Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rick's Discoveries Volume XVII

When I think back to the beginning of this millennium, before the internet was as ubiquitous as it is now, the choice for what albums you could possibly listen to were what was on sale at Best Buy, what your friends already owned, or what you might be able to find scouring internet file-sharing apps. And for a band to be in any of those categories, usually they had to have already made it. Now… well, it's a totally different story. Anybody can write an EP or album, record it, mix it, produce it, (optionally, autotune the hell out of it), put it up on the internet, and promote it. What this means is there is SO MUCH to listen to that I'm overwhelmed with the sheer volume of music I have floating around on my computer, favorite websites, and in my email. It's this sense of being overwhelmed that got me to start this article series--I hoped to help get some good releases to the top of your listening piles. So, here, toss these on your pile!

Under the Flood - A Different Light

I've got a soft spot for well done hard rock and I've heartily enjoyed Under the Flood's previous two albums, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that I also dug A Different Light. Less "hard" than their previous efforts, the band almost has more of a pop-rock sheen instead of a hard-rock or alternative-rock aesthetic. I'm often reminded of Last Winter or a chilled out Trapt as I listen to this album. What it has going for it that most rock albums don't have is a genuine catchiness. The songs don't feel overly manufactured like a lot of what you hear that's popular in the pop-rock arena.

Max Karon - Will to Exist

I would be lying if I said that Max Karon doesn't worship at the Meshuggah altar. Many newer djent artists are trying to branch out into different realms, keeping the mechanical sound but adding something to it, but in this case, there are some serious Meshuggah overtones… and there's really nothing else to hide how blatant Max Karon's main influence is. That being said, anyone craving a solid, quite competent, instrumentalMeshuggah clone then this is your album.

Rogue Empire - Rogue Empire

Now this is an interesting approach to the progressive math metal genre--add a heaping dose of keyboards and electronics (but not in a gimmicky way), make sure to have extremely aggressive metalcore vocals, and then augment the djent-like proceedings with some well placed breakdowns. Heck, toss in some slight melodic death metal influences too for good measure. It may seem like a lot to pack into a 5 track EP, but it works very, very well. I'm quite anxious to hear these guys put together a full length album because this EP is simply not enough!

Arctic Plateau - Enemy Inside

What if Porcupine Tree were more shoegazing and post-rock influenced? Sound interesting? Because that's what Arctic Plateau sound like. UnlikeAlcest or similar shoegaze bands, Arctic Plateau's songs have many post-rock elements (despite lacking epic track lengths) that define songs, and upon this strong bedrock, they slather on the shoegaze and progressive rock elements (even some blackglaze at times!) that make their sound something uniquely bite-size and effective (most songs are in the 3-4 minute range).

I'm a sucker for cover songs. I love seeing how bands interpret someone else's songs. Sometimes covers are horrible, sometimes they're better than the original. For Tribunal Record's 100th release they've put together a 21 track collection of bands from their roster (past and present) covering songs of their choosing. This leads to quite an interesting and varied mix, which I quite enjoyed. How often do you have Vanisher coveringRob Zombie next to Century doing Seal next to Aria covering Coldplay or He Is Legend doing Third Eye Blind? Not too often!

Soen - Cognitive

Need something to fill that Tool shaped void in your life? Centerum didn't do it enough for you? Well, then how about you give Soen a listen or three? Whereas Centerum (from the last Discoveries article) didn't dive all that deeply into the prog realm, Soen definitely does. Besides sounding extremely similar to Tool, you'll also catch some Riverside vibes as well. Now it would be foolish to write Soen off as nothing more than a copycat band. They're most definitely not. Yes, they play a style quite similar to Tool, but this album stands on its own merits. It's well written, expertly executed, and will stick with you.

Like Vegas - Machines

Every now and again, I want to listen to something that makes me want to furiously break shit, usually when I'm staring at the treadmill or weight bench and need some motivation to get going (and a little adrenaline usually helps). Like Vegas fill this need nicely. What you have on Machines is 7 tracks of modern metalcore with none of that melodic shit or clean vocals (well, except on "Pathfinder" which has a guest vocalist). This is straight ahead metalcore in the vein of The Ghost Inside or Bury Your Dead that should get you pumped--nothing more, nothing less.

Waning - The Human Condition

I suppose you would classify this as black metal, but it doesn't feel like most traditional black metal. It has good production values, most of the songs are digestible lengths, and there's not as much monotony as you'd usually see… but Waning are still black metal at their core. There are a few blackglaze moments, but they're only an augmenting feature, along with some progressive elements, which sets Waning apart from the masses of untalented black metal bands that seem to play in the genre because it's easy to get away with being shitty (you just say you'resupposed to sound shitty, and all is accepted). This, however, is far from shitty.

