Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Candlemass - Psalms For The Dead (2012)

Candlemass [ Website | Facebook ]
Psalms For The Dead

Candlemass - Psalms For The Dead
Long considered to be doom metal legends and the standard by which all doom newcomers are measured, Sweden's Candlemass has nevertheless been plagued by internal strife (disbanding in 1994 and 2002) and less-than-inspired album releases (Dactylis Glomerata comes to mind). Late in 2011, the band announced that the final chapter of the Candlemass story would be the band's 11th studio album, Psalms For The Dead, followed by an epic farewell tour.  If, after 28 years, the end is truly here for one of heavy metal's most influential outfits, Psalms For The Dead is a respectable final act. But not a great one.

For dedicated fans of the band, and pure doom in general, Psalms For The Dead is rife with gargantuan riffs, plodding passages, and woeful vocals. Lowe, who also fronts doom stalwarts Solitude Aeternus, delivers a resoundingly genuine performance throughout the album. His refreshing adherence to singing the lyrics, rather than grunting or shrieking them, is in itself an album highlight. There are moments where a bit of vocal experimentation sneaks in, such as the monastic chanting on "The Sound Of Dying Demons" and the slightly unsettling whispers on "Prophet", but by and large Lowe's voice is left to shine on its own merits.

Another common thread that ties the nine tracks of Psalms For The Dead together is the abundant use of the Hammond organ, courtesy of guest musician Per Wiberg. Used most often to lend a '70s atmosphere to songs like the lyrically ridiculous "Dancing In The Temple (Of The Mad Queen Bee)", the keys also provide a rather spacey intro to "The Lights Of Thebe" as well as a lush background for the classic metal leads of "Prophet". In only one instance does Wiberg get a little carried away with tickling the ivories, as "Siren Song" is overwhelmingly keyboard driven - even to the point of featuring an organ solo. Another instrument that gives Psalms For The Dead a nice retro polish is the theremin. On "The Sound Of Dying Demons", the use of the instrument is confined to lending an eerie, classic horror film ambiance. The album's final track also incorporates theremin passages, but the effect is much more distracting than complimentary.

What would doom metal be without grandiose, weighty riffs? Mats Björkman and Lars Johansson craft some truly inspiring riffs, which Johansson punctuates with rather complex and always groovy solos. It's in the guitar tone that Candlemass resurrects their classic metal sound, be it a Sabbath-like tritone or a Maiden-esque twin guitar harmony. The six-string skill evident on the title track and the mildly thrashy "Black As Time" make each stand out as highlights, with the latter song also providing - during its 90-second spoken word intro - my favorite line: "Time, quite frankly, doesn't give a shit". Indeed.

Taken just as the latest Candlemass release, Psalms For The Dead is an enjoyable album that hits all of the doom metal prerequisites while still finding room to experiment. As what may very well be the final album of one of metal's legendary bands, though, it isn't the grand finale that fans might expect.

Track Listing
2The Sound Of Dying Demons5:38
3Dancing In The Temple (Of The Mad Queen Bee)3:44
5The Lights Of Thebe5:57
6Psalms For The Dead5:22
7The Killing Of The Sun4:17
8Siren Song6:03
9Black As Time6:54
Total Runtime51:19

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: Gauntlet - Stubburn (2012)

Gauntlet [ Website | Facebook ]

Gauntlet - Stubburn
When we last heard from Spain's Gauntlet, the band seemed poised to break into the modern rock market with their What Doesn't Kill Us LP. A few years, countless gigs, and a new bass player later, the band is back with Stubburn and an edgier, more aggressive style.

Gauntlet establish their stance early on, with "There Will Be No Peace" and "Feed The Worms" comprising a one-two-punch of furious, grinding riffs and venomous death vocals. With cleanly sung refrains, Gauntlet strays quite close to melodeath territory on these tracks before easing up on the pedal - albeit just slightly - with "Slave". Beginning with this track, Stubburn takes on a considerably more melodic tone as Daniel Millán and Miguel Rocha harmonize their thrashy riffs and toss in an occasional flashy solo. It's here, in the belly of the album, that Stubburn is the most appealing. The onslaught of the opening tracks eases into a sort of a melodic thrash atmosphere, dominated by complex (yet heavy) riffs and interesting pinch tricks. "Blood, Sweat & Tears" and "You Don't Know Me" earn spots as album highlights because of these factors, as well as Rocha focusing more on his singing than his barking.

