Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Harmony - Theatre Of Redemption (2014)

I'm always nervous when a band comes off a really strong release, and then for whatever reason, makes a big change in the line-up.  These changes are often necessary, either due to stability (or lack thereof) within a band, or sometimes, a member needs to leave a group for various personal and/or professional reasons.  Whatever the impetus for change, fans of the band in its previous incarnation either have to hope that the band will carry on and be as good (or better) than they were, or perhaps even fold, since they'll have little chance to match what they've done in the past.

I'm a big Harmony fan.  I dug the End Of My Road EP, and the subsequent album Chapter II: The Aftermath.  I'd say more than enjoyed, because Chapter II is one of my favorite power metal albums of all time, and I rather thought vocalist Henrik Bath was a perfect fit for the band's sound.  Truth be told, I preferred his work with Harmony to what he's done on the flipside with Darkwater.  I've always felt as though Darkwater is just shy of greatness, but the songs just haven't quite hit me the way that Harmony's material did.  So if Henrik left Harmony to focus on Darkwater, let's just hope that he brings his "A" game on the next album, because his departure from Harmony hurt my heart a little.

Having said that, Harmony scored a major win with Henrik's replacement, former Lost Horizon vocalist Daniel Heiman.  It's not clear whether or not he'll be joining as a permanent member or just provided session vocals, but it's no secret that in the early 2000's, Lost Horizon set the power metal world on fire with both "Awakening the World" and "A Flame to the Ground Beneath".  They were to be the "next big thing" in the power metal scene, after Hammerfall helped to resuscitate the genre in the mid-late 90's.  Twas not to be, however, and Daniel lent his vocal talent to both Heed and Crystal Eyes in the mid 2000's.  He's been relatively quiet since then, doing an occasional guest vocal, but without a major project to attach his name to.  After hearing his performance on this latest Harmony album, I'd recommend he stick with these guys.

Immediately, the recognizable guitar sound of Markus Sigfridsson is present.  He has cultivated a great guitar tone that perfectly combines a heavy, crunchy sound, while retaining a clarity that allows the riffs and melodies to really shine.  It also gives his solos a great sound that hearkens back to the golden age of metal (I'll say that's the 1980's).  He also employs a nice acoustic guitar sound in "You Are" as well, and uses a couple other textures throughout the album where there's less distortion (or at times none), for a nice effect.  Thundering bass is handled by Raphael Dafras (Almah), and he's solid as always.  Harmony's production (handled by the band, as well as Fredrik Nordström & Thomas Johansson) doesn't lend itself to overly audible bass lines, and relegates it to more under the radar, but there are moments (like during the post-chorus section of "Hands Of Time") where the bass takes more center stage.  Drumming is handled by one Tobias Enbert, and as usual, he brings solid drumming that stresses rhythm over technicality and speed, but he ramps up the pace when necessary, and provides consistency throughout the album.  Newcomer John Svensson does a fine job on keyboards, adding the symphonic bits here and there where they make sense, and adding that additional melody line in places where the guitar is spending more time on driving riffs than establishing the base melody.  He does a fine job here with the material.

Vocally, Daniel Heiman is on point, though noticeably more reserved than we heard him on either Lost Horizon album.  I doesn't sound as though his voice has lost a step, so perhaps he (and/or the band) didn't feel the material here called for quite as flamboyant a performance as before.  He sounds excellent here, however, with a fair degree of dynamics, range, and emotion on display.  He goes up quite high on several occasions, and his smooth voice really blends well with the material on this album.  He's no stranger to Harmony, having contributed some backing vocals to the previous album, as well as a guest spot on the Chapter II song "Inner Peace".  Daniel's vocals are a different breed than Henrik's, so it will take some getting used to, but he really does a good job of putting his own stamp on the Harmony sound with his performance here.

My biggest hangup with the album is going to be the loss of Henrik Bath as vocalist for the band, because I really felt as though his unique voice was one of the strengths of Harmony that set them apart from the rest of the power metal pack.  Adding Daniel Heiman gives them the band a boost of name recognition, and he does a great job, but I'm left wondering what this material might have sounded like with Henrik singing atop the songs.  In addition, the delineation of sound between Darkwater and Harmony has always been that Darkwater was the band for the more mid-paced, progressive material, and Harmony was the band for the more straight-forward, European power metal material.  The lines are slightly more blurred here, as this material leans ever so slightly back in the prog direction, though only as compared to its predecessor.  This is either a good thing or a band thing, dependent on whether you like Harmony best as a prog/power band, or a straight up power band.  For me, I lean toward the more power side, as their progressive leanings have not been a draw from my perspective.  In addition, the songs here just don't hit me the way those on Chapter II: The Aftermath have.  Of course, that album came at a time when I was seeking out power metal in quantity, and it stood out from the pack.  Having reviewed a number of albums in the genre in the last several years, and purchased several, as well as receiving review copy of nearly that many, I've been deluged somewhat by the genre.  That may be coloring my opinion of the album as well.

At the end of the day, this is a high quality release from Harmony that just misses the mark for me personally, but should please fans of the genre.  Power metal aficionados should already be familiar with the Harmony name, and with the addition of Daniel Heiman at the vocal helm, that additional name recognition should help boost the band's profile beyond its current reach.  The songs are all well done, though they're not sticking with me quite as quickly as the band's previous material has, though admittedly that's partly my own disappointment in the vocal changes.  Still, Harmony's 3rd album is one they can and should be proud of, and will continue to draw accolades and expand their listener base.  As a fan of the band, I'll continue to follow what they do.  They just need to shore up the vocal side of the house and either get Daniel to stick around, or find someone who fits their sound & style who can carry the band into the future.  Recommended.


Black Fate - Between Visions & Lies (2014)

I like a challenging, or even frustrating listen once in a while.  I like for a release to give me something other than what I was expecting, even if it's not what I wanted.  We need to be challenged in life from time to time, or we don't grow and learn from our own insular, and often myopic perspectives.  To be able to glean something new from something you thought you already knew is a sign of maturity.  I can safely say that Black Fate's "Between Visions & Lies" was not what I was expecting, or even hoping for.

Truth be told, I was only mildly excited for this release.  Ulterium Records hasn't really let me down yet, though a couple releases haven't quite met expectations (I'm looking at you, Ivory Moon and End of September).  For that reason, even with a band like Black Fate, who I had not heard of, prior to seeing "coming soon" posts on the Ulterium Records Facebook page, I had to be at least a little excited, if not just intrigued.  After all, this is the label that brought us Harmony's "Chapter II: The Aftermath" (one of my favorite power metal albums EVER), Theocracy, and a slew of other great bands and releases over the last several years.  That said, Black Fate challenged me more than I wanted, but it's my own fault: sometimes I get in my own way a bit too much.  Having only heard the teaser stuff, I was expecting a middle-of-the-road metal album with hard rock influence, some power metal influence, and perhaps a hint of prog metal for good measure.  What I got was nothing like that.

Because I've not heard any Black Fate material prior to this, their 4th album, I have no reference as to the sound or quality of their earlier albums.  If they're anything like this, however, I'd describe them as vaguely Savatage-inspired prog/power metal with a penchant for vocal harmonies.  The first few spins of the album were uneventful, because I thought maybe it was going to be faster, perhaps a touch heavier, and was expecting the vocals to be a bit more "soaring" than what Vasilis brings to the table.  Truth be told, I had already made my mind up as to what the album was likely going to sound like, so when it didn't grab me right away, I kind of dismissed it as perhaps less than what it was.  I count that as a mistake, however, because after about 10 or 12 listens, something started to click with me, and I started to hear this album for what it actually was: a solid, semi-progressive metal album with some power metal stylings injected in, and a fair bit of personality under the hood.

Musically speaking, this is solid stuff.  Guitars, provided by Gus Drax (briefly a part of metal legends Paradox) are driving and interesting.  He provides a riff-oriented style that is melodic enough without losing its edge, but not so intent on "chugging" that variety is sacrificed.  "Lines In the Sand" is a good example where it's not all bar chords and chugging.  It's a combination of that and alternate chording, providing a nice balance between an aggressive, heavy feel, and a melodic base that keeps the songs listenable beneath the surface.  There are a few nice touches here and there, like a couple pinch harmonics, some good solo work that isn't too flashy and retains tunefulness.  Bass guitar is provided by Vasilis Liakos.  His work isn't overly audible in the mix, but it's present and serves more as a driving force underneath the guitar to help propel the sound.  What I'm hearing sounds good, though it's nothing groundbreaking.  Still, it sounds good alongside the guitar work.  Drumming by Nikos Tsintzilonis is quite good, with a good sense of when to speed up and go nuts, and when to slow down and let the song breathe.  Very seldom does Nikos go full-bore with double-bass and fast rhythms, however, because the material's more medium-pace doesn't call for that much.  Instead, he keeps time, injects the occasional fill, and creates interest in subtle ways.  He does a fine job matching the material's feel and level of aggression well.

