Album Review: Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

I imagine it must be endlessly frustrating to be the mastermind of a band, only to have the public treat you as a sideshow to the main attraction; the lead singer. Nightwish has gone through the roller-coaster that comes with revolving front-women, and while I’m not going to ascribe motives to the changes, I can’t help but think it has taken a toll on the music that band has offered up. Their last two albums, with Anette Olzon at the helm, were treated as signs of a decaying band by large portions of the fan-base. That was largely attributed to Olzon being a reactionary and intentionally odd pick to lead the band, much as Blaze Bayley once was with Iron Maiden. Of course, her solo album after leaving the band proved she was more than capable as a singer.

That puts the onus squarely on Tuomas Holopainen, the erstwhile mastermind of Nightwish. It was his songwriting, and inability to put Olzen in the best light, that doomed the previous two albums, and it is his songwriting alone that can redeem “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”. Floor Jansen steps in to front the band, and while she is a remarkable singer, she follows two who the same could be said of.

After indulging himself in his passion project writing a score for a graphic novel featuring Scrooge McDuck, Tuomas has more than a little to prove as a songwriter. He gets off to a slow start, opening the album with a three song stretch that offers little to claim the band is back with a vengeance. The spoken word trope as the beginning is an unnecessary delay, and then the songs themselves lack the flair and power one would expect. The hooks on the first two tracks are flat, and the orchestrations never feel integral to the songs. The metal riffs are, as usual, incredibly simple canvases for Tuomas to paint upon, but his color palate is dulled this time around.

“Elan” is the best of these tracks, the first single that received a less than enthusiastic response. To my ears, the song is a beautiful piece of melancholic metal that uses the woodwinds to great effect, and gives Floor a solid melody to shine with. Compared to a turgid mess like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, it sounds utterly genius.

The faults with “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” are certainly not Floor’s, as she provides a vocal performance that straddles to previous singers, and should make everyone happy. I might consider her a bit too polished to ring any emotional heft from the songs, but you can’t fault her technique. Rather, the reason this album feels inconsequential is in the songwriting, which seldom has any spark of life to it. These tracks come and go with such a formulaic bent that they never feel special in the way that the best Nightwish material always has. Nothing sounds larger than life, nothing feels like it could have only come from this band.

While “Dark Passion Play” and “Imaginarium” may have been disappointing albums, they were records that dared to try new things. They took some risks, and even when they didn’t quite hit the mark, they were interesting experiments to listen to. “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” doesn’t dare to try anything Nightwish hasn’t done before, so the dull songwriting can’t be tempered by the risk being taken. These are inferior versions of the songs Nightwish has always written, which might make this the most disappointing Nightwish album of them all.

I’m sure long-time fans will be happy that Nightwish is back to making the kind of music they made their name on, but it’s hard not to look at this album as a regression. The comparisons to Nightwish’s classic albums are now inevitable, and I’m afraid they will only make “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” look even smaller.

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Album Review: DSG (David Shankle Group) – Still A Warrior

Manowar has always been a joke in heavy metal circles, but in recent years, they’ve gone from cheesy fun to ridiculously awful. Their last album, “The Lord Of Steel”, might be the worst sounding metal record I’ve ever heard from a band that should know better. It was the worst of a string of bad decisions that has rendered the band a joke to everyone who knows anything about good taste. Lost in that haze is that former members of the band, once they escape the clutches, have managed to do some good work. Ross the Boss has put out a few decent records on his own, while David Shankle has flown so far under the radar that I’m not even sure how I’ve kept tabs on his career. DSG produced two solid metal albums, with entirely different bands, and was easily the best Manowar related material of the last fifteen years or so. Take that with a grain of salt, because the bar wasn’t set all that high.

DSG is back for their first album in eight years, yet again with a new band backing Shankle. This time around, he continues in the spirit of “Hellborn”, with plenty of raging seven-string guitar action, and an obsession on making the music as heavy as humanly possible. To a degree, this works, as “Still A Warrior” is filled with punishingly heavy guitars. On the other hand, those guitars are so over-saturated in distortion that the moments that are supposed to be heaviest are washed out because the speakers don’t have time to recover from the air being pushed out. Yes, it’s possible to have too much gain on a guitar sound, and Shankle does that here. He also, as he has on all three DSG albums now, covers his solos in a wet sound that not only makes it sound like he’s playing underwater, but doesn’t at all fit the mix with the rest of the album.

So from a production standpoint, this album comes out of the gate weak. But songs are what matter the most, and on that level the album is a bit more successful. Shankle does have a knack, when not indulging his shred tendencies, for kicking out some catchy riffs. His playing is busy, for sure, but the songs pound along with enough force that they’re interesting. New winger Warren Halvarson does what he can, but his voice isn’t charismatic, and his writing chops aren’t up to snuff. The melodies on this album are simplistic, but more than that they’re boring. The entire emphasis of the record is on guitars, which I’m sure is exactly how Shankle wants it. The problem is that he doesn’t provide enough to make that decision pay off.