At times emulating Layne Staley in his style, Rocha has a strong metal/rock voice that imparts just the right amount of grit and swagger. His skill is lost in the guttural growls of Stubburn's more brutal tracks, and he trips over his accent just a bit on the album's rock-oriented numbers (the modern power ballad "Sold My Soul", for instance), but by and large Gauntlet's sound is more convincing because of Rocha's work behind the mic.

With the sleazy, Guns 'n' Roses sound to closing track "The Fake", Gauntlet packs a number of styles into Stubburn's run time. Thankfully the radio-friendly rock of their previous full-length is not one of them, thereby making Stubburn a more honest and genuine album than its predecessor.

Track Listing
1There Will Be No Peace3:50
2Feed The Worms4:58
4Blood, Sweat & Tears6:18
5My Dying Breath2:51
6You Don't Know Me5:15
7Last Exit To Blisstonia3:47
8Sold My Soul4:50
9The Fake5:37
Total Runtime41:08

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Indie Spotlight: Bakken

Hailing from Northern Ireland, Bakken (or Bäkken, depending on which website you visit) is an eager up-and-coming metal band with a sound deeply rooted in the NWOBHM and early thrash sounds of yesteryear. Together only since 2011, the four guys comprising Bakken exhibit not only considerable talent with their respective instruments, but also a solid understanding of how to craft a quality song. The music posted by the band thus far possesses all the qualities that made bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and (early) Metallica so successful - complex yet melodic riffs, crisp vocals with interesting backing harmonies, sleek solos, and an energetic rhythm section that is active and forward in the mix.

Bakken expects to release their debut album, Death Of A Hero, this September. Until then, three singles from the album will be posted to their Bandcamp / Facebook pages for free download - although donations will be accepted. If you're looking for fresh, new music that encapsulates the spirit, energy and quality of classic metal, keep an eye on Bakken.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: Mystic Prophecy - Ravenlord (2011)

Mystic Prophecy [ Website | Facebook | ReverbNation ]

Mystic Prophecy - Ravenlord
Founded at the turn of this century by frontman R.D. Liapakis, German power metal outfit Mystic Prophecy is one of those bands that continues to soldier despite being plagued by line-up instability. Although Liapakis is the only remaining original member (from a cast that included none other than guitar wunderkind Gus G.) and drummer Tyronne Silva is newly ensconced behind the kit, Mystic Prophecy continues to dish out quality metal with their latest effort Ravenlord. The band, whose keyboardless style has more in common with Iced Earth than Blind Guardian, plies their trade with a heavier hand than one usually associates with the power metal genre. Therein lies the appeal of Ravenlord, and my annoyance at having let Mystic Prophecy fly beneath my radar for so long.

Besides the crushing heaviness of the guitar sound (expertly generated by Markus Pohl and Constantine) and the glorious lack of any keyboard touches whatsoever, Liapakis enhances the band's dominating sound by delivering the lyrics in a fashion similar to that of Bruce Dickinson and Dio. His delivery is strong, emotive, a bit gravelly, and devoid of any of the high-flying vocal acrobatics commonly associated with power metal singers. Liapakis delves into territory quite opposite of the falsetto, in fact, by adding a bit of a thrashy snarl during tracks such as "Die Now" and "Damned Tonight".

Mystic Prophecy
Ravenlord actually teeters on the edge between power metal and thrash. The songs that lean more to the dark power metal style are the album's strongest, though. The title track, with its infectious, crushing riffs and deliberate mid-tempo pace is a highlight, as is "Hollow". The latter track is dominated by a tasty old-school riff and plenty of Zakk Wylde guitar flair, which shows up now and again throughout the album but nowhere more so than on the cover of Ozzy's "Miracle Man". That track, which rounds out Ravenlord, is a bit more uptempo than the 1988 original but remains true to Wylde's distinctive style. Although the pace of the album quickens on the thrashier tunes like "Damned Tonight" and "Endless Fire", there's little else about them to make Mystic Prophecy stand out from other modern thrash outfits.

Ravenlord is a well-balanced, über-heavy album that fans of aggressive power metal will enjoy. There are some questionable moments, such as the metalcore breakdowns on "Eyes of the Devil" and the staccato riffs of "Wings of Destiny", but by and large Mystic Prophecy's latest offering is a quality slab of metal.

