Monday, February 25, 2013

With All My Hate - Dysthymic Disorder

Hooray for me!

Well, I tried to do something special for my 200th review, but I just can't.  I tried a huge review of my favorite album, and I can't quite put into words my feelings for it.  I considered a big "best of" list or a  retrospective of sorts and decided against it.  So really, I'm going to go against my natural attention-whore instincts and instead keep it low key, and instead of reining in my bicentennial with bombast and fanfare, I'm just gonna review a shitty, unknown one-man BDM album from Spain.  CUE THE FIREWORKS!

For real, With All My Hate is a strange anomaly in a way, because it's the one-man venture of surnameless Oscar, currently the vocalist for (the frankly great) Endless.  Dysthymic Disorder here is strange because this Oscar has apparently also played guitar in addition to vocals for Die You and Holocaust (two bands I haven't heard), and the reason that's so odd is because all of the instrumental work here sounds completely inept.  I get that brutal death metal is a chaotic, cacophonous style, what this sounds like he put practically zero effort into even making the parts line up.  The drum programming blasts away at the most inhuman tempos while the bass sweeps up and down in a nearly nonsensical fashion, complemented by guitars and chug and slam at a seemingly disconnected tempo.  This guy can apparently play the guitar, and has participated in at least one competent band with well written, cohesive songs (as brutal and chaotic as they may be), so why oh why does this album sound like it was written by a 15 year old after screwing around with Guitar Pro for one day?

That's not to say everything is bad, "The Tree of Woe" has some excellent tremolo sections, but it's broken up by damn near free-time drums and a riff that I swear is in 5/16 time.  Nothing here sounds like it was honed or tweaked or edited, Dysthymic Disorder is an incredibly sloppy first draft of an album that has potential to be a solid, if unremarkable, BDM album if it were to be run through the filter of better songwriters.  I feel like this Oscar fellow sat in his room, jamming away like we all do, and whenever he came up with a riff or lead that he liked, he would instantly record it.  He wouldn't tweak it in any way, he wouldn't play to a metronome, he would just record a handful of weighty chugs and hammering tremolos and sweeping leads, and would then just base the rest of the instruments around it.  The percussion almost never fits with what the rest of the instruments are doing, and it ends up sounding like some bizarre off-time trainwreck.  "Social Autism" and "Diseased Mind" are probably the best examples of this.  I can at least give the guy some credit for trying to be creative with the bass parts, but it still ends up being nonsensical bloodledoobloodles in the background.

I don't have a whole lot of positive words for Dysthymic Disorder, but I can at least say that this man's other band (you know, the one with other members who know how to rein in and contextualize ideas), Endless, is extremely good.  It blows my mind that he can perform vocals in a band who can take these brain-numbingly brutal elements and inject them with a hearty dose of melody and/or restraint, and then turn around and release this completely brainless explosion of half-baked ideas and sheer caveman-level idiot brutality and make it sound so unfocused and grating.  There's a good album buried here somewhere, the elements are all there, but the execution is so, so dreadful that it just doesn't stand a chance.  Flashes of brilliance pop up in "The Tree of Woe" and "Unanswered", but you aren't missing anything by skipping this.

RATING - 25%

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hammerfall - Legacy of Kings

Mediocrity shouldn't be named for a Queen song...

This'll be a short one, because come on, how much can you really say about Hammerfall?  They're the safest band in the universe, stamping out predictable, mid-tier trad metal since practically day one.  I'll admit, I haven't heard Glory to the Brave, but essentially every source I've stumbled across has made the same claim, they got worse as they went along and that's about as complex as their career ever got.  So with that, let's take a look at what should theoretically be their second best album, 1998's Legacy of Kings.

I'll make this quick, "Heeding the Call" is great and everything else is utterly forgettable.  Each and every Hammerfall album I've heard has had at least one "hit single" type song I can jive, with later albums having "Renegade" and "Hearts on Fire", and this here is no exception.  The style that the band has always tried to exemplify is pretty much summed up perfectly in that song.  Simple, speedy riffs, squeaky clean high vocals, and a giant, anthemic chorus.  I totally get the appeal, I see what the band is shooting for, because they hit bullseye on this one particular track.  Hammerfall is really just an extremely one-dimensional, bare bones, lowest-common-denominator type band, the fast food of trad/power metal, if you will.  But really, there's nothing wrong with fast food, I eat/listen to it all the time.  It's just that Hammerfall's brand kind of sucks.  Bloodbound is like the Wendy's of the style (greasy and awful for you but simultaneously delicious), whereas Hammerfall is more like Taco Bell (lots of options that are all made of the same low quality ingredients, and it only tastes good when you're drunk). 

Therein lies a huge issue with Legacy of Kings, the band lays out the template at the beginning and then steadfastly refuses to stray from it.  Which wouldn't really be a problem if the songwriting was any good.  The whole thing just goes in one ear and out the other and that's that.  It's paint-by-numbers trad metal with a ballad at the end and a faster song to start, with nothing else of note.  The vocalist is pretty middle of the road and the riffwork is as predictable as the tides and none of the leads are very interesting and no choruses apart from "Heeding the Call" and I guess "Back to Back" stand out at all and that's all there is to say.  Despite being a figurehead in the genre, one of the faces of the "revival" that heavy metal had around the turn of the century, and a huge influence to a lot of young upstart bands, they managed to sound tired and uninspired by the time their second album rolled around.  Throughout almost this entire disc, I never feel any sort of energy being put forth from the boys.

And really, that's more worthy of disappointment than anger or hate.  Legacy of Kings has potential, without a doubt, it's just that it's only realized on precisely one track before the album just completely loses steam and forgets how to rock.  It feels like a pop album, with one song chosen for radio airplay and a ton of effort put into it, surrounded by droves of half-hearted filler.  I mean, there's nothing offensive or even really bad at all here, everything is pretty competent, it's just fucking boring.  Most of the riffs are just standard late 90s power metal and 80s heavy metal riffs with no imagination put into them, and the vocals are high pitched and well done but really syrupy and inconsequential.  No songs stand out apart from the oft mentioned "Heeding the Call", and no individual band members stand out.  It's pretty much just a big grey mass of mediocrity, and really not worth your time.  The idea is good (strip down heavy/power metal to it's barest form and just have fun with it), but Hammerfall lack the songwriting skills to pull off such an endeavor.  You can safely skip this.