Vocalist Vasilis Georgiou is not what I was expecting.  Generally, with Ulterium bands fronted by a man, you get a fairly powerful male voice with highs, occasional lows, and a fair sense of drama.  Not that I was expecting a clone of any of the label's other vocalists, but for some reason, Vasilis' voice just struck me funny after listening to the record the first time.  It took me a bit to warm up to his voice for some strange reason.  He's a talented singer with a sense of dynamics, he makes good use of vibrato here and there, has a good tone, and uses inflection in places where it fits.  I'm not sure what my hang-up was initially, but I like what he's bringing to the table here, even if he doesn't have the presence of some of his label-mates.

My biggest issue with the album is that, while the songs are all well-constructed, and reasonably memorable, they still took a long time to take hold for me.  Yes, part of this may be my issue, but still, I'm looking for something a touch more immediate in a band of this type.  I'd prefer the band pull a bit of a "bait and switch" and give me a meaty, anthemic opening song to get my attention, and then weave the more complex songs in as the album goes along to help solidify what's going on.  It all sounds good while it's playing, but other than the chorus of "Call of the Wild", or bits of "Lines in the Sand", I'm not humming these songs after listening to them.  When I play the album 3 or 4 times in a row, I expect to have some of the material stuck in my head several hours afterward.  I'm not getting that here, and it speaks somewhat to the material itself.  It's not vanilla, by any means, but it's not something that has stuck with me at all.

Mileage on a release like this is going to vary.  If you're a big fan of the semi-progressive latter Savatage material, you'll probably get a big kick out of this record.  At the very least, you'll appreciate the musicianship at work, like I did.  If you prefer your progressive metal a bit more grand, you'll find this lacking.  Either way, I would encourage the members of Black Fate to tighten up their songwriting so that the next album has a stronger batch of material with more of an immediacy to it.  That will help the songs grab hold much faster, and get ingrained in the listener's consciousness that much more effectively.  As it stands, they've crafted a solid, highly listenable, and enjoyable release that just misses the mark in the songwriting department.  I'll tentatively recommend this to prog metal diehards who have to have everything in the genre, or Ulterium Records devotees like myself who have enjoyed everything the label has done thus far.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Neonfly - Strangers In Paradise (2014)

When metal leans toward the super-melodic, it can often result in sounding watered down or just lack that element of heaviness that gives metal much of its appeal, and not be much more than just really syrupy sounding hard rock.  There's nothing wrong with that, per se, because there have been a number of heavier metal bands lately that have taken that ultra-melodic, hard rock-influenced metal sound and made it successful.  Most of those bands tend to wear thin, however, once the novelty of the sound combo wears off, unless the songs are really good and stay with you.  The melodicism helps, but ultimately, the songs need to be memorable or make an impact to stay with you beyond the few minutes after listening to the album.  How does this apply to Neonfly?  Read on, gentle reader.

I'd not heard of Neonfly prior to receiving a review copy of Strangers In Paradise, but upon first listen, I enjoyed what I heard.  It reminded me immediately of the most recent material by Random Eyes, in that it's highly melodic metal that has some crunch to it, but has a bit of a hard rock bent without leaning too far in that direction.  Vocalist Willy Norton reminds me a bit of Random Eyes vocalist Christian Palin as well, because he rides that line between silky smooth and reasonably gritty and can transition between the two seamlessly.  Random Eyes is also a touchstone as to the band's sound, because Strangers In Paradise sounds a fair bit like Random Eyes' latest album, Light Up, due to its overt melodicism, and the way it straddles the line between hard rock, melodic heavy metal, and power metal at times.

Right away, it's evident that these guys can play and have major talent.  Guitarists Frederick Thunder and Patrick Harrington have the chops, and interweave a real interesting web of riffs, rhythms, licks, and leads throughout the course of the album.  The guitar sound is, what I would describe, as "semi-heavy" through much of the album.  Other than on the barn-burner "Highways To Nowhere", the riffs and rhythm playing don't get super heavy, but do contain a sufficient amount of crunch when the songs maintain a heavier feel.  Other times, clean playing, such as on the ballad "Rose In Bloom", or during the intro to "Aztec Gold", propels the songs in a way that belies the band's metal roots a bit, but not sacrifice the overall feel.  As for the leads, they're the expected melodic fair, but there are some nice bits (like in "Aztec Gold" where the guitars veer slightly away from the melodic, and into mere soundscape, which is a nice touch.  Bass work by Paul Miller is competent and sounds good here, though a tiny bit low in the overall mix.  Drumming is handled by Boris Le Gal, and he does a standout job of providing propulsive rhythms, dynamics, and really has a handle on how best to serve the song with his playing.  The review copy didn't include any info as to who provided the keyboard work on the album, but it's also quite good at times, with some nice symphonic elements here and there.

As I said before, vocalist Willy Norton reminds me of Christian Palin from Random Eyes, and that's a good thing, because Palin's voice is one of my favorites in recent years.  He can be heavy and menacing when he wants to be, such as with "Highways To Nowhere", and he can be super melodic and nimble as well, as with "Chasing the Night".  He has a nice tone, and just a real smooth sound to his vocals that complement the material well.  I do like it when he goes for a grittier approach, and I'd like to hear more of that from time to time, but honestly, his performance here can hardly be faulted, because it's very exact, while maintaining an emotional component.  In other words, he's on point when he sings, but it doesn't sound as though he's rehearsed the material too much for it not to sound as though he's putting himself into the songs.  It's a balanced performance that does him proud.

I wasn't entirely sure what to make of this record when I initially listened to it, because at first blush, it seems a bit unfocused and disjointed.  After repeated listens, I think it's just a band with many strengths, and they're trying to play to all of them as much as they can.  I'd caution against doing that too much on future records, if only because the songs have to be really good in order to ensure that they can back that ambition up with the material to match.  Still, aside from a few less than memorable moments, it's a solid record that truly shows a band with multiple personalities, and yet, those personalities all meld into one another much more completely than a band who might try their hand at varying styles or sounds and can't seem to get a handle on them.  The symphonic elements are a nice touch, and give the record a slightly progressive feel that the band should maybe try and capitalize upon, and yet, when they go straight-ahead and just rock out, they also sound excellent.  If the band can find their direction a tad more specifically and continue to hone their songwriting craft to make things even more memorable, they'll be a contender in the melodic metal field.  As it stands, this is still a really solid and highly listenable effort that deserves some attention, and should be heard by fans of the genre.  Recommended.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Sarea - This Is Not Goodbye (2014)

Metal fans can be a finicky bunch.  Metalcore is often decried by anyone who feels that the style has no business being associated with heavy metal.  Those fans sometimes go so far as to take offense to said metalcore bands being classified as "metal" in any fashion.  I understand this viewpoint, though I disagree with it in most cases.  I think "metal", as an over-arching genre, is far more vast and diverse than some folks would like to admit or recognize.  Sarea is a good example of a band that skirts that line and makes a case for something that stays within those boundaries while pushing at them pretty forcefully.

If I had to make a comparison, I'd say Killswitch Engage is a good comparison, but then that doesn't do this band's sound justice.  The most melodic of KSE songs is where we find the closest match to what Sarea is doing, but their sound is more expansive than what that description would lead one to believe.  I also hesitate to compare them to Five Finger Death Punch, mostly due to the combination of clean and screamed/growled vocals, and the tendency of the material to sound heavy while giving off a modern hard rock vibe.  Think of post-metalcore stuff that rides the line between modern hard rock and semi-progressive modern metal.  Add a healthy dose of keyboards and vocals that vacillate between a more rock-oriented style of singing, and a layered vocal that combines a deep, relatively throaty growl and a higher-pitched hardcore/metalcore styled yell/growl, and you get something that begins to defy genre tags just enough to be annoying.  This combination of elements generally serves Sarea well.

