7+ minute track, is an exception to Moro's melodic struggles. Combined with a soft beat from Davy and thoughtful bass lines form Kaxxx, Moro is able to effectively transmit a sense of emotion fitting for the lyrics. As the song rumbles on, picking up the pace and deepening the riffs, Moro drops most of the ductile tones from his voice and returns to a comfortable roar. By far the most musing track on the album is the closer, "Scarred Human Voodoo Doll". More than eight minutes of mercurial piano melodies, heartfelt drum beats, and sullen riffs accompany Moro as he again proves that he can blanket the lyrics in a voice that more than does justice to the feelings they represent. This song is in quite sharp contrast to the remainder of Black Still Life Pose yet it serves as an excellent choice to wrap things up. Although the first half of the song is ballad-like, the last half ups the tempo with some excellent dual-guitar riffs and a wicked solo from Anto. With plenty to choose from, my favorite track of the album remains "Six Second Stare" (as it was on Acceptable Level of Violence) because of the traditionally inspired dual-guitar riffs and multi-layered choruses. Quite a fun little burner, this track will appeal to old-school thrash fans and fans of contemporary metal alike.

Sinocence continues to show they have the grit necessary to deliver a solid metal punch. The two new tracks on Black Still Life Pose show the band headed in a more contemporary direction, embracing the formula of bands like Breaking Benjamin, Disturbed, and Crossfade. Be that as it may, the older material on the album will appeal to fans of more traditional thrash.

Track Listing
1 Requiem 5:20
2 Psycho 3:50
3 Beneath The Halo 6:34
4 Makin A Monster 4:27
5 Six Second Stare 5:01
6 Drown The Noise 7:33
7 Shedding Skin 5:28
8 Anything For The Next Escape 5:20
9 Inside 4:11
10 Novocain 4:38
11 Soultied 6:58
12 Scarred Human Voodoo Machine 8:34

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Friday, December 2, 2005

Review: Vena Valley - Tanellis (2004)

Vena Valley [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]

The well-deserved breakthrough of bands like Lacuna Coil, H.I.M. and Nightwish  has increased awareness of the multitude of bands offering a similar sound, thereby taking melodic Gothic metal several steps further out of the underground. As with other genres of metal that have experienced such a surge in popularity, the ranks become flooded with copy-cat bands and those that simply do not deserve to have their "music" recorded. Fortunately all hope is not lost, for there are always plenty of talented groups who soldier on and strive to bring credibility to their genre through competent songwriting and skilled musicianship. Poland's Vena Valley is just such a band, creating moving melodies that compliment impressive female vocals.

Tanellis is the second release from Vena Valley and features 5 tracks of atmospheric Gothic metal, two of which are sung in the band's native language. Frontwoman Justyna Krysiak compares well with Amy Lee of Evanescence and Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, though her voice is not quite as polished as those two Gothic divas. Even still, she possesses a range and depth of emotion that has the power to draw you into the music and allow you to surrender yourself to the moods created by each song. While she handles the English lyrics quite capably, it's when she sings in Polish that her ability to enrapture fully comes into play. Those of us who do not understand the words cannot help but understand their meaning.

The first track on Tanellis, "Hollow", fits well within the mold of dark Gothic rock and is an excellent choice as a lead-off song. The keyboards of Edwin Hiller are used primarily in a backing role, creating lush passages which enhance the magic of Justyna's vocals. The familiar riffs from Sebastian Benduch, bolstered by the bass of Konrad Ciekot, are akin to those often considered staples of the genre and will please most fans. Sebastian offers a somewhat restrained solo, complimented by Edwin's keys, as the track picks up pace in its latter moments. While "Hollow" is my favorite track, "Sennosc" ranks a close second due to the interesting fretwork from Sebastian. Justyna serenades in her native tongue, adding to the mystique created by the rest of the band, while drummer Marcin Górecki displays a bit of creativity in his beats. Another pleasing track, "To Late For Love" is one of the faster paced songs on the EP and features the keyboards in an enhanced role, providing an integral riff throughout. Sebastian and Konrad again work well together to create some deep and intertwined riffs to keep the pace crisp. The remaining two tracks, "Salvation" and "Pokolenia", are also well-written and well-executed compositions that have a catchy groove to them but I found the former to be Justyna's weakest performance. While not bad by any means, she nevertheless seems uncomfortable and so loses a significant amount of force from her voice.

Vena Valley have captured the popular Gothic metal sound and clearly show a knack for molding the common elements to create a style that is unique unto them. While not quite yet reaching the level of becoming innovators, the band members show promise to do so and will at the very least be worthy contributors to the scene. Tanellis is definitely a recommended album for fans of female-fronted Gothic metal.

