Friday, July 29, 2005

Review: Luthor - Skyweaver (2004)

Luthor [ Website | MySpace ]

Luthor is the name of a very interesting project begun by Australian Dean Burgess as his answer to a deteriorating metal genre. A veteran of several metal "bar bands", Dean collected a talented assortment of musicians (Evan Harris on bass, Wayne Dwyer on keyboards, drums and guitars) and proceeded to record what I feel is one of the best independent releases of 2004 - Skyweaver. The album reaches back in time to draw forth the best from the heyday of heavy metal and fuses those elements with a contemporary style of power metal similar to bands such as Jag Panzer and Iced Earth.

Luthor turns up the heat right from the start with the excellent title track. Jackhammer riffs give way to eccentric refrains, staunchly supported by Dwyer's furious skin pounding. Immediately attention is drawn to Dean's vocal performance, particularly during the choruses. He sings primarily in a crisp, moderate falsetto that doesn't quite reach a Halford-esque range but is nonetheless impressive. His vocal melodies are simply fantastic, adding significant depth to the songs and exhibiting complete harmony with the guitar leads. The song has hints of old-time melodic metal, but remains very contemporary in style - even having a bit of a progressive tint. My favorite track of the album, "Mother Sea", has also cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite melodic metal songs. I simply cannot hear this track too many times. Dean's '80s metal influences are quite evident here, with a theme riff that is fairly straightforward but catchy as hell. Sounding just a touch like Tony Lewis (The Outfield), Dean delivers his best vocal performance of the album and, aided by just the right amount of reverb, creates some fantastic vocal hooks and melodies. Toss in a classic solo and Luthor has its ace. Another highlight among highlights is "Take", with its tribal intro & outro and ecologically conscious lyrics. A mid-paced track carried by a crunchy riff, Deans' vocals once again are a focal point and crucial to making this a memorable tune. As in every other track on Skyweaver, Dean lays down an admirable solo that is distinctive but at the same time compliments the mood of the song. The list of noteworthy elements to be found on the album go on and on, such as the menacing vocals of "Always" and the doomy riffs of "Evil Eye", but to mention all of them would leave no surprises for those of you who seek out this fantastic album.

As the main songwriter, Dean slows things up in a couple of places on the album with "Rain" and "Tears". The former track, somewhat of a power ballad, is pretty standard fare as far as such songs go but is executed well. It's here, though, that I found Dean's otherwise engaging voice sounding a bit flat. A crisp, extensive guitar solo more than makes up for any vocal stumbles, however. "Tears", an acoustic ballad, closes out Skyweaver in a classy way. You can feel the emotion in every note, enhanced further by lushly subdued keyboards from Dwyer. Again, Dean seems a little uncomfortable with his pitch but the damage is minimal and the song retains a wealth of quality.

While I haven't hesitated to laud Dean's impact on Skyweaver, being that he's the voice and vision of Luthor, the album wouldn't be what it is without the first-rate contributions on bass from Harris and on the drums/keyboards from Dwyer. All three members of the band are high-quality musicians who breathe life into the songs and create what is, as I said at the beginning of this review, one of the best indie releases of 2004.

Track Listing
1 Skyweaver 4:18
2 Evil Eye 5:54
3 Mother Sea 4:42
4 Rain 3:54
5 Lady Vampire 3:23
6 I Am 5:41
7 Take 4:49
8 Always 5:31
9 Tears 3:59

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Review: Gaia - The Final Question (2004)

Gaia [ Website | MySpace ]
The Final Question

South Florida's Gaia is an intriguing band for a number of reasons, all of which one can readily hear on the debut demo The Final Question. First is the wonderful voice of Chilean-born frontwoman Dominique Garrao. Her voice is soft and heartfelt, with an almost pop star quality to it (no, that's not a bad thing in this case) that is distinctive among metal leading ladies. In addition to her vocal expression, Dominique deftly wields a six-string as the band's lead guitarist (and is responsible for the demo's creative artwork). Gaia's other founding member, drummer Mark Mandel, plies his trade with skillful precision. As the band's lyricist, Mark puts together some heady lyrics that are engaging and thought-provoking. Add to this duo the exceptional bass playing of Federico Vidal, and Gaia becomes a band overflowing with potential.