The record includes the “Demonic Solo” he contributed to a little-seen horror movie, and while it does sound demonic, it also has no redeeming musical value. The notes fly by in a blur, but there isn’t a single melodic figure to be found, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to listen to it. Later in the record, “The Hitman” spends nearly nine minutes indulging Shankle’s love of shred, an instrumental piece that is all solos, and yet didn’t impress me in the slightest. Sure, Shankle can play faster than I can dream of, but his playing lacks any sort of melodic phrasing to grasp on to. He plays long strings of notes that are utterly incomprehensible, and comes out looking the worse for it.

I find that amusing, because the songs where Shankle restrains himself are actually pretty good. No, they don’t do the job as well as anything on “Hellborn” did, and don’t even come close to approaching something like “A Raven At Midnight” from the debut, but they’re enjoyable. Unfortunately, over the course of three records, Shankle hasn’t learned the lessons to put himself and his band in the best light possible. There is a way that DSG could be a solid metal band, but “Still A Warrior” isn’t a step in the right direction. It’s a pedestrian record that doesn’t even sound professional enough for this day and age. It might still be better than Manowar, but it’s easily the least compelling of the three DSG records. After eight years, I was expecting a heck of a lot more.

Best Of 2015’s Early Months

The first two months of this year have been remarkable, in terms of how much really good music has been released. With that being the case, and since I like lists, here are my five favorite albums and songs so far this year (in no particular order):

Albums

Nightingale – Retribution

Nothing goes down smoother than melodic rock, and it’s seldom done any better than this. Dan Swano may be more famous for his death metal work, but Nightingale should not be overlooked. “Retribution” is a gorgeous, layered album full of lush sounds and fantastic melodies. Capped off with Dan’s unique vocals, and you have an utterly brilliant album. Oh, and the full-dynamic mix that’s available is mind-blowing. I haven’t heard a better produced album in years.

Jorn Lande and Trond Hotter present – Dracula: Swing Of Death

Since I grew up worshipping Meat Loaf, I am no stranger to cheesy music. This is about as cheesy as it gets, but that makes it even more awesome. You can have a laugh with it, or you can sit back and enjoy a surprisingly diverse set of songs that are jam-packed with awesome vocals and melodies, and some truly superb soloing.  It’s just a record that is overwhelmingly fun.

UFO – A Conspiracy Of Stars

UFO is mostly known as being that band everyone thinks is underrated. That’s sort of true, but they were never really that good. They are now, however. This album is a strong collection of no-frills rock that delivers some bluesy riffing, strong melodies, and Phil Mogg’s weathered-yet-even-better vocals. Forget Michael Schenker, because this is as good as UFO’s ever been.

Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints

The drummer of Journey is singing, while being supported by the bassist/singer of Night Ranger, and the former guitarist of Dio and Whitesnake. Yeah, that sounds like a train-wreck, yet it works. The vocals are stronger than I ever would have thought, but it comes together because of the fantastic songwriting. Yes, it’s heavily in the mold of Journey and other 80s cheese-rock bands, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I love a good sing-along.

Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment

Neal is pretty much the reason I’m into prog. Between his solo albums, and Transatlantic, he’s responsible for most of my favorites. This album is different, however, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly where it stands. While I miss the more overt poppiness of “Momentum”, there are some beautiful harmonies here, and plenty of fantastic playing. Everything Neal does is high-quality, and this is no exception.

Songs

Nightingale – Forevermore

The best song on a brilliant album, “Forevermore” is able to put it all together. It has a groovy main riff, a killer vocal performance by Dan Swano, beautiful keyboards, and a song structure that isn’t straight verse/chorus.  Most of all, the song has swagger, and it’s the sort of thing I can listen to over and over again without it seeming tired.

Dracula: Swing Of Death – Walking On Water

Picking one song from this album is hard, because there are a few absolute gems. In the end, I’m picking “Walking On Water” because it’s the best embodiment of everything Jorn’s music is supposed to be. It’s heavy, Jorn’s vocals are incredible, and the soloing is phenomenal. It’s the least theatrical song on the record, which makes it one of the few that works outside the context of the album.

Revolution Saints – You’re Not Alone

I am a sucker for ballads, and this is a great one. It’s got all the sweeping grandeur you would expect from a sappy ballad, a killer melody, and great vocals by both Deen Castronovo and guest singer Arnel Pineda.

Orden Ogan – A Reason To Give

In the midst of their modern power metal assault, Orden Ogan slows down for this song, which is the best example of what can be called ‘tavern metal’ I can recall. The acoustic guitars and folk flourishes make the song feel like it should be played at an old tavern, while the melody is killer. Even the people who aren’t into Orden Ogan’s type of metal should be able to appreciate this.

