Album Review: Night Mistress – Into The Madness

Metal is, despite it’s propensity for renegade imagery, a genre that chased trends as much as any other.  Whenever someone comes on the scene with an original sound, it is soon to be copied and rehashed by dozens of others.  I don’t say that as a criticism, since innovating is hard, and plenty of great music comes from those followers.  It’s simply a fact of life that we need to acknowledge.  What amazes me is that while certain sounds have been aped to death, there are others that never find that kind of collective footing, even when the inspiration is beloved in the metal community.

Bruce Dickinson found his sound as a solo artist when he released “Accident Of Birth”.  That album, along with “The Chemical Wedding” and “Tyranny Of Souls” are a trilogy of nearly flawless metal, and a monumental artistic statement.  They are nearly universally adored by traditional metal fans, with “The Chemical Wedding” being often named one of the greatest metal albums ever made, and yet very few bands have attempted to capture the sound and spirit of Bruce’s best solo work.

Night Mistress is one of the few who have, and they are without doubt the best to have tried.  “Into The Madness” is a phenomenal metal album, and the closest thing we are likely to get to another Bruce Dickinson solo album anytime soon.

What makes an album like this work so well is the ability to combine chunky, heavy riffing with smooth melodies, without making it sound like an uncomfortable cut-and-paste job.  Very few bands that play deep-throated, rumbling heavy metal like this have any melodic sense at all, and to hear Night Mistress so easily include catchy choruses into every song is a feat that deserves applause.

A song like “The Place I Belong” is practically perfect.  The guitars are thick, the riffs are heavy and chunky, and the hook is to die for.  As a song, it’s every bit as good as you could hope for, and it’s not alone.  There are plenty of gems on this record, in the form of exceptional tracks like “Longing For The Devil” and “Grieving Stars”.  This is the brand of modern heavy metal that needs to be more common, with simple riffing that grabs your attention by being heavy and catchy, not dazzling you with the number of notes being played.  It may not be trendy, or popular, but it’s damn effective.

There are one or two tracks here that aren’t quite at the same level, but that’s a minor criticism.  “Into The Madness” is a great record, and is right up there with the best metal releases of 2014.  If you’ve ever enjoyed a Bruce Dickinson solo album, or if you just enjoy good ol’ heavy metal, you need to hear this.

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Album Review: Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift became arguably the biggest pop star in the world in an odd fashion; by not being a pop star.  She came up through the country ranks, and challenged the modern notion of pop music by continuing to play an instrument and write songs that had more of a connection to singer/songwriters than corporate hit-makers.  She was the lone star able to straddle the fence between the old and the new, a crossover artist who could appeal to everyone.  That is what made her rise possible, and it’s why “1989” is such a risk.

“1989” is not a record that will appeal to everyone in the same manner that “Speak Now” or “Red” did.  Those albums dabbled in modern pop, but still had elements of other sounds so that people who weren’t enamored with the current Billboard chart could embrace her.  This time, Taylor has abandoned all pretense of who she has always been, using “1989” as an experiment to see if her music could translate beyond the borders of the Taylor Swift persona.  By traveling back in time to the synthesized sounds of the 80s, and by applying a lacquer of fake instrumentation, Taylor is trying to reveal the humanity behind her songs.

Perhaps that’s too deep a reading of the album.  Maybe “1989” really is just Taylor wanting to have fun and record some pop songs.  Whatever the reason behind the shift, taking such an abrupt turn with her music is a definite risk, the kind that you seldom see people selling so many records make.

What distinguishes “1989” from everything that came before is that it is a synthetic, icy, computer-driven record.  The only thing through these tracks that sounds the least bit human, or musical at all, are Taylor’s vocals.  Against a backdrop of homogenized drums, cut up into easy to digest beats, Taylor’s vocals are the ray of sunlight trying to melt the ice.  There are times when she does this, where she can turn what is a pedestrian backdrop into a stunning pop song through the sheer force of her personality.  These are few and far between, however.