Right away, it's obvious that the album owes a great debt to modern hard rock, because many of the melodic touchstones take cues from other bands who have taken the metalcore and/or modern screamo sound and moved in a more rock direction, and the keyboards just exemplify that shift.  There are still spots where the faster tempos and riffing cling to the heavier side of the metalcore coin, however, and the addition of a few well-constructed guitar solos and the lack of traditional breakdowns make it hard to label this metalcore.  Instead, it falls somewhere between a modern, melodic hard rock, and a modern, melodic metal sound with extreme metal elements.  If I can be cheesy for a moment, can I call this "rockcore"?  That would best describe the sound in a single term.  That's not to say that there isn't plenty of metal moments present, because there are.  In particular, "The Catch 22" has a nice dual-guitar lick and some heavy riffing alongside a speedy tempo, a fast drum rhythm, and mostly shouted/growled vocals, and a real nice solo half-way through.

Guitars have a nice tone to them - not too heavy to take away from the rock influences, but heavy enough that when the riffs are hanging out on the lower string and in the lower chords, there's plenty of bite to them.  The guitar solos sound good as well, with enough grit to them so they sound more metal than hard rock.  Overall, Johan Alexsson and Alex Dzaic do a good job on the album.  Bass is handled by Johan Larsson, and is solid throughout, though I didn't recognize anything overly complex coming from his neck of the woods.  Still, he provides the necessary thump and bump in the mix.  Drumming by "Charlie D" is good, alternating nicely between simple rhythms and fast-paced, more metal-oriented playing.  He certainly has a handle on rolls, because he uses them quite a bit throughout the album.  Special mention should be made of the keyboard work by Martin Persson, because he shines quite a bit throughout the album.  The additional atmosphere he provides gives the album much more personality than it would have without his presence here.

Vocals are handled by Chris Forsberg, and seeing as he handles both the singing and screaming, he does a pretty good job switching between the two styles.  His singing voice appears to have improved between "Alive" and this new release, and while his ability to scream and growl is by no means top-tier, he does a good job expressing the energy of the material.  I'd put him on par with someone like Howard Jones, though perhaps he has a bit more range (if you want to call it that) with regards to his screaming, in part because he can get slightly guttural at times, and has an element of that "sing-scream" at times, too.  His singing is competent, and improved over the previous release, though he lacks the power and emotion of someone like Howard Jones in the clean vocal category.  Still, he does a good job overall.

I have to be honest about two things.  First, my initial reaction to This Is Not Goodbye was very mild.  It sounded good on the surface, but I wasn't sure if I was going to like it long-term.  Second, Metalcore as a style has become very watered down, and many bands trying to move past the style either sound utterly wimpy, or they become bad imitators of either the deathcore scene, or the Gothencore style.  I wondered whether or not Sarea could weather that downturn in the credibility of their chosen sound/style.  Upon repeated listens, Sarea surprised me with some level of range, a sound that wasn't too devoid of heaviness so that it still piqued my interest, and a good enough range of songs that I feel like the band has a real future with what they're doing.  Doolittle Group has an interesting road ahead with this signing, because it departs significantly with what they've done thus far.  I hope they can do well by the band and get them marketed properly so they can have some impact, because I think they have a solid thing going.  Recommended for the melodic metalcore and post-metalcore fan-base.


Here's the official video for Sarea's song "Downfall".

MindMaze - Back From the Edge (2014)

Female-fronted metal is a growing field, as I mentioned previously in my review of Vandroya's debut.  In fact, with bands like Benedictum, Kobra and the Lotus, recent output by White Skull, Epica, Serenity, and the solidification of Floor Janssen as Nighwish's new vocalist, one might say the future is bright for bands taking that direction.  One might also say that since women fronting metal bands has become so trendy that the field is quickly becoming crowded.  Standing out from the pack is essential for an album to really go anywhere or make any kind of impact.  MindMaze is well poised to get some positive attention, at the very least.

Having been unfamiliar with MindMaze prior to receiving review copy, I did just a bit of research to find out more about the band.  According to the press release, the band had already received acclaim for their previous album, "Mask Of Lies", and so far, the reviews I've skimmed over seem to solidify that claim.  Jeff and Sarah Teets, along with drummer Kalin Schweizerhof were apparently also in an earlier incarnation of the band called "Necromance", dating back to 2005, so these guys have toiled in the underground for quite some time trying to make a name for themselves.  I'd have to say that MindMaze is a more fitting moniker for the band, given the lyrics, musical style, and overall feel of the music.

Right away, it's evident that this is a tight production with talented players.  Guitarist Jeff Teets does a great job with his axe, playing interesting riffs and choosing chording that strays from the usual power chord-only chugging you often get in standard, off-the-shelf power metal.  Dare I say, there's a progressive metal vibe all over this CD, and the riffs exemplify that by keeping things interesting.  Of course, some chugging is present, and helps with the heavy factor at times, but overall, Jeff's riff writing skills are impressive.  Drummer Kalin Schwezerhof is proficient as well, with a good sense of rhythm, and a feel for playing in a way that enhances the material without hogging the spotlight too much.  The album's production by Brian J. Anthony helps this as well, because the drums are at the right place in the mix.  Bass guitar is handled by none other than Symphony X bassist Mike LePond.  He does a great job here, as can be imagined, and his bass work is a treat on this album, especially in tracks like "Moment of Flight" where he gets to take the spotlight during the intro and at various points throughout the track where you can hear him doing more than just keeping pace with the riffs.  The same can be said for his work in "The Machine Stops" - he really shows that the bass guitar is an instrument unto itself and not just part of the rhythmic feel of the music.

Vocalist Sarah Teets has a great voice, and utilizes it well throughout the album.  She has good range, though she generally sticks to the alto and lower soprano areas for the bulk of the album.  She apparently knows her voice and limitations, and does well to shine within that framework.  One thing I'll note is that while I enjoyed the tone of her voice immediately, the subtlety of her performance was something that I didn't latch on to right away.  Power metal is usually rife with inflection and overwrought vocal manipulation, and there's very little of that with Sarah's performance here.  Granted, the material doesn't suffer much because of it, but I would suggest she have a listen to some of the current female metal vocal powerhouses like Liv Kristine or Floor Janssen and take some cues from what they're doing for future reference.  Her most spirited performances are probably album highlights like "Dreamwalker", the epic, progressively tinged "The Machine Stops", or "Consequence of Choice".  She also does a great job with the vocal harmonies she records for the overdubs, and the background vocals she records to accent the material.  That stuff all adds quite a bit to the overall sound and feel of those songs.

Overall, this is a solid album of progressively-minded power metal that is a bit of a grower.  I enjoyed this from my first listen, but like Vandroya's debut, I felt like it sounded a touch generic at first blush.  Repeated listens have broken that opinion down, however, in part because I've grown to appreciate Sarah's voice, as well as Jeff's penchant for interesting riffs and solos that combine melody and technique so as to make them more memorable.  Unlike a lot of power metal bands who try and make long songs that meander and never go anywhere, or are just painfully repetitious, both examples of longer songs on this album are well done, and are highlights.  I'm not asking for a full album of said material, but if the band continues to write longer tracks of this caliber, they will certainly be welcome additions to future albums, and should be considered a strength.  I do feel that the songwriting could still use a bit more work, if only because only half of the songs were playing repeatedly in my head hours after listening to the album.  That's no slight, either; most bands are lucky if they get 1 or 2 tracks that you remember after spinning the album.  My only production gripe is that the cymbals sometimes sound a bit muffled in the mix.  I noticed this mostly sitting at my desk at work playing this CD over and over, but even listening via headphones, I felt like cymbal crashes especially sounded a touch weak.  As I mentioned before, Sarah should try and diversify her vocal approach a bit, and keep pushing her instrument to achieve the most from it.  Those 2 elements, along with her perhaps a talented permanent bassist, would help this Pennsylvania collective rise to the top of the female-fronted prog/power metal heap.  For now, I'd say this is recommended to all fans of progressive power metal looking for a good album to sink their teeth into.  Inner Wound Recordings was smart to snap this band up - they should have a bright future ahead of them.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Repossession: A Christmas Album (2014)

Christmas music is one of those things that you either love or hate, there's generally no middle ground.  Some people, like my boss, can't wait for the day after Thanksgiving, because they can break out the vast array of Christmas-themed CD's and play them to their heart's content without anyone thinking they're strange because of it.  Playing those CD's in the middle of June, however, will usually elicit strange looks.  But for those who love Christmas music, there are hundreds of albums and compilations to choose from to whet the appetite.  For the metal fan, however, there's very little Christmas-themed metal, aside from the occasional single, some Trans-Siberia Orchestra, or the occasional full album of metal by an artist, like Rob Halford's "Winter Songs".