Track Listing
2Die Now3:51
3Eyes of the Devil5:38
4Damned Tonight3:42
6Wings of Destiny4:42
7Endless Fire4:47
8Cross Of Lies3:43
9Reckoning Day3:59
10Miracle Man3:30
Total Runtime43:04

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Review: Oz - Burning Leather (2011)

Oz [ Website | Facebook | ReverbNation ]
Burning Leather

Oz - Burning Leather
A fixture of the mid-'80s Scandinavian metal scene, Finland's Oz succumbed to the global change in musical tastes after the release their 1991 album Roll the Dice. Nearly 20 years later, bassist Jay C. Blade (Jukka Homi), Mark Ruffneck (Pekka Mark), and Ape De Martini (Tapani Hämäläinen) reunited and - along with guitarists Costello Hautamäki and Markku Petander - re-recorded six songs from the band's back catalog. Packaged along with five new songs, the re-recordings have been released as Oz's classic metal comeback album Burning Leather.

I'm not a fan of "greatest hits" albums, even when those albums contain re-recorded songs and/or a handful of new tracks that serve as teasers. Burning Leather is just such an album. Although the previously released songs sound great and benefit from not being subjected to a fat, modern production makeover, the purist in me still prefers the original versions. So, to spare you from a rant, I'll focus this review on the five new songs mixed in with the older tracks.

What is clear from both sets of songs is that frontman Ape De Martini still has a formidable set of pipes. Sounding like a cross between Biff Byford (Saxon) and Ian Gillen (Deep Purple), De Martini retains mastery of his range and gives a consistently sharp performance. The album literally opens with evidence of his ability, as "Dominator" begins (and ends) with a lengthy and rather wicked high note. Later, on "Seasons in the Darkness", De Martini channels Dio as the slow-burning, bluesy track seems to pay homage to the legendary frontman. The only instance where De Martini's delivery is less than flawless comes during the early stages of the title track. A few of his high notes seem a little jagged, but this is really just a speck in an otherwise commendable performance. Despite the minor vocal stumble, "Burning Leather" stands shoulder-to-shoulder with "Seasons in the Darkness" as my favorite new songs on the album. The title track sports a very catchy riff and a rather scorching solo, while "Seasons in the Darkness" offers up some fine bass elements and one of the album's more soulful guitar solos.

The remaining three new songs are good, but not up to par with Oz's earlier material. The guitar sound of "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" has a bit of a sleazy edge to it and overall the track has a steady, driving pace, but little else stands out. "Enter Stadium" was without doubt written to be a raucous, crowd-pleasing rock anthem. All of the requisite elements are present: gang chorus; slow-and-steady beat; a little bit of boogie to the riffs. Unfortunately, it lies just a tad too close to the KISS favorite "I Love It Loud".

As an affirmation of Oz's ability to still play some kick ass metal after a 20-year break, Burning Leather serves its purpose well. New music makes up a minority of the album, with the strongest tracks being the vintage ones, leaving questions as to the impact of Burning Leather as a comeback album for the band. Completists should have no qualms about adding this to their collection, though newcomers to Oz are advised to look to the band's back catalog first.

Track Listing
2Search Lights3:39
3Let Sleeping Dogs Lie4:45
4Fire In The Brain3:24
5Seasons In The Darkness5:57
6Turn the Cross Upside Down5:07
7Burning Leather4:50
9Enter Stadium4:42
10Total Metal3:20
11Third Warning4:52
Total Runtime47:32

Monday, June 11, 2012

Indie Spotlight: Desolation Blvd

Desolation Blvd
Proudly paying homage to their glam and sleaze rock influences, Britain's Desolation Blvd is firmly footed in the resurgent UK rock scene. Sporting the name of the album from legendary glam rockers Sweet that gave the world such hits as "The Ballroom Blitz" and "Fox On The Run", the trio from the northwest coast of England is poised to hit the road as they work on their debut recording.

The three songs posted to Desolation Blvd's ReverbNation profile are superb examples of the new wave of sleaze rock. "Painkiller", a semi-acoustic cover of the Backyard Babies' tune, captures the spirit of the original albeit with an interesting and fresh arrangement. Therein lies the appeal of Desolation Blvd, as the band delivers the retro rock with just a touch of modern sensibility. "Nasty Suzie" is my favorite of the three available tracks, as Dave Brown snarls the lyrics in convincing fashion while grinding out robust '80s-inspired riffs. Drummer Dan Wallace ensures that all available space is filled with raucous beats and cymbal crashes, but four-stringer Neill "Hux" Hucknall is a little deep in the mix for my taste. Not to worry, fellow bass lovers, as "Pulling Hard" serves up the slappy strums in spades. This scorching little rocker has a Motörhead-meets-AC/DC vibe to it and is sure to be a favorite in front of live audiences.