As a display of this potential, The Final Question doesn't fully deliver the goods. Everything I've mentioned above is there, to be sure, but the demo suffers from production issues that result in Dominque's voice being buried in the mix so much that the full effect of her vocals fail to make an impact. Furthermore, the band's short time playing together is evident. The songs incorporate a significant number of progressive elements which are difficult to execute seamlessly, and so there is a definite looseness that pervades each track. Time spent playing together will of course erase this issue. A final piece of The Final Question that I found to be a distraction was the guest soloing of Jean Luis Contreras. Don't get me wrong, his guitar playing is quite admirable, but his shredding solo style seemed entirely out of place with the songs themselves. The end result was as if the solos were inserted almost as an afterthought. Contreras has since joined the band as a full-time member, so again this is an issue that is unlikely to carry over to Gaia's next release.

The Final Question represents, for me, what Gaia is capable of as well as what they need to improve. Songs like "Waiting Is" (my favorite of the demo), cause me to highly anticipate the band's next release. The song opens with a majestic lead from Dominique followed by pummeling beats from Mark. He goes on to include some soft piano passages to accompany Dominique's leads, heightening the mood of the song. "That Thou Art Mindful of Him" adds a bit more flavor to Gaia's formula, including a bit of a Spanish guitar melody from Dominique and a cello accompaniment from guest Tara Ketola. Building upon these successes, and perhaps enhancing the role of Tara's cello, will certainly foster rewards for the band and I'm sure carry them forward toward their goals.

Track Listing
1 Gaia 3:53
2 Waiting Is 5:36
3 That Thou Art Mindful of Him 5:55

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Review: Dream or Nightmare - Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn (2004)

Dream or Nightmare [ MySpace ]
Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn

Fans who recall the '80s Ohio metal band Axemaster will be pleased to know that the crunchy guitar sound of Joe Sims is alive and well in his new project, Dream or Nightmare. Forming his new band in 1999, Joe & Co. have released two demos prior to Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn, though it is this latest release that showcases the band at their collective best. Not only has the songwriting progressed, but vocal duties have been taken over by guitarist Jim Arnold and bass player Dave Rhynard. This shared approach to lead vocals is a risk, to be sure, but it pays off big in terms of variety and listenability.

Reminding me a bit of Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity), Jim has a fluid baritone that enhances the slightly doomy feel of the lead-off track "Lost Wish". Embodying versatility, Jim's keyboard accents add a "nightmarish" aspect to the track. Dave's bass lines, which are both elaborate and prominent, prance just beneath the surface of the crunchy riffs and buzzsaw leads to give the song a significant amount of groove without sacrificing the ominous tone of the music. "Tomorrow Aside", one of my favorite tracks on the EP, begins with a very Gothic sounding piano intro and an acoustic strum. The dark piano carries through the tune, complementing Jim's vocals and very fine leads from both Jim and Joe. I found this track to exude quite a progressive vibe, what with the fair number of time variations and complex beat patterns from drummer Russ Kirk and Dave's shimmering bass lines. Even so, the menace of the vocals and the meaty riffs leave no question as to the tune's heaviness factor. Lyrically one of the most self-examining tracks on Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn, "Self Inflicted Gunshot Wound to the Head" features Dave Rhynard as the lead vocalist. With a slightly higher tone than Jim, Dave nonetheless has a more gritty approach to his singing and is the perfect choice to deliver the subject matter of this song. Both Dave and Jim effectively convey, depending on the needs of the moment, despair, anger, and intimidation - making the band's choice not to pursue a new vocalist a wise one.

Besides the four named tracks on Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn, the disc contains two full hidden tracks. The first is an eerie soundscape of industrial-edged keyboards and bass guitar, coming across as something that would be a perfect fit for a Rob Zombie movie. Following that is my favorite track of the album, which is as far as I know untitled. Featuring a string accompaniment, a strong vocal performance from Jim, and Dave Rhynard on the 12-string guitar this track blends innocuous sound effects to create a dire atmosphere that is, however, quite infectious. Throughout the song I couldn't help thinking that it sounds like something that Alice Cooper would have put together. It's not fast, not hard, not raw, but still imparts an addictive feeling of somber tragedy. Definitely a quality track that I hope rises from its "hidden" status here to make it as a numbered track on the bands next release.

Dream or Nightmare is, ultimately, a band that defies categorization. Their music conveys a predominantly dark mood, but does so through a variation of tone, melody, and vocal styles. They are definitely a band on the rise, garnering attention not only locally but nationwide. Check out the band's website for clips from Light Burning Bright Till the Dawn and listen for yourself.

