Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Periphery - Juggernaut (2015)
Periphery's most massive undertaking to date, Juggernaut continues in the vein of Periphery II but on a larger scale. 

The album shows the band at the peak of their creativity. The Alpha side is the poppy side with such songs as Rainbow Gravity and 22 Faces delivering the band's trademark mix of brutality and catchiness. 

Omega on the other hand is a more diverse and experimental affair. To highlight some of this diversity: The extremely catchy sing-along ballad Priestess sits alongside the thrash-influenced Graveless and the prog epic Omega. 

I absolutely love Periphery II, but here one gets the clear sense that the band have pushed themselves to write their most compelling, bombastic material to date. One particular area of excellence (though many would disagree on this) is Spencer Sotelo's vocals. His performance on PII was already a dramatic improvement from the debut album, but here he's upped his game even more and is making the songs that much more dramatic. 

On the downside, the album does feel a bit repetitive with the same djent-chug present on basically every song. It's not a huge issue, but there will definitely have to be some significant experimentation on the band's next album.

Overall though, this is an extremely impressive album and my favorite from Periphery so far. 

P.S. Misha Mansoor should REALLY make an electronic album. The bits I've heard on Juggernaut and PII are phenomenal but there simply aren't enough of them.

Steven Wilson - Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015)
As regular viewers of my blog (assuming there any) are aware of, I'm a huge Steven Wilson fan (I gave The Raven a 10/10), so to say I was eagerly anticipating this is a criminal understatement.

The Raven is a fantastic album on its own terms, but its genius is somewhat marred by a distinct lack of creative progression. With little to differentiate it from Grace for Drowning except its ghost themed song-stories, I see The Raven as a creative step backwards for an artist who's known to push boundaries and avoid repetition. 

While Hand. Cannot. Erase. isn't entirely free of repetition (after all, Steven Wilson does have a particular "sound" that he's come to be identified with), what we see here is a quantum leap in terms of artistic progression, diversity of influences, and overall staying power of the music. 

Classic albums such as Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here are awarded legendary status not simply because of the music, but mainly because of the music's emotional quality and the lyrics' timeless messages. Concept albums, when executed flawlessly, center the music around a story that the general audience can relate to. For The Raven, there were multiple ghost stories - an intriguing concept, no doubt, but the album as a whole lacks the emotional impact that a single narrative can bring.

Without intending to sound pretentious, I believe that H.C.E. can, at least in some ways, be rightfully called the Dark Side of the Moon of the modern age. The thematic basis of H.C.E. is the film Dreams of a Life, which in turn is based on the true story of a woman who died in her London apartment and lay undiscovered for over two years. These themes of isolation and alienation in society were explored in depth on Dark Side of the Moon, but they are given a modern veneer and a relatable character in Wilson's opus.

From the hopefulness of 3 Years Older and the title track to the boredom of everyday life on Routine to the disconnection from real life on Ancestral to the inconclusive ending to the character's story on Happy Returns, H.C.E. masterfully traces a sketch of life in a postindustrial, urban environment. Through Rush-like guitar passages, psychedelic keyboard noodling, and hypnotic Boards of Canada-esque sampling, Wilson's true creative genius is on display as he marries the lyrics to the music in a way that's immediately relatable for not only his longtime fans, but most likely many new ones to come.

Wilson's previous three albums are all brilliant, but this seems to be the first one where he's truly proved himself as a master solo artist. In my view, this album completely obviates any need to revive the Porcupine Tree project, which so many fans have been clamoring for. Compared to the artistic maturity shown on this record, such a move would be a significant step in the wrong direction. In fact, no other Wilson album has connected with me quite like this one has. That isn't to say that it's my favorite Wilson release (In Absentia and Fear of a Blank Planet are still classic albums for me), but the sheer diversity of every song, as well as the way they connect with each other in a beautiful, yet heartbreaking tale of loss, puts this album over the edge as my favorite album so far this year. Indeed, short of something miraculously good coming out, I foresee this album taking my #1 spot at year's end.

