Friday, September 30, 2011

The Showdown - Blood in the Gears Album Review

I remember seeing The Showdown many years ago after their first album came out. They were playing at some Christian club with some other Christian metal bands. I wasn't really into their debut, but after seeing them live I thought they were a ton of fun, so I kept up on them throughout their years, watching as they changed their sound in various directions and, eventually, on this album, put all of their soul searching together to finally gel and sound at home in what they created. I still kick this on every now and again when I want some southern swagger in the metal that I listen to. This was originally published on August 13, 2010.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Showdown, through the course of 3 albums, had not yet found their identity. They started out as a pretty solid metalcore band with some death metal and heavy metal influences. On their sophomore effort, though, they completely re-invented themselves as a southern groove metal band. This newfound sound did not go over well with their established fans and didn’t engender themselves to the southern rock crowd since it felt like they were just ripping off Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. Then came Back Breaker where they tried to mix their two dissimilar sounds together with very mixed results. They still didn’t seem to feel comfortable in their own skin. After some lineup changes, they’re back with Blood in the Gears and, finally, the band has found their sound.

Maybe it’s the new members. Maybe it’s the fact that Jeremiah Scott, their new bassist, took over a chunk of the writing duties. Or maybe it’s just that the band have finally found the perfect blend of all of the sounds they’ve toyed with over the course of their first 3 albums. Blood in the Gears is a perfect synthesis of their early metalcore/death metal sound and their later career southern swagger. Whereas in the past they never seemed to pull these two genres together cohesively, there are now a number of songs that take everything they do and mix it together successfully. And when they do venture down a path of exploring one direction more than another, they transition from song to song so well that it doesn’t feel forced. The perfect example of this is when they go from the two minute rager “Bring It Down” to the bluesy metal of “Take Me Home”. They go from the one extreme of ripping out blistering thrash solos and death metal inspired metalcore to another where they’re trudging along in a whiskey-soaked blues stomp.

On past albums when the band experimented with their southern sound, it never quite felt authentic. At times they sounded like a biker bar cover band that was trying to branch out and write their own tunes instead of an accomplished metal band trying on a new sound. Here, however, the band sounds just as much at home when they’re getting their southern swagger on as they are when they’re ripping through thrashy solos and metalcore progressions.

As much as the band has matured and succeeded in making one hell of a southern-fried metalcore album, there are a couple of small missteps that should be noted. There are some tracks, notably “No Escape”, where the band let a little too much of an 80s hair metal feel creep in, which is a little out of place, but not enough to completely ruin any songs. The other thing to note is that there are a few moments where David Bunton tries to add some gravel to his singing voice, and it feels a tad forced. You will really notice it on the closer “Diggin’ My Own Grave”, but it creeps up in a few other places as well. However, these are really not very big complaints when looking at the album as a whole.

The Showdown has created a solid mix of southern metal and metalcore that demonstrates what a band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders. For anyone that wrote them off after Temptation Come My Way or Back Breaker, now is the time to come back and give them another shot. They’ve grown, they’ve listened to a ridiculous amount of Pantera, and they’re ready to show you how some good ol’ down south metal should sound.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Burial - The Winepress Album Review

This is yet another review from when I was pretty much listening to metalcore 24/7. I'm not exactly sure why I was so obsessed with the genre for so long... maybe I was just generally angry, aggressive, or pissed off, but I am hoping that's not the case. Looking back, the vast majority of the bands I listened to in the metalcore genre throughout 2010, including The Burial, I rarely ever actively go back to listening to. If they come up on random, so be it, but I'm not seeking out metalcore to listen to any longer. I've moved more towards the djent and progressive metal realms now... so I'm sure in a year I'll look back and wonder why I was so obsessed with djent bands! This was originally published on August 11, 2010.