RATING - 45%

Monday, February 11, 2013

Motorhead - Bastards


February 11th is a special day for me.  There's no concrete date to when I began this whole reviewing shtick that I've been trying so desperately to make my internetical legacy.  But for my money, I consider it to be today, February 11th.  That was when I posted my (frankly terrible) review for Gojira's ode to Lunesta, From Mars to Sirius, and the reason I consider this to be my anniversary is because that was the first one I wrote as less of just a time waster and more because I just really, really enjoyed writing about music.  And so, with this in mind, I'd like to celebrate my five year anniversary (!!) as a reviewer with a bit of trivia: Motorhead is where "BastardHead" comes from.  Legend has it that when starting this new rock n' roll band after leaving Hawkwind, Lemmy had decided to name his band Bastard to reflect the kind of attitude he exudes so naturally.  His manager convinced him otherwise, saying "You'll never make it on Top of the Pops with a name like bloody Bastard", presumably immediately after his monocle popped out.  Lemmy, for the first and only time in his life, relented and changed it to the name we all know and love right now.

So obviously, Motorhead is a pretty special band to me.  I didn't grow up with them like other sentimental bands (Metallica, Guns n' Roses, Pantera, et cetera), but really getting into Motorhead truly does open a lot of doors for metal fans.  Lemmy, being the bottomless quote machine that he is, has always said that the band was never meant to be a metal band, they're a rock n' roll band first and foremost.  Most metal fans tend to disagree, but I actually tend to side with the creator here.  There's obviously a lot of heavy metal at play here (especially on this album, "Burner" is a fucking speed metal monster), but listening to the guitar work, the attitude, and the overall feel of pretty much any Motorhead album ever released (barring maybe Inferno) just makes it clear that the band has always been more about rock 'n roll sleaze than heavy metal thunder.

And that's one of the reasons Bastards is such a brilliant record in my eyes, it's both the most overtly rock n' roll album since Bomber, and it's also without a doubt the heaviest album they'd released up to that point in time.  The two best songs exemplify the two extreme ends of their spectrum, with "Burner" being a high octane, double bass, speed metal aggressor, while "Born to Raise Hell" is the quintessential rock n' roll party anthem.  The rest of the album runs the gamut set by those two extremes, with only one exception, which I'll get to later.  I won't lie and say nothing feels like filler, because "Devils" and "Lost in the Ozone" tend to go in one ear and out the other during most runs through the album.  But everything else stands as one of the most obviously varied experiences the band has ever provided listeners with.  The common attack against Motorhead is that all of their songs sound the same, which is demonstrably bullshit.  Chances are that if you abide by that belief, you simply haven't bothered listening further than "Ace of Spades", "Iron Fist", and maybe "Killed by Death".  Now, all of those songs rule, but to say those sound identical to "Born to Raise Hell" or "Liar" or "On Your Feet or on Your Knees" might as well be the equivalent of a bright green sandwich sign that says I DON'T KNOW SHIT ABOUT SHIT AND PROBABLY LISTEN TO ARCADE FIRE. 

Anyway, the point is that Bastards starts off on one of the strongest feet that any Motorhead album ever has.  Eight excellent tracks in a row, from "On Your Feet or on Your Knees" through "Liar", the album just charges forth at full speed before playing around with some more typical rock n' roll, the most shockingly dark Motorballad of all time, and even a sort of extraordinarily heavy quasi-blues track.  As much as I love this band, I really can't think of any other albums they've released that start off this strongly and stay this consistently good for as long as this does.  No album of theirs is perfect, but it takes a whopping nine tracks before this one stumbles in even the slightest, and that is definitely a commendable feat, especially considering how many of these songs are wildly different from one another.  "Death or Glory" is almost a straight up punk song to start, with minute set aside for a marching beat in the middle, "Liar" is preposterously groovy and almost feels like the song Satan would sing to blues musicians at the Crossroads, and "Bad Woman" is essentially a 1950s piano rock song ala Little Richard, except performed by four raucous party animals who reek of Jack Daniels and hand rolled cigarettes.  Bastards is basically just an amalgam of every influence the band has ever had (which to be fair, most of their albums are basically this, but this is one of the most blatant examples), and when most bands try to do a little bit of everything, they end up bland across the board.  But nope, turns out Motorhead is just fucking great at everything so pretty much every idea sticks.

Despite this being the heaviest album the band had put out at the time, it somehow manages to contain two ballads, one kinda power ballad "Lost in the Ozone", which ranks as the only track I out-and-out don't like, and then there's the almost entirely acoustic "Don't Let Daddy Kiss Me", which I'm... pretty conflicted about.  On one hand, it's an incredibly daring song, dealing with a horrifying subject matter that most bands tend to shy away from, and then nails the emotional impact by telling it from the perspective of the little girl, painting the scene in a very depressing, bleak, and most troubling of all, realistic light.  The verse about how if she tells anybody about what is happening, she'll lose her family and her home is just brutal.  This song is crushing on the most emotional level possible, and there's no happy ending to the story either.  There's no ending at all.  Dad molests/rapes his daughter nightly, he feels nothing, she's praying for death because she has nobody to turn to because even God hasn't saved her.

But on the other hand, as much as I admire such a brave and horrifying song from an otherwise irreverent group of wildmen, it's... well by a band of wildmen, right in the middle of a wild album about wild parties.  Following up such a heavy subject with "I KNOW YOU'RE A BAAAAD BAD WOMAN" just feels... wrong.  Maybe it's just personal preference here, but the rest of the album just feels somewhat uncomfortable after that harrowing dirge.  I don't know about you, but if I just discovered somebody was sexually abusing his small daughter, I wouldn't be able to so seamlessly shift back to partying.  But then again Lemmy is no ordinary man, so I guess such a hard left turn into Depressionville didn't seem out of place to him.  HERE I COME BABY WOOP DEE DOO!