The majority of the album doesn’t feel like a Taylor Swift album, nor does Taylor feel like herself.  In trying to play the part of the modern pop star, who plays second fiddle to the producer manning the boards, Taylor has robbed her music of it’s best element; her.  Instead of using the production to put a different gloss on her music, to highlight the strengths of her songwriting, she gets swallowed by the same sonics that drive every other female pop star currently on the charts.  Her lyrics are never given a chance to shine, dumbed down to fit the rigid constructions, to the point where “Out Of The Woods” repeats so often as to sound like a demo waiting for the lyricist to finish writing the actual words.

What makes “1989” maddening is that while there are such glaring errors and missteps with the direction and execution of the album, the hook are so sharp that it’s hard not to get sucked in.  Taylor has always had a knack for writing melodies, and she and her collaborators come up with some great ones here, writing earworms that are going to dominate the charts right through next year.  Even though I don’t like this style of pop, I have to say that I found myself playing “Blank Space” in my head when I least expected it.  This album has a way of digging in and hanging on for dear life, infecting you like a pop music parasite.

Before you know it, you’re under the spell of this record.  I can’t explain how it happened, but I found myself enjoying “1989” far more than I know I should have.  It goes against everything I believe about music, but “1989” is too enjoyable for even me to hate.  If that doesn’t prove Taylor Swift’s power, I don’t know what does.

Album Review: While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Over the years, While Heaven Wept has transcended the confines of doom, shedding their skin and becoming a progressive band. Long gone are the days when they played solemn, thunderous doom, with slow tempos and epic melodies. At some point, the band decided that they could do more than color within the confines of doom’s limited playbook, so they recruited a new singer and started moving in proggier directions. “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was the first step, an album that was incomplete, but still one of the more beautiful pieces of music of the year. The follow-up was even more scattered, but without the massive hooks that allowed the band to make a few mistakes along the way. As they ventured further away from their original identity, the struggle to find a new one was obvious.

“Suspended At Aphelion” finds that band fully in progressive mode, a forty minute album made up one of track, separated into sections. This kind of album-length writing is a staple of the progressive world, but it’s one that requires not just an acute sense of songwriting, but a series of ideas strong enough to warrant the criticism that will come with such creative indulgence. Albums like this can’t just be decent, they have to be amazing, or else they will rightfully be accused of being more about the idea than the music.

Buying into the clichés, the album opens with three-plus minutes of orchestral swells, serving as the overture to the record. That leads into the first segment, the twelve minute “Icarus And I”, which will further test the patience of anyone who isn’t a fan of prog. The track is a bit of a beast, with poorly snarled harsh vocals, some riffs that come straight out of black metal, and a chorus that I swear I heard on “Vast Oceans Lachrymose”. It is certainly an odd way to start the album, with fifteen minutes of music that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths.

The good news is that the band’s sound is as epic and lush as ever, and Rain Irving’s vocals are a captivating balance to the music. The bad news is that for all that While Heaven Wept can do right, they don’t package that into songs and albums that come close to matching their talents. They have moments here and there, but they indulge their inner artist too often, producing songs that don’t seem to go anywhere. They get caught up in the beauty of what they can paint with sound, without realizing that they haven’t actually captured an image.

Take a song like “Heartburst”, for example. The strings that underpin the clean guitar figure are beautiful, and Rain gives a passionate vocal performance, but where is the song? There is nary an interesting melody or motif to be heard. It’s the sonic equivalent of being distracted by a shiny object. It’s great, until you realize the whole thing has been a con job.

I don’t want this to come off as harsh as it sounds, but “Suspended At Aphelion” should be so much better than it is. I know While Heaven Wept can do better, because I’ve heard it. There’s no reason why they can’t play this style and create an album of epic prog that blows me away. But this album isn’t that. There are moments, like the hooky “The Memory Of Bleeding”, that remind me of the best moments of their past, and that only discourages me even more about this record. While Heaven Wept bought so much into the idea of making a concept album that they forgot the most important thing; they’re making an album. What they’ve captured here is beautiful, and it has compositional skill behind it, but it’s not an engaging listen. This is music for the people playing it, not the people listening to it.