I'm a bit picky when it comes to Christmas music.  If I'm in the mood for it, I really like it and enjoy listening to it, even if it's kind of cheesy.  But I gravitate toward either classics like Mannheim Steamroller's 1st 2 albums, some good old Bing Crosby, or some of the other Christmas-themed music I grew up with.  The idea of hard rock and metal Christmas music is one that I like, but very few bands have done much with the idea, other than a few modern acts like Theocracy or August Burns Red.  There have been some attempts at gathering this material together in the past, like the 2002 Sound of the Dead Records' "A Brutal Christmas - The Season In Chaos" compilation.  That was a good collection of songs, but this new collection takes things to the next level by further diversifying the mix of genres and bands, as well as offering two full-length, long CD's chock full of fun tunes.  We have Metal Blessing Radio to thank for bringing all this goodness together.

This compilation brings together a number of familiar metal Christmas songs, as well as a handful of relatively obscure tracks.  In part, a large percentage of the tracks from "A Brutal Christmas" appear here, as well as tracks previously released as free downloads or EP/album tracks like Theocracy, Grave Robber, Paramaecium, Frost Like Ashes, and Deliverance.  Then there are some bands/artists I've never heard of, like Derek Close, Jonathan Simpson (who gets to open and close the album), Anschluss Amor, and Forfeit Thee Untrue.  Stylistically, this is fairly diverse.  We have everything from shredding hard rock/metal like Pastor Brad or Derek Close, to the gothic rock of Leper, the horror punk of Grave Robber, and the grooving sounds of Faithbomb, to the more extreme, such as the doom death metal of Paramaecium, the melodic death metal of Immortal Souls, the brutal death metal sound of Tortured Conscience, the metalcore of Second Thief, or the black metal of Erlosung or Flaskavsae, or the grindcore of The Right Wing Conspiracy.  There's some more experimental stuff here as well, like Kekal's awesome take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", Amelioration's "Redirection Christmas", Anschluss Amor's industrial "Christ's Mass", or the always bizarro Frank's Enemy with "Coventry Carol".  You certainly won't be bored listening to this release.

One thing I noticed immediately is that the volume level is quite low.  That's probably due to the various volume levels these tracks were recorded and mastered at from various sources, so it was a smart decision to "normalize" the songs to a lower volume to accommodate that divergence, and make the listening experience a bit more even across the board.  If you want to crank it, just turn he volume up a little higher and jam out.  One thing I'd suggest to anyone thinking about assembling a compilation of this type in the future - mix up the tracks a bit more if you have multiple tracks by a single band.  It's a bit distracting to hear all 6 Erlosung tracks all in order, even though I know they're all quite short and similarly constructed.  It would have been more interesting to hear those songs interspersed throughout the entirety of the compilation.  Same goes for Second Thief or Pastor Brad - they only had 2 tracks, but it might have been nice to have 1 of each from both respective bands on each disc, just to help improve the flow and keep things interesting.  It's a minor complaint, however.  Also, I have to mention the packaging for the limited first edition digipak - it's a quality double-fold digi with nice hard cardstock as its base, and a nice matte finish.  The cover artwork, as you can see above, is a nice parody of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, and doesn't overwhelm the original work with changes, just subtly gives it a humorous Christmas theme.  The first pressing is hand-numbered, and limited to 300 copies.

The other nice thing here is that the proceeds from the sale of these CD's will go to benefit an organization called MPact Events.  They will be using the money (100% of it, according to the press release I received) to purchase Christmas gifts for kids via the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate) - so these gifts will be going to foster kids who may not get any gifts from their birth parents.  Being that my wife and I spent several years doing foster care and have a heart for kids, I'm on board with this, and this worthy cause is dear to our hearts.  I was blessed to get a review copy of this compilation, but I would encourage anyone out there who is a metal fan and wants some Christmas-themed metal to jump on this, because it's a good cause, and a great deal.  You get 37 tracks of awesome Christmas music for $13 in a stunning digipak that will no doubt become a collectible in the years to come.  I'm not one to push my readers into buying stuff, I just try to give my opinion on a band when I review their CD.  But this is the exception to the rule - fans of metal should be checking this out post haste, and anyone else looking to support a good cause and/or for a Christmas music curiosity for their collection, go buy a copy from the Metal Blessing Radio website.  Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bloodwork - World Without End (2014)

Death metal has changed quite a bit since its formative years in the mid-late 1980's.  What started as a more extreme extension of thrash metal quickly developed into its own form in the early 1990's, and has taken on a number of iterations in subsequent years.  The early-mid 90's saw the rise of technical death metal like Gorguts, Atheist, Cynic, and latter-day Pestilence, as well as more brutal death metal like Suffocation or Dying Fetus.  Death metal mixed with doom metal became prevalent as well, with acts ranging from My Dying Bride, early Paradise Lost, and early Anathema to Paramaecium and Orphaned Land.  The 2000's and beyond have spawned more modern distillations of the death metal sound with ever-improving production values, which sometimes make the music sound more "in your face", but sometimes take away from the raw, unadulterated sound of what death metal was in the beginning.

The last 5 or 6 years has seen a major resurgence in the sound of early death metal, now referred to by most as "old school death metal" or OSDM.  A fair number of indie and underground music labels are putting out cassettes and vinyl releases for a number of bands, and many are retreating from over-produced, sterile sounding records to something more raw and organic, recalling the early 1990's where good production was possible, but the raw sound of the music wasn't compromised by the production, mixing, or mastering.  Endtime Productions has wisely snapped up UK death metallers Bloodwork, and given the vinyl (and CD) treatment to their full-length debut World Without End.  It stands as a shining example of OSDM done right in the modern age.

Right away, I hear many hallmarks of early death metal in the sound.  The guitars are downtuned, like most albums from that early period, but not so far that there's no definition in the guitar tone or in the riffing.  The guitar sound isn't so deep and sludgy that it forsakes some level of bite; indeed, this record's guitar sound is heavy and has plenty of teeth.  There isn't much in the way of solo work on the record, but lots of fast-picked rhythms and segues that really show off the abilities of all 3 guitarists in the band, James, Jeff, and Michael.  There are some nice spots, particularly in the title track, where dueling guitar lines are used to great effect to produce a layered sound that works well.  Other times, it sounds as though 2 or 3 guitars are playing the same rhythm so as to pummel you into oblivion as you listen.  Bass, as provided by relative newcomer Ben, is well played and is prevalent enough in the mix that you feel the rhythms, but can also hear what he is playing, and he chimes in alongside the riffing quite nicely.  Drummer Jon Rushforth has quite an impressive number of bands he has provided drumwork for, and he shows considerable skill here on the album, with lots of blast beats, groove-oriented bits, and really solid, accurate rolls and fills.  Some death metal drummers sound like they're barely keeping pace with the music, but Jon doesn't miss a beat (sorry, pun intended).

Vocally, the album has a lot going on.  Much of the vocal work is a high-pitched, almost rapsy growl that sounds more like black metal than the typical raspy death vocals of Jeff Walker or similar growler.  But similar to an early Carcass album, you also have a deeper, more mid-range to low guttural growl that is layered in with the higher-pitched rasp, creating a good contrast.  Sometimes the vocals are relatively understandable, other times the layering obscures them enough to where it's difficult to make out the lyrics, but it's not overly distracting.  Both sets of growls are quality, though, because there is some inflection and variation throughout.  I didn't get a lyric sheet with the review copy, but based on the band's previous material, it's not hard to guess that the lyrics are based on Christianity, and in a couple spots fairly obvious cries to God for help/deliverance.

There are 2 distinct qualities at work here that keep me coming back to this release.  First and foremost, the album has some level of variety in the songwriting.  There are the usual blast-fest songs that go at full speed throughout, but there are moments of real atmosphere (like the outro of "Shadow Aspect"), as well as slower-paced moments interspersed throughout that give the songs additional flavor.  Also, there are spots where some real groove is present, which keeps the album from veering too far into brutal death metal territory, and help it identify with some early death metal pioneers like Obituary, while surpassing them with a heavier, more brutal overall sound.  Secondly, the album is short and sweet.  Despite the variety present, there's only so much aural pounding one can take before an album wears out its welcome, and this release is long enough to feel like you've been sufficiently been kicked in the teeth when it's done, but not beaten to a pulp and feeling like you need to chase it with something far less heavy or insane.  It's well balanced, well produced, and well constructed overall.  It's also a major improvement over the band's earlier material.  I had previously heard the "Insufficient Flesh" EP, and this sounds like a whole new band, in a good way.  While that EP had the typical markings of a demo-quality band in the studio for the first time, this sounds like a group of seasoned professionals, staking their claim on the metal landscape and putting out a quality album with no filler.  Hats off to Endtime Productions for scoring this release, as well as for making it available on vinyl.  The vinyl has made its way to my short-list, and that says something, especially given the limited income I have to purchase music with these days.  Highly recommended for the death metal enthusiast.