Apart from the album's iHawk style "irreverent - maudlin" switch, and one or two songs that are ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things, Bastards stands as potentially my favorite Motorhead album.  This one just does nearly everything it sets out to do just right, everything hits bullseye.  I'd honestly recommend this as a starting point over more seminal albums like Ace of Spades or Overkill or Another Perfect Day, because this one gives the best taste of everything Motorhead is capable of, and can help act as a guide for where to go next.  What was your favorite song here?  "Burner"?  Go to Inferno.  "Bad Woman"?  Go to 1916.  Et cetera and so forth.  For reasons I can't quite fathom (perhaps because 1992 is the last year that fans of 80s metal care about and this was released in late 1993?), Bastards seems to have ended up as one of the forgotten albums in the grand scope of the band's career, which is bizarre since it has the significance of being Mikkey Dee's first album and Wurzel's last, essentially being the last step before solidifying the power trio lineup that has persisted for the last 20 years, but hey, I guess they can't all be winners.  Bottom line is that Motorhead is awesome and Bastards is a brilliantly fun album, oozing with attitude and sleaze, and really what more could you ask for from this band?  Straight up, unadulterated rock n' roll with a punk and metal edge, just the way it should be.

RATING - 92%

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Korpiklaani - Manala

I am so, so sorry...

This is... really embarrassing.  I've never been an opponent of folk metal (Ensiferum has been one of my favorite bands since Iron came out), but I most certainly have been exceptionally cruel towards Korpiklaani.  To me, they were the band that took every negative quality about folk metal and then amplified it to a completely preposterous level.  I like "Wooden Pints" and I think "Happy Little Boozer" is pretty catchy, but I can't think of another track of theirs I enjoy on any level besides those two.  Around the time of Tales Along this Road, I just gave up listening to them.  Clearly they were content with being absolute dorks who had nothing to offer besides shallow bar songs backed by unimaginative and boring polka beats.  Finntroll were always the most visible clowns in folk metal, but at the very least they had a level of sincerity within their music (as silly as it may be) that I could respect.  They'd at least occasionally crap out a track like "Ellytres" that sounded like there was at least more than five minutes of forethought put into it.  Korpiklaani never went that far, they were shallow, goofy, and rarely sober old men who played shitty polka that happened to have distorted guitars in it.

To be 100% honest with you, I first checked out Manala for the same reason I first checked out Winds of Plague, I figured it'd be an easy target that I could easily just make bad jokes about and frame a review around.  The difference is that Decimate the Weak was every bit as atrocious as I thought it'd be.  Manala on the other hand is... goddamn I'm going to have to revoke even more of my credibility as a metal critic but by Jove this is really good.

I brought up Finntroll earlier, and that's really who Korpiklaani is reminding me of at this point.  It took them five years more than their countrymen, but they've finally started taking this whole folk + metal idea seriously.  Yeah, the actual metallic aspects of the band have been ramped up considerably this time around.  Now that obviously doesn't make a band inherently better (we all saw what happened to Discharge), but here it really helped lend a semblance of honesty to their previously horrawful music.  I'm buying what they're selling now, and it's just so strange to be saying that.  Instead of stupid, bouncy "hum-pa hum-pa" bullshit, they're shilling out real, honest riffs and melodies and... ya know, things that take effort to do.  Even the slower songs like "Dolorous" and "Synkkä" are surprisingly well crafted and very pleasant to listen to.

I think a big part in making the band seem less like a bunch of shitty old men is the fact that they've essentially dropped the idea of singing in English entirely, now opting for their mother tongue of Finnish.  This is just a personal preference of mine, since I like the mystique of having almost no idea what bands are saying, but when a band as notoriously shallow as Korpiklaani suddenly veils their assuredly still dicktarded lyrics to a big chunk of their audience, they suddenly become a lot less difficult to take seriously.  For all I know, "Kunnia" is just Finnish slang for "DRINK WUDZKA UND FULL DOWN", but as Midwestern American ethnocentric white trash, I couldn't give less of a shit.  So yes, perhaps a big part of being able to enjoy this album hinges on you not knowing much Finnish, but clearly the band is more comfortable writing in their native language, so I support this development.

Now since that's admittedly a pretty tenuous reason to suddenly enjoy what I once detested, I feel the need to point out what I brought up earlier, the more pronounced metallic aspects of their sound.  "Kunnia", "Petoeläimen Kuola", "Uni", songs like this take the route recently traveled by Finntroll and earlier Asmegin, which is that the folk instruments are used as a means to an end, rather than the ends themselves.  The band finally realized that simply having twangy bullshit and whoozhy hurdy gurdys wasn't necessarily enough to base a song around, so now these folk elements are being used to accentuate the melody or propel the songs forward instead of just jumping right out front, sticking their tongues out and shaking their heads going WALALARGHABLARGLALALA like a fucking court jester.  Simply reining in the whole obnoxious "Look how quirky we are!" crap really did the band a ton of favors.  This is a brilliant example of a band dialing back a quality that was previously abrasive and irritating and in turn pushing forth a more basic, stripped down approach to songwriting.  It worked marvelously, and I'm amazed that they managed to sober up long enough to realize that their music was shit, and then actually solved the problem.  When they go full folk, they keep it somber and pleasant, and when they kick up the rock n' roll attitude, they keep the folk elements in a supporting role.

And this is the part where I get hypocritical again, because my two favorite tracks are "Rauta" and "Ievan Polkka", which are the two most overt throwbacks to the style I abhor so much.  I don't know guys, I just really like them.  They're both bouncy, polka influenced numbers like their previous albums, but goddamn they just work.  I should hate "Rauta" like it was a douchey kid with snakebites who just knocked up my sister, but damn I can't help but think it's adorable with how it manages to be awful and yet charming at the same time.  It seriously says the word "iske" thirty nine times in a row at one point.  Oh lord above that is stupid.  But... man it's kind of endearing.  I know just enough Finnish to know that "rauta" means "iron" and "iske" means "strike", so I'm going to assume that the song is just the Finnish equivalent of Little Bunny Foo Foo, but it's so dorky that I can't help but smile at it.  Guess that means I'm gonna turn into a Goon...

Manala is basically just a collection of stupid singalong songs like all of their previous albums, but this one stands out for the added sincerity, variety, and upped dosage of metallic attitude.  Turns out that underneath the band's skirt, they carried a pretty hefty set of balls.  The gravelly voice that's mumbled out from behind the mountain of grody dreadlocks and the bouncy folkka oompa elements are still there, so maybe I'm just a crazy person for enjoying the hell out of this despite the flaws it still pretty blatantly carries, but I just can't help it.  It's stupid and fun and it does what it sets out to do well, unlike the previous efforts that reached for the same endgame but fell flat on their faces.