Track Listing
1 Hollow 4:06
2 Salvation 5:21
3 Sennosc 4:40
4 To Late For Love 3:26
5 Pokolenia 3:29

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Review: Slavelab - Turning Circles (2005)

Slavelab [ MySpace ]
Turning Circles

Home to Beck's beer, the northern German industrial city of Bremen has unleashed a new export in the form of Slavelab. Though founded in 1998 by guitarist Remo Süss and singer Peter Stohlmann, the band's first recording wasn't released until this year. Mixing a traditional metal core with elements of thrash, Turning Circles offers something to metal fans who enjoy their music loud and aggressive without forsaking melody.

The album hooked me right away with the intro. Instead of the flowery keyboard intros one normally finds leading off metal albums of all genres, Slavelab instead keeps it simple by laying down a threatening guitar lead atop a menacing riff. The intro also serves to foreshadow the capable guitar work of Remo and Jimmy Patterson, which overflows from each track on the album. One of my favorite songs on the album, the title track features an extended solo from Remo as well as an abundance of classic riffs. Of particular interest to me is the bass playing of Moritz Kölling, which thanks to the solid production is clear and distinct. His lines are complex and add just the right amount of groove and character to the songs, at some points being featured and at others barely discernible - but always an integral part of the mix.

The voice of Peter Stohlmann is perfectly suited to the type of thrashy metal Slavelab plays. He stays squarely in mid-range, but has a bit of roughness that enhances the emotional value of his style. The one point where he departs from his standard is the track "By My Side". While the rest of the album burns at a fairly raucous pace, this track is a flashback to the power ballads of the '80s. Peter drops his voice a little and, with his accent, actually comes off sounding slightly like Ozzy - though he occasionally goes overboard with his vibrato. Even so, that, coupled with the superb axework from Remo, results in this track being much more than just a change of pace and makes it one of the highlights of the album. While I've made much of the strummers in Slavelab, credit is certainly owed to drummer Christian Mastulla for keeping perfect time whether the beats are straightforward, as on "Maniac", or pummeling and intricate as on the appropriately named "Bludgeon".

Though Patterson has been replaced by Lukas Nowak as the band's second guitarist, Slavelab is a tight assembly of talented musicians who are poised to break out of the underground and make their mark on the metal world. For those who love classic metal from the '80s that has a crunch and drive reminiscent of bands like Anthrax and Judas Priest, Turning Circles is an album you should get your hands on. While a nostalgic sound is integral to Slavelab's music, it is by no means cliché or dated and will appeal to fans of contemporary power metal as well.

Track Listing
1 Intro 2:01
2 The Signs 3:34
3 Turning Circles 3:39
4 Paranoia 3:49
5 Bludgeon 3:10
6 By My Side 3:50
7 Maniac 3:27
8 Edge Of Sanity 3:53

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Sunday, November 6, 2005

Review: Scavenger - Madness To Our Method (2004)

Scavenger [ MySpace ]
Madness To Our Method
Sentinel Records

On the eastern shore of Ireland, a short distance north of Dublin, rests the historical town of Drogheda and the home of Scavenger. Formed in 2001, this four-piece has begun to establish themselves on the local and international scenes as a highly talented metal band able to compose intricate songs that draw influences from several metal genres. Madness To Our Method is the band's debut release on Ireland's Sentinel Records.

I'll get the review started by jumping right to my favorite track, "Ethereal Journey", to elucidate the complex yet enjoyable sound of Scavenger. Beginning with a huge, driving riff from Noel Maher that's deepened by the plucky bass of Niall Cooney, the song rumbles on as Peter Dunne lends an armful of emotion to the lyrics. Sounding on this track a little like Geoff Tate, Peter generally remains in a rough mid-range voice throughout the album though at times he dips a bit lower. "Ethereal Journey" trundles on with varying riffs, which is really the key to Scavenger's successful formula. The band has a knack for incorporating not just one or two riffs into each song, but several. Not only does this keep the album fresh though its progression, but offers something new around each corner without fraying the cohesion of the tracks. The fluid guitar breakdown, one of the best moments on the album, aids the song in creating the listening experience indicated by the title.

Stepping back to the second track, "Storm Warning", we're treated to a thundering theme riff accompanied by tremendous double-kick from Johnny Kerr. Noel deftly launches some fine lead attacks, keeping with the Peter's angered vocals. Again, the song steers clear of repetition and instead brings a plethora of time changes and beat patterns to enjoy. While Noel's guitar is the lifeblood of Madness To Our Method, solos are distinctly rare. He unleashes a brief attack on "Storm Warning", but the intentional (or possibly unintentional) studio "enhancements" make the piece sound as if it was added as an afterthought.