A truly deserved 10/10

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror (2015)

Blind Guardian are one of metal's biggest bands. Their over-the-top style and retelling of Tolkien's stories have endeared them to countless metalheads around the world. Albums like "Imaginations From the Other Side" and "Nightfall in Middle-Earth" are considered defining works of the power metal genre. And let's not forget that Hansi Kursch is one of metal's best vocalists.

Despite all that, I've never been anything more than a casual fan. I always felt like the band had talent and a number of really good songs but there was always something stopping me from counting the band as one of my favorites. I think it can partially be explained the fact that BG songs usually have too many lyrics/singing and not enough instrumentation for my taste, but mainly because other power metal bands have simply released more enjoyable material (i.e. Stratovarius' "Nemesis," Kamelot's "Black Halo" etc.)

But here on "Beyond the Red Mirror," Blind Guardian have truly proven themselves to me, despite it sounding quite typical for their style. I largely dismissed this album on my first listen, impressed only by the title track and not much else. However, on the second listen it began to click very quickly.

Whether it's the incredible chorus in "The Ninth Wave" or the catchy, extremely memorable choruses on pretty much every song, this album is absolutely killer. Their previous album "At the Edge of Time" was good, but here they've really refined and focused their sound to make something very cohesive, much like a concept album.

The only issues I have are with the slightly uneven production and the song "Miracle Machine." The latter piano ballad is pleasant enough but would have been a true testament to the band's songwriting abilities were it composed with an acoustic guitar.

Other than that, this is a stunning album that's already one of my favorites not only of 2015, but of power metal in general. For a legacy band far along in their career to release something of this caliber is incredible. Even if you're not a Blind Guardian fan, I highly suggest you give this a listen. In all likelihood it'll be the album that turns you into a fan.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Contortionist - Language (2014)
Ladies and gents, I present to you 2014's best prog album. The addition to the band of Mike Lessard from Last Chance to Reason gave The Contortionist a chance to both reimagine and improve their sound. They started out as good progressive metalcore band on "Exoplanet," moving to a great band on "Intrinsic," as they incorporated more prog-rock elements. Here on "Language" they've once again upped their game and delivered something that prove them as a force to be reckoned with.

The thing that stuck out to me the most on my first was just how integrated and seamless this album feels. "Intrinsic" is a collection of great songs, but this album has a narrative quality that makes it all the more cohesive and impressive. But the single-best element here are the crystal clear, jaw-dropping vocal performance given by Lessard. The end of "Ebb and Flow," "Intuition"...I could go on and on about all the memorable vocal lines here.

The instrumentation is top-notch too. The futuristic, cosmic vibe is reminiscent of Cynic, Scale the Summit, and post-rock. The riffs can be a bit too staccato at times, but as this is a vocal-oriented album, they don't stray too far from the main plot. The play-off between heavy and light keeps things extremely dynamic, and it doesn't feel at all forced.  

"Language" is an incredible accomplishment for this young band. Much more than their previous two albums, this one emotionally resonates with me in a way that few prog metal albums have. With Lessard at the helm and the band's forward-thinking musical vision, things are looking very bright indeed for the next Contortionist album.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestite (2014)
Wolves in the Throne Room have consistently released amazing album after amazing album, and "Celestite" is no exception. As Ulver did over 10 years ago, WitTR decided to try their hand at crafting an ambient album. Combining the influences of electronic pioneers such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Brian Eno, "Celestite" is a brooding piece of art with dark, spacey atmospherics that sound like they were ripped straight out of an 80's sci-fi film (or even the soundtrack to "Interstellar"). As on WitTR's metal albums, the music feels organic, lush, and emotional. That is to say that their basic songwriting philosophy hasn't changed, even if the genre has.

My favorite track on the album, "Celestite Mirror," is as powerful as anything WitTR have recorded to date. Its grandiose, mysterious synths are backed by a choir of violent guitar chords, immersing the listener in an eerie, captivating sonic world. The bold, yet sparse composition of this track and "Turning Ever Towards the Sun" are, at times, heavily reminiscent of Romantic-era classical music, a fact made more apparent by the intermittent horn swells.