RATING - 85%

PS - If you google "Manala" you'll get a lot of images of what look like little people made of bread.  I don't care what that word means in other languages, because to me it will now forever mean "Doughboy".

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Lancer - Lancer


I like ridiculous things, this isn't a secret.  I adore the Jackass movies for the sheer absurdist spectacle of them, I've read the entire Achewood archive more often than I'd care to admit, and I'm a giant fan of Dragonforce's Sonic Firestorm and Inhuman Rampage.  I like completely surreal and ridiculous shit (with some exceptions, Tim and Eric can fuck right off), and so with that in mind I'd like to introduce you to Swedish power metallers, Lancer.  Actually, no, I just want to introduce you to the cover art of their self titled full length.  If you gave a third grader mushrooms and asked him "What is the coolest thing?", he'd probably yell some nonsense like "THE OSTRICH FROM JOUST!  BUT HE CAN CONTROL THE OCEANS!  AND HE HAS MAGIC FEET!  AND LASERBEAMS SHOOTING OUT OF HIS EYES!"

Lancer is that third grader and I'm so happy for that.  The look of joy on my face upon first seeing that had to be something special. It's so big and stupid, I love it more than my hypothetical first born midget kid (eerily enough, the last time I used that phrase was in a review (for Deathchain) I posted two years ago today, SPOOKY!).  If I could just review album art, I'd give this 100% and call it a day. But no, I shan't, I'm'nna hold out and give these Swedish goofballs a fair shake with their music.

Spoiler alert: eh, it's okay.  Lancer may have set the expectations a little too high with having such a brilliantly ludicrous album cover, because what's actually inside is far less insane than one would hope.  That's not to say it's bad, it most certainly is not, but if you're expecting something lighthearted and over-the-top, this isn't the place to look.  Lancer specializes in a fairly typical brand of power metal, sounding a lot like Kiske-era Helloween and Edguy.  Really, you know exactly how the album is going to sound after a few minutes into the first track, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're into this kind of thing.  The real problem is that they don't make up for their lack of originality by excelling in any other category.

What I mean is that they aren't really faster, more melodic, more soulful, heavier, or catchier than any other average power metal band.  They don't have a great vocalist or guitarist or a stunningly good production job or great lyrics or anything like that.  There's pretty much nothing to help the band stand out amongst their peers or the entire bloated European power metal scene in general.  Luckily, all those qualities I mentioned are at least here, and they're at least good.  Isak Stenvall's vocals are pretty good, not soaring or particularly unique, but pretty good.  Fredrik Keleman and Peter Ellstrom's two headed guitar attack is pretty good, the melodies aren't terribly individualistic or impressive, but pretty good.  Pretty much everything you could say about the album could be summed up as such; nothing even approaching superlative, but pretty good.  If there's anything I could say is below "pretty good", it'd be that the production is kind of thin, but that's really about it.

Usually when a band is mediocre across the board, it acts as a big negative in itself (see: Human Filleted), but with Lancer here, it surprisingly isn't.  The band and album are very utilitarian, everything does what it needs to do and it does it well, but doesn't do anything to go the extra mile.  "Purple Sky" is really catchy and is pretty easily the best track on display, "Mr. Starlight" is probably the fastest song and has a layered chorus that is quite nice, and "Seventh Angel" and "Between the Devil and the Deep" are a little more downtempo, but that's really about all I can pick out after a half dozen or so listens.  The choruses are all nice and pleasant, the melodies are all hummable, the drums never get distracting, but other than these things I'm really struggling to come up with anything to say.  It's nice and easy and safe that's about all there is to it, it's the musical equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich.

Really all I can say is that Lancer showcases some good, fun, light power metal that's worth a listen or two, and certain tracks will probably stick with you (like "Purple Sky", I really like that one), but that's about all there is to it.  It's not boring, so I can give it that much at least, but otherwise there's just not much worth caring all too deeply about.  Fans of Keeper of the Seven Keys and such will lap this up, but otherwise eh.  The best way I can describe this is to take the bombast of Rhapsody, the grit of Persuader, the energy of Iron Savior, the attitude of Edguy, the grandeur of Blind Guardian, and the charisma of Gamma Ray... and then take all of those things away.  There, you have Lancer.  Congratulations.

RATING - 66%

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wintersun - Wintersun

Yeah it's ass, but he wiped it so well!

In honor of the recent announcement that Jari Maenpaa hates all of his fans and would like nothing more than to poo on the face of each and every one of you, I figure it's high time I actually get around to giving a similar treatment to his much lauded first labor of love.  Just as Ensiferum was reaching peak popularity, a scheduling conflict arose between the band and Jari's pet solo project.  He had to make a huge decision, and he decided to leave the band that was taking the collective metal fandom by storm and helping to give folk metal it's first huge boost in order to honor the studio time he had booked for Wintersun.  I personally think this was a brilliant choice since I love Ensiferum and would love to hear them release an album more frequently than once every fucking decade.

But despite the fact that the absurd waiting period is nothing new for Jari's music (the first handful of songs written for this album came about in the mid nineties), this self titled debut is not the place to complain about such things.  This is strangely ironic though, since the album feels like it takes four times longer to finish than it actually does.  Yeah, this thing draaaags so badly that it may as well come bundled with an anchor.  It's a little under and hour long, but part of me is convinced that that is only the case because it sucks so badly that it actually manages to warp the space-time continuum.  I'd rather listen to Food for the Gods or Akhet Mery Ra, and those are both literally four hours long.  I'm saying that without ever hearing those two albums, by the way, because they'd  have to put a lot of effort into failing intentionally to be less interesting and more full of themselves than Wintersun here.