Cinema Fancy - Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

I've mentioned it here on my blog before, but I was never a comic book kid.  I always thought they were cool, and would sometimes go stand in the magazine aisle at the grocery store and read through X-Men or Superman comics on occasion, to gawk at the artwork, and to see what I was maybe missing by not being a comics devotee.  But as a kid, my energies were focused almost solely into computer & video gaming.  As such, while I was a casual fan of Spiderman, X-Men, Superman, and Batman, I never delved into those universes any further than what I was getting on TV, in movies, and through video games.  The origins of those characters didn't matter as much to me as the idea of them.

Fast forward about 20+ years, and as an adult, my favorite TV show comes to an end.  After 7 seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends its run on television.  Though saddened by its end on TV, it was a logical place to stop, and I was satisfied with the end.  A couple years later, when I heard that the story-lines would continue via comic books, I became intrigued.  During a business trip about 3 years ago, I purchased a whole stack of comics for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 run, and the rest is history.  That started by interest in comic books, and I've been collecting ever since.  However, I've not delved into many of the major characters or mythologies, because some of them have histories so long and complex, it's hard to know where to start.  A friend, and major DC/Batman fan suggested that I start with Batman (another character I have much interest in) by getting the short Venom trade paperback because it is the immediate predecessor to the rather epic Knightfall series, which birthed the whole "Bane breaks Batman's back" mythos.

I have this edition of Batman Venom - creepy!

Despite my lack of comic book knowledge and general story familiarity with much of the known comic book universe, I do have interest in many of the characters.  I watched, and enjoyed the X-Men cartoon from the 90's, I have played numerous comic book character video games (and own a fair number of them as well), and have seen and enjoyed most every Marvel or DC comic character-based movie made in the last 10-15 years.  So, while I don't feel as connected to these universes as some might be, I have an appreciation for the mythologies that have been built over the last 50-60 years or so.  Having said that, I'd not even heard of the Guardians Of The Galaxy characters or comic prior to reading an announcement about the (then) up-coming film.  I was intrigued, so I patiently waited for my opportunity to see the film and judge it on its own merits.  I was careful to not delve into that universe much prior to seeing the movie so I could let it inform me about the cast of characters.


For the uninitiated (much like myself), I'll give a brief synopsis of the film's story.  Young Peter Quill is a boy losing his mother to cancer in 1988.  Unfortunately, he spurns his mother's affections at the time of her death, due to his own fears and sense of loss.  Right after she dies and he freaks out, he is taken out of her hospital room and subsequently runs outside and cries.  Within seconds, he is captured by aliens.  The film immediately jumps 26 years into the future, and Peter Quill is a self-described 'legendary space outlaw' going by the alias Star-Lord.  He is attempting to steal an item of great value (an ancient orb) so he can hock it on the rare antiquities market.  He is briefly taken into custody by a small band of men, but escapes and returns to the planet Xandar to sell the item, only to be turned down by The Broker when he discovers that the item was also being pursued by the Kree zealot Ronin.  After this encounter, he runs into Gamora, who is attempting to get the orb for herself, under the guise of stealing it for Ronin.  As she and Quill trade blows over the orb, Rocket and Groot (a robotic-ally enhanced raccoon, and a walking tree/plant) attempt to capture Quill for the rather large bounty on his head.  As one can imagine, hilarity ensues.

As one can already tell from the movie trailers and previews, these 4 colorful characters get captured by the Nova Corps (GotG's own intergalactic police force), and are sent to a prison colony to serve time for being so doggone disruptive.  There, they meet Drax, who attempts to kill Gamora due to her affiliation with Ronan, a fanatical Kree who killed Drax's wife and daughter.  Quill talks Drax out of it, however, and ultimately, the 5 team up temporarily to attempt a prison break so they can escape and take the Orb to Gamora's buyer for a giant fortune.  As the story progresses, the characters poke at one another verbally, occasionally scrap over minor issues, but ultimately, form a loose bond that strengthens as they go through various situations with one another that require them to rely upon one another, despite any misgivings they have in doing so.  Without spoiling the whole story, the characters eventually decide to team up in a more official capacity to stop Ronan from committing genocide against the Xandarians by using the Infinity Stone that was encased in the Orb that Quill originally stole, which was stolen from him by Gamora's "sister" Nebula (on loan to Ronin from universal overlord Thanos).  If that sounds complicated, it's really not - I'm just boiling it down to keep from revealing the entire plot.

What do you mean, you don't dance?

The common thread between all the recent Marvel universe movies is that they've all had heart.  Even the entries in the series that have taken some flack (particularly Iron Man 2 and 3) are still fun affairs, in part because they continue the story and character development of the hero(s) and surrounding cast, but also because they have all had a certain amount of heart.  They have all been made with the understanding that they can't compile months worth of comic book story arcs into a single 2+ hour film, and simplify things enough so that those of us who haven't followed those plot lines can still get in on the action.  As well, they've all been done in such a way that they don't take themselves entirely seriously, so there's a playful feel to them as well.  That has helped to elevate the films from the schlock of the early-mid 90's comic book movie flops like Captain America or The Punisher, but also saved them from the imbalance that caused franchises like Batman to go from great heights (the first Tim Burton-directed film) to utter tripe (Batman and Robin, an utter disaster of a movie).  It has been a smart move through the entire canon of recent Marvel movies to inject them with enough humor to undercut the seriousness of the events unfolding to a point where each "episode" doesn't feel overwrought like a SyFy Original Movie often does.

In particular, Guardians of the Galaxy uses humor more than the previous films, but it does so to its advantage.  It's not a big stretch to think of Captain America getting buff due to a super serum, or even the Hulk getting his powers in a similar fashion through science.  It's a far greater stretch to think of a team of aliens and a human being the baddest dudes in the galaxy and taking on an enemy far more menacing than what a group of misfits should be able to.  Anyone watching the film should know that while the individual members of the team have skills and training to prepare them for many things, the obstacle before them is so large that it seems insurmountable.  The film's humor helps to diffuse some of the feelings that the task at hand may be too large, without ignoring that fact.  The scene where Quill talks his fellow shipmates into taking on Ronan with him, even though there was little hope of them succeeding, and maximum probability of death, is a prime example of this balance.  Those few moments are serious with an underpinning of humor, and despite the finality of what they're resigning themselves to, Rocket ends the scene with humor to level the mood out.  Save for the movie's opening scenes, the entire movie strikes a good balance between moderate doom & gloom, and humorous dialogue and situations to help temper the movie's overall feel.

Ronan is a lot like the Power Glove....he's so bad.

As for the acting in the film, I felt everyone did a good job.  I'm already a fan of the 2 "primary" characters' actors, in Peter Quill's Chris Pratt (of Parks & Recreation fame), and Gamora, portrayed by the current queen of science fiction, Zoe Saldana.  Pratt is his usual comical self, and transitions into an action role well enough, especially in this context.  Saldana continues to show her range, from the emotional, warrior-like Neytiri (Avatar) to the stalwart, strong Uhura in the recent Star Trek reboot films, to Gamora, who is somewhere in between.  Bradley Cooper shines as Rocket, and Vin Diesel is surprisingly effective as Groot, despite limited vocabulary and few opportunities to actually speak, he brings a warmth to the character one wouldn't expect.  Dave Bautista works well as Drax the Destroyer also, because he doesn't have to show a large amount of range - the fact that, as Rocket says, his race is completely literal and incapable of understanding the nuance of metaphor.  This works in Bautista's favor, because he can simply play it straight.  He does, however, use that to comedic effect in a few instances, and his large presence on screen does give the character additional weight.  Lee Pace is convincing as Ronan, Benicio del Toro is good as The Collector, Michael Rooker is good as always, and the list goes on.  Some performances were understated, most likely due to the nature of the character and/or the small amount of lines or screen time, but I wasn't disappointed with anyone's performances overall.

As with all the Marvel movies thus far, the animation and special effects are outstanding here.  The space locales are believable and varied, from the rock planet where Quill finds the Orb, to the Knowhere outpost and its almost post-apocalyptic feel and lush nebula-like appearance from the outside.  I have a soft spot for practical effects and make-up, so I'm glad to see that at least the costumes and make-up weren't totally CGI-based, but had some basis in actual construction and implementation.  Ronan's ship was an ominous, impressive craft, and was a good fit for the character.  By contrast, Quill's ship, the Milano, is a stylish and elegant craft, appearing much more nimble and maneuverable.  The Nova Corps craft was an interesting design as well, one which shows true later in the film.  All the sets were interesting, and the variety of humanoid-based alien species was reasonable for a film this size and scope.