If you are a fan of no-frills, good time rock, lend your support to Desolation Blvd as they work their way into the scene. Stop by their ReverbNation or Facebook pages for more information.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: Tribune - Elder Lore / The Dark Arts (2012)

Tribune [ Website | Facebook | Bandcamp ]
Elder Lore / The Dark Arts
Corpse Corrosion Music

Tribune - Elder Lore The Dark Arts
Sporting a remarkable cover designed by bass player Ryan O'Shea, Tribune's (pronounced TRY-bune) latest album Elder Lore / The Dark Arts is an ornate mix of contemporary metallic styles. Although it's easy and wholly appropriate to slap the "progressive death metal" tag on the Canadian five-piece, there are some interesting underpinnings to the band's sound that solicit a broader classification.

Elder Lore / The Dark Arts, Tribune's sophomore full-length release, is comprised of eight tracks spanning two eras of the band's history. Three of the tracks were written prior to Shawn Culley joining the band as a second guitarist, after which his contributions have been fully exploited during the songwriting process. The songs from both incarnations of Tribune are intermingled on Elder Lore / The Dark Arts, resulting in a balanced exploration of the band's evolution. There seems to be a greater emphasis on proggy guitar stylings with the "newer" tracks, but the relatively slight differences in sound are bridged together by frontman Bryan Baker's variety of vocal approaches.

The first track, "It Came From The Swamps", is one of the tracks considered to be part of The Dark Arts portion of the album. Though Baker gets things going with a deep-throated death howl, he soon takes on a somewhat monotone, clean chanting style. Later, but still within the same song, Baker explodes into a high-pitched screamcore delivery. The remainder of the album finds Baker ping-ponging between these three styles in what I suspect is an attempt to appeal to as many metal fanatics as possible. He is proficient in all three modes of delivery, though his clean approach is the weakest and in need of the most reinforcement.

Photo: Matt Neumann
The two songs that stand head and shoulders above the rest are the aforementioned lead-off track and album closer "The World's Greatest Cynic", the latter being one of the Elder Lore group. The Swamp Thing-inspired "It Came From The Swamps" has a decadent Southern sludge tone to the swirling riffs and a couple of finely distorted solos to go along with O'Shea's very distinct bass. Every track, for that matter, finds O'Shea's contributions front-and-center. Never flashy, though "Below" does kick off with a bit of a solo, the prominent bass lines throughout Elder Lore / The Dark Arts are a welcome addition to the mix. Finishing off the album is "The World's Greatest Cynic", a song that perhaps best exemplifies Tribune's approach to crafting heavy metal. Baker runs the gamut of his styles, of course, but throughout the track's 9-minute runtime we're treated to everything from a nice melodic opening to slappy bass lines and grinding riffs, all which are held together by a complex and varied pace.

Due to its varying textures, Elder Lore / The Dark Arts is an album that most will either love or hate. Tribune are, musically speaking, loaded for bear and aren't hesitating to use all of the weapons at their disposal - to the point of even including a drum solo in the middle of "Below". They thankfully fall short of the purely chaotic, though, which makes this Vancouver-area band's latest output worth a closer look.

Track Listing
1It Came From The Swamps5:43
2The Succubus3:14
3Chemistry Arrives6:11
4The Warrior Mentality5:27
6We The Black5:56
7Man On The Outside4:54
8The World's Greatest Cynic9:10
Total Runtime47:24

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hiatus Almost Over

For the two or three of you who actually read this blog, I apologize for the absence of material posted over the last month and a half. This spring has been, to say the very least, unexpectedly chaotic with zero time available to write about music - or anything else, for that matter. As spring evolves into summer, though, life at my little compound in the rolling hills of Kentucky is beginning to return to normal. What that means for you, dear reader(s), is an abundance of upcoming reviews practically twitching to be posted. The headphones are back in position and the metal is flowing once more, so stay tuned....

On a related note, I am eagerly searching for a guest writer with knowledge of and a passion for the more "extreme" styles of heavy metal - namely death, black, grind, etc. If those styles populate your playlist more often than not, and you can string together some sentences with above-average grammatical skill, send me an email with a sample review of one of the albums in your collection. This is an unpaid gig, but you will have access to some great (and not-so-great) new music and have your name up in virtual lights here on Harvest Moon Music. If that ain't cool, well, I don't know what is!