One of the biggest flaws with the album (apart from the songs themselves just not being very good) is the pacing.  The eight tracks are arranged from shortest to longest, which I suspect was an attempt to make each new venture sound more epic than the last, leading to a giant, fulfilling climax with the ten minute closer, "Sadness and Hate".  Really though, it just hammers home that each new song is going to be longer than the previous one, and it just ends up sounding stretched and forced.  This means that even high tempo, blast beat filled numbers with tons of melody like "Starchild" just fade into the white noise that is the last 48 minutes of this album.  It certainly doesn't help that Jari has continued with the whole irritating dichotomy that early Ensiferum suffered from here, which is that the slower, more grandiose songs are boring as fuck and the fast, melodic singalongs are hooky and infectious.  So it isn't surprising that the only two tracks that are worth a damn are the first two ("Beyond the Dark Sun" and "Winter Madness"), which are unironically the fastest, shortest, and most to-the-point songs on the album.  The former is an absolute riff monster with a pummeling pace and energy, while the latter retains those qualities while injecting a lethal dose of melody, a great, singalong style chorus, and what is honestly one of my all time favorite guitar solos.  This is the kind of thing Jari excels at, high speed power metal numbers with great hooks and a knack for condensing a lot of epic sensibilities into a short window.

The problem is that when he gets a bigger window, he continues to throw fucking everything he can find into the music and it ends up as a collection of dozens of unrelated ideas that don't at all mesh into a coherent song.  I know I'm a hungry hungry hypocrite and all that, but this is all style and no substance.  The vast majority of the last six tracks are an incoherent mess of melody and symphonics and super fast melodeath riffs and double bass and hilariously amateur local theatre style clean vocals and ballads and cookies and gummy bears and AAAAAAH.  As a guy who is a giant fan of early Children of Bodom, this completely unrestrained and over the top blend of melodeath and power metal should theoretically appeal to me, but it's done in such a mind-bogglingly uninteresting way that I almost think this should be studied.  It's a fascinating failure in that it manages to take a bunch of good things, use them far past their logical intended limit, continue to use them even when they don't work, and just mercilessly flog them until you forget why and how any of these elements were good in the first place.  Just like the 2012-13 Lakers!  ZING!

Tracks like "Sleeping Stars" and "Death and the Healing" just pull the goddamn dragchute on the album's pace.  Slow songs aren't an issue, but when these two are both so dull and numbing that they could be considered a reasonable alternative to Novocaine and they both immediately follow an uptempo scorcher, it just makes you wonder why they were placed where they were in the first place.  Oh wait, it's because that's how long the songs are and that was the only thing taken into consideration when arranging this.  Which is a pretty huge issue because "Battle Against Time", "Starchild", and "Beautiful Death" all have a lot of potential as songs.  They're either extraordinarily epic and melodic, or incredibly fast and melodic, but the trait they all share is that they're all about three minutes too long.  Sections are repeated far too often and uninteresting melodic passages with about fifty different things happening show up and just wreck the atmosphere.  "Battle Against Time" is like a four minute long continuous climax, and it builds up a grand journey that sounds like it would be goddamn awesome to experience, it's just unfortunate that there are three redundant minutes that add nothing at all to the song and instead just make it feel entirely too long for it's own good.  This is frustrating because it just further showcases how flukey of a songwriter Jari truly is.  Sometimes he nails it, other times he has good ideas but utterly fails to implement them effectively, but most of the time he just gets far more ambitious than he needs to be and completely misses his mark. 

And then there are the more ballady songs, and those are easily the worst offenders of this whole ordeal.  It's bad enough that there are seventy six tracks of symphonics and clean vocals being layered on top of one another, but they don't succeed at what they aim for at all.  They have no atmosphere, they just plod along with a ton of crap going on in the foreground and it just feels like all the synths and strings are trying to distract me from how bare bones the songs really are.  It's like Cruella de Vil, with a gaint fluffy exterior that tries to cover up a frail, fragile base with glamorous excess.  They're utterly inconsequential and just bring the album to a screeching halt whenever they appear.  Even when they bust into two minute long sweeping solos, you can just imagine Jari (well... maybe not Jari, he's too in love with himself... so just imagine literally any other guitar player) sitting there with a completely uninterested look on his/her face as they shred these stale patterns over a completely lifeless track.  I can find precisely zero "majesty" or "beauty" in these half-hearted logs of nothingness.

Despite all the issues of the songs mostly being too long or too overblown to contain anything actually interesting, I can't help but feel like the completely bonkers track ordering is one of the biggest issues with the album.  So, in the interest of science, I reordered it.  I didn't edit down any of the songs like I'd suggested, but I may in the future.  Try ordering the album like this:

"Battle Against Time"
"Winter Madness"
"Death and the Healing"
"Beyond the Dark Sun"
"Sadness and Hate"
"Sleeping Stars"
"Beautiful Death"

By starting the album off with "Battle Against Time", you set the stage for a big epic, with the song's giant climaxes and clean chorus, it gives a bit of a taste of everything the album has to offer.  Then we get a barnburner with another great chorus and a blistering solo, followed by a ballad, then the fastest, shortest song to lead into the longest track, which is far too full of itself but at least you aren't just praying for the album to end by the time it finally starts, followed the other ballad because it sucks but it at least keeps the flow going after the previous clunker, which actually sets the stage fairly well for the fast, long, abundantly melodic "Starchild", finally closing on the track with the most overtly epic atmosphere, ending the album on a strong, hard-hitting note of "I'M NOT READY TO DIIIIEEEEEE".

This is not perfect, as there's really no way to fix songs as boring as "Sleeping Stars", but at least it doesn't make every song feel like it's just taking ages to end, and it follows a more logical flow than how it's currently set up.  If it were arranged like this, I'd still have all of the same issues with the album itself, but I could probably score it 15-20 points higher considering it at least wouldn't be as much of a chore to sit through.