Sunpocrisy - Samaroid Dioramas

Is there a particular reason why "progressive" bands like to bloat albums with filler? No one needs intro tracks or outros or interludes… they're all superfluous, especially when they're minutes in length. So just cut it out already. With that rant over, Sunpocrisy have written more than a couple sprawling, epic progressive metal tracks on Samaroid Dioramas. Mixing pieces of The Ocean, Burst, and Cult of Luna Sunpocrisy's progressive metal is slathered in sludge without being straight up sludge metal. And, if you want, you can call it "atmospheric" as well because of the spacey in-between sections, but the meat of this album comes in the form of a few epic, 10 minute-ish (each) tracks that allow the band to show all the facets of what they can do.

Valkiria - Here the Day Comes

Valkiria are long-time veterans of the gothic/doom metal realm and with Here the Day Comes, I think they've finally broken through into the upper crust of the genre. Mixing a healthy dose of atmosphere with early-to-mid career Anathema aesthetic and keeping it close to what My Dying Brideand Swallow the Sun create album to album, Valkiria know exactly what they're doing on these 7 well developed tracks. Here's to hoping they break out beyond their home country of Italy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I'm Now "In" My 30s...

This month I celebrated my 31st birthday, heralding in the 9 year span of me being "in" my 30s instead of being able to say I'm only 30. As with most birthdays, I tend not to see or feel or notice any difference from before I was 31 to when I hit that age. Personally, I find it odd that we even celebrate birthdays, but I suppose it's a nice marker that's personal enough to each person that gives us a unique celebration opportunity. Anyways, back to the fact that I'm older. Since a birthday is a nice arbitrary marker that occurs in my life each year, I like to take a few moments to reflect on the past year, reviewing it more or less.

This past year seemed to be simultaneously busier and less eventful. I'm not quite sure why those conflicting classifications of last year are the first to spring to mind, but that's definitely the sense I get. The busier feeling I know stems from a few things--work picked up pace and I've had more responsibilities under my belt, but that happens any time you want to attempt advancing in your career. I also had time tied up with trying to sell our previous home (which we didn't), then getting it ready to rent (which it is), doing showings (about 20 per week, which was leaps and bounds beyond what I expected), then actually getting it rented (thankfully, we ended up with great tenants). There was also my continued editing and writing duties at Decoy Music, plenty of ultimate leagues, lots of volleyball, some broomball (when there was actually ice), and the occasional hosting of a social gathering. These are pretty consistent year to year.

There was a bit of a dark pallor that fell over the end of last calendar year as my mother-in-law passed away after a strong fight against cancer. I tried not to focus on it, but it's hard not to have something like that at the forefront of your mind as you watch someone struggle, grapple, and eventually succumb to an adversary that is so formidable. Her loss obviously affected many people, myself included, but out of it, once all of the heavy emotions have subsided a bit, you tend to get a greater appreciation of that person's life. Her memories take on a bit more of bright and powerful tone.

My parents also lost a longtime pet, their cat Mystique. She was a wonderful animal that I spent so much time with all the way back from the beginning of this millennium until last year. It's weird to have a fixture of my parents' house disappear, now only living on in memory.

I hate to say that last year was a dark year, as it may seem that way, because it really wasn't. Yes, some heavy events happened, but I also had the chance to finally go on my honeymoon with my wife, enjoying the sun and beach in Mexico... although I did end up with pneumonia after the trip... but the trip itself was great! My wife and I settled into our home, and I think I now feel truly at home there. We've made it through another year of marriage as wonderful companions. I had numerous visits with my parents, each helping me to appreciate having them in my life. There were a lot of small, wonderful moments throughout the year.

So with all that having been said, how can I feel that the year wasn't eventful? I'm not sure, but maybe it's because I've started to establish and fall into routines. I've always been a creature of habit, so as I establish patterns to my days, my weeks, and my months, perhaps the lack of variation makes it feel like there's less going on. I'm not sure, but for some reason, I feel like I should have had tons of time to do things last year, but I also feel like I didn't get to nearly as many things as I wanted to...

Where does that leave me at the end of year 30? I don't know really, but it was insightful to look back on the year. I'm not sure what to draw from it yet, but it at least gave me fuel to ramble on for a few paragraphs, spitting out random thoughts as they came to me, which is essential for any rarely read blog!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lullacry - Where Angels Fear Album Review

Lullacry put out their fist album way back in 1999. It, along with the 3 albums they would follow it up with in the following 6 years, showed a band playing around with a combination of gothic metal, some traditional heavy metal elements, and a dash of straight up hard rock aesthetic. They seemed to peak on their sophomore album and by the time they released Vol. 4 in 2005, they already felt tired, worn out, and simply going through the motions. Vol. 4 felt like the band didn't even want to try and simply slapped together a group of hard rock tracks, shuffling them off hoping fans would buy it. That was their final album before this year's Where Angels Fear.