The hooks that metalcore bands have used over time to snag an audience’s attention have continually changed as the scene has shifted from one direction to another. Earlier this decade, metalcore became a popular alternative to the nu-metal glut that had overpowered the metal realm. Once metalcore had secured a foothold, however, bands needed something to set them apart. Why not add some melody and clean singing? It worked for a number of bands, and is still widely practiced today, but eventually that hook wasn’t unique enough, so there was a swing to the opposite end of the spectrum—deathcore. Instead of using any type of melody, bands dug deep to be as brutal as possible, but as we all know deathcore is now a dumping ground for crap bands made up of 95 pound, tight jean wearing, suburban Hot Topic kids that just want to seem intense. So what’s next? If the past 6 to 12 months are accurate, the next shift is most likely towards technical metalcore. This retains the heaviness needed to be “brootal” but also tries to show a band has chops. As with any trend, though, you have trend setters and trend followers. The Burial are one of the latter.

On their short, eight track long Strike First debut, The Burial sound more like Mychildren Mybride than The Black Dahlia Murder (and in case you didn’t pick up on it, that’s not a compliment). It’s obvious that The Burial desperately wants to play alongside the big boys of the genre, but they just don’t quite have the talent to do so yet. They have the song progressions down, they know when to toss in solos, and they eschew any ideas of melody, yet the execution of the individual components leaves something to be desired.

In the vocal department David Marshall has a solid, guttural yell that suits the style of music the band is playing, but there is so little variation in his approach that by the time you get to the end of the album, and it’s not that long, you’ll be more than sick of listening to him yell at you in the same exact manner over and over again. There are the occasional layered vocals, but because he doesn’t have much range it doesn’t do anything more than increase the volume and fill of the vocal passage.

Todd Hatfield and Jeff Wright, manning their axes, have a good command of the technical metalcore realm, but there are weaknesses that can be seen throughout the album. Their progressions are solid and the breakdowns do what they need to do, sometimes sounding like they could be outtakes of August Burns Red tracks (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), but the solos and sweeps are where you get the feeling some extra polish and practice could have made a difference. Some of the solos feel rushed while others feel slightly out of place. I actually had a hard time finding solos on the album that sounded like they belonged, which is rough considering The Burial want to be in the technical realm.

All is not lost, however, as the band does show promise. Everything noted here can be addressed by the band. With focus, refinement, and development, The Burial can take the template of the genre, which they demonstrate they understand, and use it as a springboard to create something captivating in the genre. At the current moment, when looking solely at The Winepress, however, we see a band struggling to get where they want to be but taking steps to move forward.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

To Chicago and New York and Back Again

My view as I flew into Chicago
I haven't given up on blogging shortly after having restarted again (after a couple of years off). No, instead I was trying to keep my head above water last week as I made my to Chicago and then New York for work trips. And, of course, as I'm traveling my usual operational and support workload doesn't lessen... it just gets pushed off, so that's what this week has been focused on catching up with.

Traveling always seems to sap my energy. It's taxing and, as much as I really wanted to do some blogging about Chicago or, especially, New York, I didn't for a couple of reasons. First, I was in meetings most of each day and then at dinners with people from work in the evenings so when I got back to my hotel room it was usually me reading for about 15-20 minutes, trying to scan through email, and then hitting my head to the pillow. Second, I didn't get a chance to really do much in either city. While in Chicago, I wasn't in Chicago proper, but out in Oakbrook Terrace. While in New York, even though I was in the midtown area, I didn't have a chance to go walk around or see anything other than my view from the building we were working in and what I could see in the 5 block area where the path from my hotel to the office led me.

The view of NY from my conference room
It was probably good for me to do some traveling as I haven't in quite some time for work, as I do like seeing new places, but the process of traveling always drives me batty. That, and I truly hate/fear flying. I don't know what it is, well, actually I do (combination of fear of heights and giving up control), but it makes the process of flying very stressful for me. Well, and you can also toss in that flying sometimes is a trigger for my migraines, which again was the case as I flew into Chicago, so that adds to the downside of traveling for me.

Anyways, what I was getting to is that it was good to travel this time around as I got to meet a number of people from our company that I've worked with for years over the phone and through email, but never seen in person. Putting a face, body, and mannerisms to a voice is always great. And I got to see some people I've not seen in a year or two, so from a connections standpoint, it was great. From a work perspective, it was also a good trip. I'm in the process of leading a project for which I've been tasked with some responsibilities not previously given to me, and I want to excel at this as it could be a feather in my cap towards other similar projects. The project, not to be too vague (but I will be) has me more in a project manager and subject matter expert role as opposed to working in a quality assurance role, so it's nice to get some strict PM work as well as doing some business analyst work as time permits.

