Wednesday, September 24, 2014

While Heaven Wept - Suspended at Aphelion (2014)
While Heaven Wept are undoubtedly one of doom metal's best kept secrets. I first became attracted to their epic doom sound with the riveting "Vast Oceans Lachrymose." While Heaven Wept are known for their beautiful, melancholic atmosphere, heavy riffs, and mournful vocals.

On this album the band decided to make a concept album and from a lyrical and aesthetic standpoint they succeed. Musically though, "Suspended at Aphelion" leaves a bit to be desired.

It starts off well enough with the gorgeous classical piece "Introspectus" which sets the tone for the whole album. Then we come to my favorite track "Icarus and I" which doesn't have any doom to speak of, but is nonetheless epic and grandiose. The last few minutes of the song make you feel as if you're soaring through the heavens just as Icarus did.

Things slow down after that with "Ardor" which repeats the last few minutes of "Icarus and I." Reprises are a common musical device, but using one right after its parent track, rather than at the end, and not making it acoustic are not very good ideas. 

The next moment of excitement comes with track 5 "Indifference Turned Paralysis" which shows the band's proficiency with translating classical musical structures into metal. A power metal band could have easily written this piece (and that's not a bad thing at all considering I'm a fan of power metal).

The album's second truly great track is "Reminiscence of Strangers" which is a beautiful ballad which builds up into the kind of epic doom melody I was hoping to hear on this album.

There are three tracks under 2 minutes on this album and that is a pet peeve of mine. Unless it's punk or grindcore, I'd prefer albums have songs at least 2 minutes long. The band would have been much better off combining the time used for those three tracks into something better.

The long and short of it is that the truly epic moments I was hoping for are few and far between. Much of this album is repetitive and not all that interesting. While Heaven Wept are clearly a talented band and I'm a big fan of theirs. However, it seems like this time they couldn't focus that talent into something really cohesive and memorable like "Vast Oceans Lachrymose." Concept albums are fine as long as each song can shine on its own. Most of the songs here, unfortunately, cannot. That said, this is still a good album and it contains creative songwriting and a couple of really good tracks that make it worth coming back to.


(Special thanks to Nuclear Blast to providing me a promo copy.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scar Symmetry - The Singularity (Phase I - Neohumanity) (2014)
Like a lot of Scar Symmetry fans, I was massively disappointed when Christian Alvestam left after the monumental "Holographic Universe" album in 2007 (still my all-time favorite melodeath album). His growls and clean vocals are simply some of the best I've ever heard and I doubted the band could be any good after that or, indeed, that it could even continue. The next two releases, "Dark Matter Dimensions" and "The Unseen Empire," somewhat reassured me of the band's vitality by featuring choice cuts such as "Sculptor Void" and "The Anomaly." However, up until this album, the first three albums with Alvestam were still my go-to Scar Symmetry albums.

"Neohumanity" is undoubtedly the band's best release since "Holographic Universe." The songwriting is superb and the songs are all catchy and exciting. This is arguably the band's most "progressive" album with two songs that reach past the 8-minute mark. The lyrical content is really interesting (I've always loved the bands sci-fi/philosophical themes) and the album is simply more memorable as a whole than the previous two. The growls are actually better than Alvestam's and make a fantastic contrast with the improved clean vocals. The cleans are still not quite as good as Alvestam's perfect, polished crooning, but they're more than good enough to get the job done and don't detract from the songs' catchiness at all.

If I had to pick a favorite song it would probably be "Neohuman." It's ambitious, bold, and holds my attention throughout. The riffs, solos, and keyboards are all fantastic, especially the Haken-esque circus bit. It's just a fantastic piece overall.

The award for best chorus though would probably go to "Neuromancers." Something about the melody just makes it really stick out.

The album ends with the supremely epic "Technocalyptic Cybergeddon" which sounds like it could have fit on "Holographic Universe." The calm ending of the song is the perfect way to close out the album. 

Overall, I am extremely pleased with this record. I have a feeling that fans like myself who were lukewarm about the last two albums will really get into this one. I absolutely can't wait for Phases II and III. 