UFO – Messiah Of Love

What I love most about this song is how little it seems like the band is trying to impress anyone.  Vinny Moore plays one of his bluesy riffs, Phil Mogg sings one of his trademark melodies, and the whole thing is exactly what you would expect from UFO. And that’s why it’s great. Moore’s guitar tone is spectacular, Mogg’s voice is the perfect amount of weathered, and the hook is incessant.  It’s simply a great rock song.

Album Review: Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

Indie rock has become a cliche, since it is no longer underground, nor particularly rooted in actual rock music.  Indie rock is, nowadays, a conglomerate of whatever hipster notions are currently playing out, a trend-chasing variety of music that wraps the corporate sell-out attitude in the veneer of being ‘unique’.  It isn’t, and the attitude taken by indie rock bands today is, quite frankly, insulting on every level.  If they were being honest, they would tell us that they are really pop bands that don’t want to admit their true identities, but that would require a level of introspection they are mostly incapable of.

But the fact that indie rock is such a formidable genre owes a massive debt to Sleater-Kinney, the punk-tinged rockers who are one fo the very few bands who originated in the 90s who rightfully deserve to claim they have established a legacy.

And in yet another example of an odd phenomenon, Sleater-Kinney has only grown more popular and important since in the years since what was believed to be their last album, defying all odds.  Simply put, music needs Sleater-Kinney at this point in time far more than they need music.

“No Cities To Love” is the band’s first album in nearly a decade, but nothing about it sounds like a band struggling to come back together.  The time away has not dulled their sharp songwriting sense.  If anything, their experiences away from the band have honed their skills into more precise weapons, as “No Cities To Love” is the most tuneful Sleater-Kinney record yet.  There is still plenty of attitude and vitriol, but it’s wrapped up in prettier packages, trojan horses that make it easier for the band to hit you over the head with their message.

For years, the main criticism of the band was that listening to their music could be a bit of a chore, because of the shrill nature of the vocals.  Whether a choice of style or age, the rough edges have been sanded off, leaving the songs as punky bursts of catchy fury, the kind of songs that veery closer to pop territory than the band has ever explored before, even though no one could rightfully call this pop music.

Corrin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein still play snaky, angular guitars that circle around a straight beat like a wary animal surveying its prone prey, with leads that are howling like the solos of the late Jeff Hanneman of Slayer.  They could be considered ugly, but when sitting alongside the (dare I say it) beautiful melodies, everything fits together in a neat package.  The harmonies on the title track are striking in their power, and when “No Anthems” juxtaposes the lyric with the most anthematic song on the album, it’s clear that Sleater-Kinney is in full control.

From top to bottom, “No Cities To Love” is a taut collection of gritty rock songs that know how to leave an impact.  By dialing back the angst just a bit, the songcraft is able to shine through the emotion, which lets them hit that much harder.  These aren’t songs that can be written off as angry shouting.  These are real songs, they’re great songs, and “No Cities To Love” shows Sleater-Kinney somehow rising from the ashes a better band than they’ve ever been.  That’s an impressive feat.

Album Review: AC/DC – Rock Or Bust

There’s the running joke about AC/DC making the same album a dozen times, but while it elicits a nod and a chuckle, it misses an important point; that’s what we want AC/DC to do.  No one has ever asked them to redefine who they are, to play anything but riff based rock and roll.  That’s who they are, that’s why people love them, and that’s all anyone wants.  Getting more of the same isn’t a bad thing when it’s good.

The problem AC/DC has had is that, by and large, they haven’t released good records for most of the last twenty-five years.  They always manage to write one or two great songs each time, but the records themselves are underwhelming, which only plays into the hands of the stereotype.  What the band needs is to write a great record, to reignite the passion people have for their music, to remind us all of why their sound is legendary.

“Rock Or Bust” won’t do any of that.

Instead, this album will only bring to mind questions of whether the band should have gone on without Malcolm Young, because without him the band sounds tired, lifeless, and out of ideas.  Everything about “Rock Or Bust” is what you would expect out of the band, but it’s all done with such little quality that it’s hard to take very seriously.  At just thirty-five minutes long, the good news is that you won’t be disappointed for long.  The bad news is that this could be the last AC/DC record, and it’s a terrible way to go out.  There isn’t a single powerful anthem here, not like “Highway To Hell”, not like “Back In Black”, not even like “Rock and Roll Train”.

This album sounds like what happens when an AC/DC cover band is allowed to make a record.  It’s a pale imitation of the real thing, and a flaccid addition to the band’s catalog.  The sound is excellent, and Angus continues to have the greatest guitar tone in history, but that’s about all the record has going for it.  It doesn’t rock, no matter how many songs are dedicated to the subject, and it’s not catchy either.  It’s turgid music, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it old.