Those who need convincing should at least check out "Initiation at Neudeg Alm," arguably the album's most accessible and melodic track. It reprises the melody of "Subterranean Initiation" from "Celestial Lineage," thus making it recognizable to fans of the band's metal era.

The more I listen to this album, the more I'm convinced it's one of my favorites in the ambient genre. The cover is a perfect visual description of the album's sound: "Celestite" is the ideal album to listen to when virtually exploring the universe. While I still fervently hope they make another black metal album, I'd be thrilled to hear a follow-up to this one.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Amaranthe - Massive Addictive (2014)
As far as "guilty pleasure" bands go, this band is pretty much my #1. As good as Amaranthe's previous two albums are, I think "Massive Addictive" is their best to date. Every song is incredibly catchy and sticks with you on the first listen. It's just an absolute blast to listen to pump-your-first-in-the-air tracks such as "Trinity" and "Danger Zone." Sure, there's virtually no variation between them structure-wise, and the cheese factor is cranked all the way up, but if you just want to have a good time and sing at the top of your lungs then this is the album to go to. I don't usually listen to pop, but this might just the best "pop" album I've ever heard (if it can be called that). The growls are a bit lacking, especially compared to those on the first two albums, but Elize Ryd's singing is top-notch per usual.

While some may lament that this is a perfect example of the watering down of melodic death metal, my view is that albums like show its diversity and willingness to go in new directions. In fact, I'd argue that it's keeping the genre's spirit alive, especially in light of In Flames' subpar "Siren Charms" (which I won't even bother to review). But regardless of whether you're a death metal fan at all, you should definitely check this out. It's infectiously catchy, and is more refined and focused than their first two albums.

Electric Wizard - Time to Die (2014)
As one of the biggest names in doom and one of my favorite doom bands, Electric Wizard have carved a very particular niche with their hazy, thick, drug and occult-influenced sound. There is no real departure from that sound on their 8th album, but there is a bit of welcome experimentation as on the psychedelic, keyboard-driven closer "Saturn Dethroned."

Sadly though, while this album isn't at all bad, much of it feels like a rehash of older material. The first three songs: "Incense for the Damned," the title track, and the extremely evil "I Am Nothing" are the clear standouts. The rest of it feels a bit plodding and unfocused. The album's lead single, "Sadiowitch," is quite unimpressive compared to the driving, groovy stomper "Black Mass" from the previous album.

While many may praise EW for their consistency, I think that most fans see the band's age starting to show. Most of those fans will also lose interest in this album fairly quickly and want to spin the classics such as "Come My Fanatics" and "Dopethrone" rather than the albums that try to imitate them.

"Time to Die" isn't a bad album by any means. In fact, "I Am Nothing" is possibly their darkest, most evil song to date, and really stands out in their career. However, as a whole, this album feels rather formulaic. If I were in the band, I would consider branching out into more psychedelic and non-metal territory to really make the next album stand out from the rest. But all in all, this is solid addition to this great band's catalog and I'm excited to see what they do next. 

Earth - Primitive and Deadly (2014)
Like with Yob, I've always been a passive fan, but "Primitive and Deadly" impressed me enough to consider it as a serious contender for doom album of the year. The slowed-down, bluesy repetitiveness that snakes its way through the length of the album is like the love-child of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath. The inclusion off guest vocals is what, I think, really cements "Primitive and Deadly" as Earth's best work to date. Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi both have unique styles, but ones that converge on a gloomy, almost gothic common point.

Being recorded in a desert, "Primitive and Deadly" makes no secret of its emulation of the desert landscape. Take, for example, the wide open, simple chords and apocalyptic tone on standout "Rooks Across the Gate." This utterly haunting track speaks to the desert's mercilessness, sheer beauty, and glacial rate of change. One can easily imagine this as the soundtrack to the desert portions of "Fallout: New Vegas" and "Red Dead Redemption."