(Special thanks to Nuclear Blast Records for providing me an advanced copy.)


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Oath - The Oath (2014)
As I mentioned in my Blues Pills review retro/stoner rock isn't exactly fashionable or original nowadays, but then there are some bands that manage to stand out. The Oath is just such a band. It's not hard to see why either.

Like Blues Pills, the most unique thing about The Oath is the vocals. Johanna Sadonis' bewitching vocals are the centerpiece of the album. They're confident, passionate and fit the lyrics quite well.

Musically, The Oath fit perfectly into Rise Above Records' roster of bands, joining such doom heavyweights as Blood Ceremony, Angel Witch, and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. They basic style could be said to be 60's/70's garage rock meets doom but it's obvious that they are incorporating a wide range of influences. Just some of the identifiable influences include Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Blue Cheer, Saxon, Motorhead, and Iron Maiden.

Yet, don't be fooled into thinking that this is merely a thrown-together hodgepodge of disparate influences. Rather, it's a focused, musically adept project that sounds great from start to finish. Songs such as the immediately catchy "Night Child" and the somber, psychedelic "Psalm 9" are evidence of this duo's success in cultivating their own musical identity, thus enabling them to stand out from the crowd in an over-saturated metal market.

Overall, even if it's not particularly ground-breaking, "The Oath" is a creative and thrilling album to listen to. There are plenty of killer riffs and instantly memorable choruses to keep you busy for quite a while. 

Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (2014)
Pallbearer's debut album "Extinction of Sorrow" made waves throughout the metal world when it released in 2012. Critics praised the band for its innovative songwriting and the emotionality of its music.

"Foundations of Burden" takes Pallbearer's brand of melodic doom a step further with better production, better vocals, and overall better songs. This is an album brimming with atmosphere and emotion, yet at the same time it's absolutely crushing. Some negative reviews I've come across of this album deem the music "doom-lite," a claim I don't find any merit in.

Right from the get-go on the first track "Worlds Apart" Pallbearer are channeling such venerated doom bands as Katatonia, Warning, Paradise Lost, and Candlemass. The riffs are monstrous and thick, and the melodies are mournful and utterly captivating.

That said, it can be hard to connect with the songs as a whole given their length, relative sameyness complexity. The only real moment of diversity on the album is the gorgeous piano-driven interlude "Ashes." But diversity isn't something Pallbearer is, or necessarily should be, interested in. It's clear they want to tell a musical story in their own distinctive style without conforming to outside pressure. Therefore, those hoping for a significant change from the debut album will be disappointed. All they've really done here is to improve their already excellent craft.

"Foundations of Burden" takes you on a journey through vast, exotic landscapes but it's fairly easy to get lost along the way if you're not patient in dealing with the twists and turns. In other words, this is an album that requires multiple listens to gain a "bigger picture" view. Nevertheless, I'm very pleased with this record and consider it one of the year's best in the doom department.

Blues Pills - Blues Pills (2014)
Retro-stoner rock bands imitating 60's and 70's psychedelic music seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days with many bands simply failing to add anything distinctive or original to the mix. Blues Pills, on the other hand, are the clear exception to the rule. Rather than simply pay homage to the greats (Led Zep, Cream, Hendrix) etc., they channel these influences into something grandiose, elegant, and positively captivating.

It's not only the singer's incredible Janis Joplin-esque voice or the infectious grooves that make this album so enjoyable. Above all, it's the band's unbridled musical enthusiasm and passion that seeps through every song. This is a band that is unafraid to push limits and challenge themselves; in fact they enjoy doing it.

Whether it's the over-the-top quality of "Devil Man" or the haunting ballad "River"the band operate very much as a tight unit, with the rhythm section perfectly complementing Elin Larsson's soulful vocals. As for guitarist Dorian Sorriaux, he absolutely excels on this album, conjuring the ghost of Hendrix letting it drive him to make stomping riffs and fiery solos.