AC/DC is an old band, and they sound it here.  We can only hope this isn’t the last album they make, because it would be going out with a quiet whimper.

Bringing It Upon Themselves

The music industry is dying, or so we are told. Records are selling in smaller and smaller numbers every year, and all the blame gets heaped on us, the consumers. That is blatantly unfair, and it removes the blame that the labels deserve for their own stupidity.

That is not an excuse for downloading culture, nor a statement of any moral judgment on streaming services (more on that later). It is simply a reminder that the record labels have to shoulder a significant amount of the blame for their own downfall. They routinely make decisions that work against their own interests. I was reminded of this while listening to a new album, the details of which make me want to slap my own forehead at the rank idiocy of.

The record in question was released this week, and has been getting some traction in the media that covers that particular type of music. It will be mildly successful, and will make a few end of the year lists.

Where is the problem, you ask?

The record came out in Europe, but it won’t be released in the United States until JANUARY. That’s right, there will be two months in which the record is being sold around the world, except in a country with hundreds of millions of people and a massive record industry.

This is a perfect example of how the industry doesn’t understand how to adapt to changes in reality. Sales are down, yes, but the answer to combating downloading and streaming cannibalizing what is left in terms of sales is not to stagger release dates so drastically. The idea is that by staggering the dates, they can give proper attention to the roll-out in every location. The reality is that doing so only further alienates the potential customer by telling them that they have to sit on their hands and wait while the rest of the world is enjoying the records. They shouldn’t download the albums that are illegally online, and they shouldn’t look on streaming services to listen to them in a way that gives them both a pittance, they should instead be good little soldiers and patiently avoid reading the dozens of reviews and hundreds or thousands of threads on message boards, all raving about what you’re not allowed to have.

There is a simple reality to the world that doesn’t seem to be sinking in. The only way to get people to buy your product, regardless of what it happens to be, is to treat your customers respectfully and give them what they want at a fair price. Making people sit and wait while they get to watch everyone else go through the life-cycle of an album before they ever get the chance to brush the dust off the copies designated for their shores is criminal negligence. They have failed on every level, and they want to blame the listeners for their own mistakes.

Basically, decisions like this are begging people to not give them money. No wonder the industry is falling apart.

DVD Review: Transatlantic – KaLIVEoscope

There’s something about visuals that make the live experience come to life.  Despite the classic status of so many, live albums have never made any impact with me.  Hearing rougher, sloppier versions of songs I love rarely is something that interests me, so I will admit that I am not always the best judge of live material.  However, concert DVDs are another animal altogether.  Being able to watch the bands, seeing how the ply their trade on their instruments, is something that captivates me more than I can explain.  Seeing masters at work is thrilling, and the combination of audio and visual makes me appreciate what it must be like to stand in the audience and witness greatness at work.

Transatlantic are no strangers to the form, having released more live works than studio works at this point.  People will complain about the flood of releases, but since live releases are easy to ignore, I don’t see any reason to gripe.  Those who don’t get them all aren’t missing out on any new music, so I fail to see the problem.

“KaLIVEoscope” documents the short tour Transatlantic embarked on to support their modern masterpiece, “Kaleidoscope”, earlier this year.  Over the course of two and a half hours, the band presents the full album, which is just as spectacular here as on record.  Adding a few of their classic tracks, this is a concert that I wish I could have been able to see live.

As with the album, we open with “Into The Blue”, the stunning epic that is the most fully-realized piece of long-form music Transatlantic has put together.  It flows effortlessly through it’s 25 minutes, and Ted Leonard takes the place of Daniel Gildenlow here, doing a fine job of supporting the band.  Roine Stolt’s main riff is still a thing of beauty, with all the crushing power that a heavier band would kill for.  When the last chorus comes around, it’s almost hymnal hearing the band and crowd singing as one.

There’s an odd moment following, when Roine changes guitars, picking one that made me think my copy had a glitch in it.  His guitar features a fretting system that has jagged lines, which is bizarrely fascinating to look at.  The band rips through the old standard “My New World”, and shorter tracks “Shine” and “Black As The Sky”, which is easily one of the best songs the band has ever written.  Epics are in no short supply, with a medley of “The Whirlwind”, featuring that album’s best movement, “Rose Colored Glasses”, while the closing medley of “All Of The Above” and “Stranger In Your Soul” is a fitting way to signal the end of yet another successful album cycle.

The only mistake marring this release is the re-recording of Pete Trewavas’ vocals, which are glaring in the mix.  He sounds fake, and the difference takes me right out of the experience.  It’s a small fault, but one that didn’t need to happen.

The rest of the two and a half hours of music are nothing short of a spiritual experience, exploring the power and beauty of music.  Transatlantic are one of the best bands on the planet, and “KaLIVEoscope” shows why.  This is a fantastic document of a masterful album.