One example of breathtaking scenery in the film.

I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy enough to go see it twice in the space of 2 or 3 weeks, and I may go see it again at a 2nd run theater if I get the opportunity.  It reminded me a lot of the other Marvel films, but not to the point where it felt like a retread.  Being that this is a motley crew of bandits and ne'er-do-well types, it was good that we weren't asked to believe that this band of 5 twits was supposed to take on Ronan, his entire security force on his ship, AND the entire fleet of attack vessels that spawned from his giant warship in the same manner that the Avengers took on the whole Chitauri fleet in their film debut.  The fact that the Guardians had the help of the Ravagers and also the entire Nova Corps fleet is a sign that perhaps future GotG plot lines will potentially see them teaming up with either or both camps, or perhaps other allies is a good thing.  The audience would be hard-pressed to buy that this small contingent is taking on Thanos or some other other-worldly menace all by themselves.  It did feel slightly rushed that the 5 characters go from practically wanting to kill one another to being friends in such a short time, but such is the nature of film.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give the film is that, like The LEGO Movie, it gave me a child-like sense of fun watching it, and has made me want to go back and revisit many of my childhood and early adulthood favorites.  Movies like the original Star Wars trilogy, Tron, Krull, Dune, Karate Kid and its sequel, The Last StarfighterTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original live-action film, not the Michael Bay train wreck), and even The Fifth Element.  These are movies that I've watched countless times, and practically know by heart.  Guardians of the Galaxy, like The Avengers, is a movie I can see myself coming back to multiple times and enjoying thoroughly each time.  Regardless as to whether it offers more each time I see it, it's a feel-good scifi romp that has interesting characters, relatable story elements, and good pacing, not to mention a fun and memorable soundtrack.  All of those elements will keep me coming back to the film, and it will be at the top of my "to buy" list when it's released on Blu Ray.  If you are at all a fan of Marvel movies, science fiction/fantasy, action movies, or just really well done ensemble cast films, you should go see Guardians of the Galaxy at least once, because it's a rollicking good time.  Highly recommended.


I would NOT recommend parents take their small children to this film.  I saw some small kids at the theater both times I went, and cringed both times.  Sure, it's more light-hearted and less intense/serious than other films of its type, and these are comic book characters that kids can read about, but there's a difference between what is illustrated on the page and that illustration "coming to life" on screen.  There's enough colorful language in the film to justify not taking small kids, but the amount of violence (stylized and sterilized, though it is) in the film makes it more intense and pronounced even than the original Star Wars films.  Add Quill's "Jackson Pollock painting" bit and some of the other innuendo, and there's enough adult content here for me to say safely that young kids shouldn't probably be seeing this film.  Yes, the MPAA is sometimes very arbitrary in their ratings, and the validity of the PG-13 rating has been debated hotly for some time, but this is a prime example where I think it fits and is correctly applied.  As long as your child understands that what they're seeing is fake and aren't prone to acting out what they see on screen, I'd say 10-12 and up should not be a major problem for most families.

"I am Groot....again!"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Devil's Heaven - Heaven On Earth (2014)

Devil's Heaven is an interesting collaborative of musicians.  According to the Press Release I received, you have 2 guys that are in AOR bands, 1 who has worked with Prog Metal/Rock titans and is in a well known prog band himself (Flower Kings), 1 from a fully prog metal background, a guy who has dabbled in jazz, pop, and metal, and a dentist who apparently plays guitar.  I think perhaps Mötley Crüe needs to give up their name and find a new moniker, because these guys might be more suited to it.  To be fair, it would seem that, because of some of the members other, more full-time commitments, this would be a side project, so perhaps Vince and company can keep the name after all.  Still, an odd bunch of players to get together.

With a name like Devil's Heaven, you could go just about anywhere lyrically or musically, but this project kind of walks the line between sleaze metal and a melodic, traditional 80's heavy metal approach.  I can only assume this is a side project for the talent involved, so this is most likely a batch of tunes that these guys couldn't necessarily have recorded (or have wanted to record) with their primary bands.  Chief among those I would say would be Jonas' Flower Kings, as there would be little or no place for this material on a Flower Kings record.  That's not to say this material isn't musically sound, because it is, but based on the fairly straight-forward hard rock and metal sound here, we won't be hearing any of these songs show up at a Flower Kings gig any time soon.

Musically, this is solid stuff, and with the players involved, it ought to be.  The instrumentation is all quite good, and the riffing is heavy enough, if not always that memorable.  The guitar sound is somewhat modern without being overproduced, and sounds appropriate for a band of this type updating an older hard rock and metal sound.  Solo work is also quite good, with a lot of good leads and licks over the course of the whole record.  As expected, bass guitar is well done here, though it's not as high up in the mix as you'd think it would be, given the band he hails from.  Still, he's audible and you can hear him doing his thing.  Drumming is also pretty good, with dynamics where the songs call for them.  His performance is solid overall, and he occasionally cuts loose with real fiery double-bass work (especially in the opening track, "Welcome II the Show") and rolls.  One thing about the drums is that I didn't think the bass drum sound was loud enough, as sometimes it seemed to get buried by the bass guitar.  Keyboard work on the album is quite good, with organ sounds, piano, and the usual keyboard tones in place where you'd expect them.  They don't take center stage much, but they add a nice layer of interest to the songs.

Vocally, Marcus Nygren sounds quite good.  His accent makes some word pronunciations a bit odd, but overall, he makes things relatively easy to understand with his lightly gravelly tone.  For a guy that sings in a couple AOR bands, you'd think his voice would be smoother, but then again, I haven't heard his other material.  His voice works well for the material in question, however.  One thing I'll mention is the lyrics - some of them are pretty good, well thought out narratives about various topics, but there are a handful of songs where the lyrics are PAINFULLY bad.  Chief among them are the single "Demerital Action, "Hot Sex" and album closer "Wine Me", which tries to be clever with its story, but ultimately falls flat.  Another song that doesn't quite work is "Mean Street City" - it just seems to try too hard to sound like it's being sung by a real tough guy, but I don't buy it.  Other lyrics are surprisingly meaningful and emotional, such as the short poem used for "Stillborn", "Touched By An Angel" about death, or the heavy track "Riders In The Sky".  All in all, the lyrics on the album are a mixed bag.

Listening to this album, it occurs to me that this is exactly the kind of record I'd expect to hear from a group of guys, mostly from other bands, that want to put out something that doesn't fit into the scope of music they'd normally be writing or playing.  It's all well constructed and reasonably enthusiastic, with good performances and fairly good production.  My biggest gripe is that the album feels uneven, stylistically.  It doesn't bother me that they did 3 or 4 "sleaze metal" tracks, 2 or 3 emotional ballads, and a handful of "barn burner" type songs.  What bothers me is that it doesn't necessarily flow together that well while listening to the album.  There's nothing technically wrong with the material, but as an album, I don't think it gels the way it should.  Add the inconsistency of the lyrics and the fact that it feels like the album has been pieced together from 2 or 3 different bands' material, and it's just not as cohesive as I'd like it to be.  It's a solid debut, but I can't say it's anything more than that.  I'd encourage the band to write more songs next time and really work on choosing the best material before they compile the album and record it all.  If you can't get enough 80's styled hard rock and metal with a modern feel, give this a listen, it just might be for you.  Otherwise, this is definitely a try before you buy kind of CD.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Voyager - V (2014)

Progressive Metal has become a crowded field.  In order to stand out, you really have to do something special, unique, or just be so insanely talented that people sit and listen to your album with their jaw on the floor, much like most of us did when Dream Theater first hit the scene and were wowing us with their level of playing talent.  Now that they've spawned a generation of copycats and gone toward a sound increasingly concerned with solos and individual playing, but have forsaken actually writing great songs about 50% of the time, other bands have more opportunity to showcase their talents and get noticed.  While Voyager has been releasing albums since 2003, I've only become aware of them recently, and "V" is my first exposure to their sound.