Some songs could be a bit more differentiated, but overall there is a very good deal of diversity and at no point during my numerous listens did I feel bored with this incredibly talented band's stellar debut album. Simply put, this album is one of the finest in the blues rock/psychedelic/stoner/call-it-what-you-want genre. This band can safely be added into Sweden's vast pantheon of exceptionally talented artists.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Mastodon - Once More Round the Sun (2014)
Mastodon, one of metal's most loved bands, created quite a stir with 2011's "The Hunter" which saw the band turn away from the technical songwriting and harsh vocals present on their previous four albums in favor of a catchy, almost traditional metal sound. On their latest offering, "Once More Round the Sun," Mastodon creates a sort of compromise between these two extremes. Each song is catchy, yet intricately arranged and visceral. Based around the band members' life experiences, this album is one that only Mastodon could have made. It retains their core psychedelic, progressive sound while maintaining a high degree of accessibility that is sure to rope in countless new acolytes.

Cuts such as "High Road" and "The Motherload" are as bombastic as one would expect from the band that made the epic "Crack the Skye." But while they are bombastic, the band's fundamental approach to songwriting has changed since their early days. Rather than write from a structural perspective, they let the songs flow naturally and stick closer to their 70's roots (i.e. Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy etc.) For example, "High Road" assaults you with a Godzilla-esque riff while "The Motherload" works its way into your brain with its infectious (to put it mildly) chorus. "Halloween" is the technical tour-de-force of the album yet the overall vibe is much more lighthearted than the fiery aggressiveness of, say, "Remission"-era Mastodon. Perhaps the weakest point of the album is "Diamond in the Witch House" which, before I listened to it, had me excited to hear Scott Kelly's latest collaboration with the band, but left me disappointed. It's certainly not a bad track; it simply lacks the focus and precision of the album's other songs.

That minor criticism aside, "Once More Round the Sun" is the album that is sure to unite long-time fans and new fans alike (though fans who exclusively prefer "Remission" and "Leviathan"-era Mastodon are sure to be put-off.) It clearly proves that a band can sound more "commercial" while not sacrificing its core identity. Admittedly, I felt nervous that the Mastodon sound would be even more watered down after "The Hunter" which was enjoyable but nevertheless didn't sit quite right with me. However, my fears have been allayed and this album now stands just behind "Crack the Skye" as my favorite Mastodon album. If you're new to the band then this is the perfect album to get yourself acquainted with them and if you're already a fan who wasn't too keen on "The Hunter" then this will be a pleasant surprise. I for one couldn't have asked for any more.

Accept - Blind Rage (2014)
First off: Lunar Caverns is back in business! (Hopefully for good this time.)

Secondly: "Blind Rage" is undoubtedly a top 10 album of 2014. I have a huge soft spot for mighty riffs, soaring solos, and gritty vocals - all of which this album has in spades. Since reforming the band with singer Mark Tornillo, Accept have risen to the top of the metal scene, far surpassing their 80's material (at least in my opinion). Their first two post-reunion albums "Blood of the Nations" and "Stalingrad" saw the band approach true greatness with such headbangers as "Teutonic Terror,"  "Pandemic," and "Stalingrad's" title track. However, I could never connect with the either album all the way through. Moments of greatness were interspersed with moments of "Well this could have been a bit more memorable."

But where "Stalingrad" and "Blood of the Nations" lacked pizzazz, "Blind Rage" is Accept at their most focused and memorable. It combines their 80's melodic, AC/DC-esque style with the technical, thrashy side seen on the past two albums. Each song feels completely unique and every single riff, solo, and chorus is immensely catchy. This is an album that is so memorable you'll be able to recall the chorus of each song simply by looking at its name. From the jaw-dropping solo on "Stampede" to the mournful, ballad-esque "The Curse" to the shout-along anthem "Final Journey" this is an album that will hopefully grip you from beginning to end. For those who thought traditional metal is nothing more than an 80's relic, "Blind Rage" will restore your faith in this underrated genre and prove that there are still loads more awesome riffs yet to be heard.

The future for Accept looks very bright indeed. For a 60-year old, Mark Tornillo is at the top of his game and Wolf Hoffman proves himself to be one of metal's best and most underrated guitarists. If you're looking for that one album that'll prove traditional metal's relevancy and vitality, I can think of none better than "Blind Rage."