The bottom line is that there are some good ideas here, but they're rarely implemented in such a way that makes them fit with all the rest of the ideas (good and bad) that are flying around the album.  A huge portion can be described as the musical equivalent of Jari not understanding why a square peg doesn't fit in a round hole, and so he just starts bashing it with a mallet until the peg and hole are both damaged to the point of the peg being forced in.  When Jari drops all the completely insane tendencies to just throw anything and everything at the listener and focuses his energy on strong melody or infectious hooks or straightforward metal, he can really nail it.  "Beyond the Dark Sun" and "Winter Madness" are both fantastic songs, and there are some good ideas in a few other tracks that are just unfortunately arranged and put together like ass, while a couple others are completely unsalvageable trainwrecks.  Add to that a terrible idea of flow and structure and then make it all spew forth from one of the most intensely unlikeable cocks in metal and you end up with a pretty shitty album overall.  Jari Maenpaa folded with a focus and intensity normally seen only in successes.  I'm not gonna call the fans a bunch of turds who are entertained by jingling keys and believe that something is majestic and beautiful simply because it has keys and they're told as such, but OH LOOK GO GET THE BALL!  *throws tennis ball*

RATING - 34%

PS - I hate how "Jari Maenpaa" is on the album art.  God forbid somebody mistake this as a band effort instead of all coming from his one glorious, genius imagination.  I hope he swallows a bumble bee.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iron Maiden - Fear of the Dark

A failed experiment is still a good result

I know this probably sounds strange, but Fear of the Dark was actually my introduction to our gods that are Iron Maiden. I mean, I knew about the other albums, I knew the choruses to "Run to the Hills" and "Number of the Beast" from a young age like every child with good parents should, but I'd never heard of albums like Seventh Son of a Seventh Son prior to my pre-teen years.  I've mentioned it a thousand times before, but my early taste in music was largely the work of my mother.  She was less into Maiden than she was, say Dio and Metallica in the 80s, but an appreciation was there nonetheless (likely due to the fact that Iron Maiden was and is utterly ubiquitous in the scope of metal fandom).  I was born a little over a month before No Prayer for the Dying came out, so the fact that Fear of the Dark was the only Maiden album I could find in her CD stash during one of my 11 year old raids makes sense considering it was around that time she'd stopped buying tapes and recovered from taking care of an infant.  I remember looking at the cover art and thinking "Well this is weird, didn't their mascot have long hair?" (a full eighteen years after his first haircut, of course), and figured oh well, it's probably cool so I'll just take it up to my room and listen to it while I do my homework.

Long story short, I didn't think it was great, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  Now, eleven years later, my opinion has actually managed to soften.  Seriously, the more I listen to this album, the more I like it.  I'd always claimed that this was the last Maiden album worth listening to, but I didn't consider it one of their "good" ones until recently.  Everybody knows the dichotomy of last two albums of Dickinson's first run (NPftD was bad because it was homogenous and bland while FotD was bad because of wildly inconsistent songwriting and an identity crisis), and maybe I'm just a total fanboy, but I actually really like some of the songs that don't sound like Iron Maiden.  I honestly really dig "From Here to Eternity" and "Fear is the Key".  No joke.

Maybe I'm not very harsh on this album because I have a nostalgic tie to it, I won't deny that that is a strong possibility.  But let's face a sad truth about the band really quickly; as great and near flawless as those seven albums from the 80s are, we've heard them all no less than four squillion times by now.  In 1992, we'd already heard them two trillion times.  We know who Iron Maiden is, we know what they sound like.  And whether or not this album was a musical success, I give it a ton of respect for at least attempting to do something drastically different with their formula for a change.  I mean yeah, Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son introduced light synths and took on a much more grand atmosphere, but they still fell in line with what the band had been sounding like since 1983.  Even No Prayer was basically just ten filler tracks in a row, with only the odd moment of their past brilliance here and there (Say what you will, I love both "Tailgunner" and "Holy Smoke").  But now we've reached 1992, and you know what?  This is new.  This is something entirely different.  I mean yeah, "Weekend Warrior" is an awful butt rock song and "The Apparition" is annoying but damn at least they're not "The Assassin" or "Hooks in You".  Most fans agree they ran out of good ideas when the 80s ended, but at least here they're new bad ideas instead of incredibly safe, faceless ones like the previous album.  Sometimes they strike out, but at least they're swinging for the fences.

And when they connect, they really strike gold.  The title track is a classic and a live staple, everybody knows that, and it's definitely deserving of the honor with which it's been bestowed.  When the band does one of their tours where they say they'll only play old songs that everybody already likes, "Fear of the Dark" is the only track from the 90s that will consistently find itself in the setlist.  It's a big, anthemic number, with a great buildup, excellent singalong melody, and a dark overtone that few of their songs really capture.  It's the "epic" of this album, and like most of its predecessors, it's easily one of the highlights of the album and one of the band's best songs.  I'm also a gigantic fan of the opening track, "Be Quick or Be Dead".  The fact that this isn't a live staple is proof that there is no God.  This is the closest they every got to recapturing the high speed magic that is "Aces High", with the only real difference being the fact that the vocals are more subdued here.  I love it when Maiden really cuts loose and delivers a high-octane barnburner like this, and really wish they'd do it slightly more often than "once every six years".

Those are the only two truly classic songs, unfortunately, though most of the rest at least rank as "good" at the very least.  "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" is one of the fan favorites and one of the two songs most people can admit to liking from this album without getting weird looks.  Personally, I can't fully get behind it.  Of its nearly seven minute runtime, I can only say I adore a little over half of it.  That long, moody buildup just goes on for far too long and does nothing to build up the rest of the song.  I love how the main melody manages to sound remorseful, I love how the fast part is basically just the big epic release from "Hallowed Be Thy Name", I love the ludicrously over the top guitar solo, I love everything about it except the first two and a half minutes.  "Judas Be My Guide" is another great one that deserves more love than it gets, it does a fantastic job of conjuring the atmosphere from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and combines it with the hard-hitting straightforwardness of Powerslave.  It's not as good as "Be Quick or Be Dead", but it's another one of the forgotten songs that would be more fondly remembered if it were placed on a different album.

Now, here's where I get hypocritical, did you notice something about those four mostly-great tracks I mentioned?  Every last one of them was compared to something the band did in the 80s, right after I spent all that time going on about how I respected them for trying new things.  That's because even though I respect and support the band trying something new, there's really no denying that what they did in the 80s was the pinnacle of their career, so when they reach back to that, obviously it's going to be more effective than their newer, more commercial approach.  There are two tracks that really exemplify this idea, and those are "From Here to Eternity" and "Weekend Warrior".  The former is good, because it has a lot of energy and a fun, catchy chorus, whereas the latter sucks because it sounds like a phoned-in Van Halen b-side that the band didn't even fully believe was good enough to be on the album.  "Weekend Warrior" is pretty much the Scrappy Doo of Iron Maiden's career, because it really kind of knocked the band down to its knees, castrated it mightily, and they've since been trying to recover, and never fully succeeding.  Yeah, yeah, I know the near-perfect title track follows it, but let's just agree that "Weekend Warrior" is a big, steaming pile of spunk that the band pretty much chokeslammed their own career into.