Track Listing
1 Lost Wish 6:28
2 Self Inflicted Gunshot Wound to the Head 5:12
3 Tomorrow Aside 6:46
4 Conflicting Addiction 4:08

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Review: Mode - The Deafening Moment of Truth (2004)

The Deafening Moment of Truth

The trio from Oklahoma City known as Mode  leave no questions as to what they are all about. Formed in 2001, this anarchist punk/groove metal outfit has gigged heavily in their local area and released a debut full-length, The Deafening Moment of Truth. Embracing an anti-establishment message in their lyrics, Mode spreads their message like a shotgun blast through highly aggressive riffs and throat-shredding vocals.

Anger and aggression are in no short supply on The Deafening Moment of Truth, from the opening chords of "Leech" to the closing note of "Wigout + Die". Vocalist (and drummer) Rich has an uncommon style that couldn't be a better fit for the band's ideology. With a voice gritty to the point of being painful, he lashes out the lyrics with venom - this is a guy who believes in the words he's singing. Musically, the songs are fairly simple constructs featuring heavy, often distorted riffing and common drum patterns. Things get a bit more interesting on "Revolt", a song with a very catchy groove and some flavorful bass lines. "It's A Lie" follows with some classic guitar licks and an old-school thrash vibe mixed with more modern stop-start riffing. Speaking of old-school thrash, the song "Anthem", my choice for top song on the album, feels like something right out of the Bay Area circa 1985. A heavy dose of doomy riffs and fuzzy licks keep it from sounding cliché. Of course, the classic theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is given an excellent lead guitar rendition on "G.B.D.". The guitar solos are sparse on The Deafening Moment of Truth, but Jody more than makes up for it on this instrumental track. Shawn's bass is discernible throughout the album, but takes prominence on the anarchist anthem "Pig Stomp". He has since left the band, replaced by Andy.

Mode has an identity all their own, something rare among new bands in this day and age. With a little more songwriting experience, I wouldn't be surprised to see them quickly scratch their way up from the underground. The Deafening Moment of Truth is a solid debut and should definitely attract some well-deserved attention to this Oklahoma triple-threat.

Track Listing
1 Leech 2:46
2 Anti 3:54
3 E.O.A. 2:51
4 Revolt 3:29
5 It's A Lie 4:21
6 Anthem 4:38
7 G.B.D. 6:35
8 Pig Stomp 3:16
9 Stallin' 4 Time 5:06
10 Wigout + Die 4:10

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Review: Sentenced - The Funeral Album (2005)

Sentenced [ Website ]
The Funeral Album
Century Media

And so ends the career of another heavy metal outfit. The Funeral Album marks the end of Sentenced, whose members chose to terminate the band at their self-proclaimed career high point. In the face of all the "no really, this is the final reunion tour" hype that permeates the rock world these days, the Finns have vowed to never again reunite under the Sentenced moniker and will only tour for the upcoming year. As a potentially landmark album, The Funeral Album was high on my must-have list and when it finally arrived, well, I was disappointed. The disc can essentially be summed up as picking up where The Cold White Light left off. The melodies, rhythms, and moods depart very little from those delivered on Sentenced's previous release. I'm not saying that the band's final album is a bad release, only that it lacks anything that sets it apart as such. Fans of the band will most certainly enjoy this disc, and most likely genre fans will as well. Perhaps credit should be given to the band members for knowing when their creativity had been exhausted and calling it a day rather than continuing to release average albums.

As mediocre as it is, The Funeral Album does contain a series of high points that are memorable and worthy of mention. While most of the 13 tracks tend to blend together, the 56-second "Where Waters Fall Frozen" is the first departure from the standard fare. Simply a short instrumental, the track is a vicious nod to the band's early death metal days and serves to remind us of their roots. "Consider Us Dead", one of several tracks alluding to Sentenced's dismemberment, is actually one of the better songs on the disc. The overall mood and musical style is the same as most others, but there is just a little more catchiness to the riffs that make it stick well after the last note. The final track, "End Of The Road", is by far the best song on the album and is an excellent choice to be the song the band leaves us with. The toll of the funeral bell is a classy touch, underlying the driving riffs, melancholic leads, and haunting keyboards. Frontman Ville Laihiala sings a little softer, easing up on his trademark grit, and the accompanying choir adds an air of mysticism. As on just about every track, the extended solo is excellent.

Being the final album of one of my favorite bands, I had perhaps too high an expectation of The Funeral Album and was duly disappointed. Taken only as just another Sentenced album, however, this release is a worthy addition to any fan's collection.