This project will also be a heavy contributor to keeping me away from blogging as my free time seems to evaporate quite quickly nowadays and the free time I do have I don't always want to be in front of a computer, but maybe that will change as the fall and winter of Minnesota start to force me indoors for more hours of the day. Then again, maybe I'll just hibernate!

Friday, September 09, 2011

In the Midst of Lions - The Heart of Man Album Review

Metalcore, having been a genre I've listened to avidly since its inception, is sort of my safety net, musically. I'm fine to listen to just about anything metalcore and can easily come up with comparisons for bands when necessary, but because I've listened to so much of it, it makes it extremely tough for any new release to live up to the many, many albums I adore from the genre. So even in a situation, like with In the Midst of Lions, where they make a huge leap forward, I'm still cognizant that they're not at the same level as other bands. One of the pitfalls of being around for years, I guess. This was originally published on August 2, 2010.

I was surprised to see a second album being released by In the Midst of Lions, and on Facedown Records no less. Their debut, Out of Darkness, was a sloppy mess with pretty shoddy production and not a lot of promotion given it was released on Strike First Records (Facedown’s test-bed label imprint). Getting some information about The Heart of Man, I read that it was recorded with Jamie King, who we all recognize for his work with Between the Buried and Me, which got me a little more interested. At least the production on the album should no longer be a problem. I was still a bit skeptical, however, since it had only been about a year since In the Midst of Lions’ last album, which didn’t leave a ton of time for the band to grow.

Digging right into The Heart of Man I did notice that, as guessed, the production was much, much better this time around. It gives the band a much more polished sound and was able to cover up some of the band’s weaknesses, but some things still managed to shine through despite the great uptick in production quality. This is predominantly a deathcore album, even though the band pepper songs with some technical death metal chunks. That, unfortunately, starts the band off in the hole since the deathcore genre has become the new trend for every "heavy" band to jump on, much like melodic metalcore and nu-metal before it. Good bands in any genre, however, can overcome the conventions of the genre. Here, however, we see a band trying to do that but not quite getting over the hump.

There are some really great tracks on this album that do show the band has chops and have grown since their previous release, but others continue to feel underdeveloped and sloppy. “Released” shows the band at their best, using all of their talents and weapons to craft a stellar song. The track is quite technical in nature, has well crafted-breakdowns, uses some very melodic guitar lines, and mixes together their standard deathcore vocals with some sparingly and nicely used clean vocals. It’s really a reflection of what the band can do when they focus all of their talents.

But then you have songs like “The Machine”. Ironically, living up to its name, the track feels very mechanical in nature. The verse of the song uses a so very familiar chugging pattern that is a staple in the genre, while the up-tempo movements feel rushed and don’t transition well. Yes, the guitars are shredding along at an insane clip and the drums are pummeling you with triggered blast beats, but they don’t feel like they necessarily go together all that well, despite their blazing speed. The song does close nicely in the final 20 seconds, but that’s really the only saving grace of the song.

Then there are tracks like “Defiance” where they give you something to love, like some well done shredding guitar work and a nice solo, but also bring in some elements that drag the song down, such as the spoken word vocals that just don’t work in this genre. Why ruin a perfectly solid and well written song with such an odd choice for vocals in the latter portion of the song?

The other hang-up I have with this album is the fact that I kept feeling as if the band was playing a little too closely to their influences and stuck strictly to melding deathcore with tech death moments. There was a distinct early career Between the Buried and Me vibe throughout the album, which could just be because of Jamie King’s involvement, but I also felt some moments that reminded me of The Faceless. And there seems to be a distinct division between when the band is in full-on deathcore mode and when they’re in tech death mode. They don’t seem to synthesize the two as well as they could.

Despite these criticisms, In the Midst of Lions have grown quite a bit since their debut, but they do still have a ways to go before really breaking out and turning people’s heads. As it is, The Heart of Man is a solid, if unspectacular, entry into the tech deathcore realm. Genre aficionados will be all over it, I’m sure, but the band will have a hard time making any headway outside of that group for the time being.