The remainder of the tracks follow this pattern of blending thrashy riffs, traditional metal melodies, and progressive songwriting techniques to result in what is a very intriguing album. The exception to Scavenger's blueprint is the untitled fifth track, which is instead a moderately short, trance-inducing instrumental piece that managed to work itself in to being my second favorite track of the album. Essentially highlighting Noel's ability to step back from his huge riffs and take a much more subdued, almost reverent approach to his guitar playing, the track serves as a well-placed mood enhancer between the doomy "Prisoner of Time" and "Unstoppable Motion".

Fans of mid-period Black Sabbath will find Madness To Our Method to be a quality album, as will those who enjoy the work of such bands as Megadeth, Jag Panzer, and the like.

Track Listing
1On the Outside7:37
2Storm Warning5:27
3Ethereal Journey4:57
4Prisoner of Time9:23
6Unstoppable Motion5:14
7Daydreams in Dystopia7:44

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review: Auracle - Crystal Lies (2005)

Auracle [ MySpace ]
Crystal Lies

Auracle  is a fresh power metal band from the Netherlands, founded several years ago by keyboardist/composer Joris van de Kerkhof and bass player Fred Hasselman as a studio project named Mythica. After releasing one demo, the project underwent a few line-up changes before adopting their current moniker and releasing Crystal Lies, a two-track demo intended to attract label and venue attention.

A goal of the founding members was to create robust power metal with Arabic and Asian atmospheres. Such an atmosphere is certainly present on Crystal Lies, particularly on the title track. The band's sound relies heavily on the keyboard skills of Joris for the bombastic, orchestral feel that enshrouds the clean guitars and precise drum beats. Complete with a strings section, horns, and more exotic instruments like the sitar, Joris' orchestration lends a bit of a movie soundtrack quality to the music. Obviously the keyboards are very prominent in the mix, but they leave plenty of room for some deep bass lines from Fred and solid riffs from Niek van Doorn, as well as the previously mentioned drum work of Marco Verberne.

The vocal duties of Auracle are shared between Bryan Ketelaars and, on this demo, Elizabeth Cordia (ex-Annatar). Though at first glance comparisons to bands like Nightwish and Epica seem appropriate, Auracle shy away from the operatic vocalizations and instead rely on their singers to create a much softer, more accessible sound. Bryan has a slightly gravelly voice that compares with Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) and Jonny Lindkvist (Nocturnal Rites), whereas Elizabeth is on par with such metal divas as Liv Kristine (Leaves' Eyes) and Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering). Bryan has the lion's share of the vocal parts, but his interaction with Elizabeth provides a pleasing contrast and works well to enhance the enjoyability of the songs.

Crystal Lies provides an intriguing taste of what Auracle is capable of producing, and definitely leaves the listener wanting more. While their style of power metal isn't quite groundbreaking, the musicianship is first rate and the vocals are excellent. Since the demo was released, Elizabeth has left the band and was replaced by Amelie Mangelschots. Assuming Amelie has a vocal style similar to Elizabeth's, the future work of Auracle should remain as good as that shown on this demo.

Track Listing
1 Crystal Lies 4:40
2 Land of the Gods 5:19

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Review: Witchkrieg - Dark My Way (2004)

Dark My Way

The term "pagan metal" has often been used to describe various subgenres of extreme metal that incorporate elements of black metal, death metal, and sometimes Gothic metal. Lyrics based on Satanic or anti-Christian themes tend to round out a band's "pagan" classification, though in fact very few of such bands are truly pagan in spirituality (not to mention Satanism being a Christian invention, not a form of paganism). Australia's Witchkrieg, on the other hand, redefine the term pagan metal - actually coining the phrase "Witch Metal" to classify themselves - in that the band members are in fact practicing pagans with a desire to create neopagan-themed heavy music. Dark My Way is the band's debut release, and though suffering from unpracticed production it serves to illustrate Witchkrieg's future potential.

Barb Ettridge is the trio's vocalist and main songwriter. Hers was the inspiration behind Witchkrieg, and several of the thirteen songs on Dark My Way deal directly with neopagan themes and issues. She cites Joan Jett as one of her influences, and I can certainly hear that punkish style in her delivery. What Barb has yet to master, however, is the ability to fill her voice with emotion. She has talent but tends to sound hesitant and apprehensive, at times even stumbling with tone and pitch. Exceptions are "Angel Flashes" and "Stand", where Barb comes across as emotionally involved and injects a shot of attitude and conviction into the songs. Besides the production woes, Barb's unmotivated vocal performance is Witchkrieg's highest hurdle to overcome. She shows flashes of being comfortable behind the microphone, and as long as she latches onto those moments and continues to grow her talent I suspect it won't be long before she'll come into her own as a solid metal singer.