Track Listing
1May Today Become The Day4:00
3We Are But Falling Leaves4:28
4Her Last 5 Minutes5:40
5Where Waters Fall Frozen0:56
6Despair-Ridden Hearts3:41
7Vengeance Is Mine4:15
8A Long Way To Nowhere3:27
9Consider Us Dead4:51
10Lower The Flags3:34
11Drain Me4:34
13End Of The Road5:00

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Review: Evocation - Nightdancer (2004)

Evocation [ Website | MySpace ]

The frozen forests of Scandanavia have become known for producing some fine atmospheric Gothic metal bands, with Sentenced, Tiamat, and Amorphis among the most well-known of the genre. Germany, on the other hand, calls to mind such power metal greats as Blind Guardian, Helloween, and Grave Digger. Thrusting aside the stereotypes, Berlin-based Evocation has produced three quality demos of atmospheric, melancholic metal one would normally expect to discover among the ice and snow of more northerly locales. Nightdancer, the band's third release, has everything fans of the genre love - and more.

Established in 2001, Evocation relies heavily on guitarists Christian Kikel and Thomas Glase for the dark atmospheres that make the disc such a good listen. There are no keyboards to enhance the mood, but they're hardly missed as the leads and riffs from the two axeslingers accomplish the task expertly. The guitar harmonies come into play immediately on the title track, alternating between crunchy riffs, twin leads, and licks with a slight progressive touch. The majority of the music is written by Kikel, and he proves to be quite skilled in that regard. Incorporating frequent time changes, his transitions are smooth and well-placed, enhancing interest in the music without disrupting the mood of the song. "Sleepless (re-evoked)", my favorite track, displays these time changes nicely, combining aggressive riffs with crystal clear licks in the speedier passages and moody leads with thoughtful bass lines in the more drowsy refrains.

Another distinctive element to Evocation's sound is the voice of frontman Andreas Hörl. Fluctuating between a baritone croon and a gritty shout, he for the most part compliments the aura of the music. There are times though, particularly when he utilizes his softer style, that his voice feels a little out of place. It's a minor complaint made moot by the fact that he has since left the band.

Fans of atmospheric metal heavy on mood and melody will most certainly enjoy the music of Evocation. The quality of their future works is unquestionable as far as the music is concerned, but as the band seeks a new singer the jury will remain out until their next release.

Track Listing
2Under the Water Surface3:59
4Slow Down3:03
5Sleepless (re-evoked)4:45

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Monday, July 4, 2005

Review: Crystal Eyes - Confessions of the Maker (2005)

Crystal Eyes [ Website | MySpace ]
Confessions of the Maker
Heavy Fidelity

Sweden's Crystal Eyes  have been around since 1992, hovering on the fringes of the European power metal scene without generating enough momentum to be thrust into the arena among the genre leaders. Although their three previous releases have been good, if unremarkable, the band remained in the shadow of the likes of Hammerfall and Cryonic Temple. Confessions of the Maker, the band's latest release, looks to tip the scales in Crystal Eyes' favor. Besides an evident maturation in the songwriting process, mainman Mikael Dahl relinquished his vocal duties and turned over the mic to erstwhile Lost Horizon crooner Daniel Heiman. Am I declaring a coup among the top bands in the genre? Not hardly, though Crystal Eyes have certainly taken a step closer to that aforementioned arena.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Confessions of the Maker is the addition of Heiman to the lineup of Crystal Eyes. Those who are familiar with his amazing versatility while fronting Lost Horizon will find a quite different style on this album, with a more restrained performance being the norm. There are times when he reaches that uppermost octave, but they are few and if more numerous would probably do more to disrupt the music than compliment it. The vocal lines were, in all probability, written by Dahl as he himself would have sung them, and it is obvious that Dahl can't come close to matching the range of Heiman. Even still, as I said, Heiman's vocal performance fits the mood and melody of the music like a glove. Dahl does return to the mic on the closing ballad "Silent Angel", however, and will probably do so again for the next album since Heiman agreed to do only this one release with Crystal Eyes.

A defining characteristic of the Swedish style of power metal is a crunchy, crisp guitar sound. The dual guitar riffs and harmonies from Dahl and Jonathan Nyberg adhere to such a standard throughout the album, and in fact are the means by which Confessions of the Maker achieves the praise that it does. Never over-the-top or braggadocios, the twin-guitar assaults and solo leads drive home the songs without breaking stride with the mood and feel of the music. It's obvious that Dahl took the time to carefully construct each track, placing just the right amount of flair needed without falling into the trap of excessive shredding or showmanship. Dahl's attention to detail is a big part of the maturity that I spoke of at the beginning of this review. Equally important to the success of this album is the rhythm section of bass player Claes Wikander and drummer Stefan Svantesson. Up in the mix, both Wikander's bass lines and Svantesson's beat patterns are distinct, rousing, and well-executed.