Honestly, when I saw this was an upcoming release, I was quite curious about what the band could put together after being away for so long. Could they have finally found their focus and hit the sweet spot they were so desperately trying to find, putting all of the pieces together that were there in their previous efforts? The quick answer: nope. Knowing that, is Where Angels Fear at least on par with previous releases? This answer to this is a qualified "nope" in that it's not even close to what they created on their earlier releases and only bests their weakest album, Vol. 4, by a hair.

What hurts the band the most is their continued pursuit of simplistic and bland songwriting. They seem to be trying to add various differentiating elements to their gothic rock sound, but it never quite elevates songs to the point that they're interesting. For example, "Bad Blood" sees the band trying to be a bit more bouncy, energetic, and punky, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. They still resort to chunky riffs to bridge the verses and the vocals during the chorus feel forced while the background gang vocals are misplaced.

Not content to focus on their gothic metal sound, another experiment is "Still an Angel" where they seem to combine cheesy power metal lyrics and vocals with a hard rock song structure. It comes off as making a blatant play attempting to attract a broad audience beyond their core musical demographic. There are numerous moments where Lullacry are simple just for the sake of a broad appeal and, unfortunately, they're at their weakest when doing so.

Where the band excels is at creating gothic metal tracks. "Gone Are the Days" is a perfect example. The vocals stay within Tanja's range, there's a solid melodic bridge, the tempo is perfectly mid-range, and the thick guitar tones work to make the song nicely meaty. Lullacry are very, very good when they stay inside this realm… but for the majority of this album they continue to make attempts at branching out into genres where they just don't have the know-how to make it work.

Maybe it was too much to hope that 7 years would help Lullacry reorient themselves, especially after seeing that in 4 previous albums they couldn't ever really come into their own. They continue to show, frustratingly, that they have flashes of brilliance, but they choose to ignore them in their pursuit of other, simpler avenues.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Thousand Foot Krutch - The End Is Where We Begin Album Review

Believe it or not, but back in college (which, for me, was 1999 to 2003) I didn't have nearly as discerning of musical tastes as I do now. At any given point, you'd be able to hear the likes of Papa Roach, Saliva, Korn, or Drowning Pool blasting from within my dorm room. Today, a decade later, I wouldn't listen to those bands if given the choice, and some I even have a hard time stomaching even in a nostalgic fashion. There's no wistful gaze on my face when I hear "Click Click Boom," "Bodies," or "Last Resort." Instead I question how I ever listened to that garbage 100% unironically.

Even though I don’t feel any connection to individual songs from the heydays of nu-metal and rap-rock (and, in fact, revile most popular tracks), I do sometimes find myself craving something completely and horribly nu-metal-ish to jog my memory, unearthing some of those collegiate memories of yesteryear. As soon as The End Is Where We Begin's "We Are" kicked off, my memory wasn't just jogged--it was lit up by a bolt of old school lightning. Thousand Foot Krutch, with this album, have created an unabashed tribute to the nu-metal glory days.

Throughout the 12 songs on this album, all of the popular genres of the late 90's and early 00's are covered. I dare you to take one listen to "I Get Wicked" and tell me with a straight face that it's not something Disturbed would have written in their early days. Not only does it have the type of song title Disturbed would use, but the guitars use the stuttering style they overused and the chorus vocals sounds identical to David Draiman.

Or how about "Be Somebody"? You can't tell me that it doesn't remind you of just about every mid-tempo song 12 Stones ever wrote which, incidentally, is nearly every song they ever wrote. It's your standard modern power rock ballad that has since been perfected and regurgitated ad infinitum by Nickelback and Shinedown.

Now it should not be ignored that TFK has been at this game since the heyday I speak of, but never have they felt so in touch with the aesthetic of turn of the millennium popularized metal. "Light Up the Sky" is equal parts Rage Against the Machine-lite and P.O.D. The guitar lines in the chorus are a dead ringer for what RATM would have written on their more lazy days and the rap-rock of the rest of the track are even lazier day P.O.D.

TFK also, believe it or not, somehow manage to channel the boy bands of yore. "Courtesy Call" is a relatively nu-metal'ed up track, but the opening could is a dead wringer for something that could have been written by the Backstreet Boys. Then the rest of the song sounds like an odd mash-up of a pop anthem and any nu-metal band that ever got famous from doing a cover song.

So is all of this throwback styling good or bad? Well that depends on what lens you look through when evaluating the album. From a completely critical perspective, this is pretty close to one of the most derivative and uninspiring albums I've heard so far this year. From a personal perspective, however, TFK know how to get the nostalgic juices flowing. Unfortunately, the critical lens must take precedence because, as much as I want them to be, my experiences aren't your experiences. To most, there's going to be no connection to this sound or fond memories and without that connection, this is a pretty awful album.