Album Review: Aerial – Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School?

Pop music is timeless, or at least the best pop music is.  While the fads come and go, and the gimmick songs will sound ridiculous less than a year after they tap into the cultural zeitgeist, good pop music will endure forever, because it resonates in the best parts of us.  Pop music is supposed to be warm, inviting, and fill us with a sense of contentment.  These days, the only place you can find such music is in the underground world of power-pop, a situation that is akin to back-alley balloon animals.  It’s shameful that fun and catchy music is so hard to come by, but you can’t always accuse the public of having good taste.

Timelessness plays into Aeiral’s new album, their first after a ten year hiatus.  Taking that much time off between records would normally doom a band to dated irrelevance, but power-pop never ages, so it’s as though Aerial was never gone.  “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School” sounds like it could have been recorded anytime since Big Star pioneered power-pop, and that’s a very good thing.

“Cartoon Eyes, Cartoon Heart” opens with the swirling, chiming guitars that you would expect, the perfect blend of gritty rock power and pure saccharine beauty.  Nailing the sonics is an important part of setting the right scene, and the guitar tones on the record are exactly what they should be.  When the sweet harmony vocals kick in for the chorus, it’s pop nirvana, a muscular yet sugary concoction that bounces along with an irresistible melody.

The title track ventures back to school for its metaphor, asking a question that is a more interesting take on Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”, complete with the observation that “I never quoted Shakespeare when trying to impress”, as though such literary aspirations would even be considered impressive anymore.  The song works, because unlike a lot of others that try to use adolescence as a means of getting the point across, the song doesn’t reduce everything to the level of a teenager.

While I appreciate lyrical acuity, it’s a small part of what makes power-pop so endearing.  This music is all about big hooks and sweet harmonies, and Aerial comes through in spades.  A song like “Japanese Dancer” is the kind of addictive pop song that Weezer has been trying and failing to write for the last decade, while “Every Word You Say” reminds me of Cheap Trick’s criminally underrated “Rockford”, with shimmering guitars and a hook that can melt the heart of even the iciest critic.

Well placed in the middle of the record is “Madeline It’s Me”, which breaks up the flow with acoustic guitars, which have always been a favorite of mine.  A small bit of diversity like that goes a long way towards keeping an album from becoming too one-note, even one that runs under forty minutes as this one does.  It goes to show that Aeiral knows exactly what they’re doing.

The mood shifts a bit through the middle of the record, with the tempos being brought back a touch, and the mood becoming a bit more reflective, but that only plays into the strengths of Aeiral’s harmonies.  “Dear Anna” has an undercurrent or somberness, but the hook is every bit as strong and memorable as the more upbeat numbers that open the record.  In some respects, the added emotional heft of the subject matter gives the melody more impact, as the bittersweet is often the most stinging of all emotions.

Perhaps the best is saved for near the end, as “Formative Years” is a propulsive burst of pop with a huge hook and stacked harmonies that feels like a throwback to the times when this kind of music could capture the hearts and minds of a wider audience.  That’s the biggest shame of listening to an album like this; knowing that the musical climate is working against music that has everything going for it.  Aerial has made a fantastic album that I have to believe would appeal to most anyone who has ever liked pop music, but demographic chasing has rendered them irrelevant to the mainstream.  This is where my distaste for the mainstream comes from.  While songs that don’t feature a real instrument or unaltered voice are dominating the charts, a band like Aerial is making better pop than any of them.  “Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak In School?” is a damn fun power-pop record, and in a more just world would signal the beginning of Aerial’s successful second act.