At the same time, despite the album's beauty, it has a steep learning curve. Ff the new Yob album is hard to get into, this album is even more challenging. There's very little in terms of dynamics here, (let alone on any other Earth album) so it requires a tremendous amount of patience to even begin to process it. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly their finest work and one of the best drone albums (if it can be called that) I've heard.

Yob - Clearing the Path to Ascend (2014)
I'm a huge fan of doom metal, but this band has never done much for me until now. 2011's "Atma" was decent at best, but on "Clearing the Path to Ascend" it feels like the band have finally coalesced their sound into a clear emotional statement.

Like Pallbearer, Yob craft a very heavy, dense, psychedelic sound. The difference is that Yob are a bit more "metal" and less melodic than their doom counterparts, and they have shouted vocals akin to post-metal such as Isis and Cult of Luna.

Yob's lumbering, mammoth riffs on this album stand in extreme contrast to the introspective, Pink Floydian acoustic sections. Each of the 4 gargantuan tracks on this record perfectly matches the mood of the album cover: a journey into an unknown, exotic land lost in the mists of time. Mike Scheidt's vocals are some of the best I've heard in doom. His mournful, languid clean vocals perfectly compliment his throaty, caveman growls.

But what I consider to be the underlying strength of this album is that despite all 4 songs being over 10 minutes and quite repetitive, I rarely felt bored. Instead, I found the hazy, dark atmosphere on "Clearing the Path to Ascend" the perfect enticement to keep listening. The wait was well worth it as I reached "Marrow," my favorite track. "Marrow" is a haunting, brooding doom masterpiece that is easily the culmination of Yob's discography. "Clearing the Path to Ascend" is certainly not something that most people will get into on the first listen, but it's well worth investing time into as it's truly a doom gem. Along with the new Pallbearer record, this one gets my vote as best doom album of 2014.

Opeth - Pale Communion (2014)
Opeth's 2011 foray into prog-rock and jazz fusion on "Heritage" left many longtime fans with a sour taste in their mouth. I, for one, enjoyed it, but it's still easily the weakest in their discography. It wasn't simply the lack of death growls or metal altogether; it was mainly that I couldn't connect with it like I had with "Still Life" or "Ghost Reveries."

 "Pale Communion," though, is a different story. The meandering fusion-inspired passages of "Heritage" have been trimmed down, and the end product is much closer to their metal days. "Moon Above, Sun Below," with its heavy, distinctly Opeth-ian riffage and harmonized acoustic interludes, could have easily fit on "Deliverance" or "Watershed." Similarly, the driving, Middle Eastern-tinged lead riff in "Cusp of Eternity" echoes back to "Atonement" on "Ghost Reveries." Mikael Akerfeldt and co. are clearly more confident in their songwriting abilities, whereas on "Heritage" it seemed as if they were approaching the writing process with an explicit desire not to make a metal album. And though "Pale Communion" is anything but a metal album, which makes it all the more unique in Opeth's catalog.

This album has something for every Opeth fan. Yes, there are obvious nods to their metal past, a fact much appreciated by old school fans such as myself. However, with songs like the Damnation-esque "Elysian Woes" and "River," Opeth are yet again charting new territory while still retaining the distinct melacholic sound that's defined them throughout their career. "Voice of Treason" and "Faith in Others" are some of my favorite tracks on this album. They both feature string sections that are employed so skillfully that one could hardly imagine the songs without them. "Faith in Others" has a particularly cinematic and even cathartic quality about it that makes it not only Opeth's best closing song, but also some of their most intensely depressing (in a good way) lyrics. 

"Pale Communion" is Opeth at their most honest and emotional, unwilling to care what the press or even their fans expect of them. This is a gorgeous story of loss and betrayal that pays homage to the greats of 70's prog rock with the kind of authenticity and focus that "Heritage" sometimes lacked. It may be difficult for a lot of fans to look beyond Opeth as a metal band, but with this album it's clear that they're more than capable of branching out into different directions and redefining their identity, even at such a late stage in the game. I know of no other band who has changed styles so drastically, yet retained the high quality of their music. Where Opeth goes next is anyone's guess.