There are a few other strange experiments, like the country-style groove that might as well jump out of a closet while yelling "BOO" in "Fear is the Key".  Despite clashing horribly with the great, mid paced brooding of the opening riff, I still really like this song.  It's Maiden trying something new, it only halfway succeeds but it's a valiant effort if nothing else.  "Chains of Misery" and "The Fugitive" are two other kinda bad butt rock songs that work for what they are, despite really not being inspired or anything.  I know it's kind of a cop out to do what I've been doing here (just pointing out certain tracks and explaining what they sound like in comparison to the rest of the album), but with something as wildly inconsistent and all over the board as Fear of the Dark, there's really no other way to do it.  The only real constants throughout the album are the fact that the choruses are all normally pretty weak (barring "Be Quick or Be Dead" and "Fear of the Dark" of course) and the guitars really don't do anything to stand out amongst the pack, a giant rarity for a Maiden album.

The more I listen to this, the more I like it, but at the same time this is an album I "respect" more than I "love".  If No Prayer for the Dying was the band half-hearting a ton of filler tracks because they'd used up most of their good ideas, then Fear of the Dark is the result of the band just throwing out a bunch of random shit and anything they could think of in a haze of incense smoke and surrounded by scores of empty beer cans.  Only a couple of these ideas really stick, but I applaud the band for trying, if nothing else.  For most fans, this is probably skippable, if only due to the fact that there are only a handful of bona-fide Iron Maiden classics, but if you're okay with an interesting failure, then this is definitely worth checking out.  I don't consider this a failure, since I actually like a lot of the songs here that are crapped on ("Fear is the Key", "Childhood's End", "From Here to Eternity"), but I do understand that this was the last stumble before falling flat on their face for the next twenty years.

RATING - 73%

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Manilla Road - Mysterium

WE ARE THE 'ROAD CREW *bow now now now now nowwww*

My gripes with Manilla Road aren't nearly as well known as my issues with the beast-tardedly vocal fanbase.  I don't doubt the band had fans back in the 80s or that they were massively influential to epic metal as a whole, but when nearly every source that claims them to be legends or their albums to be well regarded amongst the metal fandom can be traced back to the Metal Archives, I can't help but feel like they were a minor precursor to what happened with Timeghoul.  Without a few vocal, high profile (for their specific corners of the internet) fans, the metal fandom as a whole would give approximately only 10% of the shits they currently give about Manilla Road.  Let's be real here.  I can't launch into a full rant about this for a few reasons.  One is that (while the fanboyism that accompanies such a thing irritates me) I have absolutely no problem with a band growing in popularity.  If a lot of people can find something to like, more power to them.  The whole "they can do nothing wrong" mentality and "you just don't get it" defense when challenged really gets under my skin, but if a lot of people like it, congratulations.  Secondly, I'm also a fan of a band that's on the whole widely unknown except for a vocal minority on MA, a band with a giant, consistently good discography, who also revels in unconventional songs, and sports a terrible vocalist that fans can't help but adore.  The difference is that the band I like is Gargoyle.

So in a way, I understand why The 'Road Crew is a thing from a slightly more eccentric standpoint, but I don't understand why the fanbase is so willing to handwave away boring, tired, dull albums like Mysterium.  I need to make one thing clear before I really work into this, and that's that I'm only marginally familiar with previous works of the band.  I've heard Crystal Logic and think it's pretty good if not for Shelton's transcendentally wonky vocals and clippy production.  Nothing to go gaga over, but "Necropolis" is a really catchy tune.  It's been a long time but I also remember liking The Deluge, maybe because it was heavier and had a thrash influence that was absent on Crystal Logic.  Again, nothing I thought was too special, but not bad, I wouldn't turn down an opportunity to listen to it or anything.  I remember listening to post-reunion stuff like Spiral Castle and Gates of Fire as well, but I don't remember liking them all that much since I must not have listened to them more than once apiece.  I bring this up because one of the things I hear in defense of this record is that "Well they've always been like this", as if that suddenly invalidates any negative comments that could be made about it because they haven't changed.  And no, I'm sorry, they haven't always sounded bored or wrote plodding two-riff songs that go nowhere.

What this really means is that I went in to Mysterium with a fresh perspective and a clean mindset, and I won't have the ability to compare this to earlier works.  I had only listened to those previous albums briefly a few years ago before losing them in a hard drive crash and never really having the desire to re-get them.  Imagine my surprise when these memories of "good, nothing great but not at all bad" were rewarded with the teaser track, "The Grey God Passes".  The buzz around this song, coupled with the actual contents of said song, really illustrates my bewilderment with everything surrounding the band.  Declarations of it sounding huge and powerful were being thrown around, there was a real Omen vibe, the vocals sounded empowered, a big, stomping, headbanging frenzy.  Man that pumped me up.  I wasn't expecting it to sound exactly like Omen in their heyday or anything, but I also wasn't expecting four minutes of two dull, mid paced riffs with a guitar tone that sounded like the stock distortion setting on a 20W Fender starter amp accompanied by one of the most sedated vocal performances of all time.  I swear, Hellroadie sounds like he's reading a book and tapping his foot impatiently, just wanting to hurry up and get out of the studio.  Nothing at all interesting happens throughout the duration of that song, and it blew me away when I realized that it was also the album opener.  Why would you choose to open an album on such a bum, uninteresting note?  Man, build up anticipation or storm the gates or set the mood or do anything other than what you did with "The Grey God Passes".  I wish I could go into more detail with why that song is so atrocious, but it's hard to when the most accurate summation is "boring and tired", because that's what it is.  It sounds like the band wrote it in about a half hour and recorded it in one take.  There is absolutely no energy, no passion, nothing at all behind the performance and for the life of me I will never understand how people can say the song is a good galloper with a strong moody atmosphere.

