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.

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.

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.

Album Review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

It still sounds weird to say it, but the Foo Fighters might just be the biggest rock band in the world.  Sure, U2 still sells more tickets to their concerts by virtue of being U2, but in terms of how important they are to the state of rock music, no one touches them.  They are the only rock band that can place singles on the radio, cross over, and appeal to pretty much everyone.  If people are saying that rock is dead, the Foo Fighters are the only mainstream answer to that criticism.

Part of being the biggest rock band in the world is buying into that mythos, which the Foo Fighters have now done.  Their last album was an attempt to write songs that cascaded hook upon hook, tossing away great choruses as bridges, and trying to write the ultimate catchy rock songs.  I don’t think it quite did that, but “Wasting Light” was a very good album with several of the best songs they band has ever written (“Arlandria” and “Dear Rosemary”).  Trying to top that would be tough, and the band decided to expand their scope accordingly.

Being epic is not something that can be forced.  You either have ideas that are big enough to support that kind of bombast, or you don’t.  If you try to force yourself to be epic when it isn’t your forte, the result is going to sound like a hollow echo of what was intended.  That is the dilemma that every band that tries to do more than just write songs faces, and it’s what drags the Foo Fighters down.

Dave Grohl is a great songwriter, but these are not his best songs.  “Sonic Highways” tries to be an epic album that tells the story of America, but all of the effort that goes into that strips away the band’s personality.  Rather than hearing the band hitting on all cylinders, the album sounds like a spit-polished version of who they’ve always been.  The charisma they have always had is gone, as are the hooks.

That is the biggest problem with “Sonic Highways”; the hooks aren’t there.  The one thing you could always count on with a Foo Fighters record is great hooks.  The run of singles they have put out is incredible, and yet there is nothing here that can approach any of those previous songs.  “Something From Nothing” was the nominal single, but it lacks anything resembling a catchy melody.  It’s fine as an album cut, but when it’s the catchiest thing on the album, or is believed to be by the band and record label, it’s a major problem.

“The Feast And The Famine” is the only song here that brings much of a hook to the table, and that makes it the best song here.  The “God As My Witness” half of it’s track is solidly melodic, but all of these songs are melodic in the same way that chamber music is.  It’s pretty, but there’s nothing below the surface.  A song here and there like that would be one thing, but it’s a factor on every song on the album.  There just isn’t enough here in the songs to make them engaging as more than background music.  The band has, in a way, created the Muzak version of themselves.

I wanted to like this record, because I am a fan (even if I’m the lone person whose favorite is “One By One”), but I just can’t do it.  “Sonic Highways” is an album that tries too hard, and doesn’t have the gravitas to back up its posturing.  By trying to prove that the Foo Fighters are the biggest rock band in the world, they sound smaller than ever.  It’s a shame, because rock could have used another great Foo Fighters record.

Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” 2.0: A Zombie Needing To Be Killed

As anyone who has ever done anything creative knows, there comes a point where you have to draw a line and say something is finished, because endless tinkering can no longer make the end result any better.  It’s a difficult line to see, because it is not brightly lit, and it’s especially hard to discern when you are talking about your own work.  But it exists, and it has killed many a project over the years.  Think about an album like “Chinese Democracy”, which spent fifteen years being toyed with in studios.  Did those extra years, and the little blips of sound that got plastered onto the skeletons of the songs, justify that amount of time?  Did they make the album any better than if it was slightly more stripped down?

The answer is usually no, but it’s hard for an artist to ever be satisfied with what they have created, because they believe in their heart they can still do better.  Sometimes, however, they really can’t.

Last year, I was one of the few critics who gave Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” a positive review.  It wasn’t the result of picking sides, because up until that point I had never enjoyed a Queensryche album before.  I gave it a positive review because I genuinely thought it was a solid record, even if the rest of the world seemed ready to use it to slit their wrists.

The main problem with the album was that it was horribly produced.  Being rushed to get out ahead of the other (at the time) incarnation of the band, the mix the album came out with was dense and cloudy, and made the songs difficult to listen to.  I had heard that version, and thought it was promising but a disaster.  There was, in short order, a rushed remix of the album that showed the impact production can have on the music we listen to.

That version of the record was suddenly clear; the guitar had bite, the sounds were balanced, and you could hear every nuance (for good and bad) of Geoff Tate’s vocal performance.  That version is the one I reviewed, and the one I still listen to a year later.  Without that haze hanging over the songs, you can hear what is going on, and I still believe there is quite a bit of good material on the album.  No, it is not a classic, and no, “Slave” and “Dare” are no better than they were back then, but the melodic and melancholy songs are still striking.  It is clearly a better record than the album put out by the group that now owns the name, which was also marred by grievous sins in the production department.

I mention this because “Frequency Unknown” is being re-released, complete with a second disc that features yet another mix of the album.  The label says there was not enough time at the original release to complete this mix and get it out, and judging by what I have heard of it, perhaps it should have stayed that way.

Instead of a simple remixing, this is a re-imagining of the record, with new focus and instrumentation added onto what we have already heard.  Nothing of the effort makes the music an ounce better.

First of all, the sound quality of this new version is atrocious.  The guitars are stripped of their heft, sounding thin and weak, and pushed well behind the drums.  Geoff Tate’s voice is likewise drained of it’s energy, sounding like a demo sung by someone trying to sound like Tate.  The whole package sounds cheap, flimsy, and not at all like the rock record is was supposed to be.  This version is as much a beat-driven pop album as it is a Queensryche record.  What’s worse, the added orchestration is obviously synthetic, and is slathered atop songs that were not written with room for such things to be added.  They feel tacked on, because they are.

The first version of “Frequency Unknown” was terrible, and this new version is even worse.  But the version in the middle, the rushed remix that very few people got the chance to hear, is the gem.  It shows the music as it needed to be, and sounds fantastic.  If that version of the album had been released to begin with, I honestly believe much of the criticism of the record would have been revealed to be petty gripes dealing with Geoff Tate personally.

What we learn from all of this is that making music is not as simple as writing a song and playing it while a microphone records it.  There is an art to making a record, and the production of the music can kill an album before it ever has a chance to succeed.  That happened the first time with “Frequency Unknown”, and it’s happening again this time.  They got it right after the initial debacle, and now they’re forgetting all about that and shooting it to hell again.

Why?

For some people, good enough is never good enough.  If they think they can do even a little bit better, they will try.  Sometimes they manage to hit the mark, and sometimes they throw the first shovel of dirt atop their own casket.

I’ll let you figure out which one this case is.