Upon first listen, I was taken aback at how much I felt their sound was at once unique and also quite familiar.  They remind me of some other recent semi-progressive bands playing a vaguely modern hard rock/metal sound with a unique vocal approach.  LA's Clandestine comes to mind, especially since their single "Disappear In You" has a similar hard-hitting yet melodic approach that opening track "Hyperventilate" has.  If you can imagine Orphan Project making an album immediately after listening to a couple Halcyon Way albums, that might give you a small idea of what this sounds like, but only hints at what you can expect on this record.  Their sound isn't that far removed from the likes of Souljorners or Ascension Theory either, though with a focus on songwriting and pop sensibility, perhaps a bit like Mehida.  One-time Canadian outfit Asher is another audio touchstone.  If you like progressive metal of the highly melodic and subtle variety, you're in for a treat.

It must be said immediately that this record sounds very "clean".  Those who like some level of grit, grime, and dirt in their metal will find almost none of that here, save for the distortion in the guitar tone, which is bassy and heavy.  Even so, the heavy, distorted guitar lines still sound "clean", in that they're processed and produced to get the sound and tone without any aural artifacts.  Don't think that diminishes the heaviness factor, because it doesn't.  The riffs sound meaty, and the solos have some bite to them when need be, and a real smooth feel to them at other times.  There's a fair bit of clean guitar work present, and it often creates a good balance between achieving a melodic center to the song and providing the listener something they can sink their teeth into before ramping up the heavy and knocking them around a bit.  The solo work also has a balance between complex runs and licks, and melodic lines that make them more memorable and tuneful.  I'm not sure who does more soloing, Scott or Simone, but hats off to whomever takes the reigns on that front, because the solos on this record are interesting and highly listenable.  Alex's bass work is good throughout, though he doesn't often get the opportunity to shine like some prog bassists do.  And drumming by Mark Boeijin is quite good, with a lot of niceties here and there, and it sounds like he gives the drums a solid pounding.  The bass drum sound is also nicely up front, with that satisfying thump you expect out of a modern sounding record.  Keyboards aren't overdone, and there are some songs where they aren't included at all, but used as an accent in some areas, and a focal point in others (especially the piano work in "Summer Always Comes Again") they work really well and are an integral part of the sound of "V".

I can't describe Daniel Estrin's voice without first stating that it's just so stinking smooth.  A lot of vocalists have an ability to transition seamlessly from gritty, gravelly vocals to a "smooth as butter" kind of sound, but the latter is Daniel's default setting.  There are a couple moments where his voice gets just slightly raspy, but on the whole, his performance is really even.  That doesn't diminish the emotional impact, either, because he has a nice sense of when he needs to be loud and frantic, and when things should get quiet and be a bit more plaintive.  He has a real nice tone to his voice, and his annunciation and phrasing have a bit of a unique feel to them.  Per the press kit, Chino Moreno of the Deftones likened Daniel's voice to that of Simon Lebon from Duran Duran, and I can hear a resemblance and similarity in the richness of their voices, though I'd say Daniel's voice has a richer, "thicker" tone to it.  All in all, this guy can sing and sing well, and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance throughout the record.  I also really liked in "A Beautiful Mistake" where guest vocalist Zemyna Kuliukas and Daniel were layered together harmonizing, because they really fit with the pop-infused progressive metal vibe on this CD.  Whoever she is, her voice is lovely and needs to be heard by more people.  I also enjoyed the occasional light sprinkling of mid-range growls, because they add just another minor ingredient to the mix.

I was pleasantly surprised by the album, and frankly, quite shocked that I'd only heard of the band before and hadn't heard their music.  Having gone back and listened to the previous 2 releases to get a frame of reference, I can safely say this is the best of at least the last 3 albums, and if the band continues in this vein of a hyper-melodic, pop-tinted semi-progressive metal sound, I see great things ahead.  Both singles thus far (opener "Hyperventilating" and "Breaking Down") exemplify the core sound of the band, and represent the album well, but only tell a small portion of the story that is "V".  I probably listened to this album 40 or 50 times in preparation for this review, and was honestly dreading writing the review.  Not only can I not put into words how excellent this slab of music truly is, but it also means having to move on and listen to other, likely less worthy music for a while until the next truly awesome album comes my way.  Until then, I'll have to pull this one out again on occasion, because the songs have been stuck in my head for weeks.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.


Blog Update - I'm on Mach Riders!

I just wanted to give a short update that I will now be contributing to the Mach Riders retro game review website.  All reviews will be posted in full here at MetalFRO's Musings, but I'll be linking to those reviews from Mach Riders and will have entries there that link back here.  It's exciting for me, because I'm inspired to branch out more and do more writing about video games, and Mach Riders is a nice, open platform for me to do more of that.  Because of my love of old video games, Mach Riders is a great place for me to link any retro-themed reviews here, which will hopefully drive additional traffic to the blog in general.  It is my hope that through playing and reviewing retro games for this purpose that I can begin to tackle the giant backlog of games I have.  I've been seriously collecting for the last 15-16 years, and have WAY more games than I realistically have time to play, so this should be some level of motivation to seriously play through some of them that have languished in my collection for years.

As for general game reviews, I'll be doing more than just retro stuff, so those posts will remain here exclusively at this blog.  Being the proud owner of a shiny Wii U console, and already having built a nice small library of games for the console, I'll be working my way through that batch of games (including my take on Duck Tales Remastered, which I already did here a few months back).  That doesn't include my small PS3 game collection, or my growing library of Wii games, so there will be more modern games I'll be looking at.  I may tackle a handful of PC games and/or indie titles as well.  I may do some newer game "retrospective" write-ups based on newer games I played through a while ago, and offer my thoughts months (or even a year or so) after having played them.  I think it could be an interesting read, to go back and play a game after not having touched it for months or years and see if my initial impressions still hold true, or if I've changed my mind as to what I think of the game.

I may also dedicate a few reviews as Mach Riders exclusives, and simply link to them from this blog as well.  In addition, I'll have to determine whether or not I want my 6th gen console reviews (GameCube, Xbox, PS2) for the Mach Riders site, or if I should stop at 5th gen (Saturn, PlayStation, Dreamcast) for that site.  Because my Xbox and PS2 collections have become quite sizable, and my GC collection continues to slowly grow, those reviews could end up being exclusive to this blog as well for the time being, which just means more content on this site for everyone to enjoy.  I'll make that determination as I go along, and may make an announcement here prior to posting my first review specific to that line of thought.

In any event, please enjoy my blog as always, and I hope you'll enjoy reading about my gaming experiences and some of what I've had fun playing over the last 30+ years.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review a Bad Game Day - Contra Force (1992)

If you press the Power button, you go back to sleep and 
forget all about this game.  If you press the Start button, 
you see how deep the rabbit hole goes and find out 
just what a nightmare you're in for.

Konami had a good thing going with the Contra franchise in the late 80's and early 90's.  They had 2 successful arcade titles, a pair of wildly successful (and critically lauded) conversions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a solid Game Boy iteration of the Contra formula, and had just celebrated the release of Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super NES console, which was both an excellent game and a technical marvel on the platform, showcasing the hardware's abilities.  In development was the Sega Genesis follow-up, Contra Hard Corps, which ended up being another excellent entry in the series.  As many already know, the franchise would go completely off the rails a couple years later with 2 rather poorly designed (and poorly received) PlayStation titles that Konami saw fit to outsource to an outside team.  It wouldn't be until years later with Neo Contra on the PlayStation 2 and Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS that the series would find its footing again in some meaningful fashion by getting back to its roots.

There's a bit of a forgotten chapter in the Contra series, however, and that is 1992's Contra Force.  Released only in North America, this game saw Konami using the Contra name for a game that tried its best to emulate the Contra formula to a certain extent, while adding new elements and changing up the play stile a bit to add something fresh to the gameplay.  To be fair, this game was originally developed in Japan to be called Arc Hound, but was never released there.  Instead, Konami slapped the Contra name on it and released it in the US to cash in on the series' popularity and sales numbers.  It was a poor decision from a company that was usually pretty good about what games it localized.  Why couldn't they have skipped this and given us the excellent Crisis Force instead?  I digress.

The game starts out innocently enough, with the familiar Contra logo on the title screen, with the word "Force" directly underneath, conspicuously in a different font, a whole different feel, look, and aesthetic than the logo it's paired with.  Still, one can easily overlook such trivialities if the game behind the title screen is good enough.  The first problem is that the title screen is only available for about 2 seconds, possibly less.  If you don't "PUSH START BUTTON", as you're invited to, within that short window of time, you're immediately pushed into the "attract mode" for the game.  Rather than a couple looping examples of gameplay, we get what is supposed to be a snippet of back story for the game and its main character, Burns.  Unfortunately, even though the gist of the plot can be discerned quickly from the 2 or 3 screens displayed, it's very stilted and not well done.  Ninja Gaiden had better cinematics and dialogue 3 years prior, so Konami was obviously phoning this one in.  In addition, with what limited "story" we are presented with, we find that we're not controlling muscular Rambo types to take on a large alien horde, but are part of what appears to be a spy/special ops division taking on human terrorists.  Who cares that we've had 4 wildly successful titles in the series prior to this installment, all based on alien invaders.  No, let's throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the successful formula that has propelled our product to great accolades and sales by slapping this popular name on a game that has NOTHING to do with our franchise and tarnish its name and reputation.  Someone at Konami USA back in 1992 clearly needed to be slapped upside the head.  In any event, you can identify 3 flaws with the game within 30 seconds of powering up your NES console.  I wouldn't consider that a good start.