Album Review: Allen/Lande – The Great Divide

There are two types of singers; those who are great interpreters of material, and those who are great at writing their own.  Jorn Lande and Russell Allen, through their respective careers, have proven that they are both definitely among the latter group.  They have both been part of tremendous albums, and have shown themselves to be among the greatest vocalists in all of metal, but they have also shown a drawback to the praise.  Neither one of them can consistently write the kind of strong material that would turn them into the legends their voices dictate they could be.

The one place where they have both been able to shine is in the collaborative Allen/Lande albums, which have been some of the best melodic metal to come out in the last decade.  Written by songwriting maestro Magnus Karlsson, the three albums showcased the two singers better than any of the bands either one had ever been in, and were some legitimately amazing albums.

“The Great Divide” is album number four for the project, and as the title suggests, a dividing point for listeners.  Karlsson is no longer at the helm, being replaced by the running joke that is Timo Tolkki.  The change is immediately noticeable, and makes the album feel like a strange case of deja vu.  You know you’re listening to an Allen/Lande album, but something feels wrong.

Unlike the other recent projects Tolkki has been a part of, “The Great Divide” is actually good.  Whether he was inspired by the immense vocal talent he was writing for, or the singers were able to elevate his songs, “The Great Divide” is the best album any of the people involved have produced since the second All/Lande record.  Yes, this is a better record than the third one, despite the personnel changes.

Like the previous records, the guitars are mostly there to give a palate for the singers to do their thing.  There are few real riffs in these songs, but that’s not a criticism, since the best thing Tolkki could do here is get out of the way and let Allen and Lande do their thing.  They deliver in spades, both sounding better here then in their own respective projects.  Both have the tendency to turn up the aggression on their voices, straining to sound tough, and ruining thei gifts.  Here, they restrain themselves, and that does wonders for the material.  Their voices are as strong and clear as they have ever been, breathing life into the songs.

“Come Dream With Me”, “Lady Of Winter” and “Hymn to The Fallen” have big hooks, the kind that don’t take long to burrow into your head.  At their best, the songs here are as endearing as melodic metal can get.  Hearing them is like being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night; comforting and reassuring.  Not everything works that well, though.  “Down From The Mountain” is a bit flat, and “Reaching For The Stars” is the very definition of filler.  Still, there are enough good songs here to easily make the album worth listening to.

The odd thing about the record is a production choice.  For long stretches, there are few if any backing vocals, a decision that robs some of the hooks of their power.  Layering both singers together on the choruses would have made them stand out more, and was something Karlsson was keen on.  Tolkki puts his own stamp on the music as a producer, and I can’t say it’s for the better.

Overall, “The Great Divide” is a fine album that does nothing to sully the reputation of the Allen/Lande albums.  It might not be as good as the first two, but neither way Karlsson’s last entry to the series.  Tolkki wouldn’t have been my first choice to helm the ship, and I think he falters in several spots, but it’s hard to make a bad album with these guys.  “The Great Divide” is still highly enjoyable.

Album Review: You + Me – Rose Ave

Pop stars rarely get much credit for their talents, and for good reason.  When you exist in a genre of music that uses every trick and technology to make everything sound completely synthetic, it’s difficult to hear any of the natural ability shine through.  Even the great singers in pop get washed out by autotune, computerized instrumentation, and an over-abundance of compression.  Hearing an actual voice is nearly impossible, so gauging how much respect should be given is a tricky proposition.

I have always been an admirer of Pink’s voice, with it’s mix of grit and beauty.  I often wished her albums would pull back just a bit and let her shine through and show her talents, but even in the fake world of pop, she has stood out as one of the best voices out there.  With this new project, I finally get my wish, and we all get a treat.

“Rose Ave.” is a stripped back record, the kind of bare-bones music that doesn’t allow anyone to hide their shortcomings.  What you hear is what they have to offer, and it’s precisely the kind of music that most allows for genius to be witnessed.  That’s not to jump the gun and say that this record qualifies as genius, but it has the right ingredients.