Musically, Witchkrieg again defies the "standard" pagan metal description and takes a more traditional approach to their sound (sort of Motörhead meets AC/DC), though Gothic elements are used occasionally for atmosphere. Guitarist/drummer Andrew Old and guitarist Rob Prado provide the beats, riffs, and solos which lend Dark My Way the most potential. Both veterans of the local Sydney metal and hard rock scene, their experience is evident in the tight riffs and solid hooks that permeate the album. "Sea Change", my choice for best track on the album, has a ton of groove and a great beat that latches onto you with both claws. It's a fairly simple song but catchy as hell, with easy bass lines and fuzz-laden chords. The theme riff of "That Ain't Witch" is another highlight for me, showcasing the guitarists' rhythm and sense of melody. The only drawback to the music is the extensive use of distortion, which combined with the weak production leaves the music sounding very muddy. Cleaning that up and adding a bit of crispness to the leads will make a huge improvement to the overall listenability of the album.

Taken as a whole, Dark My Way is an okay album. The production issues are acknowledged by the band and I'm sure will not be a problem for future releases. Should Barb continue to develop her vocal skills, all will be well in the Witchkrieg camp. Don't write this band off yet, and keep an eye out for their next album.

Track Listing
1 Roses Are Black 4:04
2 In This Heart 4:31
3 Pentegram (Hexe) 3:57
4 Wrath 3:45
5 Fallen Angel 5:03
6 Sea Change 3:42
7 Cowan Town 3:20
8 Core 1:56
9 Angel Flashes 4:33
10 That Ain't Witch 3:08
11 Stand 2:47
12 Deviation 3:10
13 Out 3:22

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Sunday, October 2, 2005

Review: Icarus Witch - Roses on White Lace (2004)

Icarus Witch [ Website | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter ]
Roses on White Lace
Magick Records

The city of Pittsburgh conjures up images of blast furnaces, steel mills, and rivers of molten metal. It comes as no surprise, then, that the venerable center of the steel industry in the United States is home to the latest champion of pure metal - Icarus Witch. Founded in 2004 by bass player Jason "Sin" Myers, the band includes such veteran musicians as guitarist Steve Pollick and drummer J.C. Dwyer (Pro-Pain, Soulbent, Paingod).

Roses on White Lace is the debut EP from the band, and though originally intended to be a self-released demo it gained enough attention to be released by Magick Records. Icarus Witch proudly adhere to the huge metal sound of bands like Iced Earth, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche, etc., which is clearly evident on their freshman album. The title track, which is of course an Alice Cooper cover, leaves no question that these guys know exactly what direction they want their music to take. "Roses on White Lace" is one of my favorite songs from Alice's late-'80s metal phase, and I have to say that Icarus Witch have done an admirable job with it. Frontman Matthew Bizilia doesn't quite capture the sinister tones that Alice is so famous for, but his voice is nonetheless perfectly suited to this style of metal. The three remaining songs ("Halcyon" is actually a short ambient piece that would be better off as an intro) are Icarus Witch originals, and serve as stellar examples of the band members at their best. Fantastical/mythological lyrics accompanied by monstrous riffs, searing solos, and crashing beats fill each track, with "Dragon Ryder" establishing itself as my favorite. The twin-guitar opening riff is sensational, instantly drawing you in to the world of fantasy illustrated through Matthew's words. Sounding just a touch like Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche), but with a distinctive sound all his own, Matthew fits the mold of a pure metal vocalist. His voice soars and dives with emotion, displaying remarkable range, while blending perfectly with the mood of the music. "Curse of the Ice Maiden" and "Winds of Atlantis" also stand tall for their majestic riffs, distinctive bass lines, and intricate beats. Steve Pollick has established himself in the guitar world with three solo albums, and his skill and experience are evident in his tightly delivered leads and deep, crunchy riffs. Steve creates quite an Iced Earth feel to the songs, but only as a reference point and not an imitation.

Sadly, Roses on White Lace clocks in at only 17 minutes and thus leaves the listener somewhat unfulfilled. Thankfully the band is on the verge of releasing a full-length album on Magick Records. Fans who love the driving, true metal sound of the '80s combined with today's robust production will absolutely love what Icarus Witch have to offer. Highly recommended.

Track Listing
1 Roses on White Lace 4:23
2 Curse of the Ice Maiden 4:41
3 Halcyon 1:04
4 Winds of Atlantis 3:06
5 Dragon Ryder 3:50

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