"This is the crack team that's going to take down my organization?
This is going to be easy, boys!" - Random Video Game Terrorist

The first thing you'll notice after you hit Start and begin the game is that you're presented with 4 different characters to choose from: Burns (the leader of the special forces squad), Smith, a typical 90's 'tude character, complete with manly 'stache and hip glasses, Iron, a tough looking dude who can wield what looks like a bazooka, given the right power-up, and Beans, a skinny fellow who also appears to have 'tude.  I mean, look at his cool hair!  All kidding aside, another minor issue crops up at the Player Select screen: rather than pressing Down on the D-pad to select the first character (traditionally the top-left), you press Up.  If you press Down, you get Beans instead of Burns.  In addition, rather than the ability to use the full D-pad to select characters by moving Left, Right, Up or Down, you simply press either Up or Down to cycle through the list, and it goes top-left to top-right, then bottom-left to bottom-right, assuming you're pressing Up.  Reverse that if you're pressing Down instead.  As I said, it's a minor issue, but since the game's stock is already plummeting at this point, it's a noticeable design flaw that becomes more glaring in context with the game's other flaws.

Once you select your character and press Start, the next thing I noticed was that the character walk animation is really goofy.  Kudos to the design team for at least trying to make something semi-realistic, but it really looks somewhat unnatural.  Not to be too cliche or gauche, but the walk has that "trying overly hard to pass gas" kind of look to it.  All 4 characters have that sort of walk animation, so you can't escape it.  It might seem to be nitpicking on my part, but it's noticeable enough to mention.  Here's a GIF animation to illustrate:

It might be hard to tell from this GIF, but the walk is
just kind of stiff and funny looking.

Once you get into the gameplay, things seem normal at first, as many of the usual Contra elements are present.  You can fire upward and diagonally, as well as downward and diagonally downward while jumping.  You walk from the left to the right and blast baddies.  You start with the usual single-shot "pea shooter" weapon and can collect power-up icons.  However, the first change you'll notice is that the screen can scroll back to the left, which should be a good thing.  However, one of the game's fatal flaws creeps in because of this new found directional movement.  Namely, that once you stop running to the right and go back left, sometimes it doesn't scroll correctly when you start running to the right again.  You'll need to backtrack to the left and move right again.  The screen's scrolling point of origin fixes on your character at whatever spot on the screen you're at, so if you're an inch from the right side of the screen, that's where it will scroll from and you'll be rushing into danger.  You can correct this by going left again to roughly the middle of the screen, then turning around and resetting this point of origin, but the fact that you have to do this at all is a major design flaw.  How did this issue get past beta testing?  Worse yet, if you're all the way to the right and you're on a small platform, you'll have no room to move back left, so you may have to jump or maneuver back across multiple platforms (which may or may not be available) in order to create enough area to reset the point of origin.  That, or you're forced to move left and right in tiny increments to keep resetting the position until you can feel safe enough to move on and have a larger area from which to reset it comfortably.  This is a huge design issue that should never have been included in a final product.

If that wasn't bad enough, the hit detection is also dodgy.  There were times in the first level where I was clearly shooting at a bad guy, but he didn't fall.  Sometimes it took 2 or 3 shots to take them down, even when the previous play through of the stage only took a single shot.  There's a spot in the first level where an enemy is on a moving conveyor belt (though he is conspicuously NOT MOVING), and if you shoot the belt underneath his foot level, sometimes you'll take him out, sometimes you won't.  3 of the 4 characters crouch when you press down on the D-pad, but Beans does the full lay on the ground maneuver like the previous installments in the series.  However, sometimes bullets that are CLEARLY travelling above his body will clear him, and other times it will register as a hit.  The lift truck in the first level moves normal at first blush, but if you get behind it, it does this bizarre thing where it moves toward you when you're walking toward it, but purposely moves away from you if you're walking the opposite direction.  That sounds strange, I know, but you can tell the truck is actually moving, not just that you're walking toward or away.  Some ledges cannot be trusted as well: I was standing near the edge of a ledge where some boxes were dropping from the ceiling, and though my character wasn't touched by a box, he slipped off the edge though I wasn't touching the D-pad.  This happened more than once, so I'm fairly certain it's another design flaw.

"Why is it that I gotta keep moving, but these two guys
can stand on moving platforms and not move? - Beans

Less a design flaw and more a casualty of innovation without careful planning, the power-up system in this game is somewhat uneven and problematic.  The Contra series has seen its share of less than useful weapons (the flamethrower from the 1st game comes to mind), but some of the weapon choices in this game just don't make sense.  Adding a Gradius-esque power-up system was a cool idea, but the secondary and tertiary weapon choices are a bit off in some cases.  Burns can power-up to either a hand grenade, or a machine gun.  Go for the machine gun, because the grenade can be difficult to use and not very handy against enemies some distance away.  Beans has a landmine you can use, but BE CAREFUL with that, and plan to use it for areas where it could be useful.  There are spots where you have to overcome landmines, and if you jump and shoot diagonally downward at the mine, you can destroy it.  Good luck taking out enemy mines by attempting to drop your own.  Some of the other special weapons are handy, but nothing as awesome as the original game's spread gun, or Operation C's cool homing gun.  Playing devil's advocate, I can see how managing the power-ups provide an element of strategy, but it becomes very easy to paint yourself into a corner when you have only one weapon available at any given time, and it's one with limited range.  Speaking of limited range, why would they make the bullets disappear at a certain range?  This is a projectile weapon, not an energy weapon.  Not to get too scientific, because this is just a video game we're talking about, but any 8-year old playing a video game should be able to discern that bullets fired from a gun don't just disappear into thin air after 12 feet, they keep going until they hit something.

Now that I've completely trashed the game, let me point out a handful of good things about it.  The graphics are actually pretty good, with interesting level graphics, some decent moving water in the background of the first level, and nicely animated stuff like the mashers in the first level.  Equally awesome is the fact that many of the background objects and things can be shot at and destroyed, which adds an additional element of realism.  Rather than having to try and run through the mashers (not possible), you can simply shoot them at the top and destroy them.  Partially broken pieces of scenery and be blown away, and even some other bits that look just fine.  It's a nice touch in a game riddled with so many flaws.  The music, while not very memorable, at least retains most of the Konami signatures such as the pacing, energy, as well as the general sound and feel.  In addition, despite the fact that it's not well implemented, the strategic element and augmented weapons system was at least Konami doing something different in this type of game.

"Now you see you don't!" - Iron

Perhaps my biggest issue with this game is not with the game itself, but the fact that Konami saw fit to localize it as a Contra title.  Before everyone cries foul and we get into an endless Doki Doki Panic! and Super Mario Bros. 2 debate, let's take a step back and remember that DDP began its development life cycle as a SMB title, and was changed to something different partway through.  This was never intended to be a Contra title, insofar as I've been able to discern through various Internet resources.  This was a shameless cash-grab on Konami's part, and unfortunately they only figured us stupid Americans would fall for it.  Thankfully, we responded in kind and the game didn't perform well.  I remember renting this game with a friend as a kid and being frustrated with it, and finding very little fun factor compared to Contra or Super C on the NES.  None of my other NES-owning friends rented or bought it, and I don't know anyone else who owned a copy as a kid, at least not that has told me they actually spent money (or their parents did) on a copy.  The existence of C: The Contra Adventure and Contra: Legacy of War tells us that Konami didn't learn their lesson here, unfortunately.  We can still take solace in the fact that poor sales of those titles helped to steer Konami back in the right direction with more recent Contra games, however.  Had this been released as anything other than an established franchise here in the US, it may have performed okay and been recognized as a game with good ideas marred by some bad design choices.  Or perhaps it could have spent more time in development and localization to work out those bugs before going to market.  We'll never know, and that's okay, because this game can stand as a good example of poor design and marketing choices.  This is most definitely a "try before you buy" kind of game, so take no shame in emulating it before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.  This one's not easy to find on the cheap.