While nearly every song on Confessions of the Maker is an enjoyable listen, none of them stood apart from the rest as a favorite. This is not to say that the album is without variation, because it certainly has enough of that to keep the listener's attention throughout. Highlights do abound, and those who enjoy the upbeat, optimistically bardic power metal style will find "The Fools' Ballet" a more than pleasing experience. Complete with an anthemic guitar opening and catchy chorus, this mid-paced track succeeds in emulating an '80s Teutonic metal vibe sure to satisfy fans of Blind Guardian and Helloween. For the aficionado of epic compositions, the 7+ minute "The Terror" has it all. Somber, acoustic passages linked by menacing riffs and rumbling bass lines provide the backdrop to Heiman's most diverse performance of the album. Reaching deep to growl a threat or hitting a soaring falsetto, Daniel shows why he's rated among the top power metal vocalists on the scene today. Of course there are the scorchers here too, "Panic" being a prime example, but I found the pure burners to be the least enjoyable of the songs. I'm sure shred fans will disagree, but I prefer more depth to my music. For that, "The Charioteer", "White Wolves" and "Northern Rage" highlight not only aggression but interesting songwriting.

Confessions of the Maker is certainly Crystal Eyes' best album to date, and a respectable addition to the European power metal catalog. Should Dahl continue his compositional maturation, I suspect that his outfit will find themselves sharing that arena before long.

Track Listing
1 The Charioteer 4:30
2 Confessions of the Maker 5:50
3 Northern Rage 4:49
4 The Fools' Ballet 3:44
5 The Terror 7:13
6 Panic 3:44
7 White Wolves 4:30
8 The Burning Vision 5:03
9 Revolution in the Shadowland 4:30
10 Terminal Voyage 4:47
11 Silent Angel 5:25

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Saturday, July 2, 2005

Review: Lamia Tenebrae - Inquisition (2004)

Lamia Tenebrae

Lamia Tenebrae is a band that is hard to categorize, given that their debut album Inquisition incorporates a considerable number of musical traits and styles. The French trio that is Lamia Tenebrae count Type O Negative, Rob Zombie, and Coal Chamber among their influences but I can make only slight comparisons to Type O's song writing style and Rob Zombie's "horror movie" atmospheres. Lamia Tenebrae instead has more in common with the Dark Wave bands of the late '80s and early '90s than the Gothic metal of today.

The most prominent element to the band's sound is the voice of exotic frontwoman Lamia. Her heavily accented delivery style will not appeal to everyone, for sure, but there is an alluring quality to the punkish way she lays down the lyrics in true Riot Grrrl style. Liked or not, Lamia's vocals are distinctly up in the mix and dominate each track. In addition to singing, Lamia also plays the keys and provides the programming for the drum machine. It is through her keyboard passages that Inquisition displays a bit of Gothic atmosphere, most significantly on the track "Drakul". At other times, her soundscapes lend a bit of an industrial edge to the music.

I found the guitars to be a bit buried in the mix. Having them play a more distinctive role would have enhanced the metallic qualities of the album, though there are times where the guitar sounds adequately accomplish the task. "No More Lies" is, for instance, the heaviest track on the album and by far the most appealing to metal fans. A bit of a sci-fi intro from Lamia's keys gives way to crunchy, driving riffs from Druid and Fabrice. Druid lays down a sinister solo, capturing the mood of the music perfectly. As the lead guitarist, he lets loose with a solo on every track but tends to be a little unfocused and somewhat meandering. While perhaps distracting to some, his innovative style may appeal to some fans of more progressive styles of metal.

Inquisition is an interesting, if eccentric, album that shows a band melding several style influences into a work that not only reflects on their inspirations but pushes the envelope of familiarity. With a little more refinement of their songwriting process, and perhaps a full-time drummer, future works from Lamia Tenebrae promise to border on groundbreaking. As an aside, the band recently changed their name to Lamia Cross.

Track Listing
1 Inquisition 5:34
2 Ashra 5:20
3 Lamia 5:26
4 No More Lies 4:12
5 Drakul 5:14
6 Space Vampire 5:33
7 The Cage 4:43
8 Fake 3:18

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