After starting on a note so low that it makes the fabled brown note shit its own hypothetical pants, Mysterium spends the rest of it's running time flip flopping between "powerfully great" and "awfully boring".  This is like, Fear of the Dark level inconsistency in the songwriting department, with the only constants throughout the album being the two cruddy vocalists, the crummy guitar tone, and great, blistering leads and solos.  Seriously, any time the lead guitar gets an opportunity to shine, my ears perk up in attention.  The leadwork is by far the best part of the album, as no lead goes by quietly.  They all soar, they're all over the top and rocking and just exude this rock n' roll passion that many of the riffs and most definitely the vocals sorely lack.  Even on otherwise uninteresting, painful-to-sit-through tracks like "Hermitage" and "Do What Thou Will" are partially salvaged by the searing guitar theatrics.

As for the rest of the songs, they're at their best when they're reaching for either end of the extreme.  What I mean is that tracks like "The Grey God Passes", "Hermitage", "Hallowed Be Thy Grave", and "Do What Thou Will" are mid-paced tracks usually aiming for a gallop but landing on a trot.  They all just kind of dilly dally their way through their runtimes and fuck off without anything interesting happening.  Most of them (namely "The Grey God Passes" and "Hermitage") share nearly the exact same main riff, which is a shame because it's not a very good riff.  It's a very basic rhythm and a simple walk up the fretboard with no fire or passion.  And even if it wasn't aiming for fiery passion it still managed to miss nearly every other possible emotion.  None of these tracks feel moody or foreboding or heartfelt or anything at all.  They sound like stock riffs that were crapped out with very little forethought.  Even worse, most of them feel about a minute or two longer than they actually are, thanks to how bloody uninteresting they are.  "Hermitage" is a goddamn test of endurance with being over six minutes long.

But like I said, when Manilla Road reaches for the more extreme ends of the spectrum, they manage to strike gold.  There is an exception with "The Battle of Bonchester Bridge", in the sense that only the quiet, ballady first half is any good (when the distortion kicks in, it's just this weird, sloppy guitar/drum combo with Shelton's weak, wispy vocals only conveying half of the emotion he's going for), but otherwise "The Fountain" is an incredibly good ballad.  It's a very soothing song, with smooth lyrics and melody and even Shelton's bizarre vocal style works extraordinarily well with it.  The chorus is heartbreakingly beautiful and I would honestly not at all be opposed to an entire album full of soulful acoustic songs like this from the band, considering this could well be my favorite song on the album.  And with that said, Mysterium is also at it's best when kicking things into high gear and letting loose with an uptempo rocker.  "Stand Your Ground" and "Only the Brave" are big, uptempo rockers and really stand out amongst the bogs of plodding midpaced slime.  "Stand Your Ground" was actually a great choice for the second track on the album when you take into account the astoundingly boring opener.  If something like "Hermitage" or "Do What Thou Will" would have followed up "The Grey God Passes", I may not have had the patience to continue through the album at all.  Putting a scorcher in the second slot shows impatient goons like me that there actually is a good amount of energy behind the band at times, it's just unfortunate that it's only fully throughout these two songs and any given soloing section.

Throughout all this, I've yet to address the fulcrum of the album, the eleven minute title track (fifteen if you count the instrumental lead-in track).  Frankly, "The Calling" is basically a four minute throwaway track that doesn't really do anything interesting within itself, but to it's credit it builds atmosphere for the first time all album and really sets the mood for the epic closer, so I can't fault it for doing what it sets out to do extremely well.  Honestly, it really makes me imagine the album art.  It really sets the scene for a decrepit, possibly undead demon man atop his decaying horse with glowing red eyes, traversing an old stone bridge by light of the moon.  It's unsettling and kind of creepy, and builds a dreadful atmosphere pretty spectacularly.  As for "Mysterium" itself?  Eh, it's pretty much the entire album in a nutshell.  The haunting, atmospheric opening is good, the mid paced riff that just piddles it's way along doesn't go anywhere, the solos alternate between soulful and face melting, it takes almost three minutes for anything interesting to really happen, and the vocals are still nasally and shitty.  Basically every issue I have and every compliment I can give regarding the album as a whole is coagulated into one eleven minute exercise to cap off an overall okay but hideously flawed record from a well beloved band. 

Honestly, while I was pretty vocal with how awful this album was going to be after hearing "The Grey God Passes", I do admit I've had to rescind my vitriol a bit.  I fully believe this album is overall not that good, but the flashes of brilliance displayed on "The Fountain", "Stand Your Ground", and every solo section has shown me that there is greatness hidden underneath here.  Perhaps the fans can peel away the layers that I can't, and that's why they can find so much more enjoyment in a record that seems so thoroughly mediocre to me.  The vocals are still a huge point of contention to me, as I've heard them described as "an old wizard from a Uriah Heep song" or "an old warrior who's seen many battles an is passing the stories down to a younger generation", which works beautifully in the context of a song like "The Fountain", but when on top of a loud metal song just sounds lazy and uninterested.  But with that said, I get the feeling that Shelton and Hellroadie are the kind of vocalists you "get used to" more than "enjoy", kind of like Dave Mustaine, Bobby Blitz, and Kiba.  I maintain my stance that, even though I understand that Mark Shelton really is Manilla Road, they could be greatly improved with a different vocalist.  His eccentricities are tightly intertwined with the band, and I get that, but his nasally warbling and Hellroadie's uninterested drolling really drag the energy down, and on songs where they're paired up with dull riffing (like half of the album), it's just an unbearably dull listen.

From the perspective of an established fan, Mysterium is a worthy addition to the 'Road's catalog, if not as impressive as some of the more seminal works.  From the perspective of somebody who finds the band's incredibly vocal and diehard fanbase to be perplexing and considers them to be okay but not something he fantasizes about during sex, Mysterium has good things (fast songs, ballads, solos) that override the bad things, and bad things (mid paced plodders, weak tone, tired and worn out vocals) that override the good things.  It's a weird yin and yang type of album and I just can't get fully behind it.  I think it's pretty safe to say that while I have a bit more understanding of The 'Road Crew after really dissecting what it is I do and don't like about this album, I'm still not a member.

RATING - 50%

PS - When reviewing something, I always listen to the album I'm writing about throughout the entire review.  With this, I've looped "The Fountain" like seven times in a row.  This song is really, really good, guys.