Listening to these songs, I can’t help but be swept up in the atmosphere created.  These songs are somber, and melancholy, but still tinged with absolute beauty.  The way their voices harmonize is reminiscent of some of the greatest music ever made, and shows the enduring treasure that is the human voice.  The best moments here are just two voices and an acoustic guitar, those sparse moments where you can hear every nuance and vibration coming from Pink and Dallas Green.

These songs lack the muscular hooks of the work they are known for, but the fragile nature of these songs is what makes them stand out as something special.  The hook on a song like “Capsized” is a delicate wash, the kind that requires real vocal skill not to overwhelm.  You + Me plays it perfectly, and makes a powerful case for the spontaneity of the creative spirit.  This is music that couldn’t have been improved by spending six months in the studio tinkering with these songs.

It’s often said that a song isn’t a song unless it can be stripped down to a single guitar and a voice.  That is essentially what You + Me has done with this entire album, and to great effect.  They have made a gorgeous album of heartbreaking songs, and one of the most beautiful albums of the year.  Not to denigrate her own albums, which I enjoy quite a bit, but this is hands down my favorite release Pink has ever put her name on.

Album Review: Enchant – The Great Divide

Enchant hasn’t released a new album in a decade, but they have a problem of over-exposure.  How can that be?  Frontman Ted Leonard has become prog’s go-to singer, recently appearing on albums from Affector, Spock’s Beard, and Thought Chamber.  He seems to be everywhere, which makes a new Enchant album sound like less of an event that it really is.  It’s hard to miss the band when their singer is fronting several bands that already sound a lot like Enchant.  The new album is a nice turn of events, but is hardly necessary for anyone but the most hard-core Enchant fans.

“The Great Divide” is the band’s first album in a decade, and is the first album of theirs I have had the opportunity to hear, since I was not into the prog scene the last time Enchant put out a record.  I’ve heard all the album Ted Leonard has been on in the last two years, so I feel like I’ve already heard them all.  What “The Great Divide” does is blend all of those records together, serving as a recap of everything Leonard has been doing recently.

Enchant is prog, but not overly so.  They’re pop, but only to a degree.  They’re quirky, but not as much as a band named after a character’s evil twin, complete with a song about being in a mental institution.

What “The Great Divide” does well is bridge the gap between pop and prog, keeping the songs interesting to prog fans, but still melodic enough to appeal to people who don’t understand time signatures.  At their best, Enchant is as good at writing melodic prog as anyone.  Songs like “Transparent Man” and “Life In A Shadow”  are testaments to their songwriting skills, deftly balancing tricky riffs with Leonard’s melodic vocal lines.  They’re a slightly proggier take on the formula from the most recent Spock’s Beard album (my #3 album last year), and are highly enjoyable.  In fact, I’d say that an album of that quality would slot in behind Transatlantic as the best prog album of the year.

Unfortunately, the album doesn’t live up to that hype.  The opener, “Circles” is the least melodic song on the album, with more overt prog and less of a hook.  It’s a slow way to introduce the album, and the title track that follows doesn’t up the game considerably.  It’s not until you hit the middle of the album that it kicks into gear.  That run of songs is incredible stuff, and makes me realize why so many people have missed Enchant during their time away.  They play the kind of prog I can sink my teeth into.

The disappointment is that they can’t keep up that pace.  The opening suite of songs don’t manage the proper balance, and the record ends with an eight minute instrumental, the placement of which begs to be skipped and ignored.  It’s a questionable call that underscores how important sequencing can be to an album.  There are enough great songs here to make “The Great Divide” a solid record, but the order they’re presented in makes the whole feel like less than the sum of its parts.

The slow opening, coupled with the forgettable conclusion, mean that the first and last impression you get of the album is sour.  No matter how good the middle is, and it’s very good, it’s almost impossible to wash that taste out of your mouth.  It’s too bad, because Enchant wrote half of an amazing record.